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Local News

April 4, 2014

"Step Right Up" to Circus Americana

PORT ARTHUR — The latest temporary exhibit at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur  harkens back to a vibrant American tradition that brought color to a particularly dark time and continued to thrive as the nation’s future grew brighter.

“Step Right Up!: Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890-1965,” takes museum-goers behind the scenes of circus life in the late 19th and early 20th century with memorabilia from the Tegge Circus Archives, such as full-color posters, photographs and costume regalia — including a full-scale elephant harness.

“Seeing it down at people level makes it clear how big of an animal we’re talking about,” curator Sarah Bellian said.

The exhibit, which opens to the public at half price Saturday and remains on display in the Dunn Gallery through the end of May, is especially timely due to the current backlash against circuses, Bellian said. Documentaries about the treatment of animals at zoos and places like Sea World have created a perception of circuses as an exploitative experience, both for its animals and its “freak show” performers — people with rare biological deformities.

Not so, Bellian said. Circuses often promote the conservation of animals that have been hunted to the verge of extinction, and the “freak show” performers found a sense of community that proved elusive elsewhere.

“People think, ‘Oh, that’s really distasteful to exploit people with developmental disabilities,” Bellian said. “But at the time, it was basically a sanctuary for them.”

The same can be said for most circus performers, Bellian said. Many sought out the “carnie” lifestyle not for the money — although they never went without — but simply for the love of performing.

“It wasn’t about the money — it was about the enjoyment of performing and being a part of something magical,” Bellian said. “Doing anything else would be unthinkable.”

With the concept of the “mobile city” all but obsolete in today’s society, “Step Right Up!” aims to preserve one of America’s most precious pastimes, as well as the spirit of the era in which it thrived.

“The ’40s and ’50s were a very good time for America as far as a sense of solidarity and hard work,” Bellian said. “People are very different today, and maybe we can take a lesson or two from our predecessors.”

Half-price tickets are available for the public opening of “Step Right Up” on Saturday. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children.

The museum will also host its Family Fun Day, “Under the Big Top,” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 19. Admission is free.

Email: ecallahan@panews.com

Twitter: @ErinnPA

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