From the first year posting ...
Rechanneling the Ringlings: Part One of Two
In the beginning, the word was Ringling
And the word multiplied by five to produce the brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin who formed an unwritten pact to start a circus. They argued loudly in private over business matters, took votes, accepted the majority will and reentered the public sphere with placid lockstep. They were the force.
Were there unspoken alliances between any of them? Al and Charles, the two most loved of the brothers, shared an affinity for opera. Intellectual Alf T. was at home with either.
That leaves us with two oddballs: Lackluster Otto, a loner who handled the finances and read books, and unlike the other four never married; and the egotistically flamboyant, deal-making John. It made perfect sense that when the brothers bought Barnum & Bailey in 1908, Al and Charlie ran the Ringling show, Otto and Alf T., Barnum & Bailey. John went ahead as general routing agent, a job in which he excelled.
John versus Charles — A Schism is Born
By the mid 1920s, only two of the founding five remained — John and Charles They shared circus power with a mutual if uneasy working respect.
Mostly, Charles spent a lot of time trying to keep up with his brother John’s epic lifestyle. After Charles died in 1926, John alone ruled the big top, and he ruled it recklessly, even though he only held roughly one-third of the stock.. Any of the other brothers alone would likely have done a better job.
John lost control of the circus in 1932. His nephew, John Ringling North, recaptured family control five years later and set out to revolutionize three-ring showmanship with unstinting talent and splendor.
Self-patterned after his worldly uncle John, North was one of a kind. His better-liked brother, Henry, filled the Charles Ringling mold. And Henry bore a son, John Ringling North II.
John North versus Robert Ringling
Enter a woman of inherited power who would cast a long shadow over the Ringling family wars — indeed, a shadow that reverberates today: Edith Ringling, wife of the late Charles. A robust school teacher by day, Edith resented John Ringling’s dominant ways when only he and Charles remained, and so she pushed her husband to assert his rightful place as a co-owner.
Into the 1940s, with her husband long-gone and her son, Robert, hitting the skids off a mediocre opera career (many of the Ringlings longed not to be circus Ringlings at all), Edith pushed Robert to make a grab for circus power and depose John Ringling North, whose high-flying showmanship did not impress the traditionalist minded Edith. So what if Charles was gone.
Edith had inherited his share of the stock, and she was not about to go gently into the night off a red-light caboose. Her blood now boiled at the sight of John North, who reminded her too much of his late uncle, John. Popcorn or soda pop anyone?
Next: How a Feld Becomes a Ringling
first posted April 16, 2007