The Ringling Archives recently collaborated with the Sherman Grinberg Film Library to preserve their Pathe Newsreel SIL 955: The Biggest Show on Earth Thrills the Coolidges from 1928. Funding for this project was received through a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
This film features John Ringling hosting President and Mrs. Coolidge at a Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows performance during the spring of 1928. The film draws renewed attention to a frequently overlooked president who had a major impact on America’s political landscape during his time in office and to John Ringling, an important figure in American popular culture of the same period.
The historic news footage opens with President Coolidge and his wife, Grace entering the Big Top of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows. John Ringling escorts the presidential couple to their front row seats. Performers costumed as fairytale figures parade around the hippodrome track. They are followed by a group of clowns who lead a procession of costumed elephants. Footage shifts to Herbert "Slats" Beeson, a cross-dressing circus performer on the high wire who performed as Berta Beeson, coolly carrying out the most intricate footwork at breakneck speed. Behind him on the high wire is Don Valerio performing intricate running, walking, and dancing steps. The film closes with Goliath, a monster sea elephant, eating fish tossed to him by his trainer.
The digitization of this film affords a unique opportunity to bring the intersection of politics and popular culture to light, as captured on the screen. The content of this film is of great potential interest to historians and researchers of film, circus, popular culture, LGBTQ+, and the American presidency.
The footage of John Ringling is extremely important to The Ringling, for it depicts the founder of the museum in his role as circus owner and manager. The Ringling Archives initiated this collaboration to expand its holdings on the Ringlings in an effort to preserve their legacy and support the mission of their museum as a place of art, architecture and circus in an environment that inspires, educates and entertains.