By Marilu Miller –
Come with me to the Circus! Come with me to Baraboo, Wisconsin the home of one of the greatest shows on earth!
Baraboo is on the Baraboo River and nestled in the hills of the Driftless Area about half way between Chicago and Minneapolis- remember, location, location, location! Plus, as Jimmy Durante said, “Where can you find one form of amusement that suits Grand-dad, Ma, Pa, and the kids except the circus.” Baraboo was and is the home of the Ringling Brothers Circus and Circus World Museum. Now, how about we take a little trip to the Circus?
Back in the 1800’s, Wisconsin was home to one hundred circuses. Yes, you read that right, one hundred. Why? Well, remember what I said about location? Well, Wisconsin was a prime location! It was the bread basket of the nation at this time, so food and water for the workers and the animals was easily accessible. In Baraboo, transportation was pretty much right out the door. Add in that the Ringling’s father August was a harness maker and their cousins the Moeller’s were wagon makers and both were in Baraboo, this was an easy choice to make it home base for the Ringling Brother’s Circus. Baraboo remained the home base and winter quarters until 1918. The Barnum and Bailey Circus had been purchased by the Ringling’s in 1907, and they had kept the two circuses separate entities until World War I, when they moved their winter head quarters to Bridgeport, Connecticut and then to Sarasota, Florida which was the final winter head quarters.
Each of the brothers had a specific job pertaining to the circus, that fed off of their existing talents. Albert (Uncle Al), was the equestrian director in charge of the horses. But, he could also pinch hit as a juggler, acrobat, or a tight rope walker. Augustus (Gus), was in charge of advertising. He and his crew traveled three weeks ahead of the troupe plastering every surface that didn’t move with their lithograph advertising posters. His crew printed these once a design was created by an artist that had been hired by the brothers. These ranged from small ‘rat sheets’ that just gave their circus name and the date of the performance (these would be put on other circuses ads to cover up performance dates). Then there were half size, full size, and giant sized. And yes, they pasted them up on every surface that wasn’t moving. In the museums library, and on display throughout the main building are some of the vast collection of lithographs that are in their current collection.
Henry started out working the ‘door’ of each performance. His job was to sell the tickets and to work the crowd to see and hear what they were talking about and how they reacted to the different performances and the side show acts. Otto (The King), because of his financial wizardry, was in charge of the money. He initiated the purchase of the many different circuses that they acquired over the years. Alfred (Alf), was in charge of public relations and booking the many shows for each season. This took great attention to details. Even the Ringling’s knew that they had to keep the public happy to keep them coming back to see the shows the next time the troupe came to the town.
Charles (Mr. Charles), was in charge of the circus train, which made the jump from wagon travel to rail travel in the late 1800’s. Special rail cars were built for the transport of the animals, wagons, performers and workers, and all of the things required for the circus to function. They would arrive at the train station and unload and harness up the horses that would be pulling the wagons. Meanwhile, some of the animals would parade along with the performers to the circus grounds. While on their way to the grounds, they would greet the people who lined the streets encouraging them to come to the show. Once there, everyone had a job to do, either setting up, repairing items, or getting ready for the show. Then typically no more than twenty-four hours later, every thing was torn down, packed up, and loaded back up on the train to go to the next town and the next show. In 1947, this would have included: 184 horses, 39 elephants, and 1,377 employees, plus the supplies to make meals, feed the animals, repair harnesses/tents/wagons/costumes. And you and I think it is complicated to get ready for a vacation, our logistics are nothing compared to what Charles and Alf had to deal with.
While here at the museum, be sure to visit the many outbuildings that are still in existence from when they were based here. There is the Camel House which currently houses several special displays of clown and circus band artifacts. The Ring Barn was where the different circus acts practiced and developed new routines for their performances. The elephants and horses each had their own barns. Be sure to visit the Hippodrome where many different things are featured each day. During the COVID pandemic, the talented crew of the circus put together musical numbers that they put up on the museums Facebook page- they are a talented group! The largest building, besides the main museum, is the building housing a portion of the museums large and impressive wagon collection. To date, the museum has 260 wagons in their collection which is only three percent of all wagons ever build. Be sure to spend some time wandering around in this collection. The size, colors, and themes of the wagons are captivating.
Now that we have had a tour of the grounds of Circus World, let’s get to the main attraction- the Circus!! Now, this isn’t the circus that it was many years ago with four show rings and hundreds of animals and performers. Today’s show is just one ring, but it is still held under a wonderful big top tent. Yes, the performers still perform in a big top tent here in Baraboo. The Ring Master is properly decked out in his red jacket with tails, black pants, and top hat. He even sang a few songs. Each year Circus World picks a theme for their shows and has some musical numbers to go with it. The seating is somewhat similar to days gone by, with the bleachers that pretty much surround the show ring. And there are some up close and personal ringside box seats. That is where we are sitting today. Back when the circus was in it’s prime, there would have been one section of the seating that was for the Circus Band who would provide all of the music for the many different performers and to keep things moving while changing the different props out of the rings. Nowadays, we have an extremely talented sound technician who has selected the best music to fit each performance. In the box seats next to us is a family- parents, grandparents, and kiddos and the bleachers are pretty full. It looks like there is a wide age group to see today’s show.
Today the audience is being treated to a clown who does his best to live up to the great history of clowns in the circus. He doesn’t have a clown car, but, he does have an ostrich! Lou Jacobs might question using an ostrich in the act, but, then again, maybe not. I mean, clown car versus ostrich? Clown car probably wins, but, let me tell you, that ostrich had ALL of us laughing! Oh, and there is also a miniature horse performance- complete with dolls as riders who are decked out in western gear. Viola and Isa, are the elephants in residence here in Baraboo this summer. They are very impressive and beautiful animals. It isn’t like the days of old when there were thirty plus elephants on parade, but, these two do their part. I mean, it isn’t a circus without animals is it? The jugglers are a mother and son whose family has been involved in the circus for generations. Let me tell you, these two have the performance gene in them and it truly shows in their outstanding talent. There is also a beautiful aerialist who spun, twisted, and balanced on her hoop that was suspended from the big top. I can’t begin to imagine all of the practice, planning, and thought that goes into her routine. There is also a very talented hula hoop artist. Yes, hula hoops, and she managed to get twenty-five of them going at one time!
Well, our time here at the Circus has come to an end. But, our time here in Baraboo has not, at least not yet. We have an adventure or two yet to come. I will be back here to visit a few more places and try to give you even more reasons to come and visit this wonderful town. Til next time!