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Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth

The Early History of Traveling Entertainment in the U.S.

Posted on January 17, 2024

At CTC, we make it our goal to bring presented productions from all over the world to our stages; not only to share culture and artistry from other countries, but to inspire our audiences

This season alone, Cookin took the UnitedHealth Group Stage by storm—coming to us all the way from South Korea—and we currently have the Honolulu Theatre for Youth Ensemble presenting The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories on the Cargill Stage. The act of our theatre company transporting these productions to Minnesota poses the question: what does the history of traveling entertainment look like in our country? Let’s do some digging into this storied history and explore the chronology of the phenomenon that is traveling entertainment! 

John Bill Ricketts


The first circus was held in Philadelphia in 1793 and was created by equestrian performer, John Bill Rickets, and showcased riding acts, clown performances, and tightrope walking. He toured with his circus until 1799, “when a fire destroyed the pantheon and amphitheater he had built in Philadelphia to house his circus,” according to


Traveling menageries—aka, animal shows and exhibitions—were a standalone attraction, as menageries didn’t fully merge with the circus until the 1830s. One might point to a single New York farmer, Mr. Hachaliah Bailey, who acquired an African elephant from his brother’s travels abroad and showed the majestic creature off to spectators for a small fee. This new form of entertainment snowballed and inspired others to do the same, putting animals on display for the price of admission, eventually giving way to traveling menageries across the country.


The “big top” was born when Joshua Purdy Brown replaced the wooden structures that housed most circuses with a big canvas tent. And it was Brown that finally merged the traveling menagerie with the circus, bringing more traditional acts and performances all under the same roof.  

Isaac van Amburgh


Isaac Van Amburgh brought about a new type of entertainment in regard to animal exhibition, becoming the world’s first famous lion tamer. He’s even credited with being the first to perform the trick of sticking his head into a lion’s mouth. This attraction would later be integrated into the traveling circus, but it all started with Amburgh during a showcase in New York. 

1840s — Freak Shows and Clowns  

Barnum's American Museum

Freak Shows

The 1840s brought about the phenomenon known as the freak show, which is an exhibition of oddities, absurdities, and “freaks” of all kinds. As science and medicine were steadily advancing, the general public grew very curious about unexplainable anomalies, such as conjoined twins, for instance. P.T. Barnum also contributed to the popularity of freak shows, opening Barnum’s American Museum in 1842, which featured live animals (including the country’s first aquarium), as well as human attractions such as a bearded lady. 

Dan Rice


What’s a circus without clowns?! Dan Rice is one of the most notable and successful clowns in circus history, at one point earning an unheard of $1,000 per week with his slapstick comedy and equestrian jesting in the 1840s.


The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad paved the way for traveling entertainers to trek across the country. Dan Castello’s Great Circus & Egyptian Caravan was one of the first circuses to take advantage of this new technology, traveling from Nebraska to California with two elephants and two camels in tow.  

P.T. Barnum Hippodrome


P.T. Barnum started to travel with his museum of oddities and was soon approached by circus managers W.C. Coup and Dan Castello to merge and create a larger-than-life attraction. Thus, “The Greatest Show on Earth” was born, originally called “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome.” That’s a bit of a mouthful! 

1880s — A Booming Era of Entertainment

Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth Promo

Barnum & Bailey

You’ve heard both the names “Barnum” and “Bailey” mentioned in this storied history thus far, and you had to know they’d eventually join forces. The two were major competitors and a threat to one another’s livelihood. This combining of circuses into the famous Barnum & Bailey’s Circus marked the start of the circus industry wiping out the competition through either acquisition or mutually beneficial mergers.  

Medicine Show

Medicine Shows

These shows featured performances one would usually see at a circus, similar to vaudeville acts and magic shows. The difference here was that the performance was a ploy to sell “miracle cures” or “healing elixirs” to audiences. A great example of this is how a “muscle man” act would showcase a man’s strength and then attribute said strength to the elixir being peddled. 

Magic Lantern Show

Magic Lantern Shows

A predecessor to motion pictures, magic lantern shows involved “traveling showmen (…) creat[ing] visual experiences for onlookers by combining music and storytelling with hand-drawn illustrations that they’ve converted into slides.” Joseph Boggs Beale pioneered this artform and is considered the country’s earliest screen artist. 

Buffalo Bill's Wild Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

1883 marks the debut of dramatizing the American culture of the Wild West with sharpshooting demonstrations, rodeo events, races, and reenactments of key traditions or moments in Western history, like stagecoach robberies and buffalo hunting. Joining Buffalo Bill in 1885 was the infamous Annie Oakley, known for her ability to shoot a flame off a candle while it spun on a wheel. 


Enter the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. The inaugural event sold more than 25 million tickets from May 1 to October 30 in 1893. Hand in hand with the World’s Fair came the world’s first midway, described by the International Independent Showmen’s Museum as “a mile-long amusement corridor, attached at one end to the main fair site and at the other to a wide variety of emerging cultural experiences and curiosities.” Sights one might have seen on this midway included peep shows and oddities from around the globe. Engineer and bridge builder, George Ferris, was inspired to build a huge observation wheel, resulting in the invention of the Ferris Wheel. Even Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse “competed to outdo each other in the creation of an entirely new world of light and mechanical wonder,” fascinating the fairgoers with the use of novel electricity. 

Ferris Wheel at the World's Columbian Exposition
Bird's eye view of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.


Inspired by the World’s Fair, smaller traveling carnival companies began touring the United States. Many started and failed during the turn of the century, but by 1902 there were 17 traveling shows in the United States, and they were growing fast! By 1905, that number more than doubled to 46 traveling shows in the country. 

Ringling Barnum Bailey


While majorly successful with their three-ring circus, Barnum and Bailey’s Circus suffered when Bailey died in 1906. The circus was purchased by the Ringling brothers and they originally planned to operate it separately from their circus, but the war forced them to temporarily combine forces. This proved to be a very successful move, so it stuck! These two behemoths of the circus industry merged and were dubbed the new Greatest Show on Earth. 


There were an estimated 300 traveling shows touring the country by 1937. 

This history lesson could go on and on, but we’ll just give you this glimpse into the history of traveling entertainment. Gone are the days of hauling lions and elephants on a train across the nation; now we’re more accustomed to full scale Broadway productions packing into dozens of trucks and traveling from major city to major city, or in our case, hopping on a plane and flying performers and gears across the globe. But the hunger to discover the unknown and to be wowed by extraordinary performances will forever be a major pastime of the American people. Touring productions of any kind, especially in the wake of the pandemic slowing down, have a bright future, built on the backs of those tightrope walkers and menageries of the late 1700s. 

Looking at how something like the World’s Fair inspired so many amazing things, from the invention of the Ferris Wheel to giving birth to traveling carnivals, and we can only hope that by bringing theatrical artistry from across the globe to our stages here in Minneapolis, that we will inspire our multigenerational audiences—and more so, our community—to achieve greatness and think outside the box.  

On that note, you won’t want to miss the artful puppetry, live music, and Japanese and Okinawan folktales brought to our stage all the way from Hawai`i! Presented by the Honolulu Theatre for Youth Ensemble, The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories features fables from another culture, told through puppetry by three imaginative actors. Authentic Japanese instruments accompany the production as you meet a graceful crane, a wonderfully generous mouse, and an industrious rabbit who teaches everyone to do the mochi dance! This production is best for your youngest theatre-goers and is truly a wonderful opportunity to bring your little one to their first theatre experience. 

We can’t wait to see you there! For more information about The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories, visit