Ringling Brothers Work Their Magic
Visalians loved circuses, especially the Ringling Brothers Circus, and they really liked the parade that came with it. Oh yes, it’s true the townsfolk appreciated festive celebrations of all kinds like those on Independence and rodeo days, but without a doubt, they had a special fondness for the Ringling Brothers show — the granddaddy of them all.
The famous showbiz brothers began their enterprise in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It started simply, but it didn’t take long for the family to realize they were on to something. They expanded the number of acts, perfected them, and took their show on the road entertaining audiences throughout the country and all over the world.
Visalia hosted the famous show several times over the years, but the 1903 visit was probably the most memorable. That year, rumors of the circus coming to town started on August 25, 1903, when George Heiser, a Ringling Brothers advance man, arrived in Visalia. His visit signaled that the town of about 3,000 was being considered as a stop on the show circuit. It was confirmed when a few days later, August G. Ringling, one of the famous brothers, checked into the Palace Hotel. Soon after these company visitors arrived, evidence began to emerge around town and throughout the county. Colorful circus posters appeared on many fences and buildings announcing that the circus was coming to Visalia on September 25, 1903.
The Daily Visalia Delta joined the hype announcing circus day would be a great holiday, and Alonzo Melville Doty, the poetic editor of the newspaper wrote: “The Circus, with its glittering girls, its noisy bands and funny men, will come, and though we’ve seen it oft we’ll gladly go again.”
Ringling Brothers ran large newspaper ads and worked on promotion arrangements with merchants like the deal they made with the S. Sweet Company. The big department store received free tickets in exchange for including the circus in their newspaper advertisement. Sweet offered free circus tickets to store customers willing to buy at least five dollars worth of merchandise.
But the biggest promotion was the circus parade. It was free to the public and was designed to generate excitement and get people to buy tickets for the circus performances. Promoters reasoned that once parade visitors saw the talented performers, exotic animals, and colorful wagons up close, the tease would be sufficient to encourage them to spend 50 cents for a circus ticket.
Anticipation built for the big day, and in the early morning hours of Friday, September 25, a host of double-length circus train cars pulled into Visalia’s western railway yard. The cars were quickly unloaded and by 7 a.m. almost all the tents had been erected on the open space (now near the site of Recreation Park). The scene looked like a small village with animals, wagons, and circus workers everywhere.
As the tent city was being set up, visitors from all over Tulare and Kings Counties began arriving. The Southern Pacific and Santa Fe companies had added trains to the regular schedule to handle the anticipated large number of passengers coming from Porterville, Tulare, Exeter, and surrounding communities. One train from Hanford was so crowded that people were hanging from the cars any way they could. It was so packed that the conductor could not even move through the train to collect tickets. Local children were excited, too, as the city board of education authorized the principals of the high school and grammar school “to give the day to the children in order that they can attend the big show.”
Shortly after 10 a.m. trumpets blared announcing the beginning of the grand street parade. By this time both sides of Main Street, and many of the side streets, were lined with excited people all anxious to see what was billed as the “one million dollar free street parade.”
The procession stretched for a mile and a quarter and included a menagerie of animals dominated by horses and elephants. Radiantly costumed artists and performers marched alongside the elaborately carved and emblazoned tableau wagons. The procession was a “perfect sunburst of dazzling splendor” and according to the press, “was a parade such as the world has never seen before.” Adding to the magnificent visual display, a superb grand organ— the largest portable one ever built— provided the music for the extravaganza as it moved along Main Street.
All the posters, newspaper advertisements, and especially the big parade, worked its magic. Thousands of tickets were sold and the two three-hour performances were filled with the huge crowds. The afternoon performance was attended by about 7,500 and the evening show had almost as many. The highlights for many were the rhinoceros (the only one in captivity), the only pair of full-grown giraffes in captivity, and “Baby Boo,” the only baby elephant ever bred, born and successfully reared in America.
The circus was a big hit. The Delta clearly pleased reported, “Ringling Brothers have established a reputation for themselves that will long live as circus people. They will always be welcomed here…”
The business community was pleased, too. Stores, hotels, restaurants, livery stables, and certainly saloons did an “enormous” business, and the town marshal was also pleased when he reported the town was unusually quiet. Only nine arrests had been made for public intoxication, a remarkably small number, given the number of visitors.
However, the event left a small blemish on the visit. In all the excitement to get the word out, circus posters were pasted on the freshly painted walls of the Union warehouses, damaging the buildings to the tune of $1,000. Warehouse company officials filed a complaint against the circus for the damage. How the dispute was resolved is unclear, but regardless, the vast majority declared the 1903 visit by the circus an overwhelming success.
After the last performance, the tent village was disassembled and all the show people, animals, and equipment were loaded back on the train cars. The “Biggest Circus on Earth” headed south. Next stop, Bakersfield.