Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was started when the circus created by James Anthony Bailey and P. T. Barnum, was merged with the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Ringling brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907, but ran the circuses separately until they were finally merged in 1919.
P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome
In 1871, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup
persuaded Barnum to lend his name and financial backing to the circus they had already created in Delavan, Wisconsin
. It was called "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome". The moniker "The Greatest Show on Earth" was added later.
Cooper and Bailey
James Anthony Bailey
had teamed with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s. Bailey's circus was soon Barnum's chief competitor. Bailey was the first to display an electric light
in 1879, a year before Thomas Edison
patented it. He also exhibited "Little Columbia," the first baby elephant
ever born in an American circus.
Cooper and Bailey merges with Barnum
Barnum wanted to buy the elephant, but Bailey turned him down. Instead of continuing as competitors, each man recognized the showmanship of the other, and decided to combine their shows in 1881. In 1882, the combined show enjoyed great success with acts such as Jumbo
, advertised as the world's largest elephant. Barnum died in 1891. Bailey purchased the circus from his widow. He ran many successful tours through the eastern United States until he took his circus to Europe where, on December 27
, he began a tour across the continent that lasted through 1902.
Bailey's European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest through the eastern seaboard. Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rockies for the first time in 1905. He died the next year and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers a year later.
The Ringling brothers
Five of the seven Ringling brothers
started a small circus in 1884, about the same time that Barnum & Bailey were at the peak of their popularity. Similar to dozens of small circuses that toured the Midwest and the Northeast at the time, the Ringlings moved their circus from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans. Their circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train
, which enabled them to create the largest traveling show of their time.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus merger
The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and ran the circuses separately until 1919. By that time, Charles Edward Ringling
and John Nicholas Ringling
were the only remaining Ringling brothers
of the four who founded the circus. They decided that it was too difficult to run the two circuses independently. So on March 29
, "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" debuted at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The posters declared, "The Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions." Charles Edward Ringling
died in 1926. The circus was a success through the "Roaring 20s
American Circus Corporation
In 1929 the American Circus Corporation
signed a contract to perform in New York's Madison Square Garden
. John Nicholas Ringling
purchased American Circus for $1.7 million. That absorbed five major shows:
, Al G. Barnes Circus
, Sparks Circus
, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus
, and John Robinson Circus
The circus suffered during the 1930s because of the Great Depression
, but managed to stay in business. John Nicholas Ringling
's nephew, John Ringling North
, managed the circus through these difficult times for several decades. Special dispensation was given to the circus by President Roosevelt
to use the rails to operate in 1942, in spite of travel restrictions imposed as a result of World War II
. A new marketing poster was also released that year which depicted a circus tiger threatening the viewer of the poster.
The Hartford Circus Fire
The Hartford Circus Fire
, occurred on July 6
, in Hartford, Connecticut
, and was one of the worst fire disasters
in the history of the United States. The fire occurred during an afternoon performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people. Emmett Kelly
, the tramp clown, threw a bucket of water at the burning canvas tent in a futile effort to put the fire out.
More than 100 people were killed. The great irony of the fire was that the performance took place under canvas. Had the crowd realized it, safety was no farther away than ducking out under the sidewalls of the tent. Some of the dead remain unidentified to this day, even with modern DNA techniques.
One fact that came out in the investigation into the tragedy was that the tent had not been fireproofed. Ringling Bros.' had applied to the Army, which had an absolute priority on the material, for enough fireproofing liquid to treat their Big Top. The Army had refused to release it to them. The circus' management was found to be negligent and several Ringling executives served sentences in jail in connection with the Hartford Circus Fire.
Many claims were brought against The Greatest Show on Earth in connection with the fire. Ringling Bros.' set aside all their profits for the next ten years to pay off these claims and paid off every claim in full.
The post-war prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the nation was not shared by the circus as crowds dwindled and costs increased. Public tastes, influenced by the movies and television, abandoned the circus which gave its last performance under the big top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
on July 16
. An article in LIFE magazine
said that "a magical era had passed forever".
and his brother Israel Feld
had already made a name for themselves producing touring rock 'n roll shows. In 1957, John Ringling North and Arthur Concello moved the circus from a tent show to an indoor operation, Irvin Feld was one of several promoters hired to work the advance for select dates, most in the Detroit and Philadelphia areas. In the fall of 1967, he, his brother Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz
of Texas, bought the company outright from North and the Ringling family interests.
He immediately began making other changes to improve the quality and profitability of the show. In 1968, realizing there were only 14 professional clowns remaining in the show — and that many of them were in their 50s — he established the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
The next year, he split the show into two touring units, a "Red Tour" and a "Blue Tour" which could tour the country independently. They could also offer differing slates of acts and show themes, enabling circus-goers to view both tours where possible.
In 1970, Feld's only son, Kenneth, joined the company and became a co-producer of the shows. The Feld family sold the circus to the Mattel company in 1971, but retained production control. They bought it back in 1982. Irvin Feld died in 1984 and the company has since been run by Kenneth.
Clair George has testified in court that he worked as a consultant in the early 1990s for Kenneth Feld and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus where he was involved in the surveillance of Jan Pottker (a journalist who was writing about the Feld family) and of various animal rights groups such as PETA.
In 1996, Feld Entertainment was created as the parent company of the circus, as well as a skating-themed sister show, Disney on Ice. The company also produces several large-scale Broadway and Las Vegas productions.
Currently, the circus maintains two circus train-based shows, the Blue Tour and the Red Tour, as well as the truck-based Gold Tour. Each train, the largest privately owned trains in the world, stretches a mile in length with roughly 60 cars: 40 passenger cars and 20 freight. The Blue and Red Tours present a full three-ring production for two years each (taking the month of December off), visiting alternating major cities each year. Each train presents a different "edition" of the show, using a numbering scheme that dates back to circus origins in 1871. The Blue Tour presents the even-numbered editions (beginning each even-numbered year), and the Red Tour presents the odd-numbered editions (beginning each odd-numbered year). The Gold Tour presents a scaled-back, single-ring version of the show, designed to serve smaller markets deemed incapable of supporting the three-ring versions.
In 2006, for the 136th edition, the Blue Tour started with an entirely new format. This is the first major change in fifty years, since the circus moved from traveling tents to indoor arenas. The new edition has met with decidedly mixed reviews. Gone are the tigers, tight-rope walkers and families swinging through the air, and the three rings have been replaced by a single oval. The performance is now portrayed as through the eyes of an average American "family" pulled from the audience, who are in reality, actors. By the end of the show, the mom is a glamorous trapeze artist, the dad is a ringmaster, the teenage daughter a circus dancer and the young son a foot-juggler.
The Blue Tour was the newest during 2006; the Red Tour, "Bello-bration" starring Bello Nock, began the show's 137th Edition in 2007. Red Unit's 2007-2008 train has 58 cars, stretching just a few feet short of a mile. 2008 will see the Blue show beginning a two-year tour advertised as the "All-New" 138th Edition titled "Over the Top" featuring a "tug-of-war" between ringmaster Chuck Wagner and clown Tom Dougherty---traveling aboard a 61-car train stretching over 5,400 feet long. The 138th Edition also sees the reinstatement of the tiger and trapeze acts in the Blue Unit.
The circus emphasizes that the utmost care is given to the animals' health and welfare. The circus believes that promoting human-animal interaction is vital to increasing public awareness of the need to protect and preserve animal species. They state "Captive animals play an important role as Ambassadors – teaching people about the animals’ needs and challenges and about our responsibility to ensure their future survival." The circus meets all requirements for zoos and circuses for animal welfare.
In 1995, the circus opened the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida for the breeding, research, and retirement of its Asian Elephant herd. All dogs in the shows are from animal shelters or rescued from poor living conditions. The circus participates in breeding programs for endangered species used in the shows including the Bengal tiger and elephant. The tiger population is retired to Big Cat Rescue.
Animal welfare organizations, such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), frequently campaign against animal use at circuses. These groups, which stage large protests against the circus and urge circus-goers to boycott Ringling and patronize only animal-free circuses, allege that animals used in the circus are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment during training, harsh conditions during transport, and a general lack of mental and physical stimulation.
The circus went under various names as new investors joined
- P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello, proprietors (1871)
- P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling World's Fair; The Greatest Shows On Earth; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup, Dan Castello and S. H. Hurd, proprietors
- P. T. Barnum's Great Roman Hippodrome; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup, Dan Castello and S. H. Hurd, proprietors
- P. T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth; P. T. Barnum, John J. Nathans, George F. Bailey and Lewis June, proprietors (and Avery Smith for part of 1876 only)
- Barnum & Bailey Circus; James Anthony Bailey (1891)
- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus