Written By: Ben Cosgrove
LIFE.com celebrates the legendary entertainment juggernaut that Charles Edward Ringling (Dec. 2, 1863 – Dec. 3, 1926) and several other Ringlings owned and operated through the years: the Ringling Brothers Circus (later the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the “Greatest Show on Earth”). Here are photographs by LIFE’s Nina Leen, chronicling the lives lived behind the scenes by the huge extended family that made up the traveling extravaganza in the late 1940s.
In fact, Charles Edward’s nephew, John Ringling North, was the larger-than-life focus of the LIFE feature for which these photos were originally made. (Very few of the photographs ran in the magazine.)
Of all the marvels, human and animal, which populate the Ringling Bros.’ circus [LIFE wrote], none can match John Ringling North, the man who runs it, in sheer, brassy flamboyance. It is the considered judgment of a large following of friends and enemies that the sustained private performance given by North, a former stock-and-bond salesman who hacked his way through a financial jungle to become president and majority stockholder of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc., is easily as spectacular as any that takes place under the Big Top of The Greatest Show on Earth.
The 1949 article goes on to portray a man of outsize appetites, remarkable talents (“He tap dances, plays the saxophone and cornet, juggles lighted torches and sings songs of his own composition. . .”) and boundless, near-manic energy who somehow was able to put his stamp on a massive pop-culture phenomenon while, if the article is to believed, he rarely slept, constantly boozed it up in his private Pullman train car and galloped around on a stallion named Stonewall’s Pride.
Under the Big Top or outside of it, they just don’t make ’em like that any more.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.