Show on Earth
Erlenbusch’s model circus is built on vivid memories of
an uncommon childhood
a few hours into the first day of the Saratoga County Fair,
the winners of the All-American Pie Contest have already
been an nounced, and a small crowd lines rows of wooden
benches, digging into slices of the top contenders. Cows
loll languidly in the heavy heat of the dairy barn and rugged
draft horses snort and stomp in their stalls. The bleachers
at the tiger show begin to fill, and just beyond a sign
enticing fairgoers to “feed the lions,” a geyser of woodchips
erupts from master chainsaw sculptor Brian Ruth’s blade
as he puts the final touches on a hummingbird. Lights dance
and rides whirl on the midway, where awed children are pulled
between carnival temptations: carousel horses, shooting
galleries, clouds of cotton candy.
The swing ride slowly spins to a halt, and children loose
the chains from their laps and tumble out into the fairground,
where, in the corner of the antiques building, the entire
scene is mirrored in miniature. A tiny mechanical swing
whirrs into action, diminutive draft horses rest in their
paddocks, children queue at concession trailers, their bright
caps and coats painted meticulously by hand.
Towering above it all, Don Erlenbusch cocks his head and
knots his mouth in crooked disapproval at an off-kilter
orangutan cage. He flicks a switch and a train chugs around
the big top, past the swings and the sweets. Erlenbusch
lifts the offending car, inspects it over wire-rimmed glasses,
sets it aright and settles back in his chair, content as
the train chugs off again.
a lot of work,” says Erlenbusch, surveying his expansive
circus world. “It took three days to set it up, it will
take two days to take it down, and many, many days to get
it all packed up again where it belongs.”
The wall behind him is papered with a vivid backdrop of
vintage circus posters: Clyde Beatty, Cole Brothers, Ringling,
Barnum & Bailey.
a hobby built on going to circuses and carnivals as a kid
with my father,” says Erlenbusch. “We never missed a circus
or a carnival coming into town.” An impish spark ignites
between his shocks of white hair. “If it was a school day,
it was a day out of school for me. We never missed a one.”
His father was a lifelong circus-model builder, and such
a fan of the traveling shows that his reputation earned
the pair a behind-the-scenes pass to the action. They would
watch the cavalcade unfurl from the train cars, talk to
the performers and crews as rides were assembled and concessions
prepared. His fondest memory is of the elephants—hoisting
the tents aloft and, later, performing their majestic shows.
Under his big top a scarlet-crowned pachyderm poses, leg
raised, atop a ball. Aerialists arc frozen in mid-flight
like the big top,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun to put it
up and take it down. You have to tie all the little ropes
onto all the little stakes in the ground. Then you get to
fill it. It takes two to three hours just to put up the
When Erlenbusch was still in grade school in the Midwest,
his father was done being a spectator; he decided to go
into the carnival business for himself. In the summers,
the family would join a traveling show and head out on the
road, touring the country, fairground by fairground with
their funhouse, and eventually a snake and monkey show.
In the winters he cared for the animals, who made their
home in the family’s barn—an unlikely barn full of exotic
snakes and circus monkeys in Decatur, Ill.
was tough. It was a lot of work, even as a kid you had to
do your part. I helped set things up, ran the concessions.
But it was fun,” he says, “meeting all the different people—not
just the carnival people but all the different people in
all the different towns, across the different states.”
After several years with the carnival, the family took over
the amusement park in Decatur and settled back down. Erlenbusch
split his final years of high school between working at
the park and at a local toy store, where he built custom
train layouts in people’s homes. He took a nearly 40-year
hiatus from model building, filling those four decades with
a family and an impressive Air Force career. After his daughter
married “a Clifton Park boy,” Erlenbusch and his wife warmed
to the Saratoga area. The couple moved to Ballston Spa seven
years ago to be closer to their grandchildren. In his retirement,
Erlenbusch took up model building again.
During a chance meeting in a coffee shop five years ago,
he chatted with the fair secretary about his hobby, and
she suggested he do a display. His circus has grown every
first year I was a little doubtful, but it’s been great.
I’ve gotten good compliments from the kids, the little kids,
and surprisingly the teenagers. Of course the old folks
enjoy it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s great to see everyone
enjoy it, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.”
Hundreds of pieces are one-of-a-kind: hand-painted, modified
or built from scratch. Some of them are new this year, others
date back to the 1930s, crafted by his father and his great
uncle before Erlenbusch was even born. All are imbued with
the memory of a childhood of allure and adventure, fit for
the pages of a storybook.
was an interesting childhood to say the least,” says Erlenbusch,
surveying his creation, his past and his legacy. “It’s been
a good life.”
Section: Inside Saratoga
LENA (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-0022). 7/23:
Dyer Switch. 7/24: Woods Tea Company. 7/25:
LIGHTS (Route 146, North Country Commons, Clifton Park,
371-0012). 7/25: Every Avenue. 7/26: Shadows Fall,
Chimaira, Winds of Plague. 7/27: Edward Sharpe
and the Magnetic Zeros. 7/28: Candlebox.
DEN (63A Putnam St., Saratoga Springs, 584-8066). 7/23:
the Get Down. 7/24: Second Mile Blues Band.
PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga
Springs, 587-3330). 7/22: Goo Goo Dolls, Switchfoot,
the Spill Canvas. 7/23: Rush. 7/24: Brad
Paisley, Darius Rucker. 7/25: FLY92 Summer Jam
with One Republic, Natasha Bedingfield, Boys
Like Girls, more. 7/26: Celtic Woman.
ON THE ROOF (Rooftop patio, Tang Teaching Museum and
Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, 580-8080).
7/23: Black Mountain Symphony.
Works Saratoga, 12 Ballston Ave., Saratoga Springs.
7/23-24, 9 PM. Freddie Stone with Kevin Bartini and Aaron
Ward. $20. 275-6897.
Saratoga Shakespeare Company, Alfred Z. Soloman
Stage, Congress Park, Saratoga Springs. 7/22-24, 6 PM; 7/25,
3 PM. Free.
T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Ted Bill T. Jones/Arnie
Zane Dance Company, Saratoga Performing Arts Center,
Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 7/28, 8 PM: Fondly
Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray, a new work inspired
by the life of Abraham Lincoln. $40. 587-3330.
Sembrich Opera Museum, 4800 Lake Shore Drive, Bolton
Landing. 7/24, 7:30 PM: Concert featuring the singers of
Resonanz. $20. 644-9839.
Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 191 Union Ave., Saratoga
Springs. 584-0400. Treasures of the Vault: 60 Years and
Growing. Also, Hall of Fame Heroes.
Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga
Springs. 584-2225. Postage Paid : Dance Around the World.
Also, In a Labyrinth: The Dance of Butoh. Also, Ballet
Russes Centennial Exhibit. Also, The C.V. Whitney
Hall of Fame. Plus, the children’s wing.
York State Military Museum, 61 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs.
581-5100. Picturing Battle: Memories of War, Art of Thurlstrup,
U.S. Army Signal Corps and Steve Jordan. Ongoing. Also,
Dewitt Clinton Falls: Uniform of the New York National
County Arts Council, Arts Center Gallery, 320 Broadway,
Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. The Space Within: Marjorie
Derrick + Ben Schwab.
Art Gallery, Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga
Springs. 580-5049. Michael Kuch Printmaker/Book Artist.
Teaching Museum and Gallery, Skidmore College, 815 N.
Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-8080. Opener 20 Paula
Hayes: Understory. Also, Suzanne Bocenegra: I Write
the Songs. Also, Opener 19: Los Carpinteros.
Also, For You.
College, New York State Summer Writers Institute, Saratoga
Springs, Davis Auditorium of Palamountain Hall. 7/22, 8
PM: Fiction poetry and reading featuring Jayne Anne Phillips
(Author Termite & Lark, Fast Lane) and Mary
Kinzie (Poet, Summers of Vietnam). 7/23, 8 PM:
Fiction and poetry reading featuring Howard Norman (Novelist,
The Bird Artist) and Lloyd Schwartz (Pulitzer
Prize, Criticism; author, Cairo Traffic) 580-5590.
County Fair, Saratoga County Fairgrounds, Ballston Spa.
Through 7/25, 9 AM-midnight: Music, food, rides, midway,
animals and cotton candy. 885-9701.
2010 Saratoga meet begins tomorrow (Friday, July 23) and
runs through Sept. 6. The track is dark on Tuesdays.
Location: Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 584-6200.
Admission: $3 Grandstand ($5 Travers Day), $5 Clubhouse
($10 Travers Day).
First Race Post Time: 1 PM daily; except July 30 at 2:30
PM, Aug. 28 at 11:35 AM, Sept. 3 at 2:30 PM.
Major Stakes Races: The Jim Dandy (July 31), The Whitney
(Aug. 7), The Alabama (Aug. 21), The Travers (Aug. 28).
work out at sunrise at the Okalahoma training track
at Saratoga Race Track.