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Battle for the Big Top
P. T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus
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Battle for the Big Top is the untold story of the battles of the three circus kings–James Bailey, P.T. Barnum, and John Ringling-all vying for control of the vastly profitable and widely influential American Circus.
WORLD ON FIRE
ON JULY 6, 1944, ABOUT 170,000 PEOPLE LIVED IN HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT, making it then the fifty-first-largest city in the United States. Just a month earlier, Allied forces had landed on the beaches of Normandy, and citizens of Hartford were hopeful that D-Day would mark a turning point in a war that had cost the lives of so many of the area’s young men. Residents were regularly tending their victory gardens in an effort to ease food shortages, and able-bodied men who had stayed home to work were making about $50 a week, if the job was a decent one. Rent might take a week’s pay, but a loaf of bread was only a dime, and gas, if it could be had, cost 14.9 cents a gallon—drivers could even put together a set of china if they saved enough coupons from filling up.
One person working in Hartford on that July day was county detective John F. Reardon, who had been called out to the four-acre site on the outskirts of town where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had set up for the day. Hartford might have been a big, sophisticated city, but this was still “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and about seven thousand paying customers—most of them women and children—were packed inside the sawdust-strewn big top, happy to be distracted from their daily concerns for a few hours. Ordinarily, security was not a problem with the Ringling show, but there was always the possibility of a pickpocket or a fistfight and a city simply didn’t bring 5 percent of its population together without some kind of a police presence involved.
More than a few parents who sat on the bleachers with their spellbound children were old enough to remember when only three big days punctuated the course of the American year: the Fourth of July, Christmas, and the day the circus came to town. Everything stopped on those days. Businesses closed. Banks were shuttered. Schools went on holiday. And though movies had eaten into the public’s fascination with the circus, and wartime made everything more difficult, this was still a special event. All those people jammed side by side in a sweltering tent, the air thick with the scent of animals and hay and wood shavings, and never mind the fact that it was in the nineties outside and thunderstorms threatened. The circus had come to town.
Opening the show was a spectacular parade about the three vast rings of elephants and other exotic animals and bespangled performers—gorgeous equestriennes atop broad-backed, high-stepping white horses, fez-sporting bears dancing along on their hind legs, lumbering hippos, caged panthers, lions, and tigers, Pomeranians trotting atop the iron-rimmed wheels of the wagons, the steam-driven calliope hooting and whistling above it all like no other music-making machine on earth. Then the troupe of woeful-faced clowns had followed, reducing adults and kids alike to tearful laughter.
Owing to the weather forecast, circus managers Fred Bradna and George Smith had quietly determined to shorten the program, and the famed Wallenda high-wire artists had already begun their act two slots ahead of the normal schedule. No net protected them from the circus floor, though cutting across the hippodrome track that circled the arena lay the runway cage through which Alfred Court’s clawed menagerie—forty lions, thirty tigers, thirty leopards, and a score of bears for good measure—would soon travel from their steel cages outside the tent to the center ring.
The Wallendas had been headliners with the circus since John Ringling had spotted them performing in Havana in 1927. Ringling had been in the business for nearly a half century at the time, and though he was always on the lookout for something new, he was not a man easily impressed. But when he saw German-born Karl Wallenda mount a chair balanced on a bar spanning the shoulders of two men on bicycles riding across a thin wire fifty feet above the ground, only to have a lithe teenaged beauty spring onto his shoulders to complete a three-level, four-person gliding pyramid, Ringling had signed them on the spot. The group had been about to debut in Madison Square Garden the following year, but roustabouts reported that the safety net had somehow been lost in shipping and the act would have to be canceled. The Wallendas had instead gone on without the net, received a standing ovation said to have lasted for fifteen minutes, and had been performing without a safety net since.
Detective Reardon was no less fascinated than anyone else by the spectacle in front of him, and the twenty minutes that had passed since the opening fanfare were little more than the blink of an eye. Reardon was standing just inside the main entrance to the big top, behind the bleachers, or “blues,” of Section A, so when the trouble started, it was behind his back. Later, Reardon speculated that someone had dropped a cigarette close to the canvas wall, and he lamented that if he had noticed the glowing embers of sawdust, or the initial wisps of smoke, or even the tiny fingers of flame that began to lick at the sidewall, all could have been averted with a simple pail of water.
But there were the dazzling Wallendas, forty feet above, in stunning white costumes, cavorting impossibly atop a slender wire, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no safety net was stretched beneath them, balancing, tumbling, and catching beautifully. Whose eyes could be torn away? Regretfully, the tent that had been hoisted up that day by a crew reduced from its normal number by wartime exigency was not the new fire-resistant model, which had proved to leak rain prodigiously upon its initial deployment. This was the old big top that had been pressed back into service, the one that had been coated with a mixture of eighteen hundred pounds of paraffin wax dissolved in twenty-three thousand gallons of gasoline. It did not leak. The hazard may seem unimaginable in our OSHA-conscious era, but at that time, in all its seventy-three-year history, John Ringling’s circus had yet to experience the loss of a single patron’s life.
Photographer Dick Miller had just finished snapping the last shots of the clowns disappearing down the chute from Clown Alley when he turned and saw the flames running from the sidewall up a guy rope toward the top of the tent. “Fire!” he cried, and Detective Reardon and scores of others were soon echoing the call, the Wallendas sliding down lines not yet burning toward the chaos on the ground.
Fanned by a breeze out of the storm-laden west, the flames advanced at a speed that astonished witnesses. Three ushers ran through the main entrance carrying buckets to fight the fire, but the instant they were inside, the intense heat set their hair and clothing smoldering. They were forced to retreat, using the water they carried to douse themselves.
One roustabout told a reporter, “It was like you’d opened hell’s doors. You had all you could do to get your hands over your face and run the other way.”
One policeman stationed outside saw what looked like the glowing end of a giant cigarette pressed from the inside against the roof of the tent, the spot widening at great speed before it ultimately erupted into flame. By this time, the caged animals had become aware of the fire and were screaming in a jungle cacophony.
Inside, great sheets of flaming canvas rained down upon audience members, who clambered—or tumbled—from the bleachers. The lucky ones scrambled through crevices in the bleachers toward safety. Others clawed helplessly as the heavy benzene-soaked fabric enveloped them, then vaporized into flame.
Other audience members dashed frenziedly away from the advancing flames but found themselves cut off by the animal runway that cut across the hippodrome track. Before they could turn back, they were trapped, then crushed and trampled by the thousands stampeding behind them.
One woman rolled out from under the tent’s sidewall, her face blackened with soot, her clothes charred. She stood to gather herself, then ran back toward the main entrance of the flaming tent before a policeman tackled her. “My God,” she cried, thrashing in his grasp. “My God. My kid’s in there.”
Through it all, the circus band, led by organist Pete Heaton and stationed at the east end of the big top, opposite Section A, blasted “Stars and Stripes Forever”—the traditional signal for disaster—right up to the moment when the towering main poles toppled and the last remnants of the flaming roof dropped down. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over, the entire big top gone, the bleachers charred, the dead and the dying strewn everywhere.
Circus director Bradna—the man whom titan John Ringling himself had fought to install—his hair burned away as he pulled more than a dozen trapped children from the mass at the animal chute, stared in disbelief at the smoke and dust-palled ruin about him, bodies piled four and five deep, the animals still screeching and wailing hellishly. It seemed impossible. The worst circus fire in all history—far more Hartford lives lost than lost in the assault on Normandy—started and finished in less than fifteen minutes.
Conceivably, this could have meant the end. The end of the Ringling Brothers empire, if not of an era itself.
BEFORE THE BIG TOP
THE CIRCUS WOULD IN FACT SURVIVE THE AWFUL TRAGEDY, AND THE RINGLING show would not cease the use of the “big top” tent for another dozen years. But the Hartford disaster was a significant punctuation point in a process of reorganization and downsizing of the once-formidable circus industry, which had been ongoing since 1929, when John Ringling himself had struggled to keep his “greatest show on earth” afloat amid the economic wreckage brought by Black Tuesday of October 29.
Those struggles for Ringling, who was by the 1920s a highly diversified and successful businessman with far-flung holdings in railroading, banking, planned community development, and oil, might have seemed impossible scant years before the Depression, when the American circus reigned as far and away the most compelling form of popular entertainment in the nation, and indeed the world. At the turn of the century, when the big top was raised and the pachyderms paraded from the rail station to the circus grounds, an entire community turned its attention to the event that was about to unfold.
Nor were the financial implications of the industry insignificant. In the months leading up to the stock market crash, Ringling cleared about $1 million from $2.5 million in receipts. To gain some appreciation of those sums in terms of contemporary dollars, we could use the Bureau of Labor’s somewhat conservative formula to adjust for inflation and peg Ringling’s 1929 profits at about $15 million in today’s money. But economists Michael Keppler and Robert Gunther, who compare the relative value of wealth against the gross national product of a given year, would suggest Ringling’s 1929 circus generated the equivalent of at least $250 million in revenue, with profits equating to $100 million or more. That the circus once commanded such social and economic significance may be difficult to fathom today, when Super Bowls that draw less than a hundred million viewers are belittled, when television audiences can access four hundred or more channels, and when movie executives measure true success as film releases that gross in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
But, indeed, the circus did command the world of American entertainment during the greatest part of the nation’s rise to world prominence and, in time, it became an inextricable part of the national identity. Just as the American frontier had been tamed by political leaders and adventurers, so had the most fearsome wild creatures been brought into détente with their human trainers. For a can-do nation that prided itself on the ability to overcome any technological obstacle to progress, what better metaphor might there be than a troupe of acrobats or gymnasts defying gravity? And if an audience member’s attention might wander back to some cold reality outside the tent for a moment, the Joe-ordinary, never-catch-a-break clowns were there to remind them: we are all in this mess together.
Despite all the twentieth-century technological advancements in entertainment—movies, television, computers, and gaming consoles among them—it would be nearly a hundred years from when John Ringling had first grappled with a brave new world to the final performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, testimony of how deeply ingrained in the American consciousness the institution of the circus had become.
As the final show in 2017 approached, Kenneth Feld, whose family had purchased the show from Ringling heirs in 1967, pointed out that the business model for the circus was in fact 146 years old, a form of mass entertainment that attempted to incorporate a bit of everything for audiences of all types and tastes. In this modern era, when technology allows for ever-narrowing “entertainment channels,” the circus had suffered in the same way that big department stores and print newspapers have. Given the high costs of mounting such a diverse, labor-intensive show, the Felds’ circus had long been an enterprise on life support, and with the 2015 decision to retire the pachyderms came the final blow, proof of P. T. Barnum’s hoary observation: “When attempting to entertain the American public, it is best to have an elephant.”
Yet even if the end had been in sight for some time, many in the crowd on May 17, 2017, were distraught. Shawn Goberdhan, a thirty-one-year-old pharmacy manager who had brought his two-year-old son to see the show, held out hope that the circus would somehow find a way to return, retrofitted in some way for a twenty-first-century audience. “If it doesn’t,” Goberdhan said, “I can’t even think about it.”
Part of the reason for Goberdhan’s inability to comprehend the end of the circus likely has to do with the fact that the roots of the American circus date to colonial days, more than a hundred years before the arrival of Barnum and Bailey and the Ringlings and the Greatest Show on Earth. And actually, the roots of the circus itself go back two thousand years, to the Roman circus, a fixture of public entertainment dating from the fifth century BCE. During the hundred-day opening of the Colosseum in Rome, some nine thousand animals were killed, and it was commonplace for the Romans to sacrifice captured soldiers and army deserters to be trampled by elephants or brought down by lions and tigers in the arena. The emperor Commodus prided himself on having stalked and killed a hundred bears in a single day inside an artificial forest created in the Colosseum. Earlier even than the Roman circus was a Greek version called a hippodrome, primarily consisting of horse and chariot racing, which had been included in the Olympic Games as early as the seventh century BCE.
Though very little of what audiences viewed in those ancient venues, including gladiatorial contests and the slaughter of wild beasts, survived antiquity, it would be nearly thirteen hundred years after the collapse of the Roman Empire until a single dictionary or encyclopedia wavered from the common definition of the term:
Circus: A wall-encircled arena, with its slanting tiers of seats, its gaping multitudes of spectators, its horse, foot, and chariot races, its naval shows, its athletic combats, and its groups of gladiators clashing arms, with mournful greeting, below great Caesar’s throne.
To appreciate the evolution of the American circus, then, and its emergence as “one of the most important achievements of mankind,” as one commentator has put it, requires a bit of backstory. And while Barnum and Bailey and Ringling might not have created “the greatest show” out of whole cloth, their accomplishments may seem even more remarkable given their ability to transcend what had been a staple of the world’s entertainment for upward of two millennia. One measure of creativity, poet and scholar Brewster Ghiselin asserts, is “the combining of familiar elements into a form never before apprehended.” Indeed, that was the watchword for many who experienced the full flowering of circus productions during the institution’s golden age: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Here is how it happened.
THE PERIODIC TABLE OF CIRCUS ELEMENTS
SLAUGHTER, NAVAL BATTLES, AND CAESAR’S THRONE THANKFULLY DISAPPEARED from the circus with the passing of the Roman Empire, but when the world reemerged from the Dark Ages, what are generally regarded as the three essential elements of the modern circus were stirring: acts that can be presented in a ring, including riding, tumbling, juggling, and balancing; clowns; and the ring itself. Over time, three other elements added color and vitality: the menagerie, the sideshow, and the parade.
Historian Isaac J. Greenwood writes of a troupe of latter-day Eastern desultores, or horsemen, who caused a stir in the thirteenth century when they arrived by ship at Constantinople. “They stretched their ropes for dancing from one ship’s mast to another, and in riding stood erect upon their horses, mounting, dismounting, and turning somersaults at full gallop. In sixteenth-century England, even Shakespeare made reference to the fabled silver-shod Marocco, a trained horse who could count coins and walk about on its hind legs: ‘How easy it is… the dancing horse will tell you.’”
By 1652, one William Stokes was to publish his illustrated Art of Vaulting, which showed how he might mount one horse via a mighty leap over other stationary horses, sometimes choosing to land neatly in the saddle or at other times atop his chosen steed. And Greenwood shares an account of John Evelyn, dated 1682, describing the regular visits of the Moroccan ambassador and his retinue to Hyde Park, where crowds gathered “to watch their extraordinary activity in horsemanship, and in flinging and catching their lances; they rid [sic] very short, and could stand upright, managing their spears with incredible agility, and the ambassador himself charging his gun all at full speed.”
More tightrope walking had been reported throughout the Middle Ages, including one account of a man who, in 1385, climbed from the top of a bridge in Paris to a church tower while holding a pair of lighted candles.
And at Saint Bartholomew’s fair in London was introduced the curiosity or “monster,” an attraction that would one day find its way to the circus sideshow. Among the earliest on display there was a “Miracula Natura,” elsewhere billed as “O’Brien the Irish Giant the Tallest Man in the Known World Being Near Nine Feet Hight,” who soon had company, including “a man with one head but two bodies, a hermaphrodite, a woman with three breasts, and a child with three legs, as well as a man without hands or legs who nonetheless managed to play the oboe and paint pictures that were offered for sale.”
A number of royals and wealthy nobles of the Middle Ages were fond of keeping exotic beasts, including elephants, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, and giraffes, in private collections. By the fourteenth century, French rulers had established a public menagerie at the Louvre featuring lions, and soon the practice spread about Europe.
As to the antecedents of that most essential element of the circus, the clown—the figure who bridges the gap between the superhuman performer and the ordinary gawkers in the audience—it was in Italy during the Renaissance that the clown as a distinguishable modern performing figure began to take shape, in a genre known as the commedia dell’arte, loosely structured plays that tended to be bawdy and highly improvised and that were often dominated by a chief actor who could tell jokes, dance, sing, juggle, mime, and do acrobatics, all to keep a show from flagging. The most well-known clown, prior to American Emmett Kelly, was an early-nineteenth-century London performer: Joey Grimaldi. He never appeared in a circus ring, instead earning his reputation in vaudeville-styled performances at Sadler’s Wells and other theaters, but his work set the bar for all the clowns to come. According to one commentator, all Grimaldi had to do to send his audiences into screaming laughter was don his outlandish makeup—his face described as a startling mask, his mouth “a blood-red wound, a mile-wide smear of jam”—then walk onstage and ask, “Well, how are you?”
Grimaldi was also a gifted singer, using musical performances to humanize his comedy. He would take his place, seated at the footlights, flanked on one side by a huge codfish’s head and on the other by a giant oyster that opened and closed its mouth along with the music. Grimaldi sang “An Oyster Crossed in Love,” which sent the adults in the audience into paroxysms. At the same time, he projected such pathos for the oyster’s unrequited efforts that all the children were in tears.
So great was Grimaldi’s impact upon the genre that the slang industry term for clown to this day is “Joey.” He may never have set foot in a circus, but his outlandish makeup, his kaleidoscopic costumes, his wild array of wigs—Mohawks, purple plumes, thatches of orange and green thistle—and his shoes and gloves that left not an inch of skin showing created the archetypal look for all clowns.
Thus, with all the disparate elements of the modern circus alive in the popular imagination, there remained only the need for some individual to pull things together. In seventeenth-century England, public exhibitions of skilled horsemanship had become popular, with a man named Thomas Johnson among the first performers. As an October 1758 issue of Grand Magazine rhapsodized: “This Artist has, for some weeks past, entertained the town with his singular method of Riding. He first gallops round the field, standing upon one horse; he next mounts a pair, one foot on each horse, gallops then full speed round the course; and afterwards does the same with three horses.… He has even rode the single horse standing on his head.”
The good Dr. Samuel Johnson himself was drawn to witness this equestrian at work and came away impressed: “Such a man, Sir, should be encouraged; for his performances show the extent of human powers in one instance, and thus tend to raise our opinion of the faculties of man… so that every man may hope, by giving as much application, although, perhaps, he may never ride three horses at a time, or dance upon a wire.”
Thomas Johnson may have been adroit enough to capture the attention of Samuel Johnson, but the individual often recognized as the father of the modern circus was Londoner Philip Astley, a former cavalry rider and veteran of the Seven Years’ War who set up a permanent performance arena in a field near Westminster Bridge. Astley staked out an open ring on his rented property and performed a series of stunts on his horses in full view of passersby. There were no viewing stands, but to help attract attention Astley erected a small platform in the middle of the rope-encircled ring where one or two pipers played, accompanied by Mrs. Patty Astley on bass drum. Handbills were posted about and thrust upon bewildered commuters, who must have wondered what on earth was causing the commotion in the middle of what had been so recently just a vacant, marshy lot.
As pipers piped and the drummer drummed, Astley mounted his horses and began to ride… and in such a fashion as most had never seen before. Standing on one foot, and then on two—though one per horse—standing on his head, standing on his hands, leaping from mount to mount, all the while at a gallop around the circular track. Astley soon had crowds stumbling down the pathway to stand transfixed about his crude ring, and just before the moment when he would dismount with a flourish, and while the cheers and the applause still sounded, wife Patty would leave off her drumming and slip smilingly through the crowd to collect, in the words of one commentator, “such gratuity as the crowd might be pleased to bestow.”
Some say that the extraordinary skill that Astley exhibited resulted from a simple discovery that he had made: riding horses about a circular ring created a centrifugal force that aided him in keeping his balance. The harder the horses went, in fact, the easier it was for Astley to stand upright. Although some dispute the notion that Astley was the first trick rider to discover the benefits of ring riding, and others quibble about whether he or a colleague hit upon the ideal ring size of forty-two feet in diameter (still the standard size for today’s circuses), it is indisputable that he was the equestrian to stamp the practice as a sine qua non for the trick rider and eventually for the grand institution of the circus that long outlived him.
Astley’s modest endeavors at Halfpenny Hatch proved an enduring success, and by 1770, he moved his enterprise a few hundred yards away to a new site beside the southern end of Westminster Bridge (just south of today’s London Eye and the Tate Modern), where he built a set of covered grandstands and charged a shilling for entry. Overhead galleries were set aside for the gentry, and stables for the horses, and the sides of the buildings that faced the roadways were painted into brightly colored billboards that advertised the attractions. Not only would audiences witness amazing feats of horsemanship, the posters promised, but many other delights as well.
One of Astley’s most famed attractions was a pony named Billy that he had acquired for a nominal price at the Smithfield Market. Astley applied his fabled skills to the animal, and soon enough, Billy was featured on the program under the sobriquet “The Little Military Learned Horse.” Among Billy’s many feats were his abilities to jump through hoops, play dead, play hide-and-seek, add and subtract, set a table for tea, and pour the boiling water into the cups. His master was fond of introducing the act by coming upon the tiny animal lying motionless in the ring. Feigning dismay, Astley would turn to his audience and proclaim: “My horse lies dead apparent in your sight / But I’m the man to set the thing aright.” Soon enough, Billy would be miraculously resuscitated, able to dance, paw out sums, and cavort beyond all logic, with Astley providing explanatory doggerel through their routine.
Eventually, Astley combined the features of the ring with those of the theater, building a stage at one end of a new amphitheater of his design. Equestrian acts were performed in the ring, while ropewalking, skits, and freak shows (also known as monstrosities), which had become quite popular, took place onstage. Some of the “monsters” might seem somewhat tame by later standards: one of the first to be featured in Astley’s show is described in rather poetic terms by an early historian: “We are told of a certain fair one, from the south of France, who walked around the ring, gravely attended to by Mr. Astley bearing lighted candles, the better to display the wealth of golden tresses which trailed several feet upon the ground.”
- On Sale
- Jul 12, 2022
- Page Count
- 288 pages