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MAY 1 – MAY 4

Circus Historical Society 2019 Convention

By Don Covington

Circus historians and Fans converged on Sarasota the first week of May for the annual Circus Historical Society convention.  The timing was no accident, circus tradition holds that the “first of May” is the time when all serious circuses are on the road and seriously engaged in the business of bringing happiness to the heartland.  The Circus Historical Society capitalized on that theme by arranging presentations that examined the timeless hold that traveling shows exerted on the nation as well as on the personal experiences of show people who vividly recalled their first days in the business.

The newly renovated Hilton Garden Inn, conveniently located on Tamiami Trail just outside of the Ringling Museum grounds, served as convention headquarters.

On opening day (none other than the First of May!) early arrivals took advantage of tours to the International Independent Showmen’s Museum in Gibsonton and to the Circus and Traveling Showpeople’s Winterquarters in Seffner where Peggy Williams hosted tours of the new clubhouse created from a former RBBB train car.  That evening, convention goers enjoyed a reception at the Showfolks Club where Bill Taggert recalled his experiences in the box office of the Greatest Show on Earth during the 1956 season, its final tour under canvas. Ken Dodd capped the evening by offering a look at rare film footage of that fateful season, beautifully edited and set to period perfect circus tunes.

On Thursday, May 2, the action moved to the hotel ballroom where nearly one hundred registered attendees from across the nation and several foreign countries settled in for a captivating series of presentations. Legendary trapeze star Tito Gaona was the keynote speaker, exploding into the room with his charismatic energy and enthusiasm.  His “first of May” remembrances included his awe at first seeing the enormity of Madison Square Garden and the thrilling experience of performing at Cirque d‘Hiver in Paris in the exact spot where the movie “Trapeze” was filmed. Next up was international circus superstar Jeanette Williams whose “first of May” recollections centered on the disorienting process of moving from a centuries old tented family circus in Europe to the ever changing arenas of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey.  Peggy Williams followed with her story of shattering a series of glass ceilings as she moved from Clown College to Performance Director to corporate circus executive. Not to be outdone, Father Jerry Hogan regaled the crowd with tales of the challenges of building a congregation from the ever-changing demographics of the sawdust circle.

Speakers turned to slightly more scholarly topics as Neil Cockerline advised collectors about locating a permanent home for their artifacts and Barnum Museum director Kathleen Maher described the overwhelming task of rebuilding the institution following a devastating tornado.  

Following lunch, recently retired Ringling Museum Curator of Performance Dwight Currie surprised everyone with a fascinating demonstration of the transposition of artistic media by showing a video of a performance in the historic Asolo Theater where the ETHEL string quartet accompanied recorded recollections of sideshow talker Ward Hall.  It proved both musically satisfying and historically relevant.

Two Wisconsin historians then took the stage.  Milwaukee’s Amelia Osterud delighted the assembly with an examination of Captain George Costentenus, the late eighteenth century’s most famous tattooed man.  Then Dale Williams recalled his days in Baraboo with “the Deacon”, David W. Blanchfield.

Shifting gears, Tuft University PhD candidate Javier Hurtado elaborated on the performing Latinx identity in early twentieth century circus.  The next speaker, Feld Entertainment exec Bill Powell, outlined his vision for Sarasota’s Circus Ring of Fame. That proved a perfect segue into Betsy Kellem’s talk on how P.T.Barnum pioneered the idea of fan conventions as a marketing tool for his attractions.

Shifting back to the Badger state, Pete Shrake reminded the delegates that even a professional archivist can be surprised by what they discover in expansive collections such as his own at Circus World.  Then, North Carolina native Steve Shelton elaborated on his quest to determine the true origins of circus owner Charles Sparks.

Rebecca Ostroff was the “pay off” attraction of the day, remembering Kelly Miller Circus under the ownership of John Ringling North II.

The majority of the conventioneers then trooped over to the Ringling Museum’s Tibballs Learning Center where curator Jennifer Lemmer Posey and archivist Heidi Connor were waiting to show off some of the many treasures in the research center.  Thanks to the generosity of Ringling Executive Director and CHS member Steven High, everyone with a CHS convention badge was provided free access to the entire Ringling complex throughout the convention.

Friday, May 3 began with a decidedly international flavor when Dr’s Gerard and Jeanne-Yvonne Borg provided a look at Japanese prints with circus subjects from their world-renowned collection of circus art in France.  They were followed by Bandwagon editor Greg Parkinson and CHS website specialist Leigh Ketchum who explained the Society’s groundbreaking project to digitizing the entire spectrum of Bandwagon magazines. This project would not have been possible without the assistance of Jennifer Lemmer Posey and Heidi Connor at the Ringling who further elaborated on the academic potential of the effort.

Next up was PhD candidate William J. Hansard of the University of Texas at Austin whose research into popular culture led him to examine circus route books and is now leading to a fellowship at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Wyoming.  Following his presentation, animal behaviorist Debbie Fehrenbruck utilized her experience with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey’s veterinary staff to illuminate the complex process of traveling with animals in contemporary America.  Finally Tufts University research data librarian Kristin Lee dazzled the delegates with her wizardry manipulating data derived from circus logistic records.

The afternoon was spent at Kay Rosaire’s Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary where the Rosaire family extended their usual hospitality and provided impassioned demonstrations of the enduring value of human – animal interaction. 

The highlight of the day was a banquet at the newly renovated Circus Arts Conservatory.  Directors Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs welcomed the crowd to the arena where a catered dinner was served followed by a performance by members of Sailor Circus.  Michigan historian Micah Childress was awarded the 2019 Stuart Thayer Prize for his book “Circus Life, Performing and Laboring Under America’s Big Top Shows”. Then featured speaker Cindy Herriott Wells recalled highlights of her show business career and capped the evening by utilizing her father’s poetry to evoke the elusive magic inherent in big top life. 

Saturday was devoted to the first-ever cooperative auction between the Circus Historical Society and Freedom Auction Company of Sarasota.  Freedom Auction owner and CHS member Brian Hollifield assembled over 400 lots of circus memorabilia ranging from one of a kind personal items belonging to circus artists, to rare historic artifacts to props, costumes and lithographs.  Internet connections allowed bidders to participate from around the world and interest was high for the majority of items. The results proved to be one of the most successful auctions in the Society’s history. 

While the convention officially concluded on Saturday, as an additional treat, convention goers joined Florida Circus Fans for an optional excursion to the Royal Hanneford Circus in Kissimmee, Florida on Sunday.

Kudos go to the CHS convention committee for an outstanding event.  Overall chair Chris Berry, program director Deborah Walk and logistics czar Pete Adams made it all happen.  We can’t thank them enough for all that they did.