Step Right Up! Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890–1965

“The noblest art is that of making others happy” –P.T. Barnum

In an era spanning the early 20th century, through depression-ridden times, a dust bowl, and the Red Scare, one form of revelry thrived–the circus. The Big Top was a thrilling spectacle that burst into towns along the American road and railways. Traveling from coast to coast, rail cars packed with canvas, exotic animal menageries, strongmen, fat ladies, and roustabouts brought a much needed relief to millions of Americans. Step Right Up! Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890–1965 explores a history fraught with intrigue and majesty and gives viewers their chance to run away with the circus.

In collaboration with the Tegge Circus Archives, Step Right Up! takes viewers behind the scenes of the circus, exploring the dramatic pageantry, colorful past, and living presence of this grand American theatrical tradition. Approximately sixty pieces of circus history are featured in Step Right Up! including full-color posters, costume regalia, historic photographs, billboards, oversize graphics, and oral histories from past performers. The circus is an experience once shared by most communities; Step Right Up! is primed for local programming and performance arts offerings, including a personal presentation from curator Timothy Tegge.

As one of America’s oldest theatrical traditions, the circus started as a European transplant in the late 1700s and was perfected in the United States by the likes of John Bill Ricketts, who established the first American Circus in 1793, and P.T. Barnum, who first introduced us to sideshow oddities including the Feejee Mermaid and human curiosities like Tom Thumb. By 1900, there were more than 100 circuses crisscrossing the country and they were adept at using all of the advancements of America’s industrial revolution—the railroad, color lithography, and mass marketing strategies—to promote their impending arrival.

As masters of their craft, circus promoters and practitioners survived the social and technological changes brought about by two World Wars and even found new ways to factor in changes brought about by the pop culture and rock revolution of the 1960s. Advance men would arrive weeks before the caravan to paper the town with idealized and oversized, technicolor posters to build suspense and drum up business. Beyond mere promotion, the pieces in Step Right Up! remind us that through the early twentieth century, the circus was king of American entertainment, especially in smaller cities and towns. For many, it was their first chance to see a lion or elephant, and their first opportunity to explore new inventions like the electric light.

Step Right Up! also highlights how the insatiable fantasy of circus life was both an alternate reality and a vision founded in truth. For many performers, the big top’s nomadic life offered a different kind of escape and in many instances, a life that challenged the economic and gender conventions of the age. The juxtaposition of romanticized imagery and backstage stories and photographs reveal both the fantasy and reality of circus life, exploring the illusions that played to the imaginations of so many.

Step Right Up! is curated by Timothy Tegge, a longtime circus historian, collector, and performer. Tegge, a second generation circus performer, was immersed in circus culture from the day he was born. He first appeared under the big top at the age of three, alongside his father, a career clown for the family-owned TNT & Royal Olympic Circus. Tegge continues to perform in circuses across the country as an illusionist, ringmaster, performance director, and sometimes clown.

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Tour Schedule

Step Right Up! is touring April 2013 through March 2018. The dates below reflect seven-week exhibition periods. Dates are subject to change; please contact or (800) 473-3872 x208/209 for current availability.

  • April 6–May 25, 2013 John E. Conner Museum
    Kingsville, TX
  • June 16–August 11, 2013 Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center
    Enid, OK
  • September 1–October 20, 2013 The Culture Lab at Mid-America Arts Alliance
    Kansas City, MO
  • January 28–March 16, 2014 Mercer Museum/Bucks County Historical Society
    Doylestown, PA
  • April 6–May 25, 2014 Museum of the Gulf Coast
    Port Arthur, TX
  • June 16–October 20, 2014 Price Tower Arts Center
    Bartlesville, OK
  • November 10, 2014–January 7, 2015 Henderson State University
    Arkadelphia, AR
  • January 28–March 16, 2015 City of Lake Charles
    Lake Charles, LA
  • April 6–August 11, 2015 Park City Museum
    Park City, UT
  • September 1–October 20, 2015 William F. Laman Library
    North Little Rock, AR
  • November 10, 2015–January 7, 2016 Refurbishment
    Kansas City, MO
  • January 28–March 16, 2018 Museum of History and Art Ontario
    Ontario, CA
  • April 6–May 25, 2016 Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum
    Temple, TX
  • September 1–October 20, 2016 City of Nacogdoches
    Nacogdoches, TX
  • April 6–May 25, 2017 Nebraska Hisotry Museum
    Lincoln, NE
  • September 1–October 20, 2017 Living History Farms
    Urbandale, IA
  • November 10, 2017–January 7, 2018 Fullerton Museum Center
    Fullerton, CA
  • January 28–March 16, 2018 J. Wayne Stark University Center Galleries
    College Station, TX
  • April 6–May 25, 2018 Save 60% off rental fees

Exhibition Details

Approximately 50–60 pieces, including full-color posters, small billboards, historic photographs, oversize graphics, and oral histories from past performers

  • Content

    Fee Includes:
    Press Kit
    Registrar’s Packet
    Programming Guide
    Gallery Guide
    Text Panels
    Narrative Labels
    Full Insurance
    Installation Instructions
    Custom-Designed and Built Crates

  • Curated By

    Timothy Noel Tegge, Curator, Tegge Circus Archives, Baraboo, WI

  • Organized By

    The Tegge Circus Archives, Baraboo, WI

  • Out-of-Region Rental Fee


  • In-Region Rental Fee


  • Duration

    7-week display

  • Shipping

    Van line

  • Running Feet


  • Square Feet


  • Security

    Moderate A

  • Number of Crates/Total Weight

    6 crates, 5 tubes, 1 tub/2,133 pounds

  • Insurance

    The exhibition is fully insured by ExhibitsUSA at no additional expense to you, both while installed and during transit.