Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus

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Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus

Two nineteenth-century American men, Phineas T. Barnum and James A. Bailey, largely defined the image of the circus, with acrobats, animals, band music, clowns, and trapeze artists, that is now deeply embedded in American popular culture. In 1881, they merged their separate circuses into Barnum & Bailey's Circus, which criss crossed the United States for decades, bringing the excitement of the Big Top to towns and cities from coast to coast. In 1919, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was merged with the Ringling Brothers Circus, which had purchased it in 1907 but ran it as a separate entity for twelve years. In the 1990s, the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus continued to thrill thousands of children and adults nationwide.

The first circuses to be seen in the United States were opened in 1793 in New York and Philadelphia by John Bill Ricketts, who specialized in riding horses through flaming hoops. These shows were performed in semi-permanent structures, but as early as the 1840s, traveling circuses on the Barnum & Bailey model moved slowly overland in their horse-drawn caravans, attracting excited, entertainment-starved crowds to their tents. The idea of presenting the circus in a tent is an American contribution, believed to have begun in 1825 with an itinerant show belonging to J. Purdy Brown. The custom evolved from small tents with a single ring and a few hundred seats to two rings in 1872 and three in 1881, calling for larger and larger canvas coliseums. The distinctive quarter poles that support the canvas roof in large areas between the central "king poles" and the side poles, invented by Gilbert Spalding, a former chemist, make it possible to cover much larger areas for spectators. The idea of having a number of acts going on simultaneously in several rings is also an American innovation. In Europe there are many circuses, such as the famous one in Copenhagen, which is staged in a permanent building with a single ring. The nomadic U.S. circuses relied more and more on the railroads, and Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey at one time traversed the country in four trains, pulling a total of 107 seventy-foot railroad cars.

Circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891) was a flamboyant showman who bought a five-story marble museum in New York City in 1842 and transformed it into the American Museum, a carnival of live freaks, theatrical tableaux, beauty contests, and other sensational attractions. In the first year he attracted thousands with such exhibits as the Feejee Mermaid, who wore the fake body of a fish; Siamese twins Chang and Eng; and Charles S. Stratton, a 25-inch-tall man whom he renamed General Tom Thumb. In 1850 he risked his entire fortune to bring Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano he had never heard, to America for 150 concerts, earning Barnum huge returns. With his rare talent for gaining publicity for his enterprises, Barnum became an international celebrity who called himself the "Prince of Humbugs." In 1871, he opened the extravaganza he called the "Greatest Show on Earth," combining traditional circus acts with a menagerie of caged animals and sideshows featuring both human and animal curiosities—alive and dead, real and bogus. There is no evidence he ever spoke or said the words, but Barnum has long been credited with the remark, "There's a sucker born every minute." Although he is not the sole originator of the present-day circus, Barnum made this popular theatrical form into a gigantic spectacle, drawing huge crowds to his famous attractions gathered from all parts of the world. The grand climax of Barnum's circus career was his purchase of Jumbo, an elephant weighing six tons. Barnum's sales pitch was so compelling that the huge pachyderm earned back his purchase price in one season under the Big Top.

James Anthony Bailey (1847-1906) was much more retiring in personality than his partner, but his efficiency and astute sense of business combined well with Barnum's flamboyant salesmanship. Bailey had begun traveling with circuses as a boy and gradually worked up the ladder to responsible managerial positions. In 1872 he became a partner in James E. Cooper's Circus, later called the Great International Circus after a lucrative tour of Australia, New Zealand, Java, and several South American countries. When it was renamed the Cooper, Bailey & Company Circus in 1876, it was seen as a strong competitor to Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth, and in 1881 the two shows merged as Barnum & Bailey Circus. After Barnum's death in 1891, Bailey led the show on several successful tours of Europe and brought his circus to new levels of popularity in America, transporting it coast-to-coast on 85 railroad cars. His version of the greatest show on Earth boasted the largest traveling menagerie and displayed its spectacles in five rings as well as on stages. More than a thousand persons were employed in the enterprise.

In 1907, after Bailey's death, the Ringling Brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus for $400,000 and ran it as a separate entity until 1919, when their operations were combined into Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, its present name. The Ringling Brothers of Baraboo, Wisconsin, had begun their tent shows in 1884 with the lengthy name: "Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals." In a short time Alf, Al, Charles, John, and Otto Ringling became known as the Kings of the Circus. Later, two other brothers, Henry and Gus, joined their ranks. By 1889 the show had a seating capacity of 4,000 under its Big Top and was playing cities and towns in the midwest, charging 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. That same year they became the twelfth American circus to travel by rail.

American circuses made important contributions to popular spectacle, including the traditional free morning parade down Main Street. Beginning usually at eleven o'clock, a uniformed brass band would step out sharply, their instruments blaring a stirring march. Next would come a long procession of flag bearers, beautiful ladies on horseback, trapeze artists waving from brightly painted circus wagons, and clowns performing their well choreographed highjinks. Cages of wild animals moved by in their horse-drawn cages, followed by cowboys and Indians on horseback, Roman chariots, and a line of elephants, marching trunk to tail in their characteristic shuffling gait. Last in the parade was always the steam calliope, with 32 steam whistles, operated by a keyboard, hissing smoke as well as high-pitched tunes like "The Sidewalks of New York."

Many performers who appeared in the Barnum & Bailey circus became star attractions, notably those who performed daring death-defying feats on the high wire or the flying trapeze. The Wallenda family, who came from Germany to join the circus in 1928, did acrobatics and rode bicycles on the high wire under the name the Flying Wallendas; they ultimately developed a stunt in which three bikes were balanced on the wire. In 1947 they began performing a seven-man pyramid, and in a tragic fall in 1962, two family members were killed and a third was paralyzed. Another acrobat, Con Colleano, the "Toreador of the Tight Wire," retained his popularity in America for decades, dancing a flamenco on the high wire. Lillian Leitzel, who came from a German circus family, thrilled audiences by performing 150 or more swingovers—pivoting on her shoulder socket like a pinwheel—while suspended by a rope looped around her right wrist. The petite star was fatally injured when her rigging broke during her act. Aerialist Alfredo Codona, her husband, was the first to perform the triple aerial somersault from the high trapeze, and Tito Gaona later began performing the same act blindfolded.

Trained animals, both wild and domestic, were popular in circuses. One of the crowd favorites involved "liberty" horses, who performed intricate routines without rider or reins, guided only by visual or oral commands from the trainer. In 1897 Barnum & Bailey featured an act using a record 70 liberty horses performing simultaneously in one ring. The traditional final in most of the larger circuses was the Great Roman Hippodrome Races, demonstrating the ancient arts of chariot racing and riding horses while the equestrians were standing erect. Clyde Beatty, who appeared with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey in 1934, used a whip and a hand-held wooden chair to subjugate as many as forty lions and tigers in a round cage in the center ring. He also performed with dangerous combinations of other animals, including leopards, pumas, hyenas, and bears. The Knie family of Switzerland also became well known in this country for their gentle training of such exotic animals as giraffes, polar bears, hippopotamuses, and rhinoceroses. Elephants were always popular, and Barnum & Bailey used as many as fifty of the huge animals in three-ring spectacles. By the 1990s, animal-rights activists were boycotting circuses around the world for their practice of using animals for mere spectacle, or for allegedly abusing the beasts. These allegations are denied by circuses, but the boycotts have encouraged the development of new-wave "non-animal" circuses, such as Le Cirque du Soleil of Montreal, which uses human performers exclusively.

Clowns, who came in a variety of make-up and costumes, were always immensely popular as they packed themselves in a small vehicle or performed juggling or comic acrobatics. The best known clown of all was Emmett Kelly, who played the sad-faced tramp, "Weary Willie." Kelly joined the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus in the late 1930s and was a special favorite until he died in 1979 on the opening day of that year's circus season. Kelly made his motion-picture debut in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).

Through the years the circus has remained one of the most enduring of America's popular entertainments, remaining in much the same format while modes of transportation and venues have changed. Though the canvas Big Top was generally abandoned after 167 people died in a disastrous circus-tent fire in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944, parents and grandparents can still accompany children to Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circuses with the confidence that the show will still go on, and be much as it was when they were children.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Fenner, Mildred Sandison, and Wolcott Fenner. The Circus, Lore and Legend. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 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.

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

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