Museum of Science & Industry to Auction Off Circus Exhibit, Zeph the Burro  

The Circus exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry (M.S.I.) in Chicago closed earlier this month after it had been on display for forty-nine years and the items from this collection are being auctioned off this coming weekend,[1] as is Zeph the animatronic donkey from the Burlington Zephyr exhibit.  Circus closed on Tuesday, September 6, A.D. 2022, according to C.B.S. Chicago (formerly W.B.B.M.).[2]

The Circus exhibit, which was located in the East Gallery on the Lower Level of the M.S.I., was a vestige of a much larger Circus exhibit in the East Pavilion that was sponsored by Sears, Roebuck & Company.  [Sears had a close relationship with the M.S.I. because Sears President Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) founded the M.S.I.]  The miniature animated Circus exhibit was designed, built, and animated by a single man, retired railroad foreman Roland J. Weber, who carved many of the wooden pieces himself.[3] 

Weber called it the “Terrell Jacobs Wild Animal Circus” in honor of his friend, Terrell Jacobs (1903-1957) (“The Lion King”), a famous circus animal-trainer,[4] who had reached the height of his fame in the 1938-39 season when he headlined for the newly combined Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Baily Circus. In 1949, Weber’s miniature animated circus was displayed in the Chicago Public Library (as in the central library that is now the Chicago Cultural Center), and three department stores: Marshall Field & Company, Boston, and Goldblatt’s.[5] 

      By 1952, Weber had been working on it for twenty-three years and it was comprised of 20,000 pieces.[6]  Each wagon had about 400 parts.[7]  Weber toured with it in the Midwest and Maryland for years before he sold it in 1960.  Ken Idle of Rivergrove, Illinois acquired it and in 1970 sold it to Sears,[8] as part of a much larger toy collection, part of which, the M.B. Mervis collection of wooden horses known as “Horses of the World Collection,” ended up in the Kentucky Horse Park’s International Museum of the Horse.

Figure 1 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This fiberglass white elephant with a red howdah is one of the many items from the Museum of Science and Industry’s former Circus exhibit that goes on auction on Saturday, September 24, A.D. 2022.

The items from the exhibit will be auctioned off on Saturday, September 24, A.D. 2022. Anne Spiselman broke the story for the Hyde Park Herald, a neighborhood newspaper, the auction house would be Potter & Potter Auctions on the North Side of Chicago.[9]  The M.S.I. and Potter & Potter had hoped that a single buyer would step forward to purchase the whole Circus collection, but when they could not locate one, they opted to hold a public auction.[10]

The Big Top motorized diorama and the street parade diorama are expected to each raise $5,000 to $10,000.[11]  The expectation for the display with the wagon that holds two big cats is that it could go for $3,000 to $6,000.[12]  The painted circus sign could fetch $1,000 to $2,000.[13]  The cutout display where children (and sometimes adults) poked their faces out next to clowns could fetch $1,000 to $2,000.[14] Money raised from the auction is supposed to be used to acquire artifacts or other items for the M.S.I.’s collections or the maintenance of items already in those collections.[15]

Mold-A-Rama, Inc. announced on Facebook that a Mold-A-Rama exhibit will replace it.  According to Ms. Spiselman, the Mold-A-Rama exhibit will be open for at least one year.[16]

Kathleen McCarthy, Director of Collections (and my former supervisor), estimated the exhibit had been seen by tens of millions of visitors over the years.[17]  She told Ms. Spiselman an internal committee that consisted of “the president [Chevy Humphrey] and staff from across the museum” had decided to close the Circus.[18]  “It’s never easy to take down a beloved exhibit, but I think everyone was in agreement that it was necessary to keep the museum relevant and inspiring for our audience,” Ms. McCarthy stated.[19]

In addition to individual items from the M.S.I.’s Circus exhibit, the auction will also include “John and Jan Zweifel’s separate and extensive circus memorabilia collection,” C.B.S. reported.[20] It would be more accurate to say the M.S.I.’s Circus exhibit is being auctioned off alongside the Zweifel circus memorabilia collection. 

To see the items from the Circus exhibit, go to the Website for Potter & Potter, click on C·I·R·C·U·S: The Zweifel Collection, and scroll down to page 75. This section of the catalog has its own title, “CIRCUS, CAROUSEL & FAIRGROUND: FEATURING THE ZEIFEL COLLECTION & EXHIBITS FROM THE MUSEUM OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY, CHICAGO.”  Please note that whomever places the winning bid for these items will need to hire third-party transportation.

The wooden Circus exhibit sign from the is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  It is item #396 in the catalog.

The half-size white elephant with a red howdah on its back is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  This sculpture is made of fiberglass.  It is identified as “Museum of Science and Industry White Elephant Circus Exhibit Display” (item #397).  It measures 8’ x 7’ x 3’.

The coin-operated wooden wagon that contains the two bog cats (a tiger and a leopard) is expected to go for $3,000 to $6,000.  The cats are supposed to roar when a coin is deposited in the box, but the auction house has not tested the device.  It is identified as “Museum of Science and Industry Circus Mechanical Coin-Operated Wagon and Big Cats Display” (item #398).  It measures 8’ x 6 ½’ x 4’.

The free-standing display with five clowns with two cut-aways where two people can poke out their faces for a phot op is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  It is identified as “Five Clowns Interactive Circus Display” (item #399).  It measures 66” x 70” x 48”.

The group of three funhouse mirrors is expected to go for $500 to $1,000.  They are identified as “Trio of Circus Funhouse Mirrors” (item #400).  They measure approximately 78” x 48”.

The Ringling Brothers Circus Street Parade Motorized Diorama (item #401) is expected to go for $5,000 to $10,000.  The diorama consists of twenty-six detailed miniature models of circus wagons, animals, and human performers that move along a sinuous track.  It recreates the circus cavalcade that would come down the main street of a town where a circus would pitch its tents and put on a show for a few days.  One of the wagons is a model of the famous Barnum & Bailey Two Hemispheres bandwagon.  This diorama includes a carboard black-and-white streetscape.  Railroad worker Roland J. Weber, who created the motorized dioramas, hand-carved the animal and human figures.  This diorama is approximately thirty-three feet long.  Some elements are in need of repair, but the mechanism is in working order.

The Circus Sideshow Motorized Diorama (item #402) is expected to go for $2,000 to $4,000.  This is a recreation of a circus sideshow circa 1920.  The performers captured as model figures include a tattooed lady, a giant, a strongman, a fat lady, and a stage magician.  On one side of the tent a Black African-American band sits on a platform with their musical instruments.  It is approximately 51” wide.

The Big Top Motorized Diorama (item #403) is expected to go for $5,000 to $10,000.  A model of a big top canvas tent with four flags flying has a cutaway (in this case, meaning one side missing like a stage set) so the viewer can see inside.  The three-ring circus has a cage at its center filled with big cats and a trainer in the center ring, which is flanked by two other rings.  Pachyderms perform in a second circle while horse riders perform in the third ring.  Mother Goose-themed floats move around on a track around the three rings.  Overhead, a troupe of acrobats (like the Wallenda family) perform on trapezes.  On three sides, the tent is fill by approximately 500 spectators on the bleachers.  The diorama measures 125” x 24”.

The Circus Menagerie Motorized Diorama (item #404) is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  It consists of a scale-model of a circus menagerie tent that features dozens of exotic animals that a three-ring circus would have traveled with in the early 20th Century.  Some of the animals in a circus menagerie would have provided spectacles in a big top tent, as depicted in the Big Top Motorized Diorama.  It includes elephants, zebras, four giraffes, two moose, circus visitors, and two circus wagons. This tent also has a cutaway so a viewer or viewers can see within.  It is mounted on a wooden base.  The diorama measures 47” x 18”.

The Tattooed Man Interactive Circus Display (item #405) is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  This is a peep show where someone looking through an inset gilded frame sees himself or herself as a tattooed man wearing a turban is performing with two green snakes that coil around his legs.  A mirror in place where the man’s face should be reflects the face if the viewer.  It measures 68” x 46”.

The Fat Lady and Midget Interactive Display (item #406) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000.  This is another peep show.  The viewer sees himself or herself as a gun-toting midget dressed like a little girl standing atop the lap of a morbidly obese woman dressed like a cowgirl.[21]  The guns are revolvers pointed upward.  A mirror in place of the midget’s face reflects the face of the viewer.  This display measures 68” x 46”.

The Circus Drum Major/Ringmaster Statue (item 407) is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  This papier-mâché figure is supposed to be leftover from the Danbury Fair.  It depicts a circus drum major or ringmaster clad in a bright red coat, white pants, and black knee-high boots.  In his right hand, he carries a marching baton.  Atop his head is a red and gilt hat.  He measures 72” x 66” x 48”.

The Circus Dining Tent Motorized Diorama (item #408) is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  This is a scale-model of a circus cast’s dining tent.  Another canvas tent with a cutaway, this one reveals about 100 carved wooden figures seated at long tables with food laid out before them.  Waiters on tracks move about holding aloft trays of food.  This diorama measures 32 ½” x 33” x 18”.  The auction house has not tested the mechanism.

The Model Circus Tent Diorama (item #409) is expected to go for $4,000 to $8,000.  It depicts a circus lot with the variety of tents a three-ring circus would need, including the Bog Top, annex, and other tents used to house and feed the circus acts and the circus employees.  There are miniature canvas tents of various sizes mounted on a wooden board and outfitted with rigging, stakes, and flags.  This diorama measures 86” x 59” x 84”. 

The Wagon Workshop Motorized Diorama (item #410) is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  This is a motorized depiction of a mobile workshop in which workers would repair circus devices and props.  Mounted on a wooden board are two wagons: one with power tools and the other housing an electric motor with a running driveshaft to generate power for those tools. A few wooden model workers populate the scene.  This diorama measures 48” x 24 ½” x 15”.  The auction house has not measured the mechanism.

The Circus Cook Tent Diorama (item #411) is expected to go for $1,500 to $2,500.  This is another canvas tent with a cutaway.  In this case, it is part of the top that is missing, as poles and rigging give shape to the “roof” but the “walls” are missing.  It depicts a mobile kitchen with cooks preparing food on tables while there are stoves in the back of the tent.  This diorama measures 46” x 49” x 16”.  My recommendation would be to buy this diorama and the Circus Dining Tent Motorized Diorama to convey how a circus fed its workforce much like an army.

The Circus Horse Tent Motorized Diorama (item #412) is expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000.  This is another canvas tent with a cutaway.  In this case, it is part of the top that is missing.  As with the Circus Cook Tent Diorama, polls and rigging give the “roof” shape but there are no “walls.”  It is a mobile stable as a circus would have had early in the 20th Century.  There are horses, horse stalls, bales of hay, and human figures pushing wheelbarrows on a motorized track at the perimeter.  This diorama measures 39 ½” x 73” x 22”.  The mechanism has been tested.  I would recommend purchasing it along with the Circus Menagerie Motorized Diorama to show how a circus would have both horses and more exotic animals.

The Native American Circus Tent Diorama (item #413) is expected to go for $2,000 to $4,000.  This is a wall-mounted peep show diorama that depicts a troupe of American Indian performers in traditional garb from a circus or Wild West show.  There are a handful of teepees at the periphery to suggest a nomadic village.  At the center of a ring stands a maiden tied to a stake with kindling at her feet to suggest she is about to be burned at the stake.  Most of the men of the village are dancing.  Several of them are wearing a kind of feathered headdress called a warbonnet.  This diorama measures 39” x 39” x 20 ½”.  There are two motorized rings to allow the figures to move in circles around the maiden at the center.  The auction house has not tested the mechanism.  Arguably, this diorama could be used equally well to depict part of a circus, a Wild West show, or the kind of “people show” that appeared at World’s Fairs.

The Checker Players “Circus Life” Wall Mounted Circus Peep Show Display (item #414) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000.  This is a box-like wall-mounted peep show.  Looking through a lens, the viewer sees off-duty workers playing checkers.  The outer dimensions are 18” x 18” x 14 ½”. 

The Circus Outhouse Wall-Mounted Circus Life Peep Show Display (item #415) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000.  This is another box-like wall-mounted peep show. Looking through a lens, the viewer sees an interior view of an outhouse.  The outer dimensions are 18” x 18” x 14 ½”. 

The Clowns Applying Makeup Wall-Mounted “Circus Life” Peep Show Display (item #416) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000. This is another box-like wall-mounted peep show. Looking through a lens, the viewer sees a trio of clowns applying makeup before they perform in the Big Top.  The outer dimensions are 18” x 18” x 14 ½”. 

The First Aid/Circus Hospital Wall Mounted “Circus Life” Peep Show Display (item #417) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000. This is another box-like wall-mounted peep show. Looking through a lens, the viewer sees circus medics carrying an injured acrobat away on a stretcher.  The outer dimensions are 18” x 18” x 14 ½”. 

The Hair Washing Wall Mounted “Circus Life” Peep Show Display (item #418) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000. This is another box-like wall-mounted peep show. Looking through a lens, the viewer sees how difficult it was for circus performers to wash their hair on the road. The outer dimensions are 18” x 18” x 14 ½”. 

The Pink Lemonade Wall Mounted “Circus Life” Peep Show Display (item #419) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000. This is another box-like wall-mounted peep show. Looking through a lens, the viewer sees a pink lemonade vendor selling lemonade to what appears to be a family: a comically short, overweight man wearing a boater hat, a tall blonde woman, and two little blonde girls. Two of the figures are detached but can easily be repaired. The outer dimensions are 18” x 18” x 14 ½”. 

The Barbershop Wall Mounted Circus Peep Show Display (item #420) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000. This is another box-like wall-mounted peep show. Looking through a lens, the viewer sees an off-duty circus performer getting a shave from a barber while a second barber looks on. The outer dimensions are 18” x 18” x 14 ½”. 

The Cotton Candy Wall Mounted Circus Peep Show Display (item #421) is expected to go for $500 to $1,000. This is another box-like wall-mounted peep show. Looking through a lens, the viewer sees a vendor selling cotton candy to three young children. The outer dimensions are 18” x 18” x 14 ½”. 

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The last item in the catalog to come from the Museum of Science and Industry is Zeph the animatronic donkey (Item #422).  Expected to go for $1,000 to $2,000, Zeph is from the old All Aboard the Silver Streak exhibit.  Zeph was aboard the Pioneer Zephyr, a facsimile of a real burro that rode the train on its record-setting run.

The Pioneer Zephyr, originally known as the Burlington Zephyr, is a streamlined, diesel-electric articulated stainless-steel train.  It was the first in a fleet of nine shovelnose diesel-electric trains built for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company (CB&Q) between 1934 and ’39, each of which had a name with a variation of “Zephyr.” 

The Burlington Zephyr set a speed record on May 26, A.D. 1934, when it went from Denver to Chicago in thirteen hours and then went on display at Chicago’s second World’s Fair, A Century of Progress International Exposition (1933-34).  It was on that journey that the real Zeph the burro road the train as a mascot.

For thirty-four years, the Zephyr stood outside the Museum of Science and Industry, alongside the U-505 German attack submarine.  In 1960, the C.B.&Q. lent the Pioneer Zephyr to the M.S.I.  and two years later made it a gift.  In 1994, the M.S.I. paid to have Northern Railcar restore the Pioneer Zephyr to its 1934 conditions as the Burlington Zephyr.  In 1997, the Museum had the Zephyr lowered underground between the two wings of the subterranean garage that had been built under the front lawn. 

All Aboard the Silver Streak opened in 1998 and was devoted to the Zephyr, A Century of Progress, streamlining, and the benefits of stainless-steel construction.  As a Program Interpreter (costumed docent) guided visitors through the train, when the tour group stopped in the baggage compartment, Zeph would pop out of a crate and talk to visitors. The Program Interpreter would recite lines during gaps in Zeph’s monologue to create the illusion of a conversation. 

Generally, adults would gasp and sometimes laugh, which was appropriate because the purpose Zeph served was entertaining education.  Most children loved Zeph.  For some tykes, seeing Zeph was a highlight of a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry.  There was one wee girl who regularly visited the Museum of Science and Industry with her mother or nanny essentially just so she could see Zeph.  To a person or family with an emotional attachment to that animatron, its value would be more than financial.  For an organization that has a use for it and appreciates its potential, it could be worth at least as much as the Circus motorized dioramas.

All Aboard the Silver Streak closed in 2019.  The second iteration of the exhibit opened after it underwent renovations in 2021, as I explained in my article about the opening of the traveling exhibit Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes.  On Sunday, March 7, A.D. 2021, the exhibit reopened after being re-modeled.  It is no longer called All Aboard the Silver Streak, but rather is simply called The Pioneer Zephyr

Zephis life-sized and covered in faux fur.  The auction house has not tested the mechanism.

One can place a bid by fax or e-mail by filling out an Absentee Bid form and e-mailing it or faxing it in.  To place a bid by phone, fill out the same form and submit it. or bid online.  Click here to place a bid online.  One can also purchase a copy of the catalog for $35.

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ENDNOTES


[1] I want to thank Becky for bringing this matter to my attention.

[2] Adam Harrington, “Museum of Science and Industry auctioning pieces of closed circus exhibit,” C.B.S. Chicago, 16 September, 2022 (https://www.cbsnews.com/chicago/news/museum-of-science-and-industry-circus-auction/) Accessed 09/18/22

[3] Museum of Science and Industry, The Circus: An unforgettable exhibit presented by Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1973), p. 1

See also “Miniature Circus is Viewed by 256 Crippled Children,” The Cumberland News, 1 October, 1952, p. 5

[4] The Circus: An unforgettable exhibit presented by Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1973), p. 1

[5] “Under the Marquee,” The Billboard, 9 April, 1949, p. 92

[6] “Miniature Circus is Viewed by 256 Crippled Children,” The Cumberland News, 1 October, 1952, p. 5

[7] “Miniature Circus is Viewed by 256 Crippled Children,” The Cumberland News, 1 October, 1952, p. 5

[8] “Science Museum Now Showing Circus Exhibit,” Wheeling Herald, 20 April, 1973, p. 43

[9] Anne Spiselman, “MSI Circus Collection goes on the auction block,” Hyde Park Herald, 14 September, 2022 (https://www.hpherald.com/evening_digest/msi-circus-collection-goes-on-the-auction-block/article_9fb5f752-33c5-11ed-94fb-efd6482ff6af.html) Accessed 09/18/22

[10] Anne Spiselman, “MSI Circus Collection goes on the auction block,” Hyde Park Herald, 14 September, 2022 (https://www.hpherald.com/evening_digest/msi-circus-collection-goes-on-the-auction-block/article_9fb5f752-33c5-11ed-94fb-efd6482ff6af.html) Accessed 09/18/22

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Adam Harrington, “Museum of Science and Industry auctioning pieces of closed circus exhibit,” C.B.S. Chicago, 16 September, 2022 (https://www.cbsnews.com/chicago/news/museum-of-science-and-industry-circus-auction/) Accessed 09/18/22

[15] Anne Spiselman, “MSI Circus Collection goes on the auction block,” Hyde Park Herald, 14 September, 2022 (https://www.hpherald.com/evening_digest/msi-circus-collection-goes-on-the-auction-block/article_9fb5f752-33c5-11ed-94fb-efd6482ff6af.html) Accessed 09/18/22

[16] Anne Spiselman, “MSI Circus Collection goes on the auction block,” Hyde Park Herald, 14 September, 2022 (https://www.hpherald.com/evening_digest/msi-circus-collection-goes-on-the-auction-block/article_9fb5f752-33c5-11ed-94fb-efd6482ff6af.html) Accessed 09/18/22

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Adam Harrington, “Museum of Science and Industry auctioning pieces of closed circus exhibit,” C.B.S. Chicago, 16 September, 2022 (https://www.cbsnews.com/chicago/news/museum-of-science-and-industry-circus-auction/) Accessed 09/18/22

[21] If you are wondering why a morbidly obese person would qualify as a circus sideshow attraction all by himself or herself it is because the very late 20th Century in most places on Earth it would have been difficult for anyone outside the ruling class to become that overweight.  Today, unfortunately, it is commonplace to see middle-class or even poor people who are obese and only a little more rarely morbidly obese in the U.S.A. and some other countries due to rich societies producing plentiful cheap food, many drinks being more fattening than the average person realizes, many people having jobs where they hardly move, many people having long commutes to work accounting for another hour or two (or three) of each workday where they hardly move, and many recreational activities people engage in also involving little to no movement.  Since the early 20th Century, people have sat in cinemas to watch movies and sat at home, in cars, or in their workplaces while listening to the radio or audio recordings.  Since the mid-20th Century, they have sat at home (or in sports bars) while watching television, a truly passive activity that is free (aside from the purchase price of a television and/or the monthly fee for cable or satellite hookup) thanks to sponsorship by large companies for television shows.  Since the late 20th Century, they stood still or sat and only moved their arms while they played videogames.  Since the late 20th Century, they sat at home while watching recordings of movies and television shows (on videotapes, laser discs, D.V.D.s, and Blu-ray discs) in the comfort of their homes and since the early 21st Century they sat while watching streaming videos on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, etc.  This combination of factors has led many adults and sadly teenagers to become overweight and the only solution is for people to individually make a conscious effort to have healthy diets and become physically active.

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