Back Door Scene at the American Circus


In the American circus, the area directly behind the circus tent or arena where performers prepared for and staged their entrances through the “back door” came to be known as the “backyard.” This glass-plate negative from 1928 reveals a typical backyard scene of an American circus just prior to performance of the spectacular production number. The spectacle, or “spec,” was a procession that took place around the hippodrome track inside the big top, or circus tent, featuring as many of the performers and animals as the circus director was able to costume. Traced back to the earliest circuses in America, the spec was originally a lavish performance of literary or historical tales intended to entertain and edify the audience. Shown here are caparisoned horses poised to enter the big top, followed by a costumed elephant. The stakes and guide ropes essential to keeping the tent erect are visible. The photograph is by Harry A. Atwell (1879–1957), an official photographer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Last updated: December 14, 2012