Circus Collectors React to Ringling News

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Jan 22, 2017 – Maureen Zambito

If you’re a collector of Americana, advertising or poster art, then you were especially saddened by the recent news that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be closing down.

On Jan. 14, the news broke that Ringling’s current producer of the Greatest Show on Earth, Feld Entertainment, was planning on taking its final bow and ending this 146-year tradition. The circus will hold its final performances in May.

CEO Kenneth Feld stated: “After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will hold its final performances in May of this year. Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

Elephants were phased out last year, due to animal rights activists and changing public opinion. Feld bought Ringling in 1967 and owns other big entertainment shows, such as Disney On Ice.

I love the circus and had a great time with my grandchildren at the Shrine Circus here in Wheeling last spring, so I’m very disappointed that Ringling Bros. will disappear. Many fans were posting messages on Facebook after the announcement, and that’s when I messaged Mort Gamble, formerly of Bethany and now residing in the Virginia Beach area.

Mort used to work for Bethany College and is now senior vice president at Virginia Wesleyan College located in Norfolk/Virginia Beach. His wife, M.E. Yancosek Gamble, remains at Bethany where she is chair of the department of communications and media arts.

He also is an active member of the Circus Fans Association of America and is a former circus employee.

“I’ve been a circus fan for about 60 of my 65 years, since my dad took me when I was 5 years old and we lived in Moorefield, W.Va.,” Mort explained. “The circus captures your imagination like no other show.”

“I worked in the circus when I was attending college at WVU. It was called Circus Kirk, and it was a traditional three-ring circus, under the tent. We moved every day. I sold the concessions, which was how they made most if their money. I traveled two seasons with them during summers. It was a great experience.”

Circus Kirk was in existence from 1969-1977, according to circusesand, and was started by a Pennsylvania college professor and circus enthusiast, Dr. Charles W. Boas.

Mort himself went on to build his career in higher education and eventually taught a few circus courses over the years. He’s been active as a collector and circus historian for many years.

“We are saddened that the great title of Ringling Brothers (and) Barnum & Bailey is going to close. But while a famous circus is closing, there will still be many circuses and the circus tradition will continue,” he said.

There are about two-dozen traveling circuses today.

“Interest remains very high, and it’s a valuable part of our society. We will stand by the circus performers and continue to applaud their talents.”

Mort is currently writing a book on a former trapeze artist, Arthur M. Concello, who later became the general manager of Ringling. The book is being co-authored by Maureen Brunsdale of Illinois State University, and should see publication in the next two years, if all goes as planned.

Besides being a member of the Circus Fans organization, he also belongs to the Circus Model Builders group. These enthusiasts and collectors create incredibly detailed miniatures of circus acts, wagons, tents and entire shows.

“It’s really a form of American folk art. Some of the miniatures are just amazing. The hand carving and work done to create the small circuses is unbelievable. The group also has periodic exhibits across the country.”

Like most circus enthusiasts, Mort enjoys collecting circus posters, artifacts and these miniature models as he shares the magic of circus. Like me, he suspects that this latest news of circus demise will only increase the lure of circus memorabilia to true collectors.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: zambitomaureen@hot or by writing in care of this newspaper.

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