||Schofield Hall 218|
||Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004|
UW-Eau Claire Alumnus |
Teaches Circus History
MAILED: Aug. 9, 1999|
LaVahn Hoh walks a tight rope between serious academia and plain old clowning around.
Although the class he teaches on circus history at the University of Virginia is complete with exams, lectures and a textbook, students enrolled in the course become involved in clown gags, juggling and the occasional field trip to the big top.
The instructor of the only accredited circus history course in the country, Hoh, a UW-Eau Claire alumnus, takes pride in teaching a subject he's been interested in since he was a young child.
"I love the circus," Hoh said. "It's such wonderful art form. It's all about people doing incredible things for our entertainment."
Hoh started teaching the class in 1982 and since then he has seen it grow to become a favorite among the student body. Each time he offers the course to about 60 students, Hoh finds himself turning away more than 100 prospective students.
The class structure is a combination of lecture and visual arts to teach about the circus from its origin in London centuries ago to its present-day popularity and universal recognition.
"It is a highly informative, highly entertaining class about a subject that deals with popular American culture but which few people know much about," said Bob Chapel, chair of the department of drama at the University of Virginia. "The class provides history and insight into a subject that is not usually taught."
Chapel said Hoh is not only passionate about the circus, but also is a very warm, caring and giving teacher, which inspires his students.
"He is one of the finest people I've ever known," Chapel said of Hoh. "He is very supportive and a true team player."
Born and raised in Appleton, Hoh went to his first circus when he was four years old, an adventure that served as a catalyst for his continued interest in the big top.
"That experience made a tremendous impression on me," he said. "I can remember the trains rolling into town with all the equipment, and the sound of the steam whistles as the trains came in. I was in absolute awe of what was happening."
After that inaugural experience at the circus, Hoh went home and built a big top model down in his basement using cardboard tubes and scraps from around the house. He also started a lifelong hobby of going to every circus he could.
Over the years Hoh's life has become so involved with the circus that everything around him has something to do with the big top. His office is filled with circus items such as toys, clown noses and posters. His home has one room dedicated solely to circus posters, programs, pictures, books and file cabinets full of circus bits and pieces. In other rooms there are memorabilia such as an autographed business card of P.T. Barnum, photos of European circuses and tasteful artwork that represents the circus.
Even his honeymoon in 1989 with wife Mary-Frances had something to do with the circus they spent it on a circus train, riding from Baraboo to Janesville.
"When it comes to the circus, I'm like a kid in a candy store," he said. "It always fascinates me."
Although his studies at UW-Eau Claire didn't include any circus history, Hoh said he has fond memories of his educational experience at the university as a speech and drama student.
"Every teacher gave me something new and different to carry out with me," he said. "I liked all my teachers and really respected them."
After graduating in 1964, Hoh taught a tech theater course in Brewer Hall for a year. Back then, he said Kjer Theatre and sometimes Schofield Auditorium were the only places to put on productions.
"I really enjoyed my experiences at UW-Eau Claire," he said. "It's a great university."
Prior to joining the University of Virginia's faculty, he taught at Northern Illinois University and received his master's from UW-Madison.
From 1989 to 1996 Hoh was a historian and archivist for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Clown College located in Venice, Fla., Sarasota, Fla., and Baraboo. Recently he co-authored a book on circus history titled "Step Right Up! The Adventure of Circus in America," which also serves as the textbook in his course.
Currently he is a member of a French ministry culture group that represents circuses around the world, and he also lectures to different groups about circus history.
"There is so much involved with circuses that touches our lives in some way or another, and we don't even know it," he said.
Hoh points out that the present-day usage of the word jumbo originates from a famous elephant that had the same name that traveled around with P.T. Barnum's circus. And the phrase "Get on the Bandwagon" comes from a clown who once suggested to then-campaigning President Zachary Taylor in the mid-19th century to get up on a wagon so he could be seen and heard better.
"This is an area of history that has never really been researched," he said, noting that more circuses started in Wisconsin than anywhere else in America. "But there are a number of us digging in and looking at the myths started by circus people and those who said, 'This looks good, let's put it down on paper.'"
During the 17 years he's been teaching the circus history class, a number of students have been influenced to join the circus, he said.
"One just left for the circus," Hoh said laughing. "He went to the Ringling Brothers circus to be an electrician. And not long ago I had two graduate students go on to Clown College."
Although he jokes about joining the circus when he retires, Hoh is certain he wants to continue researching circus history and making people more aware of the world under the big top.
"The first question I ask my students on the first day of class is, 'How many of you have been to a circus?'" he said. "A lot raise their hands, which is good, but most went when they were kids and haven't been back. I want to promote that the circus is for all ages, including adults."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Aug. 9, 1999