Circus News

From Barnum & Bailey to Feld: An Inside Look at a Legendary Circus Success Story

Ernest Albrecht’s latest book chronicles the artistic evolution of the Greatest Show on Earth.

Circus historian and critic Ernest Albrecht has been attending performances of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus his entire life. Early visits as a toddler introduced him to the Greatest Show on Earth during the John Ringling North era. Later, established as a New York City theater critic, he carefully examined edition after edition produced by the Feld family. Now, armed with scores of interviews with performers, staff, and directors, he has taken on the task of evaluating how the legendary show has matured and endured over a century and a half.

Albrecht’s newest offering is an erudite examination of America’s most successful entertainment empire. Two of the author’s previous books concentrated on contemporary or “new circus”; this latest volume distills the acknowledged circus expert’s observations and opinions as to why this one particular traditional circus remains vibrant and viable in twenty-first century America.

From Barnum & Bailey to Feld wisely limits its scope to the creative evolution of an obviously complex enterprise. Readers anxious to explore logistics, day-to-day events, or railroad interaction will find reference to specialized documents in the extensive footnotes accompanying each chapter. This book zeroes in on the owners and managers who shaped the spectacles that ensured that this particular circus was worthy of P.T. Barnum’s grandiose claim that it was “the Greatest Show on Earth.”

Each season from 1871 to 2010 is carefully discussed, mentioning featured attractions, star performers, innovations, and critical response. The first half of the volume is a historical review that serves as background for the more focused remainder, a fascinating look at the influence of the Feld family as they guided the circus into new and unexplored territory. Exclusive interviews with three generations of Felds provide candid insight into their personal philosophies, corporate strategies, and visions for the future. Augmenting these segments are telling quotes from circus professionals, featured artists, and creative consultants who each give their own perspective on the evolution of the show.

The book is filled with details that bring the history alive. Both serious circus historians and casual readers will be rewarded with surprises throughout. Budding circus artists would do well to study the discussions on what innovations inspire circus directors and how best to prepare for a career in contemporary circus. Equally helpful are comments on why a particular artist was able to capture an audience’s attention and, in some cases, remain a headliner with the circus for decades.

Insightful and revealing, this volume is a must for circus enthusiasts of all stripes, masterfully balancing meticulous documentation of a mammoth commercial enterprise with critical evaluation of the unique personalities that held the reigns of power, made critical artistic decisions, and forged the way for the circus of today.

From Barnum & Bailey to Feld, The Creative Evolution of the Greatest Show on Earth
By Ernest Albrecht
308 pages in English with historic photographs and color plates
Published by McFarland
Available in print and e-versions
ISBN 78-0-7864-9524-5
eISBN 978-1-4766-1777-0
mcfarlandpub.com (800-253-2187)
Donald K. Covington, III
Historian, Writer -United States
Donald K. Covington, III is the vice president of the Circus Historical Society and the immediate past president of the Circus Fans of America, both organizations he joined as a teenager. After serving in the US Navy, which allowed him to visit circuses around the world, he worked for the Big Apple Circus for 13 years. He has also been involved with San Diego's Fern Street Circus, the American Youth Circus Organization, and Windjammers Unlimited. His circus articles and photographs have been published around the world.

Donald K. Covington, III

Donald K. Covington, III is the vice president of the Circus Historical Society and the immediate past president of the Circus Fans of America, both organizations he joined as a teenager. After serving in the US Navy, which allowed him to visit circuses around the world, he worked for the Big Apple Circus for 13 years. He has also been involved with San Diego's Fern Street Circus, the American Youth Circus Organization, and Windjammers Unlimited. His circus articles and photographs have been published around the world.