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.
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.”
Bellevue 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.