Antonio Panay: The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century and his Grand Greek Circus

Antonio Panay:
The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century and his Grand Greek Circus

Published in The National Herald, November 5-11, 2016 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer


We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 



In the early spring of 1876, Antonio Panay, an ethnic Greek despite his name, brought a circus troupe to the United States. Whether or not Panay arrived with very first Greek-owned circus to perform in this country is a matter of future research, but we know that from March through November 1876, Panay and his troupe entertained nonstop any and all residents and visitors to San Francisco.

Panay and company performed for the public three months before George Armstrong Custer and the seventh cavalry were massacred at the Little Big Horn on June 17, 1876. Furthermore, it is now an accepted point of history that the “Wild West” of American lore, ended in 1890 – a full fourteen years later still – with the closing (or enclosing really) of the nation’s entire frontier region.

Panay was no simple circus owner/promoter. It seemed he was the very first of the Greek strongmen performers to reach American shores. From the 1870s throughout the 1890s, an elite group of massive Greek athletic performers toured the U.S., including Theodore George Costaky, Panaghis Coutalianos, George Heraklides, Antoni Pierre, Nicholas Protopapas, and John Muhler.

Entertainment forms have changed so fundamentally over the last 100-150 years that it difficult from our perspective to even comprehend the novelty and stunning impact Panay and his fellow Greek performers provided the American public upon their arrival. This entertainment form was one based on physical strength by individuals who were, compared to the average man, quite literally muscular giants.

In the decades immediately following the Civil War, the movement known as “physical culture” developed. Exercise programs, specialized diets, and unique equipment were all gradually perfected; they focused on physical health and muscular development. What we now call bodybuilding had its origins in this period. Just as Jack Lalanne, Joe Gold, Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone are prominent proponents of bodybuilding and popular entertainment in our time, so too in the late 19th century were Panay and the rest soughtafter public performers.

In the published accounts, Panay is always named as the circus’ owner and lead performer. Unfortunately, given the time period and nature of circuses, the newspaper articles and advertisements documenting Panay’s nine months in San Francisco are anything but consistent in their descriptions and even the very name of the circus itself. Across any number of advertisements, Panay’s circus name changes from Grand Athenian Circus, to the Royal Greek Circus then to the Elenico Aethna’s Grand Hippodrome and Circus (Evening Post May 1), then, inexplicitly as the Royal Italian Circus and then back again to one of the other names in no apparent order. It only seems logical to assume Panay was attempting by this odd juggling of names to stimulate interest and excitement in his circus. An especially curious aspect to this quite literally daily use of newspaper advertisements was that conflicting names were published in say the San Francisco Chronicle and other name in advertisements running in the Evening Post on the very same day! Mention is made in passing of “posters” so we must assume that Panay also had advertising bills and other broadsheets passed out and pasted on any and all surfaces across San Francisco.