‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is shutting down

Atmosphere at the Ringling Bros. Circus, Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA 07-20-07

Ringling Brothers Circus and Baraboo, Wisconsin have a long history together and that history is now coming to an end. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced they were shutting down in May, residents of Baraboo were shocked.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports

The name Ringling is on the theater marquee, street signs and bed and breakfast rentals. Murals on walls on the main drag downtown picture circus performers and the Ringling brothers. Bicyclists lock their bikes on devices shaped like colorful circus wagon wheels.

Even the fire hydrants are painted with a circus theme.

Many in this Sauk County city of 12,000 are descendants of the people who were part of the Ringling Brothers Circus — wagon-makers, animal wranglers, costumers, musicians, performers.

When Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus owners announced over the weekend they were shutting down in May, folks in Baraboo were shocked and surprised. None more so than the people at Circus World Museum, which opened in 1959 on the site of the Ringling brothers’ winter headquarters.

“Ringling Brothers Circus has been around since before Coca-Cola. It’s a legacy brand that’s been a constant in the social contract of America,” Circus World Museum Director Scott O’Donnell said Monday at the facility.

Sons of a harness-maker from Germany whose name was originally Rungelings, the Ringling brothers grew up in Baraboo and started a vaudeville-styled show in 1882 that two years later morphed into a circus. The brothers were ambitious, quickly expanding their operation from a small show traveling by wagon and featuring only one animal — a blind hyena — in a tent that seated 400 the first year, to a circus with dozens of elephants and hundreds of performers moving across the country by train and playing to crowds of 16,000, said O’Donnell.

The Ringlings bought Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in 1907, running the circuses separately until 1919. From the 1880s until 1918, the brothers always returned to their hometown in the winter to work on the next season’s show, repair and build equipment and house their animals. For the residents of Baraboo, it was common back then to see camels, giraffes or elephants walking on city streets, getting their exercise, or bathing in the Baraboo River next to the winter headquarters where most of the original buildings remain and are part of Circus World Museum.

For more on how the circus shut down will impact Baraboo residents, visit Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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