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Circus Historical Society

Founded in 1939, the Circus Historical Society, Inc. (CHS) is a tax-exempt, not-for-profit educational organization. The Society's mission is to preserve, promote and share though education, the history and cultural significance of the circus and allied arts, past and present. Membership includes people from all walks of life including historians, scholars, circus personnel, memorabilia collectors, Americana specialists and just folks who share both a love of the circus and a desire to preserve and disseminate its great and interesting heritage.
    As in most organizations that share a common interest, the CHS members gather annually at a different location in North America to hold a convention. Papers are given, films and slides are presented, meaty tidbits of circus history are exchanged, current circus executives set forth their views and challenges, friendships are renewed and new ones made, all in the interest of circus history preservation. These sessions represent the culmination of a focused year of circus research and writings on the part of many CHS members and are cherished visits to the circus past and present. See the History of CHS

Officers and Trustees

Deborah Walk President Deborah Walk is the Tibbals Curator of the Circus Museum at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida. She led the team that oversaw the building and installing of exhibits in the Circus Museum's Tibbals Learning Center (Phase I & II). Her publications include the catalog The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company (2011, co-curator & co-editor), Circus: The Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier (2009, co-editor) - winner of the American Association of Museum's Frances Smyth-Ravenel Prize for Excellence in Publication Design for 2010, The Circus in Miniature: The Howard Bros. Model Circus (2008, editor and contributor), Ca 'd'Zan: The Restoration of the Ringling Mansion (editor), A Guide to the Archives of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and The Letterbook of Frederick Wolcott Lyman, and two pocketbooks published by the Eakins Press Foundation as well as other articles on archives, conservation, and the circus. She is a member of the Sarasota County Historical Commission, on the Board of Friends of the Sarasota County History Center, and Secretary for the Board of Directors of Circus Sarasota. She is the Historian for the Founders Garden Club of Sarasota, Garden Club of America. She is a past president of the Society of Florida Archivists and is a past member of the Florida State Historical Records Advisory Board.

Don Covington Vice-President Don Covington has been a lifelong circus enthusiast, as evidenced by the fact that he joined CHS and CFA while still in high school. Assignments as a carrier aviator in the US Navy provided him the opportunity to visit and study circuses worldwide. After retiring as a Navy captain, he began a second career as a circus executive, touring with Big Apple Circus for thirteen years, where he served in various capacities including Executive Assistant to Paul Binder and Company Manager. During the period that he was Administrative Director of San Diego's Fern Street Circus, he became active in the American Youth Circus Organization. He was the national president of Circus Fans Association of America in 2012 and 2013 and is a trustee of Windjammers Unlimited. His articles and photographs have been featured in Le Monde du Cirque (France), Planet Circus (Germany), King Pole (U.K.), Bandwagon, White Tops, Circus Fanfare, Circus Report and Amusement Business. His chronicle Life on the Road was included as a chapter in the book Big Apple Circus 25 Years. Don and his family live in Coronado, California which serves as his base as a circus consultant.

Bob Cline Secretary/Treasurer Robert Cline, started his circus career out as a Junior Circus Model Builder, then joined Circus Kirk in 1973. Bob remained there through 1975 while attending Ohio State University in the off season. He started the free interest course on clowning at OSU in 1975. He then handed it off to some of the Shriner Clowns and they made a huge success out of it for many years. He performed between 1973 and 1995 doing aerial cradle, comedy low wire and lion & tiger acts, eventually owning his own tiger act for a few years. He has authored an unpublished book on "America's Elephants" as well as several articles. He studies the history of non-zoological elephants all the time. He has finished a historical documentation of the Circus World Museum parade trains over the years including their loading lists, train orders, paint schemes, and histories. Bob is also a CHS webmaster and is responsible for CHS's Facebook page.

Chris Berry Trustee Chris Berry's two passions are broadcasting and the circus — though not necessarily in that order. Growing up just outside of Sarasota, at an early age Chris had the opportunity to meet some of the great circus stars of the 20th century and the fire was lit. By the time he was 14 Chris was a member of the Circus Historical Society and a regular volunteer at the old Circus Hall of Fame. His interest in circus history and expertise in the area of circus lithographs blossomed as he learned and was mentored by some of the most respected circus historians of the time. By the time he reached his 20s his knowlege of circus posters was significant, however Chris' professional career in broadcasting soon took a front seat and the collection – if not the interest – was temporarily shelved. After a career with CBS and ABC where he held executive positions in Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York and Chicago – Chris now is a Senior Vice President at Clear Channel Communications where he divides his time between gathering and distributing the news of today, and the history of the circus in America.

Maureen Brunsdale Trustee Maureen Brunsdale is a graduate of St. Olaf College, the University of Iowa, and the University of South Dakota. Maureen has been a Special Collections and Rare Books Librarian at Illinois State University since 2009. It is there where her world first collided most delightfully with circus. She oversees four unique collections in her job at the Milner Library, none more fascinating (or alluring) as the Circus & Allied Arts Collection!

Circus Historical Society Trustee Alan Campbell is a graduate of Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, and was an Air Force pilot during the Viet Nam war, attaining the rank of Lt. Colonel. From 1969 until his retirement in 2000 he flew for Delta Airlines. Alan lives in the Atlanta suburb of Johns Creek, GA. He joined CHS in 1998 and served as Secretary-Treasurer from 2003 to 2008.

Circus Historical Society Trustee Steve Flint is retired from the auto industry where he served as a consultant for General Motors. He's been a member of the CHS since 1979 and enjoys both collecting and researching circus history and building models. He also belongs to the CFA and the CMB where he served 2 terms as Supt. of Construction. He also belongs to CWM, Inc. and was quite active in volunteering at CWM Baraboo (mainly in the wagon restoration shop) for over 25 years.

Steve Gossard Trustee Steve Gossard began to do circus research in 1984 because he was asked by the Museums Department at Illinois State University to curate an exhibit from the circus collection at Milner Library. He soon became aware that few people in the community knew anything about our local circus history. The few retired professionals who still lived in town seemed disappointed by the fact that the community had forgotten them. In fact, the local circus history was something of a mystery to everyone. His goal from the beginning was to make document this fascinating history in detail. As time went on he became more and more interested in the history of trapeze in general, and in 1991 he published A Reckless Era of Aerial Performance, the Evolution of Trapeze. That same year he was invited to take the position of Curator of Circus Collections at Milner Library, a job that he has had since then. Steve has a Bachelors Degree in Art and a Masters Degree in Art History.

Judy Griffin Trustee, past president, Judith L. Griffin was only the second woman to serve as President of CHS, Bette Leonard was the first, 1947-1957. Judy joined CHS in 2000, after spending twenty years trying to track her family relative, James L. Hutchinson's connection with the circus. It is a familiar tale, her mother said that one of the family was connected to the circus. After a number of failed efforts to find much information on "Hutch" (part-owner, Barnum & London, 1881-1887), she developed a web page with a small amount of information. It was not too long afterwards that, as a result of the website, she heard from another relative, a Stuart Hicks from Australia, who was also looking for information on Hutch, and who had a suprising amount of additional information. When she learned about the Circus Historical Society and joined in 2000, she received research advice that resulted in a wealth of information. The result of the connection with the relative in Australia has resulted in collaboration on a biography of James L. Hutchinson, a work in progress. Another interest is the early aquatic acts performed on circuses before 1900 (water queen and man-fish). In 2001 the CHS asked her to develop a web site for CHS, which went on the web in May 2002. The website continues to be a 'labor of love,' growing from about four visits a day to over 1,000. Judy is a retired teacher/consultant for children with Autism and a past President of the Autism Society of Wisconsin. She has a BA from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI and a MSE from the University of Wisconsin.

Joe Parker Trustee Joe Parker, is a graduate of the University of Dallas (B.A., 1976), and the University of Portland (M.A., 1978), where he first discovered his fascination with the Circus. He works for a computer-software and services firm in Dallas, TX. He joined the CHS in 2000, and has been fortunate enough to attend every convention since, starting with 2001 (Baraboo). He became the treasurer of CHS on May 1, 2008.

Circus Historical Society Trustee Fred D. Pfening III is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan and holds a master's degree in economic history from Ohio State University. He has been a CHS member almost his entire life, having joined in 1961 when only twelve years old. He is a past President (1986-89), has bee a Trustee since CHS was reorganized in 1997, and has served as Managing Editor of Bandwagon. He is CEO of the Fred D. Pfening Company, manufacturers of bakery and allied machinery, Columbus, Ohio.

John Polacsek Trustee John F. Polacsek became interested in tracing the routes of early circuses after discovering an 1835 metal printing plate that a branch of the Zoological Institute used to advertise their menagerie while traveling through Ohio. John extended his research and in 1974 produced The History of the Circus and Menagerie in Ohio Prior to 1860, as his Masters Thesis at Bowling Green State University. By researching early circuses he has used newspapers, diaries and route cards, and route books to verify a number of circus routes. He has also provided numerous photographs for the route books, and advertising that has been issued by the Carson & Barnes Circus. In addition to being a Director of the CHS he served as the President of the organization.

Al Stencell Trustee Al Stencell is a CHS Past President. Al is a Canadian and has been a trustee since the 1997 reorganization. A retired showman, he worked his way up through concessions, novelties and bill posting until becoming a showman. From 1973 to 1976 he was part owner of Royal Bros. He and his wife founded and operated Martin and Downs Circus from 1977 to 1983. In 1983 he built Super Circus International and toured it until 1992. A gifted raconteur, his knack for story telling led to writing two popular books, with a third soon to be published.

Lane Talburt Trustee Lane Talburt has been a circus fan since Clyde Beatty and his caged lions and tigers visited McAlester, Oklahoma, in 1948. As a staff writer for the Abilene, TX, Reporter-News in the early 1960s, he interviewed clowns (Emmett Kelly was one), dare devils and side show artists while covering the annual West Texas Fair. After concluding a 26-year public relations career, Lane started his own video production firm in St. Louis. For the past 10 years, he has taken his video camera (now Hi-Def) into circus backyards, tents and arenas throughout the nation to capture the stories of active and retired performers, workers and owners/producers. From the transcribed interviews, he has written scores of articles published in Bandgagon, White Tops and Circus Report. Talburt received a B.A. degree in political science from Hardin-Simmons University. Lane and his wife, Martha, have lived in Stratford, CT, since 2006.

Matt Wittmann Trustee Matthew Wittmann is an academic historian and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. He has a B.A. and M.A. in History from the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His dissertation, entitled "Empire of Culture: U.S. Entertainers and the Making of the Pacific Circuit, 1850-1890," looks at the minstrels, magicians, circuses, and sundry other entertainers that toured through the Pacific in the wake of the California Gold Rush. Matt has given papers at several CHS conferences and is presently working on a forthcoming exhibition (January 2012) and edited collection about the history of the circus in America for the Bard Graduate Center.


Dave Price Trustee Emeritus Dave Price was born in Nashville the same year that both Barnes-Sells-Floto with RBBB Features and Robbins Bros with Clyde Beatty played the town. His earliest circus memories are from 1943 when he saw two circuses, one featuring Beatty and the other Gargantua. He has collected Beattyana since 1953. Price worked as a billposter on the advance of several circuses, both large and small, and his wife Mary Jane was a press agent when they were with the Hanneford show. He eventually earned a B. S. from Middle Tennessee State College and an M. A. Ed. from Tennessee State University. Dave joined the CHS in 1958 and attended his first convention in 1966. His first piece to appear in Bandwagon was in 1967; he served as secretary 1968-69 and secretary/treasurer 1996-2003.

Richard Reynolds Trustee Emeritus Richard J. Reynolds III of Atlanta, GA, holds undergraduate and law degrees from Emory University. He has been a CHS member since 1958, has served as President (1998-2001), and has been a Trustee since the 1997 reorganization, which he spearheaded. He practiced law in Atlanta for 33 years, until his retirement from the firm of Troutman-Sanders in 1991. He has written extensively for Bandwagon.


Robert Sabia Trustee Emeritus Robert F. Sabia, a Connecticut product and a US Army veteran, spent adult life in business, much of it on the international circuit. An attorney by education (member of PA Bar), ran construction business on west coast, mass transit systems on east coast, telecommunication systems throughout Europe, Middle East, Asia and South America, extensive involvement in US chemical agent destruction program, and power plant construction. Life time avocation has been the study of the circus business of the past. Member of CHS for over forty years and a Past President of CHS. Retired in Williamsburg, VA some five years ago.

Circus Historical Society Trustee Emeritus William L. Slout has authored a number of books and articles on circuses and circus showmen. He is a Professor Emeritus of Theatre Arts, California State University, San Bernardino, and past editor of Clipper Studies in the Theatre for the Borgo Press. Having grown up as a family member of a dramatic tent show, he is a former actor and summer theatre producer turned educator. His publications have been mainly in the field of popular amusements. A premier book on tent shows, Theatre in a Tent (1972), is still available and continuously used in the research of that area of entertainment. Books compiled and edited by him include Life Upon the Wicked Stage, Popular Amusements in Horse and Buggy America. His research on the early American circus, culminated in Clowns and Cannons, Amphitheatres and Circuses, Ink From a Circus Press Agent, A Royal Coupling: The Historic Marriage of Barnum and Bailey, A Clown's Log, Grand Entrée (with Stuart Thayer), and Chilly Billy. A work of thirty years, Olympians of the Sawdust Circle, a biographical dictionary of the 19th century American circus, is a major resource for circus historians. In addition he has contributed a number of articles in the Circus Historical Society's publication, Bandwagon. He has a B.A. from Michigan State University, an M.A. from Utah State University, and a Ph.D. from UCLA.

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History of the Circus Historical Society

    According to Don Smith, founder of CHS, the idea for the society began in the early 1930s. An ex-showman and dealer in circus photographs, Charles Bernard and Smith corresponded on the possibility of the organization. In 1932 Bernard wrote an article for Billboard, mentioning the possibility, but there was little response. Smith continued to pursue the idea of a national group, and proposed it in his communications with fans and collectors.
    At the 1939 CFA convention, Smith suggested that CFA members might be interested in collecting items for a Circus Museum, members showing little interest. Harry Hertzberg was of the opinion that he had already collected everything worthwhile. When he returned home, he was even more determined to form the Circus Historical Society, but everyone said "it could not be done." He had also been meeting with Bette Leonard, a performer with the Seils-Sterling Circus, who was enthusiastic about the idea. She promised to contact fans and collectors during her circus tour. By the end of 1939, there were a dozen active collectors lined up, and it was announced that the Circus Historical Society had been organized.
    The ten charter members of the newly formed Circus Historical Society formed in 1939 were: Don F. Smith, President; Walter Tyson, Vice President; Walter Pietschman, Secretary/Treasurer; Arthur Stensvad, Bette Leonard, Bill Kasiska, Robert Green, Eddie Jackson, Bill Green and Charlie Campbell.
    The group set as their goal, the purchase of a Circus Bandwagon, to be presented to a worthy museum, and the geographical divisions of the society were to be named after famous parade wagons. In his remarks at the 1959 convention, Smith noted that he believed it was through CHS efforts, the world had become Circus Museum conscious. That there was "definite assurance that the few remaining circus treasures may be preserved for posterity, because of The Circus Historical Society."
      The first national CHS convention was held April 11-14, 1946 at Peru, Indiana, with 85 people attending the banquet. Though the society was founded in 1939, because of the war it was seven years before a convention could be arranged. At the 1996 convention, President Fred Dahlinger related that the roster of members in 1946 listed a total of 246 members. By 1996 there were about 1,200 members, a 500% increase.
    The second president of CHS was Walter Tyson, Canada's leading fan and circus collector. Another early CHS president was John Van Matre, who also later published Banner Line, a monthly publication devoted to the circus and circus history.
    In 1961 Fred D. Pfening, Jr. was President, Charles Philip Fox, President, and Robert C. King, Secretary and Treasurer. At that time CHS had Directors: Division 1, Richard Conover, Ohio; Division 2, Roy Arnold Massachusetts; Division 3, Paul Ruddell, Washington DC; Division 4, Fred Bailey Thompson, Georgia; Division 5, Sverre O. Braathen, Wisconsin; Division 6, Betty Leonard, Kansas; Division 7, Glen R. Draper, Idaho; Division 8, Bob Taber, California; Division 9, E. W. Cripps, Canada; and Division 10, Edward A. A. Graves, England.
    The first CHS publication was called SPEC, but in the spring of 1942 the name was changed to Bandwagon, with Don Smith as editor, printed by Fred D. Pfening, Jr., who was the Bandwagon editor for nearly fifty years. When the society had difficulty getting out an issue of Bandwagon due to lack of funds, the charter members dug into their own pockets and went out and signed up more members. In 1946, the dues were $1.00 and a subscription to Bandwagon was $2.00, an eight single-sided mimeographed publication.
    During the 1940s Bandwagon was published in Canada by the then President Walter Tyson and Secretary John Lyon. In 1947 Harry Simpson merged Bandwagon with his hobby publication and it became Hobby-Bandwagon. In March 1951 Simpson resigned, and President Bette Leonard appointed Agnes W. King editor. During her years Bandwagon grew in stature and size. In August 1957 it was enlarged from pocket size. In 1961 Agnes King resigned and Fred D. Pfening Jr. became the editor. By 1966 Bandwagon had become a bimonthly journal, recognized around the world, with significant narratives about the circus.

Sources: Smith, Don F., "They Said It Couldn't Be Done - We Did It!," Bandwagon, July-August, 1959, pp. 9, 11. "Bandwagon Cycle," Bandwagon, Vol. 5, No. 6 (December), 1961. Dahlinger, Fred Jr., "Circus Historical Society's 1996 National Convention," Bandwagon July-August, 1996, pp. 38-39.


List of Presidents and dates and places of past conventions

Year President Convention City
1946 John Van Matre Peru IN
1947 Bette Leonard Jamestown NY
1948 Bette Leonard South Bend IN
1949 Bette Leonard Baraboo WI
1950 Bette Leonard Chicago IL
1951 Bette Leonard Cincinnati OH
1952 Bette Leonard Baraboo WI
1953 Bette Leonard No Convention
1954 Bette Leonard Columbus OH
1955 Bette Leonard Jefferson City MO
1956 Bette Leonard Peru IN
1957 Bette Leonard Lansing MI
1958 Fred Pfening Dover-New Philadelphia OH
1959 Fred Pfening, Jr. Baraboo WI
1960 Fred Pfening, Jr. South Bend IN
1961 Fred Pfening, Jr. Joplin MO
1962 Fred Pfening, Jr. Peru IN
1963 Fred Pfening, Jr. Corning NY
1964 Joseph Bradbury Delavan WI
1965 Joseph Bradbury Peru IN
1966 Bob Parkinson Baraboo WI
1967 Bob Parkinson Baraboo WI
1968 Gaylord Hartman Anaheim CA
1969 Gaylord Hartman Baraboo WI
1970 Chang Reynolds Baraboo WI
1971 Chang Reynolds Milwaukee WI
1972 Chang Reynolds Baraboo WI
1973 Chang Reynolds Baraboo Wi
1974 Stuart Thayer Bridgeport CT
1975 Stuart Thayer Baraboo WI
1976 Stuart Thayer No Convention
1977 Stuart Thayer Sarasota FL
1978 Tom Parkinson No Convention
1979 Tom Parkinson Bloomington-Normal IL
1980 Tom Parkinson Baraboo WI
1981 Tom Parkinson Milwaukee WI, Chicago IL
1982 Richard Flint Washington DC
1983 Richard Flint Akron OH
1984 Richard Flint Baraboo WI
1985 Richard Flint Pittsfield MA
1986 Fred Pfening III Milwaukee WI
1987 Fred Pfening III Milwaukee WI
1988 Fred Pfening III Burlington/Shelburne VT
1989 Fred Pfening III Columbus OH
1990 John Polacsek Ann Arbor MI
1991 John Polacsek Charleston SC
1992 John Polacsek Clare MI
1993 John Polacsek Nashville TN
1994 Fred Dahlinger, Jr. Sarasota FL
1995 Fred Dahlinger, Jr. San Antonio TX
1996 Fred Dahlinger, Jr. Baraboo WI
1997 Fred Dahlinger, Jr. Chicago (Northbrook), IL
1998 Richard Reynolds III Atlanta, GA
1999 Richard Reynolds III Los Angeles, CA
2000 Richard Reynolds III Bloomington-Normal, IL
2001 Richard Reynolds III Baraboo, WI
2002 Al Stencell Toronto, Canada
2003 Al Stencell Peru, IN
2004 Al Stencell Nyack, NY
2005 Al Stencell Baltimore, MD
2006 Robert Sabia Sarasota, FL
2007 Robert Sabia Las Vegas, NV
2008 Robert Sabia West Springfield, MA
2009 Robert Sabia Milwaukee, WI
2010 Judith Griffin Bloomington, IL
2011 Judith Griffin Fort Mitchell, KY
2012 Judith Griffin Baraboo, WI
2013 Judith Griffin Peru, IN
Copyright © 2002-2010
Circus Historical Society, Inc.

CHS webmasters J. Griffin and Bob Cline, last modified October 2010.

Circus Historical Society, on the web since May 3, 2002.