It was obvious to everyone that Pennell loved his job. He admits this to a friend in a personal letter joking, “if I didn’t enjoy being around show people I certainly would never accept employment.” It is also evident that the people Pennell worked for appreciated him just as much. In 1965 Pennell received a certificate of appreciation from Jack Smith (managing director) and Alex Irwin (chairman of the board) of Robbins Bros Circus for “your contribution and service in the furtherance of the outdoor circus industry.”
While the collection is primarily about Pennell’s life as an attorney, it also sheds light on the amusement industry in the mid 20th century. The collection contains a multitude of pictures and circus books giving a well-rounded view of the industry. And, as can be expected with a collection about the circus, there are several entertaining photos of the so-called “assistant freaks,” and a letter explaining the “circus slang.”
The collection also gives an inside look at some of the big name circus’ today, namely Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus. At the time Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey’s show, The Greatest Show on Earth, may or may not have been the greatest show in the world but it was most definitely the largest. According to the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus website, The Greatest Show on Earth consisted of “100 double-length railroad cars and 1,200 employees…[it] was arguably the largest traveling amusement enterprise up to that time.”
Pennell did work with the company for well over a decade. The collection sheds insight into Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus route book, management, and legal contracts. The documents show both the overwhelming success of their show The Greatest Show on Earth and the decline. Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey gave their last tented performance on July 16th, 1956. The collection has a copy of the newspaper clipping the details the ending. In it John Ringling North, head of the circus, says “the tented circus as it now exists is, in my opinion, a thing of the past.” The shut-down was prompted by the audience’s changing tastes but also by “labor troubles, bad weather, and rising costs.”
The George Pennell Collection is a well-rounded collection that has great research potential for Wake Forest students, staff, and faculty. To access the collection students can view the finding aid to get a brief overview or make an appointment with Special Collection to view the collection.
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