John Ringling North was a combination of Circus King, showmanship, brassy flamboyance, huckster salesman and perennial Playboy, and was a good enough show to compete with the acts and spectacles he produced under the Big Top for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey combined shows. Against all the odds, he brought the family circus into the 20th century, running it for thirty years, until 1967 when he sold it after conquering litigious relatives and the challenge of TV.
Flash forward, it’s fifty years later, and Kenneth Feld, the current owner of the Ringling Bros. show who has carried on North tradition of unequaled showmanship, has reluctantly closed “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He blames the closure on diminishing ticket sales after the retirement of the famed elephants last year following a bruising 14-year legal battle with Peta, the controversial animal rights activists group. Hundreds of performers and circus workers are out of a job, with the 146-year-old iconic institution to be just a memory.
The final performance of the circus wasn’t staged at famed Madison Square Garden where it played for many seasons, and North held court with New York celebrities and socialites, or under the Big Top as seen in Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning film. Instead, the sold-out performance took place at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum Long Island, with ticket scalpers selling front row seats for up to $3,000 each.
All of this is sadly reminiscent of John Ringling North’s heartbreaking decision to strike the Big Top at 11:15 P.M., July 16, 1956, for the last time. Thus, ending decades of bringing touring the tent show circus, with a traveling zoo and over 1500 employees to hundreds of cities across America, from Paducah to Kalamazoo.
The circus was started by the original seven Ringling brothers on a shoestring as a wagon show dubbed Carnival of Fun, which opened in Baraboo, Wis., on May 19, 1884. Operated by five of the Ringling’s, it caught on and prospered, absorbing lesser rivals along the way.
By 1918, the Ringling’s were ready to buy the name and enterprise left behind by the legendary P. T. Barnum. The company was well on its way toward becoming the three-ring extravaganza that called itself ”The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Starting in the 1930s, North saw the glittering family business through some good times and others made rocky by labor disputes with the Teamsters, management problems, family disagreements and years of financial losses. In fact, it was nagging deficits that caused him to give up on the traditional big top: the circus had simply grown too big for it.
In July 1956, the tents were pulled up for the last time in Pittsburgh, and North, chairman, president and impresario of the company, said at a news conference, ”The tented circus as it now exists is, in my opinion, a thing of the past.” The decision spelled the end of the kind of circus America had grown up with.
Many scorned North for folding up the Big Top but if he hadn’t made this move most likely The Greatest Show on Earth would have closed much earlier than lasting into the 21st Century.
John Ringling North was born in Baraboo, the birthplace of the Ringling shows, on Aug. 14, 1903. He was the son of Henry and Ida Ringling North, his mother being the only daughter in the Ringling family. They had two other children, Henry Whitestone Ringling North and Mary Salome Ringling North.
Henry recounted in his memoir Circus King — John Ringling North: “The circus can be generous … especially to children. Sometimes I think my brother John, my sister Salome, and I had the most wonderful childhood ever. Imagine growing up adored and spoiled by six uncles who owned not one but a flock of circuses, including the two outstanding ones of history: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
On the one hand, it was a small-town life with John’s musical talent making him a great addition to the choir of the Episcopal Church. Singing was the beginning of developing his avocation as a musician and composer of popular songs used for the Ringling Bros. circus productions and Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning film “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He even formed his own dance band and performed regularly at the family hotel in Sarasota.
On the other hand, the North children enjoyed the privileges of being part of the Ringling family business. Each summer they spent a couple of weeks traveling in private Pullman cars with the gigantic touring circus, having access to every part of the circus, from the Big Top to the Side Show and fabulous midway or enjoying vacations at their uncle’s large mansions on Lake Michigan. The North family children lived and breathed circus, something every child would dream of having. They didn’t have to run away with the circus because it was in their own backyard.
The children’s pets weren’t a cat or dog but elephants, horses, giraffes, zebras, and camels. Clowns entertained the kids, and they played with circus performers children. John spent time with the fifty-piece band and learned everything possible about the frenzied circus music.
After finishing prep school, John studied first at the University of Wisconsin but transferred to Yale for two years, leaving to work in New York finance and real estate development. He then joined the family business, to assist John Ringling, his uncle, in all affairs involving the circus, real estate, and other business interests. John Ringling was the last of the founding brothers. After his death in December 1936, North became president and director of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc.
If North had not come on the scene to run the family business in 1937, Ringling Bros. might not have ever made it into the 21st Century to have its last performance on Long Island. He seemed the only one to have the business and showman sense to run the show amongst the younger family members except for his brother Henry, who became the circus’s vice president. Another Yalie, his brother was as mild and self-effacing as John was as aggressive. Many family members appreciated North’s talents but called him a “rascal.”
North was no longer a midwest small time boy but a sophisticated, bon vivant when he took over the debt-spangled show. John and his brother were harshly criticized for modernizing the circus, with hard-shells and nostalgic types saying they had ruined it. The generations raised on the tinsel glitter of the old-fashioned circus were gone, people were considering the future and a “new deal.” Audiences were more sophisticated. Automobiles and movies, to which color and sound had just been added, had done that. The old tired circus stuff didn’t work, and people wanted bigger entertainment, move value, for their money.
John kept the best of the old circus combined with beauty and style; fantastic costumes; great lighting; the big, extravagant production numbers with showgirls, clowns, and spectacular acts.
Charles Le Maire, who had mounted The Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals designed their first show. He billed in the program as “the noted master of color tone and exquisite fabrics.”
North introduced the aerial ballet, a production number with sixty beautifully costumed girls performing acrobatics high above the arena on the webs.
Heading to New York, he searched for top talent to create the reimagined circus. Commissioning work from the likes of Stravinsky and Balanchine, then hiring Norman Bel Geddes and John Murray Anderson, the reigning stage-design talents of their time, adding ballet and Ziegfeld-style extravaganzas. Aerialist showgirls, dozens of them, were added to produce spectacles rivaling any stage production ever produced.
North received a modest salary as president of the corporation, lacking the substance of a millionaire, but he consciously displayed the form. He was a glittering anachronism whose social and professional activities evaded the traditions of such rococo sports as “Diamond Jim” Brady, “Bet a Million” Gates and his own prodigious uncle, John Ringling North.
From the 1930s into the 1960s, he was one of the last few men in America who maintained private Pullman cars. The Jomar, named after his aunt and uncle, was a silver-painted pleasure dome, 82 feet long, in which North lived both on the road and in winter circus headquarters in Sarasota. The Jomar’s observation drawing and dining room were scenes of epic festivities in all the great cities in the USA where the circus was touring.
Partakers numbered such college mates of North (Yale, Class of ’26) as columnist Lucius Beebe, Crooner Rudy Valley and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, who was hired as the circus “art director” to create dozens of delightful drawings for the souvenir program groups. North hosted dozens of Hollywood celebrities including Bette Davis, Walt Disney and dozens of Hollywood celebrities on the Jomar after the circus performances in Los Angeles.
Prince Zalstem-Zalessky, a nobleman of Russian descent, and his wife, Princess Evangeline Johnson Zalstem-Zalessky, the last surviving child of Robert Wood Johnson, were frequent traveling guests on the Jomar.
On one such trip, Princess Evangeline was awaiting a telegram from her brother but it never arrived. North found out the train conductor had delivered the cable to another Princess Evangeline traveling on the circus train. She was the side show’s sword swallower from Bulgaria. The Prince, Evangeline, and John found this hilarious with North dining out on this until his death.
In his drinking habits, North exceed even his own rococo standards. “The same drink in a row bores me,” he would confide to his guests. He would use the Stork Club bartender manual, authored by Lucius Beebe, to go from Alexander to a Perfect Rob Roy and onto a Zombie. Many nights the cycle continued uninterrupted till dawn without any visible effect on his digestive system or equilibrium.
His exclusive salon on wheels required the full-time of a valet, a chef, maid, and chauffeur. This bacchanal M.O. took place in almost every major city on the route, where North entertained everyone from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Vice President “the Veep” Alben Barkley, on the 10,000-mile transcontinental circus tour.
Cecil B. DeMille featured North in the 1952 box office blockbuster “The Greatest Show on Earth.” DeMille, his stars, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde and James Stewart, along with a large crew filmed at the Ringling Sarasota headquarters and toured with the circus. It was a great promotion for Ringling Bros. and New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called the Oscar-winning film a “lusty triumph of circus showmanship and movie skill” and a “piece of entertainment that will delight movie audiences for years.”
It was the first film that director Steven Spielberg saw and he credits it as one of the primary inspirations that led him into a film career. In the years he led the circus, North would pack his steamer trunks each summer and cross the pond on trans-Atlantic liners (he didn’t like to fly) heading for the theaters, nightclubs, village fairs and circuses of Europe to look for performers with new acts to add to his show.
It was vital to the circus to open its season at New York’s Madison Square Gardens, not only because of the big box office but because of the national media attention. Opening night would always benefit a charity with stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich or even Hopalong Cassidy as guest headliners.
Critics ballyhooed each season with praise. “You’ve never seen anything like it … The Greatest Show on Earth merely lived up to its lofty label; so much so it left its own press agents groping for words …” Robert Williams, NY Post. “With an emphasis on everything new, the circus opened last night before a jammed house of whistling, cheering and applauding patrons. It was the Big Show proving the rhapsodic verbiage of its heralds …” Irving Spiegel, NYTimes. “The Ringling circus big-tops them all!” Walter Winchell.
Showered with applause and celebrity, North was the eternal Circus King of Manhattan. He stayed at the old Ritz Car or Waldorf Astoria. He was a nocturnal creature and so his suites would be masked to keep out the sunlight since he would arise in the late afternoon. Chauffeured around in his Cadillac limousine, he would make calls and handle business for the large circus operation.
Prominent New Yorkers and socialites would be North’s guests each night during the month-long run at the Garden. After the performance, with guests in tow, North would head to 21, the Stork Club or the Copacabana or dine out with one of the many beautiful women he would be seeing.
Knowing the value of celebrities and publicity, he would spend many evenings dining out at the Colony with Reginald Vanderbilt, Billy Baldwin, Preston Sturges, Elsie de Wolfe, Lulu Vanderbilt, J. Edgar Hoover, Vincent Astor, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway, a big circus fan.
Both knew the circus was a terribly demanding mistress, whose service precludes her people’s living a normal life. Both felt they should live as other people do, for a while at least.
The heirs of the Ringling brothers decided to sell the circus in 1967, ending more than 80 years of family control. The buyers were two brothers successful in show business, Irvin, and Israel Feld. Brokered by Richard Blum, the San Francisco investment banker husband of U.S. Senator from California Dianne Feinstein could secure the backing of Judge Roy N. Hofheinz, owner of the Houston Astrodome where the circus had recently played to capacity audiences.
True to the showman’s form, North consummated the sale in the Colosseum, site of the spectaculars of ancient Rome where emperors kept the people happy with circuses and gladiatorial contests.
The two brothers believed children of the future would become little circus fans and in the years, ahead would thrill to the laughter and love The Greatest Show on Earth.
North, by design, ended up outside the circus and powerless over its future. Irwin Feld, a so-called close associate, and the new owner did a lot to undermine John’s legacy with numerous self-serving fabrication. Feld created a mythical past in which the Ringling Circus was a struggling, inferior and going broke organization when he took it over. He claimed he had been managing the circus since the mid-1950s and created a new show.
The endless untrue statements were evidently advanced to make Irwin Feld’s showmanship look good. Feld’s disinformation campaign nailed the coffin shut in 1984 when Variety did a big spread on the 100th anniversary of Ringling Brothers circus and entirely excluded any mention of John Ringling North.
John, a gentleman to the end, didn’t seem to mind since circus folk knew that John had remained producer after the Feld group took over and the show was his creation. John seemed more concerned about Feld’s managerial style since he and Henry North were getting salaries for life. North knew how to turn a dollar and from his profits from the circus sale bought five and a half tons of gold bars for $30,000 (and sold it for a half million dollars some years later).
John enjoyed his “mellow years” as his brother described them living dividing his time between Ireland and Europe. John hated to fly but would return to the United States for a yearly for a checkup at the Mayo clinic and visit Sarasota where he fondly renewed old acquaintances.
John’s nephew described his uncle as a great raconteur, a lot of fun to be with and having a great sense of humor. North was very generous, helping a lot of old friends, and would always pick up the check.
As King of the Circus, North defined how Ringling circus performances would be conceived and staged. His dreams and the legacy of the showmanship, the greatest shows on earth, lived on until the closing last May in Long Island.
North died of a stroke on June 4, 1985 in Brussels, Belgium at the age of 81. He must be spinning over in his grave.
The late C. P. “Chappie” Fox, longtime director of the Circus World Museum in Wisconsin, and undoubtedly the world’s number one circus fan was asked in a 1972 TV interview about the importance of the circus. Chappie said, “I believe that it’s important to mankind because the circus is the oldest form of entertainment known to man. It has withstood all the upheavals of history and still comes out as a great entertainment. No catastrophe has ever ruined it.”