The Big Top

Watching the evening news a few days ago started out like most newscasts. First a report of the latest political news. Then it was information on when the next snowstorm was going to hit the area. As the next commercial came on I left the TV room and went to the kitchen to grab some dinner. Then after the news started up again, I heard something which surprised and even saddened me. The news anchor said, “After 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is going to shut down.” As I walked back into the room, flashes of childhood circus memories enveloped my mind.

Toward the end of the news program as I watched the weather forecast, future snowfall really wasn’t my concern. Thoughts of all the fun while attending the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still occupied my mind.

Like many baby boomers, I grew up with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I have lots of memories of sitting with my family watching the clowns,  exotic animals and death-defying acrobats perform their acts. One event I looked forward to each year was when the Greatest Show on Earth came to town.

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Circus poster 1940s

In 1841 showman Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum bought the New York City “Scudder’s American Museum” and then changed the name to “Barnum’s American Museum.” Barnum’s style of showmanship plus his bombastic advertising and personality soon made Barnum’s American Museum a huge success.

Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup of Delavan, Wisconsin were circus operators wanting to cash in on the notoriety of the Barnum name. They persuaded P. T. to go into partnership with them and together they created the “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome” in 1875.

James Anthony Bailey and James E. Cooper had been operating the “Cooper and Bailey Circus” since the 1860s which featured a baby elephant named “Columbia” which was advertised as the”First elephant born in the United States.” Because of this the elephant was a great drawing card for the circus.

Barnum saw a great financial opportunity and offered to buy the elephant but could not make a deal with Bailey and Cooper. After much negotiation they all agreed to combine the two circus as the “Barnum & Bailey Circus”. in 1882. The new combined circus became very successful. The circus featured Jumbo, billed as the world’s largest elephant.

Charles and John Ringling, along with their brothers Albert and Otto, founded the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1884, in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It was a small circus which traveled by horse and wagon playing mostly mid-western states. The Ringling Brothers Circus grew very quickly and was soon converted from wagons to train.

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and operated both circuses separately. It soon became evident that managing two separate circuses on the road was becoming difficult. In 1919, the Ringlings combined the two shows calling it the “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.”  Now being largest circus in the world, crowds flocked to see the entertainment anytime the circus stopped in their town or city.

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Circus poster 1938

Circus business grew and grew flourishing through the Roaring Twenties. As the depression  descended upon the 1930s business suffered but the circus managed to stay in business.

The years during World War II  were very difficult for America and for Ringling Brothers. Many circus personnel were now fighting for our country overseas. The railroad system was needed to transport troops and their equipment. President Roosevelt knew the country needed entertainment and diversion from the war to boost morale so he granted special dispensation for circuses to move by train. This act helped the circus survive during this difficult time for our country.

The post-war prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the nation resulting in the baby boomer generation, was not shared by the circus as crowds dwindled and costs increased.

The circus still remained somewhat popular thanks to the 1952 movie The Greatest Show on Earth. Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille the movie starred  Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart and Dorothy Lamour. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Story. The Greatest Show on Earth trailer  Article 3563: The Big Top (imageid3)

Shifts in public taste plus the popularity of movies, television and other forms of entertainment made going to the circus less of a priority. Because of this the decision was made to move circus performances to indoor arenas. On July 16, 1956 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave it’s last performance under the big top. An article in Life magazine reported that “a magical era had passed forever.”

As the years rolled on things got worse for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Entertainment competition increased and circus attendance fell. Besides television and movies taking  attendance away, Disneyland, Disney World,  Cirque du Soleil, video games and the internet captured many young minds. Even though the circus is wholesome family entertainment, all the entertainment options families now have make going to the circus less of a big deal.

During the last few decades prolonged battles with animal rights groups didn’t help matters. Back on March 5, 2015 the Feld Entertainment, the parent company for “The Greatest Show on Earth,” told the AP it would phase out elephants citing animal welfare concerns. “This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers,” CEO Kenneth Feld said in a press statement. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants form the largest herd in North America. The 43 elephants will retire to a 200-acre sanctuary in central Florida.

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Jumbo poster 1882

Without elephants the magic really left the circus. The animals had been the symbol of the circus since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882. 

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Jumbo 1882

The remaining shows this year will give fans a chance to say goodbye to an iconic American institution and one of the last cultural markers of a time gone by. Their final shows will take place at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., on May 7, and at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21, 2017.

Seeing the circus in my youth, as I’m sure countless other baby boomers did, left wonderful memories. Being wowed and mesmerized with the sheer scale of entertainment the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus offered, is something I will never forget.

Contributed by

Craig Francom

Craig Francom was born in San Diego California and raised in Midvale Utah. Craig had a "Leave it to Beaver" childhood. If not at the local fishing hole, camping out …

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