Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Rush to Carson and Barnes Circus this season. Run, fly, hitchhike, roller skate, carpool, crawl, even go Greyhound -- but go whenever America's last 3-ring big top comes your way. For after it falls for the final time at the end of its 2008 campaign, you won't see three rings under canvas anymore

Next year, "it could be two," states remarkably forthcoming C&B staffer, Nancy Gaona. But it won't be three.

I spoke with Nancy this morning by telephone about business in general. “So-so” is how she characterized the crowds this year, stating that every year, business “gets worse.” And she believes such is the case on virtually all U.S. shows.

“We all know it’s going to happen,” said she.

Why, I asked?

Nancy pointed to the dismal economy. But what about those stay at home Americans who this year are “staycationing,” I asked. "They don't have enough money to take their kids to the circus," Nancy figures, stating that business is down in every other venue of show business, the movies included. (I did a brief net search, and it seems movie houses have suffered, as have Vegas hotels, bookings at the latter down by 15%.) She believes the public still likes a traditional show under the big top. They simply can’t afford to go.

And for the larger shows, hauling multiple rings around has gotten too prohibitively expensive. (Such was the case made recently by C&B marketing rep Doug Munsell to a newspaper reporter in the Washington state area.)

Carson & Barnes, to be sure, enjoyed the occasional full house during a spotty tour of Florida in the spring. Disputing what an insider, professionally connected to circuses, told me earlier this year (likening the Florida tour to "a train wreck"), Nancy said that business was “better than expected,” and that a few winning dates made up for the losers.

“It’s sad” she answered when I asked her how she feels about all this. Nancy, by the way, is a niece to famed trapeze flyer Tito Gaona.

She pointed to the country’s largest circus as an example of the drastically changing times ahead and of what we might expect for some time to come. “If Ringling can change, why can't we?”

Nancy believes that circuses will still be around, but in different forms.

Carson and Barnes, she vigorously asserted, is not going off the road.

Want to witness a coast-to-coast curtain fall on what once was known as the great American circus -- a form born 136 years ago when a circus named Barnum added a second ring to the sawdust? Now is the time. This is the moment. It may never return.

Cry, clown, cry..

[I encourage you to read the comments that follow]


Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
It is indeed sad, but it appears that every reason for poor attendance is suggested, with the exception of the performance/product that is sold to the public, and unless you can pay for that, I don't think we should expect to see that change anytime soon.
Wade Burck

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many shows won't make it out of winter quarters next year. I'm guessing most. The new genration of young parents have no memories of the great circuses and no nostalgia for those days.
In many ways the circus killed itself and left a bad taste in peoples mouths with the endless concession pitches, shady ticket selling practices and mediocre, predictable performances.
People don't see charm in trudging through mud to sit on planks in hot tents and watch acts that are less skilled than a high school gymnastic meet.
Just about every ground act has been perfected by non-proffessionals - unicycle, trampoline, acrobatics, juggling, and usually done better. The American circus went from star aerial acts to hand and foot loop routines on elaborate riggings. Any act that couldn't be learned in a couple of months was discarded. If it wasn't for the influx of the former communist acts, there would be nothing of note in any ring in the country.
people don't need clowns - the world is saturated with comedy, and elephants more often evoke sympathy than awe.
The best that can be said is that it lasted longer than vaudville, but it's headed the same direction. And pointing out declining movie attendance doesn't help. Movies have constantly evolved to appeal to new audiences. Circus did not. Soleil earned heaps of scorn for daring to bring some innovation. "It's not REAL circus", they all said. Well, the old time thinkers are riding the 'real circus' all the way down to the bottom rather than compromising thier lofty principals. So, crank up the Victrola - those crazy kids don't know what REAL music is - what with thier new fangled iPods and such.

Wade G. Burck said...

Anonymous's are a special breed all onto their own. A name would have make you insightful thoughts valid.
Wade Burck

henry edgar said...

i have to agree that many of the circus problems are self-inflicted -- the shady discount tickets, constant pitches, weaker than weak performances, amateurish performers, lack of advertising and publicity, a general feeling that all they have to do is pull into town and drop off some discount tickets. i'm not sure if blaming bad business on people not being able to afford tickets is not more likely people saying they can't go because of the constant pitches and rides and the kids wanting it all and pressuring the parents. sure, souveneirs and concession items are expensive at theme parks, but you aren't beat over the head with them. at a movie theater, you see the 8.00 popcorn on the way in, but if you get past it, you can enjoy the movie without the pressure. and you can enjoy cirque du soleil without a ton of pitches. as well as ringling. with all of our complaints, they must be doing something right -- they're still putting asses in the seats.

not to single carson barnes out -- other shows are just as guilty, if not more so, but the show HAS been down-sizing for years. look how quickly the elephants dropped. the menagerie animals were replaced by goats. no cat act, though its been a long time since the cat act had any sense of quality. lots of performers but how many outstanding acts? mostly filler, the last time i saw the show. and people still call it our largest tent circus. if they are billing it that way, it can't be helping return business. once it was a huge show. only a few years ago it still had a huge rhino, a giraffe and a pygmy hippo, 5 rings and more elephants than ringling. the 5 rings weren't necessary, scaling back the elephant herd is understandable, downsizing may have been a necessity -- but how much more can they downsize? cole has down-sized tremendously -- but they still offer high quality acts. kelly miller is showing right now that quality counts, along with cole doing so many repeats at the big malls.

i know it's not easy to run the smallest mud show. i know many of the owners and managers try to do the best they can -- but if you can only have 10 performers, why not have at least 2 or 3 who are GOOD performers?

i think many problems for many of the shows could be averted by a little more attention to what do the acts do, not how many do they do. how many star aerial acts do the tent shows have -- how many heel catches or balancing traps or forward swings? anything besides a swinging circle with lots of foot and hand loops or a cloud swing with so many loops the performer could have an accident moving from one to another? only a few years ago, gloria bale trained three guys to do good cloud swings in the cole aerial ballet along with the swinging ladders. these were trained by the show for the show -- without a thousand loops. why doesn't somebody else try something like that? you can say you can't afford a riding act or a cat act or a bear act and there are almost no chimp acts left -- so why not look for a good trapeze act, if necessary train a kid for a cloud swing, or maybe a good old-fashioned tight wire -- cirque has a tight wire with a forward that isn't even announced. oops, i forgot -- they aren't a real circus, all they have are acts that still make you say 'Hey, wow!'

while i'm on my soapbox, how do these shows expect to fill their tents if nobody knows they're there? i've seen shows in tiny tiny towns a few miles outside norfolk/virginia beach or hampton/newport news -- but even in tiny franklin or waverly, how much paper do you see? three window cards doesn't cut it. how many ads in the smaller papers that are still relatively cheap? does anybody even send out press releases with pictures of pretty people or outstanding acts or clowns with good makeup?

even if you have a great perfrmance, how can you expect a full house if nobody knows you're in town? you say the advance costs too much. how can you afford to NOT have an advance? when people had bill cars and press agents, they also had more people in the tents.

i know gas is high and people want more money. why not pay a good single act or a double the same thing you're paying a mediocre larger act that does more acts but none of them well?

business is off everywhere, we all know that, not just for mud shows but also for the large retail chains in the huge malls. if you have to downsize, why not do it with class? at least one act that makes people say "hey, wow!" and maybe even somebody to put up some posters, somebody to buy a few ads and at least try to get some stories and pix in the papers.

i guess i'm old-fashioned, but i think mud shows might do better if more put the show back into the mud show.

Wade G. Burck said...

Well said. I only disagree with two issues. First I don't want to see a rhino, hippo, or any other animal in a rusty makeshift pen. Those are the old days and thankfully they are gone. I want to see well trained, well cared for animals, and would prefer to go to a beautiful zoo to see the other more exotic animals in a properly housed situation.
Be careful wishing for too much down sizing, you may get what you wish for. Don't think for a moment the show's in Europe are anything more then a small tent. Most would be envious of one the size of Carson and Barnes. They have got some of the goofiest high school level acts you would ever want to see also. Worse is the black T shirts and the leather with spikes costumes that have become very prevalent. Top class is a rare treat over there also, and is probably the most important fact pertaining to the decline of attendance around the world. The "get the money and scram forget tomorrow" mentality has dealt a devastating blow to the entertainment industry called the Circus. We are not putting on a back yard deal, with 6 lawn chairs for family and friends any more. There are a lot of "professionals" that can take responsibly for the current state of affairs.
Wade Burck

Alan Cabal said...

I've been working in rock & roll for the last two years (the money, honey), and there's no decline in ticket sales in THAT end of the business. I can't wrap my head around why the UK-based Circus Of Horrors is the only outfit with the sense to tap this market.

Wade G. Burck said...

Are you kidding me!!!!! Haze hooks up with Gerry Cottle who has pissed on more circus then our own Dick Garden, and themes a freak show in the 1900's and that's how we should move ahead into the future? Get the money and run, scam and scram is what brought it to this point. Prostitution is still a pretty lucrative trade, but I don't think we should endorse it to young people.
They have Gay Circus's now, and a show recently did a Gay benefit(nothing against the gay community, but there are a number of more worthy causes in the world today) in Frankfort where "professional" circus performers dressed like hookers and Masochists to perform their acts for the delight of the audience like little trained monkeys, so I assume pride is just about gone in the Circus for some European performers. Let's not try to restore the grandeur with any more crap, or we will have to assume the human race has also lost it's pride.
Wade Burck

Alan Cabal said...

I'm saying that a HUGE market is untapped, I'm not calling for same-sex marriage and zoophilia under the big top, although I'm sure it would fill seats. The circus has been acting as if rock & roll is a fad. It's a posture that goes well with the sequins.

A lot of rock acts would LOVE to sit still for a month like Soleil does, and some amazing spectacle could be mounted under a tent on that premise. Get the right HUNGRY little rock band, and you could push a rock & roll mudshow from one end of this grand and glorious former republic of ours to the other and back again, selling out.

Alan Cabal said...

Don't get me going about the state of humanity, Wade. My favorite band is The Sons Of The Pioneers. When I was touring with Big Apple I worried about my liver. Now I'm in danger of going deaf.

Wade G. Burck said...

Now I understand. The way to save the horse industry it to get cows. You must be a promoter, as you are looking for "HUNGRY acts" to push across America. There was never, nor will there be a promoter greater then what was being promoted.

Alan Cabal said...

Yes, there was: Bill Graham.

Wade G. Burck said...

No way Bill Graham. Besides everybody was tripping on LSD and a chimp with a briefcase could have successfully promoted the incredible talent that Graham signed. The greatest was Chet Atkins.