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Birthday party turned into a circus--literally

--- Lake Geneva philanthropist's brings the big top to his Geneva Lake estate

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Herb Moering /Contributor

(Published August 1, 2007, 4:01 p.m.)

Local philanthropist Richard Driehaus made his 65th birthday memorable, not only for himself, but for some 750 guests he invited to the July 28 circus-themed celebration at his Glenworth Gardens estate on Geneva Lake.

Driehaus, who made his fortune with his Chicago investment firm, Driehaus Capital Management, has supported many local civic initiatives.

He donated the fountain in front of Lake Geneva's landmark Riviera boathouse, and has been an active supporter of the Time is Now charity and the Lake Geneva Conservancy for example.

So it was no surprise that this was the biggest and most lavish birthday bash my wife Carrol and I ever attended. You knew it was going to be special upon arrival at the parking area where employees of the Five Star Valet service from Chicago spirited your car away and 10 musicians atop a bandwagon from Baraboo's Circus World Museum played traditional circus music as a greeting.

After a trolley ride through the wooded grounds a splendid scene unfolded of circus entertainment, which had piqued my initial interest in attending the largest lawn party on the shores of Geneva Lake.

I probably would have gone even if it wasn't a circus theme. But with both of us into the avocation of clowning and having run away briefly with the Carson & Barnes Five-Ring Circus years ago, how could we resist such an opportunity.

Once we obtained our small blinking circus pins--Carrol's wore a hot air balloon, while a had a tiger--to assure you belonged at the party, we were free to roam the grounds around the white pillared mansion. I donned my Carson and Barnes cap and a red sponge nose, which circus performers and guests alike seemed to enjoy a lot. Carrol, who thought it too tacky to sport a cap and nose, opted for a performer to whip up a very large rainbow balloon hat. Between the two of us, we became the object of several picture takers.

But back to the party. On the grounds were about a dozen other circus wagons from Baraboo, including a couple music wagons.

Driehaus a major benefactor of the Circus World Museum and its commitment to preserving that history.

Guests could pet a baby elephant, touch a long python, and look at a couple of dozing tigers in an animal wagon. Couples could also have mug shots as they stood behind wooden cutouts of various characters.

Strolling circus-jacketed servers offered a variety of hors d'oeuvres with the emphasis on circus fare, such as small wrapped wieners and tiny elephant ear pastry, along with cocktails.

Just before 7 o'clock, the circus band led a procession into the one-ring Royal Hanneford big top for a show by Circus World performers and acrobats from Circus China. The audience marked their appreciation of the performers with rounds of applause and a standing ovation at the conclusion.

But the circus was just the start of a marvelous evening, marked by an elaborate dinner of foods I don't regularly indulge in. There were enough foods for a gourmet columnist to write about, such as chilled summer pea soup with a mint crème fraiche swirl. It was quite tasty.

One of the best aspects of the meal for my wife was being placed next to a college classmate of her son's, who she had also worked with on a musical when he taught band at Big Foot High School. We ran into other acquaintances, who were guests because of work connections to the Driehaus family. In addition, we met the gardener for the estate as we wandered around a complex of five children's houses that were from an earlier Wizard of Oz party.

However, the evening was far from over. next on the agenda was a pyrotechnics show that erupted offshore for 45 minutes of dazzling displays, many of them new combinations to the two of us. The fireworks were also enjoyed by others around the lake who were aware of the upcoming show. A ring of lighted boats sat anchored across the lake and no doubt others on shore also were watching.

During the constant bursts servers were plying guests with circus peanuts on a stick dipped in chocolate and other delights. The finale barrage that reflected all over the waterfront ended to the applause of the watching audience on the lawn and the sound of boat horns across the water.

But the great event still wasn't over. It was back inside the dining tent for a show and dancing, featuring surprise entertainer Mary Wilson, an original member of the Supremes.

Wilson, who was proud to mention she was 63 now, belted out some familiar tunes to the mostly baby boomers present and soon had an entire dance floor filled with gyrating couples. A bevy of women over 60 joined Driehaus and Wilson on stage for a quick-paced and fun number.

While the unassuming host looked like he was having a great time at his bash, Driehaus earlier in a ringmaster's costume, took a few moments at the start of the circus performance to mention his passion for preservation and conservancy efforts, like backing The Time Is Now program in Walworth County and the new Millennium Park in Chicago. The philanthropist stated he hoped his friends would be part of making a better world for their children and grandchildren.

Even in leaving, it wasn't quite over as guests received gifts of caramel apples on a stick or peanut brittle, which were on small plates from the Circus World Museum, and a small lapel pin of three acrobats with the words Driehaus Circus. In addition, photos taken in front of the cutouts were waiting to be picked up near the exit area.

If the Circus World ringmaster meant when he concluded with "may all your days be circus days" should be like the Driehaus Circus day, I would vote for that.

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