Tucked into the back corner of a small city museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts sits the Frog Circus. It literally took my breath when my eyes landed on it, and not in an awed-and-inspired kind of way, more in an ‘oh-my-god-look-at-that-roadkill’ kind of way.
But I have to admit, it was pretty incredible.
Dozens of taxidermy-ed frogs were arranged in an elaborate circus style setup, in a big Amphibian Big Top, forever frozen in place like strange freaks of nature, somehow equally adorable and disturbing. Behind a glass partition in a setup the size of a large television set, the creatures performed in perpetuity, forever frozen there.
A crowd of frogs on bleachers, large parents and small children, were arranged in rows to cheer for the performers.
Awkwardly bent frogs swung on trapezes in the air, one pulling an American flag with him, one holding on to the feet of another.
A frog clutching a parasol walked a tightrope.
A frog with a stick tamed a fearsome large rodent creature, seemingly a weasel.
Frogs rode on the backs of turtles, and other frogs were pulled in carriages by teams of small mice.
An entire band of frogs playing instruments, trumpets and drums, sat off to the left, horns raised to frog lips.
The woman who worked the front desk of the gift shop seemed to cringe a little when she told us about the Frog Circus. When my sister and I learned the museum was closed to tours, we had asked if there was still anything to see in the area, and she grimaced as she mentioned the Frog Circus, a crowd favorite since it was made in the late 1920s. Apparently some man named Burlington Schurr (a super-villain name if I’ve ever heard one) made the exhibit back in 1927, one of many he curated to teach youth about animals and nature. ‘What could be more natural,’ he must have thought, ‘than dead frogs posed unnaturally.’
I pictured him staking out his local pond, killing frogs of all sizes, taking them home, and going through the process of stuffing and arranging and preserving each one. ‘A circus!’, he thought. ‘I’ll put them in a circus!’
No matter the strangeness of the display, I realized it’s been around a generation longer than my mother. Hordes of people have lined up to stare at it, to marvel, and laugh, and retch, and be curious. I stared at it for several minutes, that slightly horrified look plastered on my face. And then I stepped away, knowing instinctively the images of those frogs will be behind my eyelids when I try to sleep tonight. They won’t be moving, they’ll just be frozen there mid-act. And the thought of that makes me shudder, much as it will again tonight in sleep.