Big top folding but circus legacy lives on

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Margaret Plevak | January 29, 2017

DELAVAN — The Big Top is coming down.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, which called itself The Greatest Show on Earth, announced earlier this month it was closing in May, after rallying for years against a difficult economy, changing tastes in entertainment and pressure from animal rights groups.

When Ringling Brothers made a decision to retire its performing elephants two years ago because of protests, attendance dropped even lower than predicted, according to Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Brothers.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's final shows on May 21 in Uniondale, New York, have sold out, but online ticket exchanges are offering tickets at prices inflated by as much as 560 percent, with lower level ringside seats at The New Coliseum costing as much as $2,000, according to some websites.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey had a historically long run: 146 combined years for the shows. The fact that circuses like Ringling Brothers have such a history is testament to their success, said Peter Shrake, archivist at Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

“I think like any successful, long-running show, it comes down to good management, excellent performers and a willingness to be flexible,” Shrake wrote in an email. “A successful show knows its audience and gives that audience what it wants. Clearly for 146 years, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was able to do just that.”


Our circus heritage

The history of the traveling circus is about as long, and part of its storied past is linked to Wisconsin.

More than 100 circuses got their start in the state. Nine called Baraboo home, including the one formed by the brothers Ringling, who grew up there.

The site of their old winter quarters — where they returned after each performing season to work on new acts and make repairs to wagons and equipment — is now where the Circus World Museum stands.

But when it came to a real circus city, Wisconsin residents need look no further than Delavan, which in the 1800s was home to 28 circuses.

That's where one of the most famous circus promoters, P.T. Barnum, organized his circus in 1871.

Barnum's traveling circus underwent several incarnations until Barnum teamed up with James Bailey to create the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Barnum's circus is memorialized downtown in Tower Park where it is among three statues that commemorate the great traveling shows.

The statues include a giraffe named Ginny and Romeo the elephant, rearing up on its hind legs to a towering height of 20 feet.

The real-life Romeo, a 10,500-pound elephant owned by the Mabie Circus, had a reputation as a rogue and was connected to the death of five handlers.

Standing beneath Romeo is the 6-foot-tall statue of a clown who represents Lou Jacobs, a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performer whose famous face was plastered on magazine covers, posters and even a U.S. postage stamp.

By 1907, Barnum had sold his circus to Baraboo's Ringling Brothers, which ran them separately until finally merging in 1919 and forming the now famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Before Barnum, Delavan's earliest circus connections date back to brothers Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie, who raised horses on their New York farm. Many of the Mabies' neighbors were circus performers, and in 1840, the brothers jumped on the circus bandwagon themselves, creating a tent show.

In four short years, the Grand Olympic Arena and United States Circus had grown to 27 wagons and 150 horses. By 1847, decades before P.T. Barnum or the Ringling Brothers, the Mabies had the largest traveling circus in America.

That year, en route to Janesville from a performance in Milwaukee, the Mabies stopped their circus wagons in Delavan to rest and — according to one newspaper account — hunt prairie chickens. Impressed by the area's verdant woods, plentiful streams and prairies, the brothers decided they'd found the perfect spot to house their show during the winter months when they weren't on the road.

They set up the first permanent winter headquarters in the Midwest, purchasing 400 acres and two barns for about $3,000. The land was most of what is now Lake Lawn Resort, adjacent to Assembly Park and Inlet Oaks.

Word of Delavan as the Mabies' winter quarters got around, and by 1858, four different shows followed suit, finding Delavan's central location and access to grazing land, water and timber a great asset. Delavan-based circuses multiplied.

The Mabie name was associated with two other circuses here. Some Mabie circus performers and employees left to start their own shows, like the Holland family of riders, acrobats and owners who settled in Delavan. In 1858 they formed the Holland & McMahon Circus, which performed for Union troops during the Civil War and became forerunner of USO entertainment shows.

Many of those circus owners and performers bought homes, got involved on civic boards and city projects and became neighbors, said Patti Marsicano, president of the Delavan Wisconsin Historical Society and author of two books on Delavan.

“The circus was part of the community,” Marsicano said. “The Mabie brothers invested financially in the area, purchased a mill.” 

She said there are few photographs of circus life in Delavan because residents found sights like elephants walking down Walworth Avenue or zebras grazing near Lake Comus so common.

Circus people made an impact on the area in another way, spending money at grocery stores, hotels, blacksmith shops, wagon makers and feed stores.

“I think in those early days that was a good revenue source for Delavan,” said Walworth County historian Ginny Hall. “There were a number of former circus people who settled in Delavan and Darien and helped the economy of those communities.”

By the end of the 19th century, the physical imprint of the circus was disappearing from Delavan, but Hall finds traces of its presence decades later.

She pointed to Delavan's Spring Grove Cemetery, where dozens of circus performers and workers are buried with colorful circus markers on their graves.

“I think it's a source of pride that Delavan was considered a good spot for winter quarters,” Hall said. “When I came to the county in 1962, I still heard about the houses in Darien and Delavan where circus people had lived. And being that Delavan was the site where the circus stamp was initiated (in 1966) is a signal that the circus was still very important then.

“Today, all you have to do is go around to the circus mural (painted by the Walldogs in 2015) to see that circus history is still alive.” 

Shrake sees the circus's influence in today's popular big-scale productions.

“Cirque du Soleil is a contemporary re-imagination of the circus. The Feld family, the owners of the Ringling show, are also producers of Disney on Ice,” Shrake said. “It is hard to imagine that the skills the Feld family developed while operating the circus did not in some way translate into their other entertainment endeavors. 

“A number of notable movie stars, including Burt Lancaster, got their start in the circus,” he added.

And even without Ringling, Shrake believes smaller circuses will still continue to perform.

“The circus has always been a changing and evolving art form,” he said.

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