April 24, 2002


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'Under the Big Top'

Through May 31, Skylight Gallery

BEHOLD SPIDORA, the spider woman! The Bearded Lady! The Sword Swallower! Every April Fools' Day, the San Francisco Public Library's Book Arts and Special Collections Center opens a themed exhibition of books from the Nat Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor. This year it's all about the circus, with a special emphasis on San Francisco circus history. A lawyer by trade, Schmulowitz had one big claim to fame as the successful defender of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in a sensational 1921 murder trial. The collection he founded now includes more than 20,000 volumes – the largest of its kind in the United States. The books in the show are under glass, but they're positioned so you can still get the most from their incredible full-color covers and illustrations. Some are as new as Jeffrey T. Brouws's Inside the Live Reptile Tent (2001). Others are as old as Lothar Meggendorfer's movable (pop-up) books from the 1880s, notable for their beautiful colors and craftsmanship. An original 1849 show bill from San Francisco's first circus is the most remarkable piece of local ephemera included in the exhibit; a half-hour documentary video of San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus adds another dimension to local circus history. Reproductions of vintage posters from the 18th and early 19th centuries – the golden age of the circus – line the room, advertising Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Ringling Brothers' clowns and animals, and of course, all kinds of marvelous living human curiosities. Each Thursday in May the library will present a free showing of a different circus-themed movie at noon in the Koret Auditorium (for a schedule go to www.sfpl.org). Mon. and Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri., noon-6 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m., San Francisco Public Library, Main Branch, Sixth floor, 100 Larkin, S.F. (415) 557-4277. (Lindsey Westbrook)