James S. Moy

The Canadian inhabitants thought our horses where supernatural, that it was impossible horses could dance and keep time to music, that the man dancing a hornpipe on the saddle while the horse was in full speed; Mr. Ricketts was very great in that. We where the first equestrians that ever was in Canada, therefore the Canadians where ignorent of the science and thought the whole a conjuration.
from The Memoir of John Durang American Actor, 1785-1816, p 69

John B. Ricketts, Durang's employer, introduced the first large scale circus to America. During his brief eight year American career Ricketts managed to '... materially interfere with the profits ... ' of the established theatres of the day. 1 After his arrival from England in 1792, Ricketts opened a riding school in Philadelphia. Exploiting his earlier performance experience with the London circuses of Charles Hughes and the Joneses, Ricketts began offering his own entertainments during the spring of 1793 in Philadelphia. Ricketts' performances were initially limited to solo equestrian acts with brief interludes of dancing, juggling and tumbling which he, himself, performed. However, he quickly added personnel to expand the range of his acts. Indeed, by 1796 stage entertainments such as pantomimes and dance acts dominated the performances offered by his company.

As the nature of his entertainments changed so did the structures he built to house them. In 1797, while still operating six other circus-theatres along America's eastern seaboard, Ricketts opened what was probably America's most advanced theatre of the period in New York City, the Greenwich Street Theatre. 2 Then abruptly, perhaps growing weary of the great managerial task before him, Ricketts changed course in July of 1797. 3

Divesting himself of his New York theatre, and reducing his troupe from over twenty to only six performers, Ricketts left for an extended tour of Canada:

We engaged a convenient sloop, commanded by Capt'n Willet. We had stalls made for six horses we performed with: (names) Cornplanter (an elegant charger), Lady Washington and Merry Jacko (two blacks), Governer (for still vaulting), Silver Heels (for the Tailor) Little Boner (for poney races) .... Our company consisted only of Mr. Ricketts and myself [John Durang], Mr.Leulier, a musician, the groom, L.Bird, assistend, and Master Hutchins. 4

Leaving New York City on 19 July 1797, Ricketts arrived in Albany, New York, on 24 July, after stopping in small towns along the way. 5 Here, he erected a temporary circus at the lower end of Greene Street where his company offered performances between 31 July and 4 August 1797. A final performance was given the following Tuesday to benefit the sufferers of the disastrous fire which had struck the town a few days before. 6

Ricketts arrived in Montreal on the afternoon of 25 August 1797, the trip from Albany taking eleven days. By Monday the 28th of August, Ricketts had obtained a site for his circus which was soon to open. 'It was situated in a corner of the rampart, near the Recollet Gate guard house.... It was build [sic] without a top for day performance. In two weeks it was compleated with ring stage, dressing room and stables. The house was devided, a row of boxes elevated, and the pit underneth with a coffee room.' 7

On Monday, 4 September, Ricketts published in the Montreal Gazette the following for his Tuesday opening of the circus:
[link to image] 8

John Durang reports that two performances were offered every afternoon:

Mr. Ricketts of course was the head and principle performer in the equestrian line, and to his credid the best that ever was in America. My business was Clown on foot and horseback, and obliged to furnish the jokes ... with dialogue which I was obliged to speak in French, German, and English, (the principle inhabitants are French, a great many Germans, a few merchants and British soldiers English). 9
Extras and stage-hands were recruited locally:
... the band of music belonging to the 60th Regiment, Royal American Grenadiers. The labourers of the circus where soldiers off of duty who work'd at half a crown a day, and that was the salary we gave the band. 10

Following the pattern he had established in the United States, Ricketts' entertainments were initially equestrian in nature. Expansion, however, soon followed as attractions were added to lure audiences back for return viewings. Durang describes a few of his added duties:

... I dancet on the stage, I was the Harlequin in the pantomimes, occasionelly I sung a comic song. I tumbled on the slack rope and performed on the slack wire. I introduced mechanical exhibitions in machinery and transparencies. I produced exhibitions of fireworks. 11

So popular were these performances that plans were soon made to extend the run:

Mr. Ricketts received such encouragement from the merchants and officers to remain the winter thro', in four weeks we shut up our summer circus and began to finish this on a more permanent one. We were compel'd to build the circus of stone all round, and put a roof with sky lights, a coffee room.12

This new amphitheatre was located near the west end of the parade ground not far from the site of the temporary summer circus. Because it was made of stone, it was still standing in 1810 when its exact location was noted in a land survey (see figure 1). The interior of this building was described as being similar to Ricketts' New Amphitheatre in Philadelphia:

... the box elivated, the pit in the front on the ground floor, our dressing rooms and satle [settle] where underneath the box floor, a large stage orchestra over the door where the horses entered.... The doom [dome] was a light blue sky colour, cupids bearing garlands of roses round the circle, the boxes rose pink, pannels white, with a festooned blue curtain, the ring in panels intersperset with posts and gold chain leading round. The stage department was decorated with scenery, a curtain, frontispiece, stagedoors, a niche on each with bust of armory. 13

With the following announcement, Ricketts began the longest season of his career:


IMPRESSED with the moft lively gratitude for paft favors, Mr. Ricketts returns his moft fincere thanks to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Montreal, for the kind patronage and liberal encouragement which they have hitherto fhewn him.
    Again folicits their attention for the prefent Seafon. He takes this opportunity of informing them, that he has erected a new and elegant Amphitheatre under an original plan of his own, fo as to make it perfectly warm and convenient, and ornamented in a fuperb flyle.
    He affures the Public, that no pains or expence whatever have been fared to render it a moft beautiful place for public amufement.
    The Public are further informed that the Amphitheatre will open on the evening of Tuefday the 31ft of October next, for Equeftrian Exercifes and Stage Performances.
    The particulars of the Entertainments of the evening will be announced in the future advertifements.
    After Wednefday Boxes may be taken from 10 o'clock in the morning to 3 in the afternoon at the Amphitheatre Coffee Room.

Montreal, 23 October 1797. 14

By the end of October, he had reduced his schedule to '... Mardis, Jeudis, & Samedis, pour Representer des EXERCISES EQUESTRES ET DES PANTOMIMES.' 15 Doors were opened at six with performances to begin at seven. Patrons were asked to '... order their servants to drive their carriages through Notre Dame Street, going to the Circus, and returning home through Ramparts Street ....' 16 In mid-November he further reduced his performance schedule to two per week, and on 27 November he began offering riding lessons. 17 Ricketts apparently liked this leisurely pace because he maintained it for the remainder of this season which continued until 3 May 1798.

During the course of the season, Ricketts produced fifteen stage titles (see appendix), most of which he had already offered in the United States. A typical evenings' bill featured a series of equestrian acts separated by novelty stage entertainments usually concluding with a pantomime. These activities, then, alternated between the stage and circus ring. Aside from the titles, little is known of how these entertainments were produced. It is evident that Ricketts adapted previously successful American acts for his new Canadian audiences by adding elements of local colour. In this manner The Taylor's Ride to Brentford, an equestrian pantomime which enjoyed great popularity in America and England, became The French Post Boy. 18 Similarly, Harlequin in New-York and Harlequin in Philadelphia became Harlequin in Montreal. 19 Detailed descriptions of two of the stage entertainments offered in Canada exist. A much favoured entr' acte, Dwarf Metamorphosed, was performed and described thus by John Durang (see figure 2);

The body and the head of the Dwarf where tied above my hip, and the uperpard of my body and head were covered by a coloured paticoat gathered with my hands at the top of my head. In this concealed manner I would make my entrance ... to change from the man Dwarf to a woman before I quit the stage; this improvement made the dance complete. The metamorphose was from a man of 3 feet to a woman of 6 feet. 20

The Death of Captain Cook was advertised on the bill 'for the last time' on 19 March 1798. 21This pantomime featured exotic spectacle and included the following scenes in its American production:

In act I. The Method of Courtship, and Marriage Ceremony in Owhyhee with a beautiful view of The ISLAND. Manner of SINGLE COMBAT WITH BATTLE AXES. In act II. The arrival of CAPTAIN COOK in the Ship RESOLUTION. His reception by the King and Warriors of OWHYHEE. A WAR DANCE by the NATIVES. Their Preparations for WAR, and Manners Of SACRIFICE, with an exact representation of the DEATH OF CAPTAIN COOK by the WARRIORS. In act III. The Funeral Ceremonies made use of at OWHYHEE; With a procession of the Natives to the MONUMENT OF CAPTAIN COOK With MILITARY HONORS. The Whole to conclude with An Awful Representation of a BURNING MOUNTAIN. 22

It can be assumed that these spectacular entertainments required a greatly expanded company. Unfortunately, little is yet known of how Ricketts' company changed to accommodate the increasingly elaborate Canadian productions. 23

A master showman, Ricketts took every opportunity to insure the public's favour. In February 1798, Ricketts advertised a series of masked balls for which he proposed:

... to lay a spring floor in the Amphitheatre so as to form a complete ROTUNDA ... to have it elegantly illuminated and intersperset with variagated Lamps, to be decorated in a superb style ... A large and commodious Room, will be fitted up for the purpose of refreshments ... and as an objection to this species of amusement may arise from an inconvenience of procuring Masks, Mr. Ricketts will engage to supply the Subscribers therewith. 24

Before the end of this first season in Canada, Ricketts presented over four benefits for charitable organizations. 25

Departing Montreal on 9 May 1798, Ricketts arrived in Quebec City on 17 May. 26 On 31 May, Ricketts announced the opening of his circus outside of the St. Louis Gate: 'Days of Performance will be on TUESDAYS, THURSDAYS, and SATURDAYS.' The entertainments were to begin at seven in the evening with the doors opening one hour earlier. 27 John Durang offers the following summary of their brief stay in this city:

We build our circus at the S.W. of the town within the walls of Quebeck. We performed two months to good business; I had about 3 hundred dollars for my benefit. The British artilary officers gave me permission to have the assistance of some of their engeneers in making fireworks for me, who also presented me with some very valueable receipt in the nature of fireworks with a correct explenation of the compositions. I was introduced to their laboratory and armory, which was a great treat to me. 28

Only five stage titles were advertised in the Quebec City newspapers during this brief season, and nothing is yet known of how these might have been staged.

On his way back to New York City, Ricketts planned a brief but spectacular series of performances for Montreal to conclude his Canadian tour. Ironically, the popularity of his circus conspired to ruin Ricketts' last performance in Canada. Throughout his stay in Canada, Ricketts had been bothered by the problem of illegal attendance at his circus. To discourage the use of counterfeit tickets, he employed specially minted silver tokens, a device which he had used successfully in Philadelphia. 29 Similarly, servants frequently stayed beyond their legal time, prompting the following: ' . . . Ladies and Gentlemen who take Boxes are particularly requested to order their Servants to withdraw on the arrival of the Company as they cannot be Admitted to stay on any account.' 30 Often those left outside would bore holes through the walls or roof of the circus to catch an illegal glimpse of the entertainments. Such was the case on the closing night of Ricketts' Canadian tour. John Durang describes the evening's odd turn of events:

On the last night's performance the roof of the circus was crowded and would not be driven off. Hutchins the groom fired a gun loaded with peas among them and put out the eye of a young man. The master suet Ricketts, and made him pay eight hundred dollars damage. Hutchins was obliged to hide himself, else the mob would have kill'd him. He got a guide to conducd him over the lines to a house on the lake, and there wait till we call'd for him. The affair detained us some days and attended a good deel of trouble to Mr. Ricketts. 31

Departing Montreal, Ricketts hastily returned to Philadelphia after brief performance stops in Albany and New York City, He reopened his Philadelphia circus on 26 December 1798. 32 Within a month he was exploiting his Canadian experiences by advertising titles like THE CANADA POSTBOY'S JOURNEY TO QUEBEC. 33 Had his career continued, Ricketts might have considered a return engagement to Canada. Unfortunately, Durang reports that Ricketts died at sea shortly afterwards while on a voyage to England. 34

While the events of Ricketts' last performance in Canada certainly soured an otherwise peaceful tour, it did not decrease the Canadian theatre-going public's interest in novelty entertainments. Indeed, as everywhere, such entertainments as melodrama, burlesque, variety, circus and menageries dominated the nineteenth century Canadian stage. Accordingly, it is interesting to note that within months of Ricketts' departure, Mr Simon Clarke, one of Ricketts' former associates, was offering 'AUX CURIEUX UNE CHAMEAU MALE, sortie Des Deserts De L'Arabie.' 35


The following is a chronological list of every performance advertised by Ricketts' company during his Canadian tour. Each entry consists of a performance date derived from a newspaper advertisement, a citation for that advertisement, and an indication of the nature of that day's entertainments. When available the titles of pantomimes are listed. In addition, facsimile copies of selected advertisements are included to lend detail to the 'circus' designation. These reproductions are from microfilm copies of newspapers made available through the inter-library loan system.

Montreal 1797

Sep.5 Montreal Gaz., Sep.4 Circus Performances "...every afternoon Sundays..." excepted
Oct.31 Montreal Gaz., Oct.30 Circus "Stage Performances"
Nov.7 Montreal Gaz., Nov.6 Circus "Pantomimical Performances" Performances "...every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday."
Nov. 13 Montreal Gaz., Circus The Caledonian Frolic ("a Scotch Pastoral Ballad Dance")
Nov.20 Montreal Gaz, Circus Jack in Distress or, The Sailor's Landlady (Pantomimical Ballad Dance)
Poor Jack (with a hornpipe and song) Mr Durang
Nov. 27 Montreal Gaz., Circus The Milliner's Shop (Pantomime)
Dec.4 Montreal Gaz., Circus "Stage Performances"
Dec. 11 Montreal Gaz., Circus
Dec.21 Montreal Gaz., Dec. 18 Circus Robinson Crusoe
Dec.27 Montreal Gaz., Dec. 25 Circus The Physical Snob (Comedy)

Montreal 1798

Jan. 1 Montreal Gaz., Circus The Dwarf Metamorphosed (Comic Dance) - Durang
Robinson Crusoe
Jan.8 Montreal Gaz.., Circus "For the Benefit of the Poor"
The Indian Frolic (Pantomime Ballet)
The Enchanted Cave (Pantomime)
Jan.15 Montreal Gaz., Circus
The Bird Catcher
Jan.29 Montreal Gaz., Circus
Don Jaun
Feb. 5 Montreal Gaz., Circus
The Ship Wreck or the Distressed Tar
Don Jaun
Feb. 8 Montreal Gaz.,
The Voyageurs or Harlequin in Montreal
Feb. 12 Montreal Gaz., Circus
The Voyageurs or Harlequin in Montreal
Feb. 19 Montreal Gaz., Circus
Robinson Crusoe
Feb.26 Montreal Gaz., Circus
The Death of the Bear
Guillot (Mr. Durang)
Colas (Mr. F. Ricketts)
Huntsmen and other characters by the rest of the company
March 5 Montreal Gaz., Circus
March 19 Montreal Gaz., Circus
The Death of Captain Cook
March 26 Montreal Gaz., Circus
April 2 Montreal Gaz., Circus
April 9 Montreal Gaz., Circus
April 24 Montreal Gaz., April 23 Circus
Trick upon Trick, or The Vinter in the Suds (Comedy)
April 26 Montreal Gaz., April 23 Circus. Mr. Ricketts' Benefit
April 30 Montreal Gaz., Circus. "For the Benefit of the Unfortunate Sufferers by the Waters,
and the Damages done them by the Ice at its breaking up"
May 3 Montreal Gaz., April 30 Circus. "Last Performance this Season"

Quebec City 1798

May 31 Quebec Gaz., Circus
"The Days of Performance will be on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays"
June 7 Quebec Gaz., Circus
June 14 Quebec Gaz., Circus
June 21 Quebec Gaz., Circus
The Drunken Tinker's Rambles - Durang
June 28 Quebec Gaz., Circus
July 5 Quebec Gaz., Circus
The Antipodes Frolic ("a Dance between four persons")
July 12 Quebec Gaz., Circus
July 26 Quebec Gaz., Circus
Aug.2 Quebec Gaz., Circus
Aug.9 Quebec Gaz., Circus
The Death of Captain Cook
Captain Cook (Mr. Durang)
Koah (Mr. Ricketts)
Perrea (Mr. F. Ricketts)
Omai (Miss Bird)

Quebec City 1798

Aug. 16 Quebec Gaz., Circus. Mr. F. Ricketts' Benefit
The Polish Dwarf or Warsaw Wonder (Comic Dance) - Durang
Robinson Crusoe, or Harlequin Friday
Robinson Crusoe (Mr. Durang)
Friday (Mr. F. Ricketts)
Savages and Sailors by the rest of the company.
Aug.23 Quebec Gaz., Circus. "Last time this season"

Montreal 1798

Oct.8 Montreal Gaz., Circus
Rosina or Harvest Home (Grand Pantomimical Ballad)
Captain Bellville (Mr. Ricketts)
William (Mr. Durang)
Rustic (Mr. --)
Old Man (Mr. Gaston)
Father Frank (Mr. Ricketts)
Rosina (Miss Bird)
Phoebe (Miss Hoffman)
Doruas (Mr F. Ricketts)
Reapers & c. by the rest of the company. Days of Performance Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
Oct. 15 Montreal Gaz., Circus
Auld Robin Grey(Comic Ballad)


The First Circus in Eastern Canada


1 CHARLES DURANG, The Philadelphia Stage from the year 1749 to the year 1855, Chapter 25, in a copy arranged with extra illustrations by Thompson Westcott at the University of Pennsylvania Library. For a detailed treatment of Ricketts' American productions see my 'Entertainments at John B. Ricketts's Circus, 1793-1800,' Educational Theatre Journal May 1978, pp 186-202.
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2 Indeed, by the end of his American career, it could be said that Ricketts had opened or operated at least nineteen circus-theatre buildings. For a detailed account of Ricketts' most advanced structure, see my 'Greenwich Street Theatre 1797-1799,' Theatre Survey November 1979, pp 15-26.
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3 ALAN S. DOWNER, ed, The Memoir of John Durang American Actor 1785-1816, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1966, p 47; hereafter referred to as John Durang. Durang is frequently noted as America's first native born dancer. After working with the Old American Company, he joined Ricketts' company where his versatility as a performer made him one of the circus company's favourites.
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4 John Durang p 47
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5 John Durang pp 47-48
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6 John Durang pp 48-5 1; Albany Chronicle 29 July 1797, p 3; Albany Gazette 31 July 1797, p 3, and 7 August 1797, p 3; handbill dated 4 August 1797, Harvard Theatre Collection.
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7 John Durang p 67
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8 Montreal Gazette 4 September 1797, supplement p 1
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9 John Durang p 68
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10 John Durang p 68
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11 John Durang p 68
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12 John Durang p 69
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13 John Durang pp 69-70
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14 Montreal Gazette 23 October 1797, P 3
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15 Montreal Gazette 6 November 1797, p 4
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16 Montreal Gazette 23 October 1797, p 4
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17 Montreal Gazette 27 November 1797, p 4
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18 GEORGE SPEAIGHT, 'Some Comic Circus Entrees,' Theatre Notebook 32 (1978), 24-27; Quebec Gazette 2 August 1798, p 2
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19 Minerva New York City, 13 July 1796, p 3; Aurora and General Advertiser Philadelphia, 6 February 1796, p 2; Montreal Gazette 5 February 1798, supplement p 1
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20 John Durang pp 23-24; Montreal Gazette 1 January 1798, p 4
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21 Montreal Gazette 19 March 1798, p 3
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22 Aurora and General Advertiser Philadelphia, 7 November 1796, p 3
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23 FRANKLIN GRAHAM, Histrionic Montreal 2nd ed, 1902; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1969, p 17, incorrectly lists a very large performing company for Ricketts. He apparently arrived at this list by examining 1797 American advertisements of Ricketts' activities. Unfortunately, most of the performers listed were active in New York or Boston while Ricketts was in Canada.
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24 Montreal Gazette 5 February 1798, supplement p 1
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25 John Durang pp 75-76; Montreal Gazette 8 January 1798, p 3 and 30 April 1798, p 3
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26 John Durang pp 80-86
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27 Quebec Gazette 31 May 1798, p 2
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28 John Durang p 86
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29 Montreal Gazette 27 November 1797, p 4
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30 Montreal Gazette 20 November 1798, p 4
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31 John Durang p 88
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32 Albany Gazette 9 November 1798, p 3 and 16 November 1798, p 3; Commercial Advertiser New York City, 24 November 1798, p 3, 6 December 1798, p 3 and 13 December 1798, p 3; New York Gazette 11 December 1798, p 3; Aurora and General Advertiser Philadelphia, 26 December 1798, p 3
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33 Aurora and General Advertiser Philadelphia, 30 January 1799, p 3
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34 John Durang p 103
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35 Montreal Gazette 19 November 1798, p 4; John Durang p 67
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