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Barnum and Bailey Circus Lights up the Big Apple and Points Beyond

P.T. Barnum was the consumate showman. Born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810, Barnum had a knack for making an exciting show out of just about anything. He made a spectacle out of such mundane  events as musical concerts and even places like museums. In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum, which was located on Broadway in New York City, and he changed the name of the museum to Barnum’s American Museum. Using his flashy style of showmanship, outrageous advertising, and publicity stunts to promote the museum, Barnum’s American Museum became a success. Not only that, but Barnum himself became world famous.

Barnum had become so well known that in 1875, two circus operators from Wisconsin-Dan Costello and William Cameron Coup-convinced Barnum to partner with them. Together, the three showmen started the “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome” in 1875. The circus began traveling around the eastern United States, where it entered a fierce competition with other circuses.

Promotional poster for Barnum & Bailey circa 1900

One of Barnum’s staunchest competitors was the Cooper and Bailey Circus, run by James Anthony Bailey and James E. Cooper. Since 1860, the Cooper and Bailey Circus had featured a baby elephant that they promoted as the “first elephant born in the United States.” P.T. Barnum was drawn to such a money-making attraction, and offered to buy the elephant from Bailey and Cooper. However, the three men could not settle on a price, so they decided instead to merge their two circuses into one. In 1881, the “Barnum & Bailey Circus” was born and was soon touring the eastern United States, to great fanfare wherever it went.

Five Brothers, One Incredible Circus: The Ringling Brothers Circus

The surging popularity of the Barnum & Bailey Circus made traveling circuses so popular that soon they were touring even the smallest towns of the eastern and central United States. Upon seeing a circus unloading its wares from a steamboat in McGregor Iowa, five brothers decided that they would start their own circus. The Rungeling brothers (the name became simplified to Ringling): Albert, Otto, Alfred, Charles, and John decided to try their own circus out in their backyard. Their first performance was on November 27, 1882. It was a vaudeville-style show in which two of the brothers danced, two others played instruments while one brother sang. The brothers used their profits from this show to purchase evening suits and top hats.

On May 19, 1884 the Ringling Brothers (shortened to Bros in the name) set out with their manager, a traveling wagon and a rented horse. The show had done so well that within two years the Ringlings were able to purchase their own donkey and a shetland pony, thus paving the way for their first trick act. The five brothers were joined by a sixth Ringling brother, Henry, in 1884. The seventh brother, Gus joined the show joined soon after. Three years later, the official title of the show was the “Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museuem, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

Ringling Bros promotional poster from around 1900.

As the show continued to its steady growth, each of the brothers took on a different job in order to help manage the business side of the circus. Alf did the publicity; Gus arranged advertising; Al picked the acts; Charles produced the show; Henry attended each performance; Otto managed money and John supervised transportation. It was John’s skillful management of the Ringling Bros’ route that kept the circus from running into other traveling circuses, which in turn helped avoid any awkward confrontations. However, it was only a matter of time before the Ringling Bros. would find themselves competing head-to-head with P.T. Barnum and James Bailey.

Ringling Bros Compete and then Merge with Barnum & Bailey

P.T. Barnum passed away on April 7, 1891. Faced with his partner’s passing, James Bailey purchased Barnum’s share of the circus from Barnum’s widow.  In 1897, he took the show to Europe, touring the continent for five years. While Bailey was across the Atlantic with his circus, the Ringling Bros moved east, touring the eastern states that had had once been Bailey’s domain. The Ringling Bros circus was such a success, that the brothers were soon able to move their show by rail from town to town.

When Bailey finally returned to the United States in 1902, the Ringling Brothers had all but taken control of the east coast. Thus, Bailey took his own show to the west coast, where he had his own success. However, on April 11, 1906, Bailey died, leaving the Barnum & Bailey Circus without any of their original owners.

In 1907, the Ringling Bros purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus. They operated the two circuses seperately until 1919, when they finally merged the two to form the “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”

The Legacy of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Crowds flocked to the circus in the time between World Wars I and II. The show’s great success in towns both big and small helped to make the Ringling family one of the richest families in the United States. After World War II, the circus declined in popularity and this was a decline that continued through 1982, when the Ringling family sold the Circus to Feld family, which had been managing the circus for the previous 26 years.

The Barnum & Bailey Ringling Bros Circus held its last show on May 21st, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island, NY.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus Fun Facts

  • After Charles Ringling’s death in 1926, John Ringling ran the circus by himself for 10 years.
  • When John purchased the American Circus Corporation in 1929, the Ringling family controlled 11 different American circuses.
  • There is a Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, Florida, where many of the original circus wagons have been restored and are exhibited.                       
  • In response to decades of complaints from animal rights groups, the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey circus stopped featuring elephant acts in 2015.

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