Brian Jacobson
Photo Gallery

A Night at the Circus

By - Jul 9th, 2009 02:59 pm

It’s a long walk from the car on Lincoln Memorial Drive to the Big Top. Parking in the adjacent lots is $10, and the whole point of going to a fairgrounds is to see how much entertainment can be had for free before a barker gets you to hand over good cash for cotton candy.

circus7Oh, the smells that drift past the face like a loving hand. Cotton candy, popcorn, roasted peanuts, sno-cones all parade by in small childrens’ hands. The sound of an old calliope provides the soundtrack as the circular motions of a ferris wheel and carousel spin.

At the center of the grounds, currently hosting the wagons and animals being used in the Great Circus Parade on Sunday, is a little boutique showcase called Kelly Miller Festival Circus. It’s one of two touring the country, this one being watched over by John Ringling North II. He just started in the business three years ago after being borne into the circus life and then later abstaining from it.

This particular circus is only loosely connected to the folks from Baraboo with the museum, but KM has graciously set up a 700-person tent with a good 60-minute show for only $10. For an extra $2, you get ringside seats with padded backs — but most of the VIP seats for the remaining nine shows are gone. Children 2 and under get in free.

circus13To those who grew up with the engorged and lavish three-ring affair at venues like the Mecca, this is not that attempt at the greatest show on earth. There are no tigers or fire-eaters. There is no high trapeeze or galloping horse act; the 30-yard diameter one-ring wouldn’t have room for it. There is one traditionally funny clown named NoNo who doesn’t wear makeup.

The gauchos from Argentina and trampoline act from Brazil — among other website promised acts — are with the other traveling circus. This is what Milwaukee could pay for in the year which could be its last for the parade.

What visitors do get is a chance to be charmed. Anyone who ever read Water for Elephants in the past few years can sense the behind-the-scene dramas, the likely struggles of being on the road and facing mortality instead of immortality, and the fact that without the elephants, the show wouldn’t survive.

After the very mild magic and comedy acts, and long after the mesmerizing rope spinners and acrobats, the ringmaster has a kid announce the elephants. Immediately on cue and as if by practice he escorts the kid out of the ring by practically lifting him by his shirt and running. Out come the thundering threesome, right in your face in such a small tent. The crowd oohs and ahs as they tumble and stand upright. One pachyderm holds a sequined beauty in his trunk.

They look older, maybe a little tired after giving the kids rides earlier. But it’s five minutes of work and then back to the bunks. The cast and crew come back out for one last bow. Then you are let back into the magic hour outside, where the sun doesn’t quite have the heart to stop glowing. Rubes are parted $3 for a ride or a treat, one last chance to live the circus experience before it disappears into the night.   ((See gallery below for to click on selected full-sized pictures from Wednesday night. For showtimes running through Saturday, July 11, 2009 visit this link to the Circus World site.))

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