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Matthew Wittmann: The big thing that wowed Australian audiences was the size of the show.
There was no tent that big in Australia. So, there was a sideshow tent. There was a museum. There was a menagerie, and then there was the main tent where the performance took place. Narration: From Australia, the circus toured the island of Java, where it picked up local musicians to play in the band.
FX Tues. You have a steamboat with a calliope loaded and smoking and steaming. So, this is a very attractive proposition. Now responsibility for the massive organization lay with just two. And an elephant can take the penny from your hand. John Ringling had made the biggest mistake of his life. In , the railroad circus left New York travelling through the Mid-Atlantic states, before heading west and to Minneapolis.
When the strongwoman came on the Javanese were so astounded, they stopped playing completely. After touring New Zealand, Bailey charted a sailing vessel to take the circus back across the Pacific for a tour of South America. From the moment they had set sail across the Pacific, Bailey and his troupe had ricocheted from one harrowing moment to the next. Four circus workers died in Java of tropical diseases. Turbulent seas almost sunk their ship on the way to New Zealand. And at one point a tiger escaped its cage in the hold.
But Bailey survived it all. After more than two years of almost constant travel, his circus had covered more than seventy-six thousand miles. When the intrepid showman arrived back in New York, he was worldly, daring, and ready to take on the toughest competition. Bailey returned to a country in the grip of momentous change s. More than a quarter of Americans now lived in cities. Some ninety thousand miles of railroad tracks carved their way across the nation. That ever-expanding network was fueling an unrivaled period of industrialization and innovation.
Alexander Graham Bell had just invented the telephone; Thomas Edison the phonograph. Bailey was so impressed, he became the first circus owner in the country to buy an electric lighting system. His circus was lit up by electricity before any city in America had a system of electric street lighting. It was the focal point of his advertising. He even sold tickets for a tour of the generator.
You can just imagine the, you know, to go to some little town in Arkansas or some place and to be able to see that. Matthew Wittmann: Part of what makes the circus such a powerful cultural form is its ability to absorb various influences and essentially program them anew for American audiences. Really any innovation you can think of gets repackaged and then branded into the American circus. Whether it was the lighting, or the herd of ten elephants, or the nighttime parades, Cooper and Bailey turned away crowds at stop after stop.
Bailey began the following season with an aggressive advertising campaign. He ordered the design and production of eighty-two different lithographs and then sent his publicity team out on three advance cars to plaster the route with posters. Matthew Wittmann: Circuses could spend many thousands of dollars on advertising whether it was newspapers, posters. Circuses put money into advertising in a way that no other business did. The average circus poster was so much bigger than any rival ad that it was meant to grab your attention.
He came up with the idea of shooting a person, most specifically a woman because that added to the excitement of it.
Davis: Zazel's inclusion in the circus program is a reflection of a growing emphasis on death defying spectacle over the intricacies of individual artistry. And the act of claiming hundreds of yards of space vertically, horizontally, in defiance of death, really becomes the signature of this enormous new form of circus. She was, Bailey claimed, the first elephant born in the West since the Roman Empire.
Matthew Wittmann: They name it Columbia. I mean, people love elephants and then, people really love baby elephants. It creates media publicity all over the country. Barnum stoked the media frenzy. Narration: That fall, both Barnum and Bailey severed their relationships with their partners. Then the two veteran showmen announced that they were joining forces. Barnum had watched Bailey closely enough to know he had just signed a deal with the most ingenious impresario in show business.
Barnum was very much the man that wanted the spotlight. He lived his entire life in public. Bailey, on the other hand is very private, very reserved. He just had a real organizational acumen with logistics, with performance. Fred Pfening Iii: Bailey would set himself up a little table near the front entrance of the circus and he was constantly receiving telegrams from his advance people, telling him what they were doing and him sending an advice out.
He micromanaged the show and particularly the advance of it. He was a tremendous risk taker and a very creative, innovative guy. Narration: Some observers predicted that the Barnum and Bailey amalgamation would be too unwieldy to put on the road. Bailey disagreed. The circus is a tiny closed off arena of forgetfulness. For a space it enables us to lose ourselves, to dissolve in wonder and bliss, to be transported by mystery. We come out of it in a daze, saddened and horrified by the everyday face of the world. Narration: For almost a century, Americans across the country looked forward eagerly to the cherished rituals of Circus Day.
They began before dawn as curious observers began turning out to watch the circus arrive on the outskirts of town. Richard Reynolds: All of a sudden, you could hear that whistle way off and everybody would say, it's coming. And it would pull in. Oh, my Lord, people would just flock to the track to watch it come in. It was just a magical thing. There was action all around. People would speculate. And we just kept counting them as they came out. It was just a magical experience. They open up those canvases, starting to unroll them, and then somebody get in there and start lacing the pieces together.
La Norma Fox: You get half the town, all kids mostly, wanted to help. As you see the top come up, that is a sight. That really is the most beautiful thing. Narration: In mid-morning, as throngs pressed together along Main Street, the circus paraded through, showing off its finery. Deborah Walk: Up to three miles long of animals, of beautiful ladies on incredibly beautiful horses, wagons of all sizes, bands, all would parade through your town creating gridlock. Davis: There would be people in buildings on the second and third stories, looking down at this extravaganza.
The showmen knew this, because they had beautiful scenes, gilded and painted on the tops of the wagons, so that people could see that too. Richard Reynolds: My father had an aunt who worked in a downtown Atlanta department store and she had a space on the second floor, so that when the circus parade came, he was right there to watch the whole procession. Matthew Wittmann: Certain people, if you grew up on a farm, had never seen a tent with ten or twelve thousand people in it.
Narration: As the evening show was about to begin, the cheery strains of the circus band drew the audience under the canvas. Matthew Wittmann: It changes everything, the circus coming to town. In preparation for their first season together, P. The facility was enormous. The shed for the train cars alone was feet long. The following spring, the showmen opened their combined circus in Madison Square Garden, starting a tradition that would endure into the middle of the next century. Audiences were dismayed to discover that the acts were now spread across three rings not two.
But larger tents meant greater profits so the three rings became a permanent fixture. Cook: The circus becomes a kind of celebration of American profit-making, American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. And so, in many ways, it is the most visible form of corporate capitalism during the Gilded Age. Morgan in banking. But his products and his business models are visible and spectacular and talked about in ways that the others are not.
Narration: Like other 19 th century entrepreneurs, circus impresarios made enormous profits in part because their workers were paid poorly and their businesses were unregulated. Every season men were injured or killed. An ever-changing roster of workers did the most dangerous work. James Bailey would say it was easier and cheaper to add new men at every stop than to pay higher wages and keep them for the season. You could not get white working men to work alongside black working men.
And it meant that you had to have a crew that was either all white or all black. African-Americans did the most difficult work, the dirtiest work, the toughest work.
The two rival shows played thirty-eight cities in common over the summer. Jennifer Lemmer Posey: In their competition, Barnum and Forepaugh were both trying to elevate their own shows but also trying to demean their competitor. It became very personal. And so, you have Adam Forepaugh who is a giant among the pygmies and portrays himself in lithographs as this giant man with small versions of P.
Barnum and James Bailey running away in fear at his amazing stature. Forepaugh accused Barnum of lying. In St. Louis, Forepaugh hung twenty-two thousand posters; Barnum and Bailey put up twenty-three thousand. So, it starts with the street parade and amazing floats and barges and the elephants that are draped in beautiful rich blankets and all of the other animals paraded through the street.
Matthew Wittmann: It proves very, very popular, both in terms of the advertising and people that go to the show seemed to be fascinated by these things, and pretty soon, other shows get on board and start staging their own specs. Narration: Though it would be years before Barnum and Bailey mounted a spectacle themselves, they finished the season triumphant.
Barnum took home two hundred thousand dollars himself. Davis: This competition with Barnum and Forepaugh is something that defines the s in the circus industry. This is the two titans. It was a brawling situation, bruising situation, with competition between these rival shows. The inventiveness born of such intense rivalry—the expanding menageries, the perilous new acts, the monstrous size of it all—had launched the American circus into its Golden Age. I think a lot of people are so surprised when they see elephants move, how graceful they are and how quiet their step is. Nigel Rothfels: The trunk of an elephant has the dexterity of a couple of fingers and yet the power of many people.
And an elephant can take the penny from your hand. Narration: In the winter of , P. Barnum made the most rewarding purchase of his career. Nigel Rothfels: Jumbo was a very, very big elephant. Most of the elephants that were showing up in this country are female Asian elephants. He was a male African elephant; the males are much, much, much bigger. Cook: He was a beloved creature in London, and schoolchildren are weeping over the departure of Jumbo, newspaper editors are writing about the horror of the idea of Jumbo leaving behind his buns and his good diet from the London Zoological Society and eating waffles and popcorn at an American circus.
And so Barnum captures that moment where America can take the prize gem of England. Matthew Wittmann: Jumbo delivers, by all accounts. And if you see the posters, you see an unbelievably large elephant. The man knew how to get people talking. Narration: The whole country became caught up in Jumbomania. His likeness appeared on ads for cigars, dry goods, and spools of thread. That just had to have been just an absolutely slam bang season for him to do that and it was because of Jumbo.
He countered with his own enormous pachyderm, Bolivar, claiming he was the most gigantic beast on earth. Forepaugh also boasted having twenty-five performing elephants trained largely by Eph Thompson, one of the few African Americans ever to appear under a 19 th century big top. He was one of these people that got circus fever, and he left with the circus. His first job was to clean up after elephants. He falls in love with elephants, and he learns how to train them.
Davis: the way that he performed, not by his own choosing, was in a boxing elephant routine. As they sparred, the elephant would always have the upper hand. The elephant would literally box Thompson into the ring bank, often times flipping him over.
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It was extraordinarily frustrating because the act was clownish. It did not allow him to display his talents in working with big animals in a way that created dignity and power. Narration: As the herds got bigger, and trainers tried to outdo each other with more sophisticated tricks, the strain on circus elephants increased. Not all trainers were gentle. The kindest treatment I believe in is … a steel lashed whip. Nigel Rothfels: Different trainers, working with different animals, with their own different skills and experiences, trained each animal differently. There were undoubtedly trainers who were clearly able to use more of the positive techniques that we would call, sort of positive reinforcement now.
But the animal has to understand that the trainer is powerful in ways that the animal is not. In some cases, that has undoubtedly been done through just brute violence. Davis: The vast majority of elephant trainers and handlers deeply loved their elephants. The relationships that they forged with these animals were often incredibly tender and attentive, but one thing that happens throughout the history of the American circus is that elephants go ugly or go bad. And while these incidents were relatively rare, they do reflect the conditions of their confinement and their frustration for these deeply social animals.
If an elephant killed someone, then that elephant could face execution. These executions were often protracted and horrific and deeply disturbing, violent affairs. Narration: The most famous elephant in America came to a grisly end himself, though his death was accidental. On September 15, , Jumbo was struck by an unscheduled freight train after an evening performance.
His skull was fractured in several places. The circus star died within minutes. The show had made more money in the two years after his arrival than it would until the end of the century. So even in death, Jumbo was a great attraction. In , Barnum sent his letter to U. Cook: The Ethnological Congress is an expansion of the sideshow.
So, in the past, the sideshow had involved twelve, fifteen, twenty different figures or acts. Now, Barnum wants to create a kind of living taxonomy of cultures and races and nationalities from around the world. I shall see that they are presented with fancy articles… and small allowances monthly. At least one of them, an indigenous Australian named Tambo Tambo, was brought to America against his will. The group was exhibited in the animal menagerie. When the big top performance began, Chang the Chinese Giant led them into the main pavilion for the opening procession. Nigel Rothfels: Part of that opportunity was to touch them, was to touch their skin, touch their hair.
That touch is about a kind of separation of who you are and what the object is. And it is acceptable for you to control it and touch it in that way. They are the other, they are the difference, they are what, in a sense, gives us a shared identity as an audience. Narration: By the spring of , the constant turmoil of the circus trade was wearing on James Bailey.
Physically and emotionally exhausted, he took a leave of absence. It took him two years to feel strong enough to come back. In , Barnum and Forepaugh temporarily made peace. They mounted a joint show under canvas in Philadelphia. Some 15, people poured into a big top as long as three city blocks, to see sixty-six acts perform in four rings and one stage. The following year, with posters from both great shows festooning the outside of Madison Square Garden, the two impresarios combined their circuses for an opening run in New York.
As the profits rolled in, Forepaugh and Barnum divided up the country between them. Barnum played the West one year, and the East the next. There are no spectators. Every last one of us, svelte and lithe and sheathed in silk, is swinging in space… There is not a flabby muscle, not an awkward limb, not a sagging knee in the whole tent. The Nation. Deborah Walk: Within each of us is that desire to do something spectacular.
It's that yearning of being able to defy gravity, to fly through the air, to be that princess on a back of the horse that everyone is looking at. Jackie Leclaire, Clown, Aerialist: It's a glory there. I'm up in the air.
What are they? They're just on the ground. You find peace. Marjorie Cordell Geiger, Aerialist : It is an act of creation, but it has to come from the heart. You have to light the fire. You have to light the desire. There has to be something burning to give. Johnathan Lee Iverson: For eight minutes most performers cease to be human beings.
I used to love to pick a few people there and smile especially at them. You got to make it look easy, look beautiful, and have them pay attention to you. The public, you want them to love you. The more applause you get, the happier you are, and walking out of there makes you feel so good. Yet every year, a few more plucky dreamers tried their hands at the trade.
Al, Otto, Alf T. They had scrambled out of the house before dawn to meet a steamboat carrying a travelling show up the Mississippi River. Michael Lancaster, Great-Grandson, Charles Ringling: The kids were out of their minds even from the moment they off-loaded the equipment. You have a steamboat with a calliope loaded and smoking and steaming. By the time they put together a parade, the kids were just awestruck. Narration: Al, the eldest, never gave up hope of creating his own circus.
In , he persuaded his brothers to produce a traveling musical show. Over several winters, performing in small town halls, the Ringlings saved a thousand dollars, enough money to buy three secondhand wagons and a tent that could seat a few hundred. Deborah Walk: All the boys, at that point of time, in , did something. So, John Ringling was a singing Dutch comic clown.
You had Charles playing instruments. Al, who knew how to juggle, balanced plows on his chin. Davis: Local kids served as teamsters. The boys often fished for their dinner or shot food for their dinner. Michael Lancaster: They were so small they did the wire act, walking the high wire was done on top of the tent, usually for free, and it helped move people into the show. Narration: The first season, the Ringlings played towns, mostly one-night stands, in four states.
The frail and aging Yankee Robinson died half way through the season. Michael Lancaster: Everything went wrong, but everything went right. As much as things could fail, the crowds were there and so was the money. That first season, they paid everybody well and they came back home and they emptied out their sack of money and they had a lot of it and they were really amazed. Narration: The following few years, the show grew steadily; each season they swapped out their tent for a slightly larger one.
By the brothers owned a bear, an eagle, and several monkeys. Two years later, they bought a pair of elephants. Paul Ringling, Grandson, Alf T. Ringling: They were quite young when they started. John Ringling was a teenager. My grandfather and his brothers never had a partnership agreement, nothing in writing. They were five brothers that got along. Michael Lancaster: They were disciplined, highly disciplined. They took very little money out in those first few years for themselves, but they really enriched the show. They stuck together. Once they took a vote, that was it. Everybody ponied up, got in line, and they all supported the decision that had been made.
And I think that unity is really the secret to their great success as showmen. Fred Pfening Iii: Their circus was always on the up and up. Michael Lancaster: They had rules for everything. These were tight rules. No swearing. They had Pinkertons on their lot so the public could see they meant business, and this earned them the reputation the Sunday School Circus and is probably the thing that really catapulted them into their success. Narration: For the first few seasons, the Ringlings were a regional outfit. In the fall of that changed when Adam Forepaugh agreed to sell them eleven railroad cars on the cheap.
That was the differentiating factor between a big and a little circus. The Ringling brothers returned home heroes. In early , Forepaugh caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia. On the evening of January 22 nd , at the age of fifty-eight, the great showman passed away at home in Philadelphia. Scores of circus folk went to pay their last respects, including two of the Ringling brothers. Neither Barnum nor Bailey attended, but they took note. It had been Forepaugh and Barnum for so long, that the death of that rival was significant.
That November, the eighty-year-old impresario suffered a major stroke. Five months later, surrounded by family and friends, Phineas Taylor Barnum died in his sleep. Barnum is remembered and debated on the front page of literally hundreds of newspapers around the world, every major western capital, small towns across the United States. Hundreds of thousands of words spent trying to make sense and trying to understand what it was to think about P.
Narration: Just days before he died, Barnum wrote his younger partner with some parting advice. The writer laid his bets instead on five young men from Baraboo. Narration: It had taken nerves of steel and months of meticulous planning to pull off. In the last moments before departure, scores of handlers scurried to load the chaotic jumble of wild animals onto a converted cattle ship.
And then performers — high wire artists, equestrians and clowns, set sail to conquer Europe. The daring scheme to tour the colossal circus through Europe was the brainchild of James Bailey, a showman whose improbable rise to the top was legendary. Davis, Historian: The audacity of this move was spectacular. Bailey was taking his circus to the place where it began, back in the 18th century, and taking a version of the circus that was virtually unrecognizable and now distinctly American in its ostentatiousness.
Narration: In the century since a skilled English equestrian had brought the first one-ring show to the United States, the circus had become the most popular of American entertainments, appealing to presidents and farmers, teachers and coal miners, grandparents and school children. Matthew Wittmann, Historian: The American circus turned entertainment into an industrial enterprise. Davis: In an age before radio, in an age before film, in an age before television, it offered audiences, in vastly different geographical locations, a common cultural experience.
It transforms America into a nation with a shared cultural identity. Narration: By heading to Europe, James Bailey was playing a dangerous game. Narration: More gigantic, elaborate and daring every year, the warring circuses would battle over audiences. But even as they did, forces beyond their control began threatening to push the circus from the center of American life.
When the circus opened two days later, there was a scramble for tickets. The matinee was sold out within an hour.
The scene in Manchester was repeated in towns across England. Schools closed. So did factories and shops. Davis: The circus took possession of the towns in which they showed, life stops. Whereas the English circus was a very modest affair, the American circus did not allow life to go on as we knew it. It shut towns down. Narration: Bailey toured the United Kingdom for two seasons, before taking his circus to the European continent.
On March 22, , astonished residents of Hamburg, Germany stopped what they were doing to watch as the USS Michigan was relieved of its highly unusual cargo.
No one had ever shipped a vehicle of that size before, without taking it apart first. Though unseasonably cold weather plagued the four-week run in Hamburg, audiences packed the tent for almost every performance. And certainly the spectacle of how the circus operated proved to be fascinating, endlessly fascinating for European audiences. It garnered interest even from the Prussian military that was of course involved in moving large groups of men from one place to another in different contexts.
They showed up to see how the operation worked. He insisted that all three rings start and end their acts in unison. No circus director had thought to do that before. At midnight, he was often one of the very last men still on his feet. And he really became such a important person, putting the performance together.
Narration: If Ringling drove himself hard, he expected as much from those around him, docking the wages of performers who showed up late to the parade, or put on a lackluster show. Though he was demanding, he was remembered for being generous with praise. Deborah Walk: Of all the brothers, John Ringling, felt the hardships of the family life more than others. Ringling: My Uncle John was imperious. Would that describe him in one word? He quoted the prevailing price of hay in Tucson, and the cost of unroasted peanuts in Tallahassee…. He was aware of the towns in which money was flowing freely, and those in which it was tight.
What are the times people work? When do they get out? When is payday? You always wanted to play a place after payday because then people would have money in their pockets. Narration: Through hard work and ingenuity, the Ringlings had grown from an inconsequential twelve-wagon show into one of the most prominent circuses in the country.
Their most surprising innovation was the addition in of a dark canvas tent they called the black top. Inside the brothers screened a movie of a boxing match using a projectoscope, a brand new invention of Thomas Edison. Robert Thompson : The circus starts to introduce people to the movies.
The Ringlings were using, for our amusement, the very things that were ultimately going to see them become much less central in the American soul. Narration: By , with Bailey away, the brothers felt emboldened to steal his slogan claiming their circus was: The Greatest Show on Earth. Fred D.
And I think taken as a group they were the best circus managers, the best circus men in American history. The Ringling heritage is really about the American dream, that you can have an idea and a vision and that you can bootstrap your way and build something really magnificent. Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Curator: There are so many crazy acts that have happened under the circus tent. As long as there has been circus, there have been people trying almost seemingly insane acts. We only are here once. And we only go round once. If you can do something, if you are good at something, that is what you do.
It takes so much mind, body and spirit to be a great daredevil. It comes back to the overall gospel of the circus. Everybody could see the same thing. So, it was also an image of America in a, not a nutshell, but in a big top. Narration: When the Ringlings returned to Baraboo, Wisconsin over Christmas to plan their season, the knowledge that James Bailey was back shaped all their major decisions. For the first time, the brothers decided to hire a theater director to produce their opening pageant, known as the spectacle, rather than doing it themselves.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey: In the first two decades of the Ringling Show, the brothers were really committed to the circus performance, to the purest form of circus, the circus that they had grown up with. So they did not mount these large spectacles. And so they put on Jerusalem and the Crusades, a real large-scale spectacle. The circus spectacles were very much a product of their age. This idea of colonialism became very interesting, how the Western world could bring its influence to other lands. Narration: Like many circus spectacles of the time, Jerusalem and the Crusades was a full-scale drama.
Playing out in two acts, it included a ballet, a grand oriental procession, and a battle on the ramparts of Jerusalem. The brothers claimed it involved a cast of twelve hundred — including three hundred dancing girls — and more than two thousand costumes. The coming season would be the most elaborate ever, they boasted. Once the circus started traveling, however, it became apparent that Bailey had a host of problems, many of his own making. He spent a little over forty thousand dollars on having thirteen parade wagons built.
Forty thousand dollars was an extraordinary amount of money to spend on parade wagons. Narration: The other problem that he had is he had this really comfortable seating. He called it opera chair seating. It took forever and a day to set all the equipment up. Disgruntled at having to move the heavy seats, one-hundred-and-fifty working men demanded more pay.
Bailey ended his self-imposed ban on hiring African Americans to keep the show on the road. Even so, many performances were late and forty-two were canceled. He had created a giant juggernaut that was just almost impossible to keep going whereas the Ringling Brothers had this efficient money machine that just kept making money day after day.
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