One of the joys of life for many Newarkers
of all ages long years ago was a visit to witness the set up of
the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus when it came to Newark1
in the decade of the 1930s, and into the early War years of the
Such visits meant a trip down to the Circus site on Frelinghuysen
Avenue at McClellan Street, near the Newark-Elizabeth city line.
The 84-car Circus train would usually arrive in the wee hours
of the morning in four separate sections and settle down on a siding
in the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad Yard and unload onto tractor-trailers
for transport to the Circus site for set-up.
The biggest attraction on set-up day was the set-up of the "Big
Top" -- the huge tent that housed the three rings. The three
rings had been a staple of all Barnum and Bailey circuses since
first introduced in 1881.
Watching the tent assembly and erection was quite a sight to behold.
The "Big Top" was assembled like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
The components were offloaded from large trucks in 14 segments,
each weighing approximately a ton. The combined "Big Top"
tent weight was 28,000 pounds of canvas.
The parts would be laced together and raised on support poles,
most of them 40 feet tall, to form a portable arena 406 feet in
length by 206 feet wide, with seating accommodations for thousands.
The tent set-up was done by roustabouts2
-- unskilled laborers who traveled with the circus and participated
in the tent set-ups when the circus was being assembled. During
the show, they performed numerous other menial chores like moving
props and cleaning up after the animals.
The circus would usually arrive at the McClellan Street field
in the very early hours of the morning. By mid-morning when I got
there to witness the goings-on, the circus components had already
been laid out and staked by thin white metal rod markers driven
into the ground. Piles of canvas, poles and stakes had been dropped
as needed at each marked-off spot.
In addition to the marked-out locations, for the "Big Top:
there were also 'marker' pins for each of the numerous other tents
and for each vehicle and piece of show equipment.
For the "Big Top", the canvas, laced together into one
large piece, had been spread out on the ground. The sledge gang,
wielding huge sledge hammers, would be driving wooden stakes into
the ground all around the huge canvas, and finally, the big tent
There were perhaps a dozen other tents that would also go up on
the same field. They were of varying sizes, ranging from the second-largest
Sideshow tent to the tents for animals, the cookhouse dining tent,
I don't recall coming back for the show, but going down to witness
the excitement and precision of workers on circus set-up day was
a show in itself, without cost, and provided a heartwarming and
* * *
Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus
Newark Two-Day Appearances
Set-Up Day and First Performance
1930 - Friday, June 10th
1931 - Monday, June 8th
1932 - Monday, June 6th
1933 - Monday, June 5th
1934 - Monday, May 28th
1935 - Monday, June 10th
1936 - Monday, May 30th
1937 - Monday, June 7th
1938 - Monday, May 30th
1939 - Monday, May 29th
1940 - Wednesday, May 29th
1941 - Thursday, May 29th
1942 - Monday, June 22nd
1943 - Tuesday, July 6th
1944 - No Show. Season cut short due to Circus fire
No shows 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949