Thursday, July 17, 2014

John Bill Ricketts

We return this week to the European equestrian style show popularized by Phillip Astley and the man who brought this style of performance to the U.S, John Bill Ricketts. Born in Scotland in 1760, Ricketts trained with Charles Hughes' riding school in London during the late 1700's before founding his own show which opened first in Edinburgh as the Circus Royal in 1791. The show traveled throughout Scotland and Ireland before relocating to Philadelphia where it performed in the equestrians's riding school at Twelfth and Market Street (then called High Street), roughly where the Gallery at Market East shopping mall stands today.

Among those present at Ricketts' earliest performances were George and Martha Washington whose attendance and the reports thereof all but assured Ricketts' American success. Ricketts soon took his show to New York where then president John Adams also attended. Like Astley, Ricketts often had custom amphitheaters built for the show, eventually owning some half dozen buildings in the U.S. and Canada. On his return to Philadelphia which served as the show's home base, Rickets had the show's original open air arena replaced with his Art Pantheon and Amphitheater, boasting artificial lighting, stage and arena spaces and seating for 1,200. The show eventually became so popular that Ricketts' was able to send his brother, Francis on the road with a second troupe.

Among Ricketts' major contributions to the modern circus was his addition, even more so than Astley's of variety acts to the equestrian show in which he starred. Ricketts' show boasted a series of clowns throughout, including the first Native American clown, John Durang, whose addition to the show was something of a coup for Ricketts as Durang was already an actor and dancer of note as well as being one of Washington's favorite performers. The show also included pantomimes and theatrical stage pieces as well as one of the first after show concerts which were regularly rotated in order to garner repeat business.

Ricketts also added what might be considered one of the first sideshows in circus history. After seeing his show during their first tour in Philadelphia, George Washington returned and offered to sell Ricketts the horse he rode during the Revolutionary War for a price of $150. The horse, who was by then too old to be of much use to Washington was exhibited around the country as part of Ricketts' show.

When both Ricketts' main amphitheater burned down in 1799, one in New York and the other in their home base of Philadelphia and the rent on the new Philadelphia location, a half collapsed building formerly owned by Philip Lailson became more than the circus could reasonably handle, Ricketts and a small portion of his cast left for a tour of the West Indies where he was able to recoup much of his money despite widespread illness among the cast. Selling the remainder of his horses, Ricketts attempted to sail back to England but was lost at sea along with the ship. In his wake, Ricketts left behind a new industry which would, in the coming century become one of the most widespread forms of American entertainment.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nathan A. Howes and the Zoological Institute

Last time we looked at Hachaliah Bailey and the beginnings of the menagerie business in America. This week, we follow up with a bit of Bailey's protege and sometime partner Nathan A. Howes. Born in Brewster, New York in 1796, Howes got his start in the menagerie business by securing the partial rights to tour Bailey's elephant, Old Bet. He was among the earliest owners to tour with a regular circus troupe (starting in the 1820's) and was also among the earliest to tour under a canvas tent rather than a permanent amphitheater the way Philip Astley and other proto-circus performers had done. By 1826, he also ran an equestrian show with Aaron Turner as one of it's main riding acts presaging the merger of menagerie and equestrian act into the modern circus. 

Perhaps Howes' biggest contribution to the history of the circus, however, was the creation of the Zoological Institute in 1835 with his partner, Aaron Turner and his younger brother Seth B. Howes who would go on to circus fame of his own, especially in Europe. These three along with several other major menagerie owners bet at the site of Hachaliah Bailey's Elephant Hotel in January of that year and agreed to "more generally diffuse and promote the knowledge of natural history and gratify rational curiosity," through touring their menageries, all, of course, while making a tidy profit. This meant buying up most of the exotic and wild animals imported into the United States through their menagerie and headquarters in New York City and leasing them to anyone who wanted to tour the animals for a tidy profit. 

In addition, the Zoological Institute turned its attention towards controlling the routes that menageries traveled, often through fear and intimidation. More than a few rival troupes who refused to buckle to the Institute's monopoly or were too small to pay the Institute's fees found their equipment mysteriously burned or otherwise destroyed. 

Many of the Zoological Institutes monopolistic aims were later adopted by the Flatfoots, often confused for being one and the same due to the Institutes use of the phrase "on that I put my foot down flat" after dictating their terms of business. While the Institute lasted only two years, formally disbanding in 1837, the Flatfoots, which included many of the same menagerie owners (thus making untangling the history of the two even more complicated) persisted until 1842 and were reformed from 1863 to 1878 as a coalition of circus owners.

 Next week, we'll return to the equestrian side of things with John Bill Ricketts, the first man to bring his Astley style show to the United States.