4. P. T. Barnum left his mark on the circus and the entertainment business in general
By the time P. T. Barnum entered the traveling circus business he was already in his early sixties, with a long resume of various promotional exaggerations, unsupportable hyperbole, and outright falsehoods when promoting his various ventures and shows. Barnum was possessed of a flexible conscience which allowed him to rationalize to himself that even if the customer wasn’t given exactly what he was promised when he purchased a ticket, there was no fraud committed if he had been entertained. “The noblest art is that of making others happy”, he was purported to have said, and it was his belief that the public was happy to be deceived, which to his mind explained America’s political system.
Over his storied career, Barnum entertained the public by presenting a “mermaid”, which was, of course, a complete fraud, with the head of a monkey combined with the tail of a fish; the aforementioned Jumbo; Siamese twins, which were legitimate in their condition but presented fraudulently; and a woman he claimed was Joice Heth, 161 years of age and a former nurse of none other than George Washington. When she died, Barnum sold 1,500 tickets to her autopsy, which revealed she was about half the age he had claimed. He once acquired a black dwarf named William H. Johnson, taught him a gibberish language which Barnum created, and presented the fellow to the public as a man-monkey. America’s greatest showman was in reality one of America’s greatest frauds.
5. Ringling Brothers took advantage of their competitor’s absence
When P. T. Barnum died in 1891, after suffering a stroke, James Anthony Bailey purchased Barnum’s interest in the circus from his widow, but shrewdly kept the late showman’s name on the marquee. Barnum had been celebrated in his lifetime in Europe, presenting, among other exhibits, the minuscule Tom Thumb to Queen Victoria, the Russian Tsar, and to the populations of the European continent. Bailey decided to take advantage of his late partner’s name and reputation and tour Europe with Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in the late 19th century. From late December 1897, through 1902, Barnum and Bailey’s toured the European continent.
While the competition was overseas Ringling Brothers took advantage of the vacuum left behind, and began touring, by train, the eastern states which had previously by mutual agreement been the province of Barnum and Bailey’s. By 1898 Ringling Brothers presented the largest traveling entertainment enterprise in the world. The concept of three rings presented under the so-called Big Top was developed by the Ringlings, and the spectacle of watching the circus erect its tents and exhibits, using the elephants and draft animals which were part of its show, became as much a part of the circus experience as attending the presentations themselves.
6. The sideshows were a large part of Barnum and Bailey’s success
Besides the shows presented under the Big Top by Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, and smaller circuses around the country, customers were attracted to the sideshows and midways, where barkers attempted to draw them in to see the strange wonders therein. It was in the sideshows where patrons could view attractions such as bearded ladies, wild men from Borneo and other exotic locales, the famed Elephant Man, a three-legged man, encephalitic dwarves, and other shamelessly exploitive displays of the unfortunate. Barnum’s circus, before his death, was well-known for the displays on their sideshows, and they continued the practice for long after he was gone.
Among the attractions touted by Barnum and Bailey’s was the Human Snake, also known as Prince Randian, born in what was then British Guiana. Prince Randian suffered from tetra-amelia syndrome, born without arms and legs. Randian slithered about like a snake, and amazed his audiences by rolling his own cigarettes using his lips and mouth. Although as with other “acts” presented in the sideshows in an almost inhuman manner, the exploitation of the individuals presented allowed them to earn a meager living which would otherwise have been denied to them in the harsher age in which they lived. One sideshow performer, Annie Jones, a bearded woman, became a leading proponent of discouraging the use of the word “freak” to describe those who were so shamelessly displayed for profit.
7. Barnum and Bailey’s returned to the United States in 1902
By the time Barnum and Bailey’s European sojourn ended and they returned to the United States in 1902, Ringling Brothers had established itself as the premier circus in the Eastern United States, touring the northern states in the warm months and wintering at established quarters first in Connecticut and later in Florida. With the consummate showman, P. T. Barnum, dead and the competition for entertainment dollars tightening, Barnum and Bailey’s decided to move their show west of the Mississippi River. It should be remembered that at the time, Arizona and New Mexico were not yet states, the west was just barely settled, and territorial disputes and banditry were rife along the border with Mexico.
As with their eastern competition, Barnum and Bailey’s traveled the west by train, using cars which the circus owned, and set up their shows near railyards, which in the west were often surrounded by stockyards. Their audiences were typically more raucous and hard to awe than those of the comparatively tame Eastern states. In 1906, James Anthony Bailey died. Besides working as the circus owner and director, Bailey frequently performed as a ringmaster, and he had been instrumental in obtaining many of the performers who appeared in the shows. Following his death his widow, who had no interest in continuing the peripatetic life of a circus performer, sold Barnum and Bailey’s to Ringling Brothers.
8. The Ringling Brothers took over Barnum and Bailey’s Circus
In 1907 the remaining Ringling Brothers involved with the circus which bore their name took over Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, and continued to operate it independently of Ringling Brothers for several years. Ownership of both allowed the circuses to present shows at locations which were planned in advance to avoid competing for the same audiences and entertainment dollars. Both circuses owned and operated their own railroad stock, leasing locomotives from the appropriate railroads for travel purposes. Meanwhile Charles Ringling, who was known as Mr. Charlie to circus employees, invested in large land tracts in and around Sarasota, Florida.
His brother John was responsible for bookings, Charles for day-to-day operations, and the other three brothers gradually reduced their involvement in the first decade of the twentieth century. In addition to owning their eponymous circus and Barnum and Bailey’s, the Ringling’s also controlled smaller traveling circuses which had been operated by Bailey’s, and by 1910 the Ringling’s had what amounted to a monopoly. By 1918, deaths within the brother’s ranks (Otto in 1911, Al in 1915, and Henry in 1918) and a shortage in labor caused by the First World War caused the surviving brothers to reconsider what would in a later day be called a business model.
9. The circuses merged in 1919, following the First World War
In 1919 John and Charles Ringling decided that the several circuses under their control would merge into one spectacular traveling circus, named Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth. Its first presentation occurred on March 29, 1919, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The show was just a short distance from what had been up to then the Ringling Brothers winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. One reason for the circus wintering in the outskirts of frigid New England was the restrictions on rail travel which had been imposed during World War 1, and which were still in effect. Another was that the 1919 flu pandemic had been less severe in colder climes.
When Alf Ringling died in 1919 John and Charles decided to explore building an extensive winter quarters for the combined shows on land which they owned in Florida, around Sarasota. Charles was already involved in building himself a large family retreat there, and the Ringling’s had ingratiated themselves to local authorities by donations of land for a post office and other amenities in the growing community. Although neither of the surviving Ringling Brothers knew it at the time, the heyday of the traveling circus was already in the past with the end of the First World War. The 1920s brought silent movies, jazz, speakeasies, escape artists, magicians, and other forms of entertainment drawing away fans of the Big Top and the thrills which it contained.
10. John Ringling became one of the richest men in America
The circus was lucrative for all of the Ringling Brothers, and especially so for Charles and John, who became leading figures in the development of Sarasota, Florida. John’s investments in real estate, oil, railroads, and fine art, as well as cattle ranches, made him exceedingly wealthy. In 1910 a railroad named the White Sulphur Springs and Yellowstone Park Railroad was built connecting Leader, Montana (renamed Ringling) and White Sulphur Springs, where John built a summer house. A belief that White Sulphur Springs would become a popular resort was his motivation for investing in the railroad. John invested in other railroads and served as a company officer in several.
The investments in railroads and other industries, particularly the booming oil industry, understandably took time away from the day-to-day operation of the circus, which continued to operate throughout the 1920s and 1930s as before, a traveling show which journeyed between its destinations by rail. In smaller and rural areas, the circus continued to create its own grounds near railheads, erecting its tents and other amusements. In urban areas the show began to rely on more permanent structures, such as New York’s Madison Square Gardens, or in fairgrounds. By 1929, just before the onset of the Great Depression, John Ringling, the last of the five brothers who founded their circus empire, owned or controlled all of the traveling circuses in the United States.
11. The Flying Concellos were one of Ringling’s most popular acts before World War II
Antoinette Comeau was living in a convent when she was summoned by her sister (her real sister, not a nun) to join her with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. The 16 year old Antoinette did as she was bid, and was soon smitten with Arthur Concello, who had been training and performing as a trapezist for more than a decade. The couple married in 1928, and Concello trained his bride in aerial acrobatics and the art of the trapeze. They called themselves the Flying Concellos and were soon one of the most popular attractions of the circus. They were the first to perform a triple somersault as a couple, and Antoinette was the first woman ever to perform the maneuver.
Arthur proved to be a remarkably astute businessman as well, acting as an agent for other aerial acts. When he rose to become general manager of Ringling Brothers he hired many of the acts which he represented, paying them top dollar and thus increasing his own earnings as a percentage. Antoinette was hired by Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille to train several stars, including Betty Hutton and Dorothy Lamour, for their roles in the motion picture The Greatest Show On Earth, in which she also appeared, with the role played by Charlton Heston loosely based on her husband. By the time Antoinette retired in 1983 she was the Aerial Director for Ringling Brothers. She died the year following her retirement.
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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