Bailey and The Ringlings

Following the death of P.T. Barnum in 1891, James A. Bailey carried the Barnum & Bailey Circus to new heights of popularity. The Greatest Show On Earth® rode the rails on 85 railroad cars, employed more than 1,000 people, and consisted of five rings and stages, plus the largest traveling menagerie anywhere!

Meanwhile, as the 19th century was coming to a close, the Ringling brothers of Baraboo, Wisconsin, were building a reputation of their own. Beginning their tented circus in 1884, Alf T. Ringling, Al Ringling, Charles Ringling, John Ringling, and Otto Ringling soon became known as Kings Of The Circus World. A sixth brother, Henry Ringling, joined the show in 1886.

By 1887, the Ringling brothers' show was growing. The official title was Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.

In 1889 the seventh Ringling brother, A.G. "Gus" Ringling, joined the show, which now had a seating capacity of about 4,000 as it played cities and towns in Wisconsin and Illinois. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. The year also marked a first for the Ringlings, as they took to the rails, becoming the 12th such circus to do so.

As time went on, the Ringlings' show grew bigger, and a series of business deals enabled them to absorb some of their competition. In 1905, James A. Bailey sold the Ringlings 50 percent interest in his Forepaugh-Sells Bros. Circus; Bailey died in the spring of 1906, and the Ringlings subsequently purchased the other 50 percent from his widow for $100,000.

In 1907, the Ringlings finally purchased their largest competitor -- Barnum & Bailey Circus -- after more than a year of discussion and negotiation. Interestingly, the Ringlings were split in their opinions as to whether the purchase ought to have happened: Otto and John wanted the deal to happen, while Al, Charles, and Alf T. needed to be convinced. On July 8, 1907, the deal went through and The Greatest Show On Earth® became the property of the Ringlings for a price of $400,000.

The Ringlings shared the public's respect for the Barnum & Bailey name, and toured the two shows separately until 1919. That year, due to wartime conditions that included labor shortages and rail travel problems, the Ringlings merged the two great entities. The result, consisting of 100 double-length railroad cars and 1,200 employees, was arguably the largest traveling amusement enterprise up to that time: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Combined Shows, The Greatest Show On Earth®.

The Greatest Show On Earth was becoming truly legendary, but none of John Ringling's six brothers lived to see what was perhaps his greatest business triumph. In 1929, reacting to the fact that his competitor, the American Circus Corporation, had signed a contract to perform in New York's Madison Square Garden, Ringling purchased American Circus for $1.7-million. In one fell swoop, Ringling had absorbed five major shows: Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes, Sparks, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and John Robinson.

By the time John Ringling died in 1936, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had become deeply ingrained into the American tradition and consciousness. John Ringling North, an executor of his uncle's estate, became president of the show in 1937, a position he held until 1943 when his cousin, Robert, became president. John took the position once again in 1947.

Times, and the public's taste, were changing, and the circus had problems keeping pace. On July 16, 1956, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the financially troubled Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey gave its last performance under the big top. John Ringling North commented that "the tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of the past." LIFE magazine wrote that "a magical era had passed forever."

Before long, though, the magic would return.

Later that year, Irvin Feld would save Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from oblivion by masterminding its transition from tents to arenas, his vision and creativity ushering in a new era of entertainment. Feld not only restored Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to its former glory, but set the stage for The Greatest Show On Earth to reach new heights of excellence!

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