Cover image for The American circus : an illustrated history
The American circus : an illustrated history
Culhane, John.
Personal Author:
First Owl book edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Holt, 1991.

Physical Description:
xxii, 504 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.

"An Owl book." -- t.p.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GV1803 .C85 1990C Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Traces the development of the circus in America since 1786, and looks at major circuses and their most prominent acts.

Author Notes

John Culhane was born in Rockford, Illinois on February 7, 1934. He graduated from St. Louis University and then became a reporter and daily columnist for the Rockford Register-Republic. He later became an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily News, a media editor at Newsweek, a roving editor at Readers Digest, and a freelance writer for publications including the New York Times Magazine and American Film.

He was a Disney animation historian who was the inspiration for the characters of Mr. Snoops in the 1977 Disney animated feature The Rescuers and Flying John in the Rhapsody in Blue segment of Fantasia/2000. His books on Disney animation include Walt Disney's Fantasia, Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film, and Fantasia 2000: Visions of Hope. He also wrote The American Circus: An Illustrated History and Special Effects in the Movies: How They Do It: Dazzling Movie Magic and the Artists Who Create It.

For over 40 years, he taught classes on the history of animation at New York City's School of Visual Arts, Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology, Mercy College in Westchester County, and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He died from complications due to cardiac failure and Alzheimer's disease on July 30, 2015 at the age of 81.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

The author, a graduate of Ringling Bros. Clown College and an obvious aficionado of circuses and circus lore, has written an engaging and well-researched history of the American circus. It is sure to be a valuable reference source as well as entertaining reading. It's all here: the first elephant to be exhibited in the United States, the pursuit by daredevil high flyers of the quadruple somersault, the daring and skill of Gunther Gebel-Williams, and, yes, ``The Living Unicorn.'' This is an unabashed glorification of the circus. For a behind-the-scenes and far less glamorous account of one circus by a participant, see Kristopher Antekeier and Greg Aunapu's Ringmaster! ( LJ 10/15/89). Culhane's generously illustrated circus history is an essential purchase for all public libraries whose patrons include lovers of the circus: that is, for all of them.-- Anne Twitchell, EPA Headquarters Lib., Washington, D.C. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Of the five one-volume survey histories of the American circus published since 1932, this effort by Culhane--journalist, editor, sometime clown, and longtime fan and chronicler of the circus--is arguably the best from the standpoint of timeliness (the last comparable book appeared in 1969) and storytelling. Other than recounting his own numerous firsthand experiences, Culhane depends heavily on secondary sources (and misses several important recent ones). It should be noted, however, that another recent book on the subject, La Vahn Hoh and William H. Rough's Step Right Up! (1990), tells the same essential story in a more concise 100 pages. Culhane has a pleasant narrative style and selects key and generally well known stories to capture the reader's imagination, but at the same time he does little to clarify a number of circus myths (Barnum's role in the circus, for instance). For those seeking a definitive, complete history of the American version of the circus, this otherwise entertaining book, strongly recommended as a basic overview, will not fill that bill, illustrating once more the lack of such annals. Regrettably there are no color illustrations and even more black-and-white ones would have been appropriate. Notes are quite extensive, index is adequate; a helpful 15-page chronology and select bibliography complete this laudatory effort. Both general and academic readers. -D. B. Wilmeth, Brown University