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Preserving A Culture At Circus World

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Preserving The Epic: Circus World 

 A 64-Acre, Seven-Building Museum In Wisconsin Dedicated To Educating The Public On The History And Importance Of The Circus 

Some of the over 200 authentic Circus wagons restored, preserved and exhibited at Circus World [Courtesy/Circus World]

The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey held their final performances in May, ending their iconic 146-year run. While the news of the famous circus performances coming to an end may come as a sad shock to many, Circus World is trying to stay positive despite its deep connections to the Ringling Bros.

“With Ringling and Barnum closing,” said Circus World's Ring Master David Saloutos, “the work we do here, preserving circuses, is so much more important.”

While there are still over 50 circuses traveling throughout America, it's hard to say where circuses will be in the near future. But for now, Circus World is working on preserving the memories of epic circuses past by creating a Ringling reunion this summer. All ex-Ringling employees will be grand marshals in a giant circus parade.

“We're going to get together, tell each other stories, and give each other hugs,” said Saloutos excitedly. “That's what we're going to do.”

 Located in Baraboo Wisconsin (the town where the Ringling Bros started), Circus World is 64-acre, seven-building museum dedicated to educating the public on the history and importance of the circus. It also has live circus performances daily throughout the spring and summer, with circus performers living on the grounds. It's a dynamic, interactive museum that explores the world of the circus, both as a form of entertainment and an important art form.

One of the most unique exhibits at Circus World is the collection of over 200 circus parade wagons, the largest collection of these wood carved vehicles on the planet. One of the wagons that Saloutos treasures is the Ringling Bro's Lion Tableau, a “dazzling” completely restored wagon covered in 24 carot gold leaf. 

It was a lead bandwagon used in the Ringling Parade from 1890 to 1904. Circuses used to hold street parades as a form of advertising. The free parades would allow curious spectators to judge the “size and scope” of the show and decide if they want to go see the circus performance that stopped in town or not. This level of extravagance and excitement only reflects how important circuses were to American culture and what a large form of entertainment they were.

Clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs marvel at the magnificent wagon collection housed at Circus World [Courtesy/Circus World]
Acrobat Adilson Fernandes perches precariously on a stack of chairs [Courtesy/Circus World]
Jacob D’Eustachio is a phenomenal and eccentric juggler from Brooklyn, New York [Courtesy/Circus World]

Circuses weren't ever supposed to be that successful.

The Ringling Bros started out very small, said Saloutos. But “really, really hard work” turned them into an American rags to riches story. Their vision was to change circuses from adult entertainment to something that appealed to families and children. Something that would entertain the “kid in all of us.” And it was that type of entertainment that caught on with the public. The circus became an escape.

And it remains an escape to this day.

“What made the circus important 100 years ago still holds true today,” said Saloutos. “We all need to be able to escape. In today's public we need to put our phones down once in a while. We need to get rid of that stress, that need to feel connected to everything, every minute. Just put it down. Break that connection and step into another world, some place you can forget about your worries and troubles for a little while.”

People come to Circus World for their many shows and performances, which include a circus performance, a tiger demonstration and a clown comedy routine. The hour-long circus performances include jugglers, unicycles, aerial acts, horses, dogs, elephants, clowns, thrill artists, acrobats... And it's all directed by Ring Master Saloutos, who has been with Circus World for 33 years.

For Saloutos, being a circus performer was meant to be. He wasn't only born in Baraboo, but in the hospital that was attached to the Ringling Bro's home. 

His first job in high school was working in the concession department. He became fascinated by the ring master and the work that he did, the old school style of highlighting the performers and performances, staying out of the spotlight. Pacing the show and keeping things rolling was something that appealed to Saloutos.

Circus Wardrobe exhibit in the Ringling Bros. Elephant House [Courtesy/Circus World]
The summer season offers a bounty of circus wonders for guests to enjoy [Courtesy/Circus World]
The Irvin Feld Exhibit Hall holds a 100 seat theatre showing short documentaries about various circus subjects [Courtesy/Circus World]

He later became a performer. He did all kinds of singing, dancing and plays. He went all around the country, performing at theme parks and doing some work on television. When he moved back to Baraboo in 1985, Circus World was the first place he called. For Saloutos, working at Circus World was his life's calling.

“I love being able to tie the public into the performance,” he explained. “I love telling the performers' stories to the crowd. For a lot of people, they never have that opportunity to interact with the circus. Circuses are transient by nature. They're here today, gone tomorrow. But we have people that are the eighth or ninth generation of circus performers... I like being able to guide people through the performances and discuss what's so special about these people and talk about their skills and talents.”

Like many other circus performers, being a part of a circus is all about family. Performers get to know each other and the animals. They're always working together to solve problems, a tight community that truly cares about each other.

The performers that come to Circus World in the spring and fall love coming to Baraboo. They get to “put down roots” for 15 weeks, said Saloutos, which is longer than the usual amount of time performers spend at one place. They get to enjoy their summer, exploring not only Circus World, but the town and community.

When Circus World first opened to the public in 1959, it made enough money on opening day (which included a huge parade and Hollywood stars) that the museum was able to pay off all their debts. It was handed over to the Wisconsin Historical Society. No stranger to visitors, the museum now attracts around 65,000 people per year.

For families looking for a unique way to be entertained beyond the screen, Circus World is a perfect escape into a seemingly magical world that may soon be lost. With spectacular exhibits and exciting performances, Circus World aims to never let the circus be forgotten. 


Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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