Throughout the first half of the 20th century, through the Great Depression and the mid-west dust bowl, one form of revelry thrived – the circus. Traveling from coast to coast, rail cars packed with canvas tents, exotic animals, strongmen, fat ladies, and all sorts of roustabouts brought much needed relief to millions of Americans. In cities, towns, and villages across the country, the day the circus came to town was a regional holiday. Businesses closed and schools let out early. Circus Day was second only to Christmas as the most important day of the year. Enthusiastic onlookers would gather at the local railroad station to get a glimpse of the exotic procession of man and beast that resembled the unloading of Noah’s ark.
The Temecula Valley Museum’s new exhibit, “Step Right Up! Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890-1965,” takes you into the world behind the canvas and explores the motivations that drove people to choose the circus life. The circus was a marvelous, self-contained city with as many as 1500 residents. There were cooks and bakers, waiters and dishwashers, doctors and veterinarians. There were barbers, welders, mechanics, electricians, and seamstresses. There was even a makeshift schoolhouse, where students of all grade levels tended to their studies. The circus performers bounced back and forth between the magnificent and the mundane.
As one of America’s oldest theatrical traditions, the circus started in Europe in the late 1700s and was perfected in the United States by the likes of John Bill Ricketts and P.T. Barnum, who first introduced us to sideshow oddities like the Feejee Mermaid and Tom Thumb. By 1900, there were more than 100 circuses crisscrossing the country. They were adept at using all of the advancements of America’s industrial revolution – the railroad, color lithography, and mass marketing. The imagery, backstage stories, and photographs featured in “Step Right Up!” reveal both the fantasy and the reality of circus life. This fascinating exhibit will be on display until Sunday, August 7.
In conjunction with this exhibit, the Temecula Valley Museum is throwing a circus-themed party! This Saturday, July 9 from 12 PM to 3 PM, visitors to the museum can enjoy circus concessions, face-painting, balloon animals, and circus films. Reservations for this event are recommended.
For more information, please call the Temecula Valley Museum at 951-694-6450, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The exhibition is toured by ExhibitsUSA, a national program of Mid-America Arts Alliance. ExhibitsUSA sends more than 25 exhibitions on tour to more than 100 small- and mid-sized communities every year. Mid-America is the oldest nonprofit regional arts organization in the United States. More information is available at www.maaa.org and www.eusa.org