Ethnogenesis Of The Showman: Some Circus Families Go Back 350 Years
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Back in 2022, I pointed out that the Scottish Census lists as one of Scotland’s eight official white ethnicities: “Showman or Showwoman.” Showmen are sometimes viewed as a third variety of Traveler, distinct from the South Asian–derived Gypsies and the Irish Travelers, although there is some mixing so that many Showmen have Gypsy and Irish Traveler ancestors.

The more I read up on it, the more this seemed not unreasonable. I could see arguing pro and con on whether Showmen represent an ethnicity (the England-Wales Census does not appear to break them out), but it’s at least an interesting notion.

American circus performers tend to be descendants of European showfolk who brought their family’s skills to the New World.

I was recently in Sarasota, Florida, which was where traveling circuses tended to winter back when they appeared in unheated tents rather than in auditoriums. Circus owner John Ringling became a big real estate developer in Sarasota, so its most upscale shopping district, St. Armands Circle, was laid out in a ring in honor of the circus ring. In the park in the middle of the boutique district is the Circus Ring of Fame, a circle of bronze plaques that represents a hall of fame for circus performers.

One thing that jumps out from reading the plaques is how circus acts tend to be family specialties. I saw one plaque that said the performer’s family had been in the circus business for eight generations. Another said 300 years, and another claimed 350 years.

Conversely, Reggie Armor’s plaque notes that:

Reggie Armor (1929-2010) was one of the great trapeze flyers of the 1960s and ‘70s. …

Reggie was born in Los Angeles, to a family that had no ties to the circus world. He spent his days learning acrobatics on famed Muscle Beach in California. After a stint with the U.S. Coast Guard, he joined the Dwayne Troupe Acrobats, in the 1950’s.

Reggie was smitten by the flying trapeze, and went on to form the Flying Armors, with his wife Bonnie (née Cristlani) and later, daughter Sasa.

I wonder how much overlap there is among American traveling showmen, such as circus performers, carnies, and Renaissance Faire workers. Are these merely slightly different occupations for one cultural group or is each one somewhat distinct and don’t intermarry much?

By the way, the plaques for Barnum and Bailey are feuding. P.T. Barnum’s plaque says:

… With James A. Bailey he launched the Barnum & Bailey Circus whose success was largely due to Barnum’s genius for advertising and publicity which was and is the lifeblood of all circuses.

But Bailey’s plaque reads:

Foremost circus manager of all time began his career as a bill poster. He rose rapidly in the circus world and became the leading challenger to the mighty Barnum. In 1880, Bailey joined Barnum to create “The Greatest Show On Earth.” A master of circus logistics, Bailey directed the show’s American and European Tours. He, far more than Barnum, was responsible for the success of the circus bearing their names.

I presume that whoever pays for the plaque gets to write the inscription, and that in a dynastic business like the circus, arguments can go on for generations.

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