'Chappie' Fox dies at age 90
America's ringmaster steps out of the spotlight
By JACKIE LOOHAUIS and AMY RABIDEAU SILVERS
Charles P. Fox - always better known by his nickname - earned a reputation as one of the world's foremost authorities on all things circus. He turned a nearly non-existent Circus World Museum into a state treasure, putting Baraboo on the map in the process.
And he was the one who came to Barkin, trademark fedora in hand, looking for help with his dream of a Great Circus Parade.
The rest became part of circus history.
Fox died of heart disease early Friday at a Baraboo nursing home. He was 90.
Even as his health began to fail, Fox was at the parade. He rode the Circus Train into town in July, watching the entire parade from the reviewing stand and his wheelchair.
"He had the heart of a lion," said Jack McKeithan, co-chairman of the Great Circus Parade. "That intense interest in people and life and the circus was the driving force to sustain him all these years.
"His every thought in his last days was about continuing to provide the fun and the entertainment of the circus and the parade. He said just the other day, 'Here are some ideas for next year's parade.' "
In 1960, Fox took charge of the circus museum at the Ringling Bros.' winter quarters in Baraboo. The museum then consisted of three broken-down wagons and several rundown camel and elephant barns.
Already a big top expert and published author - eventually he wrote more than 30 books, many about circus subjects - Fox knew where to look for more old wagons.
With gifts for promotion and for begging, he used his research to gather memorabilia from across the nation.
"It was just a matter of convincing the owners that our museum was the place for those wagons to be," he later recalled.
He had about 25 wagons in 1963 when he and Barkin, a public relations man who did work for the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co., persuaded brewery president Robert A. Uihlein Jr. to bankroll a parade. The likes of such a parade had not been seen in America since the 1920s.The modern version of the parade has attractedhundreds of thousands of fans each year.
Fox's parades had the aura of authenticity. He instructed bands to play their marches without "fancy orchestration."
"Make it sound lively, clear, exciting and old-fashioned," Fox directed.
Many wagons had been built in the late 1800s and early 1900s and belonged to circuses run by P.T. Barnum, James Bailey and Ringling Bros.
He found some wagons rotting in fields, or owned by famous names such as Walt Disney (the man) and Universal Studios in Hollywood. Fox traveled to England to negotiate for 1890-era wagons from the Sir Robert Fossett circus.
Other fans donated circus rail cars. All were brought to the museum and lovingly restored to the glory they had seen in the heyday of circuses.
"We were going to originally do it in Baraboo to promote the Circus World Museum," Fox said of the parade in 2002. "I went to 12 major companies and got a turn-down from all of them. . . . Then I was going to go to Schlitz Brewing, but was told to talk to Ben Barkin first, because Schlitz was one of his public relations accounts.
"Ben said, 'You'll have to put on the parade in Milwaukee to get the crowds,' " said Fox, " 'because if all the people you expect to show up do show up, you won't have enough toilets in Baraboo to take care of them.' "
Milwaukee's Great Circus Parade was born in 1963.
By 1972, when Fox left to become vice president and research director for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey entertainment park near Orlando, Fla., the Circus World Museum had 211,000 visitors a year.
"Chappie Fox is, without question, America's most knowledgeable authority on circuses and circus lore," said Irvin Feld, then president of the circus, as Fox took the job in Florida.
Fox was born in Milwaukee on May 27, 1913, the third of six children of George and Mary Fox. His father was a surgeon and chief of staff at St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee. His grandfather, Philip Fox, was the first president of St. Mary's Hospital in Madison. It was that grandfather who decided Charles Philip was too formal a name for a boy and combined them to call him "Chap." That later morphed into "Chappie."
He was 5 when he contracted polio, requiring treatment in an iron lung. Several operations over the next 20 years left him with a lifelong limp.
George Fox died of influenza when Chappie was 7, and the widowed Mary Fox and her children moved to Madison, where the boy attended St. Patrick's School. By then he had acquired an old box camera and had begun photographing horses, his favorite animal, which led him to circuses and circus parades.
St. Patrick's, in fact, was where Fox "promoted" his first parade. The year was 1927.
"One day we were in class and suddenly I heard music coming over the hill," he recalled in 1999, delighting in the tale. "I knew what it was."
It was the 101-Ranch Real Wild West Show.
"The louder the music got, the itchier I got," Fox said. He made a beeline for the door, but his teacher was quicker.
"I know where you're going," the Dominican nun declared. "And I think the rest of the school should go, too."
"I was the hero for the day," said Fox.
The family moved to Milwaukee, where Fox graduated from Riverside High School in 1932. The Great Depression ruled out college, so he began working for Owen Gromme, chief taxidermist at the Milwaukee Public Museum. In later years, the two would work together on wildlife displays and Gromme's book, "The World of Owen Gromme," published in 1983.
In 1933, family friends offered Fox work at Prime Manufacturing, a railroad supply firm. Though he was never excited about the job, he remained there for 26 years, becoming sales and purchasing director.
Family life was far more interesting. He and his wife, Sophie, rented a farmhouse and land in the Town of Oconomowoc, where they raised their children and both domestic and wild animals.
"His whole life wasn't circus," said daughter Barbara Fox McKellar. "He had a tremendous love of photography and wildlife preservation. Our home in Oconomowoc was a wildlife preserve, and he won a conservation award for that. We took in chipmunks and red-tailed hawks and raised them to adulthood."
His work included a photographic record of a baby possum's life in his mother's pouch. Chappie Fox photos began appearing in The Milwaukee Journal, Life, Outdoor Life and National Geographic, and he wrote many books for children.
His first book about the circus, "Circus Trains," was published in 1948. "Circus Parades" followed, five years later.
Fox went to Baraboo in the early 1950s to research his third book, "A Ticket to the Circus," a picture history of the Ringling Bros. There he met John Kelley, who had been the circus' attorney.
All Kelley could talk about was his dream of building a circus museum, Fox later said. Fox became interested.
When the museum incorporated in 1954, Fox was on the board of directors. The Circus World Museum opened July 1, 1959, in one of the Ringling's old horse barns, and was turned over to the state's historical society.
Little was done to develop or promote the museum. By late 1959, the historical society board decided to hire a museum director, coincidentally about the same time that a custom metal shop business started by Fox failed.
Fox began the museum job in January 1960, leading the Circus World Museum into international prominence over the next 12 years.
He then worked for the Ringling park in Florida, until his retirement in 1977. He enjoyed that job but hated Florida, calling it "nothing but a big sandbar with a lot of bugs."
He and his wife moved back to Baraboo in 1983 - and Fox was dismayed at what he found at his old museum. Attendance was down to half of what it had been when he left. His replacement was under fire for poor management, and recently acquired wagons and rail cars were rusting and rotting away outdoors. And a Schlitz brewery in decline had dropped its parade sponsorship in 1973, leaving Milwaukee without a circus parade for more than a decade.
Appointed to the state's historical society board, Fox helped pushed for a state investigation of museum affairs. The director was ousted.
In 1985, with financing spearheaded by Barkin, the parade returned. While Fox no longer directed the parade, he remained a guiding presence and even provided color commentary on television.
"I always thought of Chappie as the boss of the roustabouts," said actor Ernest Borgnine, who became Milwaukee's most famous clown at the Circus Parade. "He was one of a kind, and we will miss him."
Fox also was influential in another Baraboo institution, the International Crane Foundation. He served as a founder in 1973 and was a longtime board member.
By 1997, the Circus World Museum had 207 wagons and other historic vehicles. It was also the year Fox began to experience serious health problems.
"Chap had a granite faith in the art of the possible," said William Fox, his nephew and co-chairman of the Great Circus Parade. "And his whole life was spent overcoming the impossible, all the way from polio as a child to the energy behind the whole Circus World Museum and the Great Circus Parade, even to the day of his death."
In 2002, Fox received the unusual honor of two awards by Wisconsin's historical society. He was named an honorary fellow of the society, becoming only the seventh person so honored for contributions to Wisconsin history through scholarship. He also received a Historic Preservation Achievement Award for his work to preserve the Ringling Bros. site in Baraboo.
Other tributes, even more appropriate for a circus man, came in 2000, as Fox watched the parade with Barkin. It would be Barkin's last parade. He died early the next year.
At the reviewing stand, the elephants turned toward Ben and Chappie, raising their trunks in a majestic salute.
They say elephants don't forget, but neither will circus fans.
"Just look at all the people smiling along the street," Fox said, emotion and laughter mixing, at one Circus Parade. "What I'm proud of is all the people enjoying this."
Survivors include his wife, Sophie; daughter, Barbara Fox McKellar of Denver; two grandchildren, Wick of Denver and Morgan of Alaska; nephews; and nieces. A son, Peter, died in 1980.
Visitation will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 304 East St., Baraboo. The funeral service will be held at noon Thursday, also at the church. Private burial is planned.