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PBS circus documentary featuring Baraboo historians, archival materials premieres Monday

October 5, 2018

Circus enthusiasts can tune in next week to their local PBS station for an in-depth look at the national pastime featuring contributions from the Baraboo-based Circus World.

“The Circus,” a two-part “American Experience” documentary, will air in two-hour episodes at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. Circus World Executive Director Scott O’Donnell plans to watch the miniseries from home, but he said he’s confident there will be impromptu viewing parties around Baraboo.

“I’m sure excited,” he said. “I’m blessed to work here at Circus World, but for my entire life, I’ve sort of been the wide-eyed kid that fell in love with the circus. So for anybody that’s like myself, it’s a pretty magical night to watch this hallmark documentary.”

He said having “American Experience” choose something as general as the circus “speaks to the prevalence of circus in America’s history and, definitely, our state’s history. So I can’t wait to see the finished piece.”

Once an event that could bring an entire town to a standstill during its visit, the circus was “one of the most popular and influential forms of entertainment in American history,” according to PBS.

The film features interviews with experts on the circus experience, including Baraboo circus historian Fred Dahlinger and Circus World board member Fred Pfening. A 45-minute sneak peak of the documentary was screened in Baraboo in July.

Circus World Archivist Peter Shrake said he submitted roughly 350 photos and at least 10 films to the documentary crew from the museum’s extensive collection, along with other historical materials. Many of the photos and videos hadn’t been previously digitized but, as a result of the documentary, have now been added to Circus World’s collection online, Shrake said. Its archive of about 4,500 photos are available at circus.pastperfectonline.com, and its audio and video materials can be viewed at cwmdigitacollections.com.

O’Donnell said he hopes viewers learn about the life stories that occurred “behind the scenes” and the sense of family and community circus organizers and performers experienced.

“Everybody was welcome under the big top, whether you were a performer or whether you were an audience member,” he said.

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