On February 26, 1906, the nation’s first Shrine Circus was held in Detroit. It returns in April 2018 for its 112th year!
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.
Who are the Shriners? They support what has been called the “World’s Greatest Philanthropy” — Shriners Hospitals for Children, a network of 22 pediatric specialty hospitals operated and maintained by the Shriners. All children, 18 years and younger, may be eligible for treatment at Shriners Hospitals; eligibility is not based on financial need or relationship to a Shriner. Shriners often help arrange and pay for transportation for children and parents to go to the hospitals; some drive families themselves. Shriners will be found participating in local parades, marching and sometimes riding in miniature sports cars, trucks, and fire engines; performing in an “Oriental” band dressed in Middle Eastern costumes or pipe and drum units, and, of course the family Shriner clown units. Despite its Middle-Eastern theme and Moorish architectural motifs, the Shriners are not connected to Islam. The only religious requirement is that all Shriners must profess a belief in a Supreme Being. While Shriners are men, there are two companion organizations, Ladies’ Oriental Shrine and Daughters of the Nile. They also support the Shriner Hospitals and share in activities like the clown units.
The Shrine Circus is returning to Detroit from April 12-15, 2018.
Detroit Historical Society Facebook Page
Michigan State Fair Shrine Circus