Circus Summit presents past, present and future of traveling shows

Date: 7/23/2015

WEST SPRINGFIELD – Part fan convention, part trade show, The Worldwide Circus Summit attracted more than 700 people as far away as Australia, Germany and Mexico to the Big E grounds last week.

A stroll through the Better Living Center revealed not just sources for clown supplies but sales of vintage circus memorabilia, as well as insurance providers who specialize in covering circuses and carnivals. There were also two different clown associations recruiting members.

Ringling Brothers was even conducting auditions for clowns at the event.

Outside on the grounds there were performances of circus acts. Nearby, the Cole Brothers Circus had set up for a multi-day run, pitching its tent in the Big E parking area.

Wayne McCary, former president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, explained to Reminder Publications this was the first such event of its kind and it combined various circus fan groups with circus professionals.

He noted, for example, The Windjammers, a group that performs traditional circus music provided the Cole Brothers circus with its 125-member orchestra to accompany their acts one of the nights of the circus’ run.

The event “brings all of these groups together at one time and in one place,” McCary said. He added the summit was five years in the making.

McCary has been seriously interested in circuses for a long time and first produced the Big E circus in 1970, well before he was the CEO of the Big E. After retiring, he became the co-chair of the summit effort and is the vice president of Federation Mondiale du Cirque, an organization based in Monaco dedicated to “preserving circus culture and promoting the art of happiness.”

While some might see the circus as a remnant of a 19th and early 20th century form of entertainment, McCary sees much more.

A common theme among the attendees, he said is “an understanding and passion for what the circus is and what it can be.”

He added, “The circus may change as culture changes.”

Among the exhibitors were several circus skill schools for young people – one group of student were practicing throwing each other in the air outside iof the Coliseum – as well as Circus Smirkus, a modern twist on traditional circus themes.

Circus professionals conducted a variety of seminars, including one on the challenges circus face today. Undoubtedly one of those issues in the use of wild animal acts, frequently the subject of protest.

The Cole Brothers Circus is defined a “traditional” circus because of its inclusion of elephants and tigers, McCary noted.

Ringling Brothers had a large display addressing that organization’s treatment of tigers and elephants stressing it runs conservation programs for both animals including a preservation area in Sir Lanka for Asian elephants.

On a stage at the Better Living Center, two people discussed the career of P.T. Barnum, the theatrical producer and circus owner, while a few steps away representatives of The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT, were discussing the progress of restoring the museum after numerous cases of extreme weather damaged the building.

Domenic Yodice of Hollis, NH, had a large collection of the costumes worn in the 1952 film “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The drama set in the Ringling Brothers Circus, starred Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Story that year.

Yodice, a circus fan, said that he started acquiring the costumes in 1990 when Paramount Pictures began selling off its collection of costumes and props. He was able to buy some at auction and purchase others from fellow collectors.

This was only the second time they have been on public display and he said it was his intention to eventually donate them to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL.

“That’s where they came from and that’s where they should go back,” he said.

Hokey plot points aside Yodice said the film is an “excellent documentary of what the Ringling Brothers circus was like in the 1940s and ‘50s.”

A circus connection was even closer to Western Massachusetts. John Spear of Spear’s Specialty Shoe Co. of Springfield was displaying his custom-made clown shoes.

Spear, a former musician, got into the business when his son, who had completed clown training at Ringling Brothers, told him there was a real need for quality made shoes in the business.

For the past 35 years, Spear has worked with the client designing a shoe to his or her needs and an associate has done the fabrication. Although he did not say how much a pair generally costs, he noted the top grade leather used for the shoes is $450 a square foot.

 Spear supplied 97 pairs of customs shoes for the male inhabitants of Whoville for the feature film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” He called that assignment his “legacy” for his 28 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

A big part of his business is making boots for people who play Santa Claus, he added.

Enquirer Printing Company of Newtown, OH, provided a history of how the circus was marketed. The family-owned firm has been printing posters for circuses and other shows since 1888. Among early clients were Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show and magician Houdini as well as many circuses.

Company President John Anderson explained this was the first time – and only time –the company has brought some of its excess stock of vintage circus posters it has had in storage, some dating back to the 1930s, to an event to sell.

He explained the posters were meant to last only two to three weeks. Typically an advance publicity team would come into a community several weeks before the arrival of a circus and paste the posters on walls. Weather and new posters facilitated their removal.

Bold colors and images – lions, tiger, clowns and hippos seemed to be favorites – were printed with wooden print blocks, Anderson said.

One series of posters depicting performers in shows organized by cartoonist Robert Ripley of “Believe or Not” fame were first printed for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Anderson said and then used for other appearances.

Over the years, the company had to diversify, Anderson noted, and print jobs for circuses used to be between 80 and 90 percent of the company’s work. Today, they still print posters for circuses, but it also only about 20 percent of their work.

The circus summit provided a rare inside look at a fascinating community and Keilani Lime, who works in marketing for Circus Smirkus, praised the event.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s really nice being around our circus family and friends.”