Circus Programs: Souvenir Magazines a Colorful and Plentiful Collectible
An early Ringling Bros. program.
Souvenir circus programs vary widely in content, size and quality, but most have one thing in common: they provide patrons with a colorful, chronological list of the acts that will be appearing in the performance. A program can be as simple as a single sheet with a list of the acts, but the programs most sought-after and collected are published in a magazine format. They include not only a listing of the acts performing, but feature stories and photos of the performers and behind-the-scenes stories about the circus.
A collection focusing on circus programs alone could, conceivably, grow to thousands of items because over the years there have been hundreds of circuses. The book, “Directory of American Circuses,” by Robert L. Parkinson, documents almost 2,500 shows. Virtually every circus had some type of program, and of course they printed a new program every year they toured.
For the purpose of this article, the main focus will be programs for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. For a look at the history of The Greatest Show on Earth see my article entitled Circus Show Names and the Greatest Show Name of All Time.
Beginning with the 100th anniversary show of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1970, the souvenir program expanded into a much larger and more colorful format. A few years before, Irvin Feld and his brother Israel had taken the reins of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Many collectors call these new, larger format programs “Feld era programs.” However, in spite of their excellent quality, these programs have very little monetary value. Most sell for less than $5 or $10 each.
In the 1940s and 50s Ringling programs used well-known personalities of the day to write some of the feature stories. Movie stars Jimmy Durante, Van Johnson, Wallace Berry, Margaret O’Brien, Red Skelton, Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Bob Hope, Betty Hutton, June Allyson, Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster all had their turn with a feature story. Television stars Milton Berle and Buffalo Bob Smith of “Howdy Doody” fame also wrote stories. In many instances, the stories were nothing more than a cross-promotion for a new film featuring the movie star.
Red Skelton's article in a 1948 program.
Clark Gable's story in a 1951 program.
Legendary radio commentators like Lowell Thomas and Gabriel Heatter wrote feature stories during the World War II years. One reason was to help build moral in the country. In Heatter’s story, he said “. . . the circus is a part of everything we mean by moral—a part of everything we mean by America. As much as Yellowstone or Pikes Peak or Yankee Doodle . . . Why, you could no more speak of America without a circus than America without baseball or football.”
Authors John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway wrote features in 1953 and 1954. Hemingway was a friend of John Ringling North, and Steinbeck was a friend of Henry Ringling North. In their two articles there was mention of the new books by the authors: “Sweet Thursday” by Steinbeck, and “The Old Man and the Sea” by Hemingway. In Hemingway’s feature, we find the two famous lines which have been quoted in many circus books since: “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money” and “It is the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.” Another well known author, John O’Hara—a Yale classmate of Henry Ringling North—wrote an article for the 1941 program.
An article written by Ernest Hemingway in a 1953 program. In it Hemingway wrote the two famous lines that have been quoted in many circus books since: “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money” and “It is the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”
Most of the Ringling-Barnum programs from the 1940s and 1950s can be found for $10 or less, but sometimes have brought prices as high as $40.
All of the Ringling programs were printed in more than one version. Many of the “Feld era programs” had three different versions. The first which was sold at the beginning of the tour and used many stock photos because photos of the new acts had not yet been taken. An updated version was generally ready to sell by the time the show hit New York City’s Madison Square Garden in the spring. A third version was printed for the second year of the show’s two-year tour.
Ringling Bros. combined with Barnum & Bailey in 1919. From that year through 1935 there were many versions of each program. During all of those years there was a section called the “Official Program.” In some versions this section was incorporated into the main program book.
Three versions of the 1934 “Official Program."
In some versions this section was a multi-page insert that was tipped into the main program book. This section featured a listing of all the acts in their order of appearance. Regional advertising was sprinkled throughout. At the bottom of the first page of the “Official Program” was text identifying which region of the country the program covered. It is not uncommon to find a souvenir program with that section missing, which greatly decreases the value. To the right are three versions of the 1934 “Official Program.” First is the Madison Square Garden (NYC) version. Next is the Boston, Mass version. The last one is the version for the towns from Lake Charles, La. to Tampa, Florida.
Prices for programs from this era (1919-1935) are all over the place, from $50 to $150 each. Sometimes you are able to find one for $10 to $20, but not often.
Programs prior to 1919 were for Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows or Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth. Most of these follow the same format as the 1919-1935 programs. They vary in value. Ringling Bros. Programs have more value ($100-$200). Some Barnum & Bailey Programs can be found for as little as $50.
Related items in the program category are those programs for the spectacles of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Barnum & Bailey’s Specs “The Fall of Babylon” in 1890 and “Columbus and the Discovery of America” in 1892 are good examples. These programs give a detailed description of the giant production and have a beautiful, lithograph fold-out section showing a segment of the spectacle. This type of program is usually valued at $50 and up.
A folded picture from the “Columbus and the Discovery of America” program, published in 1892.
Examples of larger-format “Feld-era programs” from 1970-74.
Collectors of circus programs have a wealth of historical information at their fingertips. Each program not only documents what each circus offered in the way of entertainment, but it gives the collector a glimpse of circus life behind the scenes.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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