Circus traditions, superstitions, and overall history explored in McDaniel College exhibit

Perhaps The Great Peters’ fatal mistake was whistling under the Big Top. Perhaps he had worn a green costume, which everyone in the circus knew was a clear invitation to trouble. Or perhaps, God forbid, he ate peanuts in the dressing room.

According to carnival lore, all three of these seemingly innocuous behaviors are guaranteed to bring bad luck. Whatever the reason, when Aloys Peters, the so-called “Man With the Iron Neck” launched himself from a platform 75 feet above ground with a rope around his windpipe on that inauspicious day in St. Louis in 1943, he didn’t escape unharmed as he had thousands of times before when performing the stunt.

Instead, the rope tightened around Peters’ neck and he dangled in the air for 20 minutes before 5,500 horrified spectators. It took that long for firefighters to reach him and remove his corpse.

“How does someone get up in the morning and decide to jump off a 75-foot platform with a rope around his neck?” wondered Robert Lemieux, who curated “Visions of the Circus,” an exhibit running through Oct. 12 at Westminister’s McDaniel College.

That’s just one of the fascinating — if grisly — stories to be gleaned from the objects on view in this show, which explores the social significance of the circus in America in the first half of the 20th century. Lemieux poured over images of at least 12,000 artifacts before whittling his selection down to the indispensable 85 that would fit inside McDaniel’s Rice Gallery.

Though Lemieux, a professor at McDaniel, has been working on the show since early 2015, the show is especially timely given the recent demise of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey.

He stopped in front of an oversize poster for the Sells-Floto Circus depicting The Great Peters (here attired in red) in mid swan dive with the noose knotted around his windpipe.

“Look at his eyes,” Lemieux said. “They’re bulging. He’s thinking, ‘What in the hell am I doing?’ ”

“Visions of the Circus” includes vintage photographs, circus posters and sideshow banners on loan from The Circus World museum in central Wisconsin, the Ringling museum in Florida, New York’s Whitney Museum, and Illinois State University. Among the most enticing are simple cards called “kernels,” on which are written choice bits of circus world superstitions.

“Always enter the ring with your right foot first.”

In the case of the red-and-white checkered clown shoes on display that are practically large enough to float, that must have been quite a feet.

Also on view is a red-white-and-blue costume stiff with canvas and sequins. Whoever wore it had to crawl in from the side, and it’s so heavy it must have been difficult to move in, let alone cavort. There’s also a wooden lion’s head painted gold that once adorned one of the elaborately decorated wagons used to move the big cats.

Art lovers will want to check out three deceptively simple line sketches of circus performers created in the 1930s by Alexander Calder. Muscular yet amazingly fluid, Calder’s trapeze artist, lion tamer and tightrope walker are both nude and rendered transparent, so viewers look through them to the surrounding ringside.

“I’m just fascinated by the first half of the 20th century,” Lemieux said.

“What happened during that 50-year span in America is almost unparalleled. In terms of technology, we saw the invention of the electric light, cars and flight. There were two world wars, the stock market crash and the Spanish flu. We witnessed the birth of radio, TV and film.”

Before there was radio, TV or film, the circus was the largest entertainment industry in the world, Lemieux said, with nearly 100 organizations crisscrossing the country. The caravan of cars could stretch for a mile and a half or more.

He said that circuses were the natural outgrowth of the Victorian era, which was characterized by a fascination with the natural world and exotic lands. It’s no coincidence that zoos featuring such non-European animals as elephants and giraffes also became popular in the mid-1800s.

That was a time when the world seemed immeasurably vast, when international travel meant a voyage on a ship. People who didn’t live in cities could be isolated to a degree that’s nearly impossible to imagine today.

“If you lived in a small town like Westminister, the chances of your seeing a hippopotamus or a rhinoceros in your lifetime was rare,” Lemieux said. “People couldn’t explore the world the way they can today. Circuses brought the world to them.”

Competing caravans toured annually between May and October. During the off season, they set up camp some place warm — generally Florida — and planned the following year’s show.

“There was tremendous competition among circus owners,” Lemieux said, “to offer the most unique animals and acts.”

That competition eventually took a turn that today makes sensitive modern Americans shudder — the circus sideshow. Visitors paid a fee to gawk at the pretty girl born without legs, or at the world’s fattest man.

A collection of a dozen so-called “pitch cards,” the circus world’s equivalent of baseball cards that were handed out by the performers, are on display in “Visions of the Circus.”

There’s the bearded Madame Devere in a modest floor-length dress and turban; Lady Dot, the Midget Mite standing on a credenza that allows the 24-inch woman to look her full-sized female counterpart in the eye, and the conjoined twins Rosa and Josefa Blazek, their legs and bare buttocks on display.

Marc Hartzman, author of the 2006 book “American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History’s Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers,” said that reality television programs can be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of the sideshow.

“They both are a result of our curiosity,” said Hartzman, who provided the pitch cards on exhibit. “How do you not look at these people? It’s just human nature.

“Many sideshow performers found love and had families. They became wealthy and traveled the world. Because they were in the circus, they had the chance to do many wonderful things they would have never have been able to do otherwise. In normal society, they would have been shunned.”

“Never sit with your back to the ring.”

That admonition could be a challenge when the ring in question encompassed a mountain of canvas wrapped around six huge poles. In 1905, Barnum & Bailey unveiled a 129,000-square-foot tent, which is larger than two football fields.

“The circus was the largest entertainment the world had ever seen,” Lemieux said. “It was essentially a traveling city with animals, seamstresses, doctors and cooks.”

As the scale of the operation increased, the acts were forced to adapt. For instance, clowns originally simply provided interludes between trained seals and performances of derring-do. But as Big Tops grew to accommodate their growing audiences, the clowns began to wear garish makeup, oversized costumes and engage in pratfalls that could be appreciated from a distance.

“The clowns became the stars of the circus,” Lemieux said. “Some became world-famous.”

Ultimately, of course, the world changed faster than the circus could transform itself. Improved forms of transportation meant that would-be explorers no longer had to wait for the world to visit their backyards. Entertainment options flourished, and the animal-rights movement gained traction. The prevailing problem of modern life became not boredom but lack of time.

Circuses began to decline in popularity in the 1970s, Lemieux said. The big organizations were still huge, but the smaller outfits began to close. Earlier this spring, even Ringling Bros. took its final bow under the Big Top.

“When the band plays ‘Stars and Stripes Forever,’ that’s a signal of distress.”

“It’s sad in a way,” Lemieux said, “when you think of the history and the cultural significance that the circus once had.

“But today we have concerns about how the animals in circuses are treated. They were a pretty pivotal piece of what the circus was all about. Once those acts were gone, it’s probably appropriate that the circus shut down.”

If you go

“Visions of the Circus” runs through Oct. 12 in the Rice Gallery on the campus of McDaniel College, 2 College Hill, Westminister. An opening reception will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Author Marc Hartzman will deliver a lecture on the allure of the circus sideshow at 7 p.m. Oct. 2 in McDaniel lounge. All events are free. 410-857-2295 or mcdaniel.edu.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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