Don't cry in your beer for Milwaukee.
True, like other Rust Belt cities, its economy has been squeezed by industry cutbacks and desertions -- the most prominent and ironic, of course, being the disappearance of Schlitz, "the beer that made Milwaukee famous," when it was purchased by a Detroit brewer several years ago.
But now there are signs of a new vitality in this city two hours north of Chicago. The downtown area is undergoing a renaissance, with an elevated, glass-enclosed skywalk that keeps you out of the weather and above the traffic (and even the Milwaukee River) for at least seven city blocks. And in its search for a new public image, Milwaukee has begun to showcase a summer-long carnival of events for and about its people, the highlight of which is the Great Circus Parade.
Billed as the Greatest Free Show On Earth, this annual extravaganza -- which last year drew 800,000 spectators -- claims to be the only authentic re-creation of a turn-of-the-century circus parade in the world.
This year's parade will be Sunday, July 12, and it will feature an elaborately costumed reenactment of a circus spectacular. Staged during the Ringling Brothers' 1905-06 season, the show depicted a 16th-century summit meeting between the kings of England and France, which featured such an array of richly adorned tents that it was described in written accounts as a "field of the cloth of gold."
Completing the parade will be 75 elaborately carved, antique circus wagons that will carry performers, wild animals -- a giraffe, a hippopotamus and assorted big cats -- live bands and calliopes.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of spectators, the parade lures scores of enthusiastic roustabouts each year from all over the country to join in the fun and hard work. And two-legged volunteers aren't the only out-of-town workers attracted. Authenticity requires that this parade run solely on horse power -- the original four-legged variety. It takes more than 600 of them to pull the ornately carved wagons -- many of them weighing more than three tons -- and carry the participants over the 3 1/2-mile parade route on Milwaukee's downtown streets. Horse hitches are recruited from as far away as Colorado, Georgia and Massachusetts.
And, of course, there are the clowns. Making his sixth appearance as "head clown" will be film and TV star Ernest Borgnine, accompanied by his wife. Making its second appearance will be a black clown troupe formed in tribute to Milwaukee native Ephraim Williams, who started three circuses before the turn of the century, all based in Wisconsin. One unusual clown troupe, from Erie, Pa., is made up of 18 Benedictine nuns, who will arrive early in the week to bring the circus spirit to Children's Hospital and area nursing homes.
The parade is sponsored by the Wisconsin State Historical Society's Circus World Museum, two hours northwest of Milwaukee in Baraboo, where the world's largest collection of antique circus wagons is displayed. Baraboo is famous as the home town and original winter headquarters for the five Ringling Brothers and their circus. (The combined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus now has its winter quarters in Venice, Fla. The Ringling Museum is in Sarasota, Fla.)
The same painstaking research and attention to detail that has resulted in the restoration of 170 beautifully decorated circus wagons at the Circus World Museum has gone into the planning of the Great Circus Parade. The authentic re-creation begins a week before the parade, as more than 75 of the museum's circus wagons leave their home in Baraboo and travel by train in a two-day whistle-stop odyssey to Milwaukee's lakefront. In true turn-of-the-century circus tradition, the loading is accomplished by teams of Percheron horses. The train is headed by a 1907 steam locomotive, but in the interest of a 1987 timetable and a heavy load, two diesel engines go along as backups.
Authenticity is maintained even to the music played by the various marching bands. All music must be cleared by the parade director and chief museum historian, Bob Parkinson.
The cost of this year's parade is estimated at close to $1 million, and it's all raised through business and community contributions. The financial ringmaster for this great effort is Milwaukee public relations executive Ben Barkin.
The parade, originally sponsored by the Schlitz Brewing Co. from 1963 to 1973, was part of the Old Milwaukee Days celebration on the 4th of July. When Schlitz abandoned the parade, 12 years elapsed before Barkin revived it in 1985.
Other related events that will take place the week before the parade include: Loading the Great Circus Train, July 5 and 6 in Baraboo. Arrival of the circus train at Milwaukee's lakefront, 5:30 p.m. July 8, followed by the unloading of the train. Display of the circus wagons and horses, at the Great Circus Showgrounds on the lakefront, July 8 through July 11. The Clive and Barnes Circus in 11 afternoon and evening performances at the Great Circus Showgrounds, July 8 through July 11, admission $3.50 per person. The Great Circus Parade Breakfast, 10 a.m. July 11 at the War Memorial Center on the lakefront, $5 per person. Lakefront fireworks "Circus in the Sky," 10 p.m. July 11. The Great Circus Parade, 2 p.m. July 12, downtown Milwaukee, rain or shine. Joan Horwitt is a Washington free-lance writer.