Female bareback rider in costume with horse.
Photo caption

Female bareback rider in costume with horse.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

During his first term in office, George Washington took a break from presidential duties to engage in what would become a very American experience: he visited the nation’s first traveling circus. For two centuries, millions of Americans across the nation would be transfixed by the exciting, exotic and seemingly impossible spectacle of the circus.

The new NEH-supported documentary The Circus explores the vibrant world of one of America’s oldest forms of popular entertainment from its 18th century beginnings to 1956 when the Ringling Bro. and Barnum & Bailey big top was pulled down for the last time. It tells the story of influential entrepreneurs P.T. Barnum, James Bailey and the Ringling brothers who used cutting edge technology and marketing to create business empires. During the late 19th century, multiple competing circuses crossed the country and the largest employed as many as 1,000 people and required 80 railway cars. The circus could be a place where rural fans could escape their ordinary lives for a day or run away and reinvent themselves to travel the world as a clown, acrobat or a sideshow “human oddity.” The film examines how the circus could be both an accepting community for many outsiders while also one that profited from shifting ideas about race, imperialism, respectability and animal rights. It combines rich visuals -- posters, photographs, and early film as well as interviews with historians, aficionados and performers – to tell this uniquely American story of entrepreneurship, transformation and innovation.

The four-hour mini-series premiers on PBS’s American Experience series on October 8-9, 2018, 9:00-11:00 p.m. PBS-TV, ET. Please check local listings for broadcast time.