|All rights reserved.
|The Fabulous Russell Brothers Circus
|A poster from the mid-1930s celebrating one of the
most impressive "truck shows" of its day
|Claude & Pauline Webb, who founded the Russell
Show in 1928 and ran it until 1943
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the online home of The Russell Brothers Circus.
It wasn't so very long ago that hundreds of circuses criss-crossed the American landscape. A 1943 article in The
Billboard magazine contained a list of nearly 200 such organizations that were all supposedly presented by one set of
"Brothers" or another, the most celebrated among these siblings being The Ringling Brothers.
It was a crowded field, but over the course of nearly two decades The Russell Brothers Circus forged its own unique
contribution to circus history while entertaining untold thousands. Established by the husband and wife team of Claude
Webb and Pauline Russell Webb in 1928, the show's early years coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. It
was a formidable challenge for any circus merely to survive in such difficult times. Many fell by the wayside, but the
Russell show persevered and gradually evolved into one of the two or three largest motorized circuses of the 1930s.
In many ways, theirs was a quintessentially American success story. In 1933 the show established its winter quarters in
the town of Rolla, Missouri. From this base in the heartland, its initial itineraries centered on small towns and rural
communities in the South and Midwest that were often overlooked by larger circuses, prompting some in the business
to label the Russell show "The P.T. Barnum of The Sticks". One of the members of the Russell circus family during
these early days was a struggling but game trapeze artist named Burt Lancaster, who was still years away from the
Hollywood limelight that would also come to touch The Russell Brothers Circus in time.
The hardscrabble nature of life on the road forced many smaller shows to rely on "grift" to get by. These questionable
practises included hosting crooked gambling on the show grounds and retaining short change artists to fleece an
unwary public. The Russell Brothers Circus, however, prided itself on being a "Sunday School Show" of impeccable
character, proven by the fact that it was warmly welcomed back into the same communities year after year. Claude &
Pauline often entertained local dignitaries, Mayors, and even the occasional Governor as their personal guests at
performances. Of course, the Russell show was also a product of its time, and a circus of this era would have been a
charmless thing indeed without at least a few hints of chicanery. The fine art of bootlegging has a cameo role in the
Russell history (suffice it to say that animal manure makes a splendid hiding place for liquor!), as do a few sideshow
attractions of questionable pedigree (including a grizzled gentleman who claimed to be the legendary outlaw Jesse
James in the flesh).
The Russell Brothers Circus eventually visited most of the country, making its way up and down the East Coast in
addition to its tours of the South and Midwest before setting its sights on California in the early '40s. In Los Angeles,
Russell show publicity man Bill Antes pioneered the "Circus of the Stars" concept, inviting Hollywood heavyweights like
Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara to visit the show and gaining national exposure in the process. It wasn't long before
the movie studios became interested. Some animals from the Russell menagerie were borrowed for the popular series
of Tarzan films, and legendary director Alfred Hitchcock featured Russell performers and show wagons in his 1942
suspense classic Saboteur.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, The Russell show earned the improbable distinction of being the first
American circus to give a performance during a blackout. The Webbs dealt with the trials and tribulations of mounting a
show during the war years for a little while longer before selling out to the celebrated circus executive and erstwhile
acrobat Art Concello in 1943. The twilight years of the Russell saga brought more milestones, including a brief
partnership with animal trainer Clyde Beatty, a true titan of the big top, and its transformation into a railroad show that
toured as The Russell Brothers Pan-Pacific Circus.
The preceding paragraphs have only touched briefly on a few highlights of The Russell Brothers Circus's colorful
history. If your curiosity was peaked by anything that you read, you will hopefully be pleased to learn that a
comprehensive book is in the works that promises to share the full history of the show in all its glory, with many
previously unpublished photographs and examples of memorabilia. Please visit our THE BOOK page for further details.
In the meantime, thank you for visiting us on the Internet. We've found a nice lot here in cyberspace and hope to settle
in for a good long run. Please explore the rest of our site and check back with us every now and then for updates.
Our friends, old and new, are always welcome here.
the town of Rolla, Missouri.
|Share Your Memories With Us!
Do you have any memories of The Russell Brothers Circus?
Did you ever attend a performance, or was someone in your family personally
involved with the show?
Are you a collector of circus memorabilia with some Russell-related images or
items among your prized possessions?
WE WOULD LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU!
Please visit THE BOOK page of this web site to learn more about the definitive history of The Russell Brothers
Circus that is currently in the works. If you would like to share anecdotes or information with us, or if you would
simply like to be kept up to date as this project develops, please visit our CONTACT US page and send us an
We will get back to you as soon as possible.
Rest assured that all correspondence and email addresses will be treated with confidentiality and respect.
|An impressionist oil on canvas from the early '30s depicting a Russell Show lot by Polish-American artist and illustrator
Walter Krawiec (1889-1982)