Wednesday, May 19, 2010

International Clown Hall of Fame

The Clowning Moment: Hall of Fame grand opening is Friday
By Brian D. Bridgeford / News Republic Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 9:52 pm
Baraboo will have a new addition to its reputation as "Circus City" when the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center holds its grand opening at 10 a.m. Friday on the Courthouse Square.
Monday afternoon the smell of newly-laid carpet filled a large, colorfully-painted room in The Business Center on Fourth Avenue at Oak Street. On the floor lay a huge photograph of famous American clown Emmett Kelly (1898-1979), along with dolls of the respected entertainer and a large poster of TV variety show host and comedian Red Skelton (1913-1997), famous for his hobo clown character Freddy the Freeloader.
Kneeling nearby Baraboo professional clown and ICHOF Executive Director Greg DeSanto held a self-portrait done by Kelly in pastel chalk. DeSanto and clown enthusiast Sandy Weber of Highland Park, Ill. discussed how they should arrange an exhibit honoring Kelly and his contributions to the art of clowning.
A look around the exhibit hall and neighboring rooms testified to the amount of set-up work DeSanto and his helpers have to get ready for the grand opening. One room was filled with neat rows of framed images of famous clowns laid along the floor. Others contained shelves filled with clown costumes, a huge variety of props and information panels explaining the different types of clown characters entertainers have created over the years.
DeSanto said the Hall of Fame was established in 1987, originally in Delavan. The museum has moved to several places in the Milwaukee area over 20 years and most recently had a home at State Fair Park.
DeSanto said he is a member of the Hall of Fame's board of directors. After it lost its lease at the park, he and his wife, fellow Baraboo clown Karen DeSanto, decided they had to find some place to put its collection on display.
"I had been to the museum in all its different locations," he said. "I just thought is was a wonderful collection of artifacts and memorabilia, and research possibilities, but it had never been able to find its home."
ICHOF board members suggested Baraboo, with its long history as home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, might be a good place for the clown museum, DeSanto said.
"It's a good fit with the community, with our heritage here with Circus World Museum and the Al. Ringing Theater," he said. "It makes a vary nice trifecta of circus and clown history."
Weber said he is a long-time fan of clowning who decided to help DeSanto get the Hall of Fame ready for its opening.
"I've had a love of clowns since I was two years old," he said. "I spent one season on a circus and do birthday parties and things like that now."
When Baraboo's famous Ringling brothers started their first circus in 1884, John Ringling was their first clown, DeSanto said as he pointed to a painting of Ringling wearing his clown make up and costume.
The Ringlings came to be highly respected for their business acumen, beginning their show in Baraboo as a collection of wagons going town to town on muddy rural roads.
"We've got the first box, the money box, that their father built for them," DeSanto said. "Their dad, August Ringing, he had a harness shop about 200 yards from here where the (former) Shoe Box is now.
"That's where it was made in 1884, so it made it's way home."
DeSanto displayed a man-sized painting of famous Ringling Bros. Circus trick rider and clown Edwin "Poodles" Hanneford (1891-1967). ICHOF has had the painting restored and has a room set aside to restore other artifacts from clowning's history.
"Our research ability is we have a photo archive, we've got books, we've got a lending library," DeSanto said. "We're starting to inventory our video and film collection, slides."
Eventually, those records will be preserved in digital format so they will be useful in the future, he said.
DeSanto said the Hall of Fame and CWM have both been contacted by producers of a circus movie being shot now, "Water for Elephants" staring Reese Witherspoon. He hopes they will continue to be a resource for those interested in the art and history of clowning.
The Clown Hall of Fame is not just about circus clowns, DeSanto said.
"We'll try to highlight some of the clown faces people already know, like Emmett Kelly is very iconic for clowns," DeSanto said. "But we'd also love to see some recognition for rodeo clowns or clowns that are on ice shows, clowns that are not in a circus.
"Hospital clowns, caring clowns are a growing thing."
For more than 10 years the Clown Hall of Fame has sent clowns into Milwaukee-area hospitals, DeSanto said. They would like to continue that sort of thing in Milwaukee, Baraboo and the Madison area.
"In addition to all this clown memorabilia we have here, we'd like to concentrate on some outreach," he said. "Because this community has been very gracious, very willing to embrace our crazy clown ideas we come up with."
DeSanto said ICHOF is the largest collection related to clowns in the United States and the world. He hopes it will complement what is happening at Circus World Museum, draw strong support from the local community and help boost Baraboo's tourism business.
DeSanto picked up a large photo of the late clown Lou Jacobs (1903-1992), an instructor at the Ringing Brothers Clown College including when it was held in Baraboo.
"He was one of my instructors at clown college," DeSanto said. "To be able to come in every day and see Lou and see Red (Skelton), it's a great thing."
Those wanting more information may contact the museum at (608) 355-0321, via e-mail at or find its Web site online —
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If you go
What: Grand opening International Clown Hall of Fame
When: 10 a.m. Friday
Where: The Business Center, Fourth Avenue at Oak Street on the Courthouse Square.
Admission: $5 for adults, $4 for children and seniors, group rates available
Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Information: (608) 355-0321, or online - Http://

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