From small beginnings in 1939, the Circus Historical Society stands today as a living legend of stories of the circus world.
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 opportunity, 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 established 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 conference, 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.