This Week's Story

Ladies and gentlemen! You are about to see the one and only magnificent Ringling Brothers' Circus.

This Week’s Story relives American history and the Bible through brief inspiring stories presented on mp3 audio recordings and text for reading.

Billy Rainbow and The World's Greatest Show

Billy Rainbow was a tattered goat. His skinny body had sores from dog bites. Ringling brothers paid fifty cents for him and Billy became their first circus animal. He was joined by a junkman’s horse, a badger, and a squirrel. All appeared in the Ringling brothers’ first homemade tent show.

As the show began Albert Ringling stepped into the tent. “Ladies and gentlemen! You are about to see the one and only magnificent Ringling Brothers’ Circus. Now for the entrance of our performers!”  Soon the Ringling brothers were astounding their audience with their talents.

Three brothers marched in playing instruments. Otto had his drum, Alf T. his trombone, and Charles his horn. Next came the animals, including guest snakes. Billy Rainbow came last with his horns painted gold, his hoofs painted bright red, and pulling an express wagon with two young brothers sitting on the high seat.

Soon Albert was twirling china plates on two fingers, whirling a keg on his feet, and balancing a buggy-whip on his chin. This act was followed with three brothers playing and exchanging six musical instruments. Three instruments were always playing. Singing, acrobatics, and animal tricks followed. Billy Rainbow entered with a brother on his back. The brother jumped off and Billy, the goat, jumped onto the barrel.

A newspaperman in the crowd later wrote for the Prairie du Chien Weekly, “The circus performance revealed a great deal of originality and showmanship. Each boy had his own part to do and did it without a single hitch.  The juggling by Albert Ringling was the best we’ve ever seen.”

The Ringling family were hard workers. Papa was a harness maker. Work was shared. Making a living in the United States wasn’t easy for the Ringlings with eight kids after the Civil War, but Mama and Papa wanted their children to have music lessons. Papa traded work for the lessons. The boys became adept with several instruments.

From the day the boys saw the Dan Rice Circus they wanted to have their own circus. Within a year they presented a neighborhood show with drawings, story-telling, singing, and comedy.  Johnny was three; Charlie six, Alf T. 8, Otto 11, Gus 15, and Albert 17. Henry was a baby. Too young! Ida wasn’t born yet and Gus wasn’t interested. So five brothers worked together. After their first show they never stopped producing shows, including their homemade tent show with Billy Rainbow.

By 1904 it took fifty train cars to move the Ringling brothers’ circus. Before the performances began there would be a parade in the morning. First would come the brothers in a carriage drawn by six white horses, then girl buglers, and brilliant red wagons with bars. Inside were pacing lions, tigers, leopards, and gorillas. Next came bands, dozens of beautiful ladies on horses that seemed to dance, zebras, spotted ponies, camels, and twenty-six giant elephants, each with a rider. There were clowns, and finally a calliope. Thousands of people would visit what the Ringling Brothers called The World’s Greatest Show.

In 1956 their last performance under “the big top” was given in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A Life magazine article reported “a magical era had passed forever.”

This is Barbara Steiner remembering magic under “the big top.” Enjoy

<< previous story] [next story >>

We invite your comments!  [click here to comment]

Let's Talk

Facebook Join the conversation.

This Week's Story is a non-profit supported by listeners. [click here to make a donation with ]