Red alert at the circus

If you’re at a circus and you hear the band play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” – you better run.

Circus tent postcard
Strobridge Lithographing Co., Cincinnati & New York, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” is a rousing American march by John Philip Sousa, the king of American brass and bombast. While it has been a popular piece of music for large gatherings for more than a century, for much of the 20th century you would almost never hear it performed in a circus or theatre. In those crowded indoor spaces, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is known as the Disaster March.

Now, you may be thinking that the music carries some kind of curse – and that’s not a bad guess, given the superstitious nature of both circus workers and theatre performers. But in fact it’s not a curse, it’s a message. Whenever there is a serious emergency in the theatre or the big top, the band plays this march. It’s a clear signal to all staff: something bad is happening, get to your posts. It’s a red alert.

Possibly the most famous use of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was during the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance of July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut. Between six and eight thousand people clustered under the big top to watch lions and high wire acrobats. And then the tent caught fire.

The circus big top was waterproof. It was waterproof because it had been soaked in paraffin wax and gasoline. The fire spread extraordinarily quickly. The circus band began playing the Disaster March, the ringmaster called (futilely) for a calm exit, and people stampeded. The burning tent came down in eight minutes, trapping the audience within. Around a hundred and sixty-eight people died in the Hartford circus fire.

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