Most Spectacular Show
She smiled wistfully as she listened to the commercial for the Benzini Brothers circus. The ‘Most Spectacular show on Earth!”
The year was 1933. It was the height of what would be known throughout history as The Great Depression in the United States. Over fifteen million Americans were unemployed and times were rougher than anyone could imagine. A few years before, on what was now called Black Tuesday, the stock market had crashed. Billions of dollars were lost, wiping out thousands of investors and causing stock tickers to run hours behind because the machinery could not handle the large volume of trading.
Stock prices had begun to decline in September and early October of 1929, and on October 18th, the fall began. On October 24th a record number of shares were traded due to onset panic. Investment companies and leading bankers attempted to stabilize the market by buying up great blocks of stock, producing a moderate rally on the Friday before that fateful day. On Monday, the market went into a free fall and by Black Tuesday, the stock prices collapsed completely.
After that day, there was a brief recovery, but prices continued to drop and by 1932 stocks were worth only about 20 percent of their value of 1929. By 1933, half of the banks in America had failed and thirty percent of the workforce was unemployed.
Factories and other businesses were forced to slow down production and begin firing their workers. For those lucky enough to remain employed, wages fell and many were forced to buy on credit which threw them into debt as foreclosures and repossessions steadily climbed in number.
Unskilled inner city men had a higher unemployment rate than those of jobs in nondurable industries such as food and clothing. Young people had a hard time getting their first job and men over the age of 45, if they lost their job, would rarely find another one because there was a choice of much younger men to pick from.
Industrial production continued to drop while bread lines, soup kitchens and a rising number of homeless people became more common across America. Farmers couldn’t afford to harvest their crops and were forced to leave them rotting in the fields while people elsewhere starved.
‘Hoovervilles’ began to rise – assemblages of cardboard boxes, tents, and small rickety sheds built on vacant lots by homeless people. These residents begged for food or went to soup kitchens if they could.
Bank runs had swept across the country as investors began to demand deposits in cash, forcing banks to liquidate loans in order to supplement their insufficient cash reserves on hand and by 1933, thousands of banks had gone belly up and closed their doors as farmers defaulted on their loans and there was no federal deposit insurance to fall back on because bank failures were considered a normal part of economic life.
By Inauguration Day 1933, after voting in Franklin D. Roosevelt as their president every state had ordered all remaining banks to close at the end of this fourth wave of banking panics and the Treasury didn’t have enough cash to pay all government workers. Despite the hardships, FDR remained optimistic, declaring that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Six-year-old Lorraine Moran knew nothing of what had caused the hard times everyone seemed to be experiencing. She had no full understanding of just how bad things were because her young mind had nothing to compare it to. She had known nothing else.
Were times hard? Sure. She knew that much. She saw how people on the streets suffered and she hurt for them. They weren’t even bad people, not all of them, and so she didn’t understand why they had to suffer so much. It wasn’t fair. She often felt helpless because there was really nothing she could do for these people she saw. They had nothing, but she didn’t have much more.
Oh, her family was lucky. That was something else she knew. They didn’t have a lot, but they had a house and food on their table and each other. That was more than a lot of people could say and she knew she should feel grateful for the things they had. She just wanted others to have those things as well.
Sitting cross legged in front of the radio in their living room – another thing that could almost be considered a luxury – she smiled wistfully as she listened to the commercial for the Benzini Brothers circus. The ‘Most Spectacular show on Earth!” She wanted so much to be able to go. It was a rare thing that the circus came to town and it was only for one night. But, she also knew that there was slim to no chance of that happening, no matter how much she might want it. They didn’t have the money for a ticket, let alone anything else that might come along with the event.
So, not bothering to mention it to her parents, she sighed as the commercial ended and the music started, closing her eyes as she imagined the people and performers and animals that the circus would bring. Imagination was the next best thing when you couldn’t see something for real…
The tent was huge. Bigger than anything she had ever seen in her young life. Looking around with wide eyes, she tried to take it all in. There were so many people…people of all shapes and sizes. All loud and enthusiastic and happy. Maybe this really was the most spectacular place on Earth after all. It would have to be to bring joy to so many people.
She still couldn’t believe that she was there at all, that the wistful dream had come true when her parents had randomly surprised her with tickets to the one place she wanted to go to more than any other. How they had known, she would never guess, but she would be forever grateful that they did.
There was so much to see that she was fairly certain it just wouldn’t be possible to get to it all in one short day. So, she made the best of it while she could, eyes darting this way and that as she tugged on the hand of her mother or father – whichever was closer at the moment – and pointed things out with childish enthusiasm and glee.
“Look at the clowns!”
“Over there! The elephants!”
She was overwhelmed with pleasure and excitement as they even got popcorn and cotton candy to munch on as they made the rounds that ended with the main tent that had so caught her eye from the moment they had first approached the grounds. This time, her parents walked on either side of her, her hands in theirs, as they entered and looked for somewhere with the best view of the ring in the center of the tent.
It was brightly lit and set up for several different attractions from acrobats to lion tamers to crazy clowns meant to amuse. It was one of the best things she could imagine and the rest of the audience seemed to agree as laughter and shouts and applause broke out randomly and consistently, overwhelming her small ears at times and making it hard to hear anything else. But, that was okay. She could see these other things and that was all that mattered.
She was surprised when it was time for the main attraction and that noise began to die down almost instantly. A glance around showed a kind of heightened expectation, different from what had been shown before and she wasn’t sure what to expect. The show had been amazing so far, what could be better than what they had already witnessed?
She tilted her head slightly, eyes glued on the beautiful blonde woman who entered the ring. She was followed by three horses who looked like the most well behaved animals she had ever seen. The woman was impressive before she even did anything, something about her drawing Lorraine’s full attention and striking the desire to meet her in her heart. It wasn’t something that happened too much. She always wanted to do things for people, but she didn’t always want to meet them upon first seeing them. Something about this woman shined even without the lights around her. It was a different kind of light and Lorraine was drawn to it in some way she couldn’t begin to describe.
The audience watched in wonder as the woman bowed gracefully and began her show, making an elaborate gesture to the horse in the lead to which the horse, without hesitation, dropped to roll over on the ground before getting to its feet once more. Almost like a trained dog, but so much more impressive, this trick led into many more awe inspiring ones including acrobatics performed by the woman and the horses all. Somehow it was clear that the animals cared for her as she cared for them and that made the show even more awe inspiring.
The applause that rang out at its conclusion was louder than anything she had ever thought it could be and her own hands and shouts were intermingled with those of everyone around her before they began to make their way from the tent. Blinking, she realized that this was her chance. She couldn’t let go of the idea that she wanted to meet this beautiful and mysterious woman who so charmed the horses and the audience alike and so she did something she never did. She stepped away from her parents and into the crowd without asking for permission.
It didn’t cross her mind that she could get lost or lose her parents or that they would be separated for very long, even though the crowd was a large one. She only thought about what she wanted and that was what she focused on as she squeezed through the taller and bigger people around her, murmuring an ‘excuse me’ that they couldn’t hear as she tried to stay on her feet while going the opposite direction of everyone around her.
When she finally reached the perimeter of the performance ring, she was relieved to see that the woman was still there, talking to one of her horses as she gently stroked it. She had half feared that she would have missed her and there was no chance she would be able to find her to tell her how impressed she was by her show.
“Um, hi!” She called out as loudly as she could, waving to get the woman’s attention and hoping that the crowd around her wasn’t still loud enough to drown her out completely. It would be a big let down to get this far only to not be heard and miss out on her chance. “Hello?” She called again, waiting to see if she was doing this for nothing or not.