The Circus Town’s Been Born

Astley’s Amphitheatre

On January 9 in 1768, the first modern circus was staged in London. Philip Astley, a former cavalry sergeant major, made a ring and invited the public to watch him do tricks on horseback as he rode around the ring.

The Growth of the Circus

Because the public enjoyed the act, Astley then added other riders, a clown, and musicians, eventually putting a roof over his ring in 1770. In 1782, Astley’s Amphitheatre faced competition from a similar act down the road, with the competitor using the name “Royal Circus.” The competitor took the word “circus” from the Roman name for where chariot races were held.

Eventually, the word “circus” would become the generic name for such events. And Astley himself eventually established eighteen more such venues across Europe.

Circuses spread around the world. John Bill Ricketts created the first U.S. circus in 1792 in Philadelphia. In the late 1800s, P.S. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey went into the circus business, as did five Ringling brothers.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Since the invention of the circus, fictional stories have used the circus setting to tell stories too. In 1952, director Cecil B. DeMille and Paramount Pictures released The Greatest Show on Earth, set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The cast included Betty Hutton, Holly Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, James Stewart (as Buttons the Clown), Dorothy Lamour, and Gloria Grahame. Check out the trailer below, where it is funny to hear the narrator’s voice from The Ten Commandments (DeMille) narrating this trailer about a circus.

Springsteen’s “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”

One of my favorite stories about a circus is found in Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” from The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle (1973). The song is really an excuse to string together a number of wonderful circus images.  Springsteen’s tale features the barker, the man-beast, the flying Zambinis, the stong man, and others.

Finally, “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” concludes with an enticing question that many children have dreamed of being asked.  “And the circus boss leans over, whispers in the little boy’s ear, ‘Hey son, you wanna try the big top?'”

Apparently, I am not the only fan of the somewhat unusual and obscure song. In this video below from July 2013 in Kilkenny in Ireland, Springsteen explains how a fan has been following him around trying to get him to play “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”

And then the Boss leans over and whisper’s in his ear that the wish will be granted. Or something like that.

What is your favorite circus story? Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo of Astley’s Amphitheatre via public domain.

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