When collecting circus memorabilia it’s important to be familiar with the names of the hundreds of circuses that have crisscrossed this nation since John Bill Ricketts gave his first show in Philadelphia in 1793. The best resource for this information is a book entitled Directory of American Circuses: 1793-2000 by Robert L. Parkinson. The book was published in 2002 by the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Parkinson spent 25 years compiling the information which lists nearly 2,500 circus titles from A.G.V.A. Circus in 1956 to Zoyara’s Equirotator Circus in 1863. When such information is known, years of operation and owner names are given. There are many cross-references which help explain relationships between shows and their owners. It’s a valuable, must-have book for the serious circus collector.
Of course the biggest of the big shows is Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey, which, in 2008 is celebrating 138 years of continuous performances. Known as The Greatest Show On Earth, it has been in existence one year longer than American baseball. The show was so well known that the legendary circus press agent, Dexter Fellows didn’t even mention the show title when visiting newspaper offices. In the March 1930 issue of American Magazine Jerome Beatty wrote an article about Fellows entitled “The Master of Ballyhoo.” In the article he says:
“In introducing himself, he (Fellows) never mentions what circus. To him there is only one. ‘If you were in London,’ he says, ‘singing God Save the King would you think it was necessary to stop and explain what king?’. ”
It Begins with P.T. Barnum
The roots of The Greatest Show On Earth begin with P.T. Barnum. But years before his name was attached to a circus he was involved in numerous show business endeavors. Charles Stratton, better know as Tom Thumb was a major feature at Barnum’s American Museum in New York City beginning in 1842. In 1850 he brought Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera singer, to America for a series of 95 concerts. But his entry into the circus business began in 1871 when P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus premiered in Brooklyn on the 10th of April. In his advanced courier promoting the show he said:
“After thirty years’ active career in the Museum and Show Business, I undertook … to retire permanently from business cares . . . but neither case nor fortune of itself furnishes a comfortable content . . . I am therefore prompted to undertake a new Mammoth Enterprise, by collecting, equipping and putting in actual operation a great National Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome combined—an Exhibition which I propose to make as absolutely novel, colossal, exhaustive, and bewilderingly various as money and experience can make it . . .”
This show had many names in the ensuing years — P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Exposition and World’s Fair, P.T. Barnum’s Great Roman Hippodrome, P.T. Barnum’s New and Greatest Show On Earth, P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show On Earth and Howes’ Great London Circus and Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie. In 1888 Barnum teamed with James A. Bailey and the name of the show became Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth.
The Ringling Brothers Come On The Scene
Meanwhile, in 1884, the five Ringling brothers, Alf T., Al, Charles, John and Otto set out with their first circus, Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers Great Double Shows and Caravan. Two other brothers, Gus and Henry joined the show later but the five original brothers were the owners of the show. Their circus name also evolved using the titles Ringling Brothers Circus and Menagerie, Ringling Brothers and Van Amburgh’s Combined Circus and Menagerie, Ringling Brothers World’s Greatest Railroad Show and Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows.
Barnum died in 1891, but Bailey, the real genius behind the circus operation, continued with the show. Bailey also owned another major show, Forepaugh-Sells Bros. Circus and in 1905 he sold half interest in that show to Ringling Brothers. After Bailey died in April of 1906 his widow sold the other half of the show to the Ringlings.
Ringling Bros. Combines With Barnum & Bailey
In 1907 the Ringling Brothers were able to buy their biggest competitor, Barnum & Bailey for $400,000. They operated the shows separately until 1919 when they were combined. The text on one of the posters (see accompanying image) they used that year said:
“The Amusement Surprise of the Century – Colossal Consolidation – The Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth Are Now Combined Into One Record-Breaking Giant Of All Exhibitions.”
The American Circus Corporation had become quite a force during the 1920s, operating several major railroad shows. They owned Al. G. Barnes Circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, John Robinson Circus, Sells-Floto Circus and Sparks Circus. For the 1929 season the Corporation booked Sells-Floto Circus to open in Madison Square Garden which traditionally had been a Ringling venue. By this time John Ringling was the only remaining brother of the original five. Otto died in 1911, Al in 1916, Alf T. in 1919 and Charles in 1926. To prevent the American Circus Corporation from stealing his opening date at the Garden, John Ringling bought the five Corporation owned shows for $2 million.
When John died in 1936 his nephew John Ringling North became the president of the show. Although his cousin Robert Ringling took over the show in 1943, North came back as president in 1947.
The Tented Era For Ringling and Barnum Ends
Circus lovers were saddened on July 16, 1956 when the Greatest Show On Earth gave its final performance under the Big Top. John Ringling North was quoted in Life Magazine as saying:
“the tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of the past.”
The following year the circus returned to the road now playing in the few arenas large enough to accommodate the show and many outdoor venues. Irvin Feld, a big time promoter of rock n roll concerts was booking and promoting many of these dates.
In 1967 Irvin Feld and his brother Israel bought the total assets of The Greatest Show On Earth from the Ringling and North Families for $8 million. The contract was signed in the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
Feld made major changes almost immediately. In 1968 he created Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College to find and train new clowns. Within two years of purchasing the show, Feld created a second unit of Ringling Bros. equal in size and quality. The two units were known as the Blue Unit and Red Unit.
In 1971 Feld sold the circus to Mattel, Inc. for $47 million in stock, but under a contract with the toy company he remained as the show’s president and producer. Irvin Feld and his son Kenneth paid $22.8 million to buy the show back from Mattel in 1982. The deal included the circus and the ice shows, Ice Follies, Holiday on Ice and Walt Disney’s World on Ice. Siegfried & Roy’s Beyond Belief in Las Vegas was also part of the deal.
Irvin Feld was often called “the man who saved the circus.” Time magazine called him “The Greatest Showman on Earth.” Feld died in 1984. His son Kenneth immediately took control of the shows. Today Kenneth serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Feld Entertainment, Inc. the world’s largest live entertainment company.
This has been a very brief outline of the history of The Greatest Show On Earth. For more detailed information,
Check out these books:
P.T. Barnum America’s Greatest Showman An Illustrated Biography by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1995.
Humbug The Art of P.T. Barnum by Neil Harris. Published by Little, Brown and Company 1973.
Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum Edited and Introduced by A.H.Saxon. Published by Columbia University Press 1983.
Ringlingville USA by Jerry Apps. Published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press 2005.
Those Amazing Ringlings and their Circus By Gene Plowden 1967.
A Ringling by Any Other Name, The Story of John Ringling North and His Circus By Ernest Albrecht. Published by The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1989.