Behold the Big Top: Jean LeRoy’s Circus Parade

Behold the Big Top: Jean LeRoy’s Circus Parade

February 4, 2020 - August 16, 2020

This exhibition of hand-carved folk art is a nostalgic slice of Americana– depicting the circus' main attractions parading down Madison Wisconsin's Main Street, along with behind-the-scenes dioramas of circus life, as experienced by LeRoy during the 1930s, when he was a clown with the Cole Brother's Circus.

The Traveling Circus

Ringling Bros Circus Advertisement

Reproduction of a Ringling Brothers ca. 1895 advertising poster

In the early 1870s, as the railroad extended across the United States, circus entrepreneur James Bailey recognized that the expansion of track would open a whole new market for his business. Knowing PT Barnum had recently lost his New York circus theater due to fire, Bailey approached him with the idea partnering to create a traveling show. Working together, they struck a deal with the railroad crews to sell excursion tickets including circus admission– ensuring audiences across the eastern United States. Their circus grew as the railroad expanded, launching the big top traveling circus familiar today.

Bold publicity was the key to drumming up an audience. Couriers went ahead of each performance to post large colorful posters and exaggerated newspaper advertising. For rural Americans, whose lives involved long laborious days and simple pleasures, the sights, sounds and thrill of the circus was a spectacle not to be missed. However, Barnum and Bailey recognized that to attract a larger audience, they would need to ensure the experience was viewed as family friendly. To that end they hired security and added a menagerie tent of exotic animals, offering an educational experience for those leery of the reputation of the circus. The marketing paid off, and folks traveled in droves by train, wagon, and on foot. Everyone wanted to see the daring young men on the flying trapeze!

When the train finally rolled into town and the cars were unloaded, young and old alike gathered at first light along main street to watch the miles-long parade of ladies on horseback, elephants, zebra, tigers, and wagons of clowns and acrobats– leading the way to the circus grounds behind a cacophonous brass band. It was a thrilling spectacle and true feast for the senses. The flamboyant appeal of the traveling circus attracted young outsiders and adventurous members of America’s rural communities – one can easily understand why young people like Jean LeRoy and his brother Charles would run away with the circus!

Artist Biography

Jean LeRoy in Clown Makeup

Jean LeRoy in clown makeup, ca. 1930

Born in 1910, Jean LeRoy began carving when he was seven years old under the tutelage of his older brother Charles. Upon his return from World War II, this childhood hobby gradually became a profession. Prior to the war, Jean and his brother Charles ran away with the Cole Brothers Circus, joining hundreds of performers, workers and animals, who crossed the country by rail presenting three ring circus shows. Fueled by his love of the circus life, Jean developed his skill as a carver and model builder, producing an accurate and finely-detailed miniature circus brought to life with lights, music and moving characters.

Jean LeRoy carving

Jean LeRoy at work

In 1964, while working for the Detroit-based company Display and Exhibits, Jean’s carving talent won a commission to build Gardens of the World, a miniature display designed by Walt Disney Studios. By the 1970s, Jean was making a living as a miniature artisan, and he traveled around the Midwest delighting young and old alike with his miniature dioramas. It was during this time that the Circus World Museum commissioned Jean to create a diorama of the Ringling Brothers Circus to commemorate their 100th Anniversary. Two years of work culminated in eleven dioramas that toured the country and now reside in the Circus World Museum located in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Due to health reasons, Jean moved his family to Tucson, Arizona in 1978. He opened a museum at Trail Dust Town on the city’s eastside and continued to make miniature carvings until his premature death in 1981. Following his passing, Jean’s miniatures became a beloved exhibit at the Hidden Valley Inn Restaurant in northeast Tucson, featuring his Three Ring Circus, nineteen Indian Nations dioramas and Buzzard Creek Ghost Town. Serendipity played a role in the fate of the dioramas: they had all been removed from the restaurant just few years prior to the devastating fire which destroyed the building. Since then, Jean’s daughter Judy LeRoy-Siegling, who worked side-by-side with her father learning the art of miniature carving, has been lovingly restoring all her father’s miniatures. Her husband Fred Siegling helps maintain the mechanics that animate the pieces.

Exhibition Sponsors

Our 2020 Exhibition Season is supported in part by the Arizona Commission on the Arts, which receives support from the State of Arizona and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Our 2020 Exhibition Season is supported in part by Tucson Lifestyle Magazine. Tucson Lifestyle Magazine is Tucson's only glossy, monthly city magazine, targeting Southern Arizona’s affluent residents. With over 35 years of publishing experience, Tucson Lifestyle is committed to highlighting the people, places, cuisine, and attractions that make our city unique.