Interestingly enough, much of the origins and folklore about circuses and clowns can be traced back to my home state of Wisconsin. A hundred years ago this year, James Anthony Bailey and P. T. Barnum joined the Ringling Brothers to form the world famous, and still touring, Ringling Brother and Barnum and Bailey Circus. It was originally started in tiny Delavan, Wisconsin– a town loves circuses so much, that it ran precursors to modern day circuses before Wisconsin even became a state, way back in 1841.
Wisconsin has often proudly shouldered the title as the nation’s ‘conscious,’ a simple and progressive state more concerned with the welfare of its own people tan anything else. Given that, it’s not surprising that it is a mecca for all things frivolous and childish. Apart from the circuses, it is also home to the Clown Hall of Fame, housed in Milwaukee and The Circus World Museum in Baraboo.
I have never been to the Clown Hall of Fame, nor do I ever really wish to, all thanks to an incident I had long ago at The Circus World Museum. One of the most common irrational fears that a lot of people have– myself included– is a fear of clowns. How did this happen? I know what stemmed my fear, but why the fear overall? Clowns are supposed to represent everything good about life: irreverence, humor, light-heartedness, innocence, childhood.
Yet somehow they have morphed over the years. Suddenly they’re all sad or maniacal or crazy. I can picture a deranged clown abusing a group of kids just as well as I can picture a happy clown regaling the same kids. As a child, and from my experiences with clowns at birthday parties, they are often vulgar, hate their job and an alarming number seem to be alcoholics.
But I’m sure that the vast, vast majority of clowns are wonderful, hardworking people. But there is still something of a disconnection when one sees a clown; they become almost not human, their sole purpose is not to live but to entertain. Their bright colors as a result often turn into garish and grating hues. There is something about the strange glint that often appears in a clown’s eye that is most unsettling. Sideshow Bob seems to keep popping to mind.
But I can pinpoint the exact moment that I became scared of clowns and it happened, as I mentioned, at The Circus World Museum. My family and I had taken a trip up to Baraboo for a weekend because my dad had some kind of conference up there. We stayed in the hotel adjoining the museum at the same time they were holding some sort of clown conference at the same time (not conjunction– my dad is not a clown, at least not a professional one).
My dad, I don’t know precisely why, is also afraid of clowns. Like, really afraid. And we took the trip when I was maybe 6 or 7, so as a little kid to see your dad scared silly by anything makes you pretty damn scared too. Most of the events have been expunged from my memory over the years. I remember one hideously happy face that filled my vision for a moment– a black and white monstrosity that still haunts me sometimes late at night.
But that wasn’t the defining moment in my clown experience. That wasn’t so bad…it was wandering into the clown conference room that really did me in. I remember a clown at a podium with a projector and slides behind him. He seemed oddly professional. He might have even had a three piece clown suit on. Seated quietly, were dozens of clowns, every clown that came to the event, all in full makeup and regalia. It seemed curiously ordinary, save for the incredible amount of neon colors and polka dots and baggy pants and comically oversized shoes.
Before I could slip back out the door, they all turned towards me at exactly the same moment. Suddenly hundreds of crazy eyes were looking at me, their loony, screwy faces were all contorted into gestures that I can only assume were meant to entertain me. The shill sounds of dozens of kazoos rang out in the air. Some got up and started dancing or something. I felt like they all had been waiting for some little kid to come stumbling in at any moment…and I was that unfortunate kid. Having one clown vainly try to entertain you is one thing, but having many, many clowns, who had been listening so attentively to a lecture only moment before, all suddenly try and ply their trade on you– at the same time– is too much for most anyone to handle.
Needless to say, I ran out of the room screaming and straight into the arms of my confused mom. Since that day I have never wanted to see, interact, or be near a clown ever again. When I told my dad about it later that day, his face turned white with fear. The second his conference was over, we jumped into the car. My dad turned the ignition and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
I haven’t been back since.
But, for those of you who love circuses (I do– just as long as the clowns keep their distance), the museum offers a priceless look at the history and evolution of circuses. From the circuses of old, firmly lodged in our collective imagination of Americana folklore, to the sleek multidimensional circuses of today, every part of the time line is covered in precise and fascinating detail.
Be it wagons, trains, famous performers or the often mesmerizing sideshow, they’re all there and ready to explore. Just 110 or so odd miles from Milwaukee, 190 from Chicago and over 200 from the Twin Cities, Baraboo is indeed in the middle of nowhere, but it is vaguely close to most places!
Just be sure to go when the clowns aren’t conferencing…