WINTER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 1
O'Donnell Joins Wisconsin’s Circus Family

By Michelle Boyle

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Early last fall, the Circus World Museum welcomed Scott O'Donnell as its new executive director. Just days into the job, O'Donnell graciously took a moment to share his background and future ambitions for facility located in Baraboo, Wis. The former winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus is owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society, while operated by the nonprofit Circus World Museum Foundation.

Though not born into a multigenerational circus family, as many circus performers are, O'Donnell is a self-described "first generation circus performer from Canada who was a starry-eyed child with a dream to 'run away and join the circus.'" This early passion for the circus has certainly paid off for O'Donnell. 

In his early days of circus life, O'Donnell befriended some clowns from the circus who taught him "how to listen to your audience as your collective journey to laughter unfolded, and the rest is history as they say." On the heels of his success working with director Tim Burton coordinating circus talent for the major motion film Big Fish, O'Donnell worked at the Circus World Museum from 2003-2005 as the operations manager.

After years of performance and stints as the vice president and general manager of Big Apple Circus in New York and most recently as the vice president of festivals for entertainment company Live Nation, O’Donnell said he was happy to be back at the museum. He was also talent manager for Feld Entertainment, current owner of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"I always thought to entertain people and to make people laugh for a living would be the greatest; and it has been!" As the museum director, O'Donnell brings determination and plans for the direction of the organization. 

"We have no deficiency of opportunity here at Circus World. I would like our Big Top shows to return to under a traditional circus tent as the art form should be presented and experienced. We have room to grow on our social and digital footprint, reaching our patrons in new and exciting ways as circus has traditionally done." He also hopes to restore the Great Circus Parade not just limited to the streets of Milwaukee but "in a dynamic way rolling down streets in communities across America." The parade, which used the museum’s historical wagons, was a fixture from 1963 to 2009 in Milwaukee and other cities

Among its vast collection of circus wagons are the only five "high Victorian" English circus wagons remaining in the world. The Hanneford Band Carriage is the only known surviving historic Irish circus wagon left in existence. The wagon was built around 1880 and was originally seen in England by Taylor's A-1 Circus. It traveled with the Hanneford's Grand Circus in Ireland between 1903 and 1913. After the death of owner Ned Hanneford in 1913, his family began performing with the Sir Robert Fossett Circus in England. 

The wagon was sold to the Fossett family and used by that circus until retired around 1919. O'Donnell posed for a photo beside that stately Hanneford Irish wagon. "One can only imagine how the audiences reacted to these wagons as they rolled down the hometown streets on Circus Day," said O'Donnell

" When the wagons first paraded in the mid 1800's they could have only stunned the crowds with their colorful paint schemes and intricate carvings." Though O'Donnell has yet to make it to Ireland, his grandmother was born and lived for most of her young adult life in Belfast. 

"She would tell me stories of taking lunch to her father at his work on the docks of Harland and Wolff shipyards where he was working on a boat that would be infamous, the RMS Titanic." O’Donnell’s grandmother immigrated to Canada where she met his grandfather. 

O'Donnell fondly recalled that "she would accompany me to the Shrine Circus in the spring in my hometown in Canada where I am confident the seed was deeply planted for my life's adventure."

For any circus fan, for people who enjoy the magic and entertainment and for aficionados of circus history, Circus World Museum has it all. O'Donnell encouraged everyone to "come and visit us even if you have been there before. There is a lot of new and exciting elements to explore and enjoy for our 2014 season," he predicted. This is not a museum fixed in time; there are plenty of present day attractions for its visitors, according to O’Donnell. "We are continually focused to bring the best in live entertainment during our summer season showcasing the amazing talents of circus performers, both human and animals in an up close and personal manner." 

The location of the museum in itself is worth a visit. The surrounding Baraboo Hills are an impressively large range that are approximately 1.6 billion years old and are thought at one time to have been taller than the Rocky Mountains. The National Park Service has declared the Southern portion of the Baraboo Hills a National Natural Landmark. Another great attraction near Baraboo is Devil's Lake state park with its picturesque lake nestled in the center of 500-foot-high quartzite bluffs. The lake itself was formed by a glacier during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. It’s easy to related with O'Donnell when he talks about how he enjoys spending his free time sitting on the shores of Devil's Lake." It is effective to relax any stress and reconnect with source energy of the earth," he confided.

O'Donnell summarizes the awe inspiring history of the museum best when saying, "It is a wonderful honor to step on the actual grounds in the actual buildings where five brothers from Baraboo dreamed big to bring a world of sawdust and excitement to communities across the globe." This Wisconsin national treasure is in good hands with O'Donnell as its new visionary leader with promise to keep the magic and memories alive and well for the Greatest Show on Earth.
 
 


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