Monday, August 16, 2010

Circus World Musem’s Steve Freese -- the Barnum Baraboo Needs? ... He Leads "Water For Elephants" Research Parade

Call him a late-coming sawdust and spangles convert. While walking the movie set of Water For Elephants, which recently wrapped in Southern California, politician-turned-circus-museum-mogul Steve Freese, seen standing in the photo, felt a certain thrill watching the wagons he had loaned help recreate the look of a Depression era circus.

Indeed, when this promising film is released next year, circus fans who care about detail may marvel at the authenticity on display. If reports are accurate, they can thank Circus World Museum, which provided valuable research assistance not just to author Sarah Gruen, upon whose novel the film is based, but to the film company as well. In fact, Mr. Freese's pro active involvement in getting old circus museum wagons into the film revealed a flair on his part for the sort of promotional savvy that the world-respected institution he heads sorely needs.

After losing to a democrat in the 2006 Wisconsin State Assembly race, Freese, a 16-year State legislator and speaker pro team, got offered the executive desk at Ringlingville, a place forever in search of enough funding to avoid what insiders claim it has narrowly escaped: being sold off by its owner, the Wisconsin Historical Society.

And he went to work. This guy is not shy. This guy can infect you with his enthusiasm. Give him credit for getting the Milwaukee circus parade back in motion, at least for a season. As quoted by Rob Thomas writing in The Capital Times, Freese told of learning in 2008 that Fox 2000 had secured film rights to Water for Elephants, and promptly putting together a pitch package touting the museum as the ideal resource to supply wagons, props and other materials. He even came close to landing location shoots for the film in Wisconsin, but a snag in tax incentive proposals sent the production team back to Southern California.

Nonetheless, CWM followed them out after snaring agreements to supply use of old circus wagons. Of 215 wooden darlings considered by film producers, thirteen of which date back to the 1880s, 15 were loaded onto flatbed trucks and motored out west. There, they were re-lettered Benzini Brothers Circus. Escorting the consist to protect their sacred holdings were Freese himself and the museum’s devoted wagon superintendent Harold “Heavy” Burdkick. (Heavy was the super nice guy who allowed me to see closeup the old Foley & Burke Thimble Theatre fun house wagon, currently fading, or would that be rotting?, away in a back barn not accessible to patrons; repeat, this wagon more than deserves immediate rescue and restoration. This museum must end its ridiculous obsession with taking in and patching up every last circus wagon that stumbles its way.)

Additionally, Freese proactively supplied photographs and archival film footage, thus giving film producers vivid details with which to evoke rich period realism. Let’s hope they do. A single 1927 photo, shot from a Browning Instamatic camera, contained enough information to astonish Freese himself: “Its like, ‘Oh, this is how they stack their crackerjack boxes’ This is the brands of candy bars they had.’”

Prior to the shoot, director Francis Lawrence and associates visited Baraboo during pre-production research. Gruen had also consulted with CWM when preparing to write her best selling book about a depression era circus. Both Gruen and Freese, ever the politician, appeared together at Madison Square Garden in 2007 promoting the book’s paperback release.

Notwithstanding recent staff layoffs, including the highly questionable dismissal of their top-drawer archivist Erin Foley, about which I’ve previously ranted, this Freese may have the right hand-shaking, fun-raising, back-slapping stuff to help turn a critical corner down on Water Street.

New Visions Needed, Not Old Fords ...

Okay, there’s the good news. Now, here’s news that gives me pause to wonder. What Freese seems to lack, and perhaps that which he most needs, is a cohesive vision for the future. A vision that will draw significantly more patronage to the doors and bring more national attention to the museum as a vacation magnet. Freese’s efforts to jack up ticket sales range from suitable (scale model circuses) to downright odd; Come August 21, he’ll have on display for a day Model A Ford vehicles that rumbled off assembly lines between 2927 and 1931. Yes, competing with all those circus wagons for attention will be roadsters, coupes, phaetons, among other curiosities. It smacks of marketing desperation. Go figure.

So, how can the purists who believe the museum’s carnival holdings should remain incognito justify this strange kowtow to Mr. Henry Ford? A couple of seasons back, seems they had on the premises a touring scale-model White House replica. Now, if the Freese team is so ready to diversify its identity by offering such random irrelevancies, then why not delve deeper, at last, into their own backyard and pull out the carney rides and attractions? I still believe they’ve got the makings for something called Outdoor Show World Museum. Ford gets the limelight, but the Thimble Theatre, seen in the photo, above, when it arrived in 1972 from California, must remain shamefully ignored and neglected?

And I also still believe that Baraboo itself, not the museum, should be the sell --- a package holiday destination: Circus World, International Clown Museum, the Al Ringling Theatre, all of it only a few miles up the road from the Dells and all those roller coasters.

Freese has got to give the fickle vacation and leisure crowd more more more reasons to come to Baraboo.

The wagons used in the movie are back in Baraboo, where they can be viewed by summer crowds. And Freese can look forward to his own cameo in Water For Elephants, assuming he does not end up on a Hollywood cutting room floor, and get discouraged and return to the campaign trail.

An impresario for a season, or the real thing? Baraboo needs a Barnum. Even half a Barnum.



Harry Kingston said...

Yes the CWM needs a new age Barnum to lead it into the modern age of promoting.
I see the movie company got a first class access to what ever they wanted.
I approached them about all those old circus films that we will never see about making tapes or dvd's and selling them to circus fans and make some money.
Well nothing was ever done about that so ther sets all those great old films.
Harry in Texas

Randy Peterson said...

I find it hard to understand your rants,when you put photos up that do not have the poeple in them ,that you say they do...

The photo of Fresse,is Jhon (Eggroll)Kyane,Ralph Pierce,Dale Shultz(A Wisconsin State Senator),and Joan Pierce...
Do you even know what Freese looks like???

Research should always be done BEFORE Print,the Milwaukee parade, was not back because of Freese,the Monies rasied were in a account,and the Milwaukee board said use it ,or lose it...

you seem to think that this Funhouse wagon should be restored,and I think there are two other wagons that should be restored before that one,but with no monies it is hard to do any of that work...
it is easy to sit back,and rant about all the bad things,but before anyone rants,they should try and the very least know who is in the photo,BEFORE, tearing them apart.
Randy Peterson

Showbiz David said...


Thanks much. A big big goof on my part, posting a photo I assumed included Freese. Thanks for pointing out. As you can see, I've removed. My sincere regrets to all parties concerned.

As far as my "rants," I stand on what I said. I have given Steve Freese a lot of credit. Did I not suggest he might not be Baraboo's Barnum? Is that an insult, Randy? I thought, evidently in error, that he had something to do with the parade coming back for a season. I know he has raised money and he appears to be enthusiastically engaged.

But you want only a valentine, and this is the wrong place to get it.

Let me repeat: It strikes me as odd, or I should say obsessional, that the museum must restore every last circus wagon that stumbles its way, while ignoring other wagons, such as the classic fun house, that were given to CWM in good faith. Among the reasons CWM may have lost accreditation from the American Association of Museums; there is an ethical obligation in its rules, if I am correct, that mandates public access to the holdings. The association also does not accept wagons virtually built from scratch or wagons that do not at least contain 25% of the original parts. Going back to Chapie Fox, CWM seems to be self-oppressed by this fetish for wagon restoration. They have, they say, 215. How many would satisfy you? 500? A thousand? I just don't get it. The money and person power should be put to other uses, such as updating or correcting faulty histo4ical text on the displays, etc. Getting a full time professional archivist, etc. Is that a rant? I make no apologies, Baraboo.

Anonymous said...

The question in regard to the wagons comes down to what one would consider by defination "restoration". A great deal of the wagons, if not the majority have been rebuilt from the frame up. One would be hard pressed to find an original nail in their structure. The circus museum really has the largest collection of replica circus wagons as the heart of their collection. With the loan to the film company for their use in the movie, their attraction will probably grow as "come see the original props used in the major motion picture hit, Water For Elephants". I'd think the Benzini Circus title will become more known than any authentic circus name.
As far as fun houses, and related carnival artifacts go( I seem to remember an antique ferris wheel in their collection in the early 70's) CWM has rarely shown much interest in displaying them unless a direct connection to some sort of circus link can be established.

The word on the circus vine has been, and will probably continue to be that Mr. Freese still has much to prove and needs to finish what he started.

Bob Pintavalle

Anonymous said...

Charles Hanson said.... I can attest to the fact that CWM does not restore every circus wagon that stumbles into their fold. I donated the large King Bros. Circus Bandwagon from the fiftes to the museum in the early seventies. This was the last Circus Bandwagon ever built for a traveling tented circus giving daily street parades. While the wagon certainly did not rival other wagons age wise in their possession.....The Museum was so thrilled to obtain this wagon because of the historical vslue(last wagon built , etc., etc.). The Museum promised immediate restoration but after acquiring the wagon....Everything changed from limited funds to we restore certain wagons that fit in with our overall theme for the year. The only contribution the Museum made to the wagon (to the best of my knowledge) was to allow the wagon to set outside (uncovered) in the harsh Wisconsin Winters....sunk to its' axles in mud. I would have taken better care of the Bandwagon had I kept it in my possession. It always amazed me that the Museum could not even properly take care of the wagons entrusted in their care....yet...they would take in more wagons offered to them. A Carnival Museum is being completed in Gib Town (Gibsonton, Fl). It might be a nice gesture if the Baraboo Museum would offer their carnival wagons, fun houses, and etc to the carnival museum in Gib Town. I would think that the Carnival Museum in Gib Town (on its worst day) would take better care of the carnival wagons, etc. than CWM. Circus World Museum may be its' own worst enemy. Thanks. Charles Hanson

Anonymous said...

The circus museum cannot offer wagons or related artifacts from their collection to others simply because they do not own them. The State of Wisconsin owns them outright and the circus museum operates under a private contract with a board of directors overseeing the path that the museum will take. With all their financial and public image problems in the past few years, the State Historical Society has stepped in to take a much tighter grip on operations the way things are done. The chances of seeing Circus World donating any carnival wagons or funhouses to Gibtown are highly unlikely at best.

Edgar Cusick