Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Do Circuses Face Another 1938?

This first appeared on April 12, 2008

Seventy years after arguably the worst season in American circus history, today’s smaller shows are already foundering, and it’s only April. Cry, clown, cry?

Seventy years later, at least two U.S. circuses that I know of (Cole and Vargas) do not offer the public program magazines or handbills. At least two (Cole and Kelly-Miller) have web sites that feature act photos from previous editions with no reference to current offerings. Virtually all U.S. tenters are ominously short handed, desperately awaiting temporary Mexican workers held back because of the Visa issue. All face the ugly realities of skyrocketing gas prices. What else? Despite a recessionary economy dumping more Americans into unemployment lines, our circuses can’t seem to find U.S. citizens to move their tents. Why?

By the brutal end of ‘38, eight shows were out of business. Only two of those eight returned the next year. To bring the point home, here are eight of the shows now on the road:

Big Apple
Carson & Barnes
Circus Vargas
Walker Bros.

Okay, take your pick. Remove six of those eight from the list, and you have 1938 all over again. Of course, this is not going to happen — not yet. The tenting world today is a far different animal, drastically reduced in size and equipment from what it offered a public addicted to three rings during the 1930s. Only Ringling still tours by rail.

But there are two major issues that do not bode well for 2008: bank-draining visits to the gas pump and a dearth of worker bees to pitch the tents.

What can the owners do to stave off the unthinkable? The one day standers can reduce their gas bills by playing fewer towns for longer stays. This favors those shows (like Cole and Vargas) with such a policy already in place, and it minimizes stress on overworked personnel — performers expected to help lug props and poles and ring curbs into place. In order to sustain a multiple day run, however, a show needs a certain showmanship that will generate word of mouth. I still believe that discount ducats for the moppets can only get you so far.

The one day pattern of survival rides on the free kid’s ticket angle — give two shows (marginal contents) in a city and get out fast. Which is not to say that some of the one-day tricks are guilty of inferior offerings. My guess does explain to me why Circus Chimera failed; the Judkins bare bones approach sans animals might have worked in a one day format. I rarely saw the Chimera canvas even half full. But then again, neither was the Vargas tent even half full when I took in a show last summer.

On the other hand, the smaller shows have an advantagee as the economy tanks: Highly affordable ticket prices and a public ready, I suspect, to gratefully embrace adequate entertainment for their children. I printed out a C&B ticket and discovered a smart (new?) approach I have never encountered before: Any person can enter with the coupon for free as long as he or she is accompanied by a paying patron. How flexible. I could take an adult friend.

Now let’s cut to the ugly chase and discuss wages. Up until 1933, circuses could pay whatever they could get away with paying. Some of them put up a good cookhouse, and the workingman had a place to sleep. When federal minimum wage laws were enacted in 1933, setting the scale at 25 cents an hour, combined with the rise of labor unions those laws complicated the picture. The U.S. Supreme Court repealed the act in 1935 as unconstitutional, but it was reenacted in October, 1938 —25 cents per hour, slated to rise to 30 cents the following year and remain that way for six years. The Ringling show in 1939 signed a pact with the AFA stipulating a $45monthly minimum for its working men. By my calculator, that allows for 45 hours of labor per week at the 25 cent minimum. Likely the men turned in more time. But given free food and shelter, perhaps the show ethically met its agreement. Now to the murky present tense, clouded by all the unspoken compromises that are made when Mexicans cross the border to supply the willing hands, often at the expense of subverting the so-called "free marketplace" of U.S. capitalism by driving down actual wages.

The missing element here is what circuses today actually pay a person to drive a truck or swing a hammer and lay out canvas. I’m told that the visa program mandates legal wages; what those wages are I would like to know — and maybe somebody will volunteer the answer. But the greater problem I fear is that, no matter the official answer, circus owners survive as do expedient farmers, relying on cheap labor that might be cheaper than legal. The realities change, and the shrewdest showman will find ways to adapt.

In 1956, John Ringling North, mired in a crippling labor strike after years of disputes with the unions, came to his senses about the impracticability of a huge traveling three ring circus. And he opted to go indoors. Other shows over the years have chosen to scale down in size and retain those romantic tents. Well, now they are all quite small. What next?

Whatever is next, I suggest less hula hoops and protracted pony ride intermissions; more dazzling artistry.



B.E.Trumble said...

David, not sure you ahve to go back to 1938. 2006 was a terrible year for a number of shows who barely limped home. '07 was better. The labor situation is slowly improving, at least for several shows, though it will remain tight all season. On the plus side, with fewer hands, a tent crew member may be doubling what he can earn working as a butcher as well, and there's some payroll savings... To date at least on this show, business is holding up at least in the south. We'll see about the midwest.

We shouldn't kid ourselves. The problems in '08 were all pretty evident long before the season started. It was hard NOT to see that labor would be problematic when there wasn't an H-2B fix before Christmas. Given fuel price patterns it was only logical to PLAN on diesel prices over $4.00 a gallon. And after the real estate market collapsed it was clear that parts of the country would be in serious recession this spring and summer.

Don't read too much into website updates... In recent years even shows like Carson & Barnes may not put out a program before May. Culpepper has changed the website since 2006. With a few exceptions most shows seem to be uniformly bad about websites...

Here's what I would look for to judge just how bad the season really is for any particular show... Are they missing or canceling dates because of labor? Are they shedding trucks to cut costs on shows already downsized? Are they shedding acts? I'm just guessing this will be a tougher year on shows mired on the coasts, while shows that make it into the high plains and intermountain west will still do business.

Possibly this was not the best year for Carson & Barnes to circumnavigate the entire country -- but then again perhaps moving that far means never staying too long in any one region where business is off.

Final note on '38... Ringling killed off the Peru shows in the mid-1930's. It's hard to know how those great shows might have fared in the '30's under other management? Maybe John Robinson's strength in the south would have kept it going. Maybe the strength of Sells-Floto under Zack Terrell or Hagenbeck Wallce under Jess Adkins would have proved greater than the strength of their relatively new Cole show. Perhaps their Robbin Bros unit was too much. As badly as the big railroad shows suffered, truck shows like Kelly Miller flourished that season.

Wade G. Burck said...

Show biz Dave,
I have often read "quotes" in books, articles, word of mouth, that that ENTERTAINMENT and liquor sales go up in times of crisis, ie. war and economy. What better time then right now.
Remember me addressing performers salary, as I have addressed since 1990. Now we come full circle to stay longer in a spot, but no quality acts. Make the show smaller, but no quality acts. Pay the working men more to set it up, but no quality acts etc. Again I think the key word is ENTERTAINMENT and that translates into quality acts. They can built it but what if nobody comes? Sell tickets to watch the tent go up. I have had a CDL since 1976, and have never been paid for it. I am "required" to drive.
Wade Burck

Wade G. Burck said...

Ben, If providing a superior product is "killing" something off, is that a bad thing? I should think it would motivate to come up with a more superior product?

B.E.Trumble said...

Wade, I'm all in favor of a superior product. The quality of the acts presented are a boon in getting the audience to return to shows year after year. That doesn't mean that a high grass show can compete financially for performers of the same quality as I expect when I see Circus Krone, but we should settle for an act just because it's inexpensive. I'd argue that nowhere is that quite as evident as it is in clowning... but good clowns remind me that many show owners hate clowns and begrudge every dime they spend on them. The European model for how this business is run seems to find a way to present talented acts in shows both large and well known and small and regional. We haven't been as good at that.


Logan Jacot said...

Don't forget about the Lewis and Clark Circus. They are currently in Georgia I believe with not shortage of animals acts. They have a camel act, tiger act, goat act, and a big and little act. They also have a pony sweep and petting zoo on the midway as well as a giant snake show.

I responded to your comment about the post of my dog riding rabbits.


Ben Trumble said...

Are the tigers on Lewis & Clark performing, or just on the midway? (I've heard it both way...) Who presents the act?

Logan Jacot said...

They are performing. Bob Childress is presenting them.

Harry Kingston said...

This is a very intersting subject.
I wish we both could get in a time machine and go back and see how it was then.
I have read that 1938 and 1956 were two bad years for teh circuses.
But how did they survive during the depression with bread lines and soup kitchens and many out of work and still go to see circuses.
Who ever is still going is a survivor in this age.
Barbara Byrd, I know heard all about how it was from her Mom and Dad. I bet it was tough but they still are going from 1938 on.
I asked D. R. about 1956 when many closed and he said they jammed them. And went out the next year.
D. R. had the largest tenter will a zillion animals and 5 rings and a huge tent.
Johnny Pugh learned from some of the best from Frank McClosky and Walter Kernan. Beatty Cole always played that Eastern territory with a large population and small jumps.
Johnny knows what the towners want and gives it to them and they come back every year.
Kelly Miller with John Ringling North II and Jim Royal is a sure winner. Both have been in the business and know what the public wants and has a great performance.
This show starts out early and had a long great season with great performance at fair prices.
Bob Childress has Lewis and Clark and plays the small towns and he was in the carnival business before he had a circus and knows how to get them into the tent.
These modern day show folks are survivors and will around for many years to come.
You got to make the nut and try to cut costs where you can.
Harry in Texas