Thursday, June 11, 2009

Circus Parade secures funding, will return July 12

By Jackie Loohauis-Bennett of the Journal Sentinel

Posted: Mar. 17, 2009
Organizers of the Great Circus Parade say they have raised enough money so that the parade - what they're calling "the biggest free civic event in the state" - will roll through Milwaukee's downtown this year after all.

The parade will step off at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, July 12.

As recently as February, the Great Circus Parade Foundation was more than $100,000 short of the $1.5 million needed to stage the parade. However, parade co-chairmen William Fox and Jack McKeithan said Tuesday that final funding from sponsor pledges had been received.

Fox said a list of sponsors would be released closer to parade day and that "no public funds were used to meet the parade goal."

"I think this will be the biggest parade ever, which is amazing given the economy. And it will be free for everyone," McKeithan said.

Organizers also said that 92-year-old actor Ernest Borgnine, who has dressed in clown costume to greet Milwaukee parade fans in person for years, has agreed to appear in the parade again.

"He rejected a carriage and wants to ride in a golf cart so he can shake people's hands," Fox said.

"Hooray, hey, hey, Milwaukee rides again!" Borgnine said Tuesday from his Beverly Hills office.

Milwaukee officials echoed Borgnine's enthusiasm, and said they hoped the parade would be a boost to local morale.

"I see this as being a morale stimulus," said Mayor Tom Barrett. "In these economically depressed times, it helps to have something to smile about, and you can always smile at a parade."

County Executive Scott Walker said, "I think it's spectacular. The parade is one of the things that put us on the map in years past. It's an event that will draw people in from around the state and the Midwest."

Visit Milwaukee, the city's convention and visitors bureau, expects the parade to have an economic impact from beyond the state's borders.

"It's a world-class event. No one else has a parade of this magnitude," said Jeannine Sherman, Visit Milwaukee's public relations manager. "We're within an eight-hour driving distance to about a third of the nation's population. . . . This could be a perfect catalyst to plan a vacation here, to stay overnight and take advantage of all the amenities the city has to offer."

The Great Circus Parade was last held here in 2003, but its tradition goes back to 1963; this will be the 30th parade staged in Milwaukee. Hundreds of thousands of fans lined past parade routes, watching the marching units and rare, horse-drawn circus wagons re-create a 19th century-style street spectacle.

Fox said extra money was needed to repair the vintage wagons, which had deteriorated while they were in storage at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

"Every single one of the 52 wagons in the parade this year had to be restored in some fashion. Either the wooden wheels or the carriages had to be restored and repainted," Fox said.

Wheelwrights in Baraboo and Amish craftsmen in Indiana worked on the wagons for the new parade. At least three of those wagons will be covered in gold leaf, Fox said.

About 105 units will appear in the 2009 parade, including Roy Rogers and Dale Evans characters, costumed circus riders, elephants and "more bands than ever," Fox said.

McKeithan said that the foundation still needs $50,000 to $75,000 in additional funds to stage the free circus showgrounds on the lakefront the week before the parade, but he said he expected that the money could be raised.

Showground plans include circus exhibits, a petting zoo and pony rides. The Kelly Miller Circus is expected to give four performances a day under a big-top tent, with admission charged for those shows.

The Great Circus Parade's future remains in limbo, however. Fox said he doubted there would be enough money for a parade in 2010, though he hoped one could be staged in 2011.