Circus, Minstrel and Traveling Show

Used with the permission of McCain Library & Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi


Biographical/Historical Sketch:


In the 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 industry.


Barnum 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 Circus:


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.


Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus:


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 Bros. Circus.


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 1965.


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 Minstrels:


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 Minstrels.


Traveling Shows:


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 Girl


Used with the permission of McCain Library & Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi


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