From the start, the People vs. O.J. Simpson was always more than a murder trial, more than high drama. Too big to contain, it was destined to be a carnival.
What happened in the courtroom would captivate the world. What happened outside was a sideshow that P.T. Barnum could not have envisioned.
Like a medieval execution, when mobs gathered to wager and gawk only feet from the gallows, the Criminal Courts Building became a marketplace of the bizarre. Every day, a phalanx of print journalists and television crews breathlessly awaited the astonishingly routine arrival and departure of attorneys. And the sidewalks. Oh, the sidewalks. Crowded with barkers and concessionaires hawking T-shirts, watches, oil paintings and souvenir books as if they were at a sporting event. When the trial wound to a close, emotions were at their peak. Those convinced of Simpson's innocence and those sure of his guilt had a standoff in the streets, citizen militias trading chants and taunts.
The courthouse was the center ring but the streets around it were not the only arena for the sideshow. There were other scenes, some so surreal they could have been lifted from Paddy Chayevsky's "Network," the 1976 sendup about isolation, madness and the future of television.
The media couldn't produce stories fast enough, so many of them "exclusive."
Tabloids. Talk radio. Newspapers and magazines running score cards, even joke columns about the proceedings. Then there was television, especially the late night talk shows and comedies. A resemblance to Marcia Clark was enough to launch a career. The Dancing Itos became as familiar to some television viewers as the June Taylor Dancers.
Sure, the trial reopened racial wounds, but at least we had new places to show out-of-town guests, new stops for tour buses. Itineraries were kept flexible enough for a swing by the courthouse or O.J.'s house, Mezzaluna or even the murder scene. A trip to Disneyland could always wait for the next visit to Los Angeles; a trip to Brentwood could not.
Even fashion came into play. When Marcia Clark changed her hairstyle, it prompted as much discussion and analysis as that day's court proceedings.
Well, folks from all over the country who couldn't visit Los Angeles but wanted to be part of the trial did what a lot of us do to let others know we are thinking about them: They sent flowers. A lot of flowers. Week after week, at least half a dozen arrangements a day arrived in Ito's courtroom. Clark received so many that she finally just picked a charity to accept them.
So the trial consumed us. And the sideshow entertained, angered and most of all distracted us. Some will say it shows we haven't come that far from the days when public executions were an excuse for festivals. Others, that it was only an antidote for a case too grim to bear.
Both would be right.