Grandiose self-promotion, however, is nothing new. Indeed, it's a storied part of circus tradition. The wily Phineas Taylor Barnum -- who did not really say "There's a sucker born every minute," but could have -- began calling his circus "The Greatest Show on Earth" in 1872. One hundred and twenty-nine years later, with a full program of death-defying and animal acts, the circus makes more than a legal claim to be just that.
Headlining the show are Bo and Bello, an elephant-daredevil duo. Bo is trumpeted as "the world's smartest Asian elephant"; Bello Nock, an award-winning clown, as a seventh-generation member of a Swiss circus dynasty. Also keeping it in the family is Mark Oliver Gebel, an animal trainer. The son of legendary trainer Gunther Gebel (now the production's vice president of animal care), he appears in the ring with horses, camels and -- what else? -- tigers.
Naturally, there's also a show-stopping aerial act, Angels of Fire. Yet these perennial favorites -- animals and acrobats -- are accompanied by more contemporary performances. The Max Air Blizzard Battalion, whose name could one day inspire a comic strip, brings extreme sports indoors, sans snow. No exaggeration here: Very likely, this is your one chance to see world-class skiers perform in Phoenix in the summer.
Tellingly, the circus clowns have incorporated reality television into their routine, staging a "Clown Survivor Island" between acts. (Redundant? Perhaps.) Boss clown Jay Stewart, who has a master's degree in theater/communications and lists his favorite book as "Confederacy of Dunces," says the gag has been hugely popular.
"People know right away what they're seeing," he says. "They get a big laugh out of it."
Stewart is working on his own circus dynasty: He travels with his wife and two children, one of whom is 3 years old; the other, 3 weeks. Already, his 3-year-old daughter has been "adopted" by clown alley.
"She calls them 'her clowns,'" Stewart says, "as in, 'I wanna go see my clowns.'"
It's a fine head-start on the circus life -- and with proprietary instincts that keen, expect to see her in the Ringling Bros. legal department before she's 10.