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In March 1955, photographer Ed Feingersh followed Marilyn around New York City for a week - Marilyn getting ready to attend a benefit performance of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden.
The air inside of a 25 foot cannon is
hot and smells like metal. It’s dark and loud, and the moments before a
launch - even for an experienced human cannonball like 32-year-old
“Nitro” Nicole Sanders - are filled with real fear.
“There’s no feeling comfortable with it,” she says.
The cannonball act is deceptively simple: a cannon large enough to
fit a human inside its bore “shoots” an acrobat high into the air, and
she lands in a net or an airbag. The mechanics of the cannon are a
closely guarded secret, but it works with a combination of hydraulics
and air pressure - there’s no gunpowder. The only explosion comes from
some fireworks lit for show.
The flight of the human cannonball at Ringling Brothers and Barnum
& Bailey Circus is over in just under three seconds, but the
preparation takes days.
It’s up to the human cannonball to control her flight, to use her
muscles in order to fly properly, to tumble safely, and land without
injuring herself. Any mistake - if the cannon isn’t warmed up enough or
Sanders’ footing is off - can cause a bad flight and an even worse
A 14-year-old girl named Zazel was the
first to be shot out of a cannon, in 1877 London. In the 140 years
since, the act’s safety has been vastly improved but never perfected.
One circus historian estimated that 30 human cannonballs have died in
performance accidents. The most recent death occurred in 2011.
Like Zazel, Sanders is an acrobat and an aerialist by training. She
is terrifically fit - each muscle must be pulled taut for the moment of
launch. She can’t gain or lose too much weight, or else risk throwing
off the cannon maker’s calculations with potentially disastrous results.
On 7 May, in a downtown arena in Providence, Rhode Island, Sanders
rides into the centre of the floor atop the bright red and gold cannon.
In her civilian life she is tattooed and favours an all-black wardrobe,
but in the show she’s dressed head to toe in a glittery silver jumpsuit.
She grins and high-kicks and flourishes with her arms towards the
As soon as she slides down into the mouth of the cannon, the smile drops.
Sanders pulls into herself tightly and calls out to her shooter, Boris, that she’s ready.
The ringmaster counts down from five, and with the cracking sound of
fireworks, Sanders is launched high in the air, cresting at 40-feet and
travelling roughly 66 miles per hour at a G-force of about seven, which
is enough to knock out a fighter pilot in flight.
She throws out her arms like wings, releasing two fistfuls of glitter.
She turns in mid-air, touches her fingertips to her toes, then falls
on her back into the airbag. This is when the adrenaline hits, as the
crowd roars its approval.
Just like she’d envisioned, everything goes perfectly. It is her 596th shot.
It may also be her last.
After 146 years, these are the final performances of Ringling Bros
and Barnum & Bailey Circus, an American institution that was slowly
brought to its knees by a combination of evolving cultural tastes, bad
luck and political enemies that left it no longer financially viable for
its parent company, Feld Entertainment.
So, in addition to ignoring the 104-foot expanse of floor between the
cannon mouth and the airbag, Sanders has had to force herself to stop
thinking about the fact that she’s facing unemployment, the loss of her
home, the disbanding of her tight-knit circus family, and the end of her
On Wednesday, Los Angeles sided with the elephants when the city council banned the use of “bullhooks, pitchforks, baseball bats and other goads that circus trainers use to control elephants and other exotic animals.”*
First of all, “pitchforks and baseball bats”?!
Secondly, thank you, L.A. The city council’s vote was unanimous (faith in humanity momentarily restored), and the ban takes effect in January 2017, a delay “meant to give circuses time to change how they handle elephants or remove them from the shows.” (You know which choice I’m rooting for.)
Naturally Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spokesman Stephen Payne (insert snide remark about how much pain elephants are caused by this abuse), was pissed, and said the law was “completely unnecessary.” He went on to say that this new ban “would force the cancellation of Los Angeles circus events” (excellent!) and City News Service quoted him as saying that the circus may move to a venue outside the city limits. (I see a PETA protest happening.)
City Councillor Paul Koretz said using bullhooks is “inhumane and unhealthy,” and that “the circus is welcome in Los Angeles, just without the bullhooks. … We’re hoping that they follow the model of other circuses that don’t use exotic animals."
Happy day for the elephants and other "exotic animals!”