Nighttime circus parade entertains all generations of Washingtonians


Elephants pose with their handlers in front of the US Capitol on March 13, 2012 during the annual Pachyderm Parade to celebrate the arrival of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to Washington. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Six Asian elephants marched past the Capitol and clomped into the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. And for Phil Westmoreland, that wasn’t even the weirdest sight of the night.

Who the heck were all these young adults? He wondered.

Every year, Westmoreland, 47, makes it a point to be working at the Verizon Center on the day the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to town. He hasn’t missed a parade in well over a decade. The elephants seem to him like old, very large friends.

But this year, for the first time, the circus paraded its pachyderms at night. It was more about convenience than business strategy, organizers said. The crew travels in a mile-long train — and it pulled into the station after sundown.

The unexpected result, spurred by a population of young adults who had scoured the Internet for something to do on an unusually balmy March evening, were that numbers of wide-eyed children watching the parade hardly outnumbered the wide-eyed young adults there, all sharing that same desire to be awestruck.

Elephants from the The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stand in front of the U.S. Capitol during a parade in Washington March 13, 2012. (JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS)

“Elephants walking in the city!” said Eric Daugherty, 27. “Thinking of it gives me sheer excitement. We wanted to do something a little silly.”

Daughtery came with two friends, Cara Lane and Shino Yoshen. He works as a development consultant, a profession that his friends called “soooooooo D.C.” They worked for a non-profit specializing in education efforts in the Mideast. That too, they admitted, was pretty D.C. Elephants? Not D.C. at all (except for the political variety).

“This is a city of suits and tourists,’’ Lane noted.

By 8:15 p.m., hundreds had gathered along Sixth Avenue NW. For her fascination, Shannon Abbott felt a little guilty. She’s a 25-year-old legislative analyst, visiting her sister. She has heard allegations of bad treatment of circus elephants, which led to an animal-cruelty lawsuit that was recently settled for $270,000 (Ringling Bros. did not admit fault.) She knows elephants are stressed animals.

But how could they deny such a spectacle? They loved the circus as children. They recently saw “Water for Elephants.” It was about 8:30 p.m. — half an hour past the parade’s initial start — but most people had no plans to move.

“There they are!” someone shouted, hoisting his smartphone to grab a picture.

The old circus coming into town — at least the movies tell us — came in to the sounds of the calliope. This circus came in to the sounds of Katy Perry.

Music played as the elephants marched. The brown head of Asia, the head of the herd, blended into the night sky, but her red headdress, slumped down to her trunk, stood out clearly.

Asia sauntered along Sixth Street NW with her five fellow pachyderms: Banko, Tonka, Luna, Siam and Assari. Then came 10 pedicabs with 10 clowns. And a small woman sitting on a stationary trapeze. And 24 horses, including 13 Arabians.

From the pedicabs, the clowns looked at the throngs around them. Brandon Foster, 29, complete with a red nose, white make-up and a tooth painted black, loved the idea of a nighttime parade. He too was surprised by the size of the crowd and their passionate response, from all ages.

By the end of the parade, Foster was tired. The train had chugged in from Cincinnati. He wanted little else than to grab an extra slice of pizza, get to a hotel, take off his clown shoes and go to bed.

When he walked back outside, most of the crowd had dissipated. But three generations of women still lingered, waiting for a bit of circus magic. They were running late and had missed the elephants.

Louverne Bender, 65, still cherished her memories of working on the railroad in Greenville, S.C., and taking her daughter, Tanya, to get an early glimpse of clowns and elephants. Bender and her daughter, now 30, held out hope that young Khari and Danyelle, 9 and 11, would have the same experience.

“Excuse me,” Bender said to the clown. “Can we get a picture?”

“I hope you don’t mind that I have this pizza in the shot,’’ the clown told her. Big smiles.

If you have an idea for a story about the D.C. area at night, e-mail Robert Samuels at samuelsr@washpost.com.

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.

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