REVIEW: Battle for the Big Top – P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus (2021)

A Book by Les Standiford

I’ve attended a few circuses in my lifetime, and it’s kind of sad that such a once-dominant institution could be slowly dying off as it has been. After the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey company shuttered in 2017 there was a big question as to whether the circus could even work in the United States anymore considering all of the entrainment options, concerns over animal rights, and general antiquated feeling most have when talking about it. Battle for the Big Top – P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus by Les Standiford outlines the rise and fall of the industry and attempts to give a glimmer of hope for what could come.

“Millions have sat under the “big top,” watching as trapeze artists glide and clowns entertain, but few know the captivating stories behind the men whose creativity, ingenuity, and determination created one of our country’s most beloved pastimes. In Battle for the Big Top, New York Times–bestselling author Les Standiford brings to life a remarkable era when three circus kings—James Bailey, P. T. Barnum, and John Ringling—all vied for control of the vastly profitable and influential American Circus. Ultimately, the rivalry of these three men resulted in the creation of an institution that would surpass all intentions and, for 147 years, hold a nation spellbound.
Filled with details of their ever-evolving showmanship, business acumen, and personal magnetism, this Ragtime-like narrative will delight and enchant circus-lovers and anyone fascinated by the American experience. “

Les Standiford attended the final Ringling Bros. show on May 21, 2017, at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, marking the end of 146 years of continued programming. He talks about what that meant to the industry and compared it to the infamous “Hartford Circus Fire” of 1944 that nearly ended the circus nearly 80 years prior. That fire killed almost 200 people out of a crowd of thousands, and it was far from the last controversy to face them. The majority of the book fills in the gaps in between, describing the lives and business practices of many of the big names involved in the Circus industry including the ones you’d expect such as Barnum, Bailey and Ringling. The book chronicles the move from “Mud Shows” to selling out large arenas, and how they battled competition such as movie theaters and theme parks.

If anything this book is a nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of one of America’s most beloved institutions, and perhaps a plea to save the entire industry from a total collapse. Personally, I feel there will always be room for the circus in some form, albeit likely in a smaller more intimate way. One has to look no further than something like a Renaissance festival to see acts like jugglers, clowns, and fire eaters still hanging in there, and there are numerous “alt circus” shows all over the country. The era of a circus selling out Madison Square Garden may be gone, but I feel as if it’s far from dead. Overall, this was a fun and well-researched book that taught me a lot about something I had somewhat taken for granted prior. If you are a history buff, or If you are hot of the heels of watching something like The Greatest Showman, I’d recommend this book as a solid companion.

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