A Girl Walks Into: Circus
The show will not go on for Circus, the clubbing complex in Ann Arbor’s Old West Side. After 22 years, the adult funhouse is slated to close its doors in early February.
Circus has been a staple to some and an anomaly for many. Though I have lived in Ann Arbor for more than a year, my first visit to the bar and billiards hall was this summer. By that point I was well worn into my 21 years, and having never debated with a bouncer over the authenticity of my ID, I wasn’t accustomed to bars with themes other than “we serve alcohol here.” From the strangeness of the scene, I thought for a moment I had wandered into the wrong place, or another of the many establishments stacked Lego-like at 210 S. 1st St.
Inspiration for the club pulls heavily from the Ringling Bros. Circus, another cultural staple that coincidentally announced this week it would be closing the caravan for good. The clashing decor can be visually disturbing: a smear of bright colors dimmed by poor lighting, carnival trimmings butting up against pool tables and big screens playing sport channels. There was a worn sadness to it, like collagen lips or a falsely straightened nose. Any character that could be derived from the building’s 165-year history has been smoothed over like wrinkles after Botox by its garish artifacts — a place so tacky they should be selling keychains by the coat check. Circus couldn’t make up its mind about what it wanted to be, and catered to an audience that didn’t want to grow up.
I went to the farewell bash last week with two friends to get a sense of how the campus and surrounding community would react to the end of the Circus era. A surprisingly wide range of ages turned out for the goodbye soiree, and the wardrobes ran the gamut from camouflage hats to sombreros, formal wear to flannel. With all four clubs open and connected, it’s impossible to describe the scenery without sounding like Stefon from SNL: “Ann Arbor’s hottest club has year-round Halloween decorations, elephant heads, boys singing Blondie and blondies singing Boyz II Men.”
Unlike at a real circus, here the clowns talk. “Can I buy you ladies a shot?” a boy asks us. Let’s call him Brady, in honor of the Tom Brady jersey he was sporting. His buddy went to grab the shots while Brady spins us two at a time. Millennium, another of the clubs in the complex, is decorated much like a bowling alley, with Tiffany-style lampshades over the bar and plenty of disco balls. We spot Brady later, spinning girls like records upstairs in Circus. Jerk.
Cavern in the basement, with a faux koi pond, plastic trees and twinkly lights, is an unexpected Eden — an angel bust graces the bar, and a distressed “Creation of Adam” fresco provides the perfect backdrop for posterity shots. Part speakeasy, part bomb shelter, the edifice of Cavern reminds me of the underground pubs I frequented last summer in Oxford. We exit the veritable Rainforest Cafe, or we try to until the DJ plays a remix of “Who Let the Dogs Out” that drags us back by our leashes. In spite of my previous reservations, I am spellbound by Cavern, and for the first time feel a pang about the club’s passing. We dance, pose in front of the fresco, then push for a change in scenery.
“I love Circus,” the girl in front of me in line says. “It’s just weird. I fucking love it.”
The ability to barhop without ever stepping foot outside was so attractive we maintained a constant circuit through Circus, blurring the milieu like the view from a carousel ride: passing funhouse mirrors, a serene water fountain, a miniature Statue of Liberty. The drinks were terrible, but they had cheap PBR and gloriously free popcorn. Strangers of all creeds and classifications meet, grab one another by the shoulders and sing. It’s a scene that isn’t dignified, nor easily duplicated.
Asking why visitors go to Circus is like asking why people drink in the first place — it's an escape, but in a setting that glorifies a history of the fantastical. In 19th-century America, traveling performance troupes brought the strange and peculiar to small towns nationwide. Circus and Co., inspired by the pioneers of entertainment, provided a similar service to the Ann Arbor area. Millennium is a retreat into the ’90s, while Gotham caters a slice of a venerated franchise. There was more to this bar than a counter over which alcohol is served. Though it’s low-budget Vegas sideshow appeal is not universal, it was effective. It became as real as you wanted it to be.
I had a great time at Circus, watching social constraints melt over showtunes and pool tables. It was a spot where — because it was so odd, because it was trying so hard to appeal to so many demographics, because it wanted nothing from you besides to show you a good time — coming as you are meant never standing out. As I wade back through the crowd, I overhear a man’s voice: “This place is kind of nuts!” Well, that’s kind of the point.