The “Disaster” March

Trio to Sousa's "Stars and Stripes" played to signal trouble

Source: “AT THE CIRCUS” Practice Book Series by Rod Everhart, WJU#1351

Interestingly enough, the music of John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), probably the most famous composer of that era, was rarely played in the circus.  While quite popular with community bands, the Sousa marches were viewed as too regimented and militaristic to fill the “excitement requirements” of the circus. 

John Philip Sousa

However, there was a notable exception.  Because Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” published in 1897, became the best-known march in history, the trio of that tune was fairly universally adopted by the circus industry as its “fire alarm” or “emergency warning” device.  Should a crisis occur, the band would immediately switch to the so-called “disaster march,” alerting first responders (circus employees, local fire and police members) to rush to the scene. 

One notable use of this audible alarm was in Hartford, Connecticut on July 6, 1944, when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey big top caught fire during a performance. 

Big Top tent fire, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Norwalk CT, July 6, 1944

Over 150 people died in the blaze. However, the legendary Ringling band director, Merle Evans, who spotted the flame on the side-wall at the opposite end from the bandstand, immediately cued “Stripes” with his cornet.  He was credited with saving hundreds of lives by his quick reaction to this disaster-in-the-making.

After completing the score to “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Sousa stated in his autobiography, Marching Along (Boston: Hale, Cushman and Flint, 1928): 

“Aboard the Teutonic, as it steamed out of the harbor on my return from Europe in 1896, came one of the most vivid incidents of my career.  As I paced the deck, absorbed in thought, suddenly I began to sense the rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain.  It kept on ceaselessly, playing, playing, playing.  Throughout the whole voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and reechoing the most distinct melody.  I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed.  The composition is known the world over as ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ and is probably my most popular march.”

Once modern communication devices became widely available, “emergency tunes” were still used by circuses to calm audiences and fill the time while the situation was being resolved.   The choice for Ringling Bros. became “12th Street Rag,” and for Clyde Beatty – Cole Bros. Circus, bandmaster Charles Schlarbaum often used “Hello Dolly” for this purpose. Sometimes, if the emergency was not quickly resolved and the tune had to be repeated over and over, the talented circus musicians would individually take turns with improvised solos to provide variations.

Using an alternative tune during an emergency situation had the further benefit of putting subsequent performers on notice as they all knew the order of the music and timed their arrival for their act on the tunes preceding theirs.  So, if an unexpected piece was being played, they would know to be on alert for possible changes in the program order, including being signaled to go on early.  For the clowns, this was especially true, as their “walkaround” acts could provide a diversion to whatever the situation might be elsewhere in the circus tent.   

About Joe Shearin 16 Articles
Joe (WJU #3773) is an Editor and Contributor at MYWJU.ORG in addition to being a Trustee, Secretary and Trombonist in Windjammers Unlimited.