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Fairs, festivals, and a circus

The Cow Palace has seen it all--serious and silly, energetic and laid back, and mundane and shocking. Below are a few highlights from the Cow Palace's past. For a list of all the events that the Cow Palace has hosted, check out the Cow Palace festivals and events timeline.

Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus


Traditional circus has now faded from the American landscape, but the Cow Palace played an important part in bringing it to the Bay Area. Starting in 1948, the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus entertained “The City by the Bay” annually for over 50 years. With its extravagant arena performances and outdoor sideshows, the Circus was an enormously popular and affordable entertainment for residents of the Bay Area. 

For more on circus history, check out The Circus, a four-hour American Experience miniseries through PBS.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair


Dating back to 1970, The Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party has called the Cow Palace home since 2000. The Fair completely transforms three acres of indoor Cow Palace Exhibition Halls into a magical re-creation of the holiday season in Victorian London--giving life to the world of Charles Dickens. A local reporter described the Fair experience as similar to entering a movie set or finding oneself cast in a pageant.

Hundreds of costumed characters interact with patrons throughout winding lanes of charming shops, lively pubs, and theaters that present entertainments ranging from family-friendly to decidedly naughty. Fairgoers may meet Queen Victoria, Edgar Allen Poe and other characters from the Victorian era at the Dickens Fair, as well as beloved Dickens characters such as Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger, Scrooge, The Ghost of Jacob Marley, and many more.

Together the Fair performers, vendors, crew, and attendees create a uniquely Bay Area holiday 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 stayed until 2009. Held near Hallowe’en time starting in 1979, the Exotic Erotic was the longest-running public adult-themed event in the world. Over three decades the annual event became a major attraction attended by nearly half a million people.


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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