The Circus Inside Out
A Memoir

In the epilogue to the book Victoria Cristiani Rossi paints a gloomy picture, a young child asking an adult “Where are the clowns?” Indeed this is a great question. The circus as we know it has been dispatched to the annals of history. I am old enough to remember the excitement of the circus coming to town, it was infectious. As a child I would cycle to a place ‘outside’ of the encampment, my mother had told me that circus folk were different, and if I didn’t watch my step they would kidnap me. “A bunch of blood thirsty gypsies”, of course I kept my distance!

To watch the ‘big top’ rise was something that I viewed in awe. From my vantage point the tent was the largest structure I had ever seen, and the men performing the act were as small as ants.

Like so many aspects of life, the traveling Circus has become as rare as four leaf clovers in Antarctica.

There are many famous Circus families, the circus was not a job, it was a lifestyle, and most of the families involved were multi generational. There are few that would argue that the Cristiani family rank in the top five, maybe the top two, of all circus families.

Victoria Cristiani Rossi takes us inside a world that few can imagine. The Cristiani family has their roots in Europe, Italy to be exact. And by the mid 1930’s were world famous for their acts. Their aplomb in the equestrian world was without question. Well groomed horses galloping around the circus ring, athletic young men performing with microscopic accuracy, the Cristiani family had it made. The dare devils might have risked life and limb during their center stage show, but when it came to business they were some very serious contenders.

It is an honor indeed to be lauded by the somewhat staid British Telegraph newspaper, yet they had this to say about the recent death of Belmonte Cristiani.

Spangles is a great book, while Victoria herself was very much a bit player in the story, she did not have the natural talent to jump from galloping horse to galloping horse. I can honestly say that I do not either! I would be clinging on for dear life, not standing on the back of this wonderful creature as it careens around the ring! Victoria did however make it to the ‘lofty’ position of Elephant Girl, a job that nearly cost her her life.

The family history of the Cristiani’s is an interesting one, they originated in Europe but prior to the outbreak of the second world war made their way to America where the big top tradition was flourishing. The family had not only a flair in the ring but also in the boardroom, as a result they had amassed a tidy nest egg. The forties and fifties saw the Cristiani’s soar, loved by fans and celebrities, respected, maybe even feared by their rivals, this was America’s Circus.

They even mounted the ambitious project of touring Alaska, the first circus to attempt such a thing. The first stage was relatively easy, the majority of the equipment and animals being taken to Dawson Creek in British Colombia by rail. From there though it was via a large convoy of trucks that they battled the treacherous Alcan Highway. Highway is a misnomer, at that time it was a gravel road covering over a thousand miles.

It was towards the end of the fifties that that their fortunes began to change. The traditional circus business model was not working. The world was changing rapidly, and the circus just did not fit in.

Victoria makes an interesting observation as to what killed the big top, shopping malls and sweat! The shopping mall phenomena was just taking off, no longer was ‘down town’ the place to be, suburbia ruled. The second nail in the coffin was air conditioning. Who wanted to spend 90 minutes in a hot sweaty tent.

I enjoyed Spangles, Elephants, Violets & Me, it is a no holds barred look at the Cristiani family, their fiery tempers, infidelities, and fierce family pride. This is a look back at wonderful piece of Americana that is unlikely to ever happen again. The sights and sounds, the smell of fresh sawdust, the seemingly impossible feats, what young kid did not dream of running away to join the circus?

You can order your copy from Amazon. Victoria Cristiani Rossi also has an interesting web site.

Simon Barrett

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