Ringling Circus is the name of an American family of circus owners. The original group consisted of five brothers: Albert C. Ringling (1852-1916), Otto Ringling (1858-1911), Alfred T. Ringling (1861-1919), Charles Ringling (1863-1926), and John Ringling (1866-1936). It is believed that the first four were born in MacGregor, Iowa. John, the youngest, was born in Baraboo, Wis., after the family moved there.
The five brothers began giving small concerts of music, to which skits and clown acts were later added. In 1884 they started a small traveling show at Baraboo that contained animal acts and a band, and in 1888 they purchased their first elephant. By 1890 the Ringling Brothers had become Barnum & Bailey's biggest rivals as circus entrepreneurs in the United States.
In 1906 the brothers acquired the Forepaugh-Sells Circus. The following year they bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus, operating it as a separate unit until 1919, when they opened their combined show in New York City as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. By 1930 it was the largest circus organization in the world, with 5,000 employees. Its main tent, or "big top," seated 10,000 people, and 240 railroad cars were needed to transport performers, animals, and equipment. However, the economic depression and competition from other forms of entertainment ended this period of expansion.
When "Mr. John," the last of the brothers, died in 1936, the "Greatest Show on Earth" was carried on by his nephew, John Ringling North (1903-1985). Another nephew, Robert E. Ringling (1897-1950), was in charge of the circus from 1943 until 1946, when North took control again. The circus survived a difficult period following a disastrous fire in Hartford, Conn., in July 1944, when the main tent was destroyed and 163 persons lost their lives. Beginning with the 1957 season, the show was held mainly in indoor arenas. It passed from family ownership when John Ringling North sold it in November 1967.
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