Battle for the big top P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the death-defying saga of the American circus

Les Standiford

Book - 2021

"Millions have sat under the "big top," watching as trapeze artists glide and clowns entertain, but few know the captivating stories behind the men who shaped the circus. Battle for the Big Top is the untold story of the battles of the three circus kings--James Bailey, P.T. Barnum, and John Ringling--all vying for control of the vastly profitable and widely influential American Circus. New York Times bestselling author Les Standiford recreates a remarkable era when a community--without regard for gender, creed, or nationality--would be captivated by the spectacle created by three diversely talented individuals who transcended the ordinary. Ultimately, the rivalry of these three men resulted in the creation of an institution t...hat would surpass all intentions and, for 147 years, hold a nation spellbound. Filled with details of their ever-evolving showmanship, business strategies, and personal magnetism, this Ragtime-like narrative will delight and enchant circus-lovers everywhere"--

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Informational works
New York : PublicAffairs [2021]
Main Author
Les Standiford (author)
Physical Description
x, 255 pages, 16 unnumbered leaves of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 237-243) and index.
  • Introduction
  • 1. World on Fire
  • 2. Before the Big Top
  • 3. The Periodic Table of Circus Elements
  • 4. On American Shores
  • 5. Pachyderm on the Half Shell
  • 6. Readying for Takeoff
  • 7. How They Roll
  • 8. What's in a Name?
  • 9. Growing a Stake
  • 10. Clash of the Titans
  • 11. A Showman Hits His Stride
  • 12. First Tour of Duty
  • 13. Museum Master
  • 14. General Tom
  • 15. Est Arrivé
  • 16. Riches to Rags, and Back Again
  • 17. The Circus Comes Calling
  • 18. Mr. B, Meet Mr. B
  • 19. On Massive Shoulders
  • 20. The Greatest Show
  • 21. Upstarts
  • 22. The Coming Men
  • 23. Punch and Counterpunch
  • 24. Building a Leviathan
  • 25. Terms of Success
  • 26. The Price of Love
  • 27. Last Man Standing
  • 28. Patriarch of Paradise
  • 29. The Last Race
  • 30. After the Ball
  • 31. Out of the Ashes
  • 32. Rock and Roll to the Rescue
  • 33. What Remains
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Standiford (Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America's Xanadu) delivers a zippy history of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. He traces the roots of the modern circus to 18th-century England, and notes that "a truly indigenous American circus" emerged with the introduction of elephants in the early 19th century. After James Bailey joined his first circus as a 12-year-old orphan in 1859, he became the co-owner of a show in 1873, and a few years later lost nearly half his animals on a steamship journey to Australia and New Zealand. In 1880, P.T. Barnum, who had launched a traveling circus after displaying mermaids and other "natural curiosit" at his Manhattan museum, offered to pay $100,000 for a calf born to one of Bailey's elephants, and the two men eventually agreed to a merger. John Ringling and his brothers acquired the "Greatest Show on Earth" after Bailey's death in 1906 and oversaw its golden age before such challenges as the Great Depression, suburban development, television, and animal rights laws eventually led to its closure in 2017. Standiford packs the account with colorful circus lore, and ably sketches contemporaneous developments, such as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Readers will relish this entertaining portrait of a bygone American institution. (June)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A blow-by-blow account of the rivalry among James Bailey, John Ringling, P.T. Barnum, and other players in the American circus world. "When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant," said Barnum, who knew a thing or two about wowing the public. Captive elephants were at the center of his extravaganzas, as they were of other circuses until, in 2015, the last of the 19th-century organizations struck the tent after animal rights activists succeeded in delivering the elephants from bondage. That last firm, as popular historian Standiford chronicles, was Ringling Brothers, whose namesakes were long gone. A former rock 'n' roll entrepreneur named Kenneth Feld now headed the company, his head stocked with hard data on every playable venue on the continent. Bailey, whose rival circus was pleasing audiences in the late 19th century, made headlines when an elephant in his troupe gave birth, "the calf described as the first ever born in captivity in the United States." Barnum offered "the then-astronomical sum of $100,000 for the calf; when Bailey refused, his admiring rival offered a partnership instead, giving birth to what would become the Barnum and Bailey consortium. Standiford is a capable ringmaster over a complicated tale with many moving parts. As he notes, getting a circus before the public required "the seamless integration of five business endeavors running side by side," from railroads to hotels to "the entertainment business itself, the only one of which produced any income." Standiford's narrative lacks the intellectual heft of Louis S. Warren's Buffalo Bill's America (2005) as a study of evolving tastes in popular pastimes, but he tells a good story all the same and with a sobering moral: The circus probably wouldn't survive today now that, as one scholar puts it, "the trend in technology in recent years has been to push individuals into greater and greater electronic isolation." Fans of the circuses of old, as well as students of popular culture, will enjoy this look back. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.