Narration: It had taken nerves of steel and months of meticulous planning to pull off. But finally, on November 12, 1897, the Barnum and Bailey Circus was on its way to England. In the last moments before departure, scores of handlers scurried to load the chaotic jumble of wild animals onto a converted cattle ship. And then performers – high wire artists, equestrians and clowns, set sail to conquer Europe.
The daring scheme to tour the colossal circus through Europe was the brainchild of James Bailey, a showman whose improbable rise to the top was legendary.
Janet M. Davis, Historian: The audacity of this move was spectacular. Bailey was taking his circus to the place where it began, back in the 18th century, and taking a version of the circus that was virtually unrecognizable and now distinctly American in its ostentatiousness.
Narration: In the century since a skilled English equestrian had brought the first one-ring show to the United States, the circus had become the most popular of American entertainments, appealing to presidents and farmers, teachers and coal miners, grandparents and school children.
Matthew Wittmann, Historian: The American circus turned entertainment into an industrial enterprise. The scale of the endeavor, the exuberance of it all and the way it’s packaged for a broad mass audience is totally transformative.
Janet M. Davis: In an age before radio, in an age before film, in an age before television, it offered audiences, in vastly different geographical locations, a common cultural experience. It transforms America into a nation with a shared cultural identity.
Narration: By heading to Europe, James Bailey was playing a dangerous game. Some one hundred circuses were traveling the country that year, including ambitious young rivals eager, in Bailey’s absence, to challenge his dominance.
Narration: More gigantic, elaborate and daring every year, the warring circuses would battle over audiences. But even as they did, forces beyond their control began threatening to push the circus from the center of American life.
No one on James Bailey’s staff had ever seen anything quite like the throngs of people who turned up in Manchester on April, 9, 1898. The sidewalks were packed and people spilled onto the streets for the first Barnum & Bailey parade in England.
When the circus opened two days later, there was a scramble for tickets. The matinee was sold out within an hour.”
The scene in Manchester was repeated in towns across England. Schools closed. So did factories and shops.
Janet M. Davis: The circus took possession of the towns in which they showed, life stops. Whereas the English circus was a very modest affair, the American circus did not allow life to go on as we knew it. It shut towns down.
Narration: Bailey toured the United Kingdom for two seasons, before taking his circus to the European continent.
On March 22, 1900, astonished residents of Hamburg, Germany stopped what they were doing to watch as the USS Michigan was relieved of its highly unusual cargo.
There, dangling above the on-lookers, from the port’s largest steam crane, swung a freshly painted sixty-foot-long railway car. No one had ever shipped a vehicle of that size before, without taking it apart first.
Though unseasonably cold weather plagued the four-week run in Hamburg, audiences packed the tent for almost every performance.
Matthew Wittmann: What’s interesting about the tour really is it throws what’s American about the circus into sharp relief. And certainly the spectacle of how the circus operated proved to be fascinating, endlessly fascinating for European audiences. It garnered interest even from the Prussian military that was of course involved in moving large groups of men from one place to another in different contexts. They showed up to see how the operation worked.
Narration: Over the next three years, the Barnum & Bailey show performed in almost three hundred towns across Germany, Hungary, Austria, Holland, Belgium, France, and Switzerland.
Bailey returned to New York in the summer of 1902 boasting of how he’d overcome every obstacle: the Atlantic Ocean, a babble of foreign languages, and endless red tape.
“Most people spend their lives trying to dodge trouble,” he said, “The best fun in the world is dodging trouble you’ve made for yourself.”
In Bailey’s absence his rivals, the Ringling brothers, had been hard at work, expanding their circus into his territory.
“Probably there is not a busier man in America today,” a reporter noted “than Al Ringling, equestrian director of the Ringling Bros. Circus.”
Some fifteen years after starting his circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the eldest Ringling brother still began his day before dawn, confirming the route for the parade, which he always led off with a shout of “Forward!”
Al inspected the performers’ equipment before the afternoon show began, and he stood at the dressing room entrance to direct the entire performance. He insisted that all three rings start and end their acts in unison. No circus director had thought to do that before.
Narration: And then finally when the evening show was over, Al Ringling supervised the circus’s departure. At midnight, he was often one of the very last men still on his feet.
Deborah Walk, Curator: Al Ringling definitely “Mr. Circus.” If there was ever a person who really kept the family together to really move this circus operation, it was Al. And he really became such a important person, putting the performance together.
Narration: If Ringling drove himself hard, he expected as much from those around him, docking the wages of performers who showed up late to the parade, or put on a lackluster show.
Though he was demanding, he was remembered for being generous with praise. “Nothing so discourages a performer,” he would say, “as an utter lack of appreciation.”
While Al grew to be loved on the lot, his younger brother John came to be feared.
“John Ringling,” a reporter wrote, “is known as a cold and phlegmatic man.”
Deborah Walk: Of all the brothers, John Ringling, felt the hardships of the family life more than others. And very early on, he wanted to be out of Baraboo, which he would call “Baraboobians,” and leave to go to Chicago.
Paul Ringling, Grandson, Alf T. Ringling: My Uncle John was imperious. Would that describe him in one word?
Narration: If Al’s talent was running the show, John’s was knowing where to put it.
“His memory was as colossal as his circus,” an employee recalled. “He knew every railroad junction in America. He quoted the prevailing price of hay in Tucson, and the cost of unroasted peanuts in Tallahassee…. He was aware of the towns in which money was flowing freely, and those in which it was tight.”
Robert Thompson, Historian: John Ringling was the world’s greatest at planning circuses. What are the times people work? When do they get out? When is payday? You always wanted to play a place after payday because then people would have money in their pockets.
Narration: Through hard work and ingenuity, the Ringlings had grown from an inconsequential twelve-wagon show into one of the most prominent circuses in the country.
Their most surprising innovation was the addition in 1897 of a dark canvas tent they called the black top . Inside the brothers screened a movie of a boxing match using a projectoscope, a brand new invention of Thomas Edison. Many Americans saw their first moving image at the Ringlings’ circus.
Matthew Wittmann: One of the continuing attractions of the circus is that more often than not you’re going to see something that you didn’t expect to see or had never seen before. So it’s that ability of the circus to offer a new experience to see something fantastic, transformative. You’re going to see something unbelievable.
Robert Thompson: The circus starts to introduce people to the movies. The Ringlings were using, for our amusement, the very things that were ultimately going to see them become much less central in the American soul.
Narration: By 1900, with Bailey away, the brothers felt emboldened to steal his slogan claiming their circus was: The Greatest Show on Earth.
Some attributed the brothers’ meteoric rise to their honest advertising noting the Ringlings never publicized an attraction they didn’t own or exaggerated the merits of one they did.
Others believed that the Ringlings had made it so big because each possessed a different talent essential to the show’s success.
Whatever the reason, the Ringlings made hay of their rags-to-riches story.
Fred D. Pfening Iii, Author: Their longtime attorney was quoted as saying, “The Ringling Brothers didn’t come up the hard way, they came up the impossible way.” They really did start without a dime, and it really is an extraordinary story. And I think taken as a group they were the best circus managers, the best circus men in American history.
Michael Lancaster, Great-Grandson, Charles Ringling: What’s really important about the Ringling story is that it isn’t just a circus story. The Ringling heritage is really about the American dream, that you can have an idea and a vision and that you can bootstrap your way and build something really magnificent.
Narration: Those five visionaries held a vision and never let go of it and made it real.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Curator: There are so many crazy acts that have happened under the circus tent. It’s one of the draws of the circus, is this idea that you try things that people would never imagine trying. As long as there has been circus, there have been people trying almost seemingly insane acts.
Edward Hoagland, Writer, Cage Hand: It’s extraordinary. It doesn’t accomplish any concrete purpose. It doesn’t mean that cancer is cured. But it’s a feat. We only are here once. And we only go round once. If you can do something, if you are good at something, that is what you do.
Johnathan Lee Iverson, Ringmaster: The danger acts, they just remind us that we’re alive. It’s life at its utmost. It’s life on the Mount of Transfiguration. It’s life sweating blood in Gethsemane. It takes so much mind, body and spirit to be a great daredevil. It comes back to the overall gospel of the circus. It’s giving you life in all its fullness, with all the daring chances too.
Narration: In 1902, the year James Bailey returned from Europe, some 650,000
immigrants arrived in the United States. They came from Hungary and Italy,
Germany and Russia, Norway and China. Over the first decade of the 20th
century, the country would absorb almost nine million newcomers. Most of
them couldn’t speak a word of English and a quarter couldn’t read , but neither was a handicap at the circus.
Dominique Jando, Circus Historian: The Circus was the big unifier. Everybody could see the same thing. Immigrants of German descent in the Middle West, Latino in the South, Jewish in New York, they all had and could understand the same circus. So, it was also an image of America in a, not a nutshell, but in a big top.
Narration: When the Ringlings returned to Baraboo, Wisconsin over Christmas 1902 to plan their season, the knowledge that James Bailey was back shaped all their major decisions
For the first time, the brothers decided to hire a theater director to produce their opening pageant, known as the spectacle, rather than doing it themselves.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey: In the first two decades of the Ringling Show, the brothers were really committed to the circus performance, to the purest form of circus, the circus that they had grown up with. So they did not mount these large spectacles.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey: In 1903, with the return of Barnum & Bailey’s show they want to make sure that they’re competitive. And so they put on Jerusalem and the Crusades, a real large-scale spectacle. The circus spectacles were very much a product of their age. So, you’re in a colonial to post-colonial era, and Americans are learning more about foreign cultures. This idea of colonialism became very interesting, how the Western world could bring its influence to other lands.
Narration: Like many circus spectacles of the time, Jerusalem and the Crusades was a full-scale drama. Playing out in two acts, it included a ballet, a grand oriental procession, and a battle on the ramparts of Jerusalem.
The spectacle became the focus of the Ringlings’ advertising. The brothers claimed it involved a cast of twelve hundred – including three hundred dancing girls – and more than two thousand costumes.
Bailey’s publicity men countered with some hyperbole of their own. The coming season would be the most elaborate ever, they boasted. The Barnum & Bailey circus would travel on ninety-four railway cars, cost eight thousand dollars a day to run, and feature an enormous tent with twenty-one tiers of seats and all new private boxes.
Once the circus started traveling, however, it became apparent that Bailey had a host of problems, many of his own making.
Fred D. Pfening III: Bailey was a brilliant showman and it’s really confounding to find how unsuccessful the Barnum and Bailey Circus was in 1903. He spent a little over forty thousand dollars on having thirteen parade wagons built. Forty thousand dollars was an extraordinary amount of money to spend on parade wagons.
Narration: The other problem that he had is he had this really comfortable seating. He called it opera chair seating. It took forever and a day to set all the equipment up.
Disgruntled at having to move the heavy seats, one-hundred-and-fifty working men demanded more pay. When they didn’t get it, they went on strike.
Bailey ended his self-imposed ban on hiring African Americans to keep the show on the road. Even so, many performances were late and forty-two were canceled .
Fred Dahlinger Jr., Circus Historian: Bailey was up against it. He had created a giant juggernaut that was just almost impossible to keep going whereas the Ringling Brothers had this efficient money machine that just kept making money day after day.
Fred D. Pfening III: In 1903, the Barnum show made about $106,000 and you compare that to the $602,000 that they made in 1882; that’s terrible.
Narration: Desperate to make a comeback in 1904, Bailey hired Ugo Ancillotti and his daring loop-the-loop act. The following year, Ancillotti was joined by the sensational Mauricia de Tiers and her dip of death.
Janet M. Davis: Imagine a big top that seats over ten thousand people with hurtling automobiles inside of it. This was an extraordinarily dangerous act, providing this audacious display of technological subversion—making cars fly.
Narration: Despite featuring some of the most astounding daredevils ever seen, each year Bailey made less profit than the year before.
In the spring of 1906, as he was in Madison Square Garden frantically throwing together his show, Bailey started to feel unwell. Just three days later, on April 11th, the veteran showman died unexpectedly surrounded by doctors and his distraught wife. He was just 58-years old.
Eulogies in newspapers across the country praised Bailey for his many achievements, most notably taking American culture to the rest of the world. He was like Napoleon, one reporter said, invading Europe with “one thousand men, women, and children.” The unraveling of Bailey’s circus empire didn’t take long.
His widow Ruth Louisa Bailey inherited her husband’s entire fortune, valued at somewhere between five and eight million dollars.
Mrs. Bailey put her brother in charge of the circus. But in 1907, when a financial panic rocked the country, she began negotiating secretly with John Ringling to sell her husband’s show.
Fred D. Pfening III: It was not a unanimous decision to buy the Barnum Circus. They ended up paying $510,000 for it, which was by far the biggest transaction in circus history at that time. What the Ringlings saw was its potential.
Narration: In just two decades, the once humble owners of an insignificant show had risen to become undisputed “Kings of the Circus World.”
Dominique Jando: American circus entrepreneurs, from the very beginning, went to get their talent in Europe. Why? Because there was very little talent in America.
Narration: In Europe, circus family have their own circus and created circus performer long before circus school. They worked in buildings in which they had time to prepare an act and to rehearse in the morning in nice conditions. In America, if you travel and do two shows a day and move every day, there is no time for a rehearsal. So, the American system was not encouraging to try to do something new or create acts.
In early 1908, John Ringling toured Europe to scout circus talent.
Deborah Walk: To be the “Greatest Show on Earth,” you need to be the greatest show on earth, and that means drawing from all corners of the world, the unique, the wonderful, the incredibly talented. The circus brought together people from all countries. It was a United Nations before the United Nations.
Narration: In Berlin, he signed four female aerialists. The Leamy Ladies swung from a rotating contraption devised by their agent. In time, Lillian Leitzel, the youngest, would be one of the most famous women in America.
When the 1908 circus season began, the two shows toured separately. John accompanied the Barnum & Bailey show eager to supervise every detail and prove that he’d been right to buy it.
His older brother Charles travelled with the Ringling circus.
With the Barnum show setting out from New York and the Ringling show starting its season in Chicago, the two circuses traveled more than twenty-six thousand miles altogether, stopping in almost 320 towns and cities across the nation.
It was a banner season.
Fred Dahlinger Jr.: It’s been said that the Ringling brothers were able to pay off the entire loan that they had taken out to purchase the Barnum show in one year. Hundred percent payback on a $510,000 purchase. Now, that was circus management at its best.
Narration: With profits from the two largest circuses in the nation pouring in—a reported million dollars in 1909 alone —the Ringlings began spending lavishly on their families.
Even the freewheeling bachelor John had settled down, his heart claimed by Mable Burton.
Michael Lancaster: Mable said it was love at first sight. And this was a girl who had run away from home at fifteen, worked in a shoe factory. And all of a sudden she falls in love with this man and she’s a multimillionaire.
Enchanted by Sarasota, on the gulf coast of Florida, John and Charles began heading there to relax during the winter.
Narration: With a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York , a house in Sarasota and the largest yacht moored at the city’s pier , John in particular embraced his new opulent lifestyle. Over time, with Mable’s help, he would remake himself.
Michael Lancaster: John and Mable studied books on etiquette, they studied books on fashion, they studied books on art and antiquities. They developed exquisite taste. They became a class of people that they hadn’t started out to be.
Narration: “There were nurses, teachers, cooks,” a reporter noted, “There were women who work with their heads and women who work with their hands and women who never work at all. And they all march for suffrage.”
On May 4th, 1912, an estimated fifteen thousand people, women and their male supporters, brought New York City to a standstill. An even larger crowd cheered them from windows and sidewalks all the way from Washington Square to Carnegie Hall.
Though the campaign to give women the vote was decades old, so far only six states had enfranchised women. The dramatic rise of women in the workforce since the turn of the century, however, had swelled the ranks of the suffragists, making them more determined than ever.
The women of the Barnum & Bailey circus had already signed up. A few weeks earlier they’d held their first votes-for-women meeting.
“You earn salaries,” equestrian Josie De Mott had told the gathering. “You want to establish clearly in your husband’s mind that you are his equal.”
Janet M. Davis: The circus is a space where women did have opportunities that were unavailable in other areas of American life. Big Top headliners were paid just as well as their male counterparts. The circus offered women a life of independence and freedom from the watchful eyes of communities and family members.
Narration: The female performers met with leaders of the suffrage movement before setting out on tour. They were eager to learn how best to spread their message as they traveled the country.
Strongwoman Katie Sandwina, vice-president of the circus women’s Equal Suffrage Club, was among those present. The Ringling brothers called her Lady Hercules.
Though they boasted of her strength, the Ringling brothers were keen to present Sandwina as demure and ladylike, particularly to the men in their audiences. Reporters were told she depended chiefly on housework to keep herself in shape.
Janet M. Davis: Sandwina is tall. She's statuesque. She's muscular. But she's billed as a lady dainty, whose femininity is extraordinary. The Ringling brothers loved to present this juxtaposition of seeming opposites. On the one hand with muscles coiled like pythons, but on the other gentle, dainty, and sweetly feminine.
Narration: The public was astounded to learn that Sandwina had pulled off two performances the evening before giving birth, lifting her husband over her head and bending iron bars into horseshoes.
Sandwina’s fellow performer May Wirth had also joined the suffrage cause, though she was only a teenager.
Adopted into an Australian circus family, when she was seven, Wirth had soon begun astounding audiences across Australia and New Zealand with her contortion act. When she learned to ride, it was clear she had discovered her true talent.
Dominique Jando: May Wirth was obviously extraordinary. You just look at her and knew that she was unusual. May Wirth did what we call trick somersaults, when you twist the somersault in the air so you go and you start in a direction, you arrive in another one. Even today, it’s a rarity. She did, of course, somersault from horse to horse. Only the few best men could do that, and she was a woman! At that time, it was, “A woman can do that?” and that was big.
Narration: At stops around the country, the women of the Barnum & Bailey circus advocated for suffrage.
The Ringling brothers supported their efforts, allowing activists to campaign on circus grounds.
But in the end it was the performers’ feats in the big top that made the biggest impact.
“There is no class of women,” one activist had said, “who show better that they have a right to vote than the circus women who twice a day prove they have the courage and endurance of men.
Matthew Wittmann: It really, really stunned people to see women doing these things. And so, for a certain part of the audience, it was undoubtedly empowering.
Narration: Practically every firefighter in Cleveland, Ohio raced to work on the night of May 25th, 1914 after sparks ignited timber in the city’s lumberyards.
As the fire raged, embers rained down on the Ringling Brothers circus, which was playing five blocks away. It took nine hours to extinguish the flames.
Al, the only brother on the lot, had made sure the big top was evacuated safely. But by the time it was all over, the fire had destroyed forty-three cars of the circus train. Determined to keep to schedule, Al worked through the night persuading the railroad to loan him equipment to take him to the next stop, Marion, Ohio.
Then he directed two shows. The stress, his brothers believed, took a permanent toll on Al’s health.
On New Year's Day 1916, after two years of illness, Al Ringling died of Bright’s disease at the age of sixty-three.
“When the news reached Winter Quarters,” remembered one of his nephews, “clowns and cooks, hostlers and equestrians, wept.”
The entire Ringling clan descended on Baraboo for the funeral, as did circus people from across the country and townspeople who admired the old man.
Fred Dahlinger Jr.: Al Ringling was really part of the fabric of Baraboo. He loved the community and the community loved him. So, it was with great sadness the news came out that he passed. Everybody felt that the main guy had really died that day.
Narration: Without their eldest brother’s firm hand at the helm, the Ringlings struggled. The next year their problems only multiplied.
In the spring of 1917, America entered World War I, alongside Britain and France.
Working men became hard to find, as millions of Americans were drafted.
To meet the demands of the military conflict, President Woodrow Wilson took control of the railways, prioritizing the movement of troops and materiel.
Struggling with understaffed crews and war shortages, the Ringlings were now fearful they wouldn’t even be able to move their shows.
Then the Spanish flu struck. By the early fall the epidemic had spread across the country. More than ten thousand people died in September alone.
Janet M. Davis: Areas on the route are facing quarantine, and show dates have to be abridged. So, the combination of the war and its shortages, its government mandates, and then the flu epidemic, present huge challenges for the Ringling Brothers as they're trying to operate two giant circuses.
Narration: The brothers felt forced to make a decision, they never would have anticipated a few years earlier. After quarantines shuttered performances several days in a row, they packed up the Ringling show two weeks early.
Then for the first time since launching their circus decades before, the brothers sent the Ringling circus to winter, not in Baraboo their hometown, but in Bridgeport, Connecticut with the Barnum show.
Everyone on the train knew that after decades of expansion, the unthinkable was about to happen. The brothers were consolidating. Instead of presenting two shows, they would combine them into one.
Anxiety was rife in Bridgeport that fall. Employees of both shows were unsure about their futures.
Fred Dahlinger Jr.: You had the Barnum show, and you had the Ringling show. And each had their own little ways about doing things. And the brothers who were very, very supportive of their longtime staff members just didn’t know what to do with this duplicity of staff.
Narration: In the end, some one thousand people of a staff of twenty-eight hundred lost their jobs. It was the biggest lay-off in circus history, and an ominous sign of things to come.
On March 28th, 1919, gale forces winds buffeted New York as a late winter storm pummeled the city, leaving roads and rails coated in ice.
Despite the treacherous conditions, inside Madison Square Garden, circus staff were making final adjustments to the show. They didn’t wrap up until midnight.
The following day, doors opened for the first performance of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus. Even though the city was still picking up after the storm, crowds swarmed to see the show. It was the largest circus anyone had ever seen.
Deborah Walk: I don't think there is one circus person who would say if they could walk into a time machine, that they wouldn't want to be at Madison Square Gardens when it opened in March of 1919. To see the great performers, the cavalcade of clowns, everything jam-packed into the three rings and four platforms. It would've been the show to see.
Narration: The circus kicked off with the two combined herds of elephants, followed by seven troupes of aerial performers, May Wirth with her backwards somersaults, and some six hundred other performers.
When the show took to the road, audiences were staggered by its size. The circus had mushroomed into a moving town of more than eleven hundred people, 735 horses, and nearly one thousand other animals.
There were twenty-eight tents on the lot, including three stable tents, and a massive sideshow pavilion, as well as canvas to cover the blacksmith shop, the barber’s, the dressing rooms, the wardrobe department, and the dining area.
The big top alone was 560 feet long and could seat 16,000 people, more than twice the number that could fit into Madison Square Garden.
Richard Reynolds, Circus Historian: It had a big top with eight center poles in it. The distance between most of those poles was sixty feet. That was an immensely long big top. That’s why you had to have so many acts going on at the same time. Because you sit at one end of the big top, and an act is going on the other end of it and you’d be far away as you—in one end zone of a football stadium, trying to watch something going on in the other one.
Narration: By season’s end, the show had travelled more than fifteen thousand miles, and grossed almost four million dollars – more than the two individual shows had made together the previous year.
Though elated by the success of their first combined season, the Ringlings were struggling with sad news on the home front.
After a long bout of ill-health, Alf T. Ringling, creator of the great spectacles, passed away at the age of fifty-five. The death of financial wizard Otto, a decade earlier, left just Charles and John.
Five brothers had charted the evolution of a modest one-ring show into a vast circus empire. Now responsibility for the massive organization lay with just two.
Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated— in the main, abominably —because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” James Baldwin
Even the most hardened performers, never got used to the humiliation. “I feel like an outcast from society,” a bearded lady said. “I used to think when I got old my feelings wouldn’t get hurt, but I was wrong.”
Matthew Wittmann: Respectable people would skip the sideshow tent because it did have a reputation. It was supposed to be a little bit racy, a little bit dangerous, but you didn’t want it to be fundamentally disturbing. So the circus is always trying to toe this line of, “What can we put in the sideshow tent that titillates but isn’t going to get anyone arrested?”
Narration: The same traditions played out over decades. As the crowds thronged the midway past the sideshow tent towards the menagerie, they could hear the talker who ballyhooed the talent inside.
There were fat ladies and skeleton men, hirsute children and albino twins, giants, sword swallowers, and William Henry Johnson, known as “Zip, What Is It?” a performer who started with the Barnum show in the 1870s.
Janet M. Davis: He was billed as What Is It, The Missing Link, very much reifying racial stereotypes of the day regarding people of color, but at the same time, he was so gifted as a performer that he fooled people that he suffered from microcephaly or he couldn’t speak.
Narration: On his deathbed after decades of playing a mute idiot, Johnson allegedly said, “Well, we fooled them for a long time, didn’t we?”
To entice the crowds into the sideshow tent, the Ringling Brothers had for years featured an African-American sideshow band.
In 1919, Charles and John hired the best jazz bandmaster in the business, P. G. Lowery. As a young man in the 1890s, Lowery had trained at the Boston Conservatory. He’d been heading up black circus bands ever since.
Though he was one of the best cornetists of his generation, like all black musicians of the day, Lowery was almost always confined to the sideshow. He won over fans nonetheless.
Sakina Hughes, Historian: P.G. Lowery becomes this pillar in the African-American community. The black newspapers say, “Yeah. The circus is coming to town, but P.G. Lowery is going to be here. P.G. Lowery’s band is going to be here playing.” It was a really big point of pride.
Narration: When Lowery had started out, black circus bands mostly played minstrel music. Lowery got rid of blackface makeup, added women to his troupe, and performed a repertoire of ragtime and the blues.
Matthew Wittmann: The circus was a kind of back door into American popular culture for black musicians, who didn’t have a whole lot of avenues available to them. It wasn’t necessarily respectable, but it was work and it was a way, not just for white people to hear black music, but for black communities to connect to what was happening in Chicago, New York, and this very vibrant music scene.
Sakina Hughes: I think the circus doesn’t get enough credit for just the amazing work that the African-American musicians did in spreading ragtime and jazz music. We think about the Harlem Renaissance, but the circus musicians were coming a generation before. One African American newspaper said, “And all the white people got wobbly, too.”
Roger Smith, Wild Animal Trainer: A cat act, anyone can tell you they are fraught with very real danger. The threat to life and limb, the threat of death, is a genuine constant danger that the big cat people all understand.
Narration: Early one Sunday morning in July 1921, a slip of a woman barged onto the back lot of the Ringling circus, angling for a job with the biggest show in the country.
Mabel Stark was one of the most celebrated big cat trainers in America and one of the only women to wrangle tigers in the big top. She told the astounded Ringling team that she broke in her cats herself. They offered her a job on the spot.
Stark had started out as a nurse. But after seeing her first big cats on the Al G Barnes circus in 1911, she knew she’d found her true vocation.
Janet M. Davis: She hated nursing. She hated the kind of confines of ordinary life. So, she too runs away and joins a circus. Running away for her was liberation.
Roger Smith: This young blond comes busting through a rickety old gate, asking to be a tiger trainer and everybody was ready to throw her out. She realized very quickly, if she was going to be anything, she had to get around the genius wild animal trainer, the best that ever worked in this country, and that was Louis Roth.
Narration: And to do that, she had to marry him. She got everything that he knew and she took it from there as a tiger trainer. Then she got rid of Louis. She never loved him.
Mabel Stark quickly became one of the most popular performers at the Ringling circus, yet the cat acts left some members of the audience dismayed.
By the mid-1920s, a small group of animal welfare activists began calling for a boycott.
Janet M. Davis: John Ringling had never been all that fond of cage acts involving big cats. They were cumbersome to carry. They were a logistical problem, as far as he was concerned. He is acutely aware of this growing movement that is questioning the ethics of animal performances.
Janet M. Davis: John Ringling gambles on it, essentially, by thinking that, “The time is right to do away with those cage acts.”
Narration: The loss of the cat acts didn’t affect the Ringlings’ bottom line. As the circus roared into the mid-20s, large profits kept rolling in and the brothers found new ways to spend their money.
Charles built a house of pink marble on Sarasota Bay. John and Mable designed a fifty-six room Venetian palace next door. They called it Ca’ d’Zan, House of John.
Wherever they were, John and Mable were surrounded by the affluent and celebrated. Titans of industry and Broadway stars dined at their home. Presidents and First Ladies accompanied them to the circus.
In a decade when America was booming, the Ringling Brothers big top was the place to be.
“Never was the circus greater or more fun,” remembered the Ringlings’ equestrian director. “Everything was perfect.” He had every reason to say so. Americans were flush with money. Each season was more profitable than the one before. No circus could rival the Ringling show. And the brothers’ big top had never been so full of such extraordinary talent.
Every winter, John Ringling brought back new from overseas ever more daring stars.
One of the most striking was Australian wire walker Con Colleano. He remembered practicing as many as seven hours a day, determined to perform a feat on the wire no one else had ever accomplished: a front somersault.
Dominique Jando: The problem with the front somersault is when you do your rotation, your head goes first and then your feet arrive, but your head cannot see what’s going to happen because your head is looking up at that point. So it’s called a blind landing.
Narration: Colleano failed thousands of times. Sometimes the rebounding wire left him paralyzed for days.
Dominique Jando: The hidden dangers of the circus, you think of people in the air, but the danger is in places you don’t think of. For instance, a tight wire, it’s a steel wire and it’s hard like rock. If you fall badly on that, you’ll really hurt yourself.
Narration: It took five years of failed attempts before Colleano successfully executed a front somersault. From then on that’s how he always finished his act.
Dominique Jando: That was the great impossible feat of the time. It was absolutely unique.
Narration: Colleano was rivaled on the wire only by a German act, the Wallendas.
Troupe leader Karl had become a tightrope walker almost by accident. At the age of sixteen, he responded to an ad from a circus owner looking for someone to do a handstand. Karl didn’t realize he’d need to perform the feat on a wire sixty feet in the air. Soon he was executing the stunt over rivers, between buildings. Then he brought his family in on the act.
Tino Wallenda, High Wire Artist: They developed these incredible feats on the tightrope. My grandfather was doing a remarkable handstand on his brother’s shoulders. My grandfather standing on the top of a chair with his wife standing on his shoulders, while he was on a bar that was balanced between Joe Geiger and his brother Herman. It’s hard to even conceive that they were doing such incredible feats.
Narration: When the Wallendas first appeared at Madison Square Garden, they brought down the house.
Tino Wallenda: At the end of the performance, the audience were whistling and they were stomping their feet, which in Europe would be a great insult. So my grandfather and the rest of troupe, they snuck away quickly into the dressing room. The ringmaster came and said, “Sorry, no, no, no, you’re wrong. They really liked what you did.” And so, the Wallendas had to come out for a bow. And to my understanding, it’s the first and last time that a show has ever been stopped for fifteen minutes of applause waiting for the Wallendas to come back to the ring.
Many Americans, however, agreed on their favorite big top performer.
Richard Reynolds: Hands down, Lillian Leitzel. She was the greatest superstar the circus had ever seen.
Narration: Leitzel came from a family of circus acrobats in Germany. She began performing with her mother and her aunts when she was just eleven. Almost immediately, she began taking attention away from her jealous mother.
In the twenty years since John Ringling had brought the family act to the United States, Leitzel had become one of the nation’s biggest circus stars.
Now a soloist, Leitzel’s fame rested on the second half of her act, a series of swing-overs, that would dislocate her shoulder on every turn. The crowd would count each one. Her record was 240 rotations.
Dominique Jando: She had those shoulder dislocation, which were very well staged because there were moments when the hairpins went away and her hair get while she was doing that. Technically it was okay. Physically it was eh.
Narration: DOMINIQUE JANDO: But she had this immense charisma and in a place like the Ringling tent with these thousands of seats, everybody was totally hypnotized by what she did.
Paul Ringling: Lillian Leitzel was a tremendous actor. When she wiggled her toes that got people’s attention. She was a performer from the time she took off her sandals until she came back down. Lillian Leitzel was a performer.
Narration: Leitzel’s fellow performers found her theatrics amusing. “She was a storm center every day she lived,” one aerialist remembered. “But she never had a tantrum, unless there was a good audience around to enjoy it.”
Janet M. Davis: The bandleader, Merle Evans, feared her. When she finished her act, he would yell to his drummers, “Drummers, take cover!” because Leitzel would go after them. She would be angry about the inadequacy of the drum roll.
Narration: Performers got ready in the communal dressing tents. Leitzel had demanded her own private dressing tent, fresh flowers daily, and a maid to go with it.
“As a rule,” one journalist observed, “Leitzel fired the maid before and after each performance.”
Her relationship with Mexican aerialist Alfredo Codona was just as stormy.
Known as the Adonis of the Altitudes, Codona’s celebrity rested on his skillful execution of a triple somersault.
Ammed Tuniziani, Trapeze Artist: The power that it takes to do a triple is very hard. It takes years and years, and dedication, mentally, physically. It’s very demanding. He made it look so easy.
Dominique Jando: His triple somersault was absolutely neat. It was not the big event with a super drumroll and, “Will he catch it?” He caught it, period. I mean there was no suspense. He just did it totally naturally.
Narration: Leitzel and Codona tied the knot in Chicago between a matinee and the evening show.
Dominique Jando: Their marriage was very tempestuous, as any marriage with Lillian Leitzel would be with anybody, and they both had a gigantic ego. They were both big stars and they knew it. He was beautiful. She had this wonderful charisma and charm. So, it was the sort of Hollywood kind of marriage made in hell, actually. But for the audience it was made in heaven.
Circus life was unpredictable, unconventional, magnificent and boisterous. Little girls and boys thought it the epitome of glamor. To those in the know it was anything but.
Narration: “If you think circus life is glamorous,” said one performer, “spend your honeymoon in the married people’s car, which carries 64 persons.”
Mary Jane Miller, Aerialist: At night you pulled your curtain shut. You were in your own little cubby-hole and that was your privacy.
Jackie Leclaire, Clown, Aerialist: Everybody would wait until the train started because then it makes noise and the noise covers up everything else. They'd start the train and they’d say, “Everybody mount, everybody mount.” Honest and true that was really done.
Narration: There was never anything easy about life with the circus. Even the most basic commodities were in short supply.
Jackie Leclaire: Water is the most precious thing that we have because there is no water there. Each performer got two buckets, one to wash and one to rinse. And I will admit, it was rare for anybody to shower every day because it isn’t practical.
Marjorie Cordell Geiger, Aerialist: I had been exposed to modest nudity in dressing rooms with ballet school, but nothing like that. I finally just decided that’s it, so I got up, took my clothes off, and started taking a bucket bath [LAUGHS] – and got over that hump.
La Norma Fox, Aerialist: It was a beautiful scene. Everybody was doing something that they liked. Some like to play cards, some play dominoes, some play chess. The performers would be together, the clowns would like to be together, and the working men, they had their own groups, too.
Narration: For decades, children traveled with the show, and together the community raised them.
La Norma Fox: I had more babysitters. I could never find my baby. Everybody had my boy. Every time I look around, “Where’s Gilbert? Where’s Gilbert?” Somebody had him.
Marjorie Cordell Geiger: Here is this wonderful working woman. She’s performing in the show, plus she’s got to look after her children, and they raise talented children. In diapers they’re standing on their daddy’s palm balancing.
Narration: The show went on no matter the weather. The pay was meager, the work never-ending. But for workers and performers alike, circus life was simply too exhilarating to give up.
Edward Hoagland: You were the celebrity, not just the performers. The town came to see you. Even in Manhattan you could see the Empire State Building. Big deal. New York came to you.
Marjorie Cordell Geiger: It’s a life. I’ll never forget it. It’s still part of me. I still have my buckets. Everybody teases me, but I do.
Narration: In the fall of 1926, sixty-two-year-old Charles Ringling suffered a stroke at his home in Sarasota.
When John heard the news, he sprinted next door. He was at Charles’s side when his brother died.
Michael Lancaster: John just collapsed sobbing. He said, “I’m the last one on the lot.”
Narration: I think he was crying about two things, not only the loss of his favorite brother, but also the loss of the camaraderie that the five Ringling brothers had held together. Family was extremely important to them.
John took charge as the show set off the following spring. Though he owned the circus in partnership with his brothers’ heirs, he made all the decisions alone.
In March 1927, he revealed plans to move his winter quarters from its old home in Bridgeport, Connecticut to 152 acres outside of Sarasota.
That Christmas, the circus opened its doors to Sarasotans, who, for twenty-five cents, toured the grounds for the first time. From then on, the quarters were open to the public twice-weekly as circus personnel and animals prepared for the following season.
La Norma Fox: I had never seen a winter quarters like that. In Europe they had a little place, just a small building. This was like a town. There was all kind of big wagons with machine shops, and it was humongous.
Narration: There was a tent and wardrobe building, a railroad car shop, a woodworking mill, an elephant house, a dining hall, and practice barns.
Some seventy thousand people visited that first winter alone.
Deborah Walk: That totally transformed this area, because Sarasota, Florida, maybe fifty thousand people in the whole county, all of a sudden would see, annually, a hundred thousand people coming down to see the cocoon from which the great show emerges.
Narration: To many of the visitors, the immensity of the operation confirmed their belief that the Ringlings’ domination of the entertainment world was unshakeable.
But the truth was, John was facing a much more precarious business scene than he ever had with his brothers.
As the Greatest Show on Earth took to the road in the spring of 1928, movie star Charlie Chaplin was drawing visitors by the millions to his off-kilter vision of life under the big top. A trip to see Chaplin was cheap—about a quarter. A visit to the Ringling circus cost three times as much.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey: When one wants to go to the cinema, the films were there every day, every week, whereas the circus is only there once a year. And suddenly, the kind of specs that were staged under the big top can’t match the close-up reality of having that screen.
Narration: Entertainment choices only proliferated. By 1928, eight years after the first commercial radio broadcast, a quarter of American households had radio sets.
The first broadcast of the World Series in 1921 had helped launch a surging interest in sports. Star players had become national celebrities.
Prize fighting had also become tremendously popular, and profitable.
In 1921, ninety thousand spectators had watched Jack Dempsey knock out his opponent to retain the heavyweight title. It was the largest audience for a sporting event ever.
In 1929, John Ringling confronted the lucrative boxing industry head on. When the time came time to sign the traditional four-week lease at Madison Square Garden, Ringling discovered the Garden insisted on reserving Friday nights for prize fighting.
When Ringling refused to sign the contract, his most formidable rival, veteran showman Jerry Mugivan, stepped in. As head of the American Circus Corporation, Mugivan took the deal. Ringling was incensed.
Determined not to lose his opening venue to the competition, Ringling bought out the entire American Circus Corporation, comprised of five substantial circuses. He had to borrow $1.7 million to do it.
Ringling made the purchase without consulting his partners, his brothers’ heirs. It was a decision that would split the family apart.
Janet M. Davis: The date was inauspicious, September of 1929. Just six weeks later the stock market crashed. John Ringling had made the biggest mistake of his life.
Narration: After a lackluster 1930 season, Alfredo Codona and Lillian Leitzel headed to Europe to perform for the winter. It had become an annual tradition they loved.
After several weeks in Paris together, Codona headed to Berlin. Leitzel had an engagement in Copenhagen.
On the night of February 13th, Leitzel was halfway through her act at the Valencia Music Hall, when a swivel snapped. She plummeted some forty-five feet head-first, shattering her skull.
Codona hastened to her side. Over the next few hours, Leitzel woke on-and-off briefly, but only to cry out in agony.
The following day, Lillian Leitzel succumbed to her injuries.
The tragedy crushed Codona and shook the entire circus world. Bandleader Merle Evans put away the music he’d chosen for her performances. He never played it again.
In the year and a half since the stock market crash, the country had plunged into a devastating economic depression.
Entertainment was a luxury few could afford. In two years, attendance at the movies dropped a third.
Around the country, circuses began folding. Determined to fill seats, John Ringing brought back the cat acts, hiring Clyde Beatty, the most celebrated big cat trainer in America for the opening run in Madison Square Garden.
Roger Smith: Clyde Beatty’s act was a fighting act. He came out through the safety cage, tossed aside his jungle helmet, and went in the arena with the lions all in there picking up his chair, cracking his whip and sorting them out. Everything about the man leapt into the back seat on the back row. He ran around in that cage with such energy, and such projection, that he involved everybody. We were on the edge of our seats. He gave the audience something to take home with them.
But even Beatty failed to deliver a profitable 1931 season. The show closed on September 14th, the earliest date in its history.
Narration: John Ringling’s personal finances were also beginning to unravel. In the spring of 1932, he was unable to make a loan repayment. The creditors and his brothers’ heirs joined forces. Without adequate legal representation, Ringling caved to their demands.
Fred Dahlinger Jr.: He would be the titular head of the operation, but have no authority or power whatsoever. And he would also have to pledge all of his own personal assets as collateral for the loan. It was really almost a punitive action against John. That was no way out.
Narration: With Mable’s death a few years earlier, Ringling was essentially all alone. He rarely had more than a few hundred dollars in the bank.
In 1936, Ringling made one last trip to the opening of the circus at Madison Square Garden, where manager Sam Gumpertz was in charge.
rampaged through the building as performers warmed up, finding fault with everything.
Michael Lancaster: Sam approaches him in the menagerie, then a fight ensues. Sam had him escorted out. It must have felt like it he was thrown out into the alley, like a common criminal, from his own show.
Narration: That November, John Ringling fell ill. He died a few days later.
After more than half a century in the entertainment business, the last of the Ringling brothers was gone.
Dominique Jando: In a performance, you see one extraordinary feat after another. And every now and then, you send in the clown, and everything comes down to earth, and you just feel relieved.
Edward Hoagland: The clowns act out the resentment that we all feel towards people who are more successful than we are.
Johnathan Lee Iverson: The greatest clowns are the quietest. They do simple things. They allow you to look the absurdity of your humanity and they allow you to laugh at yourself. They remind us you’re not that great. And yet, you are. You’re fabulous but you’re not that great. You’re just human. The clowns remind everybody of their fragility. They remind everybody of their mortality with a laugh.
Narration: In response to the gloomy mood of the country, the clowns seemed to have taken over at the circus in the late 1930s. Burdened by the heavy weight of failure, many under-employed Americans were drawn to their antics.
Among the most popular were tramp clowns who acted out the role of sad and lonely misfits. No one did that better than Emmett Kelly, a former cartoonist, who first drew his hobo character Weary Willie in 1920. During the hard times his tramp clown act took off.
Janet M. Davis: Emmett Kelly tramps around the arena, and acts in ways that are very familiar to circus audiences. They recognized him in the thousands of Americans who are out of work. And so this tramp clown character, Weary Willie, sad, woebegone, becomes a real signature of this age.
Narration: Within a year of John Ringling’s death, his nephew John Ringling North was able to secure a loan to wrest the circus from its creditors.
With North in charge, the show began rehearsals in March 1938. But forces sweeping the country were conspiring against the successful season.
As the economy had worsened, Americans nationwide had joined unions to protect their jobs. In 1937, almost two million workers had gone on strike. Circus employees would soon join them.
The American Federation of Actors, representing both performers and labor, had forced circus management to agree to a wage increase. When North took charge, he refused to honor the deal. After the circus arrived in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a pro-labor town, union leaders called a meeting of workers.
Paul Ringling: I knew there was going to be a strike. And I went over to the silver wagon and told John North that there would be a strike. “Oh no there won’t. Go back and start selling tickets.” Which we did.
Paul Ringling: Then it was announced, there’ll be no show. Then all those people came pouring out. They were all mad and upset and wanted their money back. That wagon was actually shaking a little bit. I had an ice pick. I said the first one of you guys in the window is going to have the ice pick in you.
Narration: In the end the only agreement reached was that workers could help pack up the show for the return to Winter Quarters in Florida. The first tour under John Ringling North ended four months early. It had been a fiasco.
Janet M. Davis: A turning point had been reached, because in this era of unionization, the circus strike marked a departure from an older era in which circus workers were extraordinarily expendable. If you were injured on the job, so be it. That was too bad. Working people across the country now demanded the kinds of protections that they deserved. This made the operation of the circus increasingly expensive.
Narration: North was determined that his second season would be a success. When workers finally agreed to work for reduced wages, North tried to update an entertainment that had remained essentially unchanged for half a century.
Dominique Jando: Johnny North was very interested in the circus. It was his passion. He understood the fact that the circus was one and the same for so many years, and maybe there was other ways to approach that if you looked at the theater or if you looked at the movies.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey: North brings in Norman Bel Geddes, who is a well known industrial designer and who helps resurface all of the presentations of the circus. And all of the painted props and all of the pieces are modernized, color palettes are changed. You get brighter, more fluorescent colors. And it’s this idea that the world has changed and modernized and North wants to bring that to the circus.
Narration: Perhaps inspired by Walt Disney’s movie Fantasia, which featured dancing pachyderms in pink slippers, North commissioned his own elephant ballet.
The nation’s most distinguished choreographer, George Balanchine, designed the elephants’ dance moves. Composer, Igor Stravinsky, wrote the music.
Richard Reynolds: The thing that struck me most, I can still see it, are the elephant men, big old burly elephant men strapping these pink tutus around the hindquarters of the elephants. It was really sort of a preposterous-looking thing.
Dominique Jando: It’s one of the most extraordinary circus productions ever, and for me I have a tenderness for it. Frankly, I believe it was bad. But, you know, John Ringling North did it. You know, hats off.
Though old-timers hated the aesthetic changes, borrowing from Broadway and Hollywood seemed to help revive the circus’ fortunes.
Narration: The show frequently received rave reviews. “Although nothing new has been added in the death-defying way,” wrote one critic, “the Greatest show on Earth is greater than ever this year. It is more colorful, better costumed, and better displayed than ever before.”
Jackie Leclaire: July 6th, 1944 we came to Hartford. It was a brilliant, beautifully clear sunshiny day, hardly a cloud in the sky. So, naturally, we had a lot of people on the lot.
Roger Smith: The show was underway. The Alfred Court cat acts had just worked. When the first flickering fingers of flame, they called it, went shooting up and everybody realized there was a fire in the big top.
Michael Lancaster: A tent weighs twelve tons, the sides are now on fire, and basically everybody’s inside of a giant furnace that’s igniting all around them.
Richard Reynolds: They had those big cat tunnels across the hippodrome track. And people piled up on those things. They got trapped in there.
Narration: The fire spread with alarming speed. As was traditional, the tent had been treated with a highly flammable mixture of gasoline and paraffin to keep it waterproof.
Janet M. Davis: Paraffin begins falling like rain, melting and incinerating on its path downward. Frantic people jumped off bleachers. Frantic parents came back into the arena to find children and were killed in the process.
Jackie Leclaire: We’re in the dressing tent, and then all of a sudden, we become aware of hearing other voices and it got louder and louder. And somebody took the sidewall, picked it up as high as he could, and we looked out and the whole tent was on fire. In the horrible panic, people were taking these dead bodies and dragging them to the doctor, bringing them there and they were already dead.
Mary Jane Miller: My husband was standing there, and this lady came and handed him a little girl who had been burned, and she said take her, and my husband grabbed her and went outside and laid her down. That little girl no one ever identified.
Narration: In less than fifteen minutes, the fire destroyed the big top.
Mary Jane Miller: It was over before you knew it. I mean it was over in seconds almost. The whole tent was gone.
Marjorie Cordell Geiger: How do you absorb this? Where do we go from here, you know. Oh my God, what happened? The shock must have been terrible.
Narration: 168 people had been killed. Nearly five hundred were seriously injured.
Though no one knew for sure how the blaze started, investigations revealed that the circus had not fireproofed its big top, and that fire-extinguishers were not in place.
Many performers were convinced the greatest tragedy in big top history signaled the end of the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Jackie Leclaire: My father turned to me and he said, “Jackie, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’re going to have a very short life in circus business.” He didn’t think that they’d ever pull out of this.
Narration: Within the big top, as nowhere else on earth, is to be found Actuality. Living players play with living. At positively every performance Death Himself lurks, glides, struts, breathes, is.
Dominique Jando: In the circus performance, there is always danger lurking, and the audience perceives it. And what circus performer do, is just to play this image or this performance of danger.
Edward Hoagland: The people who were watching the performance, some of them rather hoped that someone would fall. It’s not that if they had the power to cause someone to fall they would have exercised it, but they kind of hoped someone would fall, you know, that there’d be a disaster.
La Norma Fox: And it happened. A lot of people fall. Some, it’s not bad, some, got killed immediately. You got to keep on working. You can’t let it interfere. It’s your job. The show must go on.
Johnathan Lee Iverson: The hardest truth ever uttered is, “The show must go on.” In the face of terrible mishaps, in the face of deep sorrow, the show must go on because the fact is life works that way too. The world doesn’t stop for your pain.
Narration: The Greatest Show on Earth didn’t fold. After playing in stadiums for 1944, it opened in Madison Square Garden the following spring as it always had.
In the aftermath of the fire, management tried to repair the circus’s public image, pledging the show’s future profits to compensate the many victims.
But still, as the show took to the road, the tragedy was on everyone’s mind.
Richard Reynolds: I’ll never forget, my mother was very worried, worried about fire. They had all these no smoking signs lit up inside the big top and there were Atlanta firemen there with the fire trucks sitting between the menagerie and the big top.
Narration: To inspire public confidence for the first performance under canvas, a fire marshal tested the flame-proof canvas with matches, and a cigarette lighter.
By the end of the year, Ringling publicists boasted that their show was back on track.
“The people of America,” they declared, “are not going to let go of the circus any more than they are going to relinquish pride in the Pilgrim Fathers. Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, the first flight at Kittyhawk; these things happened and live in books. But the Circus is still here.”
That feeling of confidence wouldn’t last very long.
Matthew Wittmann: In some sense the American circus writes its own ending. At a certain point this idea of you can always get bigger, there’s always more acts, there’s always more elephants, it runs out of places to go. There’s a certain kind of exhaustion that overtakes the industry.
Narration: By the early 1950s the future of circuses nationwide looked grim. Even the Ringling circus was struggling.
Dominique Jando: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey was still touring with more than one thousand people, traveling with the show. It’s insane. You couldn’t run a traveling circus the way you had. Everything cost much more than it had been. The wages couldn’t be the same. It was a totally different world.
With transportation costs doubling over the last decade, John had been forced to cut the train down to seventy cars from more than one hundred and confine the tour to fifteen thousand miles. Even that wasn’t enough to make ends meet.
Narration: In the end, though, it was a groundbreaking innovation that would bring a century of circus tradition to a close.
In 1946, there had been just eight thousand television sets in the country. By 1955, half of American households had a TV.
Roger Smith: Television was running old movies, bringing them back. There was television news, television was giving us football and sports, where you could stay at home.
Roger Smith: Lo and behold up comes I Love Lucy in 1951. In '52 she was a sensation. You had all the variety acts you could ever want to see in your living room if you would sit there on Sunday night looking at Ed Sullivan. There were your circus acts: jugglers, wire acts, animal acts, trapeze, whatever Sullivan had.
Narration: In the spring of 1956 a clash with the Teamsters Union was the final straw. North refused to sign a contract with union leadership and pickets followed the show on the road.
After a storm destroyed the tent, crews set up seats in the open air. At almost every stand, crowds were thin and shows were late.
By mid-July, the operation was one million dollars in the red. North finally showed up in Alliance, Ohio to take stock. He was thoroughly disheartened.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey: John Ringling North had to reflect on everything that had gone wrong. His show was dingy, a number of things hadn’t been re-painted from the season before. John Ringling North felt like this circus was not the circus that his family was meant to present. Something had to change.
Narration: On July 16th, to the shock of his staff and circus fans, John Ringling North announced that he was closing the show. The big top would be raised in Pittsburgh later that day for one final tented performance.
A slew of news reporters documented the last ever Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show under canvas.
Then, in the early hours of the morning, circus staff packed the big top away forever.
La Norma Fox: We have people that love circus so much they’ll travel everywhere to follow the shows. They’re the ones who was really heartbroken that the tent would not go up anymore.
Richard Reynolds: I heard it, you know, on the radio. That was a bad and sad time. I felt like a part of my life had ended. It had been one of my raison d'être, reason for being.
That night, the circus began the long trip to winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida. The New York Times called it the big top’s “funeral ride.”
Janet M. Davis: The iconic power of the tented city spread over nine acres, during the Gilded Age and the years thereafter, had taken hold in the American imagination to such a degree that people around the country viewed that form of circus as the only circus.
Narration: For more than a century, the circus had brought daily life to a standstill. Shows took over rail yards. Parades clogged Main Street. Acres of billowing canvas appeared mirage-like on the outskirts of town. And then when day broke, the miracle had vanished.
Equestrians, sideshow performers, clowns, roustabouts, an enormous collection of curious beasts—all became figments of a glorious dream.
When the greatest show of all could no longer perform these annual rituals or take this enchanted journey, it was clear the circus had lost its place at the heart of American life.
Matthew Wittmann: You can see in the circus both the good and the bad. Industrialization, immigration, all the problems that characterize American society and then, also make American society move forward. The circus captures the American experience, both in its exuberance, its commercialism and really, its bigness.
Johnathan Lee Iverson: What makes America great is our daring. The whole experiment of America is daring. The circus was the artistic testament to that spirit, that spirit of innovation, that spirit of wild impossibilities. We all love miracles. And what we find out is they’re simpler than we thought.
Narration: “The circus comes as close to being the world in microcosm as anything I know…. Its magic is universal and complex…. Out of its wild disorder comes order; from its rank smell rises the good aroma of courage and daring; out of its preliminary shabbiness comes the final splendor.” E. B. White
La Norma Fox: Your whole body is like you are welded into the circus. You will dream of it because that was your life. I’ll never forget. You are a performer, and you stay a performer until the day you die.
Paul Ringling: Am I proud of being a Ringling? I’m damn sure, pardon my French, I’m not ashamed of it, I can tell you that. Yes, I feel pretty darn good about it. It was a defining part of my life, yes. A part of my life that now I can’t go back to. Careful now – you're bringing – you're going to see I get choked up a little. I must have had it in my gizzard here, or somewhere. Yes. It was a part of my life.