Saturday, July 16, 2016

60 Years After Pittsburgh

July 16, 1956: John Ringling North strikes the big top for the final time in Pittsburgh, PA, citing crippling expenses as the main reason for moving the show into arenas.

July 14, 2016: The Big Apple Circus suspends performances for lack of sufficient non-profit funding to continue.  Maybe, with luck and pluck, Paul Binder and Co. will  give up on the prohibitively expensive 3-month Lincoln Center run, and institute drastic changes leading to a far more cost-effective operation -- and still under a tent.  This is a circus of consistent striving, fair dealing with the public, and high artistic standards.

Did you witness the last performance of Ringling-Barnum under canvas? In fact, were you in this very crowd?

I feel a certain respect for the people sitting there -- the people who believed in the great American circus -- especially the boy looking almost directly at us. (enlarge the photo; he's on the right, three heads above the railing.) He could be me; he could be you. What is he feeling?

Did you watch the big top fall for the last time that sad unforgettable night? Were you a performer in the show? I keep hoping that somebody will come forward. None so far has ...

And if you weren't in Pittsburgh, where were you when you heard the news? I was at home in Santa Rosa, when it flashed across our Dumont TV screen. Perhaps the saddest day in my life....

All memories near and far are welcome on this lot ...

 A newspaper editorial cartoon, 1956

This was first posted a number of years ago. 


Harry Kingston said...

As a young person of 8 I remember reading it in our local paper and creid as I thought the circus as we know it was over.
I have a long time friend who was there with his brother, Mike and Silvius Piccolo who live in Pittsburgh.
Mike told me they were in the cook house visiting Staley and the news men came rushing in and asked Staley for a comment and he did not even know they were closing. Staley had to rush and cancel meat orders from Armor meat in Chicago.
The Piccolo's were at both shows and many tears from alot of folks.
I know John Ringling North II lead the spec for the last time under canvas.
Rudy Bundy was the one appointed to be the one that told all they were out of work. John Ringling North was in his p j's and did not get out of his private railroad car.
I have a Ringling sledge hammer that was used to drive the last stakes in Pittsburgh.
A sad day for us fans.
But the Clyde Beatty Circus and Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros made big money in late 1956.
D. R. Miller told me they made big money and full houses with there Last of the circus see it now or miss it forever.
Harry Kingston
Beaumont, Texas

Showbiz David said...

Thanks for sharing, Harry. JRN II leading the last parade. That's something. Your sleddgehammer is a rare momento, indeed!

I do recall other tent shows making hay of the drama and pulling in big crowds saddened by the fall of the mightly Ringling big top.

Harry Kingston said...

Yes I was very sad to hear of it when I was young and did not know anything.
Mom carried me to the 2pm show in 1955 here in Beaumont.
I wish i had been old enough and go get some of the posters they put up here in town in 1955.
I had to carry a note to school to get out at noon to see the circus.
The folks took me down that morning in 1955 to see all those elephants.
Some in 1956 must have seen the writing on the wall as Merle Evans was not there and he knew something was up.
I heard they blew many a 2:30 opening and everything ran late.
The master of all circus imformation was there at Pittsburgh, the one the only Fred Pfening flew in to see the last performance.
Mr. Fred we all wish you a speedy recovery and we all are pulling for you to get well soon.
Harry Kingston

Jim Royal said...

Yes, JRN II did lead the last spec. At that last show the perfomrance director said "You've got to represent the family" so John rode a horse at the head of spec.

What a sad day that was.

Showbiz David said...

Dear Fred Pfening: I am sorry to have learned just now from Harry's comment here that you are ailing. And wish to add my best wishes for a full and speedy reovery. You ARE the Bandwagon. I well remember and still have the fine story you wrote for the White Tops of that last day in Pittsburgh.

Jack Ryan said...


Wish I could have been at that last under-canvas show. But, then again, I would probably have been so flooded with tears that I could have not see a thing.

Fred Pfening is one of the great American circus historians and a "keeper of the flame." As you said, David, he IS the Bandwagon magazine.

Fred has a had a rough month health-wise. I know that all of us are sending him our positive wishes and kindest thoughts.


Anonymous said...

As a child, I remember the photograph on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post Gaztte. Inside there was a great political cartoon. While in college, I looked it up in the archives on micro film and copied it. Unfortunetly it has since turned yellow and faded away but I still remember the drawing of Uncle Sam hat in hand with a tear in his eye kneeling on a grave with the headstone, Here lies Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus. It still gives me chills even describing it. Perhaps in todays internet archives someone can find a copy of this cartoon.
Denny Gilli

David Carlyon said...

I was a kid and remember reading about it in Life magazine. I had never been to the circus but the article and pictures still made me sad. Even at that young age, I knew I had missed something special.

Harry Kingston said...

A good circus fan friend of mine Mike Piccolo and his brother Silvus was there to witness the end of a era in Pittsburgh in 1956.
They saw both performances and Fred Pfening flew in to see it also.
Mike said he was in the cookhouse talking to Staley when the press came in and said it was the end.
I know this was sad enough to circus fans but just a few weeks ago Mike Piccolo passed and went to the big top in the sky.
Mike and his brother were real circus fans and knew many of the greats.
I sure will miss Mike.
I hope our circuses we like so much survive and go on into the future as what would this old world be without a circus and the joy it brings to us fans.
Harry in Texas