BARABOO, Wis. — When Richard Bennett attended his first Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performance in 1949 in Sarasota, Fla., the 9-year-old boy could not have guessed just how much the circus would become a part of his life.
He worked as a clown for many years and befriended the widow of one of the Ringling brothers living in this city about 100 miles northwest of Milwaukee that has been home to the Circus World Museum since 1959. And he eventually amassed a large collection of circus memorabilia that will be auctioned in Chicago next month.
Among the items are large, full-color posters advertising the circus coming to various towns — the oldest date back to the turn of the 19th century — as well as circus wagon wheels, cast iron circus toys, and other memorabilia.
"I'm 77 and have no family to pass it on to," said Bennett, adding that it's emotionally difficult to give up the collection. "It's very hard. I often think, 'Should I keep this or keep that?' I decided to sell it before I heard about the Ringling Bros. circus closing, which was very sad news."
Growing up near Devils Lake about 3 miles south of Baraboo, Bennett befriended Ida Ringling, the widow of the youngest Ringling brother, Henry — not to be confused with the youngest Ringling sibling, Ida Loraina Wilhelmina Ringling North. The widow Ida Ringling and Bennett dined together many times at her Baraboo home and talked about the early days of the circus.
Baraboo used to be the winter home of the Ringling Bros. circus, and it was its headquarters when the seven Ringling brothers founded their circus in 1884. Ida Ringling was a font of knowledge since she had married into the famous Ringling family in 1902.
She began giving Bennett circus memorabilia. The first items were route cards from 1901 showing the cities the Ringling Bros. circus visited.
Bennett spent so much time at Circus World Museum in Baraboo that Great Circus Parade founder Chappie Fox asked him in 1964 if he wanted to work as a clown at the site of the Ringling brothers' original winter quarters. Bennett became "Raz-bo" and worked 16 years as a professional clown with circuses though not with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
He contacted the auction house in the fall about selling his collection, a few months before Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced it was closing in May. The circus has two traveling shows now: Circus XTREME, which will have its final performance May 7 in Providence, R.I.; and Out of This World, which ends its tour May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y.
Much of Bennett's collection is paper items, including menus from the Ringling Bros.' circus train dining car from 1903 and 1913. He has letters signed by the Ringling brothers, stationery, business cards, postcards, photos, circus route books from the 1880s through 1940s and turn-of-the-19th-century circus programs.
But he also has rare items:
• Two yellow lanterns hung on the circus train.
• A porter's xylophone used to let performers traveling on the train know when meals were ready.
• A red folding chair with the circus logo.
• And a Detmer upright piano used in the traveling show in the 1880s and into the 1890s.
Bennett collected cast iron circus-themed toys, including circus elephant coin banks and horses pulling circus wagons. He also acquired wooden circus wagon wheels.
His collection is not just Ringling Bros., and later Barnum & Bailey after the two circuses merged in 1919, but other circus memorabilia including posters and items from circuses run by the Gollmar Brothers, who were cousins of the Ringlings; the Cole Brothers; King Brothers; and Hagenbeck-Wallace.
A black metal 4-inch by 10-inch cash box from 1891 features "Gollmar Brothers" on the top, probably used to collect receipts and pay performers.
The sale of Bennett's circus collection by Leslie Hindman Auctioneers will be May 4 with previews April 30 to May 3 in Chicago. The auction company is expecting interest from circus aficionados, train buffs, old toy and poster fans and anyone who has fond memories of the circus, said Maggie Stoeffel, director of business development at the firm's Milwaukee office.
Estimates for the 195 lots range from $80 to $120 for a collection of miscellaneous bills, contracts and telegrams from the early 1900s to $600 to $900 for circus posters.
Although the auction will be at the Chicago office of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, buyers also can bid by phone, absentee bid or online. For more information, visit lesliehindman.com.