Hey! Children of all ages, the circus comes to town this week. If you are from Cascade, Iowa - which is in the bluffs about 70 miles north of the Quad-Cities - you will get in free to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Citizens of Cascade need only to show their driver's licenses and they will be ushered to the best seats in the house when the Greatest Show on Earth plays the i wireless Center in Moline, Thursday through Sunday.

THE FREE SEATS promise represents a hundred year-plus commitment because little Cascade once reached out to save the circus when it was a tiny show, broke and struggling to get its wagons through the mud.

The show's gift is a little-known tale of the benevolence of a mammoth entertainment enterprise. If not for the big-hearted people of Cascade, the Greatest Show on Earth likely wouldn't exist.

There is a standing order at the box office in Moline that anyone from Cascade gets in free. This has held true for all the years the circus has played the Quad-Cities, because this is the closest venue to Cascade that the show plays.

It is a strange order, but executives of Feld Entertainment, which now owns the Ringling show, say it is time-honored. A Feld representative says, "It's a long, very old promise, and Ringling keeps its promises."

IN ITS TEETERY beginning, the Ringling show was little more than a catch-as-catch-can vaudeville show. The five Ringling brothers, whose home was in McGregor, Iowa, upriver from the Quad-Cities, had the fanciful idea that a fortune was to be made entertaining people.

When the family moved to Baraboo, Wis., Al Ringling convinced his brothers to form Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company. In an opera house in 1882, the brothers sang, pulled off comic skits and juggled. Charles Ringling played a trombone solo. Fifty people attended and the night's take was $13.

Pumped with success, the brothers bought a ragtag tent, called themselves a circus and traveled in one wagon with a team of horses taught to do tricks.

It was hand-to-mouth. In Onslow, Iowa, a storm blew down the tent. There were no customers.

With a half-dozen wagons, the show trudged 15 miles through mud to Monticello, Iowa, but had no money to buy the license needed to put up the tent. There was no performance. The show was broke, penniless.

Still, they made it to Cascade. Al Ringling, a gregarious type, quickly made friends.

The Cascade mayor gave them a free license. Kind citizens donated money. Townsfolk helped raise the tent; the show played to full houses.

The Ringling circus was saved!

Years passed, and the Ringlings never forgot Cascade. During a performance in Monticello, two Cascade residents were in the audience. Al Ringling spotted them and brought them to the platform. He told the audience how Cascade had saved the circus. He shouted to the crowd:

"Anyone from Cascade is free to this show anytime, anywhere."

This week, the Ringling show anticipates that some residents of Cascade will come to Moline and claim their free tickets.

John Noonan, Cascade lumber dealer, says he is thinking about coming to the show. Lee Simon and his wife of Connie of Cascade once showed their driver's licenses and got in for free.

"I went, too," says Slim Boyle of Cascade. "I showed my license and that's all there was to it."

Contact Bill Wundram at (563) 383-2249 or bwundram@qctimes.com