Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Morning. Out of the Past: RECIPE FOR REVIVAL -- Tough Love for Troubled Big Tops ...

This first appeared on February 15, 2009

From Showbiz David to Beleaguered Circus Owners

I feel your pain, even if you don’t. I would like to see you succeed, even if you believe you already are. Even if you refuse to be traumatized by the thousands of empty seats you fail to fill. And so, risking a class action lawsuit for subjecting you beyond your will to my forced advice, you are hereby enrolled in my (drum roll, please!) ...


1. IT’S THE SHOW STUPID! No matter the venue, crowd-wowing showmanship is built on time-tested elements — swiftly paced action, smooth transitions, contrasting moods, music, lights, costumes -- all tautly shaped between sudden decisive openings (as opposed to haphazard pre-show ceremonial nonsense) and big flashy finishes. Bottom line: everything that goes on in and around your single or half ring either adds to or subtracts from the flow of action. REPEAT AND MEMORIZE: EITHER ADDS TO OR SUBTRACTS FROM THE FLOW OF ACTION. Anything that does not (to be addressed next) must go, and go NOW. We in the audience are not impressed. We see through your desperate veiled appeals for money. We do not welcome their disrupting the seductive sawdust spell you sometimes cast over us.

2. OUT, DAMN CONCESSIONS! Are you a circus or a concessionaire on the skids with a backlog of cotton candy to blow up before you blow out? If you still harbor a secret desire to be the next Royal American Carnival, I’d suggest moving your coloring book spiels, your photo ops and various rides along right now, out of the tent and onto the midway where they belong. And the moment I hear one more idiotically intrusive Peanut Peterson pitch DURING ANY PART OF YOUR PERFORMANCE, I swear, no matter the hour, no matter the place, I am getting up out of my seat with megaphone in hand, placing it up to my frothing mouth and shouting “I've heard that fifty thousand times already and I’m not gonna be pitched it anymore!”

3. CONFINE YOUR RING TO THE PERFORMANCE ONLY Money changers, out of the tent! Why? Okay, let’s think this through. A good performance creates and sustains audience engagement. Think of watching a movie in a theatre that every 10 or 20 minutes is shut down while some hack tries selling you on having a pet boa constrictor wrapped around your neck during intermission while a priest gives you last rites and your photo is taken. How might you feel, huh? Clutter your show up with junk and your audience leaves subliminally irritated by everything that got in the way of why they went there in the first place. Have I made my point yet??? They paid to see a performance, not to watch Shopping Channel Goes to the Circus. If you still don’t get it, I’d suggest simply getting out of the business.

4. RETIRE ALL "GUEST ARTISTS" TO THEIR SEATS, WHERE THEY BELONG I do not pay to see customers perform. Give them a good five years off, during which time you will relearn the art of hiring sufficient acts to entertain in lieu of filling up dead space with audience dead heads. I have yet to see a member of the paying public become part of the show in any other venue, be it a rock concert, ballet, stage show, rodeo, or public hanging. And please, will somebody tell the Shriners that we can no longer risk incalculable damage to whatever is left of clowning in American by their unwelcome holidays in greasepaint.

5. REMEMBER ATMOSPHERE? How about restoring a little, such as (and you know who you are) spreading a little sawdust or pink spray paint where the ring used to be. Or at least taking a crash course from any one of the two thousand co-founders of Cirque du Soleil who are standing by this very moment, ready to French up your operation.

6. POPCORN BY THE TON Give us a bloody break! Give us the half-ton box at half the price. You lure the public in with generally humane ticket pricing options. And then you ensnare them in your calculating concession pits, draining them of every last cent you can. I sat behind a poor woman at a small very under performing circus with her son, who kept raising the subject of popcorn. She told him she'd pop some when they got home. They did not return after intermission. Really, what do you accomplish by making it so difficult for adults with children to survive circus day? Why not a Dollar Matinee or two at the concession booth during each stand? Jack up the VIP night show prices, if you must, for rich Wall Street survival geniuses wishing to flaunt their stolen wealth in high American fashion.

7. ORGANIZE A UNIFIED MUSICAL SCORE If you can’t afford a live band (and by "live band," I am not talking accordion and/or bongo player), at least assign a real person to assemble a recorded score that is more than a juke box randomly stocked with the CDS handed you by your arriving acts.

8. PACING, PACING, PACING Remember when acts flew by? When, after one ended, somehow, someway, the next was actually somewhere inside the tent, maybe already in or over the ring performing? Return to the one-act format and concentrate your assets into a tighter, more memorable one-two wallop. Know what? If you thrill a few people, they might go out and talk up your show, and that might pull in more people to the next one. It’s called “word of mouth.”

9. OFFER A PIECE OF PAPER LISTING THE ACTS -— if that’s all you can afford. Remember the program magazines you once sold? The demise of these expected items which are still offered in virtually every other avenue of live entertainment is a tell tale sign of a big top being wheel-barrowed down the road on cherry pie life support. If you can’t hand out at least a one page flier listing the names of your performers, I’d say it’s time to consider a career change; check out some self-help gurus on PBS (Pledge Break Society) for re-birthing advice.

10. IF IT'S SOMETHING MY NEIGHBOR CAN DO, I DON'T WANT TO SEE IT IN YOUR CIRCUS I do not pay to see marbles or kick the ball, doing the daisy chain or hula hoop sleepover, thank you. Unless you can engage that true rarity -- the artist who makes me forget I'm actually watching a hula hoop act -- bring back pin the donkey.

11. RINGMASTER, HOLD YOUR TONGUE I know at least one who can’t stop talking. An immediate gag order on every gasbag announcer who thinks he or she is the real show. He or she is not. These vocal hosts should be heard briefly, and should not themselves become the show unless they have valid acts to offer. "Are you enjoying the show so far, folks?" is not a valid act.

12. IT'S NOT THE STORY, STUPID! You are not the Royal Shakespeare Company over sawdust staging Six Characters in Search of a Producing Clown. No matter what you believe, modern-day "story telling" under a tent is nothing more than big top broccoli designed to give snobs the satisfaction of having endured a quasi Cirque du Soleil out-of-body experience. If you can't resist, then tell your “story” in brief fleeting moments, so that it passes quickly enough to satisfy theatre types without in any way impeding the flow of CIRCUS action. In other words, it should have the tantalizing brevity of an old fashioned American clown walkaround. Leave’em wanting more, not less.

And on that note, I'm leaving. There's a man out there who wants to see me about ad rates. Anybody heard of Dixiana Peanuts?



henry edgar said...

this is one of the most honest things i have seen on any blog yet. you hit the right note with each step. i hope somebody who can do something about it reads this. unfortunately, many of those who need to read it will ignore it or think "he's talking about somebody else." writing this took guts. i agree with everything you said.

Anonymous said...


Greg DeSanto

B.E.Trumble said...

OK. Somebody has to stand up for the butchers here. Let's be fair, even in the Golden Age most shows opened with a pitch for boxes of god-awful stale candy. And it could probably be argued that the reason there are so many pitches inside the bigtop is because there are so many fewer pitches on a bally along the midway. Revive the sideshow, etc. and the pitches can go back outdoors. The truth is that shows have always been an excuse to sell popcorn. Sell enough popcorn and you wouldn't have to charge for seats at all. As I understand it the most heavy-handed pitches of all time centered around P.T.Barnum's autobiography -- a fixture on the Barnum shows up until his death. Drove Coup, and Bailey and Barnum's other partners nuts.

In defense of concessions pricing. While some shows charge an arm and a leg for a stick of floss packaged in a hat, on many small shows concessions sell for about half of what the audience gladly pays for corn, or drinks, etc at the multiplex. And that isn't keeping them out of the movie theaters.

David, there's a hula hoop act Monte Carlo this year. For better or worse...

Now, in truth much of what you are suggesting makes sense. For example a Shrine show that takes an hour long intermission to sell elephant rides may make money, but it drives parents around the bend. Every show should have a program, a musical score that makes sense, atmosphere... and circus doesn't need a storyline.

More than anything else however, it isn't disappoint with the circus that makes for empty seats so much as it's people who would never consider attending the circus at all. Half of the audience at Cirque wouldn't be caught dead at a traditional tent show, even if the traditional show had better performers. And two thirds of the people who go to the movies this afternoon and spend nine bucks for a ticket, and six for corn, and another six for a soda probably believe that attending a circus would cost a whole lot more than seeing a film they will forget by tomorrow. Tell a family that the circus is coming to town and they may think "We should take the kids." Tell a family that the circus is coming to town and it won't cost much more than seeing the next Harry Potter movie and perhaps they really will bring the kids.


Showbiz David said...

Ben, thanks. The only thing I would say concerning your reasoned opening arguemnt is this: We are not living in the day of P.T. Barnum. This is not 1933 or 1953 or even 1983, this is 2009 and the world has changed, credit or blame partly CDS.

B.E.Trumble said...

David. Exactly, it’s 2009. When the first order of business has to be keeping the doors open during recession. If you want to eliminate the pitches, that’s all well and good – but you still need to sell the corn and the novelties. If you don’t make it on the per cap, ticket prices have to go up – and the last thing you want to do is to raise ticket prices when consumers are scared and looking for bargains. As you’ve noted elsewhere, Broadway is taking a beating in the current economy. There’s some evidence that the bloom is off the Cirque rose – certainly they will continue to thrive in places like Vegas, but the economy will hurt the touring shows, and even before the meltdown Cirque fans were starting to grumble over the lack of anything really new in recent productions. Now is probably not the time when you can repackage traditional circus as upscale and charge accordingly.

As I noted I generally agree with you insofar as the focus should be on the show and the show ought to include all of the elements that you suggest from music to pacing to atmosphere. What concerns me is the seeming implication that somehow circus has been deserted by an audience dissatisfied with their last experience. I’m sure that some circus patrons leave a show, any show -- disappointed. I have no doubt that there are circus patrons lured in with free kids tickets and then charged $25 for an adult seat who feel “had” and don’t spend much time figuring out whether just maybe they got a good deal and saw a good show anyway. But I suspect those empty seats don’t reflect defections so much as they reflect people who have never really considered attending a circus and the straightest road to success is in selling them on the idea that the circus is something they can afford, something they will enjoy, something to remember.

Wade G. Burck said...

Show biz,
Way to go. Bravo. I echo Henry, there is a lot of butt puckering going on now, and the fingers are all pointing at somebody else.
Wade Burck

Dick Dykes said...

I have to add my 2 cents to this.
I have had many show owners tell me that they have days that if it were not for the concessions the show wouldn't have moved. I agree some shows, and most of you know who they are, are getting really ridiculous with pricing. I watch baseball games a lot and some of the biggest days they have are Dollar Dog Night. The trouble with the Ringling Show they want it all!
And when it gets right down to it they are keeping a lot of people from attending any circus after they get done with them! I'm sorry but that's the way I see it.

Tom Wilds said...

Hear, Hear - please

henry edgar said...

i don't think the big problem is ringling concession prices as much as the constant ding as soon as you get on the lot. circus concession prices are comparable to prices at movie theater, theme parks, or any other form of enetertainment. i think what makes our business look bad is the unexpected cost -- the huge adult ticket necessary to use the free kid ticket -- but the worst is the constant interruption of the show for pitches. i don't think people even get mad about the butchers -- that also happens at sporting events. i know concession revenue often keeps the show alive, just as it often keeps the movie theater open -- but as david has pointed out, a movie doesn't shut down for a long attempt to sell a souvenier or peanuts or photos or coloring books, etc. pitches have always been around, and in addition to making money they sometimes cover prop changes. but historically the better shows have limited the pitches to one per show (unless you count the wild west show, which didn't seem to offend anyone) a parent can ignore a butcher or a garbage joint -- but it's hard to ignore a sales pitch that stops the show. this is another case where the industry will only change from within. i have no problem with concessions. i have a major problem with a thin show held together by pitches to sell photos with snakes, and all the other things, as well as a 30-minute intermission where the inside of the big top is turned into an elephant ride -- and an incredibly short ride at that.

Dick Dykes said...

Do you know how many times the concessions have kept or helped a show make a jump?
How many times the only profit for the day came from the concessions.
Let's be realistic, in this age, money is what makes the world go round! Dick

Anonymous said...

Dick, the reason the only profit came from concessions is that the show was such garbage that no one paid to see it. If vendors hawked their wares while a movie was showing, there wouldn't be any patrons either

Anonymous said...

The mud shows killed their own business with just the things SD has listed - especially the constant pitches. Dick has a vested interest, but is the only goal to scrape up enough to get to the next town and back to quarters (for the last time)?
The days of nostalgia are gone, where gramps looked back fondly on studging through muddy, rutted lots to sit on dirty seat boards and be harassed every ten minutes over some geegaw pitch that was blatant fraud 50 years ago.

No, people want a more comfortable, genuinely entertaining experience, not just to kill a couple of hours in discomfort.

Check out the skill and practice that went into these feats and tell me people are still thrilled by a swinging ladder, a pony on a lunge and a hula hoop act, interspersed with balloon pitches. And the globe wheel of death ran their course 20 years ago.

No Dick, the good old timers did more to kill the business than Peta ever could. And even patrons of the big Shrine shows endured the garbage because there actually used to be a show hidden beneath the malarky.

There are usually 4 or 5 shows that come through my town, but I haven't been to a circus in 3 years (and I used to travel 100 miles to see a circus.)

Jerry Cash said...

THANK YOU! I couldn't agree more. If you want to succeed in business today, you have to have respect for your customers. I'm sorry to say many shows don't understand this.
Jerry Cash