Circus and the City: New York, 1793–2010
October 31, 2012 | by John Reed
As we—like Lady Justice at her scales—weigh the virtues and policies of our presidential candidates, our very future in the balance, it is perhaps not without merit to reflect upon the classical history of democracy, and a fledging nation, now great, which has taken up a banner of representative government as passed down from the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. Perhaps, as well, as the airwaves are electric with the storied truths apropos to this most momentous of elections—this cotterpin in the history of humanity, perhaps the very universe, this year of destiny, of DECISION 2012!—we might look to the birth of our comedic and dramatic tradition, which we will find in the Dionysian festivals of Ancient Greece. Or, wait, is it more of a circus?
Circus it is. Hollywood may claim Aristotle as a father, and Washington may fancy itself an ancestor of the Roman Republic, but don't we all know that our truer father is P. T. Barnum—tabloid king and political boss—and that our truer tradition is the circus, three rings?
“Nixon & Co.’s Mammoth Circus: The Great Australian Rider James Melville as He Appeared Before the Press of New York in His Opening Rehearsal at Niblo’s Garden,” 1859. Poster, printed by Sarony, Major, & Knapp, New York. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.
1796, Captain Jacob Crowninshield, future congressman, speculates upon the transport of a Bengal elephant. Upon arrival in New York Harbor, Crowinshield is rewarded with an unheard of bid: $10,000. With that, the posters and handbills are printed, and the show is on. The elephant is on display on the corner of Beaver Street & Broadway. “Admittance one quarter of a dollar—children one eighth of a dollar.”
“The Elephant,” 1797. Broadside with woodcut illustration, printed by William Barrett, Newburyport, Massachusetts. Collection of The New-York Historical Society.
The American circus married the British equestrian display (which had added acrobats, clowns, and other traveling and fair performers) to the Americanism of exotic animal exhibitions, or menageries.
“It is a season of still deeper excitement, in such a retired country village, when once a year, after several days’ heralding a train of great red wagons is seen approaching, marked in large letters, CIRCUS, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. This arrival has been talked of, and, produces an immediate bustle and sensation. Fifty boys breaking loose from school, rush immediately to the street, and in treble tones cry ‘Circus!’” —The Knickerbocker, 1839
“Magnanimity of the Elephant Displayed in the Preservation of his Keeper J. Martin, in the Bowery Menagerie in New York,” 1835. Etching and aquatint. Somers Historical Society, Somers, New York.
Isaac Van Amburgh (1811–1865, the surname was the invention of his Native American grandfather) found inspiration in the biblical tale of Daniel and the lion’s den. Van Amburgh found employment and eventual fame in North Salem’s Zoological Institute of New York, which was not a scientific venture, but a brand/franchise of small menageries. (The Zoological Institute was initiated at the Elephant Hotel, owned by Hachaliah Bailey, of the future Barnum & Bailey Circus.) Rising from cage-cleaner to chief attraction, to favorite of Queen Victoria, Van Amburgh emphasized the danger and ferocity, and man’s dominion over the beasts. “The Lion King” dared to walk into a cage with wild cats, and put his head in the lion’s jaw.
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer. “Portrait of Mr Van Amburgh, As He Appeared with His Animals at the London Theatres, 1846–47.” Oil on canvas. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
The circus—as theatrical mainstay or touring spectacle—continued to evolve and gain currency in the rapidly populating cities of the United States. With the innovation of the tent, 1826, the circus found the rest of the nation.
“The Circus is a national institution. Though originating elsewhere, and in ages long previous to the beginning of History, it has here reached a perfection attained nowhere else.” —Walt Whitman, 1856
“Exterior View of the Grand Pavilion of Franconi’s Hippodrome, Covering an Area of Two Acres, as it Appears When Erected for Public Exhibition,” 1853. Tinted lithograph, printed by Sarony & Major, New York. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
The calliope—a clamorously loud steam organ—was first adapted for circus use in 1857. The calliope originated in locomotive whistles, and was readily implemented by riverboats, which were also steam powered. The circus calliope, or carousel, was an apparatus entirely proclamatory, and drawn by horses. The calliope procession, which could be heard for miles around, announced the arrival of the circus through the nineteenth century.
“Grand Procession of the Steam Calliope Drawn by a Team of Six Elephants in the City of New York. Now Attached to Sand’s, Nathan’s & Co.s American & English Circus,” 1858. Color lithograph poster, printed by Sarony, Major & Knapp, New York. Collection of The New-York Historical Society.
Barnum’s attractions spanned biblical tales to minstrel routines to strange science to temperance shows to live animals to “freaks.” The freaks came in two varieties: those born (Siamese twins, albinos, giants, etc), those made (the often eroticized tattooed ladies, strong men, “Circassian Slaves”). A third variety, the exotics—“Wild Men,” “Missing Links”—emerged in the later years of the nineteenth century.
“Vantile Mack, The Infant Lambert, or Giant Baby!!,” ca. 1860. Hand-colored lithograph, printed by Currier & Ives. © Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.
In 1868, P.T. Barnum’s American Museum burned down for the second time. Barnum, who was active in politics, vowed retirement from show business. But in 1871, Barnum pitched a new tent, this time in Brooklyn: “P. T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome.” At only fifty cents, the ticket offered a wealth of entertainment. Taking to the railways, “the Greatest Show on Earth,” marked the onset of what is now termed the “Golden Age” of the U.S. Circus.
“I Am Coming,” 1875/1879. Framed poster with woodcut illustrations, printed in two colors, inset portrait of P. T. Barnum engraved by Mayes; border by Roylance & Purcell, New York. Hertzberg Circus Collection of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.
The “big four” circus animals, that is to say the animals that any respectable circus would have, were the elephant, the giraffe, the hippopotamus, and the rhinoceros. When Barnum purchased Jumbo, a large African elephant, from the Royal Zoological Society in London, for the sum of $10,000, British public sentiment weighed in—their elephant must stay!—and Barnum seized the opportunity. Jumbo would be Barnum’s greatest earner. As marketed, the family friendly giant, upon his arrival in New York in 1882, set off a “Jumbomania.”
“Jumbo the Children’s Giant Pet,” 1882. Poster, printed by the Hatch Lithographic Company, New York. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Tibbals Collection.
In 1885, while walking in a railway yard, Jumbo was struck by a train and fatally injured. The death did not stop the ballyhoo; Barnum claimed that Jumbo had given his life in an attempt to save the life of Tom Thumb, a young circus elephant. Through the 1886 season, Barnum displayed Jumbo’s skeleton; a headline in the New York Times assessed: “Jumbo Stuffed a Greater Attraction than Jumbo Alive.” Jumbo’s skeleton is currently in the possession of the American Museum of Natural History, where it is occasionally displayed.
Souvenir cross-section of Jumbo's tusk, 1885. Ivory, ink. Circus World Museum.
The first Madison Square Garden, so named for its location—on Twenty-Sixth Street near Madison Square—was an open arena built with circuses in mind. The second incarnation of the Garden soared to thirty-two stories, and boasted its own theater and concert hall, a roof garden, the largest main hall in the world, and the largest restaurant in the city. It was here in 1919 that the “Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus” made its debut; the show merged the nation’s two largest circuses.
Madison Square Garden III would come in 1925, followed by the current Madison Square Garden, which would break ground in 1968. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus of the Madison Garden III era hoped for a boost from Cecille B. DeMille's 1952 film, The Greatest Show on Earth, and the draw of celebrities; Marilyn Monroe opened the 1955 show. Through the 60s and 70s, economic instability and a distrust of conventional entertainment dampened enthusiasm for what had become a bloated, indoor moneymaker.
“Every country gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets bullfights. Italy the Church. America Hollywood.” —Erica Jong, 1995
“Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Enormous Shows United. Madison Square Garden New York / The World Famous Metropolitan Home of These Combined Stupendous Shows,” 1900. Poster, printed by the Strobridge Lithographing Co., Cincinnati & New York. ˝ Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.
Circuses were not integrated workplaces—not until 1968 did Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus feature its first African American act, the King Charles Troupe (basketball-playing unicyclists). But as of the latter half of the nineteenth century, with the influence of minstrel and Vaudeville performance, African American musicians and performers were popular sideshow attractions.
Frederick Whitman Glasier. Sideshow band, ca. 1905, printed 2009. Print from a glass plate negative. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Glasier Glass Plate Negative Collection.
In “Frog’s Paradise,” husband and wife “benders,” Harry DeMarlo (born James Dwight Morrow, 1882–1971) and Friede DeMarlo (born Gobsch, 1890–1980) performed aerial and contortion stunts in cumbersome paper mâché frog heads. (A full costume is on exhibit at the Bard exhibition.)
With the turn of the century “thrill acts,” circuses promoted billings of life-defying danger. In the “Whirl of Death,” Friede gripped a leather bit in her teeth, and was spun as high as 100 feet in the air by a powerful electric motor. In 1927, the electricity gave out while Friede was on the Whirl. The London News featured the story: “La Marletta, The Human Top, Crashes To The Ground At The London Olympia ... taken to the West London Hospital at Hammer Schmidt Crossing. Fearful accident. Women in audience screamed in panic and a great number fainted away, many others hurried out.” After a brave recuperation, Friede returned to the Whirl, but the electric motor was replaced by a more reliable (but still persnickety) system of uncoiling rope.
Harry and Friede De Marlo. Photos ca. 1912.
The lineage of the grand spectacle traces to theatrical pageants, the European art of pantomime, and the tableau vivant of France. The early twentieth century circus returned to the form in august style; but the “spec,” as it was known in circus parlance, owed as much to the developing consciousness of film as to performative tradition. Historical reenactments of a previously unimagined scope had become a reality in 1908’s La Mort du duc de Guise, two versions of The Three Musketeers (1903 and 1911), 1911’s A Tale of Two Cities, and other early silent era films.
“Ringling Bros. Magnificent 1200 Character Spectacle / Joan of Arc,” ca. 1913. Color lithographic poster, printed by the Strobridge Lithographing Co., Cincinnati & New York. © Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.
May Wirth (1894–1978), a second generation circus performer, astounded audiences with her “Back Across,” which landed her, via backwards somersault, on a horse that closely followed her own. Her billing, as “the world’s greatest female bareback rider,” was, in the estimation of her spectators, deserved. In 1920, the New York Times echoed the sentiment: “when P. T. Barnum, or Mark S. Orelius or whoever it was said: ‘There is nothing new under the sun,’ Miss Wirth had not been born. Otherwise he would not have said it.”
May Wirth’s “back across,” 1913. Photograph. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.
A sideshow banner by Siegmund Bock, an early and influential painter in the oeuvre.
Siegmund Bock. “Miss Louise and Her Den of Alligators,” ca. 1915. Sideshow banner, painted canvas. Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin.
The Federal Government stepped in to keep the New York circus alive during the depression. Under the auspice of the Federal Theatre Project, the WPA Circus employed 375 performers, and entertained millions of New Yorkers, 1935 to 1939.
“The World’s Greatest Circus / Under the Big Tent… Schley Ave. at E. 177th St., Bronx…,” 1936. Silkscreen poster, printed by the Poster Division, Federal Theatre, New York City. Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Felix Adler (1895–1960), with a tenure of fifty years at the Barnum & Bailey Circus, was the quintessential sad clown. The “King of Clowns,” as he was known, believed that comedy and tragedy were inextricably entwined, and embraced improvisation and accident. During the course of one performance, Adler and his mule toppled in a heap, and Adler was unexpectedly treated to the presence of a mule sitting in his lap. It was a gloriously hilarious moment, but, as Adler opined to the New York Times, “of course, not for love, oats or sugar could I ever get that mule to sit in my lap again.”
“A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in. I confess I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.” —H.L. Mencken on the 1952 presidential election.
Birdcage hat worn by Felix Adler, ca. 1940-50. Circus World Museum.
Influenced by the New York World’s Fair, the struggling Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus undertook a total makeover. In 1941, the circus recruited Norman Bel Geddes, who designed the Futurama exhibit of the World’s Fair, to oversee a new look for all aspects of the show, promotion, and performance. Bel Geddes, who had Broadway experience, took Mother Goose as his cue.
Lawson Wood. “Ringling Bros / Barnum & Bailey” with monkey band, 1943. Color lithograph poster. © Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, Gift of Harry T. Peters Sr. Family.
In 1967, John Ringling North sold the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to a consortium of investors led by music promotor Irving Feld. Purchase price: $8 million. Feld promptly revamped the show, and instituted the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College.
Circus animals on 33rd Street, April 1968. Photograph. © Bettmann/CORBIS.
The three-ring experience of Ringling Brothers was spectacular, but it had lost much of the original funky fun of the tent and small theater circus. Through the 1970s, a surge in New York circus arts coincided with a surge in New York performance art. In 1974, in a guerrilla thrill act, french highwire artist Philippe Petit spanned the Twin Towers by cable. The daredevil routine delighted New Yorkers, even the police. In 1977, the Big Apple Circus, founded by the juggling duo of Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, pitched its first tent in the sand at the foot of the twin towers, a then TriBeCa wasteland known as “the landfill.”
“New York School for Circus Arts Presents the Big Apple Circus.” Louisa Chase, 1977, Cut paper 29 × 23 in. (73.7 × 58.5 cm), Big Apple Circus.
Through February 3, Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010, is on display at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design, History, Material Culture. The show spans three floors of the Upper West Side Townhouse, and claims New York—and rightly so—as the wellspring of the American Circus (which, alas, isn't just under the bigtop).