October 11, 1:15 – 2:45
“Popcorn sacks and elephant tracks: Oklahoma’s rich circus tradition”
This plenary session will recognize and celebrate the circus heritage of a small town in southeastern Oklahoma. Historically referred to as the “Sarasota of the Southwest” and “Circus City USA,” Hugo, Oklahoma, has served as the winter home to approximately seventeen tent shows since the 1940s. Today, only three remain. Like clockwork every November, the town welcomes back the employees and the menagerie and in April, the performers hit the highway for another season on the road. Over the years, a symbiotic relationship has been nurtured where the town’s businesses have supported the circuses and in turn, circus owners and performers have been civic partners contributing to such endeavors as the local hospital and schools. The circus is a big part of Hugo, with reminders throughout the town of its heritage and impact, from murals in the local elementary school to Showmen’s Rest at the Mount Olivet Cemetery, the final resting place for many associated with circuses not only from Hugo, but beyond.
Historically, big tent circuses traveled from small town to small town entertaining young and old alike with aerial and animal acts. Childhood memories of cotton candy and “Step Right Up” can be recalled by many, but there has been little documentation of the culture of these entertainment occupations and their interactions with or impact on the community, especially in Oklahoma.
Drawing upon interviews conducted as part of The “Big Top” Show Goes On: An Oral History of Occupations Inside and Outside the Canvas Circus Tent, funded by a 2011 Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, researchers Tanya Finchum and Juliana Nykolaiszyn will provide a glimpse into the voices, experiences, and history of those involved with the work culture associated with Hugo, Oklahoma’s tent circus tradition through a mix of audio, video, and photographs recorded as part of this project.
Juliana Nykolaiszyn is an assistant professor and oral history librarian with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University. From interviewing narrators to processing oral history collections, Juliana’s work involves not only the creation but preservation and online access of oral histories. Outside of her efforts with The “Big Top” Show Goes On, she serves as the principal investigator for the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame Oral History Project.
Tanya Finchum is a professor and oral history librarian with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University. In addition to The “Big Top” Show Goes On oral history project Tanya has been leader or co-leader in several other projects such as the Women of the Oklahoma Legislature, Oklahoma Centennial Farm Families, Cooperative Extension Agents, Remembering Henry Bellmon, and the Town of Boley, Oklahoma.