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


Rocky Mountain High, 1861

One of the most remarkable images in the collections of History Colorado is an ambrotype by George D. Wakely of a M’lle Carolista daringly walking across a tightrope extended over Larimer Street in July 1861. Interestingly enough, Wakely was himself an itinerant entertainer who had first arrived in Denver as part of the Thorne Star Company during the fall of 1859 when the Pikes Peak Gold Rush was in full swing. Charles R. Thorne was a veteran actor and manager who seemingly had a nose for opportunity, having been among the first American entertainers to visit the California gold fields and subsequently touring on the “Pacific circuit” through Hawaii, Australia, and China in the 1850s. Thorne enlisted Wakely, his wife Matilda, and her four children from a previous marriage to perform at the National Theatre in Leavenworth, Kansas, before traveling overland to open at Denver’s Apollo Hall. Although the troupe was initially very successful, Thorne and his son skipped town one evening when business declined, leaving the other members of the company stranded. While some of the Wakely clan continued to perform at the theatre, George opened up the first photography gallery in Denver, having already practiced the trade in Chicago years before. Wakely was a prolific portraitist who also took some wonderful street photographs documenting the city’s growth in the early 1860s.

Despite her rather romantic nom d’arena, M’lle Carolista was an acrobat from Cleveland who began performing on the tightrope following the sensationally successful North American tour by the French tightrope walker Charles Blondin during the late 1850s. Although American circuses had long featured tightrope ascensions on their programs, the rather more daring and spectacular feats of Blondin included a celebrated walk across Niagra Falls in 1859. After his initial crossing, Blondin introduced a number of variations such as walking blindfolded, on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow, and with his manager riding piggyback.

Wikimedia Commons

M’lle Carolista performed many of these same feats, billing herself as the “female rival of Blondin.” Her husband and manager was Gus Shaw, and the two traveled around the country giving exhibitions through the late 1860s. Carolista typically performed as an entr’acte in a local gallery or theatre while Shaw attempted to drum up funds from the public for a more sensational open-air exhibition . Once a certain amount of money was raised, a date was picked, the rope was installed, and Carolista would go through her routine. Afterwards Shaw essentially passed a hat around in an attempt to solicit even more compensation from the excited crowds. Such was the format of their visit to Denver in July of 1861, as M’lle Carolista performed at the Criterion Saloon while Shaw circulated a subscription for a “Grand Tight Rope Ascension,” which eventually raised $170. A rope was stretched across Larimer Street from the New York Store to Graham’s Drug Store and on July 18, 1861, a large crowd gathered to witness M’lle Carolista’s daring feats. Ostensibly sensing an opportunity to cash in on the event, the Daily Republican and Rocky Mountain Herald reported that:

Mr. Wakely, Daguerrean and Ambrotypist on Larimer street showed us some beautiful views taken of the crowd assembled yesterday to see M’lle Carolista in her daring feat of rope walking. These are valuable not only on account of representing that interesting affair, but they also present a grand view of Larimer street, the pains, etc. Call at Wakely’s and see those pretty representations.

While the article suggests multiple views were made, the only extant version is the 4.25″ x 6.5″ half-plate ambrotype reproduced below.

Courtesy History Colorado
Courtesy History Colorado

By all accounts it was a very successful exhibition, and M’llle Carolista at one point balanced on the top of her head halfway across, amongst other dramatic variations. As the paper indicated, the ambrotype offers a beautiful view of Denver’s main thoroughfare, which is lined with newly built stores, including a confectionary and ice cream parlor. More entertainingly, a seemingly worried or flabbergasted man standing with his hands on his head can be seen in the center of the foreground.carolistadetail


At right is a detail of M’lle Carolista, who seems to have dressed up for the occasion, as she paused for Wakely’s photograph. This wonderful ambrotype offers both a tantalizing glimpse into the earliest era of Denver’s history and captures something of the vibrant world of mid-nineteenth century popular entertainment in the United States.

Sources: Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West (2000); Terry Wm. Mangan, Colorado on Glass (1975); Melvin Schoberlin, From Candles to Footlights (1941)

Tintype Revival

Last week I went for a photography session at the Penumbra Tintype Portait Studio, which is a project of the Center for Alternative Photography. There seems to have been something of a tintype revival of late, and I was interested in learning more about the process. Tintypes, or ferrotypes as they were sometimes known, were a form of wet plate photography that became very popular in the 1860s. The production process was much simpler and cheaper than other forms of photography and the resulting image was much more durable. Tintype was actually a misnomer as the traditional plates were actually thin sheets of iron. The Penumbra studio used a reproduction camera equipped with a Gascoigne and Charconnet Petzval lens, and the quarter-plate (3 ¼” x 4 ¼”) we had taken was made of aluminum.

The process itself is relatively straightforward. First, the camera is set up and focused on the subjects. In a darkroom, the plate is wet with thin layer of collodion and then is deposited in a silver nitrate bath. It is light sensitive when removed so it is put in a light-proof plate holder and brought out to the waiting camera. Traditionally, the sitters would have to remain still while the plate was exposed for several seconds, but at the studio modern flash/strobes are used for a more or less instant exposure. The plate is then taken back to the darkroom where a developer is poured on and the image somewhat ethereally emerges before being immersed in a bath for final processing. After drying, the plate is coated with a varnish and you’re all set. Early on, portraits were often placed in fancy cases, but cheaper cardboard and paper frames became more common as the century progressed. The New York Times has a useful slideshow of the overall process here. As you might imagine, the nature of the process and the chemicals involved make it a very inexact art, but even our failed portraits looked pretty cool. Below are a classic Civil War-era tintype of an unidentified soldier and a companion, and then our modern-day portrait.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Because they were so cheap and durable, tintypes were a popular mode of street photography well into the twentieth century. There is a nice shot in the Walker Evans archive of a vendor working a New York City corner circa 1933-34.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Along with a revival of the practice, there have been a number of recent publications and exhibitions about tintypes, though I would still recommend The American Tintype as the best starting point for further inquiry.

Update: The Metropolitan Museum of Art just opened a new exhibition, “Photography and the Civil War,” which speaks to the power and popularity of tintypes at that time.