Step Right Up! Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890-1965
January 25 – March 14, 2018
J. Wayne Stark Galleries
“The noblest art is that of making others happy” –P.T. Barnum
In an era spanning the early 20th century, through depression-ridden times, a dust bowl, and the Red Scare, one form of revelry thrived–the circus. The Big Top was a thrilling spectacle that burst into towns along the American road and railways. Traveling from coast to coast, rail cars packed with canvas, exotic animal menageries, strongmen, fat ladies, and roustabouts brought a much needed relief to millions of Americans. Step Right Up! Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890–1965 explores a history fraught with intrigue and majesty and gives viewers their chance to run away with the circus.
In collaboration with the Tegge Circus Archives, Step Right Up! takes viewers behind the scenes of the circus, exploring the dramatic pageantry, colorful past, and living presence of this grand American theatrical tradition. Approximately sixty pieces of circus history are featured in Step Right Up! including full-color posters, costume regalia, historic photographs, billboards, oversize graphics, and oral histories from past performers. The circus is an experience once shared by most communities; Step Right Up! is primed for local programming and performance arts offerings, including a personal presentation from curator Timothy Tegge.
As one of America’s oldest theatrical traditions, the circus started as a European transplant in the late 1700s and was perfected in the United States by the likes of John Bill Ricketts, who established the first American Circus in 1793, and P.T. Barnum, who first introduced us to sideshow oddities including the Feejee Mermaid and human curiosities like Tom Thumb. By 1900, there were more than 100 circuses crisscrossing the country and they were adept at using all of the advancements of America’s industrial revolution—the railroad, color lithography, and mass marketing strategies—to promote their impending arrival.
As masters of their craft, circus promoters and practitioners survived the social and technological changes brought about by two World Wars and even found new ways to factor in changes brought about by the pop culture and rock revolution of the 1960s. Advance men would arrive weeks before the caravan to paper the town with idealized and oversized, technicolor posters to build suspense and drum up business. Beyond mere promotion, the pieces in Step Right Up! remind us that through the early twentieth century, the circus was king of American entertainment, especially in smaller cities and towns. For many, it was their first chance to see a lion or elephant, and their first opportunity to explore new inventions like the electric light.
Step Right Up! also highlights how the insatiable fantasy of circus life was both an alternate reality and a vision founded in truth. For many performers, the big top’s nomadic life offered a different kind of escape and in many instances, a life that challenged the economic and gender conventions of the age. The juxtaposition of romanticized imagery and backstage stories and photographs reveal both the fantasy and reality of circus life, exploring the illusions that played to the imaginations of so many.
Step Right Up! is curated by Timothy Tegge, a longtime circus historian, collector, and performer. Tegge, a second generation circus performer, was immersed in circus culture from the day he was born. He first appeared under the big top at the age of three, alongside his father, a career clown for the family-owned TNT & Royal Olympic Circus. Tegge continues to perform in circuses across the country as an illusionist, ringmaster, performance director, and sometimes clown.