The Circus: How it Fed America’s Imagination – Episode 33

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Writer, producer and director Sharon Grimberg joins Tim to discuss her latest production for American Experience on PBS called “The Circus.” Sharon talks about how the circus played a unique role in introducing Americans throughout the country to the world beyond, and in the process, helping to define American culture, and feed a growing nation’s imagination. For many decades before mass media, the circus brought to your town sights, sounds, smells, a complete sensory experience you might only get one day a year, if not once in a lifetime. https://traffic.libsyn.com/shapingopinion/The_Circus_-_Episode_33_auphonic.mp3 Sharon Grimberg served as a writer, producer and director on the American Experience production of “The Circus,” which premieres on October 8th on PBS stations. The two-part series takes us inside America’s most dominant form of entertainment from its roots, to its glory days with the greatest showman, P.T. Barnum, James Bailey and the Ringling Brothers, all five of them. A Uniquely American Form of Entertainment “The Circus,” a four-hour, two-part documentary, explores the colorful history of this popular, influential and distinctly American form of entertainment, from the first one-ring show at the end of the 18th century to 1956, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey big top was pulled down for the last time. A transformative place for reinvention, where young women could become lion tamers and young men traveled the world as roustabouts, the circus allowed people to be liberated from the roles assigned by society and find an accepting community that had eluded them elsewhere. Drawing upon a vast and richly visual archive, and featuring a host of performers, historians and aficionados, “The Circus” brings to life an era when Circus Day would shut down a town, its stars were among the most famous people in the country, and multitudes gathered to see the improbable and the impossible, the exotic and the spectacular. Through the intertwined stories of several of the most innovative and influential impresarios of the late 19th century, including P.T. Barnum, James Bailey and the five Ringling Brothers, Sharon talks about how the series reveals the circus as a phenomenon created by a rapidly expanding and increasingly industrialized nation. It explores how its “dangerous” and “exotic” attractions revealed the country’s notions about race and Western dominance, and shows how the circus subverted prevailing standards of “respectability” with its unconventional, titillating and “freakish” entertainments. Part One (1793-1891) For more than a century, Circus Day was as anticipated as Christmas and the Fourth of July. It would crash into everyday life, colorful and brash, and then disappear, leaving many dreaming of another life. As the country grew, so did the circus, evolving into a gargantuan entertainment that would unite a far-flung nation of disconnected communities and dazzle not only Americans, but the world. The first circus in the U.S. was established in Philadelphia in 1793, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the tent in 1825 that the circus became a truly roving art form that could reach the tiniest hamlets. Almost everywhere, the circus met the disapproval of the religious and puritanical. In a society that valued sobriety and hard work, a wide-eyed day peering at half-naked aerialists amid shifty circus workers was frowned upon. Soon, circuses began to add elaborate menageries of exotic animals including lions, hippos and elephants, and “human oddities” from across the globe — rebranding themselves as “educational” experiences to concerned communities. The arrival of infamous showman and huckster P. T. Barnum transformed the trade. In 1871, Barnum and his partners created the largest touring show in existence. In a few short years, they added a second ring to the big top and began touring by train, turning the circus into a complex,

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