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About Franzen Bros.

“He grew up in a dairy barn but believed he could train an elephant,” Liz Fentress says of Wayne Franzen in her play Liz’s Circus Story.

Like everything else in the play, Wayne Franzen is real. He was born July 15, 1946 in northern Wisconsin and grew up to teach industrial arts at Stevens Point High School. He saved enough money to buy an elephant, which he drove to his farm from the airport in his pickup truck, then quit his teaching job in 1974 to start a circus. And he kept the show going for 23 years, against all odds.

By 1984, his one-ring “mud show” (circus lingo Franzen bros.for a show that is performed in a tent, as opposed to indoors) had grown from a three-truck to a ten-truck show, was playing 250 dates a year, and billed itself as “America’s Fastest Growing Circus.” From the beginning, Wayne’s animal acts took star billing. The 1984 program promised “Ferocious Felines, Terrifying Tigers, a Veritable Cage of Fury Presented by the Incomparable Wayne Franzen.”

In the 1990s, though, changing times caught up with many circuses, including Franzen Bros. According to a CNN report on Wayne Franzen in 1997, the number of circuses in America dropped from 125 in 1900 to 20 in 1997. By 1996, increasing regulatory and insurance costs and dwindling audiences forced Franzen to cut back to seven trucks and 20 people. Still, in 1996, the circus traveled 30,000 miles through 22 states, and Wayne kept working 16-hour days. “I kept myself so busy, the last 23 years have gone by like shot,” he told a CNN reporter. Just days before his death, he said that if the 1997 season didn’t lift the circus from debt, it would be the last.

Wayne Franzen died on May 7, 1997, moments after a 6-year-old Bengal tiger attacked him in a performance in Carrollton, PA. He was 50. He was buried in Luther Memorial Cemetery in Russell, WI on May 12, 1997. Liz Fentress’ childhood friend, Brother Paul-Vincent Niebauer, who worked for Franzen Bros. as the clown Paulo the Magnificent and later as ringmaster, officiated at the funeral.

Brian Franzen tried to continue his father’s legacy, but in late 1997 the circus tent folded for the last time. Brian continues to provide animal acts for other performances.



TO LEARN MORE ...
about Wayne Franzen, see the news story about his death from OnTV.


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