The Indiana Historical Society (IHS)’s newest exhibit, Circus City, opens January 20 at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, located at 450 W. Ohio St. in downtown Indianapolis.
The exhibit explores the circus primarily as a story of people and labor in the 20th century, examining different aspects of the circus in the Hoosier State.
The story of the circus in Indiana is one of resilience. In the face of unimaginable challenges and setbacks, the circus workers of the state demonstrated the mantra of the entertainment industry: The show must go on.
The story of the circus in Indiana is also a story of contradictions. Although it was multi-racial, multi-ethnic and included people of all social strata, it also enforced hierarchies and segregation based on race and occupation. The circus could be a harmful place, especially for many animals and those billed as “freakshows.”
As the winter headquarters of some of the biggest circuses in the country — including Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and the American Circus Corporation — Peru, Ind., became known as the “Circus Capital of the World.” Other circuses such as the Cole Brothers Circus wintered in Indiana and left an indelible mark on the culture of entertainment in the state.
The circus’s veneer of glitz and glamour shrouded the reality of demanding labor. Circus employees participated in labor organization and striking to improve working conditions and pay. Visitors to the Circus City exhibit will learn about the life and labor of circus people in Indiana through five interactive audio profiles: circus owner, performer, band leader, manual laborer and grifter.
Not only did the circus have to contend with the daily hardships of their work but also with disasters such as fires, train wrecks and floods. Even after such destruction, the circus people of Indiana persevered.
In 1960, after two decades of the circus’s absence in Peru, local circus veterans initiated a revival of the circus culture of the town and formed the Circus City Festival Inc. Ever since, the town has put on a yearly festival with performances by the Peru Amateur Circus, starring local children. Today, the former grounds of the Peru winter headquarters house the International Circus Hall of Fame, a nonprofit that preserves the quarter’s remaining buildings and circus history.
Circus City opens to the public January 20 and runs through June 8, 2024. For more information about IHS, go to www.indianahistory.org.