Out of The Past Comes--The Circus Parade! Every year in Milwaukee, it's re-created on lavish scale

June 30, 1991|By Joy S. Lewis

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! A titanic, titillating, big-top street pageant is coming to town.

It's Wisconsin's national treasure -- the Great Circus Parade, scheduled this year for July 15 and billed as the world's largest: a dazzling eclectic display of circus wagons, marching bands, tigers, lions, horses, clowns, bears, llamas, camels, elephants and . . . would you believe antique cars?

No boy who ever watered an elephant or girl who begged her daddy for a cotton-candy cone wants to miss the unicyclists, sidesaddle lady riders, rope-'em-in cowboys, stilt walkers, high-wheel cyclists and olden-day knights. Even a hippopotamus and giraffe roll into the act, each in a wagon especially created for something so tall and something so massive.

Animals and performers wheel, prance and stroll in a nostalgic fanfare found nowhere else in America. This year's parade will feature a dramatic team of 40 hefty Belgian horses -- four abreast and 10 deep -- pulling the biggest circus bandwagon ever built: ** the 28-foot long, 10-ton Two Hemispheres wagon.

Every parade unit -- all 15 of them -- is an original or scrupulously faithful re-creation of an attraction that actually appeared in circuses of bygone days. Not one spangled dress, glossy top hat or gleaming epaulet is anything but the real McCoy of yesteryear. Even the hairdressing of the horses' manes and tails is historically accurate; they are left unbraided, just as in circuses of old.

Milwaukee's first Great Circus Parade was sponsored by the Schlitz Brewing Co. in 1963. It grew out of the Circus World Museum collection of historic, one-of-a-kind circus wagons and paraphernalia in Baraboo, Wis.

The museum felt its cherished wagons should be brought out and paraded in public. After all, in the heyday of circuses -- and their triumphal entries into small towns and big cities from 1880 ,, to 1920 -- the parade was the all-important prelude to the circus, the enticement that seduced customers into buying tickets for the main event.

Around 1920, however, the great conglomerate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus began discontinuing parades because show grounds were farther and farther from city and rail centers. One by one, others followed suit. The riotous years of circus street pageantry were thought to be gone forever -- until the 1960s and the Baraboo resurrection.

Over the next decade, Milwaukee's Great Circus Parade turned into an annual event that attracted nearly a million spectators and was nationally televised. In 1974, Schlitz dropped its sponsorship, but in 1985 the parade was resurrected: A large aggregation of new corporations, foundations and individual donors made certain this event would live on.

The four-mile parade begins at 2 p.m., rain or shine. As big top sights, sounds and smells flow along Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee's main street, children's eyes shine, and oldsters' grow suspiciously misty.

With so many stars -- including a 21-camel Cleopatra caravan, a 20-llama hitch, three baby elephants and 10 knee-high miniature horses -- it's almost impossible to choose the center-ring attraction. If anything wins the gold ring, it's the entire collection of 75 magnificently carved and gilded circus wagons.

Each is a treasure. For 51 weeks of the year, they remain unpretentiously housed in Baraboo, site of the original Ringling Brothers winter quarters. But come parade day, they are polished to a fare-thee-well and brought out like royal coaches on Coronation Day. For this one moment in the sun, their deliciously rococo facades glisten bright again.

The gargantuan, ornate Two Hemispheres wagon pulled by the 40-horse hitch is unlike most circus vehicles: It has no doors or cargo access. In 1904, the last year 40 horses tugged this goliath in circus parades across the country, it carried 28 musicians. Built for Barnum & Bailey by the Sebastian Wagon Co. of New York City in 1902, it's so big that it takes up twice as much space as a regular wagon on a railroad flatcar.

On the Eastern Hemisphere side are the gilded seals and flags of Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and imperial Russia. The western side sports symbols of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico and the United States.

Probably the most unusual circus vehicle ever built is the Bell Wagon, constructed in Baraboo in 1892. Eight big bells like those in a cathedral ring out in tandem with the eight prancing Percheron horses that pull the traditionally hued red and gold wagon.

Then there's the boisterous, 32-whistle Steam Calliope. Its cacophony of ear-splitting tunes echoes down city avenues in piercing contrast with the melodious Air Calliope's sad, sweet Shaker chimes and the tinkling of the Uni-Fon, a collection of electronic doorbells.

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