“The Circus: American Experience,” a two-part, four-hour documentary that explores the colorful history of this popular, influential and distinctly American entertainment, comes to Arizona PBS Oct. 8 and 9.
From the first one-ring show at the end of the 18th century to 1956, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey big top was pulled down for the last time, the circus was often a 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 sociological norms and find an accepting community that eluded them elsewhere.
Drawing upon a vast and richly visual archive, “The Circus” features a host of performers, historians and aficionados that bring to life an era when “Circus Day” would shut down a town. Its stars were among the most famous people in the country, where multitudes gathered to see the improbable, impossible, exotic and spectacular.
Part One: 1793-1891 (Oct. 8 at 8 p.m.)
The first U.S. circus was established in Philadelphia in 1793, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the tent in 1825 that the circus became a truly roving art form. The arrival of P. T. Barnum in 1871 transformed the trade and five Ringling brothers created a spectacle of their own. For more than a century, “Circus Day” was as anticipated as Christmas and the Fourth of July. It would crash into everyday life as colorful and brash, then disappear and leave many dreaming of another life. The circus grew alongside the country itself and evolved into a gargantuan entertainment that would unite a far-flung nation of disconnected communities and dazzle not only Americans, but also the world.
Part Two: 1897-1956 (Oct. 9 at 8 p.m.)
See how Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey merged to create a circus of more than 1,100 people and 1,000 animals. Among the featured were some of the most storied circus performers in history, including the famed aerialist Lillian Leitzel. May Worth stunned audiences by somersaulting on horseback along with 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. But the circus limped through the Great Depression against competition from radio and movies, and, despite a brief resurgence, a catastrophic fire in 1944 marked the beginning of the end. In 1956, the big top was pulled down for good.