Thursday, July 12, 2012

Miniature circus model brings big smiles

Young and old were fascinated by the working circus model on display in Douglas.

You could see the amazement on the faces of the children as they walked into the room.

You could also see the amazement on the faces of the adults who stood over the 10-by-20-foot model of the Al G. Barnes Circus at Old School House History Center, 130 Center St., Douglas, on Wednesday night. Many pulled out their cell phones to video and photograph the details and color of the wagons, animals and acrobats.

The working model — a parade of hand-carved horses and detailed wagons circles the tents and sideshows — was restored by John Sapita of Pennsylvania. His son, Bob, who lives in Douglas, has been caring for it and assembled it at the history center for the community to enjoy. It’s on display through July 22.

The Old School House is open 11 a.m. to  4:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. to  2 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 3 p.m. Sundays.

Here are links to the recent photos and video:



Past story

Bob Sapita spoke about the model and his father in a 2009 Sentinel interview. Here’s a link to the story with photos:

Here’s the story:

Little Big Top: Douglas man and father created one-quarter-inch scale model of circus
The Holland Sentinel
Posted Jul 04, 2009 @ 10:00 PM

Douglas, MI — Outside the big top of the Al G. Barnes Circus, the band wagon, pulled by eight horses, slowly slides by.

Under the canvas, the Girl Scouts stare, transfixed by the lion walking the tightrope.

Trapeze artists swing to the top of the tent. There is no fear because the safety net is taut.

Bob Sapita knows — the Douglas man tied the tiny ropes himself. And his dad built the big top scene from the ground up.

Now hundreds of people will get to see the miniature circus world at the Circus Model Builders International convention in Peru, Ind., at the end of the month.

“This is American history,” said Kay Sapita, Bob’s wife. “This is recreated from pictures, photos, newspaper articles. It’s all based on fact.”

Bob had the one-quarter-inch scale model of a 1930s circus spread out on its 10-foot-by-20-foot platform in his garage last week, checking out a million details, from the chain driving the parade to the motors twirling the acrobats.

The miniature world started with that love of detail.

Bob’s father, John, began building model circus wagons in the 1940s. The elder Sapita, who retired from Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania as an engineer, was not a circus performer but grew up near circus grounds. He applied his eye for mechanical detail to building scale models of circus wagons. John was inducted into the Circus Model Builder’s Hall of Fame in recognition of his skill as a model builder.

“Dad was building with these kits, but the kits were just a little off scale,” Kay said about her father-in-law’s early hobby. So, he scrapped the kits and started building from scratch.

The to-scale red wagons in the display are alive with details such as metal racks on the side of the vehicle that held table tops and individually painted spokes in the wheels.

His favorite circus wagons came from the Barnes show.

“The Al G. Barnes were very rugged wagons. He liked that,” said Bob, a retired electrical engineer.

Before his death in 2002, John had built more than 500 wagons representing several circuses, carnivals and wild west shows.

John’s attention to accuracy permeates the large display. His son, a circus fan but, he laughs, not a fanatic, points to hidden craftsmanship with a flair of a P.T. Barnum.

“This is how the roustabouts lived in a flea-infested bed,” Bob said as he lifted the roof off a circus rail car.

He pointed to the miniature map on the rail car wall and the slot machine tucked away in a corner of the car.

Farther down, posters entice townies to visit the bearded lady and watch the sword swallower — and, yes, the sword moves.

“It takes a lot of time to set up,” Bob added.

The display is already back in storage for the trip to Indiana.

The Sapitas are hoping to display the circus locally in the future.

They have lived in Douglas for three years. Kay is a retired church organist/music director.


Here some pictures that didn't make The Sentinel website from Wednesday's event:

Bob Sapita talks to Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society members.

Bob Sapita keeps the circus model in a trailer.

Note the warning: "I brake for elephants."

A logo on the side of the trailer.

Bob's wife, Kay, points to moving parts in the circus model.

The parade along the outside of the model moves.

The display takes up most of the Old School House meeting room.

Spectators made several trips around the model, seeing something different each time.

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