Charles Ringling

From left to right: Charles Ringling, Leitzel, Robert Ringling (Charles' son), photo courtesy Buckles Blog
From left to right: Charles Ringling, Leitzel, Robert Ringling (Charles’ son), photo by Edwin Norwood used courtesy of the P.J. Holmes collection

Charles Ringling was the second youngest of the five brothers who founded the Ringling Brothers’ Circus. In the compartmentalized scheme under which the brothers operated the circus, he was the brother in charge of promotion and advertising. He spent a great deal of every season traveling with the show. Considered friendly and sympathetic and a man of his word, he was highly regarded by the cast and crew.

In 1919, after the death of Alf T. Ringling, of the original Ringling brothers, only Charles and John remained. For three quarters of a decade, until Charles’ death in 1926, the pair would steward the newly combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. While Charles was alive, his relationship with his brother was a big part of the story of the circus in the Twenties.

Physically and emotionally, the two brothers provided quite a contrast. Where John had a powerful build, Charles had a slim build. Where John was bold, Charles was prudent. Where John was distant, Charles was approachable. Where John was feared, Charles was beloved. Charles had two children, while John was childless. The contrast proved effective in managing the circus, but it also put strains on the relationship.

Charles always seemed to be in the shadow of the larger than life John Ringling. It was John Ringling who was the face of the circus in the eyes of the public and the press. Although it was Charles who spent most of the season traveling with the show while John was overseeing his ever expanding list of interests, newspaper articles would often mention only John when ascribing responsibility for the production.

The cast members were very fond of the man they knew as Mr. Charlie. He accompanied the show for much of the season, often traveling with his wife and children in his private railroad car. He was accessible and displayed an interest in their lives. Still some thought he played favorites, and they preferred the dispassionate John, who was tough but never allowed personal feelings to influence his decisions.

Charles Ringling died in December of 1926 at age 62. At the time, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus was a thriving enterprise. It would have been difficult to anticipate the hardships that would confront the show in just a few years. Decisions made by John Ringling, unencumbered by Charles’ moderating influence, left the show vulnerable at the onset of the Great Depression. In 1932, John Ringling lost control of the circus. For the first time since the Ringling Brothers had formed their circus, more than a half century earlier, a Ringling brother was not in charge of the show.

Leitzel and Charles Ringling were very friendly. It was Charles Ringling who first saw Leitzel’s potential after she joined the Ringing show in 1915. As the brother in charge of promotion and advertising, he immediately put his publicity department to work. He indulged her artistic temperament, allowed her to fashion her own act as she saw fit and put her face on posters.

Unlike his brother John, who sought to reign in Leitzel at every opportunity, Charles allowed Leitzel virtual free reign while he was overseeing the show. He understood the publicity her behavior garnered far outweighed the disruptions she often created in the show’s schedule. A local Leitzel swoon would often result in a national headline: “Lillian Leitzel Collapses in Arena.” (New York Clipper, June 8, 1924, p. 11)

It was a symbiotic relationship. In Charles Ringling, Leitzel found an ally in ownership whose promotional efforts were an integral part of the remarkable journey that so dramatically landed Leitzel in the upper echelons of American entertainment.