The five brothers of a German immigrant to the U.S. opened their first circus show on this day in 1884. That first show was held in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and all the brothers had at that point was their own musical and dance talents, a traveling wagon, a rented horse, and a contract with a showman/announcer named “Yankee” Robinson.
The brothers worked hard to advertise their circus and plan routes through towns that other circuses skipped over. That is probably why this particular circus was able to grow and grow until it was close in size to the most successful circus, the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
While they were still growing, the last two of their brothers joined with the show. By the 1900s, the Ringling Brothers began to buy other, smaller circuses, and when James Bailey died, they even bought Barnum and Bailey.
By the 1910s, the brothers' circus had more than 1,000 employees, 335 horses, 26 elephants, 16 camels, and many other assorted animals—all of which traveled on 92 railcars!
What makes a circus a circus?
When the Ringling Brothers first started their circus, it was more of a singing-dancing show—what we would call a vaudeville act—than what we think of when we say circus. They soon acquired animals and taught them tricks, however, and later hired circus-y performers like acrobats and clowns. It is those three things—animal trick acts, clowns, and acrobats—that defines circus for us. We often think of a circus as a traveling show, with temporary “buildings” that are really gigantic tents (called the big top), circus wagons, and circus trains.
The word circus is Latin for “circle” or “ring”—and this refers to the circular or oval area in which the Ancient Roman entertainments were held, surrounded by rows of seats for spectators. However, the Roman entertainments tended to be bloody and the audiences bloodthirsty. Gladiators would often fight wild animals or each other to the death! Thank goodness, these days it's only death-defying tricks we see and applaud, and not death itself!
Surf the Circus Web!
At Newton's Apple, there is a video and lesson about tightrope walkers.
At The Kidz Page, there is a circus-juggler jigsaw puzzle.
Craft Jr. features circus coloring pages, box, animal masks, and more! Really colorful and fun stuff!
Celebrate Circus Day!
- Go to a circus.
- Read about a circus—perhaps Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Circus.
- Watch Walt Disney's Dumbo.
- Put a line of masking tape on the floor—then walk the tightrope!
- Do some clown face painting. Remember, clown expressions can be happy or sad, but they must be exaggerated—really, really happy, or completely sad!
Here is a recipe for clown makeup.