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Grant preserves historic films at Circus World

July 4, 2017 GMT

Circus World houses a collection of almost 800 films that depict circuses from 1904 through the 1960s, and maintaining the historic footage is often a race against time.

Temperature and humidity fluctuations in storage spaces can cause antique films to deteriorate as they age. The degradation gives off a pungent, vinegar scent, followed by film shrinkage, embrittlement and buckling of the gelatin emulsion.

Circus World archivist and historian Peter Shrake said the decay has affected some of the museum’s films, and once it takes hold, the phenomenon can permeate throughout a collection.

“It doesn’t hurt people, but it’s filling the air with gas, and it actually hurts the other films,” he said. “It’s like a disease that spreads.”

The museum recently saved two of its oldest films thanks to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco. Shrake said the $7,000 endowment was secured through a partnership between Circus World, the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

The funding allowed Circus World to send 1928 footage of the Sparks Circus and a 1927 video of the Christy Bros. Circus street parade and training quarters to a film preservation institution in Maryland. The organization cleaned and conserved the original films, made new copies, and created digital versions. Shrake said the films were chosen for preservation because they are some of the oldest in the museum’s catalogue, and are therefore more likely to degrade.

“The selection of specific films for conservation and digitization are based upon the oldest ones are deteriorating the fastest,” he said. “That doesn’t mean films from the 40s, 50s and 60s don’t have issues, but most of those that we’ve seen are fairly stable yet.”

Circus World Executive Director Scott O’Donnell said the historic footage of the Sparks and Christy Bros. Circuses – which are now available through the museum’s online archives – will provide people with more personal accounts of early circuses.

“You can look at a book or a picture, but when you can see or capture something live on film, it’s a different sensory experience,” he said. “To watch the majesty and the scale of these early circuses in America – these films really help to give context to the viewer, to the academia and to our guests of what that was like.”

The Sparks video features behind-the-scenes footage of an independent circus company that toured the southern United States in the early 20th century. The film includes scenes of the circus’ backyard, midway grounds, banner line, and performers and animals practicing for the show.

The Christy Bros. Circus footage shows another smaller circus company that operated in the United States prior to the Great Depression. The film goes behind-the-scenes of the circus, and focuses on performing animals and their training. It also expands upon the Sparks footage by including scenes of the circus’ midway, sideshows, marquees and a parade.

While preservation of the footage is a victory for Circus World, Shrake said the museum only has about 30 of its 800 films preserved online. To prevent future decay, he said new high-efficiency steam boilers, humidifiers and roof-top condensing units are being installed at Circus World’s Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center, where the films are stored on the southwest corner of the museum grounds. Shrake said the improvements are scheduled be completed by October.

Additionally, much of the historic footage will be relocated to a climate-controlled vault when the Wisconsin Historical Society opens a $47 million, four-story, 188, 733-square-foot archives building on Madison’s East Side later this year.