P.T. Barnum: An Accidental Collectible

Original Barnum Bust
Bill Ballentine Clown Face On Barnum Bust

A most unusual addition to my circus collection came from an unplanned series of events. More than 30 years ago I became acquainted with a local artist who was beginning to work with sculpture. My nephew introduced us. I always thought I’d like to have a bust of P.T. Barnum, which I thought would fit well on the bookshelves with my collection of Barnum and other circus books. When we asked this artist to create a small bust of Barnum, he was intrigued. So we worked out a deal. My nephew, also an artist, made a mold of the Barnum bust and cast Hydrocal reproductions of the bust to sell. I advertised them in magazines appealing to circus collectors.

The first ad appeared in the November 1974 issue of Bandwagon Magazine, the official publication for members of the Circus Historical Society. Within a week the first order and a check arrived from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Attached to it was a company purchase order signed by Bill Ballantine, the Dean of Clown College.

Bill’s illustrations and more than 400 articles have appeared in magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Colliers, Holiday, True, Cavalier, Harper’s and Harper’s Bazaar. He has written many books, including Wild Tigers and Tame Fleas, Horses and Their Bosses and Clown Alley. In the 1940s Bill was a clown, designer and publicist with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Clown Alley is his story about the eight years from 1969 to 1977 when he was dean of Ringling’s Clown College.

I first met Bill in 1971 when I produced a show about Clown College for a local TV station and stayed in touch over the years. When I was at the Venice, Florida Winter Quarters early in 1975 to see the premiere of the all-new Bicentennial Edition of The Greatest Show On Earth I ran into Bill again. I was curious about why he had purchased the Barnum bust. Smiling, he escorted me into his office and there it was sitting on his desk. He had painted his own clown face on the Barnum bust. “I always wanted to know what Barnum would have looked like as a clown,” was his explanation. We both had a good laugh.

At that time St. Petersburg, Florida was the first stop for Ringling after leaving the Venice Winter Quarters. Bill and I developed a tradition that continued for many years. I was Promotion Manager of Bayfront Center Arena where the show appeared. Bill would call and let me know what day he was coming to watch the show. He would arrive in the morning and we would have lunch, catch up on circus gossip and attend the matinee performance. One day he came into my office with a towel-wrapped package. He presented it to me with great fanfare. It was the Barnum bust with his clown face. We enjoyed another good laugh when he said, “My wife told me to get rid of it. You were the only logical one to have it.”

Bill Ballantine died in 1999. but I’ll never forget him. Every time I look at the Barnum bust with his clown face gathering dust on my office shelf, I remember our special friendship.

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