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Karl King: The King of the Circus March

This week we take a look at a powerhouse in the march world, Karl Lawrence King. The music of Karl King was the background of countless circus performances and can still be heard today in auditoriums in the three rings of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Here are some cool facts about Karl King, the King of the Circus March!


Karl King picked up a local newspaper route to earn enough money to purchase hi first musical instrument, a cornet, at the age of 11. Mostly self-taught, Karl picked up tips and knowledge from his first teacher Emile Reinkendorff (a local music director) and members of the Canton Marine Band where he would sit in on brass instruments.


Karl King began his circus career at the age of 19. He never finished formal schooling having dropped out after 8th grade. He worked various jobs and even took up the trade of printing while continuing to study musical scores to independently learn the art of composition and orchestration. In 1910, he took a job as a baritone player with Robinson’s Famous Circus. He would spend the next eight years with several circuses ultimately landing a position with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. One of his most famous marches, Barnum & Bailey’s Favorite, was composed not long after he joined the band and was eventually adopted as the official song of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.


Karl King married a musician. King met Ruth and soon married the love of his life. She happened to also be a musician and in 1918 during his final tour with the B&B Circus, he asked his wife to perform the calliope with the band. The two eventually settled in Fort Dodge, IO, where they lived the rest of their lives together. In 2006, the city of Fort Dodge erected bronze statue of Karl King in honor of his contributions to the city, the state of Iowa, and the culture of America.


Karl King was a master at writing music to match the rhythm mood of the circus acts. Although sources vary, it is estimated that King wrote more than 300 compositions throughout his lifetime. In addition to publishing close to 200 circus marches, King also wrote aerial waltzes, overtures, and galops.


Karl King was instrumental (pun definitely intended!) in the passing of a 1921 law in Iowa which allowed municipalities to collect a local tax to support the municipal bands. When he moved to Fort Dodge, he soon began directing the Fort Dodge Municipal Band. This band was eventually the Karl King Band in recognition of their leader.



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