Wirth's Circus: Behind the Big Top

Wirth's Circus: Behind the Big Top
WARNING: This clip may contain animal suffering
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The film begins with Wirth's famous circus elephants being dressed in their costume rugs. This is followed by a menagerie of animals: horses, ponies, zebras, more elephants and a caged lion.

The footage shows George Wirth with two women and another shot that shows him with his 16mm motion picture camera in hand – it is assumed that his brother Philip Wirth is filming him. We see a number of performers, including a dancer and a very tall and very short man.

In one scene, all the circus performers and animals are gathered out the front of the tent for a formal photograph; the photographer can be seen setting up his camera at the edge of the frame. The film ends with footage of a performer wearing a Wild West inspired costume holding a gun.

This footage is teamed with a recording of Philip Wirth playing the tin whistle, originally recorded on lacquer disk and digitised by the NFSA. It is unknown what year this music was recorded, however it is known that Philip Wirth took up playing the tin whistle in his older age and would often play it in the circus ring during performances.

Wirth’s Circus was Australia’s largest and most prestigious circus company. For 80 years Wirth’s was billed as Australia’s own ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, and was a huge travelling circus of international standard and reputation.

It was the sons and daughters of Johannes and Sarah Wirth, of German origin, who formed the circus: John, Harry, Philip, George, Marizles, Mina and Madeline.

The Wirth brothers began performing with their father as a travelling band though they soon advanced their show into a variety troupe and established themselves as a small circus by 1882. The circus grew rapidly; extended family featured as artists, they embarked on world tours, travelled Australia extensively, boasted an exotic menagerie of animals and recruited star attractions from Europe and America.

It was Phillip and George Wirth that continued to manage the circus as Wirth’s Bros Circus from the 1910s. George Wirth retired in 1930, though Philip Wirth and his extended family continued running the business up until its demise in 1963.

The NFSA currently holds approximately 50 x 16mm home movies that document the Wirths' private life, circus life and performances from aproximately 1926 to the 1950s. They primarily cover the period that Philip and George managed the circus.

The majority of the films are thought to be shot by George Wirth, who became a director of Pagewood (Film) Studios after his retirement in 1930.

Note: the NFSA does not endorse the use of animals for entertainment purposes. This film must be understood in its historical context.