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Collecting the Business behind Circus Show Business

by Larry Kellogg (11/30/10).

‘The Circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money. Everything else is supposed to be bad for you. But the Circus is good for you. It is the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.’

— Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway penned those words in his article published in the 1953 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Souvenir Program. The excitement Hemingway is describing is what attracts collectors of circus memorabilia. Circus posters, couriers, heralds and the many of other advertising items are hunted and collected for their eye appeal. The hundreds of thousands of collectible photos illustrate circus life in the center ring and behind the big top.

But behind all the glamour of the circus is the business of running the show. Most circus business forms and printed material have little glamour or color. Nearly all of these forms can be found for very low prices, but some, when signed by well-known executives, can cost hundreds of dollars.

Circus checks are at the top end of business forms. A personal check signed by John Ringling (one of the five Ringling Brothers) sold on eBay for $306, but a colorful Barnum & Bailey check signed by John Ringling sold on eBay for $799. Checks signed by John Ringling have sold for as little as $30. Checks written by other brothers, Al and Charles, have sold for $30 to $100. Checks signed by John Ringling North and his brother Henry Ringling North, nephews of the Ringling Brothers have sold for $50 to $100.

This 1919 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows check was signed by Charles Hutchinson. Hutchinson was treasurer with the Barnum & Bailey Circus and the combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 35 years. He also held executive positions with Adam Forepaugh’s Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Value is $50-75. Notice the address on the check. In 1919 the Ringling winter quarters was in Bridgeport, Conn. They didn’t move to Sarasota, Fla. until 1927.

Blank circus contracts are valued at $5-10. However, when they are signed, the prices greatly increase, depending on who signed the contract. Contracts signed by John Ringling have sold for $300, even contracts with little-known performers.

Clown Paul Wenzel signed this contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to perform during the 1960 season. Signing for the show was Arthur M. Concello. In 1960, Concello was the executive producer of the show, but he began his career on the flying trapeze. Value is $50-60.

Some circus employees who traveled in advance of the show were issued books of Show Script, which gave them passage on the railroad. This Show Script has become a cross-collectible of interest to both circus and railroad collectors.

Paul Eagles was general agent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1955. This book of Show Script allowed him to travel on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Lines (M-K-T or Katy Railroad). The book is complete with each individual coupon having a value of 1 cent. The entire book contains coupons good for $15 worth of railroad travel. Value is $15-$25.

Col. Tim McCoy’s Real Wild West was on the road in 1938. Below is a random selection of business forms for that show which include a Daily Work Report, Press Agent’s Advance Sheet, Contracting Press Agent’s Daily Report, Newspaper Advertising Schedule, Pay Voucher and various receipts.

This assortment of business forms illustrates the amount of paper work necessary to document the business end of running a circus. Forms like this have little value and can be found for $5 or less per form.

Banner advertising was an additional source of income to circuses. Banners for local merchants would hang in the big top and an announcement would be made calling attention to the merchant’s services.

A Dailey Bros. Circus advertising banner receipt has the Dailey Bros. logo, which adds to its appeal. This form is from the 1940s and is valued at $5-$10.

Circuses received many requests for posters and other items from the general public. I plead guilty, because as a kid growing up in Council Grove, Kansas, I addressed a letter to Ringling Bros. Circus, Sarasota, Florida, asking if they would send me some “stuff.” Several weeks later I received a package in the mail which contained some programs and photographs. But, alas, the circus has done away with this practice.

My request, and others like it, caused Ringling to discontinue mailing posters and other printed material to ordinary people. If I had continued to write Ringling, I would have eventually received a reply like this.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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