David Michael Miller
This season the Circus World Museum offers a Brobdingnagian blessing of Baraboo ballyhoo, a tonic to the spirits of slothful souls. But you wouldn't know it from recent news stories that have made it sound like Circus World is on its last legs.
"Exactly," says Dave SaLoutos, the museum's singing ringmaster and director of marketing. "Actually, the whole presentation has been bumped up. It's just that what the media's been focusing on so far is all the controversy and the struggle."
Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to have the Wisconsin Historical Society take over management of Baraboo's Circus World Museum from its foundation was dealt a serious blow on April 30, when the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee unanimously voted against it. That's a victory for the museum, though others' lobbying may have hurt public relations.
Meanwhile, Circus World has been getting ready for what it hopes will be a glorious summer. Its performance schedule kicked off May 18, featuring 10 live daily shows for a single ticket. "The focus this year, more than in any other year, is on fun," says SaLoutos. "There's a lot of comedy in the show, a lot of performers and acts you just won't see anywhere else. These are all world-class acts. It's top of the line."
Offerings include variety artists Vlastek and Kim Valla-Bertini. Vlastek is a sixth-generation performer and was born into the family unicycle act. Valla-Bertini is a fourth-generation performer who comes from two families of acrobats, aerialists and animal trainers. Vlastek performs a series of wild stunts on the Olympic trampoline. In a second turn, Vlastek and Valla-Bertini return in a fast-paced acrobatic unicycle act. Joining their parents will be Vincent and Violet - at two years old, "the world's youngest snake charmer."
Kevin Sadrak of Colombia discovered his gift of extreme flexibility when he was four years old and started imitating contortionists. He began professional training at the age of eight and made his circus debut at nine. He's appeared in eight countries, performing rapid-fire displays of dramatic physicality with troupes including the Carson & Barnes Circus and the Royal Hanneford Circus.
One of Circus World's longtime favorites is illusionist Tristan Crist, known for his charismatic persona. Pushing the boundaries of traditional magic, Crist produces a large-scale magic, comedy and illusion show. From Houdini comes his escape from a locked metal jail cell, with a surprise finish. He also "defies gravity," floating through a solid metal hoop and rising until he reaches the top of the theater. The highlight is Crist's passage between the spinning blades of an industrial-sized fan.
Animal features include a performing elephant and Susan Sheryll's Afghan champions, the only act of its kind in the world. Sheryll created it with her husband, David Zoppe, who offers his own trained monkey presentation. Zoppe's father left Italy in 1936 to work as a bareback rider in the Cole Bros. Circus in America. (SaLoutos notes that Circus World "absolutely" holds its animal acts to high standards of humane treatment.)
Neal Skoy, a veteran of two 40-state tours with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, returns as Roger the clown. Rounding out each day's schedule are guided tours of the world's largest circus wagon collection, costume and poster collections, and the Novelty Instruments Concert, featuring a calliope, bell wagon and other unlikely music-makers.
Engaging programs, such as the Kids' World Interactive Circus and Circus Skills Adventure, help children get into the act. Jaheida Monserrate, assisted by her talented family, leads the Circus Skills Adventure, giving kids the opportunity to juggle, hula hoop and walk a tightrope. Elephant rides, pony rides, antique carousel rides and a petting menagerie are also offered.
Circus World is the leader by far of a handful of circus museums worldwide, not just because of its performances and historical displays, including more than 200 antique circus wagons ("The largest [collection] of its kind in the world," says the Smithsonian Institute). Perhaps more importantly, backstage the museum is a major research center for an entire era of American entertainment, primarily dealing with more than 200 years of American circuses.
The extensive Circus World setting is an attraction itself. It's the birthplace of the Ringling Bros. Circus, founded in 1884, long before Barnum & Bailey were added to its title. The seven brothers were born between 1852 and 1869. There was also a Ringling sister, Ida, who was the last sibling to pass away, in 1950. Alfred Ringling, in particular, had a soft spot for Madison. He donated an elephant to the Vilas Zoo, and wanted also to provide bears, horses and other animals, for "a strictly animal show having important educational characteristics, perhaps linked up to the university."
More than 100 circuses once called Wisconsin home. It was the circus state, and entertainment was our most visible export for a century: Gollmar Bros. & Schuman's United Monster Shows, Adam Forepaugh & Sells Bros. Circus, Buckley's Roman Hippodrome and World Festival, and many, many more. Barnum & Bailey started in Delavan. In Madison, Col. George Washington "Popcorn" Hall's circus was launched in 1864.
The Ringlings' circus was born in Baraboo in 1884, after a false start two years earlier. It was decidedly modest, but within a few decades "The Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals" would dominate the industry.
As the Ringlings wrote of a competitor in an 1892 Milwaukee newspaper ad, "Why do they attack us? If ours is a show so limited in scope that it cannot compare to theirs, why do they spend thousands of dollars in their endeavor to make the people believe that our enterprise is unworthy of patronage?"
The circus' many Baraboo buildings, termed "Ringlingville" and now the heart of the museum, served as headquarters and the winter home for the touring ensemble until 1919, when permanent operations were moved to Bridgeport, Conn., and then relocated in 1927 to Sarasota County, Fla., still the organization's base.
By the early 1950s their original quarters were all but neglected, and being used as an auto boneyard. The Ringlings' attorney, John Kelley, determined to make it a "living museum." Around $40,000 was raised across the state, with the Historical Society getting involved to lend credence to the fundraising effort. For several years, while buildings were purchased and artifacts were collected, Circus World was a museum only on paper. It opened on July 1, 1959, and it's grown considerably since then.
"Circus World Museum is steeped in circus history and is clearly a national treasure," says Jerry Apps, author of Ringlingville USA: The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success. He adds, "There is no place like it in the country."
Get thee to the circus!
550 Water St., Baraboo; 608-356-8341; 866-693-1500 (toll-free)
Summer performance season May 18-Sept. 2, 9 am-6 pm daily; Adults $18; seniors $16; children 5-11 $8