McLean County has been home to a variety of industries throughout its history. One such industry, one which members of this very community may not know about, was that of producing aerialists and circus performers. For more than 80 years, spanning the 1870s until the 1950s, countless numbers of individuals left their mark on history. This year, on World Circus Day, we will celebrate that legacy.
On Saturday, April 20, 2019, a full day of activities have been scheduled to celebrate the circus and its legacy here in McLean County. Starting at 9:30 a.m., the public is invited to the re-dedication and blessing of the Ward Family plot at Park Hill Cemetery. The Ward Family of flyers, began with the brother-sister duo, Eddie Ward Sr. and Jennie Ward Todd. They were known for thrilling feats and they trained a great number of flyers during their lifetimes. The ceremony will begin with an introduction of Ward Family members in attendance by Robert E. Handley, local photographer and past performer with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. A service will be led by Donna (Ward) Skura, Pam Ward, and other Ward Family descendants. Fr. David Halt, Rector at Bloomington’s St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, will also be officiating the ceremony. Attendees will receive a complimentary copy of booklet “The Showmen’s Final Resting Place” which identifies the locations of circus performers and personnel who are buried in McLean County cemeteries.
At 1:00 p.m., the public is invited to the free presentation “Come Fly With Me—Bloomington-Normal’s Trapeze Legacy,” at the McLean County Museum of History. The presentation will feature Maureen Brunsdale, Head of Special Collections and Rare Books at Milner Library, Illinois State University; Cherie Valentine, former aerialist with the Valentino Sisters, and Steve Gossard, Circus Curator at Milner Library, Illinois State University, who will all share fascinating information about the Flying Wards, the Flying Valentines, and the numerous other aerialist families who called Bloomington-Normal home. In addition, rarely seen circus related artifacts from Illinois State University’s Milner Library Special Collections, and the private collections of Cherie Valentine and Steve Gossard, will be on display at the Museum.
Immediately following the presentation, the maquette sculpture (created by local artist Andrew Jumonville) dedicated to Bloomington-Normal’s Circus Heritage will be unveiled. When completed, the statue will be installed at the corner of Washington and East Streets in downtown Bloomington, the site of the former Y.M.C.A. The Y.M.C.A. would put on annual circuses from 1910-1941, and local performers continued to train there for many more years after the circus ended.
From 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., the day’s festivities will conclude with a performance by members of the Gamma Phi Circus and a showing of the film The Greatest Show on Earth (staring Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, and a variety of Bloomington-Normal flyers including Antoinette Concello and Tuffy Genders) at The Normal Theater; and a display of circus costumes and wardrobes from Illinois State University’s Milner Library, Special Collections at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. Proceeds from the evening performances will go to the benefit of Gamma Phi Circus. Tickets are $7.00 for adults and $5.00 for students. For additional ticketing information, please visit www.normaltheater.com.
This exciting day filled with activities for the entire family is sponsored by: the McLean County Museum of History; Illinois State University’s Milner Library, Special Collections; Gamma Phi Circus, Illinois State University; The Town of Normal; The Normal Theater; Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel & Conference Center; and Park Hill Cemetery.
- Occurred Saturday, April 20th, 2019 @ 9:30 am