100 Years Ago: The Royal American Shows

1923 was the year that Carl John Sedlmayr (1886-1965) first hung out banners bearing the brand “Royal American Shows”. He had been in the carnival and sideshow business for years by then, first as a ticket seller, then as a sideshow exhibitor. He acquired the Siegrist & Silbon Shows in 1921. It was this outfit that he rebranded “Royal American”.

“The Royal American Shows” were a huge operation, billed (with arguable justification) as “The World’s Largest Midway”. The show moved by rail and had as many as 800 employees at its peak. Its stomping grounds included the American South and Midwest, as well as Western Canada. Like all traveling carnivals it was a sort of “circus without a circus”, consisting of a sideshow, games of chance, amusement park rides, food and souvenir vendors, and outdoor performances. They were often booked at county fairs, but could also set up at fairgrounds and other large fields as a stand-alone event.

We have written about some sideshow performers who worked the Royal American Shows, including Robert Melvin, the Man With Two Faces; and sword swallowers Chester Dolphin, Lucky Ball, and Estelline Pike. More notable to the general public perhaps is the fact that Colonel Tom Parker worked the show from 1931 to 1938, thus learning the showmanship skills that would later help him sell Elvis Presley to the public so successfully. Other notable performers who worked the show included burlesque icons Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand, western star Lash LaRue, and Leon Claxton, producer of the all-black revue Harlem in Havana.

After Sedlmayr‘s death in 1965, his descendants were able to keep the show going for another three decades. Its last run was in Lubbock, Texas in 1997. There is lots of great historical footage of the Royal American Shows on Youtube; I heartily recommend checking it out!