Lion tamers, bearded ladies, daring young men on the flying trapeze, and other circus icons have all but disappeared from the mainstream American experience. Today's young people are spending more time and money in arcades and water parks rather than the Big Top. But the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin is taking big steps to win back the crowds.
Under a blue and red striped tent, an animal handler, flanked by two Asian elephants, tells the crowd, " Right now, the girls will be showing you how they use their trunks to breathe." He hands each one a harmonica. They grasp the small instruments in their trunks and make music, to the delight of the audience.
This up-close, educational program, called Elephant Encounters, is one of several new ventures for Circus World.
Down the dusty midway, illusionist Tristan Christ entertains a family with some oversized playing cards and classic sleight of hand. The rail-thin man adorned in shimmering black is also new to this venue. Yet he seems quite at home as he explains how he correctly picked the jack of clubs. "There's only one explanation, I really did read your mind!"
The real trick for Christ and the others here is to make more crowds appear at Circus World Museum's door. To help them, administrators have also brought in a troupe of Chinese acrobats and made the Museum's collection of circus artifacts more accessible to visitors.
Built on the old wintering grounds of the Ringling Brothers Circus, the Circus World Museum is struggling to keep the tent doors open. In 1973, there were 242,000 visitors. Last year, only 71,000 people came through, the lowest number since the museum opened in 1959.
The Big Top isn't quite the big deal it used to be, according to Janet Davis, who teaches American Studies and History at the University of Texas-Austin. "At the turn of the 20th century," she explains, "the circus was the biggest thing going on. It was a multi-faceted entertainment experience that opened the world up to people in their own small towns."
Nearly 100 circus troupes were active in the United States a century ago. Today, there are barely three dozen. Davis says circuses met their match in advances in entertainment technology. "After World War I, the movie industry really takes off, the automobile and the film industry, with radio, supercede the circus in representing the world. After World War II, TV becomes the most popular entertainment."
Social changes also hurt the circus. Feminists attacked them for scantily clad magic-show assistants and acrobats. Animal-rights activists criticized them for training and confinement practices they deemed inhumane.
But for Circus World, the biggest challenge is literally upstream. Outside of Baraboo sits The Dells, a haven of water parks and arcades that draws thousands of people every week. The nearby attraction is both a help and a hindrance. "They certainly do help promote us in many ways," says Circus World administrator David Saloutos, "yet the main draw is to remain in the Dells and do the Dell things, and not come [19 kilometers] to Baraboo."
Saloutus says Circus World needs to promote itself better, and raise a half-million dollar endowment to keep competitive. Even while adding new, hands-on attractions, the Museum has cut back staff and events, including the popular annual Circus World Museum parade.
For visitors like John Stock and his daughter, Casey, it's worth it if it keeps the place running. "It's certainly an amount of domestic pride," he says. "Wisconsin is arguably the home of the American Circus." He calls Baraboo 'Ground Zero.'
It's too soon to tell how - or whether - Circus World Museum's new direction will help it recover. But American Studies professor Janet Davis says it's a smart move, "because there is a sub-cultural interest in circuses today that has never been stronger." She adds that today's circuses may need to follow the lead of modern sensation Cirque du Soleil, which has no animals or traditional acts, but still plays to sold-out crowds with its acrobatic pageantry and light show.
Longtime Circus World visitor and Baraboo resident Bob Tully says even if kids still pop their gum and keep their iPods on during the show, the realism and spontaneity of the circus may win over some who've had enough of virtual thrills, gadgetry, and waterslides. "You may not come out as clean as at a waterpark," he admits, "but it's fun. There's a sense of joy, and happiness. I'd much rather be here."