Step Right Up
Chapter III. New World Roots
A look at the annual Great Circus Parade, conducted every July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, suggests an American circus history that is rife with colorful people and events. Nowhere else can a spectator experience so much of the spirit of the circus which grew up alongside of America. Every year, the Circus World Museum loads up its collection of restored antique circus wagons, and transports them on an old-fashioned circus train south from Baraboo, Wisconsin, down into the northern suburbs of Chicago, back north again along the shores of Lake Michigan and into Milwaukee. In small towns all along the way, the tracks are lined with enthusiastic circus fans and children of all ages, eager to capture a sense of what the circus was and is. After four noisy and colorful days of exhibition on the Milwaukee Lake Front, the wagons are paraded through downtown streets which are lined with sunburns, laughter, balloons, and peanuts. Of course, the parade is not just wagons, as if those beautiful hand-carved masterpieces of fantastical circus art would not be enough to delight us all. There are also around 750 magnificent Percheron, Belgian, and Clydesdale horses; the marching, mounted, and riding bands; the dignitaries and stars; the clowns; the novelties; the elephants; and the inevitable pooper-scoopers. They all make up what is undoubtedly one of the most colorful events in the world. Indeed, the Great Circus Parade has been telecast around the world, and its audiences number in the millions.
Few of us can experience the Great Circus Parade without a sense of wonder at all that contributed to the history of this spectacle. How hard it is to believe that parades of this sort used to be a regular feature of America's past, when small towns would be awakened by gigantic processions featuring three or four separate bands, great herds of elephants, cages of wild animals, sequined performers, and beckoning clowns, all trailed by the thundering calliope. In fact, the first and maybe the greatest Barnum & Bailey daytime parade, held in New York City on March 18, 1893, had no less than three thundering calliopes, together with fifty wagons, assorted floats, tableaux and vehicles, three hundred animals, not counting the horses, and five hundred people, all strung out in ten long sections. So captivating was the circus parade that towns would literally have to shut down all operations later in the day, because everyone would be at the circus. There was a time when such parades were demonstrations of how the circus actually used to travel, before the days of trucks and trains, across the frontiers of America. There was a time when the tall telescoping tableau wagons did not have to telescope, because there were no electric wires across the streets that hindered their passage. There was a time when a forty-horse hitch was actually necessary to pull a ten-ton wagon onto muddy lots.
Except for the Milwaukee parade, the circus parade has been a thing of the past since 1939. The King Brothers-Cristiani Circus staged one in 1952, and occasionally a Zerbini or Vargas Shrine unit might still mount a special parade. But economics does not permit any regular continuation of the practice.
There is so much to see and hear and smell and feel at the Milwaukee Circus Parade that it's easy to get lost in it all. There are clowns and animals galore, and food of every variety. During circus week every year, one of America's contemporary travelling tented circuses is invited by Circus World Museum to be the official parade circus, holding regular performances throughout the week. But the main feature is the museum's magnificent collection of wagons. They've been gathered from empty fields and abandoned warehouses all over the country, and lovingly restored to mint condition. The magnificent Buffalo Bill ticket wagon was being used as a chicken coop. Some of the wagons are on special loan to the museum by the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus. Seventy-five of them graced the 1989 parade, featuring the world's largest: John Zweifel's Twin Hemispheres Bandwagon, ten tons of Americana created for the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1903, pulled by the forty-horse hitch driven by Paul Sparrow and carrying 28 musicians. From the topmost seat to the elaborately decorated wheels, all the wagons feature wildly imaginative carvings and colorful paint schemes, representing some of the finest folk art in America. Very few museum collections could match the splendor of the Pawnee Bill Wagon, the Twin Lions Telescoping Tableau, and the Golden Age of Chivalry Tableau, depicting a spectacular two-headed dragon. No one could deny the charm of the Cinderella, the Mother Goose, and the Old Woman in the Shoe children's floats, the only three surviving out of seven gilded ponycarts originally built for the century-old Barnum & London Circus. The Cinderella wagon was found just in time to save it, rotting, and embedded in grass in a midwestern field. And no one can fail to be impressed by the seniority of the big-wheeled Bostock & Wombwell wagon, at 150 years the oldest circus wagon in existence.
The circus wagons all carry titles that conjure up two hundred years of a mysterious past. Every name carries with it dozens of questions. Who was Adam Forepaugh, anyway? When was the John Robinson show on the road, and what kind of circus was Hagenbeck and Wallace? Did my father or my grandfather ever crawl under the sidewall of a big top to see the Gollmar Brothers' Circus, or was that the Gentry Brothers, or the Christy Brothers, or the Downie Brothers? And seriously, were they really all brothers? Did Sparks, or W. W. Cole, or Sells-Floto, or Howe's ever come to my town? When did Barnum get together with Bailey, and how did the Ringling brothers get involved?
Sorting all this out is not an easy process, and we may not ever get around to understanding all the facts of circus history in America. Some of it we'll never know, and some of it really ought to remain a mystery. After all, what we see in the circus is both real and unbelievable, both impossible and true. We used to discover a circus in town in the morning, and go to it later in the day. By the following morning it would be gone again, leaving only an empty lot and a lot of people wondering if it had all really happened after all. Maybe part of it must always remain an ethereal part of our unconscious. To understand it all might rob us of its magic. As for the rest, those wagons suggest a time when a frontier spirit of adventure, a joy of life, and a determination to succeed against all odds were at the core of the American soul. We had best start at the beginning.
Section A. The American Fathers
Twenty years after his apprenticeship with Charles Hughes, a Scotsman
named John Bill Ricketts arrived in America, an experienced, accomplished
performer and horseman. He set up in Philadelphia "at very considerable
expense" an outdoor riding ring he called a "circus" at the corner of Twelfth
and Market streets, which he opened on April 3, 1793. We now call this
enterprise the first complete circus in America, because it incorporated the
elements of clowning, music, acrobatics, and horsemanship. In his program,
Ricketts promised that he would dance a hornpipe on horseback, throw a
somersault backward, and leap from the horse to the ground and with the same
spring remount with his face towards the horse's tail. His May 15 notice gives
us a hint of the full flavor and extent of the circus:
|This day, at the Circus in Market, the corner of Twelfth Streets. The
doors will be opened at 4, and the Performance begin at half past Five o'clock,
precisely Will be Performed—A Great variety of EQUESTRIAN EXERCISES,By
Mr. & Master Ricketts, Master Strobach and Mr. McDonald, who is just
arrived from Europe.
|In the Course of the Entertainment, Mr. Ricketts will introduce several
New Feats, particularly he will ride with his Knees on the Saddle, the Horse in
full speed; and from this position Leap over a Ribbon extended 12 feet
|Mr. Ricketts, on a single Horse, will throw up 4 Oranges, playing with
them in the Air, the Horse in full speed.
|Mr. McDonald will perform several COMIC FEATS (Being his First
Appearance in America).
|Seignior Spiracota will exhibit many Surprizing Feats on the Tight
|The whole to conclude with Mr. Ricketts and his Pupil in the Attitudes
of two Flying Mercuries; the Boy pois'd on one Foot on Mr. Ricketts' Shoulder,
whilst Mr. Ricketts stands in the same Manner with one Foot on the Saddle, the
Horse being in full speed.
|Those Ladies and Gentlemen who wish to embrace the present Opportunity
of seeing the Exercises of the Circus, are respectfully informed, that Mr.
Ricketts intends closing it for the Season within three Weeks from the present
Time, as he is about to take a Tour to some other Parts of the Continet.
|Tickets sold at Mr. Bradford's Book Store, Front street, and at the
Circus. BOX 7/6—PIT 3/9.
As Philadelphia was the nation's capital, President George Washington is traditionally thought to have been in attendance at one of the first performances, hours after he had signed a declaration of neutrality at the onset of new hostilities between the French and the English. The two men later went on recreational rides together and soon became good friends, sharing among other things their uncommon love of horses. In fact, Washington ultimately sold his favorite white charger, Old Jack, to Ricketts for $150, for display at his circus. N Gilbert Stuart, famous for his portrait of the "Father of our Country," also painted John Bill Ricketts, the "Father of the American Circus," as he has come to be called, and his portrait now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. N Like Astley in England, Ricketts' "Circus Father" title comes not from having invented anything new, but from popularizing circus skills and arts and establishing the business of circus entertainment in America.
Ricketts' circus expanded rapidly, although "circus" was still a term reserved for describing the place, and not the event. He and his younger brother, Francis, and their small company were soon joined by other acts. They included Master Long, the popular clown Mr. Sully, John Durang, the first American-born clown, and other riders, acrobats and rope walkers. In 1795, he built his most famous "New Amphitheatre," containing both a riding ring and a stage, on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, just behind Independence Hall. Drawings suggest that it was a round white wooden structure that may have had a canvas roof. It was probably typical of the same kind of buildings apparently being hastily constructed in England which saved expense and provided at least some degree of mobility.
Many Americans, emerging from the Revolution and a temporary law banning all theatrical and ring exhibitions, were eager for escapist entertainment. However, many others were not so enlightened as President Washington, and they were convinced that the theatre and the circus could be lumped together into a common den of iniquity and sin. In fact, to escape various prohibitions of one kind or another, theatres frequently played circus acts, and circuses frequently included brief skits and melodramas. In 1796, for example, only months after she had arrived in the country, America's first elephant made a "grand triumphal entry" in Nathaniel Lee's The Rival Queens on stage at The New Theatre, which was just across the street from the Ricketts' circus. Conversely, both Ricketts brothers were frequently forced to present and sometimes appear in theatrical productions as a matter of necessity.
Many Philadelphians, who only totalled about 60,000 people, would have never attended such "immoral" demonstrations. Clearly, potential audiences were too limited to support a full-time circus, and to make matters worse, the city was frequently a victim of outbreaks of yellow fever. As a result, in search of new audiences, Ricketts instituted an ambitious touring program as soon as he arrived. He traveled up and down the East coast, from Quebec to Charleston. On at least one occasion he even framed two units of his show to tour separately, although that plan was not especially successful. In his eight-year career, he built at least twenty circuses, located in every major eastern American city, including several amphitheatres in Philadelphia and New York.
Ricketts was almost immediately imitated by competitors from both England and France, who opened similar shows, and sometimes employed his performers. One such was a Swede named Philip Lailson, who built a permanent domed amphitheatre only several blocks from Ricketts' Chestnut Street circus. However, Lailson's fancy ninety-foot-high dome collapsed for no good reason in 1798; some undoubtedly said it was God's justice. None of the competitors was as energetic and stubborn as America's first circus owner, but even he could not sustain for long his enthusiasm for circus in the New World.
Ricketts' luck changed dramatically in 1799, when both the Greenwich Street amphitheatre in New York and his remodeled Philadelphia amphitheatre burned down. Financially ruined, he nonetheless struggled through several more touring attempts, and even tried to play in Lailson's collapsed amphitheatre. Finally, as his friend John Durang described him, "out of heart at doing business in this bodge way," Ricketts and most of his company set sail to try their luck in the West Indies. N Luck proved to be no better there, for en route he was kidnapped by French privateers. Rescued, the circus played for several months throughout the islands; several of the company died, probably from the same yellow fever that would kill one hundred thousand British troops in the region by 1802. N When his brother Francis went to jail for deserting his new native wife, John Bill Ricketts had had enough. "The Father of the American Circus" sold his horses and set sail for England. He and all hands were lost at sea, a final twist to the pattern of ill luck that had plagued his last years. Francis was eventually released and returned to America to tell the little-known story of his brother's Carribean adventures, and as late as 1810, he was a clown with the Boston Circus.
In the meantime, while the French were killing each other off by the thousands, and the British were rattling their sabres, Americans were basking in their neutrality and independence. It was a time for expansion, of both frontiers and ideas. In that regard, it wasn't only circuses and theatres who were competing for the two-bits Americans might be willing to pay for entertainment. For some time there had also been an established tradition of importing strange-looking animals that could be exhibited in cities and towns for a fee. By the middle of the eighteenth century, for example, lions, camels and polar bears had all been exhibited singly in Boston. On April 13, 1796, Captain Jacob Crowninshield brought into New York harbour America's first elephant, an unnamed two-year-old Asian female. The enterprising ship's captain sold her to a Mr. Owen at the Bull's Head Tavern for what at the time was the stupendous sum of $10,000. Owen must have felt he could make a lot of money by displaying her; if the morality of the stage was questionable, and the ring was guilty by association, certainly no one could object to paying for simply viewing one of God's largest creatures, could they? Documents show this elephant on the stage in Philadelphia later that year, and for at least the next ten years she was led up and down the coast, on exhibit from Boston to Charleston.
Sub-Section 1. Hachaliah Bailey
A second elephant was evidently on the scene by 1804, and at least by 1809 she was being displayed by one Hachaliah Bailey, born in Somers, New York, and a cattle dealer and owner of the stage coach line there. Bailey named her Betty, or "Bet" for short, perhaps after his ex-wife, Elizabeth. Records of early American elephants are scant and contradictory, and historians have had a field day trying to figure them out. There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that because his cousin and partner's name was John Owen, and because it was a Mr. Owen who bought that first elephant from Captain Crowninshield, Bailey may have been involved with exhibiting it. In fact, as a 21-year-old New York cattle dealer, Bailey would himself have probably been a frequenter of the Bull's Head Tavern in 1796. Some historians have even speculated that the first elephant was Bet. However, Stuart Thayer, one of America's more thorough circus researchers, has done an impressive job of sorting it all out for us, showing among other things that Bet was a four-year-old African female when she was brought into Boston Harbor, and that there were at least two elephants touring the country by 1806. N
At any rate, so successful were Hachaliah and his partners in exhibiting Bet, that they decided to add tigers and other animals. The early elephants were generally displayed as separate attractions, but other animals were quickly imported and shown in traveling menageries after 1813. Intrigued neighbors rapidly turned Somers into a mecca for entrepreneurs and wild animals. When they weren't on the road, the animals were hidden away in local farmers' barns, some of which are still standing.
Bet was murdered by an irate farmer in Alfred, Maine, in 1816. He evidently felt it was sinful to spend money to see such a wicked beast, so Bet was a victim of religious fervor after all. A memorial plaque erected by the contrite people of Alfred marks the spot where she fell. By then, Bailey and his friends knew they had tapped into a lucrative business, and they lost no time in importing another Betty, named after the first, as well as a male named Columbus. "Little Bet" was also murdered, pointlessly shot down on May 25, 1826, by six adolescent boys on the bridge over the Chepachet River in Chepachet, Rhode Island. So remorseful were the citizens of Chepachet that the site became known as Elephant Bridge. And one hundred and fifty years later, in 1976, they too attended a ceremony at the bridge, at which a modern elephant unveiled a bronze plaque commemorating the death of her prominent ancestor. N
When possible, Hachaliah preferred to leave the actual road tours to others. One of his early business associates was Nathan A. Howes. "Uncle Nate," whose name would later become legendary in circus history, once toured Old Bet on an early trip into Maine. N By 1820, Bailey had retired from the road to build his Elephant Hotel in Somers. The inn was built on the profits from travels with his first elephant. In the foreground of the building, he later erected a twenty-five foot granite shaft topped with a wooden statue of "Old Bet," as she was now called, carved from glued together blocks of white ash. A major stage stop, the hotel became the favorite watering hole for the likes of Aaron Burr, Washington Irving, and Horace Greeley. Hachaliah spent a brief period with his menagerie in Virginia, where he established Bailey's Crossroads, ironically only a short distance from where the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus has established its modern corporate headquarters. But he soon returned to Somers, where he died at the age of seventy in 1845 from a kick by a horse. After the last of the Somers Baileys died in 1957, Hachaliah's hotel became the Town Hall and Historical Society, and a replica of "Old Bet" still stands proudly out front.
Sub-Section 2. Other Early Showmen
On January 14, 1835, a group of 135 young, hard-nosed, blue-blooded, business-minded farmers and menagerie showmen and corporations, almost all from the vicinity of Somers, gathered in the ballroom of the Elephant Hotel. For some time, these men had been involved in an increasing number of circuses and menageries, and they were eager to solidify their positions as America's premier showmen. By the end of the day, they had formed a powerful "trust" called the Zoölogical Institute, capitalizing a travelling menagerie show by that name. They then controlled at least thirteen menageries and three circuses—literally every show on the road except for six resistant circuses. Shows under their control could then travel on lucrative routes designed for efficient operations and avoiding all competition. Although the Institute itself did not survive the financial panic of 1837, three of its survivors, John J. June, Lewis B. Titus, and Caleb S. Angevine, from nearby North Salem were owners of a joint stock company which continued to thrive. They and their associates, Jesse Smith and Gerard and Thaddeus Crane, formed the core of another group of powerful showmen calling themselves the "Syndicate," according to Earl Chapin May. N With their relatives and friends, they would maintain a firm monopoly on both the menagerie and circus businesses lasting until 1877. They were able to combine their capital, to launch major expeditions abroad to capture exotic new animals, and to buy out competing shows. They soon earned the somewhat derogatory nickname "The Flatfoots," allegedly because they thwarted all competition, threatening to "put their foot down flat" on anyone who tried to enter the menagerie business without their permission.
Circuses and menageries originally developed in competition with each other. They sought the same audiences, and they often coordinated their productions so that circuses played in the afternoon and menageries were displayed at night in the same location. In 1832, Joshua Purdy Brown, a cousin of Hachaliah Bailey, toured his circus with a menagerie for the first time. Circuses and menageries prior to that had been known to be mistrustful and jealous, and even stole each other's livestock on more than one occasion. In the '40s, differences between the two kinds of travelling shows grew less distinct. In 1851, Aron Turner, a North Salem shoemaker and an old friend of Hachaliah Bailey, grew tired of putting up with monopolistic control of wild animals by the Syndicate. At the urging of his manager and son-in-law, George Fox Bailey, he leased his animals from them outright for use in his own circus. He thus became another early circus owner to completely combine the menagerie and the ring acts into a unified performance. This Bailey was another one of Hachaliah's nephews from North Salem, who would go on to become one of the top circus showmen in the country when he later inherited Aron's circus. He died in 1903, calling himself the last of the Flatfoots. Syndicate shows quickly followed Brown's, Turner's and Bailey's leads, and by the late 1850s menageries were completely absorbed into circuses.
New York had been a circus town since the days of Ricketts. The French Canadian circus master, Victor Pepin, built his Olympic Circus on Broadway in 1810. The Institute moved into New York City in 1835, occupying quarters at 37 Bowery. Within three years, the Flatfoots were operating the Bowery Amphitheatre, featuring a full circus ring. In 1853, they brought the renowned French circus man Henri Franconi into town, erecting a temporary copy of his famous Paris Hippodrome in only twenty-five days. Located at Madison Square, at 23rd and Broadway, it was a two-acre building seating about six thousand spectators, with twenty-foot-high brick side walls, a canvas roof, and a wide one-thousand-foot hippodrome track. Franconi and his troupe staged recreations of the great Egyptian, Greek and Roman games, gladiatorial combats, and chariot races. Twelve years later, Lewis B. Lent, by then one of the most widely travelled and experienced of the Flatfoots, first rented and then bought another big circus building on 14th Street called the Hippotheatron, one of New York's favorite amusement spots, and opened it as Lent's New York Circus. It was much more permanent than either Franconi's Hippodrome or Nixon's Alhambra, which it had been built to replace in 1864. The Hippotheatron sported a roof of corrugated tin instead of canvas. It had a forty-three-foot ring, larger than Astley's in London, and held about 2,300 people. Lent operated it successfully for four years, until P.T. Barnum bought it for his menagerie. Despite its reputation as the iron building, it subsequently burned down, as circuses were still prone to do. P.T. Barnum's Great Roman Hippodrome was later built on Madison Avenue at 27th Street in 1874, and after it was remodeled in 1881, it became the first Madison Square Garden. These buildings, and others like them, represent some of the earlier American efforts to create permanent circus buildings in the European tradition.
However, Ricketts, Bailey, Lent, and their imitators were quick to discover that a different approach to performance would have to be taken by circuses in the new world from what was becoming the norm in the old world. In England and Europe, Astley, Hughes, and the Franconi Family assured themselves of big audiences by building relatively permanent circus buildings in the heavily populated major cities. Despite the experiments with semi-permanent circuses in New York, American cities did not have the population base to support the new industry by themselves, and so early American circuses grew almost immediately into road shows. Enterprising individuals designed and built their circuses to travel. They played in the open air or in whatever theatres and meeting houses they could find in the small towns they visited, and when necessary they built make-shift amphitheatres. However, they soon discovered that it simply wasn't practical to spend the money and time required for permanent buildings, no matter how cheaply they might be built. The full canvas tent was the logical outgrowth of such limitations. According to Stuart Thayer, Joshua Purdy Brown toured the first American tented circus in 1825. N Brown was the same benevolent and gentle circus man who would eventually join his operation with the Wright Brothers menagerie in 1832. In 1826, Hachaliah's old associate, Nathan Howes, and friend Aron Turner, tried a tent for the first season of their new circus. Finally, in 1830, Turner took on the road a complete ninety-foot round tent, which is generally considered the true forerunner of the American big top.
Tents proved to be the ultimate solution for problems faced by the circus in frontier America, and one of the great mysteries of circus history is why they didn't catch on sooner and faster. Not only did they guarantee audiences protection from the weather, but they provided the performers with a consistent set-up for their acts, protected the circus from those who would watch without paying, allowed rapid set-ups and take-downs, and increased the mobility that was necessary for seeking new audiences. After 1840, playing under canvas became the norm in America. It soon grew popular in Europe as well, after the American Richard Sands, a former clown in Turner's circus, took his tented pavilion circus to England in 1842, fifty-four years after Philip Astley had performed in his Liverpool tent.
Turner and Nate Howes split up in 1828, and both continued to operate small circuses independently. Seth B. Howes, who had been working for his older brother as a performer, and gaining managing experience on other shows, would become a proprietor of the Howes and Mabie Circus in 1843. Seth was to become the most famous and powerful of all circus men, accumulating a fortune of twenty million dollars by the time he retired in 1870. Dozens of circuses eventually bore his name, one of the most often used titles in the history of circus, including Howes' Great London Circus, a big American show so named because it was a smash hit on its London tour. Marian Murray suggests that Seth B. Howes has also been called "the Father of the American Circus," because of his outstanding success and the number of contributions he made in the development of the circus. N
Sub-Section 3. P.T. Barnum
A young Phineas T. Barnum, from nearby Bethel, Connecticut, once worked for Hachaliah Bailey, or so Barnum would have us believe. Barnum later became a ticket seller, secretary, treasurer, and occasional clown for Turner's circus in 1836. Allegedly, it was a practical joke by Turner that taught Barnum the value of notoriety. Turner told an Annapolis, Maryland crowd that Barnum was wanted for murder, and as a result he was barely able to rescue him in time from a lynching. The following year, Barnum briefly took out his own "circus," called Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theatre. But he was not really cut out to be a circus man, and the show was caught in the 1837 financial panic. It failed in Nashville, Tennessee, after only two months on the road.
Years later, in 1871, Barnum had retired to Bridgeport, Connecticut politics, on the remaining profits of his famous American Museum in New York, and his astounding promotion of such financial successes as Joice Heth, "George Washington's 161 year old nurse"; Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale; Tom Thumb; the Feejee Mermaid; and an assortment of bearded ladies and side-show attractions. In the intervening years, he had been involved in at least one behind-the-scenes partnership with his old friend Seth Howes. Barnum and Howes financed the acquisition and showing of the first genuine herd of elephants in America back in 1851. N However, that tour had no ring acts; it wasn't officially even called a "circus," and Barnum didn't travel with the show. Still, by 1871, his name was one of the best known in America, and his success at drawing crowds had earned him the title, the "Shakespeare of Advertising." He had made and lost several fortunes; his museum had burned down twice; and Barnum, now past sixty years old, was fully prepared to enjoy his retirement years in leisure. However, two successful Wisconsin circus owners, W.C. Coup and Dan Castello, succeeded in luring him back into the circus business in a big way. They convinced Barnum to join them in framing a new enterprise with the profitable but unwieldy title, the "P.T. Barnum Museum, Menagerie and Circus, International Zoölogical Garden, Polytechnic Institute and Hippodrome."
Barnum's new enterprise was then the largest modern circus ever to be mounted. Barnum himself was a reluctant participant, although he never hesitated to take credit for the show's successes. During the next five seasons, under W.C. Coup's persuasive leadership, the show expanded rapidly. It played under the largest big tops ever seen; it became the first circus to travel completely by rail on its own cars; and it established the pattern of staging huge street parades for promoting the show.
By 1873, the title had grown to perhaps the longest in history: "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling World's Fair, Consisting of Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, Hippodrome, Gallery of Statuary and Fine Arts, Polytechnic Institute, Zoölogical Garden, and 100,000 Curiosities, Combined with Dan Castello's, Sig Sebastian's, and Mr. D'Atelie's Grand Triple Equestrian and Hippodromatic Exposition." Notably, the title contained neither Coup's name nor the word circus. Barnum's large ego, combined with an inherent fear that he would lose what was left of his fortune, did not make life easy for his partners. Veteran circus performer Dan Castello was the first to leave. Coup quit in 1875, finally giving up when Barnum insisted on splitting the show into two units, one of which would be managed by John "Pogey" O'Brien, one of the most notorious "grifters," or gyp artists, of the day. Left without an effective manager for either unit, Barnum turned to his old friends the Flatfoots for help. Barnum's became the last major circus to be operated under the Flatfoot aegis. They auctioned off what was left of Coup's unit, saving the best to consolidate into one successful new show.
By 1880, Barnum and the Flatfoots were getting a lot of competition from circuses that had developed outside of their monopolistic influence. One of them was Cooper & Bailey's Circus, a huge show that had toured successfully as far as California, Australia, Java, and South America. Having recently bought up Seth Howes' Great London Circus from James E. Kelly, Cooper & Bailey was one of the largest railroad shows in the country. It was headed by a young man calling himself James Anthony Bailey. Seeing a mutual advantage, the two shows combined and evolved into Barnum & Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth," as it came to be called for the first time in 1888, although the title had been briefly used in 1872, by the Coup and Barnum show.
James Bailey is often labeled the best manager in the history of the circus for his efficiency and generosity. He kept at least two hundred disabled or retired employees on his payroll, and he used his vast wealth for charitable purposes. N Bailey was initially a retiring behind-the-scenes manager, who contented himself with chewing quietly on his rubber bands and letting Barnum take all the bows. But significantly, no one ever dared to confront Mr. Bailey when he was indulging in his nervous chewing habit; only when he spit the rubber band out was it considered safe to talk to him.
When Barnum first met him, Bailey was only thirty-two years old. He had been an orphan, born in the old circus town of Detroit as James Anthony McGinniss. In his youth, he had been befriended by Frederick H. Bailey, an advance man and bill-poster for the Robinson & Lake Circus who was staying in the hotel where he worked. Bailey adopted young James, gave him his name, and raised him in the circus. Significantly, Frederick H. Bailey was still another distant cousin of old Hachaliah himself.
Thus it was that Hachaliah Bailey and his elephant were responsible for a considerable sphere of influence, inspiring a second birth of the circus quite apart from John Bill Ricketts; and thus it was that the area around Somers, New York, about 40 miles north of Manhattan, came to be called the "Cradle of the American Circus." Almost every major show in the country had at least some connection to this area and to Hachaliah's relatives, imitators and followers. It was P.T. Barnum himself who labeled Hachaliah Bailey "the Father of the American Circus," a title he deserved fully as much as any of the others to have been so called.
As for P.T. Barnum, although he is still generally thought of as a circus man, his actual involvement was only peripheral. The real credit for conceiving and operating his circuses goes to his visionary and talented partners, particularly W.C. Coup and James Bailey. Barnum added his considerable talents in promotion and the enormous drawing power of his name. Before he died, thanks in no small part to Coup and Bailey, Barnum had regained his stature as one of America's richest and most popular men. In a spirit of lovable chicanery, he fooled us all: Few of his audiences ever claimed they had not gotten their money's worth. Few grumbled about spending a few pennies to see an exotic "Egress" only to find an exit door, or discovering that a "Man-eating Chicken" was really an ordinary man seated at a table chewing on a drumstick. If he really had said, "There's a sucker born every minute," which has been wrongfully attributed to him, it would have been in a spirit of shared fellowship. Barnum's home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he had served as benefactor and mayor, was for a half a century the home of the "Greatest Show on Earth." An exciting new $8.5 million remodeled Barnum Museum opened its doors in Bridgeport in 1989, to commemorate the man who had attracted eighty-two million people to his museums, circuses and travelling shows around the world. Barnum would be happy to know that attendance is setting all-time high records.
Section B. The Move West
In the first half-century following 1793, when Ricketts had arrived in Philadelphia to open a circus, Americans moved rapidly westward. Within thirty years, there were several small but significant circuses touring the new world with two or three wagons, some horses and a clown. New circus troupes, eager to search out new audiences away from the crowded competition in the East, were never far behind the settlers. Early circus troupers had to be a rugged bunch of pioneers: roads west were little more than widened trails when the first circus wagons challenged them. Much easier for travelling were the great waterways, the Ohio and the Mississippi. In 1825, when the Erie Canal was opened connecting the Hudson River at Albany to the Great Lakes, entrepreneurs and ordinary settlers began to flock westward in even greater numbers. By mid-century, there were dozens of circuses, small and large, crisscrossing the country and playing wherever new populations justified a performance. Within the context of this brief historical perspective, we can only touch on a few of their names, in order to suggest the relationships between them and to show just how fast the American circus developed. By 1849, for instance, Joseph A. Rowe's Olympic Circus had already gotten all the way around Cape Horn to San Francisco, where it played to gold rush audiences at gold rush prices: Admission to box seats was set at $5.00, compared to 50¢ back East.
Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie, from Flatfoot country in Putnam County, New York, had started their first circus in 1841, with the help of Nathan and Seth Howes. After six years of touring from New York, they paused for a rest one day in Delavan, Wisconsin. So struck were the brothers by its beauty, as well as the practical consideration of establishing a midwestern base for new territories, that they bought a four hundred acre farm there, and the circus stayed. The word spread, and by the next spring, other entertainers were moving in. Their loose living habits rapidly earned Delavan the title of the "wickedest town in Wisconsin," an ironic description for a place just founded in 1836 as a temperance colony and named for an internationally famous prohibitionist.
Somers, New York, may have been the "cradle," but Delavan's reputation as the "home" of the American circus was earned by the twenty-three circuses who called the town their home. In fact, the two towns would engage in a modern battle of words in 1966 over which one was entitled to issue first day cancellation for the American Circus commemorative stamp. That brouhaha was eventually settled when Somers, the earlier "birthplace," won the privilege of re-cancelling covers flown in from Delavan, the official site. Among the residents of Delavan in 1870 was Dan Castello's Circus, managed by W.C. Coup. Castello, who was a talented equestrian and one of the most popular song-and-dance men in America, had started with the Mabie Brothers, and he had extensive experience in travelling shows around the country. His partner was on the train on May 10, 1869, the day that the Golden Spike was driven joining the Union and Central Pacific Railroads in Promontory, Utah. Castello's became the first circus to cross the continent by train. New towns had been founded all along the new railroad tracks as they stretched across the country. In 1872, it was W.C. Coup and Dan Castello, recognizing the value of the new territories and the potential for travelling farther and faster, who persuaded P.T. Barnum that their circus should be placed on brand new specially made circus railroad cars. Other circuses had been travelling on the rails for several years, but the Coup-Barnum enterprise was the first to move its entire circus, including all the annexes and a parade, to daily rail transportation, on April 18, 1872. They used Pennsylvania R.R. cars at first, but later in the same year they ordered their own specially-built flat cars.
W.C. Coup had had earlier experience with Barnum, the Mabies, and Yankee Robinson, of whom we shall hear more. By 1870, Coup was perhaps the most forward-thinking man in the industry. In addition to his historic train initiative, it was Coup in the first place who proposed the union with Barnum's name that would evolve into "the Greatest Show on earth;" Coup who insisted on expanding to two rings; and Coup who proposed Barnum's New York Hippodrome, the precursor of Madison Square Garden. Yet outside the world of the circus, his name is virtually unknown. After he split from Barnum, he failed at several subsequent enterprises, more from bad luck and high principles than lack of talent, and he died in Florida in 1895, a pauper. His body was brought home to Delavan.
Delavan today is just as proud of its circus heritage as Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Somers, New York. Not to be outdone, it too has an elephant memorial in the center of town. This one is a colorful, fibreglass, standing representation of the Mabie Brothers' notorious elephant, Romeo, who was reputed to have killed twenty-five horses and five trainers. Delavan is also the home of the International Clown Hall of Fame.
Sub-Section 1. Mud Shows
Fayette "Yankee" Robinson was both a preacher and a Shakespearean actor before he decided to become a flamboyant lion trainer. By the mid-1850s, he had established a successful circus career in the mid-West and northeastern parts of the country, and he went on to become one of the biggest circus names in the country after the Civil War. His operation was typical of the rapidly multiplying wagon shows of the era, the true "mud shows," in which life was neither easy nor romantic. These circuses played one-night stands in tiny communities, and moved only an average of ten miles between towns, under cover of darkness, no matter what the weather or the condition of the roads. In the blackness of night, an advance man would tear apart a farmer's fence and place a fence rail across any road the circus caravan was not to take. "Railing the road" was standard operating procedure to prevent misdirections and circus wagons lost in the dark. At dawn, they would pause at a stream or pond near the next stand to wash and decorate the wagons. The bandwagon was moved to the head of the line, and everyone dressed up for their parade entry into town. Their task on arrival was to "make the nut," meaning to make ends meet, or earn enough income from doing the show to pay all salaries and costs. The expression derives from the town officials' habit of confiscating the all-important nut from the hub of one of the big wagon wheels, in order to keep a show from skipping town. It would be returned after the performance only when the circus had paid all its bills and "licensing" fees in full.
Some of the mud shows were not small by any stretch of the imagination. By the middle of the century, some vast circus wagon trains carried 100 wagons, 400 horses, 6,000 seats, one or two 40-foot poles, and rhinos and hippopotamuses. Some smaller shows could not afford a supply of stock, and horses were rented from local farmers. Neither could they afford the weight of carrying their own tent poles, which had to be cut in each town. Large or small, these early circuses were called mud shows not because they played on muddy lots, which they certainly did, but because they often had to travel on roads made all but impassable by mud. In 1869, for example, twenty-two out of twenty-eight travelling circuses were driven out of business by the endless rains that year. N Nonetheless, circus wagons were a long-lasting tradition in America. The M. L. Clark & Sons Circus was still using horse-and mule-drawn wagons to move show equipment as late as 1930. The wagons on display in the annual Milwaukee Circus Parade and some in Peru, Indiana, are among the few that remain of the thousands that were built for hundreds of travelling circuses. They are the ones that survived abandonment, fires, and intentional destruction for the prevention of competition.
During the Civil War, "Yankee" Robinson's famous nickname did not endear him to southerners, and on more than one occasion his circus was shot at by the local towns people. He narrowly avoided a lynching in Harpers Ferry in 1859, and circus historian Joe McKennon tells the story of how Yankee's circus was attacked and burned to the ground in Richmond by a gang of rebel hoodlums. The rebs just missed the chance to tar and feather the whole troupe, but they had been tipped off in advance. Such treatment of early circus troupes was not all that uncommon in frontier America.
Sub-Section 2. River Shows
In 1843, an Albany pharmacist named "Doc" Gilbert R. Spalding got hooked on the circus business by a bad debt. He soon earned a considerable name for himself up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers with various partners and circuses for over twenty years. He was an important, inventive risk-taker, generally credited with a lot of firsts in the circus business, many of which may be reliable records. He is said to have invented the quarter pole, to keep the canvas off the heads of his audiences. He is also credited with developing the efficient jack-and-stringer type of seating arrangement which survives in small circuses to this day. His was the first circus to use a mechanical precursor to the calliope, and the first to convert from candles and oil lamps to gaslight. In 1853, he was among the first to experiment with railroad travel: his "Railroad Circus and Crystal Palace" exhibited in Detroit, although probably only with a few stock cars. Three years later he ordered nine specially-built railroad cars for his new Spaulding & Rogers Railroad Circus, which carried no menageries or parade equipment. The cars had adjustable axles and may or may not have been designed to actually drive off the tracks to a circus lot, but this isn't really clear. In any case, they were used for only one season before Spalding evidently decided that railroad circuses were not yet practical.
Spalding's most famous enterprise was the Floating Palace, which he undertook in partnership with the English equestrian, Charles Rogers. From 1852 until the Civil War made them stop, this luxurious barge visited ports all along the Mississippi and Ohio, and usually wintered in New Orleans. The barge had only a four foot draft, but it contained a full forty-two-foot circus ring, and could seat perhaps as many as 2,400 spectators. The menagerie was carried on the tow boat, one of two magnificent show boats owned by Spalding, the Banjo and the James Raymond, on which other performances were also presented. They ranged from minstrel shows to dramatic performances, from Shakespeare to the temperance comedy, Ten Nights in a Bar Room.
On a later circus, "Doc" Spalding gave a headstart to the talented young clown, Dan Castello. But with his first circus, he had acquired another clown, a feisty young singer, fighter and strongman named Dan Rice. He and Rice began a stormy partnership, and later a life-long rivalry marked by bitter "billing wars" when the two men attacked each other with dirty tricks and slanderous advertising. One year, after a legal foreclosure by Doc Spalding had reduced his menagerie to a single horse, Rice was determined to continue performances of his own show. As he led Aroostook into the ring, a distinguished-looking man suddenly rose from the audience to call out, "Ladies and Gentlemen: Introducing Dan Rice and his one-horse show!" Without missing a beat, Rice bowed to him and replied: "After all, Dr. Spalding, the taking of Troy was strictly a one-horse show." To the roaring approval of the audience and the ironic embarassment of Spalding, Rice planted a kiss on Aroostook's nose and proclaimed that "quality is never measured by numerical standards." Thereafter, the "one-horse show" became a national catch-phrase used as a mark of distinction for any small operation priding itself on quality. N
At one time or another, Rice owned several circuses, one of which was
probably used as the model for the traveling troupe described in Mark Twain's
|It was a real bully circus. It was the splendidest sight
that ever was when they all come riding in, two and two, a gentleman and lady,
side by side, the men just in their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes nor
stirrups, and resting their hands on their thighs easy and
comfortable—there must a been twenty of them—and every lady with a
lovely complexion, and perfectly beautiful, and looking just like a gang of
real sure-enough queens, and dressed in clothes that cost millions of dollars,
and just littered with diamonds. It was a powerful fine sight; I never see
anything so lovely.
Rice wowed audiences with his political songs and conversations with his "educated" pig, Lord Byron. His brand of political humor didn't always endear him to his audiences, although he was a favorite of Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln. He even considered running for president himself in 1868. Rice sported a goatee and frequently wore a top hat and a striped red, white and blue outfit. His appearance has led several historians to suggest that political cartoonist Thomas Nast used him as the original model for the renowned character of Uncle Sam, although plenty of contrary evidence exists to establish that he merely dressed the part of an already well-established political caricature. In any case, Dan Rice became America's most popular clown, the Will Rogers of his day. At one time he was also America's highest paid clown, earning about $1,000 a week. However, spoiled by success and the bottle, he would die broke and forgotten in 1900.
It was probably Rice's Great Paris Pavilion that was unloading on the
banks of the Mississippi in McGregor, Iowa, one morning in 1870, inspiring the
biggest circus story in American history. Five brothers sat on a nearby grassy
knoll and watched every move of the process. Their harness-maker father was
doing some repair work for the strongman, and he earned free passes for them
all to go to the circus that night. And so it was that the Ringlings caught the
circus fever. The oldest brother Al soon left home to earn a living with a
carriage company, but was lured into joining Doc Morrison's circus in Delavan
as an acrobat and juggler. Morrison was a smooth talker and a self-taught
"dentist," and under his tutelage and the influence of the wickedest city in
Wisconsin, Al learned all the circus tricks he'd ever need, including how to
get out of a Green Bay hotel room without paying the bill.
N Meanwhile, back in their home
town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, Otto was becoming an expert at geography; Alf T.
and Charles were studying music, and young John was doing a lot of acting and
minstrelry. Reunited by 1882, when Al was 30 and John was 16, the five brothers
mounted their first show together: The Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic
Opera Company. The show was apparently a financial and
artistic disaster, but the boys were too stubborn to care, and they kept at it.
In the following year on tour, they stumbled on down-and-out old "Yankee"
Robinson himself, and talked him into letting them use his name and old
equipment to put out their first real circus. The handbill that Otto posted in
Sauk City, advertising the second performance of the new show, read as follows:
|Behold the Old Hero of the Arena, coming Tuesday, May 20,
1884. Old Yankee Robinson and Ringling Bros.' Double Show!! The largest and
most elegantly conducted and perfectly equipped Arenic Exposition ever
witnessed. The Great 25 Cent Show! (Not 50 cents as was reported.) Two
performances daily, Rain or Shine. Doors open at 1 and 7 p.m. See our Street
Parade! At 11:30 a.m. on day of show.
Yankee agreed to serve as manager and advisor for the boys during that first season. Dean Jensen, in his excellent chronicle of Wisconsin circuses, The Biggest, the Smallest, the Longest, the Shortest, describes Robinson's ringside speech for the opening performance:
|Ladies and Gentlemen, I am an old man. For forty years I
have rested my head on a stranger's pillow. I have travelled every state in the
Union and have been associated with every showman of prominence in America. I
will soon pass on to the arena of a life that knows no ending, and when I do, I
want to die in harness and connected with these boys. If I could have my dying
wish gratified, it would be that my name should remain associated with that of
the Ringling Brothers. For I can tell you, the Ringling Brothers are the future
showmen of America."
In September of the same year, Yankee died on the road.
Section C. The Golden Age
The Ringling Brothers Circus grew rapidly, along with other American circuses. They were entering the age known as the "heyday," or the "golden age" of the American Circus, something short of a half-century of progress which ended abruptly with the 1929 stock market crash. Ringling's winter quarters in Baraboo is now the site of the Circus World Museum. We have seen in both Somers and Delavan that circuses tend to attract more circuses by seducing neighbors and relatives into the business, and now Baraboo was also to become a circus capital. In 1890, when the Ringlings were finally ready to put their show on rail, their five cousins bought all their old wagons and established a second Baraboo circus, which eventually became The Gollmar Brothers' "Greatest of American Shows."
At the end of the century, The Ringling Brothers' World's Greatest Shows went head to head in a bitter competition with its chief rival, the Barnum and Bailey Circus, which was solely managed by James A. Bailey after Barnum's death in 1891. The boys from Baraboo had by now been joined by their two remaining brothers, and their management expertise together was legendary. They may have argued loudly in private, but there was never a public disagreement between them. Traditionally they wrote down very little about their day-to-day decisions, and most Ringling deals were made with verbal agreements. Any decision affecting the circus was made by consensus, and once it was made, all five brothers worked hard to bring the plan decided on into effect. In this case the plan was to overtake and acquire the legendary Barnum & Bailey Circus. Taking advantage of Bailey's five-year European tour, they were able to achieve the status of the biggest and most popular circus in America.
Finally, in 1907, a year after the death of the popular "Mr. Bailey," they finally gained control over the Barnum & Bailey Circus and its other interests at bargain prices. For a while, they continued to operate their several shows separately under their own names. John Ringling insisted their show would never leave Baraboo: "The members of our company have invested a quarter of a million dollars in homes that cannot be duplicated in the state of Wisconsin." N Nevertheless, The Ringling Brothers Circus remained in Baraboo only until 1918, when the three remaining brothers elected to combine the two biggest shows, creating The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc., the title which it retains today. From 1918 until it moved to Sarasota, Florida, in 1927, the "Big One" was winter-quartered in Barnum's Connecticut barns. Bridgeport was thought to be a better location from which the brothers could keep tabs on what had become nothing less than a circus empire. Thus did Bridgeport and Sarasota join the select community of American circus cities. Sarasota in particular later became a major capital, when other circuses seeking warm climates for their winter quarters settled in the vicinity. Nearby Gibsonton, or "Gib'town" as it is affectionately called by circus people, became a retirement home for hundreds of ex-circus performers. However, relations between the big Ringling show and its host city were from time to time strained, and in 1960 winter quarters were moved 14 miles south to Venice, Florida, where they remain today.
Section D. Black Circuses
Before we turn our attention too far away from Wisconsin, however, a word must be said about a phenomenon much overlooked by most American circus histories: the role of the black man.
There were early isolated examples of black performers in the circus, like James Sandford and Robert White, who had both appeared with Aron Turner's Circus and then with Barnum in 1836. Minstrelry became popular in the late 1840's, but early groups such as the Virginia Minstrels, the Kentucky Minstrels, and the Original Christy Minstrels were white men performing in black face. These touring shows were played in big city theatres, in tents, and on show boats like Spalding's. With song-and-dance, lectures and short playlets, they purported to show "life on the plantation," that is the "amusements" of negro slaves. But with few exceptions, prior to the creation of the Original Georgia Minstrels in 1865 by Charles B. Hicks, there had been no blacks in the mainstream of the American entertainment industry. N It wasn't until after the Civil War that black managers like Hicks, Lew Johnson, and Henry Hart established popular and successful minstrel shows with well-trained black actors and bands. By the 1880s, the old format of minstrelry was growing tiresome; the playlets grew longer, and the specialty acts opened up opportunities in the shows for acrobats, wire-walkers and jugglers. This new direction bridged the gaps between minstrelry, burlesque, vaudeville, and the circus, and paved the way for Ephraim Williams.
Sub-Section 1. Ephraim Williams
Ephriam Williams was the owner of several of the over one hundred circuses which were eventually spawned in Wisconsin. Born around the middle of the century, he spent his youth as a shoeshine boy and hotel porter in Milwaukee, dreaming of growing into this country's black Barnum. He became an accomplished horse trainer and magician, as well as a pleasant but stubborn gentleman, dressing dapperly in tailor-made evening wear with a bright red vest. He took his first circus, the Ferguson & Williams Monster Show, out of Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1885. This was more than a decade before another black man, the brilliant comedian Bert Williams, would make his celebrated Vaudeville debut and become the country's first black star. Ephraim Williams was later joined at various times by the German trapeze artist and sword-swallower, Frank Skerbeck and his family. By 1893, Prof. Williams' Consolidated American and German Railroad Shows were based in Medford, Wisconsin, with a fifteen-car railroad circus. The Medford newspaper wrote, "[I]t is beyond question that with the company selected for this year, Prof. Williams need not turn out of the road for any show going.... His skin is dark, but he will come out on top yet, or know the reason why." In 1898, Eph was the only black circus owner in America. He owned one hundred Arabian horses and employed twenty-six people.
Ephraim Williams was operating a show with as much extravagance and talent as the best little circuses of the day when he was only in his thirties. However, he soon had to face a not particularly rare run of circus man's hard luck: bad weather and bad creditors. His fall from prominence was probably aggravated by white resistance to the initial success of this upstart black proprietor, who was performing with white employees and for white audiences. He endured several financially "down" years working for Skerbeck, framing one additional show of his own, and working menial jobs. In the summer of 1907, Williams and his "ponies" appeared in Philadelphia with Cole and Johnson's popular negro dramatic company, in a play called Shoo-Fly Regiment. Bobby Cole, by the way, was one of the greatest of black comedians, particularly known for his appearance in a clown's white-face, in an era when even blacks were blackening their faces for the stereotypical amusement of all. By 1910, Eph had once more returned to the circus: He had become the founder, sole owner and manager of Prof. Eph Williams' Famous Troubadours, touring an all-black tent show called "Silas Green from New Orleans." This circus-revue played one-night stands throughout the South, and became one of the longest-lasting tent shows in American show-business history. N Williams managed the show, and continued to perform his horse tricks alongside such performance greats as Bessie Smith, the legendary blues singer. It was enormously popular among both black and white audiences, many of whom can still remember the Silas Green show, still touring in the 1950s, and old Eph Williams. However, when he died in Florida, sometime in the 1930s, apparently no one considered his death important enough to announce in an obituary or to mark his grave. N A much-overlooked figure in the history of American circus, Williams was a victim of the same racial discrimination that has blocked the paths to success and happiness of many Americans throughout our history.
Sub-Section 2. Black Performers
For over a hundred years, the circus industry, which on one level seems so accepting of every variety of human being, paradoxically has been no exception to that discrimination. Black circus performers after the mid-nineteenth century, when racial lines were firmly drawn, have traditionally been limited to minstrelry, freaks, colored side-show bands, and Zulu warriors. The most menial jobs of the circus labor force were usually reserved for the black roustabouts, and train crews were traditionally filled with blacks. On white circuses, blacks were fed in their own dining tents, and they were generally segregated from the rest of the circus community at every level. Such a tradition makes black circus stars, and especially entrepreneurs like Ephraim Williams, all the more exceptional. Yet among the circus histories, only Dean Jensen's has treated his story in any depth.
It is still difficult to find reliable information about black participation in circus history, although it certainly existed. "Shufflin' Sam from Alabam" was a copy of the Silas Green show, and Pat Chappelle's Rabbit's Foot Company was one of the most successful tent shows of the day, featuring among others a performance by Allie Brown on the slack wire. The Famous Mahara Minstrels, for which W. C. Handy was band director, included an act by Prof. Charles Carr and his ten performing Shetland ponies and thirty dogs, as well as a trick bicycle act by Snapper Garrison. These were among the dozens of black entertainment companies that developed out of the minstrel tradition around the turn of the century. This was the era of the great elaborately-costumed minstrel or mummers parades that rivalled the white circus parades for sheer spectacle. The Doc Bartok Medicine Show, before it was taken over by Hoxie Tucker, also carried a complete black minstrel show. Billy Kersand's, the Georgia Minstrel, and Al G. Field's shows were all popular and successful black companies. The great Al G. Field, born in Virginia as a Hatfield, had travelled with Ben Wallace's first circus out of Peru, Indiana in 1884, working as equestrian director and head clown on the show, and touring his own minstrel show in the winters. N
During the years after the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin became a dramatic production toured by several circus men during the winter months as an additional source of revenue, and many of their casts included black actors. As might be expected, such shows were not made especially welcome in the old South. Other blacks performed in circuses, dramatic companies, minstrel shows, burlesque and vaudeville theatres. Littlejohn's and the Russell Brothers employed hundreds of black artists over the years. Many of them also practiced their circus arts within the context of the minstrel shows. They performed trick unicycling and bicycling (Maxwell, Adams, Montrose Douglass, and Snapper Garrison). They were acrobats: Pauline Freeman and George Bradshaw, in Hogan and McClain's Smart Set Co.; Pearl Woods in Tom McIntosh's "Hot Old Time in Dixie Company;" George Woods with Geo. W. Hall & Sons; as well as Evans Fuller, Wells and Wells, Charles Gaines, Walter Jones, and "Master Duffee." They were wire artists, like "The Great Layton." Particularly popular were the slack wire artists like La She, a wire man with Richards and Pringle's Georgia Minstrels, and A. L. Prince, Manzie Richardson, Alfred Drew, Gray and Gray, and George Baker with Silas Green. There were outstanding black jugglers like Ben Toledo and Rowland, the "Brainstorm Juggler." There were some superb black magicians, like Black Carl, and W. A. Barclay. The first American magician was a black man named Richard Potter, who was born in 1783 and travelled with several circuses during his career.
Blacks were no strangers to the Wild West, either. Bill Pickett, the greatest steer wrestler with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show, virtually invented the art of bull-dogging; the great black American cowboy and horse trainer trained Buffalo Bill's famous horse Columbia, and sold a horse to Teddy Roosevelt. The list of fine black circus artists is a long one, but their names and stories are comparatively unknown in circus histories. Documentation of both black circus managers and performers in America is sparse, and major research has yet to be undertaken.
Section E. The Wild West
The "Wild West" show was a uniquely American part of circus history that developed early in the "golden age." In May of 1883, Buffalo Bill Cody opened the Wild West, Rocky Mount and Prairie Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. His show was a huge success and would eventually make three tours to Europe. The last one ended in 1906, when Annie Oakley shot the cigar out of Kaiser Wilhelm's mouth; she later commented, "I wish I'd missed that day." N But Annie, the "Little Sure Shot" who hated guns, rarely missed, and she was one of Buffalo Bill's prime drawing cards. Her most popular trick was to shoot holes through the pips of playing cards thrown into the air. A circus ticket with a special hole punched in it denoted free admission, and to this day, a free pass is called an "Annie Oakley."
"Buffalo Bill's Wild West" always called itself just that. The word "show" was never attached to the end of it, because the "West," a noun, is what he was presenting. The Wild West included huge demonstrations, usually in the open air, of horsemanship, the pony express, cowboys and Indians (including old Sitting Bull), shooting skills, the attack on the Deadwood stagecoach, and of course, the spectacular presentation of the veteran Pony Express rider, army scout and Medal of Honor winner himself. Later the Wild West staged a more international riding exhibition entitled the Congress of the Rough Riders of the World, featuring three hundred riders in various uniforms, charging around the arena, hell-bent for leather. It may not have been pure circus, but audiences loved it, at least in the beginning. Buffalo Bill's Wild West was soon imitated by Pawnee Bill's Wild West, featuring Gordon Lillie, an Indian interpreter, by the new Wild West unit of the Adam Forepaugh circus dynasty, and by the 101 Ranch Real Wild West. Gradually, circuses and wild wests became inextricably intertwined: Pawnee Bill's show included an incongruous herd of elephants, and Buffalo Bill's included a circus side-show in the 1890's. And for a period in the 1920's, it was common for many circuses to have a "Wild West" feature in the concert, an after-show which always followed the "blow-off" at the end of a circus performance. Contemporary circuses such as Flora and Big Apple continue to commemorate the tradition of the "Wild West" with old west themes and western acts like the impressive lariat work of the "cockney cowboy," Vince Bruce.
It was Miller's 101 Ranch Wild West that gave a down-and-out Buffalo Bill Cody his last job before he died in 1917. There is a postscript to the old scout's story. Just a month after he died, Congress stripped him of the Medal of Honor he had earned in 1872 as a civilian army scout, in a retroactive decision to restrict eligibility to enlisted men and officers. But in July of 1989, after 72 years of argument, his grandson was finally successful in persuading the army that the famous scout was worthy of our nation's highest award, and his name has been restored to the honor roll.
Section F. The Crash
When the Ringlings acquired the Barnum and Bailey enterprise in 1907, they also acquired full control over the Forepaugh-Sells Bros. Circus, which Mr. Bailey had combined in 1896. N By 1910, the Ringlings controlled three of the top five circuses, all but Hagenbeck-Wallace and Sells-Floto. At this time, about the midway point in the golden age of the circus, there were at least ten large railroad shows and more than thirty smaller wagon shows on tour. N Many of the smaller shows were regional operations, such as Mollie Bailey's circus in Texas, but there were other huge circus operations as well.
John Robinson's Ten Big Shows claimed to have been founded in 1824, although 1842 is a more likely beginning, and it was operated under four successive John Robinsons. Old John frequently had to point out that his circus had no relation whatsoever to "Yankee" Robinson's show, or to the circus operated by his adopted son, James Robinson, a champion equestrian of the day known simply as "The Man Who Rides." N Before it was retired in 1930, the John Robinson name was thought to be the oldest title in the circus business, with somewhere around a century of continuous use. During the Civil War it was called the "Hog Show," and it freely crossed back and forth across the Mason–Dixon line. Although Old John was loved in the South, he nearly got himself killed on several occasions when he talked a little too openly about freeing the slaves.
The Robinson show and others like it are closely associated with the whole frontier spirit of a rapidly expanding America. Life in the circus was always an adventure and a challenge, and it could be downright dangerous. One day in 1875 in Jacksonville, Texas, for instance, Robinson circusmen were challenged to a pitched battle by townspeople, out to destroy the circus. Perhaps they were out to seek revenge for losing all that money at "games of chance" with the last circus that was in town; on a grift show, games of "chance" didn't necessarily have anything to do with chance. The traditional circus call-to-arms "Hey, Rube!" produced guns, stakes, knives, and clubs, and the "Battle of Jacksonville" left six or seven dead and dozens injured. N
As everyone knows, shootings were commonplace in frontier America, and
circus men were frequent victims. The famous clown-manager William Lake was
murdered in the ring by a gunman, leaving his circus in the very capable hands
of his widow. Along with Mollie Bailey in Texas, Agnes Lake was one of the two
most successful female circus managers in the country; some years before, it
was she who had made James Bailey the general agent for the old Robinson &
Lake show, thus launching his career. She was eventually remarried, to the
famous gunman Wild Bill Hickok, who would also be shot to death. As often as
not, for self defense, circus men were armed. Even band members occasionally
carried pistols tucked into their belts underneath their shabby blue serge
uniforms. Circus band man Earle M. Moss once described a not untypical frontier
circus audience he witnessed as late as the 1920s:
|During the show, some of our male customers would become
carried away during the performance, partly because they happened to like the
performance and partly on account of too many visits with the bottle. On such
occasions they might whip out a .38 and pointing up their pleasure with a
"rebel yell," perforate the top of the tent with a couple bullet holes.
Generally, some of their compatriots would follow suit. Some times, it would
sound like a rehearsal for the Battle of the Marne. At such times, Uncle Ernie
would barge in under the sidewall with hat in hand, admonish the crowd, saying
'Shoot, pshaw, now folks. I want you to have a good time, but shoot, pshaw,
you're making a lot of holes in my little old tent; if it rains, we'll all get
wet, I'm afraid, so if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it it if you'd put away
those shooting irons until you get outside my poor old tent. Thank you kindly,
The John Robinson show was among several to become part of another major circus dynasty that would soon challenge Ringling supremacy. The American Circus Corporation had its roots back in 1884, in Peru, Indiana, usually pronounced by circus people as Pee-roo, although the natives use the more conventional Puh-roo. "Uncle Ben" or "Colonel" Wallace, the owner of the largest livery stable in Indiana, had acquired the remains of W. C. Coup's Circus, sold at auction in Detroit, and the menagerie of a circus which couldn't pay its feed bill. The animals included a lion, a black bear, a wolf, one deer, two goats, two hyenas and a camel, and the Miami Herald duly reported in true circus fashion that the new "Wallace & Co.'s Great World Menagerie, Grand International Mardi Gras, Highway Holiday Hidalgo, and Alliance of Novelties" was a show which was "second in size only to that of P.T. Barnum." Al G. Field, the talented black Virginian who would become one of the country's top minstrels when he wasn't traveling with the circus, was Wallace's head clown and equestrian director. The Wallace, or Great Wallace, or Cook & Whitby show frequently had to use different titles because it was so well-known for its grift operations. When Ben bought the great German wild-animal trainer Karl H„genbach's show in 1907, it became the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Three years later it was travelling on about forty-five railroad cars, compared to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey units at eighty-four cars each, one indication of their relative size. Also by 1910, the John Robinson show was travelling on forty-two railroad cars. The Sells-Floto Circus had about thirty-one cars; the Gollmar Brothers had twenty-four, and Al G. Barnes had ten. The total number of circus railroad cars across the country was then approaching seven hundred.
Sub-Section 1. Rivalries
There were rare occasions when cooperative efforts among circuses were made, but for the most part, circuses were prepared to go to war with each other in order to win their audiences. And wars were won by buying out the competition. Outside the Ringling conglomerate, a young man by the name of Jerry Mugivan, carrying the same kind of twinkle in his eye as had P.T. Barnum, emerged from nowhere as the leading competitor. His fast and furious rise to fame began in 1893, when he and his life-long partner Bert Bowers were ticket sellers for the Sanger & Lentz show. In 1900, he went to work for Ben Wallace. After the devastating 1913 flood, Wallace had sold the show to a syndicate soon to be headed by Peru real estate magnate Ed Ballard. By 1920, after a lot of buying, selling, wheeling, and dealing, Mugivan, Bowers and Ballard owned the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, sold to them for a bargain $36,000 after the disastrous train wreck in 1918 had all but ruined it. By then they also owned the John Robinson and Sells-Floto circuses, and claimed the titles to the Great Van Amburgh, Yankee Robinson, Gollmar Brothers, Dode Fisk, Sanger's Greater European, and Howe's Great London circuses, as well as Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Recognizing the worth of a name, they had resurrected the Van Amburgh, Sanger, and Howes titles, changing the location of the apostrophe from Howes', even though they had no connection to the original shows. The following year, Mugivan and his partners organized the American Circus Corporation, based in Ben Wallace's refurbished old Peru winter quarters.
Peru, Indiana, was the "circus capital of the world" in the 1920s, eventually the home base for five big American circuses. Since 1960, it has been the home of the celebrated amateur Festival Circus, an annual circus involving some two hundred youngsters from Miami County. The show is staged in one of the few permanent circus buildings in the country, which also houses a small circus museum. In 1989, the International Circus Hall of Fame, Inc., also now based in Peru, launched a fund-raising campaign which will establish a major circus museum in Peru. It will use as its nucleus the twenty-three circus wagons and more than one thousand artifacts it acquired in 1985 from the now defunct Circus Hall of Fame in Florida. Several of the old white barns of the American Circus Corporation are still there outside Peru, too, carefully preserved by the present private owners, as is the old Terrell Jacobs farm. Peru, like the other American circus towns, has a heritage to be treasured.
The American Circus Corporation continued to acquire circuses, including Sparks and Al G. Barnes, so that by 1929, virtually every major circus in America was owned by one of the two giant syndicates. By far the larger of the two was now being vigorously led by the last of the original Ringling brothers, "Mr. John." The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus had become the largest and most successful circus in the world, and John Ringling was counted among the world's richest multi-millionaires. Nevertheless, the five travelling Corporation shows (Hagenbeck-Wallace, John Robinson, Sells-Floto, Sparks, and Al G. Barnes) were a continual thorn in his side. Mr. John's pride was further challenged by Mugivan's public boast that he would one day own the Ringling show. N The last straw came with unfortunate timing for Ringling. Mugivan and his partners had managed to secure the opening date for Madison Square Garden for the spring of 1930, for their Sells-Floto Circus. It was a traditional opening date for the Ringling show, in a building with which it had been associated since Coup and Barnum had built the prototype in 1874. Ringling was even a vice president of the Garden corporation. In an ill-considered fit of pique, and primarily to preserve his own opening dates, he renewed an old offer to buy out the American Circus Corporation, lock, stock and barrel. Mugivan's partners recognized that the time was right for them to get out of the business, and he reluctantly went along with them. Just a little over a month before Black Friday, October 29, 1929, they sold all their shows, titles, and equipment for about $2 million to John Ringling, now the undisputed king of American circus.
The stock market crash caught Ringling badly unprepared and financially overextended, but he was unwilling to sell any of his circus and real estate properties or any part of his impressive art collection to finance the hefty debt he had just acquired. The economic pressures brought on by the onset of the Depression era cut deeply into box office receipts, and it was expensive to keep all those railroad shows on tour. So Mr. John was forced to begin a process which over the next eight years would shelve five of the six active circuses he now owned, whose names had been around for generations. In his effort to protect "the big one" from competition and shore up its economic underpinnings, he began by closing down John Robinson, Sells-Floto and Sparks. But it was a losing battle, and he was in way over his head. In 1932, he lost control of the Ringling syndicate and was ordered out of Madison Square Garden by Samuel Gumpertz.
Gumpertz was an interesting man, often overlooked in circus histories. When he took over as manager of the Ringling-Barnum shows with the support of the widows of both Charles and Richard Ringling, he was sixty-four years old. He had been a rider with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, where he met Flo Ziegfeld, the man who outshot Annie Oakley. Later, when he had moved into the executive end of the business, he would give Ziegfeld the start in the entertainment industry he needed to launch his famous Ziegfeld Follies. Gumpertz had supervised the construction of Brighton Beach, Long Beach, and Coney Island's Dreamland amusement parks, and he managed Dreamland until it burned down. And he owned the Half Moon Hotel, where Ringling was staying when he assigned the agreement giving up his authority.
John Ringling died a broken man only four years after his ouster. He left an estate of over $23 million in property, most of which ended up going to the state of Florida. Yet at the end he was unable to buy a hot dog on his own circus lot on credit, or have use of his own personal Pullman railroad car, the largest and one of the most luxurious ever built. The car was named for John and Mable Ringling, "Jomar," and it still languishes in a Sarasota rail yard, although there are plans to restore it.
John Ringling's will was a lesson in "How NOT to Create an Estate" that would be studied in law schools for years to come. Surviving relatives entered into a protracted bitter battle over control of the circus, and even over the frozen remains of John and Mable. Their bodies are involved in a bizarre protracted debate to decide whether they can be buried as requested near their magnificent home, Ca'd'Zan,in Sarasota's Ringling Museum complex. As of November, 1989, they were being held in Port Charlotte, Florida, where they had been moved from an unidentifed location in Fairview, New Jersey.
Sub-Section 2. The North Era
The Hagenbeck-Wallace and the Al G. Barnes shows succumbed to the recession of 1938. In the same year, control over the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was won, if only temporarily, by John Ringling North and his brother Henry. Ironically, the Norths were the sons of Ida Ringling, the original brothers' only sister, who had never wanted anything to do with the circus. It was mainly John Ringling North who brought the "Big One" back from near ruin. He could be a ruthless businessman, as is evidenced by his decision to burn 126 beautiful old circus wagons on the grounds of his American Circus Corporation property on November 21, 1941, in an effort to keep rival shows from buying them up. Occurring as it did only a few days before Pearl Harbor, this event is viewed by many circus people as their own "day of infamy." North also made many enemies by firing great numbers of old-timers and hiring new "Hollywood" types who ran roughshod over tradition in the name of glitz. Nevertheless, he endured years of near financial ruin, labor troubles, family squabbles, and the biggest disaster the circus world has ever seen, the 1944 Hartford, Connecticut fire.
Fortunately for him if not for the circus, Johnny North was not in control on July 6, 1944. He had been temporarily ousted by Ringling relatives the year before, and the big show was under the control of Charles Ringling's son, Robert. There are many reasons why the big top was not flame-proofed that season, headed by the obvious war-time scarcity of effective materials. Some say that the early flame-proofing chemicals were destructive to canvas, and many circus men were reluctant to use them because their tents didn't last as long. About seven thousand people were watching the matinee performance in Hartford, when a small line of flame was spotted at the south end of the tent at 2:40 p.m. Panic ensued, and spectators, forgetting they had only to duck under the loose side walls, stampeded for the nine visible exits, two of which were blocked with animal chutes. A gust of wind spread the fire to the big top and guy ropes, and six minutes later it was over. There were 412 hospitalizations, and 169 people were burned, smothered, or crushed to death in the disaster, including one blonde six year-old girl who has come to be known as "Little Miss 1565," after the number on her morgue tag. No one ever claimed her body, and despite years of investigation by police and private detectives, no one has ever determined who she was, who she might have been with, or why she was there on that terrible day.
The Ringling show returned to Florida for rebuilding, and within a month it was back on the road, at the insistence of Mrs. Ringling, and playing under open skies and in arenas. The bitter aftermath of the fire included more family feuding and board squabbling, which ultimately returned Johnny North to the seat of power in 1947. It took ten years of all the profits they could make, but the Ringling show paid every penny of the over six hundred uncontested damage claims, a total of over $4.5 million. The most important result of the fire is that federal and state regulations now insure that every circus tent anywhere in the country is thoroughly flame-proofed. Five circus officials, including the vice president, the general manager and the boss canvasman, were symbolically held responsible for the fire and sentenced to prison terms for involuntary manslaughter. The real cause remains in doubt. At first it was thought to be carelessness with a cigarette. But in 1950, a Robert Dale Segee was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, and signed a confession saying he had set the fire. Segee was a bitter, self-confessed murderer and pyromaniac, who had worked for the Ringling show briefly during the period of the fire. He was indicted, but charges were later dropped, and no further investigations have been pursued.
Despite the controversies and disasters, and the brief period in which they were not in control, the Norths operated the big show more or less effectively for almost three decades. Johnny North was a high spender, and at the end the show was falling into a precarious financial position. Finally, in 1967, they sold it to Irvin and Israel Feld, Washington, D.C.-based promoters of the circus and rock-and-roll concerts with whom they had been associated. Today, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a thriving part of a highly successful multi-million dollar corporate enterprise run by Irvin's son, Kenneth Feld.
Two years after John Ringling's death in 1936, economics and the Ringling syndicate had reduced the number of railroad circuses on the road from twenty-two in 1901, to two: Cole Brothers and Ringling. The Ringling syndicate had successfully stifled competition, claiming to own all the other old major titles. Careful readers of the 1989, 119th Edition Souvenir Program for the Greatest Show on Earth may notice that the Hagenbeck-Wallace name owns the costumes and props, and Sells-Floto publishes the program. Since these Corporation titles are still legally in use, they can't be used by any rival circus. The prominence of "The Big One" was preserved, albeit at a high cost. New circuses like the Clyde Beatty and the Kelly-Miller shows slowly began to be born as the nation emerged from the depression, and they continue to be born today, as we shall discover in the next chapter. However, the industry recovered only gradually from the setback that the syndicate monopolies and the market crash had dealt it.
John Ringling North was a major controversial figure in recent circus history. Certainly one of his more difficult decisions, and one which can still generate hot debate among circus fans and historians today, was to take the circus out from under the canvas and away from the rails. It is difficult to know whether the decision was made on the basis of indifference, bad judgement, or good economics. Carrying all those tents and labor crews on the railroad was growing inordinately expensive. The same economic factors had driven other circuses off the rails and into far more cost-effective trucks. North's practical-minded manager, Art Concello, had tried for some time to persuade him to abandon the canvas big top; but it was Irvin Feld who finally convinced him to make the change, on the basis that he would promote the new indoor shows, and that they would be far more lucrative. The result was that on July 15, 1956, North dropped a press bombshell: "The tented circus is a thing of the past!" The next day, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus folded its tents for the last time and went home to Florida on the "funeral train." It has since been limited to presentation in indoor arenas, civic centers and coliseums, except for recent tours of their new third unit in Japan in a bright gold vinyl tent. By the end of the same year, the Clyde Beatty Circus had converted from rail to a truck show, although it elected to remain under canvas. It became the last of the big tented railroad circuses.
There were of course dire predictions in the press that the circus had died and could never recover. But of course, it didn't die, and tented circuses have not yet become "a thing of the past." Despite all the packaged entertainment that Hollywood and the television industry have pitched to us, people have never stopped craving live performances, which stretch the limitations of human capability before our very eyes. A New York Times reporter wrote in 1938, paraphrasing the old Roman maxim, that we still needed our circuses as much as we need our bread. The proof is in the numbers: In 1840 there were at least twenty travelling circuses; in 1873, there were at least twenty-two; in 1901, at the peak of the golden age of the American circus, there were eight-nine; and in 1931, at the peak of the depression years, there were still at least twenty-three big and little circuses on the road, six of them on rail. According to Earl Chapin May, circus attendance in 1931 was double that of 1870, and he estimated that fifteen million Americans were buying circus tickets annually. N And in 1990, when many Americans even claim to be unaware that there are any circuses outside of the Ringling organization, tens of thousands of circus performances are still being staged in a variety of settings around the country, many of them under canvas.
And so we find that that part of the human spirit which makes circuses has only once more adapted itself to the economic and social demands of its age. The animal trainers, acrobats, trapezists, clowns, and all the other circus artists whom we have been following for three or four thousand years in the last two chapters, simply did what they have always done: Some died, but others were born with identical instincts; some moved to other circuses, carnivals, to television, or into the movies; some retired; some shifted the nature of their acts; some carried forward their long-standing family traditions; and some framed their own new shows, better adapted to the fast-paced mechanized world that America was becoming. In the next chapter, we'll take a look at who some of the new circus proprietors are, where they've come from, and what their guiding principles are. And we'll examine some of the big and little shows that are crisscrossing the America of the 1990s.