Greatest shows on Earth attract the faithful following

September 13, 1990|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

As Irvin Mohler, national president of Circus Fans Association of America, remembers the circuses he saw as a child in Lancaster, Pa., his infatuation with the big top's breathtaking art, romance and lore becomes positively contagious.

"Back in those days, the circus was an event," says Mohler, 64. "You got up early in the morning and watched the circus train come in, watched them unload wagons from the train, set up a big top and tents. You went to the show in the afternoon," Mohler said by phone from his Potomac home.

There are thousands of circus buffs like Mohler, whose fascination has led them to become scholars, collectors and avid groupies who travel thousands of miles to see a show and make lasting friendships with show folk. (Chances are, when the Carson & Barnes five-ring circus rolled into Clifton Park in Baltimore yesterday, the show people were greeted by local buffs aplenty who before this year have had to travel farther west to see this 53-year-old traveling tent show, based in Hugo, Okla.) More than a few buffs, including a couple of Carson & Barnes administrators, have actually left old lives behind to run away with the circus.

Like any grand obsession, the circus has spawned numerous organizations, including the Circus Fans Association, the Circus Historical Society, Circus Model Builders and Windjammers Unlimited, a group for those who enjoy circus music. Each organization has its own publication, of course.

CFA, Mohler's bailiwick, has two local "tents," or groups of members, in Maryland. The Emmett Kelly Tent is based in Hagerstown and the Rudy and Erna Rudynoff Tent, named for a famous equestrian team that settled in Glenarm, is based in Baltimore.

There is also Circus Report, a weekly publication of homey gossip, reviews, news, tributes, circus routes, and ads such as this: "Female Flyers Wanted for All Girl Double Wide Trapeze Act," and "For Sale: Baby Leopards."

In addition to enjoying the circus, buffs have also helped quash prohibitive licensing procedures and lobby against legislation that would hinder a circus' way of doing things. In this tradition, Mohler and other circus fans are actively opposing animal rights activists who consider the use of any animals in the circus to be exploitation.

For the insatiable fan, there is Circus Express Tours, a travel agency that arranges European treks around circus routes. Circus buffs also make the pilgrimage to Sarasota, Fla., where the circus galleries of the Ringling Museum of Art are located, the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., and the Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Ind.

Howard "Pete" Adams, vice principal of Hammond High School in Howard County, has drawn his entire family into his circus-mania. His Columbia home is a shrine to the circus, and includes an autographed photo of the great Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus clown Lou Jacobs, collectibles galore, more than 1,000 posters and an entire miniature circus. Adams boasts that he has only missed the Shrine circus twice in 46 years, and he and his wife Shirley make a point to find circuses on their summer vacations in the United States and abroad.

Adams and his buddy, Clark Beurlen, a drama and social studies teacher at Atholton High School, can talk shop endlessly. Beurlen and his wife Kathy, an English teacher, have also made their home into a compact circus world, and they own a circus memorabilia shop at Savage Mill. Beurlen's favorite collectible is anything to do with Jumbo, the famous elephant whose skeleton traveled with P.T. Barnum & Co.'s Greatest Show on Earth for a season after he was struck by a train in Canada in 1885.

Like Mohler's first circus, Peale Museum curator Richard W. Flint's chance meeting in the fifth grade with a biography of P.T. Barnum snowballed into an abiding fascination with the history of circuses, a prism through which he pursued other interests including 19th century advertising and printing techniques.

Unlike Mohler, a bacteriologist who recently retired from an administrative position at George Washington University, Flint's avocation merged in part with his vocation. While in junior high school, Flint was even cited as a source in a scholarly work on the circus.

Later, as a National Endowment of the Humanities fellow, Flint took a tape recorder to Sarasota, and captured the traditions, superstitions and technical expertise of show folks as well as their recollections of long-gone greats. He hopes to publish this rare oral history in circus journal.

"Two thirds of the people are now dead," Flint says sadly of those who, before he knocked on their door, hadn't realized that their stories might be of interest. "I knew them very well in a sense," he says.

A past president of the Circus Historical Society, Flint has amassed a library of thousands circus-related books, and has authored historical works himself. While at the Smithsonian Institution, Flint staged a circus on the Mall.

When he was one of the few non-circus professionals invited to join Showfolks of Sarasota, a social club for retired circus people, Flint knew for sure that he belonged to the circus world -- the dream, it seems, of all circus buffs.

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