On the Sells-Floto Circus

Having had many an occasion to refer to this organization, and having done posts on many of its rival concerns, today a brief look at the Sells-Floto Circus.

Like all the big American circuses of the late 20th century, Sells-Floto began as a couple of smaller outfits that merged. The Sells Brothers were third generation German-Americans from Columbus, Ohio. The brothers were Ephraim, Peter, Allen and Lewis; a fifth brother had been a casualty of the Civil War. Originally auctioneers, the brothers began to acquire circus assets and hit upon the idea of forming their own show: Sells Brothers’ Quadruple Alliance, Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus. The first iteration was attempted in 1862 but flopped after a few months. They tried again a decade later, and this version was a success, operating as an independent organization into the 1890s.In 1900 it merged with Adam Forepaugh’s show, to become Forepaugh-Sells Brothers Circus.

Meanwhile in Denver an entrepreneurial chap with the unlikely name of Otto Floto started the Floto Dog and Pony Show in 1902. Floto was an interesting guy. Originally from Cincinnati, he was a boxing promoter, sports editor of the Denver Post, and owner/manager of saloons and opera houses. In 1906 he merged his growing show with that of the Sells Brothers, becoming the Sells-Floto Circus, and their new headquarters became Peru Indiana.

Performers with the Sells-Floto show whom we have previously profiled have included sword swallower Mimi Garneu, drag acrobat Berta Beeson, lady lion tamer Mabel Stark, tattooed woman Betty Broadbent, giantess Ella Ewing, and male giant Johan Aasen. Like most major tented circuses of the day, in addition to the big time, the circus had a full-scale sideshow and menagerie. From 1914 to 1915 they toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as a component. In later years, silent movie star Tom Mix toured with the show.

In 1919, the outfit was acquired by the partners Jerry Mugivan and Bert Bowers, owners of Howe’s Great London Show, who had purchased the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus the previous year. In 1921 this organization became the American Circus Corporation, which also gobbled up the Al G. Barnes Circus, The John Robinson Circus, and the Sparks Circus. In 1929, this behemoth was swallowed up by Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey.

To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous