Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kelly Miller Circus 2010: As Ben Trumble Sees It

Note: I came across this on Ben Trumble's blog. Another view, and one from a trouping pro worth reprinting. (I assume this is ok with you, Ben.)

John Ringling North II’s Kelly Miller Circus played the final weekend of its 2010 New York route in Southwood, and Cortland, NY. Now in its fourth season under the management of Jim Royal and John Ringling North II the KM show continues to get better and better living up to its moniker “America’s One Ring Wonder.” The ever evolving, incredibly complicated Cainan tigers (Casey McCoy) opening the show are like nothing seen elsewhere. Extreme trapeze and the very talented KM clowns serves as reminder that KM may be from Hugo, OK – but show enjoys a long reach seeking out talent. The Mike Rice camels work flawlessly, and a medley of acts framed around the 1950’s is good fun. Only the peanut pitch rang hallow with a fine start but devolving into an auctioneer’s foreclosure sale. Nice to see a risley, a classic act made new again.

The audience for KM in Southwood was sparse. Playing the same lot with KM two years ago I wondered why the Southwood date, only a mile from the Syracuse city limits wasn’t marketed in Syracuse proper? Conventional wisdom sometimes states that audiences won’t travel from a large community to a smaller one to see circus, but cross billing Southwood as Southwood/Syracuse and coupling paper with media in the Syracuse market might have made the difference with this particular date sponsored by the volunteer fire department. Robert Childress’s marketing plan on Lewis & Clark, sponsors selling only adult tickets, allowing the laydown of free children’s tickets would almost certainly make sense for a town like Southwood where presales may have been less than outstanding. Laydowns on the south side of Syracuse might have driven traffic, particularly as the show competed with a nearby carnival. Cortland, on Sunday was a bit better.

Lack of gate did nothing to diminish the excellence of KM’s program, as the show cut across New York from a New England run, and with major dates in Ohio coming up shortly.

Over the last four seasons Kelly-Miller has transformed itself from the small, successful Hugo-style circus of the David Rawls era into a powerhouse circus. Much effort and money has gone into reinventing the performance, adding and upgrading equipment, and improving the Oklahoma Winterquarters. With an outstanding road office staff, and a home office directly overseen for part of the season by Jim Royal, logically the next “project” in KM’s evolution would focus on marketing, the advance, and public relations and media. For a decade beginning in the mid-1990s it appeared that shows could realized significant cost savings using internet and direct mail resources to handle many marketing, advance, and media tasks previously performed by individual either on or ahead of a show. Web pages with sponsors tutorials, promotions keyed into zip code demographics, e-media kits, and online ticket sales were all great ideas. However in retrospect the communications revolution seems to work best augmenting rather than replacing bodies on the ground. Advance clowns still have a role on circus ten days ahead of the show, particularly when school is in session. It pays off handsomely on a circus like Culpepper. An advance person, or team several weeks ahead of the show can go a long way in bucking up disorganized sponsors, buying local print media or radio spots, and spot checking local regulation and the ultimate suitability of a lot. A strong marketing effort from the home office, and strong billing crew with at least a few suave English speakers puts up more paper and lays down more discount coupons or free kid tickets. And well thought out media and publicity campaigns are far more effective than merely faxing. When all the pieces fall into place, no current tent show does a better job handling marketing, media, billing, and the advance better than Cole Bros. Likely future Kelly Miller efforts in this direction will match or better those efforts.

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