The Big Top
Entrance of the Gladiators (also known as Thunder and Blazes, originally rendered in Czech as Vjezd gladiÃ¡toru) is a highly recognizable march composed in 1897 by the Czech composer Julius FucÃk. Written for the calliope, the march has since become indelibly linked to clowns and the circus. Although the tune is widely recognized, its name and composer are relatively obscure.
From circus day in Pompey's Rome complete with lions, pachyderms and performances interspersed with chariot racing until modern day Cirque de Soleil, circuses remain the most enduring and endearing form of family entertainment in the world. Early Roman circuses, in keeping with the morals of the day, featured wild and exciting athletes who fought to the death for their freedom; animal duels, daring equestrians and spectacular chariot races that provided entertainment for the gregarious Roman population.
As the dark ages settled into Europe, circus was forgotten. Groups of touring performers presenting at marketplaces trained animals, acrobatic feats and riders kept the circus fire kindling in the hearts of people. Out of the ashes the smoldering fire again ignited next in Britain, when a British cavalryman, Sergeant-Major Philip Astley, a much honored and talented officer of the British Cavalry was smitten with the excitement of performing fancy riding. After wandering about the countryside showing in the typical fashion of the day, Astley stopped near London and roped off a field for his fancy riding exhibition. Astley perfected the circus ring to enhance his ability to stand on the back of a cantering horse. Interrupting equestrian feats with clown antics, a creation of Philip Astley, became the formation of our modern circus. Later Astley covered part of the ring with a shed, then added seats. Astley soon learned the intricacies of elaborate advertising, and with increased popularity enlarged and improved his now famous Amphitheater Riding School. Later, adding tumbling, rope-dancing and juggling we see the basic ingredients of the circus.
A competitor of Philip Astley, Charles Hughes was not only famous for his English Royal Circus, but also his ability to train first-class trick riders. A pupil, John Bill Ricketts carried the spark of the circus to the colonies. An English cousin of George Washington, Mr. Ricketts gave exciting performances at the Riding School in Philadelphia. Billed as "performing great feats of horsemanship." the program also featured comic feats on horseback and ropedancing. America's first prominent circus man John Bill Ricketts trouped from Albany to Baltimore and enhanced his program with comic dances and tumbling. Ricketts Amphitheater was destroyed in a fire, discouraging him and sending him back to England. He and his ship were lost in a storm.
After the War of 1812, the old style, permanent equestrian type shows were generally replaced by rolling shows that pitched their tents on village greens. They were direct ancestors of the tented circuses we love today. These were basically all American in design and theory and were started by Old Bet, an African elephant. In 1815 Hackaliah Bailey purchased Old Bet from a sea captain for $1,000. Hackaliah had such success in presenting Old Bet to the local townspeople and farmers, he arranged to purchase additional exotic animals from other ship captains. Traveling at night to avoid free spectators, Hackaliah exhibited in barns or other buildings. "Uncle Nate" Howes acquired temporary possession of Old Bet and exhibited her in the first record of a round canvas top.
The world and American grew and changed as did the circus. From wagons, to trucks to trains, the circus continues to reward innovation and creativity. With an independent and capitalistic approach to business, the circus represents what is good and right with American spirit even today. For two thousand years the fire of the circus has burned deep in the hearts of performers as well as audiences and will continue to illuminate the world of entertainment as it continues its' evolution within the human spirit.
Long before the advent of film, television, or the Internet, the circus delivered the world to people's doorsteps across America. Arriving in the United States shortly after the birth of the American republic, the growth of the circus chronicled the expansion of the new nation, from an agrarian backwater to an industrial and overseas empire. The number of circuses in America peaked at the turn of the twentieth century, but the circus has cast a long shadow on twentieth century American popular culture. The circus served as subject matter for other popular forms like motion pictures and television, and its celebration of American military might percolated into these new forms. From its zenith around 1900, to its decline and subsequent rebirth during the late twentieth century, the circus has been inextricably tied to larger social issues in American culture.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the circus had become a huge, tented amusement that traveled across the country by railroad. In an age of monopoly capitalism, American circuses merged together to form giant shows; for example, the Ringling Brothers circus bought Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth in 1907. The biggest shows employed over 1,000 people and animals from around the world. These circuses contained a free morning parade, a menagerie and a sideshow. Their canvas big tops could seat 10,000 spectators and treated audiences to three rings and two stages of constant entertainment. Contemporary critics claimed that the circus was "too big to see all at once." In the early 1900s, nearly 100 circuses, the biggest number in American history, rambled across the country.
In the early twentieth century, the circus overlapped considerably with other popular amusements. Many circus performers worked in vaudeville or at amusement parks during the winter once the circus finished its show season. Vaudeville companies also incorporated circus acts such as juggling, wire-walking, and animal stunts into their programs. In addition, the Wild West Show was closely tied to the circus. Many circuses contained Wild West acts, and several Wild West Shows had circus sideshows. Both also shared the same investors. Circuses occasionally borrowed their subject matter from other contemporary amusements. At the dawning of the American empire, international expositions like the Columbia Exposition in Chicago (1893) profitably displayed ethnological villages; thus, circuses were quick to hire "strange and savage tribes" for sprawling new ethnological congresses of their own. The new film industry also used circus subjects. Thomas Edison's Manufacturing Company produced many circus motion pictures of human acrobatics, trick elephants, and dancing horses, among others. Circuses such as the Ringling Brothers Circus featured early film as part of their novel displays. During the early twentieth century, the circus remained a popular film subject in movies like Charlie Chaplin's Circus (1928) and Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Several film stars, such as Burt Lancaster, began their show business careers with the circus. Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1952. These popular forms capitalized on the circus' celebration of bodily feats.
The American circus began to scale back its sprawling features in the 1920s, owing to the rise of the automobile and the movies. Most circuses stopped holding a parade because streets became too congested with cars. As motion pictures became increasingly sophisticated--and thus a more realistic mirror of the world than the circus--circuses also stopped producing enormous spectacles of contemporary foreign relations. Yet, despite its diminishing physical presence, the circus was still popular. On September 13, 1924, 16,702 people, the largest tented audience in American history, gathered at Concordia, Kansas, for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus. In the milieu of the rising movie star culture of the 1920s, the circus had its share of "stars," from bareback rider May Wirth to aerialist Lillian Leitzel and her dashing trapeze artist husband, Alfredo Codona. Like their movie star counterparts in the burgeoning consumer culture, circus stars began to advertise a wealth of products in the 1920s--from soap to sheet music. Leitzel became so famous that newspapers around the world mourned her death in 1931, after she fell when a piece of faulty equipment snapped during a performance in Copenhagen, Denmark.
During the Great Depression, the colorful traveling circus provided a respite from bleak times. When nearly a quarter of the United States workforce was periodically unemployed, clown Emmett Kelly became a national star as "Willie," a tramp character dressed in rags, a disheveled wig, hat, and smudged face, who pined for lost love and better circumstances. The circus continued to profit during World War II, when railroad shows traveled under the auspices of the Office of the Defense Transportation. Circuses exhorted Americans to support the war effort.
By the early 1950s, circus audience numbers were in decline, in part because the circus no longer had a monopoly on novelty or current events. Television, like movies and radio, provided audiences with compelling and immediate images that displaced the circus as an important source of information about the world. Yet, as a way to link itself to familiar, well-established popular forms, early television often featured live circus and vaudeville acts; circus performers were also featured on Howdy Doody as well as game shows like What's My Line? Ultimately, however, television offered Americans complete entertainment in the privacy of the home--which dovetailed nicely with the sheltered, domestic ethos of suburban America during the early Cold War. In this milieu, public amusements like movies and the circus attracted fewer customers. In 1956, just 13 circuses existed in America. As audiences shrank, showmen scaled back even further on their labor-intensive operations. Moreover, the rise of a unionized workforce (during the industrial union movement during the 1930s) meant that circus owners could no longer depend on a vast, cheap labor pool. Thus, John Ringling North cut his workforce drastically in 1956 when he abandoned the canvas tent for indoor arenas and stadiums. Circus employees and fans alike mourned the "death" of the familiar tented circus--a fixture of the circus business since 1825.
American social movements also transformed the circus. The spread of the animal rights movement in the 1970s transformed the circus. Fearful of picketers and ensuing bad publicity, several circuses in the 1990s arrive silently at each destination and stop at night to avoid protesters. Cirque du Soleil, an extraordinarily successful French Canadian circus from Montreal (with a permanent show in Las Vegas), uses no animals in its performances. Instead, troupe members wear tight lycra body suits, wigs, and face paint to imitate animals as they perform incredible aerial acrobatics to the beat of a slick, synthesized pop musical score and pulsating laser lights. Yet, arguably, Cirque du Soleil (among others) is actually not a circus because of its absence of animals: throughout its long history, the circus has been defined by its interplay of humans and animals in a circular arena.
Despite the transformation of its content, the American circus endures at the turn of the twenty first century. Certainly, towns no longer shut down on "circus day," yet a growing number of small one-ring circuses have proliferated across America. Shows like the Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora, and Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey's show, "Barnum's Kaleidoscope," have successfully recreated the intimate, community atmosphere of the nineteenth century one-ring circus. Ultimately, in the 1990s, a decade of increasingly distant, fragmented, mass-mediated, "virtual" entertainment, the circus thrives because it represents one of the few intimate, live (and hence unpredictable) community experiences left in American popular culture.
The circus reached virtually all Americans. It educated and challenged people, irrespective of their ability to read or their distance from the metropolis. Its live visual presence made it a popular forum on science, race-thinking, gender ideologies, U.S. foreign relations, and national identity. Hamlin Garland remarked: [The circus] was our brief season of imaginative life. In one day "in a part of one day" we gained a thousand new conceptions of the world and of human nature. It was an embodiment of all that was skillful and beautiful in manly action. It was a compendium of biologic research but more important still, it brought to our ears the latest band pieces and taught us the most popular songs. It furnished us with jokes. It relieved our dullness. It gave us something to talk about. . . . We always went home wearied with excitement, and dusty and fretful, but content. We had seen it. We had grasped as much of it as anybody and could remember it as well as the best. Next day as we resumed work in the field the memory of its splendors went with us like a golden cloud.
Like vaudeville, the chain store, the "cheap nickel dump," and the amusement park, the circus helped consolidate a shared national leisure culture at the turn of the century. But in contrast to these mostly urban forms of entertainment, the circus was ubiquitous in all regions of the nation, small towns and urban centers alike: from New York City to Modesto, California, to Greenville, Texas, to New Orleans, to Butte, Montana, to Mazomanie, Wisconsin ... and on and on. Circus Day disrupted daily life thoroughly, normalized abnormality, and destabilized the familiar right at home, day after day, town after town.
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