Gary Payne greets me at the front door of his condo in Hamden and says, “Come on down to my Circus Room!”
This expansive space in his basement is the ultimate man cave for a circus aficionado. Payne has a wet bar at its center, and the walls are lined with original posters from circus shows of decades past. And bolted to the wall is a red folding chair, which he believes he sat in when he was 6 years old and beheld his first circus, in Prospect: the 1961 Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. show.
How does he know he sat in that very chair? “It’s from that show from that season,” he says. “Because I went to that show more than any other, I think there’s a pretty good chance I sat in that chair.”
But despite Payne’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm, these are sad days for him and other members of the Circus Fans Association of America, of which he is president. In January, the owners of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced they will put on their final performance May 21 in Uniondale, New York.
When Payne heard the news, he says, “I cried like a baby.”
Payne pauses, adding, “But I was probably the fan who was most prepared for it. I saw it coming because my fascination with the circus has always been the logistics. I could see the ticket sales weren’t adding up enough to pay for the whole thing.”
As for why this circus isn’t selling as many tickets now as previously, Payne says, “When they took the elephants out (in May 2016), I knew that would not be good.
You don’t take the star out of the show.”
The elephants were eliminated in the face of repeated protests and picketing by animal-rights activists, who said the animals were being mistreated. Payne heatedly dismisses this charge, saying, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Payne also blames “city hall” for what has happened to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. “As CFA’s president for many years, I’m acutely aware it’s city hall that caused the demise of the circus. They threw obstacles in the way instead of supporting it. What business do you know that gets 6-7 inspections a day? Every morning when I’ve been at a circus I always see up to six inspections going on: the local police, the state police, the Humane Society, the animal control officer…”
Payne considers the circus to be “like a national monument or a national park, like the Washington Monument or Yosemite. Our legislators protect those. Unfortunately, no one protected ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’”
He also calls the circus “an art form,” adding, “It’s like ballet. It’s like theater.”
Payne, who is 61, estimates he has seen 300-400 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shows in 20-25 states and “all told, over 1,000 when I add up all circuses, including backstage visits.”
What draws him to the circus? “It’s that fascination of something akin to Disneyland coming to town for one day only. At age 6 I wanted to see the circus lot empty, then see the circus the following day and see the empty lot the next day. How in the world do they make that happen? That was my earliest fascination, and continues to be.”
The circus has remained his lifelong hobby, but he never got a job with one. He succeeded his father as a salesman for the Cornerstone Fence Co., based in Meriden.
When Payne began spending time with the woman who would become his wife, he took her to the circus for their third date. This was a test; it would have been great if she loved it but acceptable if she thought it was OK.
She thought it was OK. “She’ll say, ‘I’ve met some fascinating people at the circus, like the Human Cannonball.’” Payne and Amy Lyons Payne have been married for three years.
Payne tells me all is not lost, that there are still more than 20 great circuses on the road in America.
His eyes return to that red chair on the wall. “When I sat in that chair, I was 6 years old. When I sat in a chair this past weekend at the Royal Hanneford Circus at the White Plains County Center, I was 6 years old again.
“Everything in the world has changed, but not there, not the way I feel when I’m at the circus. When I see families saying, ‘Wow!’ and screaming and shouting … You need to watch kids at a circus. They’re exactly the same as kids have always been.”
Payne sighs. “Part of us dies when Ringling Bros. dies. For the first time, I feel vulnerable.” He adds, “I now realize how fragile the circus is and what it means to people.”
Incredible fact: Payne was not able to get a ticket to that final show — it sold out quickly — and might not see it. “I have never accepted a free ticket in my life. Our association’s motto is: ‘We pay as we go.’ We take no favors.”
But he can’t possibly stay away. “I’ll probably be in close proximity, by the back door. I want to say thank you to quite a few people.”
Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.