Published: October 6, 2020
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy Potter & Potter Auctions
CHICAGO – Potter & Potter Auctions presented its circus, sideshow and oddities sale on September 26, conducted entirely online but streamed live from the firm’s gallery. The sale produced a new world’s record for a sideshow banner and totaled $345,000.
“Cavalcade of Wonders. Freaks Past & Present,” an enormous entrance-type sideshow banner on painted canvas, circa 1930s-40s, was the sale’s top lot, finishing at $28,800 on 24 bids, against a $6/9,000 estimate. The price is a new world’s auction record for a banner of this type. Depicted on the banner is a full cast of sideshow performers, including a snake charmer, magician, three-legged man, tattooed man, Ubangi “savages,” frog boy, little people, fire-eater, sword swallower, half man and others. More than 20 feet wide and 90 inches high, the banner, attributed to Fred Johnson, had the normal tears, patches, rips and folds consistent with age and use, but only scant repainting. Gabe Fajuri, the president of Potter & Potter Auctions, said the price realized for the lot is a record price for a sideshow banner. More than 700 lots of circus, freak and sideshow memorabilia spanning two centuries were presented in the sale.
Sideshow performers were often marginalized individuals who were exploited to bring in paying gawkers to the circuses’ main event. American photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971, however, created a body of work to normalize marginalized groups and highlight the importance of proper representation of all people. Her subjects ranged from members of the LGBTQ+ community, strippers, carnival performers, nudists, dwarves, children, mothers, couples, elderly people and middle-class families. Her subjects were photographed in everyday settings, such as their homes, on the street or at work. And in this sale, several of her original photographs taken of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century performers were among the top lots in this sale. Arbus’ “Group Portrait at Huber’s Museum,” circa 1965, depicted a number of such performers, gathered family-like, including Congo the Jungle Creep; Woogie, Princess Wago; Woogie’s husband, Charles Lucas; Russian midget Andrew Ratouchett; and Harold Smith, the Water Glass Musician. The 10-by-7/8-inch print sold for $12,000.
“Albino Sword Swallower and Her Sister,” two different croppings each fetching $6,000, were gelatin silver print photographs featuring performer Sandra Reed and her sister Doreen from the session that produced Arbus’s well-known photograph “Albino sword swallower at a carnival in Maryland” in 1970. The prints came from Reed’s personal collection.
Another enormously scaled sideshow banner, Fred Johnson’s “Magical Mystery Tour Girls,” produced in Chicago by O’Henry Tent & Awning in the 1940s, was bid to $4,800. The 93-by-232-inch signed banner featured silhouettes of three nearly naked women and text heralding The Girls of Enchantment/The Girls of Excitement/The Girls of Illusion. Presented Live in Person. This example was featured in the classic reference on sideshow banners, Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls.
“Lentini. Three Legs, Sixteen Toes. Alive” was hawked in a vintage sideshow banner, circa 1960, for the famous three-legged man, Frank Lentini, dressed as a football player at the center of the canvas, inside a decorative frame. Approximately 93 by 118 inches, unsigned and with rings at corners for hanging, the banner went out at $3,120.
A 36-by-125-inch entrance banner “R.B.B.B. Greatest Show on Earth,” mid-Twentieth Century, a blue canvas banner painted in white, left the gallery at $3,250, more than 12 times its low estimate, while a “Feline in Flight” canvas sideshow banner painted by Alexander Kensington, 72 by 96 inches, was dedicated by Kensington to “Woody the Woodruff Cat’/The Cat shot out of a cannon 1999/Circus Mondo/1998.” The “fearless” cat garnered $2,040.
Also on offer were a number of archives from people in the entertainment industry. These collections are ideally suited to provide researchers, museums and institutions first-hand materials for study and collection building. For example, “Pop” Haussman’s extensive collection of signed circus performer photographs from the 1950s earned $4,320. There were 13 albums in all, each filled with individual 8-by-10-inch signed and/or inscribed photographs (approximately 442 altogether) of circus performers and cast members. The front cover of each binder featured an original acrylic circus illustration. Carl “Pop” Haussman once boasted that he had the “world’s largest circus autograph collection.” These 13 volumes were from an archive that originally spanned 34 volumes. On the spine, the circus or circuses represented within each album was specified: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey; Hagenbeck-Wallace; Clyde Beatty; Polack Bros. and others. Nearly every imaginable type of circus performer was represented, including cowboys and Western performers, clowns, dancers, equestrians, American Indians, musicians, dwarfs, wild animal trainers, aerialists, ringmasters and many others. Most or possibly all of the images were taken by Haussman or his father, Otto, and include headshots, full-length portraits, performance and action shots, group photos and poses outside circus tents, wagons and trains.
Ten scrapbooks and other ephemera owned and kept by sword swallower Sandra Reed included images, clippings and publicity materials. Finishing at $3,600, the extensive record of the career of Reed covered the circuses and carnivals she and her husband, Harold “Big Jim” Spohn, traveled and toured within the 1970s.
Additional collection highlights included an extensive circus, carnival and Wild West show letterhead collection, principally American from early to late Twentieth Century. Five binders were filled with several hundred examples of letterhead from many different circuses, Wild West shows, amusement companies, carnivals and performers, such as acrobats, clowns, animal trainers and sideshow acts. Organized alphabetically, with three binders devoted to circuses and two binders to carnival and amusement companies, the collection came with ephemera such as mailing covers, tickets, route cards, contracts and bank checks. It realized $4,080.
Bid to the same price was a binder of snapshots of carnival attractions from the 1950s-80s. The approximately 200 images were amateur snapshots of carnival “fronts” and attractions, including haunted castles and “dark rides”; carnival vehicles and exhibits of famous and interesting automobiles such as Hitler’s armored limousine; sideshow attractions; monstrosities and oddities displays; wax museums; band organs; carnival rides; motordromes and motorcycle “hell drivers” and more.
Similarly, a massive photo and documentary archive of James Strates Shows covering the 1930s to 2010s was the lifetime accumulation of Fred Heatley. Filling nine plastic tubs and containing more than 50 three-ring binders filled with photographs, 35mm slides, clippings, correspondence, ephemera and research and notes pertaining to Strates, the Greek immigrant turned showman, who founded the privately held amusement and midway company. Containing a great amount of vintage and original material and memorabilia, the collection was described in the catalog as “must be seen” and sold for $2,400. Also bid to $2,400 was a similarly massive lot of carnival and circus photo scrapbooks from the 1940s-80s, filling two with scrapbooks (24 total), primarily containing color and black and white snapshots, with occasional clippings and ephemera, related to many different railroad carnivals and circuses.
Lithographed broadsides crossing the block offered a glimpse into the competitive traveling entertainment industry at the turn of last century. Examples included a circa 1912 poster advertising a film featuring scenes from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show portraying Native American Indian men in full headdress, pushed to nearly twice its high estimate at $2,880, and a vibrant Dan Rice “3 Ring Circus” poster, circa 1910, featuring a trio of polar bears on a seesaw, 27Ã¾ by 42 inches, which commanded $2,640.
Even Batman showed up in the form of an original poster advertising Adam West’s appearance as Batman at the State Fair Coliseum in the Dobritch International Circus, Detroit, 1967. The rare poster with no copies traced at auction swung to $2,400.
A more traditional circus poster, this one advertising “The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” with “Amy Dupont and Her Marvelous War Elephants,” was a 1915 color lithograph by Strobridge, 20 by 30Ã¼ inches, and it changed hands at $2,040.
There were plenty of circus and carnival-related oddities on offer, including a zebra full hide pelt rug, 105 inches long, that settled at $2,640. And, not circus-related but fitting heading into October was a group of more than 120 early Halloween postcards, circa 1900s-30s with all manner of colorful images of black cats, jack-o-lanterns, witches on broomsticks, cauldrons, children in costumes and spooky scenes. Representing various publishers, the lot brought $2,640.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For more information, www.potterauctions.com or 773-472-1442.
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