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The Truth Behind the Famous yet Bogus ‘Ringling Brothers’ Mustache Cups’

by Larry Kellogg (08/30/10).

“There are a thousand and one stories under the big top . . .”

The above is a phrase oft repeated by circus publicists over and over. And those in the know jokingly add “. . . and some of the stories are even true.”

The Ringling publicity department distributed this photograph to the press, purported to illustrate the mustache cups of the five Ringling brothers, who were owners of the circus.

In the 1930s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey press genius, Roland Butler, created quite a stir when he released a photo of the mustache cups owned by the five Ringling Brothers. The photo appeared in newspapers and magazines around the country. The “Pictures to the Editor” section of Life magazine carried the photo, supposedly sent in by Ned Roberts from Sarasota, Fla. He claimed the cups were recently acquired by a local circus fan. It’s doubtful that was true and I suspect the photo was sent to Life by none other than Roland Butler.

The mustache cups photo appeared in the December 20, 1937 issue of Life magazine in the “Pictures to the Editor” section.

Years later, the photo began to appear in circus history books. Even the biography of the five famous brothers titled, “Circus Kings,” written by their nephew, Henry Ringling North, and Alden Hatch, included the photo. The caption read “The five who built the circus and their mustache cups.”

This page from Henry Ringling North’s “Circus Kings” shows the Ringling family on the top and the five mustache cups on the bottom.

So what’s the true story? It’s this: only one of the cups was real. The others were a creation of Roland Butler. In his biography, “Circus Press Agent,” written by Gene Plowden, Butler recalls the incident:

“Once, during a rare visit to the Charles Ringling home, he (Butler) saw the late Mr. Ringling’s mustache cup or shaving mug, an ornate thing with the name inscribed. An idea was born on the spot. Borrowing the antique, Roland called on George Blood, his friend in the cookhouse, to provide him with four coffee mugs of similar size and shape. Using paint, golf leaf and imagination, Butler converted the mugs to mustache cups of ornate design, complete with saucers. He lettered on the names of Al, Alf T., Otto and John to match that of Charles . . . Behind the display of five shaving mugs he placed a picture of the five brothers and had the collection photographed in color and in black and white.”

Because of media hype generated by the photo, Butler was contacted by a New York antique dealer who said he had a buyer for the cups. Butler replied that the cups were not for sale at any price. The Ringling family would never think of such a thing. He went on to explain that the priceless pieces of porcelain were personal items and were not even on display. After this close call, Butler says, he returned the authentic cup to the Charles Ringling family and the other four cups were returned to the circus cookhouse.

In researching for this article, I’ve made multiple attempts to find the location of the original Charles Ringling cup with no success. Perhaps, even it was a figment of Roland Butler’s imagination.

Note: “Circus Press Agent,” by Gene Plowden, is an oversized paperback and can be found for as little as $5. Unfortunately, the binding on the book was inferior and most issues are falling apart. However, it is fascinating reading.

“Circus Kings,” by Henry Ringling North, can be found for $5 to $10 in hardback and less than $5 in paperback.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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