December 14, 2012

John Robinson's Circus

This 1929 photograph shows the interior of John Robinson's Circus during a spectacle, or “spec,” performance of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the American circus, the spec developed as 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. John Robinson’s Circus was especially known for its dazzling productions of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which offered a prime opportunity to showcase the exotic camels, lions, elephants, and tigers in the circus’s menagerie as well as dancing girls and other artists. John Robinson's Circus was a typical, average-sized circus that would travel by railroad to different cities and towns. The tent shown here holds three display rings, two of which can be seen. The tent is held up by center poles, two rows of quarter poles, and the side poles. Aerial rigging can be seen suspended above the rings from the tops of the poles. The area between the rings and the seating, known as the hippodrome track, was used for specs and other presentations.

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.

Circus Midway Scene

This 1935 photograph shows a crowd gathering on the midway of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, heading towards the entrance marquee tent. On the left is the painted banner line depicting freaks and attractions in the sideshow, an added fee attraction operating before the main show. On the right can be seen concession tents and ticket wagons. Visible behind the marquee entrance is the “free” menagerie tent consisting of the exhibition of exotic caged animals, elephants, and other lead stock. By the 1930s, the midway had become an important part of the American circus experience. Based in Peru, Indiana, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was at one time the second-largest circus in America, after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Its origins went back to famed animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck (1844–1913), whose Carl Hagenbeck Circus was bought by Benjamin Wallace in 1907. The circus ceased operations in 1938.

Cole Bros. Circus

This 1935 image presents a scene from a typical moderate-sized 20th-century American circus. A crowd watches as baggage wagons from the Cole Bros. Circus are being pulled over flatcars. The railcars are marked Clyde Beatty and Allen King, who were two of the more notable animal trainers of the period. Behind the flatcars are stock cars that held elephants and baggage horses. This scene was repeated daily, morning and night, in railroad yards in communities across the United States. Cole Bros. Circus was established in 1884 by William Washington Cole (1847–1915) as “W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows.” 1935 was the first season in which the legendary Beatty was associated with the Cole Bros. Circus. At that time, the circus was transported on 35 double-length railroad cars, and featured a giant street parade from the railroad yards to the circus grounds. Towns and cities visited by the Cole Bros. Circus in 1935 included Benton Harbor, Michigan; Marietta, Ohio; Falls City, Nebraska; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

Free Street Parade of the Sells-Floto Circus

This colorful lithograph advertises the upcoming street parade of the Sells-Floto Circus, promoting ticket sales to the local residents for the twice-a-day shows. The artwork captures the grandeur of the American circus parade in the 1920s. The parade is led by a rider wearing an 18th-century costume and carrying a circus banner. Behind the rider is a group of mounted horsemen, elephants in costumes worn in big production number during the show (“spec costuming”), a band, and a number of circus wagons. Several of the elephants and wagons promote the Sells-Floto name. The circus parade was presented daily on the streets of the local hosting community before the first performance of the day and consisted of as much entertainment and grandeur as a circus could muster. The Sells-Floto Circus was formed in the early 1900s from a combination of the Floto Dog & Pony Show and the Sells Brothers Circus. It toured the United States as an independent circus until 1921, when it was incorporated into the American Circus Corporation. In September 1929 this corporation’s circuses were acquired by John Ringling, and by 1933 Sells-Floto ceased to exist.

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody

William Fredrick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917) was at different times a trapper, miner, Pony Express rider, scout, wagon master, stagecoach driver, legislator, and Civil War soldier. He earned his nickname, Buffalo Bill, because of his skill in supplying the Kansas Pacific Railroad with buffalo meat for its workers; in 18 months, he killed more than 4,000 buffalos. In 1883, he started the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Omaha, Nebraska, using cowboys and Native Americans to portray scenes from the West. The show recreated daring rescues, heroic battles, and Native American dances, fascinating audiences around the world. The show went to Europe and was wildly successful. It was the main American contribution to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration in 1887, and the queen herself attended a private command performance. Cody’s Wild West re-enactment was staged alongside the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and was the talk of Chicago. This 1907 portrait of Cody is by Frederick W. Glasier (1866–1950), a photographer in Brockton, Massachusetts, who documented major outdoor shows and circuses. Many of his photographs appeared in the circus publications of the day.