Archive for Barnum

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Littlest Lovers: Tom Thumb & Lavinia Warren

Posted in BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show, Little People, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd


“There’s someone for everybody” goes the old matchmaker’s expression, and perhaps no words rang truer on February 9, 1863, the day that professional little person Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) married Lavinia Warren at Grace Church, New York. (I believe that’s Lavinia’s sister Minnie Warren as Maid of Honor; and Commodore Nutt as Best Man). This little stunt, the “Fairy Wedding” by the press, lightened people’s hearts during the depths of the Civil War. We present it to you in the same spirit today.


It wasn’t just a publicity stunt, however; the two were a real couple. But even so, their boss P.T. Barnum was probably not too unhappy when the big event resulted in coverage like this:


“I love you completely, my own, my all. But above all, I love this front page coverage in Harpers!”

R.I.P. Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus

Posted in Circus, OBITS with tags , , , , on January 15, 2017 by travsd
Hartford Circus Fire, 1944

Hartford Circus Fire, 1944


That’s what you yell when the circus is in trouble, when it’s all hands on deck, when it’s time to start a bucket brigade, or pull up stakes, or generally come to the aid of your family, which means everyone else who works at the circus. The news this morning, that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will be folding up for good in May hit me like a ton of bricks — as I just tweeted it feels like I’m on an elevator plunging 50 floors. While I may frequently knock the contemporary incarnation of the RBBB, I hope I’ve always made one thing clear…the Greatest Show on Earth is THE tent pole of American show business and even its theatre. It has been around that long. This is like a long line of grandfathers all dying at the same time. The organization itself is 146 years old, but the producers whose names are in the title were operating long before that. P.T. Barnum’s name has been above a title in show business somewhere for 181 years! The fact that this is happening at the same time as America’s Constitutional government is being dismantled feels symbolic, a mirror image. Everything we have ever known seems to be flying out the window. But as RBBB did so many times before, after the 1944 fire, and in the 1970s when the Feld Family re-invented it for the modern age, I think it is up to us to keep the show going. The show must go on. It is up to us, in whatever way we can do it. We MUST keep the best of our cultural traditions alive for our children.

I’ll be writing a much, much longer tribute to this important American institution and put it up when they go away for good in May. Mean time, you can refer individual posts I’ve written on P.T. Barnum, the Ringling Brothers, James A. Bailey, and various aspects of the show itself. Today I feel immense sadness, a bit of fear (untethered, in a way, in freefall), but also resolved to address this somehow.

More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People

Posted in BROOKLYN, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , on July 27, 2016 by travsd


Today happens to be the birthday of both Fleming W. Ackerman (a.k.a “Colonel Speck”) and Major Edward Newell (a.k.a. “General Grant, Jr.”). (Click on the links to learn more about these illustrious Little People.

If the odds of a Little Person being born are small, and the odds of a performing Little Person even smaller, think how small the odds of TWO performing Little People being born on the same day! Seems to me an auspicious time to announce here my upcoming talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, entitled More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People. 


For centuries Little People have been a mainstay of popular entertainment. In this illustrated talk, I will trace the historical ups and downs of very short-statured entertainers from medieval times through the era of P.T. Barnum and dime museums, to side shows and circuses, to vaudeville, to movies and television. Along the way, we trace the evolution of the Little Person’s image in popular culture, from one of cruel derision in the age of the court jester…to one of glamour, as personified by sex symbol and Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage…to a virtual return to carny days on reality tv.

The talk will take place Monday August 22, 2016 at 7pm at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Ave, Brooklyn. Tickets are $8

More info and tickets are here:

Barnum Presents a Unicorn

Posted in Animal Acts, BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show with tags , , , , , , on March 24, 2015 by travsd


2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

In 1871, P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, menagerie, Caravan and Circus presented an animal billed as the “Unicorn from Scripture”. At this stage, he’d done as much for 20 years. But here’s what patrons saw when they arrived:

unicorn (2)

Even in Barnum’s day naturalists and other scholars had speculated for ages that ancient accounts of unicorns were actually referring to early European impressions of the rhinoceros. In the poster above, Barnum says what it actually is. Could he be faulted if audiences were dumb enough to show up expecting to see the mythological beast depicted in the picture at the top of this post?

Furthermore, it is all technically quite correct. “Unicorn” literally means “one horn.” That is all the word means. Which is what allowed the corporate descendant of Barnum’s organization to dare to pull this stunt as late as the 1980s:


What folks saw at RBBB in the 1980s was a goat with one horn. Still, it’s technically correct. At the time there was a controversy and an uproar, and complaints about “fraud”, and so forth. I don’t know if there’s a sucker born every minute, but there are definitely 267 IDIOTS born every minute. As far as I am concerned, if you are buying tickets to a circus and don’t realize you are going to a SHOW, and then have the gall to complain at the efforts of the showfolk to ENTERTAIN you, you are a lower brute than any of the critters in the menagerie. If you come expecting to see the sort of mythological beast depicted in storybooks, and what’s more, expecting that to be GENUINE, there is a position available for you in the show. Here’s the last fellow we hired to fill the slot:

Koolookamba, 19th-Cent engraving

On James A. Bailey (The Guy Whose Name Comes After Ringling and Barnum)

Posted in AMERICANA, AMUSEMENTS, Circus, Impresarios with tags , , , , on July 4, 2014 by travsd


Today is the birthday of circus impresario James A. Bailey (James A. McGuiness, 1847-1906).

He is of course the guy whose name falls at the end of “Ringling Brothers, Barnum and…” Because of him, the present RB, B & B organization can claim a lineage that goes back all the way to the early days of American circus. James McGuinness was an orphan boy who was adopted by Frederic Bailey, nephew of Hachaliah Bailey (1775-1845), the presenter of “Old Bet”, the first show elephant in the United States. A young P.T. Barnum is said to have seen Old Bet as a child, one of his inspirations for going into the show business.

James Bailey learned the ropes of the circus business at the feet of Frederic, and partnered with James E. Cooper in 1872. After the great international success of this venture, the organization was the principal competition to P.T. Barnum. In 1881, the pair of showmen did the unthinkable by merging and went on to even greater heights together. Barnum passed away in 1891, leaving Bailey in sole charge of that amazing colossal show for fifteen years. He died of an infectious bug bite at the age of 59. The Ringling Brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey circus the following year but continued to operate it independently until 1919, when they finally merged it with the show that bore their name.

For more on show biz history, including much about the circus, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever colorful books are sold.


Of Ringling Bros., et al

Posted in Circus, German with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Charles Edward Ringling (1863-1926), a somewhat random and yet reasonably appropriate time to perform a much delayed unpacking of the complicated story of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus.

I’ve wanted to do this 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 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.

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.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


Tim Hayes: Minstrel and Clog Dancer

Posted in African American Interest, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Dance, Irish with tags , , , , on September 22, 2013 by travsd

According to my excellent reference book Monarchs of Minstrelsy, from “Daddy” Rice to Date by Edward Roy Le Rice, today is the birthday of one of American show business’s premier clog dancers, Tim Hayes (1841-1877). Born in Dublin he debuted in a tent show run by a man named Wild at age 10. In 1860 he came to New York, playing such venues as the Melodeon and Barnum’s American Museum. Like most performers of his era, he ran constantly from one minstrel company to the next: Hooley and Campbell’s; Unsworth’s; Carncross and Dixey’s; Christy’s and M.C. Campells. He was only 26 years old at the time of his death.

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


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