The ringmaster, also called a ringleader, is the most visible performer in the modern circus, and among the most important, since he stage-manages the performance, introduces the various acts, and guides the audience through the entertainment experience. In smaller circuses, the ringmaster is often the owner and artistic director of the circus. Many modern-day ringmasters become an integral part of the performance, singing and dancing along with the other entertainers. He is called "Monsieur Loyal" in French, after the name of Anselme-Pierre Loyal (1753-1826), one of the first renowned circus personalities.
The traditional opening line of many circuses is the phrase "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages...," drawn out in dramatic fashion.
In the days before modern lighting equipment, it was the ringmaster's job to literally "direct" the attention of the audience to the appropriate sections of the performance area, even as the previous act was being torn down or the next act was being set up in another area. Most performances were mute by nature, accompanied by resounding brass music. Therefore, the ringmaster's big, booming voice was important as it cut through the clutter and excitement to announce the act.
It is traditionally the ringmaster's job to create a sense of hyperbole whenever possible while introducing the acts. Declarations of the "biggest," "most dangerous," "amazing," "spectacular," and similar expressions are common, regardless of the actual caliber of the performance.
The ringmaster is responsible for maintaining the smooth flow of the show — or at least an appearance of it. He may be called upon to fill time by talking or by joking with a clown if an act is not ready for its entrance.
A ringmaster is traditionally attired in a bright, gaudy topcoat and tails — often red with gold trim — with a tall top hat. The outfit is designed to look like an 18th-century gentleman's riding habit, and often includes a whip, a relic of when the ringmaster directed the performance, not as announcer and host but as director of the many equestrian acts, a specialist stage-manager. It is generally accepted that this costume was first adopted by George Claude Lockhart on the orders of Bertram Mills in 1928, when Lockhart worked as ringmaster for his Circus at Olympia, London.
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- "The Doyen of Ringmasters," Don Stacey, "World's Fair," 1979