BY: JESSICA BEUKER
Seventy years ago, the circus scene looked vastly different from the big industry it is today. While the show’s staples remain, a lot of the original dazzle has been replaced by what can only be described as a cartoon copy of the past—complete with painstakingly goofy birthday party clowns, a circle of elephants solemnly linking trunks to tails while marching in step, and a loud and overly smiley ringleader who directs tigers through flaming hoops of fire to the audiences’ amazement.
The spectacle is so glittery and shiny that we almost forget the era when the circus represented a community of weird and unique individuals showcasing rare talents. The circus’ mainstays are gone, but the dark side remains. Elephants are still aggressively whipped into standing on two legs, tigers lash out at trainers for years of abuse, and the man behind the caked-on clown smile is often just a chain-smoking 40-year-old who hates kids.
But photographs from the 1940s circus scene tell a different story. Countless photographers during this time, including writer and director Stanley Kubrick, routinely captured the stage magic of the show, but also the real lives of the performers behind the façade.
Photos by Stanley Kubrick
They found a tight, family-style bond that the performers shared while on the road. The images capture these relationships and show us the colourful personalities of each individual performer. One of the personalities caught on film was John Ringling North, nephew of the legendary Charles Edward Ringling, one of the original Ringling brothers who owned the company.
According to Time Magazine, a LIFE article said of North: “Of all the marvels, human and animal, which populate the Ringling Bros.’ circus, none can match John Ringling North, the man who runs it, in sheer, brassy flamboyance.” The article paints a picture of a man who rarely sleeps, has an enormous appetite, is full of boundless energy and has a laundry list of remarkable talents including tap dancing, saxophone and cornet playing, singing and juggling.
John Ringling North
Nina Leen—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Certainly the circus has always had a dark side – in some of the old photographs there are elephants in the background, bound in chains and performing for handlers who are clutching bullhooks. So it baffles me, with all of the unique humans who once had such passion for circus life, how the circus of today represents one that focuses more on animals turning tricks than it does on the characters seen in photographs from decades earlier.
The entire show could be done without animals if it brought back the real magic behind the circus—the bearded lady, Strongman, dare devils, mimes, fire eaters, knife jugglers, dancers—the characters that a family of individuals worked so hard to create.