One of the greatest shows—if not on Earth, at least in Ohio—is on display at Massillon Museum. The Immel Circus is a three-ring exhibit, in miniature, of a circus scene carved decades ago by Dr. Robert Immel, a dentist and artist who created an entire circus camp by fashioning the tiniest of details with tools from his Massillon dental practice.
“The 100-square-foot miniature circus contains more than 2,600 pieces,” notes a text panel hung near the exhibit. “Dr. Immel donated the miniature circus to the Museum in 1995, along with more than 1,400 artifacts of circus-related memorabilia.”
Some of those artifacts that Immel collected over the years are displayed surrounding the circus exhibit. And the array of circus-related items recently got larger. Circus photographs hang on a wall, an embroidered Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus staff jumpsuit is displayed around the corner, and a large neon sign illuminates “Immel Circus” within view of the artist’s tiny people and animals. The latter was created by Dana Depew of Medina for the museum’s 2016 “Re-Adapt” exhibition in which 10 artifacts in the museum’s collection were “reinterpreted,” said Scot Phillips, operations officer.
“We raffled it off after the exhibit, and the people who got it (Larry and Maude Stasel) donated it back to the museum,” Phillips said. “And we’re very appreciative. It looks great here.”
A video of circus nature is looped and shown on a nearby screen. Models of circus wagons Immel had in his possession are displayed in a case at the entry. The entry to the circus exhibit room is identified in circus barker fashion. “This way to the Immel Circus,” placards shout. “You won’t believe your eyes!”
Since 2013, following a lengthy conservation effort begun in 2010, the circus itself has been encased under a dome made by Museum Acrylics of New Philadelphia, which keeps off dust that can and did accumulate since the circus first went on display in an open-topped case in 1997. The origin of the circus, however, can be traced back half a century before the museum added it to the collection.
A text panel traces the display’s history by allowing Immel himself to tell the story.
“When I came home from the service, I had a friend. He lived across the street and was always carving things. One night, he showed me what he was doing, and I started,” Immel once recalled. “I did everything, carving to painting.”
Carving was an avocation, at first, not a circus-creating experience. “I didn’t start out to do it,” he said. “I think everyone should have a hobby.” Well, his hobby became a passion, and the small circus in his basement grew. Young dental patients, after cleanings, often got a chance to see it. When he donated it to the museum more than two decades ago, it included “40 elephants, 184 horses, 126 assorted animals, 91 wagons, seven tents and more than 1,700 people,” according to the text panel. A few of the figures “were handcrafted by friends and retired circus performers,” but most were made by Immel’s hands.
“Over the course of 40 years, he carved this with his dental tools,” Phillips said. “Doing anything for that long is amazing. People come in, and I don’t think they realize one man made it.”
Phillips said that appreciation of the exhibition goes beyond “liking the circus.” Viewers of the display admire the detail Immel put into his figures, such as the lady balancing on a tall pole and a young boy crawling under a tent. “He did have a sense of humor,” Phillips said.
Rick Rohrer, facilities manager, supervises day-to-day maintenance of the display. And, he made enhancements for better enjoyment of the exhibit by museum visitors.
“I put in a few switches so when somebody walks in, it will kick it on and people will hear the sounds of the circus,” he explained, opening a door to a space beneath the display. “This is the heart of it. Everything under here runs the sound and the lights.”
The heart of the circus may be behind the door, but its soul, of course, is on the table’s top. Circus animals, trainers, performers, roadies and spectators occupy that space. When he created the miniature circus, Immel knew it would look precisely like a full-sized one.
“I have tried to make the appearance of the circus look like it is actually in motion,” Immel once said in explanation of his carvings. “As if everybody was doing something and someone said ‘hold it,’ and everybody stopped.”