Under the big top
Chico Museum exhibit reveals the fascinating lives of a local circus family and their craft
Arvel Allread’s passion for the circus began in his boyhood years during the early 1920s, when he would escape from his house to go watch the circuses unload by Marysville’s railroad tracks for hours on end.
He met his wife, Grace, years later when both were attending Chico State University (called Chico State College in those days), and it was when Arvel came home from World War II that the couple decided to join the circus.
In a time of great economic challenges, the circus provided food, shelter and travel—not to mention constant entertainment. Arvel would play in the band while Grace worked behind the counters. Eventually, they went on to form many circuses of their own, one of which was a traveling animal show called The Great Pan-American Zoological Exposition. It had more than 200 exotic animals, including alligators, monkeys and even porcupines.
The couple owned their operations up until around 1950 when they decided to take a break to focus on raising their seven children. During summertime, though, when Arvel wasn’t teaching band at local schools, he often joined circus bands, traveling all over the country with his kids.
Jessee Allread, one of the couple’s sons, recalls one particular trip during which he met Clyde Beatty, a famous lion tamer, whom he describes as “the friendliest guy who looked like he had just come off the African plain.” Grace and Arvel have both passed away, but the Allread children are excited to share their parents’ adventures and their childhood memories with others through an exhibit at the Chico Museum.
“It has given us the chance to reach out to all the circus organizations that we’ve been a part of for all of our lives,” said Jessee.
For seven months, the Chico Museum is featuring Chico Circus Town, an exhibit showcasing the various elements of circus life, from posters advertising the circus to costumes, props and even an old stuffed bear. The bulk of it is a part of the Grace and Arvel Allread Circus Collection, which includes memorabilia gathered during the couple’s travels.
Although the collection will be on display for many months, parts of it will change periodically and the Chico Museum will focus on a new aspect of circus life for a total of six rotating features throughout the nine-month exhibit. The first focuses on the Allreads and the circus in Chico, with revolving exhibits including famous circus personalities, side shows and freak shows, the Wild West, circus music and circus animals.
The Grace and Arvel Allread Circus Collection was established not only by the family’s own travels and experiences in the circus, but with gifts from friends who knew of their passion for collecting circus items. Allread noted that the pieces shown at the museum are only a fraction of the family’s collection, which includes thousands of pieces of memorabilia, including hundreds of books about the circus.
Museum curator Anne Seiler said she’s thrilled about the opportunity to show this multidimensional collection. Because the exhibit is the only circus museum west of Wisconsin, she hopes to draw people from near and afar.
“We have the opportunity to really showcase the depth and diversity of one local family’s collection,” Seiler said. “This collection has the breadth to allow us to address all facets of circus life.”