“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. Step right up, come closer, you won’t believe your eyes! Behind this curtain we have something you’ve never seen before, heard before, dreamed of before; it’s The Greatest Show on Earth!”
For more than 100 years, 146 years to be exact, people of all ages heard this loud shout in cities across America. It performed for eleven months of year, presenting over 150 shows during these months. Many of you probably helped to fill arenas when it was in your town and if you never had the chance to see it, you unquestionably have heard its name. It brought excitement, joy and even tears to children and adults alike. It was something that many cities looked forward to year after year. It was, The Greatest Show on Earth!
Exciting show goers and creating smiles from 1871 to 2017, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was a name known to every household in America. You could bet that this traveling performance of animals and showmen would be somewhere near you. Prior to 1919, the event was not the combined circus that everyone knows and remembers. James Anthony Bailey was the first one to start this long tradition. In the 1860’s, Bailey operated a circus with James E. Cooper that was performing well for this time. Then in 1871, P.T. Barnum joined up with Dan Castello and his circus to start his own, that was at the time called, “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome”. After this, Bailey’s circus started to outperform Barnum’s circus, so Barnum contacted Bailey and offered him to merge the two together into what he thought would be the, Greatest Show on Earth. Then in 1881, Barnum & Bailey combined their two shows into one calling it, “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome”. Soon after, it was shortened to just, “Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth”.
While this was happening with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, five of the seven Ringling Brothers had started a small circus in Wisconsin. The brothers moved their circus from town to town in horse drawn caravans and due to the popularity of the circuses at the time, it rapidly grew. So much that the wagon caravans would no longer work and the Ringling brothers purchased several used train cars to start moving their circus, thus allowing them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of the time. The new Ringling Circus continued to grow and they took notice of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Ringling’s purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and ran them separate until 1919. This is when the name you know, “Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey – The Greatest Show on Earth” was created.
Since 1919, the circus has had many changes to it. It purchased several other smaller performing circuses and after the last Ringling brother’s death in 1937, the circus was bought and changed owners several times, even being owned by the Mattel Toy Company from 1971 to 1982, but the name never changed. For some, the circus was not just a way of life, it was life. Most of the employees lived on the famous Circus Train year-round while traveling from city to city. These employees are what made the circus what it was. The long days and nights of performing, the putting up and tearing down of the actual performing arena, the short night sleeping on the train until arriving in the next city and starting it all over again. As time moved on, more people became sensitive to the elephants and other animals used in the circus. Soon the animal rights activist and other such groups began to sue the circus over animal mistreatment. The suits were tied up in court battles for years taking large amounts of money and time from the circus. Then at the end of 2014, the battles were over but the damage was done. In March 2015, the circus announced the retirement of all their elephants for 2018, and only a few months later, moved this date to May 2016. Then the shocking news came to the world on January 14, 2017. Only eight months after the retirement of the elephants, the circus announced that The Greatest Show on Earth would come to an end on May 21st at the end of the performance. This announcement devastated the employees and circus fans around the world. How can you stop something so huge, so enjoyed by people of all ages, and after 146 years of operation?
From January to May, the circus started to lay off some of the 462 employees as it looked for potential buyers of the equipment. Auctions for the train cars on both the red and blue trains. The night of May 21, 2017, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey – The Greatest Show on Earth performed the final show for the “Out of This World” tour at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. At the end of the show, the Ringmaster came back out and made the tearful announcement to the ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages, that they just witnessed the final show in the history of the circus.
Make sure to come back and read the next issue of “The Nerd’s Corner” as we have a bittersweet ending to one of the best Ringmasters the circus ever had!