Little Bits of History

Fun for All Ages

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 4, 2015
Philip Astley

Philip Astley

April 4, 1768: The first modern circus is held in Lambeth, London. Philip Astley, a cavalry officer, used an amphitheater for the display of horse riding tricks. He was not the first to show the public horse tricks, nor was he the first to introduce acts such as jugglers or clowns for the public to enjoy. What he did was introduce a space where all this entertainment could be had at one show. He used a ring which measured 42 feet in diameter for his tricks and that became the standard size for circus performances. He called his presentation space the Circle and the building in which it was housed an amphitheatre. Later it would come to be known as a Circus. Andrew Ducrow, an established horseman, was an inspiration for Astley who followed his lead.

Henglers and Sangers carried on the tradition. In England, circuses were held in specially constructed buildings such as the London Hippodrome, which could be used for circuses or as a menagerie. Also available were “convulsions of nature” where floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes were produced in great realistic detail. Joseph Grimaldi, the first mainstream clown, had his first major role in a pantomime where he played Little Clown in The Triumph of Mirth; or, Harlequin’s Wedding in 1781. The following year, the Royal Circus opened in London with Charles Dibdin and Charles Hughes. Astley also brought his circus to Paris at the Amphithéâtre Anglais, the first purpose-built circus in France and then 18 more were built in Europe.

Englishman John Ricketts brought the first modern circus to the US. He began his career at the Hughes Royal Circus in the 1780s and then built the first circus across the Atlantic in Philadelphia in 1793. The circus opened on April 3 of that year and George Washington came to see a performance later in 1793. More circuses opened and in 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown was the first to use a large canvas tent for his performances, making it possible to move from location to location. Dan Rice was arguably the most famous clown pre-Civil War. PT Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus was the first to show animals and humans as a freak show or sideshow. William Coup was the first to use a circus train to move his entire show from town to town as well as to introduce multiple rings for shows.

Contemporary circuses are a recent performing arts movement begun in the 1970s. They combine traditional circus skills and theatrical aspects to convey a story or theme. Rather than one major item, they look towards an overall impact as the goal of their showmanship. Their use of lighting, music, and costume design help with their story line. There are many different circuses of this type with Cirque du Soleil one of the more famous. One of the major controversies surrounding traditional circuses is the animal acts they offer. Animal rights groups have strongly protested mistreatment of the animals either in training or during the shows themselves. Many countries have placed bans against using animals in circuses or for other entertainment.

I remember in the circus learning that the clown was the prince, the high prince. I always thought that the high prince was the lion or the magician, but the clown is the most important. – Roberto Benigni

Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool. – Ambrose Bierce

Next to a circus there ain’t nothing that packs up and tears out any quicker than the Christmas spirit. – Kin Hubbard

To me clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad. – Jack Handey

Also on this day: US Flag – In 1818, the US adopted a new flag.
Robert Walpole – In 1721, Walpole became England’s first Prime Minister.
Strike While the Iron is Hot – In 1871, Mrs. Potts’ Sad Irons were patented.
Tippecanoe – In 1841, the first sitting US President died.
Declaration of Indulgence – In 1687, King James II of England made the declaration.

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