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Watch now: Baraboo's Circus World to bring back live performers from its past this summer

Watch now: Baraboo's Circus World to bring back live performers from its past this summer

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T.J. Howell performs a unicycle act during the Razzle-Dazzle Revue variety show in 2001 in the Hippodrome at Baraboo's Circus World. Contributed by Circus World Museum.

The big top will rise again in Baraboo this summer, as Circus World Museum prepares to celebrate its reopening with a homecoming of sorts.

After a year without live performances thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Executive Director Scott O’Donnell said he’s looking forward to welcoming back visitors this summer along with some of Circus World’s most well-known performers.

The summer theme? “Come home to Circus World.”

“Like any family during this time, I think it’s really focusing the importance of family and friends as we’ve slowed down and we’ve paused as a worldwide community. It brings more into focus the importance of those elements and what we do in our daily lives and our business lives,” O’Donnell said.

“Mr. Bill” Machtel performs his clown acts at Baraboo's Circus World in clips from 1997 and 1995. Contributed by Circus World Museum.

When staff started to think about which “valued, talented members of our circus family” to invite back, he said two in particular sprang to mind: “Mr. Bill” Machtel, half of an “iconic clowning duo” who performed at Circus World every summer from 1990-97, and cyclist T.J. Howell, who holds the world record for riding the smallest unicycle and spent about eight years at Circus World starting in 1988.

O’Donnell said the museum has seen an “outpouring” on its initial social media posts about the two performers returning, with some people commenting that “it’s the circus of my childhood.”

He’s revealing part of the museum’s summer lineup but noted that more will be announced in the coming days or weeks as more contracts are returned. So far, Machtel, Howell and his wife, hula-hooper Gayle Howell, and juggling duo Viktoria and Richard Zsilak and their aerialist daughter Sofia Petrov Zsilak are confirmed, according to museum leaders.

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Aerialist Sofia Petrov Zsilak swings on a trapeze during a performance prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Unless COVID-19 forces plans to change, they will perform shows under the big top tent -- at half capacity -- at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. each day from June 18 through Aug. 29. Museum exhibits will open for a shortened spring season starting June 1 and a fall season from Aug. 30 through Oct. 1.

“Come on home to Circus World,” O’Donnell said, adding that the museum is one of four Wisconsin historic sites that will be open this summer. “It’s time to welcome back our family and friends in a safe environment and share some quality entertainment and share this magnificent, stupendous legacy of circus heritage in the great state of Wisconsin.”

Mr. Bill

Machtel said he is happy and honored to be returning to Circus World after a tough year. It’s been more than two decades since he last performed in Baraboo, but he dons his clown costume every year for fairs around the state and at ski resorts. While he and fellow performers “took a serious hit” in 2020, he’s also a retired public school teacher and has been substituting full time for the South Milwaukee School District, he said.

“I am just so looking forward to going back home, and it’s my hope to welcome everybody,” Machtel said, noting the safety measures Circus World will have in place to prevent further spread of the disease. “I’m not going to let the audience pet the clown this year … but we’re not going to stop living life and we’re going to bring the circus back.”

Though he usually works in an act with other clowns -- notably Jimmy “Happy" Williams -- this year he will perform solo.

He’s expecting audiences to be surprised by his act, which he characterized as “exotic, funny and fowl.” He said he’s often performed with animals, including a duck and a chicken, and this year will be no different.

“It’s going to be exotic, that’s for sure. Exotic animals were part of Ringling Family Circus, and I think you’re going to see exotic and funny,” he said.

When the lights are turned down under the big top, “it turns into a really magical place,” Machtel said. “And when I come out of that curtain, I know those kids are … going to bust a gut, they’re going to laugh and their parents are going to look at their funny, little, sugar-covered faces and their covered tongues and the parents are going to laugh, and that’s what we do.”

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T.J. Howell rides a unicycle in a performance in a recent year prior to the coronavirus pandemic. He will be returning to Circus World in Baraboo this summer, along with his wife.

T.J. and Gayle Howell

Howell is also excited to return to Circus World. It’s the job that originally brought him to Baraboo decades ago, which he booked by sending a VHS tape of his cycling act, he said. After his first stint in the early 1990s, he came back to work in food service at the museum in the summer of 2000, which led to performing shows for another several years before he transitioned to the Tommy Bartlett Show in Wisconsin Dells until it closed for COVID-19 and then permanently.

His wife, Oshkosh native Gayle Howell, will join the big top show this year with her hula hoop act. She worked as a sound technician at the Tommy Bartlett Show for about 14 years.

T.J. Howell performs a unicycle act during the Razzle-Dazzle Revue variety show in 2001 in the Hippodrome at Baraboo's Circus World. Contributed by Circus World Museum.

She said she’s performed in shows around the country, but never before at Circus World. She does remember visiting the museum throughout her childhood, however, including when her now-husband performed here. Now they get to introduce it to their almost-2-year-old son, Oakley.

“I’ve always loved to be here and can’t wait to get in front of a live audience,” T.J. Howell said. “We’re stoked by having the opportunity to come back in here actually at Circus World and offer live entertainment. My feeling is we’re going to be really busy.”

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Hand sanitizing stations are lined up Monday in Circus World Museum in Baraboo. The museum will reopen to the public June 1 at limited capacity and will host live shows from June 18 through Aug. 29 after a year of no live performances.

Safety measures

Circus World’s performance venues, which O’Donnell said are all well ventilated, will operate at half capacity to accommodate social distancing, with guests seated by staff and volunteers. The museum will also be at limited capacity.

Masks will be mandatory for visitors and staff, and social distancing will be “greatly enforced,”' O’Donnell said. Traffic throughout its buildings will be one way, guided by new stanchions. More information on safety measures can be found at the museum website.

He said he’s optimistic about the coming year and rebuilding after the site saw revenues decrease by 95% from 2019 to 2020.

O’Donnell said he’s hoping visitors will be able to forget their problems, laugh and experience the “joy and wonder of circus” during the roughly hour-long big top shows. While Circus World tried to engage its audience online throughout the pandemic, live performances are always better, he said.

“That’s where the magic happens,” O’Donnell said.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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