Bex Bros. Circus at Penobscot Marine Museum

The Big Top on a small scale

By Dagney C. Ernest | Dec 23, 2011
Courtesy of: Penobscot Marine Museum Les Bex handcarved this well-observed acrobatic elephant for his Bex Bros. Circus, part of Penobscot Marine Museum's "The Circus Comes to Town" winter exhibition.

Searsport — Capt. Les Bex is spending time with some old friends this winter, and he is sharing the experience with the Midcoast community. Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport has mounted a multi-media exhibition called "The Circus Comes to Town" and the crown jewel of the exhibit is the Bex Bros. Circus, a display of miniatures Bex has been working on for decades.

The Bex Bros. Circus was a regular feature at the dollhouse shows put on for many years by the Camden Lions Club and it also used to show up at local schools and in shop windows. But 25 years ago, Bex packed most of it away and put it into a storage unit … well, maybe not every piece.

"I've had bits and pieces out, but not the whole thing … even now, this is probably half of it," he said on a recent day at the Camden Snow Bowl, where he has served on the ski patrol for 17 years and is waiting for the ski season to begin.

But early last spring, Bex showed photos of his circus at the Owls Head Transportation Museum's Midcoast Model Festival. Ben Fuller, curator at Penobscot Marine, saw them and suggested the Bex Bros. Circus might make for a wonderful off-season display at the Searsport museum.

"I hesitated for a long time, but they talked me into it," said Bex, who for many years has run a seasonal day-trip business aboard the Betselma, a classic wooden scallop dragger that sails out of Camden Harbor.

When Bex, Fuller and museum volunteer John Eastman went to the storage facility, they found boxes and boxes of figurines and set pieces. Bex said the figurines are a combination of Britains Zoo people and animals, plastic toys and wooden carvings. He said he finds them at train shows, Goodwill, the Salvation Army store and yard sales. He often repaints them, and many end up playing other roles than those they were created for.

"I take 'em and make 'em do what I want. The guys who are tightening up the stake lines used to be Civil War soldiers. I broke up a marching band for the musicians, and the waiters in the dining tent used to be women," he said.

Bex has carved many a horse and elephant from wood during the winters, on the boat and as he sat on the Camden dock waiting for customers.

"People would come up and offer to buy them, but I said no, they're not for sale," said Bex.

Bex has a soft spot for elephants — he remembers the Robert Bros. pachyderm by name because "I knew her when she was just a punk" — and he is a proponent of the somewhat controversial Hope Elephant project that plans to bring a retired circus elephant to the Midcoast for physical therapy.

"I think Jim Laurita's got a great idea and it's good for the elephants. The opposition's arguments are 70 years old and unfounded," he said.

"The Circus Comes to Town" exhibition in the museum's Main Street Gallery also includes circus-themed paintings and prints on loan; and posters and other memorabilia from Bex. His fascination with the circus dates back to his youth and, yes, he almost did run away to join one. When he was in his last years of high school, a fly and return aerial act tried to recruit him to be a flyer but he turned down the offer.

"I think what they really wanted was a strong back. I ended up about 200 pounds, so would have had to be a catcher, not a flyer," he said.

But the circus has been a part of his life ever since. When he lived outside of Chicago, he had ample opportunity to see some of the world's greatest traveling circuses. Here, it's more like two circuses a year. For a while, he was able to up that ante by booking circuses in the state, finding dates for Robert Bros. and the Old Time American circuses. He is not a fan of the Cirque du Soleil approach to the circus.

"It's fantastic acts with grotesque, ugly makeup. I don't like it at all, they take their ideas from KISS," he said.

The Bex Bros. Circus is a gloriously detailed homage to the traditional circus with a Big Top and many sideshows and other tents. It's the kind of thing that invites long gazes and returns visits, because there is always something more to see. Bex said he remembers when a small portion of the circus was set up in a display window at a local school where his wife was teaching.

"She told me she would see the same kids come back and stare at it every day," he said.

While there is always something new to discover at the Bex Bros. Circus, unpacking the boxes was like a class reunion for Bex.

"They're like old friends. I'd pull one out and say, ah, I remember him," said Bex.

Not that he's averse to making new friends. Bex recently found an Amish family of figurines who can be spotted at the Searsport table display, as well as a bear.

"You find the same figures over and over, but every now and then you find one that's different. I found the bear a few weeks back; he's got something, I'm not sure what, in his mouth," said Bex.

"The Circus Comes to Town" can be seen Thursday and Friday, Dec. 29 and 30; and every Saturday and Sunday in January between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. in the Main Street Gallery, downtown on Route 1. After that, the Bex Bros. Circus will go back into storage. What its future is, is uncertain.

"It's a hard question, and I've been mulling it through my mind. You put so much work into something and you wonder what's going to happen to it," he said.

For now, though, he knows what's going to happen and plans to be at the gallery during as many of the show's days as he can.

"I love to watch people looking at it. They always say, 'Oh, look at this!'," he said.

For more information about "The Circus Comes to Town," visit penobscotmarinemuseum.org.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email to dernest@villagesoup.com.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Dec 25, 2011 05:07

Another great, uplifting story that brings back many memories. Thanx. :)



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