For the first time that I can recall, a news organization has tried to fact check the feel-good claims of a circus owner talking up attendance on his show.
Kate Vinton, a reporter for Forbes magazine, working on an in-depth look into the impressive fortunes and business genius of billionaire big top owner Kenneth Feld, was not satisfied with his account of attendance records. "Feld is tight-lipped about Ringling's numbers, insisting as he has for years that annual attendance has remained at about 10 million.”
Of course, Feld can say whatever he wants, knowing there are no go-to box office tracking organizations (like the Nielsen's in TV) for attendance figures under the nation’s big tops, against which the claims of circus owners can be tested by reporters.
Nonetheless, Vinton dug deeper, and she discovered some telling evidence that tells a different story.
She had read the piece in the New York Observer about the plight of Big Apple Circus, and was left intrigued with how I was quoted in it as guessing that U.S. big top crowd sizes over the last few decades have probably declined by between 30% to 50%.
Kate e-mailed me with a simple question: “I wanted to reach out to you to confirm if you still think this is an accurate estimate.”
I replied, giving her the may reasons for my estimation, as I had the Observer’s reporter, stressing to her as I had to him that we are speculating in the dark, and how frustrating it can be.
Why does the topic interest me? Because it interests everybody when discussing a particular entertainment, the two main questions usually being, the quality of the show and the size of the crowd.
Her story would go to press including my estimated 30% to 50% drop in attendance at U.S. circuses.
And to her professional credit, Vinton dug deeper into other, more concrete sources, reporting, relative to the Kenneth Feld claim, “but the little data that does get reported tells a very different story.”
Here is what she found:
* The trade publication Venues Today reported that Ringling’s Out of this World drew 56,000 people to 12 shows at Staples Center, marking a “35% drop from a comparable weekend in July 2011.” That figure is not a surprise to me.
* The National Endowment for the Arts reported on gross revenue for U.S. circuses in the U.S. falling almost 9% between 2007 and 2012. I’m not sure what to make of this figure, for I assume that NEA would not be in touch with most U.S. circuses, which operate in the private sector.
* Circus revenue makes up only 15% of all Feld live events.
* Finally, writes Vinton, “Forbes estimates that the Ringling Bros’ annual attendance numbers today are closer to 5 million.”
This is responsible journalism of the first order, if only we had more of it.
And interesting to speculate. If Forbes is correct, let’s then give each of the two Feld circus units a total of 2.5 million customers a year. In 1967, the last year of Ringling family ownership when they operated only one unit, management claimed a total attendance of 4, 164,029 people. Under the early Irvin Feld years, the number is likely to have risen. Back in the old six-pole tent days, maybe many more.
How refreshing for the circus to get more realistically reported on by a major news outlet.
Next: What other things we learn from the fine Forbes coverage.
Thanks to Don Covington, for a link to the Forbes story.
The late Henry Edgar once posted a comment on this blog to the effect, What if you were to offer the customers what most of us would agree is the best circus possible and yet they still failed to fill up your seats ? A very good question given shrinking crowd sizes over the last thirty years. Maybe it's time to review not the show but the audience itself. To continue Henry's thread, I have a question:
What is the
circus owner to offer a jaded public turning fickle on big top staples?
The Very Real Circus: Not Virtual Enough?
Perhaps the force of circus being a live show no longer holds the same drawing power, as more people turn to virtual realities, albeit it everything from texting to eDating, video games to porno.
I have long argued the compelling reality of circus. More and more, I am starting to doubt the argument’s relevance in this new and rather frightening era of electronic interaction where, one day — people as smart as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak have ventured — “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.” Wozniak can see ourselves becoming the pets of our robots.
Item: A group of friends sharing restaurant table space, but not each others company, preferring interaction with their smart phones over the people actually sitting next to them.
Item: Check out the movie Her, in which a man forms a relationship with an advanced operating system named Samantha. Frightening. And very believable.
Enter the Ambivalent American Audience
Yes, Mr. Producer, I feel your frustration, even if you don’t. You no longer enjoy the total attention of a crowd. You now must complete with smart phones and tablets and other tweety distractions, ad nauseum.
You now must also compete for the respect of a crowd that arrives with issues about the contents of your show. Oh, those weird looking clowns. Don’t .. Come ... Near ... Me ... Look at that draggy tiger, think it's been mistreated? Which reminds me, I've got to get some suppression pills for my pit bull. No, he can't attack anybody in the nose muzzle when we go out walking. ... Oh, no, look -- she's not wearing a safety wire, is she? Sometimes they don't? What if, oh God! [Another day, another show]: Oh, look, she’s strapped to a wire! Must be a beginner. I could do that.
Even granting that a live show can still draw big crowds, then what next to question under the big top? There's plenty according to the critics. On parade, here come the most politically incorrect offenders.
Circus Staples Under Siege
This key element of circus may be losing its luster to more spectacular acts of risk-taking on TV reality shows or aerial stunts in the great outdoors captured on film. Compared to which, the sight of a mere human scaling a wire only thirty or forty feet above the ground may somehow seem, reverse affect here, old school. Another trend that is emasculating the show are the solo and duo fabric aerialists who throw more focus onto slower balletic moves. I think this sort of action, some of it, to be sure, quite exciting, has nonetheless eroded the public’s taste for the more perilous tricks we associate with the single trapeze. Would Pinito Del Oro, above, have settled for a silken web? For a static trapeze?
The protected aerialist: The presence of lifelines (mechanics) has done more than anything else to produce today’s ambivalent audience. Courage or cowardice, which will it be today, Circus? With some performers flying under protection, others not, the vacillating impression does nothing to sustain a committed identity. And the primal power of circus suffers.
This old-time jester might today consider either less greasepaint or horror flicks
The heavily painted funny faces are not so welcome anymore. Reports and images of creepy characters in grotesque clown makeup terrorizing citizens on city streets and in public places have produced a growing number of adults who fear taking their kids to a circus for this among the other reasons. In Europe, there seems to be a trend towards less makeup, down to a red nose maybe and a few whimsical marks, sufficient to paint a face in mirth, but not one of implicit mayhem. This is a viable route for today’s jesters. After all, a clown is a character far more than a painted face.
The elephants may be on the way out. So, too, the big cage cats. But there are still plenty of dogs, horses, camels and other critters — well, if Jenny Vidbel can find and train them. I think that John Ringling North II made about as shrewd and sensitive a move as a circus man can make these days by featuring just one small elephant, Louise, on his Kelly Miller show last season. The dancing of Louise, nothing like I have ever seen, was pure magic.
Encore for Elephants? If the public’s skittishness over performing pachyderms is ever to be reversed, it may take one elephant at a time. And it may take a far simpler approach like the one advocated by UK author and critic Douglas McPherson in his book, Circus Mania:
“The elephants don’t need to be oversold with gimmicks. Just walking into the ring and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough.”
Indeed, a day may come when an audience new to such a spectacle as elephants on parade will thrill to that alone. Certainly the children will.
Bring back the one-act show: Circuses may help their cause by removing the intermission and running a shorter show straight through, as once they did. Promise patrons less time away from their gadgets. On their way out, happier, they may still be more inclined, maybe more so, to patronize the rides and concessions — the vain lure of selfies.
Remember When Circus Day was Guilt Free?
Unlike their forebears, today's patrons enter the tent loaded with electronics and with overwrought minds buzzing with issues over whether to patronize a circus is even a good idea in the first place.
That long-gone circus day that enjoyed the total attention of an undistracted crowd not fraught with issues, that long ago world in which we once thrilled to a circus show feeling not a qualm, reveling in the honest and simple joy of it all --- that wondrous world, I am sadly afraid, no longer exits.
The Big Show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 23, 1953
Next: Can Kenneth Feld Rebuild The Greatest Show on Earth?
Photos above: On horseback, the Cristiians
On the high wire: The Wallendas
On the single trap: Pinito Del Oro
Clown Buzzy Potts.
Barnum & Bailey on parade, 1908
Under the big top At Gil Gray Circus (from the Circus Blog)
Ringling elephants on Parade, 1978, with Ana May in the lead, the Woodcocks in charge
Let’s start with Happy, and work our way down to Sad.
Armando Ferrusco, left, his son Armando Ferrusco Jr. , and John Pugh. Beacon photo by Anthony DeFeo.
Good news on the Cole Bros. Circus front: A peep and a picture from Johnny Pugh in a story out of Deland, in the West Volusia Beacon, that some Flea Market operators in the area may use hiswinter quarters space, since they need to vacate the lot they currently occupy and flea elsewhere.
Buried in the story is news alluding to a possible return to the road in 2017 of Johnny’s endearing school of circus (Cole Bros Circus of Stars). Said John to a reporter: “Election year for a circus is always considered a bad year. I’m glad I took the year off,” he said. “I’m in the middle of right now planning for next year. I have some people that want to come here and join me.”
And how does that make you feel? I’m floating. Something to warm our winter months and keep our dreams alive for a season yet to come.
Seems he never sold the land, and, as I recall, the Pugh trucks were all returned to Deland following the near-instant disaster of the King-Cole Circus, another short-lived no-show taken out by the wrong Garden.
Okay, let’s take some comfort, next, in the goings on at Hugo, as in Oklahoma. I wasn’t to happy to hear from a trusted insider, a while back, about Barbara Byrd e-mailing him, “business is not good at all.” So, that much more cheered to see that the Byrds are taking out an indoor unit of Carson & Barnes for a few winter dates around the area.
And what about Kelly-Miller, you may be asking? I only know that the same trusted insider passed along news that the show, apparently far from buckling under to the no-elephants trend, will have a few Big Ones from Carden being worked by Joe Frisco in 2017. That suggests to me that John Ringling North’s trick is sill on the road. Pardon my paranoia, but I am still recovering from the dreadful season just past. So, set 'em up Joe. I have a little story you need to know ...
Okay, the bad and depressing, though not exactly unexpected news. In today’s Wall Street Journal, the headline rushed to me this morning by Anonymous, Big Apple Circus has filed for bankruptcy protection. I read it myself, only the lead off sentence is accessible on line, to verify. Thank you, Anonymous A+ And I was hoping for a truncated, more sane and far less costly tour of Paul Binder's show come next season, say starting in the spring at Prospect Park (are you reading me, Paul?) with a very good show, say a smaller band.
This latest does not auger well for an imminent return. The question, as I see it, is a psychological one: Can Paul Binder, whom I am convinced must be a central part of any revival, settle back into simpler? Or will he feel more defeat than delight in taking a more well traveled course?
Know what I think? Heck, what do I think? The life of a dreamer is fraught with numerous let downs, but the dreaming may be worth it, right? Johnny, please, don't let us down!
If you're feeling blue about recent events, tents falling, waffling crowds walking, watch this, a brilliant tease of a new stage show, Circus 1903, with film clips of our American circus the turn of the last century.
Scott O'Donnell and Dave SaLoutos review documents received from Cole Bros. Circus
“Looks like the fat lady really sang for Cole Bros. So sad!” e-mailed Barry Lipton. Yes, Barry, so very very sad. With the season over, now the question is, who will go out next year? How close, I shudder to think, are the likes of Carson & Barnes and Kelly-Miller to the brink?
At least there is Baraboo, where old circuses go to die gracefully, their once vibrant wonders still wonderful to true blue fans of Hemingway’s Ageless Delight. Remember when going to the circus was a GUILT-FREE amusement? Go watch Ring of Fear or The Greatest Show on Earth. Behold the audience un-ambivalent, and savor their innocent engagement -- embracing believers, all, in Circus Day.
Into the protective barns of Circus Wold Museum went collections from Cole Bros. Circus and the Royal Hanneford shows, both now officially off the road. The Cole treasure includes attendance records, marketing notes, press kits, 130 video tapes and blueprints, and “a lot more,” reported the Baraboo News Republic.
At the receiving end, museum director Scott O’Donnell delighted to be adding a significant trove of recent circus history to his holdings. “It was a challenging year for some circuses,” he told the News, “but thankfully they didn’t toss everything in the dumpster.” Scott has a gift of some 28 filing cabinets and nearly 40 boxes to open. The catch spans a good 25 years, some of it extending back to 1978.
But the donation gives Cole’s long slow closing a painful finality. I can only hope that Johnny Pugh will talk to somebody about what he has had gone through the last difficult seasons. Lane Talburt, where are you? Please, get your camera down to DeLand! Surely Johnny will talk to you?
Ringling elephants en route to Madison Square Garden in the 1950s.
First, it was the elephants. Now, if the New York council has its way, other wild animals will be banned from circus rings as well. New York Post none to tickled with a city council wanting “to run the circus. Strangely appropriate, isn’t it?”
Egging the NY Council on to codify the proposed ban is a group, NYCLASS, that fought for a ban on horse carriages in Central Park! Why do I have a feeling that I am back in Berkeley.
Back to the Post: “Here’s hoping the more adult lawmakers find the spin to ignore the animals rights activists. If the council insists on messing with the circus, it’s proving itself a pack of clowns.”
Ah yes, a pack of clowns, remember them? Now tagged with the “C” word — CREEPY – many are being shunned from parades, losing out on clown bookings at kid parties, even accosted verbally by screaming hysterics. “It's not funny being a clown these days,” said Gerald Herdegen (Cho Cho) to the Wall Street Journal. Some risk arrest in the act of performing. The mere sight of a funny-now-creepy face can cause a crowd to panic. The very word “clown” on a poster can cause screaming reaction.
"I am a comedy character," says English Clown Alex Morley, in his sixth year with Russells International
Circus. He may be wearing less makeup, as, indeed, other jesters are doing in these dispiriting times. He is hoping to reverse the public's negative attitude toward clowning in general. "Killer clowns are making people afraid."
So, we have fewer animal acts. And clowning is in peril. What next? Vulgar Human Daredevils? Humans even?
An adult in the tent worth quoting: Drama critic and perceptive circus fan and follower, Chris Jones, of the Chicago Tribune, whom I believe speaks for many of us: “Often I've sat wondering if that tiger or that elephant is happy, musing to myself how you possibly judge animal happiness, especially given the Darwinian alternative of the wild. And what of those circus animals of a type that have centuries-old working relationships with humans? Would they really be happier put out to pasture? Who could say? They look like they're having fun. And since I'm recounting those justifications, there is the further question of when some kids would ever otherwise see a big cat. Is it not conceivable a conservationist could be nurtured right there at the Greatest Show on Earth?”
END RINGERS: Target to stop selling clown masks ... Are you afraid of the dark? That means you are more creative, so says a survey ... Allen awful, Woody's latest stillborn, Cafe Society, is so anemically bad, if you do rent, skip trying to watch, but play the hapless flick as music, and enjoy many great old Rodgers and Hart tunes in the background ... California banning bull hooks, the kill bill signed by Gov. Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown ... Garden Bros. Circus now retiring its elephants ... The retreat goes on .. and on ... and on ... What will next season hold? ...
Thanks to cyber courier Don Covington, for linking me to some of this information.
"As the evil clown craze sweeps the UK, Zippos has turned it into a
publicity opportunity by removing clowns from the show. Not strictly
true, as revealed on my blog, but still a reflection of how the pranksters have unsettled the pros."
Or scroll down to the Circus Mania link on the right sidebar
As reported also in The Sun:"Martin ‘Zippo’ Burton, who used to be a clown himself, is worried the ‘killer clown’ trend will affect his shows."
Do Creepy Clown lives matter? That’s what I heard this morning on a radio talk show having fun with the issue.
This latest media storm is becoming fodderfor late night TV comedians. It’s also no laughing matter for our struggling big tops, unless some really smart circus can spoof its own jesters into a new kind of merry mayhem. Ringling, you’ve tried outer space. What say, a trip to the asylum for retired clowns on parole? Bring on the Scariest Show on Earth!
Creepy clown sightings are spreading like a visiting virus Another gift of social media, the demented darlings are rattling news wires, stalking schoolyards, scaring kids half to death. But what a nice diversion from that political circus going on all around us. Maybe Lady Hillary or Lord Donald will show up at the next debate in gory greasepaint, or is that what they are already wearing? (shhh! Think Hillary's laugh, kids ...)
Pity the well-intended circus clown: If this creepy movement isn’t reason enough for all circuses to ban traditional jester makeup in favor of the harmless red nose, (okay, to be extra safe, a pink one) I don’t know what is. More and more adults are outing their own fear of funny faces. No longer something to hide from. Simon Cowell on America’s Got Talent, for one. Just another nail in the coffin of our sadly beleaguered big tops.
P.T. Barnum once said that "clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung." Well, these days, they may be hanging it — literally
Onto great promising newsHave we, at last, a high-drama quality film for adults about a genuinely tragic American circus story? New flick about aerial thrillers Lillian Leitzel and Alfred Codona in the works at Warner Bros, and how I hope the Weinsteins have their hands in this one. Heavy weights already signed on include producer Andrew Lazaar, who handled Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, and Aussie actress Margot Robbie, right (The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad), to play Leitzel. I’m thinking this could be The One I’ve been waiting for through too many mediocre big top flicks Think of the background alone --- Ringling in the ‘20s!. The rivalry between Leitzel and her scheming nemesis, conniving Vera Bruce ... Of the tragic ends that would befall both icons.
To be based upon Dean N. Jensen’s2013 book Queen of the Air, and I can’t wait. Yes, I might have said that before another film, Water for Elephants, came out, but I’d not yet read the wretchedly brutal book from which the latter was faithfully adapted.
Can Queen of the Airachieve what all other circus flicks have failed to do: Mine cinematic gold from genuine big top history? Film Makers and documentarians have long shunned compelling subject matter staring them in the face: I’m thinking the towering figure of reckless circus king John Ringling, who lived a colorful and ultimately tragic life, and I’ve thought of Leitzel and Codona, and of course of the catastrophic Hartford fire, not to mention its genesis in a fractious war among Ringling heirs for control of the circus.
What do we usually get from Hollywood?Of late,Water. I mean, tell me, please, was there ever a circus as thoroughly sadistic as that one? As improbably untrue to any semblance of tent show history, then, before or now?
Another Cirque du Fizzle?The company’s ill-reviewed New York stage show, Paramour, closed down quietly for a few days in late Auguest to reivse script in reponse to public feedback, some fans wanting “more acrobatics earlier in the show during the exposition,” others hungering for more meat on the bones of an empty-headed plot. Post revamping, the altered Paramour is enduring ticket sales still ranging from pretty good to ominously stagnant, hovering too often in the 65% range. I still think they have a chance.
Will the eggheads on the lot ever learn? When I came across a New York Times review of two new stage shows, headlined “Identify Crisis: Theatre Productions That Refuse to be Theater,” I thought of how well it applies to circuses refusing to be circuses.
END RINGERS: Sadly, the passing of Pat Cashin, clown and blogger, and only 48-years-old. When I started up this blog, he was an early supporter. That support faded away over the years, down to zero. I never exactly knew why, but likely something I said ... Also departing us, on August 25, another early supporter of my blog and the person who coined "May all your days be circus days," Ringling PR man Jack Ryan, at 77 ... Yet another circus school is rising, this one over Philly, site of the first circus to play America .... Warning to freak show imitators: If you try dining on blades, be sure to order them Dull. An Indian man suffering acute stomach pains, discovered by doctors to be harboring 40 various blades and knives in his guts. About the unnamed patient, you’re thinking. extreme side show trickster? No, think 42-year-old policeman – and maybe, on the side, a petty thief with a built in fencing flow ... Retro trendy vinyl record lovers not going away. It’s no passing fade. Some new CDs coming out on old wax, too. Down the street, just opened a vinyl-only shop. Exciting! Many of my old LPs from the fifties are still cracking-free good, I’ll have you know ... Sinatra never sounded better ... Oh, you gotta love the kids who don’t dismiss everything that came before them ...
Chase a creepy clown into a panic. Pray for a great circus flick from the great Warner Bros. And buy a vinyl record on me!
Given the urgency of the moment, I am bringing the one back.
Part 2 in a Series Bottom Line, from the top: Paul Binder lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the
entire company and its many supporters could cohere.
The proposed circus school, in the beginning.
The most oft-visited reality of circus -- forever on the brink of disaster -- is once again threatening to put another show off the road. Now, it is the theoretically formidable Big Apple Circus of New York -- not for the first time, but once more comes news of severe cutbacks and shake ups at Big Apple. These are dire reports. And so, direly I speculate:
Circuses by and large rest and move on the strong shoulders of one person -- the owner (or a figure virtually occupying that position) at the top. They by and large do not work well as non-profit performing arts entities, which have a way of self-expanding into payroll-crushing monsters, not to speak of constant internal battles over who gets to run the show. Circus Vargas may call itself non-profit, but it hardly fits the profile. Is it thriving? I can’t say it is. Please understand, one of the factors I look at is audience size. I’ve seen mostly good crowds at Big Apple, mostly meager turnouts at Vargas,including, most recently in my own backyard, in Hayward.
THE BINDER EQUATION
At the foundation of Big Apple circus, founder Paul Binder, wanting it to be non-profit from the outset, built up a complex arts organization, to which his multiple talents seem to have been effectively applied. Back slapping to fund raising -- big bucks in better times from corporate NY; discriminating trips abroad to scout some of the best acts in the world; a warm personal connection with the audience in his ringmaster red -- I fondly recall, during a performance in Brooklyn back in the 1980s, Binder taking some time, not overdone, to insert bits of historical information about some of the acts. A touch pastoral.
The Dusov Troupe: Big Apple books world class acts.
There are many things of which I am uncertain, but here goes my best long-held impressions -- key components of the Paul Binder Equation -- primarily in the positive.
* An infections pied piper: Great at fund raising, from the man on the street to the CEO in a glass tower. I can picture him talking the City of New York into giving him space at Lincoln Center, if not free, at dirt cheap prices. Through the worst of times, he found ways to muddle through.
* The bogus (as I see it) repertory type troupe he commandeered — don’t think it ever produced first rate acts, but it added to the elitist imagery surely designed to impress arts-conscious New Yorkers. This they could believe was their own circus.
* The Clown Care Unit, a noble venture, has helped sell BAC to corporate sponsors. To this I see they have just added an Autism wing. Charity has been used in many ways by circuses as a survival tool — pardon my pragmatism — but it can’t, I don’t think, save a show from irresponsible budgeting and top heavy management, or temporizing showmanship.
* Binder’s adoration of Bary Lubin’s Grandma, seen above in Dance On!, was, I will concede, arguably well placed. From on the ground experience, talking to a few Gotham locals around the Queens lot, while I do not believe that Grandma could solve all the problems, I’ll be the first to admit, there are lot of New Yorkers out there who took this classic clown to heart, and were none to happy when he was let go. Comedy is the trickiest thing to bring off, they say, even more so perhaps in a sawdust ring. There are some great clowns and comics out there; BAC should do a better job at finding them. In other words, Give the French their walking papers.
* Binder paid great attention to the concerns and feelings of each and every member of the board, I can only infer, from his having, during our one interview, spoken highly of somebody who had just joined the Board, wanting to be sure I wrote down that person’s name. A master diplomat in my distant view.
* Animals. Genuinely sensitive to changing public sensibilities, Binder steered a wise course, safely in sway with domestic animals. In recent years, Jenny Vidbel, above, has delivered delightful originality to the ring bordering on pure genius. Photo by Bertrand Guay.
* Bureaucratic bloat: On the downside, Binder's biggest shortcoming and miscalculation, as I see it, was to foster too complex and far too costly an operating bureaucracy at the top. Only he seems to have been able to sustain it through thick and thin. The Great Recession took a terrible toll on the lush corporate funding that had given Paul & Company a free ride. Much of that funding has dried up, and has evidently yet to return. Barring a big box office turnaround --- in other words, evidence of showmanship that fills the tent day after day, I can't see it ever returning.
* Altogether, these attributes composed the Paul Binder equation. There were, of course, other more minor counterproductive policies and traits. He could not make his founding base, the circus school, work. And he has been said by more than one source to have treated the lower working class ranks with a cavalier disregard bordering on disdain.
**** Summing up, given the man's multi-faceted gifts, I have to believe they lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the company could cohere. Since his retirement, an increasingly ominous succession of short-lived CEO’s has left a clear impression of disarray and chaos at the top. Can you imagine Apple or Goggle or Facebook — or even Ringling — being run in so slapdash a fashion? I can’t.
And that’s the way it seems to be from my perch here in Oakland.