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Advertisement for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1900

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was started when the circus created by James Anthony Bailey and P. T. Barnum was merged with the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Ringling brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907, but ran the circuses separately until they were finally merged in 1919.

P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome

In 1871, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup persuaded Barnum to lend his name and financial backing to the circus they had already created in Delavan, Wisconsinmarker. It was called "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome". The moniker "Greatest show on Earth" was added later.

Cooper and Bailey

James Anthony Bailey had teamed with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s. Bailey's circus was soon Barnum's chief competitor. He also exhibited "Little Columbia," the first baby elephant ever born in an American circus.

Cooper and Bailey merges with Barnum

Barnum wanted to buy the elephant, but Bailey turned him down. Instead of continuing as competitors, each man recognized the showmanship of the other, and decided to combine their shows in 1881. In 1882, the combined show enjoyed great success with acts such as Jumbo, advertised as the world's largest elephant. Barnum died in 1891 and Bailey then purchased the circus from his widow. He ran many successful tours through the eastern United States until he took his circus to Europe. Starting on December 27, 1897, he began a tour across the continent that lasted through 1902.

Bailey's European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest through the eastern seaboard. Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rockies for the first time in 1905. He died the next year and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers a year later.

The Ringling brothers

Five of the seven Ringling brothers started a small circus in 1884, about the same time that Barnum & Bailey were at the peak of their popularity. Similar to dozens of small circuses that toured the Midwest and the Northeast at the time, the Ringlings moved their circus from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans. Their circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train, which enabled them to create the largest traveling show of their time.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus merger

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and ran the circuses separately until 1919. By that time, Charles Edward Ringling and John Nicholas Ringling were the only remaining Ringling brothers of the five who founded the circus. They decided that it was too difficult to run the two circuses independently, so on March 29, 1919, "Ringling Bros. and "Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" debuted at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The posters declared, "The Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions." Charles Edward Ringling died in 1926. The circus was a success through the Roaring 20s.

American Circus Corporation

In 1929 the American Circus Corporation signed a contract to perform in New York's Madison Square Gardenmarker. John Nicholas Ringling purchased American Circus for $1.7 million. That absorbed five major shows:Sells-Floto Circus, Al G. Barnes Circus, Sparks Circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and John Robinson Circus.

Frank Buck

In 1938, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made Frank Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their star attraction and to enter the show astride an elephant. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors, stating that he was "a scientist, not an actor." Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that he would not compromise his principles, saying, "Don't get me wrong. I'm with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself. And my heart is with the fellow who works. But I don't want some --- union delegate telling me when to get on and off an elephant." Eventually, the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla without registering as an actor.


The circus suffered during the 1930s because of the Great Depression, but managed to stay in business. John Nicholas Ringling's nephew, John Ringling North, managed the circus through these difficult times for several decades. Special dispensation was given to the circus by President Roosevelt to use the rails to operate in 1942, in spite of travel restrictions imposed as a result of World War II. A new marketing poster was also released that year which depicted a circus tiger threatening the viewer of the poster.

The Hartford Circus Fire

The Hartford Circus Firemarker, occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticutmarker, and was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. The fire occurred during an afternoon performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people. Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown, threw a bucket of water at the burning canvas tent in a futile effort to put the fire out.

More than 100 people were killed. The great irony of the fire was that the performance took place under canvas. Had the crowd realized it, safety was no farther away than ducking out under the sidewalls of the tent. Some of the dead remain unidentified to this day, even with modern DNA techniques.

One fact that came out in the investigation into the tragedy was that the tent had not been fireproofed. Ringling Bros.' had applied to the Army, which had an absolute priority on the material, for enough fireproofing liquid to treat their Big Top. The Army had refused to release it to them. The circus' management was found to be negligent and several Ringling executives served sentences in jail in connection with the Hartford Circus Fire.

Many claims were brought against The Greatest Show on Earth in connection with the fire. Ringling Bros.' set aside all their profits for the next ten years to pay off these claims and paid off every claim in full.

Continued decline

The post-war prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the nation was not shared by the circus as crowds dwindled and costs increased. Public tastes, influenced by the movies and television, abandoned the circus which gave its last performance under the big top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker on July 16, 1956. An article in LIFE magazine said that "a magical era had passed forever".

Feld family

Irvin Feld and his brother Israel Feld had already made a name for themselves producing touring rock 'n roll shows. In 1957, John Ringling North and Arthur Concello moved the circus from a tent show to an indoor operation, Irvin Feld was one of several promoters hired to work the advance for select dates, most in the Detroit and Philadelphia areas.

In the fall of 1967, Irving Feld, his brother Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz of Texas, together with backing from Richard C. Blum the founder of Blum Capital, bought the company outright from North and the Ringling family interests for $8 million.

He immediately began making other changes to improve the quality and profitability of the show. In 1968, realizing there were only 14 professional clowns remaining in the show — and that many of them were in their 50s — he established the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

The next year, he split the show into two touring units, a "Red Tour" and a "Blue Tour" which could tour the country independently. They could also offer differing slates of acts and show themes, enabling circus-goers to view both tours where possible.

In 1970, Feld's only son, Kenneth, joined the company and became a co-producer of the shows. The circus was sold to the Mattel company in 1971 for $40 million, but the Feld family retained production control. They bought it back in 1982. Irvin Feld died in 1984 and the company has since been run by Kenneth.

Clair George has testified in court that he worked as a consultant in the early 1990s for Kenneth Feld and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus where he was involved in the surveillance of Jan Pottker (a journalist who was writing about the Feld family) and of various animal rights groups such as PETA.

In 1996, Feld Entertainment was created as the parent company of the circus, as well as a skating-themed sister show, Disney on Ice. The company also produces several large-scale Broadwaymarker and Las Vegasmarker productions.

Circus trains

Currently, the circus maintains two circus train-based shows, the Blue Tour and the Red Tour, as well as the truck-based Gold Tour. Each train is a mile long with roughly 60 cars: 40 passenger cars and 20 freight. The Blue and Red Tours present a full three-ring production for two years each (taking the month of December off), visiting alternating major cities each year. Each train presents a different "edition" of the show, using a numbering scheme that dates back to circus origins in 1871—the first year of P.T. Barnum's show. The Blue Tour presents the even-numbered editions on a two-year tour (beginning each even-numbered year), and the Red Tour presents the odd-numbered editions on the same two-year tour (beginning each odd-numbered year). The Gold Tour presents a scaled-back, single-ring version of the show, designed to serve smaller markets deemed incapable of supporting the three-ring versions.

The 2009 139th edition Red Tour is entitled "Zing, Zang, Zoom." It features illusions including a disappearing elephant. However, the Red Tour will no longer feature Bello Nock. Although both are credited for production of the show, the Red Tour is mainly under the control of Kenneth Feld while his daughter Nicole controls the Blue Tour.

Animal care

The circus emphasizes that the utmost care is given to the animals' health and welfare. The circus believes that promoting human-animal interaction is vital to increasing public awareness of the need to protect and preserve animal species. They state "Captive animals play an important role as Ambassadors – teaching people about the animals’ needs and challenges and about our responsibility to ensure their future survival." Circus owner Feld Entertainment states that they meet all requirements for zoos and circuses for animal welfare., however routine US Department of Agriculture Inspection Reports indicate numerous instances of non-compliance with the Animal Welfare Act including inappropriate housing, poor sanitation, animal escapes, inaccurate record keeping, failure to properly protect the public from wild animals, causing physical harm and behavioral stress to animals, and other non-compliant items.

In 1995, the circus opened the Center for Elephant Conservationmarker in Floridamarker for the breeding, research, and retirement of its Asian Elephant herd. All dogs in the shows are from animal shelters or rescued from poor living conditions. The circus participates in breeding programs for endangered species used in the shows including the Bengal tiger and elephant. The tiger population is retired to Big Cat Rescue.

Many animal welfare and animal rights organizations, such as PETA, are opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses. The animal rights groups also oppose the use of domestic animals, such as horses or dogs, in circuses. Many of these groups actively campaign against circuses by staging protests to promote their position and to urge circus-goers to boycott Ringling and other circuses and to patronize only animal-free circuses. The groups allege that animals used in the circus are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment during training, harsh conditions during transport, and a general lack of mental and physical stimulation. In July, 2009, PETA released video footage allegedly depicting Ringling employees striking elephants on the head, face, ears, trunk and legs with bullhooks. Based on its investigation, the organization has filed a complaint with the USDAmarker.

Several animal rights groups have filed a lawsuit against Ringling Brothers claiming that the circus’ treatment of elephants violates the US Endangered Species Act. In testimony in U.S. District Court, CEO Kenneth Feld acknowledged that elephants are struck behind the ears, under the chin and on their legs with metal tipped prods, called bull hooks. Feld stated that these practices are necessary to protect circus workers. Feld also acknowledged that an elephant trainer was reprimanded for using an electric shock device, known as a hot shot or electric prod, on an elephant, which Feld also stated was appropriate practice. Feld denied that any of these practices harm elephants.

Ringling Brothers circus was investigated following the death of a lion who died from heat and lack of water while the circus train was travelling through the desert. In 1998, the USDAmarker filed charges against Ringling Brothers for forcing a sick elephant to perform. Ringling paid a $20,000 fine to settle the matter. The USDA also investigated the death of Benjamin, a four-year-old Asian elephant who drowned in a pond in Texas.


The circus went under various names as new investors joined
  • P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello, proprietors (1871)
  • P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling World's Fair; The Greatest Shows On Earth; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup, Dan Castello and S. H. Hurd, proprietors
  • P. T. Barnum's Great Roman Hippodrome; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup, Dan Castello and S. H. Hurd, proprietors
  • P. T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth; P. T. Barnum, John J. Nathans, George F. Bailey and Lewis June, proprietors (and Avery Smith for part of 1876 only)
  • Barnum & Bailey Circus; James Anthony Bailey (1891)
  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus


A scene from "Over The Top"
The Torres family performing in "Over The Top"


Year Edition Unit Ringmaster
1871–1878 1st-8th P.T. Barnum Dan Castello
1879–1881 9th-11th P.T. Barnum James Cook
1882–1883 12th-13th Barnum & London R. H. Dockrill
1884–1989 14th-19th Barnum & London R. H. Dockrill
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1890–1891 20th-21st Barnum & Bailey William Ducrow
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1892–1894 22nd-24th Barnum & Bailey R. H. Dockrill
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1895 25th Barnum & Bailey John O'Brien
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1896–1902 26th-32nd Barnum & Bailey William Ducrow
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1903–1904 33rd-34th Barnum & Bailey Frank Melville
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1905 35th Barnum & Bailey R. H. Dockrill
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1906 36th Barnum & Bailey William Ducrow
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1907 37th Barnum & Bailey William Ducrow
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1908 38th Barnum & Bailey Edward Shipp
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1909 39th Barnum & Bailey Edward Shipp
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1910 40th Barnum & Bailey Edward Shipp
Ringling Bros. William Gorman
1911 41st Barnum & Bailey William Gorman
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1912 42nd Barnum & Bailey William Gorman
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1913–1915 43rd-45th Barnum & Bailey Fred Bradna
Ringling Bros. Al Ringling
1916–1918 46th-48th Barnum & Bailey Fred Bradna
Ringling Bros. John Agee
1919 -1946 49th-76th   Fred Bradna
1947–1948 77th-78th   Arthur Springer
1949 79th   Harry Thomas
1950 80th   David Murphy
1951–1955 81st-85th   Count Nicholas
1956 86th   Preston Lambert
1957 87th   Harold Ronk
1958 88th   Don Forbes
1959 89th   George Michel
1960–1968 90th-98th   Harold Ronk
1969 -1972 98th-102nd Blue Harold Ronk
Red Bob Welz
1973 102nd Blue Tim Holst
103rd Red Bob Welz
1974 104th Blue Harold Ronk
103rd Red Tim Holst
1975 104th Blue Harold Ronk
105th Red Tim Holst
1976 106th Blue Harold Ronk
105th Red Tim Holst
1977 106th Blue Bill Witter
107th Red Kit Haskett
1978 108th Blue Harold Ronk
107th Red Kit Haskett
1979 108th Blue Harold Ronk
109th Red Kit Haskett
1980 110th Blue Harold Ronk
109th Red Kit Haskett
1981 110th Blue Lawrence Kelly
111th Red Kit Haskett
1982 112th Blue Dinny McGuire
111th Red Kit Haskett
1983–1985 112th-115th Blue Jim Ragona
Red Dinny McGuire
1986 116th Blue Jim Ragona
115th Red Kristopher Antekeier
1987 116th Blue Jim Ragona
117th Red Kristopher Antekeier
1988–1994 118th-124th Blue Jim Ragona
Red Eric Michael Gillett
1995–1997 124th-127th Blue Dinny McGuire
Red Eric Michael Gillett
1998 128th Blue Jim RagonaFirst Latin Ring MasterSpanish Shows Roberto Miquel
127th Red Robert TullyRoberto Miquel
1999 128th Blue Jim Ragona/David Alan MarshallRoberto Miquel
129th Red Johnathan Lee IversonRoberto MIquel
2000 130th Blue Michael James McGowanRoberto Miquel
129th Red Johnathan Lee IversonRoberto Miquel
2001 130th Blue Kevin VenardosRoberto Miquel
131st Red Johnathan Lee IversonRoberto Miquel
2002 132nd Blue Kevin VenardosRoberto Miquel
131st Red Johnathan Lee IversonRoberto Miquel
2003 132nd Blue Kevin VenardosRoberto Miquel
133rd Red Johnathan Lee IversonRoberto Miquel
2004 134th Blue Kevin Venardos
133rd Red Johnathan Lee IversonRoberto Miquel
2005 134th Blue Kevin Venardos
135th Red Tyron McFarlan
2006 136th Blue Chuck Wagner
135th Red Tyron McFarlan
2008 141st Gold --
138th Blue Chuck Wagner
139th Red Alex Ramon


  1. In 1907, the Ringling Brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey circus, but continued to operate the two circuses separately.
  2. In 1919, the circuses were combined to form a single circus.
  3. In 1969, the circuses were split into two units that tour eleven months every year for two years. The Blue unit has the even-numbered editions and the Red unit has the odd-numbered editions.

See also

Barnum & Bailey greatest show on Earth poster

External links


  1. Richard Blum: The man behind URS, next to Sen. Feinstein San Francisco Chronicle, 2003
  2. The town without a zipcode

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