Al G. Barnes Traveling Circus makes a splash with local kids

Special to the PARADE

It was common during the early 1900s that everything stopped when the circus came to town. Men, women, children and businessmen, who would close their shops, lined the unpaved streets of that era to get a glimpse of the big top as it paraded down main street.

It was during the “Depression,” in 1934, that the spectacular train circus came to Brownsville. The circus industry had survived the stock market crash of 1929, but by the early ’30s, it was losing its audience. It came to the point that circus goers were exchanging their entertainment nickels to buy a piece of bread. Regardless of the economic woes, the “Big Top,” came to Brownsville, which was a small city then.

The circus was a city within a city; it had its own postmaster, physician, lawyer, drug store, detectives, barber shop, wheelwright and blacksmith shops, and all the other things that go with a well-regulated community.
It was an enormous amusement enterprise. A circus official called it, “the greatest circus ever devised.”
The three special trains of double-length cars, rattled into town early Thursday morning from Harlingen, where it had exhibited the day before.

Hours before the main attraction, hundreds of young kids and the not so young gathered to witness the striking spectacle of a circus unloading and establishing headquarters. The kids were spellbound as they witnessed, “The Big Top” go up; as elephants assisted men in raising the main tent up into the air that stood with gigantic poles.

The Al. G. Barnes Circus made its temporary home at Fronton and 5th Streets. A change to this new location from the corner of Palm Blvd and Paredes Road was made because it was more accessible for school kids to attend.

Elementary schools were dismissed early. Parents and children thronged the tents. Interest in the scheduled performances was at high peak throughout the day and early in the afternoon, literally hundreds were seen making their way toward, “The Big Top.”

The typical price for a circus ticket during the 1930s was 25 cents for children and 50 cents for adults. According to the Circus Historical Society, “People with little disposable income may have had to choose: Go to the Big Top, or see a movie about the Big Top.”

It was on a Wednesday that Brownsville kids went to sleep dreaming of the circus. On Thursday, their dream came true. The afternoon performance began at 2 p.m. which was followed with an evening show at 8 p.m.
The opening was an unforgettable event described by, “The Brownsville Herald” as, “A monster pageant with scores of story book characters beloved by the children starting the circus performances. It was coined, ‘The Fiesta of the Rio Grande;’ a gorgeous processional fiesta participated in by upwards of 1,000 men, women, horses, elephants, camels, and other exotic beasts of the forest and the jungles.”

The audience came to their feet when 100 girls, in their beautiful wardrobe, danced to the beat of great choruses, orchestras and golden tone organs.

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