The Greatest Show on Earth! Kodachrome Photos of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

CW Cushman loved travelling and most years would take photographs of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the so-called Greatest Show on Earth.

Two Alzanas hang out their wash. Ringling Circus Chicago

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the so-called Greatest Show on Earth, was started in 1919 when the circus created by James Anthony Bailey and P. T. Barnum was merged with the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Ringling brothers had actually purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907, but ran the circuses separately until the proper merger. These photographs were taken by C.W. Cushman in the late 1940s.

Charles Weever Cushman was born in Posey County, Indiana, in 1896 and became fascinated with photography as a child. When he was in his forties, in 1938, he became an early adopter of the revolutionary color process, Kodachrome.

Cushman always loved traveling mostly because of his job evaluating businesses for Standard Statistics, a forerunner to Standard & Poor. When it became possible in retirement, he traveled purely for pleasure. In the end his fascination and curiosity in people meant that he produced an utterly unique photographic record of twentieth-century America.

Greatest Show on Earth

Rose Behee and Brother-in-Law in 1946. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives

The Flying Behees

On July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut Clayton and Rose Behee were among the performers in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show when a sudden fire engulfed the mammoth main tent and reduced all of the circus equipment to ashes. There were 168 (of 6,000) spectators killed by the fire. The Behees escaped.

Rose was featured as the only woman flyer to perform a two-and-a half somersault to a catch by the feet while blindfolded.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Two young German girls in head on head balancing act in 1950. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Francis Brunn and his sister – a juggling act at Ringling Circus, 1949. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives

Francis Brunn juggling

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Ringling Circus Elephant and Mademoiselle Unus in 1949. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

This is one of the daughters of Unus, born Franz Furtner, the most famous hand balancer of them all. He was a true circus star in the United States and, consequently, all over Europe. Unus was known as “The man who stands on his forefinger,” a feat he performed with outstanding and—to this day—unmatched showmanship.

The Incredible Unus

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Mrs Harold Alzana, 1950. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives

Harold Alzana (born Harold Davis) practicing with his sister, Elsie, in their backyard in South Yorkshire, England.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Flying Trapeze star Antoinette Concello, 1949. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives

CW Cushman Ringling Brothers

Flying Concello doing some washing

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Clown Felix Adler, 1947. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Baton wielder takes time out for a break, 1949. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Alzana in costume for Gold Rush tableau, 1949. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

All five Alzanas Highwire performers at RIngling Circus, 1949. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

A ‘circus beauty’ in pale lavender cap, coat and shorts, 1946. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

‘A charming aerialist’, Ringling Circus in 1949. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Trick bicycling act at Ringling Circus. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

 

Greatest Show on Earth

Rose Behee of the Flying Behees, 1946. Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives.

Ringling Circus Rola Rola Man

The Flying Concellos

Two Alzanas hang out their wash. Ringling Circus Chicago

Emmett Kelly Tramp clown of Ringling Circus Chicago

The Alzanas of the high wire 1949

CW Cushman

Ringling Circus’ Harold Alzana

CW Cushman

Rose Behee 1946

CW Cushman

Miss Unus and Ringling elephant

Photos courtesy of the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection – Indiana University Archives