THE WORD "CIRCUS"
The word "circus" comes from the Latin for ring or circle, and it described the shape of the arenas in which the Romans held their games (chariot races, athletic competitions, gladiatorial combats, etc). The Circus Maximus in Rome, built more than 2,500 years ago and rebuilt by Julius Caesar, was said to seat 350,000 paying customers. The Circus Maximus was located between present-day Via dei Cerchi and Via del Circo Massimo; the tracks can still be seen in the grassy fields.
The punters were not out to see ribbon dances. Interspersed with the "animal acts" were bloody, brutal contests, often cheered on by rioting chariot hooligans. High on the bill at one of the arenas, the Circus Neronis, was the creation of Christian martyrs.
WHEN DID CIRCUSES BECOME FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY?
Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the notion of travelling entertainers endured. But for most of the Middle Ages in Europe, shows were very small: a performing bear here, a contortionist there. "Fringe" performances by magicians (who were sometimes members of pickpocketing gangs, or leaders of cults), proved a consistently popular career option.
The first modern circus in Europe premiered on the south bank of the Thames close to Westminster Bridge in the late 18th century. Philip Astley (1742-1814) was the son of a cabinet-maker from Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire. At 17, he joined Colonel Eliott's Fifteenth Light Dragoon Regiment, then rose to become sergeant major and served in the French and Indian War in what is now Canada. Along the way, he developed his skills as a rider.
In 1768, he opened a riding show in south London: teaching in the morning, trick-riding in the afternoon. He did his shows in what he called a "circus": a round performance area ringed by seats. The tightness of the circle (42ft in diameter) was perfect for creating the centrifugal force that kept him on his horse during more creative manoeuvres. It is still the standard diameter used today.
After a couple of years, jaded London crowds wanted something new, so Astley threw in some jugglers, a clown or two, a few tumblers. Faster than you can say "Ladies and Gentlemen", the modern circus was born. Astley performed at Versailles for Louis XV and soon established circuses on the Continent.
HOW DID CIRCUSES GET TO THE NEW WORLD?
Success breeds imitation. John Bill Ricketts, a pupil of Astley's main competitor, set up the first circus in the New World in Philadelphia in 1793. George and Martha Washington were frequent visitors. As with Astley, the shows were largely equestrian and served to publicise his riding schools. Eventually, Ricketts set up a purpose-built amphitheatre in New York City, and another show plaza in Montreal.
WHO WAS THE GREATEST SHOWMAN?
Phineas Taylor Barnum, "the patron saint of promoters", was born on 5 July 1810 in Bethel,
PT Barnum started his show-business career in 1825 when he paid $1,000 for a slave called Joice Heth. Joice claimed to be 161 years old and the ex-nurse of George Washington. They took the show on the road and were soon raking in around $1,500 a week.
In 1841, PT Barnum bought a museum in New York City. His American Museum exhibited "500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe", including the famous Feejee Mermaid (the head of a monkey tacked on to the body of a fish). The museum kept people moving along with a sign that read "This way to egress". Expecting to be directed to some sort of female delight, patrons rushed through, only to find themselves on the wrong side of the exit. And they had to pay again to get back in.
In 1870, Barnum hit the road with "PT Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus". It was the largest circus in American history and used the new railway system to expand its reach. Once set up, it covered five acres and seated 10,000. Welcome, one and all, to the "Greatest Show On Earth".
In 1881, Barnum merged with James A Bailey (instigator of the original three-ringed circus) and James L Hutchinson to create "PT Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United". After several business ups and downs, they finally settled on the easier to remember "The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth".
There is a Barnum Museum (001 203 331 1104; www.barnum-museum.org) in his circus-wintering town of Bridgeport,
DIDN'T BARNUM SAY "THERE'S A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE"?
PT Barnum never said that, though he did say "every crowd has a silver lining". The "sucker" quote comes from one of his competitors.
In 1869, there was great excitement over reports that a petrified giant had been dug up from a field in New York State. He was moved to an exhibition hall in Syracuse, with admission at $1 a head. Thousands lined up to see the Cardiff Giant. Experts were divided as to whether he was real or an ancient sculpture.
He was neither. He had been made by George Hull, the cousin of the man who owned the farm, and a few friends, as a way of teasing fundamentalist ministers who claimed that giants had walked the earth. They had buried him for a year then let some local labourers find him by "accident".
PT Barnum decided he wanted to buy the giant. The consortium that owned him, headed by David Hannum, refused. So Barnum made his own, took it on tour, and claimed that Hannum had sold him the real one and was now exhibiting a fake.
Hannum was outraged. Referring to the people who were lining up to see Barnum's impostor rather than his "real" giant, he said, "there's a sucker born every minute".
Hannum sued Barnum for calling his giant counterfeit, but when Hull admitted his act of creation, the judge ruled there was nothing wrong with calling a fake a fake.
The "real" Cardiff Giant is now in the Farmers' Museum (001 888 547 1450; www.farmersmuseum.org) in Cooperstown,
SO THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GIANT - BUT WHAT BEFELL BARNUM?
By 1891, Barnum's health was failing, but his relationship with the press was still strong. He complained that he wouldn't get to hear the nice things people had to say about him after he died. Someone passed on the comment to The New York Sun. They ran a huge front-page story with the headline: "Great And Only Barnum - He Wanted To Read His Obituary - Here It Is."
He died in his sleep a few weeks later. Rumours are his last words were: "Ask Bailey what the box office was at the [
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH?
Bailey continued to expand his circus, until it took 85 railway cars to move it from city to city. Bud Abbott (from Abbott and Costello) was born in one of his tents in 1895.
Meanwhile, some brothers from
In 1906 Bailey died and eventually the circuses merged. By the 1950s, the big top was losing its appeal. Even circus heir John Ringling North was saying: "The tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of the past."
Enter rock promoter Irvin Feld. He moved the show from big tops to arenas, cutting costs, allowing year-round touring, and reviving the form. When he finally bought the show from North, Feld proved he was a worthy successor to Barnum by holding the signing ceremony at the Colosseum in Rome.
The Greatest Show On Earth is still crossing America in trains more than a mile long. Featured segments these days include Crazy Wilson, Circus Siren Sylvia Zerbinin (a ninth generation circus performer) and The Globe Of Death. In March and April this year the show can be seen at Madison Square Gardens in New York City; in June and July it will be at the America West Arena, Phoenix, Arizona; and in August at the San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego, California. See www.ringling.com for more details, and to order tickets.
DO THEY STILL WINTER?
In 1927, John Ringling moved the Circus wintering quarters from Bridgeport to Sarasota,
WHAT'S THE GREATEST NEW SHOW
Arguably, Cirque du Soleil. Twenty years ago, the world's first avowedly animal-free circus was launched by an accordion player from
In 1982, Guy Laliberté and his stilt-walking pals set up a street performers' festival in the artsy town of Baie St Paul, just over an hour's drive up the St Lawrence seaway from Quebec City. It was a hit. That gave them the momentum to apply for a government grant to hold another festival in conjunction with the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's arrival. They got it. And Cirque du Soleil was born in 1984.
Laliberté had spent some time in Europe, in part training with the European circus masters at the Swiss circus Knie (whose new season begins on 19 March; 00 41 848 564 326; www.knie.ch). He and his team were deeply influenced by the grace and beauty they found in the performance traditions in Europe and Asia.
The new Montreal-based circus wanted to create a melding of old-world sensibilities and new-world salesmanship. They were as much influenced by the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner as by the showmanship of Barnum.
After a few local successes, but very little financial return, they took to the road, driving to the Los Angeles Festival. In the best circus tradition, according to Laliberté: "We had no money to put gasoline in our truck to come back if we failed down there. We said, we live or die in LA."
DID THEY LIVE OR DIE?
Lived. Cirque's original handful of employees now numbers 2,500. They have nine shows running: three permanently based in Las Vegas, one at Disney in Orlando, and five on tour. They have produced CDs of their music, feature films, an Imax movie, an Emmy awards-winning, behind-the-scenes series, and have plans for more (www.cirquedusoleil.com).
Their now-massive office, props, costumes and training facilities occupy what was the economically depressed north-east corner of Montreal, right next to a quarry. Already the (officially unaffiliated) National Circus School (00 15 14 98 20 859; www.enc.qc.ca) has moved in across the street.
The easiest place to see Cirque du Soleil action is in Las Vegas, where the latest production is Zumanity at the New York-New York hotel and casino (tickets $65-$85/£43-£57; 001 702 740 68 15). This is a bit of a departure, bringing artsy eroticism to vacationing midwesterners. But so far, Cirque has balanced pretension and excitement. And Zumanity sales are doing well. It lets husbands from Omaha justify taking the wives to see a bit of flesh in the name of culture. PT Barnum would be proud.
O is the resident show at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, and comprises the most extraordinary water performance you will ever see; the high cost of the production helps to explain the ticket prices of $99-$150 (£66-£100); book on 00 17 02 79 69 999. Mystère, with some amazing acrobatics, is at Treasure Island (00 17 02 79 69 999) for $95 (£63).
If these prices put you off, there is plenty of free circus in Las Vegas - performances daily at the Circus Circus hotel on the Strip, and frequently in the Fremont Street Mall, downtown.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE CIRCUS?
Normand Latourelle, one of the original founders of Cirque has just launched Cavalia (www.cavalia.net), a reinvention of the traditional horseshow. Featuring more than 30 horses, and, with a theme of "man's relationship with the horse, and of their evolution together", it hopes to do for horseback riding, what Cirque did for somersaults. The circus is back in town.
Additional research by Yasmine Gibson
'The monarch of his mighty race'
How one elephant became a money-spinning attraction
Animals have always been a part of circuses. One of the most famous of them all was a scrawny, sickly elephant born in the Sudan around 1860. He ended up in the London Zoo where, under the loving care of his keeper Matthew Scott, he blossomed into a strapping 12 feet tall, seven-ton pachyderm. He was named after the Swahili word for chief: "jumbe".
Jumbo was one of the main attractions at the zoo, but he was quickly turning into a huge, walking, trumpeting safety concern. So, when PT Barnum and his partner James Anthony Bailey offered to buy him for $10,000, the zoo agreed.
The vast majority of Londoners, from street urchins to Queen
Jumbo and Matthew Scott (part of the package deal) arrived at the docks of New York City aboard the Assyrian Monarch on Easter Sunday, 1882. Thousands were there to greet them. In his first appearance alone, Jumbo (aka "The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race, Whose Like the World Will Never See Again") earned Barnum around $30,000.
On 15 September 1885 Jumbo was on tour in St Thomas,
Barnum, meanwhile, wasn't going to let a little thing like death get in the way of a major investment. He had Jumbo stuffed and took him on a four-year world tour, accompanied by his new elephant, Jumbo's "widow", Alice.
Eventually Jumbo ended up at Tufts University in
In 1975, there was a fire at Barnum Hall at Tufts and the straw-stuffed Jumbo was reduced to ashes and charred ivory. A woman working for the sports department collected what she could in a jar. The jar now sits in the office of the Athletic Director. Before important games, Tufts athletes rub the jar for good luck.
Jumbo's bones are still at the American Museum of Natural History in
From Russia with laughter
The country where every city still has its 'Tsirk'
Russians love the circus: an 11th-century fresco in Kiev's St Sofia cathedral shows an amphitheatre with tightrope walkers, entertainers and wild animals, and travelling performers were an essential part of seasonal festivities. Today's circuses remain hugely popular, and every city has its "Tsirk". The best clowns are as well-known - and respected - as other artists. The biggest, most colourful troupes are based in St Petersburg and Moscow (offshoots from Moscow's companies are constantly on world tours), and a visit provides an insight into ordinary Russian pleasures. Excited children (and adults) queue for candyfloss and have their photos taken next to docile tigers and monkeys, before taking their seats in the big top.
Moscow has two main circuses: the "Old Circus", at 13 Tsvetnoy Bular (007 095 200 6889), now renamed in honour of Yuri Nikulin, the clown, circus director and national hero who died in 1997. Housed in a restored 19th-century building, its performances are a laughter-filled mix of breathtaking acrobatics, slapstick humour and animal tricks. The "New Circus" is at 7 Prospekt Vernadskogo (007 095 930 2815), where the seating area is larger and the performances generally more innovative.
Russian circus traditions have little time for political correctness, and Western visitors may be shocked by the firm hand used on bears and other animals.