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What Makes a Circus?

This month marks ArtsEmerson’s first presentation of circus arts with PSY by Les 7 doigts de la main — one of the latest (and one of the saaviest) incarnations of circus troupes.

Building on the grand tradition of death-defying acrobatics and theatrical clowning, Les 7 doigts also bring contemporary aesthetics into their work, exploring a theme (phobias and disorders) that explores the human psyche in the modern world and crafting a thrilling show, as much theatre as it is circus.

Check out the evolution of circus below, from Astley’s Equestrian tricks to PSY’s celebration of the mind, body and soul.

A Timeline by Kristy Mandour

18th Century 

1768    Equestrian Philip Astley of England opens his riding school and after much success, begins charging the public 6 pence to view the show. Philip AstleyHe is able to purchase some land near Westminster bridge and constructs the first circus building.

(The greatest contribution Astley made to the modern circus was the circus ring. Prior to Astley, most riding exhibitions were presented in a linear fashion—the performer riding past his audience as he performed a trick, then turning around, or riding back around the other side before presenting the next trick. Astley realized it would be more advantageous to both performer and audience if the rider worked in a circle).

1782    Charles Hughes, a former rider at Astley’s, opens a competing company, not too far from Astley’s called the “The Royal Circus.”

1793    John Bill Ricketts, a British equestrian, brings the circus to North America. The first complete circus program debuts in Philadelphia, PA. George Washington sees a Ricketts show in 1797 and sells them a horse.

1798    Ricketts brings the circus to Quebec City, Canada.

19th Century

European and American circus styles differed due to the proximity of communities. European communities have less distance to travel and are able to keep their circus style the same.  However, in the United States, distance is much greater. Fortunately, the railways allow for traveling circuses to be created and for more people to attend which then creates the need for larger spaces to accommodate the audience.

1825    JoshuahCircus Tent Purdy Brown revolutionizes the circus business and other traveling shows by holding performances under a large, portable canvas tent. This innovation allows shows to move between cities quickly and easily, go anywhere, stay as long or short as they desire, and perform rain or shine.

1871    P.T. Barnum teams up with circus producer W.C.Coup and creates a huge show in Brooklyn, NY, advertised as “The Greatest Show On Earth.”

1872    Marks the beginning of what many call the “Golden Age” of the American circus. It also is a period of consolidation of smaller circus companies into large, powerful companies that come to control the entire industry.

1872    Barnum, Coup and Castello utilize the railroad to transport P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus. A number of innovations are attributed to the 1872 Barnum show. Coup is instrumental in getting the show to travel by rail, devising loading and unloading methods and arranging special excursions from the outlying towns to the show site.

1879    The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie, with James E. Cooper and James A. Bailey and W.W. Cole’s Circus is the first circus in the country to illuminate their big tops with electricity. They use steam powered electric generators and open-arc lighting.

1879    Flying trapeze artist, Eddie Silbon, performs the first double back somersault at the Paris hippodrome.

1880    Rosa M. Richter Mademoiselle Zazel,”The Human Projectile” is the first woman fired from a cannon traveling 40 feet and caught by another performer hanging from a trapeze.

1881    P.T. Barnum goes into partnership with James Bailey.

Larger tents permit Barnum and Bailey to expand the number of performing areas from one ring to three rings to accommodate the ever-increasing number of acts and animals. By the end of the century, a circus was not considered worthwhile unless it had three rings under the big top—more rings meant a better show.

1882    Barnum is informJumboed that he can acquire from the London zoo, the largest African elephant in captivity. On Easter Sunday, thousands gather at dock site for the arrival of Barnum’s latest sensation, “Jumbo.” The New York Times declares that there is more excitement in the city “than there would be in London if Queen Victoria’s imperial knee was swelled to twice its royal size.”

1884    Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, creates the first American Wild West Show.

The five Ringling brothers start their first circus in Baraboo, WI.

The creation of  “Wallace and Company’s Great World Menagerie, Grand international Mardi Gras, Highway Holiday Hidalgo, and Alliance of Novelties” (it was renamed the Great Wallace Shows after the first season). Ben Wallace, a former livery stable owner from Peru, Indiana, formed this circus with his partner James P. Anderson. Al G. Field, a talented African-American Virginian (who was one of the country’s top minstrels when he wasn’t traveling with the circus), was Wallace’s head clown and equestrian director from 1884-1886. During this period it was very rare for an African-American to hold important positions in the circus. For over a hundred years, the circus industry, which on one level seems so accepting of every variety of human being, was no exception to the rule of discrimination.Black circus performers after the mid-19th century were traditionally limited to minstrelsy, freaks, colored sideshow bands, and tribal warriors. For the most part, the menial jobs of the circus labor force were usually given to the black population of the show.

1885    Barnum loses his super star on Tuesday, September 15, 1885 in St. Thomas, Ontario. Jumbo, while walking back to the circus train on the main line of the Grand Trunk railway, is hit and killed by a freight train. The ever-practical Barnum, having previously arranged for Professor Henry A. Ward, head of Ward’s natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, to mount Jumbo’s hide and his skeleton, promptly exhibits the remains of his star.

1888    P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey combine their circus shows to form Barnum & Bailey Circus.

1891    Barnum passes away at the age of 80 after suffering a stroke in 1890.

Evetta the Clown1895    One of the first female clowns, “Evetta” appears on the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

1897    A Latvian teenager named Lena Jordan is credited with performing the first successful triple somersault on the flying trapeze.

20th Century

1901    The National Biscuit Company introduces Barnum’s Animals, crackers encased in a vivid “take along” package covered with pictures of animals.

1902    Ninety eight Circuses and Menageries are in operation—the highest number in U.S. history. Thirty eight travel by Railroad; seven travel coast to coast.

1906    The Shrine Circus is created in Detroit Michigan.

James Bailey passes away. His widow is now in charge of running the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Mabel Stark
1907    Ringling Brothers acquires Barnum & Bailey Circus for $410,000.

1909    Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Wild West shows are combined.

For the first time in history, the Ringling Bros. Circus opens at Madison Square Garden instead of Barnum & Bailey.

1911    Mabel Stark wrestles Bengal tigers on the Al G. Barnes Circus.

1914    Lillian Leitzel offers a contract with the Ringling Bros. CircuLillian Leitzels. 4 foot 9 inches tall and 95 pounds she made her debut on April 17, 1915 at the Coliseum in Chicago. Lillian becomes a star by doing “arm planges” or “flip overs.” She would hang from one arm, twist her body up and over her shoulder (dislocating her shoulder), making a full revolution in mid-air. Her record was 249.

1915    Poodles Hanneford set record of running and leaping on and off of a running horse with the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

1916    Barnum & Bailey cross the continent.           

1918    The first combined show of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

1920    Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus discontinues its street parade. The street parade had traditionally been used to advertise the arrival of a circus in town. It also served as a showcase for some of the features of the performance.

1921    The American Circus Corporation is formed.

1922    The Royal Canadian Dragon Circus, led by Lieutenant Colonel R. S. Timmis, is firmly established and performs regulary in Toronto at the Canadian National Exhibition and at the Eglinton Hunt Club.

1929    John Ringling buys the American Circus Corporation: Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, Sells-Floto Circus, Al. G. Barnes Circus, John Robinson’s Circus, Sparks Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

1932    As a result of the Great Depression, John Ringling is forced to relinquish control of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and Sam Gumpertz serves as the general manager of the circus until 1937.

1936    The last surviving Ringling Brother, John, passes away.Gargantua the Great

1938    John Ringling North (John Ringling’s nephew) and Henry Ringling North gain control of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Gargantua the Great gorilla begins touring with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

The circus is hit by a labor strike.

1938    Garden Bros. circus is established in Toronto Ontario, Canada by Scottish brothers, William A. Garden and Robert Garden.

1940    Only 2 large circus shows remain traveling by train.

1956    The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey combined shows give its last performance under a tent. As a tented show, it had been able to travel only about 30 weeks of the year; wasted weeks were spent in its winter quarters. Now it could perform ten months or more of the year. It had also eliminated many major expenses by doing away with its tents—the workmen needed to maintain and raise them, and the railroad cars that had transported them.

1967    On November 11, the Feld family purchases Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from John Ringling North to guide it into the new modern-day era of the American circus.

1981    National Circus School is the first circus school created in Montreal, Canada.

1982    In Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, the Fête Foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul is formed comprised of street performers who organize an entertainer’s festival.

1982    The Fête Foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul becomes Cirque du Soleil.

21st Century

Late 1990s to early 2000s    Groups like Cirque du Soleil become popular and are called “New Circus,” characterized by theatricalized shows, special effLes 7 doigtsects, eliminating animal acts, and featuring acrobatic and gymnastic acts.

2010    Innovative circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main makes their Boston debut at ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage!

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