Dilettante 23: Ringling Brothers circus

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Welp, it’s 20 years since this Bay Guardian feature about the Ringling Brothers circus coming to San Francisco, and … after 146 years, the Big Top just shut down for good in 2017.

The circus used to be more like the county fair — edgy, seedy, you might lose your wallet to some toothless carny from out of town sort of thing — then in 1978, Irvin Feld purchased Ringling Brothers for $8 million (not much) and embraced family friendliness. Feld also closed the freak show “ten-in-one” portion of the circus in order to stop capitalizing on people’s deformities. Karma somewhat restored, the circus took off once again.

This informative article contains the true history of the Big Top, with an extensive “freak” profile. Human kidnapping and exploitation was part and parcel of the circus industry 100 years ago.

Barnum and Bailey’s original circus featured a bearded lady who gained statss as an acclaimed musician in the 1900s and used her voice to empower other circus performers, and she strived to end the use of the word “freak.” But then, and now, in modern circuses like our friends the 999 Eyes Authentic Freakshow, the freaks empower themselves. The debate rages on.

A major contribution to the demise of the world’s most famous circus, born in 1882, was growing boycotts and distaste for using trained animals, transporting and housing them in inhumane conditions.

The Ringling Brothers acquired their first elephant in 1888, five years after their founding, and the circus greatly expanded after that. Ironically, both animal cruelty and a dedication to stopping animal cruelty killed Ringling Brothers.

Over the course of our lifetimes, due to public outcry and changing opinion (and the movie Blackfish), the mother of all circuses phased out the elephants first, which used to be the hugest draw. Attendance plummeted.

In May 2016, the 40 remaining circus elephants were retired to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. But then the bleeding hearts and mounting costs caused Feld to close it and quietly disperse the pachyderms to other places.


You can still visit the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, Florida. “The Ringling” seems to be a pretty cool oasis of art and community spot in addition to a circus museum.

Bonus: Check out the Ringling Brothers’ history and the rest of this incredibly comprehensive circus sideshow site with art, banners, lists, and many photos — of American circuses, sideshows, famous performers and sideshow freaks, circus owners, “candy butchers” (vendors), circus owners, circus movies, the best circus books, and a “life on the circus” page with interesting facts about their days off.


Click through to read “Circus Maximus,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on September 1, 1998.

This is the 23rd entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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Bonus: Here’s the footage of the Big Top’s goodbye in 2017 –


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