Minstrel and Traveling Show
Used with the permission of McCain
Library & Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi
second half of the 1800s, the professional business of
entertaining and amusing large audiences for profit emerged in the
United States. Among these entertainments were the circus,
minstrel shows, and traveling variety acts. The circus tradition,
a venue of popular entertainment for more than 4000 years, derives
its name from the Latin word "circulus" meaning circle. The circle
form was the preferred path of racing Roman chariots. The modern
day circus was initiated in 1768, by Philip Astley (1742-1814), an
English equestrian enthusiast and exhibitor. In America, a circus
known as Rickett's opened in Philadelphia as early as 1792, but
the proliferation and popularity of circus entertainment did not
fully manifest until the latter half of the 1800s, with over a
hundred circuses in existence.
The carnival, like the circus, is part
of the outdoor amusement industry; however, the carnival is
distinct from the circus given its most identifiable feature, the
midway. The carnival midway consists of such amusements as
sideshows exhibiting human or animal oddities, games of chance,
tests of skill, rides such as the Ferris wheel and the carousel.
The word "carnival" is derived from the Greek mythological figure
Carneus, god of flocks and herds who oversaw agricultural and
military festivals. Throughout history, a local fair complete with
carnival was deemed a necessary break in the monotony of human
existence. Both of the carnival and the circus survive today as an
enduring form of family entertainment.
The minstrel show dates from 1828,
when Thomas D. Rice created the "Jim Crow" song and dance routine.
The minstrel shows were first performed by white performers in
blackface and entertained by the use of ethnic satire, folk-based
themes and exaggerated distortions of African-American life.
Eventually, black performers replaced white performers in a trend
toward cultural authenticity. The Minstrel show reached the peak
of its popularity between 1850-1870, but shows continued to tour,
primarily in southern states, until the early 1900s.
Traveling shows, or variety acts, had
old world antecedents in entertainment far too numerous to mention
herein. However, the variety show, as the name implies, was
comprised of short acts of various types which showcased singing,
dancing and comic routines with no connected story or unifying
theme. The decline of traveling variety acts by the 1930s is
usually attributed to the advent of radio and a burgeoning movie
and Bailey Circus:
The Barnum and Bailey Circus
(Bridgeport, Connecticut) was founded by Phineas Taylor Barnum
(1810-1891). P.T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut. Barnum's
first circus employment was as a ticket collector for the Aaron
Turner Circus in 1836. A life-long entrepreneur, he ran a museum
in New York specializing in freak shows and is credited for using
a flamboyant style of advertising which contributed to modern day
characterizations of show business. In 1881, he joined with his
competition James Anthony Bailey (1847-1906) to found the Barnum
and Bailey circus, touted as "the Greatest Show on Earth."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and
Bailey Circus (Sarasota, Florida) originated with Charles Ringling
(1863-1926). Ringling was born in McGregor, Iowa, one of seven
sons. The name "Ringling" was an anglicization of the German
family name "Rungeling." Charles, with brothers Otto, Albert C.,
Alfred T., and John, presented their first circus in 1882 at a
hall in Mazonmanie, Wisconsin. In 1884, they launched a traveling
tent circus. By 1905, a series of lucrative business deals enabled
the brothers to absorb some of
their competition, and on July 8, 1907, the Ringling's purchased
their largest competitor, Barnum & Bailey Circus for $410,000
after the death of James A. Bailey. In 1957, economic survival
forced a reorganization and a transition to bookings in permanent
indoor arenas exclusively. In 1967, Irvin Feld purchased the
struggling company from John Ringling North and managed to revamp
the financial viability of the circus. His son, Kenneth assumed
control after his death.
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus (Peru,
Indiana) was named in part for Karl Hagenbach (1844-1913) a
renowned German animal trainer who set a precedent for
rewards-based animal training and provided an alternative to
traditional fear-based training. Originally named Carl Hagenbeck
Circus, it became Hagenbeck-Wallace on January 9, 1907 after many
protracted legal complications including partnership disputes,
failed mergers and defaulted loans. Karl Hagenbach sued against
the use of his name but lost in court. Ben E. Wallace owned and
operated the show until 1913. One of the great circus train wrecks
involved the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus on June 22, 1918. The circus
was a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus subsidiary from
1929 through 1935. In 1935, the show became Hagenbeck-Wallace and
Forepaugh-Sells Bros. Circus. The circus closed in 1938. Clyde
Beatty, renowned American animal trainer, was a Hagenbeck-Wallace
alumni until he left in 1934 to start his own show with the Cole
Cole Bros. Circus:
The Cole Bros. Circus (originally of
Rochester, Indiana) was founded by Martin J. Downs in 1906. Downs
named the circus for W.W. "Chilly Billy" Cole, the first man to
make $1 million in the circus business. In 1939, the Cole Bros.
Circus, was the very last show to abandon the tradition of the
circus street parade. On February 20, 1940, the winter quarters
suffered one of the worst circus fires in history. In 1941, the
company's permanent address was listed as Louisville, KY. Zack
Terrell toured Cole Bros. Circus through 1948, at which time he
sold it to Arthur M. Wirtz and associates. The circus closed on
July 22, 1949.
Barnett Bros. Circus:
The Barnett Bros. Circus was founded
in Canada in 1927. In 1929, the company moved its winter quarters
to York, South Carolina. The Circus was operated for 16 years by
Ray W. Rogers. The show was renamed the Wallace Bros. Circus for
the year of 1937, and the years 1941-1944. Rogers died in 1943,
but the cast and crew merged with Clyde Beatty Circus. In 1944,
remaining equipment was sold to Clyde Beatty and Floyd King.
Clyde Beatty Circus:
The Clyde Beatty Circus was founded by
Clyde Beatty (1903-1965), an animal trainer. He formed his own
circus in 1945 after touring with several circuses including
Hagenbeck-Wallace in his early career. Beatty toured his circus in
conjunction with Russell Brothers Pan-Pacific Circus in 1946, then
decided to open a show under his name only. In 1956, the circus
was sold to the Acme Circus Corporation, and Beatty was hired as a
star attraction. In 1957, the Acme Circus Corporation acquired the
Cole Bros. name and the show became Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros.
Circus. Beatty remained the star of the show until his death in
Royal American Shows:
The Royal American Shows advertised
itself as the "Most Beautiful Show on Earth" with the "World's
Largest Midway." Carl J. Sedlmayr originally acquired this
carnival in 1921 from the Siegrist - Silbon Shows in repayment for
a financial loan. Sedlmayr was the sole owner of the carnival when
he first started using the title Royal American in 1923. He named
his carnival "Royal" for Canada and "American" for the United
States. Two years later, he sold a partnership interest to the
Velare Brothers, and this partnership continued until the early
1940s at which time the union was dissolved and the equipment
divided. Sedlmayr was a partner with Sam Soloman in buying and
operating the Rubin & Cherry Shows for two years. After War II,
Sedlmayr launched the Royal American as his own show without
partners. State fair and festival territorial routes included
Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and
western Canada. Sedlmayr died in 1965. His son and grandson, Carl
J. Sedlmayr, Jr. and Carl J. Sedlmayr, III then handled the
carnival, respectively. Royal American's last show was staged in
Lubbock, Texas in October 1997.
A.G. Allen's Big Minstrel Show:
African-American A.G. Allen's name is
associated with at least two other minstrel shows [A.G.]Allen's
Minstrels (ca. 1900), and [A.G.]Allen's New Orleans Minstrels (ca.
1909). A.G. Allen's Big Minstrel Show stationery letterhead (ca.
1917) contains portraits of two men above a ribbon banner with
names A.G. Allen and George W. Quine respectively. Neither is
black. Permanent address is listed as: Care National Ptg. & Eng.
Co., 1508 Tribune Bldg., Chicago, Illinois.
F.S. Wolcott's A Rabbit's Foot:
The Rabbit's Foot Company (also known
as Rabbit Foot Minstrels) was a long running minstrel and variety
troupe that toured as a tent show between the 1900's and 1940's.
The company was founded, organized, originally owned and managed
by Pat Chappelle, an African-American performer. The company had a
brass band and traveled in its own private railroad car. After
Chappelle's death in 1911, the company was purchased by white
carnival owner, F.S. Wolcott. The company continued under his
management on tour among southern states until the 1940's.
J.W. Johnson's Old Reliable Virginia
Created in 1843, Virginia Minstrels is
recognized as the nation's foremost minstrel troupe for that year.
Although the original troupe dissolved the ensemble during the
first tour abroad, their immense popularity contributed to the
adoption of the "Virginia Minstrels" appellation into many
subsequent troupes such as J.W. Johnson's Old Reliable Virginia
Green River and His Transcontinental
Tributaries (n.d.): No historical information is available for
this show other than the prices of admission, which were 25 cents
for adults and 10 cents for children.
Silas Green (n.d.): Chas. Collier is
listed as the owner. Performers listed were (comedians) Lilas &
Silas, The Gaines Troupe, Charlie Morton, Jr., Cookie Howard the
Used with the permission of McCain
Library & Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi
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