Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Going to a circus and delighting in the antics of clowns, lion tamers, acrobats, and trapeze artists is one of the rites of childhood. The most famous American circus company is the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. ("Bros." is the abbreviation for Brothers.)

The first circuses in the United States appeared in the late eighteenth century. The traditional ones are presented in tents, a practice that dates from 1825. The initial tent circuses were small and featured a single ring in which the entertainers performed. As the years passed, the tent size expanded, and the number of rings increased to two and three. Of all the nineteenth-century American circuses, easily the best known was the Barnum & Bailey. It was the brainchild of two men: Phineas T. Barnum (1810–1891) and James A. Bailey (1847–1906), who initially operated their own separate circuses. Barnum was a flamboyant master showman. In 1842, he purchased a five-story building in New York City and converted it into the American Museum, in which he presented freak shows, beauty contests, and theatrical shows. Among his early stars: the Feejee Mermaid, a woman dressed in a fish costume; co-joined twins Chang and Eng (1811–1874); and Charles S. Stratton (1838–1883), a twenty-five-inch-tall man nicknamed General Tom Thumb. In 1871, Barnum began what he labeled "The Greatest Show on Earth," in which he combined traditional circus acts with sideshow performers and caged wild animals. Another of his many successes was his purchase and exploitation of Jumbo, a six-ton elephant.

Bailey, meanwhile, began traveling with circuses while still a boy, and worked his way up to managerial positions with various concerns. In 1872, he became a partner in James E. Cooper's Circus, which first was renamed the Great International Circus and then the Cooper, Bailey & Company Circus. In 1881, Barnum and Bailey merged their operations. For decades, their circus traversed the United States by train, bringing thrills and excitement to towns large and small. After Barnum's death in 1891, Bailey took the show to Europe. Then he expanded it to five rings plus additional stages, and it crossed the country in eighty-five railroad cars. In 1897, the circus spotlighted an act using a record seventy horses, performing together in the same ring. After Bailey died in 1906, the Ringling Brothers Circus, which began as a tent show in 1884, purchased the Barnum & Bailey for $400,000. The two operated as separate entities until 1919, when they combined into one immense enterprise.

Among the most fabled twentieth-century Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey attractions were the Flying Wallendas, a family of high-wire artists founded by Karl Wallenda (1905–1978); Con Colleano (1900–1973), an acrobat known as the Toreador of the Tight Wire; aerialist Lillian Leitzel (1882 or 1892–1931); lion-tamer Clyde Beatty (1903–1965), who later had his own circus; and Emmett Kelly (1898–1979), a sad-faced clown whose best-known character was called Weary Willie.

Despite the popularity of other entertainment media, including motion pictures, radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2), and television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), the American circus—and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey—endures as a special treat for people of all ages. Across the decades, it remains unchanged in the type of merriment and spectacle it offers as well as in the manner in which it transports itself by rail across the country.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Fenner, Mildred Sandison, and Wolcott Fenner. The Circus, Lore and Legend. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Hammerstrom, David Lewis. Behind the Big Top. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1980.

Kirk, Rhina. Circus Heroes and Heroines. New York: Hammond, 1974.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Online.http://www.ringling.com/home.asp (accessed January 17, 2002).

Taylor, Robert Lewis. Center Ring: The People of the Circus. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.

Wallace, Irving. The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P. T. Barnum. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1990.