For over 200 years, the circus has fascinated the American people. From Vaudeville, Menagerie, Sideshows, to the “Greatest Show on Earth” – the circus has enchanted the masses time and time again. Beginning in the late 1700s to recent times, there’s been nothing to compete or compare to the circus.
Ask most people if they can remember going to the circus as a child, and I’ll bet they can. I remember being three years old and going to see the “Greatest Show on Earth” in Indianapolis at Market Square Arena. I can remember the Human Cannon Ball, a dozen clowns pouring out of car big enough to hold, at most, one very small clown, and the Phantom of Balance.
I remember all the excitement, and standing on my seat to see over the people in front of me. The smell of popcorn and peanuts permeated the air along with the occasional waft of animal bedding and pyrotechnics.
Here’s the catch – my childhood memories from before four years of age are scarce, just like everyone else. I don’t remember a single Christmas. No birthdays. No other shows…But I remember the circus like it was yesterday.
The circus is evolving as a form of art and as a business
Time spares nothing, and the circus is no exception. The Ringling Brothers Circus took their final bow in 2017 after 146 years of service. Menageries are no longer considered acceptable, making room for circus troupes who don’t use animals (like the Cirque du Soleil). Smaller circus companies are taking their entertainment to the customer in the form of corporate and event entertainment.
With the closing of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, began the rise of Cirque du Soleil and smaller circus companies taking their entertainment to the customer in the form of corporate entertainment and events… the circus has evolved!
Ernest Hemingway wrote:
“The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money. Everything else is supposed to be bad for you. But the circus is good for you. It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”
The “truly happy dream” Hemingway wrote about is the one constant in the chaos that is change.
This article will follow the evolution of the circus from a high level, and then will discuss how circus has segmented into corporate entertainment and showcase acts that you’re most likely to see performed by circus companies today.
The Beginnings of Circus in The USA
Philip Astley – Father of Modern Circus
While he’s not the first person to open a circus in the United States, most consider Philip Astley to be the father of Modern Circus. Astley served in the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 63) where he was known for his ability to break and train horses. After the war, Astley settled in London. While living in London, he opened a riding school where he taught classes in the morning and performed equestrian acts in the evenings.
As a result of Astley’s success, he built a circular arena (or amphitheater) that he called The Circle, or Circus, which would be later known as The Ring, and it started out at sixty-two feet in diameter. As time progressed, he added more acts to his shows. He also reduced the diameter of his ring to forty-two feet, which ultimately became the standard for all circus rings. (source?)
Astley went on to open Paris’ first circus – the Amphitheatre Anglois in 1782. The same year the Amphitheatre Anglois opened its doors, Astley encountered his first real competitor: equestrian Charles Hughes. Hughes was a former member of Astley’s first company. Hughes was an accomplished performer and equestrian who sold-out performances across Europe, Russia, and parts of Asia. Hughes also mentored a man named John Bill Ricketts, who later started the first circus in the United States.
John Bill Rickets
On April 3rd, 1773, John Bill Ricketts delivered the first complete Circus performance in the US. Ricketts’ shows were mostly equestrian acts confined to a 42ft ring, and included rope walkers, acrobats, and a clown. George Washington, the first president of the United States, was said to be a fan of Mr. Ricketts, and attended several performances!
Sadly Ricketts was plagued with misfortune. In 1799 his circus building burnt to the ground. After the loss of his building, Ricketts sailed to the West Indies where his ship was intercepted by French Privateers and taken to the island of Guadeloupe. After a period of time, Ricketts was able to recover most of his loses from his assailants and purchased a small ship that sank during his return trip to England. Ricketts and his crew were lost at sea, and the circus in the United States began to vanish. (History magazine)
The Circus Takes Hold In The United States
In the early 1800s, the United States was still a young country expanding westward from its eastern seaboard. Few cities were large enough to support a resident circus, and many more new cities were popping up as the westward expansion progressed. Circus owners and showmen had to find a way to move their shows around the growing country.
The Circus of Pepin and Breschard was one of the first circus companies to travel on a large scale. They arrived in the United States from Madrid, Spain in November of 1807 and toured North America until 1815. During that time, they built circus theatres in cities from Montreal, Canada to Havana, Cuba. United States cities included New York, New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; as well as a handful of other cities.
Perhaps their most famous theatre, the Walnut Street Theatre, was located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is the oldest continuously operating theater in the United States.
Later in the 1800s, and after the Circus of Pepin and Breschard; Purdy, Welch & Co were the first circus owners in the US to use large canvas tents for their circus performances. Their use of tents made Purdy, Welch & Co. easy to move from one city to another. As a result, more people had the opportunity to see his circus, which gave rise to the popularity of the circus in the United States.
The American circus was later revolutionized by the P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who launched the travelling P. T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus, and the first Freak Show in 1871. Coup also introduced the first multiple ringed circuses, and was also the first circus entrepreneur to use circus trains to transport the circus between towns, and is still a practice that continues today.
Circus & Corporate Event Entertainment
Traditional Circus shows still thrive today even as most are now without animals. One format that many circus companies have adopted is taking their show to the client, in the form of corporate event entertainment.
The circus acts and shows that work well as corporate entertainment are varied. The one common thread is that adding the circus to your event will definitely leave a lasting impact on everyone involved. Imagine walking to the front doors of your office building and being greeted by a fire-eating stilt-walker who’s juggling razor sharp knives mere feet from where you stand! That’s not typical for a company party. In most cases, the other acts are equally unique and awe-inspiring.
Consider what follows to be your guide to the circus’ unique spin on corporate entertainment.
Carnival Freak Show
Freak shows have been a part of the circus for nearly 150 years. In 1870, P. T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus included the first Freak Show. As time progressed, Freak Shows evolved into Carnival Sideshows using less human oddities, and more bizarre acts. Those Carnival Sideshows still amaze spectators today! Sideshow acts include electric chairs, eating live roaches, fire eating, and other eccentric acts.
Fire eating is one of several types of fire artistry. While it’s not quite as edgy fire-breathing, fire-eating is still a spectacle to watch.
Stilt walkers are a high impact visual act and are incredibly versatile in both form, and function. From stilt-walking Uncle Sams on the 4th of July, to 10-foot tall elves running around a company holiday party, stilt walkers fit just about any event.
Jugglers were an integral part of early circus acts, and still remain an important part of the circus today. They are a fantastic entertainment choice for both adults and children, with a wide variety of acts and juggling props. Most Jugglers are more than just jugglers; many twist balloons, stroll around on stilts, eat fire, perform magic, and even jump rope.
Masters of illusion, magicians pack events full of excitement, memories, and amazement.
Wrapping Things Up
So there you have it – a brief overview of the circus from the late 1700s to the present day and the common acts found in modern circus companies who specialize in corporate entertainment.
This article uses material from the following Wikipedia articles:
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