Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dog And Pony Show

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 3, 2014

If you’ve ever heard newscasters talk about the dog and pony show, you undoubtedly have a sense that such a presentation is an elaborate and overblown event to promote something to the general population. It’s an expression that’s used pejoratively for the most part, and as such, the connotations and associations are usually negative.

The Jewish Week newspaper of March 2, 2014 published an article by Douglas Bloomfield about the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. While the idiom was used in the headline, it was also used in the opening paragraph.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference going on at the Washington Convention Center is the best dog and pony show in town, replete with a variety of interesting breakout groups, intelligent speakers, training sessions for activists, hasbarah, hands-on lobbying for the rank and file and the star power of meeting a glad-handing herd of pandering politicians.

Just a few weeks earlier on December 5, 2013, Matthew Vadum had written a news article that was carried by ww.frontpagemag.com that looked at the flaws in the Affordable Health Act proposed by the Obama administration. The article was entitled, “Obama’s Pointless Dog And Pony Show.”

In an article entitled “Special: More Than 77 Years Under The Tent” written by Eugene H. Kirkham and published in the June 18, 1979 edition of the “Circus Report: America’s Favorite Circus Weekly” the idiom was used in a non-idiom way. Sandwiched between advertisements and help wanted ads, and interspersed with articles such as the one on the latest rules covering both performing and non-performing animals and show reports, the article by article by Eugene H. Kirkham began by way of a quick introduction to the subject of the story.

On the cloudy morning of April 24th, on a small fair ground in Madison, NC, some circus fans walked on the back lot of Circus Genoa. It was their pleasure and surprise to be greeted by a short and grizzled man, the real and only Frank “Blacky” Boyd Martin. A man that has been in show business for 77 years. Since 1902 at Darlington, SC, when he ran off with the Gentry Bros. Dog and Pony Show, he has been on the road with about every circus and most carnivals that have played in the U.S.A.

With the mention of the Gentry Bros. Dog and Pony Show, research uncovered┬áthe many names the Gentry Brothers used to promote their show (1887 to 1922) from the simply titled “Gentry’s Famous Dog & Pony Show” to the showy version known as “Professor Gentry’s Equine and Canine Paradox” and countless incarnations between the two.

The dog and pony shows were small time shows masquerading as circuses that were run on a shoestring budget and consisted of a group of musicians of varying levels of talent and ability, a ringmaster, and animal acts that were mostly made up of dogs and ponies. The success of the dog and pony show relied heavily on the proprietor’s ability to aggressively market the show through lithographed pictorial posters and handbills with flashy words accompanied by engaging sketches.

The oldest dog and pony show was “Morris’ Equine and Canine Paradoxes” which began touring in 1883. When Henry B. Gentry of Bloomington, Indiana hooked up with the show at the tender age of 17 in 1886, he learned the art of showmanship and animal training quickly, setting off with his own dog and pony show the following year when he inherited the show from his mentor … a show that was deeply in debt and deserted by its creator.

Not to be deterred by such circumstances, Henry B. Gentry saw potential in the dog and pony show, and determined that it would be a success. By 1897, Henry B. Gentry’s show had grown to an impressive 14 cars. Four years after that, there were four Gentry shows on the road with Henry and his three brothers each managing a show. The shows also included — along with the dogs and ponies — monkeys, pigs, goats, and eventually, elephants.

By 1906, the dog and pony shows were left behind as Henry B. Gentry’s shows became full-fledged circuses in the truest sense of the word.

In Volume 98 of “The Bankers’ Magazine” covering January to June 1919, in the article “Purchaser of Note Must Take It Without Notice Of Defect To Be Holder In Due Course” the expression was used. It addressed the lawsuit of Security State Bank of Wichita v J.N. Seaunier filed in the Supreme Court of Kansas (178 pac. Rep. 239).

Among other things, it appeared that the doctor traveled around the country advertising himself through the medium of a dog and pony show, that he claimed the ability to detect and cure cancer, and that the bank at the time of taking the note held mortgages on the doctor’s show outfit. The note involved was given by the defendant to the doctor for services to be rendered by the doctor in curing the defendant’s wife. The trial court gave judgment for the bank without giving the jury an opportunity to pass on the question whether the note had been obtained by fraud.

The idiom dog and pony show came to mean an elaborate and overblown event that promoted something that may not be what it promises to be because the original dog and pony shows were advertised as mini-circuses and while entertaining, they did not live up to the billing. The expression originated in 1883 with Professor Morris’ cut-rate circus show and in time, as the 20th century wore on, the idiom became a negative comment about a presentation that promises far more than it ever delivers … no matter how amusing or entertaining.

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One Response to “Dog And Pony Show”

  1. mutanatia said

    I am glad you got Obamacare on this one. That was exactly what I thought of! I am wondering if there are any variants on this expression?

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