1948 was a good year for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The “Big Show” traveled from coast to coast with a coterie of performers and animals, encountering raving fans and sold out shows.
On May 25th of that year, LOOK Magazine ran a story about the circus with accompanying photographs by Stanley Kubrick. He captured the many aspects of the troupe’s life on the road: rehearsing, playing cards, training animals, and their children at play.
The images retain the mysticism of the circus; focusing on portraits of the performers, aero stars (possibly the famous Ming Sing group), and the workers who cherished the livelihood of ‘Big Bertha’.
These images reflect my fascination with circuses from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. When I was an undergrad, I noticed that there was an underground revival of the Vaudeville tradition. There were a few occasions when troupes traveled through our little college town. These days, it is a romantic notion that people can exist within smaller, untouched pockets of society. Even so, I like to subscribe to the ideas of those quiet rebellions.
America’s intrigue with the circus has lasted over 200 years. Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money. Everything else is supposed to be bad for you. But the circus is good for you. It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”
Today, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still tours extensively. Although the circus now plays to sold out arenas, and is a large corporation, there are still smaller operations that retain the aesthetic and values of the early 20th century circus. One of the most noted is the Big Apple Circus, which was recently featured in the series Circus on PBS. It’s a fantastic series, and quite honestly made me want to hop on the road with them! Maybe next year….