Heading Overseas (03:10)
The Barnum & Bailey Circus set off for England on Nov. 12, 1897. Animals were loaded onto a converted cattle ship. James Bailey was taking his popular production to the place where circuses began in the 19th century.
Smash Hit in Europe (03:54)
Enthusiastic throngs turned out to see the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Manchester on April 9, 1898. The same scene played out in other towns across England and on the European mainland for the next few years.
Rival at Home (06:58)
In Bailey’s absence, the Ringling Bros. expanded into his territory. Circus Director Al Ringling and his younger brother, John, built their show into a serious contender. They also provided many circus goers their first glance at a medium that would eventually render the circus less relevant—motion pictures.
Insane Stunts (01:58)
Circus owners tried to outdo each other by presenting seemingly impossible feats: human cannonballs, death-defying tightrope walkers, and fearless acrobats. The most dangerous acts reminded audience members that they were alive.
Buying the Competition (08:17)
James Bailey returned from Europe in 1902, a year in which 650,000 immigrants arrived in the United States. Looking for an edge, Ringling Bros. hired a theater director to enhance their opening pageant. Bailey died, and his wife negotiated the sale of his circus.
Huge Profits (05:12)
Circus moguls turned to Europe to find the most talented performers. John Ringling found the Leamy Ladies, a group of aerialists, in Berlin in 1908. John Ringling ran the Barnum & Bailey tour while Charles toured with the Ringling Bros. show. The Ringlings spent lavishly.
Lady Hercules and Women's Suffrage (05:40)
Women and male supporters brought New York to a standstill on May 4, 1912 as they marched for women’s right to vote. Women of the Barnum & Bailey Circus organized, too. Strongwoman Katie Sandwina ran the Circus club that advocated for equal suffrage.
Compounding Problems (05:16)
Al Ringling kept the Ringling Bros. tour on schedule after a fire destroyed 43 cars in 1914, but the stress may have contributed to his death. World War I and the Spanish Flu made the circuses more difficult to manage, leading to consolidation.
Combined Circus Debuts (05:07)
A winter storm froze New York as circus staff set up at Madison Square Garden on March 28, 1919. New Yorkers still flocked to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as it was unveiled the following day. Alf T. Ringling died that year.
Ragtime and Jazz (05:20)
Even the most hardened performers never got used to the humiliation of appearing in freak shows. William Henry Johnson was famously billed as “Zip: What is it?” Sideshow band leader P.G. Lowery helped popularize black music.
Savage Beasts, Superstars, and Riches (15:03)
Celebrated animal trainer Mabel Stark joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1921. Meanwhile, animal welfare acts questioned the ethics of cat acts. Tightrope walkers Con Colleano and the Wallendas became star attractions, but Lillian Leitzel was the biggest circus celebrity.
Exciting but Challenging Lifestyle (04:45)
Kids imagined circus life to be glamorous, but performers knew it was not. Performers traveled in crowded railway cars, with little privacy, and the most basic commodities were in short supply.
Last One on the Lot (07:02)
Charles Ringling suffered a stroke and died in the fall of 1926. John Ringling revealed plans to move the circus’s headquarters to Sarasota the following March. Locals could tour the grounds for a quarter. Movies, radio, and sports emerged as greater threats to business.
Death in Denmark (02:03)
Codona and Leitzel traveled to Europe to perform for the winter after a lackluster 1930 season. The latter fell from her trapeze while performing in Copenhagen and died the following day. Bandleader Merle Evans never played the music he had chosen for Leitzel’s performances again.
Great Depression (03:39)
Entertainment was a luxury few could afford in the 1930s, and circuses began failing. John Ringling hired animal trainer Clyde Beatty and brought back cat acts, hoping to boost attendance. Ringling’s personal finances started to unravel. He died in 1936.
Comic Relief (09:01)
Clowns became more popular as the country plunged deeper into the Great Depression. Emmett Kelly became a star as he played Weary Willie. John Ringling North took over operations and soon faced a labor dispute. The mogul added dancing elephants to boost sales.
Connecticut Tragedy (04:46)
The big top caught fire in Hartford on July 6, 1944. The blaze spread with alarming speed due to a mixture of gasoline and paraffin used to waterproof the tent. The disaster claimed 168 lives, and nearly 500 were seriously injured.
Life Risking Work (02:27)
The possibilities of death and gruesome injury were always present as performers attempted perilous stunts. Many performers plunged to their deaths over the years, but the show always went on.
Lingering Stigma (02:02)
Management tried to repair the circus’s image, pledging profits to help the fire’s many victims. But the tragedy in Hartford was on people’s minds as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show returned to the road.
End of an Era (06:53)
The future of circuses looked grim by the early 1950s. John Ringling North could barely make ends meet. He now had to compete with the emerging medium of television, and a labor dispute with the Teamsters Union was the last straw. He shut down in 1956.
Simple Miracles (03:19)
The circus captured the American experience of the time. It was a symbol of the country’s innovation. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performers fondly recall their experiences.
Credits: The Circus: Part 2 (01:19)
Credits: The Circus: Part 2
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