Circus shows sprouted up like weeds starting in the 1850s. The five Ringling brothers began theirs in Wisconsin; P.T. Barnum lent his name to another Wisconsin one; and James Anthony Bailey had a very successful touring one that brought to Philadelphia the first baby elephant born in captivity. Barnum merged his show with Bailey, and the Ringling Brothers purchased the whole operation in 1907. By 1919 they consolidated the previously separate acts to become the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, still keeping Barnum’s boast of “the greatest show on Earth” — at least until the advent of television.
On this day, July 16, in 1956, the Greatest Show gave their final performance under the big top. Declining attendance brought on by television made the shows unprofitable. John Ringling North, one of the Ringling Brothers said in an interview “the tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of the past.”
But the show survived, albeit in a different form and under different ownership. Promoter Irvin Feld, along with his brother Israel bought the show soon thereafter and turned it around, creating a “clown school” for aspiring circus performers, and launching two concurrent shows. For a spell, from 1971 to 1982, the show belonged to Mattel, makers of the Barbie, but it was returned to the Feld family where it lives on today.