It’S The Familiar Term For A Circus’ Largest Tent, Where The Main Show Appears

Why is a Circus Called a Big Top?

Update to the Mask Policy: Masks are needed for all guests aged 2 and up who enter the building. Read on to find out more Currently, you are not logged in. Login Currently, you are not logged in. Login The Big Top is a term used to describe a circus tent. When was the last time you wondered why the circus was referred to as the “Big Top”? What does this phrase have to do with a circus, you might wonder. See if we can find out from our pals over at Wonderopolis. First, a little history of the circus.

Following the Seven Years’ Conflict, he put his horse-training skills to use as a showman, a career that he continued after the war ended in 1648.

He dubbed it the “circus” since the word “circus” in Latin means “circumference.” Astley continued to add new acts to the circus, such as acrobats and clowns, in order to keep the spectacle fresh and fascinating.

Typically, these circuses were housed in enormous facilities on a permanent basis.

  • As a result, traveling circuses were established by circus proprietors.
  • As traveling circuses gained in popularity, tent sizes increased in order to accommodate more rings for more performances.
  • This moniker stuck and has become synonymous with circuses everywhere!
  • Make sure to check out our newest exhibit, Circus – Featuring YOU, which opens on February 18th.
  • Are you looking for additional “Why?” questions to never stop asking?

The American Circus in All Its Glory

It was customary for the company manager to call together the entire crew—roustabouts and elephant handlers, clowns and acrobats, tightrope walkers and jugglers—the day before the circus opened to assist in raising the canvas roof to its peaks on its poles, wafting above the fairgrounds the largest single piece of cloth most people had ever seen in their lives. And early the next morning, the group would assemble once more to concoct the complex stench that would characterize the circus. a subtle odor of animal dung mixed with the caramel scent of sugar burning on the cotton candy machines Slivers of wood and piping hot peanuts Tents that have seen better days are being shook free of dust.

  • The sweaty tinge of a ratcheted-up sense of anticipation, or perhaps a tamped-down sense of dread.
  • Something fantastically implausible, if not downright dangerously strange.
  • Of course, the question is, “What is it that it is reminiscent of?” And the explanation appears to be that it is just reminiscent of previous circuses.
  • They all blend together, one real circus with another, and the total of all of them blending with circuses in movies, television programs, and novels.
  • Everyone from the courageous young men on the flying trapeze to the dejected clowns, the high-wire walkers, the animal trainers, and even the besequined females riding horses with plumes atop both their heads seems to have been around for a very long time indeed.
  • The circus as we know it, or at least in its most basic form, turns out to be a very new phenomenon.
  • The most evident origins may be traced back to European equestrian demonstrations.

The rings used in the conventional three-ring circus in the United States are derived from equestrian rings.

Their hippodromes rose in size and splendor until they were on par with the world’s biggest opera houses.

British equestrian Philip Astley is widely regarded as the founder of the modern circus, and his Royal Amphitheatre in London, built in the late 1700s, included four floors of gallery seating and a main floor large enough to hold operas, plays, and circus events.

What a dazzling glow erupted around them all as that long, clear, brilliant row of lights finally came into view.

And it would be one of Hughes’ employees, John Bill Ricketts, who would flee to Philadelphia in the 1790s to build the first large-scale American circus, which would eventually become known as the Great American Circus.

In the absence of huge cities large enough to support expansive opera buildings, performers on tour from Europe discovered that there was money to be made presenting brief concerts to throngs of farmers in dozens of small towns and villages throughout the United States.

When big-top tents and privately owned railroads were developed, American showmen were able to establish the circus as we know it today, which lasted for more than one hundred years.

The popularity of Michael Gracey’s 2017 film The Greatest Showman — a musical about P.

Barnum’s vain-glorious accomplishments and eventual regret — served as the inspiration for the documentary’s production.

Something that is far less appetizing to modern tastes.

The Circus presents a persuasive argument that the interaction of these entrepreneurs produced the image of the circus that most people in the United States today have in mind when the word circus is mentioned.

Moreover, Barnum’s greatest achievement in this respect occurred when, in his seventies, he recognized the organizational brilliance of the decades-younger Bailey, quietly working with him while publicly announcing their irreconcilable rivalry—a move that was characteristically Barnum.

Ringling Bros.

Bailey Circus was in operation until it was forced to close in 2017 due to a prolonged fall in ticket sales.

Always a divided site—fun for the whole family with a pinch of the forbidden and the abnormal sprinkled in—the circus was always a bifurcated place.

Women in tights paraded about the middle ring, while peepshows were hidden away in a corner of the fairway, providing a tantalizing glimpse of the flesh.


Barnum’s brilliance was in his ability to smooth off some of the harsher edges.

Ministers were queued up to hail the circus as healthful amusement, rather than immoral pleasure and laziness, as he had hoped.

However, the other aspect of P.

Barnum’s brilliance was his ability to avoid sanding off too much.

He still had bearded ladies and conjoined twins, which was unusual for him.

Through all of his inventions, he managed to keep a little bit of the weirdness of the circus, a little bit of the odd and the exotic, alive.

Every alteration brought about a normalization of the circus, cutting into its weird core, as the twentieth century progressed and accelerated into the twenty-first.

However, as Ringling Bros.

The circus is no longer a circus if it does not have its shady parts.

In an era when OSHA regulations and required liability insurance were in place, the culture expected safety in a show whose industry was inherently dangerous.

Because of the shrinking of the planet, African animals no longer looked to be unusual to the outside world.


Because of the surge in animal rights advocacy, elephant parades and caged cats have been more outlawed in recent years.

Given the outrageous and exploitative claims made by P.

Barnum’s barkers, it is no surprise that sideshows flourished.

Siamese twins, to be exact!

A reptile creeps on his belly and walks, speaks, and crawls about on his back and legs!

It was just a few decades ago that viewers would commonly clap at the conclusion of films.

As a result, performance takes on a kind of melancholy, as if it were a failed loving gesture in the eyes of modern audiences.

The spandex-clad woman rotating inside the gyroscope is only the object of a quiescent lust, and she does not move.

See also:  How Long Tent A Steak

Despite all of P.

Barnum’s haughtiness, the fact is that a slight tweak may turn anything into something truly evil.

Historically, the depiction of circuses in films has been bleak, dating back to Cecil B.

Circus music was always a little strange.

It enters with a tangle of chromatic scales.

Consider, for a moment, how circuses used to be organized.

And there was something infectious about their passion.

Townspeople would take unneeded diversions to drive past the fairgrounds and see the circus trucks unload, wasting their time.

It’s time to bring the circus to town!

Behind the grandstand, a diesel generator is banging away.

A huge fan placed near an open tent flap to combat the heat just adds noise while doing little to move air.

A clown in charge of five dogs who were so old that the audience winced every time one of the dogs leapt through a hoop.

The summer heat compelled people to fan themselves with whatever they could find: a paper popcorn tub torn open, a folded church bulletin scrounged from a purse, or even ticket stubs splayed across the table like playing cards.

The high-wire act kept us on the edge of our seats as the performers risked their lives.

The clowns didn’t exactly make us laugh, but they did manage to make us smile.

The ringmaster, complete with top hat and red coat, white jodhpurs, and black boots, cues our attention to each new performance with a flick of his baton, is the highlight of the show.

In the middle of it all, the weird complex aroma of a circus would waft through the air, reminding us of something that wasn’t quite there—as if we were superimposing on this circus all of the circuses that had ever been—

Funding information

An NEH production grant of $200,000 to Filmmakers Collaborative, Inc. enabled the creation of The Circus, an American Experience documentary that will broadcast on PBS on October 8. In 2016, the Barnum Museum and the Bridgeport Public Library won a $190,000 grant to fund the P. T. Barnum Digital Collection, which is now being developed. Beginning in 2004, the Cincinnati Art Museum obtained three funds totalling $386,000 to finance a traveling exhibition on the golden period of the circus poster, which will tour around the United States.

The Shelburne Museum’s “Papering the Town: Circus Posters in America” exhibition, which included some of the largest posters in its collection, provided inspiration for some of the photos used in this article.

Republication statement

Unedited republication of this work is permitted with the following credit: “Originally published as “Running Away with the Circus: How the Big Top captured our hearts” in the Fall 2018 issue of Humanitiesmagazine, a publishing of the National Endowment for the Humanities.” In the event that you republish it or if you have any questions, please tell us [email protected].

Definition of BIG TOP

This piece is available for unedited republication, without charge, with the following credit: “Originally published as “Running Away with the Circus: How the Big Top captured our hearts” in the Fall 2018 issue of Humanitiesmagazine, a publishing of the National Endowment for the Humanities. ” If you are republishing it or have any questions, please tell us [email protected].


Jerry, please accept my applause. Ringlingville USA: The Incredible Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success is a book about the Ringling Brothers and their incredible circus success (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005) . Ron Burgess is a writer who lives in the United Kingdom. Clowning Around: Techniques from a Professional Clown (Williamson, 2001). John Culhane is a writer who lives in New York City. American Circus: An Illustrated History is a book on the history of the circus in the United States (Holt, 1990).

  • Dahlinger, ed (Iconografix, 2000).
  • Davis is the author of this work.
  • Candace Fleming is a writer who lives in New York City.
  • Barnum is a biography written by P.T.
  • American Circus Posters in Full Color, edited by Charles Philip Fox, is available online (Dover Publications, 1978).
  • Emmett Kelly is known as “The Greatest Clown on the Face of the Earth” (Truman State University Press, 2014).
  • Nelson (Heimburger House Publishing Company, 2013).

Our Family’s History with the Ringling Brothers and Sisters (originally published 1960; reprint, University Press of Florida, 2008).

Quintana, Norma I.


CircusCarnival Trucks: A Photographic Archive from 1923 to 2000 (Iconografix, 2001).

Ringling’s Life Story of the Ringling Brothers is a biography written by Alfred T.

Linda Simon and Simon, Linda The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus (Reaktion Books, 2014).

“The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus.” An Unforgettable Night Under the Big Top at the Hartford Circus (History Press, 2014).

From 1901 until 1927, as seen by photographer F.W.

Steve Ward is the author of this work.

Susan Weber, Kenneth L. Ames, and Matthew Wittmann are the editors of this volume. The American Circus is a form of entertainment that takes place in the United States (Yale University Press, 2012).

The “Greatest Show on Earth” folds its tent for good

  • The final act of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus The final act of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus 08:54 Due to dwindling ticket sales, the Ringling Brothers and BarnumBailey Circus will stage its farewell performance two weeks from now, after attempting to balance the numbers as best it could. This implies that everyone who wants to take one final look will have to do it quickly since time is of the essence. Lee Cowan has the following to say: “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages are invited to attend. Welcome to the World’s Most Amazing Show on Earth!” “The Greatest Show on Earth,” according to the boast, is a big claim. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, on the other hand, had every cause to be proud. There was a time when there was nothing else quite like it in the world. Ringling was controlled mayhem, with a dazzling assortment of performers risking life and limb amid a menagerie of exotic creatures from other regions. Ringling was the epitome of controlled mayhem. Despite the passage of 146 years, the thrills are still present, but the sense of astonishment appears to have dissipated. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Ringling’s Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson bemoans the fact that today, when children go in search of the Greatest Show on Earth, many of them look for it on their cellphones rather than at the circus itself. “Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common. We’re creating a culture that doesn’t truly believe in the power of wonder any longer “Iverson shared his thoughts. “It’s impossible to discover the awe that we provide on social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube. In order to participate, you must physically be there, you must be present, and it requires interacting to others who are different from yourself. That is the method through which something has been created.” A truth of modern life that brought Ringling’s Big Top to its knees is a travesty of justice. According to Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, “Without a doubt, it was the most difficult business choice that we’ve ever had to make.” “And we did it as a family,” says the author. His father, Irvin Feld, purchased the circus from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey for $8 million in 1967. They were custodians of a piece of Americana, as well as a haven for a distinctive community whose desire to dazzle surpassed all other considerations. According to Feld, “there is a love for the institution, but there is an even greater love for the individuals who make up that institution.” “That’s the most challenging aspect,” says the author. Feld grew up with sawdust running in his veins, and his three children, Alana, Nicole, and Juliette, did as well. They have even shared the stage with the Ringling Brothers and Sisters clowns on occasion. “I spent a brief period of time in circus camp,” Nicole explained. My teeth were used to light a match on the floor while performing in a roller skating performance! “Achieve you think you’ll be able to do that?” Cowan was the one who inquired. “Because it’s a terrific party trick,” says the host. “I’m not sure I even want to attempt at this point!” she exclaimed with a giggle. The Feld sisters worked hard over the years to assist their father in infusing the circus with 21st century sensibilities while still maintaining the show’s 19th century traditions. They were successful in this endeavor. However, it was a delicate balancing act that, in the end, failed to bring their bottom line into balance. The aerial ballet “Luawana” is performed at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1951 by a group of circus performers. ‘Circus of the World’ “The business model was no longer viable,” Alana explained. “And we don’t want to jeopardize what has been dubbed “the greatest show on the planet.” It is, without a doubt, an emotional experience.” Ringling’s long and illustrious career began in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Their name may still be seen all over the place, as can be found at Circus World, the country’s greatest circus museum. Al, Alf, Charles, John, and Otto were the five brothers who erected their first tent in Baraboo, Wisconsin, in 1884 and began hauling their variety show throughout the Midwest in wagons. At some point, they had grown large enough to acquire their most significant rival, the Barnum and Bailey circus. The combined acts brought fun to Main Street USA on a scale that had never been seen before. Hello, everyone! The circus has arrived in town! A procession of elephants from the Ringling Bros. Circus passes through Hamilton, Ontario, in 1912, drawing the attention of local residents. ‘Circus of the World’ Its coming had been widely anticipated. Approximately one mile in length, the circus train was a huge attraction. Man and beast would be unloaded at each stop, and within hours, a barren lot would be transformed into a canvas metropolis of tents and tarps. The Big Top has a capacity of 12,000 people. Howard Tibbals was so taken aback that he spent the better part of his 81 years re-creating the scene in miniature and preserving the memory of what he’d witnessed as a child. In Sarasota, Florida, a reproduction of his work (currently on exhibit at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art) spans half the length of a football field. To far, he has made more than 150 circus wagons, 59 railway cars, ticket booths, and concession stalls – all by hand, and each with an attention to detail that is unparalleled. Cowan inquired, “Do you have any notion how much money you’ve spent on this?” Cowan replied, “I have no clue.” And no one needs to know,” Tibbals said, a grin on his face. Howard Tibbals’ huge miniature circus model is a work of art in its own right. CBS News (CBS News) Despite the fact that Ringling had abandoned the Big Top in favor of the air-conditioned luxury of stadiums, his model portrays the romance of the touring circus, a spell cast on anybody seeking adventure. And you’ve heard stories about individuals fleeing to join the circus, right? Karen and Greg DeSanto accomplished just that, joining Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as members of their traveling clown company. They first met at Clown College, where they became fast friends (in fact, Greg was a teacher there). He is presently the director of the International Clown Hall of Fame in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Karen and Greg DeSanto are married. CBS News (CBS News) “Does that sound as lovely a life as it appears?” Cowan inquired. “Without a doubt,” Greg said. “To be honest, I believe it’s more romantic now that we’re looking back.” “Yeah, in hindsight, that’s correct!” Karen burst out laughing. “But, you know, it’s almost like a way of life at the moment.” A way of living that led them around the back yards of America in their little house on wheels. “It was 6 feet long, 3 feet broad, and maybe 9 feet in all,” Greg recalled the size of the structure. “So it was a closet with a door,” says the author. The circus was a melting pot where size didn’t matter
  • Languages and traditions mingled together with the symphony of animals that journeyed with them on their journey. Karen reflected on the situation, saying, “My first train car was right next to the elephant car, and so I’d lay out and they’d open the windows for the elephants and their trunks would come out and they’d sway, and I’d feed them, and they’d try to reach over and give me treats as well, because there was a baby tiger that lived on our train car at one point. An adorable newborn Bengal Tiger, it would sprint up and down the corridor!” The animals, particularly those elephants, had long been the main attraction at Ringling, but they were also the company’s Achilles heel. Animal rights activists have long opposed the practice of forcing wild animals to perform for entertainment purposes. While Feld fought allegations of abuse for years, he was eventually awarded more than $20 million in court settlements. Nonetheless, Ringling brought in their famed pachyderms last year, which, according to Feld, marked the beginning of the end for the company. Jonathan Lee Iverson is the ringmaster. CBS News (CBS News) We witnessed a decline in ticket sales and attendance that was far more than we had anticipated at the time we made the decision to remove the elephants from the road in May of 2016,” Mr. Smith explained. Feld Entertainment still has lots of things to keep people entertained even if the circus isn’t around. It also provides us shows like Disney on Ice and Monster Truck Jam, to mention a few examples. There are, of course, other circuses, but there will never be another Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. Similarly to what Iverson said, “My thoughts were racing through my head the other day, thinking, “Man, we’re going to be the last voice any of these circus fans would ever hear.” Wow! That’s something I’m clinging to. “Don’t cry because it’s over- grin because it happened!” says Dr. Seuss, and this is something I believe.” For further information, please see:
  • In addition to tickets for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (which are available until May 21), Feld Entertainment also offers tickets for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida and the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Circus Homecoming will take place in Baraboo, Wisconsin, from July 20-23, 2017, and will feature performances by Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation
  • Circus World will be located in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
See also:  How Many Round Tables Fit Under A 20X40 Tent

Download our Free App

For Breaking NewsAnalysis, click here. Install the CBS News mobile application for free. Thanks for taking the time to read CBS NEWS. Create a free account or log in to access other features. Please provide your email address in order to proceed. Please provide a valid email address in order to proceed.


The New York Times Archives is credited with this image. See the article in its original context from June 5, 1994, SectionCN, Page14 of the New York Times Magazine. Purchase Reprints It is only available to home delivery and digital customers who have access to the TimesMachine. Concerning the Archive This is a scanned version of a story from The Times’s print archive, which was published before the publication of the newspaper’s online edition in 1996. The Times does not modify, edit, or update these stories in order to preserve the integrity of the original publication.

  • THE great, glittering silver train of the Ringling Brothers and BarnumBailey Circus used to pull into railroad yards in June, generally in the middle of the night, as some people recall from the 1930s and 1940s, when they were performing.
  • The traditional route for Ringling Brothers’ Connecticut tour would begin in Stamford and then include stops in Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Haven, New London, Hartford, and a few other smaller cities, with the majority of the destinations being for one-day, two-show engagements.
  • When a Ringling Brothers matineee performance was cancelled due to bad weather on July 6, 1944, a tent filled with more than 6,000 spectators was destroyed by fire.
  • The fire claimed the lives of 168 individuals and wounded more than 500 others; the cause of the fire has never been identified.
  • The Big Top has once again been a common sight in at least certain sections of Connecticut, bringing back a piece of Americana that had been on the verge of extinction for decades as a result of that restrictive legislation.
  • For them, seeing the circus under a tent is a novel experience.
  • a smidgeon of the past Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus (which combined in 1956, the same year that Ringling Brothers began performing in tents) will be in Danbury on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and in Greenwich on Saturday and Sunday to bring a little of the past to the present.
See also:  How Many Watts Do I Need For My Grow Tent

Safety procedures will be strictly enforced at all performances, as has been the case since circuses began re-appearing in the state in the 1950s.

Also on hand will be representatives from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the local fire marshal, as well as 25 police officers who will manage traffic and oversee overall security surrounding both 150-by-300-foot tents.

For the last decade, the Danbury Jaycees have sponsored the circus in Danbury.

Our earnings are adequate (for example, we earned $8,000 last year), but we might earn far more money if the legislation weren’t so onerous.

Chianese said that the circus is sponsored by the Danbury Jaycees as a fund-raising event, with the proceeds going to a variety of charitable projects in the community.

According to Mr.

Consequently, a third performance has been added for the closing day of the Danbury Festival on Friday, September 22nd.

According to Dede Miles, the Family Center’s circus co-chairwoman, “Deputy Chief Joseph Benoit is not going to charge us as a kind gesture.” We will have to pay time and a half for 25 police officers, which is what the Police Department claims we are required to have,” adds the mayor.

The first-day performance will be a dinner show with cocktails and dancing, as befits the state’s most affluent town.

Circusgoers attending the Saturday night performance will sit at tables that have been put up in the area where the bleachers will be located the following day, when the three performances will be available to the general public.

Miles explained.

However, in a world where hyperbole is the norm, the CarsonBarnes Circus, which operates primarily in the Southwest and Midwest and which some circus historians, such as Frank Robie, the incoming president of the Circus Fans Association of America, believe to be the largest, is challenging that claim.

  1. Even yet, as far as tent shows go, this one is a behemoth, boasting a touring ensemble of more than 100 performers and circus staff members, as well as ten tigers, ten horses, five Bulgarian bears, and nine elephants, among other animals.
  2. on Saturday, while the eight-member circus band provides the kind of music that only circus bands are capable of providing.
  3. In recent years, throughout addition to the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers act, a number of smaller circuses have performed in the state of California.
  4. C Hill’s Great American Circus, Vidbel’s Olde Tyme Circus, and the one-ring Big Apple Circus.
  5. “We were thinking about inquiring about performing in Hartford this year,” Bruce W.
  6. “However, several of our members felt it would be inappropriate given the fact that it was the 50th anniversary of the Hartford circus fire.” Mr.
  7. The Hartford circus fire occurred more than a century ago, but nowadays’ tents are entirely fire resistant, according to Mr.

Consequently, several of the restrictions are implausible.

There are differences across towns in various states,” he adds.

Douglas Holwadel, the circus’s owner, stated that it was “extremely expensive to play in Connecticut.” He claims that the restrictions are the most stringent in the country.

The property is next inspected by a state trooper from the office to ensure that the access routes for emergency vehicles are adequate and that there are no overhead wires present.

When the circus arrives, a trooper from the Fire Marshal’s Office is dispatched to the site and will remain there until the circus has dispersed.

There are plenty of exits and fire extinguishers.

In addition, the trooper ensures that fire extinguishers are set 20 feet apart along the tent’s inside wall, as required.

Even more shockingly, the Fire Department had not been warned that the circus was coming to town.

As things progressed, it was discovered that the main tent had been waterproofed with a very combustible mixture of paraffin wax and gasoline.

“There’s no way the tent is going to catch fire these days.” However, the regulations in this country continue to be quite strict, maybe more so than anyplace else.” Aside from having to deal with the state’s severe rules, circuses that visit the state sometimes have difficulty obtaining suitable venues.

However, the Greenwich venue, which is situated on a green field, will undoubtedly appeal more to circus purists and individuals who have fond recollections of circuses from their childhood.

They’ve gone the way of the dodo, much like circus parades themselves.

Sword-swallowers, knife-throwers, “fat ladies,” and midgets were all featured in the old sideshows.

“Those attractions used to be quite popular in little communities, but television altered everything,” Mr. Hoh explained. “As for some of the other actions, people have just become more sensitive to certain issues,” says the author.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *