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Friday, 17 March 2017 10:05

Circus legacy endures here, even as Greatest Show on Earth prepares to fold up its tents forever

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The Burr Robbins circus was home to a menagerie of animals when the traveling show spent its offseason in Janesville in the 1800s.The circus made its winter quarters along the Rock River, encompassing about 40 acres in the present-day area of Delavan Drive and Beloit Avenue. The Burr Robbins circus was home to a menagerie of animals when the traveling show spent its offseason in Janesville in the 1800s.The circus made its winter quarters along the Rock River, encompassing about 40 acres in the present-day area of Delavan Drive and Beloit Avenue. Photo courtesy Rock County Historical Society

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- The Big Top is coming down.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, which called itself The Greatest Show on Earth, announced early this year it was closing in May, after rallying for years against a difficult economy, changing tastes in entertainment and pressure from animal rights groups.

When Ringling Brothers made a decision to retire its performing elephants two years ago because of protests, attendance dropped even lower than predicted, according to Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Brothers.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s final shows on May 21 in Uniondale, New York, have sold out, but online ticket exchanges are offering tickets at prices inflated by as much as 560 percent, with lower level ringside seats at The New Coliseum costing as much as $2,000, according to some websites.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey had a historically long run: 146 combined years for the shows. The fact that circuses like Ringling Brothers have such a history is testament to their success, said Peter Shrake, archivist at Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

“I think like any successful, long-running show, it comes down to good management, excellent performers and a willingness to be flexible,” Shrake wrote in an email. “A successful show knows its audience and gives that audience what it wants. Clearly for 146 years, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was able to do just that.”

“It was a bit of a shock to hear that the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus was closing,” said Janesville circus enthusiast Keith McLaughlin. “I did not really see it coming, especially since they just hired their first female ringmaster, Kristen Michelle Wilson. The reasons they gave -- declining attendance, especially since the end of the elephant acts, increased costs, the constant battles with PETA -- all contributed to their decision. I guess it just is another sign of the times.”

The history of the traveling circus is almost as long as Ringling Brothers, and part of its storied past is linked to Wisconsin.

More than 100 circuses got their start in the state. Nine called Baraboo home, including the one formed by the brothers Ringling, who grew up there.

The site of their old winter quarters -- where they returned after each performing season to work on new acts and make repairs to wagons and equipment -- is where the Circus World Museum now stands.

In Janesville, Burr Robbins -- once a rival of P.T. Barnum -- made the city a winter home for his circus in the late 19th century.

A New York native, Robbins was born in 1837 to parents who hoped he’d become a minister. Instead, he ran away from home to the Midwest, where he worked in everything from hardware to the theater.

In 1858, he joined a St. Louis circus, earning $15 a month as an assistant to a champion bareback rider. When Robbins became a circus owner, he ended up hiring the same performer at a salary of $250 a week.

A stint in the Union Army during the Civil War interrupted his career, but by 1873 he’d purchased an existing circus and tweaked it to create the Burr Robbins’ Moral Museum, Circus and Menagerie.

In 1878, traveling with his show from state to state, Robbins came to Janesville. He liked what he saw.

He chose land about a mile south of the city along the Rock River in an area known as Spring Brook Farms.

A newspaper account in 1878 noted Robbins’ menagerie included zebra, a black bear, three leopards, a cheetah, a hyena, a yak, wolves, a polar bear, two kangaroos, an anteater, trained elk, a white deer, a hippo, six lions, two elephants, a rhino, 60 birds, 40 monkeys, 14 camels and more than 200 horses and ponies.

 “Circuses at one time were a main source of entertainment in America’s early history,” McLaughlin said. “Most carried large menageries and people were drawn to them as their only source to see exotic animals.”

Janesville officials couldn’t deny the impact of the circus on the local economy, from feed dealers and blacksmiths to mechanics and wagon makers, like the local firm of Hodge & Buchholz, which produced a number of Robbins’ circus wagons.

1885 was the last season the show was quartered in Janesville. By 1888, the circus was divided up and sold.

At the time of Robbins’ death, the barns from his winter quarters were still standing, but today little remains.

In 2000, a Wisconsin Historical Society marker about Robbins, located near a paved bike trail in Jeffris Park in Janesville, was erected.

Shrake sees the circus’s influence in today’s popular big-scale productions.

“Cirque du Soleil is a contemporary re-imagination of the circus. The Feld family, the owners of the Ringling show, are also producers of Disney on Ice,” Shrake said. “It is hard to imagine that the skills the Feld family developed while operating the circus did not in some way translate into their other entertainment endeavors.”

And even without Ringling, Shrake believes smaller circuses still will continue to perform.

“The circus has always been a changing and evolving art form,” he said.

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