Emergence of the Circus Parade
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, circuses were a major form of entertainment for Americans. Circuses would travel from town to town, quickly erect tents, do several performances then move on to the next venue. As the circus entered a new city, people would gather to watch the wagons, exotic animals and equestriennes roll by.
A prestigious procession of ponderous pachyderms!
In the early years, the parade, with its yet unadorned wagons, was a way for wary townsfolk to judge whether or not the circus would be worth the admission fee to see the show. Realizing the value of this, circuses began to add ornamentation to the wagons.
In later years, the parade became a spectacular pre-show tradition with colorful and intricately carved wagons, brass bands, and much hullabaloo. The free street pageant became a much-anticipated event and a major advertising tool for the circus, captivating the imaginations of children of all ages and compelling them to attend the actual performance.
The advent of radio and television in the 20th century revolutionized America's definition of entertainment. The golden age of the circus, with its parades, eventually came to an end.
Circus Parade Makes a Comeback
Gone but not forgotten, the circus parade made a comeback in the early 1960s. Much of its return is credited to Circus World and its first director, Charles "Chappie" Fox.
Charles "Chappie" Fox delivers commentary on the parade with NBC's Willard Scott.
Circus World opened on July 1, 1959, with two Ringling Bros. Circus structures and a collection that included six authentic circus wagons. Fox had been an enthusiast for the history of the circus since childhood. He knew the locations of many of the remaining circus wagons and wanted to collect and restore them.
Over the next few years, Fox and local Baraboo businessman Wilbur Deppe and his son David traveled throughout the United States gathering the dilapidated circus wagons, abandoned from a bygone era. Back at Circus World, craftsmen would set about the task of restoring them to their former glory.
With an ever-growing collection of these wood-carved masterpieces, Fox needed to find a venue to showcase the wagons and help pay for future acquisitions and restoration efforts.
An eight horse hitch of Belgians takes a corner, pulling the Pawnee Bill Bandwagon.
Fox envisioned a re-creation of the old circus street parades, with teams of huge draft horses pulling the vehicles, costumed riders or brass bands playing authentic circus music, exotic animals, and bejeweled equestriennes dressed in rich velvets, herds of elephants walking trunk to tail, and a screaming steam calliope.
After approaching 12 companies, Fox found a friend on his 13th pitch. Ben Barkin, whose advertising firm represented the Schlitz brewery in Milwaukee, liked the idea. Together they took it to Bob Ehlein, head of the brewery and, with Barkin's strong recommendation and Fox's enthusiasm, the idea was given the green light for the summer of 1963.
Bands were hired, hundreds of costumes were fabricated, 20 restored circus wagons readied, and teams of horses and exotic animals were rented. All were trucked to downtown Milwaukee. Horses were hitched to the wagons right on the city's streets.
The Circus Parade in the 21st Century
Circus parades were held first in Milwaukee from 1963 to 1973, then vacillated between Baraboo, Chicago, and Milwaukee from 1980 to 2005. In 1985 it was named The Great Circus Parade. In 2009 the parade made a one-time return to Milwaukee, re-creating the splendor and pageantry of those marvelous circus parades of long ago.
A recreation of The Ringling Bros. Giraffe Wagon of the 1890s.
The Golden Age of Chivalry – a 1903 Barnum & Bailey parade feature brought to life.
Arial view of the parade with The Rainbow Equestrienne Unit in front.
The Courier of St. Petersburg portrayed by Staci Anderson of the Texas-based White Horse Troupe.