Photos like this were classic circus images provided by the big shows. This one appeared in a 1920s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus souvenir program.
If you want to see the circus, don’t try to sneak in for free. “All children must have ticket, regardless of age . . .” It’s the message emblazoned at the main entrance to the circus. Many tent circuses published a tongue-in-cheek photo of kids sneaking under the tent with a policeman close at hand. It reinforced their message—to gain admission to the Big Show, everyone MUST have a ticket.
An article about putting the Big Top together appeared in the August 12, 1950 issue of Colliers magazine and featured a color photo of workers. Just inside the main entrance is a large canvas sign that says: “All Children Must Have Tickets . . . Regardless of Age.” The circus has long been a popular topic for America’s magazines.
Read more about this subject in my article Magazine Articles Chronicle Circus Life of Yesterday and Today.
Kids sneaking under the canvas sidewall was such a popular illustration, that Howard Tibbals immortalized the image in his gigantic model of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
It is the largest miniature circus in the world and was the subject of a previous article, You Too Can Be A Circus Owner.
Tickets are a great addition to any circus collection. In my own, I have well over 1,000 tickets. There are many different kinds of tickets. The actual ticket which allows entrance to the big top is one and it can be a reserved seat ticket or sometimes a general admission ticket. Different passes were also distributed that were exchanged at the ticket wagon or main entrance for a ticket. Local merchants received passes from the show for the privilege putting posters on their exterior walls or in their windows. Special passes were also printed for the press with a different type of pass for press photographers. VIPs received annual passes and invitations to special performances. There were even tickets given to employees of the show which were redeemed for meals and lodging.
Tickets and ticket related items are valued at $5 or less to nearly $100, with value being based on scarcity, age and visual appeal. Most tickets are simple in design printed in a single color, but those with elaborate, multi-color designs have more appeal to the collector. And those having extraordinary historical significance bring the highest prices.
Let’s look at just a few vintage circus tickets:
In 1887 P.T. Barnum & Co. combined with Adam Forepaugh for a month-long run at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The show opened on March 14 with performances through April 16. This extremely rare adult ticket was signed with a stamp by B.H. Grover, who was a Special Advance Agent for Barnum. The Barnum/Forepaugh text is overprinted on P.T.B. & Co. – Barnum & London stock. It is valued at $75 to $100.
Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows issued this pass in 1903 before Ringling combined with Barnum & Bailey in 1919. A similar Ringling Bros. pass for the year 1905 sold in an online auction in 2007 for $77.50.
Someone has written 1900 on this pass for Scribner & Smith’s Circus, but that date may be in error. According to Robert L. Parkinson’s book, “Directory of American Circuses,” this show was only on the road from 1892 to 1896. Value is $50 and up.
This is an interesting Ringling Barnum 1944 ticket. Note that it is an actual reserved seat ticket for the April 5 opening night performance at Madison Square Garden. This was a special War Bond Performance. Value is $10-15.
These tickets are a sad reminder of a performance that was never held. They are reserved seat tickets for the July 17, 1956 matinee of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Unfortunately, the show gave its final big top performance the night before in Pittsburgh, Pa. John Ringling North announced “The tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of the past.” Value is $40-50 per ticket. Many other 1956 tickets with different dates regularly show up for auction and bring $15-25.
The recipient of this pass could redeem it for a ticket for the October 3, 1947 matinee performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. As stated on the pass, the owner of the property agrees to let Ringling Bros. or their agents tack cloth banners on their premises. The pass was issued by advanced agents who were assigned to advance car No. 3. Value is $5-10.
The publicity department of John Robinson Circus issued passes like this to U.S. Postmasters around the country for their assistance in distributing advertising matter. Note that the pass is for the Postmaster and a lady (It will not admit two gentlemen). Value $10-15.
Ringling Barnum Press Representative, Roland Butler, distributed these Press Ticket Certificates for the 1925 New York Madison Square Garden run of the circus requesting stories to be printed which would promote the show. It says “This certificate, when presented by a newspaper representative to the undersigned at the Press Room, Madison Square Garden, together with marked copy containing notice of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Shows; or when mailed to the undersigned together with marked copy of such notice, will be exchanged for courtesy for TWO (2) for any performance excepting Saturdays and Holidays.” Value is $5-10.
Two different types of passes to the Al G. Barnes Big 4 Ring Wild Animal Circus feature a colorful illustration of a lion riding a horse. Value $15-20 each.
The Greatest Show On Earth opened its 1944 season in Madison Square Garden in New York City on April 5. Just 10 days prior, preview performances were given at their Winter Quarters in Sarasota, Fla. This pass was stamped with the Roland Butler signature. A note attached to the ticket says it is very rare and that only 50 copies of the ticket were printed for that date. However, that statement may not be correct. Value is $10-15.
This annual pass for the 1944 season is engraved on heavy cardstock. It was not limited to date or location. The back says to notify the Office Wagon which performance you wish to attend, so that reservation can be made. Value $10-15.
A lifetime pass to Circus Bartok seems like a great deal, but the show was only on the road for six years, 1967-1972. Value $5-10.
Note the two holes punched in this 1943 Cole Bros. Circus press pass valued at $15-20. Holes were frequently punched in passes to distinguish them from paid tickets. The hole was a reminder of Wild West star Annie Oakley and her ability to shoot a hole in a playing card. That’s why a circus pass is known to show people as an Annie Oakley.
Read about this term and other circus jargon used in this article in my story You Can’t Tell Your Funambulists from Your Kinkers without Knowing Your Circus Lingo.
The Concert was also called the Aftershow. It was a performance after the main show ended. The public was charged an additional fee, in this case 15 cents, to remain in their seats and watch the performance. In the 1920s the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus had a Concert that featured Wild West performers and American Indians. Value of this ticket is $10-15.
The Side Show was separate from the main circus performance under the Big Top. It featured human oddities like the giant and the midget family and other attractions such as the sword swallower, snake charmer, magician, etc. This 25-cent ticket gained admission to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Side Show. Value is $10-15.
Even something as simple as a pony ride required a ticket. Value is $5-10.
Contrary to popular belief, local boys did not carry water for the elephants. But there were a number of jobs they could perform to earn a ticket to the circus. Value of this ticket is $10-15.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Sarasota Winter Quarters was a major Florida attraction during the winter months. Value of this ticket is $10-15.
Workers on the show were given books of tickets to be used for meals and lodging. This strip of tickets was for an usher to use on Monday, September 21, 1953. There was a perforation between each ticket. Value for a complete strip is $15-20.
TV specials featuring the circus require an audience and the audience must have a ticket. The white ticket shown here was for the 1966 special The World’s Greatest Circus Stars with host Gary Moore. It was taped at the Circus Hall of Fame, a now defunct Sarasota, Florida attraction. Value is $5-10.
For many years Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey taped their annual TV special at the Bayfront Center Arena in St. Petersburg, Florida. This ticket was for admission to the 1976 performance. Value is $5 or less.
In 1973 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey opened their Circus World theme park in Central Florida. The tickets were designed to be collectible. In fact the words “Collector Series Ticket” appeared on the large stub that was retained upon entry. Tickets with stubs sell for about $5 each.
For more about Circus World Collectibles see my article Reunion Renews Interest in Circus World Memorabilia.
A good relationship with the local newspaper was vital. This pass would allow access to the back yard and the Big Top to a member of the working press—both writers and photographers. It was not good for seats. Value is $15-20.
In more recent years, newspaper photographers and television video crews were given passes like these to shoot photos and video on the arena floor. The round pass was a sticker.
In later years it was replaced by a cardboard pass, worn on a lanyard or attached to the photographer’s belt or camera equipment. Photographers were always accompanied by a representative of the show. Value of these passes is $5 or less.
Outsiders who were approved to visit the backstage area were given these cloth stickers to wear. These were sometimes contest winners or local VIPs. Value of this sticker is $10-15.
Invitations to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey dress rehearsals were given to media, local VIPs and associates. Value of this invitation is $10-15.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey begins each season in Florida but one of the most important events of the season was opening night in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
This VIP invitation was for the opening of the Bi-Centennial Edition, March 25, 1975 followed by a Black Tie reception. Value is $40-50.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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