Lions and Tigers Loose in the Streets of Blairsville!
That somewhat overstated headline ran atop a quarter-page ad for Colonel C.T. Ames’ New Orleans Circus in the 1869 Blairsville Press. What it really announced was the end of a drought. The fourth to visit Indiana County that year, Ames’ show was welcomed by an entertainment-starved community that had seen just one full-sized circus in seven years. The Civil War had gobbled up men, horses and capital through 1865, and the re-formed troupes took a while to return to non-metropolitan venues. Not that we were unknown territory, even then; shows as large as P.T. Barnum’s Colossal Menagerie and as small as Professor Hamilton’s Flea Circus had made regular stops here since 1847.
Why such commotion over a mere circus? Well, imagine for a moment that computers, TV, movies and even the phonograph have yet to be invented. Now add twenty hours to your work week, and top it off with a legal requirement not to entertain yourself on Sundays. Suddenly, a caravan of exotic animals, acrobats, trick riders and clowns “nearly a mile in length” rolls into town; there’s a calliope up front, a brass band in the middle and a tethered hot-air balloon at the end. Are you excited to see them? You bet you are – to you, that’s Disney World rolling down Main Street!
Pennsylvania was intimately involved in circus history from the start. America’s first circus opened in Philadelphia – our nation’s capital – in 1793, with President Washington attending. In the 1800s, Pennsylvania native Adam Forepaugh almost single-handedly put the business and art of circuses on equal footing, allowing them to survive and thrive in the Industrial Age. And Benjamin Wallace, whose show was second only to Ringling Brothers’ in its heyday, was born right here in East Wheatfield Township.
The golden age of the American circus was 1870-1930. Those sixty years between the opening of the West and the coming of “talkies” coincided with the greatest population growth in our history. America’s rapidly-expanding transportation system and migrating populace made the traveling tent-circus the ideal entertainment of its day . . . and a perfect fit for still-rural Indiana County.
It wasn’t all hearts and flowers. Like much of Pennsylvania, Indiana County had a love/hate relationship with the circus, and with good reason. The smaller the show, the more victims of pickpockets, card sharps and con artists were left in its wake. Brawls between “carnies” and “rubes” were common, and even some who weren’t circus people took advantage of our love of the Big Top. A Mister Sharpe made the rounds of Indiana businesses in September 1877, putting up posters for an October visit by the Springer Circus; after having posters for the show’s next stop printed on credit, the bogus business agent vanished, having first enjoyed free lodging, meals, and “numerous potations of whiskey.”
Continuous evolution was at the heart of any circus’ success. While there were constants like animals and acrobats, the big draws were changed often to exploit whatever novelty was then capturing public attention. Balloon ascensions, roller-skaters and (gasp!) an electric light were featured in the 1880s, while automobiles circled the ring in the 1890s and cowboy film stars led circus parades of the 1930s. Of course, some shows were not above manufacturing their own novelties. A painted pachyderm was passed off as the world’s only white elephant, and one menagerie displayed its “rare Tartarian Cow-allapus” to credulous county residents. Circuses and performers even stayed novel by re-naming themselves periodically. A year after its 1869 visit, Bryan’s Grand Caravan and lion-tamer Herr Conklin returned here as the Campbell Zoological Institute and Monsieur Conqulin!
Yet most circus evolution was legitimate and even forward-thinking. Starting in 1827, touring by rail allowed any circus to have the entire country as a potential audience, and by switching to performance in tents instead of existing structures, they were no longer limited to the big cities or bound by a host’s schedule. Trucks began replacing trains in 1906 when, as the Gazette observed, railroad costs became “a source of growing alarm for circus proprietors.” And when the postwar boom proved to be a suburban one, most circuses returned to performing in arenas (Ringling’s final tent-show was in Pittsburgh, 1956).
The number of circuses visiting our county varied widely from year to year, even during their heyday. Economics was the biggest factor. The Depression of 1877 and the Panic of 1896 each dropped the annual number to zero, while good times brought three or more per season. Curiously, the second-greatest number of troupes in our history visited during the first full year of the Great Depression: 1930 saw six circuses pass this way, each augmented by performers thrown out of work when vaudeville died. It was all downhill from 1931 to 1945, with a rebound nipped in the bud by WWII’s gas rationing and the draft. Ah, but then came the Boom….
What’s the life-blood of a circus? Children! It was no coincidence that the highest (and final) peak for circuses in Indiana County and nationwide came in the year 1953. GIs returning from WWII had married and started families in record numbers, and their first kids were turning six and seven that year. The local economy was soaring, too. Between April and October, SEVEN circuses (including two Shrines) visited our boroughs. Circus toys were top sellers that Christmas; in theaters, films like Elephant Walk and Man on a Tightrope packed ‘em in, and three circus-themed shows ran on network television. Anybody remember the Buick Circus Hour?
But as Baby Boomers passed into adulthood, good times for the circus seemed to pass with them. Television and the advent of home computers increased the postwar trend away from public entertainment, while the Internet and mobile devices further encouraged our cocooning in recent years. Animal rights activism has had a profound effect for better and for worse, even closing Ringling Brothers in 2017. Just five circuses came to our county in this century’s first decade – fewer than in the single year of 1953, and the lowest ten-year total ever.
Will there be an end to this drought? Could be. The success of recent films like The Greatest Showman and Dumbo imply a renewed (albeit historical) interest. And to our east and west, fundraising Shrine circuses (a Pennsylvania innovation) still draw crowds to their permanent Altoona and Pittsburgh venues. But live or die, the Circus has left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness, even for those who have never heard the ringmaster’s shout of “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages…!” See those ten notes below? A 1993 Oberlin study says you’re more likely to recognize them than any opening riff but Beethoven’s Fifth when heard. They’re from Entrance of the Gladiators, played as performers entered the ring in almost every American circus since 1901. Hey Rube !!