A Circus Isn’t a Circus Unless It Has a Band: Collecting Circus Music

“A circus isn’t a circus unless it has a band.” So said Merle Evans in his biography written by Gene Plowden. Of course, Evans would think that. For 50 years he was bandmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Likewise, a good circus collection isn’t complete unless it contains music and music-related memorabilia. So, let’s take a look at some of the many items that fit into that category.

Real music—records, tapes, CDs—make up the majority of collectibles in this category. Many of these items are desirable not only for the music, but for the album jackets.

The Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, Florida had an exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair Continental Circus. This vinyl album was sold at that exhibit. Today you can find it on the internet for less than $5.

The Ringling Museum of the Circus

Music from the Academy Winning motion picture “The Greatest Show On Earth” was released in several versions. This boxed set of four, 45 RPM records is one of the most difficult to find. Value is $15 to $20.

One of my previous articles featured this and other collectibles from the motion picture, The Greatest Show On Earth.

The South Shore Circus Concert Band has recorded more than 50 volumes, each titled Sounds of the Circus Music. Volumes 1 through 27 are available on cassette tapes and CD. Volumes 28 and on are on CD only except, for volume 41, which is a DVD.

This is Volume 1 of Sounds of Circus Music. As of the writing of this article, the new price was $10 for tape and $15 for CD plus shipping.

Music by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus band abounds. One of the most recent is a CD of Musical Memories from the 129th Edition of The Greatest Show on Earth.

This CD features “Put A Little Circus In Your Life” and the “Those Fabulous Animals.” Used copies on the Internet are $45 and up.

Most Ringling recordings were done when the band was under the direction of Merle Evans. He began as bandmaster in 1919 and, except for a few years, continued until his retirement at the end of the 1969 season. Below is a selection of six different albums that range in price from $5 to $15.

The last of these Ringling records pictured was made when the band was under the direction of Izzy Cervone. He was bandmaster from 1956 until 1960.

Two outstanding multi record sets bring higher prices. “The Circus Spectacular” set of two vinyl records sells for $20-$30. The five-record set, “A Tribute to Merle Evans,” by the New England Conservatory of Music sells new for around $50. A used set can sometimes be found for $35 and up.

“The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus Spectacular” set of two records has a color photo of famous clown Lou Jacobs on the cover.

The inside of the set has several pages with photos and text about the show. This copy was autographed inside by Merle Evans which increases the value.

One of the records in this five-record set is an exclusive interview with Merle Evans.

Included in the boxed set is a 28-Page booklet.

Besides his long career with The Greatest Show on Earth, in his earlier years, Merle Evans was a musician with S.W. Brundage Shows, Murphy’s Comedians’ Band, and the Buffalo Bill 101 Ranch Wild West Show.

Merle’s storied career is chronicled in the 1971 biography “Merle Evans, Maestro of the Circus,” written by Gene Plowden. Internet prices for the biography vary in price from under $10 to over $100 with most prices in the $20 to $30 range.

This 8 x 10 inch publicity photo of Merle directing the band is stamped “Chester Photo Service” on the back. A photo like this sold on eBay in 2008 for $111.38.

Merle letterhead.

Merle business card.

The above sheet of letterhead and business card are valued at $10 to $15 each.

Circus Songsters were popular in the 1800s and early 1900s. They are among the scarcer of circus music collectibles. Fred D. Pfening, Jr. wrote an article about Circus Songsters in the November-December 1963 issue of Bandwagon, the publication of the Circus Historical Society. You can read that article on the Circus Historical Society Web site.

This 1906 Barnum & Bailey Songster sold on eBay this year for $44.

The John Robinson Show sold this booklet of sheet music in 1920.

Besides pages of music, the Official Program of the circus was also printed inside. Value is $50-75.

The Downey and Wheeler Circus was on the road in 1911-13.This booklet of sheet music sold on the show for 25 cents. Today’s value is $40-50.

In 1949 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sold this booklet which contained the music played in the production numbers in that year’s performance. The cover says the music is by Henry Sullivan with lyrics by John Murray Anderson.

The inside had music and artwork illustrating the production songs. Value is $20-30.

A ukulele arrangement of the theme song from the MGM motion picture, "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" starring Lon Chaney is in this sheet music. It can be found on the Internet for under $5.

This 1919 sheet music has a picture of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey wire walker Bird Millman on the cover. The song, “Jerry,” is obviously the music played during her performance in the show. Millman’s printed signature is on the cover. Value is $20-30.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.


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