If John Ringling North had not come on the scene to run the family business in 1937, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey might not have ever made it into the 21st Century to have its last performance tonight on Long Island.
He seemed the only one to have the business and showman sense to run the show amongst the younger family members except for his brother Henry, who became the circus’s vice president. Another Yalie, his brother was as mild and self-effacing as John was as aggressive.
North was no longer a mid-west small time boy but a sophisticated, bon vivant when he took over the debt-spangled show.
John and his brother were harshly criticized for modernizing the circus, with hard-shells and nostalgics saying they had ruined it. The generations raised on the tinsel glitter of the old-fashioned circus were gone, people were looking into the future and a “new deal.”
Newsreel footage of the Big-Top visiting a small town in Canada as part of the circus North American tour in 1946. Great footage of the circus train arriving, sideshows, big lot action and installing the enormous tent.
Audiences were more sophisticated. Automobiles and movies, to which color and sound had just been added, had done that.
North had toured with the circus during the summer months when he was a child and teenager. He knew the circus, the family business, from the ground up and even worked as a candy butcher.
The old tired circus stuff didn’t work, and people wanted more major entertainment, move value, for their money.
John kept the best of the old circus combined with beauty and style; fantastic costumes; great lighting; the big, extravagant production numbers with showgirls, clowns, and spectacular acts.
Charles Le Maire, who had mounted The Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals designed their first show. He billed in the program as “the noted master of color tone and exquisite fabrics.”
North introduced the aerial ballet, a production number with sixty beautifully costumed girls performing acrobatics high above the arena on the webs.
John signed the best traditional circus stars, such as “Bring ’em Back Alive” Frank Buck, the Wallenda family of high-wire performers and such attractions as Gargantua the Great, the “vehemently vicious” 550-lb., Gorilla that drew more than 40 million circus goers.
Heading to New York, he searched for top talent to create the reimagined circus. Commissioning work from the likes of Stravinsky and Balanchine, then hiring Norman Bel Geddes and John Murray Anderson, the reigning stage-design talents of their time, adding ballet and Ziegfeld-style extravaganzas.
Aerialist showgirls, dozens of them, were added to produce spectacles rivaling any stage production ever produced.
John Ringling North was the Circus King – He was a glittering anachronism whose social and professional activities evaded the traditions of such rococo sports as “Diamond Jim” Brady, “Bet a Million Gates” and his own prodigious uncle, John Ringling North.