Circus World celebrates 58th anniversary this weekend

June 30, 2017 GMT

Circus World celebrated its grand opening with famous Hollywood actors more than 50 years ago.

The opening of the Baraboo museum coincided with the world premiere of “The Big Circus,” a film that made its debut screening at the Al. Ringling Theatre on July 1, 1959.The premiere brought stars such as Rhonda Fleming, Vincent Price, Red Buttons, Peter Lorre and Kathyrn Grant to Baraboo, generating a wave of excitement around the new circus museum.

Five dollars got Baraboo residents a ticket to the screening, a day at Circus World and membership to the museum. The town even held a parade that featured its first circus queen.

“They held a fairest of the fair-type competition, and Pat Bender was selected,” Circus World marketing director Dave SaLoutos said. “They brought in people who taught them how to walk, how to talk, how to do makeup and all kinds of stuff.”

Circus World leaders say much has changed at the Baraboo museum since it opened with less than an acre of land and six circus wagons. For starters, museum directors used to let elephants roam freely around the grounds.

“They’d just be cruising around the grounds all day,” Circus World Executive Director Scott O’Donnell said. “One of them was named Myrtle, and she walked up into town one day.”

“You hear from some older people in town every once in a while, ‘She was on my front lawn,’” SaLoutos added.

Circus World has since grown to a 64-acre complex with 30 permanent structures, seven winter quarters buildings that once belonged to the Ringling brothers on Water Street, a train shed and more than 200 historic circus wagons. O’Donnell said the museum will celebrate the journey this weekend during its 58th anniversary celebration.

“We’ve come a long way in those 58 years, and we have a long way to go as well,” he said. “It’s exciting to celebrate that heritage and tradition.”

Guests can take part in the celebration for a special $5 admission price July 1-4. The anniversary will coincide with the return of one of Circus World’s most popular performers, as Ryan Holder and his ShowMe Tigers act return to the Baraboo museum Saturday.

Guests will be able to see Holder’s seven female Siberian Bengal tigers that perform at circuses across the country. Contrary to typical circus acts, Holder’s performance is a 20-minute presentation that demonstrates how he trains and cares for his tigers. He also fields questions from his audience.

“It sort of peels back the curtain on what it takes to put together a circus act and work with apex predators like tigers,” O’Donnell said. “He introduces all the cats, you get to know them, who they are, how old they are, how much they weigh, how much they eat and what goes into caring for these animals 24 hours a day.”

Holder also sells painted paw prints from his tigers, and a portion of the proceeds go toward tiger habitat conservation efforts in Indonesia. Holder and his tigers will perform at Circus World through August.