Those of you who know me personally, or follow my shenanigans on social media, will be aware that I harbour an unwavering love for musicals. I guess this love comes from the fact that I’m a born entertainer. I really do live for it. (As those of you who’ve witnessed me singing in a dress on stage as a panto dame can testify!) For this reason, it will come as little surprise when I tell you I went to see The Greatest Showman upon its release. I thought it was brilliant; an old-school musical – completely unmarketable on paper – that’s smashing the box office and winning over audiences across the world.
If you aren’t familiar with the film, it stars veteran actor Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, an American entertainer from the 1800s who once said, “I am a showman by profession... and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,” and whose personal aim was to “put money in his own coffers.” P.T. Barnum was an exemplary showman; as is Jackman, who actually performed in musical theatre during the 1990s, early on in his career.
All of this got me thinking about the lineage of entertainers throughout history and how the need to be a good showman is just as important today. Believe it or not, there are many similarities between theatre performance and mobile DJing (though it’s fair to say donning a frock isn’t one of them). Before we get into that, let’s take a quick look at where the whole concept of the showman even comes from.
THE TRADITIONAL SHOWMEN
To do this, you’ll have to hop on board my time machine and cast your mind back to a time when travelling showmen, rather than mobile DJs, ruled the night. We tend to associate these traditional showmen with circuses, fun fairs and freak shows, but you might be surprised to learn that the circus concept can actually be traced to the cavalry riders of the British military.
It was Philip Astley (1742 – 1814), an English cavalry Sergeant-Major turned showman, who is generally credited with creating the modern circus. But he didn’t come up with the idea of the circus ring. This was a much older concept that came from other performing trick-riders, who wanted to allow audiences to keep sight of them during their performances. Riding in circles not only made the tricks easier to watch but also helped riders to keep their balance while standing on the back of galloping horses. The size of circus ring used by Astley actually went on to become the international standard. Meanwhile, his competitor Charles Hughes opened London’s Royal Circus & Equestrian Philharmonic Academy – a grandiose title that was eventually shortened to give us the term ‘circus’.
But this still wasn’t the circus as we know it. And this is where our friend P.T. Barnum comes into the fold. In the early 1800s the United States was still a young, developing country without a city big enough to sustain a long-term circus. The settlers were still pushing the boundaries of that crazy gun-toting frontier known as the Wild West, establishing new towns and new cultures. To reach these potential audiences, the circus entrepreneurs and showmen needed a way to travel light and fast, taking their entertainment to different places – much like us mobile DJs do today!
Before long, showmen had teamed up with cattle herders to create the first travelling menageries, exhibiting exotic animals (the first was a baby African elephant) and eventually adding circus performances to their shows too. Taking this idea and running with it, P.T. Barnum – The Greatest Showman – teamed up with a circus promoter and launched his own Museum, Menagerie & Circus back in 1871. This was a travelling show whose ‘museum’ element was an exhibition of human and animal oddities – a concept that would soon become an important part of the circus: the sideshow.
Today’s entertainers can still be traced back to these defining years, when travelling showmen really did rule the entertainment world. Whether it’s the incredible modern circus of Cirque Du Soleil or the fairground owners who travel across the UK to bring us all the fun of the fair, the links are clear.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 88, Pages 28-30.