Eyewitness 1956: Ringling Brothers folds its circus tent for the last time in Allegheny County

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First Ringling Brothers had lost Emmett Kelly, its sad-faced star clown, during a labor dispute. Then, following a final performance at Heidelberg Raceway, “The Greatest Show on Earth” lost its tents.

"A great American institution  -- the circus under the canvas tent -- passed away early today into history and folklore,“ Post-Gazette reporter Alvin Rosensweet wrote on July 17, 1956.

Halfway through a summer season marked by terrible weather, transportation breakdowns and union woes, John Ringling North, board chairman, pronounced the ”death sentence“ for outdoor performances of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus.

”The tented circus as it now exists is in my opinion a thing of the past,“ North said in a statement that appeared in the July 16 edition of The Pittsburgh Press. The circus would close immediately and move next spring into what he called ”mechanically controlled“ exhibition spaces. He was referring to indoor arenas like Madison Square Garden in New York City.

North‘‍s surprise decision left almost 800 workers without jobs. Their severance was eight days’‍ pay and transportation back to the circus‘‍s winter home in Sarasota, Fla. 

It was during the circus’s opening performances in New York in April that it lost the comedic talents of ”Weary Willie.“ Kelly had declined to cross a picket line, leaving the show without one of its best known stars, Rosensweet wrote.

The last performance under canvas in Scott Township brought back boyhood memories for Post-Gazette reporter William Rimmel of when he was growing up in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh’‍s North Side. Rimmel, who was born in 1897, wrote of ”slipping out of the house long before dawn to meet the Barnum and Bailey Circus ... And then for the next eight hours along with half a dozen other boys I carried gallons of water for the elephants.“ In return, he and his buddies were ”permitted to sit among the throng inside the big top.“

His sidebar story, which appeared July 17, described meeting a personal hero. ”Another boyhood thrill was the time my grandfather, an old circus man, took me behind the scenes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show to show me the one and only Buffalo Bill,“ he wrote. ”The old scout shook my hand ... I remember the trouble my mother had getting me to wash the hand that shook the hand of the great Indian scout that day.“

The transportation and labor problems that had followed the traveling show did not let up. A railroad-car breakdown delayed the afternoon show by four hours. Protesters, part of an effort to organize drivers and performers, set up their picket lines outside the ”Big Top“ as they had in other cities.

Rosensweet wrote that the late-starting evening performance drew a capacity crowd of 10,000 to the Heidelberg Raceway. The last show was ”a sad and a shabby end, hardly deserved by an institution of tinseled glory and laughs,“ he wrote. ”But true to the tradition of the circus symbolized by Pagliacci, the clown, they gave a brilliant performance for their last audience, even though despair and grief dimmed eyes with tears.“

Veteran Post-Gazette cartoonist Cy Hungerford also took note of the final show under canvas. His June 17 editorial cartoon, labeled ”An Old Boyhood Friend Passes On,“ showed a tearful Uncle Sam mourning in front of a tombstone as ”The Big Top“ floats away on a cloud.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching ”Barcousky“ and ”Eyewitness“ at post-gazette.com

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