Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Combined Shows, Inc.

Poster depicting The Ringling brothers, founders of the circus, ca. 1899
The Ringling brothers depicted in the upper left corner
Circus name Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
Country United States
Founder(s) The Ringling Brothers
Year founded 1919
Operator(s) Feld Entertainment
Traveling show? Yes
Winter quarters Ellenton, Florida
Website ringling.com

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a United States traveling circus company billed as The Greatest Show on Earth. The circus, known as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, was started in 1919 when the Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth, a circus created by P. T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey was merged with the Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows. The Ringling brothers had purchased Barnum & Bailey Ltd. following Bailey's death in 1906, but ran the circuses separately until they were merged in 1919.

On July 16, 1956, at the Heidelberg Race Track in Pittsbugh, Pennsylvania, the circus ended its season early, with President John Ringling North announcing that it would no longer exhibit under their own portable tents and starting in 1957 would exhibit in permanent venues, such as sports stadiums and arenas that had the seating already in place. In 1967, Irvin Feld and his brother Israel, along with Houston Judge Roy Hofheinz bought the circus from the Ringling family. In 1971, the Felds and Hofheinz sold the circus to Mattel, buying it back from the toy company in 1982. After the death of Irvin Feld in 1984, the circus has been a part of Feld Entertainment, an international entertainment firm headed by Kenneth Feld, with its headquarters in Ellenton, Florida


Ringling logo

Predecessor circuses

In 1875, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup persuaded P. T. 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 "Greatest Show on Earth" was added later.

Independently of Castello and Coup, James Anthony Bailey had teamed up with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s. The Cooper and Bailey Circus became the chief competitor, then they started looking at "Columbia," the first baby elephant born in the United States, in March 1880 in Philadelphia, to "Babe" and "Mandarin." Barnum attempted to buy the elephant. They eventually agreed to combine their shows on March 28, 1881.[1] In 1882, the combined "Barnum & Bailey Circus" was successful with acts such as Jumbo, advertised as the world's largest elephant. Barnum died in 1891 and Bailey then purchased the circus from his widow. Bailey continued touring the eastern United States until he took his circus to Europe. That tour started on December 27, 1897, and lasted until 1902.

In 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers had started a small circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin.[2][3] This was 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 brothers 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 allowed them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of that time. Bailey's European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard. Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1905. He died the next year, and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Advertisement for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1900
Poster from 1898, advertising a "troupe of very remarkable trained pigs"

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in 1907 and ran the circuses separately until 1919. By that time, Charles Edward Ringling and John Nicholas Ringling were the only remaining brothers of the five who founded the circus. They decided that it was too difficult to run the two circuses independently, and on March 29, 1919, "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" debuted 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 E. Ringling died in 1926, but the circus flourished through the Roaring Twenties.

John Ringling had the circus move its headquarters to Sarasota, Florida in 1927.[4]

In 1929, the American Circus Corporation signed a contract to perform in New York City. John Ringling purchased American Circus, owner of five circuses, for $1.7 million.[5]

In 1938, the circus made Frank Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their star attraction and to enter the show astride an elephant. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors, stating that he was "a scientist, not an actor." Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that he would not compromise his principles, saying, "Don't get me wrong. I'm with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself. And my heart is with the fellow who works. But I don't want some ... union delegate telling me when to get on and off an elephant."[6] Eventually, the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla without registering as an actor.

Frank Buck, star attraction, 1938

The circus suffered during the 1930s due to the Great Depression, but managed to stay in business. After John Nicholas Ringling's death, his nephew, John Ringling North, managed the indebted circus twice, the first from 1937 to 1943.[7] 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 depicting a threatening circus tiger was also released that year. Many of the most famous images from the circus that were published in magazine and posters were captured by American Photographer Maxwell Frederic Coplan, who traveled the world with the circus, capturing its beauty as well as its harsh realities.

North's cousin Robert took over the president of the combine show in 1943. North resumed the presidency of the circus in 1947.[7][8]

The Hartford Circus Fire

John Ringling North (right) and Frank Buck, who was the circus' featured attraction in 1938

The Hartford Circus Fire occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, during an afternoon performance that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people. It was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. Although the Hartford Fire Department responded quickly, the fire was fanned by the fact that the canvas circus tent had been waterproofed through a mixture of highly flammable paraffin and gasoline.[9] During the ensuing panic Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown, threw a bucket of water at the burning canvas tent, and a poignant photograph of his futile attempt was transmitted around the world as news spread of the disaster.[10] At least 167 people were killed in the disaster, and hundreds more were injured. Some of the dead remain unidentified to this day, even with modern DNA techniques.[11]

Actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was thirteen years old at the time, survived the fire and dramatized it in the film of his stage show, "The Life of Reilly". In a 1997 interview, Reilly said that he rarely attended the theater, despite being a director, since the sound of a large audience in a theater reminded him of the large crowd at the circus before the disaster.[12]

In the following investigation, it was discovered 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 had instead waterproofed their canvas using an older method of parrafin dissolved in gasoline and painted onto the canvas. The waterproofing worked, but as had been repeatedly shown it was horribly flammable.[13] Circus management was found to be negligent and several Ringling executives served sentences in jail. Ringling Brothers' management set aside all profits for the next ten years to pay the claims filed against the show by the City of Hartford and the survivors of the fire.[14]

Feld family

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, 1956. An article in Life magazine reported that "a magical era had passed forever".[8] In 1956, when 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[15] to work the advance for select dates, mostly in the Detroit and Philadelphia areas. Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel Feld, had already made a name for themselves marketed and promoted DC area rock and roll shows.[16] In 1959, Ringling Bros. started wintering in Venice, Florida.[3]

In late 1967, Irvin Feld, Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz of Texas, together with backing from Richard C. Blum, the founder of Blum Capital, bought the company outright from North and the Ringling family interests for $8 million at a ceremony at Rome’s Colosseum.[15][16][17][18] Irving Feld immediately began making other changes to improve the quality and profitability of the show. Irvin got rid of the freak show so as not to capitalized others' deformations and become more family orientated. He got rid of the more routine acts.[19]

In 1968 with the craft seemingly neglected and that many of them were in their 50s  he established the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.[3][19] A circus in Europe was purchased for $2 million just to have its star animal trainer, Gunther Gebel-Williams, for the core of his revamped circus. Soon, he split the show into two touring units, Red and Blue, which could tour the country independently.[19] The separate tours could also offer differing slates of acts and themes, enabling circus-goers to view both tours where possible.

The company was taken public in 1969.[15] In 1970, Feld's only son Kenneth joined the company and became a co-producer.[20] The circus was sold to the Mattel company in 1971 for $40 million, but the Feld family was retained as management.[19]

After Walt Disney World opened near Orlando, Florida in 1971, the circus attempted to cash in on the resulting tourism surge by opening Circus World theme park in nearby Haines City which broke ground on April 26, 1973.[19][21] The theme park was expected to become the circus' winter home and locate its Clown College there.[21][22] Mattel had placed the circus corporation up for sale despite its profit contributions to Mattel by December 1973 as Mattel showed a $29.9 million loss in 1972. At that time the park's opening was delayed until February 1974.[21] Venture Out in America, Inc., a Gulf Oil recreational subsidiary, agreed to buy the combined shows in January 1974 with the opening slipping to 1975.[22] While the Circus Showcase building of Circus World opened on February 21, 1974,[23] Venture Out placed the purchase deal back into negotiations and the opening of the whole complex was moved to an early 1976.[24]

By May 1980, the company expanded to three circuses by adding the one-ring International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo that debut in Japan and Australia.[19] The Felds bought the circus back in 1982.[15] Irvin Feld died in 1984[25] and the company has since been run by Kenneth.

Circus World was never successful, as its standard carnival-type rides were no match for Disney's state-of-the-art attractions and was out of the way. As such, the circus sold the park to Arizona developer James Monaghan in 1984.[26]

When in 1990 the Venice rail tracks could not support the show's train cars, the combine circus moved its winter base to the Florida Fairgrounds in Tampa. In 1993, the clown college was moved from the Venice Arena to Baraboo, Wisconsin.[3] In 1995, the company founded the Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC).[27]

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. 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.[28]

After 3 years in Baraboo, the clown college operated at the Sarasota Opera House until 1998 before the program was suspended.[3] On February 26, 1999, the circus company started previewing Barnum's Kaleidoscape, a under the tent one ring intimate, upscale circus.[29]

Nicole Feld became the first female producer of Ringling Circus in 2004. In 2009, Nicole and Alana Feld co-produced the circus.[16] On March 5, 2015, the Circus announced that all elephants would be retired in 2018 to the CEC.[27] The retirement date was subsequently moved forward to May 2016.[30]

Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth poster, c. 1899
CSX locomotives pulling the circus train out of St. Petersburg, Florida
Circus train rolling through Safety Harbor, Florida

Circus trains

Currently, the circus maintains two circus train-based shows, the Blue Tour and the Red Tour.[31] Each train is a mile long with roughly 60 cars: 40 passenger cars and 20 freight.[32] Rolling stock belonging to the circus bears the reporting mark "RBBX". The Blue and Red Tours present a full three-ring production for two years each (taking off the month of December), 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 first year of P.T. Barnum's show. The Blue Tour presents the even-numbered editions on a two-year tour (beginning each even-numbered year), and the Red Tour presents the odd-numbered editions on the same two-year tour (beginning each odd-numbered year).

In the 1950s there was one gigantic train system comprising three separate train loads that brought the main show to the big cities. The first train load consisted of 22 cars and had the tents and the workers to set them up; the second section comprised 28 cars and carried the canvasmen, ushers and sideshow workers; the third section had 19 sleeping cars for the performers.[33]

From 2003 to 2015 the circus also operated a truck-based Gold Tour presenting a scaled-back, single-ring version of the show designed to serve smaller markets deemed incapable of supporting the three-ring versions.[34]

Animal care and criticism

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey employs a full-time veterinary staff to provide ongoing medical care for the animals. Each animal receives regular, thorough medical examinations and all needed vaccinations. Each touring unit has a Veterinary Technician who travels with the show and provides daily medical care to the animals, while two full-time veterinarians travel between the units.[35]

In 1995, the circus opened the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida for the breeding, research, and retirement of its Asian elephant herd. Located in central Florida, this 200-acre facility is dedicated to the conservation, breeding and understanding of these animals.[36] Most dogs in the shows are from animal shelters or rescued from poor living conditions.[37] The circus participates in breeding programs for endangered species used in the shows including the Bengal tiger, the Siberian tiger, and Asian elephants. The tiger population is retired to Big Cat Rescue.[38]

Many animal welfare and animal rights organizations, such as PETA, are opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses. The animal rights groups also oppose the use of domestic animals, such as horses or dogs, in circuses. Many of these groups actively campaign against circuses by staging protests outside of venues over alleged animal rights violations. The groups argue 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.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey was investigated following the death of a lion who died from heat and lack of water while the circus train was travelling through the Mojave Desert.[39] In 1998, the USDA filed charges against Ringling Bros. for forcing a sick elephant to perform.[40] Ringling paid a $20,000 fine to settle the matter.[41]

In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture conducted an inspection of the circus' animals, facilities, and records, allegedly finding non-compliance with the agency's regulations. No specific violation was named and the circus denied the allegations, though they volunteered a $270,000 fine.[42] As part of the settlement,[43] the circus must employ a full-time staff person to ensure compliance with the Act and all circus employees who work with or handle animals must complete training regarding compliance with the act within 30 days of when they are hired.

The ASPCA, PETA and other animal groups sued the circus claiming that it violated the Endangered Species Act by its treatment of Asian elephants in its circus. These allegations were based primarily on the testimony of a circus barn worker. After nine years of litigation and a six-week non-jury trial, the Court dismissed the suit in a written decision, finding that the barn worker was not credible[44] ASPCA v. Feld Entm’t, Inc., 677 F. Supp. 2d 55 (D.D.C. 2009). In 2012, the circus learned that the animal rights groups had paid the barn worker $190,000 to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit regarding the Asian elephants. The circus sued[45] the animal rights groups under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, accusing them of conspiracy to harm its business and other illegal acts. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agreed to pay the circus $9.2 million to settle the lawsuit.[44]

In March 2015, the parent company Feld Entertainment announced it would stop using elephants[46] in their shows by 2018, subsequently moved up to 2016. The 13 elephants that are part of their shows will be sent to the circus' Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, which currently houses over 40 elephants.[47][48] Feld explained that this action was not a result of the animal rights groups allegations that had been deemed unproven by the court (noting that those groups were ordered to pay Feld $25.2 million in settlement for making false allegations), but rather due to the patchwork of local laws regarding whether elephants could be used in entertainment shows.[49] The final performances with elephants occurred on May 1, 2016, with "Red Unit" herd performing at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania,[50] and the "Blue Unit" herd performing later in the day at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island.[51]

Daniel Raffo and his tigers in "Over the Top"
The Torres family performing in "Over the Top"


In 1952, Paramount Pictures released the Cecil B. DeMille production "The Greatest Show on Earth", which traced the traveling show through the setup and breakdown of several performances. The film starred Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, James Stewart, and Emmett Kelly. On August 17, 2011, 20th Century Fox announced that a biographical musical drama film entitled "The Greatest Showman" is in development with Michael Gracey set to direct, written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon,[52] Hugh Jackman will play P.T. Barnum as well as produce it.[53] It has confirmed that Michelle Williams will portray Barnum's love interest.[54] According to IMDb, principal photography is expected to begin in November.


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