Friday, March 21, 2008

Horrific Storms and Blood-Sucking Gas Pumps, Make-Do Roustabouts From Homeless America -- Desperate Big Tops Face a Season of Discontent ...

Looking back ...


"Labor," answered John Ringling North to the question I once asked him, "what was the greatest challenge you ever faced?" How the word resonates this very moment as our tenters stumble out of the barn minus the labor they desperately need to stop stumbling. Already, Cole Bros. has nixed Carolina stops pending the arrival of brown hands from Mexico bearing those coveted Visas.. Already, Ben Trumble, who in better times handles upscale matters, is this season swinging a sledgehammer and taking it like a trouper ...

“The number of workers (on Visa) was effectively cut in half this year when Congress failed to authorize an exemption for previous Visa holders.” That spells trouble for the nation’s big tops who rely on — how to kindly word this — reasonably priced help to toss canvas over weed and dirt and mud, lace it up, swing poles into place, and hoist it sky high, link ring curb to ring curb, frame to flat to chair to rail, one plank at a time ... “EVERY show is in trouble," says another source, the Savvy Insider. "I’ve heard rumors that Carson & Barnes has missed dates too.”

John Ringling North’s three ring Greatest Show on Earth bit the sawdust in Pittsburgh more than fifty still-mourned years ago. Pray nobody meets the same fate this time ... Which intersects with an issue hotly debated here by the Edgar & Burck sideshow along the commentary annexes ... They were chatting about just and fair “compensation” for performers. I am chatting about dollars for tent servers, thank them, and how grateful I feel in retrospect for all of the humble hands who down through time brought circus day to my town ...I can imagine Byrd and Pugh and Royal rejoicing in the arrival of real willing prop movers from south of the border. Those guys are now the stars of redemption. Saviors of the Sawdust. Without them, no, you don’t want to go there ...

... This season, roustabouts could be a gang of homeless lured out of cardboard shelters to help set up a limping tent show for a handout, after which, per inside sources, they opt back for shelter life over chasing after spangles. Want the truth, Wade? Here’s your latest Showbiz David exclusive Eye on the Midway: “All winter I kept reminding people what it was like when we had to round up bums from missions, the daily turnover,” says Trumble, right now laboring on Culpepper. “We’ve used mission crews for three weeks, and it’s been a monumental pain in the *###, and the guys blew every night — but we’ve successfully moved the show and now we have enough Visa workers to get the tent up.” Go, Culpepper! I cheer your Trumbling triumphs ...


Ben might be, with hammer in hand, considering life in a shelter. “Labor,” said JRN, not skipping a beat. Carson & Barnes surely faces the biggest challenge, with a sprawling three ring smorgasbord about to be trucked from coast to coast. Discount gas from a sympathetic mid-eastern despot? Into Florida, perhaps for the first time, troupes C&B, so notes Paul H. Later, near fall, they’ll be out in San Francisco testing the city’s prissy impatience with real circus, and I can’t wait.. I’ll have a pocket full of dollars, and I’m gonna tip maybe every prop hand I see. Gosh, you gotta love Mexico ...

I swung a sledgehammer on the old Wallace Bros. Circus, not then realizing the full significance of a tradition of cherry pie I was serving. Now, I feel what my real role was there. Bottom line, you might be a joey, David, but you ARE a skinny canvas kid like it or not, so go to it and help us make the date ...

End ringing it for sunny day relief: Also from Paul H. (whom I kind of think I know) John Ringling North II, feeling his tanbark power, will be pitching his Kelly-Miller top for the Great Circus Parade, slated to roll again in Milwaukee in 2009 ... Chirps Paul, “JRN II is going to show his stuff.” He will, I assume, if he’s got the person power to make it happen ... Baraboo Barb continues apace on Ringling’s Gold Unit, floating on her golden holiday working concession for the Felds, and countering “blog comments” alluding to a paltry performance. No no no, says Barb, “the public absolutely LOVES this show. The reviewers agree. Town after town, more praise. ‘Ringling gets it right!;” Well, might I suggest, it’s about time, ho-ho (I’ve yet to take in the Gold edition)... Circus World Museum’s new prince to the rescue, Stephen Freese, is high on having a scale replica of the White House play his grounds during the winter. Duh? Okay, I suppose, but, hey, ah, you’ve got stuff that is more deserving, like that hidden charm of an old fun house tucked away in one of your back sheds called the Thimble Theatre. Maybe Truman and Kennedy never walked there to sample its spooky upstairs, the shuffle boards below. Lot's more fun than gawking over a dead model where dead presidents once lived ...

Pray for Visas ...Chant for the agile hands that move the restless canvas ... Chant for fearless Barbara Byrd to get the wingpower she needs to deliver her redoubtable three-ring manifesto to all points routed. ... John Ringling North II evidently has the nice-guy way in spades. Says Alan, out of the show with an ankle injury, “I have to say Mr. North is the nicest man I ever met and great to work for” ... Which prompts this memo to all beleaguered big top tycoons with sledgehammers in hand: Be super nice to those worker bees, dispense gratitude by the bail and pray they won’t desert back to the mission. Trouper Trumble, breaking away for active duty, knows that which separates the dreamer from the showman: “Gotta pound some steaks.” Yes, I’m tipping the first two or ten roustabouts I see.

[above photo: the last unfolding at dawn: Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey offloads at the runs in Pittsburgh, PA, July 16, 1956, for the last shows it would give under the big top]

First posted March 21, 2008

6 comments:

Wade G. Burck said...

Showbiz Dave,
I was in no way down playing the importance of the working men. Although a tent crew was not of importance in "my" world of coliseums, the prop crew and animal crew is. An american citizen animal groom who worked for American Circus's for 25 years, now works his last remaining years in a German circus, as of 2 years ago, where a job was arranged for him. Why you ask? Because they offer a pension and insurance as well as respect for his "lowly" profession
I was "one" of those working men for a number of years, before I got "lucky" as you suggested, and probably have a bit more understanding of this issue also.
If I had not had a "dream", that of being an animal trainer and most importantly one on the GSOE, I
probably would have left showbiz after a month or so. Sleeping on hay, or in a possum belly, eating day old hot dogs from the concession stand, bathing/washing your clothes under a hose, was frowned at by my hospital administrator father, but I have written of his sage counsel in a past poste, of what the fruits of the labor would be.
It all goes back to the "Admiral" of the ship, or the producer. Just like working crew's are gone, producers are begging for cage act's(good act's in general) as there are none available, and blaming it on Peta etc., as we are blaming no working crew's on vista problems.
Stage hands don't seem to be a problem in Evansville, the Garden, Las Vegas, etc. etc. and all are citizens. Marine Mammal trainers at the various Sea World's also are going strong, and they are citizens, and I promise they didn't miss out on the animal right's revolution. What do they have in common? They are unionized, and their salary's/benefits have remained competitive with the cost of living. So that they can live, and do what they enjoy doing. What else is there to be "with it and for?"
Again from my side of the fence. In 1988 my salary was 850.00 per week, today it is 1000.00. An increase of 150.00 in 20 years!!!! Do the math Dave. My son today is making my 1988 salary!!! My groom salary in 1975 was 75.00, and today we pay them 250.00. That's an increase if 125.00 in 33 years!!!! Yes, as many have said of late, "well then why don't you just quit if it is that bad", I
would think you were telling them something is wrong with their child, as offended as they get with facts and reality. The worst type of viper is the former performer turned producer/agent. They are like the pack Jackel who get's beat on all their life, until they get their own pack. Then they turn into evil incarnate. Look at the support the Koosa people got, when they said enough is enough, and I would suggest they are no less important then Ben Trumble and the working men.
Speaking of gear head stakes, the owner/producer's who used to take care of their labor issues with one of those, and dump the evidence in a ditch is still revered and recalled with fondness. And pointed out as the reason it was better then, and a mess now. I would suggest we have built statues for the wrong hero's.
I hope to meet JRNII some day. From reports he is quite remarkable. I want to shake his hand and say, welcome, but I think you are a little late.
Wade Burck

Paul H. said...

Very, very well put, Wade! We live in enigmatic times to say the least. The labor situation on circuses (carnivals, too) is the tip of the iceberg. There places in the world (rural Mexico is just one of many) with ample supplies of willing, able-bodied men and no jobs vs. locations (and employers) with jobs that go begging.

The challenge, of course, is striking a balance between this supply and demand. Whoever figures that out wins the Nobel Prize! I might be wrong, but the solution to this problem probably won't come from showbiz mgt.

Ben Trumble said...

Labor problems have been awful. We went out a couple weeks ahead of the other Hugo shows, so I think we got the pick of the litter at the missions -- but it was a nightmare for our canvas boss. Culpepper Merriweather is very small, so finally having six guys on a real tent crew for the last couple days has been great... Now if we had some butchers! Haven't heard a word from Capt. McCoy, but the grapevine says Kelly Miller hasn't had an easy time with labor, nor has Carson & Barnes. Believe both those shows got at least a few real tent guys this week. Heard that Mr. Royal stayed behind at KM winterquarters when the show left Hugo. I would venture he was dealing with labor issues before joining the show. On the bright side we've had a few very good days, and ony a couple really bad ones when it comes to business... And we did dodge Tuesday's storm. Our Texas dates are done, and there are no "dry" counties in LA. Things are looking up.

Ben Trumble
mudshow@pacbell.net

Casey said...

Ben,
You left out the important part of C&M cutting the "nut" on the show so low, passing the hat would pay the bills. You guys are gonna be fine I am sure. As I was counting the 36 motors drinking down 4 buck a gallon diesel here...oh wait 2 genny's makes 38, I was really hoping business stays good to excellent. Good Luck my friend...

ben trumble said...

Casey... You're probably spot on about the nut. And the real genius in that regard is probably Mr Childress moving his show with no semis at all and I believe he has a 60 X 90 that can be put up by two guys. As I imagine you're aware, the cats and elephants went away, replaced by the Peking Ducks acrobats, who have now also decamped, hopefully so the cats will come back. Gotta fill 90 minutes. Speaking strictly for myself I'm not sure any show should grow so small as to cease the sale of beer and cigarettes in the pie car, but what the hell do I know? It's still early enough in the season, I can stay busy just fretting over the weather.

Did you get that tabby?

Wade G. Burck said...

Way to go Ben. That's letting the "cat out of the bag". Word has it Ringling is now looking for Ducks, as that downsize formula seems to be working so well.
Forget the Tabby, Casey. Get you a couple of Mallards, a Mandarin for the middle, and your juggling clubs. Can Nat still do a back flip? Producer Trumble has now offered a solution to all, for battling the gas prices.
Wade Burck