With cotton candy, balloon-tying clowns, tigers and elephants, the 71st annual Mehara Shrine Circus covered all the bases on Tuesday — literally.
Positioned on the baseball infield in Carson Park, the first circus showing of the year had a lot to offer.
Although the circus no longer rolls into town by train, it’s still complete with elephants, tigers, acrobats, clowns and, of course, concessions. Vendors walked around carrying trays of wispy cotton candy in its classic blue and pink shades and snow cones dripping with flavored syrup.
Alicia Strozinsky, dressed in a festive “admit one” ticket-print dress, said she absolutely came for the cotton candy.
The Eau Claire mother of two brought her son and daughter, ages 4 and 6, respectively, to Tuesday afternoon’s show and recalled that the last time she had been to a circus was around the time she was in first grade.
Now, she has come full circle, bringing her own kids for the first time.
Having events like this, Strozinsky said, paves the way for other fun things to come to Eau Claire. Plus, she said it’s always nice to have more going on that children can enjoy.
“It’s a fun place where families can bring their kids. Having more activities for kids is always beneficial for everyone,” Strozinsky said. “It’s really fun and entertaining.”
Karen Shay was another first-timer at the Mehara Shrine Circus, although she said she’s gone to circuses every year since she was little. Every year, she loves it just as much.
“I don’t care how old you get, everybody enjoys the circus,” Shay said.
On Tuesday, she and her two grandsons sat at the top of the bleacher seats, sharing some popcorn and some laughs. For Shay, it’s always been a family affair.
What draws people to the circus, Shay said, are the animals. She said she was disheartened to hear about Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus phasing out the use of elephants in their shows because of concern for their treatment.
“I was a little disappointed. It was sad to see it, because I always hope the animals are being treated well.”
Brian Dunham, the Zor Shriners Mehara Shrine Club circus chair, said he hopes the Shrine Circus animals aren’t going anywhere for a long time.
“Some of the bigger circuses, like Ringling and Barnum & Bailey, they got rid of their elephants. So the elephants have been really key in having it be a relevant show,” Dunham said. “There are many people out there that don’t like the fact that we have live animals, but I would say the overwhelming majority in this area are very happy. That’s their No. 1 request: ‘Are the elephants going to be there? Are the tigers going to be there?’”
Dunham said this circus, which performs in Eau Claire and Menomonie, is the longest-running Shrine Circus in the state, and he and Zor Shriners Mehara Shrine Club President Bruce Farnsway agreed they’d like to see it reach its centennial year. He said it wouldn’t have made it this far without everyone who cooperates to bring it all together. Some of these people include the Dunn County sheriff’s office, which donated bicycles for a giveaway, local government, the event’s sponsors and numerous volunteers.
The payoff for all the hard work and countless volunteer hours the Shriners put in, Dunham said, is how happy the event makes the children in attendance.
“The biggest reason I donate my time is for the local kids,” Dunham said. “So much of what we do is philanthropic, but the local kids — if you go out there and stand out on the infield and look up and watch the little kids’ faces … everyone’s happy to be here.”
Mike Hayden, perhaps better recognized by children as Putz the clown, said he has donned his face paint and wig for the past 26 years for the same reason.
“I love kids. That’s why I do it,” Hayden said. “Blowing up balloons for the kids, seeing the smiles on their faces, it’s just fun.”
The annual circus performances, Hayden said, change every year. This year, for example, the Brazilian trapeze troupe was an addition Hayden said he hadn’t seen before.
Along with keeping things updated, the circus does maintains its staples, Hayden said, always offering plenty of entertainment for the family, clown high-fives for the kids and an all-around good time for everyone in attendance.
“It’s a wonderful, family-friendly, relatively inexpensive experience that helps the community both in philanthropic dollars and in awareness,” Dunham said.
The circus also performs at 2 and 7 p.m. today in Carson Park and 7 p.m. Thursday at the Dunn County Recreation Park in Menomonie.
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