Ringling Brothers Stops Touring: The End of an Era, Not an Art Form

Jan 30, 2017

McGregor, Iowa might be the birthplace of American circus. The Ringling brothers, after all, were born there and spent 12 years there before moving to Baraboo, Wisconsin, where they founded the Ringling Brothers Circus. 

Peter Wagner, past-president of the Circus Fans Association of America, has researched the brothers' history in Iowa. 

Anytime something was confusing they'd call it a circus, and that kind of broke my heart. In the current political scene, there is so much misuse of the term circus. - Dudley Riggs

"Their first show was in McGregor. At that time, they weren't even a traveling circus," he says. "They would go to various states and check into a hotel and then would announce that they would do a show in the lobby of the hotel." 

"One of the oldest brothers would balance on his head, one was very good at playing the trombone. They had some tumbling acts, and eventually that turned into a traveling circus."

During this hour of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Wagner. Dudley Riggs, a fifth generation circus performer who toured with the Ringling Brothers Circus, and author of the forthcoming book Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net; Adam Woolley, managing director for Circus Now; and Heather Davis, executive producer of Lefty's Live Music Circus Revue in Des Moines, also join the show.

Woolley says the end of the Ringling Brothers' Circus as we know it isn't the end of an art form, but the end of an era. 

"A lot of people are very sad about the circus shutting down because it means the end of an era, but a new era is about to begin," Woolley says. "The bar for dancing or acting or performance is becoming more and more acrobatic. If you took anyone from the 1950s to a show today, they would look at it and see elements of circus. There is the stunt and the danger - it's in both film and television and live performance."