‘Greatest Show on Earth’ : John Ringling North, Circus Developer, Dies

Times Staff Writer

John Ringling North, who as a boy was a concessionaire in his uncle’s circus and as a man became president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey who moved “The Greatest Show on Earth” from tents to stadiums, has died in Belgium.

His attorney, Richard Palmer, told Associated Press that North, 81, died at his Brussels home on Tuesday. The cause of his death was not announced.

North was a son of Ida North, the only sister of the eight Ringling brothers. He ran the nation’s best-known circus after the death of John Ringling, the last of the brothers, in 1936, but it was not until 1947 that he was able to assume control of the tangled Ringling estate and take over as president.

Circus Merger


He grew up in awe of John Ringling, his uncle and namesake. In 1907, when he was 4, the Ringlings (originally Rungelings) merged their “Yankee Robinson Great Show, Ringling Bros. Carnival and Novelties and DeNar’s Museum of Living Wonders” with the more simply titled Barnum & Bailey circus. Eight years later young North had become a “butcher,” a hawker of balloons and other novelties in Baraboo and Sarasota, Fla., where the Ringlings maintained winter quarters.

He learned to dance and play the saxophone from circus performers and formed his own dance band at Yale and Wisconsin universities. At Yale he met crooner Rudy Vallee, a fellow band leader who Thursday remembered North as “a member of the greatest theatrical class (1926) ever to graduate from Yale.”

Tried Song Writing

North dabbled at song writing and then worked as a stock broker before devoting full time to the family circus. He was credited with arranging a financing package that saved Ringling Bros. after a 1944 fire in Hartford, Conn., killed 169 circus patrons and resulted in $4 million worth of claims.


He also replaced the circus’ unrelated acts with thematic programs, once hiring Igor Stravinsky to compose a ballet. He toured Europe seeking talent and was credited by the entertainment publication Variety in 1951 with “furthering the evolution from the old concepts of a circus to that of (master showman) Billy Rose.”

But he was also the same entrepreneur who in 1937 bought the giant gorilla Gargantua the Great from a Brooklyn animal fancier. He placed the 6-foot, 6-inch gorilla, who had been disfigured when someone threw acid in his face, in an air-conditioned cage, where he quickly became the biggest draw in the circus’ history.

(The animal once expressed his gratitude by grabbing North as he passed the cage and biting him on the arm.)

Traveled in Style


North traveled with the show in a luxurious Pullman built by his uncle, and he was attended by a chef, a chauffeur and a valet.

But as circus receipts soared so did costs, and in 1956, in Pittsburgh, Pa., North and 10,000 others jammed Ringling Bros.’ last “Big Top” show. Blaming rising labor costs needed for erecting the tents and the bad weather that limited the circus season, North announced that henceforth the three rings would operate under the roofs of stadiums rather than stretches of canvas.

In 1967 the circus was sold and North moved permanently to Europe, becoming an Irish citizen and living alternately in Switzerland and Belgium. Married twice, he had no children and is survived by a brother, Henry Ringling North, and a sister, Salome Wadsworth.