Hippo Critical at the Ringling Museum

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In the early 20th century, circus saw its fair share of stars, but few as big as Lotus. Hailing from another continent and traveling from coast to coast with a variety of circus troupes, all Lotus had to do was show her face and the people flocked to her side. Not one for tricks, she would simply walk the Big Top between acts, meeting adoring fans and posing with other performers. And at 4,800 pounds, that was spectacle enough for most. In 1937, LIFE magazine even photographed her, capturing her beauty from “fore” and “aft,” naked as the day she was born and printed for all its readers to see. Shortly after, Lotus retired to the Ringling Bros. Winter Headquarters in Sarasota, where she passed in 1954.

And, oh yeah, Lotus was a Nile hippopotamus.

Though perhaps not as synonymous with circus as roaring lions and trumpet-nosed elephants, hippos certainly enjoyed their own heyday in the circus arts, and the latest exhibition at the Ringling Museum Tibbals Learning Center looks to celebrate a time when these plump and pudgy river horses captured the imaginations of Americans everywhere. Entitled Hippos: A Truly Big Show!, and opening this Saturday, June 8, the exhibition sees 29 posters drawn from the circus museum archives and put on display—each of them advertising the imminent arrival of these bounteous beasts.

At a time when circuses traveled with a menagerie of animals, the hippo was a “pretty common” addition, says exhibition curator Jennifer Lemmer Posey, as the animals traveled well, staying healthy on long treks across the continent and docile with crowds. Of course, that didn’t stop circus promoters from filling their posters with images of hippos in fearsome displays, those massive jaws invariably yawning to expose a man-eating maw lined with great forbidding tusks.

“They’re dangerous just because of their sheer size,” says Posey, “and they do have those fearsome tusks. There’s this ambivalence, and the circus totally played that up.”

The earliest examples in the exhibition survive from the late 1800s, and capture this thrill-seeking approach to advertising, though the posters from the 1930s, 40s and 50s show a change of course, with the gentle giants portrayed as cute and loving creatures. No longer tipping canoes, see hippos on tightropes and hippos on swings. See baby hippos in baby buggies drinking from baby bottles, despite a glaring lack of opposable thumbs. Artistic license? Maybe, says Posey, but that’s advertising.

“Sometimes,” she says, “circus just needs to be circus.”

Hippos: A Truly Big Show! opens at the Ringling Museum on June 8 and runs through September 30.

Pictured: Lotus, as photographed by Bob Wallace for LIFE magazine. Photo courtesy of the Ringling Museum.

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