New York Circuses

From Circopedia

Compiled by Dominique Jando

The following is a list of the various circus structures that were built (or buildings that were adapted) to house New York's resident circuses. Some had a very ephemeral life, other lasted several years or even decades. When they appeared in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century (see Short History of the Circus), circus performances were originally presented in buildings, either permanent structures, or wooden constructions that were erected in a town, and then dismantled and transported to the next—or simply sold at wood value at the end of the run.

Circus in America became an itinerant affair in the first half of the nineteenth century, but major cities, like New York, often retained a resident circus. New York's last permanent circus building, the Hippotheatron, or New York Circus, stood on 14th Street, near Union Square—in what was then the heart of the Theater District—until as late as 1872. But in a country in constant expansion, itinerant circuses were much more profitable, and they quickly prevailed: From roughly 1870 to 1930, they made circus the most popular performing art in America.

Although circus buildings, like Paris's Cirque d'Hiver, survived in several major European cities—and notably in Russia, where they are still the norm—American resident circuses eventually disappeared, and their very own existence has been by and large completely forgotten. Yet, from the Circus John Bill Ricketts erected in Philadelphia in 1793, to New York's Hippotheatron, they had their moments of glory, and contributed greatly to the history of the American circus.


Circus Structures or Buildings in New York City

1793-94: RICKETTS CIRCUS

Back of Macomb's Houses, 16-20 Broadway

- British equestrian John Bill Ricketts, who had just opened the first circus in America—in Philadelphia, April 3, 1793—opens the first New York circus on August 7, 1793. It is a wooden, roofless (at least in the beginning) amphitheater where Ricketts and his company perform until the fourth of November 1793.

- September-October 1794: The circus is leased by Thomas Swann, who gives there equestrian performances and exhibits trained monkeys.

1794-96: RICKETTS CIRCUS

SW corner of Broadway and Oyster Pasty Lane (Exchange Alley)

- November 24, 1794: John Bill Ricketts opens a "new and commodious amphitheater" on Broadway, north of his former location. He and his company perform there until April 21, 1795.

- September 16, 1796: Ricketts returns to New York, but is forced to close three days later due to an epidemic of Yellow Fever.

- May 7, 1796: Ricketts performs in his N.Y. circus until July 29.

- September 21-30, 1796: Ricketts gives a series of performances on his way back from Boston to Philadelphia (where his main circus building is located).

1797-1800: RICKETTS CIRCUS*

Greenwich Street, North of Rector.

- March 16, 1797: Ricketts opens a brand-new wooden amphitheater, equipped, in the European fashion, with a ring for equestrian presentations and a stage for pantomimes. Season lasts until July 12. It is Ricketts's last season in New York.

- October 17-November 27(?), 1797: British equestrian Philip Lailson and his company (Ricketts's only competition) rent the circus and perform there.

- Ricketts announces his return in December 1798, but he never makes it. The amphitheater, however, stands until at least 1800.

1797-98: LAILSON CIRCUS*

Greenwich Street, South of SW corner of Rector

- December 8, 1797: Philip Lailson opens a new amphitheater on Greenwich Street. He and his company perform there until February 1, 1798, but the season proves a failure. The circus is offered for sale on July 18, 1798.

- February 8, 1799: The circus company of Franklin & Johnson leases Lailson's Circus and performs there until March 19.

[* Questions have been raised regarding (1) The proximity of Ricketts and Lailson circuses on Greenwich Street and (2) The possibility that Lailson didn't actually leave Ricketts Circus in November 1797, but simply renovated it, improved it, and re-opened it under his own name—meaning that the two circuses could actually be one and the same.]

1808: PEPIN & BRESCHARD CIRCUS

Corner of Magazine (Pearl) Street and Broadway

- Roofless wooden enclosure. Opens June 2, 1808, under the management of Victor Pépin and Jean Breschard. Closes on January 1, 1809.

1809-12: PEPIN & BRESCHARD CIRCUS, then OLYMPIC CIRCUS*

78/85 Anthony (Worth) Street

- Wooden structure (at first roofless, then covered) erected on North side of Anthony, just West of Broadway. First season: June 21-September 29, 1809. The company returns in 1810 and 1811, at the same time of the year (June-September).

- May 22-July 4, 1812: Building is renamed Olympic Circus and hosts Dwyer & Breschard Circus.

- July 14-August 28, 1812: Building hosts the company of Twaits & Placide.

1812-13: NEW YORK CIRCUS*

White Street and Broadway

- June-September 1812: Covered wooden structure, poorly furbished, erected on the East side of Broadway at the corner of White Street by Cayetano Mariotini and his partners in the Cayetano, Codet, Menial & Redon Circus.

- July 1-August 14, 1813: The building features Pepin, Breschard & Cayetano Circus.

[* Some confusion exists regarding these two circuses, as to which one survived the other and which troupe played in which building.]

1817-28: NEW CIRCUS

446-448 Broadway

- August 21-September 26, 1817: British equestrian James West builds a new wooden circus structure on the east side of Broadway, at Canal Street, and performs there with his company.

- February 11-August 5, 1822: West returns to his circus, where he produces a series of pantomimes with great success. (There is no known record of his performing there between these two seasons.)

- August 1822: West sells his assets to Steven Price and Edmond Simpson, owners of the Park Theatre, and returns to England. Price & Simpson embark on a circus venture, at the New Circus and on tour, until 1828, after which date they transform the building into a theatre, the Theatre Broadway. This venture is short-lived; in 1829, the building becomes a "repository for the sale of horses, carriages, etc.," known as Tattersall's (after the famous London firm).

1825-26: LAFAYETTE CIRCUS

308/310 Laurens Street (West Broadway)

- July 4, 1825: Opening of the Lafayette Circus (so named as a patriotic tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette), erected at the corner of Laurens Street and Grand Street by Charles W. Sandford (later General Sandford), a New York socialite, railroad lawyer and land speculator, who wants to breathe some life into a new neighborhood he is developing. Closed March 26, 1826, it is sold to become the Lafayette Theatre. (Destroyed by fire in 1829.)

1826-29: MOUNT PITT CIRCUS

Grand Street, opposite Harman Street (East Broadway)

- November 8, 1826: Opening of the Mount Pitt Circus, a spacious wooden circus structure with a brick front—"one of the largest place of amusement in America"—built and managed by Charles Sandford (see above, "1825-25: Lafayette Circus"). Closes in 1829 after a N.Y. law "imposing a tax on theatres and circuses" is voted. (Destroyed by fire in August 1829.)

1830: BLANCHARD'S AMPHITHEATER

80/90 Chatham Street (Park Row)

- Chatham Garden Theatre, built in 1824 on the North side of Chatham Street, between Duane and Pearl (now City Hall Place), and known as the American Opera House in 1829.

- January 18, 1830: Reopens as Blanchard's Amphitheater, with the circus troupe of William Blanchard, seen previously at the Lafayette and Mount Pitt circuses (see above). The troupe stays there for at least three or four months before moving to Vauxhall Gardens. Then, on March 11, 1811, the house reopens as a theater. At the end of the season (July 1811), it becomes a church, the Presbyterian Chapel.

1835-54: BOWERY AMPHITHEATER

37/39 Bowery

- Built in 1833 as a menagerie by the Zoological Institute, the syndicate of menagerie and circus owners based in Somers, NY, which controlled the traveling menagerie business in the U.S.

- 1835: Remodeled as a circus, with stage and ring, opens under the management of June, Titus & Angevine, of the Zoological Institute. Some time later, becomes for a short time the Bowery Theatre.

- 1841: Reverts to circus exhibitions as The New York Circus at the Bowery Theatre.

- 1842: Known as the Amphitheater of the Republic under the management of N. A. Howes of the Zoological Institute.

- 1843-48: Is leased to circus-owner John Tryon, who improves the amphitheater and manages it until 1848.

- 1849: Reverts to a menagerie managed by Titus and June.

- 1852-54: Back to a circus, the amphitheater is leased by Richard Sands, whose company settles there until early 1854, with various circus productions. During the summer of 1854, the house is rebuilt and reopened as the Stadt Theatre. It will be known as the New National Circus, under the management of A. Montpellier in 1865, before being converted into an armory.

1853-56: FRANCONI'S HIPPODROME

NW corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street

- May 2, 1853: Opening of Franconi's Hippodrome, a large (4,000-seat) wood-and-brick structure with a canvas roof, modeled after the Hippodrome de l'Etoile of Laurent and Victor Franconi in Paris, and erected on the site of Thompson Madison Cottage. The company is that of Sands' Circus, with a small addition of "French" equestrians imported from Batty's Hippodrome (formerly Astley's Amphitheatre) in London and led by Henri Franconi (actually Henri Narcisse Franconi, a son of the celebrated Henri Franconi, Laurent's brother—thus engendering an intended confusion). The arena was active with more or less successes until 1856, when it is demolished to make way for the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

1859: CHATHAM AMPHITHEATER

201/205 Chatham Street (Park Row)

- Chatham Theatre erected in 1839. Housed the first performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852.

- November 14, 1859: After many alterations are made to the house, it reopens as Chatham Amphitheater with the circus troupe of Lafe Nixon & Aymar, under the management of Mess. Nixon and Sherwood. The clown Tony Pastor (later known as "the Father of Vaudeville") is in the company. Adventure is short-lived. In 1860, building reverts to stage presentations. It is torn down in October 1862.

1863-64: BROADWAY AMPHITHEATER

485 Broadway (South corner of Broome)

- December 23, 1850: Opens as the Brougham's Lyceum, a legit theatre, with a production of John Brougham's Esmeralda.

- July-October 1863: Season with the Martinetti Troupe, a pantomimeA circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances). troupe that includes acrobats.

- November 10, 1863: Lewis B. Lent transforms the house into a circus, with ring and stage, and reopens it as the Broadway Amphitheatre. It closes in April 1864, after which Lent will move to the New York Circus (see below, "1864-72: New York Circus"). The house is reverted to legit drama as the Broadway Theatre.

1864-72: NEW YORK CIRCUS, then HIPPOTHEATRON

86/94 E. 14th Street, opposite Irving Place

[1863 on that site: Nixon's Alhambra (circus in a wood and canvas structure)]

- Open February 8, 1864. Dick Platt, owner.

- April 25, 1864: Spalding & Rodgers Circus rents the building for a series of performances.

- October 3-June 10, 1864: James N. Nixon serves as manager.

- September 25, 1865: Lewis B. Lent becomes manager.

- October 1865: Dick Platt sells to Lewis B. Lent.

- November 6, 1865-May 27, 1866: Season under the name Lent's New York Circus.

- September 24, 1866-May 4, 1867: For the new season, the building is refurbished and improved (increased capacity, menagerie, sideshow added under seating, etc.). Photo extant.

- April 17, 1869: Reopens as Hippotheatron with circus troupe of Richard Risley Carlisle (Prof. Risley). Lent remains manager until 1872.

- 1872: Sold to P.T. Barnum.

- November 18, 1872: Opens under P.T. Barnum's management with a show featuring the pantomimeA circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances). Bluebeard.

- December 24, 1872: Destroyed by fire at 4:00 AM.

1871: NIXON'S AMPHITHEATER, then in 1879: NEW YORK CIRCUS

728/730 Broadway

- Originally, the Church of the Messiah, built in 1838 and used as such until 1864, after which it is used for many forms of entertainment, from vaudeville to legit theatre.

- December 18, 1871: Reopens as Nixon's Amphitheater under the management of James M. Nixon, with a ring installed on the stage. Reverts to theatre in February 1872.

- October 20, 1879: Becomes the New York Circus under the management of Lewis B. Lent. Adventure ends December 4. Reverts to theatre again and becomes the New Theatre Comique of Harrigan and Hart (1881). Destroyed by fire in 1887.

1873-75: P.T. BARNUM'S GREAT ROMAN HIPPODROME

Between Madison and 4th Avenues, and 26th and 27th Streets

- Site of the old Grand Central train depot. Leased in 1873 to P.T. Barnum, W.C. Coup, and Dan Costello, who build a structure with a canvas roof, capable of housing 10,000 spectators around an elongated hippodrome track. There they present The Congress of Nations, a spectacle Barnum bought from circus-producer "Lord" George Sanger in London. The partners use the space until 1875. It then becomes the Gilmore Gardens, but P.T. Barnum uses the place on several subsequent occasions for circus presentations. Madison Square Garden is eventually built on the site in 1889.

1897: DORIS WINTER CIRCUS

42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues

- Old Arena Athletic Club building refurbished as a circus ("fitted up for equestrian performances") by E.S. and J.B. Doris, opens November 22, 1897. Proving a failure, it closes January 1, 1898. The place reopens January 10 as the Moulin Rouge, after Paris's celebrated cabaret. It performs as such a few nights only, before being closed by police after complaints regarding "the style of entertainment given there..."

Other Circus Venues

HAGENBECK WILD ANIMALS AT TATTERSALL'S

Seventh Avenue and 55th Street

Following the Chicago World Fair, Hagenbeck, the famous animal dealership and circus firm from Hamburg, Germany, transform the old New York carriage-and-horse repository building into a circus arena for a short season (1894?).

NIBLO'S GARDEN

NE corner of Broadway and Prince

This famous amusement place (which made pantomimeA circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances). popular with the Ravels) hosts all sorts of entertainments during its long and eventful existence (1823-94), including circus performances.

BOSTOCK'S AT ST. NICHOLAS GARDEN

Columbus Ave. at 66th Street

Frank C. Bostock, "the Animal King," presents there the wild animal acts of his traveling menagerie in October-November 1922.

NEW YORK HIPPODROME

Sixth Avenue and 43rd Street

From A Yankee Circus On Mars (1905) to Billy Rose's Jumbo, the huge theater houses a mixture of circus, theater and vaudeville shows (especially during its first decades), which feature all sorts of traditional circus acts, including herds of performing elephants.

MADISON SQUARE GARDEN

The four Gardens (William Vanderbilt's [1879] and Stanford White's [1890] on Madison Square, and the Gardens on 8th and 7th Avenues) all regularly housed circus shows, principally those produced by P.T. Barnum and J.A. Bailey, then the Ringling Brothers, and finally Feld Entertainment, Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

JOLSON THEATRE

Located at 59th and 8th Ave., it features the Davenport's European Circus in the 1930s (with Con Colleano) for a Christmas season.

Suggested Reading

  • Matthew Wittmann, Circus and the City — New York, 1793-2910 (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2012) — ISBN 978-0-300-18747-2