Ringling Brothers Circus in Los Angeles, 1914

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On Saturday, Feld Entertainment (which also operates Disney On Ice, the International Hot Rod Association, AMA Supercross, and others) announced that it was shutting down the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus show after performances on the east coast in May.  The Feld family, which has operated the circus for fifty years, identified rising operating costs and declining ticket sales as the reasons for the decision (click here).  Animal activists, however, claim (click here) that it was their efforts, which recently culminated in Feld’s decisions to end the use of elephants in the shows, which resulted in significant ticket sale decline, that brought down the big tents.

Circuses have long been a part of American entertainment and the origins of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus goes back to the 1870s, when a couple of operators joined forces with showman Phineas T. Barnum.  In the early 1880s, a merger ensued with the Cooper and Bailey circus, ran by James Bailey. Meanwhile, the large Ringling family started its own circus in the mid-1880s.

A 1914 snapshot from the Homestead’s collection shows a horse-drawn vehicle from the Ringling Bros. Circus during a parade in dowtown Los Angeles.

Barnum and Bailey became a huge success and was quickly known as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  When the operation began traveling to Europe, the Ringling Brothers took the opportunity to expand their popular circuses to the east coast instead of focusing just on their midwestern base.

After James Bailey’s death in 1905, Ringling purchased the Barnum and Bailey operation and ran it separately from their own for another dozen or years or so.  In 1919, the two were combined.  Another half century went by until the Ringling family sold the business to Kenneth Feld.

Another photograph in the set shows camels leading a circus vehicle down the street crowded with bystanders.

The Homestead’s collection has a trio of snapshots taken of animals and staff from the Ringling Brothers Circus when it came to Los Angeles in 1914.  Whether the parade was created specifically for the circus before it did its performances locally or whether the circus was invited to participate in an existing event, perhaps the La Fiesta de Los Angeles parade each spring, is not known.

Two of the photos show teams of horses, then camels, pulling circus vehicles on a downtown street packed with spectators along the sidewalks.  The third image shows a cavalcade of elephants marching in formation.  As noted above, these behemoths were removed from Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus shows in 2015 and the Feld Entertainment firm has operated a Center for Elephant Conservation on a 200-acre site in Florida since the mid-1990s (click here for the center’s website.)

Ringling Bros. elephants march down Spring Street, between 5th and 6th.  Animal rights groups claimed victory in the circus’ closure, citing success in ending the use of elephants in shows in 2015.

In trying to locate where these photos were taken, it was observed that, on the side of one of the commercial buildings in the background, there is a painted billboard for Harris and Frank clothiers, a business that had its roots in Los Angeles dating to the 1850s.  In 1914, the headquarters was at 437 S. Spring Street, so it looks as if the photographer was on Spring between 5th and 6th streets.  A decade later, the clothier moved to an early example of Art Deco architecture in a structure designed by architects Alec Curlett Claude Beelman at 637 S. Hill Street, where the building still stands.

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