Just this last Labor Day my girlfriend Carra and I went to Baraboo, Wi, to see the Circus World Museum. Baraboo is where the old timey Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Habersham, Habersham, Fitzwater, and Dunn and Associates LLC Circus used to have its winter quarters. We knew that Labor Day was considered off season and there probably wouldn’t be too much going on like all the elephants performing Swan Lake, but I wanted to at least see the many restored circus wagons as this beautiful and ornate collection was touted as being the largest in the world. The main building where you enter is modern and clean, and all of the displays are nicely done. Or tacky but vacuumed. (Warning: There are a lot of posters and photographs of clowns here. This is not a place to bring children).
Within this building is a little theater and there, performing magic daily at 2 o’clock, is a man named Tristan Crist. I think that’s a great name. This would be a great name to use at the beginning of any sentence where you’re yelling at your kids and you’re trying to avoid invoking either your deity’s name or anybody else’s: “Tristan Crist! If I’ve told you kids once I’ve told you a thousand times not to eat on the living room rug!”
Having arrived late and knowing there was much to see, we debated whether or not we should go to the magic show. But it was a homey theater and it drew us in. There was a popcorn machine by the door of the theater and a man selling popcorn before the beginning of Tristan’s show. I thought that was kind of classy in that Tristan actually had minions. Then the lights went down and the guy selling popcorn got up on stage and said, “Hi, I’m Tristan Crist.” Apparently Tristan’s pay comes from the popcorn concession. I knew at that point we’d not be seeing the traditional female assistant otherwise we would have seen her already at the popcorn machine selling salt.
Tristan started with the traditional rope trick. Nothing new, but he was really good at it. Then he did some other things which were kind of smalltime but again really well done. And as jaded to magic tricks as I might be, there was still this sense of true wonder. And I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “You know, if this guy was doing this in America three hundred years ago he would have been burned at the stake.”
After the show we had a couple hours to tour all of the other buildings of Circus World. We were excited about that. What we didn’t realize at the time, however, was that when we stepped out of the back door of the main building we had actually left Circus World and were now headed to an entirely different place: Mold and Wood Rot World.
We attempted to view all the great many restored circus wagons in the giant windowless hall where they were presented but we could only stay for two minutes as that’s as long as we could hold our breath. Note to the curators: If you’re not able to provide some sort of climate controlled environment for the world’s largest collection of restored circus wagons, you’re not going to have a collection of restored circus wagons much longer.
In the meantime, I think what they might want to do is provide diving gear to all the patrons. Everybody can take turns wearing the diving helmet, and then an employee at the door can pump air through the hose to the helmet for 25 cents per minute (Tristan might want to get in on this) letting people walk around for as long as they want. Actually, I think if they also filled up the entire building with water and tropical fish they’d really have something.
From there we moved on to the door–just the door–of the Wild Animal House where we were able to peer in from a safe distance and imagine all the animals that might have lived there long ago before they were relocated to their present home, a Motel 6 lawn mower shed in Sarasota.
They had a big passenger train car with The Greatest Show On Earth! written across the side but in the manner of the Wheel of Fortune game show where you could only see a few consonants and had to guess what the whole phrase was supposed to be. That killed about fifteen minutes. We decided Carra won as she guessed that phrase, and it seemed more likely than my final guess of The Grimiest Chow In Perth! I wanted to go in it but the door was secured shut with barbed wire and there was a message written on one of the cracked windows saying “I’d go back if I were you,” in red lipstick.
We did get to walk into one railroad car, though, which had been beautifully restored, unfortunately that was in 1896, and then set fire to in 1921. This transported all the Arabian horses they used in the show, and given the amount of stall space afforded each animal I’m fairly confident that all the horses were heroin addicts.
So while Circus World Museum did not meet our middling expectations, the day was not a total loss. The drive to and from was real pretty as we went on the small highways and through rural towns. I actually saw a chicken in somebody’s front yard. And windmills. And we went over the Wisconsin River on a ferry. And before leaving Circus World we took some souvenir photos by the front sign that says Experience The Thrill That Never Grows Old. Then I had a cigarette. And on our way out of town we stopped at the Baraboo Self Storage facility and admired the way it was painted. It was a grand day.