Some Circus Animals Are the Stars of the Show
“. . .There they go, the pride of the circus.
There they go, our animal stars.
Give a hand to these handsome creatures.
They are the big top’s finest features.
Those fabulous animals.
Those glorious animals.
Those fabulous animals.
Our greatest stars.”
— Excerpt from “Those Fabulous Animals,” the theme
song of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Spec.
In 1999 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey began the two-year tour of The Living Carousel Edition of The Greatest Show on Earth. The Spec—or Spectacle (See previous article on Circus Lingo)—that year was all about animals, illustrating their popularity in the circus. Animals are so important that some individual animals have been a featured attraction. The two most well-known are Jumbo—Barnum’s humongous elephant—and Gargantua the Great—Ringling’s gorilla of the late 1930s and ’40s.
(You can read more about Jumbo in a previous story about Elephant Collectibles.)
The name Gargantua became a household word during his reign as the greatest attraction in The Greatest Show on Earth. Gargantua collectibles are plentiful and most are reasonably priced.
Former Associated Press newsman Gene Plowden covered the story of Gargantua during the gorilla’s time with the circus. In 1972 he wrote a book, “Gargantua, Circus Star of the Century,” published by E.A. Seemann Publishing, Inc. You can find the book on the internet for less than $5.
This Gargantua half-sheet poster sold on eBay in 2009 for $675.
Just in time for the 1941 season, Mademoiselle Toto, a female gorilla, joined the show and Ringling staged the first ever “gorilla wedding.” The images of Mr. & Mrs. Gargantua appeared everywhere.
“Toto and I” by A. Maria Hoyt was published by J.B. Lippincott Company in 1941, the same year Toto came to the circus. The book is difficult to find. Most prices on the Internet run from $100 to $150. I was able to find only one copy for less at $49.99.
This fold-out postcard folder features the gorilla couple on the cover. The nine inside, fold-out postcards show various poses of Gargantua and his wife on one side and other circus attractions on the other side. Value is $5 to $10.
Booklets about the lives of the gorillas were sold by the circus. This one supposedly was written by Gargantua’s keeper, Jose Tomas.
“Strange Stories of Gargantua and Toto” originally sold for 10 cents. Today, this and the other booklet, “Toto Loves Gargantua” are valued at $20-$25 each.
A new, pole-less tent was introduced in 1941 to house Mr. & Mrs. Gargantua. The tent was situated between the menagerie tent and the big top. The March 1941 issue of Popular Science had an article touting this as the coming design for the Ringling big top, but that idea never materialized. This original 8 x 10 inch publicity photo is valued at $25-$30.
There have been a few other notable animal stars. In the 1920s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey exhibited a monster sea elephant named Goliath. The beast was loaded on a wagon and paraded around the hippodrome track.
Estimated value of a half-sheet Goliath poster is $750 to $1.000.
Master Model Builder Howard Tibbals re-created the Goliath image in his gigantic model of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey at The Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, Florida.
The Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota is the largest miniature circus in the world and was the subject of a previous article, You Too Can Be A Circus Owner.
Several hippos have had prominent roles in circuses. Al G. Barnes Circus exhibited Lotus. Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. had Big Otto, and Ringling had a performing hippo, Zusha, in the late 1990s.
Lotus made nationwide news when her front and rear views appeared on two full pages of the Feb. 8, 1937 issue of Life Magazine. The front view was captioned: “Lotus Fore . . .” with this text—“This is Lotus, only circus-trained hippo in the U.S., who waddles around the ring towing a pony cart. For all her grim expression, she is a likable beast, kind and tractable.
She is 25 years old, weighs 4,800 lb. and posed willingly for Photographer Bob Wallace at the winter quarters of the Al G. Barnes Circus in California. For another view of Lotus, turn the page.” When readers turned the page they saw “Lotus Aft.” Original issues of this Life Magazine sell for around $30.
Big Otto was exhibited in a Pit Show on the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Midway. This window card is from 1969. Some versions also have the words “Blood Sweating Hippopotamus from the River Nile.” There is also a poster version of the image. Posters and window cards of Big Otto have sold on the internet from less than $10 to more than $100.
Zusah, Queen of the Nile, was a performing Hippo, one of the featured attractions of the 127th Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (1997-98). This media kit for that show is valued at $10-$15.
And we couldn’t end this article about famous circus animals without a mention of “The Living Unicorn,” the star of the 115th Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (1985-86).
Unicorn card 1.
Unicorn card 2.
Unicorn card 3.
Unicorn card 4.
Ringling mailed a series of four cards to members of the media to tease the coming appearance of The Living Unicorn. The final card opened revealing the Ringling logo. This set of four cards is valued at $10-$15.
Children in the audience were selected to ride floats in the Unicorn Spec. Each child was given a hat and a sticker. Here you see one of the hats before it was assembled. The sticker was placed on the child’s clothing along with the child’s ticket stub so the ushers could reunite the child with the parents after the spec. Sticker and hat are valued at $10 to $15.
One of these three-inch pinbacks can be found on the internet for less than $5.
The Living Unicorn caused quite a controversy as the show traveled around the country and resulted in lots of media coverage, including editorial cartoons.
The New York Post printed this editorial cartoon in their April 10, 1985 edition.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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