Monday, June 07, 2010

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Big Tops Perennially in Peril -- Cliche or Chronic Destiny???

This first appeared on June 7, 2010

Surviving a train wreck in De Mille's classic film, The Greatest Show on Earth

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.



Harry Kingston said...

You have some very interesting thoughts in your article today.
I can imagine what the old timers thought as what you said about the end of the circus.
Yes, Ringlings attendance was down as remember that television was was now coming in on line and cutting attendance. Also the teamsters was not helping and wanting to organize the lower workers plus picketing all along the route.
Art Concello was out as North had put in Mickel Burk as manager who knew nothing about running a circus.
Concello went over to Beatty show and in 1946 they played to full houses almost every day rain or shine. Made big money.
But when Beatty bought the show he played the same route year after year and and 1956 was it for Mr, Beatty owning the show.
Burke fired what was called the sneeze mob that includes Frank McClosky plus more top Ringling executives.
Now for the poor attendance. When Ringling closed in 1956 and I am sure it was D. R. Millers great publicity man etc., Art Miller that came up with (Last of the Circus-See it now or miss for forever). I asked D. R. about this and he said Harry we jamed them ever perfprmance. Great business.
Same goes for the 1956 Beatty Railroad show with McClosky and Kernan at the helm, big business.
So what was wrong for Ringling.
Trouble, trouble all along the way.
High nut, management troubles, teamsters, different advertising, missed shows, etc. Plus a blow down and they had to play a few days side walled until and old tent arrived from Sarasota.
When Ringling closed tent era North was already planning a 1957 truck arena-outdoor season. But the key to this was getting Art Concello back in the fold. Well we know Concello pulled it off and you can bet he made a pocekt full of money for himself.
And the rest is history as the circus is still going but in a differnt form.
Great days of the circus.
Harry in Texas

jerry digney said...

Chapman's a boob.

The circus is still around and some guys are still making money--good for them! In fact, since Ringling went indoors they for years have played to many more people than under much for doom and gloom...

Showbiz David said...

"Doc' Chapman was 74 when he wrote me, a heck of a nice man fan who favored me with humor and recollections and, yes, the same old "the big top is done and gone for good" Stuff. In retrospect, it charms me to think how often this theme clings to circus mythology-- so far.
As for Ringling playing to "many more" people indoors than under canvas; that's up for debate.

Harry Kingston said...

I am with you on the attendance debate as yes they are making money but I bet that the attendance is down from years part.
Many are doing the free kids tickets as we know and even big Ringling is doing the $5 off cupons and they are all over town and outer areas.
Now years ago I heard that the daughters were told by madison square garden to improve the blue unit or do not come back. MSG was not impressed by what they put on that year.
The old days with a tent and 3 rings, or 5 rings or 5 rings and 2 stages and all those people in that large tent packed. Plus the performances you got from all those great stars of the circus and 100 clowns the greatest in the business.
There nuts are ought of site and still going up every day.
Well times change and so do people and kids. Kids want to lay around all day and play with there cell phones, girl friends, etc.
But the old circus keeps on a rolling along like old man river thank goodness a shadow of what it used to be but kids still go to the circus as well as us fans.
Harry in Texas

Showbiz David said...

Harry, the most maddening thing about the "circus world" to me, and I've already ranted this out, is that it has NO neutral biz/attendance reporting agency, like pop records, the movies, TV (the Nielsons) etc. So we are only grasping in the dark. Like you, I find it hard to believe that overall there are more people in the seats today than there were 30-40 years ago. Jerry could be right about Ringling, but who really has the facts other than maybe the Felds? And are THEY going to tell us? I think not. I'm not sure any circus can top what RBBB did in 1941.

Anonymous said...

When they have 3-4 shows running simultaneously and a long season, I can believe that they easily beat the total number of seats sold