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Author Takes Readers Back To The Golden Age Of The Circus

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, over-the-top characters both onstage and behind the scenes, hair-raising acts, lots and lots of animals. What else could we be talking about but the circus - or at least the circus known as the greatest show on earth, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. That show, once a must-see part of just about every American childhood, came to an abrupt end in May 2017, when the owners made the decision to shut it down, a consequence of changing tastes and values. But that end belies just how big a part of American entertainment and, in fact, life the circus once was, a history Les Standiford recounts in his entertaining and at times shocking new book, "Battle For The Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, And The Death-Defying Saga Of The American Circus." Standiford says before national sports, TV and movies came to dominate pop culture, the circus was a quintessential American pastime.

LES STANDIFORD: It was, for all intents and purposes, synonymous with popular entertainment in the United States. There wasn't anything else. This was before baseball, before Super Bowls. There were concerts at places that might hold a thousand people. But the circus, night after night, would draw 7,000 to 10,000 beneath that big top. And even before Barnum and Bailey had combined, there were at times as many as 50 small mud shows and wagon shows traveling the early United States.

In essence, the - at one time, the day the circus came to town was the fourth major holiday in the country after the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. When the circus came in, the town closed down. And everybody turned out first to watch the parade and then to go to either the matinee or the evening performance of the circus and sometimes both because it provided, at a time when there was no television or radio or other form of mass entertainment, something of a diversion for a country that was really all about trying - where most people were just trying to carve out an existence.

MARTIN: So tell me about P.T. Barnum.

STANDIFORD: Well, one of the oddities about Barnum is that he was over 60 years old before his path ever crossed with the circus. He had nothing to do with the circus until the early 1870s. He'd been famous, really, for presenting a series of what you might call human oddities. And he had actually retired from show business when others came to him and said, you know, you were pretty good at this in your time, Mr. Barnum. We think the circus is where you belong. And sure enough, from that first conversation in 1870 grew, eventually, Barnum and Bailey's greatest show on earth 15 years later.

MARTIN: One of the things that I learned from the book is just how terrible some of these guys' lives were. Some of the people who were attracted to the circus, their lives were miserable. So maybe it isn't a surprise that, then, as business people themselves, they were pretty hardhearted, too. I mean, you tell some really - some of the stories are just really, you know - like where - which one was it? I forget who's stranded. They took the show down to Mexico. And then they were running out of money, so they only paid for the animals - to transport the animals back and then left all the performers to find their own way back home. I mean, come on (laughter).

STANDIFORD: Well, (laughter) there are a million such tales. And I - as I would dig each one of these up, I would sit there and stare and say, you know, what doesn't appear in the circus is every bit as colorful as what goes on in the ring.

MARTIN: Well, what are some of the stories that stood out to you?

STANDIFORD: Well, one of the most harrowing is a fellow named W.C. Coup. He was the guy who eventually talked Barnum into joining the circus - was a member of one of those road wagon shows that I talked about earlier. And one fine morning, they're out traipsing across the prairie in eastern Kansas when somebody looks back and says, what are those clouds way back there? And it turns out, not clouds. It's a prairie fire that's advancing on them worse than a thunderstorm coming their way and then becomes a dash. They're trying to get elephants and giraffes to run fast, to make it to the river before they're consumed by this fire. And it reads like a - to me, it reads like a story from a thriller novel.

MARTIN: But that terrible event is not what caused the circus to end as we know it. What was it that - what was the beginning of the end, I guess would be the question?

STANDIFORD: Well, over the course of the later 20th century, animal activists were pointing out problems with the animal acts in the show, the fact that no matter how well they might have been treated or not mistreated in the - by the circus and their handlers, still, it was an unnatural way to keep animals. And you couldn't get past that.

And finally, in 2015, Kenneth Feld, whose father had taken over the operations of the circus back in the in the 1960s from the heirs of the Ringlings, decided that they were going to let the elephants go. Well, it had always been a struggle to keep the circus going - the great requirements in manpower and transportation. And it's just a very difficult show to put on the road and keep it going. Yet they had managed to make a go of it until 2015 so long as the elephants were there. But as he put it, the moment that the elephants were put out the pasture, attendance fell off a cliff. That was the end of it. Apparently, P.T. Barnum had been right when he - another line he had was, when attempting to entertain the American people, it is best to have an elephant.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, the type of circus that you write about in the book with, you know, these grand parades, the circus trains with the animals and the - you know, the elephants, that's gone, certainly in this country. But recognizing that, what do you hope people get out of this, of all the work that you've done to kind of bring this history to light? Is there something that you hope people take away from this?

STANDIFORD: I think that in its essence, the American circus is a kind of distillation of the whole idea of America to begin with, the frontier spirit. This is a country where it was thought anything is possible. And sitting in the bleachers for three or four hours on a hot Midwestern afternoon or evening and watching all these impossible things take place before your very eyes - unlike today's special effects in movies, mind you, it was all real. And that was a subtle reminder, an underscoring of the promise of the country itself. Anything is possible here, and the circus proved it.

MARTIN: That is Les Standiford. His latest book, "Battle For The Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, And The Death-Defying Saga Of The American Circus," is out now. Les Standiford, thanks so much for talking to us.

STANDIFORD: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.