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Shrine Circus

The Shrine Circus began as a way for the Detroit’s Moslem to increase funds and membership with a “mid-winter carnival and circuses.” The Moslem Temple was the first temple to produce and present a circus. Dr. Russell G. Pearce was the Temple’s new fund raiser. He organized the Detroit Wheelman’s Club’s annual vaudeville shows. Pearce knew a lot of performers from his vaudeville connections. Most circus performers then wintered in the Midwest or Northeast and needed winter work.

On February 1906, a Monday night, the circus, called the Mystic Shriners’ Yankee Circus in Egypt, performed at the Light Guard Armory on the northwest corner of Larned and Brush in Detroit.  It was a one-ring circus with carnival games.

The Detroit Free Press described the circus as having everything “from peanuts to baby elephant, to side show to “Grand” concert, nothing was lacking to make the circus a complete success…horses, dogs, and a trained bear.” Exhibits included canary birds for sale, Clarke’s wireless telegraph system and an electrical exhibit. Games available were a miniature bowling alley, ball throws at a wooden or live man and wheels of fortune. There were “booths for the sale of refreshments.” Acts included clowns who were Shriners, the Hobson equestrian acts, the Five Flying Decomas, aerialists, acrobats and Professor Schepp’s Ponies. There was a concert with singers, dancing, costumes, magic and minstrels. 3,000 people attended. It was an overwhelming success: performers had off-season work, temple membership rose and money filled the coffers.

To accommodate the crowds the circus moved to the Coliseum at the Michigan state fairgrounds in 1925 and expanded to three rings. Carnival games were dropped.

The Shrine Circus in Detroit was very strong for many years. It drew more paying customers than Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey. “It was not uncommon to have an operating profit of $50,000.”  The Detroit temple “was also the first to develop a satellite program,” or a smaller group of circus performers traveling to local communities and performing as an off-shoot of the main circus. The Detroit Shrine Circus also had an outstanding reputation and people supported it and its hospitals for crippled children by attending the circus.  The idea of funding hospitals for crippled children was a 1920 decision by the Shrine Imperial Session after the Grand Master issued an edict that forbade Masons from participating in anything with gambling and games of chance.

Noting the success of the Moslem Temple, other temples soon began to produce their own Shrine circuses. The circuses provided a major means of support for top quality circus performers and great entertainment in an age with few options. Some of the top circus stars of their era, or up-and-coming stars, worked on the Shrine Circuses; including Clyde Beatty, Micky King, Ella Bradna, Lillian Leitzel, the Flying Codonas with the great Alfredo Codona, Terrell Jacobs and The Great Wallendas.

Traditionally, “the first Shrine Circus of each year opens in Flint, Michigan, in early January. From then through Thanksgiving, there is at least one Shrine Circus playing every week” somewhere in the U.S. Some of the circuses are indoors, others in tents. They may last 1-3 days and have 1-5 rings. In 1985 at least 200 Shrine circuses were held to raise money for Shrine programs. 

The Detroit Shrine circus was held from 1925 to 1978 the same two weeks of February annually.  It also had Shriners who had been involved for decades, working up to the leadership positions, who knew what they were doing. In 1978 the long standing Shrine Circus producer died. After this, each year there were different, new, inexperienced Shrine circus officers in charge of the circus. The lack of continuity, experience and historical knowledge led to decisions which hurt the Detroit Shrine Circus. While profitable in 2001, the circus took a $750,000 loss in 2002.  In 2008 and 2009 circus producer Tarzan Zerbini agreed to institute some changes in the circus’ format for the Moslem Temple, if he retained full control of the finances. In 2008 the show made money. 

Today, Shrine Circuses seem to be an endangered species of entertainment. The Shrine Circuses are fewer, shorter in length, and often smaller than in the past. Attendance is down to less than 50% of capacity. Costs have risen and membership and profits have declined. Audiences want faster, shorter events. Shrine Circuses may continue, and even be profitable, if they retain consistency in their officers and adapt themselves to the needs of the audience.