views updated May 11 2018


Long before the advent of film, television, or the Internet, the circus delivered the world to people's doorsteps across America. Arriving in the United States shortly after the birth of the American republic, the growth of the circus chronicled the expansion of the new nation, from an agrarian backwater to an industrial and overseas empire. The number of circuses in America peaked at the turn of the twentieth century, but the circus has cast a long shadow on twentieth century American popular culture. The circus served as subject matter for other popular forms like motion pictures and television, and its celebration of American military might and racial hierarchy percolated into these new forms. From its zenith around 1900, to its decline and subsequent rebirth during the late twentieth century, the circus has been inextricably tied to larger social issues in American culture concerning race, physical disability, and animal rights.

In 1793, English horseman John Bill Ricketts established the first circus in the United States. He brought together a host of familiar European circus elements into a circular arena in Philadelphia: acrobats, clowns, jugglers, trick riders, rope walkers, and horses. By the turn of the twentieth century, the circus had become a huge, tented amusement that traveled across the country by railroad. In an age of monopoly capitalism, American circuses merged together to form giant shows; for example, the Ringling Brothers circus bought Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth in 1907. The biggest shows employed over 1,000 people and animals from around the world. These circuses contained a free morning parade, a menagerie and a sideshow. Their canvas big tops could seat 10,000 spectators and treated audiences to three rings and two stages of constant entertainment. Contemporary critics claimed that the circus was "too big to see all at once." In the early 1900s, nearly 100 circuses, the biggest number in American history, rambled across the country.

In 1900, "circus day" was a community celebration. Before dawn, hundreds of spectators from throughout a county gathered to watch the circus train rumble into town. The early morning crowd witnessed scores of disciplined muscular men, horses, and elephants transform an empty field into a temporary tented city. In mid-morning, thousands more lined the streets to experience, up close, the circus parade of marching bands, calliopes, gilded wagons, exotic animals, and people winding noisily through the center of town. In the United States, the circus reached its apex during the rise of American expansion overseas. Circus proprietors successfully marketed their exotic performances (even those featuring seminude women) as "respectable" and "educational," because they showcased people and animals from countries where the United States was consolidating its political and economic authority. With its displays of exotic animals, pageants of racial hierarchy (from least to most "evolved"), and dramatizations of American combat overseas, the circus gave its isolated, small-town audiences an immediate look at faraway cultures. This vision of the world celebrated American military might and white racial supremacy. The tightly-knit community of circus employees, however, also provided a safe haven for people ostracized from society on the basis of race, gender, or physical disability.

In the early twentieth century, the circus overlapped considerably with other popular amusements. Many circus performers worked in vaudeville or at amusement parks during the winter once the circus finished its show season. Vaudeville companies also incorporated circus acts such as juggling, wire-walking, and animal stunts into their programs. In addition, the Wild West Show was closely tied to the circus. Many circuses contained Wild West acts, and several Wild West Shows had circus sideshows. Both also shared the same investors. Circuses occasionally borrowed their subject matter from other contemporary amusements. At the dawning of the American empire, international expositions like the Columbia Exposition in Chicago (1893) profitably displayed ethnological villages; thus, circuses were quick to hire "strange and savage tribes" for sprawling new ethnological congresses of their own. The new film industry also used circus subjects. Thomas Edison's Manufacturing Company produced many circus motion pictures of human acrobatics, trick elephants, and dancing horses, among others. Circuses such as the Ringling Brothers Circus featured early film as part of their novel displays. During the early twentieth century, the circus remained a popular film subject in movies like Charlie Chaplin's Circus (1928) and Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Several film stars, such as Burt Lancaster, began their show business careers with the circus. Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1952. These popular forms capitalized on the circus' celebration of bodily feats and exotic racial differences.

The American circus began to scale back its sprawling features in the 1920s, owing to the rise of the automobile and the movies. Most circuses stopped holding a parade because streets became too congested with cars. As motion pictures became increasingly sophisticated—and thus a more realistic mirror of the world than the circus—circuses also stopped producing enormous spectacles of contemporary foreign relations. Yet, despite its diminishing physical presence, the circus was still popular. On September 13, 1924, 16,702 people, the largest tented audience in American history, gathered at Concordia, Kansas, for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus. In the milieu of the rising movie star culture of the 1920s, the circus had its share of "stars," from bareback rider May Wirth to aerialist Lillian Leitzel and her dashing trapeze artist husband, Alfredo Codona. Like their movie star counterparts in the burgeoning consumer culture, circus stars began to advertise a wealth of products in the 1920s—from soap to sheet music. Leitzel became so famous that newspapers around the world mourned her death in 1931, after she fell when a piece of faulty equipment snapped during a performance in Copenhagen, Denmark.

During the Great Depression, the colorful traveling circus provided a respite from bleak times. When nearly a quarter of the United States workforce was periodically unemployed, clown Emmett Kelly became a national star as "Willie," a tramp character dressed in rags, a disheveled wig, hat, and smudged face, who pined for lost love and better circumstances. The circus continued to profit during World War II, when railroad shows traveled under the auspices of the Office of the Defense Transportation. Circuses exhorted Americans to support the war effort. Yet Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's "Greatest Show On Earth" nearly disintegrated after 168 audience members died in a big top fire (sparked by a spectator who dropped a lit cigarette) during a performance in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 6, 1944.

By the early 1950s, circus audience numbers were in decline, in part because the circus no longer had a monopoly on novelty or current events. Television, like movies and radio, provided audiences with compelling and immediate images that displaced the circus as an important source of information about the world. Yet, as a way to link itself to familiar, well-established popular forms, early television often featured live circus and vaudeville acts; circus performers were also featured on Howdy Doody as well as game shows like What's My Line? Ultimately, however, television offered Americans complete entertainment in the privacy of the home—which dovetailed nicely with the sheltered, domestic ethos of suburban America during the early Cold War. In this milieu, public amusements like movies and the circus attracted fewer customers. In 1956, just 13 circuses existed in America. As audiences shrank, showmen scaled back even further on their labor-intensive operations. Moreover, the rise of a unionized workforce (during the industrial union movement during the 1930s) meant that circus owners could no longer depend on a vast, cheap labor pool. Thus, John Ringling North cut his workforce drastically in 1956 when he abandoned the canvas tent for indoor arenas and stadiums. Circus employees and fans alike mourned the "death" of the familiar tented circus—a fixture of the circus business since 1825.

American social movements also transformed the circus. Circus performances of racial difference became increasingly controversial during the 1950s. Civil rights leaders had long objected to racist performances in American popular entertainment, but in the context of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, officials in the United States also protested because they feared that racist performances would legitimize Soviet claims that American racism was a product of American capitalism. Consequently, officials no longer aided circus agents' efforts to hire foreign performers slated to work as "missing links," "savages," or "vanishing tribes," and performances of "exotic" racial difference, particularly at the sideshow, slowly disappeared from the 1950s onward. In addition, disabled rights activists effectively shut down the circus sideshow and its spectacles of human abnormality by the early 1980s.

Lastly, the spread of the animal rights movement in the 1970s transformed the circus. Fearful of picketers and ensuing bad publicity, several circuses in the 1990s arrive silently at each destination and stop at night to avoid protesters. Cirque du Soleil, an extraordinarily successful French Canadian circus from Montreal (with a permanent show in Las Vegas), uses no animals in its performances. Instead, troupe members wear tight lycra body suits, wigs, and face paint to imitate animals as they perform incredible aerial acrobatics to the beat of a slick, synthesized pop musical score and pulsating laser lights. Yet, arguably, Cirque du Soleil (among others) is actually not a circus because of its absence of animals: throughout its long history, the circus has been defined by its interplay of humans and animals in a circular arena.

Despite the transformation of its content, the American circus endures at the turn of the twenty first century. Certainly, towns no longer shut down on "circus day," yet a growing number of small one-ring circuses have proliferated across America. Shows like the Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora, and Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey's show, "Barnum's Kaleidoscope," have successfully recreated the intimate, community atmosphere of the nineteenth century one-ring circus, without the exploitation of physical and racial difference that characterized the older shows. Ultimately, in the 1990s, a decade of increasingly distant, fragmented, mass-mediated, "virtual" entertainment, the circus thrives because it represents one of the few intimate, live (and hence unpredictable) community experiences left in American popular culture.

—Janet Davis

Further Reading:

Albrecht, Ernest. The New American Circus. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1995.

Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Cooper, Diana Starr. Night After Night. Washington, D.C., Island Press, 1994.

Hammarstrom, David Lewis. Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus. Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Speaight, George. A History of the Circus. London, Tantivy Press, 1980.

Taylor, Robert Lewis. Center Ring: The People of the Circus. Garden City, New York, Doubleday and Co., 1956.

Circus and Carnival

views updated Jun 27 2018


CIRCUS AND CARNIVAL. Circuses and carnivals have played important roles in American life and imagination and continue to influence U.S. entertainment and popular culture. Although the two have separate histories, they share common elements, draw upon overlapping industry sectors and audiences, and have influenced one another for over a century.

Circuses and carnivals have European and English antecedents in medieval fairs, menageries, and performances and have been traced back to the Roman Circus Maximus and ancient fertility rites. The first circus to perform within a ring dates from 1770 when Englishman Philip Astley created an equestrian entertainment that expanded to include acrobats and comic acts. Astley's show soon went on the road and inspired competitors.

The idea quickly spread to America, and by 1785 Philadelphia could boast a permanent circus-like event. Scottish equestrian John Bill Ricketts added spectacle and attracted famous patrons such as George Washington. At the same time, traveling menageries featuring exotic animals became popular, beginning with the exhibition of

Old Bet, an elephant owned by New York entrepreneur Hachaliah Bailey.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the two forms had combined, with pioneers such as George Bailey, nephew of Hachaliah, exhibiting animals during the day and mounting circus performances at night. The addition of wild animals and handlers such as famed lion tamer Isaac A. Van Amburgh added excitement; in 1871, W. C. Coup introduced a second ring.

The transformation of the circus into a national institution was furthered by legendary showman P. T. Barnum, who joined James A. Bailey in 1880 to form the company that was to become Barnum & Bailey. Barnum's fame rested on his promotional genius and exhibition of human oddities, helping to make the "side show" an indispensable element of the circus.

As America expanded westward, so did the circus, which by the 1880s boasted three rings and was using rail transportation. Between 1870 and 1915 the circus evolved into a big business and established itself as an American icon. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the annual circus parade, including animals and performers in full regalia, electrified midwestern communities.

In 1917 the Ringling Brothers, siblings from Wisconsin, purchased Barnum & Bailey and rechristened it "The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows"—or, as it is known to most Americans, "The Greatest Show on Earth." During its heyday, and throughout the twentieth century, Barnum & Bailey recruited some of the most celebrated circus performers in the world, including the great clown Emmett Kelly, the trapeze family known as the Flying Wallendas, and May Wirth, the incomparable equestrian acrobat.

The circus began to slip following World War I, the victim of competing forms of entertainment such as amusement parks, carnivals, radio, and movies. In 1956 Ring-ling Brothers passed into the hands of Irvin Feld, an entrepreneur who modernized the show and the business. In the twenty-first century only a few circuses travel in the United States, but the spectacle retains its appeal, especially to children.


The American carnival built on the tradition of the fair and also borrowed from new forms of entertainment that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century, including the Wild West show, the medicine show, and the circus side show. The crucible of the American carnival, however, was the world exposition or fair, which evolved as a monument to technology and progress from agricultural fairs, trade centers, and "pleasure gardens" of medieval and Rennaissance Europe and England. Beginning with London's Crystal Palace in 1851, this phenomenon reached its height with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. Millions of Americans experienced the marvels of electrification and the scientific and technological wonders that were showcased in the beaux arts buildings of the "White City."

The exposition also featured the Midway Plaisance, a thoroughfare crowned by the newly invented Ferris wheel and enlivened by purportedly educational displays of near-naked Native Americans and "savages" from Africa and the South Sea Islands. The popular and lucrative midway led away from the exposition proper to more sensational, privately owned concessions pandering "freaks," sex, and rigged games.

The exposition brought together the elements that defined both the American carnival and the stationary amusement park for over 50 years—mechanized rides, freak shows, participatory games, food, and blatant seediness and hokum. In the years following the exposition, showmen such as Frank C. Bostock and Samuel W. Gumpertz reprised its attractions at Coney Island, New York, where three separate entertainment centers coalesced in the first decade of the twentieth century to create the wild, outré modern amusement park.

By 1920 the United States had over 1,500 amusement parks at the edge of cities, and traveling carnivals supplied similar fun to small towns and local fairs. Gradually, however, the raucous industry felt the impact of local regulation, and many of its popular features wilted. The death knell, however, sounded in 1954 with the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. While retaining some of the variety, color, and fantasy of the carnival, Disney and its competitors created an entirely different ambiance of a sanitized, idealized world dramatizing icons and heroes of American culture within the context of American economic and technological power.

The relatively few traveling carnivals that remain have adopted the cultural trappings of the contemporary theme park, writ small. Strates Shows, Inc., for example, a family business organized in 1923, explains the changes this way: "In our technological society, the animals and rare 'freak' shows are a thing of the past, and the famous girl shows have disappeared … Strates Shows stays abreast of the market … through continued commitment to producing good, wholesome family fun."


Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Brouws, Jeff, and Bruce Caron. Inside the Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World of the Carnival Midway. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.

McGowan, Philip. American Carnival: Seeing and Reading American Culture. Contributions to American Culture Series, #10. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Murray, Marian. Circus! From Rome to Ringling. 1956. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Wilmeth, Don B. "Circus and Outdoor Entertainment." In Concise Histories of American Popular Culture. Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture, #4, edited by M. Thomas Inge. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.


See alsoCounty and State Fairs .


views updated Jun 27 2018


Circus was first introduced in Russia in 1793 by Charles Hughes of the Royal Circus of London. Established on a permanent basis in 1853, Russian circus was dominated by foreigners in the early years, such as the Salomanskys of Berlin in Moscow and the Cinizellis of Italy in St. Petersburg. Circuses traveled around with tents, but stationary circuses were also built in largely populated areas in Russia. Stationary circuses are more profitable and can also be active during inclement weather. During Soviet times there were about seventy stationary circuses and about forty remain in Russia in the early twenty-first century.

Circus in Russia has deep roots in the rich Russian cultural traditions, but circus performances in Russia are also known for their social comedies. Circus clowns in prerevolutionary Russia created satirical skits about landowners and merchants. The famous Durov brothers, Anatoly and Vladimir, a clown pair whose underlying purpose with their social comedies was to fight the oppressive tsarist regime, mastered this form. The Durov brothers were also animal tamers who developed the well-known Durov method of humane animal care and training.

The satirical nature of the circus and its appeal as a form of mass entertainment translated well into the Soviet world of popular culture. Intellectuals attacked the circus in the wake of the 1917 Revolution and labeled it an institution of superstition, animal cruelty, and vulgarity. Others noted that the circus offered an alternative mode of presenting historical and political themes through satirical clowning. The circus was nationalized in 1919 and the Commissariat of Enlightenment created a new department for it within its theater section. During the civil war the circus was turned to revolutionary uses, and later during World War II circus performers expressed patriotic feelings by staging victorious battles and honoring Russia's wartime allies.

The circus survived the Bolshevik cultural revolution well as circus acts already had a tradition of conveying political messages. In addition to political preaching, Soviet circus successfully mixed comedy and clowning with moralizing. During the Nikita Khrushchev years, popular routines addressed child upbringing, warned against foreign fashion, excessive drinking, stilyagi, and other social menaces. Circus continued to amuse Soviet citizens into the Leonid Brezhnev era, focusing on popular acts such as acrobatics, high wire, dancing bears, Cossack riders, and clowning. Clowns remained the greatest stars of the Russian circus.

Although tiring to the Soviet audience, Russian circus was conservative and continued to present internationally acclaimed ethnic variety shows well into the 1980s. With perestroika the circus abandoned the standard Soviet elements of the circus, such as folk culture, appraisal of World War II heroism, and politics. In the early twenty-first century, pop music and skits devoid of political or moral preaching draw huge crowds as the professionalism of Russian circus artists is widely acclaimed. With changing times, Russian circus has reinvented itself and continues to be a valued form of entertainment in Russia.

See also: cultural revolution


Hammarstrom, David Lewis. (1983). Circus Rings around Russia. Hamden, CT: Archon.

Stites, Richard. (1992) Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900. New York: Cambridge University Press.

RÓsa MagnÚsdÓttir


views updated May 21 2018

cir·cus / ˈsərkəs/ • n. (pl. -cus·es) 1. a traveling company of acrobats, trained animals, and clowns that gives performances, typically in a large tent, in a series of different places. ∎  (in ancient Rome) a rounded or oblong arena lined with tiers of seats, used for equestrian and other sports and games. ∎ inf. a public scene of frenetic and noisily intrusive activity: a media circus.2. [in place names] Brit. a rounded open space in a city where several streets converge: Piccadilly Circus.


views updated Jun 11 2018

circus (pl. circuses).
1. Oblong roofless enclosure, or hippodrome, semicircular at one end, having tiered seats for spectators on both sides and round the curved end, and a central barrier (spina) on which stood obelisks, monuments, etc. It was used for Roman chariot-races and other spectacles, so had carceres or starting-gates arranged in a curve with its centre a point on the axis of the track the horses would take at the start of the race, thus ensuring each competitor had an equal distance to travel to the centre of the broad route.

2. Unified group of buildings, with concave façades, fronting a circular open space, as in C18 town-planning schemes by Wood in Bath and Nash in London.

3. Circular road or junction from which streets radiate.


views updated May 17 2018

Circus ★★ 2000 (R)

British gambler/ con man Leo Garfield (Hannah) is being pressured by gang boss Bruno (Conley) to manage his Brighton casino. But Leo and his equally shady American wife Lily (Janssen) have some doublecrossing ideas of their own, involving Bruno's brother Caspar (Burfield), his accountant Julius (Stormare), Julius' unfaithful wife Gloria (Donohue), and well, things get even more complicated but the film doesn't have the flair to pull off all the plots. It does make an interesting attempt, though. 95m/C VHS, DVD . GB John Hannah, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Brian Conley, Eddie Izzard, Fred Ward, Amanda Donohoe, Ian Burfield, Tommy (Tiny) Lister, Neil Stuke; D: Rob Walker; W: David Logan; C: Ben Seresin; M: Simon Boswell.


views updated Jun 11 2018

circus building surrounded with rising tiers of seats XVI; circular area for equestrian and acrobatic feats; circular range for houses XVIII. — L. circus circle. circus = Gr. kírkos, kríkos ring. circle. prob. rel. to L. curvus CURVE.


views updated May 18 2018

Circus (harriers) See ACCIPITRIDAE.