Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When Ringling Took the Low Road ... “Don’t Count Your Change!”

Update, 10/10: The Bandwagon article is laid out in such a way, though not intentionally, as to lend a clear impression that Taggart was hired to sell tickets during the 1953 season. In fact, Taggart was hired during the 1954 season. Arthur Concello left the show at the end of the 1953 tour, and did not return until 1956 -- after the show closed and returned to Sarasota.

Sobering are the revelations from former Ringling ticket seller William Taggart in the current issue of Bandwagon about how he was instructed (perhaps the word should be "invited" through friendly persuasion) to handle the flow of cash during the 1950s. They leave little doubt (assuming Taggart is correct, and he strikes me as sincere) that the Greatest Show on Earth, at least when Arthur Concello managed it for hands-off producer John Ringling North, engaged in its own fair share of shortchanging customers at the ticket windows and during come-in when bleacher seat patrons were offered discount upgrades into the reserves.

Call me naive for feeling a degree of shock and sadness, even though Taggart’s story does not come as a complete surprise. I recall a few veterans in past years claiming that Ringling was not grift free. Yes, I knew it was not — some of the money from ticket and concession sales, instead of flowing into circus coffers, slipping into personal cookie jars. And when, last year, Bill Taggart sent me a copy of the manuscript that he had submitted to Bandwagon (surprised to receive it, I offered to remain silent pending its publication), my eyes were opened to a subtle shortchanging operation that shamelessly mocked the very essence of the ethical dealings for which the Ringling brothers stood. The question remains, how high up did the payoff money go? We may never know for sure. Perhaps Taggart will spell this out in greater detail in his next installment.

Bill, then a young and likable college educated man who took great pride in his swift advancement into the ticket department in 1953, was introduced to the art of extra revenue by fellow ticket seller Tommy Reale while they met in a bar near the train yards. “He said not to worry about management. Although it was a so-called Sunday school show, ticket sellers were expected to make extra money, and to pass a part of their extra income each night along to the head ticket seller for the privilege.” And that person would be ticket department superintendent William P. McGough, to whom Taggart handed a five or a ten “after each show, depending on my income.”

“I was lucky and never had any serious beefs with any customers.”

Did Concello know about this? It’s hard to believe he did not. But then again, maybe he looked the other way. It’s always been my understanding that Ringling management condoned many forms of tips and skimming, but never tolerated messing around with the public’s pocket book. Never.

During my 1986 interview with Pill Hall, who worked the pass exchange booth in the big top, he addressed the sporadic infiltration of short changing and AMC: “If they caught up with you, they’d fire you. They didn’t want to disturb the public. Concello was strict about that. Rehashing tickets didn’t disturb the public. It cheated the show itself.”

“King” Otto Ringling, who sold tickets in the early years while another man stood by shouting “count your change!” must be spinning in his grave. I doubt John Ringling North is, for he sensed widespread cheating when he tried to enforce strict accountability during the last canvas days, largely in vain. And when, on a Ohio lot the day before Pittsburgh, North took a withering walk through the big top and decided to fold the tents for good, possibly the idea of even the customer getting shorted was one of many reasons that drove him to that fateful decision.

By then, Concello was gone. So too was Bill McGough. Michael Burke, the outsider brought in to clean up the mess, would soon be out of a job.

It’s a depressing tale, but one that needs to be told, because it’s part of the story. Bill Taggart is to be congratulated for his honest contribution to history. It adds detail to the deteriorating relationship between North and Concello that led to Concello’s quitting at the end of the 1953 season, only to be coaxed back three years later to oversee the transition from big tops to hard tops. Indoors, ticket selling changed, being shifted into the hands of the arenas for the most part. The days of easy skimming from a high ticket counter were a thing of the past. I recall Bob Dover in the early indoor years standing by the turnstiles and watching like a hawk. Now, more than ever, I understand why.

[photo by Ted Sato, Ringling-Barnum at Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 23, 1953]

original posting date lost.


Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
I suggest Mr. Taggart start arranging for a security detail. Along with courage, comes the inevitable scorn of being an "icon" destroyer. I still say the "glory" day's were aided by grift, lack of regulation, unlawlessness, that the modern circus has had a hard time returning to given new standards and law's to abide by.

Anonymous said...

Oh my, this makes me sooooo sad to hear all this. I also have loved the "magic and excitement" of the "circus coming to town". However, I am so disillusioned that this is the way it is. This just kind of "bursts my bubble".


dpowhitetiger@aol.com said...

While, I will not mention City, Sponsor or Building I can remember standing the lobby watching the box office and ticket takers noticed the movement of the circus goers...THAT something was wrong but couldn't put my finger on it...Until Mr. T. Hanneford made an appearance in the lobby and he without missing a step put a stop to the cut rate tickets that were being sold by the Sponsor in the back of the lobby...I could smell extra money but couldn't put my finger on the problem...There is more to this story but I wanted to say once again that Tommy was right on target....I still miss that man..I can say between the Robert Earl Family, Jim Hetzer and Tommy & Struppi Hanneford I learned from the best on how to deal with the public....

dpowhitetiger@aol.com said...

I'm surprised at some of the comments.....I saw my first Ringling Circus in 1946 in Columbus, Ohio...Didn't miss a Ringling Circus under the BIG TOP until 1956..But, as a young boy I remember USHERS Stories about making enough money to get some of them through college....I just though this was something you did...And that there were pay offs all the way up to management..... Made the comment while Mr.Art Concello was living that he had the real Ringling story...But, I guess no one got the last interview...I loved to hear or be part of the Tex Copeland jackpots...That was another one that got away from us and took alot of "The Other Side of Circus" with him....YES, the BANDWAGON article was great....HATS off to the PFENINGS of Columbus, Ohio.