American Experience


The Circus, Part 2

Revisit the heyday of this distinctly American form of entertainment when former rivals Barnum, Bailey and the Ringling Brothers joined forces to present the “greatest show on earth” in big cities and small towns across the country.

AIRED: October 09, 2018 | 1:53:21

(seagulls squawking)

NARRATOR: It had taken nerves of steel

and months of meticulous planning to pull off.

But finally, on November 12, 1897,

the Barnum and Bailey Circus

was on its way to England.

(crowd clamoring)

In the last moments before departure,

scores of handlers scurried to load

the chaotic jumble of wild animals

onto a converted cattle ship.

(elephants trumpeting, horses whinnying)

And then performers-- high wire artists, equestrians,

and clowns, set sail to conquer Europe.

The daring scheme to tour the colossal circus overseas

was the brainchild of James Bailey,

a showman whose improbable rise to the top was legendary.

JANET DAVIS: The audacity of this move was spectacular.

Bailey was taking his circus to the place where it all began,

back in the 18th century,

and taking a version of the circus

that was virtually unrecognizable

and now distinctly American in its ostentatiousness.

(cheers and applause)

NARRATOR: In the century since a skilled English equestrian

had brought the first one-ring show to the United States,

the circus had become

the most popular of American entertainments,

appealing to presidents and farmers,

teachers and coal miners,

grandparents and school children.

MATTHEW WITTMANN: The American circus turned entertainment

into an industrial enterprise.

The scale of the endeavor, the exuberance of it all,

and the way it's packaged for a broad, mass audience

is totally transformative.

DAVIS: In an age before radio, in an age before film,

in an age before television, the circus offered audiences,

in vastly different geographical locations,

a common cultural experience.

It transforms America into a nation

with a shared cultural identity.

NARRATOR: By heading to Europe,

James Bailey was playing a dangerous game.

Some 100 circuses were traveling the country that year,

including ambitious young rivals eager, in Bailey's absence,

to challenge his dominance.

More gigantic, elaborate and daring every year,

the warring circuses would battle over audiences.

But even as they did, forces beyond their control

began threatening to push the circus

from the center of American life.

(cars honking, whistle blowing)

(horse hooves clomping, crowd cheering)

(elephant trumpeting, cheering continues)

NARRATOR: No one on James Bailey's staff had ever seen anything

quite like the throngs of people who turned up in Manchester

on April 9, 1898.

The sidewalks were packed and people spilled onto the streets

for the first Barnum and Bailey parade in England.

When the circus opened two days later,

there was a scramble for tickets.

The matinee was sold out within an hour.

The scene in Manchester was repeated in towns

across England.

Schools closed.

So did factories and shops.

The circus took possession of the towns in which they showed.

Life stops.

Whereas the English circus was a very modest affair,

the American circus did not allow life to go on

as we knew it.

It shut towns down.

(crowd cheering)

NARRATOR: Bailey toured the United Kingdom for two seasons,

before taking his circus to the European continent.

On March 22, 1900,

astonished residents of Hamburg, Germany,

stopped what they were doing

to watch as the "U.S.S. Michigan"

was relieved of its highly unusual cargo.

There, dangling above the onlookers,

from the port's largest steam crane,

swung a freshly painted 60-foot-long railway car.

No one had ever shipped a vehicle of that size before

without taking it apart first.

(indistinct chatter)

Though unseasonably cold weather

plagued the four-week run in Hamburg,

audiences packed the tent for almost every performance.

WITTMANN: What's interesting about the tour

is it throws what's American about the circus

into sharp relief.

And certainly the spectacle

of how the circus operated proved to be fascinating,

endlessly fascinating for European audiences.

And it garnered interest even from the Prussian military

that was of course involved in moving large groups of men

from one place to another in different contexts.

They showed up to see how the operation worked.

NARRATOR: Over the next three years,

the Barnum & Bailey show performed in almost 300 towns

across Germany, Hungary,

Austria, Holland,

Belgium, France, and Switzerland.

(ship whistle blaring)

Bailey returned to New York in the summer of 1902

boasting of how he had overcome every obstacle:

the Atlantic Ocean, a babble of foreign languages,

and endless red tape.

"Most people spend their lives trying to dodge trouble,"

he said.

"The best fun in the world is dodging trouble

you've made for yourself."

MAN: You're gonna have to tie that one down.

NARRATOR: In Bailey's absence, his rivals, the Ringling brothers,

had been hard at work

expanding their circus into his territory.

"Probably there is not a busier man in America today,"

a reporter noted, "than Al Ringling,

equestrian director of the Ringling Bros. Circus."

Some 15 years after starting his circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin,

the eldest Ringling brother still began his day before dawn,

confirming the route for the parade,

which he led off with a shout of "Forward!"

MAN: Forward!

(elephant trumpeting)

(crowd cheering)

Al inspected the performers' equipment

before the afternoon show began,

and he stood at the dressing room entrance

to direct the entire performance.

He insisted that all three rings

start and end their acts in unison.

No circus director had thought to do that before.

(horse galloping, crowd cheering)

And then, finally, when the evening show was over,

Al Ringling supervised the circus's departure.

At midnight, he was often one of the very last men

still on his feet.

DEBORAH WALK: Al Ringling, definitely "Mr. Circus."

If there was ever a person who really kept the family together

to really move this circus operation,

it was Al.

And he really became

such a important person, putting the performance together.

NARRATOR: If Ringling drove himself hard,

he expected as much from those around him,

docking the wages of performers

who showed up late to the parade,

or put on a lackluster show.

Though he was demanding,

he was remembered for being generous with praise.

"Nothing so discourages a performer," he would say,

"as an utter lack of appreciation."

While Al grew to be loved on the lot,

his younger brother John came to be feared.

"John Ringling," a reporter wrote,

"is known as a cold and phlegmatic man."

WALK: Of all the brothers, John Ringling

felt the hardships of the family life more than others.

And very early on, he wanted to be out of Baraboo,

which he would call "Baraboobians,"

and leave to go to Chicago.


was imperious.

Would that describe him in one word?

(indistinct crowd chatter)

NARRATOR: If Al's talent was running the show,

John's was knowing where to put it.

"His memory was as colossal as his circus,"

an employee recalled.

"He knew every railroad junction in America.

"He quoted the prevailing price of hay in Tucson,

"and the cost of unroasted peanuts in Tallahassee.

"He was aware of the towns in which money was flowing freely,

and those in which it was tight."

ROBERT THOMPSON: John Ringling was the world's greatest

at planning circuses.

What are the times people work?

When do they get out?

When is payday?

You always wanted to play a place after payday

because then people would have money in their pockets.

NARRATOR: Through hard work and ingenuity,

the Ringlings had grown from an inconsequential 12-wagon show

into one of the most prominent circuses in the country.

RINGMASTER: Show's about to start.

Please line up.

NARRATOR: Their most surprising innovation was the addition in 1897

of a dark canvas tent they called the black top.

Inside the brothers showed a movie of a boxing match

using a projectoscope,

a brand new invention of Thomas Edison's.

Many Americans saw their first moving image

at the Ringlings' circus.

WITTMANN: One of the continuing attractions of the circus

is that more often than not you're going to see something

that you didn't expect to see or had never seen before.

So it's that ability of the circus to offer a new experience

to see something fantastic, transformative.

You're going to see something unbelievable.

THOMPSON: The circus starts to introduce people to movies.

The Ringlings were using, for our amusement,

the very things that were ultimately going

to see them become much less central in the American soul.

(projector whirring)

(din of the crowd, elephants trumpeting)

NARRATOR: By 1900, with Bailey away,

the brothers felt emboldened to steal his slogan

claiming their circus was "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Some attributed the brothers' meteoric rise

to their honest advertising,

noting the Ringlings never publicized an attraction

they didn't own or exaggerated the merits of one they did.

Others believed that the brothers had made it so big

because each possessed a different talent

essential to the show's success.

Whatever the reason,

the Ringlings made hay of their rags-to-riches story.

FRED PFENING III: Their longtime attorney was quoted as saying,

"The Ringling brothers didn't come up the hard way,

they came up the impossible way."

They really did start without a dime,

and it really is an extraordinary story.

And I think taken as a group

they were the best circus managers,

the best circus men in American history.

MICHAEL LANCASTER: What's really important about the Ringling story

is that it isn't just a circus story.

The Ringling heritage is really about the American dream,

that you can have an idea and a vision

and that you can bootstrap your way

and build something really magnificent.

(din of the crowd)

Those five visionaries held a vision

and never let go of it and made it real.

(crowd chatter continues)

(wheels whirring, cheers and applause)

JENNIFER LEMMER POSEY: There are so many crazy acts that have happened

under the circus tent.

It's one of the draws of the circus,

is this idea that you try things

that people would never imagine trying.

As long as there has been circus,

there have been people trying seemingly insane acts.

(crowd cheering, engine revving)

(cannon booms, excited gasps)

(crowd cheering)

(motorcycle revving)

EDWARD HOAGLAND: It's extraordinary.

It doesn't accomplish any concrete purpose.

(car horn blares)

It doesn't mean that cancer is cured.

But it's a feat.

(zipline buzzing)

We only are here once.

And we only go round once.

If you can do something, if you are good at something,

that is what you do.

JONATHAN LEE IVERSON: The danger acts,

they just remind us that we're alive.

It's life at its utmost.

It's life on the Mount of Transfiguration.

It's life sweating blood in Gethsemane.

(crowd groans)

It takes so much mind, body and spirit

to be a great daredevil.

It comes back to the overall gospel of the circus.

It's giving you life in all its fullness,

with all the daring chances too.

(ship horn blaring, seagulls squawking)

NARRATOR: In 1902, the year James Bailey returned from Europe,

some 650,000 immigrants arrived in the United States.

They came from Hungary and Italy, Germany and Russia,

Norway and China.

Over the first decade of the 20th century,

the country would absorb almost nine million newcomers.

Most of them couldn't speak a word of English

and a quarter couldn't read,

but neither was a handicap at the circus.

DOMINIQUE JANDO: The circus was the big unifier.

Everybody could see the same thing.

Immigrants of German descent in the Middle West,

Latino in the South, Jewish in New York,

they all had and could understand the same circus.

So, it was also an image of America in a, not a nutshell,

but in a big top.

NARRATOR: When the Ringlings returned to Baraboo, Wisconsin,

over Christmas 1902 to plan their season,

the knowledge that James Bailey was back

shaped all their major decisions.

For the first time, the brothers decided

to hire a theater director to produce their opening pageant,

known as the spectacle, rather than doing it themselves.

LEMMER POSEY: In the first two decades of the Ringling Show,

the brothers were really committed

to the circus performance, to the purest form of circus,

the circus that they had grown up with.

So they did not mount these large spectacles.

In 1903, with the return of Barnum and Bailey's show

they want to make sure that they're competitive.

And so they put on "Jerusalem and the Crusades,"

a real large-scale spectacle.

The circus spectacles were very much a product of their age.

So, you're in a colonial to post-colonial era,

and Americans are learning more about foreign cultures.

This idea of colonialism became very interesting,

how the Western world could bring its influence

to other lands.

NARRATOR: Like many circus spectacles of the time,

"Jerusalem and the Crusades" was a full-scale drama.

Playing out in two acts, it included a ballet,

a grand oriental procession,

and a battle on the ramparts of Jerusalem.

The spectacle became the focus of the Ringlings' advertising.

The brothers claimed it involved a cast of 1,200--

including 300 dancing girls-- and more than 2,000 costumes.

Bailey's publicity men countered

with some hyperbole of their own.

The coming season would be the most elaborate ever,

they boasted.

The Barnum and Bailey circus would travel on 94 railway cars,

cost $8,000 a day to run,

and feature an enormous tent with 21 tiers of seats

and all new private boxes.

(hooves clopping)

Once the circus started traveling, however,

it became apparent that Bailey had a host of problems,

many of his own making.

PFENING III: Bailey was a brilliant showman

and it's really confounding to find how unsuccessful

the Barnum and Bailey Circus was in 1903.

He spent a little over $40,000

on having 13 parade wagons built.

$40,000 was an extraordinary amount of money

to spend on a parade wagon.

The other problem that he had

is he had this really comfortable seating.

He called it opera chair seating.

It took forever and a day to set all the equipment up.

NARRATOR: Disgruntled at having to move the heavy seats,

150 working men demanded more pay.

When they didn't get it, they went on strike.

Bailey ended his self-imposed ban on hiring African Americans

to keep the show on the road.

Even so, many performances were late and 42 were canceled.

FRED DAHLINGER, JR.: Bailey was up against it.

He had created a giant juggernaut

that was just almost impossible to keep going,

whereas the Ringling brothers had this efficient money machine

that just kept making money day after day.

PFENING III: In 1903, the Barnum show made about $106,000

and you compare that to the $602,000 that they made in 1882,

that's terrible.

(wheels clacking, crowd cheers)

NARRATOR: Desperate to make a comeback in 1904,

Bailey hired Ugo Ancillotti and his daring loop-the-loop act.

(crowd cheering)

The following year, Ancillotti was joined

by the sensational Mauricia de Tiers

and her dip of death.

(water splashing, crowd cheers)

DAVIS: Imagine a big top that seats over 10,000 people

with hurtling automobiles inside of it.

This was an extraordinarily dangerous act,

providing this audacious display of technological subversion--

making cars fly.

NARRATOR: Despite featuring

some of the most astounding daredevils ever seen,

each year Bailey made less profit than the year before.

(crowd cheering)

(metal rattling, men shouting)

In the spring of 1906,

as he was in Madison Square Garden

frantically throwing together his show,

Bailey started to feel unwell.

Just three days later, on April 11,

the veteran showman died unexpectedly

surrounded by doctors and his distraught wife.

He was just 58 years old.

Eulogies in newspapers across the country

praised Bailey for his many achievements,

most notably taking American culture

to the rest of the world.

"He was like Napoleon," one reporter said,

invading Europe with "one thousand men,

women, and children."

The unraveling of Bailey's circus empire

didn't take long.

His widow, Ruth Louisa Bailey,

inherited her husband's entire fortune,

valued at somewhere between $5 and $8 million.

Mrs. Bailey put her brother in charge of the circus.

But in 1907, when a financial panic rocked the country,

she began negotiating secretly with John Ringling

to sell her husband's show.

PFENING III: It was not a unanimous decision to buy the Barnum Circus.

They ended up paying $510,000 for it,

which was by far the biggest transaction

in circus history at that time.

What the Ringlings saw was potential.

NARRATOR: In just two decades,

the once humble owners of an insignificant show

had risen to become undisputed "Kings of the Circus World."

(crowd applauding, cheering)

JANDO: The American circus entrepreneurs,

from the very beginning,

went to get their talent in Europe.


Because there was very little talent in America.

In Europe, circus family have their own circus

and created circus performer long before circus school.

They worked in buildings

in which they had time to prepare an act

and to rehearse in the morning in nice conditions.

In America, if you travel and do two shows a day

and move every day, there is no time for a rehearsal.

So, the American system

was not encouraging to try to do something new

or create acts. (bell dinging)

(wheels squeaking)

(bell tolling)

NARRATOR: In early 1908, John Ringling toured Europe

to scout circus talent.

WALK: To be the "Greatest Show on Earth,"

you need to be the greatest show on earth,

and that means drawing from all corners of the world--

the unique, the wonderful, the incredibly talented.

The circus brought together people from all countries.

It was a United Nations before the United Nations.

NARRATOR: In Berlin, Ringling signed four female aerialists.

The Leamy Ladies swung from a rotating contraption

devised by their agent.

In time, Lillian Leitzel, the youngest,

would be one of the most famous women in America.

When the 1908 circus season began,

the two shows toured separately.

John accompanied the Barnum and Bailey show

eager to supervise every detail

and prove that he'd been right to buy it.

His older brother Charles

traveled with the Ringling Circus.

With the Barnum show setting out from New York

and the Ringling show starting its season in Chicago,

the two circuses traveled more than 26,000 miles altogether,

stopping in almost 320 towns and cities across the nation.

It was a banner season.

It's been said that the Ringling brothers

were able to pay off the entire loan that they had taken out

to purchase the Barnum show in one year.

A hundred percent payback on a $510,000 purchase.

Now, that was circus management at its best.

(elephant trumpeting)

RINGMASTER: Step right up!

NARRATOR: With profits from the two largest circuses

in the nation pouring in--

a reported million dollars in 1909 alone--

the Ringlings began spending lavishly on their families.

Even the freewheeling bachelor John had settled down,

his heart claimed by Mable Burton.

Mable said it was love at first sight.

And this was a girl who had run away from home at 15,

worked in a shoe factory.

And all of a sudden she falls in love with this man

and she's a multimillionaire.

Enchanted by Sarasota, on the gulf coast of Florida,

John and Charles began heading there

to relax during the winter.

With a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York,

a house in Sarasota,

and the largest yacht moored at the city's pier,

John in particular embraced his new opulent lifestyle.

Over time, with Mable's help, he would remake himself.

LANCASTER: John and Mable studied books on etiquette,

they studied books on fashion,

they studied books on art and antiquities.

They developed exquisite taste.

They became a class of people

that they hadn't started out to be.

(crowd clamoring)

"There were nurses, teachers, cooks," a reporter noted.

"There were women who work with their heads

"and women who work with their hands

"and women who never work at all.

And they all march for suffrage."

On May 4, 1912, an estimated 15,000 people--

women and their male supporters--

brought New York City to a standstill.

An even larger crowd

cheered them from windows and sidewalks

all the way from Washington Square

to Carnegie Hall.

(crowd cheering)

Though the campaign to give women the vote was decades old,

so far only six states had enfranchised women.

The dramatic rise of women in the workforce

since the turn of the century, however,

had swelled the ranks of the suffragists,

making them more determined than ever.

The women of the Barnum and Bailey circus

had already signed up.

A few weeks earlier

they'd held their first "votes for women" meeting.

"You earn salaries,"

equestrian Josie De Mott had told the gathering.

"You want to establish clearly in your husband's mind

that you are his equal."

DAVIS: The circus is a space where women did have opportunities

that were unavailable in other areas of American life.

Big Top headliners were paid just as well

as their male counterparts.

The circus offered women a life of independence and freedom

from the watchful eyes of communities and family members.

NARRATOR: The female performers met with leaders of the suffrage movement

before setting out on tour.

They were eager to learn how best to spread their message

as they traveled the country.

Strongwoman Katie Sandwina,

vice president of the circus women's Equal Suffrage Club,

was among those present.

The Ringling brothers called her Lady Hercules.

Though they boasted of her strength,

the Ringling brothers were keen to present Sandwina

as demure and ladylike,

particularly to the men in their audiences.

Reporters were told she depended chiefly on housework

to keep herself in shape.

DAVIS: Sandwina is tall.

She's statuesque.

She's muscular.

But she's billed as a lady dainty,

whose femininity is extraordinary.

The Ringling brothers loved to present

this juxtaposition of seeming opposites.

On the one hand with muscles coiled like pythons,

but on the other gentle, dainty, and sweetly feminine.

NARRATOR: The public was astounded to learn that Sandwina

had pulled off two performances the evening before giving birth,

lifting her husband over her head

and bending iron bars into horseshoes.

Sandwina's fellow performer May Wirth had also joined

the suffrage cause, though she was only a teenager.

Adopted into an Australian circus family

when she was seven,

Wirth had soon begun astounding audiences

across Australia and New Zealand with her contortion act.

When she learned to ride,

it was clear she had discovered her true talent.

JANDO: May Wirth was obviously extraordinary.

You just look at her and knew that she was unusual.

May Wirth did what we call trick somersaults,

when you twist the somersault in the air

so you go and you start in a direction,

you arrive in another one.

(crowd cheering)

Even today, it's a rarity.

She did, of course, somersault from horse to horse.

Only the few best men could do that,

and she was a woman.

At that time, it was, "A woman can do that?"

And that was big.

(cheers and applause)

NARRATOR: At stops around the country,

the women of the Barnum and Bailey circus

advocated for suffrage.

The Ringling brothers supported their efforts,

allowing activists to campaign on circus grounds.

But in the end it was the performers' feats in the big top

that made the biggest impact.

"There is no class of women," one activist said,

"who show better that they have a right to vote

"than the circus women who twice a day

prove they have the courage and endurance of men."

WITTMANN: It really, really stunned people to see women doing these things.

And so, for a certain part of the audience,

it was undoubtedly empowering.

(crowd cheering)

(flames crackling, sirens blaring)

(men shouting)

NARRATOR: Practically every firefighter in Cleveland, Ohio,

raced to work on the night of May 25, 1914,

after sparks ignited timber in the city's lumberyards.

As the fire raged,

embers rained down on the Ringling Brothers circus,

which was playing five blocks away.

It took nine hours to extinguish the flames.

Al, the only brother on the lot,

had made sure the big top was evacuated safely.

But by the time it was all over,

the fire had destroyed 43 cars of the circus train.

Determined to keep to schedule,

Al worked through the night

persuading the railroad to loan him equipment

to take him to the next stop, Marion, Ohio.

Then he directed two shows.

The stress, his brothers believed,

took a permanent toll on Al's health.

On New Year's Day 1916, after two years of illness,

Al Ringling died of Bright's disease

at the age of 63.

"When the news reached Winter Quarters,"

remembered one of his nephews,

"clowns and cooks, hostlers and equestrians, wept."

The entire Ringling clan descended on Baraboo

for the funeral,

as did circus people from across the country

and townspeople who admired the old man.

Al Ringling was really part of the fabric of Baraboo.

He loved the community and the community loved him.

So, it was with great sadness

the news came out that he passed.

Everybody felt that the main guy had really died that day.

NARRATOR: Without their eldest brother's firm hand at the helm,

the Ringlings struggled.

The next year their problems only multiplied.

In the spring of 1917,

America entered World War I, alongside Britain and France.

(marching footsteps)

Working men became hard to find,

as millions of Americans were drafted.

To meet the demands of the military conflict,

President Woodrow Wilson took control of the railways,

prioritizing the movement of troops and materiel.

Struggling with understaffed crews and war shortages,

the Ringlings were now fearful

they wouldn't even be able to move their shows.

(train chugging)

Then the Spanish flu struck.

By the early fall the epidemic had spread across the country.

More than 10,000 people died in September alone.

DAVIS: Areas on the route are facing quarantine,

and show dates have to be abridged.

So, the combination of the war and its shortages,

its government mandates,

and then the flu epidemic,

present huge challenges for the Ringling brothers

as they're trying to operate two giant circuses.

NARRATOR: The brothers felt forced to make a decision

they never would have anticipated a few years earlier.

After quarantines shuttered performances

several days in a row,

they packed up the Ringling show two weeks early.

Then, for the first time

since launching their circus decades before,

the brothers sent the Ringling circus to winter

not in Baraboo, their hometown,

but in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with the Barnum show.

(train whistle blowing)

Everyone on the train knew that after decades of expansion,

the unthinkable was about to happen.

The brothers were consolidating.

Instead of presenting two shows,

they would combine them into one.

Anxiety was rife in Bridgeport that fall.

Employees of both shows were unsure about their futures.

DAHLINGER, JR.: You had the Barnum show, and you had the Ringling show.

And each had their own little ways about doing things.

And the brothers, who were very, very supportive

of their longtime staff members,

just didn't know what to do with this duplicity of staff.

NARRATOR: In the end, some 1,000 people

of a staff of 2,800 lost their jobs.

It was the biggest layoff in circus history,

and an ominous sign of things to come.

(wind howling)

On March 28, 1919,

gale-force winds buffeted New York

as a late winter storm pummeled the city,

leaving roads and rails coated in ice.

(wind howling)

(metal clanging, men shouting)

Despite the treacherous conditions,

inside Madison Square Garden,

circus staff were making final adjustments to the show.

They didn't wrap up until midnight.

The following day,

doors opened for the first performance

of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey combined circus.

Even though the city was still picking up after the storm,

crowds swarmed to see the show. (cheering)

It was the largest circus anyone had ever seen.

WALK: I don't think there is one circus person who would say

if they could walk into a time machine,

that they wouldn't want to be

at Madison Square Garden when it opened in March of 1919.

(crowd cheering)

To see the great performers,

the cavalcade of clowns, (clown horn honking, laughter)

everything jam packed into the three rings and four platforms.


It would've been the show to see.

(elephant trumpets)

NARRATOR: The circus kicked off with the two combined herds of elephants,

followed by seven troupes of aerial performers,

May Wirth with her backward somersaults,

and some 600 other performers.

(whip cracking, lion roaring)

(crowd gasps)

(cheers and applause)

(indistinct chatter)

When the show took to the road,

audiences were staggered by its size.

The circus had mushroomed into a moving town

of more than 1,100 people, 735 horses,

and nearly 1,000 other animals.

(elephants trumpeting)

(crowd cheering, applauding)

(horse whinnying)

There were 28 tents on the lot,

including three stable tents,

and a massive sideshow pavilion,

as well as canvas to cover the blacksmith shop,

the barber's,

the dressing rooms,

the wardrobe department,

and the dining area.

(dishware clattering)

(din of the crowd)

The big top alone was 560 feet long

and could seat 16,000 people,

more than twice the number that could fit

into Madison Square Garden.

RICHARD REYNOLDS: It had a big top with eight center poles in it.

The distance between most of those poles was 60 feet.

That was an immensely long big top.

That's why you had to have so many acts going on

at the same time.

(din of the crowd)

Because you sit at one end of the big top,

and an act is going on, on the other end of it

and you'd be far away as you...

in one end zone of a football stadium,

trying to watch something going on in the other one.

(crowd cheering)


NARRATOR: By season's end, the show had traveled

more than 15,000 miles and grossed almost $4 million--

more than the two individual shows

had made together the previous year.

Though elated by the success of their first combined season,

the Ringlings were struggling with sad news on the home front.

After a long bout of ill-health, Alf T. Ringling,

creator of the great spectacles, passed away at the age of 55.

The death of financial wizard Otto a decade earlier,

left just Charles and John.

Five brothers had charted the evolution

of a modest one-ring show into a vast circus empire.

Now responsibility for the massive organization

lay with just two.

JAMES BALDWIN (dramatized): Freaks are called freaks

and are treated as they are treated--

in the main, abominably--

because they are human beings

who cause to echo, deep within us,

our most profound terrors and desires.

James Baldwin.

NARRATOR: Even the most hardened performers

never got used to the humiliation.

"I feel like an outcast from society,"

a bearded lady said.

"I used to think when I got old my feelings wouldn't get hurt,

but I was wrong."

(crowd gasps)

WITTMANN: Respectable people would skip the sideshow tent

because it did have a reputation.

It was supposed to be a little bit racy,

a little bit dangerous,

but you didn't want it to be fundamentally disturbing.

So the circus is always trying to toe this line of,

"What can we put in the sideshow tent that titillates

but isn't going to get anyone arrested?"

NARRATOR: The same traditions played out over decades.

As the crowds thronged the midway

past the sideshow tent towards the menagerie,

they could hear the talker who ballyhooed the talent inside.

(man shouting indistinctly)

There were fat ladies and skeleton men,

hirsute children and albino twins,

giants, midgets, sword swallowers,

and William Henry Johnson, known as "Zip, What Is It?"

a performer who started with the Barnum show in the 1870s.

DAVIS: He was billed as "What Is It?" "The Missing Link,"

very much reifying

racial stereotypes of the day regarding people of color,

but at the same time, he was so gifted as a performer

that he fooled people that he suffered from microcephaly

or he couldn't speak.

On his deathbed after decades of playing a mute idiot,

Johnson allegedly said,

"Well, we fooled them for a long time, didn't we?"

(band playing upbeat jazz)

To entice the crowds into the sideshow tent,

the Ringling brothers had for years featured

an African-American sideshow band.

(upbeat jazz continues)

In 1919, Charles and John

hired the best jazz bandmaster in the business, P.G. Lowery.

As a young man in the 1890s,

Lowery had trained at the Boston Conservatory.

He'd been heading up black circus bands ever since.

Though he was one of the best cornetists of his generation,

like all black musicians of the day,

Lowery was almost always confined to the sideshow.

He won over fans nonetheless.

(jazz band playing, applause)

SAKINA HUGHES: P.G. Lowery becomes this pillar

in the African-American community.

The black newspapers say, "Yeah,

"the circus is coming to town,

"but P.G. Lowery is going to be here.

P.G. Lowery's band is going to be here playing."

It was a really big point of pride.

(jazz music continues)

NARRATOR: When Lowery had started out,

black circus bands mostly played minstrel music.

Lowery got rid of blackface makeup,

added women to his troupe,

and performed a repertoire of ragtime and the blues.

(band playing jazz)

WITTMANN: The circus was a kind of back door

into American popular culture for black musicians,

who didn't have a whole lot of avenues available to them.

It wasn't necessarily respectable,

but it was work and it was a way

not just for white people to hear black music

but for black communities

to connect to what was happening in Chicago, New York,

and this very vibrant music scene.

HUGHES: I think the circus doesn't get enough credit

for just the amazing work that the African-American musicians

did in spreading ragtime and jazz music.

We think about the Harlem Renaissance,

but the circus musicians were coming a generation before.

One African American newspaper said,

"And all the white people got wobbly, too."

(band playing jazz)

(lion growling)

(whip cracking)

(crowd gasps, cheering)

(crowd cries out)

ROGER SMITH: A cat act, anyone can tell you

they are fraught with very real danger.


The threat to life and limb, the threat of death,

is a genuine constant danger

that the big cat people all understand.


NARRATOR: Early one Sunday morning in July 1921,

a slip of a woman barged onto the back lot

of the Ringling circus,

angling for a job with the biggest show in the country.

Mabel Stark was one of the most celebrated big cat trainers

in America, and one of the only women

wrangling tigers in the big top.

She told the astounded Ringling team

that she broke in her cats herself.

They offered her a job on the spot.

Stark had started out as a nurse.

But after seeing her first big cats

on the Al G. Barnes circus in 1911,

she knew she'd found her true vocation.

She hated nursing.

She hated the kind of confines of ordinary life.

So, she too runs away and joins a circus.

Running away for her was liberation.

SMITH: This young blonde comes busting through a rickety old gate,

asking to be a tiger trainer

and everybody was ready to throw her out.

She realized very quickly,

if she was going to be anything,

she had to get around the genius wild animal trainer,

the best that ever worked in this country,

and that was Louis Roth.

And to do that, she had to marry him.

She got everything that he knew

and she took it from there as a tiger trainer.

Then she got rid of Louis.

She never loved him.

(tiger growling)

(crowd cheering)

NARRATOR: Mabel Stark quickly became

one of the most popular performers

at the Ringling circus, yet the cat acts

left some members of the audience dismayed.


By the mid-1920s, a small group of animal welfare activists

began calling for a boycott.

DAVIS: John Ringling had never been all that fond of cage acts

involving big cats.

They were cumbersome to carry.

They were a logistical problem, as far as he was concerned.

He is acutely aware of this growing movement

that is questioning the ethics of animal performances.

John Ringling gambles on it, essentially, by thinking that,

"The time is right to do away with those cage acts."

The loss of the cat acts

didn't affect the Ringlings' bottom line.

As the circus roared into the mid-'20s,

large profits kept rolling in

and the brothers found new ways to spend their money.

Charles built a house of pink marble on Sarasota Bay.

John and Mable designed a 56-room Venetian palace

next door.

They called it Ca' d'Zan, House of John.

Wherever they were, John and Mable were surrounded

by the affluent and celebrated.

Titans of industry and Broadway stars

dined at their home.

Presidents and first ladies accompanied them to the circus.

(din of the crowd)

RINGMASTER: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the big top.

You will see a menagerie of beasts from the wild...

NARRATOR: In a decade when America was booming,

the Ringling Brothers' big top was the place to be.

(crowd laughing)

"Never was the circus greater or more fun,"

remembered the Ringlings' equestrian director.

"Everything was perfect."

(crowd laughing)

He had every reason to say so.

Americans were flush with money.

Each season was more profitable than the one before.

No circus could rival the Ringling show.

And the brothers' big top had never been so full

of such extraordinary talent.

(cheers and applause)

Every winter, John Ringling brought back from overseas

ever more daring stars.

One of the most striking

was Australian wire walker Con Colleano.

He remembered practicing as many as seven hours a day,

determined to perform a feat on the wire

no one else had ever accomplished:

a front somersault.

JANDO: The problem with the front somersault

is when you do your rotation, your head goes first,

and then your feet arrive,

but your head cannot see what's going to happen,

because your head is looking up at that point.

So it's called a blind landing.

NARRATOR: Colleano failed thousands of times.

Sometimes the rebounding wire left him paralyzed for days.

JANDO: The hidden dangers of the circus,

you think of people in the air,

but the danger is in places you don't think of.

For instance, a tight wire,

it's a steel wire, and it's hard like rock.

If you fall badly on that, you'll really hurt yourself.

(crowd gasping, cheering)

(drum roll)

NARRATOR: It took five years of failed attempts

before Colleano successfully executed a front somersault.

(audience gasping)

From then on, that's how he always finished his act.

(cheers and applause)

JANDO: That was the great impossible feat

of the time.

It was absolutely unique.

(cheers and applause)

NARRATOR: Colleano was rivaled on the wire only by a German act,

the Wallendas.

Troupe leader Karl had become a tightrope walker

almost by accident.

At the age of 16, he responded to an ad from a circus owner

looking for someone to do a handstand.

Karl didn't realize he'd need to perform the feat

on a wire 60 feet in the air.

Soon he was executing the stunt over rivers

and between buildings.

Then he brought his family in on the act.

TINO WALLENDA: They developed these incredible feats on the tightrope.

My grandfather was doing a remarkable handstand

on his brother's shoulders.

My grandfather standing on the top of a chair

with his wife standing on his shoulders,

while he was on a bar that was balanced

between Joe Geiger and his brother Herman.

It's hard to even conceive

that they were doing such incredible feats.

NARRATOR: When the Wallendas first appeared

at Madison Square Garden,

they brought down the house.

(cheers and applause)

WALLENDA: At the end of the performance,

the audience were whistling,

and they were stomping their feet,

which in Europe would be a great insult.

So my grandfather and the rest of troupe,

they snuck away quickly into the dressing room.

The ringmaster came and said,

"Sorry, no, no, no, you're wrong.

They really liked what you did."

And so, the Wallendas had to come out for a bow.

And to my understanding,

it's the first and last time

that a show has ever been stopped

for 15 minutes of applause

waiting for the Wallendas to come back to the ring.

NARRATOR: Many Americans, however,

agreed on their favorite big top performer.

Hands down, Lillian Leitzel.

She was the greatest superstar the circus had ever seen.

NARRATOR: Leitzel came from a family of circus acrobats in Germany.

She began performing with her mother and aunts

when she was just 11.

Almost immediately,

she began taking attention away from her jealous mother.

In the 20 years

since John Ringling had brought the family act

to the United States,

Leitzel had become one of the nation's biggest circus stars.

Now a soloist,

her fame rested on the second half of her act,

a series of swing-overs,

that would dislocate her shoulder

on every turn.

The crowd would count each one out loud.

Her record was 240 rotations.

JANDO: She had those shoulder dislocation,

which were very well staged,

because there were moments when the hairpins went away

and her hair get while she was doing that.

Technically it was okay.

Physically it was, eh.

But she had this immense charisma.

RINGMASTER: Everyone...

(cheers and applause)

JANDO: And in a place like the Ringling tent

with these thousands of seats,

everybody was totally hypnotized by what she did.

(cheers and applause)

RINGLING: Lillian Leitzel was a tremendous actor.

When she wiggled her toes, that got people's attention.

She was a performer

from the time she took off her sandals

until she came back down.

Lillian Leitzel was a performer.

(cheers and applause)

NARRATOR: Leitzel's fellow performers found her theatrics amusing.

"She was a storm center every day she lived,"

one aerialist remembered.

"But she never had a tantrum,

unless there was a good audience around to enjoy it."

DAVIS: The bandleader, Merle Evans, feared her.

When she finished her act,

he would yell to his drummers, "Drummers, take cover!"

because Leitzel would go after them.

She would be angry about the inadequacy of the drum roll.

NARRATOR: Performers got ready in the communal dressing tents.

Leitzel had demanded her own private dressing tent,

fresh flowers daily, and a maid to go with them.

"As a rule," one journalist observed,

"Leitzel fired the maid before and after each performance."

Her relationship with Mexican aerialist Alfredo Codona

was just as stormy.

Known as the Adonis of the Altitudes,

Codona's celebrity rested on his skillful execution

of a triple somersault.

AMMED TUNIZIANI: The power that it takes to do a triple

is very hard.

It takes years and years,

and dedication, mentally, physically.

It's very demanding.

And he made it look so easy.

JANDO: His triple somersault were absolutely neat.

It was not the big event with a super drum roll

and "Will he catch it?"

He caught it, period.

I mean, there was no suspense.

He just did it totally naturally.

NARRATOR: Leitzel and Codona tied the knot in Chicago,

between a matinee and the evening show.

JANDO: Their marriage was very tempestuous,

as any marriage with Lillian Leitzel

would be with anybody,

and they both had a gigantic ego.

They were both big stars, and they knew it.

He was beautiful.

She had this wonderful charisma and charm.

So, it was the sort of Hollywood kind of

marriage made in hell, actually.

But for the audience it was made in heaven.

(seal honking, horse whinnying)


NARRATOR: Circus life was unpredictable,

unconventional, magnificent,

and boisterous.

Little girls and boys thought it the epitome of glamour.

To those in the know, it was anything but.

"If you think circus life is glamorous," said one performer,

"spend your honeymoon in the married people's car,

which carries 64 persons."

At night you pulled a curtain shut.

You were in your own little cubby hole,

and that was... that was your privacy.

JACKIE LECLAIRE: Everybody would wait till the train started,

because then it makes noise.

The noise covers up everything else.

They'd start the train and they'd say,

"Everybody mount, everybody mount."


Honest and true, that was really done.

(train whistle blowing)

NARRATOR: There was never anything easy about life with the circus.

Even the most basic commodities were in short supply.

(water flowing)

LECLAIRE: Water is the most precious thing

that we have,

because there is no water there.

Each performer got two buckets, one to wash and one to rinse.

And I will admit,

it was rare for anybody to shower every day,

because it isn't practical.

MARJORIE CORDELL GEIGER: I had been exposed to modest nudity

in dressing rooms with ballet school,

but nothing like that.

I finally just decided that's it,

so I got up, took my clothes off,

and started taking a bucket bath...


and got over that hump.


LA NORMA FOX: It was a beautiful scene.

Everybody was doing something that they liked.

(horse snorting)

Some like to play cards,

some play dominoes, some play chess.

The performers would be together,

the clowns would like to be together,

and the working men, they had their own groups too.

NARRATOR: For decades, children traveled with the show,

and together, the community raised them.

FOX: I had more babysitters.

I could never find my baby.

Everybody had my boy.

Every time I look around, "Where's Gilbert?

Where's Gilbert?"

Somebody had him.

GEIGER: Here is this wonderful working woman.

She's performing in the show,

plus she's got to look after her children,

and they raise talented children.

In diapers they're standing

on their daddy's palm, balancing.

(rain pattering, thunder rumbling)

NARRATOR: The show went on, no matter the weather.

The pay was meager, the work never-ending.

But for workers and performers alike,

circus life was simply too exhilarating to give up.

HOAGLAND: You were the celebrity, not just the performers.

The town came to see you.

Even in Manhattan you could see the Empire State Building.

Big deal.

New York came to you.

GEIGER: It's a life.

I'll never forget it.

It's still part of me.

I still have my buckets.


Everybody teases me, but I do.



NARRATOR: In the fall of 1926,

62-year-old Charles Ringling suffered a stroke

at his home in Sarasota.

When John heard the news, he sprinted next door.

He was at Charles's side when his brother died.

LANCASTER: John just collapsed, sobbing.

He said, "I'm the last one on the lot."

And I think he was crying about two things,

not only the loss of his favorite brother,

but also the loss of the camaraderie

that the five Ringling brothers had held together.

Family was extremely important to them.

NARRATOR: John took charge

as the show set off the following spring.

Though he owned the circus

in partnership with his brothers' heirs,

he made all the decisions alone.

In March 1927, he revealed plans to move his winter quarters

from its old home in Bridgeport, Connecticut,

to 152 acres outside of Sarasota.

That Christmas,

the circus opened its doors to Sarasotans,

who, for 25 cents,

toured the grounds for the first time.

From then on, the quarters were open to the public

twice weekly

as circus personnel and animals prepared

for the following season.

FOX: I had never seen a winter quarters like that.

In Europe they had a little place,

just a small building.

This was like a town.

There was all kind of big wagons with machine shops,

and it was humongous.

NARRATOR: There was a tent and wardrobe building,

a railroad car shop,

a woodworking mill,

an elephant house,

a dining hall,

and practice barns.

(horse cantering, whinnying)

Some 70,000 people visited that first winter alone.

WALK: That totally transformed this area

because Sarasota, Florida,

maybe 50,000 people in the whole county,

all of a sudden would see, annually,

100,000 people coming down

to see the cocoon

from which the great show emerges.

NARRATOR: To many of the visitors,

the immensity of the operation confirmed their belief

that the Ringlings' domination of the entertainment world

was unshakeable.

(crowds talking indistinctly, cars driving by)

But the truth was,

John was facing a much more precarious business scene

than he ever had with his brothers.

(fanfare soundtrack playing)

("The Tramp on the Tightrope" playing)

As the Greatest Show on Earth took to the road

in the spring of 1928,

Charlie Chaplin was drawing visitors by the millions

to his off-kilter vision of life under the big top.

A trip to see Chaplin was cheap-- about a quarter.

A visit to the Ringling circus cost three times as much.

POSEY: When one wants to go to the cinema,

the films were there every day, every week,

whereas the circus is only there once a year.

And, suddenly,

the kind of specs that were staged

under the big top

can't match the close-up reality of having that screen.

(radio tuning, dance music beings to play)

NARRATOR: Entertainment choices only proliferated.

By 1928,

eight years after the first commercial radio broadcast,

a quarter of American households had radios.

(radio static)

The first broadcast of the World Series in 1921

had helped launch a surging interest in sports.

Star players had become national celebrities.

Prizefighting had also become tremendously popular

and profitable.

In 1921, 90,000 spectators had watched Jack Dempsey

knock out his opponent

to retain the heavyweight title.

It was the largest audience for a sporting event ever.

In 1929, John Ringling confronted

the lucrative boxing industry head on.

When the time came time to sign the traditional four-week lease

at Madison Square Garden,

Ringling discovered the Garden insisted

on reserving Friday nights for prizefighting.

When Ringling refused to sign the contract,

his most formidable rival,

veteran showman Jerry Mugivan, stepped in.

As head of the American Circus Corporation,

Mugivan took the deal.

Ringling was incensed.

Determined not to lose his opening venue

to the competition,

Ringling bought out the entire American Circus Corporation,

comprised of five substantial circuses.

He had to borrow $1.7 million to do it.

Ringling made the purchase without consulting his partners,

his brothers' heirs.

It was a decision

that would split the family apart.

(car horn honking)

DAVIS: The date was inauspicious,

September of 1929.

Just six weeks later, the stock market crashed.


John Ringling had made the biggest mistake of his life.

NARRATOR: After a lackluster 1930 season,

Alfredo Codona and Lillian Leitzel

headed to Europe to perform for the winter.

It had become an annual tradition they loved.

(audience gasping)

After several weeks in Paris together,

Codona headed to Berlin.

Leitzel had an engagement in Copenhagen.

(audience gasping)

(cheers and applause)

On the night of February 13,

Leitzel was halfway through her act

at the Valencia Music Hall when a swivel snapped.

(metallic clanging)

She plummeted some 45 feet head first,

shattering her skull.

Codona hastened to her side.

Over the next few hours, Leitzel woke on and off briefly,

but only to shriek in excruciating pain.

The following day,

Lillian Leitzel succumbed to her injuries.

The tragedy crushed Codona

and shook the entire circus world.

Bandleader Merle Evans put away

the music he'd chosen for her performances.

He never played it again.

(car horns honking)

In the year and a half since the stock market crash,

the country had plunged

into a devastating economic depression.

Entertainment was a luxury few could afford.

In two years,

attendance at the movies dropped a third.

Around the country,

circuses began folding.

Determined to fill seats,

John Ringing brought back the cat acts,

hiring Clyde Beatty,

the most celebrated big cat trainer in America

for the opening run in Madison Square Garden.

SMITH: Clyde Beatty's act was a fighting act.

He came out through the safety cage,

tossed aside his jungle helmet,

and went in the arena with the lions all in there,

picking up his chair

and cracking his whip, sorting them out.

Everything about the man leapt into the back seat

on the back row.

He ran around in that cage with such energy,

and such projection, that he involved everybody.

We were on the edge of our seats.

He gave the audience something to take home with them.

NARRATOR: But even Beatty failed

to deliver a profitable 1931 season.

The show closed on September 14,

the earliest date in its history.

(lion growling, whip cracking)

John Ringling's personal finances

were also beginning to unravel.

In the spring of 1932,

he was unable to make a loan repayment.

The creditors and his brothers' heirs

joined forces.

Without adequate legal representation,

Ringling caved to their demands.

He would be the titular head of the operation

but have no authority or power whatsoever.

And he would also have to pledge all of his own personal assets

as collateral for the loan.

It was really almost a punitive action against John.

That was no way out.

NARRATOR: With Mable's death a few years earlier,

Ringling was essentially all alone.

He rarely had more than a few hundred dollars

in the bank.

(car engine rumbling)

In 1936, Ringling made one last trip

to the opening of the circus at Madison Square Garden,

where manager Sam Gumpertz was in charge.

Ringling rampaged through the building

as performers warmed up,

finding fault with everything.

LANCASTER: Sam approaches him in the menagerie,

then a fight ensues.

Sam had him escorted out.

It must have felt like he was thrown out into the alley,

like a common criminal, from his own show.

NARRATOR: That November John Ringling fell ill.

He died a few days later.

After more than half a century in the entertainment business,

the last of the Ringling brothers was gone.

(horn and slide whistle blowing)

(audience laughing)

(cymbal crashing, audience laughing)

(cheers and applause)

JANDO: In a performance,

you see one extraordinary feat after another.

And every now and then, you send in the clown,

and everything comes down to earth,

and you just feel relieved.

(cheers and applause)

HOAGLAND: The clowns act out the resentment

that we all feel towards people

who are more successful than we are.

IVERSON: The greatest clowns are the quietest.

They do simple things.

They allow you to look at the absurdity of your humanity,

and they allow you to laugh at yourself.

They remind us you're not that great.

And yet, you are.

You're fabulous...

but you're not that great.

You're just human.

The clowns remind everybody of their fragility.

They remind everybody of their mortality,

with a laugh.

(audience laughing)

(fanfare playing)

NARRATOR: In response to the gloomy mood of the country,

the clowns seemed to have taken over at the circus

in the late 1930s.

Burdened by the heavy weight of failure,

many underemployed Americans were drawn to their antics.

Among the most popular were tramp clowns,

who acted out the role of sad and lonely misfits.

No one did that better than Emmett Kelly,

a former cartoonist,

who first drew his hobo character Weary Willie in 1920.

During the hard times, his tramp clown act took off.

DAVIS: Emmett Kelly tramps around the arena,

and acts in ways that are very familiar

to circus audiences.

They recognized him

in the thousands of Americans who are out of work.

And so this tramp clown character,

Weary Willie,

sad, woebegone,

becomes a real signature of this age.

(cheers and applause)

NARRATOR: Within a year of John Ringling's death,

his nephew John Ringling North was able to secure a loan

to wrest the circus from its creditors.

(jaunty circus tune playing)

With North in charge,

the show began rehearsals in March 1938.

But forces sweeping the country

were conspiring against a successful season.

(crowds clamoring)

As the economy had worsened, Americans nationwide

had joined unions to protect their jobs.

In 1937, almost two million workers

had gone on strike.

Circus employees would soon join them.

The American Federation of Actors,

representing both performers and labor,

had forced circus management to agree to a wage increase.

When North took charge, he refused to honor the deal.

After the circus arrived in Scranton, Pennsylvania,

a pro-labor town,

union leaders called a meeting of workers.

RINGLING: I knew there was going to be a strike.

And I went over to the silver wagon

and told John North that there would be a strike.

"Oh, no, there won't.

Go back and start selling tickets."

Which we did.

Then it was announced, "There'll be no show."

Then all those people came pouring out.

They were all mad and upset and wanted their money back.

(crowds clamoring)

That wagon was actually shaking a little bit.

I had an ice pick.

I said, "The first one of you guys in the window

is going to have the ice pick in you."

(rain pattering)

NARRATOR: In the end, the only agreement reached

was that workers could help pack up the show

for the return to winter quarters in Florida.

The first tour under John Ringling North

ended four months early.

It had been a fiasco.

DAVIS: A turning point had been reached,

because in this era of unionization,

the circus strike marked a departure

from an older era

in which circus workers were extraordinarily expendable.

If you were injured on the job, so be it.

That was too bad.

Working people across the country

now demanded the kinds of protections

that they deserved.

This made the operation of the circus

increasingly expensive.

NARRATOR: North was determined that his second season be a success.

When workers finally agreed to work for reduced wages,

North tried to update an entertainment

that had remained essentially unchanged

for half a century.

JANDO: Johnny North was very interested in the circus.

It was his passion.

He understood the fact that the circus was one and the same

for so many years,

and maybe there was other way to approach that

if you looked at the theater,

if you looked at the movies.

POSEY: North brings in Norman Bel Geddes,

who is a well-known industrial designer,

and who helps resurface all of the presentations

of the circus.

And all of the painted props

and all of the pieces are modernized,

color palettes are changed.

You get brighter, more fluorescent colors.

And it's this idea

that the world has changed and modernized,

and North wants to bring that to the circus.

("Dance of the Hours" by Amilcare Ponchielli playing)

NARRATOR: Perhaps inspired by Walt Disney's movie "Fantasia,"

which featured dancing pachyderms in pink slippers,

North commissioned his own elephant ballet.

The nation's most distinguished choreographer,

George Balanchine,

designed the elephants' dance moves.

Composer Igor Stravinsky wrote the music.

(Stravinsky's "Circus Polka" playing)

The thing that struck me most, I can still see it,

are the elephant men, big old burly elephant men,

strapping these pink tutus

around the hindquarters of the elephants.

It was really sort of a preposterous-looking thing.

(cheers and applause)

JANDO: It's one of the most

extraordinary circus production ever,

and for me, I have a tenderness for it.

Frankly, I believe it was bad.

But, you know, John Ringling North did it.

You know, hats off.

(cheers and applause)

NARRATOR: Though old-timers hated the aesthetic changes,

borrowing from Broadway and Hollywood

seemed to help revive the circus's fortunes.

The show frequently received rave reviews.

"Although nothing new has been added in the death-defying way,"

wrote one critic,

"the Greatest Show on Earth is greater than ever this year.

"It is more colorful, better costumed,

and better displayed than ever before."

(cheers and applause)

LECLAIRE: July 6, 1944,

we came to Hartford.

It was a brilliant, beautifully clear sunshiny day,

hardly a cloud in the sky.

(jaunty circus tune playing)

So, naturally, we had a lot of people on the lot.

SMITH: The show was underway.

The Alfred Court cat act had just worked.

(whip cracking)

When the first flickering fingers of flame,

they called it,

went shooting up

and everybody realized there was a fire in the big top.

(screaming, flames crackling)

LANCASTER: A tent weighs 12 tons.

The sides are now on fire,

and basically everybody's inside of a giant furnace

that's igniting all around them.

REYNOLDS: They had those big cat tunnels across the hippodrome track.

And people piled up on those things.

And they got trapped in there.

(shouting, screaming)

NARRATOR: The fire spread with alarming speed.

As was traditional,

the tent had been treated with a highly flammable mixture

of gasoline and paraffin

to keep it waterproof.

DAVIS: Paraffin begins falling like rain,

melting and incinerating on its path downward.

Frantic people jumped off bleachers.

Frantic parents came back into the arena to find children

and were killed in the process.

LECLAIRE : We're in the dressing tent, and then all of a sudden,

we become aware of hearing other voices.

And it got louder and louder.

And somebody took the sidewall,

picked it up as high as he could,

and we looked out, and the whole tent was on fire.

(screaming, alarm blaring)

In the horrible panic,

people were taking these dead bodies

and dragging them to the doctor,

bringing them there, and they were already dead.

MARY JANE MILLER: My husband was standing there,

and this lady came

and handed him a little girl who had been burned,

and she said, "Take her."

And my husband grabbed her

and went outside and laid her down.

That little girl, no one ever identified.

NARRATOR: In less than 15 minutes, the fire destroyed the big top.

MILLER: It was over before you knew it.

I mean, it was over in seconds, almost.

The whole tent was gone.

GEIGER: "How do you absorb this?

Where do we go from here?"

You know, "Oh, my God, what happened?"

The shock must have been terrible.

NARRATOR: 168 people had been killed.

Nearly 500 were seriously injured.


Though no one knew for sure how the blaze started,

investigations revealed

that the circus had not fireproofed its big top

and that fire extinguishers were not in place.

Many performers were convinced

the greatest tragedy in big-top history

signaled the end of the Ringling Brothers Circus.

LECLAIRE: My father turned to me,

and he said, "Jackie, I'm sorry,

"but I'm afraid you're going to have a very short life

in circus business."

He didn't think that they'd ever pull out of this.

E.E. CUMMINGS (dramatized): Within the big top, as nowhere else on earth,

is to be found Actuality.

Living players play with living.

At positively every performance

Death Himself lurks,

glides, struts,

breathes, is.

E.E. Cummings.

(cheers and applause)

JANDO: In the circus performance,

there is always danger lurking,

and the audience perceives it.

And what circus performer do

is just to play this image or this performance of danger.

(cheers and applause)

HOAGLAND: The people who were watching the performance...

Some of them rather hoped that someone would fall.

It's not that if they had the power to cause someone to fall,

they would have exercised it,

but they kind of hoped someone would fall,

you know, that there'd be a disaster.

(cheers and applause)


FOX: And it happened.

A lot of people fall.

Some, it's not bad, some got killed immediately.

You got to keep on working.

You can't let it interfere.

It's your job.

Your show must go on.

(crowds clamoring)

IVERSON: The hardest truth

ever uttered

is, "The show must go on."

In the face of terrible mishaps, in the face of deep sorrow,

the show must go on,

because the fact that life works that way, too.

The world doesn't stop for your pain.

(cheers and applause)

(car horns honking)

NARRATOR: The Greatest Show on Earth didn't fold.

After playing in stadiums in 1944,

it opened in Madison Square Garden

the following spring,

as it always had.

In the aftermath of the fire,

management tried to repair the circus's public image,

pledging the show's future profits

to compensate the many victims.

Still, as the show took to the road,

the tragedy was on everyone's mind.

REYNOLDS: And I know that my mother was very worried,

worried about fire.

They had all these "No Smoking" signs

lit up inside the big top,

and there were Atlanta firemen there

with the fire trucks sitting

between the menagerie and the big top.

NARRATOR: To inspire public confidence

for the first performance under canvas,

a fire marshal tested the flameproof canvas

with matches and a cigarette lighter.

(jaunty circus tune playing)

(audience gasps)

By the end of the year,

Ringling publicists boasted

that their show was back on track.

"The people of America," they declared,

"are not going to let go of the circus

"any more than they are going to relinquish pride

in the Pilgrim Fathers."

(crowds cheering)

"Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt,

"the first flight at Kitty Hawk;

"these things happened and live in books.

But the Circus is still here."

(cheers and applause)

That feeling of confidence wouldn't last very long.

(circus tune ends)

(train whistle blowing, bell ringing)

WITTMANN: In some sense,

the American circus writes its own ending.

At a certain point, this idea of,

"You can always get bigger, there's always more acts,

there's always more elephants,"

it runs out of places to go.

There's a certain kind of exhaustion

that overtakes the industry.

NARRATOR: By the early 1950s,

the future of circuses nationwide looked grim.

Even the Ringling circus was struggling.

JANDO: Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey was still touring

with more than 1,000 people traveling with the show.

It's insane.

You couldn't run a traveling circus

the way you had.

Everything cost much more than it had been.

The wages couldn't be the same.

It was a totally different world.

NARRATOR: With transportation costs doubling over the last decade,

John had been forced to cut the train down

to 70 cars from more than 100

and confine the tour to 15,000 miles.

Even that wasn't enough to make ends meet.

In the end, though,

it was a groundbreaking innovation

that would bring a century of circus tradition to a close.

(baseball game broadcast playing)

In 1946, there had been just 8,000 television sets

in the country.

By 1955, half of American households

had a TV.

SMITH: Television was running old movies,

bringing them back.

There was television news,

television was giving us football and sports,

where you could stay at home.

(audience laughing)

Here she comes!

SMITH: Lo and behold, up comes "I Love Lucy" in 1951.

In '52, she was a sensation.

(audience laughing)

You had all the variety acts you could ever want to see

in your living room,

if you would sit there on Sunday night.

Look at Ed Sullivan.

There were your circus acts:

jugglers, wire acts, animal acts, trapeze,

whatever Sullivan had.

NARRATOR: In the spring of 1956,

a clash with the Teamsters Union was the final straw.

North refused to sign a contract with union leadership,

and pickets followed the show on the road.

After a storm destroyed the tent,

crews set up seats in the open air.

At almost every stand,

crowds were thin and shows were late.

By mid-July,

the operation was one million dollars in the red.

North finally showed up in Alliance, Ohio,

to take stock.

He was thoroughly disheartened.

POSEY: John Ringling North had to reflect

on everything that had gone wrong.

His show was dingy,

a number of things hadn't been repainted

from the season before.

John Ringling North felt like this circus

was not the circus that his family was meant to present.

Something had to change.

NARRATOR: On July 16, to the shock of his staff and circus fans,

John Ringling North announced that he was closing the show.

The big top would be raised in Pittsburgh later that day

for one final tented performance.

A slew of news reporters documented

the last ever Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey performance

under canvas.

Then, in the early hours of the morning,

circus staff packed the big top away forever.

FOX: We have people that love circus so much,

they'll travel everywhere to follow the shows.

They're the ones who was really heartbroken

that the tent would not go up anymore.

REYNOLDS: I heard it, you know, on the radio.

That was a bad and sad time.

I felt like part of my life had ended.

That was one of my raisons d'être.

Reason for being.

NARRATOR: That night, the circus began the long trip to winter quarters

in Sarasota, Florida.

The "New York Times" called it the big top's "funeral ride."

DAVIS: The iconic power of the tented city,

spread over nine acres,

during the Gilded Age and the years thereafter,

had taken hold in the American imagination

to such a degree

that people around the country viewed that form of circus

as the only circus.

(drumroll, applause)

NARRATOR: For more than a century,

the circus had brought daily life to a standstill.

Shows took over rail yards.

Parades clogged Main Street.

Acres of billowing canvas appeared, mirage-like,

on the outskirts of town.

And then, when day broke, the miracle had vanished.

Equestrians, sideshow performers,

clowns, roustabouts,

an enormous collection of curious beasts--

all became figments of a glorious dream.

When the greatest show of all

could no longer perform these annual rituals

or take this enchanted journey,

it was clear the circus had lost its place

at the heart of American life.

WITTMANN: You can see in the circus both the good and the bad:

industrialization, immigration,

all the problems that characterize American society

and then also make American society move forward.

The circus captures the American experience,

both in its exuberance, its commercialism,

and, really, its bigness.

IVERSON: What makes America great is our daring.

(audience gasping)

The whole experiment of America is daring.

The circus was the artistic testament to that spirit,

that spirit of innovation,

that spirit of wild impossibilities.

We all love miracles.

And what we find out is, they're simpler than we thought.

E.B. WHITE (dramatized): The circus comes as close to being the world in microcosm

as anything I know.

Its magic is universal and complex.

Out of its wild disorder comes order;

from its rank smell

rises the good aroma of courage and daring;

out of its preliminary shabbiness

comes the final splendor.

E.B. White.

(cheers and applause)

FOX: Your whole body is like you are welded into the circus.

You will dream of it, because that was your life.

I'll never forget.

You are a performer,

and you stay a performer till the day you die.

(cheers and applause)

RINGLING: Am I proud of being a Ringling?

I'm damn sure-- pardon my French.

I'm not ashamed of it, I can tell you that.

Yes, I feel pretty darn good about it.

It was a defining part of my life.

A part of my life that now I can't go back to.

Careful now.

You're bringing...

You're going to see... I'm getting choked up a little.

So I must have had it in my gizzard here,

or somewhere.


It was a part of my life.

(cheers and applause)

ANNOUNCER: Next time, on "American Experience."

MAN: It was almost a mania

that sort of swept through the country.

WOMAN: The slogans were simple--

things like, "Better babies and happy families."

MAN: By the '20s, eugenics was

a household word.

You mean they're going to stop me

from having children ever?


ANNOUNCER: "The Eugenics Crusade,"

next time on "American Experience."

Made possible in part by Liberty Mutual Insurance.

ANNOUNCER: "American Experience: The Circus"

is available on DVD.

To order, visit, or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

"American Experience" is also available

on Amazon Prime Video.


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