A Trunk of Circus Memories

Story by Mary Turner Stoots


You have probably read the news and are already aware that the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus performed their final show on May 21, 2017.  After 146 years, “The Greatest Show on Earth” is no more.

It began in 1871 as P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome. It survived the Depression, two world wars and the news media of its time. But on May 21st, the world’s most historic circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey shut down after failing to sufficiently dazzle the children of the smartphone & video game age and overcome the fierce opposition of the animal-rights movement, which does not want to see animals in the circus.

Were you aware of the little-known fact that a 1966 RHS Alumna and long-time member of the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society was a performer in the circus? As a showgirl for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sharon Cosner Sellitto rode the elephants, performed aerial ballet, danced, flew on the trapeze, and was the ‘Bluebird of Happiness.’

Many baby-boomers dreamed of running away with the circus, but Sellitto actually DID tour with Ringling Bros. for several seasons during the 1970s. “My mother seems to have saved every letter I wrote during those years,” Sellitto said recently, sitting at her kitchen table, covered with scrapbooks and memorabilia of her circus years.

“In one letter, I wrote I was getting ready to climb 40 feet in the air — in high heels, in the dark — to hang by my knee. Isn’t it nice to know that’s why you sent me to college?”

As a showgirl, she performed high above the rest of the acts an average of three shows a day, suspended by not only her knee, but her wrists or ankles while doing various forms of aerial ballet.

She said she took dancing her entire life, but added some gymnastics and dancing classes at Ohio University. After heading out West, Sharon danced with the Ballet Celeste in San Francisco for a couple of years. Eventually, she moved farther north and was dancing in the casinos at Lake Tahoe. Sharon also worked dancing in Bob Hope’s shows when he was in the area. One day, she spotted an advertisement that Ringling Bros. was having auditions. She and a friend tried out, and four months later she got a call asking if she could come to Florida to start training.

It was the start of an adventure that would last several years. “It was so painful at first, climbing a rope,” she said. Performing in heels and with a plumed headdress that could sometimes weigh as much as 30 pounds made it all the more challenging.

Eventually, she learned a little trapeze work and still has a trapeze from the circus in her collection of memorabilia. Sharon said that the scariest thing she did in the circus was swinging out and releasing hold of the trapeze to fall 50 feet into a safety net below, then bounce around until somersaulting from the edge of the net to the floor.

Each season would last about ten months, she said, taking her across the United States and Canada, living in a train car with other performers, including the legendary Mihaley “Michu” Meszaros, the “world’s smallest man,” standing 33 inches tall, according to his 2016 obituary. “We would sit in the vestibule between the train cars and watch the world go by,” she remembered. “We went places on trains where the roads don’t go, and you’d see things you’d never see otherwise.

“When you went into a town, there were 250 of you, so someone always had your back, and you always had friends. Probably ten showgirls and two clowns are still my best friends. It really was a big, happy family, and everyone watched out for everyone.”

From venues in Los Angeles, California, to Quebec City in Canada, and Madison Square Garden, celebrities would often stop by the show, she said, including Sonny and Cher, actor Jimmy Stewart, and Paul McCartney and the Beatles.

As the Bluebird of Happiness, Sharon donned a bright blue costume that included a heavy headdress and a 17-foot blue ostrich feather train. Wearing high heels, she would climb a 30-foot ladder, in the dark, with the train wrapped around her arm. When she reached the top of the ladder, the spotlight would come on. At that point, Sharon released the plumage, and it would gracefully float downward. As the feathers headed towards the floor, she grabbed a rope above her head and would then hang by her wrist with one leg wrapped around the ladder until all the acts on the floor of the arena were finished.

One season, while the circus was at Madison Square Garden for a few weeks, one of the tigers had two cubs named Bonnie & Clyde. Their mother rejected them, so the cubs were moved to the home of the animal trainer, which happened to be a railroad car. Every night, Sharon would go to that car to bottle-feed and play with the cubs. The newborn cubs were already the size of a small dog. Sharon said that they were too big to hold in your arms to feed, so the cubs were propped on their backs on her thighs facing up as they were fed with a baby bottle. Their bellies had to be rubbed to aid digestion, and they made little noises of satisfaction. When the cubs reached about 30 pounds, they were moved to the tiger quarters and began training for the big top!

“One of the best things was riding elephants,” she said. “My elephant's name was Targa, and she was so gentle and so smart. She loved having her tongue rubbed and being fed whole loaves of bread. To 'board' her, you just put your foot on her leg, and she would gently throw you straight up in the air to her back.”

The elephants performed their last show in 2016.

The fact that 2017 saw the complete closure of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” leaves Sellitto feeling very sad. “I'm in mourning about the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus pulling up its three rings and going dark,” she said. “I'm so proud to have been a Ringling Brothers showgirl, and part of the history of the greatest circus in the world; the train pulling in, unloading the animals, riding the elephants to the building, hanging the rigging, setting the three rings. And the Ringmaster calling out “Ladies and Gentlemen, Children of All Ages, Welcome to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus! The Greatest Show on Earth!”

Would you like to meet an actual performer from the circus? You now have the opportunity! Sharon will be bringing a trunk full of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus memorabilia to share with all of us at our July 20th Open House. Bring your children and grandchildren! Sharon will be setting up in the lower level of the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society Museum accessible directly from our parking lot in the rear of the building at 1485 Jackson Street (across the street from the Hannah J. Ashton Middle School). 

The Museum Open House hours are from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm.

Contributors: Max Garland (The Charleston Gazette), Craig McDonald (Granville News), Lizette Alvarez (The New York Times)