May 21 2016
No other Wisconsin city maintains a richer circus history than Baraboo, and now the city of 12,000 is undergoing a significant renaissance.
An 1883 “Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” circus float at Circus World is under repair as visitors watch. Newly restored is a 1905 mechanical organ, built in Paris. The Kohler Foundation has donated the Seimor Brothers Miniature Circus, a 27-year project finished in 1980, for public display.
One-hour tours of the recently reopened Al. Ringling Theatre begin May 31 and include a brief Barton organ concert. The $3 million revamp included restoration of dome murals. alringling.com, 608-356-8864
Although refurbishing at the Al. Ringling Mansion is ongoing, guided tours of the museum happen on the hour, through Sept. 15. “We believe it’s the greatest collection of Ringling family artifacts in one place,” says proprietor Joe Colossa, of the 2,000-plus artifacts. ringlingmansion.com, 608-448-7455
Open since July 2015 is the 1901 Ringling House B&B, where breakfast is served at the home’s original dining table. Stained glass was the work of a Tiffany apprentice; pocket doors, a gold-leafed mantle, four fireplaces and gas-electric chandeliers are among other preserved features. ringlinghousebnb.com, 608-356-4229
Innkeepers Stuart Koehler and Julie Hearley painted the house a cheery circus yellow, fixed the roof and porch, added upgrades and opened six bedrooms to guests. If they had a spare $50,000, they’d repair a 1917 Steinway in the music room.
“I think circuses fascinate people,” Julie says. Stuart describes the Ringlings’ first show as “a hokey affair” where Charles played the violin and Al balanced a plow on his chin for the grand finale.
Even more obscure and captivating are the observations of Logan Marvel, a 27-year-old circus historian who says his work under the big top started as a contortionist at age 12. He also knows that to eat fire, pound a nail into his nose and withstand walking on glass shards.
Soon Logan leads new and after-hours Circus of Ghouls tours in Baraboo, based on the true stories of performers who met their demise in or from the ring. barabootours.com, 608-963-2821
“You forget how dangerous a circus can be,” Logan says, mysteriously, but his modern-day circus work doesn’t end there.
Beginning this month, Mr. Marvel’s Wondertorium opens in a former arcade and conference room at Wintergreen Resort, Wisconsin Dells. Logan considers it the permanent home of a traveling artifact collection, owned by him and sister Lorelei (an aerialist for Ringling).
The Wondertorium is devoted to circus side shows, which Logan considers endangered. “We see them dropping, one by one, as circuses close or operators retire, “and we work to preserve that history,” he says.
What to expect? An elephant bird egg (equal to 200 chicken eggs in size). A 19th century ring carved from a human leg bone. Biological oddities, such as a four-legged fish, bird-eating spider and turtle (“in a little jar now”) with one head, two bodies and seven legs.
“We run it like they did in the 1800s, taking people from stage to stage, or artifact to artifact,” he says.
Logan knew no one when he moved to the area but was drawn by the rich circus history, and the fact that the Dells used to house a UFO museum. He sees beauty in the unusual and outrageous.
On the back of his leg is a tattoo of a two-headed duckling, work he paid for with circus tickets. “These things fascinate me,” he explains. wondertorium.com, 608-402-3322
Scott O’Donnell, Circus World executive director, notes that the circus is older than baseball. His 64-acre campus, a National Historic Landmark, adds Bengal and Siberian tigers to performances this year.
Two elephants remain in the lineup. Elephant acts are ending elsewhere, in response to criticism about using animals for circus entertainment.
“Our animal partners are respected and revered members of the Circus World family, and help to tell the story of the American circus,” Circus World explains, online.
May 20-22 is the attraction’s opening weekend, and 10 live performances happen daily.
Upcoming promotions include Military Day, May 28 (free admission for military personnel, veterans and their families). An International Model Builders convention and exhibit is June 16-19.
A major fundraiser, Circus of Chefs, is June 12. A single ticket cost $160 in 2015. circusworldbaraboo.org, 866-693-1500
The annual Circus Parade of antique wagons and circus performers begins at 2 p.m. July 23 in downtown Baraboo, proceeding around Courthouse Square. bigtopparade.com