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What is a Ringmaster?

Jessica Ellis
By
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A ringmaster is a central figure in many circuses and live shows. Acting as a master of ceremonies, the ringmaster speaks directly to the crowd and serves as a guide throughout the performance. Much like ancient heralds, ringmasters are known for giving detailed introductory speeches meant to excite the crowd and build a dramatic atmosphere.

Circuses may vary in set-up and operations, but the traditional layout of a circus arena involves several staging areas, often ring-shaped, where various acts perform. Having several different stages allows the show to progress smoothly, as one act can be setting up, another performing, and yet another breaking down equipment or shutting down simultaneously. The ringmaster helps direct the attention of the audience toward the currently performing act by narrating or commenting on the performance.

The ringmaster of a circus is often recognizable for his or her distinct outfit. Since the early 20th century, many ringmasters have adopted a formal and attention-grabbing costume that includes a large top hat, gloves, and a formal coat with coattails. Some circus historians believe this trend started with the great George Claude Lockhart, a famous ringmaster with the Blackpool circus in England. The color of the coat is often bright and somewhat gaudy; Lockhart famously wore a pink coat, while other ringmasters wear red, bright blue or green, and often accent the coat with sequins or other glittering fabrics.

Ringmasters may be male or female, but circus iconography nearly always depicts the master of ceremonies as a male with a peculiar mustache. This style, called a handlebar mustache, is comprised of two long locks of hair grown over the top lip, parted just above the center of the lips and combed outward. The origin of this fashion is unknown, but may date back to the Renaissance Italian theater, where clown characters wore similarly bright clothing and often sported a handlebar mustache.

Although ringmasters are best known as circus workers, other performance shows have positions with the same title. In equestrian shows, a ringmaster assists judges and officials throughout the show. Much like a stage manager in a play, the ringmaster of a horse show moves the action along, making sure each new class is ready on time and each arena is properly prepared for the upcoming event. Equestrian ringmasters may wear a costume similar to that of a circus master of ceremonies, leading some historians to believe that George Claude Lockhart's outfit was inspired by this practice.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Practical Adult Insights. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By Sinbad — On Oct 31, 2011

I think it is neat that most ringmasters' still try to keep the tradition of dressing unique while also keeping the look formal, as was started in the twentieth century.

It is interesting to go to a circus to see all the entertainment, the ringmaster's wardrobe usually a piece of entertainment itself.

I think a ringmaster may be a great profession for anyone who loves to entertain and be on the move constantly.

A ringmaster seems like a cool person to be for Halloween, as there is really no limitation for how outrageous and formal a person could make their costume.

By tolleranza — On Oct 30, 2011

I have never been to a circus, or horse show, so I have never personally seen or heard a ringmaster before. This article makes me feel like I have been missing out all my life, so I do want to look into going to both.

It seems like a ringmaster of a circus and a horse show can really make or break the event for the audience, and probably even for the employee's too.

A ringmaster seems like an important and somewhat difficult job. You not only have to capture the audiences attention, you have to keep their attention focused in the right place the entire time.

I think that without a ringmaster in a circus or horse show, things would get very confusing and people would miss a lot of important/exciting stuff. It seems like there would be organized chaos without a ringmaster.

By SZapper — On Oct 30, 2011

@Azuza - I know some circuses don't feature animals anymore. In fact, some states have outlawed the practice. So, a ringmaster that feels strongly about the humane treatment of animals could work for a circus that only features people!

It seems like this would be an OK job if you like to travel and perform. I looked it up, and the average salary is 50K per years, which isn't too bad. I think it would be hard if you had a family or something, because circuses are always traveling.

Or maybe they bring their families? I don't really know too much about circus life!

By Azuza — On Oct 29, 2011

Being a circus ringmaster certainly sounds like it would be an interesting job. I have to wonder how the ringmasters feel about some of the behind the scenes stuff though.

I've heard that a lot of circus animals are pretty mistreated. I don't think I'd want to be a part of that. I wonder if some ringmasters go to work in the circus and then discover the animals are being mistreated after they've already taken the job?

By FernValley — On Oct 28, 2011

@stolaf23- I don't much like circuses themselves, but I had a neighbor when I was a kid who had been a circus ringmaster for awhile- he was a really nice guy, and very showy even in regular life. He also knew a lot of interesting people. But I haven't known anyone else who worked in a circus, so I don't know if this is the norm or not.

By stolaf23 — On Oct 27, 2011

A lot of movies show circus ringmasters to be kind of frightening and often conniving. I remember the film Big Fish was especially like this, with the ringmaster who at one point had the main character working long hours for him for practically nothing. There was also the book, and then movie, Water for Elephants, where the circus owner was greedy, as were several other members of the circus performers.

I never really went to the circus as a child, so I can't really judge from my own experience, but all these stories make me kind of wary of circuses and their performers.

By letshearit — On Oct 27, 2011

Has anyone ever been to a circus where the ringmaster did something really spectacular?

I went to a circus a little while back and was impressed with the ringmasters dance. She brought out a pair of lions and did the whole lion taming bit, and the whole time she was moving to the music and really getting the crowd pumped up.

I think as time goes on the traditional circus is going to go more and more towards impressive showmanship, because frankly, it is hard to get people's attention these days, let alone keep it. I think stunts like the lion taming dance are going to keep getting more and more extreme.

By animegal — On Oct 26, 2011

There have been some really sexy ringmasters costumes that have come out for Halloween and I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being a hot item. The Halloween costumes take the traditional ringmasters garb and really spice it up for the ladies. Think fishnet stockings and a red bustier, of course, they also toss in the top hat and a very short jacket with coattails.

I think the ringmasters costume is a pretty unique one, and adds a bit of variety to the usual sexy costumes most women wear. I think the naughty kitties and bunnies you see coming out on Halloween have gotten a bit old.

By seag47 — On Oct 26, 2011

I attended a performance by a circus that had a female ringmaster. Instead of the typical suit and mustache, she wore a hot pink, sequined dress with a jagged edge. She did wear a blazer with long coattails, though.

Instead of a top hat, she wore a sparkly crown adorned with pink feathers. Matching platform shoes elevated her to a height of about seven feet. She definitely demanded the attention of the crowd before she even spoke.

I'm sure she probably took plenty of flak for being a female ringmaster. However, she had charisma and a command of the situation that could not be denied.

By StarJo — On Oct 25, 2011

@chivebasil – There is actually such a thing as circus school. My cousin attended one, and he learned how to be a ringmaster.

He had to take acting classes as part of his training. His adviser told him that he would need to be comfortable on stage as a performer, so basic acting skills were necessary.

The graduating class puts on a circus each year, and the valedictorian gets to serve as ringmaster. My cousin had the honor, and he loved it.

After graduation, he got a job behind the scenes with a traveling circus, and he served as an apprentice to that company's ringmaster. Eventually, the ringmaster let him try out his skills, and once the guy retired, my cousin took over the position.

By chivebasil — On Oct 25, 2011

How does someone become a ringmaster? I would imagine that it takes a lot of circus experience and you basically have to work your way up thorough the ranks. But if I was really thinking of going into this line of work is there a way that I could prepare myself? Is there a degree that would help? I know that is a crazy idea, getting a degree to go into the circus, but there has to be something that would be useful.

By tigers88 — On Oct 24, 2011

I once saw this circus performance at Burning Man that was unlike any circus I had ever seen. As you can imagine, it was pretty freaky (its burning man after all). There was lots of neon colors and explosions and bursts of water and some of the weirdest and crustiest looking people I have ever seen.

The ringmaster has always stuck out in my mind because of this crazy mustache he had. Unlike the typical handle bar mustache that most ringmasters wear, this guy looked like he had a dread lock hanging off of his lip and down to his waist. It was as thick as a snake.

It was also orange colored and the lighting for the show made it seem to glow. You couldn't take your eyes off of it especially when he started to whip it around.

By summing — On Oct 24, 2011

I spent about five years traveling with a small circus that toured the US. I worked with horses and we also had clowns, acrobats and a few other animal acts. It was a very small operation but we drew pretty big crowds sometimes and I like to think that we put on a pretty great show.

A lot of that had to do with out ringmaster. His name was Tom and he was also the owner of the circus. He had been in the circus for most of his life and had been a ringmaster for decades. This guy was a complete professional. He knew exactly had to make an audience laugh, or get them excited or build up suspense. Listening to him was half the fun of the circus.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

Writer

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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