2001 Convention - Baraboo, Wisconsin
Early the following morning those who had arranged for this rare opportunity to ride the circus parade train flocked to the crossing where many of our number greeted Charles P "Chappie" Fox, CHS No. 161 and the man who once dared to dream that the day of the horse-drawn circus parade had not ended. We were soon comfortably seated in the Wisconsin & Southern cars and rolled out promptly at 8:30. We proceeded on the old Milwaukee Road tracks to Stoughton, where we left the train and boarded air-conditioned buses back to Baraboo. A continental brunch and a "Po Boy" lunch had been served en route. It was thrilling to see the crowds along the track waving at the circus train; of course we waved back. Our buses deposited us at the Circus World Museum and all were on their own until that evening when the Duggan-Maley Tent of the CFA (the Atlanta tent) hosted a party for all. New arrivals were greeted and many old friendships renewed as glasses were raised in the fellowship.
The next morning formal presentations began in the Feld Theater of the Circus World Museum. The first speaker was David Carlyon with "Confession of a Ringling Clown," about his early schooling in the art of clowning and of the masters of the art who mentored him. Next was Deborah Walk of the Ringling Museum of the American Circus in Sarasota, who spoke on "The Gilded Legacy of a Circus King: The Art of making and Spending Money," a fascinating tale of the late life of John Ringling and his efforts to leave a worthwhile legacy in the form of his magnificent art collection. Debby then introduced the new Director of the Ringling Museums, Dr. John Wetenhall, who briefly addressed the group an his plans and hopes for the museums. Closing the morning session was new member Bob Heber, who told of his family's Heber Bros Shows, illustrated by many slides made from family photographs. Bob dressed like one of the original brothers, who was known in his late years by his white Panama suit and a monkey on his shoulder.
The afternoon session, which led off with Fred Dahlinger's extremely well researched presentation on "Herbert L. Witt & Sons, an Obscure Circus Wagon Builder." We were next enthralled by what was the most legend shattering and history re-writing paper presented before our convention by Stuart Hicks of Perth, Australia. He not only won the award for having come the farthest, but proceeded to drop our jaws by demonstrating that for one hundred twenty years we had all been thoroughly "Barnumed." Using the miraculously surviving correspondence between Barnum and partner-in-waiting James L. Hutchinson (miraculous in that Barnum had written "destroy this letter" and like instructions across the more sensational pieces). Hicks disclosed that the conventional chronicle of the founding of Barnum & London, AKA Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson, was in fact one of P. T.'s finest pieces of deceiving the public, not to mention possibly his most astounding example of business strategy. If one among us still clung to the fable that Barnum's only contribution to the Greatest Show an Earth was his name, that belief was forever shattered. John Polacsek next brought us a tale of the constant struggles and rare triumphs of a wagon show agent as told through the correspondence to and from the advance with his "Letters from an Agent."
John McConnell opened the second day of papers by introducing Jim Alexander of the St. Louis Zoo. He reminded our secretary that when he joined the CHS, the secretary had written him, "You probably aren't old enough to have known Jules Jacot. As it turned out Alexander was at the zoo for several years before Jacot left and he knew the man well. Jim's "A History of Animal Shows at the St Louis Zoo" detailed the various animal presentations which came and in time were phased out. DavidCarlyon returned to the microphone with "What Dan Rice Taught me about Performance," an interesting tale of the king of jesters and his unconventional approach to spreading joy and delight. Fred Dahlinger also returned and presented "From Horse Power to Horsepower: the Transition from Baggage Stock to Caterpillars," illustrated by appropriate slides.
The afternoon session began with John McConnell's businesslike analysis of his own "Circus Royale," which toured several years ago. Next came Judith Griffin, another researcher (and relative) of James L. Hutchinson, who revealed more of what she had begun telling us last year with "Sawdust Gold: The James L. Hutchinson Story." "Hutch" paid his dues by toiling in a number of circus positions before reaching that of owner. Incidentally Judy and Stuart met through Judy's Hutchinson circus and genealogy website on the Internet, after investigating the subject independently (and that tidbit is only a part of the fascinating tale behind this ongoing inquiry).
Our evening activity was the annual auction of circus memorabilia for the benefit of Bandwagon. Auctioned off were rare relics, gorgeous graphics and essential ephemeral. Bob and Susan Sabia kept tabs on the affair and wore out two calculators and twenty fingers in tallying the take.
The last morning began with President Richard Reynolds with "Hold your Horses--Here Come the Elephants." The heart of the paper dealt with elephants in Atlanta's history but by extension much of the lore of the circus elephant in America was touched upon. Closing the formal presentations was a highly productive joint effort by Bob Sabia and Ernest Albrecht on the post-war Ringling- Barnum specs. Sabia has amassed the preeminent collection of color slides pertaining to the subject and Albrecht spent many years studying the costuming, floats and themes of these extravaganzas. Sabia began with a brief history of the development of photography and particularly of the color photography which had made this showing possible and Albrecht then narrated the showing of several hundred slides tracing the specs through the incumbencies of several directors and designers.
The afternoon was free to enjoy the excellent performance of the tented circus on the museum grounds. A number of CHSers went to the Circus World Museum Library and Research Center to delve into the vast amount of circus history on file there. All seats were occupied and each person had materials piled high on the table in front of them.
The annual banquet brought this year's festivities to a close. Fred Pfening, III, delivered the banquet address on "The American Circus: an Interpretive Overview," a well researched and presented paper on the development of the American circus, particularly the rail show, and included a high watermark in 1911 when twenty-six such shows played and a low point with the 1944 Hartford fire, which took the giant in the field eight years to pay off.