Our notion of the modern circus got its start in a homegrown ring in London in January 1768.
Philip Astley, a former cavalry sergeant major, invited the public to watch him ride his horse around the ring, brandishing his sword while he stood upright with one foot on the saddle and the other on his horse’s head. He was a big hit.
Astley quickly assembled more horsemen, a clown and a band to perform in Astley’s Amphitheatre. His troupe performed for French King Louis XV in 1772. In 1782 a competitor opened the “Royal Circus” in London.
In 1792 an Englishman brought the circus idea to Philadelphia, and then New York and Boston. One-ring shows turned into two-ring shows and so on, until 1871, when P. T. Barnum and a partner created “The Greatest Show on Earth” with three rings in Brooklyn. Calliope music has been popular ever since.
A footnote to this history:
The Beatles were singing about a real guy in circus history when they sang “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in their 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The “celebrated Mr. K.” worked for a showman named Pablo Fanque, who owned the Circus Royal in the mid-19th century. William Kite was Pablo’s riding master, and also a tightrope walker. Lennon and McCartney speculated that “Mr. K. performs his tricks without a sound.”
With all the hoops and garters and the “Hogshead of REAL FIRE!,” Pablo Fanque’s fair must have been a rollicking good show.
Once you get there, it’s hard to hate the circus.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.