Sunday, October 12, 2008

Getting Short Changed in a Ringling Big Top -- Was it Condoned by North & Concello?

"Truth destroys only that which is untrue."
-- credited to the philosophy of Mary Baker Eddy

The remarkable account, by former Ringling ticket seller William Taggart, of an organized short changing operation on a circus long-acclaimed for shunning such a practice, raises questions that deserve to be addressed, if for no other reason than to substantiate as best we can the historical record. Although Taggart's tale refutes everything I have ever read and heard about Ringling history and ethics, I am prepared to face the facts, wherever they may take us.

In his fine article, just published in Bandwagon, Bill makes two key statements that point to an organized operation, if not run from the top down, then one hosted by ticket department superintendent William P. McGough. Most tellingly, Bill writes that, when he was offered the job of ticket seller in 1954, he was “expected” to participate — now, that’s a pretty strong directive, if you ask me; also, that he was told “not to worry about management,” which might mean a lot of things. To me, foremost, it means that management would take no punitive actions and therefore condoned what Bill was instructed to do.

Bill’s even-handed and well detailed account of the training he received from fellow ticket seller Tommy Reale, instructing him that a payoff for the “privilege” was to be passed along “each night” to McGough, comes off as credible. However, of greater interest to me is to what extent the “management” alluded to was actively and knowingly complicit in this operation. I have tried to seek clarification on the issue in e-mails to Bill. Regretfully, his vague and inherently contradictory replies, alluding to what is generally known about grift on circuses of the era, are not as persuasively detailed as his Bandwagon prose.

He claims the practice was necessary in order to make a decent living. He made about $30 a week. His meals and lodging came free, I assume, although he had to pay many fees, including for his bunk on the train and a seat at the cookhouse, he told me in an e-mail; more sweepingly, and here's the real shocker, Taggart claims in an e-mail to me that virtually all Ringling officials knew of various shortchanging activities on the lot and allowed if not sanctioned them. “What did JRN ever do to alert the public in 55 or any other year, and what tape are you referring to? ... JRN was very aware of what happened on the show, but expected it to be kept under control, and so was his brother Henry who spent more time on the show than JRN.”

The “tape” I refer to was this, played during come-in during the 1955 season:

"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. All reserved seats must be purchased from the ticket booths stationed around the hippodrome track. We ask that you do not purchase or accept reserved seats from the ushers. Anyone occupying a reserved seat must have a ticket stub for that seat. Any person occupying a seat in the reserved section and who does not hold a stub for that seat will be removed from the reserved section. The general admission seats requiring no additional charge are located at each end of the tent. There is positively no extra charge for these general admission seats. Let us also call your attention to the prices clearly printed on the hats of all vendors. Please note the correct price, and pay no more. Thank you very much."

That sounds to me like management warning customers to beware of slippery dealings with ushers and vendors. In fact, it reminds me of what the five Ringling brothers did in their early years when they stationed a man next to the ticket wagon who shouted "Count your change! Beware of pickpockets!"

Curiously, even though Bill maintains that upper management was well aware of what was going, he also asserts, “I never implied there was a short change operation that was condoned...on the show you were not to have constant beefs so you had to cover yourself or a boss like Bill McGough or others would quiet the heat.”

And he also clearly implicates Art Concello when he refers to a statement that, according to him, was once made by Nina Evans to Irvin Feld: "Mr. Feld we all made money when Concello headed the show." I’m not exactly sure how you connect the dots from that comment to a management-mandated short change operation.

Now, if management did not condone what Bill was taught to do, could it be that McGough, minus Concello (who left the show at the end of 1953) found himself on a shaky if not sinking ship and defaulted to (how to put this politely) expedient mode? Or were Frank McClosky and Willis Larson, then in charge, behind the granting of privileges? Here is what I dug up looking through back issues of the Billboard:

The various rackets against the show and the customers became so pervasive that John Ringling North actually fired McClosky and Lawson, along with assistant manager Walter Kernan, in Minneapolis on August 6, 1955. As reported by the Billboard, "North charged that the discharged men had been more interested in privileges than in the show. They denied any connection with the set-ups he described."

Perhaps only Bill knows the answers to such critical questions his statements, intentionally or not, raise. And I hope he will provide them in the same fine detail that distinguishes his Bandwagon article, rather than through vague innuendo and insinuation.

Are we in a black and white world, or one of shadows and hints?

When I sat down with Phillip and Daisy Hall in Sarasota in 1986 while a tape recorder ran, during the nearly two hours we spent discussing a multitude of issues about their years on the show, the subject of grift in general came up. Phil came on Ringling in the forties as an usher, and left at the end of 1953; he had worked on the inside pass exchange booth and in the tax wagon, among other duties; Daisy was a show girl. Both enjoyed a friendship with Art Concello. On many occasions, Phil socialized with both Art and John Ringling North. Here is an exact word-by-word transcription of those parts of our conversation that addressed the topic:

PHIL: Shortchanging is I suppose what a lot of the ticket sellers did.
DAVID: Do you think short changing existed on Ringling, even?
PHIL: A little bit. Not big. Not much.
DAISY: Because they couldn’t get away with it.
PHIL: Of course, there was short-changing. Anyone who sells tickets, now, it might not have been blatant, but there are ways to have people leave their money. And there are, I’ve practiced it myself (laughs). Which is not shortchanging, but I’m sure, but the Ringling show, they were pretty vigilant about that sort of thing, now you couldn’t keep it all out.
DAISY: Yeah, because if you got caught doing it, you got fired.
PHIL: If anything, on the Ringling show, the people made money by rehashing tickets and things like that, which is holding tickets back and reselling them, which the show always paid for, not the public. There would be much more of that on the Ringling show because if you really short changed and they caught up with you, they’d fire you.
DAISY: They’d fire you.
PHIL: They didn’t want to disturb the public.
DAVID: And Concello, I guess, was strict about that, too?
PHIL. Oh ... [a key word; the tone of Phil's voice suggests gravity, not hesitation]
DAVID: He wouldn’t cheat the public, right?
PHIL: Oh, God no. Oh, no. Oh, absolutely. 100 percent. And he didn’t put up with much rehashing if he could catch it.

We are dealing here with a Ringling legacy built on a claim of fair dealing with the public, and I think that most of us can handle whatever truth surfaces — credibly. I have thoroughly enjoyed Bill's intimate inside diary accounts of his years on the Ringling show. So I do hope he will continue in his eye-opening account of his years on the Greatest Show on Earth. If the record needs to be recast, so be it. Until then, I'm still having a hard time reconciling the above-referenced actions that John Ringling North took with the idea that upper management either sanctioned or turned its back on the organized extraction of fees from light fingered ticket sellers for the "privilege" of shorting the customer. Call my inability to embrace such schizophrenia a lingering illusion.

[photos, from the top: William Taggart; Frank F. McClosky, general manager; Willis E. Lawson, manger, of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1954]


boppabill said...

In 1943 the government issued silver colored pennies RBBB tried to pass one off as a dime to my Dad at MSG.
He caught them and was given a real dime.

Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
Brilliant. That is the way to write history, and get to the bottom of rehashed and retold jackpots/stories. Superb research, and an argument worthy of Clarence Darrow. If I were a member of the jury you would have had me in the palm of your hand until:

"DAVID: And Concello, I guess, was strict about that, too?
PHIL. Oh, he wouldn’t ... [sentence not completed]
DAVID: He wouldn’t cheat the public, right?
PHIL: Oh, God no. Oh, no. Oh, absolutely. 100 percent. And he didn’t put up with much rehashing if he could catch it."

An important part of a valuable transcript, about one of the "sacred cows" of old and it is gone. Did you have Rose Mary Woods transcribing for you that day?
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

Wade, I've been meaning to return to the tape, since replaying it a few days ago, to re-listen to the sentence which I first reported as "incomplete." It interests me as much as it may you. Phil said "Oh" with a seriousness; But it does not appear he said, as I first reported and have since removed, "he wouldnt" but that the tonal gravity of his "oh" prompted me to ask: "He wouldn't cheat the public, right?" One might argue bad form on my part, lending the impression that I was putting words in his mouth. However, Phil's "oh" did not suggest in any way vascilation. I transcribed the interview myself many years ago, but I went back to listen and relisten for this posting.

Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
Some may argue "bad form." Some may suggest you misinterpreted Phil's sarcasm as seriousness. Some may, "OBJECT!!! Leading the witness, your Honor."
Sorry Show Biz, it lost a bit of credibility.
Wade Burck

Paul H. said...

Hello Show Biz:
Your dialogue about short-changing and other shenanigans on RBBB is interesting and reminds me of the closing line in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", which is one of my all-time favorite Westerns. The line is delivered by an old-time newspaper editor to his cub reporter: "When the truth becomes the legend, print the legend."

That sums up what one believes, or wishes not to believe, about graft on the hallowed, tented RBBB organization.