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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
File:Flickr - …trialsanderrors - Madam Ada Castello and Jupiter, poster for Ringling Brothers, ca. 1899.jpg
Poster depicting The Ringling brothers, founders of the circus, ca. 1899
The Ringling brothers depicted in the upper left corner
Circus name Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
Country United States
Founder(s) The Ringling Brothers
Year founded 1907
Traveling show? Yes

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is an American circus company billed as The Greatest Show on Earth. The company was started in 1919 when the circus created by James Anthony Bailey and P. T. Barnum was merged with the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Ringling brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907, but ran the circuses separately until they were finally merged in 1919. In 1957 John Ringling North changed the circus from using their own portable tents to using venues, such as sports stadiums that had the seating already in place. In 1967 Irvin Feld bought the circus, but in 1971 he sold it to Mattel. He bought it back in 1982.


The Barnum & Bailey Circus (The Greatest Show on Earth)

In 1875, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup persuaded Barnum to lend his name and financial backing to the circus they had already created in Delavan, Wisconsin. It was called "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome". The moniker "Greatest Show on Earth" was added later.

Independently of Castello and Coup, James Anthony Bailey had teamed up with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s. The Cooper and Bailey Circus became the chief competitor, then they started looking at "Columbia," the first baby elephant born in the United States, in March 1880 in Philadelphia, to "Babe" and "Mandarin". Barnum attempted to buy the elephant. They eventually agreed to combine their shows on March 28, 1881.[1] In 1882, the combined "Barnum & Bailey Circus" was successful with acts such as Jumbo, advertised as the world's largest elephant. Barnum died in 1891 and Bailey then purchased the circus from his widow. Bailey continued touring the eastern United States until he took his circus to Europe. That tour started on December 27, 1897 and lasted until 1902.

In 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers had started a small circus. This was about the same time that Barnum & Bailey were at the peak of their popularity. Similar to dozens of small circuses that toured the Midwest and the Northeast at the time, the brothers moved their circus from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans. Their circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train, which allowed them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of that time. Bailey's European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard. Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1905. He died the next year and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

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Advertisement for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1900

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and ran the circuses separately until 1919. By that time, Charles Edward Ringling and John Nicholas Ringling were the only remaining brothers of the five who founded the circus. They decided that it was too difficult to run the two circuses independently, and on March 29, 1919, "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" debuted in New York City. The posters declared, "The Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions." Charles E. Ringling died in 1926, but the circus flourished through the Roaring Twenties. In 1929 the American Circus Corporation signed a contract to perform in New York City. John Nicholas Ringling purchased American Circus for $1.7 million. That absorbed five major shows: Sells-Floto Circus, Al G. Barnes Circus, Sparks Circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and John Robinson Circus.[2]

In 1938, the circus made Frank Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their star attraction and to enter the show astride an elephant. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors, stating that he was "a scientist, not an actor." Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that he would not compromise his principles, saying, "Don't get me wrong. I'm with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself. And my heart is with the fellow who works. But I don't want some ... union delegate telling me when to get on and off an elephant."[3] Eventually, the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla without registering as an actor.

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Frank Buck, star attraction, 1938

The circus suffered during the 1930s due to the Great Depression, but managed to stay in business. John Nicholas Ringling's nephew, John Ringling North, managed the circus through the difficult times for several decades. Special dispensation was given to the circus by President Roosevelt to use the rails to operate in 1942, in spite of travel restrictions imposed as a result of World War II. A new marketing poster depicting a threatening circus tiger was also released that year.[citation needed] Many of the most famous images from the circus that were published in magazine and posters were captured by American Photographer Maxwell Frederic Coplan, who traveled the world with the circus, capturing its beauty as well as its harsh realities.

The Hartford Circus Fire

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John Ringling North (right) and Frank Buck, who was the circus' featured attraction in 1938

The Hartford Circus Fire occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, during an afternoon performance that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people. It was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown, threw a bucket of water at the burning canvas tent in a futile effort to put the fire out,[citation needed] but ultimately more than 150 people were killed, and hundreds more were injured. The great irony of the fire was that the performance took place under canvas. Had the crowd realized it, safety was no farther away than ducking out under the sidewalls of the tent.[citation needed] Some of the dead remain unidentified to this day, even with modern DNA techniques.

Actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was thirteen years old at the time, survived the fire and dramatized it in the film of his stage show, "The Life of Reilly". In a 1997 interview, Reilly said that he rarely attended the theater, despite being a director, since the sound of a large audience in a theater reminded him of the large crowd at the circus before the disaster.

In the following investigation, it was discovered that the tent had not been fireproofed. Ringling Bros.' had applied to the Army, which had an absolute priority on the material, for enough fireproofing liquid to treat their Big Top. The Army had refused to release it to them. The circus had instead waterproofed their canvas using an older method of parrafin dissolved in gasoline and painted onto the canvas. The waterproofing worked, but as had been repeatedly shown it was horribly flammable.[4] Circus management was found to be negligent and several Ringling executives served sentences in jail. Ringling Brothers' management set aside all profits for the next ten years to pay the claims filed against the show by the City of Hartford and the survivors of the fire.[5]

Feld family

The post-war prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the nation was not shared by the circus as crowds dwindled and costs increased. Public tastes, influenced by the movies and television, abandoned the circus, which gave its last performance under the big top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 16, 1956. An article in Life magazine reported that "a magical era had passed forever".[2] In 1957, when John Ringling North and Arthur Concello moved the circus from a tent show to an indoor operation, Irvin Feld was one of several promoters hired to work the advance for select dates, mostly in the Detroit and Philadelphia areas. Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel Feld, had already made a name for themselves producing touring rock and roll shows.

In the fall of 1967, Irvin Feld, Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz of Texas, together with backing from Richard C. Blum, the founder of Blum Capital, bought the company outright from North and the Ringling family interests for $8 million.[6][7] Irving Feld immediately began making other changes to improve the quality and profitability of the show. In 1968, realizing there were only 14 professional clowns remaining in the show —and that many of them were in their 50s —he established the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. The next year, he split the show into two touring units, a "Red Tour" and a "Blue Tour" which could tour the country independently. The separate tours could also offer differing slates of acts and themes, enabling circus-goers to view both tours where possible.

In 1970, Feld's only son Kenneth joined the company and became a co-producer. The circus was sold to the Mattel company in 1971 for $40 million, but the Feld family retained production control. They bought the circus back in 1982. Irvin Feld died in 1984 and the company has since been run by Kenneth.

After Walt Disney World opened near Orlando, Florida in 1971, the circus attempted to cash in on the resulting tourism surge by opening Circus World in nearby Haines City. The park was never successful, as its standard carnival-type rides were no match for Disney's state-of-the-art attractions. As such, the circus sold the park to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, who renamed it Boardwalk and Baseball. In 1990, the park finally closed down completely.

Clair George has testified in court that he worked as a consultant in the early 1990s for Kenneth Feld and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was involved in the surveillance of Jan Pottker (a journalist who was writing about the Feld family) and of various animal rights groups such as PETA.[8]

In 1994, Walt Disney Home Video and Gregory Sills Productions co-produced a video in the Mickey's Fun Songs (later Sing-Along Songs) series, "Let's Go to the Circus," which featured Mickey and friends take a trip through the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In 1996, Feld Entertainment was created as the parent company of the circus, as well as a skating-themed sister show, Disney on Ice. The company also produces several large-scale Broadway and Las Vegas productions.


File:Barnum & Bailey greatest show on Earth poster.jpg
Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth poster, c. 1899
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CSX locomotives pulling the circus train out of St. Petersburg, Florida
File:Circus train.jpg
Circus train rolling through Safety Harbor, Florida

The circus went under various names as new investors joined:

  • P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello, proprietors (1871)
  • P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling World's Fair; The Greatest Shows on Earth; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup, Dan Castello and S. H. Hurd, proprietors
  • P. T. Barnum's Great Roman Hippodrome; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup, Dan Castello and S. H. Hurd, proprietors
  • P. T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth; P. T. Barnum, John J. Nathans, George F. Bailey and Lewis June, proprietors (and Avery Smith for part of 1876 only)
  • Barnum & Bailey Circus; James Anthony Bailey (1891)
  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (1919)

Circus trains

Currently, the circus maintains two circus train-based shows, the Blue Tour and the Red Tour, as well as the truck-based Gold Tour (which began in 2003).[9] Each train is a mile long with roughly 60 cars: 40 passenger cars and 20 freight.[10] Rolling stock belonging to the circus bears the reporting mark "RBBX". The Blue and Red Tours present a full three-ring production for two years each (taking off the month of December), visiting alternating major cities each year. Each train presents a different "edition" of the show, using a numbering scheme that dates back to circus origins in 1871 — the first year of P.T. Barnum's show. The Blue Tour presents the even-numbered editions on a two-year tour (beginning each even-numbered year), and the Red Tour presents the odd-numbered editions on the same two-year tour (beginning each odd-numbered year). The Gold Tour presents a scaled-back, single-ring version of the show, designed to serve smaller markets deemed incapable of supporting the three-ring versions.

In the 1950s there was one gigantic train system comprising three separate train loads that brought the main show to the big cities. The first train load consisted of 22 cars and had the tents and the workers to set them up; the second section comprised 28 cars and carried the canvasmen, ushers and sideshow workers; the third section had 19 sleeping cars for the performers.[11]

Animal care

Ringling Bros employs a full-time veterinary staff to provide ongoing medical care for the animals. Each animal receives regular, thorough medical examinations and all needed vaccinations. Each touring unit has a Veterinary Technician who travels with the show and provides daily medical care to the animals, while two full-time veterinarians travel between the units.[12]

In 1995, the circus opened the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida for the breeding, research, and retirement of its Asian Elephant herd. Located in central Florida, this 200-acre facility is dedicated to the conservation, breeding and understanding of these animals. [13] Most dogs in the shows are from animal shelters or rescued from poor living conditions.[14] The circus participates in breeding programs for endangered species used in the shows including the Bengal tiger, the Siberian tiger, and elephant. The tiger population is retired to Big Cat Rescue.[15]

Many animal welfare and animal rights organizations, such as PETA, are opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses. The animal rights groups also oppose the use of domestic animals, such as horses or dogs, in circuses. Many of these groups actively campaign against circuses by staging protests outside of venues over alleged animal rights violations. The groups assert that animals used in the circus are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment during training, harsh conditions during transport, and a general lack of mental and physical stimulation. These claims are refuted by the circus.[16]

Ringling Brothers circus was investigated following the death of a lion who died from heat and lack of water while the circus train was travelling through the desert.[17] In 1998, the USDA filed charges against Ringling Brothers for forcing a sick elephant to perform.[18] Ringling paid a $20,000 fine to settle the matter.[19]

In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture conducted an inspection of the circus' animals, facilities, and records, allegedly finding non-compliance with the agency's regulations. No specific violation was named and the circus denied the allegations, though they volunteered a $270,000 fine.[20] As part of the settlement,[21] the circus must employ a full-time staff person to ensure compliance with the Act and all circus employees who work with or handle animals must complete training regarding compliance with the act within 30 days of when they are hired.

The ASPCA, PETA and other animal groups sued the circus claiming that it violated the Endangered Species Act by its treatment of Asian elephants in its circus. These allegations were based primarily on the testimony of a circus barn worker. After nine years of litigation and a six-week non-jury trial, the Court dismissed the suit in a written decision, finding that the barn worker was not credible[22] ASPCA v. Feld Entm’t, Inc., 677 F. Supp. 2d 55 (D.D.C. 2009). In 2012, the circus learned that the animal rights groups had paid the barn worker $190,000 to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit regarding the Asian elephants. The circus sued[23] the animal rights groups under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, accusing them of conspiracy to harm its business and other illegal acts. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agreed to pay the circus $9.2 million to settle the lawsuit.[22]

In March 2015, the parent company Feld Entertainment announced it would cease using elephants in shows after 2018. The 13 elephants that are part of their shows will be sent to the circus' Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, which currently houses over 40 elephants.[24][25] Feld explained that this action was not a result of the animal rights groups allegations that had been deemed unproven by the court (noting that those groups were ordered to pay Feld $25.2 million in settlement for making false allegations), but rather due to the patchwork of local laws regarding whether elephants could be used in entertainment shows.[26]


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The Torres family performing in "Over The Top"


Gold Unit ringmasters

See also


  1. Famous Elephant. Thai Elephant Conservation Center, Lampang Province. Retrieved 2010-08-28.[dead link]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Bailey and the Ringlings". Feld Entertainment. Retrieved 2008-07-21. In 1929, reacting to the fact that his competitor, the American Circus Corporation, had signed a contract to perform in New York's Madison Square Garden, Ringling purchased American Circus for $1.7 million. In one fell swoop, Ringling had absorbed five major shows: Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes, Sparks, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and John Robinson. ... On July 16, 1956, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the financially troubled Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey gave its last performance under the big top. John Ringling North commented that "the tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of the past." Life magazine wrote that "a magical era had passed forever." ... John Ringling North, an executor of his uncle's estate, became president of the show in 1937, a position he held until 1943 when his cousin, Robert, became president. John took the position once again in 1947. 
  3. Lehrer, Steven (2006). Bring 'Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck. Texas Tech University press. pp. x–xi. ISBN 0-89672-582-0. 
  4. Handley, Rich. The Circus Fire (Connecticut Public Television), 2000
  5. Fox, Charles Philip. A Ticket To The Circus (New York: Bramhall House), 1959
  6. 6.0 6.1 Calta, Louis (December 5, 1967). "Feuer and Martin Suing Felds Over Circus Sale. 2 Producers Seek to Cancel $10-Million Deal for the Ringling Brothers Show. Felds Have No Comment. Format to Remain. Prediction of a Record Year Circus Started in 1871.". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-20. Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, Broadway producers, brought suit in New York State Supreme Court yesterday to cancel the sale of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus to Irvin and Israel Feld and Roy M. Hofheinz. 
  7. "Richard Blum: The man behind URS, next to Sen. Feinstein". San Francisco Chronicle. May 11, 2003. Archived from the original on 2003-05-18. Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  8. "The Greatest Vendetta on Earth". August 30, 2001. Retrieved 2008-07-22. Over lunch, Smith recounted a campaign of surveillance and dirty tricks Feld had unleashed on her in the wake of her 1990 magazine piece in the now-defunct Regardie's magazine. Feld, he said, had hired people to manipulate her whole life over the past eight years. Feld had spent a lot of money on it, he said. He may have even tried to destroy her marriage. In fact, Pottker would eventually learn of a massive dirty tricks operation, involving former CIA officials and operatives, that would target Ringling enemies such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups, not just Pottker. 
  9. "Feld Stewardship". Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  10. "The town without a zipcode". Archived from the original on 2003-09-05. Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  11. Here Comes The Circus. Popular Mechanics. May 1952. pp. 81–87/220. Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  14. 135th Edition Souvenir Program. Feld Entertainment. 2005. p. 32. 
  15. "Welcome to Big Cat Rescue". Big Cat Rescue. Retrieved 2009-01-30. Big Cat Rescue, a non profit educational sanctuary, is devoted to rescuing and providing a permanent home for exotic (i.e. wild, not domestic) cats who have been abused, abandoned, bred to be pets, retired from performing acts, or saved from being slaughtered for fur coats, and to educating the public about these animals and the issues facing them in captivity and in the wild. 
  16. "". Archived from the original on 1998-12-12. Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  17. Washington Post — Marc Kaufman (August 8, 2004). "USDA Investigates Death of Circus Lion Activists Dispute Account Given by Ringling Brothers". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-07-07. 
  18. Associated Press (April 22, 1998). "Death of Elephant Questioned". CBS News. Retrieved 2009-07-07. 
  19. "Circus elephants in the legal spotlight". May 20, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-07. 
  20. Associated Press (November 28, 2011). "Ringling circus agrees to $270K USDA fine involving alleged violations of animal welfare rules". Yahoo News. Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  21. "USDA and Feld Entertainment, Inc., Reach Settlement Agreement". November 28, 2011. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 Associated Press (December 28, 2012). "Animal rights group settles lawsuit with Ringling". Denver Post. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  23. Jonathan Turley (July 17, 2012). "The Greatest RICO Claim On Earth? Ringling Brothers Allowed To Pursue Animal Rights Organizations in Racketeering Action". Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Jones, Charisse (5 March 2015). "Ringling Bros. eliminating elephant acts". USA Today. Retrieved 2015-03-05. 
  25. Jones, Charisse (6 March 2015). "Circus' pachyderms to pack it in". State-by-state. USA Today. p. 4A. 
  27. "The Great Showman Dead. Last Hours Of The Life Of Phineas T. Barnum. The Veteran Manager Sinks Into A Peaceful Sleep That Knows No Waking. The Funeral To Be Private At His Express Desire.". New York Times. April 8, 1891. Retrieved 2014-02-06. Bridgeport, Connecticut, April 7, 1891. At 6:22 o'clock to-night the long sickness of P.T. Barnum came to an end by his quietly passing away at Marina, his residence in this city. 
  28. "A Cesar Among Showmen. James A. Bailey, The Partner And Successor Of Barnum. He Is The Creator Of The Modern Circus. His Tremendous Energy And Working Ability. How He Became What He Is.". New York Times. April 19, 1891. Retrieved 2007-07-21. One of the most modest little men that ever lived has been forced to the front by the death of P.T. Barnum. James Anthony Bailey for ten years has been Mr. Barnum's partner. He can, without exaggeration, be called the creator of the modern circus. He has lifted the circus to a standard that renders almost ridiculous the laws that once were so necessary for its regulation. 
  29. "James A. Bailey, King Of Circus Men, is Dead. News Kept From Performers Till The Show Was Over. Widow Gets Circus Stock. Showman Died Of Erysipelas At His Country Home Near Mount Vernon After A Week's Illness." (PDF). New York Times. April 12, 1906. Retrieved 2007-07-21. While the band blared and the clowns made fun and the elephants walked around at the circus last night for the thousands in Madison Square Garden, there were few among the spectators who knew that James A. Bailey, the backbone of the "Greatest Show on Earth," lay dead in his home, The Knolls, near Mount Vernon [New York]. 
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 "Died.". Time (magazine). June 17, 1985. Retrieved 2008-07-20. John Ringling North, 81, flamboyant, fast-talking showman who from 1937 to 1943 and from 1947 to 1967 ran "The Greatest Show on Earth," the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, started by his five uncles in 1884; of a stroke; in Brussels. North took over the debt-spangled show after the death of his last uncle, John Ringling, and modernized it with such attractions as Gargantua the Great, the "vehemently vicious" 550-lb. gorilla that drew more than 40 million circusgoers. In 1956, North folded the big top and reincarnated the show for new arenas of the air-conditioned era. 
  31. "Feld Family Buys Ringling Bros". Associated Press in New York Times. March 19, 1982. Retrieved 2008-07-20. Mattel Inc. said that it had sold Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc. for $22.8 million to a family that had owned the circus and has been in its management for 26 years. Two members of the family, Irvin Feld and his son, Kenneth, said that the deal included the circus, Ice Follies, Holiday on Ice and the new Walt Disney's World on Ice. The transaction also includes a Las Vegas nightclub act called Beyond Belief. The acquisition involves more than 1,200 performers and employees, 500 circus animals and 98 railroad cars. Irvin Feld was a record and music promoter and music store chain owner before becoming involved with the circus in 1956. In 1967, he and a brother acquired the company's total assets from the Ringling and North families for $8 million. Two years later, the circus became a publicly held corporation, and in 1971 the company was sold to Mattel for $50 million in stock. 

External links