Friday, April 22, 2011

Courtesy of John Goodall

Harold “Heavy” Burdick has worked at Circus World Museum for 36 years and will appear in the upcoming movie “Water for Elephants.” The wagon behind Burdick will be restored and the fictitious Benzini Bros. name will be removed. The museum received $350,000 for its participation in the film, which opens nationwide Friday. CRAIG SCHREINER – [Wisconsin} State Journal

This photo of a Depression-era circus will be among the images from Circus World that will appear in the movie “Water for Elephants.” The movie makers studied some of the 80,000 photos owned by the museum for guidance on how to accurately portray circuses from the 1930s. CRAIG SCHREINER — [Wisconsin] State Journal

Steve Freese, executive director of Circus World Museum in Baraboo, would like to see a film tax credit reintroduced in Wisconsin. CRAIG SCHREINER — [Wisconsin] State Journal

This wagon from Circus World Museum in Baraboo is part of this midway scene from the movie "Water for Elephants" filmed in southern California. Historic photographs from the museum were used to create the scene for the movie. The museum has over 80,000 archived historic circus photos and another 200,000 that have not been archived. Photo by Steve Freese

On Wisconsin: Sauk County could have been a star
BARRY ADAMS | Wisconsin State Journal

BARABOO - When the Benzini Bros. Circus train steams across the big screen Friday, Wisconsin will be well represented, but the state could have had a starring role right along with Reese Witherspoon and teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson.

That's because the movie's director, Francis Lawrence, wanted the love story, "Water for Elephants," based in a 1930s circus in upstate New York, to be as historically accurate as possible.

In 2009, Lawrence spent time at Circus World Museum here, studying photographs, films, costumes, documents and circus wagons.
He also got a feel for the topography of Sauk County, which is similar to that of the rolling hills of upstate New York.

At the time it appeared to Steve Freese, executive director of Circus World, that Wisconsin had a reasonable shot of being the backdrop for Lawrence's movie, which is based on Sara Gruen's best-selling 2006 book.

Freese had visions of a circus parade filmed in downtown Baraboo and of scenes shot at Circus World using the old railcars on the grounds. The big top and midway could have been on the sprawling land at the nearby decommissioned Badger Army Ammunition Plant.

But any chance the state had of landing the movie was erased when later in 2009 Gov. Jim Doyle eliminated a state-funded tax credit program for movie makers. So, much to the chagrin of Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, who supported the tax credit program and had been working to persuade Lawrence to film here, Lawrence took his show on the road and filmed in Tennessee, Georgia and California. The mountains of Southern California were erased during the production process and digitally replaced with a backdrop that looks pretty much like Wisconsin, Freese said.

"It was just a lost opportunity," said Freese, who served in the state Assembly as a Republican from 1991 to 2007. "It would have brought an enormous investment into the state."

The movie is about a veterinary student played by Pattinson who is best known for his role as the vampire Edward in the "Twilight" series. Pattinson's "Water for Elephants" character, Jacob, abandons his studies after his parents are killed and joins a traveling circus as its vet. That's where he meets the star of the equestrian act, Marlena, played by Witherspoon.

Gov. Scott Walker has talked about bringing back the tax credit, and Freese saw first-hand what the impact of the film could have been on the state.

He was on location during some of the filming and saw up to 800 extras being used in some scenes. Because it was a circus, which draws people of all ages, actors ranged from toddlers to those in their 90s. They were paid about $30 an hour.

Had scenes been filmed in Baraboo, it could have meant a little extra for local residents suffering through a tough economy. The cast and crew from California would have eaten at area restaurants, slept in hotels and spent money on area attractions during their downtime. There were 52 days of filming, with about half of those requiring 400 or more extras.

"This is what we gave up," Freese said. "It sure would have been a boost to the economy."
But not all was lost for Circus World, a repository of all that is circus.
The state historic site received $350,000 from the movie.

The film used some of the museum's 3 million items including a few of its 80,000 historic photographs to help recreate scenes for the movie. Circus World provided advisers and research to the film. And it loaned the movie 15 circus wagons, 13 of which were in need of restoration but perfect for the struggling Depression-era Benzini Bros. Circus.

The 3-ton wood and steel wagons were quietly loaded onto eight semi-tractor trailer flatbeds from Deppe Transit in Baraboo and spent two days traveling to California. Freese played one of the extras in the film, along with Harold "Heavy" Burdick. Both were used in scenes in which the wagons were unloaded from the train, something not as simple as it would appear.
Burdick, 55, who grew up on a farm near Lyndon Station, has been working at Circus World since he was 19 and is one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to handling a massive, steel-wheeled circus wagon.

"We had to teach all those guys what to do," Burdick said. "It was a lot of hard work but I think the movie will benefit us in the end. It might be one of the greatest circus movies ever made."

Circus World, which has a budget of $1.3 million, none of it from the state, plans to use about $175,000 from the movie work to refurbish 13 wagons, a never-ending process for the museum's 213 wagons.

A display about circus movies is planned for the museum, which opens for the season Monday.

The Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo will show "Water for Elephants," which is rated PG-13, May 20, Freese said.

The movie company also borrowed 12 films of circuses from 1930s. They all were returned, and 10 of them were also converted to DVD, which will allow the museum to share the home movies with its 67,000 annual visitors.

"This was a relatively easy decision for us," said Freese of the museum's cooperation with Hollywood. "It was a win-win for us."


I have appreciated all the stories that have been sent to me from Circus Fan's about this movie. Initially I was concerned about them repainting one of the old wagons at Baraboo, but as Dir. Steve Freese states "it was a win-win for us", and I can sure accept that point of view. If some of you who sent me links about Water for Elephants have wondered why I didn't post them, it is because I won't waste my time with any "publicist's BS" stating that Kari Johnson is "Tia's mommy," or Gary Johnson is "Tia's human daddy." Both of those fine people and their outstanding elephant program deserve more respect than that.

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