The Circus!

Yesterday, Mom and I went to the Circus!

Actually, Sarasota was (is?) the winter quarters of the Ringling Circus, hence the Ringling Circus Museum to which Mom and I went. The museum is housed in two and a half buildings on the grounds of Florida State University‘s Sarasota campus for the performing arts, where it forms part of a larger complex including the Ringling Museum of Art and the Ca’ de Zan, the Italian Renaissance fairy-tale Venetian palace overlooking the turquoise waters of Sarasota Bay. The house, built around 1910, and the museum, built in the late 1920s, were going to be a place for the Ringlings to entertain the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers of the world, since Ringling was rich enough to hang out with them.

Here’s a Google Map of the site

Unfortunately for John and his wife Mable, the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts never came to Florida. It was tedious, they felt, to be constantly invited to the house of a circus impressario, who had nothing to teach them about business or socializing. Perhaps it was an unfortunate choice, since John Ringling and his capable staff used America’s railroads to build a highly mobile and sophisticated organization.

The core of the Circus Museum is a 3400 square foot scale model of the Howard Circus, a miniature version of the Ringling Circus, complete with all 1,352 of its traveling personnel, all of its elephants, and even all of its llamas. The model begins at the railroad station of a typical American city, includes the circus parade through the heart of downtown, and concludes with the sideshow, the menagerie and the Big Top itself, complete with its four rings, its three stages, and six high-wire acts. The effect of this vast expanse of tiny models, each hand-crafted to correspond with the real equipment of Ringling’s circus, is stunning.


How does this relate to organization? It’s a good question. I always thought, based on movies and films and stories, that circuses were just that: circuses, with no apparent organization — simply joyous entertainment. However, this display and its attendant explanatory plaques wipes away all those notions. Individual performers might be flaky and disorganized, but there is no way such people could last long in such a system.

In 1928, the Ringling Circus used a hundred railcars, including 46 flatcars, twenty-seven stock cars, twenty-two coaches, a dining car, three advertising and office cars, and John Ringling’s private car. The circus performed more than 240 shows a year, and fewer than twenty were in the same place for more than one night. As a result, careful organization ensured that everything was loaded onto the railroad in a specific order, and everything came off in an equally specific order. The train had its own guards, loaders and even a trainmaster, to assure that things went smoothly.

The Flying Squad

The first section of the train was the Flying Squad. The Flying Squad went into town ahead of the circus, to prepare the lot. This section of the train contained the draft horses who did the most heavy moving, the medical tent, and the dining and cooking tents for the performers. For those gamers and history geeks among us, here is the daily food order for just the performers and human staff, not counting fodder for animals:

2 barrels of sugar
50 gallons of milk
36 bags of table salt
50 bushels of potatoes
110 dozen oranges
200 pounds of tea and coffee
226 dozen eggs
285 pounds of butter
350 pounds of salad
1,300 pounds of fresh vegetables
2,220 loaves of bread
2,470 pounds of fresh meat
3,600 ears of corn

The flying squad would set the cooking and medical tents, and would be serving breakfast as the main body of the circus arrived. While the performers ate, the flying squad set up the performers’ dressing tents, and the common rest tents for the band, the clowns, and the other staffers. The dining tent served 4,000 meals a day, and frequently was back on the train on its way to the next destination before the end of the big top show.

The Train Arrives (First Section)

When the train arrived, the first section to be unloaded brought the performers, additional horses and elephants to town. These would immediately parade through town, to let people know, “hey the circus is here!” The day’s first performance was usually only five hours after the parade, and there was a huge amount of work to be done.

The Second Section
On the second section were the Big Top itself, a massive canvas construction with more than enough square feet of canvas to equip two first-rate ships of the line. The second part of the train also held the concession booths for the midway, the sideshow, and the menagerie. These would be carried over to the lot for setting up (without cranes, mind you), even as the third section began to be unloaded.

The Third Section
On the third section were all the seats and hardware for the interior of the tents, and the props for the stage acts. Usually the third section was being unloaded and trucked to the lot even as the performers got up from breakfast and walked over to their rest tents. By the time the performers were ready to go from their rest tents to make-up and prepare for their acts, these parts of the show would be set up and ready to go. (And the cook tent and dining pavilion would be on their way back to the train…)

The Dining Area
The Dining Area traveled with a dining pavilion large enough to seat all 1,300 workers at the same time. It had a mechanical dishwashing machine installed in a horse-drawn cart by 1928, a steam boiler in a cart to generate electrical power for the soup cauldrons and grills in the cooking tent, and a cooking staff of at least twenty men and women.

Stables, Kennels, and Farrier
A short distance from the dining area, pavilions would be staked out and set up — one for show ponies and horses, the other for draft animals. There was a strict separation between animals for show in the ring, and animals for doing labor around the circus’s back yard. Between them a blacksmith’s tent would go up, part of the flying squad, which fit horse shoes and such. Five blacksmiths and two leatherworkers handled all the tack and horse equipment for the show.

Nearby, one would find the kennels. Nearly all the dogs of the Ringling Circus were not high-bred pure-breeds, but crafty street dogs salvaged from pounds and animal shelters all over the country. Ideally, they were dogs that had lived on the streets for a time, but were not yet mean. These dogs could easily be trained to new tricks in return for food and shelter, and many adapted to their lives easily and happily.

Midway, Sideshow, and Menagerie
In front of the Big Top, a long sand-strewn pathway lined with banners advertising specific acts with the circus served as a waiting area, a pre-performance excitement builder, and a refreshment stand. Soft ice cream, cotton candy, caramel popcorn and other delights formed one part of the Midway; game stands and souvenir stands comprised the other part. Halfway down the midway was the sideshow, which required a separate admission ticket. Unusual talents or skills, magic and sleight of hand, and — let’s face it — freaks each had separate booths within the side show tent, which was open essentially from the moment it went up until the moment it had to come down.

Several ticket booths in the Midway sold tickets for the Big Show, which had its entrance through five turnstiles at the far end of the Midway from the street. Once through the turnstiles, however, one was usually in the menagerie, which displayed lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, llamas, and giraffes, and all sorts of exotic mammals from around the world. Among Ringling’s significant attractions was Goliath, a 650-pound Sea Elephant who traveled in his own tank in a specially built rail car, and had a separate pavilion off the menagerie.

Going through a tent flap beyond the menagerie brought you into the Big Top, where the real show awaited you.

The Big Show
At the height of the Golden Age of the Circus, (from 1910 to 1965), the circus would pull into town around 5am. The performers would parade through town between 9 and 10am. They would do a noon show before a crowd of about 10,000 people, which would last around 2 1/2 hours. There might be an afternoon show for a smaller crowd at around 3pm, and then the main show to a packed house of 13-15,000 people, would go on around 7:30. The train would be reloaded and on its way to the next destination before midnight.

My Dad
My dad this morning, hearing about our visit to the museum, recalled that when the Ringling circus performed in Stamford, CT in the late 1940s and early 1950s, schools shut down for the day, most businesses closed, and everyone turned out for the parade and for the show. Excursion trains ran from nearby towns to Stamford for the performances, and Stamford’s population nearly tripled. The lot where the circus set up is now an extensive shopping plaza, with four core stores, two dozen or so boutique-sized shops, and substantial parking, as well as smaller second floor offices and a small movie theater. It gives you some idea of the needed space.

Here’s a Google map of the site:,+CT&radius=0.0&cid=41053333,-73539167,9665221864480427475&li=lmd&z=14&t=m

The Army
The US Army and other organizations studied Circus procedures relentlessly just before, during, and after World Wars I andII. Circus system engineering was in many ways at the forefront of a number of modern business and government models.

Organization, Again.

It could be that us modern organization freaks could learn a thing or three from the circus. The first is,

Front-load The Hard Work.
Do all the major set-up and planning ahead of time. Focus on getting big stuff done and put away before you need it, so that it’s ready and waiting when you are.

Clean Up As You Go.
The circus was forever putting up tents and taking them down, loading them and unloading them, putting them away and putting them out. It knew what was wearing out months ahead of time, and could schedule repairs and replacements to arrive when they were needed and where they could be exchanged for broken bits. Don’t leave messes behind; instead, clean up and put away as you’re working, so you’re ready to start again next time.

Develop Procedures.
There are always going to be processes that you have to repeat, day in and day out. Learn to make these processes automatic, so that you get them done and out of the way before the next task comes along. The dog and pony show is going to begin sooner or later, so get the mundane bits, like getting folks fed and sheltered, or your e-mail read, before the crises hit.

There will probably be further geekery about the circus as I think about it more.

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  1. I was going to run away and join the circus, and then I realized that I *am* the circus!

    Sounds like you learned a lot…..I have always been fascinated by circus culture, and my family used to go see Ringling Bros. every year when they came to DC.

  2. I was going to run away and join the circus, and then I realized that I *am* the circus!

    Sounds like you learned a lot…..I have always been fascinated by circus culture, and my family used to go see Ringling Bros. every year when they came to DC.

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