Clowns — The Hearts of the Circus Make Great Collectible Category

Lou Jacobs’ face adorned Ringling Posters for years. This classic image on a one-sheet poster features a photo by Maxwell Frederic Coplan. Value is $25-50.

Send in the clowns—and the elephants! When we go to a traditional American circus, we expect to see both, and any complete circus collection will have items related to these two icons. A future article will ponder pachyderms, but here we’ll focus on the funsters—the clowns, that P.T. Barnum called “…the pegs used to hang circuses on.”

Serious circus collectors aren’t usually interested in clown kitsch, clown paintings on felt or anything not representing an actual, historic circus clown. Clown collectibles include books, posters, photos, concession souvenirs, autographs, ephemera related to clowns, clown props and costumes.

The English clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) is credited with being the first white face clown. A two-volume work by Charles Dickens, “Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi,” published in 1838, sells for $4,000-$5,000, with other editions as low as $400-$500. In the 1800s, Dan Rice was a household name. He was a clown and show owner. He even ran for the office of President of the United States in 1868. A 2001 biography by David Carlyon entitled, “Dan Rice The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard of,” can be found new for $10-$20. An earlier book, “The One-Horse Show: The Life and Times of Dan Rice, Circus Jester and Philanthropist,” by John Kunzog, can be had for about $20.

This Dan Rice biography originally retailed for $30.

Almost every copy of John Kunzog’s “One-Horse Show: The Life and Times of Dan Rice, Circus Jester and Philanthropist” is autographed, but that does not add to its value.

In the 20th Century, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey created an enormous number of clowns. A 1933 poster advertised 100 clowns (Felix and 99 other famous clowns).

This half-sheet poster promoting 100 clowns is valued at $300-$400. Reproductions of the poster, which have little value, frequently appear on internet auctions and are often advertised as originals.

For more information on how to identify circus poster reproductions see my article Circus Posters—Authentic or Reproduction.

By 1935, and for several years thereafter, the show was boasting 150 clowns. The 1935 souvenir program devoted an entire page listing many of the clowns by name, among them: Louis (Lou) Jacobs, Paul Wenzel, Chas. (Charlie) Bell, Jack LeClaire. One would think that two famous tramp clowns—Emmett Kelly and Otto Greibling—should be on that list, but in 1935 both were on Cole Bros. Circus and had not yet joined Ringling Bros.

This page from the 1935 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus program proclaims “150 ambassadors of fun from every corner on the earth . . .”

Early in his career, the famous tramp clown Emmett Kelly also doubled in an aerial act with his first wife Eva. Written on the back of this 8 x 10 publicity photo is “The Aerial Kellys, Season 1931.” Emmett Kelly was on the Sells-Floto Circus in 1931. Value is $50-$75.

This Emmett Kelly color postcard is quite common and sells for under $5.

Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs are the two best known clowns of the Ringling show of the 20th century. Both were featured in Cecil B. DeMille’s Academy Award Winning motion picture, “The Greatest Show On Earth.” An earlier WorthPoint article was devoted to collectibles from that movie classic: Collecting ‘The Greatest Motion Picture On Earth’. Jacob’s image even appeared on a United States postage stamp which I pictured in the first of my two articles on circus postage stamps:Collect Circus Stamps for Color and Variety on a Budget.

Lou’s most famous clown gag involved his midget auto, which only measured two by three feet. The 6-foot, 1-inch Lou squeezed himself into the tiny car and drove it into the center ring under the big top. Lou’s original auto is on display at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Fla.

Dolly Jacobs, daughter of the world famous clown Lou Jacobs, is a circus star in her own right. She was an aerial performer with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is co-founder of Circus Sarasota. Here she holds a model of her father’s miniature auto. The original midget car, in the background, is on display at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Fla.

The model is part of the largest miniature circus in the world, Howard Bros. Circus, also at the Ringling Circus Museum.

This Lou Jacobs back scratcher was sold at circus concession stands. Value is $10-15.

In more recent years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, produced by Feld Entertainment, featured clowns as the headline attraction. In 1991 Italian clown David Larible joined The Greatest Show On Earth as a center-ring performer. He was with the Ringling show and Kaleidoscape (another Feld Entertainment production) for 14 years. Comic daredevil Bello Nock was featured with New York City’s Big Apple Circus for years. He joined Ringling Bros. in 1991 and toured with the show for eight years.

David Larbible’s first year with The Greatest Show On Earth was the 121st Edition, which opened in 1990 at the Venice, Fla., Winter Quarters. This window card promotes that engagement. Value is $10-15.

In 2007 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spectacular production was named “Bellobration” after comic daredevil Bello. It’s the second time Bello was honored in that way. His first season with the show, the production number was called “Bo and Bello.” Bo was a talented elephant. Value is $10-15.

Let’s have a look at some other clown collectibles:

Pat Valdo held many executive positions with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey including Performance Director and General Director. Early in his career he performed with the show as a white face clown, as seen in this half-sheet poster valued at $100-150.

Paul Wenzel was a producing clown and appeared with many circuses throughout his career. This early letterhead illustrates many of the clown gags he created. Value is $10-15.

This set of Ringling Clown Trading Cards was sold in 1993. It featured David Larible and 18 other clowns. Value is $20.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has licensed the use of their name and images to many companies. This small statue of two clowns sold in the box for just $5.

(See previous story The Ringling Name Sells Products and Expands the World of Circus Collectibles.)

Collector plates were a very popular licensed Ringling item. The first series by artist Franklin Moody was released in 1981. All plates were numbered and came with a certificate. The first plate in the first series was this one entitled “Clowns—The Heart of the Circus.” If features Lou Jacobs and Felix Adler. The original price was around $30 but they can sometimes be found on the internet for less than $5. A later series featured the greatest clowns of the circus.

To promote ticket sales, this life-sized, point-of-purchase standup was created in 1993. It features clowns Tom and Tammy Parish. Value is $25-30. An earlier standup used the image of Lou Jacobs and is valued at $50-60.

In 1968 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey started Clown College and, over the following years, trained more than 1,000 clowns. There are literally hundreds of collectibles that can be connected to Clown College.

Here you see an invitation to the 15th Anniversary Graduation/Performance held in 1982 at the circus winter quarters.

This is a program for that year. They are valued at $20-30 each.

“Clown Alley,” by former Ringling Clown Bill Ballantine, is a must read.

Find out more about Bill and an unusual collectible he gave me in my story P.T. Barnum: An Accidental Collectible. You can find a good used copy of “Clown Alley” on the internet for about $30.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.


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