The Circus Remains the Greatest Show on Earth


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“The greatest show on earth.” Who has not heard that phrase and thought of the Big Top—the circus?

In an era spanning the early 20th century, through depression-ridden times, a dust bowl and the Red Scare, one form of revelry has thrived - the circus. The Big Top was a thrilling spectacle that burst into towns along the American road and railways. Traveling from coast to coast, rail cars packed with canvas, exotic animal menageries, strongmen, fat ladies, and roustabouts brought a much needed relief to millions of Americans. Step Right Up! Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890 – 1965  traveling exhibit explores a history fraught with intrigue and majesty and gives viewers their chance to run away with the circus.

In collaboration with the Tegge Circus Archives, Step Right Up! takes viewers behind the scenes of the circus, exploring the dramatic pageantry, colorful past, and living presence of this grand American theatrical tradition. Approximately 60 pieces of circus history are featured in Step Right Up! including full-color posters, costume regalia, historic photographs, billboards, oversize graphics and oral histories from past performers.

A tour schedule is available online.

As one of America’s oldest theatrical traditions, the circus started as a European transplant in the late 1700s and was perfected in the United States by the likes of John Bill Ricketts, who established the first American Circus in 1793 and P.T. Barnum, who first introduced us to sideshow oddities including the Feejee Mermaid and human curiosities like Tom Thumb. By 1900, there were more than 100 circuses crisscrossing the country and they were adept at using all of the advancements of America’s industrial revolution— the railroad, color lithography, and mass marketing strategies—to promote their impending arrival.

As masters of their craft, circus promoters and practitioners survived the social and technological changes brought about by two World Wars and even found new ways to factor in changes brought about by the pop culture and rock revolution of the 1960s. Advance men would arrive weeks before the caravan to paper the town with idealized and over-sized, color posters to build suspense and drum up business.

For many, especially in smaller cities and towns it was their first chance to see a lion or elephant and their first opportunity to explore new inventions like the electric light.

Step Right Up! also highlights how the insatiable fantasy of circus life was both an alternate reality and a vision founded in truth. For many performers, the big top’s nomadic life offered a different kind of escape and in many instances, a life that challenged the economic and gender conventions of the age. The juxtaposition of romanticized imagery and backstage stories and photographs reveal both the fantasy and reality of circus life, exploring the illusions that played to the imaginations of so many.

Step Right Up! is curated by Timothy Tegge, a longtime circus historian, collector, and performer. Tegge, a second generation circus performer, was immersed in circus culture from the day he was born. He first appeared under the big top at the age of three, alongside his father, a career clown for the family-owned TNT & Royal Olympic Circus. Tegge continues to perform in circuses across the country as an illusionist, ringmaster, performance director, and sometimes clown.

  Ringling Brothers trains and elephants.

The Ringling Brothers Circus was founded in the United States in 1884 by five of the seven Ringling Brothers: to become Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, promoted as The Greatest Show on Earth.

In 1882, before the Ringling Brothers created their first circus, the  brothers performed skits and juggling routines in town halls around the state of Wisconsin. They called this the "Ringling Brothers' Classic and Comic Concert Company" and used the money earned for suits. The Ringling Brothers Circus began their first circus in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin and united with a famous showman named Yankee Robinson. Using the title "Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers", the Ringling Bros. and Yankee Robinson went through the Midwest performing their one ring circus.

By the late 1880s, the circus had established itself as one of the largest and best-run circuses in the country.

In 1889 two of the Ringlings went to Philadelphia where they purchased railroad cars and parade equipment, With this change in transportation the circus was no longer limited to moving only 15 to 20 miles a night, and could now skip the really small towns that contained a limited audience in order to play larger towns day after day, therefore, greatly increasing the average revenue.

In 1907 the brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus and ran the two circuses separately until they merged them into one unit in 1919, when they also moved the winter quarters to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In 1875, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup persuaded Barnum to lend his name and financial backing to the circus they had already created in Delavan, Wisconsin. It was called "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome". The moniker "Greatest Show on Earth" was added later.

Independently of Castello and Coup, James Anthony Bailey had teamed up with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s. The Cooper and Bailey Circus was soon Barnum's chief competitor, exhibiting "Columbia," the first baby elephant ever born in the United States.] Barnum attempted to buy the elephant, and eventually agreed to combine their shows in 1881. In 1882, the combined "Barnum & Bailey Circus" was successful with acts such as Jumbo, advertised as the world's largest elephant. Barnum died in 1891 and Bailey then purchased the circus from his widow. He continued touring the eastern United States until he took his circus to Europe. That tour started on December 27, 1897 and lasted until 1902.

The Ringlings moved their circus from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans. Their circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train, which allowed them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of that time. Bailey's European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard. Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1905. He died the next year and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers.

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and ran the circuses separately until 1919. By that time, Charles Edward Ringling and John Nicholas Ringling were the only remaining brothers of the five who founded the circus. They decided that it was too difficult to run the two circuses independently, and on March 29, 1919, "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" debuted in New York City.

The posters declared, "The Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions." Charles E. Ringling died in 1926, but the circus flourished through the Roaring Twenties. In 1929 the American Circus Corporation signed a contract to perform in New York City. John Nicholas Ringling purchased American Circus for $1.7 million. That absorbed five major shows: Sells-Floto Circus, Al G. Barnes Circus, Sparks Circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and John Robinson Circus.

Circus posterIn 1938, the circus made Frank Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their star attraction and to enter the show astride an elephant. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors, stating that he was "a scientist, not an actor." Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that he would not compromise his principles, saying, "Don't get me wrong. I'm with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself. And my heart is with the fellow who works. But I don't want some ... union delegate telling me when to get on and off an elephant." Eventually, the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla without registering as an actor.

The circus suffered during the 1930s due to the Great Depression, but managed to stay in business. John Nicholas Ringling's nephew, John Ringling North, managed the circus through the difficult times for several decades. Special dispensation was given to the circus by President Roosevelt to use the rails to operate in 1942, in spite of travel restrictions imposed as a result of World War II.

The Hartford Circus Fire occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, during an afternoon performance that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people. It was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. More than 100 people were killed.

The popularity of circuses declined after World War Two. In the fall of 1967,  the Feld family and others bought the circus and made changes to modernize and brighten it. Today, millions enjoy circuses, not under the big top, but in large exhibition halls.

In 1995, the circus opened the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida for the breeding, research, and retirement of its Asian Elephant herd.  All dogs in the shows are from animal shelters or rescued from poor living conditions. The circus participates in breeding programs for endangered species used in the shows including the Bengal tiger and elephant. The tiger population is retired to Big Cat Rescue.

Many animal welfare and animal rights organizations, such as PETA, are opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses. The animal rights groups also oppose the use of domestic animals, such as horses or dogs, in circuses. Many of these groups actively campaign against circuses by staging protests to increase awareness of animal rights' violations and to urge circus-goers to boycott Ringling and other circuses and to patronize only animal-free circuses. The groups assert that animals used in the circus are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment during training, harsh conditions during transport, and a general lack of mental and physical stimulation.

Visit your local library for more information on the circus.

Circus Mania!
Douglas McPherson, (2011).
McPherson, who’s been writing about circuses and related entertainments for several years, fills a niche with this close-up look at a variety of circuses and their performers. The book isn’t so much a history of the circus as it is a survey of the modern circus in all its many forms. — Excerpt of review by David Pitt first published April 15, 2011  (Booklist).

Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus, 1901–1927, as Seen by F. W. Glasier, Photographer.
Mark Sloan, (2003).
A form of entertainment that claims to be the greatest show on earth had better deliver. That the circus does is confirmed by the photos F. W. Glasier made during the traveling spectacle’s heyday, even more unequivocally than Edward J. Kelty’s group portraits of circus personnel (see Miles Barth and others’ Step Right This Way, 2002). For while Glasier also made portraits, he liked to get relatively candid shots, which the cumbersomeness of Kelty’s huge “banquet” camera didn’t allow.  — Excerpt of review by Ray Olson (Booklist)

Step right this way : the photographs of Edward J. Kelty
Edward J Kelty; Miles Barth; Alan M Siegel; Edward Hoagland, (2002).

The Circus Fire
Stewart O’Nan, (2000).
After becoming intrigued by the story of a circus fire that killed 167 people in Hartford in 1944--the biggest disaster in the history of the state--O’Nan was surprised to discover that no one had written a book about the incident. He set out to do the job himself, knowing that by doing so, he “would assume the obligation of telling hundreds of survivors’ stories.” — Excerpt of review by Brad Hooper first published May 1, 2000 (Booklist).

The Circus at the Edge of the Earth: Travels with the Great Wallenda Circus
Charles Wilkins, (1999).
Wallenda--“scion of the most famous performing family in the history of the American circus” --no longer performs, due to injuries incurred in the family high-wire act. Wilkins explores the “Wallenda gestalt” with Ricky, but elephant trainer Bobby Gibbs steals the show. A “370-pound affront to everything that is conformist,” Gibbs has a beautiful relationship with a blind pachyderm of a certain age that continues to perform daily. Gibbs becomes Wilkins’ guide, introducing the performers and recounting circus lore as they traverse Canada in dismal weather. — Excerpt of review by Mike Tribby first published May 1, 1999 (Booklist). 

Two Hundred Years of the American Circus: From Aba-Daba to the Zoppe-Zavatta Troupe
Tom Ogden, (1993).Facts On File.
What are “flatfoots”? What is the “Circus Kirk”? This entertaining encyclopedia of the circus details these facts and other pertinent information for circus aficionados and provides a starting point for researchers of circus history. It covers all aspects of the circus in North America from the performers, animal acts, and owners to circus jargon, publications, and organizations. All the major names are here: Barnum and Bailey, Cirque du Soleil, Willy Hagenbeck, and Jimmy James. — Excerpt of review first published December 1, 1993 (Booklist).

Ringling: The Florida Years, 1911-1936
David C. Weeks, (1993).
John Ringling’s life would make a fine melodramatic movie. First of all he was a consummate showman, taking the Ringling family legacy to ever-higher achievements, but he was not content with the circus and made investments in real estate and art and built a fabulous home for his young second wife. An exemplary biography.— Excerpt of review by John Mort first published December 1, 1993 (Booklist).

Big top boss : John Ringling North and the circus
David Lewis Hammarstrom, (1992).
Hammarstrom’s thoroughly researched biography of John Ringling North, the son of the only sister of the seven Ringling brothers and the man who ran “the greatest show on earth” for 30 years, is clearly a labor of love. Circus enthusiast Hammarstrom, author of Behind the Big Top (Barnes, 1979) and a stage musical about the Ringlings, has in effect been working on this book since his childhood, when he kept scrapbooks of clippings about the circus. His research included interviewing most members of the Ringling family, North himself, and various circus figures over the last two decades and poring over the entire runs of Billboard and Variety  — Excerpt of review by David Rouse first published August, 1992 (Booklist).





Article illustration:

Ringling Brothers circus poster, promoting the Raschetta Brothers. 1900.

Ringling Brothers trains and elephants.

Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth poster, c. 1899

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Frank Buck poster.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train in Safety Harbor, Florida, 1991.


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