“Circus Exhibits at the Museum of Science & Industry” by S.M. O’Connor

The current Circus exhibit, located in the East Gallery on the Lower Level of the Museum of Science and Industry (M.S.I.), is a vestige of a much larger Circus exhibit in the East Pavilion that was sponsored by Sears, Roebuck & Company.  [Sears had a close relationship with the M.S.I. because Sears President Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) founded the M.S.I.]  The miniature animated Circus exhibit was designed, built, and animated by a single man, retired railroad foreman Roland J. Weber, who carved many of the wooden pieces himself.[1]

9Figure 1 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This exhibit label explains Roland J. Weber began to build his miniature animated circus in 1920 and when the finished thirty-three years later, he had hand-carved, cast, and animated 22,000 figures.

8Figure 2 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This exhibit label relates to museum visitors how before a circus would arrive in town in waves.  First, an advance crew would arrive (like army scouts) to find places where circus tents could be setup, rent the sites, and let out contracts for food for the circus performers and support personnel as well as the animals.  The second wave to arrive would be the bill-posters who plasters posters on walls around town.  Then, a day before the circus arrived, the 24-hour-man entered the town to make sure the advance men had done their jobs correctly.  Finally, the circus would roll into town.  On the opening day, the circus would hold a parade.  While the main performances would take place in the Big Top tent, visitors would also see ancillary acts in the Side Show and other smaller tents.  They could also see exotic animals in the Menagerie tent.

3Figure 3 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is a corner of the Circus exhibit.  In this long, winding display case, visitors see the circus parade that would happen on opening day for the circus.

Figure 4 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This video shows the Circus Parade.

4Figure 5 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This display is of a Side Show tent.

5Figure 6 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This display case shows circus customers going through a circus Menagerie tent to look an exotic animals.  Before zoos were commonplace or shows devoted to animals like the two made by Marlin Perkins (1905-1986) – Zooparade (1949-1957) or Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (1963-1985) were on television– the only opportunity most Europeans or Americans had to see exotic animals was when a circus came to town.

6Figure 7 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This pillar representing a tent-pole stands across from a display with a three-ring circus Big Top tent.

7Figure 8 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is a close-up of the three-ring circus Big Top tent display.

Weber called it the “Terrell Jacobs Wild Animal Circus” in honor of his friend, Terrell Jacobs (1903-1957) (“The Lion King”), a famous circus animal-trainer,[2] who had reached the height of his fame in the 1938-39 season when he headlined for the newly combined Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Baily Circus. [In 1938, Jacobs set a record for the number of cats he used with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus when he used fifty-two lions and tigers. In 1939, he purchased the farm south of Peru, Indiana where he founded the Terrell Jacobs Circus Winter Quarters in Miami County, Indiana, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1940, he performed at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.]  In 1949, Weber’s miniature animated circus was displayed in the Chicago Public Library (as in the central library that is now the Chicago Cultural Center), and three department stores: Marshall Field & Company, Boston, and Goldblatt’s.[3]

By 1952, Weber had been working on it for twenty-three years and it was comprised of 20,000 pieces.[4]  Each wagon had about 400 parts.[5]  The Big Top performers had an audience of 5,000 individually-carved spectators in reserved seats and bleachers.[6]  It took Weber and his wife five days to setup his animated circus on a twenty-by-thirty-nine-foot platform on the fourth floor of Rosenbaum Brothers Department Store in Cumberland, Maryland.[7]  Weber toured with it in the Midwest and Maryland for years before he sold it in 1960.

Ken Idle of Rivergrove, Illinois acquired it and in 1970 sold it to Sears,[8] as part of a much larger toy collection, part of which, the M.B. Mervis collection of wooden horses known as “Horses of the World Collection,” ended up in the Kentucky Horse Park’s International Museum of the Horse.  It was no easy task to reanimate the “Terrell Jacobs Wild Animal Circus” because nobody trying to do so had seen it in operation.[9]  Once all 142 crates were unpacked, it took six weeks to reorganize and reanimate the Circus.[10]   It then took twenty-five workmen to reinforce old parts, repaint old circus wagons, re-clothe old figures, and make new figures.[11]   Alexander Cranstoun of the New York design firm DeMartin, Marona, Cranstoun, Downes, Inc. designed the original exhibit.[12]  Cranstoun later helped design the Kentucky Horse Park Museum, and it was he who arranged for Sears to transfer “Horses of the World” to the Kentucky Horse Park Museum, a process which took place between 1978 and 1983.[13]  [With the title Vice President of DeMartin, Marona, Cranstoun, Downes, Inc., Cranstoun later acted as spokesman for the firm, at least, when it designed the exhibits for the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.[14]] After two years of restoration and construction, Circus opened on Sunday, April 15, 1973.[15]

It included an eight-minute-long multimedia presentation entitled Sears Cinema Circus that featured Clyde Beatty-Cole. Bros. Circus performers, which garnered a Hugo award at the 1973 Chicago International Film Festival.[16]  It was projected on a fourteen-by-thirty-foot screen.  Robert Lewis Parkinson, Chief Librarian and Historian at the Circus World Museum, assisted with the exhibit and guidebook The Circus: An unforgettable exhibit presented by Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.[17] [He wrote “The First 100 Years of the Greatest Show on Earth” for Encyclopædia Britannica.]  Circus has approximately 22,000 pieces.[18]  It is comparable to the 1” scale animated Siemor Bros. Miniature Circus in the Chappie Fox Wagon Restoration Center at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which was handmade by Melvin L. (“Mel”) Romeis (1917-2009) and his wife, Lottie Mary Romeis (1916-1996), over a period of forty years.[19]

26229511_10156405693942437_7352901962316760080_nFigure 9 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the front cover of the guidebook The Circus: An unforgettable exhibit presented by Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.

26219694_10156405694057437_4003964817096978824_nFigure 10 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is a photograph of the miniature animated Circus at the Museum of Science and Industry from the guidebook The Circus: An unforgettable exhibit presented by Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.

1Figure 11 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: The miniature animated circus is supplemented by two displays at the entrance to the exhibit.  This one is no more than half-size circus wagon facsimile with large stuffed animals representing a tiger and a leopard, two of the big cats that circus visitors might see.

2Figure 12 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This supplemental display shows a large stuffed animal that represents a circus elephant.

 

Other Circus Exhibits

In addition to the Circus exhibit, the Museum of Science and Industry has hosted circus acts.  For example, the Vagabond Clowns of Chicago put on one-hour-long shows, consisting of classic skits, the art of applying clown makeup and costuming on Saturday, August 4, 1979.[20]  Performances were every hour on the hour (at 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m.).

More recently, the M.S.I. had a temporary, 15,000-square-foot three-ring circus exhibit in 2001, Under the Big Top, which opened on Friday, April 6, 2001 and ran through Sunday, September 9, 2001.[21]  Two of the three rings were devoted to the display of artifacts while the third had live demonstrations by circus performers.  It was setup in the West Court in the Central Pavilion[22] (which is now occupied by the physics exhibit Science Storms).  The core of the $1,000,000 exhibit was Circus Magicus, a collection of hundreds of artifacts assembled for a traveling exhibit of the Musée de la civilisation à Quebéc (Quebec’s Museum of Civilization) in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.[23]  The traveling exhibit consisted of a collection of approximately 200 artifacts that included circus costumes and the headdress of P.T. Barnum’s elephant Jumbo, photographs, and performance videos.[24]   There was no separate charge beyond the general admission fee to enter this exhibit.[25]

The Museum of Science and Industry supplemented the traveling exhibit with artifacts borrowed from Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus, the aforementioned Circus World Museum, and private collectors.[26]  Further, in the third ring, there were clowns, jugglers, and stilt-walkers; students from The Actors Gymnasium Circus School & Theatre Company in north suburban Evanston, Illinois, who practiced and performed tumbling and low-wire trapeze acts; and professional circus aerialists who performed high-wire trapeze acts.[27]  The Center Ring was twenty-five feet in diameter and could seat 300 guests.[28]  Costumed Program Interpreters represented P.T. Barnum (1810-1891), Republican office holder, newspaper publisher, author, and founder of Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth; Annie Oakley (1860-1926), sharpshooter and exhibition shooter; and Lou Jacobs (1903-1992), a Master Clown who performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for sixty years.[29] [Some of my friends and colleagues amongst the Program Interpreters, as the M.S.I.’s uniformed docents were then called, were directly involved in Under the Big Top, but I did not take part.]  A truss system was anchored to the West Court ceiling, and, from the West Court Balcony, museum visitors were able to see the high-wire act up close[30] in a way that would not be possible in a traditional circus tent.  The truss measured forty feet by ninety feet and was suspended fifty-three feet above the West Court’s floor.[31]  The tightrope was twenty-eight feet long.[32]

“We said circuses usually have three rings,” Phelan Fretz, then the M.S.I.’s Vice-President of Programs,[33] told Ms. Mary Ellen Podmolik of Crain’s Chicago Business.  “We thought about all different kinds of ideas and came up with the idea of not just bringing in a circus show but let’s get you behind the scenes, get you closer than you’ve ever been.”[34]

“I think it’s really Cirque du Soleil that’s created a new image for the circus,” Mary Ellen Podmolik quoted Ernest Albrecht, Editor of Spectacle magazine and author of The New American Circus as having said.  “It’s made it more artistic, more glamorous and more acceptable, really.  It’s an upscale entertainment now.”[35]

“It is an enormously popular thing right now, in large part because of Cirque du Soleil, but it’s also because of interest in vaudeville and physical theater,” Larry DiStasi, Director of Programming at Actors Gymnasium told Ms. Podmolik.  “There’s a huge rebirth of clowning, and people are starting to understand that there’s a lot more depth to it than just a red nose.”[36]

A barker would give theatrical presentations on the exhibit and circus history as equipment was being changed to suit various performances and performers periodically asked for the audience for volunteers.[37]  Further, instructors from Actors Gymnasium and professional circus performers offered classes in flying trapeze six days a week and a general circus class that covered juggling, stilt-walking, unicycling, and tumbling, five days a week.[38]  Classes were offered as single sessions or in three eight-week-long sessions.[39]

END NOTES

[1] Museum of Science and Industry, The Circus: An unforgettable exhibit presented by Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1973), p. 1

See also “Miniature Circus is Viewed by 256 Crippled Children,” The Cumberland News, 1 October, 1952, p. 5

[2] The Circus: An unforgettable exhibit presented by Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1973), p. 1

[3] “Under the Marquee,” The Billboard, 9 April, 1949, p. 92

[4] “Miniature Circus is Viewed by 256 Crippled Children,” The Cumberland News, 1 October, 1952, p. 5

[5] “Miniature Circus is Viewed by 256 Crippled Children,” The Cumberland News, 1 October, 1952, p. 5

[6] “Miniature Circus is Viewed by 256 Crippled Children,” Cumberland Evening Times, 30 September, 1952, p. 15

[7] “Miniature Circus is Viewed by 256 Crippled Children,” Cumberland Evening Times, 30 September, 1952, p. 15

[8] “Science Museum Now Showing Circus Exhibit,” Wheeling Herald, 20 April, 1973, p. 43

[9] M.S.I., The Circus, p. 1

[10] M.S.I., The Circus, p. 1

[11] M.S.I., The Circus, p. 1

[12] M.S.I., The Circus, p. 49

[13] “Unbridled Miniature,” The Courier-Journal, 26 September,  1983, p. 3

[14] Associated Press, “Nixon Library to get noted tapes,” BG News, 11 January, 1990, p. 6

Bowling Green State University, “The BG News 11 January, 1990,” (1990). GGSU Student Newspaper. Book 5021.

(http://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/bg-news/5021) Accessed 01/08/18

[15] M.S.I., The Circus, p. 1

[16] M.S.I., The Circus, p. 43

See also “Science Museum Now Showing Circus Exhibit,” Wheeling Herald, 20 April, 1973, p. 43

[17] M.S.I., The Circus, p. 49

See also “Science Museum Now Showing Circus Exhibit,” Wheeling Herald, 20 April, 1973, p. 43

[18] Museum press release July 25, 1979

Museum of Science and Industry, Collections, Institutional Archives, Press Release Files, Press Releases 1975-79, “Press Releases 1979”

See also Museum of Science and Industry, Collections, Institutional Archives, Memo dated March 14, 1989 from Terri Sinnott to Paul Huffer

[19] Note Siemor is Romeis spelt backwards.  In 1998, the Kohler Foundation, Inc. gave the Siemor Bros. Miniature Circus to the International Clown Hall of Fame (I.C.H.O.F.).  When the I.C.H.O.F. lost its space on the second floor of the Expo Center in State Fair Park, the organization returned the Siemor Bros. Miniature Circus to the Kohler Foundation.  The exhibit had to de-installed, the parts numbers and packed, and the whole process documented.  Subsequently, the Kohler Foundation arranged to place the Siemor Miniature Circus in the Circus World Museum’s Irvin Feld Exhibit Hall and the Visitor Center in 2009.

[20] Museum of Science and Industry, Collections, Institutional Archives, Museum Press Release, July 25, 1979

Museum of Science & Industry, Collections, Institutional Archives, Press Release Files, Press Releases 1975-79, “Press Releases 1979”

[21] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

See also Museum of Science and Industry, Under the Big Top, “Exhibit Info” Webpage (https://web.archive.org/web/20070814103755/http://www.msichicago.org:80/scrapbook/scrapbook_exhibits/bigtop/big_tour.html) Accessed 04/13/18

[22] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[23] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

See also Michael Esposito, “Big Top rises at Museum of Science and Industry,” Chicago Tribune, 27 May, 2001 (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-05-27/news/0105270437_1_aerialists-science-and-industry-museum) Accessed 12/21/17

[24] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

See also Michael Esposito, “Big Top rises at Museum of Science and Industry,” Chicago Tribune, 27 May, 2001 (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-05-27/news/0105270437_1_aerialists-science-and-industry-museum) Accessed 12/21/17

[25] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[26] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[27] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

See also Michael Esposito, “Big Top rises at Museum of Science and Industry,” Chicago Tribune, 27 May, 2001 (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-05-27/news/0105270437_1_aerialists-science-and-industry-museum) Accessed 12/21/17

[28] Museum of Science and Industry, Under the Big Top, “Exhibit Info” Webpage (https://web.archive.org/web/20070814103755/http://www.msichicago.org:80/scrapbook/scrapbook_exhibits/bigtop/big_tour.html) Accessed 04/13/18

[29] Museum of Science and Industry, Under the Big Top, “Exhibit Info” Webpage (https://web.archive.org/web/20070814103755/http://www.msichicago.org:80/scrapbook/scrapbook_exhibits/bigtop/big_tour.html) Accessed 04/13/18

[30] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[31] [31] Museum of Science and Industry, Under the Big Top, “Exhibit Info” Webpage (https://web.archive.org/web/20070814103755/http://www.msichicago.org:80/scrapbook/scrapbook_exhibits/bigtop/big_tour.html) Accessed 04/13/18

[32] [32] Museum of Science and Industry, Under the Big Top, “Exhibit Info” Webpage (https://web.archive.org/web/20070814103755/http://www.msichicago.org:80/scrapbook/scrapbook_exhibits/bigtop/big_tour.html) Accessed 04/13/18

[33] Phelan Fretz is now Executive Director of the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain.

[34] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[35] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[36] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[37] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[38] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

[39] Mary Ellen Podmolik, “Museum’s three-ring circus,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 21 April, 2001

(http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20010421/ISSUE01/100016304/museums-three-ring-circus) Accessed 12/21/17

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