RACINE COUNTY — It was the “Greatest Show on Earth,” a big, calamitous spectacle of wide-eyed wonder.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus ends its touring shows today, capping a 146-year American legacy with roots firmly planted in the Badger State. Baraboo was the home of Ringling Brothers and Delavan was where the Barnum and Bailey Circus began. The two circuses merged in 1919.
And the circus’ legacy includes Racine County. On a few special summer days the circus train made stops in Racine, Burlington, Waterford and Union Grove to set up its three rings of entertainment for a day, perhaps two.
In days long before instant entertainment options at your fingertips on computers and cellphones, in days before television and in the early years even before radio, the spectacle of the circus must have been sensory overload.
Imagine some 2,000 people turning out in 1891 in Downtown Burlington to watch the Ringling Bros. circus parade march through town.
“In its heyday at the turn of the (20th) century it was like a national holiday when the circus came to town. Businesses were let out, schools were let out — it was circus day in your town,” said Scott O’Donnell, executive director of Circus World, a Wisconsin Historical Society museum and entertainment venue in Baraboo. “It was in a tent that sat 12,000 people, which was the size of a modern-day arena when you think about it, and it moved every single day — the logistics of it were unparalleled. It brought some pretty amazing attractions to your hometown.”
Getting the word out
In the days before broadcasting, the word of the circus coming to town came through the local newspapers. And there was no shortage of hyperbole in the advertisements of the 19th century.
A May 1 advertisement for the circus in the Burlington Free Press tells readers to expect a “stupendous herd of ponderous performing elephants” including one named “Sampson, Madagascar’s giant brute!”
The ad also promises “a giant drove of camels and dromedaries (a breed of camel) and a Grand Muster of Nations.”
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Even in a press releases announcing performances of the circus in Racine in the mid 1920s, the promoters lay it on thick. A July 1925 release tells would-be circus attendees to expect “entire families of gymnasts” and “a menagerie of over 1,000 animals.”
O’Donnell says that early attractions of the circus included demonstrations of electricity, “the automobile, what they billed as a flying machine that we now know as an airplane, recorded sound, moving images — all of those amazing innovations in our country’s history were brought to a lot of America and particularly small-town America through the medium of the circus.”
Finding a review of an 1885 performance in Waterford in an edition of the Burlington Standard took a little time in days when newspapers ran copy vertically in single columns. The review was nestled among ads for George F. Wallman, a Waterford furniture maker who also constructed coffins and performed “arterial embalming,” and another entitled “manhood lost,” which promotes a doctor’s essay to help men, well before the days of Viagra, with “impotency and seminal weakness.”
On the same page is a report about an English medical study about using cocaine to treat hay fever.
The review reports that the show was “better than many anticipated it would be for the small admission fee of 25 cents” and reports that at the evening performance “over 600 tickets were sold and there were not seats enough for the spectators.”
One of the biggest challenges since Ringling Brothers made its announcement that its touring shows were ending, according to O’Donnell, is setting the record straight that circuses in general are not going away.
“May 21 will be the ending of the touring brand of Ringling Brothers, but we should not assume that is the death knell of the circus or the circus industry in America,” O’Donnell said. “There are still 50-plus circuses that are crisscrossing the United States and institutions such as ourselves that are still presenting to children of all ages in their wide-eyed wonder this terrific art form we know as the circus.”
And the medium of the circus continues to evolve, O’Donnell notes. Montreal’s popular Cirque du Soleil is an example.
There’s also plenty of evidence that the circus continues to hold a place in Americans’ hearts. Once Ringling Brothers made its announcement in February that the touring show was ending, performances quickly sold out and visits ticked up at Circus World.
“They’re ending touring operations, but they aren’t selling the brand,” O’Donnell Said. “Who knows what the next chapter might be? It has yet to be written and that’s one of the wonderful things about the circus art form — it’s a very nimble art form and it always is in a stage of perpetual change depending on societal trends or the latest in technological change or innovation or really as far as people can dream.
“I have to think as a society we are always going to want to celebrate the dreamers and we’re always going to want to encourage people to dream and achieve things that help us celebrate the human condition,” O’Donnell said.
“I have to think as a society we are always going to want to celebrate the dreamers and we’re always going to want to encourage people to dream and achieve things that help us celebrate the human condition.”
— Scott O’Donnell, executive director of Circus World