Six Major Circuses

The Big Six

Phillip Astley, Pre-1793: The modern American Circus can trace its toots back to the Englishman Philip Astley. Astley has been called the father and the inventor of the modern circus. He established many of the common conventions we now associate with the circus: a round performance space, a dynamic program of astounding acts of physical skill, danger, and comedy, all accented with music. While Astley's shows eventually incorporated pantomimes and other cast members, he began as a one-man show executing difficult riding moves.

Astley began his professional equestrian carreer in the Dragoons, a company of the British Miliary specializing in equestrian manuevers. After mastering many riding feats he established himself in London as a Riding master. He taught lessons in the morning and performed in the afternoon. His shows, given in small fields, gained popularity and attracted large audiences. This success prompted him to create an enclosed structure that would set the precedent of a seated arena with a circus, or circular ring in the middle. His virtuosity as a daredevil rider and a comical showman captivated his audiences, his contemporaries, and his successors. Among the many acts Astley created, his comical equestian act called “The Tailor Riding to Brentford,” became his trademark. Most early American Circuses including Rickets and Pepin and Breschard adapted this act into their own shows. Astley never visited America, but he did leave an impression on Ricketts who brought the thrill and danger of master riding to the other side of the Atlantic.

John Bill Ricketts, 1793-1800: In his short American career John Bill Ricketts managed to establish the first American Circus, befriend President George Washington, tour the East Coast, Canada, and the West Indies with his company, and present America a new genre of entertainment that blended equestrian feats with theatrical performance. Ricketts’s abilities as a master-rider set the tone for the Circus’s immediately succeeding his own. He established equestrian acts as the highlight of the circus, and throughout the early 19th century most circuses followed his paradigm. Executing acts like “Flying Mercury” and “Egyptian Pyramids” thrilled voyeurs that appreciated daring horsemanship. While falling into financial ruin by 1799 Ricketts contributed a great deal to both American entertainment and culture. The common household names of Barnum and Bailey, Ringling Brothers, and Cirque de Soleil owe their success to the pathway Ricketts treaded. In America’s adolescent years, Ricketts offered an unprecedented spectacle that the American audience has loved ever since.

Pepin and Breschard, 1806-1812: Victor Pepin and Jean Breschard banded together in 1807. Their circus incorporated many famous performers of the day including The Manfredi Troupe, Peter the African, Thomas Stewart, and Cayetano Mariotini. They implemented classic circus routines such as Metamorphosis, Flying Mercury, and Tailor Riding to Brentford. They also performed pantomimes but maintained their focus on more typical circus acts such as feats of horsemanship and human agility. In 1814, with their cast of equestrians, clowns, rope dancers, and musicians, the circus ventured westward. It was the first circus to go west of the Appalachian Mountains, a territory still considered unsettled at the time. At that point, incorporating Cayetano Mariotini as a co-proprietor, Pepin, Breschard and Cayetano established a precedent of venturing west and bringing the circus to the edge of charted territory. The advent of railroad transportation in the mid-nineteenth century would allow circuses like Barnum and Ringling Bros. to establish regular routes throughout the western states. But even before tracks were laid, or circus cars were invented, Pepin, Breschard, and Cayetano saw the west as the frontier for the American Circus.

P.T. Barnum, 1871-1880:
P.T. Barnum was actually a museum owner for most of his career; however, his name carries strong associations with the circus. While never owning a circus of his own, Barnum worked with many co-owners to market and produce some of the most popular circuses of the late 19th century. A few of his partners included Seth B. Howes (Barnum Caravan) 1851-1854, Hyatt Frost (Barnum and Van Amburgh) cr. 1865-1867, W.C. Coup and Dan Castello (Barnum) 1871-1875 and John J. Nathans, Lewis June, and George F. Bailey, (Barnum) 1876-1880. After his museum burnt down in 1868, Barnum retired for several years. In 1871 he reentered the world of entertainment. Along with William Cameron Coup and Dan Costello, Barnum began P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus, a traveling combination of which the “museum” part was an exhibition of animal and human oddities, soon to become an integral part of the American circus known as the Sideshow. In 1872 Barnum and Coup utilized the railroad to transport their show. The circus had become by far the most popular form of entertainment in America, and Barnum and Coup’s enterprise was America’s leading circus. Eventually, Barnum merged with Bailey’s Great London Show which would eventually merge with Ringling Bros. to form the most enduring circus corporation of the twentieth century: Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. But this last merger came years after Barnum’s death in 1891.

Adam Forepaugh, 1867-1894: Adam Forpaugh (February 28, 1831-January 20, 1890) was more a savvy businessman that entertainer. At the young age of nine he became a butcher. He later enterd the livstock trade and achieved wealth during the Civil War selling horses to the Union government. He entered the circus business through a debt of $9000 paid to him as a share in the Tom King Excelsior Circus. [insert the formation of the Forpaugh Circus] Forpaugh began to tour with his show bearing his own name in 1866. As a businessman he recognized the need for innovation in a competative industry.; He was the first to hold his performances under two separate roundtops, one for the menegerie and one for the circus performance. He was also the first to incorporate the Wild West Show into the circus. In less that twenty years Forepaugh went from dealing livestock to being the most fierce competitor to P.T. Barnum.

Ringling Bros., 1884-1919: The Ringling Brothers were the Kings of the circus. Through a tenascious drive for success, an unsurpassed work ethic, and a unified managerial approach, the Ringling Brothers earned and donned the title of World’s Greates Show. In part, their popularity as a circus came in tandem with the late nineteenth century love for circuses. But aside from their good timing, their progression from the Ringling Bros. Opera and Comedy Comany failure in 1883 to their acquisition of Barnum and Bailey in 1907 testifies to their talents as both entertainers and businessmen.

The eldest brother, Al Ringling, began performing in 1879 as a juggler and acrobat when he was not working as a carriage trimmer. In 1882 the brothers banded together blending their talents in music, theatre, and acrobatics. Together they set out to start a circus. In principal they embraced innovations of technology while holding fast to what we would call today “family values.” They quickly seized the advantages of railway transportation, traversing the entire country season after season, often performing in over 150 cities between late April and early October. But their drive for success never seemed to edge into greed. As equal partners the Ringling Brothers knew the importance of fairness. Recognizing the corruption of competing circuses (namely Adam Forpaugh) the brothers differentiated their circus by creating a safe and morally sound environment. At Ringling shows there was no profanity, no crooked gaming devices and no short-changing. Their business approach and their commitment to fairness made Ringling a lasting household name for over one hundred years.