Q & A with Jerry Apps
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: You've done a great deal of research on the Ringlings to write both a general audience and a biography for young readers. What about the subject intrigued you?
Jerry Apps: Several things. How seven brothers, five of them partners, were able to start with almost nothing and develop a business — a circus — into the largest in the world. They had no outside money at anytime. I was also intrigued by how this massive enterprise comprising 1200 employees, 500 horses, 45 elephants and 85 rail cars was able to move each day, six days a week and put on a parade and two shows at each town.
WHS Press: What aspect of the Ringling story was the most interesting to relate?
JA: How seven brothers were able to get along with each other through thick and thin, when times were good and when times were tough. The Ringling boys had great respect for each other, and cared deeply about each other. It's a great family story.
WHS Press: What was the most difficult part of telling the story to young readers?
JA: Making the more technical aspects of the story interesting, such as how the big top tent was erected. I suppose the biggest challenge for me was to tell a huge, complicated story, with many twists and turns on a relatively few pages.
WHS Press: Which of the brothers was the most interesting? What about him fascinated you?
JA: Al Ringling. He was the oldest of the seven brothers. It was his vision and leadership that got the circus started. He also proved to be the glue that held the brothers together, and kept them moving forward with their grand circus plans. For many years, Al served as Ringmaster for the circus, an interesting, colorful role. Al also loved Baraboo, Wisconsin, building a large home there and contributing money toward building the world famous, Al Ringling Theater.
WHS Press: Which family traits helped the Ringlings' ventures succeed?
JA: The brothers loyalty and respect toward each other, discipline and hard work, attention to detail, care for others, and honesty.
WHS Press: What aspects of circus life did you find most interesting?
JA: What happened behind the scenes such as how the circus moved each day from place to place. How the circus cared for its employees and its animals, while constantly on the move. I was greatly impressed with circus marketing and advertising and how much effort the boys put into these activities. For instance, at one time more than seventy men were responsible for putting up circus posters in and around the towns where the circus would perform.
WHS Press: What aspects of life in the later 20th century led to the decline of public response to the circus?
JA: Movies, first silent and then talkies, cut into circus attendance. The coming of radio in 1922 also contributed. And of course the automobile allowed people to freely travel considerable distances for their entertainment. With TV coming in the mid-1900s, one more entertainment source competed with the circus for attention. In the late 1800s, the circus was nearly the only source of outside entertainment to visit most towns. By the late 1900s, people had multiple entertainment opportunities.
WHS Press: What do you think has replaced the circus as family entertainment (beyond television and the internet and other stay-at-home activities)?
JA: Water parks, organized sports for kids such as Little League, and family trips to such places as Disney World. Modern day families have terrible time constraints with both parents working, so family activities often take some planning with several choices to consider.
WHS Press: Why is it important that young people learn about the Ringlings?
JA: From nothing, the Ringlings created the largest circus in the world, and it was located in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Ringling Brothers are an example of how a group of boys, with a vision, respect for each other, hard work, trust, honesty and willingness to learn made their business prosper. I believe it is also important for young people to see how a family run business begins operations, and how they grow and succeed.
WHS Press: How does their story help us understand more about the culture of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest?
JA: Wisconsin is home to many famous families and individuals such as J. I. Case, E. P. Allis, the Kohlers, Miller Brewing, Anderson Ship Building, William Dempster Hoard, Frederick Pabst, the founder of Lands' End, and many, many others. The Ringlings are an important part of this group. The culture of the Upper Midwest is noted for its work ethic, concern for family, dedication to a task, perseverance, resourcefulness, and honesty. These values were an important part of the Ringlings' success.