John Robinson and His Circus

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Today is the birthday of the great circus impresario John Robinson (1807-1888). Those dates are a matter of controversy (some give as early as 1802) as is the place of his birth a matter of contention (claims have been made for numerous towns in upstate New York and even South Carolina).

Having run off to perform with wagon shows when still a boy, by the early 1830s Robinson begins to show up in programs and showbills as a stiltwalker and equestrian (capable of riding 3 or 4 horses simultaneously). In 1842 he founded his famous circus, which was to be one of the biggest and most successful in the nation. Robinson was said to be physically gigantic, blunt and hot-tempered: capable of killing a horse with his fist. In 1866 his show was attacked by a crew of local thugs; in the melee, two of his sons were badly injured and his nephew killed. The phrase “give ’em a John Robinson” became circus slang for a while. A “John Robinson” is a short show with acts cut at the last minute so the circus can close down early for whatever reason, a brewing storm, a long jump to another town — or rumors of trouble with local roughnecks.

After “Old John’s” death in 1888, two succeeding generations of John Robinson’s ran the circus before selling it to the American Circus Corporation in 1916, which continued to operate it under the “John Robinson” brand. It wasn’t until 1929, when Ringling Brothers bought up the American Circus Corporation that the John Robinson show as such (along with many others: Sells-Floto, Hagenbeck-Wallace, Al G. Barnes) ceased to exist.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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