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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Clowning around » » How many tented circuses during heyday? (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

Kerry Kistler
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Hi gang,

Somebody here will know the answer to this. During the the zenith of the tented circus in America how many were trouping at the same time? I mean everythng from small mud shows to the Big One. Somewhere I read over 200. Is that possible?

I need the info for a souvenir booklet I am working on for some upcoming shows. After spending an hour flipping through my circus history books for the answer I decided to come to the experts.

Thanks and cheerio,
Kerry
Skip Way
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I've gone through a number of my books and I can't find a specific total number of circuses. One source states that by 1881, Wisconsin was Winter Quarters home to more than 100 traveling tent shows and became known as the "Mother of Circuses." The small town of Delavan, Wisconsin became the "19th Century Circus Capital of the Nation." It was home to 26 different circus companies, including the Mabie Brothers U. S. Olympic Circus, the largest in 1847. If it helps, my sources peg the Golden Age of the American Circus between 1881 and 1910. They place the age's peak in 1900.

I have a couple of other sources. I'll check and see if they can provide any further insight.

Skip
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just_larry
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(Weee, I get to use my circus nerdy-ness)
In the early 1900'ss there were close to 230 performing circuses in the US. In the early 80's there around 110. Don't even ask about now :0(
Let me know if you need anymore specifics, this is what I do for a living!
Larry
http://www.justlarry.com
Ps. For more information check out Circus World museum and research library in Baraboo Wis.
Kerry Kistler
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Skip and Larry,

Thanks for coming to the rescue. That was just the ticket. I am grateful for your circus nerdy-ness, Larry. It saved me from hours of scouring.

There is another question I have. I was in Peru, IN this past summer and spent some time with the curator at the Hall of Fame (his name slips me). Anyway he told me the story of how, after one of the larger circus mergers happened, the new owner ended up burning dozens of circus wagons in an open field to keep competitors from buying them. Has any of that story been written down? I'd be interested in knowing more of the details. That must have been called "The day that the circus fans cried".

See you down the road,
Kerry
just_larry
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No, Last years Opening of the 136th edition of Ringling Bros. was "The day the Circus Fans Cried! "
BaDa-Bing!
I am funny!
Seriously,
I have not heard this story but I will ask around.
Larry
http://www.JustLarry.com
Skip Way
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If I remember correctly, that tale goes back to John Ringling North. In 1938 he and his brother Henry North took control of the failing Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and merged it with the bankrupt Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.

An interesting sidenote, JRN kept the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus corporation alive by assigning ownership of all RBBB costumes and props to the Hagenbeck-Wallace corporate name - hence keeping the corporate identity in constant use and out of competitors' hands. The same is true with Sells-Floto Circus, absorbed by RBBB, who currently publishes the RBBB programs. JRN was a crafty businessman.

The North Brothers were the sons of Ida Ringling, the original Ringling brothers' only sister. John Ringling North was utterly ruthless and is credited with pulling RBBB back from financial ruin. The tale goes that in 1941 he ordered the burning of 126 beautiful and priceless old Ringling circus wagons on the grounds of his Peru, Indiana winter quarters to keep rival shows from buying them up. Artists sketches and paintings of some of these wagons still exist and mahy were just unbelievable. I would personally liken it to burning the Mona Lisa; a truly devastating loss of circus history.

It's said that the Peru citizens tried to buy the wagons scheduled for destruction. All offers were soundly refused by JRN. The townspeople gathered for the burning and many openly wept. Only five circus wagons were preserved. These were sent to the new RBBB winter quarters in Sarasota, FL in 1944. I believe they are currently part of the Baraboo Museum.

JRN did this just a few days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Circus historians and enthusiasts still talk about Nov 21st, 1941 as the circus' "Day of Infamy."

North also made many countless enemies by firing great numbers of old circus pros and hiring new Hollywood-type producers & designers to completely revamp the traditional circus with more glitz and glamour. That change to Ringling tradition can still be seen in today's Vegas style shows.

In hindsight, JRN is credited with bullying and driving his company's way to the top spot in the circus hierarchy. Without his Take-No-Prisoners drive, it is conjectured that RBBB would have died a bitter death in bankruptcy in the 1940's.

Along those same lines, I was once told by a Ringling friend that in the North tradition, RBBB redesigns their red & blue route shows every two years...and with each redesign they completely destroy the show props and costumes from the previous shows to keep competitors from using them. What a business!!!

Skip
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Kerry Kistler
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Skip,
Wow. What a story. Thanks for taking the time to type that all up. Do you know if the wagon-burning story is in print in any circus history books or magazine articles? Maybe this topic deserves its own thread?

Kerry
Skip Way
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I guess I should point out the reason for the burning. It was a business decision. John Ringling North had decided to move his American Circus Corporation winter quarters to Sarasota, FL. Circuses were already rapidly abandoning the ornate, heavy and cumbersome parade wagons as the Depression of the 30's and the 1940 war years made transportation & maintenance costs prohbitive. JRN had to decide whether to continue paying storage costs for the wagons, ship them to the new quarters in Sarasota or relieve his company of their burden. The most economical decision was to divest his company of the burden. Selling them would allow competitors to turn them to potential profit...which he refused to allow.

As I understand it, Sells-Floto had topped JRN and RBBB in gross annual income a few years before through the draw of their lavish through-town street parades...a spectacle that Sells-Floto was loath to discontinue...and one issue that helped speed up their eventual absorption by RBBB. JRN recalled both of these lessons and halted the RBBB street parades and opted to destroy the wagons rather than allow a competitor to profit and hurt RBBB through his decision.

Logical to a fault...but still a heart rending decision for those of us who would have liked to enjoy these wagons today.
How you leave others feeling after an Experience with you becomes your Trademark.

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Skip Way
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Kerry, I heard about it from my Grandad; A life-long circus worker and clown. It was one of countless stories he used to tell and my facts may be a bit off...except for the number of wagons and the date. He used to say that it was a sad day, but came as no great surprise. Struggling circuses large and small were routinely abandoning their old wagons to rot and decay. He really admired JRN, though. I used to hear him call JRN the savior of the American circus.

As for articles...I'm sure there HAVE to be some out there. To hear it told, it was a major event in circus history like the Hartford Fire and the Hagenbeck-Wallace train wreck.

Slow day...and I love the old stories! Smile
How you leave others feeling after an Experience with you becomes your Trademark.

Magic Youth Raleigh - RaleighMagicClub.org
Kerry Kistler
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Skip,
Again, thanks for the great additional information. You have outdone yourself for me.

Much appreciation!
Kerry
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