The Magic of Circus: From Then to Now

Updated on October 19, 2018
TeriSilver profile image

Teri Silver is a journalist, commercial copywriter, editor, broadcast anchor, and Public Relations Specialist.

Love Affair

I love circus. That’s a simple statement and yet, it really encompasses the decades of my life – and – I know I’m not the only one.

Since the closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus following its last performance on May 21, 2017, I have answered many questions about “what will happen to circus?”

The short answer is … it’s still here and it’s still great entertainment.

There are generations of men, women, boys and girls with special memories, unfulfilled wishes and, of course, Sawdust, Spangles and Dreams. This song (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the 1962 movie, Billy Rose’s Jumbo) brings together the whole package of CIRCUS; its unique magic and the feelings of wanderlust we all have from time to time.

So, what’s it all about? Let’s start with a little history.

Philip Astley was the founder of modern circus
Philip Astley was the founder of modern circus

The Beginning: English Circus

Englishman and cavalry officer Philip Astley set up the first "modern circus" ring display in the 18th century. Astley, born in 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, created the first circus ring in 1768—a 42-foot diameter circle where he would perform various stunts on horseback. A couple of years later, Astley brought in jugglers, acrobats, and wire walkers to entertain the audiences between dressage acts.

John "Bill" Ricketts
John "Bill" Ricketts

The Beginning: United States Circus

April 3, 1793; the day that CIRCUS made its first appearance in the United States. Born in October of 1769, Scotsman John William “Bill” Ricketts came to Philadelphia from England, where he performed in a ring with the Hughes Royal Circus. Ricketts’ equestrian show included acrobats, a tightrope walker and a clown.

John Bill Ricketts formed his own circus company in 1791 with the help of dancer-turned-manager John Parker. The two partners toured Ireland and Scotland as they developed the circus company that would later be introduced in an amphitheater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (the then-capital of the United States). According to historians, President George Washington enjoyed visiting Ricketts’ Circus performances on April 22, 1793 and January 24, 1797.

12th and Market Streets:  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
12th and Market Streets: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Ricketts’ Circus

With the success of his circus, John Bill Ricketts opened new shows in New York City (open-air performances on Broadway near the Battery), Virginia, South Carolina and various locations in New England and Canada. A separate circus show was presented by Ricketts’ brother (Francis), who brought tours to Baltimore, Annapolis, York, and Lancaster. The Ricketts’ Circus kept its headquarters in Philadelphia.

Ricketts' Art Pantheon and Amphitheater (center), located on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was opened in 1794. It caught fire on December 17, 1799.
Ricketts' Art Pantheon and Amphitheater (center), located on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was opened in 1794. It caught fire on December 17, 1799.

Smoldering Dreams

December 17, 1799—the day when America lost its circus.

With the show stored in winter quarters, a fire started in the circus building; it spread to the structure next door. Although both buildings were destroyed, the scenery, wardrobe, horses, and other bits and pieces were saved. The noted cause of the fire was an unattended burning candle.

Ricketts tried to bring his employees back to New York. However, because the building they previously used needed extensive and expensive repairs, that plan did not come to fruition. Still housed in Philadelphia, Ricketts presented the show in a somewhat dilapidated building that covered the audience, but the performers were exposed to various weather elements. The number of circus-goers dwindled.

After huge financial losses and seeing his dream quite literally go up in smoke, John Bill Ricketts decided to leave the United States. On May 1, 1800, Ricketts chartered a small ship and set sail for the West Indies. One month later, French pirates took over the ship; releasing Ricketts, his performers and their cargo on the island of Guadeloupe. There, Ricketts was able to sell his horses for a good price, and he’d made a few other positive financial transactions. The young entrepreneur set sail for England, but the ship was lost at sea. Ricketts is believed to have died in 1800, but it was 1802 when his mother registered the documents with the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

Circus toys for girls and boys!
Circus toys for girls and boys!

Animals

The first circuses were about equestrian acts and acrobatics; wild animal feats came about much later. For the price of a sideshow ticket, circus-goers could see (and smell) wild animals—a huge sight for a small town! These traveling zoos brought amazing experiences to people who would otherwise never see giraffes, elephants, hippopotamuses and big cats. More than 30 traveling animal displays were touring the eastern area of the United States by the 1820s. Within the next decade, animal acts were added to circus performances.

America’s First Big Cat Trainer

In the United States, big jungle cats came to circus ring cages in 1833. Isaac Van Amburgh (1808-1865) worked with a lion, leopard, panther and tiger. Van Amburgh wore a Roman toga costume—the look of gladiators in ancient Rome. During the performance, he would put his arm and head inside the jaws of the lion’s mouth. Van Amburgh brought his act back to Europe in 1838; performing several times for Queen Victoria.

For decades, Isaac Van Amburgh’s name was used in circus menageries (following his death in 1865 of a heart attack). The baiting and notably cruel methods utilized by Isaac Van Arburgh to “tame” his jungle animals are long gone … they are not the same ones used by big cat trainers today. Lions and tigers that perform in modern circuses are bred in captivity—not taken from the wild.

Isaac Van Amburgh
Isaac Van Amburgh
Old Bet
Old Bet | Source

Elephants!

Elephants are a circus staple for many of us, even though the ability to care for and present more than a few of these incredible animals has become a challenge for most current shows.

The first elephant came from Calcutta, India to the United States in 1796; the ship, America, left on December 3, 1795. Historical accounts vary as to whether the elephant was a circus-bound creature called “Old Bet.”

Old Bet may have been the second elephant to come to America. The animal was originally purchased for $1,000 by a New York businessman named Hachaliah Bailey; she was to be a part of a traveling menagerie (circa 1804-1808). Old Bet toured with equestrian-based circuses, theatrical productions and exhibitions. The eight-year old elephant commanded a 25-cent entrance fee at some of her appearances.

While on tour in 1816, Old Bet was shot and killed by a local farmer. In 1821, P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York bought the bones and hide of Old Bet, creating a statue memorial that was exhibited a few years later.

Circus Animals

Elephants are part of America’s long historical circus tapestry, even though the costs of caring for and transporting these amazing animals—along with so-called animal rights advocacy—has made it difficult for today’s shows to exhibit them. Elephants are smart, engaging, and affectionate … and controversial. Most of the people I’ve talked to say they want to see circus elephants—they are STILL part of tradition, no matter what the opposition says. However, there are many who say that elephants and other exotic and domestic animals should not be trained for entertainment purposes.

The key is to make up one's own mind based on unbiased information and scientific facts; not overdramatized emotional rhetoric—but, of course, we all have our own opinions on whether circuses should contain animal-based performances. My thoughts have always been … if you don’t like a circus with exotic or domestic animals, do not buy a ticket. There are other shows that are bound to present something preferable. Circuses that highlight aerials, acrobatics, contortionists, clowns and daredevils are on tour–they need your support.

Zirkus Krone, Germany
Zirkus Krone, Germany

Circus Today

Yes, with the closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2017, the question came about—could traditional circus survive? With the Big Show now stored in America’s historical archive, what happens to CIRCUS?

The answer: It’s still as strong as ever.

Circus shows are traveling throughout areas of the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia and the rest of the world. The art of circus is in demand; people want to see clowns, aerialists, jugglers, flyers, acrobats and … yes … animal acts. Animal performances continue to be popular in the United States, Europe, and other continents, as government agencies frequently inspect circus menageries and training methods.

Regardless of "animal rights" activity, people do buy tickets and attend shows that feature elephants, tigers, lions, bears and other exotics. Horses, dogs, pigs and other barnyard critters are also part of the draw. Those who do not want to see these acts have options for enjoying animal-free circuses—many are traveling throughout the country right now.

We must support circus shows, performers and related businesses—they need our entertainment dollars to compete and survive. Circuses are pools of talented people who perform feats that most of us could never do … these folks must eat, pay bills, pay travel expenses, buy clothing, and raise their children. And what's a circus without peanuts, popcorn, lemonade and cotton candy? Food concessionaires need your dollars, too.

If we want CIRCUS to survive, we have to support it with our wallets.

Our children and grandchildren are depending on it.

Kelly Miller Circus
Kelly Miller Circus
Neno the Clown entertains the audience at Zoppe family circus.
Neno the Clown entertains the audience at Zoppe family circus.

Circus Tomorrow

I’ve lost count as to the number of circus schools throughout the United States, Europe, and the rest of world, but there are many from which to choose for children and adults. Schools offer a variety of skills, ranging from; aerials; silks; straps; trapeze; acrobatics; clowning; juggling; balance; and so much more. Many schools combine regular K-12 school and/or curriculums with circus arts training.

There will be circus “tomorrow,” for the passions of today are fueling the future.

Learning the silks at Circus School
Learning the silks at Circus School

“Up Close and (Almost) Personal”

The sights, the sounds, the smells … what happens when you go to a zoo, aquarium or circus?

For me, it’s magic. That’s it … magic.

My local area zoo (in Columbus, Ohio) is an incredible facility that offers many programs and encounters for adults and children. Our zoo is only one of the wonderful facilities located throughout the United States that help people to learn about animals, care, and their chances for long-term survival in increasingly dwindling wild habitats. Zoos have rescue and breeding programs to further these needs for endangered species.

We learn from zoos and aquariums what we cannot really absorb from books, television and internet videos. Personal encounters with animals keep us interested and engaged in their behaviors and survival.

At the circus—the lights, glitter, music, color, beautifully-spangled costumes and perfectly-groomed animals bring me to a kind of euphoria that makes it hard to get to sleep at night after the show is over. The CIRCUS is that je ne sais quois for adults who no longer dream about the future. And to me, animals are a big part of the draw. When I see lions and tigers, the smile never leaves my face. The elephants are amazingly intelligent creatures. Horses are magnificent. Trained dogs, camels, barnyard animals, bears … it’s all good.

(I have never seen any red-flag behaviors or cases that make me think circus animals are not treated well. I won’t say that there aren’t exceptions, but in my opinion—based on my journalistic/publications research and the trainers I have come to know—people who work with animals give them the best care possible).

Being up close and personal to these animals is very important—it helps us want to learn more about them and assist in the survival of their species. It helps us write letters, make donations, and sort through the truths and lies about what we see, hear and read. Zoos, circuses and aquariums bring these amazing animals closer to our lives; it all starts with education through entertainment.

My last Ringling visit ... sigh.  Dressed in Scarlet and Gray for the Ohio State Buckeyes' game, that day.
My last Ringling visit ... sigh. Dressed in Scarlet and Gray for the Ohio State Buckeyes' game, that day.

Circus Memories

Do you have a few circus memories of your own? Write them down. Keep them close. When you’re having a bad day, let your memories fly.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Teri Silver

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