When the circus thrilled at Bellevue Hospital

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus still comes into town every year. (And up until recently, by foot!)

But perhaps no one welcomed clowns, elephants, horses, and the rest of the dazzling show quite like the patients of Bellevue Hospital.


From 1908 to the 1960s, the circus set up in the interior courtyard, where patients could watch the action in wheelchairs or stretchers from Victorian-era balconies.


“It was a picturesque and unusual spectacle, that audience of patients in pink-striped hospital robes or in gray ones, with a nurse here and a doctor there, and crowds of little children—some touched by the great white plague, some little cripples, and some little convalescents,” wrote The New York Times during a 1912 performance.

CircusbellevuecloseupThat year, an audience of 600 witnessed the band, jugglers, acrobats, contortionists, and a “champion roper” who did “marvelous things with a lasso.”

By the 1950s, the audience numbered in the thousands.

In 1952, a Times reporter noted that on the day of that year’s scheduled show, “the marble corridors of the wards echoed with the chatter and rumble of prone-carts, wheelchairs, while nurses and attendants carried physically afflicted children and escorted adult patients to the temporary grandstands.”

CircusbellevueacrobatsBellevue discontinued the tradition in 1967, when the balconies were demolished for the construction of a modernized hospital building.

Ringling Brothers brought the tradition back in 2013, performing at Brooklyn Hospital Center before a show at the Barclays Center.

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5 Responses to “When the circus thrilled at Bellevue Hospital”

  1. penelopebianchi Says:

    How completely sad that a tradition that brought joy to the “inmates” was sacrificed to make the hospital “modernized”. This demolishes the inner spirit of people. Just my opinion! So, so Sad!!!

  2. William Krause Says:

    How can one compare preserving the longtime value of a hospital and its short lived use as a circus venue? Does one have greater importance than the other—if so which??

    (One is an investment in fulfilling its mission of healing; the other a temporary diversion for the afflicted.)

  3. Tilman Hill Says:

    Fantastic photos! Can you date any of them? I can’t imagine why I was unaware of this annual event in the 1960s when I was still living in New York. Bellevue Hospital was central to our lives in the 1940s-1970s. Two of my siblings were born there and died there. I was hospitalized there on several occasions as a child and in adulthood as well. I have a fondness for the old core building.

  4. bigmommamoves Says:

    Thank you for sharing this. As someone who works in the Activities Therapy Department of Psychiatry for the past 20 years I can say Bellevue is still committed to bringing patients experiences that can fulfill them. I have taken patients out to the community on many occasions to see and do things they have never done before. It brings me great joy.

  5. Melinda Denver Says:

    I’ve questioned the motives of the circus industry. Surely there are better ways to entertain ill children and adults than with elephants kept in less than acceptable conditions. The man pulling his head off? Great idea!! 👍🏼🤨

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