Posted 12 months ago
Dorothy Herbert - Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey
By Chris Berry
Dorothy Herbert (1910-1994) joined Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey in 1930 when she was only 20 years old. Over the next decade she truly became a headliner - appearing on a variety of posters, including several seen here. Like Lillian Leitzel, May Wirth and Tim McCoy, and later Lou Jacobs and Gunther Gebel-Williams - her star status led to the creation of a number of posters featuring her image.
Herbert was only 24 years old when this portait lithograph was added to the Ringling-Barnum billposter hod during the 1934 season. Starting that spring, and for several seasons following, this image of Miss Herbert and her horse Satan appeared in hundreds of store windows as both a one-sheet and a window card, and in a much larger format on the sides of walls and barns. The same portrait was also featured on the cover of the 1934 program book, the first time an individual circus star was featured on the Ringling-Barnum "Program and Daily Review"
The second lithograph shown here, along with a similar companion half-sheet, was created in the early 1930s and is a fine example of the very best in circus graphics of the era. The rich artwork - especially the cameo inset - brings to mind posters of a decade or more earlier. Among the first pieces to specifically promote Dorothy Herbert, it also recognizes her unique talents as she is already billed as "The Riding Sensation of the Age"
As early as 1931 Dorothy Herbert was taking her horse Satan across burning hurdles while blindfolded, but each season she pushed herself harder with even more spectacular stunts. In 1935 she presented an act that she later said was the most difficult thing she ever did. While tied to the back of a horse, Miss Herbert and 32 horses raced around the Hippodrome track leaping over the flames! This poster was used to promote that stupendous attraction. Circus bandmaster Merle Evans even composed a special tune for the number - "Fire Jump". In later years Dorothy Herbert talked about the challenges of the act - including the fact that when 32 horses are running at liberty they bite and kick and are extremely difficult to control. Still she did it twice a day some 75+ years ago.
Finally, this very effective three-sheet (over six and half feet tall) promoting Dorothy Herbert's act of the mid-1930s is a very realistic depiction of the grace and poise that she displayed during an act that required tremendous skill and athleticism. Although her horses were extremely well trained, during her time with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey she suffered a number of serious injuries and mishaps. This poster, along with two similar designs were based on photographs of Dorothy Herbert on her horse Kentucky Man.