The Grand Hotel also served as some kind of circus refuge, a hot topic of discussion among Wildcats recently, many of who have fond memories of carnival and circus life.
Here is a 1999 documentary from WILL-TV, which scratches the surface of the Circus in Bloomington.
Prairie Fire looks at Bloomington-Normal’s history as a winter training center for circus trapeze acts. Never-before-televised footage of the aerialists practicing and performing, obtained from rare personal collections and the circus collection at Illinois State University, brings the Prairie Fire story to life.
From the late 1800s to the 1960s, dozens of world-class circus aerialists trained in Bloomington-Normal during the off season. “It started out when several boys from the area ran off to join the circus,” said WILL-TV’s Ange Albsmeyer, producer of the story. In the winter, they’d come back to Illinois and train in ice houses, tying their trapezes to rafters and falling into sawdust on the floor beneath.
After a new YMCA was built in 1907, an increasing number of aerialists began practicing there. In return for being allowed to use the space, the trapeze artists would put on a circus each year in the facility and give the proceeds to the YMCA, said Steve Gossard, curator of ISU Circus Collections, who provided 8 millimeter film of the aerialists.
The story includes shots of Antoinette Concello, one of the first women to perfect the triple somersault, and her husband, Art, another key figure among aerialists. Others training in Bloomington-Normal included the Flying Wards. The Grand Hotel Restaurant now occupies the space where some of the Ward troupe once lived. A barn on Grove Street in Normal where the Flying Valentinos trained is also still standing.
The Flying Valentinos’ Cherie Valentine still lives in Bloomington and in an interview, gives a fascinating description of circus life. She became part of her family’s act at the age of 3 after her father had a heart attack.
“Sometimes circus performers are seen as just entertainers, but in reality, they were professionals who worked hard at exhausting and dangerous jobs. They were extremely proud of their craft,” said Albsmeyer.
Bloomington-Normal’s ties to the circus continue with ISU’s Gamma Phi Circus, one of the largest collegiate circuses in the country.
I'll fix that video later, but here is the link to WILL Channel 12.