After years of entertaining the world, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced that they will be closing down the “Greatest Show on Earth” this May.  The circus is in Wilkes-Barre Twp this week with shows at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The final shows will take place on May 7 at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. and on May 21 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. according to the Ringling Brothers website.

Scranton holds a place in the history of this circus. Back in 2013, I wrote this piece on how in 1938 after being told by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus management that there will be pay cut because of hard times. The circus performers and workers voted to strike. The strike took place in Scranton.  

– Original Post June 22, 2013 –

Circus ticket man handing out money as refunds to ticket holders. In the rush many stubs from tickets which had been used from the afternoon performance and then thrown away near the entrance were cashed at the wagon. About midnight the ticket men halted the redemption of tickets and announced that refunds to those who were unable to reach the wagon last night would be made at the circus grounds today. At the grounds this morning, the ticket men said they had to wait for money from New York before they could proceed with the redemption of tickets. Times-Tribune Archives

Scrantonians were in for a treat on June 22, 1938, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in town for two performances. The circus came with everything for a top notch show, seven herds of elephants, 700 horses, hundreds of performers and Gargantua the Great. The big top was raised down at the circus grounds just west of Athletic Park and the Catholic Club Field on Providence Rd.

During the turmoil which resulted in the vicinity of the main entrance of the circus on June 22, 1938 when a strike of employees prevented the performance, many people suffered bruises and cuts and torn clothing. General view of the crowd milling around near the big tent after the performance was called off. There were about 6,000 people in the seats when the announcement was made that the show was off and that patrons would get their money back at the ticket wagon. Times-Tribune Archives

Everything was ready to go but prior to the 2pm performance, circus executive John Ringling North, meet with his employees. He informed them that all the employees of the circus would have to take a 25% pay cut because the circus wasn’t doing well this season. The 2pm performance went on but when the show was over the 1,600 employees had a meeting over at Athletic Park. At this meeting, the employees voted to strike after Mr. North declined to come over to Athletic Park to discuss the pay cuts.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus workers meeting at Athletic Park on June 23, 1938. Times-Tribune Archives

Meanwhile 6,000 people where inside the big top when they were  told that show was canceled and their tickets would be reimbursed at the ticket wagons. People rushed from the tent to the wagons to get their money back. While some were able to obtain refunds, the tickets window were suddenly closed and the people were told to came back tomorrow. Anger went through the crowd, people wanted their money and the tax they paid on the tickets back as well. People returned the next day to find the ticket windows still shuttered.

Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus workers line up for a free meal on Penn Ave in June 1938. The circus workers went on strike while in Scranton. Times-Tribune Archives

As circus goers tried to get their money, Mr. North tried to get the circus open again and move on to Wilkes-Barre for shows that were scheduled there. The striking circus folk said no – we aren’t leaving. This was first time in over fifty years “The Greatest Show on Earth” didn’t go on.

Shown is a portion of the crowd of more than 200 circus performers who gathered on June 24, 1938 in the headquarters of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in the Ad-Lin Building to take a stand on the wage cut question laid down by John Ringling North, president of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Times-Tribune Archives

Scranton Mayor Fred Huester was worried that violence may erupted if circus management tried to move the circus by force. So he ordered 130 Scranton cops to patrol the grounds. No violence occurred but tragedy did strike the circus grounds.

Two Scranton Tribune photographers, Arthur Young, of Clarks Green; and Robert Raine, of Ryerson Ave, were killed when the plane they were flying in crashed into the circus grounds. The plane narrowly missed a tent that was filled with circus employees. The men were flying above the grounds in efforts to capture aerial photos of the circus grounds for Scranton’s morning newspaper.

Law enforcement officials and onlookers observe an airplane that crashed as two photographers were taking pictures during the 1938 circus strike. The two press photographers, Arthur Young, and Robert C. Raine, were fatally injured when the Taylor Cub plane narrowing missed the big tent and a number of people. Times-Tribune Archives

The circus stayed. With concerns growing in the city over the public health menace that 1,600 people and scores of animals with no facilities were creating down at the circus grounds, Mayor Fred Huester ordered the circus to leave Scranton on June 24. The circus stayed.

Workers for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus loading trucks in Scranton in late June 1938. Times-Tribune Archives

On June 27 in the dark of night, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus packed up and left Scranton. Mr. North decided to take the circus back to their winter home in Sarasota, Florida. Before leaving, Mr. North presented James Powell, Scranton’s Director of Public Safety, with $1,315 to cover the cost incurred by the city while the circus was in town.

“The show must go on,”

-Brian