More than 200 years ago, south of the Thames River, an intrepid British equestrian named Philip Astley came up with a rather clever way to finance his dream of building a riding school. He carved out a ring, threw up a roof, and charged audiences sixpence to watch him perform daring riding acts. He hired jugglers and clowns to intersperse the riding act, and his routines became so popular that eventually, he gave up the idea of a riding school altogether.
The year was 1768, and today, Astley is widely credited as the creator of modern circus. Although the basic outlines of the entertainment form have been in existence since Roman times, when chariot racing and fighting drew huge crowds to arenas, that initial momentum was lost in the Dark Ages. After that, wandering groups of performers provided entertainment for the masses, and it wasn’t until Astley’s day that a venue like a circus was established again.
Circus came to America in 1793 with John Bill Ricketts, a trick rider trained by one of Astley’s competitors in London. He put on his first show in Philadelphia and introduced the art form all over the upper East Coast. Although Astley’s amphitheatre burnt down and the artiste himself was lost at sea during a storm, the circus endured in America.
During the late 18th century and 19th century, showmen and women developed many of the innovations we now identify with the American circus: parades, wagons, distinctive melodies, the three-ring tent, the circus train, the menageries-everything that combines to create the spectacle that entertains all ages even today.
For a more complete history of the circus and its impact on Sarasota, read Anu Varma’s story on page 62 of the January 2003 edition of SARASOTA Magazine, available at newsstands now.