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Exhibitions

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Off to the Races

When:
Feb 20, 2021 – May 23, 2021
Collection Highlights
Free with Museum Admission
Where:
Circus Museum

 

The entertainments to be found on the circus lot at the end of the 19th century were not limited to those that took place in and above the rings. When American circuses expanded their performance areas from one ring to two and, eventually, three, the space that encircled the rings became an additional space for special presentations. Called the hippodrome track to align its displays with the pageants and contests of Ancient Rome, the track became the site of some of the most exhilarating and mad cap features of the circus – the races.

Hippodrome races were staged as part of the entertainments offered following the traditional circus performance. The earliest such competitions were flat races held between performers, sometime on foot, but more usually on horseback. These quickly evolved to include hurdle races, heats between various types of animals, and even the Roman style of racing while standing astride the backs of two horses. Large circuses added complex obstacle races and other challenges to the events. No race was more popular than the chariot races, introduced in the 1870s, chariots would be raced around circus hippodromes into the 1950s. The image of the wild-eyed gladiators racing the two-wheeled vehicles pulled by powerful teams of horses set against a bright red background became an icon of circus advertising.

Along with adding energy and excitement to circus day, the competitions helped increase the popularity of many circus performers. Just like contemporary audiences cheer for their favorite celebrities on reality show competitions, 19th century circus audiences would have cheered on the performers who had awed them with fantastic feats of aerial arts or acrobatics only a short time before.

 

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