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Shriners bringing circus back to town

Mizpah Shrine fundraiser returns to Coliseum with lots of family favorites

The Mizpah Shrine Circus will be at Memorial Coliseum, Jan. 27-29.

Dean Jackson

Whatzup Features Writer

Published January 18, 2023

For nearly 80 years, the Mizpah Shrine Circus been circled on calendars of area residents. 

It’s a point of reference for children of all ages to look at and remember when they took a field trip to see the circus acts at Memorial Coliseum. Another chapter comes to town Jan. 27-29.

Something for kids

Steve Trump has been involved with Fort Wayne’s favorite circus since 1984, the last dozen as director. He says the circus has become a well-oiled machine of acts, animals, volunteers, students, and fans.

“It’s worked for nearly 80 years,” he said. “We’ve got it down, kind of after all these years, to where it’s pretty smooth. Everybody works together. Everybody looks forward to it.”

The circus serves as a fundraiser for the Mizpah Shrine, allowing Shriners to do community events and outreach throughout the year. However, the circus itself is a gift to the community.

Seeing elementary students fill Memorial Coliseum is a special privilege. Every year, the first performance is reserved for kids. The result is thousands and thousands of elementary students from Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, some from as far as two hours away.

“We’ve had the bottom (bowl of the Coliseum) pretty stuffed full,” Trump said. “A few times, we had to open the upper part. So we’re in the vicinity of 6,000 students.”

Even by Trump’s conservative guess, it looks like an invasion of buses in the parking lot. 

“I would say we get close to 100 schools involved,” he said. “I bet there are 20 counties (reached). We get people coming up here from Kokomo. We get them out of Michigan, Kokomo, Plymouth, South Bend, Elkhart. They come from Ohio, I mean everywhere. It’s crazy where we send tickets to.”

Volunteers make it work

The show is funded through ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and other marketing. Volunteers with the local Shriners group make it work with hours upon hours of year-round work. 

“We’ve had good outreach. We’ve tried really hard to actually sell the circus all year long,” Trump said. “We have signs up everywhere, even at other events. We put up circus posters and things like that.”

Trump says the fraternal organization rarely has trouble finding volunteers. Many, if not most, come back year after year because it’s such a tight-knit group.

It’s a formula that works.

Nostalgia, changing times

Even the radio and television commercial jingle is part of the formula, and  it has stayed the same since the 1980s: “The Shriiiiine Circus: Three rings of fun.” 

“People tell us, ‘They don’t even listen to what the announcer is saying (during the commercial), then that music comes on (and it grabs their attention),’ ” Trump said.

What does change is the event itself. 

There’s a reasonable chance the act may change for any number of reasons, with one being how attitudes about the circus and animals have changed over the years.

“The only thing we’ve really lost is the cats,” Trump said. “There’s only one cat in the United States anymore, because they’re hard to find. They won’t let them (import) them over here from the countries that have big cats. The elephants are still here.”

The Shrine Circus’ promoter and organizer, Tarzan Zerbini, is one of the few remaining groups that have elephants, but just like the big cats, elephants’ days in the circus could be numbered.

According to Trump, the promoter has a sanctuary for elephants that has programs that are accredited. The sanctuary works with groups for tours and events and the programs are well regarded.

“The Zerbini family is well known for elephant care, but either way, elephants will soon be a thing of the past,” Trump said. “You can’t buy more, you can’t bring any more in. So I’m guessing probably, eventually, the elephants will be gone.”

Animal care is a priority. Local authorities inspect animal conditions and treatment during the show at Memorial Coliseum.

“Every show they are there, just like the fire marshal,” Trump said. “The animal guy wanders around constantly. He’s upstairs, downstairs, everywhere. He watches everything. They’re here constantly. They are being monitored nonstop.”

It’s evolving, maybe more than we know. 

“I think the circus has changed a bit. Not a lot. I mean, it’s tradition,” Trump said. “I think it went to more motorized stuff. It seems like the kids nowadays like motorcycles that do the jumps, you know, and go out and do the loop de loops and all that kind of stuff. They love that kind of stuff.”

But you can always count on the circus having clowns, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and trapeze artists. Daredevils and some animal acts will always have a place in the circus of the future.

They try to keep the show fresh, he said.

“We change up the acts every year,” he said. “I know we’re gonna have elephants. We’re gonna have horses. Some motorcycle high-wire acts. We’ll have trapeze stuff. We’re trying to get a good mix.”

Free Circus Fair

The annual free circus fair also returns in the basement of Memorial Coliseum. There children can enjoy a petting zoo, face painting, and more an hour before and after the show. 

“We try to keep it really family friendly,” Trump said. “We don’t want anything that shouldn’t be here. You know, we’ve tried to carry that theme through all the time, so the family can come.”

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