Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Circus Museums: Popcorn, Politics & Patronage ...

Museum: “A building, place, or institution devoted to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and educational interpretation of objects having scientific, historical, or artistic value.”

If any place in this country deserves to host circus history, surely that place is Baraboo, Wisconsin. This is where America’s most celebrated circus dynasty, the Ringling Brothers, was born and came of glorious age. On the grounds of what would later become the Circus World Museum, the five Ringlings worked and argued and innovated, plotted how to compete against and eventually buy out Barnum & Bailey, signed contracts and repainted wagons, built a huge rail repair barn of daunting industrial magnitude. That is where it all happened.

Today, the site houses dozens of gloriously restored circus wagons, posters and photographs and rare documents. And it boasts a library of unparalleled resources upon which countless concerns the world over have called for documentation and research assistance. Its deliciously arranged Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall is a captivating blaze of circus memorabilia. And there are a number of old barns that survive from the original winter quarters. The small sleepy town itself offers just the right idyllic setting for this long-gone slice of Americana.

But Circus World, as it now calls itself, is a rambling spread of exhibits not particularly well joined. Its commercial centerpiece is a generic one-ring circus program it puts on during the summer months, said to help draw about 700 people on average per day. Although the number is hardly impressive, compared to the seven or eight customers, if that, who might appear on a typical day during the long winter months, 700 suddenly looms large.

And then there is Sarasota. That’s where circus king John Ringling built an art museum and not a circus museum, in case you forgot. Today, were the imperial Mr. Ringling to walk the grounds, he would likely be horrified at how his original intent has been somewhat squished into the shadows of a grand new entrance design that first directs visitors past a spanking new circus exhibit building. When Henry Ringling North, driving me back to my motel about 25 years ago after my interview with his brother, John, made a pleasant detour onto the Ringling grounds, as we drove past the older, much smaller circus museum that came about in 1948, Mr. North slowed the car down a little, peered at it in silent dismay, and said, “that never should have been built.”

I did not air my feeling that I considered it a charming and self-effacing little circus museum tucked discretely away into a corner of the estate so as, it seemed, not to detract from the main attractions — John Ringling’s art museum and his palatial residence by the bay. It was the work generally credited to gifted Mel Miller, who managed to artistically evoke feelings and magic about the circus as no other museum has since done. Miller achieved this with taste and restraint by first leading us into a small circular room of photos and posters and letters, then into a larger hall graced with old circus wagons and side show banner lines, more photos of ring greats, and finally, into the most wonderful exhibit I have ever come upon anywhere —the wondrously atmospheric Backyard Scene. Under a simulated twilight sky, you walked among the actual wagons that moved the show years ago. In the background you heard the Merle Evans band playing the 1955 score. This was a museum. This was not a commercialized circus performance. It did not last very long. Somebody in later authority either willed it into oblivion or let it fall by the wayside -- much like what happened in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1956.

Today, were Henry Ringling North to return to the scene of a Sarasota sell-out, he might drive his car up a pole in shock -- or straight through the plate glass doors of the new entrance arcade and shout "STOP IT!" The expanding presence of circus exhibits on the grounds originally purchased by his uncle, John Ringling, to build the art museum and his architecturally outlandish home, Ca’d’Zan, would be analogous to Al Ringling’s famed opera house in Baraboo being turned into a multi-plex cinema and pool hall. Because Al Ringling loved opera, Al built an opera house, just as because John Ringling loved art, John Ringling built an art museum.

Nonetheless, with its money and glamorous location easily reachable by bus, train, plane or roller skate, Sarasota seems to have enjoyed a much luckier outcome (I do not have actual attendance records, nor should we assume they are strong). To the Ringling circus museum’s rescue in recent years came a model builder with millions named Howard Tibbals, whose lavish funding has guaranteed him prominent display space for his circus models and name, including a large display room honoring the man and his craft. Too much. Now, when you enter the reconfigured grounds, the first thing you come upon is the Tibbals Learning Center (the audacity of it all rivals that of the Felds). Housed on the top floor of a two-story building is Mr. Tibbals' triumphant panoramic model circus day exhibit, complete with a circus train unloading at dawn, although short on historical accuracy and muddy realism; on a 1920s Ringling lot are models of 1951 spec floats. Curiously, the whole thing is not quite as enchanting to my eyes and heart as the older model circus in the older original building from 1948, possibly slated for demolition when newer circus museum buildings are constructed. You see, those Tibbals tents, as spanking clean as a Christmas tree gift just opened, lack dirt, which seems an apt symbol for the money and ego that has transformed John Ringling’s art and nature estate into a plastic showplace for Barnum rather than for Rubens. Say what you will about curator Deborah Walk, she is one cool calculating mover and shaker. To her goes credit — or blame — for the circus diaspora spilling out on the land left by John Ringling to the state of Florida.

And yet, the eye-popping Tibbals model circus, a dazzling feat in its own right, is far more valid a museum piece than are the summer circus shows at the other museum up north. Up north is where a succession of circus fans, including Greg Parkinson, have fallen prey to their own dreams of proving themselves to be big top men. Of maybe getting hired by Kenneth Feld to operate a real Ringling show. And so the politics of fanship favors a ring performance over a professionally maintained and staffed circus library of world renown. Which is why, as I see it, in recent days the Circus World Museum Board of Directors, claiming cash problems (ironically in the wake of a huge boost in attendance this past summer), let four people go and kept only three on the payroll. Of the three left to labor the year around, one is “Performance Director” Dave SaLoutous. Not among the three left to labor the year around or to labor any time at all, spring summer winter or fall, is ace archivist Erin Foley. And that’s a shame and a pity. A three-month summer circus program is not a museum.

I think that the current executive director, Stephen Freese, needs to reexamine what his and the museum’s mission should be. For instance, does he want the summer show to be an historically accurate recreation of the first circus produced by the Ringling five in 1884? Or of what they offered the American public under a three ring big top during the heyday 1920s? Either of those realizations might count as true museum manifestations.

Other Baraboo drawbacks: There is apparently scare support among Baraboo residents for the museum. In fact, there is a strong snob element among town residents that is of the theatre not the circus, thank you. As for prospective out-of-town ticket buyers, without a car, try getting to Baraboo by plane or train, bus or buggy or snowmobile. You can’t. Roller blades, perhaps.

Erin Foley’s professional neutrality (not a circus fan or would-be performance director) made her ideal, I think, for the post. So professional that, after being laid off a few years ago, she was offered her job back a year or so later. And I’ve benefited greatly, as have many others, by her no nonsense research assistance. We must be eternally grateful to Erin for satisfying all parties concerned (including the formidable Felds) and getting all the papers doted and signed in order to finally, finally, finally, open up the magnificently rich Ringling-Barnum Archives. At last, after more than thirty years of inaction when a lucky handful of privileged insiders were allowed to view them, a vast new treasure trove of circus documentation can be mined by fans and historians.

And how was Erin let go the second time around? Board president Paul Karch escorted her out directly after the layoff. Karch is credited with getting all board directors to unanimously approve what is called a “new model for business operations” by the Baraboo News Republic.

Another senseless and highly counterproductive action in an ongoing saga. Here is who to write to if you believe it is more important to maintain the nationally respected Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center than retain somebody to book and run a summer circus show that runs only three months:

Circus World Museum Executive Director Stephen Freese:
CWM Board Chairman Paul Karch:
Peter Gottlieb:

If anybody at the Circus World Museum deserves a third act, that person should be Erin Foley.

Next: The Rape of an Estate


Anonymous said...

There is a great nostalgia for the CWM among the residents of Baraboo.
It remains a touchstone for older community residents who grew up with the sights of elephants being paraded down Baraboo's streets. For younger generations it provides to many their first circus experience.

The museum was designed to be a gift to this community. But it also has a resonsibility to give back to the community. For so many years it has operated with a "hands-out", that takes much, but gives back little.

There were some grand years of major summer attendence, and Circus Parade dollars kept things afloat during the lean winter months.

The rough economy, the stiff competion for the tourist dollar in the Wisconsin Dells and all their waterslides, pitch till ya win buffets and interactive thrill rides, has made Circus World appear likes it belongs in another era. Static museums don't create a sense of excitement that will draw in families.

Without those summer performances, the museum would be nothing more than a static museum. Not a money generating attraction in the midst of big money making attractions. As owned by the Wisconsin State Historical Society, it does seem to be destined to be run like all the other museum sites-as a seasonal attraction.

The library is another story all together. It should be a year round facilty. Staffed by people like Erin Foley, who know what jewels that building held,and were able to provide the information to historians and researchers.

A new business model might be in order, when they decide what business they want to be in.


Jack Ryan said...


This time, I agree with every single word you wrote!

The CWM should re-think its mission -- if it's not to continue as the great repository of circus history for researchers to peruse and use, then what exactly is the mission?

And, down in Sarasota, I too remember with great fondness Mel Miller's truly inspired circus backyard scenes -- under-canvas dressing rooms that appeared to have been occupied until just moments before you saw them. It was meticulously staged, almost like being in a time machine. So sad that somebody who "knew better" junked it all.

Mel once took me on a tour of his "backyard at twilight," pointing out various props and artifacts and telling tales of how he found them. Wish I'd written that all down.