Tucked away on a spring-fed, crystal-clear lake nestled deep in a northern Michigan forest, lies the Sullivan family cabin. It’s modest. More than 100 years old. And the most peaceful place on earth for me. Every summer, I journey north and spend a week or two at our family cabin to relax, to read, to recharge. There is always something new to learn from the solitude and the echoes of nature rolling across the water.
Two summers ago, more than 80 of our extended clan gathered at the cabin for a Sullivan family reunion. It was at that family gathering that my cousin told me about a memoir written by my great-grandfather Henry Broughton Sullivan. In it, Henry described his childhood in Brooklyn in the 1880s as the city was swelling with the flood of immigrants and taking shape as a future borough of New York City. The stories he recounts from this period offer an amazing historical perspective, and none more enchanting than his description of the annual visit of a beloved challenger brand – the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® circus.
Magic comes to town.
“The Barnum & Bailey circus camped near us each year, and from school’s dismissal until dark we were on the grounds watching the preparations for the arrival of the elephants and the main part of the show. A dozen or more large red wagons pulled by two or three teams of horses and piled high with seats, tent poles, and stakes arrived on the lot first.
The next day, wagons loaded with tents, a kitchen wagon, and an office on the administrative wagon cut deep ruts in the soft Earth as they lurched, pitched, and rolled heavily into the places assigned them. The shouts of the drivers, sharp cracks of the whips, the clank of the harness, and thud of straining hoofs sent thrills rioting through us as the hulking forms moved about the field in the dusk and the lights from hand lanterns danced like fireflies in and out of the murky shapes. We could never decide just which spot on the grounds we should be on at any given time, or why. The cook tent with its aggravating odors certainly needed our inspection. But then if we missed the watering of the elephants, what about that?”
Henry’s story goes on to describe the spectacle of what was rightfully billed as, “The Greatest Show on Earth®.” I thought of that story last week when I saw Ringling Brothers is making a comeback in 2023, this time without animals. It’s a great challenger brand story. What remains to be seen is how it will end.
The rise and fall of the circus.
When Ringling Brothers shut down their circus in 2017, it was the end of a 146-year run. To frame that, the circus started five years after the end of the American Civil War. Considering that only one company in a thousand stays in business longer than a century, that puts Ringling in rare company. It was also why their closure was so heart-breaking to so many.