Born 200 years ago today: one horse circus pioneer, impresario, clown, comedian and star Dan Rice (1823-1900)
Dan Rice was one of the most important show business figures of the 19th century, up there with P.T. Barnum, Tony Pastor, and Harrigan and Hart. Many people aver that he was the visual model for Uncle Sam. Technically, he was a circus clown, but back in those nebulous days, with no textbook definition about what such a thing was supposed to be, circus clowns could TALK. And Rice did. It was his whole bag. In many ways you could say he was the fore-runner of stand-up comedians, or at the very least, folksy monologists like Will Rogers.
But don’t believe me, believe the world’s foremost Dan Rice expert David Carlyon, author of the indispensable biography Dan Rice: The Most Famous You’ve Never Heard Of . It just so happens that David is one of Travalanche’s biggest supporters, inner circle, if you will, and he very generously consented to write a guest post to mark this important day in show business history (whether the public knows it as such or not). I turn you now over to David’s learned reflections:
Dan Rice: The Man Who Made Circus Famous
Dan Rice was the American colossus of roads and rivers. Born on this day in 1823, he played to thousands at a time throughout the United States, summers in large tents and winters in major theaters from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia to Cincinnati and New Orleans. Though theater and minstrelsy have been studied more, more people attended—and attended to—circus, with Rice its shining star.
To recognize his enormous stature over decades requires reconsideration of antebellum circus. Though the Gilded Age would invent a new narrative of circus as children’s amusement, with clowns as their special favorite, circus boomed long before that as robust adult fare. It boomed in and with the booming public participation of the Jacksonian era, thanks to its innovations in the 1820s: bareback riding that turned tame feats dangerous, and more exciting; the mobile tent that enabled troupes to go wherever the population spread; and the clown’s new defiance of the ring master that matched growing American defiance of elites. Later nonsense labeled Rice a “lovable” clown—a Gilded Age cliché that persists—but he was notoriously feisty, brawling, feuding, fighting lawsuits, and dodging arrest. So to call him a clown is both accurate and wildly misleading. He was what the era called a talking clown, telling jokes, commenting on current events—his “hits on the times,” and challenging hecklers. A modern comparison combines the carefully calibrated lines of a standup comedian, the dive into politics of a podcast star, and the honed skill of a rapper’s interaction with lively fans. Gifted with comic genius, Rice was the country’s most celebrated circus performer of the century. And thanks to decades of daily appearances in tents and theaters seating thousands, he was almost certainly seen by more people than any other public figure in the antebellum United States.
Beyond popularity, a case can be made that Dan Rice was not simply famous himself but made American circus famous.
The high points of his career—some even accurate—are familiar to many who know circus history. Probably born McLaren, Dan likely borrowed his performance name from the blackface comedian T. D. “Jump Jim Crow” Rice—and though T. D. has been studied more extensively, Dan exceeded his namesake’s fame. He probably started in the show business with a “Learned Pig.” The first use of “Rice” in his own hand appeared in 1843 in a letter boasting of “going it with a perfect rush” to his pal Morrison Foster, Stephen Foster’s brother. By 1851 he had become a savvy enough showman to compete for audiences against Barnum and Jenny Lind. Three months before the feud between the great American actor Edwin Forrest and the British star William Macready erupted in the deadly Astor Place Riot in May 1849, the Spirit of the Times deemed Rice the “Macready of the circle,” the “pure American clown,” the “reading, not acting edition of the clown.” In 1856 Walt Whitman praised his circus under a hot tent in Brooklyn, while urging Rice, as someone who “amuses a million persons a year, should regard himself [as] a public instructor.” A society writer that season attended Rice’s circus in Newport, Rhode Island and declared “Everybody went—all classes, ages, colors and conditions. There were as many as five thousand people there, all mixed up with the most democratic indiscrimination.”. When Rice dueled Horace Greeley and the New York Tribune, the New York Clipper declared Rice the winner. The winter of 1864 saw the plausible, if unprovable, claim that the renowned clown was making $1,000 a week, double the era’s annual urban wage. Dan ran for office three times, genuinely, no joke, including a brief but legitimate campaign for president. He styled himself the Great American Humorist long before Mark Twain adopted the label—and teased that Twain copied his material, a joke that reconsideration of Huckleberry Finn suggests was accurate. Though the claim that he built churches for slaves can’t be verified, his statement that he supported Black people would not have garnered public benefit. He was an indirect model for the Uncle Sam image. Though the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who created the image we now know, was an ardent Republican and would not have consciously chosen a Peace Democrat like Rice as his model, he likely was influenced conceptually by the humorist’s immense renown, and visually by Rice’s alternating costumes of tailcoat and of stars and stripes, and his nationally famous chin whiskers. To put it another way, there was no nationally famous person who looked more like Uncle Sam.
Even the persistent falsehoods about Rice demonstrate he was famous enough to prompt fabrications. His learned pig was named Sybil NOT the grander “Lord Byron. He did NOT use his bandwagon to parade Zachary Taylor, NOR did he introduce the phrase “on the bandwagon.” He was NOT from a prominent family, NOT a famous jockey, did NOT work a con with the Mormon Joseph Smith. He was NOT friends with Abraham Lincoln, and did NOT counsel Abe on the mood of the country—but he did campaign against Lincoln and other “Black Republicans.” (The Lincoln tall tale was another of the country’s many post-Civil War accounts that retroactively polished reputations, till it seemed that all, North and South, had done only noble things during the war.)
Two elements propelled Rice’s fame. The first was his enormous comic talent. Friend and foe alike acknowledged the overwhelming effect of his comedy, most people laughing and writers lauding the pleasure he gave people, while foes deplored that so many people laughed. His comic talent requires emphasis because hindsight has made it difficult to see. His was the era that perfected the cultural tactic of using popularity against itself, flipping praise to disparagement. Then the Gilded Age made it harder to recognize his profound talent as it introduced new clichés about the circus as family fare, and the clown as the children’s friend, passive, innocuous, and barely humorous. This still-dominant Gilded Age invention of circus as anodyne amusement for the unsophisticated included depicting Black people as childlike fans of circus, part of the white supremacist backlash to Reconstruction. Lost in these clichés is antebellum clowns’ powerful adult impact. Clowns exploded in the Jacksonian era in the 1820s by rediscovering the ancient comic technique of underdog defiance. As they defied the authority of the master of the ring, dressed in a riding outfit that signaled urban nabob or plantation owner, complete with whip, their comic battle not only gave audiences a running joke to watch through the performance, it matched the Jacksonian era notion of the stouthearted Common Man battling elites. Rice would have been famous regardless of era; his sparkling wit and genius for engaging an audience would have would made him a star any time. But he particularly fit this quintessential American clash.
The man and his age also matched for a second reason, in the method he developed. To the ancient contrary comic impulse and American defiance of authority, he added episodes from his own life. Rather than simply telling jokes, he depicted himself as the leading figure in comic public disputes. It was more than capitalizing on current events or self-promotion. Rice not only identified himself with events of the day by pulling them into the ring, he pushed his performance beyond the ring, making a public event of it. That vibrating energy between performance and public event propelled him as an actor in the American drama.
He adopted his approach early. Only three years into the show business in 1846, he was charged with adultery in Buffalo, fled the sheriff, hid on a boat on Lake Erie, surrendered, was jailed, and released when the husband, a fellow performer, declined to press charges. But Rice found advantage in a situation that would have hindered other careers. He crafted a comic version of the events with words that refuted the charge of “criminal conversation”—the quaint legal euphemism for adultery—while rendering the sheriff and husband comic figures in a titillating tale hinting that he had “conversed” with the other man’s wife. He pictured her as abused by her husband, so he offered her a ride in his carriage, an arm to protect her, and a room in his hotel. Then hearing a ruckus in her room, he broke in, confronted the husband and kicked him out. At the story’s climax, he recounted his “aroused” feelings with her clothes in disarray, and laying her on a sofa.
Crafting performance from his personal life, Rice may have been influenced by P. T. Barnum, who made himself part of the pitch in all his ventures. However, competing with America’s first great brander for audiences in 1851 highlights significant differences. Barnum—who did come from a prominent family—presented himself as a sober-sided gentleman deigning to offer his latest project for people’s betterment. By contrast, Rice combined ego and humility. Bemused as much as amuser, he swaggered in performance while also positioning himself as an Everyman, with his audience in and out of the ring. No sober-sides, he was a funny man of the people. Rice was starring in his circus through a winter season in New Orleans when Barnum brought the singer Jenny Lind to town. Barnum had done a masterful job in framing Lind as angelic, so Rice, already a master showmen, recognized he couldn’t criticize her. However, he could and did take on the Connecticut boaster. He matched Phineas in publicity, in charitable efforts (another kind of publicity), and in audience appeal. Though Rice had been playing the Crescent City for a month, he continued to attract crowds; one newspaper claimed he outdrew Barnum-Lind. At the same time, Rice’s added Barnum’s hullabaloo to his public stance. Expressing concern for the Swedish Nightingale, he advised her—and implicitly the public—to be wary of Barnum and his sordid reputation. In his “Ode to Jenny Lind,” Dan sang praise for her with a jab at Phineas: “You’re a maid with a good heart, / And well you play your part, / Humbug or no you’re smart.”
Rice’s balance of the American clown contrary and his life experience reached a peak with his political efforts in the 1860s. It is not surprising that historians have treated those efforts as phony. A comedian claiming to run for office was already an old joke. Rice employed it himself in the 1850s. However, treating his campaigns as jokes demonstrates again the fault line in historical accounts, which still rely on secondary sources rather than primary evidence. For Rice ran in earnest. His campaigns evolved directly from his method of pushing his jokes beyond the ring to the public sphere, while drawing public events back into his performance. The evidence demonstrated his stature as a respected public figure. On the ballot for the Pennsylvania state senate in 1864, he faced sniping less because of his profession than for his Democratic politics. He lost that race but it had not been a futile attempt—no fool’s errand—for he ran ahead of the ticket led. Then he was the leading candidate for Congress at the Democrat’s convention in 1866 till he withdrew because party leaders would not approve a non-partisan campaign. And he briefly but legitimately ran for president in 1867. Rice garnered endorsements across the country before Grant, the eventual winner, was even mentioned. Though Rice abandoned that campaign by early 1868, it would not be the last time that a heralded candidate didn’t make it to the election.
But Dan Rice made circus famous? On its face, the claim seems ludicrous. Clownish. However great his contemporary fame, it’s easy for hindsight to dismiss him as a joke. But ignoring sentimental clichés to reconsider the evidence makes the claim plausible. Possibly probable. Perhaps perfect.
Even as the 1820s innovations greatly increased its popularity, antebellum circus remained individual companies scattered across the landscape with little sense of a national network. It resembled another new nineteenth-century enterprise, base ball: individual teams played each other and people knew of games in other places but with little sense of it as a network, a national sport. Similarly, by the 1850s everyone knew circus but as an occasional amusement that sometimes showed up in a tent, or settled in for a winter stand in city theaters: Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, Baltimore’s Front Street, New York’s Niblo’s Garden, or the Dan Rice’s Amphitheatre he had built in New Orleans.
But as Rice rose, his fame flew beyond the form. When people thought of Rice, circus came to mind. When writers used “Riceana,” they knew their readers would get the reference. His circus titles resonated. His early “One-Horse Show,” a joking phrase of defiance after bankruptcy reduced him to a few performers and a single horse, influenced the joke about an inconsequential place being a “one-horse town.” The title of his peak years, “Dan Rice’s Great Show”—a defiant fling at those who scorned the “show” or spectacle of circus—became culturally prominent. Other owners copied the “Great Show” label, while fictions featured circuses named “Great Show.” The resonance of Great Show deepened when Rice’s former publicity agent joined Barnum & Bailey Circus, and it adopted the slogan “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Into the Civil War, when Americans thought of Rice, the scattered world of circuses coalesced in people’s minds as circus.
Eagerly, keenly, enthusiastically aware of Rice as talking clown, as the Great American Humorist, as a public figure, Americans then began to recognize those the scattered individual troupes as a national institution. Dan Rice made circus famous.
Hi! Trav here again. If you want to know more, I HIGHLY recommend Carlyon’s excellent book: Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of. It’s highly entertaining and rich in detail not just about Rice but show business in general. And, if a book’s not enough and you want to celebrate with a whole party, may I suggest attending Dan Rice Days in Gerard, Pennsylvania? It’s held every August. Learn all about it here.