“Circus and the City” examines the big top in the Big Apple

Bard Graduate Center Gallery uncovers dark secrets from New York’s big-top history in the exhibition, "Circus and the City."

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Photographs: Courtesy Bard Graduate Center

These days, it’s a special event when the circus comes to town, pitching a tent on the Upper West Side or sending elephants down Broadway. So it’s hard to imagine that NYC was once three-ring central. In the 19th and 20th centuries, troupes made the Big Apple their home base and garnered press in the city before embarking on a train tour. The exhibit “Circus and the City: New York, 1793–2010” at Bard Graduate Center, which opens Friday 21, collects more than 200 posters, photos, costumes and ephemera exploring that legacy. But life wasn’t all cotton candy and clown cars; exhibit curator Matthew Wittmann picked out some of the weirdest tales from New York’s circus history.


It all started in a museum. P.T. Barnum, the famous impresario, got his start in 1841 at the American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street, where the showman displayed both historical artifacts and hoaxes (one notorious attraction was the “Feejee Mermaid,” fashioned from monkey and fish parts). “It was supposed to be educational, but people went to see the two-headed animals and stuff,” says Wittmann. After the museum burned down in 1865, Barnum started up his eponymous circus.


Jumbo: It’s what’s for dinner. Barnum’s elephant Jumbo died when he was hit by a train in 1885 (the train wasn’t left in good shape either). Less one cash cow—er, pachyderm—Barnum had a taxidermist remove the gentle giant’s skin and skeleton (now in the American Museum of Natural History’s permanent collection). Check out the souvenir slice of tusk that was a favor at the elephant’s big memorial banquet months later; what you won’t see is the other tusk, which was ground up and eaten as a jelly. “They actually served Jumbo,” says Wittmann. But people weren’t squeamish, he explains: “I think he was so popular that people were still excited.”


People went on display. General Tom Thumb was a reality star before the term existed. One of Barnum’s attractions going back to the American Museum days, the two-foot showman, actor and impressionist had proportionate dwarfism. See his suit, boots and tiny violin, and consider that when Thumb got married at Grace Church in 1863, the news coverage temporarily overshadowed that of the Civil War. “He was quite the man-about-town,” says Wittmann. Performing since he was five, he ended up with a drinking problem.


Smiles were painted on. “If you have a circus, you have to talk about the sad clown,” says Wittmann, and the BGC has a doozy: Frank “Slivers” Oakley. Once Barnum’s most popular clown, Oakley fell for a vaudeville actress in 1916. The woman stole Oakley’s late wife’s jewelry, went to the pokey and then rejected the funnyman’s jailhouse proposal. “He ended up killing himself in a flophouse in the Upper East Side,” says Wittmann.


Beware of the clown with the camera. Weegee—born Arthur Fellig and known for his bleak crime photos—was drawn to the spectacle of the big top, and found inspiration in the crowd reactions. “He didn’t like it when the subjects knew he was taking photos,” says Wittmann. “At one point a circus let him take pictures while dressed as a clown—he had his real camera in the toy camera.”


SEE IT NOW! “Circus and the City: New York, 1793–2010,” Bard Graduate Center Gallery, 18 W 86th St between Central Park West and Columbus Ave (bgc.bard.edu). Tue, Wed, Fri–Sun 11am–5pm; Thu 11am–8pm; $7. Fri 21–Feb 3.


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