Saturday, October 9, 2010

Who's Heard of Dan Rice?

I remember going to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Knoxville, Tennessee when I was a boy. The sights, sounds, and yes, the smells, struck me as so unusual. Along with the action of the acts and the exotic animals of all sizes, it was enough to enthrall the most sedate of spectators. Back then I was too young to have an interest in the history of the circus. Little did I know, the circus had as colorful of a past as I witnessed it in the present.

One of the most recognized celebrities in the mid-nineteenth century was a man that most people have not heard of today. If I hadn't just read Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of by David Carlyon, I would certainly be in that camp too.

Rice was born in New York City in 1823 and ran away from home as a boy. He relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a young man and became fast friends with songwriter Stephen Foster's brother Morrison, or Mit, as he was known by his friends. Rice married at 17 and then got his start in show business by touring with a trained pig named Sybil that could count and tell time.

By 20 Rice had joined a formal circus and was learning the ropes of performing and pleasing the crowd. In 1848 Rice became the owner of his own circus. In his shows Rice did just about everything. He sang, danced, told jokes, delivered lectures, and trained his animal acts. Due to his magnetic personality he quickly became the most famous a clown entertainer of his time.

One of the humorous stories that Carlyon tells in the book is when Rice, who by now was a famous celebrity, informed the good people of Cincinnati that he would take his tight-rope walking elephant Lalla Rookh for a swim across the Ohio River. Thousands of people showed up to see the pachyderm stroke the waves. Rice accompanied the elephant in a boat and started from the Kentucky shore. At times the only part of Lalla Rookh that showed above the waterline was her trunk. As she neared the Ohio shoreline she became annoyed by the boats of people around he and turned back for Kentucky. Rice though would go through with his promise and the elephant's swim began again. About 45 minutes later she set foot on solid ground in the city at the Race Street landing. Unfortunately a month later Lalla Rookh died in Indiana from what was called "lung fever," probably pneumonia that was likely brought on by the swim. Rice's loss hurt both as a draw for the show and as an investment; he had previously refused an offer of $20,000 for the beast.

During his career Rice frequented the river towns the most, often traveling with his show by steamboat from Pittsburgh down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans. Wisely, Rice would usually tour the South in the winter and the North and Midwest during the summer.

Like most all Americans Rice was affected by the Civil War. As a dedicated Democrat, he often opposed Lincoln's war measures and took particular aim at abolitionists in his shows who he believed had antagonized the South into war. Rice toured the South in the months leading up to Fort Sumter, and like any good showman who knew his audience, made Southern sympathetic comments. But, back in the North when the war finally came he was a firm Union man.

During the Reconstruction years Rice put in a half-hearted effort to gain a seat as a congressman, but lost handily to his Republican opponent. Rice often found himself fighting off creditors as well as critics, and after the Civil War he never attained the fame he held during the antebellum years. By the time Rice had passed away in 1900 he had been married and divorced three times and had fought many battles against the bottle and rival circus owners.

If nineteenth century cultural history fascinates you as much as it does me, you will likely enjoy this book. It vividly chronicles an era much different from our post-modern high-tech world, but it reminds us that entertainment never loses it popularity, it only changes forms.

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