WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS!
Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus
George I. Neal, a Huntington, West Virginia native and passionate hobbyist, spent over 25 years hand-crafting a most incredible testaments to the circus. Big tops, tents, animals, performers, and audiences are detailed in over the 3000 piece gallery exhibit spread over five display cases at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
In early interviews, he talks reverently about the circus he remembers – the arrival and unloading of the 100-car circus train, the mammoth tents going up on the grounds at 29th Street, the clowns, elephants, cages and gaudy wagons passing by in the parade; and, finally, the excitement of the show itself – the trapeze artists, the darting acrobats, jugglers, trained ponies and bears performing in the three rings under the Big Top. “The circus back then was a wonderful thing.” He said.
Neal has captured it all, as it was, in one-quarter-inch scale. His 128- square foot circus, a project he has been working on since 1969, includes the circus train parked in a lighted railroad yard, eight meticulously hand sewn tents, 90 workable wagons, all decorated inside and out; hundreds of festooned animals and hundreds of tiny people – from performers and circus workers going about their tasks to the midway strollers and the spectators seated in the Big Top bleachers. Neal notes, he lost track of the time the circus consumed. “After 2,000 hours, I stopped counting.”
“The Circus is a world of its own – A world made up of folks who devote every bit of their energy in making life a little happier for other people, if only for a few hours. That’s a pretty special kind of world to live in and a special kind of philosophy to live by…” George I Neal, Jr.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation Invites you to experience the Circus World of George I Neal….
WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS!
Long before the great P. T Barnum organized his first large “Tent show” in 1851, touring entertainment was part of the American scene. Theatrical companies “dog and pony troupes” and medicine show regularly traveled between towns and villages of our young nation, struggling over rough dirt roads in horse-drawn wagons.
But the elaborate spectacles developed by Barnum and his competitors soon grew far too big to be moved over primitive highways, even by armies of horses. A circus’s mammoth tents, elaborate wagons, cages of exotic animals and scores of performers needed faster, more efficient transportation to get from one audience to the next.
Barnum’s partner, Wm. Cameron Coup, found the answer in 1872 when he invented the Circus Train… a customized “special’ devoted exclusively to transporting a whole tent show. Leasing no less than sixty-one cars from the Pennsylvania Railroad, Coup showed the world how “the greatest show in on earth” could move overnight from one population center to another…by rail!
Coup’s experiment was such a success that he designed and built his own fleet of larger and more specialized cars the following years, He also devised a “piggyback” loading technique that remains in use today; and that was so efficient that industrial and military leaders from all over the world came to study how the circus handles such huge movements of equipment, animals and people with speed and ease.
But, it’s just not like the “good old days,” when circuses played outdoors under their vast Big Tops and hauled scores of special cars loaded with colorful parade wagons into town by steam train, unloading and setting up with elephant-power! That era was in its heyday a half-century ago…and with the deeply-appreciated help if some special circus lovers, we’ve tried to recreate it for you in this exhibit.
George Neal; As reported by the Huntington W. VA Gazette-Mail Sunday Life – August 29, 1982
His toy – and his joy – is an elaborate hand-built circus that recreates, in intricate detail, the lavish Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey productions he remembers from his childhood.
He talks reverently about the circus he remembers – the arrival and unloading of the 100-car circus train, the mammoth tents going up on the grounds at 29th Street, the clowns, elephants, cages and gaudy wagons passing by in the parade; and, finally, the excitement of the show itself – the trapeze artists, the darting acrobats, jugglers, trained ponies and bears performing in the three rings under the Big Top. “The circus back then was a wonderful thing.” He said.
Neal has captured it all, as it was, in one-quarter-inch scale. His 128- square foot circus, a project he has been working on since 1969, includes the circus train parked in a lighted railroad yard, eight meticulously hand sewn tents, 90 workable wagons, all decorated inside and out; hundreds of festooned animals and hundreds of tiny people – from performers and circus workers going about their tasks to the midway strollers and the spectators seated in the Big Top bleachers.
He hasn’t counted the pieces, “but there are thousands, “he said. As extensive as it is, he said, the circus is only symbolic of the actual Ringling production it portrays. “The real circus was so large I’d have to have tables set up all through the house to cove rit. Ringling had 350 horses. I have only 200, some of their trains had 100 cars. Mine only has 20.”
The miniature circus train is a story. The workman’s car has 90 beds, stacked in rows three bunks high. Each car is wired for lights. “There are washbasins, toilets and pictures in rooms no bigger than this,” Neal said, forming an inch-high space with this thumb and forefinger.
One car is an exact replica of John Ringling’s private car. “His had a bathtub. This one does too. Ringling is sitting in it.”
The cook tent and dining tent reflect his fascination with the logistics of the old-time circus travel: “Van you imagine feeding 1,500 people three times a day?” The dining tent seats 300 people at 30 tables. The tables, covered with red and white checked cloths, are set with microscopic knives and forks. The menu includes “spinach souffle.” Its sawdust dabbed with green paint.
The sideshow tent features the customary cast of characters (he doesn’t like the word freak). There’s the fat woman, the armless wonder, the strong, a giant, a sword-swallower and a midget, among others. Illustrating Neal’s penchant for detail, the midget although less than ½-inch tall, has buttons on its costume.
There is a concession tent, a dressing tent, a horse tent and a menagerie tent filled with a generous assortment of circus-associated animals.
Of all the tents, the Big Top was the biggest challenge. “I had to use geometry to try out the pattern.” Neal said. “The sewing alone took 60 hours.” The tent is suspended with 176 poles and secured with 156 lines and stakes. Each tiny pole required four coats of paint and he had to put in more than 360 eyelets to accommodate the poles and guy wires.
One problem was finding tiny metal rings for the eyelets. He used the rivets at the end of a spool of typewriter ribbon. “Finding useable supplies is the toughest part,” he said. “You can’t buy a lot of this stuff. You have to scrounge.” He has learned to rely on his ingenuity. He used floral wire for the cage bars and the high wire under the Big Top. Flag poles are toothpicks. Robes for the animals were fashioned form toothpaste tubes.
The only parts he buys are the wagon wheels, the plastic animals and the people. But even the ready-made items need work. “I have to glue the horses together, drill holes for the tails and the plumes, paint them and put on the manes. It takes three hours to do one team of horses.” The carved wagon wheels have to be painted, some of them in six different colors, and the people and the animals frequently have to be reconstructed.
I can buy a man standing up,” he said, “but what if I want him to stoop? I have to break his legs and reattach them to get the position I want.” The same goes for the animals. He can buy an elephant standing. But he has to break and refashion a leg or two to create an elephant performing.
He has to concoct paint for the animals. “Except for a white polar bear, you can’t buy paint in a can for an animal,” he said. “To get the right shade, you have to mix as you go.”
Barnum and Bailey’s famous “Two-Hemisphere” Bandwagon
The most impressive wagon is his replica of the Barnum and Bailey’s famous “Two-Hemisphere” bandwagon, which is hitched to a team of 40 horses.
“They were still using the wagon in the early 1930’s,”
Neal said, “but it was last seen with the 40-horse hitch in a circus parade in 1903.”
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Research is part of the game. It goes beyond circus history: “What color is a tiger? You’ve got to know about tigers before you can paint one. This hobby teaches me so much.” One thing it teaches is patience, he said. “That’s something we need in everyday life.”
He’s lost track of the time the circus consumed. “After 2,000 hours, I stopped counting.”
It took more than 100 hours just to complete the center ring animal cage. He had to drill 1,000 holes for the cage bars. The cage is constructed in 30 sections. Each section required five pieces of wood. The cage doors work. He likes functional parts.
“Other people make miniature circuses,” he said, “but few of them get as much detail as I do. How many bother to put working brakes on their wagons?”
He can’t put a price tag on his toy, but the circus was insured for $35,000 during an exhibit at the B & O Museum last year. “I’m not sure it’s worth that, he said. “If somebody tried to steal it, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Neal, 64, retired in March as a manager with the state Department of Employment Security. He has been building miniature circuses, working on a gradually smaller scale, since he was 15. He has three other circus sets, “but they’re not complete. Not that this one is. “I’ll never finish it, “he said. “I need more of everything. I need another 20 years.”
For More information on Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus see:
George I. Neal, A short Bio
Born in 1918, George I. Neal ancestors were West Virginians since the Revolutionary War. His mother’s grandfather was the owner of the stagecoach that ran from Guyandotte to Staunton, Va. in the mid-1800s.
After attending Marshall College and West Virginia University College of Law he served in the Transportation Corps. U.S. Army during World War II and the Korean War. During World War II he was stationed in London with Eisenhower Headquarters in the Intelligence Service and later in Paris at the Gare St. Lazare Railroad Station as the Rail Transportation Officer. While in Normandy he received two Bronze Stars. After the Korean War he lived in New York City and had a photography studio.
He taught photography at the School of Modern Photography. In 1959 he returned to Huntington and was employed for more than 20 years by the W.Va. Dept. of Employment Security.
An enthusiast of the circus, George spent most of his life building scale models of the circus. His 1/4-inch scale model of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was displayed many times at the Huntington Museum of Art and at the B&O Museum in Baltimore.
Mr. Neal was also a collector of toy trains, many of which, he restored to their original condition. He was a member of the Train Collector’s Association and a long-time member of the Circus Model Builders International.
George’s Nephew, Eugene M. Elliott, Jr.is a long-time board member and supporter of the Virginia Museum of Transportation where Mr. Neal’s circus is on permanent display. Mr. Neal died, January 16, 2005