The End of the Greatest Show on Earth


By: Jo Pitkin, author of Cradle of the American Circus: Poems from Somers, New York
After 146 years, the famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will fold its tent in May 2017. The closing of this venerable institution marks the end of an important chapter in the history of American popular entertainment. Ringling’s “greatest show on Earth” has thrilled generations of audiences around the United States. It’s hard to imagine childhood without at least one chance to experience this dazzling production with its star-studded cast of elite performers.

And it’s those performers I’ve been thinking about ever since Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers, made its announcement. No, I’m not a juggler, an acrobat, or a unicyclist. I’m not wild about sequins, calliope music, or clowns. I’ve neither ridden a horse nor been shot out of a cannon. I’m simply a writer, one who is accustomed to working in isolation with the quiet hum of a computer. After meeting a renowned aerialist and a raspy-voiced sword swallower, however, I have never been the same.

In July 2015, I attended the first ever Worldwide Circus Summit at the Big E in West Springfield, Massachusetts. This once-in-a-lifetime conference brought together circus-related organizations and individuals from countries around the globe. My purpose in going to the conference was to sell and sign copies of my cross-genre book Cradle of the American Circus: Poems from Somers, New York, which The History Press published in 2012. 

I researched and wrote Cradle of the American Circus because my hometown is where the traveling menagerie flourished in the early to mid-1800s. Growing up, I knew little about traveling menagerie history except that a Somers farmer and cattle drover named Hackaliah Bailey bought the second elephant imported to the United States, which he named Old Bet. (Hackaliah was not THE Bailey of Barnum & Bailey Circus; it was actually James Bailey, the adopted son of Hackaliah’s nephew, who teamed up with P. T. Barnum.) An elephant in New York? Not only was I curious about my hometown’s eccentric past, but I also realized no other writer had yet written a full-length book about this odd sliver of Americana.

During the 2015 summit, I had a close-up view of the fascinating, tight-knit contemporary circus world. I talked with circus performers, circus historians, circus model builders, and circus fans. I chatted with a palm reader, a woman who had run away to join a traveling circus at 17, and a biologist who worked as an elephant handler. Interestingly, most of the conference participants I encountered had an extensive knowledge of circus history. I was pleasantly surprised at how often I elicited excited reactions when I mentioned where I was from. I felt like a rock star! I soon realized with a sense of pride that in the circus world Somers is revered for its pioneering role in the development of the American circus. Among numerous 19th-century innovations I’ve documented in my book include the fact that Somers’s natives are credited with inventing the first portable circus tent and first daring to enter a lion’s cage. An outsider, I felt embraced and accepted because of my connection to Somers’s hallowed ground.

Like any other group of professionals in the same industry, conference participants used the occasion of the four-day circus summit to air grievances, discuss controversial issues, mourn losses, catch up on news, and share ideas. Many panel discussions hammered home the point that the circus—whether in Europe, the Americas, or elsewhere—has always evolved in response to changing public taste. From my own research, I knew this to be true. The earliest circuses in the United States, for example, featured human performers: clowns, equestrians, musicians, and acrobats. Traveling menageries in which showmen exhibited exotic animals were an entirely separate yet parallel form of entertainment. Eventually, after the thrill of seeing the same animals year after year had worn off, the traditional circus combined with the traveling menagerie. To meet changing market demands, enterprising showmen from Somers and nearby towns continually invented and reinvented, offering new acts and approaches and planting the seeds of the modern circus as we know it today.

The evolution of the American circus from a humble, rustic affair to Ringling’s massive three-ring spectacle featuring a charismatic ringmaster and such acts as performing tigers and elephants, trapeze artists, and tightrope walkers is only one facet of the story. This enduring form of popular entertainment will undoubtedly continue to evolve. Just as New York entrepreneurs sought new ways to entertain audiences in the early 1800s, 20th-century innovators offered a fresh take with the one-tent Big Apple Circus and theatrical Cirque du Soleil. I empathize with how those proud, hard-working Ringling performers I met in 2015 must feel at their loss of a beloved enterprise. But they are resilient and adaptable. Who knows what’s next? The show must go on.