THIS PAST WEEK I saw a fascinating and exquisitely detailed 1/8 - inch scale model of a 1930s circus on exhibit at the Baltimore City Life Museums.
The model builder, Joseph F. Schmitt Sr., lived in Ferndale from 1961 until his death in 1989. Schmitt's family donated the circus model to the museum last year, and it will be on display there through April 12.
The model, called The Bozo Brothers' Circus after the family dog, Bozo, is an intricate world of miniatures made almost entirely from scratch with scrap materials and more than 33,880 pieces.
Modeled after the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show, the exhibit depicts a sprawling circus, which includes several tents, sideshows, midway and street parade.
In his work, Schmitt strove for realism and accuracy.
One needs to look closely to see the details, like the hand-carved tablecloths on the 96 tables in the dining tent, the cook preparing meals in the cook tent and the mirrors and trunks at the performers' makeup tables in the dress tent.
When Schmitt began creating the circus, the only small people figures available were the ones used in train gardens, which were very expensive, said his eldest daughter, Sally Fisher.
So he searched for other materials and settled on Play-Doh to make the people himself. More than 7,000 hand-painted figures fill the big top alone.
The circus project took thousand of hours and involved the entire family.
When they were growing up, Fisher said she and her sister, Angie Durm, painted most of the people while watching television.
"My father always encouraged us not to veg out in front of the TV, and it was something that we really had a lot of fun with," Fisher said. "When we were painting the people, it was in the '70s, so my sister and I tried painting long hair on the men and miniskirts on the women, but my father said no because this was the 1930s."
Schmitt's wife, Sara, was very much involved in the project, but because she grew up on a farm, she really enjoyed painting the animals.
Even the youngest child, Joseph Jr., who at first was too young to paint helped out.
"My father called him 'the lot manager.' He would direct where things should go," Fisher recalled.
Fisher said her father built the circus model in sections so that it could be transported for display.
Schmitt took it to circus model conventions and to the North County and Lansdowne libraries, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Glen Burnie and Harundale malls.
Model building was a lifelong interest for Schmitt, who also crafted ships, railroads, tanks and planes.
After his death, the family decided to donate his models to museums so that they could be enjoyed by many. A model of the Baltimore Harbor, circa 1930, has been donated to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, and a fleet of ships to the Maritime Museum in Newport News, Va. Schmitt also built a model of Cole Field House at the University of Maryland College Park. The City Life Museums exhibit also contains photographs of Baltimore circuses, including a series by A. Aubrey Bodine, the noted Sun photographer. Costumes and other memorabilia are on loan from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Riding Rudynoffs, an internationally renowned equestrian act.
You can see the circus exhibit at Baltimore City Life Museums' Morton K. Blaustein Exhibition Center, 33 S. Front St.
Pub Date: 1/12/97