Recalling Set-Up Day When the Circus Came to Newark

by Nat Bodian

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 1940s.

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 was raised.

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, and others.

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 lifelong remembrance.

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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 in Hartford.

No shows 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949

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