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.