BARABOO -- When visitors come to the Circus World Museum, they get a glimpse into how the circus looked generations ago through the costumes, circus wagons, photographs and other exhibits on display.
But even Circus World Executive Director Steve Freese was amazed when he saw the circus of that bygone era brought back to life in California recently.
It was on the set of the upcoming film "Water For Elephants," based on Sara Gruen's novel. The film, which will hit theaters sometime in 2011, stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson and follows a young man who joins a Depression-era circus.
To make the film as authentic as possible, the filmmakers tapped the museum to provide 15 circus wagons plus loads of research and expertise to the production.
Freese, who visited the set several times over the summer and has a cameo in the film, said he was amazed at the level of detail that went into creating the sets. He pointed to a black-and-white photograph of a circus at night that the production team recreated on the set.
"They turned that into a color picture for us, the way they set the set," he said. "Everything in that picture was recreated to the exact scale. It just so happened to be the ticket wagon in the 1928 photograph was the ticket wagon that we took out there."
In fact, Circus World's participation in "Water For Elephants" actually goes back to the book. When she was writing the book, Gruen spent time at the museum doing research, and Gruen and Freese both took part in an event in Madison in 2007 surrounding the book's paperback release.
"It's a great read for anyone," Freese said. "It's a great love story and intertwines with the Great Depression. It gives you a snapshot into what it was like to be an employee of the circus."
In December 2008, when Freese heard that a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox Studios, Fox 2000, had bought the film rights to "Elephants," he proactively sent the studio a package letting executives know that the museum had all the materials necessary to stage an authentic 1928 circus.
The following summer, director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") and a production team came to Baraboo for a couple of weeks to do research, Freese said. At the time, there was discussion of filming the movie in Wisconsin using the state tax incentives.
After those incentives were restructured, the studio opted to shoot the film in California. But they still wanted to use some of the circus wagons, choosing from the 215 wagons the museum owns. They were packed up on flatbed trucks and shipped to the set, accompanied by Freese and the museum's wagon superintendent, Harold "Heavy" Burdick.
Thirteen of the wagons dated from the 1880s to the early 1900s, including eight animal cages, a ticket wagon, a main band wagon, two wardrobe wagons and a generator wagon. The museum also sent along a couple of full-size reproductions, including a cookhouse wagon, that the museum built in the 1960s based on the original blueprints.
In addition, the museum provided scores of photographs and even archival film footage to allow the film producers to get every detail of the circus just right. Not just big things like the wagons and the costumes, but details like the ropes and the riggings and the way animals were loaded and unloaded from trains.
Freese said he was amazed how much information could be gleaned from a single photo.
"When you take this little snapshot that somebody would take with a little Browning Instamatic camera in 1927, and then you blow it up, it's like ‘Oh, this is how they stack their crackerjack boxes. This is the brands of candy bars they had.'
"We were able to provide an answer to every single thing they asked."
The wagons, which are still painted with the fictional "Benzini Brothers" logo from the film, were returned to the museum a couple of weeks ago and are available for viewing.