Monday, August 25, 2008

How Not to Run a Circus? Just Ask the Bloggers

Back There ...

When I read Ben Trumble’s Mud Show blog, mostly because (like the old Billboard magazine) it reports day to day business on the Kelly-Miller lot, I almost feel like a circus owner being apprised by an employee on how (maybe) not to run my show.

Trumble, who himself aspires to own a circus, not only reveals crowd trends (so far this season, from spotty and sparse to the occasional straw house), but unstintingly shares his theories with us about what a good booking agent might do to avoid dry markets and concentrate on harvest dates. He praises the old-era advance men for savvy research. But they too erred. Tent trouping has never been easy.

Says Ben, for example: “Business continues to be off in rural small town MI. A year ago the economic data for MI pointed to a rough time of it outside the metro- Detroit suburbs. The collapse in housing values in MI rivals declines in parts of California and Florida. That creates a credit crunch arriving at the same time as a slump in MI manufacturing. Not exactly sure why so few shows actually look at localized economic and demographic data in booking.”

Aside from arguing, incorrectly I believe, that “for the last hundred years ... we put on a show to sell popcorn and elephant rides”(elephant rides the last hundred years???), Trumble’s shared musings raise timely questions. He’s a thoughtful guy.

Bloggers on the midway, ironically, tend to be, from what I can tell, the pros and not the fans. From clown Pat Cashin down to Wade Burck and Balloon Man Dick Dykes, and first-of-may kid Logan Jacot (Sawdust Nights). Even I’ve earned a few bucks under the tents. Turns out I have a tenuous professional connection to probably the most popular blogger of all, Buckles Woodcock, for in 1969 we both worked on George Matthews Great London Circus (known as James Bros. the year before). See that photo there? I had a stack of them in the back of my Ford Bronco when I drove across the country as “national press representative” for the excitingly erratic Sid Kellner.

Where are the circus fans in all this? Peepless as usual, I suspect — unlike their counterparts in all other venues from sports to pop music, who have no problem shouting out opinions — second guessing coach calls and telling big shots how to conduct a business. Here, the pros are doing it — over the internet.

New age, indeed. Ben Trumble, who actually works for Kelly Miller in “media relations,” seems to be working more for the media as a field reporter than for KM. Or is this simply a new paradigm in a new age yet to be sorted out? Once upon a time, press agents spun tales of happy crowds up and down the sawdust trails. Now, at least one of them wonders what went wrong every other day.

First posted August 25. 2008


Wade G. Burck said...

Show biz,
I think "what went wrong" is what everybody is attempting to answer, all in our own way, all in our field of expertize. Some do it by pictures, heres what what it was, here's what it is, you decide. Some chose to give their thoughts as to why, using pictures to illustrate. Some are just happy to have any of it left. But I think that fact that it is being addressed so frequently, regardless of how it is being address points to an obvious conclusion that things aren't right.

Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
As you asked this question:

Where are the circus fans in all this? Peepless as usual, I suspect — unlike their counterparts in all other venues from sports to pop music, who have no problem shouting out opinions — second guessing coach calls and telling big shots how to conduct a business. Here,
the pros are doing it — over the internet.

I would like to give you excerpts from 3 private emails from long standing members of the Circus Fans of America, sent this week. While not a large opinion, it may give you an idea, and answer your question. Unless you go anonymous, then you might get direct responses. Also today is 2008 if that matters:

I greatly enjoy your blog and all that you do write--some of
the best and most detailed discussion I have heard about the nuancesof "behaviors" and animal training. It is this type of material that fascinates me and about which fans know nothing and seem to have
little interest--they seem to limit their knowledge to the mechanical
aspects of moving a show.
I also respect
you for the efforts you give to fairly discuss the recent Feld era.
I've noted some paraphrasing (by an anonymous, of course) on another
blog of some news comments that allude to Feld and I feel they have
mis-represented what the journalist was stating in order to once again
knock Feld. While I'm not enamored with some of the changes in recent
years, it is a business first (and all organizations go through change
that displeases some) but what is happening to the industry in general is more tragic.

Second one, Show biz:

Hello Wade:
I greatly appreciate your comments and point of view. It is very refreshing to hear you tell it like you see it. Since I am around your age, my connection to the "old" circus is practically non-existent.
My first circus was the Detroit Shrine in 1963. I vividly remember certain aspects of it.
Clyde Beatty was already past his prime at that point and I mostly remember lots of blanks and the cats going after him, not too many tricks really. I didn't go to the circus again until the Red Unit played Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1970, which featured GGW and the lavish productions that was Irvin Feld's legacy- nothing like the Ringling shows of today. I guess I'm glad to have lived through the second Golden Age of the circus, at least when it comes to the Ringling show. I know too many fans who think the circus died in 1938 and has never come back. I guess that leaves both you and I in deep shit. And I am glad you are not afraid to speak out. I would rather not respond on your blog, as I don't want what is directed at you on others directed at me by fans and I respect you not posting anonymous.

3rd one Show biz:
I worked for someone that the fans all say is loving gentle in 2000 on Clyde Beatty Circus. I was shocked at what I saw in the night time practices. I don't think Clyde Beatty was ever like that as people say. But almost every day fans would shake her hand and get a picture and tell her how brave and so very gentle she was. I quit after a couple of months, and am still a member of the Circus Fans of America, I am afraid to say anything as it is just a fight or argument. Most fans just want to make things up or see things as they want to.

Wade Burck

Tom Wilds said...

So what is the problem with the American circus. John Strong said it years ago ' It's not what it costs to get in, it's what it cost to get out'. the show is an excuse to create a gathering.

Let me explain. The American circus has be prostituted by the sale. Popcorn, elephant rides, anything. Years ago it was gambling and girlie shows, anything. That's what has created the American public's opinion of circus.

Now, compare this to the Euro opinion of circus, where they gladly pay good money to see a proper performance. Where there are no butchers in the seats during the performance. If they want something, they go out to the lobby tent.

I offer you a prime example. Go to Ebay, search Circus Roncalli. Find there 30th anniversary dvd and buy it. Sit down, enjoy it and make the comparison. Be sure to compare the audience reaction as well.

Tom Wilds

Wade G. Burck said...

Straw houses of 1200-1500 people are not going to move a show from New York to California. I understand fully a great performance, but I also have driven across France, and the United States, and have been in buildings for 34 years, and know how big an act/show it has to be in those buildings.
Wade Burck

Tom Wilds said...

I fully understand what your are saying. But, to present a show of lesser quality for the sake of the telephone sales and concessions is what has ruined the circus in America today.

Perhaps, the buildings are part of the problem. They certainly are convenient and cushy (heated & cooled). I've worked in buildings. Never felt right. The audience is to far away. Ya can't beat standing on the ring curb and looking at them in the eye and saying 'what are you laughin at!' I grew up with the audience right there. They were right there when I owned my own show. That is how circus should be! Any thing else is to prostitute it, for the sake of sales. Wait, Wait are sales ...... profit?

Wade G. Burck said...

I don't know anything about telephone sales, and I think there has historically been a lot of misinformation tossed about. I spent my career in buildings and 3 rings of the one ring greatness you reference is what also made the American circus great. As it is reduced to one, it doesn't seem to be increasing to full house of 1200. A battle of the bands with 10 bands playing over the course of a day seems to be more popular then the one venue concert, with rare exception, here in America.
Wade Burck

Ryan said...

I do not have an answer to any of these questions, but it is a great point regarding "where are all the fans at?" Enter 'circus elephant' into any search engine and of the first ten pages of results, maybe five sites have good information, or at the very least are not produced by the "bleeding hearts" depticting the "horrors of captivity." Everyone can point out the mistakes, or tell the pitcher how they are doing it wrong, or criticize the celebrity, yet there are very few that stand up to the critics. Wade expressed it best in his comments. I am not a professional, rather I am a fan and associated to the industry by my father. Thank you to those who tell it as it is, and leave something for those of us that still enjoy a longmount, tubsit, and well-performed act.

Anonymous said...

You might put me in the First of May category of circus bloggers.
At least now that I have a scanner, things are looking up.


Alan Cabal said...

My particular nightmare involves Live Nation acquiring Big Apple or Soleil. As much as I dislike The Guide, I'll take a single narcissistic megalomaniac over a faceless horde of bean-counters any day.

Anonymous said...

You wondered about attendance at the Melha Shrine well here you go - 10 minutes before showtime Saturday night and about the same by showtime.

The performance (what I saw before I left) could only be described as sadness.

Opening act was a FIFTEEN MINUTE solo clown (kind of a Bello wannabe)balancing a broom for competing audience applause

3 webs

Cat act with 2 lions and 3 tigers doing LITERALLY 4 tricks (plank walk, pedestal jump, hoop jump, hurdle jump and the lion lay down - that was IT)The trainer, Vincent Von Duke elegantly changed his shoes in full view of the audience before going on

Return of the clown for another LONG gag (I left to use the bathroom, have a smoke, get a coke and he was STILL on)

2 rings of jugglers doing basic 3 prop tricks

Shrine clown number (nuf said)

Then I left, along with several other families in my section, but I saw them setting up a trampoline and a single lyra was being lowered.

Props I could see were a flying act, a globe of death and a motorcycle incline wire.

I was actually embarrassed for the show. Actually pissed that they would dare insult the audience who bought tickets. It would have been something for a small tent show not a 3 ring arena. I'm betting that no one will be back if they continue having the Melha Shrine Circus.

Anonymous said...

Too bad about Melha. Over the years, every big act in America worked that date at one time or another. Used to be a sell out for the whole run. At least they have two elephants on the ride to handle the crowds, I see, but probably not many lighted swords sold.