Book Review Vol. I, No. 9

The Circus and the City Grow Up Together


Circus and the City, New York 1793-2010, by Matthew Wittmann, published by the Bard Graduate Center, in conjunction with its exhibition” Circus and the City,” on view at the Bard Graduate Center, NY, NY, September 21, 2012, through February 3, 2013.


The lyrics of the song “New York, New York,” advise us that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.  The story of how the city came to enjoy such a reputation is as much a part of the catalogue for the Bard Graduate Center’s exhibition  “Circus and the City, New York 1793-2010 ” as is the story of the circus’ significant contributions to the cultural life of the city from the time that John Bill Rickets opened his circus there in 1793.  Indeed Alexis Mucha’s chronology of the events dating back to the city’s founding by Europeans in 1623 which is situated early on in the text, provides fascinating glimpses of notable events  marking the city’s growth and influence.

The text which focuses a bit more narrowly on the circus is divided into four parts: The Early Years, The American Circus Comes of Age, The Golden Age of the Circus in New York, and Scenes from the 20th Century.  The first two sections of both the text and the exhibit provide some of the least familiar information and seldom seen artifacts gathered together from numerous sources throughout the country.  The last two sections cover ground pretty well trod by circus historians and fans in general. Nonetheless these were the sections most interesting to me personally, as I grew up in New Jersey a mere thirty minute bus ride to Manhattan and never missed seeing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets from 1945 to the present.

My earliest memories are of the times in late March or early April when I searched the New York daily newspapers (of which there were many) for news and photos of the circus’ arrival in the Mott Haven Rail Yards in the Bronx and the elephant walk to the Garden.  I shall never forget being a part of the crush in the Garden’s formidable rotunda as the audience gathered and then, once the gates were opened, surged to the right to descend the wide stairs into the Garden basement where the animals were housed and being hit (assaulted) by the smell emanating from that nether  region.  Another vivid memory is of the time during each visit when  I would first enter the arena itself and being awed by the display created by the spider web of ropes and wires, the colored sawdust and the bunting that hung from the railings of the mezzanine and balcony.

All of these memories were excitingly brought back to me by many of the photos that accompany the text in the catalogue and the images in the exhibit itself.  I could almost smell the animals again.

During the course of his essay, Wittman points out a fact that has influenced the way I came to think about the circus as a result of seeing it almost exclusively indoors in New York.  During the decade prior to the Civil War, he tells us,  a divide emerged between the way audiences in the city and country experienced the circus.  I came to fully understand that divide when  I was in high school and I saw my first Ringling circus under canvas.  The difference was remarkable.

Of the interesting observations made in the early sections one in particular stood out for me for it has informed much of my own writing about the circus. It was in regard to  what the author calls the “defining feature of the American circus:”  its continual borrowing from opera and ballet for inspiration and style.  The first such “borrowing” is attributed to Ricketts in 1797.

James Hunter, whose appearance in a circus was first noted in 1822, we discover, is the first equestrian credited with riding bareback, a style that became “the new high standard of equestrian skill” which was adopted by many of the young riders born or trained during the 1820s and 1830s.  This development, it is pointed out, led to the establishment of the circus triumvirate of ringmaster, rider and clown, since the bareback rider needed someone to control the gait and pace of his mount and the clown was needed to fill in between tricks.

There are other interesting tidbits to be gleaned throughout the early section of the catalogue, ranging from the development of wild animal acts to the evolution of the buildings in which the circus was presented in the city.

The final section which deals with recent circus history provides one observation that  is rather questionable.  The author suggests that the Big Apple Circus may have drawn inspiration for its revival of the one-ring format from the appearance in New York City of Circus Vargas.  Despite that show’s current policy of presenting a one- ring performance, Circus Vargas during Cliff Vargas’  lifetime never appeared as a one-ring show.  The very idea was antithetical to Vargas’ idea of showmanship.   The Big Apple Circus’ inspiration is well documented elsewhere.

Once past the introductory essay the catalogue presents a fascinating commentary on selected items in the exhibit, enriching that experience immeasureably.