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As they sparred, the elephant would always have the upper hand. The elephant would literally box Thompson into the ring bank, often times flipping him over. It was extraordinarily frustrating because the act was clownish. It did not allow him to display his talents in working with big animals in a way that created dignity and power. Narration: As the herds got bigger, and trainers tried to outdo each other with more sophisticated tricks, the strain on circus elephants increased. Not all trainers were gentle.

The kindest treatment I believe in is … a steel lashed whip. Nigel Rothfels: Different trainers, working with different animals, with their own different skills and experiences, trained each animal differently. There were undoubtedly trainers who were clearly able to use more of the positive techniques that we would call, sort of positive reinforcement now. But the animal has to understand that the trainer is powerful in ways that the animal is not.

In some cases, that has undoubtedly been done through just brute violence. Davis: The vast majority of elephant trainers and handlers deeply loved their elephants. The relationships that they forged with these animals were often incredibly tender and attentive, but one thing that happens throughout the history of the American circus is that elephants go ugly or go bad. And while these incidents were relatively rare, they do reflect the conditions of their confinement and their frustration for these deeply social animals.

If an elephant killed someone, then that elephant could face execution. These executions were often protracted and horrific and deeply disturbing, violent affairs. Narration: The most famous elephant in America came to a grisly end himself, though his death was accidental. On September 15, , Jumbo was struck by an unscheduled freight train after an evening performance. His skull was fractured in several places.

The circus star died within minutes. The show had made more money in the two years after his arrival than it would until the end of the century. So even in death, Jumbo was a great attraction. In , Barnum sent his letter to U. Cook: The Ethnological Congress is an expansion of the sideshow. So, in the past, the sideshow had involved twelve, fifteen, twenty different figures or acts.

Now, Barnum wants to create a kind of living taxonomy of cultures and races and nationalities from around the world. I shall see that they are presented with fancy articles… and small allowances monthly. At least one of them, an indigenous Australian named Tambo Tambo, was brought to America against his will. The group was exhibited in the animal menagerie.

When the big top performance began, Chang the Chinese Giant led them into the main pavilion for the opening procession. Nigel Rothfels: Part of that opportunity was to touch them, was to touch their skin, touch their hair. That touch is about a kind of separation of who you are and what the object is. And it is acceptable for you to control it and touch it in that way.

They are the other, they are the difference, they are what, in a sense, gives us a shared identity as an audience. Narration: By the spring of , the constant turmoil of the circus trade was wearing on James Bailey. Physically and emotionally exhausted, he took a leave of absence. It took him two years to feel strong enough to come back. In , Barnum and Forepaugh temporarily made peace. They mounted a joint show under canvas in Philadelphia. Some 15, people poured into a big top as long as three city blocks, to see sixty-six acts perform in four rings and one stage.

The following year, with posters from both great shows festooning the outside of Madison Square Garden, the two impresarios combined their circuses for an opening run in New York.

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As the profits rolled in, Forepaugh and Barnum divided up the country between them. Barnum played the West one year, and the East the next. There are no spectators. Every last one of us, svelte and lithe and sheathed in silk, is swinging in space… There is not a flabby muscle, not an awkward limb, not a sagging knee in the whole tent. The Nation. Deborah Walk: Within each of us is that desire to do something spectacular. It's that yearning of being able to defy gravity, to fly through the air, to be that princess on a back of the horse that everyone is looking at.

Jackie Leclaire, Clown, Aerialist: It's a glory there. I'm up in the air. What are they? They're just on the ground. You find peace. Marjorie Cordell Geiger, Aerialist : It is an act of creation, but it has to come from the heart. You have to light the fire. You have to light the desire. There has to be something burning to give. Johnathan Lee Iverson: For eight minutes most performers cease to be human beings. I used to love to pick a few people there and smile especially at them. You got to make it look easy, look beautiful, and have them pay attention to you.

The public, you want them to love you. The more applause you get, the happier you are, and walking out of there makes you feel so good. Yet every year, a few more plucky dreamers tried their hands at the trade. Al, Otto, Alf T.

Die MacGregors 3. Affäre in Washington

They had scrambled out of the house before dawn to meet a steamboat carrying a travelling show up the Mississippi River. Michael Lancaster, Great-Grandson, Charles Ringling: The kids were out of their minds even from the moment they off-loaded the equipment. You have a steamboat with a calliope loaded and smoking and steaming. By the time they put together a parade, the kids were just awestruck. Narration: Al, the eldest, never gave up hope of creating his own circus.

In , he persuaded his brothers to produce a traveling musical show. Over several winters, performing in small town halls, the Ringlings saved a thousand dollars, enough money to buy three secondhand wagons and a tent that could seat a few hundred. Deborah Walk: All the boys, at that point of time, in , did something.

So, John Ringling was a singing Dutch comic clown. You had Charles playing instruments. Al, who knew how to juggle, balanced plows on his chin. Davis: Local kids served as teamsters. The boys often fished for their dinner or shot food for their dinner. Michael Lancaster: They were so small they did the wire act, walking the high wire was done on top of the tent, usually for free, and it helped move people into the show. Narration: The first season, the Ringlings played towns, mostly one-night stands, in four states. The frail and aging Yankee Robinson died half way through the season.

Michael Lancaster: Everything went wrong, but everything went right. As much as things could fail, the crowds were there and so was the money. That first season, they paid everybody well and they came back home and they emptied out their sack of money and they had a lot of it and they were really amazed. Narration: The following few years, the show grew steadily; each season they swapped out their tent for a slightly larger one.

By the brothers owned a bear, an eagle, and several monkeys. Two years later, they bought a pair of elephants. Paul Ringling, Grandson, Alf T. Ringling: They were quite young when they started. John Ringling was a teenager. My grandfather and his brothers never had a partnership agreement, nothing in writing. They were five brothers that got along. Michael Lancaster: They were disciplined, highly disciplined.

They took very little money out in those first few years for themselves, but they really enriched the show. They stuck together. Once they took a vote, that was it. Everybody ponied up, got in line, and they all supported the decision that had been made. And I think that unity is really the secret to their great success as showmen. Fred Pfening Iii: Their circus was always on the up and up. Michael Lancaster: They had rules for everything. These were tight rules. No swearing. They had Pinkertons on their lot so the public could see they meant business, and this earned them the reputation the Sunday School Circus and is probably the thing that really catapulted them into their success.

Narration: For the first few seasons, the Ringlings were a regional outfit. In the fall of that changed when Adam Forepaugh agreed to sell them eleven railroad cars on the cheap. That was the differentiating factor between a big and a little circus. The Ringling brothers returned home heroes.

In early , Forepaugh caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia. On the evening of January 22 nd , at the age of fifty-eight, the great showman passed away at home in Philadelphia. Scores of circus folk went to pay their last respects, including two of the Ringling brothers. Neither Barnum nor Bailey attended, but they took note.

It had been Forepaugh and Barnum for so long, that the death of that rival was significant. That November, the eighty-year-old impresario suffered a major stroke. Five months later, surrounded by family and friends, Phineas Taylor Barnum died in his sleep. Barnum is remembered and debated on the front page of literally hundreds of newspapers around the world, every major western capital, small towns across the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of words spent trying to make sense and trying to understand what it was to think about P. Narration: Just days before he died, Barnum wrote his younger partner with some parting advice. The writer laid his bets instead on five young men from Baraboo. Narration: It had taken nerves of steel and months of meticulous planning to pull off. In the last moments before departure, scores of handlers scurried to load the chaotic jumble of wild animals onto a converted cattle ship.

And then performers — high wire artists, equestrians and clowns, set sail to conquer Europe. The daring scheme to tour the colossal circus through Europe was the brainchild of James Bailey, a showman whose improbable rise to the top was legendary. Davis, Historian: The audacity of this move was spectacular. Bailey was taking his circus to the place where it began, back in the 18th century, and taking a version of the circus that was virtually unrecognizable and now distinctly American in its ostentatiousness.

Narration: In the century since a skilled English equestrian had brought the first one-ring show to the United States, the circus had become the most popular of American entertainments, appealing to presidents and farmers, teachers and coal miners, grandparents and school children. Matthew Wittmann, Historian: The American circus turned entertainment into an industrial enterprise.

Davis: In an age before radio, in an age before film, in an age before television, it offered audiences, in vastly different geographical locations, a common cultural experience. It transforms America into a nation with a shared cultural identity. Narration: By heading to Europe, James Bailey was playing a dangerous game.

Narration: More gigantic, elaborate and daring every year, the warring circuses would battle over audiences. But even as they did, forces beyond their control began threatening to push the circus from the center of American life. When the circus opened two days later, there was a scramble for tickets. The matinee was sold out within an hour. The scene in Manchester was repeated in towns across England. Schools closed. So did factories and shops. Davis: The circus took possession of the towns in which they showed, life stops. Whereas the English circus was a very modest affair, the American circus did not allow life to go on as we knew it.

It shut towns down. Narration: Bailey toured the United Kingdom for two seasons, before taking his circus to the European continent. On March 22, , astonished residents of Hamburg, Germany stopped what they were doing to watch as the USS Michigan was relieved of its highly unusual cargo. No one had ever shipped a vehicle of that size before, without taking it apart first.

Though unseasonably cold weather plagued the four-week run in Hamburg, audiences packed the tent for almost every performance. And certainly the spectacle of how the circus operated proved to be fascinating, endlessly fascinating for European audiences. It garnered interest even from the Prussian military that was of course involved in moving large groups of men from one place to another in different contexts.

They showed up to see how the operation worked. He insisted that all three rings start and end their acts in unison. No circus director had thought to do that before. At midnight, he was often one of the very last men still on his feet. And he really became such a important person, putting the performance together. Narration: If Ringling drove himself hard, he expected as much from those around him, docking the wages of performers who showed up late to the parade, or put on a lackluster show. Though he was demanding, he was remembered for being generous with praise.

Deborah Walk: Of all the brothers, John Ringling, felt the hardships of the family life more than others. Ringling: My Uncle John was imperious. Would that describe him in one word? He quoted the prevailing price of hay in Tucson, and the cost of unroasted peanuts in Tallahassee…. He was aware of the towns in which money was flowing freely, and those in which it was tight.

What are the times people work? When do they get out? When is payday? You always wanted to play a place after payday because then people would have money in their pockets. Narration: Through hard work and ingenuity, the Ringlings had grown from an inconsequential twelve-wagon show into one of the most prominent circuses in the country. Their most surprising innovation was the addition in of a dark canvas tent they called the black top.

Inside the brothers screened a movie of a boxing match using a projectoscope, a brand new invention of Thomas Edison. Robert Thompson : The circus starts to introduce people to the movies. The Ringlings were using, for our amusement, the very things that were ultimately going to see them become much less central in the American soul. Narration: By , with Bailey away, the brothers felt emboldened to steal his slogan claiming their circus was: The Greatest Show on Earth. Fred D. And I think taken as a group they were the best circus managers, the best circus men in American history.

The Ringling heritage is really about the American dream, that you can have an idea and a vision and that you can bootstrap your way and build something really magnificent. Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Curator: There are so many crazy acts that have happened under the circus tent. As long as there has been circus, there have been people trying almost seemingly insane acts.

We only are here once. And we only go round once. If you can do something, if you are good at something, that is what you do. It takes so much mind, body and spirit to be a great daredevil. It comes back to the overall gospel of the circus. Everybody could see the same thing. So, it was also an image of America in a, not a nutshell, but in a big top. Narration: When the Ringlings returned to Baraboo, Wisconsin over Christmas to plan their season, the knowledge that James Bailey was back shaped all their major decisions.

For the first time, the brothers decided to hire a theater director to produce their opening pageant, known as the spectacle, rather than doing it themselves. Jennifer Lemmer Posey: In the first two decades of the Ringling Show, the brothers were really committed to the circus performance, to the purest form of circus, the circus that they had grown up with.

So they did not mount these large spectacles. And so they put on Jerusalem and the Crusades, a real large-scale spectacle. The circus spectacles were very much a product of their age. This idea of colonialism became very interesting, how the Western world could bring its influence to other lands. Narration: Like many circus spectacles of the time, Jerusalem and the Crusades was a full-scale drama. Playing out in two acts, it included a ballet, a grand oriental procession, and a battle on the ramparts of Jerusalem.

The brothers claimed it involved a cast of twelve hundred — including three hundred dancing girls — and more than two thousand costumes. The coming season would be the most elaborate ever, they boasted. Once the circus started traveling, however, it became apparent that Bailey had a host of problems, many of his own making. He spent a little over forty thousand dollars on having thirteen parade wagons built. Forty thousand dollars was an extraordinary amount of money to spend on parade wagons. Narration: The other problem that he had is he had this really comfortable seating.

He called it opera chair seating. It took forever and a day to set all the equipment up. Disgruntled at having to move the heavy seats, one-hundred-and-fifty working men demanded more pay. Bailey ended his self-imposed ban on hiring African Americans to keep the show on the road. Even so, many performances were late and forty-two were canceled. He had created a giant juggernaut that was just almost impossible to keep going whereas the Ringling Brothers had this efficient money machine that just kept making money day after day.

Narration: Desperate to make a comeback in , Bailey hired Ugo Ancillotti and his daring loop-the-loop act. The following year, Ancillotti was joined by the sensational Mauricia de Tiers and her dip of death. This was an extraordinarily dangerous act, providing this audacious display of technological subversion—making cars fly. Narration: Despite featuring some of the most astounding daredevils ever seen, each year Bailey made less profit than the year before. In the spring of , as he was in Madison Square Garden frantically throwing together his show, Bailey started to feel unwell.

Just three days later, on April 11th, the veteran showman died unexpectedly surrounded by doctors and his distraught wife. He was just years old. Eulogies in newspapers across the country praised Bailey for his many achievements, most notably taking American culture to the rest of the world. Bailey put her brother in charge of the circus. What the Ringlings saw was its potential. Dominique Jando: American circus entrepreneurs, from the very beginning, went to get their talent in Europe. Because there was very little talent in America. Narration: In Europe, circus family have their own circus and created circus performer long before circus school.

They worked in buildings in which they had time to prepare an act and to rehearse in the morning in nice conditions. In America, if you travel and do two shows a day and move every day, there is no time for a rehearsal. So, the American system was not encouraging to try to do something new or create acts. The circus brought together people from all countries.

It was a United Nations before the United Nations. Narration: In Berlin, he signed four female aerialists. The Leamy Ladies swung from a rotating contraption devised by their agent. In time, Lillian Leitzel, the youngest, would be one of the most famous women in America. When the circus season began, the two shows toured separately. With the Barnum show setting out from New York and the Ringling show starting its season in Chicago, the two circuses traveled more than twenty-six thousand miles altogether, stopping in almost towns and cities across the nation.

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Now, that was circus management at its best. Michael Lancaster: Mable said it was love at first sight. And this was a girl who had run away from home at fifteen, worked in a shoe factory. Enchanted by Sarasota, on the gulf coast of Florida, John and Charles began heading there to relax during the winter. Michael Lancaster: John and Mable studied books on etiquette, they studied books on fashion, they studied books on art and antiquities.

They developed exquisite taste. And they all march for suffrage. On May 4th, , an estimated fifteen thousand people, women and their male supporters, brought New York City to a standstill. An even larger crowd cheered them from windows and sidewalks all the way from Washington Square to Carnegie Hall.

Though the campaign to give women the vote was decades old, so far only six states had enfranchised women. The dramatic rise of women in the workforce since the turn of the century, however, had swelled the ranks of the suffragists, making them more determined than ever. Davis: The circus is a space where women did have opportunities that were unavailable in other areas of American life. Big Top headliners were paid just as well as their male counterparts. The circus offered women a life of independence and freedom from the watchful eyes of communities and family members.

Narration: The female performers met with leaders of the suffrage movement before setting out on tour. They were eager to learn how best to spread their message as they traveled the country. The Ringling brothers called her Lady Hercules. Though they boasted of her strength, the Ringling brothers were keen to present Sandwina as demure and ladylike, particularly to the men in their audiences. Reporters were told she depended chiefly on housework to keep herself in shape.

Davis: Sandwina is tall. She's statuesque.

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She's muscular. But she's billed as a lady dainty, whose femininity is extraordinary. The Ringling brothers loved to present this juxtaposition of seeming opposites. On the one hand with muscles coiled like pythons, but on the other gentle, dainty, and sweetly feminine. Narration: The public was astounded to learn that Sandwina had pulled off two performances the evening before giving birth, lifting her husband over her head and bending iron bars into horseshoes. Adopted into an Australian circus family, when she was seven, Wirth had soon begun astounding audiences across Australia and New Zealand with her contortion act.

When she learned to ride, it was clear she had discovered her true talent. Dominique Jando: May Wirth was obviously extraordinary. You just look at her and knew that she was unusual. May Wirth did what we call trick somersaults, when you twist the somersault in the air so you go and you start in a direction, you arrive in another one.

She did, of course, somersault from horse to horse. Only the few best men could do that, and she was a woman! Matthew Wittmann: It really, really stunned people to see women doing these things. And so, for a certain part of the audience, it was undoubtedly empowering. As the fire raged, embers rained down on the Ringling Brothers circus, which was playing five blocks away.

It took nine hours to extinguish the flames. Al, the only brother on the lot, had made sure the big top was evacuated safely. But by the time it was all over, the fire had destroyed forty-three cars of the circus train. Determined to keep to schedule, Al worked through the night persuading the railroad to loan him equipment to take him to the next stop, Marion, Ohio.

Then he directed two shows. The entire Ringling clan descended on Baraboo for the funeral, as did circus people from across the country and townspeople who admired the old man. He loved the community and the community loved him. So, it was with great sadness the news came out that he passed.

Everybody felt that the main guy had really died that day. The next year their problems only multiplied. To meet the demands of the military conflict, President Woodrow Wilson took control of the railways, prioritizing the movement of troops and materiel. Then the Spanish flu struck. By the early fall the epidemic had spread across the country. More than ten thousand people died in September alone. Davis: Areas on the route are facing quarantine, and show dates have to be abridged.

So, the combination of the war and its shortages, its government mandates, and then the flu epidemic, present huge challenges for the Ringling Brothers as they're trying to operate two giant circuses. Narration: The brothers felt forced to make a decision, they never would have anticipated a few years earlier. After quarantines shuttered performances several days in a row, they packed up the Ringling show two weeks early. Then for the first time since launching their circus decades before, the brothers sent the Ringling circus to winter, not in Baraboo their hometown, but in Bridgeport, Connecticut with the Barnum show.

Everyone on the train knew that after decades of expansion, the unthinkable was about to happen. The brothers were consolidating. Instead of presenting two shows, they would combine them into one. Anxiety was rife in Bridgeport that fall. Employees of both shows were unsure about their futures. And each had their own little ways about doing things.


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It was the biggest lay-off in circus history, and an ominous sign of things to come. On March 28th, , gale forces winds buffeted New York as a late winter storm pummeled the city, leaving roads and rails coated in ice. Despite the treacherous conditions, inside Madison Square Garden, circus staff were making final adjustments to the show.

The following day, doors opened for the first performance of the Ringling Bros. Even though the city was still picking up after the storm, crowds swarmed to see the show. It was the largest circus anyone had ever seen. Deborah Walk: I don't think there is one circus person who would say if they could walk into a time machine, that they wouldn't want to be at Madison Square Gardens when it opened in March of To see the great performers, the cavalcade of clowns, everything jam-packed into the three rings and four platforms.

It would've been the show to see. Narration: The circus kicked off with the two combined herds of elephants, followed by seven troupes of aerial performers, May Wirth with her backwards somersaults, and some six hundred other performers. When the show took to the road, audiences were staggered by its size. The circus had mushroomed into a moving town of more than eleven hundred people, horses, and nearly one thousand other animals.

The big top alone was feet long and could seat 16, people, more than twice the number that could fit into Madison Square Garden. Richard Reynolds, Circus Historian: It had a big top with eight center poles in it. The distance between most of those poles was sixty feet. That was an immensely long big top. Though elated by the success of their first combined season, the Ringlings were struggling with sad news on the home front.

After a long bout of ill-health, Alf T. Ringling, creator of the great spectacles, passed away at the age of fifty-five. The death of financial wizard Otto, a decade earlier, left just Charles and John. Five brothers had charted the evolution of a modest one-ring show into a vast circus empire. Now responsibility for the massive organization lay with just two. Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated— in the main, abominably —because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.

Even the most hardened performers, never got used to the humiliation. Matthew Wittmann: Respectable people would skip the sideshow tent because it did have a reputation. Narration: The same traditions played out over decades. As the crowds thronged the midway past the sideshow tent towards the menagerie, they could hear the talker who ballyhooed the talent inside.

To entice the crowds into the sideshow tent, the Ringling Brothers had for years featured an African-American sideshow band. As a young man in the s, Lowery had trained at the Boston Conservatory. Though he was one of the best cornetists of his generation, like all black musicians of the day, Lowery was almost always confined to the sideshow. He won over fans nonetheless. Sakina Hughes, Historian: P. Lowery becomes this pillar in the African-American community. The circus is coming to town, but P. Lowery is going to be here. Narration: When Lowery had started out, black circus bands mostly played minstrel music.

Lowery got rid of blackface makeup, added women to his troupe, and performed a repertoire of ragtime and the blues. We think about the Harlem Renaissance, but the circus musicians were coming a generation before. Roger Smith, Wild Animal Trainer: A cat act, anyone can tell you they are fraught with very real danger.

The threat to life and limb, the threat of death, is a genuine constant danger that the big cat people all understand. Narration: Early one Sunday morning in July , a slip of a woman barged onto the back lot of the Ringling circus, angling for a job with the biggest show in the country. Mabel Stark was one of the most celebrated big cat trainers in America and one of the only women to wrangle tigers in the big top.

She told the astounded Ringling team that she broke in her cats herself. They offered her a job on the spot. Stark had started out as a nurse. Davis: She hated nursing. She hated the kind of confines of ordinary life. So, she too runs away and joins a circus. Running away for her was liberation. Roger Smith: This young blond comes busting through a rickety old gate, asking to be a tiger trainer and everybody was ready to throw her out. She realized very quickly, if she was going to be anything, she had to get around the genius wild animal trainer, the best that ever worked in this country, and that was Louis Roth.

Narration: And to do that, she had to marry him. She got everything that he knew and she took it from there as a tiger trainer. Then she got rid of Louis. She never loved him. Mabel Stark quickly became one of the most popular performers at the Ringling circus, yet the cat acts left some members of the audience dismayed.

Davis: John Ringling had never been all that fond of cage acts involving big cats. They were cumbersome to carry. They were a logistical problem, as far as he was concerned. He is acutely aware of this growing movement that is questioning the ethics of animal performances. As the circus roared into the mids, large profits kept rolling in and the brothers found new ways to spend their money. Charles built a house of pink marble on Sarasota Bay. John and Mable designed a fifty-six room Venetian palace next door. Wherever they were, John and Mable were surrounded by the affluent and celebrated.

Titans of industry and Broadway stars dined at their home. Presidents and First Ladies accompanied them to the circus. Americans were flush with money. Each season was more profitable than the one before. No circus could rival the Ringling show. One of the most striking was Australian wire walker Con Colleano. He remembered practicing as many as seven hours a day, determined to perform a feat on the wire no one else had ever accomplished: a front somersault.

Narration: Colleano failed thousands of times. Sometimes the rebounding wire left him paralyzed for days. Narration: It took five years of failed attempts before Colleano successfully executed a front somersault. Dominique Jando: That was the great impossible feat of the time. It was absolutely unique. Troupe leader Karl had become a tightrope walker almost by accident. At the age of sixteen, he responded to an ad from a circus owner looking for someone to do a handstand. Soon he was executing the stunt over rivers, between buildings. Then he brought his family in on the act.

My grandfather standing on the top of a chair with his wife standing on his shoulders, while he was on a bar that was balanced between Joe Geiger and his brother Herman. Tino Wallenda: At the end of the performance, the audience were whistling and they were stomping their feet, which in Europe would be a great insult. So my grandfather and the rest of troupe, they snuck away quickly into the dressing room.

They really liked what you did. Richard Reynolds: Hands down, Lillian Leitzel. She was the greatest superstar the circus had ever seen. Narration: Leitzel came from a family of circus acrobats in Germany. She began performing with her mother and her aunts when she was just eleven. Almost immediately, she began taking attention away from her jealous mother.

The crowd would count each one. Her record was rotations. Dominique Jando: She had those shoulder dislocation, which were very well staged because there were moments when the hairpins went away and her hair get while she was doing that. Technically it was okay. Physically it was eh. Paul Ringling: Lillian Leitzel was a tremendous actor. She was a performer from the time she took off her sandals until she came back down. Lillian Leitzel was a performer.

Davis: The bandleader, Merle Evans, feared her. She would be angry about the inadequacy of the drum roll. Narration: Performers got ready in the communal dressing tents. Leitzel had demanded her own private dressing tent, fresh flowers daily, and a maid to go with it. Ammed Tuniziani, Trapeze Artist: The power that it takes to do a triple is very hard.

It takes years and years, and dedication, mentally, physically. He made it look so easy. Dominique Jando: His triple somersault was absolutely neat. I mean there was no suspense. He just did it totally naturally. Narration: Leitzel and Codona tied the knot in Chicago between a matinee and the evening show. Dominique Jando: Their marriage was very tempestuous, as any marriage with Lillian Leitzel would be with anybody, and they both had a gigantic ego.

They were both big stars and they knew it. He was beautiful. She had this wonderful charisma and charm. So, it was the sort of Hollywood kind of marriage made in hell, actually. But for the audience it was made in heaven. Circus life was unpredictable, unconventional, magnificent and boisterous. Little girls and boys thought it the epitome of glamor. To those in the know it was anything but. Mary Jane Miller, Aerialist: At night you pulled your curtain shut. You were in your own little cubby-hole and that was your privacy. Jackie Leclaire, Clown, Aerialist: Everybody would wait until the train started because then it makes noise and the noise covers up everything else.

Narration: There was never anything easy about life with the circus. Even the most basic commodities were in short supply. Jackie Leclaire: Water is the most precious thing that we have because there is no water there. Each performer got two buckets, one to wash and one to rinse. Marjorie Cordell Geiger, Aerialist: I had been exposed to modest nudity in dressing rooms with ballet school, but nothing like that.

La Norma Fox, Aerialist: It was a beautiful scene. Everybody was doing something that they liked. Some like to play cards, some play dominoes, some play chess. The performers would be together, the clowns would like to be together, and the working men, they had their own groups, too. Narration: For decades, children traveled with the show, and together the community raised them.

La Norma Fox: I had more babysitters. I could never find my baby. Everybody had my boy. Marjorie Cordell Geiger: Here is this wonderful working woman. Narration: The show went on no matter the weather. The pay was meager, the work never-ending. But for workers and performers alike, circus life was simply too exhilarating to give up. Edward Hoagland: You were the celebrity, not just the performers.

The town came to see you. Even in Manhattan you could see the Empire State Building. Big deal. New York came to you. I still have my buckets. Everybody teases me, but I do. Narration: In the fall of , sixty-two-year-old Charles Ringling suffered a stroke at his home in Sarasota. Narration: I think he was crying about two things, not only the loss of his favorite brother, but also the loss of the camaraderie that the five Ringling brothers had held together.

Family was extremely important to them. John took charge as the show set off the following spring. In March , he revealed plans to move his winter quarters from its old home in Bridgeport, Connecticut to acres outside of Sarasota. That Christmas, the circus opened its doors to Sarasotans, who, for twenty-five cents, toured the grounds for the first time. From then on, the quarters were open to the public twice-weekly as circus personnel and animals prepared for the following season.

La Norma Fox: I had never seen a winter quarters like that. In Europe they had a little place, just a small building. This was like a town. There was all kind of big wagons with machine shops, and it was humongous. Narration: There was a tent and wardrobe building, a railroad car shop, a woodworking mill, an elephant house, a dining hall, and practice barns. Deborah Walk: That totally transformed this area, because Sarasota, Florida, maybe fifty thousand people in the whole county, all of a sudden would see, annually, a hundred thousand people coming down to see the cocoon from which the great show emerges.

But the truth was, John was facing a much more precarious business scene than he ever had with his brothers. As the Greatest Show on Earth took to the road in the spring of , movie star Charlie Chaplin was drawing visitors by the millions to his off-kilter vision of life under the big top. A trip to see Chaplin was cheap—about a quarter. A visit to the Ringling circus cost three times as much.

Jennifer Lemmer Posey: When one wants to go to the cinema, the films were there every day, every week, whereas the circus is only there once a year. Narration: Entertainment choices only proliferated. By , eight years after the first commercial radio broadcast, a quarter of American households had radio sets.

The first broadcast of the World Series in had helped launch a surging interest in sports. Star players had become national celebrities. In , ninety thousand spectators had watched Jack Dempsey knock out his opponent to retain the heavyweight title. It was the largest audience for a sporting event ever. In , John Ringling confronted the lucrative boxing industry head on. When the time came time to sign the traditional four-week lease at Madison Square Garden, Ringling discovered the Garden insisted on reserving Friday nights for prize fighting.

When Ringling refused to sign the contract, his most formidable rival, veteran showman Jerry Mugivan, stepped in. As head of the American Circus Corporation, Mugivan took the deal. Ringling was incensed. Determined not to lose his opening venue to the competition, Ringling bought out the entire American Circus Corporation, comprised of five substantial circuses.

It was a decision that would split the family apart. Davis: The date was inauspicious, September of Just six weeks later the stock market crashed. John Ringling had made the biggest mistake of his life. Narration: After a lackluster season, Alfredo Codona and Lillian Leitzel headed to Europe to perform for the winter.

It had become an annual tradition they loved. After several weeks in Paris together, Codona headed to Berlin. Leitzel had an engagement in Copenhagen. On the night of February 13th, Leitzel was halfway through her act at the Valencia Music Hall, when a swivel snapped. She plummeted some forty-five feet head-first, shattering her skull.

Codona hastened to her side. Over the next few hours, Leitzel woke on-and-off briefly, but only to cry out in agony. The tragedy crushed Codona and shook the entire circus world. He never played it again. In the year and a half since the stock market crash, the country had plunged into a devastating economic depression. Entertainment was a luxury few could afford. In two years, attendance at the movies dropped a third.

Around the country, circuses began folding. Determined to fill seats, John Ringing brought back the cat acts, hiring Clyde Beatty, the most celebrated big cat trainer in America for the opening run in Madison Square Garden. He came out through the safety cage, tossed aside his jungle helmet, and went in the arena with the lions all in there picking up his chair, cracking his whip and sorting them out. Everything about the man leapt into the back seat on the back row. He ran around in that cage with such energy, and such projection, that he involved everybody.

We were on the edge of our seats. He gave the audience something to take home with them. But even Beatty failed to deliver a profitable season. The show closed on September 14th, the earliest date in its history. In the spring of , he was unable to make a loan repayment. Without adequate legal representation, Ringling caved to their demands.

And he would also have to pledge all of his own personal assets as collateral for the loan. It was really almost a punitive action against John. That was no way out. He rarely had more than a few hundred dollars in the bank. In , Ringling made one last trip to the opening of the circus at Madison Square Garden, where manager Sam Gumpertz was in charge. Michael Lancaster: Sam approaches him in the menagerie, then a fight ensues. Sam had him escorted out. It must have felt like it he was thrown out into the alley, like a common criminal, from his own show.

After more than half a century in the entertainment business, the last of the Ringling brothers was gone. Dominique Jando: In a performance, you see one extraordinary feat after another. And every now and then, you send in the clown, and everything comes down to earth, and you just feel relieved. Edward Hoagland: The clowns act out the resentment that we all feel towards people who are more successful than we are. Johnathan Lee Iverson: The greatest clowns are the quietest. They do simple things. They allow you to look the absurdity of your humanity and they allow you to laugh at yourself.

Khat is a thriving business in Ethiopia. The country is the world's biggest exporter for the amphetamine-like leaf. Despite health risks, trade is so lucrative that it is unlikely to slow down any time soon.

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