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Tuesday, September 25, 2012


At circus, thrills and chills were outside big top
Commentary by Bob Hansen
from: the hawkeye.com
September 24th, 2012
Burlington,Iowa always loved the circus. Give the town some elephants and tigers, clowns and lady acrobats in spangled tights, and you were sure to draw an enthusiastic crowd.
Howie and Mabies Olympic Arena and the U.S. Circus packed them in in 1846, and when I.W. French's Great Oriental Circus and Egyptian Caravan arrived in town, residents stood in line to spend 50 cents for a ticket.
Locals, longing for sophisticated entertainment, flocked to see such attractions as a team of geese pulling a wash tub or Don Stone - "the clown of the era" - and LaBell Jeanette, "the best female rider in the world."
Newspapers might grumble that the circus was the "lowest form of entertainment," but that did not deter two local businessmen, James Johnson and P. Sells, from building an amphitheater on Market Street in 1867 for a permanent circus and equestrian company.
When the Hagenbeck and Wallace show rolled into town in June 1914, it treated the town to a grand parade featuring a herd of elephants that, unfortunately, spread panic among the horse teams on Jefferson Street. However, this was nothing compared to the excitement that would occur at the circus' afternoon performance at the fairgrounds.
The performance had been delayed by the confusion of the parade, but by 2 p.m., an estimated 5,000 spectators had crowded beneath the large canvas tent where they were serenaded by the circus band. Many had noticed the storm clouds building in the west, but there was no consideration of canceling the show.
As the clouds began to swirl overhead, it grew ominously dark in the tent. The apprehensive crowd became silent as attendants scurried about turning on the lights, and then the storm was upon them. It came with a low rumble of thunder and a strong gust of wind that caused the tent to strain against its restraints and billow upward.
From midway up in the bleachers, a stout middle-aged woman stood up and shouted, "My God, the tent is going over" and then bounded down the seats and out an exit with an agility that belied her girth. There was another gust of wind, stronger than the first, and the surging canvas lifted one of the center supports skyward off its base to make threatening arcs over the center ring.
The crowd gasped and rose to its feet. Then the band suddenly threw aside their instruments to run for the nearest exit and a panic began. Children screamed, and there were shouts as the crowd surged over the seats and pressed in on the few narrow exits.
As the audience began to spill from the main tent, the menagerie tent nearby collapsed from the buffeting. Most of the spectators already had left this smaller tent, but one man was forced to use his jack knife to cut his way from beneath the canvas. Animal trainers rushed to the scene to quiet the frightened animals caught in the cages.
At that moment, a driving downpour arrived, washing across the fairgrounds and drenching those who had fled the main tent. Those inside hesitated at the rush of water,and calmer heads in the audience began to shout the tent was the safest place to be.
The circus attendants now took up the cry, urging patrons to return to their seats and slowly, somewhat sheepishly, most people came back to the seats to wait out the storm in the dubious safety of the wildly flapping tent.
Those who ran into the storm instantly were drenched by the wind-driven rain. Parents, herding squalling children, ran through the grounds and sought shelter in the porches, parlors and out-buildings in the surrounding residential neighborhood.
Then the storm ended as quickly as it began, and in less than an hour, the sun poked through the clouds. Inside the great tent, the lights were extinguished, the cowardly band picked up the music where it had left off, and it once again was show time. But the thrills of acrobats and lions could not match the excitement the somewhat damp audience already had experienced.

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