This month marks the end of two related eras. The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus - often called “The Greatest Show on Earth” - closes after its 147-year run. And Thursday, one of the foremost collectors of circus memorabilia, Wisconsin resident Richard Bennett, parts with around 90 percent of his collection at auction.
Bennett was a longtime friend of the Ringling family and frequently visited Ida Ringling at her Devil's Lake home. "She's the one that got me interested in the circus," he recalls. Bennett was about 18 when he first started visiting Mrs. Ringling, and over the years she passed along numerous objects - from posters and broadsheets to circus equipment and even a piano.
After first seeing the circus as a child, Bennett became, and remained, enamored with it. After frequent visits to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Bennett officially became a part of the museum as a clown in 1964, and continued his career throughout the United States. While he was at first nervous and embarrassed to take on the role of a clown, he realized that "when you have makeup on, your best friend wouldn't even know it's you," Bennett jokes.
"I loved being in front of thousands of people and I have no fear of getting up and talking in front of people and all the spotlights shining down on you...The big large coliseums, the arenas, the excitement, the elephants and the animals and the trapeze artists. All of that figured into it I guess, and I just really loved it," he adds.
Collecting circus memorabilia since he was fifteen, most of his lifelong collection will be auctioned off in Chicago and online, by Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. Bennett only decided within the last couple of months to sell the majority of his collection, which falls in line with the sad departure of the circus.
"His memory for where each of these items came from is invaluable," says Maggie Stoeffel of Leslie Hindman's Milwaukee office. "This memorabilia collection falls outside our general property that we see, but we're always on the lookout for that unusual collection."
Bennett hopes that his collection will preserve the circus' history and pass on his enthusiasm for the culture and his memories. "All of it was very important to me, but I figured I should start parting with things," he says.