Circus, Minstrel and Traveling Show
Used with the permission of McCain Library &
Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi
In the second half of the 1800s, the professional
entertaining and amusing large audiences for profit emerged in
the United States. Among these entertainments were the circus,
minstrel shows, and traveling variety acts. The circus
tradition, a venue of popular entertainment for more than 4000
years, derives its name from the Latin word "circulus" meaning
circle. The circle form was the preferred path of racing Roman
chariots. The modern day circus was initiated in 1768, by Philip
Astley (1742-1814), an English equestrian enthusiast and
exhibitor. In America, a circus known as Rickett's opened in
Philadelphia as early as 1792, but the proliferation and
popularity of circus entertainment did not fully manifest until
the latter half of the 1800s, with over a hundred circuses in
The carnival, like the circus, is part of the
outdoor amusement industry; however, the carnival is distinct
from the circus given its most identifiable feature, the midway.
The carnival midway consists of such amusements as sideshows
exhibiting human or animal oddities, games of chance, tests of
skill, rides such as the Ferris wheel and the carousel. The word
"carnival" is derived from the Greek mythological figure Carneus,
god of flocks and herds who oversaw agricultural and military
festivals. Throughout history, a local fair complete with
carnival was deemed a necessary break in the monotony of human
existence. Both of the carnival and the circus survive today as
an enduring form of family entertainment.
The minstrel show dates from 1828, when Thomas D.
Rice created the "Jim Crow" song and dance routine. The minstrel
shows were first performed by white performers in blackface and
entertained by the use of ethnic satire, folk-based themes and
exaggerated distortions of African-American life. Eventually,
black performers replaced white performers in a trend toward
cultural authenticity. The Minstrel show reached the peak of its
popularity between 1850-1870, but shows continued to tour,
primarily in southern states, until the early 1900s.
Traveling shows, or variety acts, had old world
antecedents in entertainment far too numerous to mention herein.
However, the variety show, as the name implies, was comprised of
short acts of various types which showcased singing, dancing and
comic routines with no connected story or unifying theme. The
decline of traveling variety acts by the 1930s is usually
attributed to the advent of radio and a burgeoning movie
Barnum and Bailey Circus:
Barnum and Bailey Circus (Bridgeport, Connecticut) was founded
by Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891). P.T. Barnum was born in
Bethel, Connecticut. Barnum's first circus employment was as a
ticket collector for the Aaron Turner Circus in 1836. A
life-long entrepreneur, he ran a museum in New York specializing
in freak shows and is credited for using a flamboyant style of
advertising which contributed to modern day characterizations of
show business. In 1881, he joined with his competition James
Anthony Bailey (1847-1906) to found the Barnum and Bailey
circus, touted as "the Greatest Show on Earth."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus:
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus
(Sarasota, Florida) originated with Charles Ringling
(1863-1926). Ringling was born in McGregor, Iowa, one of seven
sons. The name "Ringling" was an anglicization of the German
family name "Rungeling." Charles, with brothers Otto, Albert C.,
Alfred T., and John, presented their first circus in 1882 at a
hall in Mazonmanie, Wisconsin. In 1884, they launched a
traveling tent circus. By 1905, a series of lucrative business
deals enabled the brothers to absorb some of their competition,
and on July 8, 1907, the Ringling's purchased their largest
competitor, Barnum & Bailey Circus for $410,000 after the death
of James A. Bailey. In 1957, economic survival forced a
reorganization and a transition to bookings in permanent indoor
arenas exclusively. In 1967, Irvin Feld purchased the struggling
company from John Ringling North and managed to revamp the
financial viability of the circus. His son, Kenneth assumed
control after his death.
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus (Peru, Indiana)
was named in
part for Karl Hagenbach (1844-1913) a renowned German animal
trainer who set a precedent for rewards-based animal training
and provided an alternative to traditional fear-based training.
Originally named Carl Hagenbeck Circus, it became Hagenbeck-Wallace
on January 9, 1907 after many protracted legal complications
including partnership disputes, failed mergers and defaulted
loans. Karl Hagenbach sued against the use of his name but lost
in court. Ben E. Wallace owned and operated the show until 1913.
One of the great circus train wrecks involved the Hagenbeck-Wallace
circus on June 22, 1918. The circus was a Ringling Bros. and
Barnum & Bailey Circus subsidiary from 1929 through 1935. In
1935, the show became Hagenbeck-Wallace and Forepaugh-Sells
Bros. Circus. The circus closed in 1938. Clyde Beatty, renowned
American animal trainer, was a Hagenbeck-Wallace alumni until he
left in 1934 to start his own show with the Cole Bros. Circus.
Cole Bros. Circus:
The Cole Bros. Circus (originally of Rochester,
Indiana) was founded by Martin J. Downs in 1906. Downs named the
circus for W.W. "Chilly Billy" Cole, the first man to make $1
million in the circus business. In 1939, the Cole Bros. Circus,
was the very last show to abandon the tradition of the circus
street parade. On February 20, 1940, the winter quarters
suffered one of the worst circus fires in history. In 1941, the
company's permanent address was listed as Louisville, KY. Zack
Terrell toured Cole Bros. Circus through 1948, at which time he
sold it to Arthur M. Wirtz and associates. The circus closed on
July 22, 1949.
Barnett Bros. Circus:
The Barnett Bros. Circus was founded in Canada in
1927. In 1929, the company moved its winter quarters to York,
South Carolina. The Circus was operated for 16 years by Ray W.
Rogers. The show was renamed the Wallace Bros. Circus for the
year of 1937, and the years 1941-1944. Rogers died in 1943, but
the cast and crew merged with Clyde Beatty Circus. In 1944,
remaining equipment was sold to Clyde Beatty and Floyd King.
Clyde Beatty Circus:
The Clyde Beatty Circus was founded by Clyde
Beatty (1903-1965), an animal trainer. He formed his own circus
in 1945 after touring with several circuses including Hagenbeck-Wallace
in his early career. Beatty toured his circus in conjunction
with Russell Brothers Pan-Pacific Circus in 1946, then decided
to open a show under his name only. In 1956, the circus was sold
to the Acme Circus Corporation, and Beatty was hired as a star
attraction. In 1957, the Acme Circus Corporation acquired the
Cole Bros. name and the show became Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros.
Circus. Beatty remained the star of the show until his death in
Royal American Shows:
The Royal American Shows advertised itself as the
"Most Beautiful Show on Earth" with the "World's Largest
Midway." Carl J. Sedlmayr originally acquired this carnival in
1921 from the Siegrist - Silbon Shows in repayment for a
financial loan. Sedlmayr was the sole owner of the carnival when
he first started using the title Royal American in 1923. He
named his carnival "Royal" for Canada and "American" for the
United States. Two years later, he sold a partnership interest
to the Velare Brothers, and this partnership continued until the
early 1940s at which time the union was dissolved and the
equipment divided. Sedlmayr was a partner with Sam Soloman in
buying and operating the Rubin & Cherry Shows for two years.
After War II, Sedlmayr launched the Royal American as his own
show without partners. State fair and festival territorial
routes included Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas,
Mississippi, Louisiana and western Canada. Sedlmayr died in
1965. His son and grandson, Carl J. Sedlmayr, Jr. and Carl J.
Sedlmayr, III then handled the carnival, respectively. Royal
American's last show was staged in Lubbock, Texas in October
A.G. Allen's Big Minstrel Show:
African-American A.G. Allen's name is associated
with at least two other minstrel shows [A.G.]Allen's Minstrels
(ca. 1900), and [A.G.]Allen's New Orleans Minstrels (ca. 1909).
A.G. Allen's Big Minstrel Show stationery letterhead (ca. 1917)
contains portraits of two men above a ribbon banner with names
A.G. Allen and George W. Quine respectively. Neither is black.
Permanent address is listed as: Care National Ptg. & Eng. Co.,
1508 Tribune Bldg., Chicago, Illinois.
F.S. Wolcott's A Rabbit's Foot:
The Rabbit's Foot Company (also known as Rabbit
Foot Minstrels) was a long running minstrel and variety troupe
that toured as a tent show between the 1900's and 1940's. The
company was founded, organized, originally owned and managed by
Pat Chappelle, an African-American performer. The company had a
brass band and traveled in its own private railroad car. After
Chappelle's death in 1911, the company was purchased by white
carnival owner, F.S. Wolcott. The company continued under his
management on tour among southern states until the 1940's.
J.W. Johnson's Old Reliable Virginia Minstrels:
Created in 1843, Virginia Minstrels is recognized
as the nation's foremost minstrel troupe for that year. Although
the original troupe dissolved the ensemble during the first tour
abroad, their immense popularity contributed to the adoption of
the "Virginia Minstrels" appellation into many subsequent
troupes such as J.W. Johnson's Old Reliable Virginia Minstrels.
Green River and His Transcontinental Tributaries
(n.d.): No historical information is available for this show
other than the prices of admission, which were 25 cents for
adults and 10 cents for children.
Silas Green (n.d.): Chas. Collier is listed as
the owner. Performers listed were (comedians) Lilas & Silas, The
Gaines Troupe, Charlie Morton, Jr., Cookie Howard the Girl
Used with the permission of McCain Library &
Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi
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