The Shrine Circus is Detroit’s hometown circus. Founded in Detroit, the circus has performed annually for over 100 years. From famous animal trainer Clyde Beatty and the Flying Wallendas to the bittersweet humor of Shrine Clown Emmett Kelly, the Shrine Circus bring a family show that’s thrilling, heart warming, and affordable.
The first Shrine Circus in the world, Detroit’s Circus is still the largest, with one of the finest clown units. According to John H. McConnell, author of Shrine Circus: The Circus with a Heart, the longest running Shrine Circus is also one of the most innovative. It features an intimate setting where everyone sees and hears and feels the magic of the circus.
The Shrine Circus was established in February 1906 as a way of lifting our spirits during the dead of winter and has been a springtime tradition ever since. It quickly spread throughout the country and today, collectively, it may be the most attended circus, notes McConnell, in his book, “Shrine Circus: The Circus with a Heart.”
The idea for a “winter show” to raise funds for the Shrine originated with William H. Baier, a Shrine member. Russell G. Pearce placed the initial “help wanted” ad for circus performers on Dec. 2, 1905.
By 1906, Detroit was a thriving commercial and manufacturing center with a budding automobile industry. Circuses were common forms of winter entertainment in the city. But the Shrine Circus made news. Here’s how the Detroit Free Press characterized the first circus: “With a crash of cymbals and a blare of horns, punctuated by the discordant cries of barkers setting forth the merits of various side show attractions...From peanuts to baby elephants, from side show to ‘Grand’ concert, nothing was lacking to make the circus a complete success. ... Clowns which caused the spectators to laugh themselves almost into convulsions disported themselves around the ring at frequent intervals. Seldom does an audience of such proportions so generally abandon itself to merriment as did last night’s gathering. The rafters fairly seemed to tremble with the gale was at its height.”
Shrine Circuses expanded throughout the country by the 1920s, featuring wild and domestic animal acts, feats of human daring and extreme skill, and the Shrine clowns. As the major fundraiser for the local Shrine, the Circus is the visual centerpiece for the organization.
Bill Jackson, past Shrine potentate and circus administrator, is credited with summarizing the importance of the Circus:
“The Shrine is our fun. The hospitals are our philanthropy.”
Many changes in society have impacted the circus as an entertainment experience. While circus audiences waned through the 1990s, they have grown in recent years. Some present themselves as lavish shows while others are focused on acrobatics and music. The Shrine Circus remains a traditional, affordable family entertainment experience with the timeless qualities that charmed the first audience in 1906 -- raising funds that remain in the community supporting the work of the local Shrine.
As McConnell notes, the Shrine Circus inaugurated an entirely new entertainment concept in America. Today, it may still be the most attended circus - “the circus” for many families in large and small towns across the country. Thanks to the Shriners, this show will go on.