Saturday, March 09, 2013

Barnum & Bailey & Magic: When the American Circus Scene Dazzled, Awed, and Astounded with its Vast Variety of Attractions

At no extra charge, patrons toured state-of-the-art illusions under a black tent in 1889. 

Reading through John. F. Polacsek's wonderful article in Bandwagon, "Magic Under the Barnum & Bailey Big Top," I was struck, as if by retro revelation, by the multitude of attractions our American big tops once offered the public in their competitive quest to fill up the huge tents during the halcyon days.

In 1889, a Strobridge lithograph promised "40 supernatural illusions."  These appeared in a black tent.  Add to that a menagerie and, of course, the three-ring big show under the biggest tent of all.

Quoting Polacsek's most captivating statement: "Breaking new ground and providing multiple venues for magic on the circus brought new dimensions to the 1889 Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It took only one ticket to see 'Acres of canvas, Three Colossal Circuses, a Wild Moorish Caravan, a Paris Olympic Hippodrome, and immense Double Menagerie, a Magnificent Horse Fair, a Gigantic Marvel Museum, and a Wonderful Black Tent Illusion'."

Fast forward a hundred plus years. At its most minimal, today an American circus may offer you some fine jugglers, acrobats, maybe an aerialist or two. Perhaps even a bouncy dog act.  Yes?  No?

Which is not to say the shows today do not hold their own.  Some of them do, for sure.  Think Big Apple. Think Ringling, for examples.  But, but ... what once was the circus in this country truly deserved the title The Greatest Show on Earth.

Talk about a gigantic entertainment bargain!  Yes, this Barnum & Bailey showmanship blitz was an exception, one might argue. But in its expansive essence, it epitomized, I believe, what we have been shrinking down and away from, season by paltry season: that vast variety from long ago of fascinating things to behold in a number of venues, loosely connected under the words "magic" and "exotic" and "incredible."  Even "shocking."

The once great circus in America.

[Bandwagon photos. Sorry, my scanner must be dying out on me]

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