Think circus and you think bright colors, clowns, tight-rope walkers and elephants, all part of the Greatest Show on Earth, as P.T. Barnum liked to say.
Not true 300 years ago, when circuses were “pretty raucous events,” says Lawrence Fisher, president and chief executive officer of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis. Those bad old circus days were not for families but more about men watching dancing girls and acrobats while drinking alcohol.
It wasn’t until 1871 that P.T. Barnum started family-oriented shows, welcoming women and children and banning alcohol. “The composition of circuses was a very different thing,” he says. “The big shows of the time recognized families with children were the people attracted to the circus.”
Chicago will be celebrating circuses—the family-friendly kind— this month when the city’s Winter Delights festival offers a weekend full of big-tent events. “Clown Around Town,” Feb. 3-6, includes a variety of big top activities for the entire family, from juggling workshops to clown performances.
“It’s something fun that the whole family can do together,” says Mary May, of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.
Some of the events are:
• Silliness 101. Kids 10 and under—the kings of silliness—can learn about face and body movement and join in a collective silly song performance from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 3-6. at the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, 700 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, (312) 527-100, www.chichildrensmuseum.org.
• Clown Around Town. Free performances and circus act workshops will be offered from noon-5 p.m. Feb. 5-6 at the Family Pavilion Stage Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, (800) 595-PIER, www.navypier.org.
• Pippi Goes to the Circus. Kids can play circus games, dress up like clowns and paint their faces to match as they accompany Pippi Longstocking on her first visit to the circus from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Swedish American Museum Center, 5211 N. Clark St., Chicago, (773) 728-8111, www.samac.org.
• A Circus Workshop. The Actors Gymnasium will offer free workshops on stilt walking, trapeze and juggling to children ages 8 and up from noon- 2 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., Chicago, (312) 744-6630, www.cityofchicago.org.
• Vito’s Circus on a Shoestring. Kids can learn clowning and juggling skills at this free workshop from 1:30-3 p.m. Feb. 4 at Indian Boundary Cultural Center, 2500 W. Lunt Ave., Chicago, (773) 764-0338, www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
• Circus Exhibition. This wonderful permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry captures circus life with miniature side shows, parades and clowns and the Shadow Garden that allows kids to use their shadow to move molecular bubbles. Free with museum admission, 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, (773) 684-1414, www.msichicago.org.