Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Re-Living the Circus's Golden Age

Circus World is located at the original home of the Ringling Bros. Circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin. This National Historic Landmark Site contains the largest group of authentic circus structures in America. On this site, five brothers built the greatest outdoor amusement enterprise the world has ever known. While extraordinary Ringling animal buildings and world-class collections form the foundation, Circus World brings the rich stories and colorful pageantry of the circus to life each summer through daily performances, magic shows, guided tours, and animal demonstrations. Circus is an entertainment that appeals to children of all ages…grandparents, parents, children, and grand-children. Through this shared experience, guests discover the magic of the circus while creating memories to last a lifetime.

One Circus World's skilled craftsmen restoring the Pawnee Bill Bandwagon, built in 1903. Photo courtesy of Circus World

Circus World began as the dream of John M. Kelley, former legal counsel to the Ringling family. Throughout his long circus career, Kelley had witnessed the magic that had made circus the most popular form of entertainment in America for over 50 years. He also saw that the circus he knew was disappearing while newer entertainments were taking over. Kelley wanted to preserve the artifacts and stories of the big top so that future generations might know the contributions circus had made to the fabric of American life.

In 1954, Kelley joined forces with Fred C. Gollmar and his son, Robert H. Gollmar, and formed a not-for-profit corporation for the purpose of raising funds and organizing a museum of the circus. As first cousins to the Ringlings, and former circus owners, the Gollmar family knew the original buildings of the Ringling Circus were still standing and could form the keystone for the new museum.

In 1957 the group acquired the Ringling Camel House and the Ring Barn once used to train performing horses. Money continued to trickle in as did circus materials and artifacts. After five years of raising funds, Circus World was ready to open its doors to the public. At that time, the museum consisted of the two buildings, less than an acre of land, six circus parade wagons, some posters, costumes, props, and other relics from the bygone days of the circus.

On opening day, July 1, 1959, a giant parade was planned for Baraboo, with the whole community turning out to celebrate. The parade featured floats by civic groups, bands, antique cars, and an appearance by Hollywood star, Rhonda Fleming, who was promoting her latest film, The Big Circus. The parade wound through town, ending at the front door of the museum. Admission was 60 cents, and the proceeds from that first day allowed Circus World to retire its debt.

A view of the Trumpets of Paper exhibit, featuring original wood block and stone press lithography. The exhibit shows how the circus contributed to modern advertising. Photo courtesy of Circus World

Through the efforts of hard-working Circus World staff, land, structures, and numerous important circus collections and artifacts were added over the years. Circus World now encompasses approximately 64 acres of land with approximately 30 permanent structures. The collection of circus artifacts is the largest in the world and includes more than 210 original wagons and vehicles once used by American, English, and Irish circuses. The assemblage of graphically exciting, brightly colored circus posters exceeds 9,500, ranging in size from half-sheets to an 80-sheet Buffalo Bill Wild West poster measuring nine feet high and 70 feet long. Circus World supports the most significant library and research center devoted to circus in the world, with collection highlights including original fine art paintings, hand bills, heralds, programs, business records for various circuses, a wide range of performance artifacts, and an immense photography and glass plate negative collection.

From mid-May through Labor Day each year, Circus World offers ten different live shows and demonstrations featuring sensational circus artists from around the world. Visitors are also fascinated by the Vegas-style Theatre of Illusion show, presented by America’s premier magical entertainer, Tristan Crist. After Labor Day, Theatre of Illusion will continue to enthrall Circus World guests twice each day, seven days a week until late October. Fall and winter visitors will also discover multiple buildings with exhibits and artifacts, plus a giant screen circus cinema showcasing films on various circus subjects.

For more information, visit www.circusworldmuseum.com or call Circus World toll free at (866) 693-1500.

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