Fairs, Festivals & Circus History

Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus

With roots in ancient Egypt and a heyday commencing in the mid-19th century, the traditional circus has now nearly disappeared from the American landscape. The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its first Cow Palace performance in 1948, and returned to “The City by the Bay” annually for over 50 years on or around Labor Day weekend.

Originally founded in 1884 as Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows, in 1907 Ringling Bros. acquired the Barnum & Bailey Circus, merging them in 1919 to become Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, promoted as "The Greatest Show on Earth."

With its extravagant arena performances at the Cow Palace as well as outdoor sideshows, for many years the Circus was an enormously popular and affordable entertainment for residents of the Bay Area. The advent of television in the 1950s contributed to a slow decline in its popularity that continued into the 1980s, when awareness of animal welfare concerns took root in the public consciousness.

​With attendance sagging, traditional circuses folded one after another as audiences sought out more modern entertainments. In 2016 Ringling Bros. retired its traveling Asian elephants to a conservation center in central Florida; the company shut down in 2017 after 146 years in business. The conditions and future of the circus animals remain unclear.

For more on circus history: The Circus, a four-hour "American Experience" miniseries through PBS

Above: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Cow Palace, 1948. Below: Sideshow at the circus, 1950s.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair


With a history dating back to 1970 and now in its 37th season, The Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party has made its home at the Cow Palace since the year 2000. The Fair completely transforms three acres of indoor Cow Palace Exhibition Halls into a magical recreation of Victorian London at Christmas-time – bringing to life the world of illustrious author Charles Dickens.


Over 800 costumed characters interact with patrons throughout winding lanes of charming shops, lively pubs, and theaters presenting entertainments ranging from family-friendly to decidedly naughty.

The very first Dickens Fair established its tradition of authentic costuming, interactive entertainment, and atmospheric sets - an attending reporter described the Fair experience as similar to entering a movie set or finding oneself cast in a pageant.


2019 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Dickens Fair at the Cow Palace, and will also celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria. Fairgoers may meet Queen Victoria, Edgar Allen Poe and other characters from the Victorian era at the Dickens Fair, as well as beloved characters from the imagination of Charles Dickens such as Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger, Scrooge, The Ghost of Jacob Marley, and many more.

The Dickens Fair is also renowned for the enthusiasm and dedication of its attendees, many of whom create their own elaborate outfits and bring multiple generations of friends and family to celebrate the holiday season in Victorian style. Together the Fair performers, vendors, crew, and attendees recreate each year a uniquely Bay Area event "for the young - and the young at heart."

The Exotic Erotic Ball

The Exotic Erotic Ball came to the Cow Palace in 2002, and was held there annually through 2009, near Hallowe’en time. Dating back to 1979, the Exotic Erotic was the longest-running public adult-themed event in the world. Over three decades the annual indoor event became a major attraction in the San Francisco Bay and was attended by nearly half a million people with steadily increasing growth in attendance each year until 2010, when a venue change led to the event being cancelled due to poor ticket sales and cost overruns.


With strong ties to the San Francisco community, over the years The Exotic Erotic distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities supporting causes such as helping victims of natural disasters, AIDS, homelessness, and domestic violence, as well as supporting freedom of expression and First Amendment Rights.


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