On July 5, 1810, Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut. Barnum was an American politician, showman, and businessman remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Although Barnum was also an author, publisher, philanthropist, and for some time a politician, he said of himself, “I am a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me”, and his personal aim was “to put money in his own coffers”. Barnum is widely, but erroneously, credited with coining the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute”. The circus business was the source of much of his enduring fame. He established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome”, a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks”, which adopted many names over the years. Barnum died in his sleep at home in 1891, and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, which he designed himself.
Barnum was the son of inn keeper, tailor and store-keeper Philo Barnum (1778–1826) and second wife Irene Taylor. He was the third great grandson of Thomas Barnum (1625–1695), the English immigrant ancestor of the Barnum family in North America. His maternal grandfather Phineas Taylor was a Whig, legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and lottery schemer, and he had a great influence on his favorite grandson. Barnum was adept at arithmetic but hated physical work. He started as a store-keeper, and he learned haggling and using deception to make a sale. He was involved with the first lottery mania in the United States. At the age of 19, he married Charity Hallett.
The young husband had several businesses: a general store, a book auctioning trade, real estate speculation, and a statewide lottery network. He became active in local politics and advocated against blue laws promulgated by Calvinists who sought to restrict gambling and travel. Barnum started a weekly paper in 1829, The Herald of Freedom, in Danbury, Connecticut. His editorials against church elders led to libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in imprisonment for two months, but he became a champion of the liberal movement upon his release. In 1834, when lotteries were banned in Connecticut, cutting off his main income, Barnum sold his store and moved to New York City. In 1835 he began as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, claimed by Barnum to have been George Washington’s nurse, and to be over 160 years old. Joice Heth died in 1836, no more than 80 years old.
After a year of mixed success with his first variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater,” followed by the Panic of 1837 and three years of difficult circumstances, he purchased Scudder’s American Museum, at Broadway and Ann Street, New York City, in 1841. Barnum improved the attraction, renamed “Barnum’s American Museum,” upgrading the building and adding exhibits, and it became a popular showplace. Barnum added a lighthouse lamp which attracted attention up and down Broadway and flags along the roof’s edge that attracted attention in daytime. From between the upper windows, giant paintings of animals drew stares from pedestrians. The roof was transformed to a strolling garden with a view of the city, where he launched hot-air balloon rides daily. A changing series of live acts and curiosities, including albinos, giants, midgets, “fat boys,” jugglers, magicians, exotic women, detailed models of cities and famous battles, and, eventually, a menagerie of animals were added to the exhibits of stuffed animals.
In 1842, Barnum introduced his first major hoax, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish, known as the “Feejee” mermaid. Barnum leased the “mermaid” from fellow museum owner Moses Kimball of Boston. Kimball became his friend, confidant, and collaborator. Barnum described his hoaxes and justified the act of perpetrating them by saying they were “advertisements to draw attention…to the Museum. I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.” Later, he crusaded against fraudsters. Barnum followed that with the exhibition of Charles Stratton, the dwarf “General Tom Thumb” (“the Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone”) who was then four years of age but was stated to be 11. With heavy coaching and natural talent, the boy was taught to imitate people from Hercules to Napoleon. By five, he was drinking wine and by seven smoking cigars for the public’s amusement.
In 1843, Barnum hired the traditional Native American dancer fu-Hum-Me, the first of many Native Americans he presented. During 1844–45, Barnum toured with Tom Thumb in Europe and met Queen Victoria, who was amused and saddened by the little man, and the event was a publicity coup. It opened the door to visits from royalty across Europe including the Czar of Russia and let him acquire dozens of attractions, including automatons and other mechanical marvels. He was almost able to buy the birth home of William Shakespeare. Barnum spent about three years abroad with Thumb. Barnum went on a spending spree, buying other museums, including Peale’s museum in Philadelphia, the nation’s first major museum. By late 1846, Barnum’s Museum was drawing 400,000 visitors a year.
A risky decision of Barnum’s established him as a legitimate impresario. During his Tom Thumb tour of England, Barnum had become aware of the popularity of Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale”. Lind’s career was at its height in Europe. She was unpretentious, shy and devout, and possessed a crystal-clear soprano voice projected with a wistful quality and earnestness that audiences found touching. Barnum had never heard her and conceded to being unmusical himself. He approached her to sing in America at $1,000 a night for 150 nights, all expenses paid by him. He knew that his risk was great, noting: “‘The public’ is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and ofttimes perverse.” Barnum was confident that her reputation for morality and philanthropy could be turned to good use in his publicity.
Lind demanded the fee in advance. Barnum agreed, and she accepted the offer, which would permit her to raise a huge fund for charities, principally endowing schools for poor children in Sweden. To raise the fee, Barnum borrowed heavily on his mansion and his museum. Still slightly short, he persuaded a Philadelphia minister, who thought that Lind would be a good influence on American morals, to lend him the final $5,000. The contract also gave Lind the option of withdrawing from the tour after sixty or one hundred contracts, paying Barnum $25,000 if she did so.
Lind and her small company sailed to America in September 1850. As a result of Barnum’s months of preparations, Lind was a celebrity even before she arrived in the U.S., and close to 40,000 greeted her at the docks and another 20,000 at her hotel, the press was in attendance, and “Jenny Lind items” were available. When she realized how much money Barnum stood to make from the tour, Lind insisted on a new agreement, which he signed on September 3, 1850. This gave her the original fee plus the remainder of each concert’s profits after Barnum’s $5,500 management fee was paid. She was determined to accumulate as much money as possible for her charities.
The tour began with a concert at Castle Garden on September 11, 1850 and was a major success, recouping Barnum four times his investment. Washington Irving proclaimed, “She is enough to counterbalance, of herself, all the evil that the world is threatened with by the great convention of women. So God save Jenny Lind!” Tickets for some of her concerts were in such demand that Barnum sold them by auction. The enthusiasm of the public was so strong that the American press coined the term “Lind mania”. The blatant commercialism of Barnum’s ticket auctions distressed Lind, and for her second concert and thereafter, she persuaded him to make a substantial number of tickets available at reduced prices.
On the tour, Barnum’s publicity always preceded Lind’s arrival and whipped up enthusiasm (he had up to 26 journalists on his payroll). After New York, the company toured the east coast of America, with continued success, and later took in Cuba and the southern states of the U.S. By early 1851, Lind had become uncomfortable with Barnum’s relentless marketing of the tour, and she invoked a contractual right to sever her ties with him. They parted amicably, and she continued the tour for nearly a year under her own management. Lind gave 93 concerts in America for Barnum, earning her about $350,000; Barnum netted at least $500,000.
Using profits from the Lind tour, Barnum’s next challenge was to change public attitudes about the theater. Widely seen as ‘dens of evil,’ Barnum wanted to position them as palaces of edification and delight, and as respectable middle-class entertainment. He built the city’s largest and most modern theater, naming it the “Moral Lecture Room.” He hoped this would avoid seedy connotations and attract a family crowd and win the approval of the moral crusaders of New York City. He started the nation’s first theatrical matinées, to encourage families and to lessen the fear of crime. He opened with The Drunkard, a thinly disguised temperance lecture (he had become a teetotaler after returning from Europe). He followed that with melodramas, farces, and historical plays, put on by highly regarded actors. He watered down Shakespearean plays and others such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin to make them family entertainment.
Barnum also organized flower shows, beauty contests, dog shows, poultry contests, but the most popular were baby contests (fattest baby, handsomest twins, etc.). In 1853, he started a pictorial weekly newspaper called Illustrated News and a year later completed his autobiography, which through many revisions, sold more than one million copies. Mark Twain loved it but the British Examiner thought it “trashy” and “offensive” and “inspired…nothing but sensations of disgust…and sincere pity for the wretched man who compiled it.”
In the early 1850s, Barnum began investing to develop East Bridgeport, Connecticut. He made substantial loans to the Jerome Clock Company, to get it to move to his new industrial area. By 1856, the company went bankrupt, taking Barnum’s wealth with it. This started four years of litigation and public humiliation. Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that Barnum’s downfall showed “the gods visible again” and other critics celebrated Barnum’s moral comeuppance. His friends supported him, and Tom Thumb, now touring on his own, offered his services and they undertook another European tour. Barnum also started a lecture tour, mostly as a temperance speaker.
By 1860, Barnum emerged from debt and built a mansion “Lindencroft” (his palace “Iranistan” had burnt down in 1857) and he resumed ownership of his museum. The collections expanded to four buildings and he published a “Guide Book to the Museum” which claimed 850,000 ‘curiosities.'
Late in 1860, the Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, came out of retirement (they needed more money to send their numerous children to college). The Twins had had a touring career on their own and went to live on a North Carolina plantation with their families and slaves, under the name of “Bunker.” They appeared at Barnum’s Museum for six weeks. Also in 1860, Barnum introduced the “man-monkey” William Henry Johnson, a microcephalic black dwarf who spoke a mysterious language created by Barnum. In 1862, he discovered the giantess Anna Swan and Commodore Nutt, a new Tom Thumb, with whom Barnum visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House.
During the Civil War, Barnum’s museum drew large audiences seeking diversion from the conflict. He added pro-Unionist exhibits, lectures, and dramas, and he demonstrated commitment to the cause. For example, in 1864 Barnum hired Pauline Cushman, an actress who had served as a spy for the Union, to lecture about her “thrilling adventures” behind Confederate lines. Barnum’s Unionist sympathies incited a Confederate arsonist to start a fire in 1864. On July 13, 1865, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground from a fire of unknown origin. Barnum re-established the Museum at another location in New York City, but this too was destroyed by fire in March 1868. This time the loss was too great, and Barnum retired from the museum business.
Barnum did not enter the circus business until he was 60 years old. In Delavan, Wisconsin, in 1870 with William Cameron Coup, he established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks.” It went through various names: “P.T. Barnum’s Travelling World’s Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth,” and after an 1881 merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United,” soon shortened to “Barnum & Bailey’s.” This entertainment phenomenon was the first circus to display 3 rings, which made it the largest circus the world had ever seen.
Barnum’s first primary circus attraction was Jumbo, an African elephant he purchased in 1882 from the London Zoo. The Barnum and Bailey still contained similar acts as to his Traveling Menagerie: acrobats, freak shows, and the world-famous General Tom Thumb. Despite more fires, train disasters, and other setbacks, Barnum plowed ahead, aided by circus professionals who ran the daily operations. He and Bailey split up again in 1885, but came back together in 1888 with the “Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth,” later “Barnum & Bailey Circus,” which toured the world.
Barnum became known as the Shakespeare of Advertising, due to his innovative and impressive ideas. He knew how to draw patrons in, by giving them a glimpse of something that had never been seen before. He was, at times, accused of being deceptive and promoting false advertising.
Barnum was one of the very first circus owners to move his circus by train (and probably the very first to buy his own train). His friend, W.C. Coup, helped him get railroad cars to make his tour traveling easier. Given the lack of paved highways in America, this turned out to be a shrewd business move that vastly enlarged Barnum’s geographical reach. In this new field, Barnum leaned more on the advice of Coup, Bailey and other business partners, most of whom were young enough to be his sons.
Barnum wrote several books, including Life of P.T. Barnum (1854), The Humbugs of the World (1865), Struggles and Triumphs (1869), and The Art of Money-Getting (1880). One of Barnum’s more successful methods of self-promotion was mass publication of his autobiography. Barnum eventually gave up his copyright to allow other printers to sell inexpensive editions. At the end of the 19th century the number of copies printed was second only to the New Testament in North America.
Often referred to as the “Prince of Humbugs,” Barnum saw nothing wrong in entertainers or vendors using hype (or “humbug,” as he termed it) in promotional material, as long as the public was getting value for money. However, he was contemptuous of those who made money through fraudulent deceptions, especially the spiritualist mediums popular in his day, testifying against noted spirit photographer William H. Mumler in his trial for fraud. Prefiguring illusionists Harry Houdini and James Randi, Barnum exposed “the tricks of the trade” used by mediums to cheat the bereaved. In The Humbugs of the World, he offered $500 to any medium who could prove power to communicate with the dead.
Barnum was also significantly involved in politics, focusing on race, slavery, and sectionalism in the period leading up to the American Civil War. He had some of his first success as an impresario through his slave Joice Heth. Around 1850, he was involved in a hoax about a weed that would turn black people white.
Barnum was a producer and promoter of blackface minstrelsy. Barnum’s minstrel shows often used double-edged humor. While replete with black stereotypes, Barnum’s shows satirized as in a stump speech in which a black phrenologist (like all minstrel performers, a white man in blackface) made a dialect speech parodying lectures given at the time to “prove” the superiority of the white race: “You see den, dat clebber man and dam rascal means de same in Dutch, when dey boph white; but when one white and de udder’s black, dat’s a grey hoss ob anoder color.”
Promotion of minstrel shows led to his sponsorship in 1853 of H.J. Conway’s politically watered-down stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the play, at Barnum’s American Museum, gave the story a happy ending, with Tom and other slaves freed. The success led to a play based on Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. His opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act which supported slavery, of 1854 led him to leave the Democratic Party to become a member of the new anti slavery Republican Party. He had evolved from a man of common stereotypes of the 1840s to a leader for emancipation by the Civil War.
While he claimed “politics were always distasteful to me,” Barnum was elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as Republican representative for Fairfield and served four terms. In the debate over slavery and African-American suffrage with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Barnum spoke before the legislature and said, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot — it is still an immortal spirit.” Barnum was notably the legislative sponsor of a law enacted by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1879 that prohibited the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception” that remained in effect in Connecticut until being overturned in 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court Griswold v. Connecticut decision.
Barnum ran for the United States Congress in 1867 and lost to his third cousin William Henry Barnum. In 1875, Barnum as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, worked to improve the water supply, bring gas lighting to streets, and enforce liquor and prostitution laws. Barnum was instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and was its first president.
Barnum enjoyed what he publicly dubbed “profitable philanthropy.” In Barnum’s own words: “I have no desire to be considered much of a philanthropist…if by improving and beautifying our city Bridgeport, Connecticut, and adding to the pleasure and prosperity of my neighbors, I can do so at a profit, the incentive to ‘good works’ will be twice as strong as if it were otherwise.” In line with this philosophy was Barnum’s pursuit of major American museums and spectacles. Less known are Barnum’s significant contributions to Tufts University. Barnum was appointed to the Board of Trustees prior to the University’s founding and made several significant contributions to the fledgling institution. The most noteworthy example of this was his gift in 1883 of $50,000 ($2,000,000 in 2013), to establish a museum and hall for the Department of Natural History, which today houses the department of biology. Because of the relationship between Barnum and Tufts, Jumbo the elephant became the school’s mascot, and Tufts students are known as “Jumbos.”
Barnum suffered a stroke in 1890 during a performance and died on April 7, 1891. He was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut, a cemetery he designed. At his death, most critics had forgiven him and he was praised for good works. Barnum was hailed as an icon of American spirit and ingenuity, and was perhaps the most famous American in the world. Just before his death, he gave permission to the Evening Sun to print his obituary, so that he might read it. On April 7 he asked about the box office receipts for the day; a few hours later, he was dead.
In 1893, a statue in his honor was placed at Seaside Park, by the water in Bridgeport. Barnum had donated the land for this park in 1865.
His circus was sold to Ringling Brothers on July 8, 1907, for $400,000 (about $10.45 million in 2017 dollars). The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses ran separately until they merged in 1919 forming the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The Tufts University Biology Building is named in honor of Barnum. Jumbo eventually became the mascot of Tufts University, in honor of Barnum’s 1889 donation of the elephant’s stuffed hide.
In 1936, for the centennial of the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, his portrait was used for the obverse of the commemorative Bridgeport Half Dollar. An annual six-week Barnum Festival was held for many years in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a tribute to Barnum.
Walt Kelly, who grew up in Bridgeport, named the Pogo character P.T. Bridgeport after Barnum, and endowed the circus operator bear with a Barnum-like outsized personality and word balloons with lettering that resembled 19th century circus posters giving graphic depiction of the sort of colorful language Barnum was prone to use.
To honor the 200th anniversary of Barnum’s birth, the Bethel Historical Society commissioned a life-size sculpture, created by local resident David Gesualdi, that stands outside the public library. The statue was dedicated on September 26, 2010.
The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, which Barnum co-founded in 1883 with Charles E. Tooker, continues to operate to this day across the Long Island Sound between Port Jefferson, New York, and Bridgeport. The company currently owns and operates three vessels, one of which is named the M.V. PT Barnum.
Scott #1309 was released on May 2, 1966, in Delavan, Wisconsin, to honor the American Circus on the centenary of the birth of John Ringling. Ringling and his four brothers founded the Ringling Brothers Circus and later acquired the Barnum and Bailey Circus in London. Designed by Edward Klauck of New York City, it was printed on the Giori press and issued in panes of fifty, perforated 11. A total of 131,270,000 stamps were printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Hachaliah Bailey appears to have established the first circus in the United States after he purchased around 1806 an African elephant, which he named “Old Bet”. With it as his star attraction he formed the Bailey Circus, which also included a trained dog, several pigs, a horse and four wagons. This was the impetus for what in time evolved into the Bailey component of what became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
P. T. Barnum, who as a boy had worked as a ticket seller for Hachaliah Bailey’s show, had run the Barnum’s American Museum from New York City since 1841 from the former Scudder’s American Museum building. Besides building up the existing exhibits, Barnum brought in animals to add zoo-like elements, and a freak show. During this time, Barnum took the Museum on road tours, named “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling American Museum”. The Museum burned down in July 1865. Though Barnum attempted to re-establish the Museum at another location in the city, it too burned down in 1868, and Barnum opted to retire from the museum business.
In 1871, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup persuaded Barnum to come out of retirement as to lend his name, know-how and financial backing to the circus they had already created in Delavan, Wisconsin. The combined show was named “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome”. As described by Barnum, Castello and Coup “had a show that was truly immense, and combined all the elements of museum, menagerie, variety performance, concern hall, and circus”, and considered it to potentially be “the Greatest Show on Earth”, which subsequently became part of the circus’s name.
Independently of Castello and Coup, James Anthony Bailey had teamed up with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s. The Cooper and Bailey Circus became the chief competitor to Barnum’s circus. As Bailey’s circus was outperforming his, Barnum sought to merge the circuses. The two groups agree agreed to combine their shows on March 28, 1881. Initially named “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United”, it was eventually shortened to “Barnum and Bailey’s Circus”. Bailey was instrumental in acquiring Jumbo, advertised as the world’s largest elephant, for the show. Barnum died in 1891 and Bailey then purchased the circus from his widow. Bailey continued touring the eastern United States until he took his circus to Europe. That tour started on December 27, 1897, and lasted until 1902.
Separately, in 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers had started a small circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin. This was about the same time that Barnum & Bailey were at the peak of their popularity. Similar to dozens of small circuses that toured the Midwest and the Northeast at the time, the brothers moved their circus from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans. Their circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train, which allowed them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of that time. Bailey’s European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard. Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1905. He died the next year, and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers.
The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in 1907 and ran the circuses separately until 1919. By that time, Charles Edward Ringling and John Nicholas Ringling were the only remaining brothers of the five who founded the circus. They decided that it was too difficult to run the two circuses independently, and on March 29, 1919, “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows” debuted in New York City. The posters declared, “The Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions.” Charles E. Ringling died in 1926, but the circus flourished through the Roaring Twenties.
John Ringling had the circus move its headquarters to Sarasota, Florida in 1927. In 1929, the American Circus Corporation signed a contract to perform in New York City. John Ringling purchased American Circus, owner of five circuses, for $1.7 million.
In 1938, the circus made Frank Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their star attraction and to enter the show astride an elephant. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors, stating that he was “a scientist, not an actor.” Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that he would not compromise his principles, saying, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself. And my heart is with the fellow who works. But I don’t want some … union delegate telling me when to get on and off an elephant.” Eventually, the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla without registering as an actor.
The circus suffered during the 1930s due to the Great Depression, but managed to stay in business. After John Nicholas Ringling’s death, his nephew, John Ringling North, managed the indebted circus twice, the first from 1937 to 1943. Special dispensation was given to the circus by President Roosevelt to use the rails to operate in 1942, in spite of travel restrictions imposed as a result of World War II. Many of the most famous images from the circus that were published in magazine and posters were captured by American Photographer Maxwell Frederic Coplan, who traveled the world with the circus, capturing its beauty as well as its harsh realities.
North’s cousin Robert took over the president of the show in 1943. North resumed the presidency of the circus in 1947.
A fire occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, during an afternoon performance that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people. It was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. Although the Hartford Fire Department responded quickly, the fire was fanned by the fact that the canvas circus tent had been waterproofed through a mixture of highly flammable paraffin and gasoline. During the ensuing panic Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown, threw a bucket of water at the burning canvas tent, and a poignant photograph of his futile attempt was transmitted around the world as news spread of the disaster. At least 167 people were killed in the disaster, and hundreds more were injured. Some of the dead remain unidentified to this day, even with modern DNA techniques.
Actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was thirteen years old at the time, survived the fire and dramatized it in the film on his stage show, “The Life of Reilly”. In a 1997 interview, Reilly said that he rarely attended the theater, despite being a director, since the sound of a large audience in a theater reminded him of the large crowd at the circus before the disaster.
In the following investigation, it was discovered that the tent had not been fireproofed. Ringling Bros. had applied to the Army, which had an absolute priority on the material, for enough fireproofing liquid to treat their Big Top. The Army had refused to release it to them. The circus had instead waterproofed their canvas using an older method of parrafin dissolved in gasoline and painted onto the canvas. The waterproofing worked, but as had been repeatedly shown it was horribly flammable. Circus management was found to be negligent and several Ringling executives served sentences in jail. Ringling Brothers’ management set aside all profits for the next ten years to pay the claims filed against the show by the City of Hartford and the survivors of the fire.
The post-war prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the nation was not shared by the circus as crowds dwindled and costs increased. Public tastes, influenced by the movies and television, abandoned the circus, which gave its last performance under the big top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 16, 1956. An article in Life magazine reported that “a magical era had passed forever”. In 1956, when John Ringling North and Arthur Concello moved the circus from a tent show to an indoor operation, Irvin Feld was one of several promoters hired to work the advance for select dates, mostly in the Detroit and Philadelphia areas. Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel Feld, had already made a name for themselves marketing and promoting D.C. area rock and roll shows. In 1959, Ringling Bros. started wintering in Venice, Florida.
In late 1967, Irvin Feld, Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz of Texas, together with backing from Richard C. Blum, the founder of Blum Capital, bought the company outright from North and the Ringling family interests for $8 million at a ceremony at Rome’s Colosseum. Irving Feld immediately began making other changes to improve the quality and profitability of the show. Irvin got rid of the freak show so as not to capitalize on others’ deformations and to become more family orientated. He got rid of the more routine acts.
In 1968, with the craft of clowning seemingly neglected and with many of the clowns in their 50s, he established the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. A circus in Europe was purchased for $2 million just to have its star animal trainer, Gunther Gebel-Williams, for the core of his revamped circus. Soon, he split the show into two touring units, Red and Blue, which could tour the country independently. The separate tours could also offer differing slates of acts and themes, enabling circus goers to view both tours where possible.
The company was taken public in 1969. In 1970, Feld’s only son Kenneth joined the company and became a co-producer. The circus was sold to the Mattel company in 1971 for $40 million, but the Feld family was retained as management.
After Walt Disney World opened near Orlando, Florida, in 1971, the circus attempted to cash in on the resulting tourism surge by opening Circus World theme park in nearby Haines City, which broke ground on April 26, 1973. The theme park was expected to become the circus’s winter home as well as to have the Clown College located there. Mattel placed the circus corporation up for sale by December 1973 despite its profit contributions, as Mattel as a whole showed a $29.9 million loss in 1972. The park’s opening was then delayed until February 1974. Venture Out in America, Inc., a Gulf Oil recreational subsidiary, agreed to buy the combined shows in January 1974, and the opening was further pushed back to 1975. While the Circus Showcase for Circus World opened on February 21, 1974, Venture Out placed the purchase deal back into negotiations, and the opening of the whole complex was moved to an early 1976.
By May 1980, the company expanded to three circuses by adding the one-ring International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo that debuted in Japan and Australia. The Felds bought the circus back in 1982. Irvin Feld died in 1984 and the company has since been run by Kenneth.
Circus World was never successful, as its standard carnival-type rides were no match for Disney’s state-of-the-art attractions and was out of the way. The circus sold the park to Arizona developers James Monaghan and Brian Burstein in 1984.
When in 1990 the Venice rail tracks could not support the show’s train cars, the combined circus moved its winter base to the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. In 1993, the clown college was moved from the Venice Arena to Baraboo, Wisconsin. In 1995, the company founded the Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC).
Clair George has testified in court that he worked as a consultant in the early 1990s for Kenneth Feld and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was involved in the surveillance of Jan Pottker (a journalist who was writing about the Feld family) and of various animal rights groups such as PETA.
After three years in Baraboo, the clown college operated at the Sarasota Opera House in Sarasota until 1998 before the program was suspended. On February 26, 1999, the circus company started previewing Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, a one ring, intimate, upscale circus performed under the tent; designed to compete with similar upscale circuses such as Cirque du Soleil, Barnum’s Kaleidoscape was not successful, and ceased performances after the end of 2000.
Nicole Feld became the first female producer of Ringling Circus in 2004. In 2009, Nicole and Alana Feld co-produced the circus. In 2001, a group led by The Humane Society of the United States sued the circus over alleged mistreatment of elephants. The suit and a countersuit ended in 2014 with the circus winning a total of $25.2 million in settlements. On March 3, 2015, the circus announced that all elephants would be retired in 2018 to the CEC. The retirement date was subsequently moved forward to May 2016.
Eight months after it retired the elephants, the circus announced on January 14, 2017, that the circus would close in May 2017, and would lay off more than 462 employees between March and May 2017. The circus cited steeply declining ticket sales associated with the loss of the elephants combined with high operating costs as reasons for the closure. On May 7, 2017, its “Circus Extreme” tour was shown for the last time in Providence, Rhode Island. The circus’ last performance was its “Out of This World” tour at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 21, 2017, and was its first (and only) performance at Nassau Coliseum following the Coliseum’s 2015–2017 renovation.