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The Circus Tents are Coming Down: The Closing of an American Entertainment Icon

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After 146 years of big-top performances, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is coming to a close this weekend. The final performance of the last remaining (of two) units of the company is scheduled for Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, New York. Its roots dating back to the mid-1800s, the circus started 20 years prior to the U.S. Civil War, with an equal variety of freak show, museum, and zoo. Their traveling performances commenced in 1871, and one decade later it was the circus that many generations grew up going to see. Evolving over the years to meet the current issues of the times (most recently in its decision to retire the elephant acts), there are several integral moments along the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that are worthy of review.

The Circus Tents Are Coming Down: The Closing of an American Entertainment Icon

Photo: Wikipedia

In 1881, “Barnum & London Circus,” was a show that developed from Phineas Taylor Barnum’s partnership with a number of showmanship entities, (one of which included James A. Bailey,) and in 1882, the Ringling Brothers (consisting of Alf, Charles, Al, Otto, and John,) give their first vaudeville-style show in Wisconsin. This launched them into bigger and better opportunities, and by 1884, “The Ringling Brothers Circus,” began traveling performances. By 1895, the Ringlings wanted to expand into New England, which was already unofficially identified as Barnum’s territory. In a quote by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the two entities “agreed to divide the U.S. rather than compete head-to-head. The Ringlings established their headquarters in Chicago while Barnum and Bailey stayed in New York.” After James Bailey’s death in 1907, the Ringlings purchased Barnum and Bailey, but continued to keep the circuses separate. By the 1910s both circuses had over 1,000 employees, more than 300 horses, over two dozen elephants, several camels and other assorted animals, traveling on more than 90 railcars, making stops across the contiguous U.S., appearing numerous times in Texas.

The Circus Tents Are Coming Down: The Closing of an American Entertainment Icon
Photo: Flickr/CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange

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