The Circus Was Once America’s Top Entertainment. Here’s Why Its Golden Age Began to Fade

For nearly a century, encompassing the Civil War, America’s Gilded Age, WW I, and even the Great Depression–the circus was the most popular type of entertainment. The era of chaos was at its peak. The day when the circus came to town was in the same league as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the holiday of Independence Day. Businesses and banks were shut as were schools closed, and a large crowd gathered in the morning on the main streets to see the clowns and elephants and the bejeweled entertainers march across the railroad tracks to the arena, which was the site where the big top was raised to accommodate hundreds of people for evening and afternoon shows.

For the majority of those the people in attendance, the event offered a chance to witness the impossible become real Aerialists tightrope walkers, tightrope walkers, and equestrians did amazing feats as”tamers” of lions “tamers” turned their charge into friendly female pussycats and elephants danced to ballets by Balanchine. The clowns appeared to bring laughter and a sense of compassion and bridge that gap between excellent actions inside the arena and the stunned viewers and the spectators. Before television and film, before professional sports and huge arenas, prior to PC monitors and mobile screens, different audiences came together under the canvas to celebrate a collective celebration of unlimited possibilities and a rare glimpse into an entire world of beauty, mystery, and wonder.

There’s no doubt that the circus attracted the attention of legendary showman P.T. Barnum who had impressed viewers from all over the globe with his performances of the tiny Tom Thumb and introduced American audiences to the enchanting Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale.” For most of the latter third of the 19th century, Barnum, aligned with veteran circus entrepreneur James A. Bailey, was the dominant force in the business. However, following the demise of Barnum and Bailey, John Ringling and his brothers took over control of the Barnum & Bailey operations. It went on to create the largest of all circuses: The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, a.k.a. “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

For more than a decade following the amalgamation of the two mains in 1906, The Ringling brothers performed their two shows in separate ways, having a virtual dominance on dates with plums and top locations across the nation and serving as government representatives. When the United States entered WW I in 1917, the Ringling Show employed around 1,000 people and traveled around the country using 92 railroad vehicles, along with Barnum & Bailey being Barnum & Bailey show about the same size.

However, the forces that would eventually alter how the circus was run began to take shape. With so many employees and performers being sent off to fight and fight for their rights, the shows were an unprecedented time without the capacity to run full-length programs and effectively move around. The Ringling show’s canvassers, who were originally 250, were reduced to just 80 while property personnel was reduced from 20 to 80; most were aging 4-F’s rather than the brisk people who had increased the ranks before the war. For the group of grooms to whom the horses of the Ringling show were put, the same group had been reduced, as the duration of World War I, a cavalry of horses was an essential part of the troops.

Did this not suffice in 1918? It was in 1918 that the Spanish virus was a significant threat to over 22 million people worldwide and swept across the United States, taking tens of thousands of lives and dropping the number of people attending public events to levels that were not witnessed for over 100 years, and culminating with the beginning of COVID-19. These factors caused the Ringling brothers to make a significant decision. Instead of relocating the two central performances to their respective winter home–the Ringling the Barnum & Bailey to Baraboo, Wisc., and the Barnum & Bailey to Bridgeport in Conn. Barnum & Bailey to Bridgeport, Conn.–all the properties were transferred into Barnum & Bailey’s Connecticut facility. This was a move that was not taken lightly, as the Ringlings were already operating in the rural areas of Wisconsin with five brothers not having children beyond their teens, attracting crowds of people willing to pay five cents to see a little plate juggling, the bareback ride of the family horse and the 6-year-old John Ringling’s efforts as a singer-crooner.

John Ringling had progressed from clowning to becoming the company’s business manager. However, for John Ringling, this was a necessity. The management and management of a single business be much more efficient as well, yet the tax cost in Connecticut was considerably lower than the one in Wisconsin. Within a matter of months, it was clear that the circus had regained its position as America’s top choice for entertainment. The films had grown from minute-long divertissements in nickelodeons at the storefront to elaborate, full-length shows that were screened in a comfortable theater, which included the first full-length films made within Hollywood: The Squaw Man (1914) by Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Integrity (1916).

Additionally, getting to the cinemas where films and other entertainments could be enjoyed has been a comparatively easy task even for the most remote family of farmers due to the widespread availability of automobiles. It was the first time a Model T Ford rolled off the production manufacturing line in Detroit in September. 27th 1908. A little more than two decades later, the 15 millionth would come. Americans purchased nearly 30 million vehicles and trucks in the time that followed the Great Depression, and it was estimated that in 1929, almost four of five households owned an automobile. So, John Ringling saw that combining two significant shows and limiting their performances to cities with larger populations was logical for postwar America. Even though some residents of Baraboo could never forget losing the show, the move of the central operations to Connecticut and closer to significant centers of population and transportation routes seemed like the sensible and only option.

If Ringling believed the move was anything but a prelude to a more extensive and beautiful future, he wasn’t acknowledging that. When asked by an American magazine reporter during his 1919 tour whether the advancement of technology could ever influence the circus, Ringling responded: “It is not going to change in any extent, since people and women want to be young again. There’s as good a possibility that Mother Goose or Andersen’s Fairy Tales disappearing from the scene.”

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