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April 28, 2017

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey visits Newport in the 1950's

Photo Credit: Jerry Taylor/Mark Taylor

Newport’s History With The Circus: Host of the First Performance in the Country to Ringling Bros.

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Feld Entertainment Inc., parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and the world’s largest producer of live family entertainment, announced on Saturday that the iconic 146-year-old circus would hold its final performances later this year. Ringling Bros. two circus units will conclude their tours with their final shows at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence on May 7th, and at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21st, 2017.

The decision to end the circus tours was made as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales, making the circus an unsustainable business for the company. Following the transition of the elephants off the circus, the company saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated.

But did you know that Newport has had ties to the circus industry for more than 243 years? Newport became home to the country’s first official circus performance in 1774.

An excerpt from the New England Historical Society;


In the 1770s, as America pressed toward revolution, there was still time for leisure – for the wealthy, at least. And the Rhode Island shore was as likely a place as any for the leisure classes to congregate to enjoy food, sun and the Newport Circus.
Meanwhile, for the sporting set, there were horse races on the beach that featured the Narragansett pacers. And for exhibitions, there were displays of horsemanship.

Jacob Bates was an English equestrian who took continental Europe by storm with his feats of riding. He could ride four horses at once, dancing on their backs; slide under their stomachs and wow the crowds by firing guns from horseback.

Bates arrived in America in 1773 with a stop in New York and travelled New England cities putting on displays. Probably inspired by Bates, Newport developed its own home-grown riding phenom: Christopher Gardner, dubbed the “The Original American Rider.”

Gardner, the son of tavern owner Henry Gardner, advertised his act in the Newport Mercury in June of 1774 and noted that he would repeat “nearly all the parts that were exhibited here by the celebrated Mr. Bates.”

Gardner performed his act at a manege (French for riding academy) that he had constructed in North Newport.  It was this Manege that gives Newport its claim to have established the first circusin America.

The circus would not return to America until long after the Revolution. In Europe, meanwhile, the circus continued to evolve under showmen like Philip Astley, operator of Astley’s Amphitheatre in London.

Several different circus companies have stopped in Newport over the years,  Ringling Bros. visited Newport for a tour stop and performance on June 30th, 1952 and June 18th, 1955.

Feld Entertainment’s portfolio includes Marvel Universe LIVE!, Monster Jam, Monster Energy Supercross and Disney On Ice, among others. The company recently announced a new partnership to produce live tours of Sesame Street and expanded television coverage for the 2017 Monster Energy Supercross races.

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About Ryan Belmore,

Ryan Belmore, a Newport resident and life-long Rhode Islander, is the Editor & Publisher of www.whatsupnewp.com. Belmore is an on-air personality on Radio Newport 105.9FM, on the Board of Directors for Fort Adams Trust, and is the organizer of the Newport Holiday Stroll. Belmore was the digital/social media coordinator for the '15 Volvo Ocean Race Newport stopover and has previously worked for the New England Patriots, American Cancer Society and hosted a radio talk show on AM 1540 WADK. Contact Ryan by phone at 401-662-1653, by e-mail at Ryan@whatsupnewp.com or on Twitter at @Ryan_Belmore.