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Spotlight on Circus: May Wirth

Spotlight on Circus: May Wirth

Born on June 6, 1894 in Queensland, Australia May Wirth was adopted into the Wirth circus family and was taught balancing and acrobatic acts and equestrian skills. By the age of ten, she was a performing as a trick rider. She toured America on the 1912 Barnum & Bailey show, billed as “the Wonder Rider of the World,” and was among the women who met with suffrage leaders while performing in New York. After touring throughout Europe, May Wirth returned to the U.S. to join the Ringling show in 1917 and was a featured attraction for almost two decades. Her act included feats like somersaulting backwards through rings while on horseback and leaping from the ground to the back of her galloping horse, and other feats that few other female riders have ever duplicated.

May Wirth’s performances were so astounding that artist Marsden Hartley dedicated the chapter “A Charming Equetrienne” to describing her act in his 1921 book Adventures in the Arts: Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville and Poets. Hartley wrote “She is mistress of a very difficult art, and yet the brilliancy of her performance makes it seem as if it were but the experiment of an afternoon, in the out-of-doors.”

Renowned artist Alexander Calder paid homage to Wirth in his marvelous Circus, which was composed of kinetic sculptures of some of the great performers of the early 20th century. One of the primary figures is a female figure balanced on the back of a white horse, wearing Wirth’s signature pink bow.

Even Howard Tibbals was compelled to include the talented equestrienne in The Howard Bros. Circus Model. Having taken an opportunity to ask the long-retired Wirth about her experiences on the circus lot, Howard Tibbals recreated her most vivid memory. More than fifty years after being on the lot, she recalled being one of the few performers who received two buckets of water daily. That second bucket allowed May Wirth to wash her hair, so in the model she can be found beside her private tent with her hair covered in suds.

This collection represents a few pieces in The Ringling collections that are directly tied to May Wirth’s circus story.