Barnum & Bailey - I'll meet you at the circus, ca. 1906.
The U.S. Lithograph Company/Library of Congress
film review / culture

The American Circus in All Its Glory

A new documentary tells the history of the big top.
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In fact, peculiarity seems to define nearly everyone who helped create the American circus—not just Barnum, whom the documentary features prominently, but also his once famous rival Adam Forepaugh, and the Ringling Brothers, and even Barnum’s eventual business partner, James Anthony Bailey. The Circus presents a compelling case that the interplay of these entrepreneurs shaped what Americans still picture when the word circus is spoken.

Thus, the indomitable and self-promoting Barnum, thriving despite numerous business catastrophes, was always seeking to outdo the pugilistic Forepaugh. And Barnum’s greatest success in that regard came when, in his seventies, he recognized the organizational talent of the decades-younger Bailey, secretly partnering with him while publicly proclaiming their implacable rivalry—a quintessential Barnum move.

That partnership, Barnum and Bailey’s, ruled the American circuit until Bailey’s death in 1906, when the business was acquired by Ringling Brothers. The behemoth combination, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, lasted until its closing in 2017, done in by the long decline of ticket sales.

Of course, that leaves the question of why ticket sales declined. The circus was always a bifurcated place—family entertainment seasoned with a smidgen of the forbidden and the aberrant. There was a vicarious suggestion of impending disaster, with the Flying Wallendas’ building human pyramids in the air. A titillating hint of the flesh, with women in tights parading in the center ring and peepshows tucked away in a corner of the fairway. A touch of the grotesque, a splash of the garish, a hint of the criminal.

Part of P. T. Barnum’s genius was to sand off some of the rougher edges. Seeking to improve the reputation of circuses, he promoted his menageries and grotesqueries as educational opportunities. He lined up ministers to praise the circus as wholesome entertainment rather than immoral indulgence and idleness. He advertised his hiring of Pinkerton detectives to assure circus-goers that they would not be pickpocketed.

But the other part of P. T. Barnum’s genius was not to sand off too much. He still made a fortune from the dwarfism of Tom Thumb. He still had bearded ladies and conjoined twins. He kept the danger of trapeze artists working without a net and animal tamers with wild beasts. Through all his innovations, he preserved something of the strangeness of the circus, something of the alien and the exotic.

His successors tended to do less well.
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