Stars and Stripes and Run For Your Lives

In 1896, famed American composer John Philip Sousa penned the song “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It’s a very well-known song, for a few reasons. First, the song was a smash hit almost immediately, to the point that a year after it was written, the U.S. Federal government passed a law declaring it “the national march.” (It’s 36 USC § 304 if you’re interested.) Second, in the 1930s, a parody version about ducks became very popular and remains a fun children’s song. Here are the lyrics:

Be kind to your web-footed friends / For a duck may be somebody’s mother. / Be kind to your friends in the swamp, /Where the weather is very, very damp, / Now, you may think that this is the end, / Well, it is!

Still not familiar with it? No worries! You can play it on YouTube, here. But if you do, and if you’re at a circus for some reason, use your headphones. Otherwise, you may cause a mass panic.

Circuses, historically, haven’t been the safest form of entertainment. Wild animals, random pyrotechnics, people on tightropes, etc., it’s not hard to see how thing can go wrong. As How Stuff Works notes in an article titled “10 Worst Circus Disasters,” “if the whole conceit of a show is cheating danger, you better believe that occasionally danger is going to win.” And sometimes, that danger can spread to the audience. A loose animal or a fire can not only put guests in harm’s way, but once customers begin to react, others may panic — and that’s a recipe for disaster.

To combat this, circuses had to find a way to let all its personnel know that something was urgently wrong, all without alerting the audience. Today, we can install fire alarms and the like even in traveling circuses, but that wasn’t true a century ago. Music became an easy solution. Circuses back then often had bands that regaled patrons with all sorts of tunes — you’re probably familiar with “Entrance of the Gladiators” which, despite its name, is typically associated with circus clowns — and everyone can hear the band. At some point, the management of one of the circuses decided to use the band as an alert system — if the band played a previously specified tune, that was a signal to the circus personnel that something bad was happening.

And the song they chose? “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It’s a perfectly reasonable choice — it’s something you’d easily recognize once you heard it (even if you know it as the duck song), given its popularity. It wouldn’t seem out of place at a circus, given how jovial and upbeat it is. And it’s clearly something you can play with a traditional band.

The idea of using “The Stars and Stripes Forever” as the so-called “Disaster March” spread throughout the circus industry. It is not clear when this began or how it spread, but by the 1940s, the tradition was well-known — at least, to those who worked at circuses. If circus staff heard the band play the Sousa tune, they knew it was time to quickly usher the audience out of the tent, in as orderly a fashion as possible.

The “Stars and Stripes” SOS probably saved hundreds of lives. On July 6, 1944, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus brought its “Greatest Show on Earth” to Hartford, Connecticut, and it featured a main tent that was covered in paraffin wax dissolved in gasoline, in an effort to make the tent as waterproof as possible. While that coating helped keep water out, it made the tent quite flammable. And when a fire broke out in the circus, things got bad — and fast.

Per multiple reports, the circus band leader, Merle Evans, was one of the first to notice the impending disaster. And Evans did what he could to prevent a panic. As Time Magazine reported, “The band, on their feet at the unburned end of the tent, jerkily pumped out The Stars and Stripes Forever, as a “Disaster march,” the traditional circus warning to performers outside the tent to rally round for trouble. The aerialists slid down their ropes, began tumbling acrobatically toward safety” as they and other staff helped move the mob of people out of the fiery inferno that was building up. Per Wikipedia’s editors (citing a book I don’t have access to), “the performers heard the music and immediately began the evacuation. Accounts state that Evans and his band played until it was no longer safe to do so, and then evacuated and reformed outside, where their playing helped to pace the evacuation and steady the crowd.”

More than 150 people died in the Hartford circus fire, but the result could have been ten times more tragic. An estimated 7,000 people attended the circus that day, and many more lives could have been lost if it weren’t for Sousa, Evans, and the circus’s emergency alert system.

Bonus fact: For years, NBC News has used a similar audio alert to notify their staff about something important subtly. NBC famously uses a three-chime sound as an audio brand mark (you can listen to it here). But starting in the 1930s and through World War II, the network also used a four-chime version — the last note would play twice — when major news required all hands on deck. As NBC News itself explains, “For staffers, who probably had to leave their radios on all night, it was an ‘all-call’ to get to work,” but for normal listeners, it would just seem like a slight error. Per NBC, “the fourth chime was first used when the Hindenburg exploded over Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. It also rang out for the Munich crisis of 1938, the morning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, then again early in the morning of June 6th, 1944, after Allied forces landed on the northern coast of France.”

From the Archives: P.T. Barnum’s Final Attraction: This Way to the Egress!