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WGLT's series that helps Bloomington-Normal's newest residents learn about the community as it exists, and empowers them to make it the home they want it to be.

Before TV and radio, there was circus — and there was a lot of it in Bloomington-Normal

Vintage black and white image of four smiling women in fancy leotards and hairbows hanging trapezes by one hand and foot.
McLean County Museum of History
Pantagraph Negatives Collection
Trapeze artists perform in the 1937 edition of the YMCA Circus. The community center was located at Washington and East streets in downtown Bloomington. The site is commemorated by a new historic marker.

In the late 19th century, the American circus went everywhere, but a few locations figure prominently in circus history.

There’s Baraboo, Wisconsin, the hometown of five brothers named Ringling about an hour north of Madison. Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Sarasota, Florida, are important, too, as the winter headquarters for the Barnum and Bailey circus — then the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, respectively.

Then there’s Bloomington, Illinois. Yes, Bloomington.

“In the circus world, people know about Bloomington,” said Maureen Brunsdale, special collections librarian at Illinois State University’s Milner Library. Brunsdale is the author of two books. Her latest, titled “In the Shadow of the Big Top: The Life of Ringling’s Unlikely Circus Savior,” is a first-ever biography of Ringling-Barnum’s longtime manager Art Concello. The Bloomington native got his start as a trapeze artist. He trained here, at the YMCA and in a barn on Emerson Street.

“When I went to Sarasota the first time and I met with circus people, they were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re from Bloomington? Is the barn still there?’” Brunsdale said.

The barn is gone. It was located just west of what is now a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Beginning in the 1870s, that barn was a training ground for some of the biggest names flying under the big top. Brunsdale’s first book details Bloomington’s legacy as a winter training haven for the industry’s best flyers, who practiced in barns, icehouses and gymnasiums around central Illinois. Their teacher was Eddie Ward Senior, whose troupe, The Flying Wards, was dispatched to circuses all over the world.

1950s kids sit on the grass watching two trapeze artists in briefs and tights climb a rope ladder up to their pedestal--out of view.
McLean County Museum of History
Pantagraph Negatives Collection
Beginning in the 1870s, aerialists frequently came to the Twin Cities to train. The Jack Bray Flyers are pictured in 1953 practicing with an outdoor rig at 1000 E. Front St.

In her travels, Brunsdale discovered that circus fans know about Bloomington, but much of Bloomington doesn’t know its circus history.

“What happened? How come we don’t embrace our circus past here? In one place, we’re rock stars, and in another place, we’re nothing,” she said.

Sweet Corn Circus

The Illinois State University Gamma Phi Circus has tumbled on for nearly 100 years with a focus on circus arts like trapeze, tight-rope walking, tumbling, bicycle tricks and clowning. Clifford “Pop” Horton founded the nation’s oldest collegiate circus in 1929 as a gymnastics fraternity. The only other is at Florida State University.

Ivan Stoinev is a Bulgarian circus artist whose multi-generational history includes time as a teeter board specialist in The Greatest Show on Earth.

“I started learning more about the program, about the circus history in town, and I really fell in love with it. That’s what brought me here,” he said.

Stoinev oversees the troupe as a registered student organization with Marcus Alouan. Stoinev’s wife, Maritza Atayde, choreographs Gamma Phi’s annual show at CEFCU Arena.

Circus performers at Redbird Arena
Emily Bollinger / WGLT
Gamma Phi Circus performs annually at CEFCU Arena and throughout Uptown Normal as part of the Sweet Corn Circus

“They spend around 30 hours a week with us, some of them, just to pursue circus,” said Stoinev. “They’re young, they learn very fast, and they’re very dedicated to it. That’s what really touches my heart.”

Gamma Phi Circus has 120 members. Many will take part in this weekend’s Sweet Corn Circus taking over Uptown Normal. The McLean County Corn Festival has been around for more than four decades in one form or another. Stoinev was pivotal in rebranding the prior corn and blues fest as a circus in 2019, celebrating Bloomington-Normal’s roots below the ground — with agriculture — and above it, as a hub for the world’s best flyers.

“What has stayed the same is that circus is inspirational. It’s aspirational,” Brunsdale said. “That’s the beauty of circus in its purest form. It takes you away from whatever you’re thinking and brings you somewhere else.”

Circus Historical Society convention

Circus scholarship also is big here, with its two main hubs at Milner Library and the McLean County Museum of History.

In 2017, Illinois State University’s Milner Library received a sizable grant to digitize centuries-old circus route books. The books are part of ISU’s Circus and Allied Arts Collection, rivaled only by two dedicated circus museums in Baraboo and Sarasota.

That was a big year for circus. After 146 years of continuous operation, including two world wars, The Greatest Show on Earth closed amid ongoing controversy — and was hamstrung by lawsuits — over its use of animal acts.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus plans to reopen next month for a 50-city tour, sans animals.

“It will be more like an art show,” Stoinev said, “like a Cirque du Soleil show. I think, thanks to Cirque du Soleil, Big Apple Circus and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the audience has started understanding more about circus art.”

The Circus Historical Society’s annual convention aligns with the Sweet Corn Circus and will take place Thursday through Sunday in the conference rooms above Uptown Station. As part of the convention, Milner Library will showcase pieces from its extensive collection of artifacts, and Feld Entertainment Chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld will give the keynote.

Feld’s father Irvin bought the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from the Ringling family in 1967. He is scheduled to speak on Ringling’s return — a shock to pretty much everyone in the circus world.

“I think it’s going to redefine what it means to be a circus,” said ISU's Brunsdale, noting the impact circus once made on forming a unified American culture.

The country was an agrarian society in the late 19th century. Many people never left their hometowns, and with no television, radio or internet, the newspaper and the circus were the only ways to learn about different cultures, animals and parts of the world.

“It’s hard for us today to recognize just what a big deal circus was,” Brunsdale said. “It came into your community; it set up these ginormous tents that could seat up to 10,000 people. It was the number one form of entertainment back in the day. And who were the stars? The stars were anyone you had to look up for — and those were people from Bloomington-Normal.”

New historic marker

In addition to the barn on Emerson Street, the YMCA that once stood at the corner of Washington and East streets downtown is a key location in Bloomington history. Last week, the McLean County Museum of History and the Illinois Historical Society unveiled a new marker in that spot — it’s a municipal parking lot now.

A planter of summer flower in full bloom foregrounds a square, brown marker installed on the edge of a municipal parking lot.
Lauren Warnecke
The McLean County Museum of History and Illinois Historical Society installed a new historic marker about Bloomington's circus history on Aug. 12.

“I had a colleague once who said 90 or 95% of all aerialists were trained here in Bloomington-Normal at one point in time,” Brunsdale said. “So much of it is gone — they are still here though.”

Many of the circus stars from yesteryear are buried in Park Hill Cemetery. Others are at Evergreen. They include the Concello family and Art Concello’s wife, Antoinette. Their shared company name, “Artonia,” is scripted in the linoleum of the first landing 305 W. Monroe St., a blackstone apartment building once owned by the couple.

Antoinette’s sister, Mikey King, an equally revered flyer, is buried here, too, as is Eddie Ward.

“The list goes on,” Brunsdale said. “We certainly feel their presence in special collections. It’s my hope that before I retire, many years from now, that more of this community will take pride in their past. It’s something to be embraced, respected and honored.”

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.