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Under the Big Top with Buster Bailey

Buster Bailey was a circus fan, amateur cinematographer, and much more. In 2019, Howard Tibbals donated a film collection to The Ringling Archives that consists of 221 films shot by Bailey that capture performances and behind-the-scenes views of the circus. Bailey was a familiar face on the circus lot and was accepted by the general circus community. He was given full access to a variety of circuses, including Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, AL G. Barnes Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Amsterdam Circus, Moscow Circus, Russian Ice Show and Circus Benneweis. These circuses are captured in this film collection.

There is footage of circus life in towns across America, including scenes of winter quarters, trains loading and unloading, the back yard, animal acts, spec productions, tumbling acts, clown gags, trapeze and web numbers, and much more. Bailey’s tours of European circus parks, the circus parades in Baraboo, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois, and the Circus hall of Fame in Sarasota, Florida, are also captured in this collection.

Elden Chandler “Buster” Bailey spent 42 years as a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and was a faculty member at Juilliard School of Music from1969 to 1993. He died in April of 2004 at the age of 81. He is fondly remembered by students and colleagues as the greatest snare drum player who ever lived and as a life-long lover of circus music.   

In a 2004 interview with New York Times writer George James, Barbara Bailey, Buster’s wife, reminisced that in the early 1960s, Buster Bailey met Merle Evans, the music director of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus band, and Red Floyd, its drummer. They all became good friends. From this point on, whenever the circus was in New York, Merle Evans arranged for him to receive circus passes and Mr. Bailey attended whenever he could, absorbing how the circus band supported circus acts. He became so knowledgeable that when Red Floyd took ill one day in the mid 1960s, Mr. Evans turned to Mr. Bailey to take his place. Buster sat in for three days, happily playing drum rolls for thrilling acts. For Buster, it was the biggest thrill of his life.

Buster Bailey’s last recording, for Angel Records in 1993, was a collection of circus songs, Under the Big Top, with a group he assembled called the Great American Mainstreet Band.

After 42 years with the Philharmonic, Buster Bailey retired to Sarasota, Florida. He and his wife were familiar with Sarasota after annual visits to their friends in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey band. 

Through a Recordings At Risk grant administered by the Center for Library and Information Resources that The Ringling Archives received in 2019, this collection of films will be cleaned, re-housed, and digitized. Once digitized, they will be hosted on the Florida State University digital platform, DigiNole and made accessible from ringling.org. This project is scheduled for completion by November, 2020.

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