Under the Big Top: the Circus in America

From the Midway to the Big Top
"Step right up! Try your luck!" Carnival barkers lured the crowd to game booths and amusement rides as the aromas of roasting peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy and corn dogs fill the air. Other odors mingle with the food smells, those of sawdust and exotic animals that leak from sideshow tents draped with fantastic banners.
Main gallery of Under the Big Top exhibit

Human sideshow performers such as snake charmers, sword swallowers, giants and dwarves, occasionally became famous celebrities, such as General Tom Thumb. Some were "freaks" - human oddities who suffered from genetic deformities, physical disfigurement, or mental retardation. But the circus offered employment and companionship, not likely to be found elsewhere.

The Big Top  
Ringmaster in front of museum gallery
Under The Big Top, clowns entertain with tricks and bloopers for the kids as the audience waits eagerly for the grand show to begin.

"Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages...!"
The Ringmaster directs the crowd's attention toward one of three-to-five rings, spotlighting the multiple wonders of wild animals and star performers such as acrobats, and dare-devil stuntmen. Soaring high above the floor show are trapeze marvels and tight-rope walkers! Band music swirls through marches, aerial waltzes, or circus gallops to suit the rhythm of each act. (Lions and tigers enjoy "Tiger Rag" and "The Pink Panther Theme!")

Alas, the final performance is over. Yet the Ringmaster sends the audience away happy with his magical blessing:
"May all your days be circus days!"

Fun Facts
  • Giantess Anna Swan ultimately reached over 7 1/2 feet tall. Her father was 5'4", her mother only 5 feet tall.
  • Inside the Big Top, above the traditional 42-foot-diameter center ring is up to 40,000 lbs. of overhead framework of beams under 20 tons of canvas 36' high kept taught by 600 guy ropes or 18,000 feet of steel cable!
  • John Philip Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever" was played only during emergencies (a performer accident, a fire, etc.) to alert circus personnel without alarming the audience.
  • "Making the Nut" was the daily cost of operating a show. Legend has it that local authorities would remove a nut from the wheel of the circus office wagon to ensure that all local businesses were paid, before allowing the show to jump to the next town.
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