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Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bel Geddes
The Posters and Influence of America’s Industrial Designer on
The Greatest Show on Earth
By Chris Berry
After the labor troubles of the 1938 season, John Ringling North was convinced that the future success of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey would be incumbent upon big moves that would get people talking about the circus. The acquisition of Gargantua and the hiring of Frank Buck were bold strokes that got ink for the circus, and for North himself. The world was changing, and North was convinced that in order to maintain the promise of being The Greatest Show on Earth, the circus of the future must be different than a show which had changed little in presentation since the days of Barnum and Forepaugh.
One of the biggest events in the entertainment world in the waning days of the Great Depression was the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40. Over 44 million patrons attended the fair and marveled at its “World of Tomorrow” theme. Although John Ringling North’s contribution to the fair, a wild west-themed horse show titled “Cavalcade of Centaurs”, was widely panned, it was no doubt his involvement at fair which introduced him to the success of designer Norman Bel Geddes and his “Futurama” exhibit for General Motors.
Bel Geddes was the talk of the fair, and then – as now – he was seen as a pioneer of industrial design. The aerodynamic products produced by Bel Geddes and his team and exhibited at the fair included everything from cocktail shakers to radio cabinets. It was "Futurama" that gave Bel Geddes and his studio broad acclaim, and shortly after that he was engaged by John Ringling North to redesign the look of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Fortunately for North, Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) had a long history in show business prior to his association with The Greatest Show on Earth. Bel Geddes began designing theatrical sets in Los Angeles as early as 1916. Shortly after he moved east and took on the responsibilities of scenic designer for the New York Metropolitan Opera. He also had experience directing and designing sets for Broadway plays – Arabesque (1925) and The Five O’Clock Girl (1927) – and in collaboration with world champion ice skater Sonja Henie, he produced one of the first ice shows entitled It Happened on Ice (1940).
Bel Geddes was a true visionary. and after his design studio opened in 1927 he and his team began looking at things from a new and different perspective. In doing so they developed plans for aerodynamic automobiles, streamlined furniture and art deco appliances. When applied to the 1941 edition of the circus, Bel Geddes’ out-of-the-box thinking created a bold departure from what audiences had become accustomed to during the years prior to John Ringling North taking the helm.
New acts would be brought to America from war-torn Europe, and tremendous changes were in store for the circus fan, but among the projects that had to be completed before the trains left Sarasota for the opening at Madison Square Garden were the execution of bright new posters which would foreshadow the arrival of the bold new circus of 1941.
Alfred Court (1941)
One of the performers who John Ringling North had “discovered” in the days prior to World War II was French animal trainer Alfred Court. Although he first appeared with Ringling during the 1940 season, his presentation – so different from that of Clyde Beatty or Terrell Jacobs – was exactly the kind of departure from traditionalism that North and Bel Geddes embraced, and as a result his act was heavily promoted in 1941. This poster, used that season, was one of the first designed and produced at the studios of Bel Geddes. The bold colors and contemporary design were substantially different than the established works of respected lithographers Strobridge and Erie, and if the garish designs were not immediately embraced by traditional circus fans, Alfred Court’s act certainly was. This poster represents only a fraction of what Court presented in 1941 – an act which featured three rings of simultaneously performing wild animals. In one-ring: lions, tigers and bears. In the other end ring: a similar lineup plus jaguars and Great Dane dogs, and in the center ring: a variety of wild felines including leopards, cougars, pumas, panthers and ocelots.
Although this particular lithograph does not carry any signature other than the modest initials “G.H.”, documents uncovered while researching this article for Bandwagon confirm that the several posters created in 1941 with the initials “G.H.” were actually designed by the prominent architect George Howe (1886-1955), who became a partner of Norman Bel Geddes and Co. in 1941. In fact, one of the Ringling-Barnum circus posters designed by Howe was included in an exhibit entitled Printed Art – Pictures and Designs that Work which ran from May 25 until October 18, 1941 at the Brooklyn Museum.
These modern circus poster designs, which can now be attributed to George Howe, have the same feel as those of the highly-regarded poster artist E. McKnight Kauffer, who would design – and sign – other lithographs and program covers used by Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey in the 1940s.
Mr and Mrs Gargantua (1941)
Gargantua was a household name and still a tremendous attraction in 1941, yet the acquisition of a female gorilla – M’Toto – gave the Ringling press office the opportunity to “advance the story” before the opening in New York and promote a primate romance which culminated in a “marriage” of the two apes. During the 1940s three posters depicting Mr. and Mrs. Gargantua were included in the litho hods of billposters and lithographers of Ringling-Barnum, but this poster – again the work of George Howe – is perhaps the most striking and is much different than the classic Gargantua lithographs executed by Strobridge in 1938.
Although this particular litho references "For 80 Years, The Greatest Show on Earth", the reference is as inaccurate as it is inexplicable. In 1941 it had actually been about seventy years since Barnum and his partners first used the famous slogan to promote his show.
Mr and Mrs Gargantua (1941)
The two gorillas were never actually as close as they are seen here, as this poster is a composite photo of the pair, again promoting the addition of M'Toto (Swahili for "Little One") to “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Not only did the designers at the Bel Geddes studios take some artistic license in putting the couple in this friendly pose, but M’Toto’s breasts were also augmented, no doubt in hopes of titillating those who would see the pair staring from the window of a shop or empty store window.
Although John Ringling North had hoped to mate the two gorillas, it never happened, yet the publicity worked as tens of thousands flocked to the Bel Geddes-designed gorilla tent, constructed without center poles but rather with four towers which suspended the canvas by cable. Inside the tent were two air-conditioned cage wagons – spotted back-to-back, giving easy access in the event that a gorilla romance did blossom during the season-long honeymoon.
Incidentally this particular one-sheet features a date tail for a one-day stand in Oakland, California on September 7, 1941. Exactly three months later the United States was at war - and travel restrictions during the ensuing war years kept the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus from returning to California until 1948. Oakland didn't see the Big Show again until September 1949 - the last time it played that city under canvas and just two months prior to Gargantua succumbing to a case of double-pneumonia.
Leopard Head (1941)
This poster image surely holds the record for longevity by a circus, with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey using variations of it for nearly 30 years starting in 1941. Over the decades the Ringling-Barnum advance crews posted window cards, half-sheets, one-sheets and wall work with this striking image of a snarling leopard..
The original design (seen here) was among that first group of posters which John Ringling North commissioned Bel Geddes to produce. Over the years the font changed, the background was temporarily switched from green to red and in 1954 the image of the leopard was sharpened by the artists at Cincinnati's Strobridge Litho Company, one of the last posters that the venerable firm ever printed for Ringling-Barnum (that version used during the 1954-56 seasons is identified by a small printers union seal in the corner of the poster).
Felix Adler (1943)
This original design of Felix Adler and his parasol was produced in both an "upright" and "flat" format and was used throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s with only slight changes in design - most notably the font used on the title. This one-sheet dates from 1943 - a time when North had been replaced at the helm by his cousin Robert Ringling. It promotes an appearance at Hartford's Barbour Street Showgrounds - the same lot where fire would consume the big top less than one year later.
The stamp of designer Norman Bel Geddes was everywhere in 1941, from the bright colors of the midway, a blue big top, a red menagerie tent and even brightly colored sawdust (reddish pink in rings one and three, white in the middle - and blue on the hippodrome track). While the traditional circus fan might have questioned the changes, the innovations dreamed up by Bel Geddes received rave reviews. The April 26, 1941 edition of The Billboard said that “it’s the best costumed, best lighted, and best presented circus in the big show’s history” and ticket sales went through the roof. During the 28 day stand at Madison Square Garden, 55 performances were held and 600,000 patrons paid an average of two-dollars a ticket. Once the show left the Garden the audiences continued to flock to the performances, and the influence of Bel Geddes was clear from the moment they set foot on the lot. The sideshow banners had been repainted with a Bel Geddes theme, and in the menagerie paintings of jungle scenes were added between and on the cage wagons. The crowds loved it and showed their appreciation at the ticket wagon. The new big top, made of blue canvas, could seat eleven thousand people and the attendance numbers were staggering. Sixty thousand attended the four shows in Cleveland, Ohio. Another seventy-four thousand for Detroit’s four-day stand and 120,000 saw the show during the ten-day stand in Los Angeles. According to the December 27 edition of The Billboard, the 1941 season was “the best ever” at the box office.
Kitty Clark and Elephant (1941)
This particular design, which also carries the initials of George Howe, continues the Bel Geddes theme of bold colors and was produced in both an upright and flat (horizontal) format. This poster continued to be used – with some minor variations – throughout the 1940s, but this is the original 1941 design with the stylized font, the Bel Geddes studios logo, and Howe’s initials printed between the elephant's hind legs; three elements that would disappear in later renditions of this poster. Howe’s modern design was based on a photograph and is the first of three posters that featured the image of Kitty Clark - the other two from 1944 are much more traditional (Bill Bailey's "Panto's Paradise" spec poster and Maxwell Frederic Coplan's photograph of her with a white horse and a pink background). A rehash of this basic design was also used on the Ringling-Barnum souvenir program book of 1964.
Old King Cole (1941)
In retaining the services of Norman Bel Geddes, John Ringling North literally handed him a blank canvas to create his magic. In addition to the design of the color scheme of the tents, the posters, menagerie and costumes, he was also told to come up with a spec unlike anything that circus fans had become accustomed to. For the 1941 season the “spectacular fantasy”, titled "Old King Cole and Mother Goose", was moved from the opening act to Display #5, the first time in the show’s history that the spec didn’t open the performance.
A Bandwagon article by Fred D. Pfening Jr from Jan-Feb 2004 provides notes from a meeting on January 24, 1941 when Bel Geddes and North discussed the spec. Notes from that meeting read in part, "Everything in the circus should look as if it is happening for the benefit of Old King Cole (clown Lou Jacobs). The Court animal act cannot be part of the King's entertainment, because it is too dominating in itself, a horse spectacle would be the same, as well as any other big arena act, except the elephants and things that have a special quality, or any period act that doesn't fit in with the Mother Goose idea. Therefore, we should start the circus with two or three obviously unrelated acts."
Both an upright and flat version of this poster was printed. This lithograph also carries the initials of George Howe and its dark background punctuated by splashes of color foreshadows the design of the two Bel Geddes posters that were created specifically for the 1942 season by the famed poster artist E. McKnight Kauffer.
Following the success that North had seen in 1941, he continued to use Bel Geddes services in 1942 and hired producer and director John Murray Anderson to help stage the show. That included not only the “Holidays” spec but also the “Elephant Ballet”. By the time that this litho was put up in 1942, thousands of posters designed at the Bel Geddes studios had already been displayed across the length and breadth of the United States.
Although all of the posters produced by the Bel Geddes Studios in 1941 were in an avant garde style similar to those created by the influential modernist poster artist E. McKnight Kauffer, this design from 1942 is the first lithograph for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey that actually bears his signature. The use of a well-known artist to create a circus poster was a departure from the mostly anonymous work created over the previous 75 years by the firms of Strobridge, Russell-Morgan, Erie and Central Printing & Illinois Litho.
Born in Great Falls, Montana, Kauffer (1890-1954) studied at both the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris where he was influenced by the post-modernism movement. Consequently many of his poster designs are abstract in nature. Described as the “Picasso of advertising design” Kauffer spent most of his career in England where he became one of the most important and prolific poster artists of the 1920s and 1930s.
Kauffer designed hundreds of posters in his career and in 1915 he began producing posters for the London Underground. Over the next 25 years he created 140 classic images for the Underground which have become highly collectible. In 1940, as London was targeted by the Nazi blitz, Kauffer returned to New York, where John Ringling North and Norman Bel Geddes commissioned him to create this poster for the "Holidays" spec of 1942 - produced by John Ringling North, designed by Norman Bel Geddes and staged by John Murray Anderson.
This particular poster - like many of those during the war years - also encourages passersby to "Buy Defense Bonds" - a tremendous patriotic campaign endorsed by Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, Cole Bros and many other shows. A variation of this same artwork was used as the cover of the 1948 Ringling-Barnum souvenir program book. The 1949 program also features artwork signed by Kauffer of a polar bear, perhaps originally designed as a poster that was never executed.
Elephant Ballet (1942)
This lithograph features artwork by Kauffer and is the final in the series produced by the studios of Norman Bel Geddes and printed by the McCandlish Litho Corp of Philadelphia. When he began creating this artwork Kauffer knew the concept of the “Elephant Ballet”, and was able to execute a stark yet attractive design, even though the “ballet” had yet to be performed.
"The Ballet of the Elephants" was written for the 1942 season by classical composer Igor Stravinsky at the request of George Balanchine - America's premiere ballet choreographer. According to the 1942 program, the act featured "Fifty Elephants and Fifty Beautiful Girls in an Original Choreographic Tour de Force. Featuring MODOC, premiere ballerina, the Corps de Ballet and Corps des Elephants". If the design of the circus was evolving in the early 1940s, press-agent puffery was as traditional as it was in the classic days of Barnum. While “Fifty Elephants” is a memorable number and highly promotable, according to elephant boss Walter McClain, there were actually 45 members in the “Corps des Elephants” at the start of the season, a number that was cut to 41 after the tragic menagerie fire in Cleveland killed four elephants on August 4, 1942.
While the "elephant ballet" may have been a bit too high-brow for some of the circus-going public, this particular poster is sought-after by collectors because of the Kauffer design and the billing which mentions the collaboration of three superstars in their particular fields: Kauffer, Stravinsky, and Balanchine.
Whether it was the changes in the performance and its advertising, or the recovering post-Depression economy, 1941 and the subsequent war years brought big money to the Ringling organization. In 1943 senior management of the circus changed from the North brothers to the group led by Robert and Edith Ringling. With those changes in leadership some of the “traditional” elements of the circus returned too – not only to the big top but also to the outdoor advertising that was used to promote the coming show. Posters bearing the artwork and signatures of Lawson Wood, Bill Bailey and Maxwell Frederic Coplan gradually replaced the avant garde style of Norman Bel Geddes, yet the influence that his design had on the circus and its advertising during a period when America was becoming more urban and sophisticated continued throughout the late 20th Century and into the 21st.
It has been said that the only thing that is constant is change. That was as true in 1941 as it is today – 70 years after Norman Bel Geddes began his association with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus.
From lavish specs and costumes to customized music and coordinated performances the vision of Norman Bel Geddes has, over the decades, become a part of the fabric of The Greatest Show on Earth – and no doubt will continue to influence its performances, design and staging for some time to come.