Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Baraboo Circus

I never did find out if it’s pronounced BAR-a-boo or BEAR-a-boo, but I ended up liking Baraboo, Wisconsin, a town about 40 miles from Madison on the banks of the not-so-mighty Baraboo River, a tributary of the Wisconsin River. For one thing, it has a courthouse square that’s more or less alive, ringed with active retail, plus some standard features, such as (in the North) a monument to those who fought “for the Union” and another one honoring those in “the Great War” which I believe was updated for later wars.

Not so standard are the memorials cemented into the top of a chest-high wall on one side of the courthouse grounds -- a long series of plaques honoring circus folk, beginning with the Ringling brothers. A sign explains that the Ringling organization dedicated the plaques on the 100th anniversary of its founding, which happened to be in Baraboo in 1884.

How many Ringling brothers were there? Seven: Albert, August, Otto, Alfred T., Charles, John, and Henry. And what was an early name of the circus, if Wiki is to be believed (and I do)? “Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

Long ago, the Ringling circus spent its off-seasons in Baraboo, but after World War I took advantage of infrastructure development in Florida to move its winter quarters to Sarasota, where it remains to this day. A more rational choice than Wisconsin, if you asked me.

Ringling’s property included a row of buildings on the banks of the Baraboo, “Ringlingville,” including space for elephants, horses and other animals, offices and storage – such as one building devoted to wardrobes (can you imagine the phantasmagoria that must have been?). Along with some newer buildings, plus a complex across the river and connected by footbridge, this forms the nucleus of the Circus World Museum, the attraction that puts Baraboo on the map these days.

Been meaning to see it for some years. I can’t remember when I first heard of it, but that red “point of interest” spot on the maps marking its location had been calling me. Rather than do something insane on this part of the trip, such as spend two entire days in Wisconsin Dells, I wanted to devote one to Baraboo and its one-of-a-kind museum. So on August 5, we went.

As a museum, it does two things. It has exhibits, like any museum. It also has circus acts (at least in the summer), unlike any museum. The combo works well.

Circus World has some large artifact collections that I saw parts of -- circus posters, circus costumes and circus wagons. Talk about phantasmagoria. The exhibits can only hint at the spectacle, but they hint strongly, tugging at your sleeve: Spectacle for spectacle’s sake! Step right up, son!

It was one of those times that I wanted a time machine to not only see the past, but hear it and smell it and taste it. To be a ten-year-old near the dawn of the 20th century who had enough scratch to enter the tent, and some sideshows, on the one day of the year when the spectacle came to town. To be in a time when diversion was rare, but when it did come – it was full-blooded, brother, and not light and echoes from a machine.

This naturally put me in the mood to see real performers doing real things, and Circus World did not disappoint, though you could hardly call it a big top. The museum in fact calls it “the Hippodrome,” a name I’ve always been fond of. The world needs more hippodromes.

There at the Hippodrome at various times, we saw the museum’s resident clown comedian, “Eggy,” a magician who did Houdini-like escapes, an elephant act, a dwarf in drag, and some astounding acrobats from China, the likes of which I haven’t seen since we attended an acrobat show in Shanghai. They did things acrobats are supposed to, things that make you ask, How is that possible?

Eggy was good enough, but everyone laughed hardest when one of the old elephants in “Elephant Encounter” unloaded a couple of wheelbarrows worth of dung in the ring, as if it were part of the act. But I think it was just a bonus for those of us who attended that day.

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