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Circus arrival a show in itself

Crowd enjoys seeing big top raised
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Leader Photo by Scott Williams Crew members drive 4-foot-long stakes into the ground in preparation for erecting tents and other facilities for the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus.

Leader Photo by Scott Williams Children and adults gathered around Friday to learn about the big cats and other performances in the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus.

Youngsters and the young-at-heart Friday welcomed a traveling circus to Shawano for performances in the classic style under a big-top tent.

Culpepper & Merriweather Circus thrilled spectators with a tent-raising ceremony Friday morning that transformed a vacant lot into a performance venue for circus lions, clowns and other entertainment.

Children and adults watched the circus grounds come to life, cheering and applauding as crews raised the 30-foot-tall tent for the weekend’s shows.

Culpepper & Merriweather, based in Oklahoma, prides itself on preserving tradition and recapturing the magic of old-style traveling circuses that arrive in town and seemingly pop up out of nowhere.

“It’s kind of a lost art,” said Jean Frank, who brought family members from Gillett to watch the tent-raising excitement.

Frank said she remembered seeing traveling circuses in the big-top style when she was a child, and she thought her 9- and 5-year-old nephews would enjoy getting a glimpse behind the scenes.

“I wanted them to see the process,” she said. “It’s kind of interesting that it’s still around.”

Unlike circuses that rent indoor auditoriums or stadiums, Culpepper & Merriweather prefers outdoor sites to erect its blue-and-while tent, along with pony rides, food concessions and other amenities. Organizers got a city permit to use an open field across from Memorial Park, just north of Elizabeth Street.

Leo Acton, a circus performer, greeted spectators at Friday morning’s tent-raising event and told the crowd that although preparations are meticulous, crews only need about three hours to get everything ready.

“There’s a lot that happens,” Acton said, adding with a smile: “We’ve done it a few times. We’re getting pretty good at it.”

Founded in 1985, Culpepper & Merriweather visits about 200 cities a year with its lions and tigers, horses and ponies, performing dogs, acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists and clowns. Each performance last about 90 minutes and can accommodate 750 people under the big top.

Performances continue at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets at the gate are $13 for adults and $8 for seniors or children, and free for toddlers under 2.

Rain was in the weekend forecast for Shawano, but Acton assured the crowd that the circus performances would go ahead rain or shine.

Rotary Club of Shawano is sponsoring the Culpepper & Merriweather visit.

Once the big-top tent was raised Friday, spectators were treated to a guided tour of the circus grounds and a few insights into what goes on behind the scenes.

Tom Heling, of Shawano, who rode his bicycle across town to catch the excitement, said his wife is taking their grandchildren to one of the shows. Heling remembered seeing circuses in the old-time style as a child, and he was happy to have one back in town.

“It’s something different,” he said. “It’s good that we have different stuff in town.”

The crowd responded with “ooo’s” and “ahh’s” as crews unloaded ponies and other animals on the grounds. Children grew wide-eyed when the lions and tigers began to roar from inside their cages.

Rachel Ford brought her son, Josiah, 6, and daughter, Ellie, 3, to the event. Ford was unsure if they would be back for a performance, although she said the tent-raising and guided tour alone were plenty of entertainment.

“It’s neat to see the process,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”