Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! A titanic, titillating, big-top street pageant is coming to town.
It's Wisconsin's national treasure -- the Great Circus Parade, scheduled this year for July 15 and billed as the world's largest: a dazzling eclectic display of circus wagons, marching bands, tigers, lions, horses, clowns, bears, llamas, camels, elephants and . . . would you believe antique cars?
No boy who ever watered an elephant or girl who begged her daddy for a cotton-candy cone wants to miss the unicyclists, sidesaddle lady riders, rope-'em-in cowboys, stilt walkers, high-wheel cyclists and olden-day knights. Even a hippopotamus and giraffe roll into the act, each in a wagon especially created for something so tall and something so massive.
Animals and performers wheel, prance and stroll in a nostalgic fanfare found nowhere else in America. This year's parade will feature a dramatic team of 40 hefty Belgian horses -- four abreast and 10 deep -- pulling the biggest circus bandwagon ever built: ** the 28-foot long, 10-ton Two Hemispheres wagon.
Every parade unit -- all 15 of them -- is an original or scrupulously faithful re-creation of an attraction that actually appeared in circuses of bygone days. Not one spangled dress, glossy top hat or gleaming epaulet is anything but the real McCoy of yesteryear. Even the hairdressing of the horses' manes and tails is historically accurate; they are left unbraided, just as in circuses of old.
Milwaukee's first Great Circus Parade was sponsored by the Schlitz Brewing Co. in 1963. It grew out of the Circus World Museum collection of historic, one-of-a-kind circus wagons and paraphernalia in Baraboo, Wis.
The museum felt its cherished wagons should be brought out and paraded in public. After all, in the heyday of circuses -- and their triumphal entries into small towns and big cities from 1880 ,, to 1920 -- the parade was the all-important prelude to the circus, the enticement that seduced customers into buying tickets for the main event.
Around 1920, however, the great conglomerate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus began discontinuing parades because show grounds were farther and farther from city and rail centers. One by one, others followed suit. The riotous years of circus street pageantry were thought to be gone forever -- until the 1960s and the Baraboo resurrection.
Over the next decade, Milwaukee's Great Circus Parade turned into an annual event that attracted nearly a million spectators and was nationally televised. In 1974, Schlitz dropped its sponsorship, but in 1985 the parade was resurrected: A large aggregation of new corporations, foundations and individual donors made certain this event would live on.
The four-mile parade begins at 2 p.m., rain or shine. As big top sights, sounds and smells flow along Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee's main street, children's eyes shine, and oldsters' grow suspiciously misty.
With so many stars -- including a 21-camel Cleopatra caravan, a 20-llama hitch, three baby elephants and 10 knee-high miniature horses -- it's almost impossible to choose the center-ring attraction. If anything wins the gold ring, it's the entire collection of 75 magnificently carved and gilded circus wagons.
Each is a treasure. For 51 weeks of the year, they remain unpretentiously housed in Baraboo, site of the original Ringling Brothers winter quarters. But come parade day, they are polished to a fare-thee-well and brought out like royal coaches on Coronation Day. For this one moment in the sun, their deliciously rococo facades glisten bright again.
The gargantuan, ornate Two Hemispheres wagon pulled by the 40-horse hitch is unlike most circus vehicles: It has no doors or cargo access. In 1904, the last year 40 horses tugged this goliath in circus parades across the country, it carried 28 musicians. Built for Barnum & Bailey by the Sebastian Wagon Co. of New York City in 1902, it's so big that it takes up twice as much space as a regular wagon on a railroad flatcar.
On the Eastern Hemisphere side are the gilded seals and flags of Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and imperial Russia. The western side sports symbols of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico and the United States.
Probably the most unusual circus vehicle ever built is the Bell Wagon, constructed in Baraboo in 1892. Eight big bells like those in a cathedral ring out in tandem with the eight prancing Percheron horses that pull the traditionally hued red and gold wagon.
Then there's the boisterous, 32-whistle Steam Calliope. Its cacophony of ear-splitting tunes echoes down city avenues in piercing contrast with the melodious Air Calliope's sad, sweet Shaker chimes and the tinkling of the Uni-Fon, a collection of electronic doorbells.
Other favorites include the Old Woman in the Shoe and the Cinderella and Mother Goose floats -- all part of a fairy-tale series built in the 1880s for Barnum & Bailey. Another crowd-pleaser is the 1903 tomato-red Gollman Mirror Bandwagon, which is drawn by six Belgian horses. As it passes, four large mirrors on each side reflect the faces of bystanders.
The Old West has its moment in the limelight when the Pawnee Bill Wagon rolls by. Showgoers across the country used to flock to Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show, admiring this six-ton show wagon with its blaring, 18-piece band.
Onlookers also admire the horses. About 750 strut their stuff through the streets, reminding us of the glory days of horses and riders. Some pull buggies and pony hitches, others form high-stepping equestrian units, their riders dressed as knights in armor, Turkish warriors or Elizabethan courtiers.
But the grandest equine stars of all are the Clydesdales, Belgians and Percherons. Without their strength and stamina, wagons like the nine-ton American Steam Calliope wouldn't even budge. These giants weigh between 1,700 and 2,200 pounds each and often stand more than 5 feet at the withers -- the high point of a horse's back.
(Interestingly, few animals in the Circus Parade spend the rest of the year in a circus, according to parade officials. Most wild animals are contracted out from an animal farm in Missouri, and most of the 350 or so draft horses belong to teamsters living in the Midwest.)
The great breed of working horse, the Clydesdale -- developed in Scotland to pull mammoth loads -- are easily recognized by their proud gait and flowing white hair, called "feathers," below the knees. Belgians, originally bred in Belgium, are shorter-legged, either a chestnut or bay color, and superlative weight-pullers.
Percherons are French, most of them grays or blacks. Circus bareback riders like the grays because the resin rubbed into their backs and lions as "stickum" isn't noticeable against their .. light coats.
How, one wonders, do parade people keep so much horseflesh calm and collected around the wild odors of lions and elephants? "Simple," says parade director Paul Ingrassia. "Just rub a mentholated salve into their nostrils to mask the smell."
As for the parade's tin lizzies, they're a true turn-of-the-century tradition. In their day, they were a rare breed themselves, with top billing over stodgy old horses. First in every parade came the wondrous "horseless carriages" carrying circus and government officials.
In Milwaukee's latter-day cavalcade, the antique autos are preceded only by military units: the U.S. Army Old Guard Fifes and Drums, the U.S. Navy Marching Flag Unit, the U.S. Navy Band and the U.S. Coast Guard Parade Precision and Marching Units.
Most hallowed of all, the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps from Washington moves front and center, playing Colonial tunes on 18th century, 11-hole wooden fifes, hand-made rope-tensioned drums and solid brass bugles.
About two hours after the fifes have sounded the final notes of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the Great Circus Parade seems ready to come to an end. But wait -- "Hold your horses, the elephants are coming!" shouts a mounted elephant crier. In the early 1900s, a caller always rode ahead to announce the elephants.
Marching trunk-to-tail in traditional circus manner, a herd of elephants lumbers by, seemingly oblivious to the raucous Steam Calliope bringing up their rear. The calliope joyfully salutes hello and goodbye as the parade closes for another year.
If you go . . .
Several circus events in Milwaukee precede the Great Circus Parade. From the evening of July 10 through the 13th, the antique wagons and hundreds of animals will be at the Veterans Park Circus Showgrounds downtown along Lake Michigan's shores.
Admission is free; showgrounds are open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The wagons will arrive by train sometime between 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. July 10. Many people love to watch teams of Percheron horses unload the wagons from the circus train.
Many more mull around the showgrounds during the day and soak up circus life, photographing the antique wagons and admiring the animals.
The wagons are loaded onto the Great Circus Train July 7-8 at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, about 45 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin's capital. The half-mile-long string of flatcars winds its way for two days through 38 towns and villages in southwestern Wisconsin and northern Illinois before arriving in Milwaukee.
At the Circus Showgrounds, the Royal Hanneford Circus of Sarasota, Fla., gives four performances daily July 12-14. Tickets are $5 per person. On July 13, the World's Greatest Circus Breakfast at the War Memorial Center, just south of the circus showgrounds, offers an all-you-can-eat-breakfast from 8 a.m. to noon. Adults pay $5, children under 12 $3.50. Also on July 13, there are fireworks at the lakefront at 10 p.m.
The Great Circus Parade will begin July 14 at 2 p.m. on Wisconsin Avenue near Lake Michigan. It lasts about two hours. The 4-mile route goes west on Wisconsin Avenue for about 1 1/2 miles, then winds back to the lakefront. There are ample private parking lots close to the parade route.
Many people arrive well before noon to secure favorite viewing spots. Although hundreds of thousands gather for the spectacle, somehow you don't feel the throngs. If a section of the parade route seems too crowded, just walk along the avenues until you find more suitable space.
Wear walking shoes and choose cotton rather than synthetic clothing -- mid-July temperatures in Milwaukee can be in the 90s. Bring water or other cool drinks along with hats or visors. For activities along Lake Michigan, it's advisable to take a jacket or sweater, especially toward the end of the day when lakefront breezes can be cool.
For information on the circus parade, a parade route map or bleacher seat tickets at $25 a person (a limited number sold on a first-come, first-served basis), write the Great Circus Parade Office, 1421 N. Water St., Milwaukee, Wis. 53202, or telephone (414) 273-7877. For information on accommodations, restaurants and attractions, write the Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitor's Bureau, 756 N. Milwaukee St., Milwaukee, Wis. 53202, or telephone (414) 273-7222.