- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) - Circus props, posters, memorabilia and costumes from the soon-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are packed away in a house in Conway.

“As a performer, even 15, 20 years ago when I was on the show, you knew that it had a shelf life and you knew that eventually trends were going to get a little too fast-paced for the circus for all that tradition, but I don’t think anybody expected it to happen so soon,” said Conway resident Bryan Fulton, who performed with the circus from 1996 to 2002.

On Jan. 14, the company announced that the circus would shut down in May, citing lower attendance, high operating costs and changing public opinion on the use of animals in the circus. In May 2016, the company discontinued the use of its elephants.

The show has been running for 146 years.

“Even now in 2017, we figured it had at least another 10 years,” said Fulton. “It’s sad, of course, but there’s a bunch of good memories. Doctor Seuss said you shouldn’t cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened.”

Fulton attended a performing arts high school in Baltimore, Maryland. At 17, he had the chance to attend clown school, which led him to the circus.

“I realized that I could always go to regular college,” he said. “I just knew that if I didn’t take this opportunity to at least try clown college, I would just regret it. I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t always be able to do clown college. It’s been one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Clown college taught Fulton some of the basic skills he would need in the circus: juggling, acrobatics, makeup and calisthenics. Less than a year later, he auditioned for, and was accepted into, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The circus would perform around 500 shows a year in 45 to 50 different cities, Fulton said. The operation traveled by train through the “backyard of America,” and the performers would wave at the people who gathered to watch the train go by.

Fulton said he used to tell his daughter “circus stories” before bedtime from whatever city she chose to hear a story about.

“In New York this one time we were hanging out backstage and we had a hippo on the tour and the hippo used to drool,” he said. “So we made a bet with somebody to see if they would be able to take a drink of a little bit of their drool and see if they would do it. People would not believe the stories I would tell because they’re just thinking ‘there’s no way that that happened,’ but in the circus, it was like everyday life.”

But life as a “professional gypsy” wasn’t as easy as making bets and riding a train, and after six years of being on the road, Fulton was ready to move on.

“I look at some of my friends who have stayed on the road 15, 20 years and I don’t even know how they did it,” he said. “I did six, I did a fraction of what they did, and they’re still in the best shape of their lives. It definitely keeps you young, for sure.”

Fulton moved to Las Vegas after the circus and worked as a Blackjack dealer in the casinos. Later, he moved to the Myrtle Beach area when some of his circus friends got jobs at the old Pavilion.

Fulton has stayed in touch with some of his circus friends through the years, and still performs his act locally.

“It is a family and you don’t ever really leave the circus,” he said. “We never would say goodbye, we would always just say, ‘See you down the road.’”

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Information from: The Sun News, https://www.thesunnews.com/

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