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Photo: Kathryn Geurin

Greatest Show on Earth

Don Erlenbusch’s model circus is built on vivid memories of an uncommon childhood

By Kathryn Geurin

Only 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.

“It’s 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.

“It’s 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 above.

“I 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 big top.”

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.

“It 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 year since.

“The 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.

“It was an interesting childhood to say the least,” says Erlenbusch, surveying his creation, his past and his legacy. “It’s been a good life.”

 

Special Section: Inside Saratoga

 

Saratoga Calendar

Clubs

 

CAFFE LENA (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-0022). 7/23: Dyer Switch. 7/24: Woods Tea Company. 7/25: Railbird.

NORTHERN 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.

PUTNAM DEN (63A Putnam St., Saratoga Springs, 584-8066). 7/23: the Get Down. 7/24: Second Mile Blues Band. 7/25: Halfstep.

Concerts

SARATOGA 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.

UPBEAT ON THE ROOF (Rooftop patio, Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, 580-8080). 7/23: Black Mountain Symphony.

Comedy

Comedy Works Saratoga, 12 Ballston Ave., Saratoga Springs. 7/23-24, 9 PM. Freddie Stone with Kevin Bartini and Aaron Ward. $20. 275-6897.

 

Upcoming

 

Theater

Hamlet, Saratoga Shakespeare Company, Alfred Z. Soloman Stage, Congress Park, Saratoga Springs. 7/22-24, 6 PM; 7/25, 3 PM. Free.

Dance

Bill 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.

Classical

Marcella Sembrich Opera Museum, 4800 Lake Shore Drive, Bolton Landing. 7/24, 7:30 PM: Concert featuring the singers of Resonanz. $20. 644-9839.

Museums & Galleries

Opening

National 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.

Continuing

National 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.

New 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 Guard.

Saratoga County Arts Council, Arts Center Gallery, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. The Space Within: Marjorie Derrick + Ben Schwab.

Schick Art Gallery, Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-5049. Michael Kuch Printmaker/Book Artist.

Tang 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.

Literary

Skidmore 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.

Fairs & Festivals

Saratoga County Fair, Saratoga County Fairgrounds, Ballston Spa. Through 7/25, 9 AM-midnight: Music, food, rides, midway, animals and cotton candy. 885-9701.

Saratoga Race Course

The 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).

Horses work out at sunrise at the Okalahoma training track at Saratoga Race Track.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Saratoga Shots

 

 

 

 


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