Traditional circuses still crisscross the country, but on a much-reduced scale from when they ruled America as the undisputed “greatest show on earth.”
Sharon Grimberg’s two-part documentary The Circus rewinds to that era of big tops and big crowds that exploded more than 100 years ago. The circus helped knit together a diverse populace spread across a huge expanse.
“Before there was a circus…there wasn’t radio, there wasn’t television, so people were very isolated in these communities, and they didn’t necessarily have common cultural references, but the circus was it, in a way,” Grimberg tells Deadline. “In the late 19th century and early 20th century [it’s] the first form of entertainment that everybody went to, that everyone could afford, and also something that tied the country together.”
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Part of the audience appeal was the fleeting nature of the circus experience.
“The spectacle of having this empty field and nothing being there. And then overnight, literally in just a few hours, all these tents would go up, and then incredible performances, things that you’d never seen before,” Grimberg notes. “And by morning it was all gone…I think the fact that it disappeared also was, in a way, what made it magical.”
The Circus, now in contention for Emmy nominations, premiered on PBS last October as part of the American Experience series and is currently streaming on Netflix. One figure who looms large in it is the great 19th century impresario P.T. Barnum, who helped put the circus on the map—or, more precisely, multiple places on the map.
“Traveling circuses, at the beginning, weren’t very respectable. There was a lot of shady dealing that happened on the circus ground. There are shady characters that followed the circus around,” Grimberg observes. “One of the things the P.T. Barnum did was hire detectives to come to the fairgrounds and make sure that people were safe. And then he’s just amazing at promotion. He just really knew how to get people interested.”
Along with the dog and pony (and elephant, giraffe and tiger) show, there were clowns, strongmen and women and a variety of acrobatic performers—many imported from Europe—who added a soupçon of sex.
“You had women showing their legs. To do the kind of acts they were doing, they had to wear skimpy costumes, but it was very racy at the time,” the director reveals. “It’s gender-bending too. There were men dressed as women. It was transgressive in all sorts of ways.”
In some respects the circus proved not only transgressive but progressive. When shows came to the South, black and white patrons mixed to a limited degree—on the midway and sideshow tent, if not the main tent. Many Americans got their first exposure to jazz and ragtime there, performed by African-American musicians in circus sideshow bands. The circus provided some work opportunities for women—the film shows how that example boosted the suffragist movement in the early 20th century.
“[Suffrage] activists said to [women performers], ‘You can do more for our cause by just doing your job, by being out there and being amazing, and being stronger and braver than the average man,’” Grimberg comments. “The circus bent rules. It didn’t bend all of the rules, but it did bend rules.”
In other respects, the circus wasn’t progressive at all, especially in how it merchandized people with unusual conditions—gigantism, dwarfism and hirsutism, for instance—as “freaks” suitable for public ogling.
“That was part of the circus before P.T. Barnum got involved…But he really made it an integral part of the traveling railroad circus in the 19th century. And when P.T. Barnum did something, people followed suit,” Grimberg states. “There’s no question it’s a very troubling part of the circus.”
Likewise troubling, from a contemporary perspective, was the treatment of circus animals.
“Whether or not it was cruel wasn’t on people’s minds as much as it became later,” Grimberg notes. “That kind of debate didn’t really exist as much. And I think people were used to having working animals in their lives [like] horses. And so, I think maybe that affected their worldview about animals.”
The four-hour documentary traces how the circus made fortunes for the likes of Barnum, James Bailey, the Ringling Bros. and others, and brought fame to performers including May Wirth (“the world’s greatest bareback rider”) and Lillian Leitzel (“queen of the aerialists”). And it examines why the circus slid from the apex of popular entertainment; contributing to the decline were rising costs and alluring new ways for Americans to spend their leisure time.
“By the 1920s, although the circus is still very popular, it costs a lot more to go…and the movies are right there everywhere,” Grimberg tells Deadline. “And then in addition to movies, you start having radio, and then people get really interested in sports. So there are all these competing entertainments. And then of course, you have The Great Depression, which decimates the circus world…By the early ’50s, everyone has a TV and you start seeing circus acts on television, so the whole thing becomes a very uneconomical form of business.”
The remarkable success of Cirque du Soleil, a transformed idea of the circus, demonstrates there is still broad appeal to the spectacle, be it under a big top or within a Vegas theater. And the idea of “running away to the circus” remains embedded in the American psyche, a vestige of those earlier days when shows fascinated people and drew many to join the circus as a career and a way of life.
The circus attracted “people who found it hard to get along in ‘regular’ life, as well as people who were obviously incredibly talented and adventuresome,” Grimberg says. “Everybody I spoke to who lived that life was so wistful, so loved it.”
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