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Circus Owner John Robinson
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From: Circus 4 Youth
16 year old Erin Purcell, who is part of the "My Nose Turns Red"Youth Circus,has written this fantastic circus history article about the John Robinson's Circus which was based out of her hometown, Terrace Park, Ohio over a century ago!

When we think of American circus capitals today, we often think of places in Florida and Oklahoma, where many of the country's largest circuses make their home. However, the scene was quite different one hundred and twenty years ago. Back then, the largest and most popular touring spectacle was the John Robinson Circus, and its winter headquarters were in Terrace Park, Ohio!

As a kid growing up in Terrace Park, a small suburb outside Cincinnati, I can't remember a time when the Robinson Circus wasn't part of my life. My grandmother's great Aunt Em was a close companion of Lenora Robinson, the wife of the third John Robinson. Through Lenora, much circus lore has passed down through my family. I can remember sitting on my grandmother's bed when I was little, listening to stories of lions and tigers and elephants roaming the streets that I had walked to school on earlier that morning. She would tell us stories of the clever, spunky elephants that had made their home in our quiet community;I was enthralled by it all.

As I grew older, I came to see that the whole community regularly celebrated its circus history. My grandmother was invited to tell her circus stories to both my Girl Scout troop and my third grade class. In art class at elementary school, we made paper mache circus animals, along with their own cardboard cages. We created pastel and watercolor pictures of exotic animals in colorful caravans. The posters and banners of the Terrace Park Historical Society feature elephants on a bright red and gold background. It is said that the people living closest to the Robinson headquarters still find animal bones when digging in their flower gardens. I've heard kids claim that they have found large animal teeth in the nearby creek. The John Robinson Circus has remained a proud aspect of Terrace Park's heritage, something that every resident knows about and has participated in, at least to some extent.

But what was the John Robinson Circus? Well, the short answer is that it was one of the most popular shows in the decades surrounding the 1890's. It all started when a young man named John H. Robinson (the first of the four John Robinsons) was born in South Carolina in 1807 or 1808. Around age fifteen, John H. ran away from home and joined a small wagon show. He worked for many shows in his early years, including in order: Page's Menagerie, Parson &McCracken's Circus, Aron Turner, Stewart's Amphitheatre, Hawkins' Circus, Benedict &Haddock and the Zoological Institute. He must have started as a workman, because there is no record of him performing in a show until 1832, as a stilt dancer. It would be as an equestrian, however, that John H. would be remembered for his performing skills.

John H. continued to travel the country with small wagon shows, acting as a stilt walker, bareback rider, or manager. In April of 1842, John H. left the Ludlow &Smith circus to form his own circus with partner Joseph Foster. The great John Robinson circus was born. While the circus was playing a show in Kentucky around 1850, John H. developed an eye ailment and was referred to a specialist across the river in Cincinnati. As he began to build his own circus legacy, he decided to settle his family and his business in Cincinnati for the winter months, since he liked the area so much.

Like hair color or height, circus seems to run in families, and the Robinsons were no exception. John H., called Uncle John, was succeeded in ownership by his son John F., whose nickname was "The Governor". Next was John G., called Papa, who was Lenora's husband. Their son John IV worked in the circus business for a short while, though he eventually became an attorney. They were a colorful family, full of showmanship and circus quirk. It is rumored that The Governor, always a showman, would hitch a team of twelve horses to a wagon on Sundays when he went out to buy his morning paper!

The Robinson circus continued to grow. It started out touring in wagons, and, like all wagon shows, there were many frustrations. Wheels got stuck in mud, and had to be pulled up by the elephants. Traveling was slow. Winds, floods, and fires were constant dangers, along with local town drunkards who would stagger in to stir up trouble. Oftentimes one of the ruffians would attempt to rob the ticket box. The Robinson solution? Lenora, John III's wife, would travel home at the end of the week, the money box planted firmly under her feet and a small pistol tucked into her purse.

After wagons, boats were used for a short time in the 1870's, and then the move was made to railroad cars. The Robinson circus became the one of first circuses in the country to own its own railroad cars. At the zenith of the Robinson circus in the 1890's, at least thirty-five cars were needed to transport the entire company. It was clear that the Robinson contingent was staggeringly large;it was once billed as "Robinson's Circus, Menagerie, Museum and Aquarium". The Robinson show was also one of the first circuses to have two large tents, one for the circus acts and one for the menagerie, and to build its own billboards and to own its own cookhouse wagon.

One of the most famous spectacles throughout the Robinson circus's run was entitled "Solomon and the Queen of Sheba". The dazzling scenery was designed by John Rettig, and the show was directed by Charles Constantine. This colossal production had a cast of at least three hundred, with one hundred girls dancing in the ballet alone. A period piece such as this was a prime opportunity to showcase the exotic camels, lions, elephants, tigers, and other animals that were accumulated in the menagerie. Trapeze artists, jugglers, tightrope walkers, and acrobats filled the rings. "The Queen of Sheba", along with other historical pageants, is particularly remembered as one of the most stunning Robinson productions.

A phrase you might hear while hanging around circus people is, "give 'em a John Robinson". Though the exact circumstances under which this saying was invented are not clear, its general meaning is agreed upon. An owner or manager might say, "give 'em a John Robinson"when a storm is approaching, or there is a long jump to the next town. It is a signal to cut tricks from the acts so that the show can be over with and packed up quickly

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John Robinson Circus
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