By the summer of 1944 Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was the largest in the world, and its main tent – the Big Top – could hold up to 9,000 spectators. Between six and eight thousand fans were under the canvas tent, which had been treated with paraffin dissolved in gasoline to render it water proof, on the hot afternoon of July 6. Most of the attendees were women and children. The Great Wallendas were performing their aerial acrobatics, consequently most of the crowd were looking up when a fire started, for reasons never discovered. The band followed longstanding circus tradition and immediately began playing The Stars and Stripes Forever, recognizable to circus personnel as a distress signal. It meant nothing to the crowd.
As the Big Top disintegrated in flames panic spread through the crowd, which streamed for the exits, in the dark after the electrical system failed and the lights went out. Most escaped unharmed, other than suffering burns from melted paraffin which fell from the tent’s roof. The tent was completely consumed in less than ten minutes. Some trying to escape found the exits blocked by the enclosed tubes used to move big cats to the show rings from their cages behind the tent. Officially 168 people were killed and over 700 treated for injuries, mostly burns. Eventually the circus paid more than $6 million in damages to victims and their families. One unidentified body of a young girl, never claimed by relatives, became famous as Little Miss 1565, with her picture published in magazines and newspapers across the United States.
One of the survivors of the fire of 1944 was Emmett Kelly, who was a former trapezist who worked as a full-time clown for Ringling Brothers from 1942 to 1956, when he took a year off to serve as the mascot of the Brooklyn Dodgers National League Baseball Club. Kelly was a new type of clown when he began his act with Ringling Brothers. Rather than adhering to the slapstick routines adopted by most clowns of the day, Kelly appealed to the angst of the unemployed and downtrodden, performing never-ending thankless tasks as part of his act, and appearing in makeup which made him sad and even tragic in appearance.
Kelly named his clown character Weary Willie, and his sad appearance was heightened following the 1944 fire, when a photograph appeared in Life Magazine of Willie carrying a bucket while running towards the burning tent. The combination of the destroyed Big Top, the sad clown, and the uselessness of the bucket immortalized the clown, who had done all he could to help people escape the flames in the terrifying short time expanse of the fire. The Hobo Clown became an American icon after Emmett Kelly, and is still copied by clowns in parades and other events across the United States, years after Kelly died in Sarasota in 1980.
14. The Flying Wallendas and working without a net
John Ringling saw the family aerial acrobat act which called themselves the Great Wallendas in Cuba, and duly impressed hired them to join Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1928. When they debuted with the circus at Madison Square Garden they performed their hair-raising act, which included building human pyramids perched upon a high-wire, without using a safety net. Legend has it that the net had been lost during the trip from Cuba and in the tradition of show business – the show must go on – the Wallendas performed anyway. The authenticity of the assertion is questionable. Other aerial acts performed that day and nets were available for their safety, presumably they could have been used by the Wallendas.
It was an enraptured press which called the act the Flying Wallendas, and it was by that name they achieved fame. Over the years they established numerous records which most humans wouldn’t think of challenging, such as the longest high-wire bicycle ride, and being the first to traverse Niagara Falls via a high-wire. They have suffered numerous casualties as well, with several of the family falling from wires, including Karl Wallenda, the group’s founder, who fell to his death in 1978. His great-grandson Nikolas, along with his Nik’s wife Erendira, continued the tradition of the Flying Wallendas appearing with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus until the organization’s demise in 2017. Seven generations of Wallendas (so far) have performed high-wire stunts as of 2019.
By 1950, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus comprised more than 1,400 employees and performers, and several hundred animals as part of its traveling retinue. Supporting equipment included animal cages, aquariums, traveling aviaries, kitchens and canteens, electrical generators and miles of wire and cables, hundreds of lights for signage and for spotlights, requiring sixty railcars to transport the show from one location to another. The logistics of moving and operating the circus was a staggering undertaking, and the show had to perform as the cost of maintaining it remained whether revenues were coming in or not. The animals still had to be fed, the equipment maintained, and the payroll met.
In 1952 Cecil B. DeMille, known for producing lavish biblical film epics, produced The Greatest Show On Earth, which depicted both a fictional drama about circus life and an almost documentary presentation of the challenges of producing and operating a traveling circus. It was set within Ringling Brothers, and the circuses performers and supporting employees were included in the film, along with Betty Hutton, Dorothy Lamour, Charlton Heston, Cornel Wilde, and Jimmy Stewart (as a clown who never removed his makeup, even when not working). It won the Oscar for Best Picture and was the most popular film in the United States and England in 1952, and in France when released there in 1953. Nonetheless, attendance at the real circus was in steady decline, and losses mounted for Ringling Brothers beginning in the 1950s.
16. The Feld Entertainment era of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey
Irvin Feld was a music entrepreneur who ran several record stores and managed various pop and rock acts in the 1950s and 1960s. He credited himself for having discovered Paul Anka, though evidence to support the assertion is slim. Nonetheless Feld Entertainment, which included his brother Israel and a partner, Roy Hofheinz, a Houston lawyer and judge, enjoyed considerable success. Meanwhile, the age of prosperity for the circus had come to an end as other forms of entertainment post-World War II, including television and motion pictures, sports events, and recreational activities stripped the circus of its audience. The growing popularity of zoos also stripped the circus of the awe its audience once expressed over its wild animals.
In 1956, in an effort to control costs, the decision was made to remove the Big Top and other tents and outdoor displays, including the sideshows, from the circus presentations. On July 16, 1956, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus performed for the last time under the Big Top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Moving the show into indoor arenas around the country necessitated the hiring of local and regional promoters to hype the show prior to it arriving in town, replacing the circus parade which had been part of the tradition whenever the circus arrived. One of the organizations hired by John Ringling North and then circus director Arthur Concello was Feld Entertainment, brought in to promote in the circus in the Michigan and Pennsylvania regions, as well as others as scheduling dictated.
17. More changes to the show and the management of the company
In 1959 Ringling Brothers extended the season in which it would remain in winter quarters and relocated them to Venice, Florida. The expenses of travel meant that the circus could not spend the entire season on the road, and the decline of rail traffic in the United States meant that much of it needed to be moved by truck rather than train. Circus performers were also finding additional places of employment, including nightclubs and televised variety programs. Throughout the 1960s circus attendance continued to decline. John Ringling North attempted to introduce new types of acts, including hiring choreographer George Balanchine to create a ballet to be danced by the circus elephants. Igor Stravinsky composed the score, entitled Circus Polka.
When John Ringling North decided to sell the circus, which had been under the control of the Ringling family for eight decades, he approached Arthur Concello, who indicated that he didn’t care as long as he received his promised percentage. North sold the circus to Feld Entertainment, which had obtained complex financial backing for the deal, in 1967. The flamboyant Irvin Feld held a ceremony to commemorate the sale at the Colosseum in Rome, with appropriate fanfare and hype. Feld immediately removed the remnants of what had been known as the “freak” show, and introduced new acts and performers with an eye on making the circus more family friendly. He also began to consider the increasing volume with which was heard the voice of animal activists protesting the use of animals as entertainment.
18. Send in the Clowns, after training them in special schools
In 1968, as part of his drive to make the circus more family friendly, Irvin Feld began to revamp many of the acts presented, beginning with the clowns. Feld noticed that most of the clowns then with Ringling Brothers had been there for many years. Most were over fifty, and were performing the same acts which they had been presenting for decades. If one had seen them before, one would simply see the same act repeated. Feld created the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College in Venice, Florida. It later moved to Baraboo, Wisconsin, and then to Sarasota, Florida, before closing its doors in 1997. Before it did the college trained approximately 1,400 clowns.
In 1988, a television special was taped at the clown college as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations. Hosted by Dick Van Dyke and broadcast on the CBS television network, it featured a fictional storyline in which the clowns practiced their routines while a custodian at the school, portrayed by Van Dyke, covertly watched them in order to learn their routines and steal their material. Willard Scott, who was the first to perform as the McDonald’s mascot Ronald McDonald, did not attend the college but was named an honorary graduate, as was Dick Van Dyke. The college eventually closed, as much a victim of its own success producing training videos and graduating clowns who then trained others outside the school as for any other reason. By the end of its operation it provided eight week training courses in the art of clowning.
19. The Circus World Theme Park and competition with Disney
By the end of the twentieth century Ringling Brothers was offering two distinct shows, designated Red and Blue, in an effort to raise capital. Attendance continued to wane. In 1971 the circus was sold to toy giant Mattel, with the Feld’s retaining management control and pocketing $40 million on the sale. Mattel continued to lose money, and in 1982 the Feld’s bought the circus back from Mattel, which could no longer absorb the annual losses its involvement brought to its bottom line. By then Ringling Brothers was operating three distinct shows in the vain effort to reduce overall travel expenses and increase attendance. Increasing oil prices and decreasing entertainment budgets among the general public conspired against them.
Another source of bleeding capital was Circus World, a circus themed amusement park which the company opened in Haines, Florida, hoping to piggyback on the success of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Circus World had a few profitable years in terms of annual operations during its brief tenure, but ambitious plans for circus themed entertainments and an elephant shaped hotel failed to materialize. The park changed hands several times before closing for good in the spring of 1986. During its days of operation the entrance to the park was a frequent target of protestors against the circus itself, from various animal rights groups including PETA. As the twentieth century came to an end the circus continued to experience declining attendance.
By the beginning of the 21st century Ringling Brothers was being beaten in attendance by, of all things, another circus, more upscale in presentation and drawing a more upscale audience – Cirque de Soleil. Ringling Brothers attempted to compete with a new show it called Barnum’s Kaleidoscope, but was unsuccessful. The circus was also by then absorbing legal expenditures over lawsuits regarding its abuses of animals, especially elephants, and other issues. In 2014 the circus won a countersuit and a judgment of over $25 million, but the following year succumbed to the continuing pressure and announced the elephants would be retired. The elephants were moved to the Center for Elephant Conservation, founded by Ringling Brothers in Florida in 1995.
In January 2017, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, the Greatest Show on Earth, announced its schedule for the year would include 30 performances, with differing shows depending on location, and that the May 21, 2017 performance at Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum would be its last. The Greatest Show on Earth succumbed to heavy operating expenses, increased competition from other forms of entertainment, pressure from groups protesting what they perceived as animal cruelty, and most of all, an increasingly indifferent audience, no longer struck with awe at the sight of the tattooed man, the bearded lady, the lion tamer, and the trained elephant. The world simply outgrew the Greatest Show on Earth.
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