Ringling Bros. news would sadden Chappie Fox

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, January 16, 2017

The news that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus plans to call it quits comes as a shock not only to the world of the circus and the entertainment industry, but also to those of us who love the circus’s railroad connections.

Chappie Fox in the Circus World Museum, 1968.
Florida-based Feld Entertainment, longtime owners of the Ringling operation, announced last week that the circus would be shut down after performances in May. The news throws the lives of hundreds of circus performers and workers into limbo, as well as the company’s roster of more than 120 railroad cars used for its famed Red and Blue performance divisions. (For full news coverage, see Trains magazine’s News Wire.)

After the surprise, nay shock, of the news wore off, my thoughts turned to an old friend, C. P. “Chappie” Fox, longtime director of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., and undoubtedly the world’s number one circus fan. I knew Chappie in the 1980s and early ’90s, and in a way I’m glad this preternaturally happy guy isn’t around to hear this sad news.

Chappie, who was born in Milwaukee in 1913 and died in 2003 at age 90, is credited with building Circus World into a major museum after taking over as director in 1960. In those early days the museum was a ragtag affair, occupying the old Ringling Bros. wintering grounds in Baraboo, where the seven Ringling brothers grew up in the mid-19th century. In the ensuing years Chappie led the effort to make the museum a world-class institution, affiliated with the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

He was a driving force behind the various iterations of Milwaukee’s famous Great Circus Parade and the circus train that brought all the colorful wagons to the city. He also authored at least 30 books about circus history and culture.

Although the circus was the great passion of his life, it might surprise some people to know how deeply he also loved railroading. Before he took over at Circus World, he worked for 26 years at Prime Manufacturing, a Milwaukee-based railroad supply firm.

He was also a longtime friend of Trains magazine founder Al Kalmbach. The two shared a love of the local Milwaukee railroad scene, and for a brief period in 1946–47, Al even had Chappie on the masthead of Trains has a part-time associate editor.

Chappie also was a skilled railroad photographer and got some memorable shots around town. Favorite subjects were Milwaukee Road and Chicago & North Western locomotives and passenger trains, as well as Milwaukee streetcars. One of his most memorable images depicts a young boy entranced by the looming 74-inch driving wheels of a Milwaukee Road S-class 4-8-4.

One of Chappie's most memorable photos was of a boy enthralled by the wheels of a Milwaukee Road 4-8-4.
The Circus World Museum is famous for its collection of fabulous wooden circus wagons from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the museum also owns a considerable number of historic railroad cars, including several flatcars used to haul the wagons. The roster also includes some baggage cars, coaches, and at least a couple of heavyweight Pullmans.

I was aboard one of those heavyweights, a former diner-lounge once assigned to the Santa Fe, for a delightful afternoon with Chappie in 1987 on our way to one of the Milwaukee circus parades. It was a special trip, one of the few times the train was hauled by former C&NW R-1 4-6-0 No. 1385 of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum.

Over the relaxing sound of six-wheel trucks and the 1385’s whistle up ahead, Chappie and I chatted about circuses, trains, Al Kalmbach, and the enduring appeal of an institution that was drawing tens of thousands of people to trackside that day, not to mention the 400,000-plus that would line the streets of Milwaukee a few days hence.

Other than his trademark bow tie and fedora (with the brim always turned up), Chappie was without artifice, a genuinely lovely man whose only agenda was to bring the circus to new audiences. He was disarmingly friendly, and I count that conversation as one of my favorite on-board encounters.

But the Ringling Bros. announcement would have momentarily dulled his perennial smile. Asked in a 1972 TV interview about the importance of the circus, Chappie said, “I believe that it’s important to mankind because the circus is the oldest form of entertainment known to man. It has withstood all the upheavals of history, and still comes out as a great entertainment. No catastrophe has ever ruined it.”

Like I said, I’m glad he wasn’t around for the news. 

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