Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, step right up…and enjoy LaVahn Hoh’s discussion of circus history. Hoh was Sunday’s ringmaster at the Louisa Arts Center on behalf of the Louisa County Historical Society, entertaining more than 50 people. Hoh resides in Louisa County and is a professor of drama at the University of Virginia and long-time circus historian who traces the advent of some circus events like juggling to 2,000 years ago.
“I can remember, I went to my first circus and I came home and I wanted to build one,” Hoh told the audience.
Although he didn’t build a circus, he did work for one for eight years as a historian and archivist and teaches a college course, History of the Circus, that is wildly popular with students, turning away 120 after only one year. While other courses might include information about the circus, his is the only course dedicated to it.
“It’s an art form that lacks the prestige of other art forms,” he said.
That was not true in the late 1700s when circus performers were treated like royalty and accorded more respect than those in the ballet and other arts. E. E. Cummings said, “Damn everything but the circus,” and proceeded to discount the importance of the average painter, sculptor, poet, composer and playwright compared to the circus performer. Hoh noted that many artists and authors used the circus as a backdrop in their works.
“Today’s circus as we know it was developed in England by Philip Astley,” Hoh said.
The Latin word circus meant round or around and described the ancient sport of chariot races. Among other things, Astley examined the ideal diameter for the circus ring and settled on 42 feet which is still the standard today. He began with feats of horsemanship and then added acrobats, tight rope walking and clowns. By 1770, all components of the modern circus were there.
Hoh traced the origin of several words and expressions to the circus. Hold your horses, Jumbo, get on the band wagon – each began as a reference to circus activity.
The circus arrived in America in 1793 after John Bill Rickets came over from England, constructed a circus building in Philadelphia, and staged his first show. Even George Washington attended a performance at his fellow Mason’s enterprise.
The circus took to the road, perhaps staying in one place as many as five weeks until the ticket sales weakened and then moving to the next town to build a new infrastructure. In 1825, two New Yorkers decided to put the circus under a tent which was inexpensive and transported easily. In that same year, the Erie Canal opened so the show could proceed west.
To read the entire story, see the Feb. 21 edition of The Central Virginian.