A Very Brief History of the Circus
Where or when the first circus act took place is unknown. However, the word Circus was coined by the Ancient Romans to describe their open air arenas, usually called the Circus Maximus, (Meaning the biggest Circus), where they held different kinds of events such as Chariot Racing, wrestling, feats of skill, animal training and unfortunately, where they also fed Christians to the lions. This type of circus became extinct when Rome fell. However, the ideas of entertainment and showmanship survived and wandering troupes of performers, including clowns, began presenting their acts at various kinds of fairs throughout the world.
Philip Astley, is
associated with the creation of the modern circus. Astley, a former
cavalry man, performed on horseback in a large circle, or ring. The
ring and the evolution to the three ring circus has been a part of circus
tradition ever since.
The Circus in the U.S.A.
|John William Ricketts, a Londoner,
introduced the one ring circus to the United States. George Washington,
himself was one of its earliest fans. By the 1800s, traveling performers
from Europe, France and Spain were enriching the circus scene by adding
their unique sense of style and presentation. However, it is the American
circus men of the 19th Century who introduced the Big Top, the calliope
and the three ring circus.
These performers traveled in wagons and trains and performed throughout the United States. Hackaliah Bailey, who started his life as a New York farmer, went on to create one of the most famous circuses on earth. He first introduced his African elephant, "Old Bet" to the circus in 1815. The elephant became so popular that every circus needed to have one in it to be called a true circus. People began rating the circus by the number of elephants performing in them. "Old Bet" is sometimes referred to as "the mother of the American Circus."
Aaron Turner, in 1826, was one of the first to give performances inside a tent. This now, made it possible to perform the show come rain or shine. It increased revenues for the circus because so, many more shows could be held. Circuses used tents more and more. As circuses began to grow in the number of acts in their shows, more than one tent was needed. The tent, where the main acts performed, then became known as the big top. A menagerie tent, where new animals were exhibited, the sideshow tent, where, midgets, and oddities of the human condition were displayed, and the Concession Stand tent all became regular features of the circus.
The Circus Parade grew out of the need to get an audience. Circuses moved the circus from to place by using wagons and these wagons were pulled in a long line or train called a caravan.
Nickleby and I did the same thing with our Traveling show. These wagons were important to the Circus in two ways. First, wagons were a means to transport or move the circus. Secondly, wagons were a means to create interest in seeing the show. Wagons were decorated in bright, bold, garish colors to catch the eye of the audience. They were used to advertise the performers and the arrival of the circus, by being visible from great distances. Just outside of their destination, (the place they were going to perform,) the caravan would stop. The performers would then dress in their best costumes, (outfits) the animals would be groomed, (combed and washed) and they would get ready to make their march into town. A musical instrument, called a calliope would announce their arrival and as their wagons rolled down the town's main street, a crowd would gather and follow along. The Parade would end, wherever, they were going to put up their tents for the show. This was an important part of the Circus's early traditions but, became less of one, as times changed and automobiles made these parades too difficult to carry out.
Famous Circus Owners
Three important and famous circus owners were, Dan Rice, Mollie A. Bailey, known as Maw, (not to be confused with Grammaw Hunnie of the Sunnie BunnieZZ*<:O) and Phineas T. Barnum.
Dan Rice, one of the greatest American
clowns, had so many fans of him and of his circus that he was urged
to run for president of the United States! Rice performed a decade before
the Civil War and counted Abraham Lincoln as one of his greatest fans.
(And I do mean greatest, fans.)
The Ringling Brothers
The Ringlings' circus story began in the 1870's when the two sons of August Rungeling saw their first circus and decided to create their own. They changed their name to Ringling and started a vaudevillian show. It wasn't until 1884 that they were able to establish their first real circus. They were able to prosper, (Make a lot of money) enough to be able to buy up other acts and circuses and in 1907 they purchased control of Barnum and Bailey's 'Greatest Show on Earth." They were now, the Kings of the Circus. However, they were not able to combine both Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's Circus until 1919. The only rival to their circus was the American Circus Corporation circuses, but in 1929, Ringling Brothers bought out their competitor for two million dollars. The stock market crashed that same year and the Circus like every other business had to struggle to survive. It never really recovered from the loss. The times had changed, it cost a lot more to put on the shows, new forms of entertainment grew and in 1944 a disastrous fire in Hartford Connecticut put a big bite into the 'Big Top' as a prosperous business. The once mighty world of the Circus went into decline.
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows announced it was abandoning its tents and the 'Big Top' tradition in 1956. On June 16, 1956, this circus gave its last performance under the 'Big Top'. Everyone thought it was the end of the circus. However, it turned out to be the cost cutting measure needed to keep the circus alive. Such large crews were not needed for setting up. Performing in auditoriums increased the number of shows performed yearly. Revenues increased and costs went down.
A Continuing Tradition
The 'Big Top' tradition is still maintained by a number of smaller circuses, like the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. The circus is transported on large motor trucks as is, the Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros., King Bros., Mills Bros., and Hunt. Fraternal organizations like the Shriners and the Lion's Club began to sponsor these circuses and as a result they were able to survive.
Today the circus continues to entertain, its universal appeal crosses all language barriers. Whether it be the traveling three ring circus or the resident, one ring circus, it is a source of joy for many, worldwide. The United States, has many forms of entertainment and there are many derivatives of the circus format available here. Wild West shows, dog and pony shows, performers giving limited engagements where they showcase their act and of course the Circus, itself which still exists. The Soviet Union subsidizes its circus and even runs circus academies to train performers. The children of these performers, as well as, Soviet Citizens are eligible to attend the academies and are encouraged to create original acts. Monaco's International Festival of the Circus, Britain's Gerry Cottles Circus and Circus World, are three circus extravaganzas still held and widely supported by an enthusiastic audiences.
The circus continues to be of interest to many enthusiasts. The Circus Fans Association of America, and the Circus Historical Society, are two such groups dedicated to researching and publishing facts about circus life. Circus collections may be seen in San Antonio, Texas where Harry Hertberg has assembled one of the greatest collections of circus materials ever, Bridgeport, Connecticut, (once Home to P.T. Barnum's Winter circus), the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, (one of Ringling's Brother's Winter Homes) and in the, 'Circus Hall of Fame' in Sarasota, Florida, (another winter home of Ringling Brothers.)
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