When the Circus Came to Town

by Don Bell
(Peterborough, Canada)

1953 Circus Magazine

1953 Circus Magazine

While rummaging around in my basement the other day, I came across my old "King Bros. - Cristiani Circus Magazine" containing the official program for the King Bros. & Cristiani Combined Circus: Season 1953 -- 34th Annual Tour. Seeing it brought back many happy memories of the circus, and I thought I'd share a few with you.

Elephants and the Circus Train

Curiously, my first recollections of visiting a circus are not of the clowns or the daring aerialists, but of the elephants. It must have been around 1950, but I can't be sure as I was only about four at the time. I can only remember the elephants after the day's performances had ended. They were harnessed and busy helping with the lowering of the big top and hauling the massive tent poles to the wagons.

A steam calliope played its distinctive brassy melodies in the background until it was drained of its water and hauled away by a tractor for loading on the circus train. We followed it from the sidewalk, and in the growing darkness I can recall seeing the large circus train parked along two railroad sidings three or four blocks from the exhibition grounds.

Mom and Dad and I waited beside the rail cars with my aunt and uncle to see the elephants when they returned from their duties. It seemed a long time waiting in the darkness, but eventually we heard a soft swoosh, swoosh sound and suddenly the lead elephant loomed directly behind us in the moonlight causing us to quickly move out of its way. It was unbelievable how quiet the elephants had been in their approach.

We stood quietly by and watched as more than a dozen large elephants walked silently past us in single file, each holding the tail of the elephant in front, till they reached the elephant cars and ascended the ramps to bed down for the night and embark on the next leg of their tour. It was a sight that I've never forgotten, and it obviously made a huge impression on me, as I can remember little else about that evening.

King Bros. & Cristiani Combined Circus

My next recollection of a circus is when the King Bros. & Cristiani Combined Circus of Macon, Georgia visited Peterborough, Ontario, on their tour through Ontario in June 1953, the year of the Queen's Coronation.

My parents and I went to the evening performance, and I can recall watching the breathtaking trapeze acts, the acrobats, the jugglers, and the numerous trained animals including the renowned Cristiani elephants.

Victoria Cristiani and Christy the Elephant

Victoria Cristiani and Christy the Elephant
(Source: State Archives of Florida/Steinmetz)

To a seven-year-old, the clowns, of course, were looked forward to, and they did not disappoint. Here's how their acts were described in the program (pictured above):

"Display No. 5: The clowns take over the rings and the Hippodrome Track to display their newest invention -- The Atom Smasher."

"Display No. 8: Here it comes -- that mysterious vehicle -- the clown car, which disgorges so many humans at one time that you will lose count of them as they emerge. Watch the finish!"

"Display No. 14: The clowns rock the tent with individual bits of merriment as they surround the Hippodrome Tracks with their fun provoking gags."

"Display No. 17: The clowns again -- this time with their reproduction of the "Man Who is Shot from the Cannon." Hold your ears!"

"Display No. 21: Final appearance of the clowns -- one last guffaw -- one last hilarious moment -- before they wave goodbye for another year."

The star attraction of the evening's show was seeing a man billed as The Human Cannonball shot from the mouth of a giant cannon, from one end of the Big Top to the other, and landing in a large net.

The loud "BOOM!" from the cannon caused us all to jump in our seats, and it was immediately followed by loud roar of approval from the crowd. The program states this most dangerous feat was performed by "The One and Only Original, Hugo Zacchinni."

Instead of arriving by circus train, the King Bros. & Cristiani Combined Circus arrived in a convoy of over 40 vehicles, but it maintained the aura of a traditional circus with its three rings under the huge canvas Big Top, and it even featured a steam calliope.

Now Only a Memory

The Greatest Show On Earth DVD Cover

Sadly, the circuses of the early 1950s are now only a memory. However, if you'd like to get a feel for what those old-time circuses were like, rent or buy a copy of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth." It's one of the best movies ever made.

This Oscar-winning 1952 drama was filmed inside the world-famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus during its 1951 tour. It stars Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and Jimmy Stewart playing a clown. Emmett Kelly's memorable "Weary Willie" character also appears.

The movie showcases the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the peak of its fame and popularity with its 1,400 performers and workers, hundreds of trained animals, tons canvas and equipment, and an impressive 60-car circus train. Parts are filmed in a documentary-like style that offers a good behind-the-scenes look at a busy circus of that day.


The Circus Inside Out Book Cover

For a look behind the canvas of the big top, you'll want to get your copy of Victoria B. Cristiani Rossi's wonderful book "Spangles, Elephants, Violets & Me: The Circus Inside Out" and enjoy a firsthand account of what it was like to live and travel with a world-famous, old fashioned circus.

A quick search at AbeBooks.com should locate a copy. Believe me, this book will bring back many fond memories.

Be sure to read Victoria Cristiani's comments below.

Comments for When the Circus Came to Town

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Viva La Circus
by: TheGothamPalate.com

What a beautiful and vividly recounted memory...
It roused a nostalgia for the circus in me, and I've never even been to a real one.

King-Cristiani Circus 1953 Season
by: Anonymous

The 1953 King-Cristiani Circus as seen by a young boy was "Heaven on Earth." One of the most exciting circues ever....and sadly....we will never see the likes of it again. The Cristiani Family Riding Act alone was worth the price of admission.

Spangles, Elephants, Violets & Me
by: Victoria B. Cristiani Rossi

Hello Don,

Enjoyed your fond memories of my family's circus. The Cristiani family loved playing those Canadian dates, the Canadian people were always enthusiastic circus goers, so appreciative and happy to have us visit their magnificent country. What a wonderful sight and experience traveling to Dawson Creek by train on our way to Alaska!

Aside from the birth of my two wonderful sons, those were the most magical days of my life. Sadly, I can hardly relate to the circuses in this modern era. In my view, the spectacle of our magnificent old-fashioned big top can not and will not ever be replaced no matter what.

God bless you for treasuring your boyhood memories of the playground of my youth.


The Cristiani Circus
by: Don (Webmaster)

Hi Victoria,

So wonderful to hear from you. You truly lived the dream of every youngster. After your family's circus left our city, the talk of the schoolyard was what it would be like to travel with a circus and have no more schoolwork. As you say, those were magical days.

I too cannot relate to the small, modern-day circus performed inside a hockey arena. The vastness of the canvas big top, the fresh smell of the sawdust underfoot, and the unique sound of a steam calliope helped to make the Cristiani Circus experience unforgettable.

All the best!

My Love To All Canadian Circus Fans
by: Victoria B. Cristiani Rossi

Hello Don,

Wonderful hearing back from my newfound circus fan friend. Wouldn't it be great if we could be transported back to that fantastical circus era of yore, if only for a day.

Thank you again for sharing your nostalgic memories from circus past, a time when life was far less complicated and family values were ingrained in our hearts and minds.

All the best to you and your website fans,


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