The Great Circus Parade: The History of a Uniquely Milwaukee Tradition

Dec. 5, 2016
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The Great Circus Parade on East Wisconsin Avenue in 1973. Photo by Donald Emmerich.

The Great Circus Parade was held in Milwaukee 30 times between 1963 and 2009. The event was an homage to the Nineteenth Century practice of parading a circus’s major attractions through the main streets of a host city to promote the coming shows. During its active time in Milwaukee, the parade gained national attention and was one of the city’s major summertime events.

In 1959, the Circus World Museum opened in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Museum’s director, C. P. “Chappie” Fox, first envisioned an old-time circus parade in the early 1960s. Such a parade would both act as a “sensational promotional stunt” for the museum and show off its collection of antique circus wagons. The first parade was held July 4, 1963 and was the first all-horse-drawn circus parade in the United States since 1939. Beginning in 1965, the hundreds of wagons, animals and other antique circus vehicles were transported from Baraboo to Milwaukee on the “circus train,” a half-mile line of more than 30 railroad flatcars. The two-day, 200-mile trip to Milwaukee became an event in its own right, drawing thousands to watch the gear travel south. In Milwaukee, the cars unloaded at Veteran’s Park on the lakefront, where the three-mile-plus parade was assembled. This also proved to be a spectacle and thousands were drawn to the park to tour the staging areas each year before the parade began its long route through both the east and west side of downtown Milwaukee.

One of the many circus wagons featured in the parade. Photo by Donald Emmerich.

The parade’s highlights included some of the rarest circus equipment in the world. A collection of English circus wagons was added to the parade in the late 1960s, after they were salvaged from an abandoned facility overseas and shipped to the port of Milwaukee. A rare calliope wagon, named the “America,” was added around the same time, which played circus tunes throughout the parade. Another musical highlight was the Ringling Brothers Bell Wagon. The bell wagon was built in 1892 and featured nine massive bronze bells, weighing about 4,300 pounds collectively. The bells were played with a series of levers at the rear of the wagon. In 1972, the parade debuted the 40-horse-hitch wagon, a band wagon drive by a team of 40 horses arranged in three columns, a feat not attempted since 1904. In addition to these rare sights, the parade also featured more commonplace circus highlights like elephants, caged tigers and lions, stilt-walkers, trick high-wheel cyclists, and dozens of clowns.

A still-walker parades with the Marine Plaza Building (now the Chase Tower) in 1973. Photo by Donald Emmerich.

In 1970, the parade added one of its most famous attractions, Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine, who became a mainstay of the event as the “Chief Parade Clown.” Borgnine was asked to join the parade after an offhanded remark on the Tonight Show. When host Johnny Carson asked Borgnine what he still wanted to do as an actor, he replied that he had always wanted to play a clown. The next day, parade executives called Borgnine and asked him to join the parade. Borgnine relished his time in Milwaukee, appearing at every Great Circus Parade in the city between 1972 and 2002.

In the summer of 1968, a six-day circus was held on Milwaukee’s lakefront in place of the parade. The year before, Milwaukee was one of the dozens of American cities that experienced a violent civil disturbance in its predominantly African-American inner core area, and planners worried the lingering tensions could make it dangerous to hold the parade. The parade returned in 1969, but after Schlitz Brewing dropped its sponsorship following the 1973 parade, no alternative source of funding could be secured and the parade folded.

Parade mainstay Ernest Borgnine, in his familiar clown attire.

The parade returned to Milwaukee in 1985, funded with a combination of individual donations and corporate sponsorships. That year’s parade was shown live on TBS in a broadcast hosted by Pat Sajak and Vanna White. It was not the first time the parade was given national media attention. A photo pictorial of the 1964 parade was featured in LIFE magazine and hundreds of other publications had devoted space to the event through its history. Images of the parade even appeared in newspapers as far away as China and Saudi Arabia. Tape-delayed highlights of parades were shown on PBS and the Armed Forces Network, hosted by Bob Keeshan, aka: Captain Kangaroo.

The resurrection of the parade in Milwaukee lasted through 2003, when funding problems again put the event on hiatus. A version of the parade was held in Baraboo in 2004 and 2005, but continued money problems shut the parade down entirely. In 2009, using money from a “rainy day fund” built up by organizers between 1985 and 2003 as well as a new fundraising drive, the parade was revived in Milwaukee once again. The return of the parade was much heralded and 92-year-old Ernest Borgnine revived his role for the event. But even before the circus train arrived in Milwaukee, organizers announced that the event would not return in 2010. It has not returned since.


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