A ringmaster is a central figure in many circuses and live shows. Acting as a master of ceremonies, the ringmaster speaks directly to the crowd and serves as a guide throughout the performance. Much like ancient heralds, ringmasters are known for giving detailed introductory speeches meant to excite the crowd and build a dramatic atmosphere.
Circuses may vary in set-up and operations, but the traditional layout of a circus arena involves several staging areas, often ring-shaped, where various acts perform. Having several different stages allows the show to progress smoothly, as one act can be setting up, another performing, and yet another breaking down equipment or shutting down simultaneously. The ringmaster helps direct the attention of the audience toward the currently performing act by narrating or commenting on the performance.
The ringmaster of a circus is often recognizable for his or her distinct outfit. Since the early 20th century, many ringmasters have adopted a formal and attention-grabbing costume that includes a large top hat, gloves, and a formal coat with coattails. Some circus historians believe this trend started with the great George Claude Lockhart, a famous ringmaster with the Blackpool circus in England. The color of the coat is often bright and somewhat gaudy; Lockhart famously wore a pink coat, while other ringmasters wear red, bright blue or green, and often accent the coat with sequins or other glittering fabrics.
Ringmasters may be male or female, but circus iconography nearly always depicts the master of ceremonies as a male with a peculiar mustache. This style, called a handlebar mustache, is comprised of two long locks of hair grown over the top lip, parted just above the center of the lips and combed outward. The origin of this fashion is unknown, but may date back to the Renaissance Italian theater, where clown characters wore similarly bright clothing and often sported a handlebar mustache.
Although ringmasters are best known as circus workers, other performance shows have positions with the same title. In equestrian shows, a ringmaster assists judges and officials throughout the show. Much like a stage manager in a play, the ringmaster of a horse show moves the action along, making sure each new class is ready on time and each arena is properly prepared for the upcoming event. Equestrian ringmasters may wear a costume similar to that of a circus master of ceremonies, leading some historians to believe that George Claude Lockhart's outfit was inspired by this practice.