BARABOO - Circus World Museum opened this weekend in Baraboo to throngs of visitors, and staff members are anticipating a good 2010 season, with a new lineup of international talent in the circus arts.
The season began with a Wild West show Saturday and Sunday, complete with a stage coach robbery and appearances by actors portraying Annie Oakley and Theodore Roosevelt, which more than 2,000 people attended. In comparison, executive director Steve Freese said, last year's opening weekend had about 1,000 visitors.
The museum is introducing a new lineup of regular acts this year, ranging from a British dog act to twin Argentinian jugglers to a Siberian aerial artist. Program director and ringmaster Dave SaLoutos said the international choices were intentional in a year that marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, who did much to bring international talent to America, as well as turning the circus into a viable business in the 1870s.
"We're kind of celebrating the rich international history of the circus," he said. "We're kind ... of dedicating this performance to his birthday as kind of a celebration of that."
In that vein, the museum's Big Top will be multinational this year, in addition to the returning talents of illusionist Tristan Crist and Brian Franzen's trained elephants.
David Rosaire, whose "Perky Pekes" have performed the world over, is an English performer whose trained dog act turns 50 years old this year.
SaLoutos said the act had been developed by Rosaire's mother, then passed on to Rosaire in 1960.
Besides the Pekinese dogs in the original act, Rosaire has added a great Dane, a "very naughty" show-stealing mutt, and even a baboon.
"He's the best dog act working in the world right now," SaLoutos said. "It's amazing that we've got him."
Emilio and Max Fusco, brothers from Argentina who have toured South America, Mexico and the United States, will present a high-energy juggling act, complete with fire.
Married couple Slava Byhkan and Kristina Nuss, of Belarus, perform acrobatics both as a team, and in individual acts, with Slava performing a precarious "rola bola" balancing act across increasingly unstable stacks of metal cylinders. Kristina's hula hoop act is part of the "Ring of Illusions" show, which features illusionist Crist and a host of additional circus performances.
"We've actually put a couple of circus acts into the big magic show," SaLoutos said. "It's a touch of circus in the magic, and magic in the circus."
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A Siberian aerialist, Elena Chaykina, and clown Jessi Wonderfool of California round out the new performers.
Also this year, SaLoutos will resume performing a miniature concert demonstrating the unusual circus instruments the museum has in its collection, including the "rub chimes" and the unafon, an electromechanical instrument that uses doorbells.
The music show, which kicked off three years ago, was put on hold last year while SaLoutos organized the 2009 Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee.
Freese, meanwhile, was optimistic about this year's visitor numbers. While he said it was too soon in the season to predict ticket sales, the strong opening weekend was a good sign of what might come this summer.
"It's clear people are staying closer to home when they vacation," he said. "And they are wanting to have fun.
"We do both of those for folks."
The museum, which closed unexpectedly last December to save on utility costs and fired several staff members, will follow the same model this winter, he said, closing at the end of September.
Most winter visitors, already few in number, come on reduced rates or free tickets, he said, at a time when heating costs were substantial.
"It really was a cost saving," he said.
But he said the museum was still having good success with fundraising this year, and had already exceeded goals in some categories. Now, he said, it was just a matter of waiting to see how ticket sales played out.
"Things are looking very positive."