There are few people who have not heard of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which is a tribute to the marketing genius of P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey. To see the beginning of this great company, we must travel all the way back.
James Anthony Bailey and James E. Cooper created the “Cooper & Bailey Circus” in the 1860’s. P.T. Barnum had already created a recognizable brand with his name and was approached by a different circus from Delavan, Wisconsin. They asked if he might lend his name and financial backing to their company, which would then be called “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome”. He agreed, and the competition between the two circuses began. Rather than continue to fight for the same customers, the two circuses ultimately joined forces in 1881, and renamed the merger “Barnum & Bailey Circus.”
In 1884, five of the seven Ringling Brothers started a small circus which they moved from town to town. Its popularity grew and soon, they had the largest traveling amusement enterprise in the Midwest. Bailey died in 1905 and in 1907, the Ringling Brothers purchased the “Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth”, but ran the two circuses separately.
By 1919 only two of the Ringling Brothers remained, and it was just too much work to continue running the circuses separately. They decided to merge the two corporations together. In March, posters all over New York proclaimed, “The Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions.” It was a huge success.
Charles Ringling died in 1926, but John Ringling remained at the head of the company, and he made some notable changes. He moved the headquarters to Florida in 1927, and in 1929, acquired “American Circus” and incorporated them into his company. When John died in 1936, his nephew, John Ringling North, took over.
In 1944, a circus fire caused 167 deaths, some of which, still have not been identified, DNA testing notwithstanding. The circus tents, which were supposed to be fireproof, turned out to be flammable due to the paraffin materials used. Circus management was found to be negligent and several Ringling executives served sentences in jail. All profits for the next ten years were used to pay the claims filed against the show by the City of Hartford, Connecticut, and to the survivors of the fire.
Due to the advancement of television and movies, circus attendance took a dive. In 1957, North took another big step when he decided to graduate from portable tents to permanent structures in stadiums and other permanent venues. It was a risk, but it was right on the money and propelled them forward in a way that portable tents had not been able to.
In 1967, Irvin Feld, Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Hofheinz, together with backing from Richard Blum, bought the company outright. Irvin removed the freak shows and the less spectacular acts, making it more family friendly and interesting. He established a Clown College in 1968 to improve the quality of the clown shows. In 1970, Feld’s only son, Kenneth, came on board. The circus was sold to Mattel in 1971, with the stipulation that the Feld family was still in charge of Management. The Fields re-purchased the circus in 1982, and then when Irvin died in 1984, Kenneth began to run the company. In 2004, Kenneth’s daughter, Nicole Feld, became the first female producer of the circus. In 2009, her sister Alana joined her as a co-producer.
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