DECEMBER 2020




This month, we’re going to look at the traveling “Big Top” circus – an immensely popular 19th century American innovation.  Big circuses would travel thousands of miles a year by rail, bringing pageantry, excitement, and wonders to American towns.  Just before World War I, one finally came to Hicksville .  Others – but not many – would follow.


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 Introduction

If you were an American who lived in the latter part of the 1800s, you might awaken one day and see that circus posters now dotted your town.  About a week later, the cars of a circus train could be seen in the local freight yard when the sun rose.  That morning, there would be a parade; fancifully adorned horses would draw elaborate wagons that were filled with exotic animals, clowns, and musicians.  Walking in the parade would be many gaudy and equally exotic people.  The parade led townsfolk to what usually was an empty field, but on that day it was filled with tents, including a large Big Top.


Does A Box of Animal Crackers Come To Mind?



The Jester Band of Walter L. Main Shows, location unknown, parading in 1921

thecircusblog.com

This photograph could have been taken in Hicksville ,
which was a stop on the Main Shows’ tour that season.


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Today’s jaded audiences may not realize that circuses long were considered top-tier entertainment, and not just in North America .  In the latter 1800s, American circuses had morphed, evolving into larger, glitzier, more spectacular shows, featuring star performers from all over the world.  An indication of their popularity is that at the end of the 19th century, the Barnum and Bailey show went to Europe and toured there – for five years!  Obviously, the demand for circuses was great.  Apart from increased population, the chief factor that spurred the growth of circuses was the rise of railroads.

Traditionally, circuses had traveled in caravans of horse-drawn wagons, leaving their winter quarters each spring, and returning to them in the autumn.  Any given circus could cover only so much ground each year, for it had to get back to its winter quarters while it still had good weather in which to travel and perform.  Over the years, when it was near its base, it had to visit the same towns many times – and when it did, the audiences would be small.  The locals had already seen the show many times.

Traveling by train eliminated that problem.  A season’s performances no longer had to start and end near the winter quarters; each year, there could be different territories, with fresh audiences.  Moreover, trains could transport longer tent poles and bigger sheets of canvas than wagons could.  That made bigger tents and bigger crowds possible.  At each stop on a tour, living quarters and supply cars stayed in the train yard, whereas they formerly had been part of the caravan’s parade of wagons.  That meant fewer wagons were needed for the parade to the circus grounds, which in turn meant fewer horses, fewer harnesses and horseshoes, less feed to buy, etc.  Transporting a circus by rail was easier and more economical.


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Long Island had plenty of railroad track and trains, but from the perspective of most traveling circuses, it seemed out of reach: it had no rail connection to the mainland.  Thus, in the 1880s, with no big circus on the Island, newspapers would report that people traveled to Port Jefferson, from which they took the ferry to Bridgeport to see a circus.

Of course, the Island was not truly beyond reach if a circus was determined to go there.  It was a matter of transporting the train and its contents – animal, vegetable, and mineral – across New York Harbor , or across the Sound.  That meant using freight car floats, barges on which railroad tracks had been laid.  These were already used by a number of mainland railroads to move freight between New Jersey and, say, Brooklyn .  One can imagine that this approach worked better for smaller circuses than for big ones – the latter used as many as seventy railroad cars.




Tug with car float, New York Harbor , c.1925

collections.mcny.org


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The Ringling Brothers circus made a tour stop in Flushing in 1891 (perhaps only part of it did; I do not know how much of the show crossed the water).  That same season, two other well-known circuses came to the Island : the Frank A. Robbins’ Shows and the Walter L. Main Shows.  The latter performed at a dozen towns.  Incidentally, this was the first year that the Main circus traveled by rail.  The year before, it had traveled over dirt roads from Ohio to Massachusetts and back, in a caravan of 120 horse-drawn wagons!



Potter and Potter Auction Catalogue, 2017


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1914: Robbins’ Shows Comes to Hicksville

In 1913 and 1914, the Frank A. Robbins’ Shows circus again came to Long Island .  In its more than 30 years, it had developed a reputation for quality entertainment, and the people of Hicksville were pleased that their town was a stop on the 1914 tour.

This circus seems to have struggled to survive for many years.  It filed for bankruptcy in 1897, and then again several years later.  A train wreck in 1910 made things more difficult, but it kept going.  In 1915, it would have to end its tour prematurely, as it ran out of money, but it would return the following year.  The word “shows” – plural – in its name referred to its being affiliated with a separate touring Wild West show; the common owner could try to juggle profits in order to keep both shows going.

In recent years, the circus had been contracting.  Its new advertising stressed that it was “complete” or “high class,” neither of which meant “large.”  Its Big Top had been built to accommodate three rings, but lately the circus had slimmed down to two rings, and a review of the 1914 tour (shown further below in its entirety) described it as a one-ring circus.  Of course, the smaller size made traveling easier, especially if there were bodies of water to be crossed.



Clowns pose on empty ring in Robbins’ Shows’
red-and-white striped Big Top, c.1907

circustents.blogspot.com

For the 1914 tour, it crossed the Sound following a performance in Port Chester , NY on a Saturday, and it next performed in Port Washington on a Monday.  About two weeks later, it would leave Long Island after performing at Bay Shore, sail (or float) to who-knows-where, and take its train to Ellenville , NY for a Monday performance.


Huntington Long-Islander, June 19, 1914


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The circus’s “advance man” would have arrived on the Island while the show was still playing in Westchester .  As always, he then would have traveled the tour route ahead of time, placing ads in local newspapers, and plastering nearby towns with advertising material.  He had to inspect the fields he had booked, and confirm the bookings for, or make alternate arrangements for, circus grounds.  He would deal with local suppliers re arrangements for food and beverages, animal feed, and other supplies.


 

Hempstead Sentinel, June 25, 1914


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Thanks to the advance man, newspapers carried “canned” descriptions of the circus, which gave prospective attendees an idea of what to expect.

 

Hempstead Sentinel, June 25, 1914?




Huntington Long-Islander, June 19, 1914

A few weeks before the circus arrived in Hicksville, the Hudson , NY , Evening Register published the following independent review of what 1914’s circus offered.


Hudson NY Evening Register, June 5, 1914

Incidentally, the fellow who slid down the wire on his head
performed under the name “Daredevil Devoe.”

On the same page were two related news stories; they convey what it meant to small-town America to have a big circus come to town.  The first describes how a number of Hudson residents waited at the Boston and Albany Railroad yard for the 5:00 AM (!) arrival of the circus train, so that they could watch the circus animals be unloaded.  The second news story described the chaos that resulted when the town’s school children were dismissed just before noon to watch the circus parade, which was about to pass nearby.  They pushed and shoved, all trying to run out of the building at once; those who fell were trampled by others, who then fell, and got similarly trampled.

One can imagine how excited Hicksville ’s children were about the town’s first experience with a well-known circus.


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1917: A Railroad Bridge to the Mainland

In 1917, construction was completed on a railroad bridge over the waters of the Hell Gate; it gave Long Island its first direct rail access to mainland railroads.  No, the project was not undertaken to make it easier for circuses to connect to the LIRR and visit Nassau and Suffolk – but it accomplished just that.


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1921: Walter L. Main Shows

Just where in Hicksville would circuses pitch their tents?  Surprisingly, the location for the 1914 circus visit seems to not have been published in the newspapers.

In 1921, however, the Long-Islander told its readers that on the Friday before Memorial Day, the Walter L. Main Shows would perform “on the Plains on Jerusalem Avenue .”  Looking at old maps does not help much, other than indicating that around that time, there were plenty of open fields south of Old Country Road, including the one on which the town’s first High School building would be constructed a few years later.




Huntington Long-Islander, June 19, 1914



Ornate horse-drawn wagon with steam-powered
calliope, used by Walter L. Main Shows in 1921

circushistory.org/archive

The parade likely assembled on Barclay Street , near the LIRR yard to the west of the Hicksville station.  It would have headed east, and then turned south onto Jerusalem Avenue , continuing until it reached the circus grounds.  The piercing but melodic sound of a calliope may never have been heard before in Hicksville ; it was a sure way of getting the whole town’s attention.

The Hell Gate Bridge was far from the minds of Hicksvillians, but they felt its impact anyway.  This was an entire three-ring circus, with an abundance of animal acts, and nothing had had to be left out in order to get it over to Long Island .  The circus train would have crossed over the water into Astoria in only a few minutes, and not many hours later, the parade at the first L.I. tour stop would have been underway.

Seeing the performance in your own town would have been amazing.  There was a lion trained to ride on a horse – and a horse trained not to be spooked when a lion pounced on its back.  There were bears that danced, balanced on large balls, and feigned drunkenness.  The Wirth family, horse-borne acrobats who rode bareback, had begun with the Ringling Brothers circus and then gone independent.  They had recently concluded a well-received run at New York ’s famous Palace Theatre, and then joined the Main circus to tour for the season.




Potter and Potter Auction Catalogue, 2017


thecircusblog.com



Potter and Potter Auction Catalogue, 2020


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The Next Decades

I think that by now, we have a good idea of what old-time circuses were like (that is, they were not much different from later circuses).  We also have some idea of how people in a rural town – which is what Hicksville more or less was until the 1920s, even if New York City was not far away – felt in those years when a big circus came to their hometown for a rare visit.

Things would change in the 1930s, for several reasons.  One was the Great Depression.  Another was the building of paved roads in rural areas, a phenomenon prompted by another new reality: the widespread availability of reliable automobiles and trucks.  It would still be a long time before big circuses considered forsaking their trains, but Long Islanders began to see small circuses or carnivals drive into nearby towns almost every summer.  A lion, or maybe a leopard (not a performing animal, but only a poor beast, always caged for exhibiting), would arrive in town on the back of a truck, along with other trucks that carried kiddy rides, some midway games, and a trained horse act or acrobats.

It was difficult for circuses to tour during the Depression, but some tried.  Especially in smaller towns, they might arrive and discover that a carnival had just spent a couple of days there, leaving behind almost no one with enough money to spend on circus tickets and souvenirs.

During World War II, strict rationing of fuel and tires, and government control of manufacturing and rail transportation, brought new challenges.  Surprisingly, because many prominent and influential people were circus fans, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey was granted exemptions, supposedly issued by the President’s (i.e., FDR’s) office.  The reason for the exemptions was that continuing the circus was expected to help sustain public morale.  And so, the big circus kept touring.

Ironically, although encouraged to tour by one branch of the government, another branch reportedly denied RBB&B access to the fire-proofing chemicals that it normally applied to its 9,000 seat Big Top.  In 1944, when the un-fireproofed tent ignited during a performance in Hartford , fire spread quickly.  About 700 people were injured, and more than 160 people died.




Hartford Courant photo

https://www.courant.com/opinion/


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1950s: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

To my knowledge, none of the largest circuses pulled their circus trains into Hicksville and performed there between 1921 and 1951.  If I am wrong, I’ll be happy to be corrected.

After the war, circuses again enjoyed great popularity – not just with working people, but also with the wealthy and the famous.  Newspapers regularly showed international celebrities attending American circuses (e.g., the Duke of Windsor and his American Duchess, Wallis Simpson).  Actors and comedians frequently got to perform in them, especially for charity performances.





Ms Monroe at Madison Square Garden c.1950 in the Ringling
Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  The elephant and its
harness were dyed pink to match her costume.

NewYorkSocialDiary.com


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RBB&B included Hicksville in its 1951 tour.  To put this in context, and to appreciate the magnitude of the 1951 version of this circus, let’s consider some statistics.  That year, the circus performed at 121 locations, gave 333 performances under canvas, and traveled more than 17,000 miles, from Boston to Seattle to Baton Rouge, and then across the south to its Florida home.  At each stop, it needed 15 empty acres on which to erect its 41 tents.  There were more than 1,200 employees in the tour, and almost 1,100 animals.

The circus train’s 70 cars (together, more than 1.1 miles long) were of course parked in the rail yard south of Barclay Street ; the performance was held in an open field further west, on John Street .



New York Daily News, June 8, 1951

As the caption above indicates, the three-day stop in Hicksville was one of RBB&B’s numerous charitable performances, in this case coordinated with Long Island ’s American Legion posts.  The conveniently nearby site used for the circus grounds was not going to be available for long.  In fact, it should not have been available at all.  Hicksville developer Jerry Spiegel had intended to build new homes on it, but there had been a recent government change in funding GI mortgages, and he had stopped building homes in protest.  Thus, he was able to “donate” the use of land (which he was not using anyway) to the fund-raising effort.

At this point, the reader probably does not need a description of more circus acts.  I shall instead note that the 1952 film The Greatest Show on Earth was shot during the early part of this circus’s 1951 tour; thus, the non-actor performers who appear in the film are the actual workers and performers whom people saw on the 1951 tour.  Incidentally, Greatest was the top-grossing Paramount film of all time, as well as the top-grossing film of the year, and it won 1952’s Best Picture Oscar for Cecil B. deMille.





1951 RBB&B Circus Program cover

“Giraffe-Necked Women from Burma
were sideshow attractions for many
years.  The Kayan people of Burma
still use progressively taller coils of
brass to gradually deform the clavicles
of growing girls, thus shortening their
ribcages to make their necks look longer.


ebay.com

James Stewart, Cornel Wilde, and Charlton
Heston in The Greatest Show on Earth; one
 never sees Stewart without clown makeup
during the film

Note: The film is in color; this must be a
publicity photo intended for newspapers.

Wikimedia.org


*

Five years later, the 1956 version of the same circus performed in Hicksville .  Externally, things may have looked much the same, but they were very different.  Hicksville had changed; choice temporary circus grounds were scarce.  RBB&B performed for two days on a field at Old Country and South Oyster Bay Roads.  More important, the circus was wrestling with serious labor disruptions, and it was in the process of laying off a number of “offstage” workers.

Whether or not the layoffs were to blame is debatable, but something went wrong.



New York Daily News, June 14, 1956

The Times reported that all the injuries were minor contusions, and that the cause of the accident was the young elephant’s tripping over some hard-to-see safety netting that lay in its path.  As with other such incidents, people later tended to recall this mishap in somewhat inflated terms, especially if they were children at the time.


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The labor issues were the result of the circus owners’ intentions to cut costs long-term.  Among their options, they considered switching the circus from its train to highway travel, a change which would have affected literally everyone in the circus.  Ultimately, that idea was dropped, because it would not have been cost-effective.

On the other hand, RBB&B did decide to do away with its tents – after 1956, its tour would stop only in arenas.  This change would be drastic, but it was understandable.  In 1951, the circus had played only at three indoor venues ( Madison Square Garden , Boston Garden , and the San Francisco Cow Palace ).  The rest of the time – 79% of the year’s performances – the Big Top was in a country town, or on the undeveloped edge of city in a rural region.  By 1956, suburbia was becoming well established in that kind of territory, and it was getting difficult to find convenient 15-acre lots.  From the owners’ viewpoint, the circus would draw just as many people by playing in arenas built for sports as it would in Big Tops.

Of course, there would be a significant impact on the other stakeholders – the audiences and the employees.  The “circus experience” would be very different.  Rural townsfolk would no longer have the excitement of seeing the circus train arrive, and watching the parade (although the performance in the arena would feature an indoor parade, to be viewed from a distance, not from curbside).  Driving some miles to an arena might be all right, but enduring traffic jams, and finding parking spots, were not part of the old circus experience.  Besides, when people attended a circus in an arena, they wouldn’t be sharing the experience with the rest of their hometown and with their extended family.  The circus would no longer feel like a shared personal or community experience.

For employees, the change would be even more disruptive.  It would affect livelihoods.  Someone who’d spent a couple of decades, say, expertly erecting the Big Top, or inspecting it for damage and making repairs by hand, and whose living quarters were provided by his employer, was not likely to find himself qualified for a different job that offered comparable benefits.  And what about circus families?  A hypothetical equestrian performer whose husband had worked in a tent crew now faced a crisis.  Would the circus still house her family on the train, including her unemployed husband, or would he have to settle somewhere with the children while she traveled, and be a homemaker and father, living in a home they might not be able to afford?



Legendary RBB&B clown Emmett Kelly, and his wife read the news
reports of the circus’s unexpectedly ending its season prematurely,
and also announcing that its Big Top would be no more.  Years
later, their son Emmett Jr. would try starting his own circus.

NewYorkSocialDiary.com

For reasons not necessarily clear, layoffs began during the tour.  Perhaps it was a question of the circus’s “getting rid of [perceived] troublemakers,” or maybe it was a decision to economize (e.g., because long-term tent maintenance was no longer needed, fewer employees were required).  Either way, the layoffs exacerbated the unrest.  Things apparently boiled over only a month after the circus left Hicksville .  On July 16, 1956, during its scheduled stop at Pittsburgh , Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey decided to end its season prematurely.  Its Big Top days were over.

Although this biggest of American circuses would thrive for another half-century and more, its efforts to remain relevant in a changing society ultimately failed.  It never again performed in Hicksville , of course.  When its time came, it died a mere six miles away.



Old friends, out for a nice stroll

NewYorkSocialDiary.com


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Wrap-Up

I never was a rabid circus fan, but I usually enjoyed attending a circus.

As a child, I saw the RBB&B circus a few times at the old Madison Square Garden . Although many parts of each performance were impressive, the most memorable aspect for me was the hour before the show.  My father and I spent that time down in the menagerie, where I fed peanuts, one by one, to the elephants.  I have never forgotten the touch of the elephants’ trunks.  They moved lightly over my extended palm, grasped the peanuts, lifted the peanuts to their mouths, and then gently returned, to search my palm for more.  I would have been content to skip the circus itself, and instead spend all of my Saturday afternoon that way.  I wondered why the circus didn’t sell menagerie-only tickets.

My wife and I attended performances of later incarnations of the same circus, in MSG, and still later, in Buffalo and Toronto with our sons, and gradually I felt different about it.  Much of it was still excellent, especially the clowns.  But it seemed as if RBB&B thought that its circus talent lineup was insufficient, that the acts alone were not worth the price of an admission.  It was as if the circus had to concoct something artificial to supplement the show’s real talent.  Truly difficult feats, like doing multiple somersaults in the air between trapezes, or having three motorcycle riders speed in different directions inside a spherical cage, were needlessly offset by prolonged, vapid spectacles.

Granted, circuses are inherently prone to excess, and they probably always have tried to augment their talent with rather chintzy eye candy.  Shortly after World War II, however, John Ringling North, who then ran RBB&B, hired about sixty chorus girls, who became the core of the circus’s new “aerial ballet” galas.  Years later, when I saw the circus as an adult, there were bigger galas, with still more showgirls, all doing the one, simple “trick” they had been taught.  Each of them had to hang from an ankle-hold on a rope, resting the sole of her other foot against the rope, while people on the ground anchored the ropes and slowly moved them in unison. 





Aerial Ballet of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus,
Madison Square Garden , 1950s

NewYorkSocialDiary.com

For one professional performer to do this, and basically only this, would not be very interesting or remarkable.  When sixty, or eighty, or more, do it at once, audiences instinctively applaud.  Presumably, that’s a response to the unison, which is due largely to the identical costumes, and to the movements of the guys holding the ropes.  There’s not an abundance of skill involved.  As you can tell, I am not a fan of spectacle-centric circuses.

No, I’d rather look back to one evening in Hicksville , some time around 1959, when a small, truck-transported circus – its name is now forgotten – performed before a small audience in a tent on North Broadway, where the Sears later would be built.

The tent probably could hold only several hundred people.  It was as dark as a movie theatre, with spotlights aimed at the one ring.  If I had known the word back then, I might have said that it was intime.  Even if you sat in the last row, you were close to the ring.  The animals and performers probably did nothing unique, but as I remember it, whatever they attempted, they did well.  It was fun.  After the show, on the way out, I realized that everything smelled special.

Looking back, I think that that performance, with no glitz or grand production numbers, left one with a feeling that was as close as possible to what every circus should impart.


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Sources

As always, the sources listed beneath the images above are a good indication of where I found information.  I discovered most of it by using the tried and true duo of Google and digitized old newspapers.  I also looked for images in the online offerings of the Library of Congress, New York State, and the Museum of the City of New York.

Beware, the Internet is always changing.  While putting together this article, two of the sources that I used became (only temporarily, I hope) unavailable.

To anyone interested in learning more about in the 1944 Hartford disaster, I would recommend Stuart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire.  There also have been many, many other books, as well as articles and television documentaries about the incident.  The event occurred before I was born, but I do have a personal connection to it.  My father’s aunt Katherine, and her granddaughter Valerie, 8, my second cousin, died huddled together in the Big Top that day.

If this article has motivated any readers to watch The Greatest Show on Earth, I owe those people a few words of caution.  It is not as good a movie as its winning an Oscar may suggest, and today it seems dated.  It remains of interest primarily as a vehicle for understanding the era in which it was made, and the reverence which the nation once had for the circus.


*****


Well, that’s it.

I Hope You All Have a Better 2021!