Dayton photographer shares his circus memories in new book

Dayton photographer Marvin Christian has just published a photo book of circus memories. CONTRIBUTED
Dayton photographer Marvin Christian has just published a photo book of circus memories. CONTRIBUTED

Marvin Christian traveled with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus 50 years ago

In the years my mother worked as a docent at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., she loved guiding groups through the entire complex — the Art Museum, Ca’ d’Zan (the home of John and Mabel Ringling) but most of all, she loved the Circus Museum.

Children’s tours were her favorite. As she related the history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and showed off amazing costumes and memorabilia, she also shared personal stories from her own childhood — her excitement when the circus train arrived in town and the thrill of watching the exotic animals as they were unloaded and paraded down Main Street.

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It’s no wonder I was delighted to hear from local photographer Marvin Christian and to learn that 50 years ago he’d spent time with Ringling’s two circus units — both at their Venice, Fla., winter quarters and at other venues on their nationwide tour. As a circus photographer he had access, not only to performers, but to the backlot, backstage and arena.

The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was known as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” CONTRIBUTED
The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was known as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” CONTRIBUTED

Christian’s photos and memories have just been published in a new book, “Circus Album — A Scrapbook of Memories.” The 700 images accompanied by Christian’s descriptions take readers behind the curtain for a sneak peek at rehearsals, the building of the shows and the preparation of props and costumes. You’ll meet the animal handlers, see the dangers faced by high-flying performers, observe the herd of elephants, the jugglers, dogs, chimps and horses.

The book is nostalgic for those of us who remember family circus outings and an education for those who never had the opportunity to see “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

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In the beginning

It all began in Dayton when Christian was enjoying a performance of The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus at Hara Arena and was fascinated by all of the other things happening while the stars were performing …”the roustabouts moving things, the riggers setting up the lion and tiger rings, others hanging the swings for the trapeze artists.”

Christian, who believed what was taking place behind-the-scenes was the real story of the circus, wound up in Florida from 1971 until 1973, producing public relations photos for the show and, at the same time, capturing circus daily life that he planned to turn into a book someday. Now, with the Ringling circus no longer in existence and with days to fill during the pandemic, he says it was the perfect time to put together his book.

Gunther Gabel-Williams was one of Ringling’s most famous performers. CONTRIBUTED
Gunther Gabel-Williams was one of Ringling’s most famous performers. CONTRIBUTED

Among his most treasured memories:

  • Holding a young tiger while his kids were petting the cat.
  • Being treated as part of the circus family by both performers and staff.
  • Enjoying unlimited access to the back lot, rehearsals and show performances.
  • Shooting pictures accompanied by circus band music. “You can’t beat circus music for keeping your spirits up,” he says.
  • Watching the trainers at work. “Their patience with the animals was amazing,” he says. “Repeat and repeat again over and over the same movements.”
  • Covering Ringling’s Clown College taught by world-famous working and retired clowns. Christian admits he was envious when watching the young people learn to do all kinds of acrobatics, juggle, ride a unicycle, and develop their own clown personality. He also loved watching the professional clowns interact with the audience. “The joy on the kids’ and parents’ faces was almost as big as the clowns’ smiles,” he says. Among the clowns he photographed was Murray Horwitz, who grew up in Dayton, graduated from Fairview High School and toured with Ringling.
Murray Horwitz trained to be a clown and toured with Ringling Bros.  CONTRIBUTED
Murray Horwitz trained to be a clown and toured with Ringling Bros. CONTRIBUTED

Christian says the challenges for a circus photographer included changing the camera aperture settings during performances as the arena lighting changed from bright spotlights on the stars to floodlighting the three rings with colored filters.

He also needed to anticipate what was going to happen next; no two shows were ever alike. He was constantly reminding himself to stop watching the show in order to take photographs. And, most important, he quickly learned to “stay-the-hell-out-of-the-way.” Elephants, he says, always had the right-of-way!

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Christian says everyone he encountered — whether it be a crew member, star or animal — was a real pro. “Overall, they were the hardest working group of people I’ve ever met,” he notes. “In the back lot or in the arena there was constant excitement in anticipation of the next act’s show music.”

Photographer Marvin Christian took  more than 5,000 circus photos. CONTRIBUTED
Photographer Marvin Christian took more than 5,000 circus photos. CONTRIBUTED

Although as a photographer he had total access 24-hours-a-day, Christian says he never saw anything he’d consider mistreatment of the animals. “The whip cracking without touching was to get their attention,” he explains. “You must consider these animals were almost priceless stars. Most animals were treated like family pets. The beef or horse meat for the cats, for example, was trimmed of the gristle and fat. Vitamins were included to keep their coats clean and shiny. Their diet was controlled to also cut down on the amount of ‘waste’ products produced 24 hours a day. One sick animal could screw up an entire act.”

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One of the animals that might disagree, he says, were the horses being trained to accept a tiger riding on their backs. “They initially did not like this idea at all,” he remembers, adding that eventually the horse and tiger turned into show biz professionals in the arena.

And what about the odor? Christian says he loved popcorn so much that he was more likely to focus on that than the smell of the animals.

Dayton photographer Marvin Christian covered the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1971 to 1973.  CONTRIBUTED
Dayton photographer Marvin Christian covered the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1971 to 1973. CONTRIBUTED

More about Marvin Christian

Christian’s fascination with photography dates back to the sixth grade. His mentor was Dayton’s renowned William Preston Mayfield, known for his historic photos of the buildings and street scenes of our city. Christian was trained in the commercial studio and would also print many of Mayfield’s photographs.

In 1966, he opened his own commercial photography studio serving corporate, industrial and public relations clients. He later acquired the entire Mayfield photo collection — 70,000 images — of historical glass plates, negatives and prints. In 2012 that collection was turned over to Dayton History’s Carillon Park. An additional 30,000-plus images of trapshooting activities now reside in the archives of the Amateur Trapshooting Association’s Hall of Fame.

As a historian, Christian has done the photo research for three books published by the Dayton Daily News: “For The Love Of Dayton,” “Dayton Ink,” and “Gentleman Amateurs: An appreciation of Wilbur and Orville Wright.” In 1997 he co-authored with Tim W. Hrastar a book, “William Preston Mayfield — Photographer, Six Decades of Image Making.”

Dayton photographer Marvin Christian.
Dayton photographer Marvin Christian.

Christian, a lifelong Daytonian, has been married to his wife Irmgard for more than 61 years and has four children and six grandchildren. He is a past president of the Dayton Advertising Club, a recipient of the American Advertising Federation’s Silver Medal Lifetime Achievement Award and has served as president of Aviation Trail, Inc.

Christian’s current publication has brought him into contact with a number of past circus performers and he says sharing their stories has been a joy.

“The traditional three-ring circus experience no longer exists today or for future circus fans,” Christian says, adding that there are some smaller circus companies still operating wherever they can but without the exotic animals — elephants, tigers, lions, bears. “I hope this publication will prove to be helpful to those historians in the future who are telling circus stories. And bring back some memories for those fortunate enough to have enjoyed the excitement, wonder, and joy of such an extravaganza.”

HOW TO BUY

“Circus Album — A Scrapbook of Memories” is currently available at:

  • Marvin Christian Photography, P.O. Box 337, Englewood, OH 45322
  • Website: www.Viewpointsbymarvin.photos
  • New & Olde Bookshoppe, 856 Union Blvd., Englewood, OH 45322
  • Amazon Books
Dayton photographer Marvin Christian has just published a photo book of circus memories.
Dayton photographer Marvin Christian has just published a photo book of circus memories.