Final Part of 1918: Circus & the Flu

(Psst: check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full story. )

space

“Admiral Dot,” Circus Midget, Is “Flu” Victim

Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 27, 19181

space

Let’s round down this discussion on the days of the 1918 pandemic by returning to the biggest question: 

How did the 1918 Influenza Pandemic reshape American traveling circus? 

I doubt anyone could give a 100% accurate answer, but it is certain that this played a crucial role ushering in the truly magnificent and enormous years of mid century circus — although not necessarily in the way you might think. It certainly wasn’t the angle I expected  when I started this project. 

At the turn of the century, American traveling shows were no small side show. With the growing adoption of new technologies like the telephone and a web of interconnecting train lines that began in the 1870’s, circus shows boomed. By 1911, over 20 circuses were traveling by rail all across the country.2 The circus was a symbol of the progress and mobility of the new modern world.

What about that combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show: surely these circuses came together due to the devastating impact of influenza? 

This question is more complicated than a simple ‘yes/no’ (as is often the case with significant diseases in human history). 

Influenza did play a huge part. 

The new Age of the Cinema surprisingly also dealt a blow, as well as the declining numbers of the actual Ringling brothers. 

The biggest factor though, was probably the war. 

space

Let’s look at the big picture. Little evidence of flu rates among circus performers has survived the passage of time, but considering the conditions, it’s hard to imagine no one was ill. 

Our current standards of cleanliness certainly were not a feature of the early 1900’s circuses. Despite the outdoors living and constant travel, cleanliness for many performers and the circus children consisted of two water buckets and a sprinkler of cold water on a sunny day in the back lot.2

These large shows packed into train cars were, in fact, quite packed. “On the circus, everybody’s crowded together like candy in a gumball machine,” remarked performer Merle Evans.3 A 1919 pamphlet from the combined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show noted that “it is not unusual for 5,000 pancakes to be baked and eaten in a single breakfast,” which– hyperbole or not — is a lot of pancakes for a lot of people.2 And for all these people, there were few medical staff. A note from the 1950’s indicated that the huge, combined shows had only one doctor and sometimes a nurse for the entire crew.2

It is possible though that performers didn’t see high infection rates. They were known for being in robust physical health, spent their days outside in the open air, and were generally isolated from main society as their city-on-wheels rolled its way from town to town. It’s hard to know from our perspective today, since so little written evidence remains. 


Small aside: Who’s most likely to blame for this gap in written and photographic journaling of circus activities between 1905ish to the dazzling rebirth of circus in the late 1930’s? The movies, of course! The first nickelodeon theaters made their debut in the early 1900s, followed by silent film theaters in the 1920’s, and America was hooked. The cinema was the first real competitor to the circus for America’s intense curiosity and fascination with the exotic, and there was a distinct wane in circus audiences during this time.2


Unfortunately for the men of the Ringling family, they were struggling with different health problems. During the 34 years the Ringlings had toured, there had been as many as 7 brothers handling the top management posts. By 1918, most had passed away. John, Charles and Alf T. were the only ones still active in circus operations, and Alf T. was in failing health. There simply weren’t enough of them anymore to manage the behemoth circus.3

In fact, there weren’t enough men in general. 

With the advent of World War I (1914-18), thousands of able bodied men enlisted for military service and other thousands went to work manufacturing products for the war effort — including a substantial chunk of circus folk. Without the primarily young male workforce, the tasks of heavy lifting and keeping the circus rolling was left to women, older men and those physically unable to serve. Acts were scarce, too, with many of the performers serving the war efforts and European acts impossible to acquire.4

Business expenses kept rising and certain essential supplies were increasingly scarce. In July 1917, already a year before influenza, Charles Ringling wrote in a letter that he feared shortages in essential foodstuffs, such as flour and starch, which were subject to rationing.

“[C]osts are way beyond anything ever experienced before,” he wrote, “and difficulties of transportation are serious. We would be satisfied for the present year and the next to be able to keep our business running on the same plane as in past years without anticipating any very large profits.”4

Also, under the new Army Appropriation Act from President Wilson, the United States Railroad Administration acquired the essential power of determining locomotive usage and routes. And the Ringling Bros traveling circus just wasn’t a good enough cause to justify the 8 locomotives it needed for its two shows in 1918. The government could only make available half that number of locomotives, meaning that one show would have been unable to tour.

With a country at war and American culture rapidly changing, the influenza pandemic was the last straw, at least for the Ringling Bros. As the combined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show, the two major circus companies could combine talent, consolidate supplies, and ultimately travel much more lean, which made the whole operation more profitable. In this way, the lasting effects of 1918 was also the first straw of the next age of circus. As stated in The Circus

“For a nation traumatized by war and sickness, the new [combined circus] venture, jam-packed with all charismatic stars, dramatic music, incredible thrills, and pageantry of two-shows-in-one, was a nice needed jolt of excitement.”2

space


Citations

1. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 27). “Admiral dot,” circus midget, is “flu” victim. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922). https://search.proquest.com/docview/174430124?accountid=14696

2. Dominique Jando, Linda Granfield, and Fred Dahlinger. (2010). The Circus. Taschen. 

3. Dean Jensen. (2013). Queen of the Air [uncorrected proof]. A True Story of Love & Tragedy at the Circus. Crown Publishers New York. 

4. Jerry Apps. (2012). Ringlingville USA : The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success. Wisconsin Historical Society Press. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzYxMzAyMl9fQU41?sid=0750fb2d-f83a-4cbe-9bce-d5eac7586113@sdc-v-sessmgr03&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1

Live Circus Emerges from the Crypt

The Graveyard Show Offers Healing in a Year of Loss

While 2020 has been anything but kind to live performance venues and the artists who once packed their spaces with adoring fans, the good news is that some folks are reviving three-dimensional productions in unconventional ways.

Sidewalks, parks and backyards have become our new proscenium stages, serving as prime locations for moments of creative expression.

“It’s an interesting situation — in circus and in the arts more broadly — that because the traditional opportunities have completely evaporated, people want to do something, even if it isn’t what they would normally do.”

One such production is The Graveyard Show by Quark Circus, a ‘boot-strapped, socially distant circus show’ appearing in Alexandria tomorrow (10/17) and Sunday (10/18). The production’s four live shows are sold out, but an online streaming edition will air on October 30th at 8 p.m. Tickets.

Show producer Elizabeth Finn spoke to The District Ringer about the process of creating a circus performance in uncertain times.

“When I came up with the idea, I was really skeptical of it myself,” Finn said of the early planning stages back in May. “I didn’t know how to do it safely.”

To answer that question, Finn consulted with co-director and castmate Amy Nagy, who has a background in public health.

Finn made it clear that she would defer to Nagy’s expertise, coupled with real-time Covid data, to determine the show’s ultimate fate.

“I am trusting you to keep watch on those numbers,” she told Nagy. “As soon as you feel uncomfortable, we’re calling it all off.”

Safety measures for The Graveyard Show are numerous, starting with the show’s setting in an open-air backyard. Seating is limited to 14 people per show, with at least eight feet between chairs and mandatory masks for audience members and performers.

Additionally, Finn said she is asking guests to text organizers when they arrive on site, such that they can be escorted individually from their cars to their seats. 

“The one thing that we couldn’t solve was the bathroom issue,” Finn said, noting that she didn’t want to expose guests to shared bathrooms, which are known incubators of virus particles. “We want our audience to be safe, so treat it like a hike. Use the facilities before you come.”

Despite the challenges posed by the global pandemic, Finn said the enthusiastic support she received from Nagy and the rest of the cast indicated just how much they had been missing live performances.

“It’s an interesting situation — in circus and in the arts more broadly — that because the traditional opportunities have completely evaporated, people want to do something, even if it isn’t what they would normally do,” Finn said. “They are willing to be flexible, as long as you show good faith and you’re trying to do it safely.”

By July, she had assembled a line-up of nine performers specializing in aerial, acrobatics and juggling.

Unfortunately, in-person rehearsals with the full cast were off the table, limiting the potential for ensemble work. As a result, Finn said she abandoned the show’s strict narrative in favor of a cabaret-style format.

“You’re not going to be able to mend it and make it look like it used to. You just never will. All you can do is find a way to make that hole or that scar into something that is differently beautiful.”

Even without a firm plot, Finn said the show’s strong visuals convey grief, loss, and healing from collective trauma in a year when these themes have been unavoidable.

“The metaphor that I’m most excited about is this metaphor of the fabric of life, and this idea that death and trauma cause holes in that,” she said. “You’re not going to be able to mend it and make it look like it used to. You just never will. All you can do is find a way to make that hole or that scar into something that is differently beautiful.”

As a child, Finn competed on the national level in two-person sports acrobatics, followed by a foray into competitive diving. In college, she discovered aerial arts and developed an affinity for straps. Now working full time in the field of genetics and molecular biology, Finn is practical and measured in her show production strategy.

“I see connections between things. You have to do that in science. You also have to do that in art,” Finn said. “All good art is making a connection that other people haven’t seen and that is meaningful to other people.”

Despite her excitement to once again experience the thrill and personal connection of a live performance, Finn said she harbors even more anticipation for the untapped potential of online shows.

A notable quarantine inspiration of hers was Egress and Oriel, an online production mounted by the San Francisco-based troupe Vespertine Circus. 

The company’s cinematic, film-inspired presentation struck her as “taking advantage of the medium that we have, instead of trying to give you the raw connection of live theater without being able to — because it’s trapped in a computer screen,” she said. “It felt like it was leaning into the strengths of the medium instead of the weaknesses.”

The Graveyard Show’s sold-out run of in-person performances is happening tomorrow (10/17) and Sunday (10/18) in Alexandria. A filmed and edited version of the show will air on October 30th at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at this link. This show addresses themes of death, grief and healing, but is appropriate for all ages.

Follow Quark Circus on Instagram for updates on their next creation.


Note: Christian, who wrote this article, is a virtual cast member of The Graveyard Show. You are very welcome to accuse him of bias — but check out the online show while you’re at it. And email circusdistrict@gmail.com to let him know what to write about next!

The Covid Chronicles: Reopening the Circus, Part Three

LOCAL BUSINESSES RETURN TO THE RING IN THE COVID ERA

Note: This is part three of a four-part series highlighting the gradual reopening of DMV businesses. Part one profiles Emilia’s Acrobatics and Gymnastics. Part two catches up with Pole Pressure DC.

From the collective shutdown to the current state of affairs, representatives of four companies specializing in recreational, artistic and competitive circus skills talked to The District Ringer about how the global pandemic has reframed their industry.

This edition takes us to Falls Church, Virginia, where a vibrant home for circus lives just beyond the REI, an auto supply store, and a parking lot full of moving trucks.

Back in January of this year, the first thing you did when you entered Monarca in Flight’s three-room aerial studio was take off your shoes. Then, it was time to stretch. The colorful space, laden with extra-cushiony blue mats and a tidy shelf of foam rollers, warmly invited this ritual.

As students greeted one another with smiles and settled into their post-work or after-school routines, there was a comfort in making this place a regular stop for classes in aerial, flexibility and other circus skills.

Of course, this was before Covid-19. Before the pandemic disrupted this pleasant rhythm for instructors and students alike.

“It has become obvious that optimism will not win out in this case.”

With the threat to public health looming large, the studio closed its doors on March 16th, hoping to reopen once the case numbers stabilized.

To make matters even more difficult, Monarca in Flight owner Acoatzin Torres was in Mexico at the time, acquiring immigration documents to fully secure his legal residency in the U.S.

Torres’s husband B. Keith Ryder, who manages the office at Monarca, was balancing his concern for his husband’s safe return with their shared determination to preserve the business.

“The day after he left was when the country started falling apart,” Ryder said. “The border (with Mexico) closed a couple days later,” he added. “The consulate closed the day before his appointment. We were stuck in a weird limbo, not knowing when he was going to get back.”

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northram issued a stay-at-home order on March 30th, Torres and Ryder knew they could not safely resume operations at Monarca any time soon.

“It has become obvious that optimism will not win out in this case,” they wrote in a Facebook post a day after the governor’s announcement. 

As a result, they had to postpone their spring aerial showcase and cancel their annual C4 Weekend, a four-day marathon of circus workshops that had attracted a growing number of participants in the last few years.

A week after the shutdown, Monarca began offering online classes, including popular conditioning sessions with local aerialist Gwynne Flanagan. 

Classes with charismatic titles like ‘Booty Blast’ and ‘Shake it Out’ allowed them to stay connected to their regular students while also engaging new sign-ups from across the country, Ryder said.

“We actually picked up a few new potential students through the online classes,” Ryder said. Some of these virtual offerings also allowed them to reach students outside of their usual business hours.

“We saw a fair amount of interest in the 8 a.m. classes, because it’s something to start their day,” Ryder said. “So it gives those students somewhere to go for their early morning stretch and rollout.”

After a couple of months of online-only instruction, they decided to gradually resume in-person classes in June, as Virginia loosened its restrictions on businesses like restaurants and fitness studios.

They began by inviting small groups of regular students back for open studio aerial sessions, “just to get back into the practice of having people in the space,” Ryder said.

“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them.”

In addition to the usual safety measures of mandatory masks and physical distancing, Monarca shifted to operating every other day, giving them time to disinfect in between sessions. Ryder says he runs an ozone generator overnight to kill any lingering contaminants, and also purchased medical-grade air filters to minimize risk during the day.

Despite stressing frequent cleaning and disinfection, Ryder said that cultivating a safe and responsible culture is the most important part of reopening a business right now.

“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them,” Ryder said.

“People go a little bit crazy sanitizing surfaces,” Ryder said. “That’s great, but that’s not really the big vector of infection. It’s the airborne stuff. So, do not be afraid to insist that people wear masks all the time,” he added.

In addition to gradually welcoming their students back in late June, Ryder also celebrated Torres’s return — with documents to secure his legal residency in hand — on July 10th. And following two weeks of quarantine at a local hotel, Torres was finally home for good.

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything like the sort of operation we had before — where we had full classes — until there’s a vaccine and herd immunity.”

In September, Torres resumed teaching aerial classes, and started to recruit new students outside of the studio’s pre-pandemic membership base.

“We want to make sure that whoever’s coming in — whether they’re taking a drop-in class or they have a punch-card — they are totally aware of our guidelines,” he said.

While the lengthy closure and limits on in-person class attendance have certainly impacted the studio financially, Ryder said they will stay in business. This week marked the fourth anniversary of their opening in October 2016.

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything like the sort of operation we had before — where we had full classes — until there’s a vaccine and herd immunity,” he said. “That’s over a year away I think. Luckily, we don’t have to rely on the studio to provide family income. As long as it breaks even or doesn’t lose too much, we’re okay.”

As for how the government of Virginia can help businesses like theirs during this time, Ryder said leadership is key.

“There’s not a whole lot Virginia can do other than continue to lead the way in making sure that the policies that come out of Richmond are as smart and as safe as possible,” he said.

To sign up for a virtual or in-person class, visit www.monarcainflight.com. Note that enrollment for new students may be limited at this time.


“If someone is having their first experience with flying trapeze, we wanted it to be just as good as it would’ve been before Covid.”

In part four of the Covid Chronicles, we’ll hear from Mandy Keithan, general manager at the Trapeze School of New York (DC) about the school’s journey through 2020 thus far.

Part 2 of 1918: Circus & the Flu

(I probably shouldn’t start with this, but I felt you needed to know. Circus District, with infinite stealth, in the pouring rain, in a town near you, just pulled off a not-at-all-illicit transfer of the Opaque. Trash Bag. Full of Juggling. Balls. Direct from the trunk of the infamous dealer, Thom Wall. These sweet goodies might just start appearing in a little free library down the street from you. Maybe. Who knows? Stay tuned for more to come in the next few weeks.)

In looking for the stories of American traveling circus during the 1918 influenza, what I found most striking was the information that was missing from the logs of history. For a start,

What was the flu epidemic like for circus folk? 

Their voices are so far entirely missing from the newspaper articles and documents of that era. Circus folk are treated as outsiders in these records; their world unfathomable by the average American citizen. For us today, we have all seen the changes this coronavirus pandemic has had on our personal work experiences and social expectations– similarly, what lasting effects, if any, did this have on the way circuses were run and the way they traveled?

We’re left to wonder at the precautions they may or may not have taken to protect audiences and performers. Also, a question that has really been nagging at me…

How many circus people were ill?

And who cared for them? 

Maybe circus medics or each family administered to their people on the go, or maybe the ill were left in each town to be cared for there. How did the circus folk feel about their role in the influenza epidemic as ‘probable disease spreaders’? 

I apologize for keeping on the question train here, but what happened to all the artists of yesteryear who, after finishing a successful final performance in Waycross, Georgia, are told by Charles Ringling that this is the last show ever, they won’t be hired next year, and they certainly weren’t going back to winter quarters with him? They were on their own. What did they do that winter, and where did they go? To my knowledge, most circus folk then were not likely to pivot from the circus to pick up a career in higher ed entrepreneurship, or any of the other directions that are possible for people nowadays. 

While much remains unanswered, some of these questions we might be able to tackle with the resources at hand. To start: 

Did the circus bring Influenza with it, as the Governor feared? 

We started on this question in Part 1, but the evidence would indicate that the circus folk were more likely to catch influenza in Charleston, South Carolina than to be carrying it. 

Charleston had a robust public health and hospital infrastructure, but a woefully low health budget that was only about half the amount of similarly sized American cities like Atlanta. On September 16th, 1918 (which, for reference, was after Ringling Bros announced it was coming, and before the Governor tried to keep it out),  the first cases of influenza were reported among sailors at the nearby Charleston Naval Training Station. The Navy worked quickly to keep sailors away from citizens and to control the disease, and perhaps they were successful. Regardless, other outbreaks were soon reported around the city. Also, did I mention a typhoid epidemic was raging in the city as well at this time? 1 

And what about: 

If the Governor of a State wasn’t even able to keep the circus from entering, where did the real power lie in these times? 

According to the headlines, the Governor had to negotiate with the Ringling Bros circus to keep them out of South Carolina, and even then, he only managed to limit their tour. The Board of Health flat-out refused to take part in this whole business, declaring that it would be “impossible” to keep all of the traveling circuses out of the state. 2 

I just want to re-emphasize this: the government of a state felt they did not have the power to refuse entry to all the circuses that would come across their borders, and had to negotiate with these nomadic entertainers hustling around the country by train and by wagon. An opinion piece in the Charleston News and Courier declared,

“Education and religion, it seems, are esteemed by the board of health on a par with theatres and emphatically of less importance than the dollar of the circus.” 3

Strange times, indeed. 

There’s so many unanswered questions from these stories, and I hope that by Part 3, I’ll be able to answer a few more of them for you. (If you have any good resources or people I should talk to, email me at circusdistrict@gmail.com!) 

space


Citations

(old habits die hard, though they do grow rusty)

1. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. (unknown). Charleston, South Carolina Essay. Influenza Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-charleston.html

2. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Circus Problem Up To Governor. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.6080flu.0001.806

3. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 30). Calls for Opening of Local Churches. Charleston News and Courier. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.8860flu.0001.688

The Covid Chronicles: Reopening the Circus, Part Two

LOCAL BUSINESSES RETURN TO THE RING IN THE COVID ERA

Note: This is part two of a four-part series highlighting the gradual reopening of DMV businesses. For part one’s portrait of Emilia’s Acrobatics and Gymnastics, click here.

From the collective shutdown to the current state of affairs, representatives of four companies specializing in recreational, artistic and competitive circus skills talked to The District Ringer about how the global pandemic has reframed their industry. 

Today, our series profiles pole fitness studio Pole Pressure DC in Logan Circle.

“It was like I was on the freeway, and I didn’t have an off ramp.

Devon Williams, CEO of Pole Pressure DC, was at Target in late February when she sensed that something was up.

Shelves normally stocked with alcohol and other cleaning supplies, which she purchased regularly to disinfect shared equipment in her studio, were suddenly empty. As the threat of the virus mounted, so did the impetus to close her business. On March 15th, she did exactly that.

“We were doing really well,” she said of the pole fitness space, which opened in 2009 and was offering 35 classes per week prior to the shutdown. “It was like I was on the freeway, and I didn’t have an off ramp.”

Some of her classes were booked seven months in advance. “How do I just cancel everything and start over?” she remembered thinking. “I would upset so many people.”

But like many resilient entrepreneurs in the District, Williams wasted no time going virtual. 

Less than a week after the studio’s closing, a number of her clients were able to resume their lessons online, from equipment-free flexibility and conditioning classes to pole classes for instructors and students who had an apparatus at home.

“They thought that I had a special line into the mayor. I was like, I find out exactly when it gets posted on the news.”

When Virginia started to reopen in May, Williams said she started getting daily phone calls from the commonwealth about when they could expect her D.C. business to reopen.

“They thought that I had a special line into the mayor,” Williams said, laughing. “I was like, I find out exactly when it gets posted on the news. There’s nothing special happening here. A lot of people were just ready and waiting.”

As the closure wore on, she applied for benefits from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, as well as a small business loan from D.C., both of which she eventually received in June.

After being shuttered for 110 days, Williams finally reopened the studio for in-person classes on July 6th.

With a slimmed-down selection of classes taught by five instructors (including Williams), the studio is only allowing students to take one in-person class per week to reduce the risk of transmission and to give all students a fair opportunity to enroll.

In the next few months, Williams is hoping to double her roster of instructors.

“I want everybody to understand what they need to do before they come in and what I’m doing to protect them, so that they can say, ‘Okay I feel comfortable teaching,’” she said.

Despite taking a substantial financial hit as a result of the pandemic, Williams said that stepping back from her usual business routine has allowed her to re-prioritize the strengths of her company.

“It’s given me an opportunity to really refocus on our core mission. Our main focus is pole, then aerial,” Williams said. “These complementary classes — like our flexibility and our handstand classes — those are great, but they are not our core.”

Narrowing her focus has had a lot to do with her studio’s spatial limitations. During its current state of Phase 2 reopening, the D.C. government recommends a limit of five people per 1,000 square feet of indoor space in gyms and workout studios.

With 1,500 square feet divided between the two rooms of her studio, Williams is hosting six students and one instructor per class at the moment. To make sure students can see their instructor throughout the lesson, she installed television monitors in each room.

“I think people are starting to realize that if they want to have these experiences, they’re willing to pay a little bit of a premium for it.”

One positive outcome for her business has been an uptick in students booking private lessons. “I think people are starting to realize that if they want to have these experiences, they’re willing to pay a little bit of a premium for it,” Williams said.

She also advised any small business owners offering in-person classes to heavily support their instructors in order to best serve their clients.

“The most important people are your instructors,” she said. “Unless you’re superhuman, you’re not going to teach 20 classes a week. You’re just going to be burned out.”

Even as she dealt with a lengthy closure that threatened her business’s stability, Williams still found time to curate two virtual showcases to replace the performances she used to host in the studio.

The shows featured performances by students and teachers, raising money for Mary’s Center — a nonprofit providing healthcare, education and social services to families in D.C. and Maryland — and Black Lives Matter DC.

Because online ticketing was too much of a headache, Williams also encouraged viewers to tip the performers. She said the generosity she felt from the community was heartening.

“It was really encouraging,” she said. “Like, there’s all these other people, you know, and we’re in this together and we’re supporting each other.”

To see Pole Pressure DC’s upcoming class schedule and sign up for a virtual or in-person class, visit their website.

-————————

“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them.”

In part three of The Covid Chronicles, we’ll hear from Acoatzin Torres and B. Keith Ryder, owners/operators of Falls Church, Va., aerial studio Monarca in Flight. Stay tuned!

1918: Circus & the Flu

(Looking for Part 2 of Christian’s Covid Chronicles? That’s for next week!)

Circus folk are a resilient sort. We’re used to looking at the world upside down, or from a precarious height. Many of us are putting that adaptability to use in a less fun way this year, grappling with new methods of circusing with respect to the current pandemic. 

But this isn’t the first time our community has had to deal with some crazy world changes. I found myself wondering, 

How did circus performers and managers from the early golden years
of American traveling shows deal with their epidemic? 

What was it like for Circus during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918?

Long story short, the circus world turned on its head. 

Before we dig into the details, let’s start with a very, very brief backstory.  The Flu of 1918 — also called the Spanish Influenza, which (side note) annoyed the Spanish probably as much as the Chinese flu references of today — was first identified in the spring of 1918. By fall, it had swept across the United States. The country was also at war, having entered World War I about a year before. By the time the pandemic ended in November, an unbelievable 675,000 Americans had died from the flu alone. From beginning to end, it was about 4 months’ time.1 Worldwide, the flu infected approximately one-third of the population, killing 50 million people.2

Backstory finished. On we go:

Let’s roll back time to August 1918, along the east coast. Tree leaves were just beginning to turn brilliant colors, the long days of summer were hopefully nearing an end, and —  before the average citizen had become particularly worried about being in a crowd — circuses were on the road and in full spirits. The early 1900’s were the beginning of the American traveling tent shows’ most robust days. Spectators were just being introduced to the delight of unending trains rolling in alongside crowds of cheering children, of the massive parades through downtown, of the plumage and the glitter and the snap of the flags over large white tents rising up by the hands of circus folk and rube volunteers side by side. 

Unfortunately, influenza was also on the road and gaining steam in August. From Atlanta to Chicago to Philadelphia, places of amusement began to close, while cities scrambled to keep citizens safe. Much like today, some folks in the entertainment industry resisted change or made jokes about the situation, but in general the industry expressed a willingness to take whatever action the health boards requested. In some places, empty theatres were even converted into makeshift morgues, with nurses embalming bodies on the stage. (Read Thom Wall for more on this amazing story.)2 

Meanwhile, the circus marched on, headed south and west as the weather leaned into fall. 

In September, the Ringling Bros circus had begun to feel the effects of the flu scare to a greater extent as the situation deteriorated.1 On September 14th, The Charleston Evening Post announced with delight that the Ringling Bros show would be coming to the city for the first time in a decade, with no mention of the epidemic.3 Just a few days later on September 21st however, it also announced that the Governor of South Carolina was less excited about the prospect; he had asked the State board of health to prevent Ringling’s show from touring at all.4

Newspaper clipping: Governor Moves to Stop Circus
Governor Moves to Stop Circus

Governor Manning stated today that he felt there was real danger of the circus spreading the disease over the State. Besides he feels that it will be a great demoralization of labor at this time when it is essential that every body should be at work. There is cotton in the fields that must be picked and there is other work that must be done…. It would be hard to estimate the loss that would result to the State, the Governor thinks, from the attendance of farm labor on the circus and consequent loss of a day’s work.4

If I may make a side note here lest we forget about the war abroad: this piece was followed by an article detailing the British attacks on German forces near Mont St. Quentin in France.4

A week later, The Charleston Evening Post predicted that the “Circus Probably Will Be Kept Out” in anticipation of the order from the health board that would be issued later that evening.5 But lo, a plot twist! The next morning, readers awoke to this headline: 

STATE BOARD OF HEALTH DECLINES TO TAKE ANY ACTION

The board of health has decided not to act in the matter in any way. Dr. Hayne [the State health officer] said that the board felt that they could not issue a discriminatory order against one tented show unless they included all tented shows, which would be almost impossible to do.6 [emphasis added]

Newspaper clipping: Tomorrow Circus Comes to Town
Tomorrow Circus
Comes to Town

The Charleston Evening Post went on to say:

The whole matter seems to be one of labor and not of health. Dr. Hayne said that the board did not feel that it should act in the matter inasmuch as the United States railways were hauling the circus over the country and the United States Public Health Service did not feel that it could act. The board has left the matter entirely with Governor Manning.6

As the final, resounding confirmation from The Charleston News and Courier on September 30th, the headline stated, “Circus To Show Here On Friday,” although the Governor had at least negotiated the tour down to just two days.7

Were Governor Manning’s fears well founded, and was the circus carrying influenza with it as it traveled? It’s hard to say now in hindsight, but it seems like times were already troubled in the state. We’ll talk more about this in Part 2 of 1918: Circus & the Flu.

By October, circus shows around the country had been told they were not welcome.

In many towns, they were quarantined in place and townsfolk were prohibited from setting foot on show grounds. Even in places that they were not quarantined, they often faced townsfolk who were too afraid of contracting something from the big crowds to attend.1 

In a few days, the traveling season ended for nearly every circus across the country:  

– last week of September – 
  • On Sept 28, Sells Floto Circus closed in Walsenburg, Colorado.1
– first week of October –
  • Following the aforementioned negotiations with the Governor, the Ringling Brothers paraded through the streets in Charleston, South Carolina on the morning of Oct 4. The newspaper remarked how “All Small Boys and Fathers Will Wake Up Early to Miss Nothing” of the 1000 animal menagerie, the street parade, “the giraffe twins who must be careful to not get a sore throat because their necks are so long” and a troupe of elephants dressed as surgeons and Red Cross nurses.8,9  Ringling Bros had agreed to limit performances to Oct 4 and 5th only.9  
  • On Oct 5, the Charleston Board of Health ordered all public spaces to close, including all public and private schools, churches, theatres, movie houses, and any/all public gatherings and meetings, including the circus.9 
  • Despite the 3 days of cancellations in Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville, Ringling Bros still had to feed 1200 employees, not to mention the menagerie.1
– second week of October – 
  • By Oct 7, Charles Ringling had had enough. He placed a notice on the front door of the cook house stating that the circus would close the next day (not one for advanced notice, I guess) in Waycross, Georgia. This notice also stated that the show would be moving to new winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut rather than the usual Baraboo, Wisconsin.1 Why the different quarters? More on that in a minute. 
  • The Walter L. Main Circus shut down on Oct 8, a week ahead of schedule.1 
  • Ringling Bros World’s Greatest Shows gave its final performance ever on Oct 8th in Waycross. Local officials had attempted to cancel it, however a small crowd had shown up anyways and so the show went on. After the performance, Charles Ringling went into the dressing tent and told the performers that he was not in a position to hire any of them for the next season (really, what’s with this guy?). Also, this show would be permanently disbanded; he and another circus owner had struck a deal and next season, the new show would tour as the combined Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.1 
  • The next day, Charles Ringling paid off the employees, sold over 100 horses and ponies to local residents for prices ranging from $75 – $175, and took off for the winter quarters he would be sharing with his new partners. 1
– still the second week of October – 
  • Meanwhile, the Barnum & Bailey show arrived in Houston for its last stop of the season. 
  • By this time, the influenza was in 77 Texas counties and the state had already banned all public gatherings.1 On Oct 9, the acting mayor (the actual mayor was ill with influenza) enforced the ban on public gatherings, and the city began a 17-day quarantine.10 The circus left Houston a few days later on Oct 11, although it is not clear how they were allowed to leave with the quarantine in place.1 I imagine it would have been hard to stop circus trains then.
  • Maybe though, it was not a very effective quarantine, because even though the city was on lockdown, city leaders still allowed Gentry’s Famous Dog & Pony Show to arrive in town for a 5-month stint.10 I wonder what sort of reception they received….
  • Also on Oct 9, the John Robinson Ten Big Shows arrived in Norfolk, Virginia and were not allowed to unload, so they moved on to Raleigh, North Carolina several days ahead of schedule. After missing 6 dates, the owners decided it was time to close up shop and the staff were paid off. They packed up the rest of the circus and shipped off to their Peru winter quarters.1  
  • The Sparks Circus closed in Laurinburg, North Carolina on Oct 9 as well, and headed to their less attractive, but significantly more accessible, also-in-North-Carolina Salisbury  winter quarters.1
  • Yankee Robinson closed at Stuttgart, Arkansas.1 
– third week of October –
  • Al G. Barnes arrived in Dallas, Texas on Sunday, Oct 13 and found the city under quarantine, like all the rest of the state. Both of the next cities in Louisiana canceled their upcoming shows. With no hope of reopening, he connected his advertising cars and a private Pullman to a locomotive and left that day for home. The Greatest Show on Earth began the trip back to California, only stopping when necessary to feed and water the animals.1 
  • Texas’ statewide quarantine also caught up the Gentry Bros and the Christy Hippodrome Shows.1 
  • The same day and states away, the Cole Bros circus closed in Corinth, Michigan. 
  • Wrapping up a 6-day engagement in Atlanta, Georgia, the Sun Bros discovered they were quarantined there and not allowed to leave. Pete Sun immediately took out an advertisement in The Billboard and sold most of the property in the next several weeks.1  
  • Ironically, Atlanta officials still allowed the massive Southeastern Lakewood Fair to continue on Oct 16, since events held outdoors were considered safer. Visitors had to wear masks, which The Constitution declared would make the event look like a “great harem” (in their opinion, this was a bad thing). Twenty thousand people attended to enjoy the featured bands, circus acts, horse races, fireworks and movie stars — maybe this is where some of Pete Sun’s property went to live its next life.11 

Twelve full shows closed in the course of about 3 weeks. And these are mostly just the ones along the east coast. 

By November, the pandemic had subsided. The New York Clipper reported at the end of the year that 1918 was one of the most challenging seasons in circus history.1  Showbiz in general had ground to halt, and even as things began to open up again, there were residual feelings of nerves.2

As the holidays rolled around, all the circuses were in winter quarters, there were no more cases of the influenza, and American soldiers were planning for their voyages home. The world was beginning to be “normal” again. 

There was a ray of hope for circus, too: with few exceptions, each of the circus owners who completed the 1918 season returned in 1919. Some had radically changed, like the newly combined Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey shows, and in some cases, the power shifted to favor rising circuses that had made good financial decisions during the pandemic.1 


All of this history feels a bit odd nowadays in the wake of a post-Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey world.

How many of the show names above have been lost to history, or at least to common knowledge? Shows don’t travel in the same way, don’t parade when they arrive, and don’t need half the town to volunteer setting up and breaking down the tent. The circuses of those days were a scrappy, resourceful and shrewd sort; we can see it in how quickly they pivoted, weighed whether to cut the season or push on, head to winter quarters early or cut losses and sell off the property. Just a couple days of missed shows had huge economic impacts on these mini-nomadic-cities. 

Circuses and circus-y arts today retain that same spirit in spades, even if our pandemic takes longer and even if our pivots involve moving to a virtual space instead of winter quarters. Circus folk have always been remarkably resilient, even in the most turbulent times. 

I do have to wonder though… how would Al G. Barnes or Charles Ringling have leveraged Zoom, Instagram or Facebook, if they’d had such tools then?

space


Citations

(Much thanks to the fantastic University of Michigan’s Influenza Encyclopedia and The Circus Historical Society.)

1. Berry, Chris. (2018). The Circus and the Pandemic of 1918. BANDWAGON, Issue 4.  https://circushistory.org/2020/04/30/the-circus-and-the-pandemic-of-1918/

2. Wall, Thom. (2020). Showbiz & The Spanish Flu: Lessons from Last Century’s Pandemic. CircusTalk. https://circustalk.com/news/showbiz-the-spanish-flu-lessons-from-last-centurys-pandemic

3. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 14). Ringling Bros. Circus Coming. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.8970flu.0001.798

4. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 21). Governor Moves To Stop Circus. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.1080flu.0001.801

5. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 26). Circus Probably Will Be Kept Out. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4080flu.0001.804

6. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Circus Problem Up To Governor. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.6080flu.0001.806

7. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 30). Circus To Show Here On Friday. Charleston News and Courier. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.9050flu.0001.509

8. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Tomorrow Circus Comes To Town. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4520flu.0002.254

9. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. (unknown). Charleston, South Carolina Essay. Influenza Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-charleston.html

10. Knapp, Gwendolyn. (2020, Jun 9). The Similarities Between the Coronavirus Pandemic and the 1918 Flu in Houston. Houstonia. https://www.houstoniamag.com/news-and-city-life/2020/06/coronavirus-pandemic-and-1918-flu-similarities-in-houston

11. Hallerman, Tamar. (2020, Apr 16). For coronavirus-hit Atlanta, echoes of 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. https://www.ajc.com/news/state–regional/for-coronavirus-hit-atlanta-echoes-1918-spanish-flu-pandemic/QIC48abnRUJQvapSKAUIUJ/

Images (in order of appearance)

1. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 21). Governor Moves To Stop Circus. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.1080flu.0001.801

2. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Tomorrow Circus Comes To Town. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4520flu.0002.254