Friday, September 19, 2014

Mud Shows

Not every circus could be a Ringling Brothers, a Barnum and Bailey, or a Dan Rice show. Even when the biggest shows were traveling by rail or steamboat, a large number of shows were still rolling along on wagons through towns large and small, often playing in towns that were too small for the big shows to notice or were too far away from rail lines for them to travel to. These were the mud shows. According to circus lore, the name derives from the dirt roads the shows would travel which would often turn muddy and difficult to pass, an issue the great rail bound shows didn't have to worry about. 

Similar to the mud show was the "dog and pony" show. Often used as a derogatory term for a smaller show, the title was, in fact, embraced by more than one circus and was often quite apt, especially for those shows just starting out that lacked exotic animals or large menageries and had to make due with domestic pets and livestock for their performances. Even today, many acts still include these kinds of performances, such as the "educated pig" act in their larger shows. 

Among the most famous of the mud shows was Mollie Bailey's "Bailey Concert and Circus Show" which traveled throughout the southern United States during the later half of the 19th century. A family show, Mollie and her husband Gus (neither of whom were related to the more famous Bailey circus family) played throughout the south as a musical and theater act until the beginning of the Civil War when they volunteered with the Confederate army, Gus as a soldier and musician and Mollie as a nurse and spy, sneaking across Union lines dressed as a young girl to secure provisions and intelligence. 

After the war, the couple, now with eight children returned to performing. The Texas based show traveled on seven wagons and boasted only one ring. As they got older, each of the children joined the performances, one daughter as an equestrienne and another with a bird act while their sons toured as musicians. When Gus Bailey could no longer travel with the show due to illness, Mollie took over running the circus and became the first woman to own and operate her own circus in the United States. 

Mollie was well known for her keen business sense. Often she would purchase parcels of land in towns the show frequented for performance space, allowing the locals to use them as baseball fields or parks the rest of the year. The show was also routed to follow the crops in order to arrive in towns during the year's highest period of prosperity each season. Eventually the circus managed to add more traditional fare including clowns, acrobats, and more exotic animals, finally moving on to rails. When Mollie died, the circus went with her, surviving for only two more seasons afterward. 

Today, a mud show is often used as a term for a truck or motorized show that still sets up outdoors rather than playing in arenas, though some historians consider this something of a bastardization of the term despite keeping with a bit of the spirit of the original meaning. Circus Smirkus, a summer circus camp in Vermont continues the mud show tradition, taking their classes on a 15 to 20 jump tour through Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Want a real look at life on a modern mud show? Check out Valerie Berta Torales' blog, The Mudshow Diaries.

That's it for this week's update!

Yours truly, 

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Floating Palace

From the beginning, the American circus industry was largely relegated to touring the East Coast and New England. This was largely due to the lack of any real infrastructure and the difficulty of transporting equipment, animals and personnel across the mountainous country of Appalachia. With the opening of the Eerie Canal in 1825, an entirely new market was presented to any circus owner able to get his hands on a boat large enough. 

Among the earliest to take his show to the water, as we saw earlier was Dan Rice who moved his show from town to town on the Allegheny Mail starting around 1848. Rice treated the steamboat more or less the same way as any other mode of transportation the circus used, loading, docking, unloading and performing on land, the boat simply acting as conveyance. This changed with Rice's frequent partner/employer/rival Gilbert R. "Doc" Spaulding. 

Prior to Rice's outings, steamboats had already been used as floating theaters. Starting in 1831, the Chapman family, English actors traveled via barge along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, performing at stops along the way. After reaching New Orleans, they sold the barge for firewood, traveled via steamboat back to Pittsburgh where they had started and repeated the trip again the next season with a new barge. They repeated this until 1836 when they were able to afford a much larger boat complete with steam engine and full stage which they named The Steamboat Theater. It is from this particular style of travel that the term showboat derives. 

The problem, of course, when translating the circus into showboat style traveling theater was one of scale. It took until 1852 when Spaulding and his partner Charles J. Rogers commissioned the massive Floating Palace to actually hold a circus performance on board a ship. Built in Cincinnati for around $42,000 (approximately $1,092,000 in today's currency) the Floating Palace had a shallow, barge like hull and unlike the Steamboat Theater required a tow boat to pull it along which also contained the show's menagerie. It was large enough to contain a standard 42' ring, seat 3,400 audience members (though shows were often standing room only and one could pay to stay outside on the deck and look in through the windows) and had a full accompaniment of 200 gas jets that lit the theater. Add to that the mirrors, tapestries and carvings that decorated the ship as well as the system of steam heating that allowed the show to go on in cold weather and you have some idea of what a marvel the thing was in its day. Spaulding and Rogers were also responsible for the addition of one of the most recognizable pieces of circus tradition, the calliope. Originally designed as a way to signal to those on shore that the Floating Palace was traveling near by, it is still inextricably associated with the sounds of the circus. 

Spaulding and Rogers toured the Floating Palace for only four years, 1852, 1853, 1857, and 1859. Like many circuses, they found themselves limited in their ability to travel as the Civil War approached. The ship was even confiscated in 1862 by the Confederate army after the troupe's yearly stay in New Orleans and used as a hospital ship. More often than not, it was leased to other shows and in this way, traveled the river circuit for 14 years before an accidental fire burned the ship to the water line while it was docked in New Albany, Indiana. 

The Floating Palace, while certainly the greatest of the circus riverboats was certainly not the last, among the post civil war riverboat revivalists were both Dan Rice and Eugene Robinson who's own Floating Palace boasted a menagerie, museum, and opera house (though not a circus) and the era of the showboat lasted well into the first decades of the 20th century. 

That's it for this week! As you've probably noticed, Wagon Tracks has moved to a bi-monthly update. We'll continue exploring every other Thursday and next time, we'll look at the smaller "mud show" circuses. Till then, thanks for reading!

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman