On the Ringling Midway, 1898

On the Ringling Midway, 1898
and on their way to guilt-free amusement. They did not enter the big top with "issues."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Friday First Draft Fangless, I Think -- Therapy Parrots to Seat Wagon Sightings ... L'Amyxed Up for Take Out ...

This originally appeared on January 16, 2009

World, come in! Now and then, a peep from foreign shores, and it's about time. About thirty percent of the traffic on this here midway comes in accented, and I wonder as I wander what they are thinking. So, how nice to hear from a real Aussie, Barry Nixon, who chirps, “Know your cribbing is read and appreciated." Fond memories have I for the Aussies (we will table Circus Oz for the moment -- but what a stunner, Oz under a tent!). In their Outdoor Showman, once edited by the gentlemanly Richard Holden, when I was once young and full of myself (as if I no longer am), I got published many times, leading up to my big break in the pages of Variety. And during that period taken for granted (blame it on my youth), a Japanese scholar, Dr. Shigi Yajima, who also scribbled for OS, writing knowledgeably on world circuses, and I think teaching kids on one of the Australian shows, struck up a congenial correspondence with me. Had I only been more internationally grateful and sustained the good vibes into my more prolific times. We might have met, and what a pleasure it would have been to compare views on circus with a soul so far away from my own world. From what I have been able to gather, this kind and knowing man who so graciously reached out to me is no longer with us: How sad, the many chances that pass us by ...

Zoo’s in session, kids: (Me, a zookeeper, what a laugh; I tell friends “give me poetry, not biology”). Over there, somewhere near the Indian Ocean, animal trainer Patricia White floats her faithfully certain views on animal emotions my way, causing a whole lot of mostly constructive debate. (My regrets, Ms. White, over your getting unfairly battered around in here.) Now, fully aware that the views of say, a Casey McCoy are in rational sync with the majority of scientific opinion on the subject (no evidence whatever that animals have feelings), still, it’s what Ms. White has to say that plays to my romantic side: "Have I 'loved' some of my animals? Absolutely. Have they 'loved' me back? In some cases, in their own language, in their own lion-tiger-dog-horse- animal way, I'm sure of it." ... Others have added smart insights, among them Ben Trumble: “We’re hardwired to look for emotion in every human nuance, it’s hard to imagine that other animals don’t share the same schematic ... Animals learn through play and its’ enjoyable.” And Alan as in Cabal, somewhere up there in Maine, I presume, reports a wry sense of humor from his Coon cat Scooter: “He steals things and hides them around the house. Occasionally he returns them by dropping them in front of me. And laughs. He also quite obviously adores me, as I do him.” You heard it here, folks ...

Concessions to Concessions: I caused a few brain cells to work overtime with my recent rant. Says Henry of Edgar, making a point I had overlooked but kind of sort of agree with: I, too, can tolerate candy butchers working the seats AS LONG AS THE SHOW DOES NOT STOP, THANK YOU. “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” Yes, Henry, let the popcorn pushers push so long as a stream of action streams thrillingly by ... And another high thinker, elevated balloon man Dick Dykes, points the finger of blame at a major culprit: “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.” Dick, those Ringling designer snow cones are Exhibit A in your favor. Exhibit B: When I purchased a $3.00 reserved seat ticket in 1955, the cost of the program magazine was 25 cents. Compare that modest ratio to today's cost.

Seat wagon addicts (all three of us), this one’s for US: In the current issue of Bandwagon, Bill (Buckles) Woodcock mentions the ingeniously designed Art Concello seat wagons, remarking that they might not have saved that much labor time. In their favor? “Knowing they would not fall down as I have seen some seats do.” ... Years ago, good friend and fellow seat-wagon addict Bob Mitchell drove me miles south of Sarasota, down past an open field, and there in the distance, half mired in dirt, was an emblem of a lost golden age, fading away, and I thought I’d found a shred of the promised land. Through high grass this wimp walked (not being told that rattle snakes lurked about), and when at last he touched the frame of the wagon, into the rear compartment he climbed, imagining it to be where Unus or Del Oro, Tonito or La Norma had once costumed up and rested between shows. Is anybody still with me?

End Ringers: Cyber courier Don Covington forwards news of a big PBS TV documentary to be set in and around Big Apple Circus. I only hope it’s more exiting than this press release promise: Cameras to be aimed “not just under the big top, but far behind it — into what circus folk call 'the backyard,' the place where the trailers are parked and the real heart of the circus beats.” Not in the ring? ... Guy Laliberte, profiled by a Brit reporter over in Vegas for the Independent to check out Believe. She, one Alice Jones is fairly dazzled by the king's boast of being "The No. 1 entertainment company in the world," but not by his latest offering, starring illusionist Criss Angel. Although she found some elements to her liking, “the show never really takes off.” Post premiere, Laliberte’s concession of non-success pointed to an off-course misfire. “Cirque doesn’t work with stars,” said he, “It’s not an easy thing to do. We are a collective.” ... Circus animals are evidently emotional enough to calm the jittery among us. Here’s "service animal" Sadie, a parrot profiled in The New York Times (you just have to read the story; in last Sundays magazine), who moves about on the shoulder of troubled Jim Eggers, sensing his every mood, and issuing warnings: “It’s okay, Jim. Calm down, Jim. You’re alright, Jim. I’m here, Jim.” Oh, I had so much more stuff, and I'm just getting warmed up, but Gerti, my service turtle just whispered, “Fangs, David, fangs. Time for your daily dose of meditation?”

Alan, have you and yours yet tried off-Broadway? ...

[photo above of Sadie and Jim3 Eggers, by Jeff Riedel/The New York Times]

1.16.09

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Not Just the USA, Circus Ticket Sales Plunge in Other Countries; Parents Wanting Banned Animals Back in the Ring

Think we have it bad over here? We’re not alone. From Australia to India, and likely in-between, tent shows are not packing them in.

Courtesy of Aussie Barry Nixon, here’s a story in The Times of India ruing a "dying industry" throughout the country. “How can a circus be made meaningful when there are no more lions, tigers and panthers now,” questioned Vinod Kumar, who manages a major Indian circus. He blames most of the problem on “the indifferent attitude of government towards circus,” primarily for its having banned lions, tigers, bears and monkeys.

“Parents come to us and they inquire about these animals, as they look forward to show their young ones the tamed-wild animals.” That is exactly what I have heard from a number of circus owners and staff, and born out by actions taken on, among other shows, New Cole and Ringling-Barnum.

Kumar looks to the government as the only answer.

Down in Australia, tent shows are managing to attract startlingly tiny crowds. Although, per Nixon to Showbiz David, “There are more circuses now than at any time in history,” most of them are hurting for warm bodies in the seats.

An Aussie circus owner told Nixon that shows near Sydney are enjoying an uptake over the recent summer school holidays. Royale drew about 250 people per show, which gave it a 30% capacity. Lennon’s sold 150 people tickets each show, realizing 15% capacity, and Webbers, drawing one hundred souls a show, reached a whopping 10% of the seats.

Now, as for the animal issue, here's a little anecdote that only adds to my sense that a growing number of people are turning back in favor of circus animal acts. I fell into a most surprising conversation last year after a game board club meet, with a woman from Queens who described herself as an atheist. The subject of circus came up; she knew virtually nothing of my views or writing. Oh, no, I thought, here it comes --- another rant. Well, oh no, it didn’t come. This woman totally surprised me by defending circus animal acts, noting how they inspire and delight children.

Circus owners have displayed remarkable tact and understanding in the face of relentless harassment from the protesters. Perhaps in time, the public will reward them with due appreciation and revived patronage.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Crowds That Don’t Come: Are the Attendance Figures Really This Bad?

Circus Season of 2008: Most Tent Shows Play to Paltry Turnouts; Big Apple Hits Record Year; Kelly Miller’s Big Biz Jump Still Short of the Mark

How many people saw your circus last week, last year? How are we really to know? We hear talk and rumors, some of which may be tainted by sour grapes or fan worship. We go and see for ourselves. And these days, to see is to feel a sadness that so few patrons are in the seats. Big Apple Circus is surely an exception -- they claim to have seated a record 575,000 people last year. Ditto, I assume, for UniverSoul. Ringling? Likely not. Of course these are impressions, which is all we have to go on. Unlike virtually all other forms of entertainment, from CD sales to movie tickets sold, under the big tops attendance figures remain a mystery.

The Billboard once did a fairly professional job in reporting on the size of the houses, as evidenced above. Eye ball accounts or show-generated claims produced rough estimations: Quarter house, near-full, half house, straw house. And back then, I recall usually seeing at least half of the seats occupied; I understood "half house" to be the average turnout needed in order to stay in the black.

Evidently, not so any longer. Some circuses today appear to be possibly surviving on as few as 25% of the seats filled on average. Of course, such a viable new paradigm was made infinitely possible back in the 70s when boiler room operations pitched thousands of tickets to merchants under the guise of "charity" that mostly ended up in waste baskets. When I’ve seen Chimera, Vargas, Carson and Barnes, Cole in recent years -- even Ringling in Oakland -- I would probably have erred on the side of kindness by claiming I saw a solid one-third house.

Following the demise of the Billboard's circus coverage, no other publication took up the cause of reporting on business trends. Circus Report was the most likely candidate, but its founder Don Marcks did not take up the mantle. Don called me often and we spent hours on the phone before and during the first years of its publication discussing so many things, I wish I had pushed the idea of his seeking out attendance reports from the numerous fans around the country who sent him reviews (virtually all rosy) and news bits. I'm not sure that we ever discussed this subject. It would have made Circus Report much more vital. But Don was easily rattled by circus owners calling up to complain about perceived slights, and so he edited like a good circus fan.

Although I could be wrong, I don't believe the current Circus Report editors attempt to divulge actual attendance figures, either. Too unpleasant, I assume. This only serves to insulate the profession from its own failures. In the act of fatuous cheer leading, nobody is served.

Enter the tell-all bloggers: Last season there was for a time one soul sending out audience head counts on one circus, and that soul was, ironically, working for the circus itself. Ben Trumble, who held the position (another odd irony) of "media relations" for Kelly-Miller during part of its tour, blogged about big crowds and no crowds on his A Mudshow Season blog. He even at times questioned management's booking strategies. He is no longer with the show as far as I know, and his blog has been dormant since September 11. Circuses may eventually, I imagine, mandate certain restraints on boggers who sign contracts to work for them.

So, what can be said of the season just past?

It was probably worse than the season before. In a refreshing display of candor, when Nancy Gaona answered my mid-season phone call to the Carson and Barnes office in Hugo, her spin-free answer to my question concerning ticket sales drove head-first right to the point: “Down every year. Down. Down. Down.”

Here are two shows about which I have a few specifics:

Circus Vargas. Surfing the net, I came across a contract they have signed with a Southern California venue, which included this: “expected attendance: 300-500 per performance.” Their tent seats 1,500.

Kelly Miller: Based on a statement that show manager Jim Royal made to The Oklahoman, the show pulled in “about a quarter of a million people" last year. My rough calculations came up with an average house of about 40%. I ran this by Royal and he confirmed my figures a “reasonable estimate.”

There is a promising streak of sunshine on the Kelly Miller lot -- a dramatic, 30% increase in business from the 2007 tour, up from 190,000. That’s a formidable jump, and it should embolden John Ringling North II as he heads into his third season as a circus owner and producer.

Overall, why such sluggish business? Are big tops doomed? I’ll address this soon in my Recipe for Revival.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Broadway in Free Fall: January Delivers 13 Shows to Oblivion

The slated closing of thirteen shows along the Great White Way in the month of January has even New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood breathlessly astonished -- "incredible." Reports he, erroring away in disaster story mode, the staggering number amounts to "almost half" of the current lineup. In fact, 13 is not a half of 42.

Still, it marks a dramatic drop. Fans without agendas will rue. The envious will cheer. Tough town. Tough stages to tackle.

This has not been a good season. Included among the departing are a pair of longer-term survivals, Hairspray and Spamalot. The others are: All My Sons, Boeing-Boeing, Dividing the Estate, Grease, Gypsy, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, Liza's at the Palace, The Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, Slava's Snowshow, Spring Awakening, and 13.

This surprised even me, for I did not see quite such wide-spread failure among the active productions on the boards.

I note with vicarious pride and pleasure that South Pacific, in revival, continues to thrive among the top three shows in ticket sales.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Not the Same Parade Without Stephanie ... No Wonder She's Back on KTLA


Gorgeous weather for the annual Rose Parade. How I wish I were there. Many inspiring floats, as usual.

I looked for the KTLA-TV broadcast, but it's no longer aired in the Bay Area. How I have missed wonderful Stephanie Edwards, who co-hosted with Bob Eubanks for many years. She has been missing in action for two parades, the victim of a callous, stupidly calculated termination to replace her with a younger woman that outraged, as it should, thousands of Southern Californians.

To me, effervescent Stephanie epitomized the best of the sunny SoCal spirit.

Then I did some research and discovered to my joy that KTLA has returned Stephanie to her rightful place in the broadcast booth! So, dreams still can come true in dreamland. Go, L.A.!

Maybe now that she's back, KTLA coverage will soon return to the Bay Area.

Happy New Year, Stephanie, and many more parades!