Taking Down the Big Top

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presented the last of their traveling “Big Top” shows, a tradition for over eighty years, on this day in 1956. The last show was sold out, almost 10,000 in the seats and another thousand “allowed in, to sit on straw or stand along the edges as a great American holiday played out its final ritual” (Fall of the Big Top, David Hammarstrom). But the overflow crowd assembled only because the decision to close, made earlier that day, had been headline news on television — one nail in the traveling circus coffin being the new medium itself, able to offer small-town America its own screen-sized parade of “Step Right Up! Step Right Up!” wonders. Other contributing factors included increasing rail costs and, more critically over the previous year, labor problems. Having failed to get a union deal for the circus workers, Jimmy Hoffa had mounted an obstruction campaign at the train yards and tent sites. This had been so successful that “The Greatest Show on Earth,” some quipped, had become “The Latest Show on Earth.” The July 16 matinee in Pittsburgh had not started until 6 p.m., the final show not until 10:00, hours later than advertised.

The next-gen form of three-ring entertainment would live on in cheaper and more manageable stadium venues, but the circus would never again come to town as it did for generations of Americans, and Huck Finn:

It was the splendidest sight that ever was when they all come riding in, two and two, a gentleman and lady, side by side, the men just in their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes nor stirrups, and resting their hands on their thighs easy and comfortable — there must a been twenty of them — and every lady with a lovely complexion, and perfectly beautiful, and looking just like a gang of real sure-enough queens, and dressed in clothes that cost millions of dollars, and just littered with diamonds…

Twain said that he longed to try the circus himself; Bruce Feiler, author of the memoir Under the Big Top, actually did. Feiler says that he dreamed about circus life as a kid and almost went to the Ringling Brothers’ “Clown College” rather than Yale; his book describes his season touring with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, now the largest tented circus in the world.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.