RBB&B Circus at the Bronx Coliseum, 1929

Collection of Matthew Wittmann
Collection of Matthew Wittmann

Above is a large-format photograph of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performing at the Bronx Coliseum in March 1929 that I recently acquired at an auction. It was taken by Edward J. Kelty (1888–1967), who has been described as the “Cecil B. DeMille of circus photography” for the spectacular series of oversize prints he made using a custom-built banquet camera in the 1920s and 1930s. The photograph is of the so-called grand entrée when the circus performers and animals paraded around the ring in spectacular costume to open the show. The 1929 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was notable for being the last of the lavish editions of the show produced prior to the stock market crash that plunged the United States (and the circus industry) into depression. The circus was also unique for the fact that instead of beginning the season at Madison Square Garden, it began in the Bronx to celebrate the public opening of what was then called the New York Coliseum. The building was originally constructed as an auditorium for Philadelphia’s 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition, and it was subsequently purchased by Edward B. Whitewell, owner of the Starlight Amusement Park, which was a kind of Bronx version of Coney Island that flourished in the 1920s. The arena was reconstructed at Bronx River and 177th Street with a Romanesque facade and seating for around 15,000. The March 21st opening of the building was celebrated by ex-Governor Al Smith and other dignitaries, although the photo above seems to be from a later daytime performance by the Ringling show. The stars of the circus were Goliath, billed as “The Monster Sea Elephant,” and Hugo Zacchini, an Italian daredevil who sensationally reintroduced the “human cannonball” act to the American circus. After a successful week in the Bronx, the circus transferred to Madison Square Garden for the remainder of its New York run. Despite its glittering debut, the New York Coliseum was not very successful as a venue, although it hosted everything from boxing matches to midget auto racing before being repurposed by the U.S. Army as vehicle-maintenance center during World War II. It was subsequently taken over by the New York City Transit Authority, and the building is now known as the West Farms Bus Depot.

A massive collection of Kelty photographs is available via the Ringling Museum here. For further information, see Step Right this Way: The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty and my own Circus and the City catalogue. All information about the history of the Bronx Coliseum is from a “Streetscapes” column by the peerless Christopher Gray in the New York Times.

*A reader noted that there is a Kelty photograph in Josh Sapan’s neat new book The Big Picture: America in Panorama


Victorian Society Award

VSNY award

I just wanted to post a quick note to say thank you to everyone at the Victorian Society New York for honoring the Circus and the City exhibition and catalogue with an award at their annual reception. As I said in my brief remarks, it is a real honor to get this kind of recognition for a project that I worked so long and hard on. Needless to say, it was a fundamentally collaborative endeavor so I also want to acknowledge and thank some of the many people who helped bring the project to fruition, namely, Ken Ames, Nina Stritzler-Levine, David Jaffee, Alexis Mucha, Han Vu, Ann Tartsinis, Barbara Burn, Laura Grey, Eric Edler, Ian Sullivan, and, last but not least, Susan Weber. As you can see, it is really a quite nice-looking certificate so I was not all that surprised when I found out that it was designed by my associate, nineteenth-century printing maven Doug Clouse, and his partner at The Graphics Office.

Ringling Bros. Circus in Brooklyn, 1909

As the ‘Big Show‘ is back in Brooklyn today for the first time since the late 1930s, I wanted to throw up a quick post about the Ringling Bros. first visit to the borough. In late 1907, the Ringling brothers purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and they ran the two circuses separately until 1919, when the combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was formed. During the early twentieth century the winter quarters for the Ringling show were in Baraboo Wisconsin, and the circus typically opened in Chicago each season before heading out on tour. The Barnum & Bailey Circus on the other hand was based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and would open its season at Madison Square Garden. In 1909, supposedly because Al had always dreamed of the Ringling circus conquering the Big Apple, they decided to switch things up and the Barnum & Bailey Circus was sent to Chicago, and the Ringling show made the 1100 mile trip to makes its New York City debut. They opened on March 25, and despite positive reviews, business was a bit slow during their month-long stand at the Garden. On Sunday, April 25, the circus moved to a lot at Fifth Avenue and Third Street in Brooklyn to prepare for the first show of the season under canvas, i.e., in a tent. Traffic and subway construction in Manhattan meant that circuses were no longer able to parade there. This was unfortunate because the 1909 Ringling parade is remembered by circus historians as perhaps the best that the brothers ever put together. On Monday morning at 9am, a procession that included 44 tableaux and cage wagons, a huge steam calliope, chariots drawn by horses, zebras and elephants, mounted riders, and a herd of twenty-two elephants, began its grand march through the streets of Brooklyn. A map of the route:

Rand, McNally & Co.'s Brooklyn, 1903.
Rand, McNally & Co.’s Brooklyn, 1903.
Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

When I was canvasing for materials for the Circus and the City exhibition, I stumbled across a box of photographic dry plates at the Somers Historical Society. The set of twelve plates depicted a circus parade and were produced by the Obrig Camera Co. of New York. Although labeled as “Barnum & Bailey,” when I looked at them on a lightbox it was plainly evident that they were actually Ringling Bros. wagons. After scanning the plates, the detective work began. Given the box was from Obrig, it seemed likely that the photographs were taken somewhere in New York City. And of course the only year that the Ringling show mounted a parade here was 1909. The seemingly characteristic Brooklyn brownstones in the background offered another clue, and I headed out to the Brooklyn Public Library to figure out the parade route, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle duly provided.  Luckily, the plate that featured Ringling’s famous Swan Bandwagon and its twenty-four-horse hitch gave a long view of the block, which included a rather distinctive cupola.

Somers Historical Society

With the route and photographs in hand, I was hoping to be able to determine for certain when and where they were taken. Starting off from the old circus lot (where the Old Stone House now sits), I made my way through Park Slope and up to Flatbush Ave. via Sterling Place where, much to my delight, a promising cupola came into view. Walking a bit further east on Sterling Place made it clear that this was the right block. The plates were made by a photographer standing on the south side of Sterling Place looking west to the intersection with Flatbush Ave. on the morning of April 25, 1909 (see the red arrow on the map above). A few more slides from the series:

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Here’s a picture I took from the approximate position of the original photographer. The block is obviously a lot greener today, but the north side of the street looks almost exactly like it did over a hundred years ago. Sterling Place

Although Brooklynites turned out to enjoy the parade and the headline verdict in the Eagle the next day was “Ringling Bros. Show Best Ever,” this was the only time that the Ringlings visited Brooklyn prior to the debut of the combined show. And while the parade has long gone by the wayside, it’s nice to see the Big Show back in Brooklyn again.



Frog Benders

Courtesy of New York State Museum
New York State Museum

Here’s a link to a new short piece about what was perhaps the most interesting costume in the Circus and the City exhibition. It belonged to Friede DeMarlo, a German-born dancer and circus performer who learned the art of ‘bending’ from her husband Harry DeMarlo in the 1910s. Their signature act, called “Frog’s Paradise,” was a combination dancing/contortion/aerial routine that they performed around the world in circus and vaudeville. The DeMarlos retired upstate and the New York State Museum eventually acquired a collection of their papers and memorabilia. For a rundown of their globe-trotting career and more on this wonderful collection, which includes scrapbooks, props, and a manuscript autobiography by Friede, see this article by curator Jennifer Lemak.

The Great American Circus Poster

One of the things that made me the happiest in the course of putting together the Circus and the City exhibition was being able to earmark some hugely important but sorely neglected pieces for conservation. Perhaps the most significant of these was an enormous 1843 poster at the Shelburne Museum for what was variously billed as the “New York Circus” and “Sage’s Great American Circus.” When I first viewed the poster, it was a crinkled and folded mess, and in nine separate pieces. The Bard Graduate Center was able to fund its conversation for the exhibition, though some admittedly poor measurements and math by myself meant that we had to situate it somewhat awkwardly in a stairwell rather than in the main gallery. It is a masterpiece of early American printing and  its story calls attention to the transnational legacy of the American circus. For a high-quality zoomable view and more, see my essay here.

© Shelburne Museum
© Shelburne Museum

Object-Based Pedagogy

Han Vu and I have made a short film about one of the more unusual objects in the exhibition, which is on loan from the New York State Museum. The great part about teaching my public history seminar in the gallery this past fall was that materials were always at hand, and we were really able to explore how historians and curators use objects to teach and learn about the past.


Engraving John Bill Ricketts

One of the most important and yet mysterious figures in the annals of the American circus is John Bill Ricketts. Although Ricketts was not the first equestrian performer to grace American shores, he has rightfully received the lion’s share of the credit as a founding father of the circus for the scope and duration of his entertainment-related efforts. Much is known about his activities during the eight years he spent in the United States and Canada, from his arrival in Philadelphia in 1792 to his final departure from the country with a small company of performers in the spring of 1800. This is largely due to the diligent research of James Moy, whose dissertation remains the best source on his career. What is less clear was what Ricketts did before and after his time in the United States. Presently the first record of him performing are newspaper advertisements from 1786 for performances at Jones’ Equestrian Amphitheatre in London, but he also spent a significant part of his early career in Edinburgh. The end of his life is even more of a mystery, as his small company was waylaid by pirates near Guadeloupe, but recovered to perform around the Caribbean in 1800-1801. His contemporary and fellow performer John Durang reported that he subsequently “sold all his horses to great advantage and had made an immense amount of money; he chartered an old vessel to take him to England; the vessel foundered and he was lost with all his money at sea.” I have yet to find an independent confirmation of how Ricketts’ met his end.

While much about Ricketts remains unknown, one thing I was able track down was the source of an oft-reproduced but poorly sourced image of the man and his famous horse Cornplanter. As far as I can tell this image was published for the first time in John and Alice Durant’s Pictorial History of the American Circus (1957). Durant-Ricketts, pg.23On page 23 there is a small and poorly reproduced image of a mounted Ricketts jumping over another horse held by a groom under a banner reading “We ne’er shall look upon his like again” (an allusion to Hamlet).The Durants credited it to the New York Public Library, but I did not find anything at either the main library’s Print Room or in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. Google turned up another version of the image on John Bill Ricketts’ Circopedia page, there credited to the Museum of the City of New York. What I found on a visit there was pretty clearly just a modern copy. Where was the original?

It was clearly a metal plate engraving, which was confirmed by this entry in David McNeely Stauffer’s checklist of American Engravers Upon Copper and Steel (1907):Stauffer, pg. 464

Frustratingly, no source was given. Some further work in Google Books turned up a note about its inclusion in an exhibition at the Boston bibliophile “Club of Odd Volumes” in 1914. It was listed as part of the collection of Robert Gould Shaw and described as an “Extremely Rare Print.” While the disposition of this particular print was not discovered, I was able to find a second allusion to the Scoles engraving. This was from a catalogue of rare books purchased by New York book dealer George D. Smith from the collection of the noted American playwright and stage director Augustin Daly (1838-1899). It details a rare extra-illustrated edition of William Dunlap’s History of the American Theatre (1832), which included among its rarities something described only as “Mr. Ricketts by Scoles.”

Smith-Dunlap Description

Knowing that much of Augustin Daly’s library was in the Harvard Theatre Collection (and indeed this had seemingly been one of the foundational purchases of that collection), I went right to their library catalog, which confirmed that Harvard had Daly’s copy of Dunlap but little else. So it remained for me to take make the trip up there and examine the volumes in person. They are an invaluable treasury of American entertainment history, and a little over 100 pages into volume two, I found the engraving of Ricketts. Although I knew the supposed dimensions, it was something of surprise to see how small the original sepia-toned engraving was. John Scoles was a talented engraver and sometime book seller in New York City from 1793 to 1844 so this was among his earliest works. Ricketts first regularly performed the feat of jumping Cornplanter over another horse “fourteen-hands-high” in 1796 so the engraving likely dates to that year. It is a well-cut and dramatic scene and I was just thrilled to finally find the original. I ordered a scan and it will certainly figure in the upcoming Circus and the City exhibition!

Update: After my request, Harvard put the high-resolution image online here. And it is of course featured in the Circus and the City catalogue, which you can buy here.

Step Right Up!

I woke up today to a nice surprise. The Boston Globe’s art critic, Sebastian Smee, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year, penned a glowing review of Circus and the City. Obviously it is wonderful whenever someone says something positive about your work, but it is a mark of really excellent criticism when the essential idea is articulated in a more elegant manner than even the curator has been able to. Here’s the kicker:

“This may be a show that hinges on New York. But it is really about America, its unquenchable thirst for novelty, and its endless appetite for diversion. As such, it should not be missed.”

Full article here.