Rajah Shrine Circus ends after six decades

Greg Lewis can still remember the excitement he felt, can still remember the feeling of utter amazement that overwhelmed him.

As a child growing up in Pottsville in the mid-1960s, he had been to movie theaters, watched TV shows and listened to the radio.

But that kind of entertainment was nothing compared to what he discovered inside the Rajah Theater on North Sixth Street in Reading, now the Santander Performing Arts Centre.

He had a friend whose father was a member of the Rajah Shrine and was lucky enough to follow a trip south to experience the Rajah Shrine Circus.

Sitting in the crowd, watching animals and performers take to the stage, was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Years later, he would join the Rajah Shrine himself, earning the chance to play a part in organizing the annual event. He also had the chance to share the magic of the circus with his children and grandchildren.

“The circus meant a lot to me, his legacy,” he said. “I took my son and my daughter, I took my grandchildren. It’s generational for us. There aren’t too many events that you can call generational.

Future generations, however, will not have the chance to share the Rajah Shrine Circus experience. On Tuesday, the Rajah Shrine board announced that the curtain was closing on this long-standing event.

The circus, which was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is now permanently canceled.

The event, which is produced by Hamid Circus Inc., was scheduled to take place March 9-13 at the Hamburg Field House.

Rajah shrine potentate Joseph Hagan Sr. said health and safety concerns and a general move away from circuses amid popular entertainment led to the decision.

“I hate to see him go, but circuses fade,” he said, quoting the closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2017.

Lewis, who is communications director for the Rajah Shrine, said the group was looking for an entertainment event to replace the circus but had not yet developed a plan.

“We didn’t come out of show business, just circus,” he said.

Six decades of tradition

The Rajah Shrine Circus started in 1961.

It was first held each March at the Rajah Theater in Reading, with a second location at Muhlenberg College in Allentown added from 1974 to 1995. Both shows ran over consecutive weeks.

Needing more space for performers and animals, events were moved to Hamburg Field House and Stabler Arena in Bethlehem. The Bethlehem show was discontinued in 2006.

The Berks version was temporarily moved to Santander Arena in Reading, but found its way back to Hamburg Field House in 2006.

Since 2010, the circus has presented a total of eight shows over five days each year.

Bring smiles and laughter

Lewis said that in all these years and through all these moves, one thing has never changed.

“People’s reaction to the release,” he said. “People go crazy about a performer on a bike or something. Just seeing the smiling faces – and not just the kids, but the adults too.

The Rajah Shrine Circus has entertained crowds, like this one at the Hamburg Field House in 2018, since 1961. (READING EAGLE)

A few years ago, Lewis said, he came across a family leaving one of the Hamburg shows. The parents were in their late twenties or early thirties.

“They said it was the first circus they saw,” Lewis recalls. “They were so excited.”

Hagan has similar memories of the joy the circus brought to those who visited. In particular, he remembers the annual Friday morning children’s show where students were bussed in from all over the county.

“They really liked it,” he said. “They clapped, they shouted, they screamed. They had a great time. »

As for him, Hagan said he’s always enjoyed animal acts — especially massive, ponderous elephants. Well, at least watch them, that is.

Hard work and fun

A member of the Rajah Shrine since 1982, Hagan has often found himself over the years helping to put on the show. And he is well aware of the pitfalls of working with live animals.

When the circus took place at the Rajah, he said, the animals were kept in a garage across an aisle from the theatre.

“When they left, it was almost unbearable to get in there, the stench,” he said, laughing.

The Rajah Shrine Circus in 2017 at the Hamburg Field House. (EAGLE READER)

But that, and the hard work that goes into creating a circus, was worth it, Hagan said.

“I remember there was a lot of commotion, moving animals and artists, performers, up and down on stage,” he said. “It was hectic, but everyone had a good time.”

Lewis said he had a lot of fun helping put on the annual circus.

“I remember I was in front of the marquee, taking off that Friday morning to help with the children’s show,” he said. “I stayed there and helped get the kids off the bus. It was a pleasure to watch, to see the children having fun.

“It’s hard to say how many thousands of people have been entertained over the past six decades.”

Two aerial silk performers hang above the rings of the 2017 Rajah Shrine Circus at the Hamburg Field House. (EAGLE READER)

Lewis said he sometimes had the chance to perform at the circus. He said he was a member of the Rajah Shrine Clown Brigade and was able to entertain crowds by blowing up balloons in costume.

“It’s very heartwarming when a child comes to you as a clown and you interact with them on a positive note,” he said.

The last curtain

The Rajah Shrine Circus brought a lot of smiles and laughter to a lot of people, Hagan said.

“It meant a lot of joy for a lot of young people in the area who wouldn’t have been able to see a circus otherwise,” he said.

It’s something he said he was very proud to have contributed. And it’s something that’s sad to see end.

He’s not the only one feeling this.

Lewis said when the announcement was made at a recent Rajah Shrine meeting, the news was met with painful groans.

“It was like deflating a balloon,” he said. “It’s a shame, really. We are heartbroken to have to say this is the end.

The human cannonball prepares to enter the cannon at the Rajah Shrine Circus at the Hamburg Field House in 2017. (READING EAGLE)

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