History Of The Circus

Circus such as the Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers show continue to awe audiences with enchanting entertainment making truly the

Circuses have been around since the Ancient Romans. The Emperor Pompey held spectacular shows full of lions, elephants and chariot racing. These ancient circuses included slaves fighting to the death for their freedom and dangerous duels with live animals. Modern day circuses are a bit tamer, but through out their history they have continued to awe their audiences.

The modern day circus did not originate until 1768 when Englishman Philip Astley began performing daring tricks on horseback. During the Dark Ages the Pompey-style circuses were lost in the misery of the human condition. The flowering of the Renaissance saw the return of acrobats and the introduction of jugglers, but the performances were limited to mostly street entertainers begging for spare change. Philip Astley reintroduced the pomp of ancient Roman circuses with his trick riding displays. The ex-Major Sergeant staged his show inside a roped-off circle in the middle of open fields. The circle, later to be modified into circus, provided the centrifugal force Astley needed to stay atop his cantering horse. The size of his circle was 42 feet, which is the modern-day standard for circus rings around the world.

As Astley's show increased in popularity, he wisely introduced feature acts such as acrobats and jugglers to add variety. By 1772 Astley and his crew were touring Europe, performing in enclosed arenas, and charging admission. In 1793 Astley's circus performed at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The attraction of the circus soon found its way to America. John Bill Ricketts, an English equestrian, arranged the first US circus in 1792. True to his roots, Ricketts focused primarily on feats of horsemanship to wow his audience. His popularity even drew President George Washington, a distant cousin of Ricketts.

Over the next few decades, the American circus began to evolve. At first rope dancers and jugglers became commonplace. Next came clowns and wild animal acts. Circus organizer Hackaliah Bailey purchased an African elephant names Old Bet from a seafarer for an estimated $1000.00. She was so popular that Bailey eventually introduced an animal menagerie to his shows. By 1859, the flying trapeze became a staple at circuses around the world.

But circuses first saw their heyday under the direction of the American businessman William Cameron Coup, who introduced the concept of size into the performance. Starting in 1869, Coup organized circuses so large he boasted two rings performing simultaneous shows. His popularity led him to businessman P.T. Barnum and the pair organized their first circus in Brooklyn, New York dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth". Coup and Barnum's show traveled around the United States for ten years before Barnum left the partnership to join up with James Anthony Bailey. The two formed the famous American circus of Barnum and Bailey.

By 1884 Charles and John Ringling were also promoting a spectacular show in cities across America. Barnum and Bailey agreed to partnership with the Ringling Brothers to create what is known today as the Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers Circus. The two teams combined their talents, pushing circuses to the height of excess. The largest circuses required nearly three hundred tents to present their show, and even produced their own diesel-generated electricity. Not until after World War II, when such equipment was cost prohibitive, did circuses begin to use available buildings in their host cities.

Today circuses still attract both young and old to see the daring acrobatics, the clever animals and the amusing clowns. Besides the nationally acclaimed Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers Circus, several other well-known troupes travel across America to perform. The Carson and Barnes Circus follows in the grand circus tradition with sixteen separate 5-ring shows. Performers come from all over the world, as do the trained exotic animals. One of Carson and Barnes' famous attractions is the Hula-Hoop Sensation. Circus Flora promotes a more intimate circus setting. The small show is known for its animals, seven person pyramid and fire jugglers.

Some circuses originate out of local universities. Florida State University's Flying High Circus is run completely by FSU students. They use no animals, but focus primarily on acrobatics such as hand balancing and aerial acts.

Cirque du Soleil is perhaps the best rival to the traditional large-scale circuses. Based in Quebec, Cirque du Soleil has neither animals nor clowns. The troupe, which started in 1984, focuses solely on the gymnastic abilities of their agile performers. Dramatic costumes and lighting effects make for a highly theatrical performance. Cirque du Soleil's popularity has taken circus commercialism to new heights. The troupe has retail outlets located in Walt Disney World in Florida. A feature film was inspired by their Alegria show. Yet the troupe organizers continue to give 1% of their proceeds to philanthropic organizations.

Traditional circuses have come under some criticism for their use of animals as performers. Animal rights activists argue that many circus animals are mistreated by trainers and are forced to live in unnatural conditions. But elephants and lions have been part of the circus since Pompey's time and activist criticism has not dampened circus enthusiasm. For young and old alike, the circus continues to provide a most enchanting form of entertainment.

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