March 01, 2010
by Jennifer Barnett Fox
The Fred D. Pfening Co. is known within the baking industry for its ingredient conveying and proofing systems, but president Fred D. Pfenning III is also known for his love of the circus. He describes it as a “hereditary disease” passed to him by his father, that has resulted in the accumulation of a museum-worthy collection of original correspondence, photos and rare circus memorabilia. His collection and knowledge is sought out by writers and researchers looking for historically accurate depictions of day-to-day circus life and a snapshot of those who lived it. Mr. Pfening has served as a consultant on many TV documentaries and books about the circus, most recently on the sleeper bestseller “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen.
“In the 19th century, circuses were the major form of entertainment,” Mr. Pfening said. “They were the movies, TV and music all rolled into one. “I’ve always been interested in recording the history of the circus. I’m curious and I love to learn about things,” he continued. “These collections channel my interests of history, learning and reading. Just like learning about the baking industry, I’ll never run out of things to learn or read about.”
Mr. Pfening explained that in contrast to today where everyone is bombarded by images, the circus offered an excitement that Mark Twain compared to Christmas and the Fourth of July. “Think if you had never seen an elephant or a lion or even an image of those animals in a book,” Mr. Pfening said. “The sight and sound of them would be unimaginable.”
A fascination with the circus began early for his father, Fred Pfening Jr. As a child in the 1930s, he vacationed with his parents in Sarasota, FL, the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros. circus. Prowling the circus grounds, he would fill his pockets with the spent cardboard tickets. Inspired, he later organized a backyard circus at the age of 11.
A worker shortage during the World War II created an opportunity for him at age 17 to find employment with the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1942. He worked as an usher setting chairs up in the huge Big Top that sat 12,000. The younger Mr. Pfening fondly recalls his father’s stories of life in the circus. In 1955, the senior Mr. Pfening took out his own circus, which unfortunately was unsuccessful. Afterward he concluded studying the circus and collecting materials associated with it was less risky than owning one. Over the years, the younger Mr. Pfening began collecting and their collections today are combined.
The Pfenings’ collection includes most issues of the New York Clipper magazine, which covered outdoor show business from 1853 to 1924, and almost every copy of Billboard magazine from 1901 to 1960. Mr. Pfening referred to the New York Clipper as the Milling & Baking News of outdoor show business. In addition to a collection of 50,000 to 75,000 photos, 19th century circus posters and programs advertising numerous circuses, the younger Mr. Pfening has also obtained a collection of rare handbills in which circuses libeled competitors in language that would be unpublishable today. Because these ads were not intended to be saved, they are even more collectible.
In 1961, the older Mr. Pfening began publishing Bandwagon: The Journal of the Circus Historical Society, Inc. The bi-monthly magazine is edited and published by Mr. Pfening Jr. and Mr. Pfening III serves as managing editor. Bandwagon is read by academics, both active and retired circus people and anyone else with an interest in circuses . The father and son team use materials from their collection in the magazine such as correspondence between circus owners and employees. “These letters provide a sense of the texture and flavor of what the circus business was actually like,” the younger Mr. Pfening said.
Articles in Bandwagon have highlighted the American circus in the 1870s and the role of elephants in the circus, to name a few. Currently, Mr. Pfening is researching an 1853 riot on a circus that was so bloody that the Ohio National Guard had to be called out to quell it. The Circus Historical Society’s Web site www.circushistory.org features many letters, photos and articles by both Pfenings.
Mr. Pfening said that both the baking industry and the circus offer a commonality of fun and an opportunity for learning. “I’m never bored, and I’ll never run out of things to learn about. Both the baking industry and the circus are filled with bright and articulate people,” he said. “My discussions with those in the baking industry about business are much like the conversations I have with people in the circus industry.”
Despite a decline in one-night-stand tented circuses, the industry continues to reinvent itself through boutique circuses such as Cirque de Soleil’s numerous incarnations, the New York’s Big Apple Circus, a throwback to the single-ring circuses of the 1860s and the African-American-owned UniverSoul circus. Extravaganzas such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which operates three touring units, continues to thrive. “I want future generations to know the excitement of the circus,” Mr. Pfening said. “I believe if you have a private collection like this, you have a responsibility to share it as if it were a public collection.”