Ringling Bros

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is an American circus company billed as The Greatest Show on Earth. The company was started in 1919 when the circus created by James Anthony Bailey and P. T. Barnum was merged with the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Ringling brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907, but ran the circuses separately until they were finally merged in 1919. In 1957 John Ringling North changed the circus from using their own portable tents to using venues, such as sports stadiums that had the seating already in place. In 1967 Irvin Feld bought the circus, but in 1971 he sold it to Mattel. He bought it back in 1982.


The Barnum & Bailey Circus (The Greatest Show on Earth)

In 1875, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup persuaded Barnum to lend his name and financial backing to the circus they had already created in Delavan, Wisconsin. It was called "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome". The moniker "Greatest Show on Earth" was added later.

Independently of Castello and Coup, James Anthony Bailey had teamed up with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s. The Cooper and Bailey Circus was soon Barnum's chief competitor, exhibiting "Columbia," the first baby elephant ever born in the United States. She was born in March 1880 in Philadelphia, to "Babe" and "Mandarin", and later euthanized in November 1907 for aggressiveness. Barnum attempted to buy the elephant. They eventually agreed to combine their shows in 1881. In 1882, the combined "Barnum & Bailey Circus" was successful with acts such as Jumbo, advertised as the world's largest elephant. Barnum died in 1891 and Bailey then purchased the circus from his widow. Bailey continued touring the eastern United States until he took his circus to Europe. That tour started on December 27, 1897 and lasted until 1902.

In 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers had started a small circus about the same time that Barnum & Bailey were at the peak of their popularity. Similar to dozens of small circuses that toured the Midwest and the Northeast at the time, the Ringlings moved their circus from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans. Their circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train, which allowed them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of that time. Bailey's European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard. Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1905. He died the next year and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and ran the circuses separately until 1919. By that time, Charles Edward Ringling and John Nicholas Ringling were the only remaining brothers of the five who founded the circus. They decided that it was too difficult to run the two circuses independently, and on March 29, 1919, "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" debuted in New York City. The posters declared, "The Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions." Charles E. Ringling died in 1926, but the circus flourished through the Roaring Twenties. In 1929 the American Circus Corporation signed a contract to perform in New York City. John Nicholas Ringling purchased American Circus for $1.7 million. That absorbed five major shows: Sells-Floto Circus, Al G. Barnes Circus, Sparks Circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and John Robinson Circus.

In 1938, the circus made Frank Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their star attraction and to enter the show astride an elephant. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors, stating that he was "a scientist, not an actor." Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that he would not compromise his principles, saying, "Don't get me wrong. I'm with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself. And my heart is with the fellow who works. But I don't want some ... union delegate telling me when to get on and off an elephant." Eventually, the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla without registering as an actor.

The circus suffered during the 1930s due to the Great Depression, but managed to stay in business. John Nicholas Ringling's nephew, John Ringling North, managed the circus through the difficult times for several decades. Special dispensation was given to the circus by President Roosevelt to use the rails to operate in 1942, in spite of travel restrictions imposed as a result of World War II. A new marketing poster depicting a threatening circus tiger was also released that year. Many of the most famous images from the circus that were published in magazine and posters were captured by American Photographer Maxwell Frederic Coplan, who traveled the world with the circus, capturing its beauty as well as its harsh realities.

The Hartford Circus Fire

The Hartford Circus Fire occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, during an afternoon performance that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people. It was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown, threw a bucket of water at the burning canvas tent in a futile effort to put the fire out, but ultimately more than 100 people were killed. The great irony of the fire was that the performance took place under canvas. Had the crowd realized it, safety was no farther away than ducking out under the sidewalls of the tent. Some of the dead remain unidentified to this day, even with modern DNA techniques.

Actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was thirteen years old at the time, survived the fire and dramatized it in the film of his stage show, "The Life of Reilly". In a 1997 interview, Reilly said that he rarely attended the theater, despite being a director, since the sound of a large audience in a theater reminded him of the large crowd at the circus before the disaster.

In the following investigation, it was discovered that the tent had not been fireproofed. Ringling Bros.' had applied to the Army, which had an absolute priority on the material, for enough fireproofing liquid to treat their Big Top. The Army had refused to release it to them. The circus had instead waterproofed their canvas using an older method of parrafin dissolved in gasoline and painted onto the canvas. The waterproofing worked, but as had been repeatedly shown it was horribly flammable. Circus management was found to be negligent and several Ringling executives served sentences in jail. Ringling Brothers' management set aside all profits for the next ten years to pay the claims filed against the show by the City of Hartford and the survivors of the fire.

Feld family

The post-war prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the nation was not shared by the circus as crowds dwindled and costs increased. Public tastes, influenced by the movies and television, abandoned the circus, which gave its last performance under the big top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 16, 1956. An article in Life magazine reported that "a magical era had passed forever". In 1957, when John Ringling North and Arthur Concello moved the circus from a tent show to an indoor operation, Irvin Feld was one of several promoters hired to work the advance for select dates, mostly in the Detroit and Philadelphia areas. Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel Feld, had already made a name for themselves producing touring rock and roll shows.

In the fall of 1967, Irvin Feld, Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz of Texas, together with backing from Richard C. Blum, the founder of Blum Capital, bought the company outright from North and the Ringling family interests for $8 million. Irving Feld immediately began making other changes to improve the quality and profitability of the show. In 1968, realizing there were only 14 professional clowns remaining in the show —and that many of them were in their 50s —he established the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. The next year, he split the show into two touring units, a "Red Tour" and a "Blue Tour" which could tour the country independently. The separate tours could also offer differing slates of acts and themes, enabling circus-goers to view both tours where possible.

In 1970, Feld's only son Kenneth joined the company and became a co-producer. The circus was sold to the Mattel company in 1971 for $40 million, but the Feld family retained production control. They bought the circus back in 1982. Irvin Feld died in 1984 and the company has since been run by Kenneth.

After Walt Disney World opened near Orlando, Florida in 1971, the circus attempted to cash in on the resulting tourism surge by opening Circus World in nearby Haines City. The park was never successful, as its standard carnival-type rides were no match for Disney's state-of-the-art attractions. As such, the circus sold the park to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, who renamed it Boardwalk and Baseball. In 1990, the park finally closed down completely.

Clair George has testified in court that he worked as a consultant in the early 1990s for Kenneth Feld and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was involved in the surveillance of Jan Pottker (a journalist who was writing about the Feld family) and of various animal rights groups such as PETA.

In 1994, Walt Disney Home Video and Gregory Sills Productions co-produced a video in the Mickey's Fun Songs (later Sing-Along Songs) series, "Let's Go to the Circus," which featured Mickey and friends take a trip through the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In 1996, Feld Entertainment was created as the parent company of the circus, as well as a skating-themed sister show, Disney on Ice. The company also produces several large-scale Broadway and Las Vegas productions.

On May 18, 2022, after a five year hiatus, Feld Entertainment announced that the circus would resume touring in the fall of 2023, but without animals


The circus went under various names as new investors joined:

  • P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello, proprietors (1871)
  • P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling World's Fair; The Greatest Shows on Earth; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup, Dan Castello and S. H. Hurd, proprietors
  • P. T. Barnum's Great Roman Hippodrome; P. T. Barnum, William Cameron Coup, Dan Castello and S. H. Hurd, proprietors
  • P. T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth; P. T. Barnum, John J. Nathans, George F. Bailey and Lewis June, proprietors (and Avery Smith for part of 1876 only)
  • Barnum & Bailey Circus; James Anthony Bailey (1891)
  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Circus trains

The circus maintained two circus train-based shows, the Blue Tour and the Red Tour, as well as the truck-based Gold Tour (which began in 2003). Each train is a mile long with roughly 60 cars: 40 passenger cars and 20 freight. Rolling stock belonging to the circus bears the reporting mark "RBBX". The Blue and Red Tours present a full three-ring production for two years each (taking off the month of December), visiting alternating major cities each year. Each train presents a different "edition" of the show, using a numbering scheme that dates back to circus origins in 1871 — the first year of P.T. Barnum's show. The Blue Tour presents the even-numbered editions on a two-year tour (beginning each even-numbered year), and the Red Tour presents the odd-numbered editions on the same two-year tour (beginning each odd-numbered year). The Gold Tour presents a scaled-back, single-ring version of the show, designed to serve smaller markets deemed incapable of supporting the three-ring versions.

In the 1950s there was one gigantic train systems comprising three separate train loads that brought the main show to the big cities. The first train load was comprised 22 cars and had the tents and the workers to set them up; the second section comprised 28 cars and carried the canvasmen, ushers and sideshow workers; the third section 19 sleeping cars for the performers.

Animal care

The circus claims that the best care is given to the animals' health and welfare. The circus believes that promoting human-animal interaction is vital to increasing public awareness of the need to protect and preserve animal species. They state, "Captive animals play an important role as Ambassadors — teaching people about the animals' needs and challenges and about our responsibility to ensure their future survival." Circus owner Feld Entertainment states that they meet all requirements for zoos and circuses for animal welfare; however, animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claim numerous instances of non-compliance with the Animal Welfare Act including inappropriate housing, poor sanitation, animal escapes, inaccurate record keeping, failure to properly protect the public from wild animals, causing physical harm and behavioral stress to animals, and other non-compliant items.

In 1995, the circus opened the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida for the breeding, research, and retirement of its Asian Elephant herd. All dogs in the shows are from animal shelters or rescued from poor living conditions. The circus participates in breeding programs for endangered species used in the shows including the Bengal tiger, the Siberian tiger, and elephant. The tiger population is retired to Big Cat Rescue.

Many animal welfare and animal rights organizations, such as PETA, are opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses. The animal rights groups also oppose the use of domestic animals, such as horses or dogs, in circuses. Many of these groups actively campaign against circuses by staging protests to increase awareness of animal rights' violations and to urge circus-goers to boycott Ringling and other circuses and to patronize only animal-free circuses. The groups assert that animals used in the circus are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment during training, harsh conditions during transport, and a general lack of mental and physical stimulation.

Ringling Brothers circus was investigated following the death of a lion who died from heat and lack of water while the circus train was travelling through the desert. In 1998, the USDA filed charges against Ringling Brothers for forcing a sick elephant to perform. Ringling paid a $20,000 fine to settle the matter.

In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture conducted an inspection of the circus' animals, facilities, and records, allegedly finding non-compliance with the agencies regulations. No specific violation was named and the circus denied the allegations, though they volunteered a $270,000 fine. As part of the settlement, the circus must employ a full-time staff person to insure compliance with the Act and all circus employees who work with or handle animals must complete training regarding compliance with the act within 30 days of when they are hired.

The ASPCA, PETA and other animal groups sued the circus claiming that it violated the Endangered Species Act by its treatment of Asian elephants in its circus. These allegations were based primarily on the testimony of a circus barn worker. After nine years of ligitation and a six week non-jury trial, the Court dismissed the suit in a written decision, finding that the barn worker was not credible ASPCA v. Feld Entm’t, Inc., 677 F. Supp. 2d 55 (D.D.C. 2009).

In 2012, the circus learned that the animal rights groups had paid the barn worker $190,000 to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit regarding the Asian elephants. The circus sued the animal rights groups under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, accusing them of conspiracy to harm its business and other illegal acts. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agreed to pay the circus $9.2 million to settle the lawsuit.


  • 1871 P. T. Barnum's "Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome" created with William Cameron Coup
  • 1875 (c.) James Anthony Bailey starts his circus
  • 1881 James Anthony Bailey and P.T. Barnum combine to form "Barnum and Bailey Circus"
  • 1884 John Nicholas Ringling starts Ringling Brothers Circus
  • 1891 Death of P. T. Barnum
  • 1891 James Anthony Bailey buys Barnum assets from Barnum's widow
  • 1906 Death of James Anthony Bailey
  • 1907 The Ringling Brothers Circus purchases the "Barnum and Bailey Circus"
  • 1919 John Ringling merges the two into "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus"
  • 1937 John Ringling North takes control
  • 1943 John Ringling North cedes control to his cousin, Robert
  • 1944 Hartford Circus Fire
  • 1947 John Ringling North takes control from his cousin, Robert
  • 1967 Irvin Feld and Israel Feld and Roy M. Hofheinz buy the circus from John Ringling North
  • 1971 Sold to Mattel
  • 1982 Irvin Feld buys the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc. from Mattel
  • 1984 Kenneth Feld takes over after the death of his father, Irvin Feld


List of Ringling Bros. Presents Circus performers


Gold Unit ringmasters

See also

  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College
  • The Greatest Show on Earth