A long-lasting and much beloved American television tradition has all but disappeared from the landscape of TV in the 21st century. Considering that there are at least half a dozen shows airing nationally about the business of pawning crap, this absence is all the more shocking. Once upon a time, there was natural connection between the acts performed beneath the big top and TV. Live or taped circus performances were beamed to millions of homes and entertained by tens of millions of visitors. When you take into account that most circuses of the time were barely distinguishable from one another, the stunning popularity and recurrence of these programs is all the more amazing.
One of the first meetings of the minds between circus entertainment and TV viewing was the appropriately titled “Big Top.” The show included standard circus fare and managed to find an audience for only about six months. The biggest claim to fame of “Big Top” aside from being one of the prototypes of the circus variety show is that one of the faces hidden behind the clown makeup belong to none other than Ed McMahon himself.
The 1956 TV season featured the variety show called “Circus Time” which was hosted by ventriloquist Paul Winchell and co-hosted by Winchell’s most famous dummies. Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith were apparently not a big enough draw to get people to tune in to watch circus acts so the dummies and the circus acts were supplemented with musical numbers. Even so, “Circus Time” lasted under TV’s big top merely a year.
What set “Hippodrome” apart from the other variety shows that focused on circus entertainment was that it was filmed across the pond. Despite the fact that “Hippodrome” brought a continental flavor to circus shows, the actual acts really did not seem to be all that unique. “Hippodrome” featured the same clowns, trapeze artists and animals as other circus shows, but not much else that was new. Except in the arena of television’s ringmaster which included such unusual choices as Woody Allen and the voice of the Cat in the Hat himself, Allan Sherman.
Circus of the Stars
By the time of disco, the circus was already becoming pretty much passe. One way that network executives tried to dress up this traditional entertainment in a brand new package was to introduce celebrities into the act. You think “Dancing with the Stars” requires commitment? How about watching your favorite TV celebrities getting elephants to do tricks or walking across a high wire or flying on the trapeze. Now that’s entertainment!
Great Circuses of the World
By the approach of the 1990s, with Cirque de Soleil still not quite a sensation, it looked as though the only way to get audiences to watch a circus performance on TV was to go outside the country. “Great Circuses of the World” provided a glimpse into the world of international circus acts from Mexico to Japan. Audiences seemed distinctly unimpressed.