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:
Carson & Barnes
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.