“American Experience: The Circus” celebrates the daze of popular entertainment

Send in the clowns! And elephants and trapeze artists and jugglers and, of course, the ring master.

American Experience: The Circus (PBS Distribution) is a four-hour, two-part documentary exploring the colorful history of this popular, influential and distinctly American form of entertainment.  A transformative place for reinvention, where young women could become lion tamers and young men traveled the world as roustabouts, the circus allowed people to be liberated from the roles assigned by society and find an accepting community that had eluded them elsewhere.

Drawing upon a vast and richly visual archive, and featuring a host of performers, historians and aficionados, The Circus brings to life an era when Circus Day would shut down a town, its stars were among the most famous people in the country, and multitudes gathered to see the improbable and the impossible, the exotic and the spectacular.

The program begins with the history (Part One) of the first one-ring show at the end of the 18th century in Philadelphia when the circus met the disapproval of the religious. In a society that valued sobriety and hard work, a wide-eyed day peering at half-naked aerialists amid shifty circus workers was frowned upon. Soon, circuses began to add elaborate menageries of exotic animals including lions, hippos and elephants, and “human oddities” from across the globe—rebranding themselves as “educational” experiences to concerned communities. Once the infamous showman and huckster P. T. Barnum transformed the trade in 1871, he and his partners created the largest touring show in existence.

The program continues (Part Two) as James Bailey takes his circus to Europe on a five-year tour. When the show paraded through British streets for the first time, throngs of people turned up to watch—and the scene was repeated in towns across Europe. Upon returning the circus tour to the U.S. the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey merged, creating a moving town of more than 1100 people, 735 horses, nearly 1000 other animals and 28 tents.

Featured were some of the most storied circus performers in history, including the famed aerialist Lillian Leitzel; May Worth, who stunned audiences by somersaulting on horseback; and big cat trainer Mabel Stark. In an era when women were still fighting for the right to vote, women circus performers stepped to the forefront of the suffrage movement.

For more than a century, the circus had brought daily life to a standstill. Shows took over rail yards. Parades clogged Main Street. Acres of billowing canvas appeared mirage-like on the outskirts of town. And then, when day broke, the miracle had vanished. Equestrians, sideshow performers, clowns, roustabouts, an enormous collection of curious beasts—all became just figments of a glorious dream.

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