An epic show-business world was (really) based in Baraboo


For the next couple days (Oct. 8-9), PBS has a terrific "American Experience" film about the circus. If you scroll down one, you'll find the story I sent to papers. But now please oblige me for a brief Wisconsin detour. I'm from Wisconsin -- yes, I've had cheese on my head and Alan "The Horse" Ameche in my heart; I've also played the tuba -- and I enjoyed seeing how guys from there ended up dominating the circus. they still dominate memories, thanks to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. Here's the story I sent to a Wisconsin paper.

By Mike Hughes

As the 20th
century began, this was clear: The circus would be dominated by
Wisconsin people – again.

In the first half of
its “Circus” documentary, PBS focuses heavily on the center of
all Big Top/big deal commotion, P.T. Barnum.

But Barnum died in
1891 and his business partner, James Bailey, struggled. As the film
begins its second half (8-10 p.m. CT Tuesday), he's taking the Barnum
& Bailey circus on a risky European tour.

Other risks were
ahead, as the show kept bloating. After Bailey's death (in 1906, at
58), the circus would be sold to five Baraboo brothers for $510,000;
the two shows finally merged in 1917.

The Ringling Bros.
and Barnum & Bailey Circus would last for another century, before
closing last year. Its impact lingers at the Circus World Museum in
Baraboo.

Actually,
Wisconsin's circus impact goes back much further. In 1847, a touring
circus chose Delavan as its winter headquarters; eventually, a
reported 28 circuses stayed there ... including one owned by W.C.
Coup. In 1871, he linked with Barnum (who was already 60) to create
Barnum's first circus. By the end of the century, the PBS fays says,
there were about 100 American circuses; soon, the Ringlings would
have the biggest.

These were
small-town guys who ran a family-friendly show, the film says, but
they were also willing to tak chances ... sometimes too willing: In
1929, the Ringlings borrowed $1.7 million to buy five Indiana
circuses; five weeks later, the stock market crashed.

That slowed their
business – just as World War I and the flu epidemic had done. In
1936, John Ringling – the last of the five founding brothers –
died at 70.

His nephew, John
Ringling North, took over in 1938 and continued to try bold srokes.
He even had a ballet – composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed
by George Balanchine – for elephants in tutus.

But there were more
tragedies, including a 1942 circus-tent fire that killed 158 people
and seriously injured almost 500 more. And there was increased
competition from TV and movies.

In 1956, in
Pittsburgh, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had its
last touring tent show. That's when the PBS film stops, calling it
the end of an era.

Still ... a new era
would do fine for a while. Sticking to arenas, the Ringling show
would continue for six more decades. On May 21, 2017, it had its
final performance. Still, it would linger in memories, in history and
in Baraboo.

-- “American
Experience: The Circus,” 9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday (Oct. 8-9),
PBS

-- Circus World
Museum, in Baraboo, Wis. This year, its exhibits – including spectacular
wagons – are open through Oct. 31 (except for Oct. 13-14). They'll
re-open March 19; from May 17 to Sept. 1, there will be daily circus
perormances. See www.circusworldbaraboo.org