Who Were the Ringling Brothers?


I’ve wanted to do a post on the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus for a while, mostly because I want to be clear. I have a disconcerting tendency (as I’m sure almost everybody does) to abbreviate the name of the current organization (Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey) to “Ringling Brothers”…which doesn’t do much justice to Messers Barnum or Bailey. The present reality is the outcome of a long period of mergers and acquisitions, a consolidation of the industry not unlike that which happened in vaudeville and has been known to happen in nearly every type of large scale American business. The merging of the top circuses was seismic to a degree rarely experienced in other industries though…the joining of Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey was sort of like how it would be if we suddenly found ourselves confronted with the “Coke-Pepsi Beverage Corporation”. And yet to this day, the coveted monopoly eludes them. There are still at least a dozen old time circuses under canvas crisscrossing the nation to this day: friend Dawn Rogola traveled with many of them and documented them in photographs as you’ll see here.

Still RBBB remains king. You could easily fill a book telling their story. I’ll just give you the facts in thumbnail form.

* The Ringling Brothers’ actual name was originally Rungeling. The gentlemen were of German extraction.

* They were from Baraboo Wisconsin, which is why that town remains a great circus center, and home of the Circus World Museum

* While there seven Ringling Brothers and one Ringling sister, only five of the brothers went into the circus business: Al (1852-1916), Otto (1858-1911), Alf (1861-1919), Charles (1863-1926), and John (1866-1936).


* The brothers were inspired to start a circus when they attended Dan Rice’s show in McGregor, Iowa as children in 1870. (They’d gotten some Annie Oakleys because their father, a harness maker, had done some work for the show). They immediately set about the task of teaching themselves skills: Al became a juggler, John a clown and the others musicians. They continued to apply themselves, and remarkably by 1875 they were filling seats in theatres. The concern continued to grow thereafter.

* In 1884 they merged with Yankee Robinson, expanding the size of their organization.

* In 1889, they began to move the show by rail rather than wagons.


* It wasn’t until 1919 that Ringling Bros merged with Barnum and Bailey (which itself represented the merger of two great circuses, Barnum’s and Bailey’s, which had come together in the 1880s). Other great merged circus organizations included Hagenbeck-Wallace, Sells-Floto, and Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers.


* The last of the original brothers, John, died in 1936. Control then went to his nephew, John Ringling North. North managed to keep the show alive through the Great Depression, World War Two (when use of the railways was restricted), and the horrible Hartford circus fire in 1944. He was also boss when Cecil B. Demille made the circus the star of his film The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and oversaw the transition of the show from a tented spectacle to one that took place in large civic arenas in 1957.

* In 1967, the circus was purchased by promoter Irvin Feld. The organization was ailing at that point; only the buy-out and the aggressive modern corporate business practices of Feld and his son Kenneth (the current boss) have kept it alive. Among Feld’s contributions were the creation of the Clown College (whose positive legacy has extended far beyond the RBBB organization), and the division of the show into the Red and Blue touring units. I’m not always happy with the aesthetics of the contemporary show, but I’m sure glad it still exists, maintaining a tradition that extends all the way back to the beginning of show business. (Postscript: this last sentence, written in 2013, is obviously moot now. For my two part eulogy on the now defunct organization, go here and here.)

To find out more about show biz past and present (including circus) consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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