To Tell You
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.
Astley did much to improve on his
performances by including music, clowns and other kinds of acts to
entertain his audience. He built the first real circus in France, in
1783 and created the pattern for which all subsequent circuses have
been based throughout the world.
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
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
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*)
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.)
Maw Bailey, one of the very few women to ever both
own and operate a circus, used her family in the acts. At first,
they were the main performers but as the circus grew, she was able
to add other performers.
However, it is not she whose Circus became
linked with P. T. Barnum's circus.
Phineas T. Barnum was the first American to become an
internationally famous circus owner. He introduced the sideshow
midget, Tom Thumb
and the African Elephant, Jumbo, to American
Barnum had a flair for publicity and could create
interest in his acts by use of his exaggerated and colorful
language. Everything was the biggest, or the greatest. He was able
to grab the attention of his listeners and capture their imagination
with the power of his words, (his speech.) This was critical to his
success and as a result, his show was extremely popular. Everyone
wanted to be his partner, but it was with James A. Bailey, he joined
forces in the 1880's, becoming the renowned, 'Barnum and Bailey
Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth'.
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
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
Circus and The Clown
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