From the first year of posting ...
I love Ted Sato — and I never met the man or even talked to him. That's him, left, with John Ringling North II and chef Henry.
I spoke with his wife briefly on the phone back in1991. I was seeking illustrations for my book on John Ringling North, Big Top Boss, hoping to use some of the wonderful shots that Mr. Sato took while serving as Ringling-Barnum’s official photographer during their last four seasons under-canvas (1953-1956) .
Following up on the call, I sent Mr. Sato a letter dated February 26. Six days later, he sent me a large envelope containing over two dozen black and white glossies with a short note; evidently he was a man of few words: "Hope they may be use for your book. Good luck." He didn’t ask for a penny. What a gift.
Among the treasures, there, above, is the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen of a big top — a Sato classic — and it’s mine, if I may gloat — taken on the D.C. lot in 1954. I used it in Big Top Boss, and I’m giving it a well-deserved encore in my next book on the modern circus scene due out next year.
Tiger, tiger: On the back of this photogaph, Mr. Sato wrote, "My pride and joy." This ended up on the cover of Big Top Boss.
And here is John Ringling North in a remarkably (and atypically) relaxed pose, totally free of the aloof imagery that so defined his showmanly aura to the world. Sato found that warmpth in a number of shots he took of his boss alone or with others.
There is another original Sato photo I recently discovered at the Ringling Museum, of a young ticket seller, Bill Taggart, in the yellow ticket wagon. Beyond Taggart, you look out the window onto the midway. It will also be featured in my next book because Bill shared his first-hand recollections of the last day in Pittsburgh when the big top went down for the last time. Had Taggart not identified the photographer — the two were good friends, both stayed on Car 369, and he was overjoyed when I e-mailed him the image for verification — the world might never know who took the picture. Same, probably, for many other Sato images floating anonymously around out there.
Actually, I did meet the photographer once, although it did not dawn on me until long after our 1991 correspondence. This earlier meeting took place many years earlier when Mr. Sato gave me his autograph — he had to because he was also, in 1955, the show’s official representative on the lot, and to him I went, seeking a press pass that would allow me to roam the backyard area. Gosh, I was so young, but I guess my membership in the Circus Model Builders gave me rare cache. Here is the pass Mr. Sato wrote out for me. How privileged it made me feel! How could I have ever guessed that, thirty-six years later, I would be reaching out to the same man for use of his illustrations and that, once again, he would favor me so kindly.
Ted Sato died a number of years ago. His remarkable images of the greatest show on earth will live on forever.