Color lithographs make the circus come to life on paper: conjoined twins sing and dance, hippopotamuses fight, and monkeys play poker like humans.

From Feb. 26 to July 10, these classic circus posters will be displayed at the Cincinnati Art Museum's exhibit The Amazing American Circus Poster.

This is no ordinary exhibit. The museum has worked for years, with help from a national grant, to link legendary lithographs produced here in Cincinnati with the city's rich circus traditions.

From Vision To Reality

For Kristin Spangenberg, curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Cincinnati Art Museum, this exhibit is the manifestation of years of work.

The idea for the exhibit was first presented to the museum in 1975, but it took a great deal of planning and education to make it happen. "It's a long time coming," Spangenberg says. "The biggest challenge was my knowledge base, which was zero. I had seen one circus in my life."

So she traveled, went to circuses, and read up on their history. The Art Museum also decided to partner with the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. Still, funding was an issue.

Spangenberg applied tediously for grants, which she compares to writing a Ph.D. thesis. The museums finally received a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, making the vision into a reality.

Of the Art Museum's 702 ads from the years 1878 to 1939, 80 will be featured, along with other related materials.

Originally, these posters weren't meant to last more than 30 days, at which point they would disintegrate or get new prints plastered on top of them.

But this collection of ads is a slice of time of outdoor advertising, pristine in condition and color.

A Rich History

In 1814, the first traveling menagerie to cross the Appalachian Mountains came to Cincinnati. In subsequent circuses through the years, people who might never have ventured five miles from home were exposed to foreign people, exotic animals and liberated women.

The circus opened the eyes of people who saw it, and in many ways, Cincinnati was at the crossroads.

"In the 19th century, Cincinnati was the third-largest printing center in the country," Spangenberg explains.

In fact, Strobridge Lithographing Company, which created many of the circus advertisements, was located here, among manufacturers producing calliopes, tents and wagons.

Steamboats had easy access to the region on the Ohio River, and Billboard Magazine, which used to cover the circus, was headquartered here.

That tradition carries on today. Locals can get a firsthand look at the circus from March 11-20, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus brings its FUNundrum! show to Cincinnati.

For Cincinnatians, the circus's current attractions and relics of its storied past are just a short tightrope's length away "” no juggling required. -