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On the history of circus in Austria

Austria, especially Vienna, plays an important role in the history of the circus. The establishment of the circus as a new, innovative entertainment genre took place around 1800, when equestrian troops erected fixed buildings based on the model of Philip Astley’s amphitheater in London and Paris.

18 May 2017 / Theory / Birgit Peter

Austria, especially Vienna, plays an important role in the history of the circus. The establishment of the circus as a new, innovative entertainment genre took place around 1800, when equestrian troops erected fixed buildings based on the model of Philip Astley’s amphitheater in London and Paris. Henri Franconi, a former employee of Astley, called his company in Paris at the beginning of the 19th century "Cirque olympique", thus coining the name for the specific genre of circus. The art rider Christoph de Bach (1768-1834) settled in Vienna, who erected a permanent circus building in the Prater in 1808 south of the Prater Hauptallee (now the Zirkuswiese). The elegant domed building by Josef Friedrich Kornhäusel (1782-1860) allowed up to 3,000 visitors to admire de Bach's productions. The so-called "Circus Gymnasticus" offered a wide variety of riding stunts: tournaments, art riders, but also trained deer, tightrope walkers, contortionists and clowns. A special attraction were horse mimes that depicted mythological or historical events based on the French model. De Bach rented the building to other equestrian troops when he toured Europe with his company. For advertising purposes, parade rides were shown in the Prater at lunchtime, a tradition that lasted until the 1880s.

In 1845 the "Circus Gymnasticus" received competition by the "Cirque du Paris", a company of the celebrated equestrian Pauline Cuzent, who built an amphitheater nearby. In the 1850s, two more circus buildings followed in the Prater, that of Janos Toldy and Pierre Corty. Outside the Prater, in the then Große Fuhrmanngasse 419, (from 1862 Zirkusgasse), a magnificent circus building was built in 1853 by the architects K. May and Franz Schebek. The client Ernst Jakob Renz (1805-1892) was considered one of the most successful circus operators of the 19th century. In addition to the new Viennese building, he already owned permanent circus buildings in Hamburg and Breslau, and his headquarters were in Berlin. With the twelve-sided building with almost 4,000 seats and the magnificent interior in the Windsor style, Vienna now had one of the most modern and sensational circuses in Europe. The name Renz was synonymous with circus, noble horses and the complicated art of dressage, including exotic animals, ballerinas on horseback, air aerobics, bicycle artistry, parterre-robatics, clown art and pantomimes. Vienna was extremely attractive for other large circus entrepreneurs, for example the “Royal Dutch Circus” by Oscar Carré (1846-1911) built a building for 4,000 people on the exhibition street in 1873 with its own residential building for its workforce. This circus, which existed until 1884, served, like all other permanent buildings, as a guest theater for other international circus companies. Carré organized amateur wrestling matches, which helped establish Vienna's reputation as the “city of strong men”. And the rotunda, built in 1873 on the occasion of the world exhibition in the Prater, served as a guest venue for large circus companies, for example for the "largest circus in the world", the "Wulff" circus, with 1,600 seats and 5,000 standing places, or in 1900 for the giant American circus "Barnum & Bailey" , with three arenas played at the same time and around 8000 visitors every evening.

The circus industry, which expanded in the 19th century, experienced its first drastic crisis with World War I.

In 1892, Ernst Renz also competed in Berlin Paul Busch (1850-1927) to Vienna to adapt the panorama building in the Prater as "Circus Busch Vienna". In addition to the elaborate circus programs shown at Renz and Carré, his specialties were large mane plays and water pantomimes. Renz had to close in 1897, and the competition from Busch, which was painfully felt in Berlin and Vienna, contributed to the end of the company. The Schumann family also belonged to a large circus dynasty, with Albert Schumann being highlighted as the most famous. Here, too, the main focus is on horse training, in fact Schumann's name was a synonym for the horse circus. In 1902/03 the architects Heinrich and Franz Stagl erect the Schumann circus building on Märzstrasse in what is now the 15th district of Vienna.
As the only permanent circus building in Vienna, the "ZIRKUS ZENTRAL" remained in the Vienna amusement park from 1920 or 1923. The hall had already been used as a circus under Gustav Altschul in 1919/20. The Zirkus-Renz building is used by visiting circuses and continued as a variety theater from 1929. The Circus Busch building opposite had already been converted into a cinema. Under the direction of Jakob Staub, together with Oskar Fischer, the "ZIRKUS ZENTRAL" offered play opportunities for various circus attractions, but also for items of equipment and revues. The circus was housed in a hall of the war exhibition, in the former imperial garden, or converted into a circus. The small menagerie of the circus, along with the exotic animal show in Volksprater No. 25, was the only one in the Prater until 1935.
From the program design it can be concluded that the "ZIRKUS ZENTRAL" creates an intermediate position between an (Austrian) circus tradition and that of a modern giant circus.


Karl Kludsky's circus was a formerly Austrian and then Czech company, albeit without a permanent buildingwhich existed from the late 19th century through February 1934. According to Kludsky's memoirs, the company closed due to the February fights, as the circus was just making a guest appearance at the “ZIRKUS ZENTRAL” in the Prater and the lack of income ruined the circus. The circus industry, which was expanding in the 19th century, experienced its first drastic crisis as a result of the First World War, some large companies prepared themselves for the war situation with patriotic programs, but for most companies the work was made impossible because the international personnel structure destroyed the fodder for the animals in short supply or animals were confiscated for use in war. In the first republic, around 40 circus companies can be found working under the most difficult economic conditions. Small family businesses compete with giant businesses such as the German "Circus Krone", which attracted crowds with its guest performances.

From the medium-sized Austrian circuses "Medrano" and "Rebernigg" should be mentioned here, which were among the successful Austrian circuses in the interwar period and beyond. Ludwig and Therese Swoboda's "Medrano" circus traveled through Europe with a two-masted tent. Three of the Swoboda couple's six daughters, Therese, Wanda and Anita, helped their parents' company achieve lasting fame. As "Sisters Medrano" they were committed to the largest houses in Europe with a balance riding act. In 1942/43 “Medrano” was called “Der Wiener Circus” and already had a four-masted tent. One of the last programs, the circus closed in 1969, advertises the romance of the rocket age. Another relatively large family business was the "Rebernigg" circus, "whose popularity among the Austrian population has surpassed that of Medrano and which bore the title 'The Austrian National Circus'"1. It must be said that “Rebernigg” only called itself “Austrian National Circus” after World War II, while the company was called “Der Circus der Ostmark” during the Nazi regime. So far I have only been able to find little material on the circus in Austria during National Socialism, research on this would be of great importance, as the circus could not be fully controlled by the Reich Chamber of Culture despite all attempts at regulation. During the Nazi regime, large companies like that of Carl Hagenbeck shaped the circus scene. The Busch building functioned as a cinema. In the "ZIRKUS ZENTRAL" circus performances, revues and pieces of equipment took place, and wrestling competitions were held as a special attraction. The director of "ZIRKUS ZENTRAL", Jakob Staub, fled to the USA in 1938, while Oskar Fischer ran the circus until 1942, which was demolished in September of the same year. In 1944 the Renz building was destroyed by bombs.

After 1945, companies such as “Medrano” and “Rebernigg”, and later the “Circus Althoff-Jacobi”, shaped the Austrian circus landscape. The circus show “Artists and animals attractions” in the Wiener Stadthalle, which has been taking place for decades, was an extremely popular facility. The end of the 1960s is considered to be a decisive turning point for the traditional circus, as the competition from television became drastically noticeable for most companies. When Bernhard Paul and André Heller worked with traditional circus elements during the Wiener Festwochen in the mid-1970s, they picked up a mood that was again inclined to the traditional circus. The founding of the "Circus Roncalli" by Bernhard Paul followed a short time later.

In addition to this well-known company, numerous circuses travel in Austriawhich, however, receive little public attention. The Viennese theater scholar Marlene Groihofer had proven with her diploma thesis “Traveling Circuses in Vienna and Lower Austria in the 2013/14 season” (2015) how rich the culture of the traditional circus is.The following companies toured: "Circus Alex Kaiser", "Circus Aramannt", "Circus Aros", "Circus Barlay", "Circus Belly", "Circus Berlin", "Circus Don Eduardo", "Circus Emilio", "Circus Frankello" "," Circus "Louis Knie jun.", "Circus Pikard", "Circus Pimpenelli", "Circus Salto", "Circus Safari", "Circus Magic Dream", "Circus Budapest". It is therefore clear that Austria can look back on a rich circus history and a special position within Europe. Although the circus arts played a key role in shaping Austrian cultural life until the late 1960s, they remain largely excluded from today's understanding of culture and the associated funding structures. It is therefore all the more important to deal historically with the position of the circus and to understand it as an immanent part of the Austrian cultural heritage.


1 Eberstaller, Circus and Variety Show in Vienna p. 78

Author:

Birgit Peter studied theater studies and philosophy at the University of Vienna. Her dissertation and habilitation thesis dealt with the history of circus. She heads the archive and the theater history collection at the Institute for Theater, Film and Media Studies at the University of Vienna.

Book:

"Artist life on forgotten paths"
A search for traces in Vienna

edited by Birgit Peter and Robert Kaldy-Karo

Lit Verlag, 2013
ISBN 978-3-643-50499-9
273 pages, paperback, € 19.90
www.lit-verlag.at

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