Red Alert At the Circus

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” is a rousing march by John Philip Sousa, the king of American brass. While it’s been a popular piece of music for large gatherings for more than a century, for much of the 20th century you would almost never hear it performed at a circus or theatre. In those crowded indoor spaces, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is known as the Disaster March. Whenever there’s a serious emergency in a theatre or under the big top, the band plays this march as a clear signal to all staff that something bad is happening and they should get to their posts. It is, in effect, a red alert. Possibly the most famous use of the song was during the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance of July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Conn. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people clustered under the big top to watch lions and high-wire acrobats, when all of a sudden the tent caught fire. The method used to waterproof the circus big top was to soak the fabric in paraffin wax and gasoline, so the fire spread even faster than normal. The circus band immediately began playing the Disaster March, and while the ringmaster called for a calm exit, the people stampeded. The burning tent came down in a mere 8 minutes, trapping the audience within. Around 168 people died in the Hartford circus fire.