Illinois State University is home to two unique and widely admired circus traditions -- Gamma Phi Circus, the 88-year strong circus arts program for students, and the Circus and Allied Arts Collection, part of the Special Collections at Milner Library. Both are keenly feeling the impending loss of The Greatest Show On Earth.
After 146 years, millions of miles, thrills, laughs and more, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing down.
" You know, I think it's the changing taste of the American public," said Maureen Brunsdale, the Special Collections Librarian at ISU's Milner Library. "They have so many different things to go see, as far as entertainment is concerned that perhaps the circus didn't hold the charm it once held for the American public."
The Greatest Show on Earth will close in May, but on the campus of Illinois State University, circus is thriving. Gamma Phi Circus was founded 88 years ago by Clifford 'Pop' Horton as a honorary gymnastics fraternity. Now run by Marcus Alouan, the circus attracts students from all over campus who fly on the trapeze, clown, dance, juggle and much more -- including setting a world record with this spring's show, April 7 and 8 at Redbird Arena.
"It will be an all women six-high off the teeter board," explained Alouan. "We'll have five women, stacked up, standing on each other's shoulders. And then a sixth woman will stand on a teeter board, a couple of big people will jump on the other end and she will flip up and land on the top person's shoulders. This will be the first time that that is accomplished by all women."
Helping the students accomplish their world record is Ivan Stoinev, assistant director of Gamma Phi Circus. Stoinev used to work for the soon-to-be closed Ringling Bothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In fact, he grew up under the big top of the Greatest Show on Earth. "I started at the age of 13 in 1978. All my childhood memories are there in the circus. It's something special to me."
Stoinev was saddened when he heard the news of Ringling's closing. "It hurts my heart. It's painful, but we have to take it. It will put about 500 hundred people out of their jobs."
Dwindling ticket sales and changing tastes may force down the biggest big top of all, but its legacy will go on, both through the continued work of the student circus performers of Gamma Phi, and through the preservation efforts of the Milner librarians. The Special Collection houses many artifacts from Ringling's storied past, including a pennant that survived the devastating Hartford Circus Fire of 1946. There's also business records, rare photos and posters... and one very intriguing item -- a piece of correspondence from 1907, the year Ringling Brothers purchased Barnum & Bailey, said librarian Mark Schmitt.
"Otto Ringling is in Bridgeport, Connecticut and he's writing to his brother on Barnum and Bailey stationary and saying 'Hey, guess what? Barnum and Bailey is for sale. We should buy it.'"
"He actually uses the phrase 'we'll be too big to fail,'" added Maureen Brunsdale.
But The Greatest Show on Earth, after 146 years, finally has failed. The art of circus, however, lives on. "Anytime there's something like this, opportunities are created," said Brunsdale. "One thing circus has been known for for centuries is that it's constantly changing, it's ever evolving. And I do believe circus is not dead."
Gamma Phi director Marcus Alouan agrees. "The future of circus is here. And not only these students that are right here, but throughout the country. Young people are becoming very excited about circus arts and we're certainly a hub of that. I get calls from students from other universities who want to start a program like ours, because what we have is the gold standard."
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