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Sunday Favorites: When the Circus Came to Town

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was a huge event. This is a poster from the original circus.

It’s hard for us to imagine how big of a deal the circus was.

Today, we’re surrounded by entertainment options; we have the ability to travel at will and the world, in general, is much smaller than it used to be.

But 130 years ago the arrival of the Ringling Brothers circus was not only cause for celebration, but also for the chance to stand in awe and the pure spectacle of it all.

Towns literally shut down when the circus would arrive because it was an opportunity to see wild creatures like elephants and tigers, crazy acrobatic stunts, feats of strength and clownish buffoonery.

The circus production was so large and so extreme it was almost like a small town in and of itself, with thousands of moving pieces being carted around the nation from coast to coast.

When the circus was in town, it was bigger than the Super Bowl.

Circuses often arrived by train. In addition to the performing horses, some 400 other horses were used to transport goods. 

A trip to the miniature circus at the Ringling Museum of Art really puts into perspective the lengths to which the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus went in order to put on a good show.

Even in miniature form, this behind-the-scenes look at the hundreds of performers, caretakers and general laborers needed to pull off the circus is impressive.

There were food preparation tents, dressing tents, and tents for sleeping. There were tents used for mess halls and tents used for nothing except food preparation for the hundreds of animals that needed sustenance.

Cars lined up to park, then families entered the midway where concessionaires hawked their goods by saying “step right up” outside one of many small tents. Toys were sold as souvenirs, food trucks sold circus treats, and circus-goers bathed in the general sense of celebration and awe that accompanied every show.

One of the most interesting tents was the sideshow, which was filled with oddities that delighted both children and adults. The sideshow, sometimes called "The Kids' Show," required an additional charge, unlike the rest of the circus experience, but rewarded those brave and curious souls that dared to venture inside the tent with a look at the truly strange and wonderful things the circus had to offer. 


The sideshow was part of the midway and required 

a separate admission. Here, a man and woman

hold up snakes.

General admission tickets were also purchased on the midway, and while spectators stood in line to purchase tickets, performers stood outside the big top waiting for their turn to “wow” the crowd. There was a general sense of pandemonium, but it was eclipsed by the excitement and pure enjoyment of all who came to see the circus. 

Inside the main tent, many Americans got to see exotic animals for the very first time. Animals were housed in lavishly decorated railroad cars made of hand-carved wood and painted with bright colors. Steel bars prevented the animals from escaping. Lions, tigers, elephants, polar bears and even hippopotamuses were all part of the show.

The performance tent, known as "the big top," consisted of 26,000 yards of canvas and required dozens of workers to raise and lower the big top from town to town. Sometimes, the workers enlisted the help of animals like elephants to accomplish raising the structure, which only added to the spectacle. 

Inside the big top, a multitude of performances took place on four stages with a wide range of action taking place from the floor to the ceiling for a two-hour show.

Circus cars were lavishly decorated. Here, they line the street of a town.

There was room for over 15,000 spectators during these events, and their gasps of amazement were surpassed only by the sounds of laughter and enjoyment. 

Of course, every good thing must come to an end, and just as quickly and efficiently as the circus had come to town and set up, they broke it all down and headed to the next stop. 

The Ringling Museum is packed with history, but the miniature circus, with its thousands of hand-carved pieces, really makes it clear how difficult, intense and rewarding the traveling circus really was.


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