THE AMERICAN CIRCUS: An Illustrated History by John Culhane

THE AMERICAN CIRCUS: An Illustrated History

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An extravagant love letter to the circus: 512 pages of comprehensive, cheerleading history, including 133 b&w photos (not seen). Culhane, a roving editor for Reader's Digest, confesses up front his lifelong shine for the circus, manifested by his graduation from the famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College and culminating in this massive book. So here is none of the dirty linen of Kristopher Antekeier's Ringmaster! (1989): in his extensive discussion of animal-master Gunther Gebel-Williams, for instance, Culhane glides by the tyrannical personality that Antekeier excavated in depth and focuses instead on the circus star's feats and techniques. But if there's little probing here, there's much enormously informative and engaging surface history, as Culhane closely traces the evolution of the circus front 1785--when Thomas Pool created the first one by adding clowns to his circular arena of horse-riding feats--to today's three-ring hoopla. Along the way, the author entertains with well-turned anecdotal biographies of circus magnates like John Ringling North, Wild Bill Hickock, and, at greatest length, P.T. Barnum; circus stars like Dan Rice, who created the character of ""Uncle Sam,"" clown great Emmett Kelly, and high-wire artist Karl Wallenda, who fell to his death--at age 73--walking a wire 12 stories high between two San Juan hotels; animal stars like Jumbo, Barnum's elephant that stood 12 feet high at the shoulder, and the recent much ballyhooed ""Living Unicom""; and legendary feats like the acrobatic quadruple backwards somersault, attained in 1982 after decades of trying--and many broken necks. A delight for big-top fans, colorful and engrossing, although for a complete view of circus life the Antekeier is a necessary complement.

Pub Date: April 18th, 1990
Publisher: Henry Holt