by Dave Price.
Back in the days when tent circuses travelled the land, there was a story told of an old showman being asked for his concept of the hereafter. He is said to have replied, “It must be like the circus lot in Nashville.”
To the generation who grew up here prior to WWII, the Centennial Park athletic field on 25th Avenue (where the Sportsplex is now situated) was the city’s principal circus lot. There a spacious, level, and grassy expanse welcomed the big tent circuses year after year.
The John Robinson Circus may have been the first to play this lot in 1910. Forepaugh-Sells Bros. was there in 1911. During the flamboyant years of the American circus, all the great railroad shows came to Centennial Park: Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and Cole Bros., to name a few. Barnum & Bailey and Ringling both played there prior to their unification in 1919; and the combined show then played the park most years through 1947, when the park board decided to close Centennial to circuses.
During that era, the flatcars would unload at Kayne Avenue, the wagons being pulled up Division Street to the top of the hill and then over to West End. The zebras, camels, llamas, performing horses, and any elephants not needed for pulling wagons were unloaded from stock cars at the north end of the yards and led out Charlotte to 23rd Avenue, thence to the show grounds, going in the back way.
As you came on the lot from 25th, you would enter the “midway” area where the sideshows (with its congress of strange people) and numerous concession stands would be raised. Beyond that was the main entrance to the circus, which took you first into a long menagerie tent where you could walk cage to cage and from pen to corral viewing animals from the corners of the earth. I saw my first gorilla (the famous “Gargantua”) here. The elephants might number from a dozen to forty, and it was not unusual to find giraffes, a rhino, and a hippo on display along with polar bears and other species not generally found in Nashville.
Working your way through the menagerie, you would find yourself in the big top, a mammoth canvas tent as long as a football field and seating several thousand. Here the actual circus performance took place, and it was always a good one. All the big circus stars played Centennial Park: Clyde Beatty (whom I still consider the greatest of the lion and tiger trainers), the Wallendas of the high wire, the Zacchinis with their mammoth cannon, the Riding Hannefords, and the famous sad-faced clown Emmett Kelly. Tom Mix was once here with Sells-Floto and Jack Dempsey came with Cole Bros.
But those days are over; dead and gone. Apparently more dead than I’d realized. We recently overheard an old timer telling a member of a younger generation about the circuses he’d seen at Centennial Park. The listener responded with, “Sir, you must be mistaken; there isn’t a building at Centennial Park big enough for a circus.” (1997)