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Photo Colorization Marina Amaral. Mixing Facility Sync Sound, Inc. Hill and Jos. Peters Circus Collection Dr. Ronald G. Entertainment Inc. Barnhouse Co. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Advisors Janet M. Davis Fred Dahlinger Jr. Louis Richard W. Sloan Foundation National Endowment for The Humanities Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Deborah Walk, Curator : America was an agrarian society. And it was a hard life that you had. You woke up early, and you worked through the day. And then all of a sudden, if you were so lucky, for one magical day, you were transported from your work-a-day world, into the spangles, into the spectacle that crisscrossed the country: the circus. Dominique Jando, Circus Historian: You saw extraordinary animals that you sometimes had never seen. Whether you were a child or an adult, seeing a giraffe was totally unheard of and seeing wild cats, zebras, African animals, Asian animals.

Janet M. Davis, Historian: It looked like an invasion because there would elephants, there would be cages of wild animals, there would be teams of horses, there would be a band, and there would be hundreds of people lining the streets. Narration: For generations, the story was familiar. The circus crashed in on everyday life, loud and brash, then vanished like an illusion, leaving some child dreaming of a different life.


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And the excitement was something that got into me. I knew I would do that work. Richard Reynolds, Circus Historian: I first remember the circus when my father would take me to bed, and he would hum the elephant entry song from Hagenbeck-Wallace in , and it went, [mimics the song]. And I've never forgotten that. My father inspired me to the circus. He loved it himself, and I took it from him. Narration: But as the country grew, the circus would evolve with it into a gargantuan, industrialized entertainment, appealing to both the humble and the illustrious.

It would stitch into one nation a patchwork of disconnected communities, and dazzle not just Americans but the entire world. Davis: The act of dancing on a horse's back, the act of performing on a trapeze, on a rope, or doing a strength act, all of these forms of circus arts, they push the boundaries of human strength, of the limited nature of our humanness in ways that allow us to transcend it.

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They mounted a joint show under canvas in Philadelphia. This sounds like the coolest place. Janet M. Language: English. He lived his entire life in public.

For me, that is the essence of circus. Narration: A swell of humanity flocked to Brooklyn on April 10, to see the most elaborate entertainment ever mounted in the United States—a dizzying array of human oddities and acrobats, museum exhibits and wildlife, jugglers, trapeze artists, and strongmen. Narration: Its largest tent, or big top, featuring sixty performers, could seat five thousand people. The museum tent boasted a slew of sideshow attractions including a so-called midget known as Admiral Dot. Narration: A third pavilion housed a zoo, or what was called a menagerie.

It displayed thirty cages of animals, including twelve camels, four lions, two elephants, and a rhinoceros. Some thirty-five other circuses toured the country that summer. None was as spectacular. This looks like a place that a bad boy running away from home would love to go to because everywhere you turned there was a smell or a sight or a sound that was delectable. Narration: Though the attractions were without rival, many came hoping simply to catch a glimpse of the owner. Over the past three decades, Phineas Taylor Barnum had become one of the most famous men in America.

James W. Cook, Historian: Barnum was the most widely visible and widely known American of the 19th century. It was a showman. Narration: Like many circus impresarios, P. Barnum came from humble beginnings. His father, a Connecticut innkeeper and tailor, died when Barnum was fifteen, leaving the family destitute. Narration: Young Phineas tried just about everything to avoid a life of manual labor.

He was a shop clerk, he sold lottery tickets, and he hawked bibles door-to-door. Narration: In the spring of , Barnum bought the rights to exhibit a frail enslaved African-American woman named Joice Heth. Though Heth had little choice in the matter, she played the part and the ruse worked. Barnum hoodwinked the press and thousands of others who paid twenty-five cents see her. Then he took Heth on tour through New England. In Boston, when his hoax finally stopped attracting paying customers, Barnum came up with another one. Narration: He does something remarkable.

He decides to accuse himself of fraud by taking out anonymous notices and advertisements in the paper saying that in fact Joice Heth is not a year-old African-American woman who raised George Washington. In fact, she is an automaton made of India rubber and mechanical springs. This is a trademark Barnum strategy, to draw attention to the possibility of criminal fraud and to invite viewers to make up their own minds. This sounds like the coolest place.

He had a theater. He would do melodramas. He invents the matinee. They played them during the day. And it was also, in essence, a zoo. Right there, he had animals in the museum. At one point, he got whales in a big aquarium. This is all in this one spectacular museum. Narration: In time his roster would include gymnasts and magicians, fortune-tellers and snake charmers. Cook: Barnum is really the central figure in making freakery a dominant theme in 19 th century mass entertainment. What Barnum really does is institutionalizes it, commercializes it.

What he cares about is what the public cares about, and he cares about giving it to them in a package which is exciting and profitable and will generate buzz. Narration: Between and , some forty-two million people swarmed through the doors of his museum. Narration: Shortly after midnight on March 3, , while Barnum was asleep, a fire broke out in the museum building. It took firefighters more than an hour to arrive. When they did, it was so cold the water from their hoses froze. The next day, passersby came to stare at the ruined building encased in ice. Narration: But he soon found retirement dull.

Narration: In the fall of , two up-and-coming showmen— Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup—wrote to Barnum asking if he would invest in their circus. And they were both ambitious, young show guys, particularly Coup, and they realized the value of the Barnum name. Cook: Here are two energetic young circus impresarios who will help him get out of the business of brick and mortar exhibition.

So, this is a very attractive proposition. Narration: Tickled at the prospect of one more adventure, Barnum signed on. After an extraordinarily successful run in Brooklyn, the circus set off on a six-month tour of the Northeast. It took horses pulling one hundred wagons to move the show. To make sure audiences came, Coop had contracted with railroad lines to offer excursion tickets: cheap fares that included admission to the show.

Barnum preps this for six months as he gets more and more excited about the whole operation. Cook: This is an enormous production on a scale unprecedented in the history of Western show business. Narration: In addition to circus posters, Barnum circulated a courier—a self-published newspaper given away by the hundreds of thousands that exaggerated the many virtues of the show. He wrote a lot of the copy himself. In the village of Waterville, Maine, people came from seventy-five miles away, some in wagons, others on foot. For the show in Albany, folks in nearby Coxsackie chartered a steamboat.

By the time the circus played its final stop, it had made an unheard of half a million dollars in profit. The success of the tour had shaken up the established wisdom in the show trade. By advertising many miles further from the circus lot than usual, Barnum had been able to draw audiences from greater distances than any showman ever had before.

The show makes enormous amounts of money. So much so that Barnum and his partners realize that big can mean extremely profitable. Narration: It was clear to all who took note that P. Barnum had taken the circus a long way from its modest beginnings. Dominique Jando: The elements of the circus have been there forever. And there is a need for human beings to watch that.

You need to go beyond your own possibilities. Narration: Though the urge to astound is ancient, the origin of the uniquely American circus dates back to the founding of the nation. The show took place in a circular wooden arena constructed by a British trick rider named John Bill Ricketts. Matthew Wittmann: One of the things that was most remarked upon was a flying mercury act. This is when Ricketts would go around the ring holding a child with his hands on top of his head. Narration: His show included a ropewalker, clowns, acrobats, as well as Helena Spinacuta, an equestrian who galloped on two horses at once.

Davis: Those essential elements of using the horse as kind of the centerpiece of the show, then clowning as part of the show too, and rope walking, those are defining elements of the circus. And that foundation is what Ricketts sets up. Narration: The circus proved an incredible hit.

Washington celebrated his birthday at the show. Enslaved people were sometimes in the audience. You get the sense that Ricketts is someone important. Narration: Despite his many successes, Ricketts had trouble turning a profit. In , a fire gutted his amphitheater and he left America for good. New arrivals and homegrown talent did their best to keep the circus tradition alive, but the nation was vast and sparsely populated.

With just a handful of large cities and very few exhibition halls, showmen struggled to attract audiences. Then in , a circus owner decided to commission the construction of a canvas tent. Davis: What the tent show does is, more than anything else, it establishes the rituals of itinerancy, the one night stand, the ability to go into country that is essentially bereft of infrastructure. What the tent establishes, is this way of circusing that becomes distinctly American. Narration: Showmen left their home base, called winter quarters, in early spring, returning in late fall.

They traveled every day, as far as a horse could pull a wagon, from one small town to the next. Matthew Wittmann: A lot of these guys tried to sleep in these bumpy wagons, roads not being what they are now. For nine months out of the year, moving every day, it was a hard life for sure. Narration: Almost everywhere the circus went it met with disapproval. In the early 19 th century, the country was experiencing a religious revival. Church leaders claimed that hard work was virtuous and entertainment of all kinds sinful. Richard Reynolds, Circus Historian: The preachers would wail against that waste of time.

And to the bible thumpers of those days, wasting one's time was sinful. Because this was the day when the church ruled the roost. Narration: Local communities had other legitimate concerns. Circus ticket sellers were often unpaid. They earned a living by short-changing their customers. The crowded circus lot was a perfect breeding ground for pickpockets.

And performers in their skimpy costumes violated every notion of decency. Richard Reynolds: You're spending your money to see people in tights, shorts, and tight costumes, was considered immoral. Dominique Jando: There was an attraction of the circus which was really sexual. It was the place where women can show their legs.

So, that was a big attraction of the circus and people came to see that too. It was an adult form of entertainment. Narration: The addition of a small animal menagerie by a New York showman in helped to squash some of the objections. Richard Reynolds: The menagerie, it brought the blood-sweating behemoth, the hippopotamus, for example, and that was out of the bible.

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And you see the lions and they are mentioned in the bible. That was considered educational. Narration: Noting how a collection of animals elevated their businesses in the eyes of local authorities, most circuses added menageries. The early travelling tented shows were modest outfits. A typical circus might feature one advertising wagon a sixty-foot tent, and a dozen performers. Matthew Wittmann: Everyone that was a performer in the show would put on a costume, get on a horse, ride in to this thundering music, some kind of march, and just parade around the ring.

It was a way to show off how many performers there were, and sort of set the stage for what was going to come. Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Curator: There would be men balancing on horseback. There would be trainers presenting the wonderful feats that horses could do. These would be broken up with tumblers and clowns. Dominique Jando: The clowns at the time spoke and sang very often.

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And they had topical songs, which were about political events, about something that everybody was speaking of. Clowns were quite important in the show for that because they had this human contact with the audience. Narration: As tents got bigger, performances became more perilous. By the early s, shows began presenting an act that would become emblematic of the circus. It was invented by Frenchman Jules Leotard. Dominique Jando: Leotard was a gymnast.

His father has a gymnasium in France, in Toulouse. And to experiment, he jumped from one trapeze to a pair of rings and to another trapeze. His father thought that could be a pretty good act and started developing an apparatus where his son could jump from one trapeze to another.

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Narration: Circuses claimed their shows provided young American males examples of true man liness. Many observers agreed. Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. A Circus passed the house — still I feel the red in my mind though the drums are out. Emily Dickinson. Robert Thompson: The circus was a topsy-turvy world. It was about possibility. The emotional physics of the world did not apply under the big top. It was a flip-flop. It was transgressional. And it was loud, and it was colorful, and it was beautiful. You cannot come to a circus and still believe as you previously did.

Circus is a peek into what we could be, how great we could be, how beautiful our world could be. Narration: It was the most remarked upon train journey of the decade. At almost every stop along the route from Boston to San Francisco, local dignitaries and jubilant crowds turned out to greet the first passengers to take a train trip across the country. When the luxury Pullman cars finally arrived on June 1, , the travellers gloated that the journey had taken just eight days. Narration: The completion of the first transcontinental railroad had capped a frenetic era of railroad construction.

In , when P. Barnum and WC Coup began planning their second season, it dawned on them that this expanding web of track could unlock larger profits if they put their circus on rails. To show guys, it was like nirvana to not have to play these little crossroad towns. Narration: Coup spent the winter haggling with railroad companies, insisting they clear their tracks at night to guarantee his circus would arrive at its destination by 6 a.

It took the inexperienced men twelve hours to accomplish their task. In the process, a camel slipped and broke its back. Coup realized what he required was an entire train of some sixty cars designed specifically for his needs. In Ohio he found an outfit that built him on short notice flat cars on which to load the wagons, cages and carriages. Then he bought secondhand sleeping cars for his staff, boxcars for the equipment and stock cars for the animals.

All the railroad companies provided were the locomotives, cabooses, crews, and track. Davis: It transforms the circus into a modern industrial corporation, complete with manager systems, with bosses of different departments, contracting agents. Robert Thompson: The first railroad circus is really the best example of the first really big entertainment industrial complex. The circus has become big business. You know, today, we talk about big oil and big pharma. In , the railroad circus left New York travelling through the Mid-Atlantic states, before heading west and to Minneapolis.

After five months on the road it turned back east, finishing the season in Detroit at the end of October. It was a marathon run of stops and nearly 7, miles. Travelling by rail had been so successful, the show grossed a million dollars, the first time a circus had ever made that much money.

Only two elephants and a camel survived. Coup was distraught. He saw no option other than sitting out the following season. But Barnum was not ready to give up. Cook: Barnum is relentlessly optimistic. He has remarkable energy. He fashions himself a go-ahead Yankee who is relentlessly entrepreneurial, full of energy and self-made individualism. Narration: The tents, wagons, and draft horses had been spared. All that was needed to move forward, he insisted was energy, pluck, courage, and a liberal outlay of money. The docks of Manhattan were thick with fog when P.

Like many American circus owners, Barnum got most of his animals from the German dealer, Carl Hagenbeck. Nigel Rothfels, Historian: His original market was in the city of Hamburg but then, very quickly, he became known by circuses as somebody who could supply animals. He was incredibly reliable and he delivered animals with cash on delivery, not cash up front. If you bought an animal from Hagenbeck and it died soon after arrival, as they tended to do, he would replace it. Narration: Typically, Hagenbeck contracted with European agents, to capture his animals.

They would set up camp in the bush, sending local men on the hunt. After a stay of many months, the assembled menagerie accompanied by a vast staff of handlers, marched to the coast. From there, they traveled by steamship to Suez, by rail to Alexandria, by ship across the Mediterranean and then by train to Hamburg. Full grown animals were too difficult to handle on the journey, so the hunters only captured the young. Their mortality rate is pretty high as they transition to captivity. You have to get them to the coast. Then you have to ship them to Europe. Narration: The cost of creating an impressive menagerie was exorbitant.

Circus owners could spend several thousand dollars on a single elephant. Yet Barnum knew not to stint. Nigel Rothfels: The opportunity was there to pet the animals. There is no other thing that feels like that. Narration: While Barnum replenished the menagerie, the work of pulling the show together fell to W. He oversaw the repair and redecoration of one hundred and fifty wagons and carriages. And he ordered a dozen new tents including a big top that Barnum claimed could seat thirteen thousand people. Narration: The tent had grown so large—no longer round, but oval —that people left their seats to get better views, creating pandemonium.

To restore order, Castello proposed a revolutionary idea: two rings of simultaneous entertainment. Narration: Barnum exploited the innovation in his advertising. His cast was so huge, he claimed, a second ring was all but essential. Promoting their circus as the Greatest Show on Earth, Barnum and Coop hired a twenty-two-person advertising department.

For the first time in circus history, Coup commissioned three-sheet color lithographic posters, which were about seven feet tall. And so, when you walk up to that poster, you get the sense that that performer is real, is right there in front of you, and you get an idea of what you really are going to see when you enter into that circus tent. Narration: When the show hit the road in April after a two week run in Manhattan, everyone was astounded to see how much bigger it had become. A typical visit to the circus lasted hours.

It started with a trip to the sideshow tent, followed by a visit to the menagerie. Finally spectators streamed into the big top for one of three daily performances. The acts there unfolded much as they had for the last several decades. His interest in human curiosities turned the sideshow performances into an essential feature of the circus. Matthew Wittmann: What we think of sideshow performers had existed in the circus before. So, part of what he brings is a new focus to that particular part of the show.

In some cases, Chinese are presented as human oddities. All of that said, however, these are not pure victims. These are people who make choices and think strategically about what forms of upward mobility are available to them in a world, without support for those with disability. She used her toe to write out cards for individual people and date them. For her, it was a way to make money. Narration: By the time the show reached Rutland, Vermont in the middle of June, the promotion had so saturated the area that visitors came by the thousands from villages in neighboring New York State.

Some arrived a day early. Cook: He knew that the circus had a morally suspect reputation on many different levels, and what he does really, in a remarkable way, is create a kind of marketing campaign with testimonials from clergy, from famous writers, and other celebrity figures, who attest to the wholesomeness of his circuses. Robert Thompson: Barnum knew that in the end, if you really wanted to make it big, you had to appeal to a huge audience and that included women and children.

Barnum, more than any, began to see that the circus as something for kids. But the partners had far more than their extraordinary profits to be proud of. In just three years, they had completely transformed the circus business. Everyone else has to follow. So, in short order, every large American circus is travelling on the railroads.

Every American circus is having herds of elephants. So, it becomes a function of your show. You have to have six. And then if one show has six, one show has ten. Narration: At the very thought of circus, a swarm of long-imprisoned desires breaks jail. Armed with beauty and demanding justice and everywhere threatening us with curiosity and Spring and childhood Robert Thompson: The American spirit, a lot of it would be about reinvention, the idea of something giving you promise.

The spirit that brought people over from the Old World to the New, the spirit that rejected the established culture of Europe, was the same spirit that got people to leave a small town and join the circus. People ran away with the circus. And they did so because it offered opportunities for people who were perhaps outsiders in their own community.

Jennifer Lemmer Posey: A lot of people would watch this wonderful show roll into town, a magical world filled of people doing extraordinary things and see that as a chance to jump out of their everyday, and follow that. Ammed Tuniziani, Trapeze Artist: Many of those people that run away, they run away to—to look for their dreams, to make their dreams come true. Deborah Walk, Curator: People have called it a big top fever that you never got over. To join the circus, to crisscross the country, to showcase the wonders of the world, what a lure to that.

You had to advertise, something new, something exciting to get people to come to the show. Narration: As the circus season got underway, the hyperbole heated up. Every showman wanted to outdo Barnum. No one was more eager than Adam Forepaugh. By the time the Civil War broke out, he had turned to horse-trading, making a fortune supplying the Union Army with cavalry mount.

In , Forepaugh sold horses to a shady circus manager who proved unable to pay his bill. In place of his fee, Forepaugh took part ownership of the circus. Fred Dahlinger Jr. Fred Pfening Iii: He was the first circus to have two tents. He had a tent for the menagerie and then one for the performance. In the s and s, there were still some moral opposition from church groups that saw the circus as kind of an unworthy waste of time.

Nobody ever accused Forepaugh of not being able to make a buck. He was extremely good at that. Within a few short years, every other circus had followed suit. In , he copied Barnum by introducing a second ring and vastly exaggerating his line-up of performers.

Like Barnum, he received gushing reviews. Owners James Cooper and James Bailey had their ambitions, nonetheless. Bailey in particular was a striver. By his own account, she is a cruel and often brutal person. She beats him relentlessly. And what they did, they went skinny-dipping, they took their clothes off, laid them on the side of the bank, went in the river, and that was the last they saw of James A. Narration: James drifted from place to place, picking up work as a farmhand and stable boy.

He begged Fred to let him tag along as an apprentice. Cook: He becomes in some ways the archetypal story of someone who runs away to the circus and that the circus provides a place to reinvent yourself. Matthew Wittmann: He very quickly rose in the ranks of the American circus. At thirteen years old he is an advance agent. At thirty, he is running a circus.

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In between he does a little bit of everything. Narration: Bailey had started out with James Cooper in , running a concert after the main show. Within three years, they were partners. In , the nation marked its centennial with an elaborate exposition in Philadelphia, which would draw almost ten million visitors eager to see the engineering marvels of the day. When they got to San Francisco, James Bailey decided to keep on going. He took six elephants, five camels, two tigers, two lions, forty horses, and some thirty performers across the Pacific to Australia.

The seventy-five hundred mile journey via Honolulu and Fiji took six weeks. Bailey spent touring his show around Australia. Everywhere he went audiences showered his circus with accolades. Nothing equal to it has ever appeared in the colony. Matthew Wittmann: The big thing that wowed Australian audiences was the size of the show.

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There was no tent that big in Australia. So, there was a sideshow tent. There was a museum. There was a menagerie, and then there was the main tent where the performance took place. Narration: From Australia, the circus toured the island of Java, where it picked up local musicians to play in the band.

When the strongwoman came on the Javanese were so astounded, they stopped playing completely. After touring New Zealand, Bailey charted a sailing vessel to take the circus back across the Pacific for a tour of South America. From the moment they had set sail across the Pacific, Bailey and his troupe had ricocheted from one harrowing moment to the next. Four circus workers died in Java of tropical diseases. Turbulent seas almost sunk their ship on the way to New Zealand. And at one point a tiger escaped its cage in the hold.

But Bailey survived it all. After more than two years of almost constant travel, his circus had covered more than seventy-six thousand miles. When the intrepid showman arrived back in New York, he was worldly, daring, and ready to take on the toughest competition. Bailey returned to a country in the grip of momentous change s. More than a quarter of Americans now lived in cities. Some ninety thousand miles of railroad tracks carved their way across the nation.

That ever-expanding network was fueling an unrivaled period of industrialization and innovation. Alexander Graham Bell had just invented the telephone; Thomas Edison the phonograph. Bailey was so impressed, he became the first circus owner in the country to buy an electric lighting system. His circus was lit up by electricity before any city in America had a system of electric street lighting.

It was the focal point of his advertising. He even sold tickets for a tour of the generator. You can just imagine the, you know, to go to some little town in Arkansas or some place and to be able to see that. Matthew Wittmann: Part of what makes the circus such a powerful cultural form is its ability to absorb various influences and essentially program them anew for American audiences.

Really any innovation you can think of gets repackaged and then branded into the American circus. Whether it was the lighting, or the herd of ten elephants, or the nighttime parades, Cooper and Bailey turned away crowds at stop after stop. Bailey began the following season with an aggressive advertising campaign. He ordered the design and production of eighty-two different lithographs and then sent his publicity team out on three advance cars to plaster the route with posters.

Matthew Wittmann: Circuses could spend many thousands of dollars on advertising whether it was newspapers, posters. Circuses put money into advertising in a way that no other business did. The average circus poster was so much bigger than any rival ad that it was meant to grab your attention. He came up with the idea of shooting a person, most specifically a woman because that added to the excitement of it.

Davis: Zazel's inclusion in the circus program is a reflection of a growing emphasis on death defying spectacle over the intricacies of individual artistry. And the act of claiming hundreds of yards of space vertically, horizontally, in defiance of death, really becomes the signature of this enormous new form of circus. She was, Bailey claimed, the first elephant born in the West since the Roman Empire. Matthew Wittmann: They name it Columbia.

I mean, people love elephants and then, people really love baby elephants. It creates media publicity all over the country. Barnum stoked the media frenzy. Narration: That fall, both Barnum and Bailey severed their relationships with their partners. Then the two veteran showmen announced that they were joining forces. Barnum had watched Bailey closely enough to know he had just signed a deal with the most ingenious impresario in show business. Barnum was very much the man that wanted the spotlight. He lived his entire life in public. Bailey, on the other hand is very private, very reserved.

He just had a real organizational acumen with logistics, with performance.

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Fred Pfening Iii: Bailey would set himself up a little table near the front entrance of the circus and he was constantly receiving telegrams from his advance people, telling him what they were doing and him sending an advice out. He micromanaged the show and particularly the advance of it. He was a tremendous risk taker and a very creative, innovative guy. Narration: Some observers predicted that the Barnum and Bailey amalgamation would be too unwieldy to put on the road. Bailey disagreed. The circus is a tiny closed off arena of forgetfulness.

For a space it enables us to lose ourselves, to dissolve in wonder and bliss, to be transported by mystery. We come out of it in a daze, saddened and horrified by the everyday face of the world. Narration: For almost a century, Americans across the country looked forward eagerly to the cherished rituals of Circus Day. They began before dawn as curious observers began turning out to watch the circus arrive on the outskirts of town.

Richard Reynolds: All of a sudden, you could hear that whistle way off and everybody would say, it's coming. And it would pull in. Oh, my Lord, people would just flock to the track to watch it come in. It was just a magical thing. There was action all around. People would speculate. And we just kept counting them as they came out. It was just a magical experience. They open up those canvases, starting to unroll them, and then somebody get in there and start lacing the pieces together.

La Norma Fox: You get half the town, all kids mostly, wanted to help. As you see the top come up, that is a sight. That really is the most beautiful thing. Narration: In mid-morning, as throngs pressed together along Main Street, the circus paraded through, showing off its finery. Deborah Walk: Up to three miles long of animals, of beautiful ladies on incredibly beautiful horses, wagons of all sizes, bands, all would parade through your town creating gridlock.

Davis: There would be people in buildings on the second and third stories, looking down at this extravaganza. The showmen knew this, because they had beautiful scenes, gilded and painted on the tops of the wagons, so that people could see that too. Richard Reynolds: My father had an aunt who worked in a downtown Atlanta department store and she had a space on the second floor, so that when the circus parade came, he was right there to watch the whole procession. Matthew Wittmann: Certain people, if you grew up on a farm, had never seen a tent with ten or twelve thousand people in it.

Narration: As the evening show was about to begin, the cheery strains of the circus band drew the audience under the canvas. Matthew Wittmann: It changes everything, the circus coming to town. In preparation for their first season together, P. The facility was enormous. The shed for the train cars alone was feet long. The following spring, the showmen opened their combined circus in Madison Square Garden, starting a tradition that would endure into the middle of the next century.

Audiences were dismayed to discover that the acts were now spread across three rings not two. But larger tents meant greater profits so the three rings became a permanent fixture. Cook: The circus becomes a kind of celebration of American profit-making, American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. And so, in many ways, it is the most visible form of corporate capitalism during the Gilded Age.

Morgan in banking. But his products and his business models are visible and spectacular and talked about in ways that the others are not. Narration: Like other 19 th century entrepreneurs, circus impresarios made enormous profits in part because their workers were paid poorly and their businesses were unregulated.

Every season men were injured or killed. An ever-changing roster of workers did the most dangerous work. James Bailey would say it was easier and cheaper to add new men at every stop than to pay higher wages and keep them for the season. You could not get white working men to work alongside black working men. And it meant that you had to have a crew that was either all white or all black. African-Americans did the most difficult work, the dirtiest work, the toughest work. The two rival shows played thirty-eight cities in common over the summer. Jennifer Lemmer Posey: In their competition, Barnum and Forepaugh were both trying to elevate their own shows but also trying to demean their competitor.

It became very personal. And so, you have Adam Forepaugh who is a giant among the pygmies and portrays himself in lithographs as this giant man with small versions of P. Barnum and James Bailey running away in fear at his amazing stature. Forepaugh accused Barnum of lying. In St. Louis, Forepaugh hung twenty-two thousand posters; Barnum and Bailey put up twenty-three thousand. So, it starts with the street parade and amazing floats and barges and the elephants that are draped in beautiful rich blankets and all of the other animals paraded through the street.

Matthew Wittmann: It proves very, very popular, both in terms of the advertising and people that go to the show seemed to be fascinated by these things, and pretty soon, other shows get on board and start staging their own specs. Narration: Though it would be years before Barnum and Bailey mounted a spectacle themselves, they finished the season triumphant.

Barnum took home two hundred thousand dollars himself. Davis: This competition with Barnum and Forepaugh is something that defines the s in the circus industry. This is the two titans. It was a brawling situation, bruising situation, with competition between these rival shows. The inventiveness born of such intense rivalry—the expanding menageries, the perilous new acts, the monstrous size of it all—had launched the American circus into its Golden Age. I think a lot of people are so surprised when they see elephants move, how graceful they are and how quiet their step is.

Nigel Rothfels: The trunk of an elephant has the dexterity of a couple of fingers and yet the power of many people. And an elephant can take the penny from your hand. Narration: In the winter of , P. Barnum made the most rewarding purchase of his career. Nigel Rothfels: Jumbo was a very, very big elephant. Most of the elephants that were showing up in this country are female Asian elephants. He was a male African elephant; the males are much, much, much bigger. Cook: He was a beloved creature in London, and schoolchildren are weeping over the departure of Jumbo, newspaper editors are writing about the horror of the idea of Jumbo leaving behind his buns and his good diet from the London Zoological Society and eating waffles and popcorn at an American circus.

And so Barnum captures that moment where America can take the prize gem of England. Matthew Wittmann: Jumbo delivers, by all accounts. And if you see the posters, you see an unbelievably large elephant. The man knew how to get people talking. Narration: The whole country became caught up in Jumbomania.

His likeness appeared on ads for cigars, dry goods, and spools of thread. That just had to have been just an absolutely slam bang season for him to do that and it was because of Jumbo. He countered with his own enormous pachyderm, Bolivar, claiming he was the most gigantic beast on earth.

Forepaugh also boasted having twenty-five performing elephants trained largely by Eph Thompson, one of the few African Americans ever to appear under a 19 th century big top. He was one of these people that got circus fever, and he left with the circus. His first job was to clean up after elephants. He falls in love with elephants, and he learns how to train them. Davis: the way that he performed, not by his own choosing, was in a boxing elephant routine.

As they sparred, the elephant would always have the upper hand. The elephant would literally box Thompson into the ring bank, often times flipping him over. It was extraordinarily frustrating because the act was clownish. It did not allow him to display his talents in working with big animals in a way that created dignity and power. Narration: As the herds got bigger, and trainers tried to outdo each other with more sophisticated tricks, the strain on circus elephants increased. Not all trainers were gentle. The kindest treatment I believe in is … a steel lashed whip.

Nigel Rothfels: Different trainers, working with different animals, with their own different skills and experiences, trained each animal differently. There were undoubtedly trainers who were clearly able to use more of the positive techniques that we would call, sort of positive reinforcement now. But the animal has to understand that the trainer is powerful in ways that the animal is not.

In some cases, that has undoubtedly been done through just brute violence. Davis: The vast majority of elephant trainers and handlers deeply loved their elephants. The relationships that they forged with these animals were often incredibly tender and attentive, but one thing that happens throughout the history of the American circus is that elephants go ugly or go bad.

And while these incidents were relatively rare, they do reflect the conditions of their confinement and their frustration for these deeply social animals. If an elephant killed someone, then that elephant could face execution. These executions were often protracted and horrific and deeply disturbing, violent affairs. Narration: The most famous elephant in America came to a grisly end himself, though his death was accidental. On September 15, , Jumbo was struck by an unscheduled freight train after an evening performance. His skull was fractured in several places. The circus star died within minutes.

The show had made more money in the two years after his arrival than it would until the end of the century. So even in death, Jumbo was a great attraction. In , Barnum sent his letter to U. Cook: The Ethnological Congress is an expansion of the sideshow. So, in the past, the sideshow had involved twelve, fifteen, twenty different figures or acts. Now, Barnum wants to create a kind of living taxonomy of cultures and races and nationalities from around the world.

I shall see that they are presented with fancy articles… and small allowances monthly. At least one of them, an indigenous Australian named Tambo Tambo, was brought to America against his will. The group was exhibited in the animal menagerie. When the big top performance began, Chang the Chinese Giant led them into the main pavilion for the opening procession. Nigel Rothfels: Part of that opportunity was to touch them, was to touch their skin, touch their hair. That touch is about a kind of separation of who you are and what the object is. And it is acceptable for you to control it and touch it in that way.

They are the other, they are the difference, they are what, in a sense, gives us a shared identity as an audience. Narration: By the spring of , the constant turmoil of the circus trade was wearing on James Bailey. Physically and emotionally exhausted, he took a leave of absence. It took him two years to feel strong enough to come back. In , Barnum and Forepaugh temporarily made peace. They mounted a joint show under canvas in Philadelphia. Some 15, people poured into a big top as long as three city blocks, to see sixty-six acts perform in four rings and one stage.

The following year, with posters from both great shows festooning the outside of Madison Square Garden, the two impresarios combined their circuses for an opening run in New York. As the profits rolled in, Forepaugh and Barnum divided up the country between them. Barnum played the West one year, and the East the next. There are no spectators. Every last one of us, svelte and lithe and sheathed in silk, is swinging in space… There is not a flabby muscle, not an awkward limb, not a sagging knee in the whole tent.

The Nation. Deborah Walk: Within each of us is that desire to do something spectacular. It's that yearning of being able to defy gravity, to fly through the air, to be that princess on a back of the horse that everyone is looking at. Jackie Leclaire, Clown, Aerialist: It's a glory there.

I'm up in the air. What are they? They're just on the ground. You find peace. Marjorie Cordell Geiger, Aerialist : It is an act of creation, but it has to come from the heart. You have to light the fire. You have to light the desire. There has to be something burning to give. Johnathan Lee Iverson: For eight minutes most performers cease to be human beings.

I used to love to pick a few people there and smile especially at them. Last Name. Sign Up. Email Address. Average Tomatometer Avg Tomatometer. Series Info A behind-the-scenes look at Trump-era presidential politics and the high-stakes impact of the White House's headline-grabbing dramatics.

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View All Photos No Tomatometer score yet Critics Consensus: The Circus reveals a more human side of the candidates and paints a clear picture of how grueling life can be on the campaign trail, yet the show fails to provide the type of candid analysis and discourse it alludes to during this incredibly unique and cantankerous election cycle. Mark Halperin. John Heilemann. Mark McKinnon. Alex Wagner. Steve Schmidt. Michael Avenatti. Heidi Heitkamp. Emily Jane Fox. Elizabeth Warren. Wendy Sherman. Stephen Colbert. Patrick Leahy. Amy Klobuchar.

Donald Trump. Chris Christie. Bernie Sanders. Alan M. Ismail Elshikh. Ted Cruz. Steven Brill. Adam Schiff. Beto O'Rourke. Rand Paul. Sally Yates. Go back. More trailers. The Bachelorette. Years and Years. Grand Hotel.