Cowboys and Indians:
Western-themed shows staged sharpshooting battles and rodeo events. In 1935, American
movie star Tim McCoy left Hollywood to join
the circus with his own Wild West show. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries )
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Since the 1700s, traveling circuses have transported Americans with magic, glamour, and popcorn. Troupes of skilled performers, sideshow characters, costumed actors, and exotic animals present jaw-dropping extravaganzas under ever larger tents. These spectacles of the incredible, the improbable, and the impossible have inspired onlookers of all ages—one, the poet e.e. cummings, declared, “Damn everything but the circus!”—to wish to run away with the nearest roadshow.
Photographer Edward J. Kelty did exactly that. Opening his first studio in 1922 in Manhattan, Kelty initially made his living taking pictures of guests at banquets. His skill with perfectly posing large groups put him in demand at other social events. For himself, Kelty haunted Coney Island sideshows, photographing their denizens—an avocation that led to a job with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum Bailey Circus as official photographer. Kelty devoted two decades to chronicling on film circus folk and their animal costars rolling into towns and cities across the country and putting on a show.
At the end of May 2017, the Greatest Show on Earth takes a final curtain call, permanently dimming the lights on a 147-year run. Edward Kelty suddenly disappeared shortly after the Depression, leaving few personal traces. But his vast, indelible body of work immortalizes the traveling American spectacle, keeping alive the memory of what it felt like every time the circus came to town.