All On Georgia

AP Exclusive: The final days of the Ringling Bros. circus

An elephant stretches its trunk through a window to soothe a sick child. A woman gives birth and three months later is back performing on the high wire. A handler of big cats weeps as the beasts lope out of the ring for the last time.

These stories could come only from circus performers, and in particular one famous circus, the one immortalized as “The Greatest Show on Earth”: the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which is hanging its hat for the last time this weekend.

While the show goes on in other circuses around the world, Ringling is special. The size, the spectacle and the history — stretching back to P.T. Barnum and his traveling museum in the 1800s — set it apart.

One of Ringling’s two traveling circuses is scheduled to perform its final show Sunday in New York. The other closed this month in Providence, and with it, the end to a way of life few others have experienced. The Associated Press was allowed to observe it extensively.

Ringling is the last circus anywhere to travel by train, and while living on a train can be tough, the accommodations are considered a benefit that other circuses don’t offer. Perks include the “Pie Car,” the mile-long train’s dining operation, as well as a circus nursery and school for the many children whose parents make the circus what it is.

Some observations from the home the performers leave behind, from the unit’s last circus baptism, their final times goofing around on “Clown Alley,” and other moments the world will never see again:

One of Sandor Eke’s earliest memories is of an elephant comforting him, stretching its trunk through his trailer window, while he lay recovering from illness.

Eke’s Hungarian parents were performing at a circus in Sweden, and Eke was just a toddler. A few years later, he’d be a circus performer himself, and aspiring to come to America to join Ringling.

He got his wish 20 years ago, as an acrobat. Five years later, his colleagues told him he was funny and would make a good clown.

Now, at age 41, he’s the Boss Clown, leader of the clowns on the unit. He’s also dad to 2-year-old Michael, and they are enjoying the waning days here together.

“You have your own zoo. You can pet an elephant; you can play with the baby tigers,” Eke says. “You have your own clowns. Everybody loves you. A circus is a very big family.”

Someday, he plans to teach his son juggling and other circus skills.

Even so, Eke knows Michael may never join the circus.

Eke’s wife, a former circus aerialist, has already established their new home in Las Vegas. When the circus closes, Eke hopes to get a job as a “flair” bartender there, doing tricks like juggling bottles.

He wonders how life will change.

“My normal life is this. My normal life is going on the train, going every week to a different city,” Eke says. “It’s crazy how much I love circus.”

Knowing it’s coming to an end has been difficult for his fellow performers and crew, and Eke has been spending his time trying to make his circus family laugh.

“I don’t stop until they smile,” he says. “And I do everything. I don’t care if I have to dive into a trash can. That’s how I want to be remembered. And that’s how I want to remember myself. I’m going to go and cry. But I’m going to be happy.”