The Big Top and the One Ring Circus Live On

Culture Watch
tags: review, The Big Apple Circus

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

The Big Apple Circus, now happily entrenched under its Big Top at Lincoln Center, in New York, and soon headed for New Jersey and other stops, has become an historical icon in American entertainment as one of the most successful circuses in the country and a trailblazer as a one ring show.

When it opened in 1977, Paul Binder, the founder and long-time head (with Michael Christensen) and ringmaster of it, said that he wanted a one ring circus because the three ring circuses, such as the fabled Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, were too glitzy and not as intimate as the smaller, one ring shows, so popular in Europe for generations, and he felt that the country needed that.

He was right. America did embrace his circus and its high flying acrobats and sashaying clowns. It has performed nearly annually at Lincoln Center, where it draws large crowds, and has toured the country numerous times, as far north as Boston, west to Chicago and south to Atlanta. From October through early January, the Big Apple Circus, cuddly warm under its mammoth tent on bone chilling winter days, is home to thousands of smiling adults and high-spirited kids. The air under its huge tent is filled with the smells of popcorn and candies as the children “oooh” and “aaah” at fast-handed jugglers, marauding horses and athletic contortionists filling 42’ diameter ring.

The current show, Metamorphosis,which runs through January 11 in New York, is as good as all the others over the years. It has something for everybody and its performers make an extra effort to bring wide-eyed children into the ring from their seats. The highlight of the show was at the very end, when the talented Aniskin trapeze troupe climbed high up to the top of the tent and did their impressive act, which included a half dozen people somersaulting their way through the air to grasp the wrists of a catcher high up in the air. Other good acts in this year’s show included Jenny Vidbel’s funny “down on the farm” animal show, in which she managed to make a variety of cute animals very close friends, Francesco the clown and Odbaynasakh Dorjoo, the nimble contortionist . Particularly pleasing was the Smirnov Duo, a quick change act in which a man and woman whirl across the ring, slipping in and out of gowns and suits quicker than the bat of an eye.

Whether it is carousing camels, parading llamas, high flying trapeze maestros or a funny clown, the Big Apple Circus, deftly directed by Wes Hyler and overseen by ringmaster John Kennedy Kane, has it all.

The Big Apple Circus is a piece of history as one of a handful of one ring shows America (the U.S. has about fifteen permanent circuses but Italy has 100 and France some 400). The difference between the one ring and three ring circus, so popular for so long in this country, is more than just size. At the Big Apple Circus, patrons sit right around the single ring and are nearly in the middle of the show. In a three ring circus, you are farther back and must try to keep an eye on what is going on in three rings at the same time. There is an intimacy, a small town feel, to the one ring circus that you do not have in the larger circuses.

The one ring circus idea has become so popular that eight years ago Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey switched over to a large, one ring type space and abandoned its legendary three ring concept, in place for 150 years.

“It was about time that they did that,” said Dominique Jando, the artistic director of the Lonestar Circus, in Dallas, Texas, circus historian and former associate director of the Big Apple Circus. “The one ring circus displays the circus as an art form, like the theater. You are watching trained artists in performance just for you. That is why it is so popular around the world, especially in Europe. The main reason for the three rings, back to P.T. Barnum, was to make money. Those circuses did, but then times changed. The three ring circus was always just an American accident.”

Jando thinks that clowns are one of the keys to the one ring show, at the Big Apple and elsewhere. “You see them up close, right in front of you, roaming through the crowd. In Europe, the clowns talk a lot. They do political satire and they scare the politicians in the audience,” he laughed.

He sees the cercus in North America as ever evolving. “Look at the Cirque du Soleil, from Canada. They re-invented the circus with all the extravagant things they do and their staging and the glamour. They began a new era with TV ads. All the circuses are doing better with technology and up to date marketing. That’s good; they all need to keep changing.”

The Big Apple people put their tents on trailers and drive off into the sunset in search of a crowd. Each year, they take the show to different cities on a limited tour. After the run at Lincoln Center ends on January 11, the Big Apple Circus moves to Bridgewater, New Jersey. There, it sets up its tent on the Somerset Patriots minor league baseball field. The ballpark, right off route 287, is easy to reach by car and the show attracts thousands of fans. It opens there February 26 and runs through March 15. Then it is off to Boston, Massachusetts, for an engagement from March 24 to May 10. Then it is back to New York, to the borough of Queens, for a run from May 17 to June 14, and, later, other stops around the U.S.

The one ring circus is appreciated wherever it goes. The Big Apple is the old time circus of Norman Rockwell magazine covers, and it is lovable.

Historically, the circus as mass entertainment began way back in ancient Rome with the Circus Maximus and other arenas, where chariot races were held along with equestrian shows and staged battles. In the middle Ages, city festivals were mini-circuses.

The first circus as we know it today was held in a large building in just outside of London in 1768, produced by Philip Astley. It featured horse riding tricks by Astley and others within a 42 foot diameter ring (the same size as today’s ring). Astley and other circus promoters added wild animal acts, acrobats, a menagerie and clowns.

Then it moved to America. Brit John Bill Ricketts moved his colorful circus from England to Philadelphia and opened the company in a building there in 1793 (President George Washington was a big fan). During the first few decades of the 19th century, several other promoters opened up circuses within large buildings throughout the U.S. and toured from city to city, even taking the show by ship to Havana, Cuba.

Promoters Joshua Purdy and Dan Rice began using the Big Top tent on tours in the 1830s and found that they could travel by train or highway in those years and set up their circus, their “Big Top,” anywhere they wanted. The people did not have to come to the show; the show would go to them. This revolutionized the circus and made it an American legend.

P.T. Barnum came along in 1870 with another revolutionary idea – the three ring circus. He believed, correctly, that he could sell more tickets to three shows in one and that the three rings could be accommodated rather easily in a larger Big Top tent. After Barnum died in 1890, his managers merged with James Bailey and his show to form the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. It later merged with Ringling Brothers and became the world’s most popular three ring circus. Today, a wonderland of animal and human acts, it continues to crisscross the U.S. with several different touring companies and remains very successful.

By the 1960s, history seemed to leave the one ring circus behind. These shows did not disappear, but declined in number and popularity as the three ring circus thrived. By then, the one ring American circuses had just about died, even though the one ring show thrived in Europe.

That’s where Paul Binder stepped in. He had seen one ring shows in Europe. Why not do that in America? He made an arrangement with Lincoln Center, the cultural center of New York, and was successful. New Yorkers can see horses jump at the Big Apple Circus and, right next door, watch greatest singers and actors in the world at the Metropolitan Opera.

“The circus, like the theater, is all emotion,” said historian Jando. “The show appeals to people’s basic feelings and that is why, over all these centuries, it has been so popular with all.”

One thing that he noticed early in his career was the way that circuses had a generational appeal. “In my years at the Big Apple, we saw third generation fans. Kids would grow up and then bring their own kids to the show, and grandkids,” he said.

The Big Apple Circus has joined the select group of entertainment kings over the years and will roll on, clowns cavorting and horses prancing, a colorful piece of entertainment history. Oh, and with just one ring, please.

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