History of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® -- THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH®!
As much a part of American culture as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie! Some say it began
on April 3, 1793, when John Bill Ricketts gave the first circus performance in
Philadelphia. Some say it began on July 5, 1810, when P.T. Barnum was born in Bethel,
Connecticut. Still others say it began on March 29, 1919, when the first performance of
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® was held in New York City's Madison Square
But for everyone at THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH®, the real beginning is that moment when
the lights go down and the show is just about to start. Anticipation! Expectation! And
before long, everyone in the audience has begun his or her own personal history with one
of the most unique entertainment forms mankind has known: the circus.
But not just any circus: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®! THE GREATEST SHOW ON
EARTH® is one of a kind, and experiencing the show has been a family tradition for 130
There is no proof that Phineas Taylor Barnum ever said "there's a sucker born every
minute." He did, however, say that "every crowd has a silver lining," and
acknowledged that "the public is wiser than many imagine." In his 80 years,
Barnum gave the wise public of the 19th century shameless hucksterism, peerless spectacle,
and everything in between -- enough entertainment to earn the title "master
showman" a dozen times over. In choosing Barnum as one of the 100 most important
people of the millenium, Life magazine recently dubbed him "the patron saint of
Barnum was born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut. The oldest of five children, he
showed his flair for salesmanship at an early age, selling lottery tickets when he was
just 12 years old.
When he was 25, Barnum paid $1,000 to obtain Joice Heth, a woman who claimed to be 161
years old and the nurse of George Washington. "Unquestionably the most astonishing
and interesting curiosity in the world!" read one of Barnum's handbills. Barnum
exhibited her in New York and New England, raking in about $1,500 per week.
In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder's American Museum on Broadway in New York City. He
exhibited "500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the
globe," and kept traffic moving through the museum with a sign that read, "This
way to the egress" -- "egress" was another word for exit, and Barnum's
patrons would have to pay another quarter to reenter the Museum! A year later, he
exhibited "The Feejee Mermaid," ostensibly an embalmed mermaid purchased near
Calcutta by a Boston seaman. Belief in the mermaid's authenticity was mixed, but nobody
doubted Barnum's ability to capture the imagination of the public.
Later in 1842, Barnum hired Charles Stratton, who became world-famous as General Tom
Thumb. The two became close friends, and so successsful that, in 1844, they had an
audience in England with Queen Victoria.
While Barnum's name will forever be connected with the great American circus, it is often
said that his greatest success came in 1850, when he presented European opera star Jenny
Lind to the American public. "The Swedish Nightingale" sang 95 concerts for
Barnum. In 1854, Barnum wrote and published his autobiography: The Life Of P.T. Barnum,
Written By Himself. Sixteen years later, his association with the entertainment form that
still bears his name would begin.
Following the death of P.T. Barnum in 1891, James A. Bailey carried the Barnum &
Bailey Circus to new heights of popularity. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH® rode the rails on
85 railroad cars, employed more than 1,000 people, and consisted of five rings and stages,
plus the largest traveling menagerie anywhere! Meanwhile, as the 19th century was coming
to a close, the Ringling brothers of Baraboo, Wisconsin, were building a reputation of
their own. Beginning their tented circus in 1884, Alf T. Ringling, Al Ringling, Charles
Ringling, John Ringling, and Otto Ringling soon became known as Kings Of The Circus World.
A sixth brother, Henry Ringling, joined the show in 1886.
By 1887, the Ringling brothers' show was growing. The official title was Ringling Bros.
United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and
Congress of Trained Animals.
In 1889 the seventh Ringling brother, A.G. "Gus" Ringling, joined the show,
which now had a seating capacity of about 4,000 as it played cities and towns in Wisconsin
and Illinois. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. The year also
marked a first for the Ringlings, as they took to the rails, becoming the 12th such circus
to do so.
As time went on, the Ringlings' show grew bigger, and a series of business deals enabled
them to absorb some of their competition. In 1905, James A. Bailey sold the Ringlings 50
percent interest in his Forepaugh-Sells Bros. Circus; Bailey died in the spring of 1906,
and the Ringlings subsequently purchased the other 50 percent from his widow for $100,000.
In 1907, the Ringlings finally purchased their largest competitor -- Barnum & Bailey
Circus -- after more than a year of discussion and negotiation. Interestingly, the
Ringlings were split in their opinions as to whether the purchase ought to have happened:
Otto and John wanted the deal to happen, while Al, Charles, and Alf T. needed to be
convinced. On July 8, 1907, the deal went through and THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH® became
the property of the Ringlings for a price of $400,000.
The Ringlings shared the public's respect for the Barnum & Bailey name, and toured the
two shows separately until 1919. That year, due to wartime conditions that included labor
shortages and rail travel problems, the Ringlings merged the two great entities. The
result, consisting of 100 double-length railroad cars and 1,200 employees, was arguably
the largest traveling amusement enterprise up to that time: Ringling Bros. and Barnum
& Bailey® Combined Shows, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH®. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH®
was becoming truly legendary, but none of John Ringling's six brothers lived to see what
was perhaps his greatest business triumph. In 1929, reacting to the fact that his
competitor, the American Circus Corporation, had signed a contract to perform in New
York's Madison Square Garden, Ringling purchased American Circus for $1.7-million. In one
fell swoop, Ringling had absorbed five major shows: Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes, Sparks,
Hagenbeck-Wallace, and John Robinson.
By the time John Ringling died in 1936, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus
had become deeply ingrained into the American tradition and consciousness. John Ringling
North, an executor of his uncle's estate, became president of the show in 1937, a position
he held until 1943 when his cousin, Robert, became president. John took the position once
again in 1947.
Times, and the public's taste, were changing, and the circus had problems keeping pace. On
July 16, 1956, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the financially troubled Ringling Bros. and
Barnum & Bailey® gave its last performance under the big top. John Ringling North
commented that "the tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of
the past." Life magazine wrote that "a magical era had passed forever."
Before long, though, the magic would return.
Later that year, Irvin Feld would save Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® from
oblivion by masterminding its transition from tents to arenas, his vision and creativity
ushering in a new era of entertainment. Feld not only restored Ringling Bros. and Barnum
& Bailey® to its former glory, but set the stage for THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH to
reach new heights of excellence!
Following the July 16, 1956, performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH® under the direction of John
Ringling North ceased operation. Media around the world mourned, but one man believed in
The Greatest Show On Earth® and was clever enough to know exactly how to preserve this
Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel, had made their mark as pioneers in the burgeoning rock
'n' roll concert tour business. They were familiar with the new arenas that were springing
up like mushrooms in cities all across America. Feld suggested THE GREATEST SHOW ON
EARTH® become an exclusively indoor presentation. On April 3, 1957, the new tour was put
into effect with Feld in charge of booking and promotion.
Irvin Feld had always wanted to own Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® and thus have
control over all aspects of the show, including production. On November 11, 1967, his
dream became reality as the Feld family purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®
from John Ringling North. As befits THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH®, the contract was signed
during a ceremony at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy!
Irvin Feld effected change quickly, and ushered in the modern-day era of circus in
America. Within two years, he created a second unit of Ringling Bros. equal in size,
scope, and quality to the first. Through an unprecedented circus purchase of $2-million,
Feld secured the talents of German animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Willams, who quickly
became a living circus legend known worldwide. In 1968, Feld also created Ringling Bros.
and Barnum & Bailey® Clown College to preserve the ancient and honorable art of
Ever the astute promoter, Irvin Feld designed a new two-year tour system for Ringling
Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®. He also utilized with great effect national advertising
campaigns, national television specials, and creative public relations, thus bringing the
once-declining Ringling Bros. back to its rightful place as a premier American art form,
and inclining Time magazine to refer to him as "The Greatest Showman On Earth."
In 1970, Feld's only son, Kenneth, joined Ringling Bros. and learned the craft of
production from the master, his father. Confident in his son's abilities, Irvin Feld made
Kenneth Feld a co-producer in 1973.
After a brief ownership by Mattel, the Feld family reacquired Ringling Bros. and Barnum
& Bailey® on March 17, 1982. When Irvin Feld suddenly died on September 6, 1984,
Kenneth Feld immediately stepped in to assume control and sustain, if not surpass, the
level of entertainment excellence set forth by his father and other legendary showmen
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