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In this episode, we’re going to explore the storied history of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and break the story on its imminent comeback!
Phineas Taylor Barnum, or as he’s better known… P.T. BARNUM!
If you’ve seen The Greatest Showman, you already know it was an amazing movie! It was based on the life of the legendary P.T. Barnum and was about as entertaining as anything the man himself may have presented and unfortunately just about as accurate too. But it’s a very tall order to condense a life as storied as Barnum’s into just 2 hours and change. After all, he was a newspaper publisher, showman, politician, philanthropist and so much more. But most of all, he looked NOTHING like Hugh Jackman!
Not a lot of people recall this about P.T., but he actually served two terms as a Republican in the Connecticut Legislature, most notably speaking in favor of the 13th amendment to the constitution abolishing slavery.
Although he DID have the museum of oddities in New York when he was younger, P.T. Barnum didn’t actually get into the circus business until 1872 when at the age of 60 he teamed up with entrepreneurs Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup. Together they formed P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Exposition and World’s Fair which is believed to be the first circus to add a 2nd ring which doubled the number of simultaneous performances and increased seating capacity. They also made it into a train traveling show pioneering the model for the railroad circus. This allowed them to take their show to towns in the midwest who didn’t get nearly as many opportunities for this type of entertainment as towns on the coast. Remember those boxes of animal crackers with all those lions, tigers and bears on the train cars?
P.T. partnered with circus business veteran James Bailey from the Cooper and Bailey Circus 10 years later in 1880. That’s right, PT Barnum was 70 years old when Barnum and Bailey’s circus, The Greatest Show On Earth was established with Barnum as the face of the show and Bailey as the businessman. Together, they added a 3rd ring to the (at the time) circus standard of 2 rings and created the enduring standard that we know today as the 3-ring circus! Ten years later at the age of 80, PT Barnum passed away from a stroke and James Bailey carried on with the circus they founded as well as taking on the management of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Who were the Ringling Brothers?
The Ringling Brothers were the 7 sons of German harness-maker Heinrich Friedrich August Rüngeling and a French-descended lady named Marie Salome Juliar.
In 1882, 4 of the brothers Albert, Otto, Alfred and John formed the Classic Comic Concert Company, a touring song-and-dance troupe. After 2 years on the road, they began adding circus entertainers to their show and launched the Ringling Brothers Circus on May 19th, 1884 in their hometown of Baraboo, Wisconsin.
It was a slow building process for the first 4 years as a circus troupe, that is until 1888 when they got an elephant and business started to rampage! In 1890, they followed P.T. Barnum’s lead taking to the railways with their show and by 1900 they were one of Barnum and Bailey’s largest competitors helped along by their penchant for buying up other circuses like the Forepaugh-Sells Circus and upon James Bailey’s death in 1906, purchasing the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1907. Thus the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was born and were instantly the leading circus in all of America!
In 1929, Ringling Brothers expanded their empire even further purchasing the American Circus Corporation bringing the total number of circus organizations operating under their control to 11. Their shows were massive for this time in history with a big top seating capacity of 10,000 people!
The Ringling Brothers family continued their domination of the circus industry throughout the decades thrilling ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages until 1967 when it was purchased by Feld Entertainment, who own it to this day along with other shows such as Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live. Feld took the reigns and ran the circus like a well-oiled clown car including the Florida amusement park, Circus World which I actually had the pleasure to visit as a child and got stuck on a roller coaster that wouldn’t stop its first time back to the gate and I got to go an extra turn while my Mom freaked out!
Beginning of the End
At the turn of the millineum, animal rights groups began targeting the Ringling Brothers circus as they did incorporate Asian Elephants into their shows which were categorized as an endangered species. There was a lawsuit alleging violations of the endangered species act which was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing, but the bad publicity still stung.
In 2015, Feld Entertainment relented to public pressure and ended their elephant performances. And two years later touting declining ticket sales, higher operating costs and evolving tastes of modern audiences, They ultimately took the big top down for good in 2017 after 146 years.
But What About Cirque De Soliel!?
Cirque de Soliel has absolutely nothing to do with Ringling Brothers but I’m going to talk about them here for a moment anyway, because during the time that Ringling was declining and closing, Cirque de Soliel was growing and thriving with amazing performances, acrobatic acts, clowns and more. ALL WITHOUT THE INCORPORATION OF ANY EXOTIC ANIMALS!
So… If you believe that an enterprise as iconic, enduring and well-known as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus could not be reimagined, updated and modernized with the help of some brilliant marketing minds, well… YOU MIGHT BE RIGHT!
I did a little digging around, investigative work if you will. I visited ringling.com which wasn’t very helpful as it’s just a splash page with a sign up form to receive Ringling Brothers news and updates. I went ahead and signed up just to see what I would receive. One month later, I have received absolutely nothing. After clicking submit, it took me to another page which had a link to a Ringling Brothers merchandise store with somewhat sparse offerings and links to their social media sites which don’t appear to have been updated in a few years. I could literally feel the cobwebs coming off the web-presence of Ringling!
So from there, I go to the Feld Entertainment website and clicked around. No Ringling on the front page. No Ringling in the press releases and finally clicked the menu link that said AUDITIONS where I found something very interesting…
Under Feld Entertainment’s List of shows which they produce, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was the VERY FIRST SHOW LISTED along with all the other shows they own. Was this simply a catalog of their various intellectual properties?
The logo was clickable, so I clicked to see where this rabbit hole might lead me and it brings me to a page with a very modern and fresh-looking graphic which says LIVE AUDITIONS WORLD TOUR Las Vegas, Paris France, Cape Town South Africa, Buenos Aires Argentina, Moscow Russia, Ulaanbaatar Mongolia and Beijing China! Seeking Circus performers, physical comedians and characters, athletes, musicians, dancers, street performers, daredevils and other original acts! (nothing regarding animal acts).
So NOW I’m getting excited! Still not sure if this might just be some old relic from a dusty page on their site which was never updated because there is nothing on this page which indicates a date or a year. No time reference. But there IS a link to start the audition process so… I click it! This brings me to a pretty bland, sterile-looking page with a very unimpressive version of the Ringling logo. But towards the bottom there is another link with a somewhat small typeface which says… THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH WORLDWIDE AUDITIONS 2022… Apply Now!
So NOW I’m picking my jaw up from the floor because I’ve just uncovered something that has not yet been made known to the general public. I’m sure there’s what you might call a whisper campaign going on within the industry, but what I mean to say is that I appear to have uncovered quite the newsworthy bombshell here!
So… I call the Feld Entertainment main office to see if I could get any information, stayed on hold for about 5 or 10 minutes and then got a recording that they couldn’t take my call and to leave a message which I did. I also left a message in their marketing department and sent an email to the general information email address for Feld Entertainment.
Then I called an audible while I was in the thick of banging out the script for the very installment of the Dandy Fun House you are enjoying right now. The very next day I decided to do a short run-and-gun, lowkey production for episode 15 (the previous episode to this one) where I simply concentrated on what I had uncovered on the Feld Entertainment website regarding indications that after 5 years in the grave, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus were getting poised for a comeback!
And right as I was wrapping up that quick little video and in the midst of rendering it in my computer, I take my phone out of airplane mode (which I always place my phone into when I want to immerse myself into the production of the Dandy Fun House and not be disturbed) and I see that someone has left me a voice message.
This voice message turned out to be a woman from Feld Entertainment who did not identify herself but DID confirm that Ringling IS RETURNING! But she also had no further details she could share at this time.
So at this point, I’m all excited because I feel like I just scooped a big, big story! That is until I realized I only have about 12 followers. But I’m still excited, so I run with and append this voice message to the end of episode 15 and shove it out there!
Then the following day, I receive a reply to the email I had sent to the marketing department double-reconfirming the return of Ringling but also that they couldn’t divulge much more information at this time but that a press release would be forthcoming in the Spring of 2022!
Ok, well THAT’S some information I didn’t have previously, so that email actually WAS helpful! The person who emailed me also encouraged me to reach out after the press release for a possible interview with their director of production, which is also pretty exciting.
I’ve conducted tons of interviews in the past for a podcast I formerly hosted called Under Country Music, but I’ve never done an interview on the Dandy Fun House and I’m on the fence about doing so because this show is in the building process. I’m only 16 episodes in at this time and the first handful of episodes were largely me fumbling and trying to get my bearings and really hone in on what this show should be, what it should focus on and who the show is actually for.
At this point I feel I’m pretty solid on those things in that this show is mainly a family-friendly retrospective of classic entertainment for grownups wishing to hearken back a bit without being “too stuck in the past” and get updated about where their classic forms of entertainment have evolved to in the modern age in a way that’s fun, entertaining and hopefully something they can share and enjoy with their own kids. I hope that made sense.
But… (and bringing this clown car back into the garage…) I do not yet have a very big audience and would hate to take up the time of the production director of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus just to have them reach 20 people or so. While that would be very exciting for ME, I would much rather see them spending their time and energy reaching the masses in ways that will ultimately put behinds in the arena seats and help them be successful in this monumental comeback effort because (as I’ve said before at the end of episode 15) I think most of us can agree, the world could use a little Ringling right about now!
WARNING! SHAMELESS GRIFTING AHEAD!
And I could use a little jingling in my pocket baby! So if you enjoy this content and would like to support future episodes of the Dandy Fun House, please visit the patronage page at dandyfunhouse.com ! Supporters will gain access to exclusive bonus features, including my recent bonus feature of my Ringling Programs which I obtained at the circus in my childhood. 1976, 1979, 1980 and 1981. And I take you through them page-by-page!
And if you are a super-supporter (meaning you support at a higher-level… ok, SEND ME MORE MONEY), I’ll mail you stuff from the Dandy Fun House studio (ok, my house) that Mrs. Dandy wants me to unload on some suckers!
And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my resources for the information used in this episode:
You guys come back real soon to see what sort of trouble we can get into next here at the Dandy Fun House where everything is always… FUN AND DANDY!