The Performance &The Performers
Last Sunday, an American Institution died a premature death when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus gave its last performance. After 147 years and literally thousands of performances, before millions of “kids of all ages”, “The Greatest Show On Earth” is no more than a wonderful memory. But what memories it leaves behind.
My father loved the circus especially Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. As a result about every other year, he would gather the family in his car, drive to Philadelphia where we all attend a matinée performance of “The Greatest Show On Earth”. These trips to the circus resulted in many pleasant memories. Now that Ringling Bros. is a thing of the past, I will over the next week to ten days try to record as many of these memories as possible on the “WE REMEMBER” blog.
The late 1940s and 1950s were the golden days of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Some of the greatest circus performers in the world had survived World War II and managed get out of Europe before the Iron Curtain trapped millions of people in communist Eastern Europe. The world-famous Ringling show was like a magnet to these performers and was very successful in recruiting great circus acts from post war Europe. These acts were combined with U.S. acts as well as others from South and Central American. As a result, the ”Greatest Show On Earth” in the late 40s and throughout the 50s, presented what might have been truly called an assemblage of – “The Greatest (Circus) Performers on Earth”.
When you entered the Big Top in the 40s and 1950s, all three rings were already set up and enclosed by steel barred cages. Because the heavy, steel cages in which the wild animal acts performed were so difficult and time-consuming to set up, the wild animal acts were usually the first acts in a Ringling performance.
As soon as the Ringmaster finished his famous welcoming speech –
“Ladies And gentlemen, children of all ages, John Ringling North welcomes you to the 70 things Edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (drum roll) – The Greatest Show on Earth”,
the lights would dim and the band would strike up a fast March. As the music played 8 or ten lions or tigers would be let into each of the three cages thru a series of caged chutes that connected to cage wagons outside of the tent.
After the terrible Hartford (Connecticut) circus fire in 1948, the cats were pulled into and out of the Big Top in caged wagons. * see post re My Father’s prediction re this tragedy.
As soon as the cats were in their cages and on their perches, some of the greatest animal trainers of all time – Clyde Beatty – who later a movie star and owned his own circus, Charlie Bauman who worked exclusively with ten bengal tigers and, in later years, the blond-haired, heart-throb Gunter Gabel Williams – would put their animals through a series of tricks usually culminating in the trainers having a lion or a tiger in each ring jump through a blazing hoop.
While the cages were being dismantled, jugglers and acrobatic troupes performed on the Big Top’s two stages while the world famous Ringling clowns performed on the hippodrome track. Emmett Kelly, the famous, sad-faced clown was a favorite as was Felix Adler who worked with a performing pig. At various points during the show the Ringling clowns would perform in the center ring. Lou Jacobs, an unusually tall clown, who was also a contortionist, would drive a miniature car (maybe 36 inches high and four feet long) into the center ring and then extract his six-foot body, huge hat and floppy shoes from the minuscule car. After doing a series of gags where he would sit on the hood of the car and have water squirt from the top of his hat or from his ears, he would, in full view and without any assistance, somehow squeeze himself back into the car and drive off.
Although it would be politically incorrect today, some of the most popular clown gigs were performed by Ringling’s large troupe of midget clowns. One of midget clowns most memorable stunts involved a house on fire. During that gig, the clowns served as the slapstick firemen who tried to put out the fire and rescue the occupants of the burning building. As they did so, they tripped over each other and their own feet while their ladders collapsed and their hoses went dry. They then would try to use fire buckets to put out the fire. The buckets, unbeknownst to the audience, were filled with confetti. The clowns would try to empty the buckets on surprised spectators who thought that the buckets contained water.
Even when they were not performing, the clowns were always nearby either on the hippodrome track or close by in the wings. Close for a good reason! In case of a fall, accident or injury, the ringmaster would whistle the entire troupe of clowns into the arena where they would attempt to distract the audience with their stunts while an injured performer was tended to and the accident cleaned up.
Trapeze acts were always popular in the Ringling show. At some point in each show three solo trapeze artists would perform above each of the three rings. Simultaneously, all three performers would hang from one leg, one hand, or by their heels on a swaying trapeze 40 feet above the ring. They would also balance on their heads or on the rungs of a chair precariously perched on the swing trapeze bar. All of this without the benefit of a safety net. Other performers, usually young girls, performed a so-called iron jaw act in which they did various tricks and maneuvers hanging by their teeth from a rope high above the rings. At another point in the show, troupes of flyers would perform high over each ring flying from one moving trapeze to another in time with Strauss waltzes.
Horses were always a major feature of any circus performance. The horse acts always included eloquently dressed performers who put beautifully groomed horses through an entire range of formal equestrian exercises called dressage. Other equestrians would perform with 10 or 12 so-called liberty horses at a time in the ring. These horses performed ballet like dances as a group without leashes or harnesses, responding either to verbal commands or the gentile prodding and snaps of their trainer’s whip.
Other performers were called bareback riders because they performed on groups of un-saddled horses. The, usually female, bareback riders would be continually jumping on and off of the backs of the horses while the steads galloped around the circumference of the circus ring. As they did so, the riders would be doing various balancing and tumbling tricks on the backs of the fast-moving horses. The conclusion of most bareback acts saw three or four horses circle the ring side by side with a four or six high human pyramid of riders on their backs.
The Great Wallendas, whose family still perform on the high wire until this day, were often a featured act with the Ringling show during the 40s and 50s. Although they were great, I personally preferred to see Harold Alzana perform on the high wire. While he and his troupe did most of the same stunts, including the seven person pyramid, that the more famous Wallendas pioneered and performed , Alanza’s solo tricks were the highlight of his troupe’s act. For his entrance, Alzana ascended on a tight rope rigged at a 45 degree angle from the hippodrome track to the high wire. To do so was an incredible feat of balance, agility and strength only exceeded by the skills that he utilized to descend on the same angled wire to the track following his high wire performance. Performing 40 feet above the ground and without a safety net, Alzana performed several solo tricks that I remember to this day. In one, he did a somersault through a suspended hoop landing with one foot on the high wire. At another point in his performance, while he was jumping rope 40 feet above the arena floor, he would pretend to loose his balance and be falling – only to catch the wire at the last second with one hand.
Animal acts were always a major element of “the Greatest Show On Earth”. It was not unusual, during some portion of a show, to have a dog act working in one ring, trained chimps performing in another and seals sliding down slides and balancing large balls on their noses in still another ring. One year, a troupe of bears played the un-caged center ring controlled by their trainer with only long leashes.
Acrobats, balancers and jugglers were always a part of any circus and the Ringling Bros. was no exception. I particularly remember a balancer who billed himself as “The Great Unis” – the Unis part of his name emphasizing that he did most of his performance on one hand or at times on one finger. The finale’ of his act was when a large globe was placed on a six or eight foot high standard in the middle of the center ring and Unis would proceed to balance himself on the globe while perched on one finger.
The indoor circus parade that circus folks called “The Spec” was always an integral part of any Ringling performance and as the “spec” wound its way around the track sequin clad girls would peel off from the parade and ascend long ropes stretching to the top of the big top. Once at the top of their ropes, they would hook a loop of rope around their wrist and as soon as the last float left the tent, other performers on the ground would start spinning the ropes and to music 30 young ladies would perform an acrobatic, synchronized aerial ballet on what was called…
… “The Spanish Web”.
As proven recently when the management of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus decided to remove them from their shows, the circus could not exist without performing elephants. In the 40s and 1950s, at some point in the show 20 or 30 trained elephants each with their trunk holding the tail of the elephant in front of them entered the big top. With a scantily clad young lady riding atop each or suspended from an elephant’s trunk, they would circle the hippodrome track and then peel off to perform simultaneously in all three rings.
Although the performances of the Ringling Shows varied from year to year, it always seemed to get better and better every year until suddenly and far too soon on Sunday May 21st, 2017 “The Greatest Show On Earth” sadly gave its last performance. Unfortunately, now the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is simply and sadly only something that “WE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER”
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows
“THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”
Click on link below to see other Memories Of “The Greatest Show On Earth
Posted by Frank Fleming
1936 – 2016