Stunning never-before-seen photos of the beloved Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that traveled across America dazzling and shocking audiences in the 1940s have emerged, and the color photographs offer a rare behind-the-scenes look at troupe in its early days.
For decades Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, also known as the Greatest Show on Earth, has spread laughter and excitement across the globe with their daring tricks, acrobats, and stunts with wild animals.
The group started as two separate entities in 1871 before joining forces in 1919 and together put on shows for decades before calling the final curtain in 2017.
Photographer Charles Weever Cushman, of Posey County, Indiana, followed the troupe in the late 1940s, capturing the daring actors, their training, and colorful costumes during their tour in Chicago.
He captured the photographs using Kodachrome, an early adopter of the revolutionary color process. His massive library of some 14,500 Kodachrome color slides are archived at the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection at Indiana University.
Stunning color slide photographs show behind the scenes of the world famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as the troupe toured across America in the 1940s. The Alzanas of the high wire, a troupe that performed stunts while crossing a high wire, pictured above in costume in 1949
When the Alanza members weren’t training for their high wire stunts, they pitched tents and performed their daily chores such as laundry in their downtime. Two Alanza women from the Ringling Circus Chicago pictured above drying their laundry
Rose Behee and her brother-in-law Clayon were apart of the Flying Beehees known as the ‘greatest flying trapeze act in the world’. The duo pictured left in 1946 in their matching orange costumes. A poster for their wondrous act pictured right
Keeping to the animals: The travelling circus featured wild animals like elephants and lions in their performances. Circus members pictured above tending to the giant creatures after a show
Bunch of Bozos! Photographer Charles Weever Cushman, of Posey County, Indiana, followed the troupe in the late 1940s, capturing the daring actors, their training, and colorful costumes. He snapped this group of clowns on opening day of the Ringling Circus in Chicago, Illinois on August 2, 1947
He snapped this elephant standing on its head while a woman rides it on August 5, 1949 during the Circus’ stop in Chicago. Stunt man Harold Alanza pictured right balancing on his hand and a stick that same day
In his time photographing the circus, Cushman followed trapeze performers Clayton and Rose Behee known as ‘The Flying Behees – The greatest flying trapeze act in the world today’. Rose was advertised in posters as the only woman flyer to perform a two-and-a half somersault and catch herself on her feet, all while blindfolded.
Another subject of his photographs was Unus, born Franz Furtner, who was known as the most famous hand balancer. Unus could precariously balance himself upside down on top of a ball or on his own forefinger.
His daughter, known as Mademoiselle Unus, was snapped by Cushman riding on top of a circus elephant while sporting a golden turban.
While the circus was known for its fun and games, there was trouble along the way. On July 6, 1944 as the circus was in Hartford, Connecticut, a fire broke out in the main tent where the show was taking place, killing 169 spectators.
There were a total of 6,000 guests at the show, majority of whom were able to run to safety. All of the circus equipment, however, was reduced to ashes. The Behees were able to escape the furious flames.
Harold Alzana (born Harold Davis) pictured above practicing his high wire act with his sister, Elsie, in their backyard in South Yorkshire, England before they joined the circus troupe
Two young German girls show off their head on head balancing act in 1950 during their circus tour with Ringling Bros.
Cushman took over 14,500 dazzling Kodochrome color slides that are now archived at the Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives. He was a revolutionary photographer for using the Kodochrome process, that was one of the first to process color
A group of trick cyclers and a clown midget pictured above at the Ringling Circus in Chicago on August 11, 1946
Downtime: Cushman not only captured the circus performers in the glamour and flair but also captured their downtime and breaks – tending to their laundry and taking coffee breaks. A Rola Rola man pictured left hanging laundry in 1949 and Rose Behee of the Flying Behees pictured right in 1946
Flying Concello, a trapeze artist duo, pictured above tending to some washing in Chicago on August 2, 1941
Lady of the Wild: Young Miss Unus, the daughter of circus legend Unus who was known for balancing on his forefinger, pictured above riding a Ringling elephant in Chicago on July 31, 1949
An elephant pictured dressed in an elaborate butterfly costume for a Circus pageant in Chicago on August 10, 1947
Ringling Circus King Cole poses with a woman dressed as Bo Peep during a circus parade in a parking lot in Chicago on July 31, 1949
Practice makes perfect! A trapeze walker pictured above in an undated photo practicing on rope attached to the circus tent
Francis Brunn and his sister – a juggling act at Ringling Circus – are pictured above practicing in uniform while holding onto their juggling balls and props in Chicago in 1949
Show goers pictured above purchasing Jell-O from clown named Felix Adler donning a colorful polka dot costume at a Chicago show on July 31, 1949
Let’s go to the show! A group of show-goers pictured above getting ready to see a performance