This first appeared on June 7, 2010
I am starting to reexamine my skeptical view of one circus movie or drama after another pushing the near bankrupt big top as central theme.
Maybe, out there in the real world, it’s always been this way?
Two sources are driving my new-found doubts: Lane Talburt's well-researched Bandwagon article, "From Deming to Deland," about the behind-the-scenes financial maneuvering that transferred the bankrupt Clyde Beatty Circus in 1956, out of the hands of failed owner Clyde Beatty himself, into the hands of Jerry Collins, Frank McClosky and Walter Kernan.
Exhibit Two: Numerous letters received in my mid teen years from old time circus aficionado Harry “Doc” Chapman, also serving up a steady banquet of doom and gloom predictions about the mighty Ringling show, from which, a sample crack:
“Mike Todd was suppose to have offered $750,000 for the show as it closed at Pittsburgh last season. He wanted everything. North would not sell out to him I heard. You may be able to buy it in a few years at your own price. Then you’ll be D. Ringling Bros. Hammarstrom I hope.”
Very funny, reading it looking back. Chapman, who was born the year before the Ringling Bros. started up their own circus in 1884 (and told me that Barnum & Bailey’s 1914 spec, Wizard Prince of Arabia, was the “best” one he’d seen), seemed to revel in the bleak aftermath of the fall of the final Ringling big top for in 1956, merrily sprinkling raindrops of doom and gloom onto my boyhood fantasies of imminent canvas resurrection in Ringling land.
Hmmm, that sounds an awful lot like the way certain people I know in Sarasota go on, year after year after ...
Even De Mille’s movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, early into the melodramatic footage pushed that old cliche, in a fresh variation, “Will we stay out for only 10 weeks or get a full season?”
Chapman liked to tell me in his lengthy missives about fans who could not wait each week to read in the Billboard of great business under big tops that was not in fact happening. Another laugh, I suppose. I did not like that. I believed in those dramatic Billboard headlines “Straw Houses Greet Hunt Bros. ... Mills Spotty in Tennessee ... ” Chapman often claimed that the Ringling show was rarely pulling in more than 2,500 to maybe 4,000 people (into an eight-thousand seat tent).
When you think about it, how could it not be this way? After all, circus owners every season face the same old problem in luring ticket buyers back into their tops: They have a NEW show, not same old same old. But in the public’s collective mind, certainly truer today than one hundred years ago, circuses are basically the same — unlike a new stage musical, movie or rock concert. And so maybe that’s the bugaboo that makes trouping such a vexing, hazardous, daunting, muddy — oh, heck, you fill in your own words — challenge/ordeal/saga/calling.
Clyde Beatty proved he did not have the right stuff to keep a tent show on the road for very long. Mr. McClosky proved he did have the right stuff.
In fact, troupers disprove Harry “Doc” Chapman every season when, somehow, someway, they still hit the sawdust trails, still high hopping their way from one town to the next.
So let’s bring out Mr. Chapman one more time, just for the fun of it:
“Back in 1954, in the backyard here while taking with Merle Evans, Pat Valdo and others I said the circus was doomed. They almost wanted to run me off the lot but only a year made my prediction come true. It seemed strange that the troupers could not understand this.”
Stranger still that Mr. Chapman could not understand what those redoubtable troupers may have felt down deep in their blood ...
“Hey, Buttons! —- Brad says we play the full season!”
Well, what do you know.