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The Circus - American Experience

Two-parts, airing Tuesday, August 18 and Tuesday, August 25 at 9 p.m.

American Experience

The Circus: Trailer

"The Circus,” a four-hour, two-part documentary, explores the colorful history of this popular, influential and distinctly American form of entertainment, from the first one-ring show at the end of the 18th century to 1956, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey big top was pulled down for the last time. Written, directed and produced by Sharon Grimberg and executive produced by Mark Samels, “The Circus” airs on Southern Oregon PBS over two nights, Tuesday, Aug. 18 and Tuesday, Aug. 25, beginning at 9 p.m.

A transformative place for reinvention, where young women could become lion tamers and young men traveled the world as roustabouts, the circus allowed people to be liberated from the roles assigned by society and find an accepting community that had eluded them elsewhere. Drawing upon a vast and richly visual archive, and featuring a host of performers, historians and aficionados, “The Circus” brings to life an era when Circus Day would shut down a town, its stars were among the most famous people in the country, and multitudes gathered to see the improbable and the impossible, the exotic and the spectacular.

“There’s nothing in the world like a circus,” said ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson. “You cannot come to a circus and still believe as you previously did. Circus is a peek into what we could be, how great we could be, how beautiful our world could be. It’s about making your own miracles, conjuring your own miracles. We’re coming for the transcendent.”

Through the intertwined stories of several of the most innovative and influential impresarios of the late 19th century, including P.T. Barnum, James Bailey and the five Ringling Brothers, the series reveals the circus as a phenomenon created by a rapidly expanding and increasingly industrialized nation. It explores how its “dangerous” and “exotic” attractions revealed the country’s notions about race and Western dominance, and shows how the circus subverted prevailing standards of “respectability” with its unconventional, titillating and “freakish” entertainments.

“The tented traveling circus is an American creation,” said Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience. “Appealing to both urban and rural parts of the country, and to people from all walks of life, the circus helped forge a common national culture and identity. It was an unprecedented combination of cutting-edge marketing, military-like organization and supreme artistry. The circus was where you could reinvent yourself, which is why so many ran away to join it. With the recent closing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the series offers a fascinating look back at this form of entertainment.”

Part One (1793-1891)

For more than a century, Circus Day was as anticipated as Christmas and the Fourth of July. It would crash into everyday life, colorful and brash, and then disappear, leaving many dreaming of another life. As the country grew, so did the circus, evolving into a gargantuan entertainment that would unite a far-flung nation of disconnected communities and dazzle not only Americans, but the world.

The first circus in the U.S. was established in Philadelphia in 1793, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the tent in 1825 that the circus became a truly roving art form that could reach the tiniest hamlets. “What the tent show did,” said historian Janet Davis, “was establish the rituals of itinerancy, the one-night stand, the ability to go into country that is essentially bereft of infrastructure. What the tent established was this way of circusing that became distinctly American.”

Almost everywhere, the circus met the disapproval of the religious and puritanical. In a society that valued sobriety and hard work, a wide-eyed day peering at half-naked aerialists amid shifty circus workers was frowned upon. Soon, circuses began to add elaborate menageries of exotic animals including lions, hippos and elephants, and “human oddities” from across the globe — rebranding themselves as “educational” experiences to concerned communities.

The arrival of infamous showman and huckster P. T. Barnum transformed the trade. In 1871, Barnum and his partners created the largest touring show in existence. In a few short years, they added a second ring to the big top and began touring by train, turning the circus into a complex, industrialized organization.

A master of publicity, Barnum promoted his shows with ever more elaborate marketing campaigns. Other circuses followed suit, but Barnum met his match in two outstanding rivals: a former Philadelphia butcher named Adam Forepaugh, who countered every one of Barnum’s claims with outlandish hyperbole of his own, and James Bailey, who ran away to the circus at age 13 and soon owned his own show. In 1876, Bailey would take that circus — animal menagerie, performers, tents and all — on a 76,000-mile tour around the world. Barnum soon realized he would do better with Bailey as a partner than as a nemesis, and in a wild publicity stunt involving a baby elephant, the two men made much of their merger.

In Baraboo, Wisconsin, five sons of an impoverished immigrant harness-maker launched their own one-ring circus. In just a few years, the Ringling boys from Baraboo had turned their show into a force with which to be reckoned.

Part Two (1897-1956)

In 1897, James Bailey decided to take his circus to Europe on a five-year tour. When the show paraded through British streets for the first time, throngs of people turned up to watch – and the scene was repeated in towns across Europe. “The spectacle of how the circus operated proved to be endlessly fascinating for European audiences,” said historian Matthew Wittmann. “It garnered interest even from the Prussian military. They showed up to see how the operation worked.”

Bailey returned to the U. S. in 1903 and died three years later. Soon after, the Ringling brothers bought Barnum & Bailey. For a while, they ran the two shows separately, but, in 1918, after several tough seasons during World War I, the brothers combined their circuses into one mammoth outfit: the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, a moving town of more than 1100 people, 735 horses, nearly 1000 other animals and 28 tents.

Featured were some of the most storied circus performers in history, including the famed aerialist Lillian Leitzel; May Worth, who stunned audiences by somersaulting on horseback; and big cat trainer Mabel Stark.

In an era when women were still fighting for the right to vote, women circus performers stepped to the forefront of the suffrage movement. “The circus is a space where women did have opportunities that were unavailable in other areas of American life,” said Davis. “Top headliners were paid just as well as their male counterparts. The circus offered women a life of independence and freedom from the watchful eyes of communities and family members.”

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus limped through the Great Depression, facing new competition from radio, sporting events and the movies. After the death of John Ringling, the last surviving brother, his nephew, John North, took over. North’s vision of a modernized circus that borrowed from the aesthetic of Broadway and Hollywood revived the circus for a while, but a catastrophic fire in 1944 made the operation of a massive traveling tented show unviable. In 1956, North folded before the end of the season, announcing that his traveling circus would never again perform under a big top.

For more than a century, the circus had brought daily life to a standstill. Shows took over rail yards. Parades clogged Main Street. Acres of billowing canvas appeared mirage-like on the outskirts of town. And then, when day broke, the miracle had vanished. Equestrians, sideshow performers, clowns, roustabouts, an enormous collection of curious beasts — all became just figments of a glorious dream.

About the Participants

James W. Cook has taught U.S. history and American Studies at the University of Michigan since 2001. His publications include The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (2001) and The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader (2005).

Fred Dahlinger, Jr. is curator of circus history with the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, a campus of Florida State University. His publication credits include over 80 articles, a video documentary, two CDs and three books. Dahlinger has originated exhibits and public programs, and supported the restoration of circus artifacts and historic structures. During 50 years of research, he has investigated circus ownership and management, logistics, technology and art forms, along with related research in other types of traveling shows, amusement parks and world’s fair midways.

Janet M. Davis is a professor in the department of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top (2002).

La Norma Fox is a former aerialist who worked for several circuses, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. She also worked as a stunt double for actress Betty Hutton in the Oscar-winning movie The Greatest Show on Earth.

Marjorie Cordell Geiger is a former circus aerialist.

Edward Hoagland is an author best known for his nature and travel writing. Hoagland joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a cage hand in 1951 and sold a novel about this experience, Cat Man, before graduating from Harvard in 1954.

Sakina Hughes is an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Indiana.

Johnathan Lee Iverson, at only 22 years old, became the youngest, the first New Yorker and the first African American Ringmaster in the nearly 150-year history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. He served as Ringmaster from 1999 through the show’s final performance in 2017.

Dominique Jando is a circus historian who has written five books on the circus, was associate artistic director of New York’s Big Apple Circus from 1983 -2002, and director of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts from 2003-2004. He began his circus career at age 18 as a clown in his native Paris.

Michael Lancaster is the great-grandson of Charles Ringling and author of the novel Ringling, The Last Laugh.

Jackie LeClaire is a former clown whose parents were performers with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Mary Jane Miller spent 13 seasons with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as an aerialist. She performed nearly every type of circus act – elephants, flying act, iron jaw (hanging by her teeth), and handstands on the top of the Wallendas’ Roman Ladders act.

Fred D. Pfening, III has been a Circus Historical Society member almost his entire life, having joined in 1961 when he was 12 years old. He is past president of CHS (1986-1989), has been a trustee since CHS was reorganized in 1997 and has served as managing editor of The Bandwagon, the journal of the Circus Historical Society. His Collection of Popular Entertainment Ephemera is housed at his alma mater, Ohio State.

Jennifer Lemmer Posey is associate curator of The Circus Museum at the Ringling, in Sarasota, Florida, and former editor of The Bandwagon.

Richard Reynolds is a circus historian and Trustee Emeritus of the Circus Historical Society; he is based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Paul Ringling (1920-2018) was the grandson of Alf T. Ringling.

Nigel Rothfels is a historian and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; his research focuses on the history of Western ideas about animals.

Roger Smith is a former animal trainer who first worked with the legendary Clyde Beatty.

Robert Thompson is the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and a Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Ammed Tuniziani is a renowned trapeze artist and a third-generation circus performer.

Deborah Walk is curator of The Circus Museum at the Ringling in Sarasota, Florida.

Tino Wallenda is a sixth-generation circus performer. From the world famous “Flying Wallenda” family, Tino practices death-defying high-wire acts across the country.

Matthew Wittmann is the author of Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010 and curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection.

About the Filmmakers

Written, Produced and Directed by

SHARON GRIMBERG

Editor, Part One

JON NEUBURGER

Editor, Part Two

MARK DUGAS

Co-Producer

MELISSA MARTIN POLLARD

Associate Producers

HEATHER MERRILL and DAISY SCHMITT

Composers

GARY LIONELLI and NATHAN HALPERN

American Experience is a production of WGBH Boston

Senior Producer

SUSAN BELLOWS

Executive Producer

MARK SAMELS

Sharon Grimberg (Writer, Producer, Director) has more than 20 years of experience working for public television. As senior producer of American Experiencefor more than a decade, she played a key role in the origination, development, acquisition and editorial oversight of more than 130 films, including as executive producer of The Abolitionists, which was nominated for a Primetime Emmy and a Writers Guild Award. Grimberg was also executive producer of the American Experiencemulti-platform miniseries We Shall Remain, and a producer/writer on the first episode, “After the Mayflower.”Grimberg served as the supervising producer of THEY MADE AMERICA, a series on innovation based on award-winning writer Sir Harold Evans’ book of the same title. From 1992-1995 Grimberg worked as a writer and associate producer for CNN Headline News.

Mark Samels(Executive Producer) conceives, commissions and oversees all films for the PBS flagship history series American Experience. Samels has overseen more than 130films, expanding both the breadth of subjects and the filmmaking style embraced by the series, allowing for more contemporary topics and witness-driven storytelling. Beginning his career as an independent documentary filmmaker, he held production executive positions at public television stations in West Virginia and Pennsylvania before joining WGBH. Samels is a founding member of the International Documentary Association and has served as a governor of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Samels holds honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from Emerson College and Elizabethtown College.