Chris Przybyszewski 0000-00-00 00:00:00
There’s a temptation to call the past a “simpler time,” but that’s not necessarily the case. Every generation has challenges that define it, and every generation shares some similarities that tie them together, year after year. Looking back to the 1930s, some things are unfortunately familiar to our present time. The Depression was ravaging America, hurting families and causing the world to pause and wonder whether its grand global economy could hold its own weight. But even in those dark times, some lights still burned. One burned in Clyde Parke’s attic, where he worked night after night to painstakingly hand-carve and paint what would become the Clyde Parke Miniature Circus. Inside the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, this unrivaled creation was one man’s hopeful response to hopelessness. Parke’s response wasn’t born in easy times. As an out-of-work accountant, Parke had it about as bad as anyone else in Depression-era America. “He thought he would make some money on this circus,” says Chuck Britt, museum preparator and circus caretaker. “He had seen a department store display in town that had movement, and he thought it had some potential. He thought he could do better.” Out of luck and out of money, Parke started what would become a lifelong creative obsession. “He never did make any money,” Britt acknowledges. “But he did take a lot of time, and he got a lot of enjoyment out of it.” Parke, who died in 1983 just days shy of his 100th birthday, estimated he spent nearly 60,000 hours over the course of 25 years working on his “short-term moneymaker.” In one of many handwritten notes included in the exhibit, Parke wrote, “Working seven years, working seven days a week, 18 hours a day, was not enough.” He did have some help. His brother Arthur was an electrical Engineer who also pitched in. Parke’s wife sewed ironing board covers into bigtop material while his children inserted grommets for the miniature ropes and stakes that anchor the tent to the bottom of the exhibit. The circus is roughly a 30-foot by 10- foot rectangle that sits on the museum’s second floor. Encased in Plexiglas held up by a network of cabling is the circus itself, consisting of the big-top tent and ancillary sideshows. The interior holds a five-ring extravaganza of wild animals, exotic performers, and clowns. Lots of clowns. Outside the big-top is a full-blown parade of carnies and entertainers, along with a veritable menagerie of globetrotting critters in all shapes and sizes. Even more remarkable is that Parke animated 98 percent of the circus, connecting the moving parts with belts and pulleys powered by a one-horsepower motor. Parke set up his circus at the Mid- South Fair every year before donating it to the Pink Palace in 1970. The colorful circus became a stalwart attraction for generations of Memphians and visitors who came to see Parke’s obsession with hope. The result is a uniquely Memphis artifact, carefully preserved and displayed in its fullness. For decades, the circus ran whenever visitors pushed the “on” button. But time and use finally took their toll. The Museum staff did its best to keep the circus patched together, performing minor, temporary repairs. But it became too much. The circus at first was put on limited duty, only running twice a day and always with an attendant who could stop the whole show if something went wrong. At that point, Britt had to make a choice. “Things just gradually fell apart,” he recalls. “The circus was 70 years old, and it needed serious attention.” That was in 2005, and the circus did not run at all for about three months. Britt had no funds or time to repair the circus, and Parke’s obsession with hope faced a cloudy future. Then Britt got a phone call from Dr. Robert Marchini, a University of Memphis physics professor who volunteered the full support of a five-member team of interested students and staff who wanted to get the special exhibit up and running again. Key among those staff members was John Daffron, coordinator of the physics department’s scientific instrument shop. The project entailed three years of evening and weekend work, as well as thousands of dollars of donated equipment and materials. In some cases, Daffron handcrafted new parts for the exhibit using a forge in his own backyard. For part of the repair work, the circus restoration team had to replace parts of the mechanism that animated the entire parade. They did this by cutting the shaft into smaller pieces that could easily be removed and replaced. “This whole thing runs off of one shaft,” Britt explains. “There are various pulleys and belts that pull it along and run all the various characters around the circus. And there is one chain — like you might see in dry cleaners that bring the clothes from the back to the front.” Ingenious, of course, but it also meant that if this mechanism broke, so would the whole loop and the show would stop. The team also modularized the mechanism so it can be repaired in pieces, allowing Parts of the circus to continue operating when other parts aren’t. Another enhancement is the automatic shutdown mechanism so that if something does break, an attendant doesn’t have to be present to prevent additional damage. In contrast, other than a little cleaning and freshening, the repair team kept their hands off the circus itself. “Everything above the table was carefully restored to stay as original as possible,” Britt says. “We didn’t replace the parts on top of it; we replaced the parts underneath.” Three times a day, the circus — with its tens of thousands of pieces — comes alive as the parade glides around the big-top, and characters move in the tents or on the train. Large mirrors on the ground reflect up at the belly of the circus so visitors can see what Parke saw as he worked on his creation. Britt says the future of the circus is no longer in doubt. Some repairs still need to be made to the interior, as well as some minor upkeep. But mostly, the new equipment under the old circus will keep the show going for a while. “Some people complain that this isn’t an artifact, but it is,” says Britt. “It’s folk art. In the ’20s and ’30s, the circus was one of the main entertainments for everybody. What happened under the tent was very popular to people.” He acknowledges that parts of the circus are still controversial. “Yes, Parke’s circus is segregated because back in the ’30s, the circus was segregated.” Parke’s relentless eye for detail is what makes the circus what it is. Every face is painted and holds a unique expression. Every inch of the circus is part of Parke’s detailed vision. “Clyde Parke started carving this circus in 1930, which is the same year this museum opened,” Britt says. “So this circus is the same age as the museum, and it has become an icon here. When people think of the Pink Palace Museum, they think of this miniature circus.”
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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