If I were a betting man, I would wager that more than one of these entries will involve, to some extent, my Grandmother. She was, and continues to be, a very strong driving force in my life. It was a memory of my Grandmother that was the impetus behind this story.
I have a ton of weird interests and I like to research them all! you could even say research is one of my interests. As a magician and performer, some of my interests aline with the performing arts. One of these interests is the circus. And not just any circus, my interest lies in a very specific one…
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus!
Not just being there either, but the history and lore that one can find when they research P.T. Barnum, the Ringling Brothers, James Bailey, and so many other intriguing characters. I am always on the lookout for a book or article I haven’t read that touches on this subject. In this blog, I am going to explain one of the most overlooked but extremely interesting characteristics of the circus. A characteristic that also happens to be the reason my Grandmother absolutely hates any circus.
Can you guess what it is?
Well, I’m not going to say quite yet. Instead, let’s work our way backwards through important milestones to the very moment in time when what I’m writing about came to be.
Our story has a sad beginning (for me at least) because, even though I have a strong passion for the circus and its captivating history, I have been but one time. I was incredibly young and can remember very little besides sitting next to my Grandmother in the arena where the troupe had set up all of the trapeze, costume racks, curtains, the incredibly wacky proscenium arch, and anything else they needed to present their show. I remember it being extremely colourful, entertaining, high energy, and dazzling but it wasn’t a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show. This brings us to our first and most recent milestone.
On Sunday May 21, 2017, I lost my chance. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus had their final performance in Uniondale, New York, ending an outstanding 146 years of circus.
This crushed me. I never, and never will get to experience “The Greatest Show on Earth”
But 146 years is a long time! There are so many other milestones yet to be outlined in this blog so let’s move on to the next one! The best part about moving backwards through a story with a sad ending is it gets cheerier as you go!
We are going to jump back in time to look at the years 1881 through 1919.
In 1881, Phineas Taylor Barnum and James A. Bailey united to create Barnum & Bailey Circus. The show opened at Madison Square Garden and in an attempt to get more people into the circus, two rings are added in order to elongate the tent but allow everyone inside a great view of the action. This was the first time in history that three rings are used. Their show became known as The Greatest Show on Earth!
As the Barnum & Bailey Circus traveled Europe in the coming years, Albert, Otto, Alfred, Charles, and John Ringling began their own and equally as popular circus in America. In 1902 when Bailey returned from the European tour, he realized the Ringling Brothers had become the leading competition in the United States. The two circuses continued travelling and entertaining the masses until the death of Bailey in 1906.
The Barnum & Bailey circus is left to Bailey's widow.
Please take a moment to imagine the following.
A grieving widow in an all-black floor length dress stands at a funeral. She wears a veil to hide her expression of sorrow from the world, a beautiful hat tilted to the right and drooping ever so slightly, a small clutch on her right arm and a crisp white hanky in her left hand. And then, from somewhere in the background, a circus! Elephants and lions, clowns on unicycles, acrobats, bands, and a ring leader all amble toward her, a lawyer, with a briefcase hands the widow the ownership papers for this motley crew and dashes off into the sunset. They all stand, bemused.
That’s quite funny.
A year after Bailey’s death his widow sold all of the circus to the Ringling Brothers, who operated their own circus and their newly acquired Barnum & Bailey circus as separate entities until 1919. In October of that year they combine the two and introduce the world to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, The Greatest Show on Earth. Their first performance was at Madison Square Garden.
Now, This is all fine and dandy but we still don’t know what my Grandmother hates about the circus. We will have to look back a little more in order to find out. I can say though, what it is about the circus that she despises, has already been mentioned!
Let’s discus a time before the lions and elephants were a part of the circus! And acrobats were a thing of the future. Did you even know there was such a time? I bet you thought the circus was always a place for lions and tigers and elephants (OH MY), and trapeze, and ring masters. No way José! Let’s keep reading! You have a lot to learn!
Why don’t we explore the years 1793 to 1830. It was in this span of time that all of the elements that make up what we know as a circus began to come together. A lot happened in those thirty seven years.
1793 was a different time for the circus. It was a different beast at this time. By that, I mean it didn’t contain any beasts. Besides horses. A man by the name of John Bill
Ricketts, a Scotsman and equestrian riding school instructor, presented his first circus in, the then capitol of the United States, Philadelphia (In 1785, a man by the name of Thomas Pool is credited with bringing the circus to America when he performed equestrian stunts. He never became very famous with it as he only performed a handful of times before he suffered an injury and wasn’t able to continue…so we aren’t going to talk about him). Ricketts’ show included equestrian stunts, a clown, and tightrope walkers. You might be thinking to yourself, where are all the animals that make this a circus. First of all, even though there are no animals (besides horses) this is absolutely a circus, and I will explain why in good time. Secondly, all the animals were in menageries!
Menageries you ask? Oh. Well menagerie is a fancy way of saying zoo. By 1826, Menageries were extremely popular as they toured with animals people would never have been able to see in one place. I do have to point out, the animals in these touring shows were most likely not treated very well. They would have been trained by cruel means and contained in extremely undersized enclosures. That being said, history is usually less than perfect but it shouldn’t be ignored. Moving on!
Some of the animals included in menageries were elephants, giraffes, lions, bears, birds, and more. These animals, if possible, would be trained to show some type of trick or talent and would be showcased to the paying patrons.
By 1830, there were more than a dozen traveling menageries touring the United States alone, and a good number of circuses (Equestrian shows). However, in 1830, Isaac A. Van Amburgh thought it would be a good idea to combine the traveling menageries with the traveling circuses. Van Amburgh was a caretaker of animals in a traveling Menagerie and eventually became a lion tamer in a circus. After the first successful combination of menagerie and circus, menageries began to engage circus performers, clowns, riders, tightrope walkers, etc… and eventually the distinction between the two faded away.
Does my grandmother hate menageries? Or equestrian shows? not really… so what is it? I think we will go back one more time to see if we can’t get to the root of the problem.
Let’s have a look at the years 1756 - 1782 – Ooo, we are almost at the end ... or the beginning depending on how you look at this. I hope you’re getting excited to find out why grandma hates the circus!
In 1756, The Seven Years’ War had just begun and would go on for…well, seven years. Hence the name. Wars, while absolutely terrible, always get straight to the point, World War One, World War Two, Spanish-American War, War of 1812. Yep, whoever names wars really knows how to market.
Anyways, back to the war, the soldiers more specifically. Philip Astley was a cavalryman and Sergeant Major in the Seven Year’s War. While serving, he was surrounded by horse trainers and riders. When he returned to civilian life, Astley became preoccupied with learning to ride a horse while standing on its back.
Astley worked with his horse and realised that if he had his horse run in a circle, at a constant speed it was easier for him to keep his balance. He also figured out that if the circle was a particular size (Forty-two feet circumference) the horse and rider had an easier time cantering and balancing respectively. Astley started performing in his amphitheatre, added other small performers to the bill, and had a successful small business that toured Europe.
I bet you can see where this is going but sit tight.
Fueled by the success of Aslteys’ show, Charles Hughes opened a similar show near the Westminster Bridge in London England. Using the Latin word for circle, Hughes opened The Royal Circus in 1782 setting in motion over 200 years of circus entertainment. The circles used in these shows would later be referred to as the ring.
Now we come to the part we have been waiting for. Astley is the guy my grandma has a beef with. She hates that you have to divide your attention between the rings of a circus. She wants to watch one act a time, and then move on to the next. Had Astley not needed to ride on the back of his horse, we might not have a circus ring, and might not need to divide out attention amongst a motorcycle in a spherical cage, a juggler with chainsaws and knives, and a clown trying to do whatever it is clowns do.
So there you have it. Grandma doesn’t like to work too hard for her yucks. While true, it was mostly a framework for me tell you some information about the circus because I love the circus... and history!
If you would like to learn more about the circus, check out The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s website or these books The Circus by Noel Daniel, The Greatest Show on Earth: A history of the Circus by Linda Simon, The American Circus by John Culhane, Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay by Ricky Jay and so many more.
Thanks for reading!
All images are PD. Sourced from: Library of Congress Web Archive, Boston Public Library Web Archive, National Gallery of Art Web Archive, My phone