The Ringling Brothers Circus comes to an end this spring–a decision felt hard where it all began more than 140 years ago in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It's also the home of the Circus World Museum and the folks who run it say better days are coming for the art form–perhaps with a role for Milwaukee under the big top.
No sad faces greet you at the Museum's front door. There's no organ playing dirges.
Quite the opposite.
Baraboo is a company town and for many, that industry is the circus. Locals gathered at the museum last week, taking a night to remember Ringing before watching Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 classic film, “The Greatest Show on Earth” in the venue's theater.
Times, options, tastes and attention spans all changed, cutting into Ringling's bottom line. Then the circus lost its elephants–the death knell, at least for their brand. But not for the genre as a whole, at least not according to the Museum's executive director.
“I think everybody is incorrectly ringing the death knell of the circus industry,” says Scott O'Donnell who ran off to literally join a circus after landing a pair of college degrees in unrelated fields. Other troupes are still out there keeping the art form alive, and O'Donnell points to others who are turning it inside out.
“30 years ago if we'd been sitting here talking about what would now become Cirque du Soleil, we wouldn't even know what that term meant or how it would go on to reshape the industry,” he says. “So I guarantee you the repackaging, the re-branding is still going.”
The Museum's performance director and ringmaster, Dave SaLoutos, agrees.
“I see it continually evolving–new things coming online,” he says, “but I see the basic principles of offering clean family entertainment to all generations in one place, I see that continuing.”
One of them: Milwaukee's Tripoli Shrine Circus which happens again next month at the UWM Panther Arena. It's been going on for decades in a state that sired scores of circuses over the decades, peaking in the early 1900's when O'Donnell says, it seemed, every community of note was home to one of it's own, a fact Milwaukee celebrated with a one of a kind event that began in 1963: The Great Circus Parade.
Tens of thousands lined downtown streets to catch it–many camped out for spots the night before. Schlitz and others ponied up the cash, national TV gave it a platform and Baraboo got itself a live annual summertime commercial that helped keep its museum financially afloat. Promoters aged off, though, and the money dried up. The last parade happened in 2009.
“We view it here as that it's in hiatus, that it's not gone,” says O'Donnell. The museum stages a smaller version each July through the streets of Baraboo all while hoping for a fresh burst of Milwaukee energy–and some generous sponsor's cash.
So who is going to be the company–or companies–with the deep pockets?
“I wish I had that answer sitting here today to tell everybody but I have to believe that it's out there,” O'Donnell says. “We just got a couple of calls this week from some individuals in the Milwaukee market who are exploring the possibility to bring it back.”
It won't be cheap: one Wisconsin travel website pegged the cost of the last such cavalcade at $1.5 million.
“We obviously have the wagons and the know-how and the costumes, ” O'Donnell says. “It's identifying that next partner and maybe they'll be listening (to this broadcast) and will be able to reach out to us.”
SaLoutos put the show on for years–not just the parade, but the train that brought the ensemble from Baraboo to Milwaukee as well as the lakefront shows beforehand. Could he do it again this summer if donors came through?
“Yeah, I think we could make something go down the street,” SaLoutos says, “whether it would be The Great Circus Parade that we all know, but we could certainly make it happen, and 2018 would be a piece of cake.”
O'Donnell is a lifer and remains stoked about the circus in general–hopeful about the Milwaukee parade in particular.
“You never know, y'know? That's the journey,” he says. “We always say life's a circus–we just have the official title so you never know where that next phone call or going to take you, or that next e-mail.”