100 years before the Ringling Brothers Circus opened at the Boston Garden (c1929), an equestrian circus with jugglers, acrobats and clowns performed at the Stewart’s American Amphitheatre on the corner of Traverse and Portland Streets in the West End.
The Circus: A West End Tradition featured graphic panels detailing the development of the modern American circus from its very beginning through the present day and highlighted the impact of specific acts and venues in the West End. Related artifacts dating back to the early 1800s were on display.
“The circus has been part of American entertainment since the earliest days of our nation, and—with the Boston Garden and Scollay Square—the West End has played a big role in Boston’s entertainment scene from those early days through today,” – Duane Lucia
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Puritanical values ruled the day and theater was not viewed as a suitable form of entertainment. Early circus-like attractions, however, were seen as more wholesome. So theater managers established themselves in the local entertainment landscape with such acts, which served as a springboard to later theatrical endeavors. The Circus: A West End Tradition covered:
- England’s Philip Astley, credited with staging the first modern circus in London in 1768 featuring animal acts, acrobats and clowns
- -John Bill Ricketts, credited with bringing the first circus to America (Philadelphia) in 1793; expanding from equestrian performances to tightrope, juggling and acrobatic acts; his traveling circus in Boston in summer 1794
- -The opening of the American Amphitheater (later the National Theater) by Thomas L. Stewart in 1832 at Portland and Traverse Streets
- -The propagation of the circus clown
- -The advent of the sideshow or freak-show at a time when scientific study was rapidly changing; Austin and Stone’s Dime Museum in Scollay Square (modern-day Government Center/Cambridge and Court Streets)
- -P.T. Barnum’s role—popularizing the dime museum model with key attraction General Tom Thumb; founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1881; debuting Jumbo the Elephant in 1882
- -The merger of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey; the debut of Gargantua the Gorilla in 1938
- -The circus as a Boston Garden mainstay since its opening in 1928
Exhibit and Design copyright Duane Lucia.