Weekly insights into our crazy world.

Saturday, January 21, 2017



The circus will NOT be coming to town! After 146 years, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey announced their final performance will be May 21 at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Although sentimentalists will cry, attendance has been in a gradual decline since peaking in the 1950's. The last straw came courtesy of the Humane Society and their $25 million dollar lawsuit over elephant mistreatment. However, we here at the DUNER BLOG take a different view: How did the circus last so long? To answer this question, we went back 100 years and examined how Americans spent their entertainment dollars in the 1910's.

The undisputed king of the era was Vaudeville. In 1910 there were four thousand theaters scattered across the USA. Unlike Broadway plays, there is no need for a plot in this genre. Just a series of separate, unrelated acts all grouped together on a single bill. At its height, over 25,000 Americans were employed in the Vaudeville industry. That's a lot of musicians, magicians, acrobats and actors performing every day from Portland to Peoria. These folks strived to reach the pinnacle: Playing at New York City's Palace Theater. Sadly, Vaudeville declined in the 1920's when talking pictures debuted. By 1940, almost all theaters had been converted to cinemas. NOTE: Buster Keaton, WC Fields and Judy Garland all got their start in Vaudeville.

Also immensely popular in the 1910's were Wild West Shows. Stopping at many of the same venues as the circus, these traveling spectacles often outsold their rival. Basically, folks on the East Coast have always been fascinated by the tales and legends of the Western states. Ensembles like Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show simply brought the images of Tombstone, Arizona to Trenton, New Jersey. Rail cars loaded with live horses, donkeys and buffalo rambled into town. On stage, they reenacted things like Custard's Last Stand and the Shootout at the OK Corral. Navajos and Mexicans joined the cast as did the West's Wild Women: Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley. Modern historians dismiss these shows as 'over glorification of events.' Yet...in their day...they were amazingly popular, with 10,000,000 people attending shows in 1910. That's one in nine Americans!

Thankfully last on the list are the horrid Freak Shows. Have you ever seen The Elephant Man? It portrays a man with major facial deformities who is forced the join the Whitechapel Freak Show in Victorian London. Well, the same story unfolded across the USA as well. Dreaded 'Dime Museums' were found in every major city. For ten cents, guests viewed not only deformed people, but also midgets, pinheads and the hideously ugly. A more educated American audience began rejecting the industry and the last Dime Museum closed in New York City in 1935.

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