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Texas | Columns | "Hindsights"

Looking back at
The Great International Menagerie

by Michael Barr
Michael Barr
It looked as if the receding waters of the great flood had dropped Noah’s Ark in a hay field outside the frontier town of Waco, Texas. No one had seen anything like it before. Tethered and in cages was the most amazing collection of wild and exotic creatures ever assembled including lions, tigers, bears, jaguars, cougars, pumas, elephants, camels, zebras, monkeys, baboons, kangaroos, snakes, yaks, gnus, giant ostriches, porcupines, wart hogs, a rhinoceros, a leopard, an Egyptian crocodile – almost 500 wild animals in all. There was an aquarium of deep sea creatures including odd and colorful fish, manatees, and Pacific sea lions. The date was October 27, 1874, and people remembered the day like they remembered the last good rain. On that day The Great International Menagerie, Museum, Aquarium, Grecian Circus, and Grand Roman Hippodrome came to town.
James A. Bailey ca 1890s
Wikimedia Commons
The Great International Menagerie was the brainchild of James A. Bailey – the self-proclaimed “king of the amusement world and great overland shows.” Bailey was a natural showman and talented promoter, and in 1872, at the age of 25, he formed a partnership with James E. Cooper. Their show, managed by Bailey, was a serious rival to P. T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth.” The two attractions competed for a time; then merged in 1881 forming the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Following Barnum’s death in 1891, Bailey joined forces with the Ringling Brothers to form Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus – still going strong in the twenty-first century.
Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth Poster
Wikimedia Commons

Bailey advertised the show that came to Waco as “The World’s Fair on Wheels,” and it was grander than any attraction folks in these parts had ever seen. It was much more than a collection of animals. It was a traveling museum filled with rare wonders. There were artifacts from ancient Egypt and a knight in full armor. There was a two ring circus with fifty performers including clowns, jugglers, acrobats, and a high wire act. The side show featured a giant, a dwarf, and a multitude of oddities including Madame De Granville, “The Lady with Jaws of Iron,” who could lift “a hogshead of water with her teeth.”

The entire operation was so large and cumbersome, just getting from one town to another was a herculean chore and a logistical nightmare. The Great International Menagerie was one of the last of the big tent shows to travel “exclusively in its own conveyances.” Future attractions of this magnitude would move around the country by train. For this show to get from one town to another required 70 wagons and 400 draft horses. The caravan stretched for more than a mile as it crawled across the prairie like a giant earthworm.

Bailey had to sell a lot of tickets to offset the staggering costs of production, and by all accounts the task of running the show at a profit was a constant struggle. But Bailey was a master salesman, and he promoted each event in ways that were ahead of their time. For the Waco show, advance men bought ads in in The Waco Daily Examiner and placed colorful posters in public places advertising lions and tigers “loose in the streets.” There were chariot races and other promotional stunts. There was a parade in full regalia down Franklin Avenue that led customers to the hay field on the edge of town where barkers waited to separate men, women, and children from the money in their pockets.

The price of admission was steep - $1 for adults and 50 cents for children 9 and under – but few complained. This kind of entertainment was rare in a Wild West town on the edge of the frontier. Not often did the people of Waco get to see a show of such Biblical proportions.


The Waco Daily Examiner, October 14, 1874, October 15, 1874, October 22, 1874.


© Michael Barr
"Hindsights"
August 3 , 2015 Column


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