West Union, Iowa to Prairie Du Chein, Wisconsin. Jump 45 miles. Grass lot. Perfect circus weather. We have crossed the Mississippi River. Although we will travel through the middle west for another month, on any map of the continent we have entered the east, It’s high summer.
Speech to the Prairie Du Chein Rotary Club
Good afternoon. My name is Ben Trumble, and I’m the media relations director for the Carson & Barnes Circus, the largest traditional 3-ring tented circus in the United States. I’d like to begin today by talking a little bit about the history of the American Circus in general. I think it’s easier to understand our show, now in its 70th season under the same management if first you having some gleaning as to where the traditional circus came from. I am not a circus historian, so please don’t hold me to names and dates. This is more of a yarn.
Depending on the historian you prefer, circus itself dates back at least as far as the Roman Empire. However the large spectacles associated with Rome were never self-contained entertainments. In the Middle Ages the circus was little more than wandering performers appears in market towns and fairs. The modern circus is generally said to have been reinvented by a British equestrian named Philip Astley in the 18th Century. Astley determined that a horse running at a full gallop required a circle measuring 42’ across to reach its full stride. Thus was born the circus ring. Astley supplemented his riding acts with performances by clowns and jugglers and ropewalkers. Astley’s student John Bill Ricketts brought circus to America in the 1790s. Like Astley, Ricketts’ shows were held in building constructed especially for his use in New York, and Philadelphia. George Washington was an early circus fan. By the early 1800’s circuses and traveling animal collections were an important entertainment. The Hudson River Valley is frequently called the cardle of the American Circus because so many shows originated there around Somers, NY and Bethel CT. P.T. Barum was born near Bethel, and Aaron Turner invented the circus tent in Somers in the 1820’s. The bigtop allowed circuses mobility and shows moved west following the frontier. Because towns and villages on frontier were often small, circuses moved every day from one village to the next. This constant movement is still a hallmark of traditional circus.
Another center for American circus was the area along the shores of Lake Erie near Girard Pennsylvania. By the 1840’s there were at least six circuses headquartered in Girard including the Dan Rice Circus. Dan Rice was a singing clown and one of the most famous men in America prior to the Civil War. In the 1850’s a showman from upstate New York by the name of Yankee Robinson moved his circus to Illinois and pioneered a route through the mid-west and Wisconsin. Wisconsin would become the next great center for circus. In 1869 almost half of the three dozen circuses in America wintered in places like Delevan and later Baraboo. Famous Wisconsin shows include the Gollmar Bros, the shows operated George Popcorn Hall, the Burr Robbins Circus from Janesville, and of course the Ringling Bros Circus.
The circus world charged dramatically in the 1870’s when Wisconsin showman W.C. Coup partnered with P.T. Barnum to move a circus by rail. Railroad circuses could travel further and carry far more equipment. Suddenly bigger was better and the remainder of the 19th Century was a battle for bigger fought between the like of James Bailey, Adam Forepaugh, WW Cole, Barnum, the Baraboo Bros, and Ben Wallace of Indiana. Bailey would win that battle. By the early 20th Century the large shows were so big that consolidation was inevitable. Bailey bought Sells Bros and Forepaugh, and then Ringling bought Bailey. In Indiana Ben Wallace acquired the German Hagenbeck title and put out the Hagenbeck Wallace circus to confront the Ringling enterprise. Eventually the Indiana based shows would include the five biggest circuses in America excluding Ringling. Peru Indiana would be the center of the circus world from 1910 until World War 2.
Circus has always been an industry enamored with innovation. Each of the circus centers that I’ve mentioned attracted performers from around the world and artisans and artists and craftsmen and mechanics to build and operate the shows. Circus has always employed the latest in terms of communications and transportation technology. In 1920 the largest circuses all moved by rail, as did many smaller ones. A handful of regional circuses like the Orton shows in Iowa, or the Hunt show in the northeast still moved in wagons drawn by baggage horses. Ten years later improvements in road surfaces and truck technology changed everything. Suddenly truck shows could theoretically rival rail shows in mobility and size at a reasonable cost. In 1937 a Kansas family headed by Obert Miller founded a small truck circus. Ten years later when the show moved to Hugo, OK it was the largest truck show in the United States and one of the largest circuses overall. Eventually the Miller owned circus would come to be called Carson & Barnes.
After two hundred years why is circus, traditional circus still important? Certainly in selling our show we like to talk about family entertainment, a show where you never have to worry about language, or violence, or lewd conduct. Historically hasn’t been as lilly white as all that. A generation ago burlesque was a part of the sideshow, and games of chance could be found in the connection. We are family friendly today, but that’s not really what makes circus worth preserving. In a very real sense circus is an entry into the performing arts appealing to people who wouldn’t be caught dead attending the theatre. Where else can you see professional quality entertainers and pay less than $20 for a ticket? So called “new circus” whether it’s Cirque du Soliel or the current Ringling Blue Unit show have crossed the line into actual theater, but traditional circus remains a place where children of all ages feel right at home and don’t need to feel guilt about making noise or squirming in the seats while watching the drama unfold. In Europe and in Canada traditional circus is subsidized for it’s cultural value. Here in America we are happy to pay our own way and we only ask that the States and communities in which we play allow us the flexibility to put on a good and make a few dollars while we’re at it.
Contrary to popular belief the traditional circus is alive and well in age of the internet. When movies came along cinema was going to be the death of the circus, then there was television, then video rentals, and now online entertainment. Certainly each new form of entertainment represents a loss of market share beneath the bigtop but it isn’t butts in the seats that we lack for; we find away to find an audience always looks at new demographics. Today there are approximately fourteen tented circuses on the road, and a like number of shows playing auditoriums and other indoor venues. That’s about the same number as in 1956, or in 1869. The shows are smaller. In part that reflects realities like the cost of diesel fuel and insurance, but we’re still bringing circus to cities both small and large. Today’s circuses have critics our grandfathers would never have dreamed of. A century ago the Sells-Floto Circus was a founding member of the American Bison Society, any organization that saved the buffalo from extinction. Ringling Bros and our own show are equally committed to preserving Asian Elephants. Those conservation efforts are constantly under attack from Animal Liberation organizations like PETA. We believe that our pro conservation message will find an audience. We reject the argument made by animal liberation advocates that species survival is unimportant and extinction is natural. As human beings we can all do better than that.
Seventy years ago Obert Miller and his sons Kelly and D.R. founded their circus in part to make some money, and in part because they were circus fans. Had that original circus never made a dime the Millers would all likelihood never have regretted a minute of it. I think it’s safe to say that after four generations of family ownership as a corporate entity we can still say of the Carson & Barnes Circus, we’ve never regretted a minute of it. Today our circus has come to your town. With luck we’ll help our host to raise some money, and we’ll earn some too. With luck the weather will be in our favor. With luck the food in the cookhouse tonight will be something we recognize. One thing is certain. Tonight there will be smiles on children’s faces, and tomorrow some of those children will play circus and twenty years from now they will remember circus. We’d like to think we will still be here then, in our 90th year; and if we’re not there will certainly be another circus in our stead. If two hundred years of circus in America speaks to anything at all it speaks this, we endure. As long as there’s a bigtop somebody will be calling doors and somebody will be putting on a show.