A serious circus collector always keeps his eyes open to discover new and useful information. It can be found in the most unlikely places—old black and white movies, creased and worn magazines and ancient photographs. Once in a while a real treasure turns up.
In April of this year (2010) I wrote a WorthPoint article on circus movies titled: Motion Pictures That Chronicle Circus Life Mix Collectible Categories. In researching for the article I remembered some old circus movies I hadn’t seen for years and a few I had never seen. So I spent a few nights enjoying those I owned, starting with the classic, “At the Circus,” with the Marx Brothers.
A few minutes into the movie, the circus owner tells Chico Marx to make sure nobody gets on the circus train without a badge.
Circus owner Jeff Wilson, played by Kenny Baker, points to his employee badge when talking with Chico Marx.
Later Jeff is talking with his girlfriend Julie Randall, played by Florence Rice. You can clearly see that both of them are wearing a circus badge.
Jeff and Julie meet in a café before the circus train departs. He’s wearing badge #20.
She has badge #16.
Next comes a bit with the typical, silly Marx Bros. Dialogue between Groucho and Chico:
Chico: “ . . . I can’t let my best friend on the train. Alright, I take a chance. I don’t care if I lose-a my job. I’m a gonna give you a badge. I’m a gonna give you my badge. But a promise. You no tell. You swear.”
Groucho: “You’ll never get anything out of me, unless they use a pump.”
Chico: “Last chance, all aboard.”
Groucho begins to board the circus train.
Chico: “Right this way. Just a minute, brother. Have you got a badge?”
Groucho: “Of course. Naturally. Don’t you know no one gets on the train unless he has a badge. Ha, Ha, Ha.”
As Groucho Marx tries to board the circus train he shows his brother Chico his badge.
Chico: “Hey, what are you, a wise guy? That’s last year’s badge.”
With that, Chico shoves Groucho into a mud puddle.
In watching the movie on a large screen, the badges shown are much clearer than the screen captures above. The amazing thing about the badge is that it was the same design as a badge I have in my own collection. I always wondered how old it was. Based on the badge in the movie and the fact that the movie was released in 1939, I now have a basis for dating my badge. My badge has the name Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and the one in the movie has the name of the fictitious circus, The Wilson Wonder Show, but the design is the same.
My Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Employee Badge is #28.
After watching these scenes about the circus badge, I wondered how the producers came up with this design. On the Internet Movie Database Web site, S.L. Cronin is listed as an un-credited technical advisor on the movie. Cronin was well known in the circus world during this time. He had his own Cronin Bros. Circus in 1944-45. From 1929 to 1937 he was general manager of Al G. Barnes Circus, which was owned by Ringling. In the late 1930s he worked with a number of motion picture studios as technical advisor. It seems obvious that Cronin’s intimate knowledge of circus operations resulted in this sequence of scenes involving a circus employee badge.
Circus employee badges like these have sold for as much as $180 in online auctions.
This badge has space for a manager’s name and title.
This obscure little story is a lesson to always be alert when watching old movies. The same could be said of browsing articles and advertisements in old magazines or when viewing old photographs. You never know what you might discover.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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