Overly sensitive to a few negative notices I received for my first book, Behind the Big Top, one in particular really got my goat. A Santa Cruz (CA) scribed complained, "The problem with Hammarstrom's anecdotes is that ... we can't feel the circus; we can't smell it"
Okay. You can't smell it. So let me see what I can do about that. I got onto it in a hurry, reaching out to a number of circuses, hoping to secure fresh elephant dung. Into a box, I gift wrapped the pachyderm poo and other ground-found items associated with circusy aromas. Then I sent the "Smell Edition" to reviewer Allen Grasso at the Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel, with an inscription expressing my "sincere hopes" that it would "bring to mind a sense of the circus which you felt was sorely lacking."
I sent the above photo, along with a press release, to about 300 newspapers. Oh, how foolishly ambitious I once was. You've heard, have you, that "no publicity is bad publicity"? By reading this blog, you are living proof of that maxim.
Smell Edition Tickles Columnists, Shocks Publisher
Jokes about the Smell Edition scented a few feature columns, three that I know of in California dailies. As for the rest of the country, the publisher refused ever to grant me an accounting, because, you, see, they had not been advised beforehand of my stunt. I knew they would nix it at the pass. Now, my publicity contact at A.S. Barnes, Patrician Davis, was so appalled, that she reverted to addressing me in correspondence, not as "Dear David," but "Dear Mr ..." Publishers can be such timid creatures, afraid of their own anonymous shadow.
The world today: designer dung, anybody?
Leftovers from Lydia
Reps at two circuses, Kelly Miller and Ringling-Barnum answered my request for smelly samples with variable dispatch. Each was required to complete a form, "ELEPHANT DUNG CERTIFICATION," which included, among required information, this: "Has elephant ever been arrested?" From Ted Bowman, director of publicity at Carson and Barnes Circus, I was honored by an offering of anal art from "Mr. Obert," the work certified on the Paducah, KY lot. The event was witnessed by "most of the town," and Phil Chandler witnessed the document signing. To round out the atmospheric attack, from Hugo, OK came yet another sampler, this one featuring some Lydia leftovers, along with a dash of "sweet grain feed." (An herbal industry yet to be tapped into here?) Richard Army Maguire witnessed Lydia's sacrifice. Jesse A. Jessen signed the form, witnessed by Loraine C. Jessen.
The Greatest Shit on Earth
From Robert MacDougall, who managed Ringling's Blue Unit, came a dour deposit from "John," a Thai born mammoth who had never been arrested. MacDougall also helped season my package with Mile High "building dirt," sawdust and cinders fresh from the indoor Denver engagement. McDougall's signature was witnessed by Bobby Cline, the critical deposit itself by one Robert Waimann
Dung Donors Promised Exemption from All Lawsuits
The form released the respective parties from any future liability arising out of claims for "malice with intent to nauseate."
As for requested "job performance" ratings by their respective keepers, John was rated "hazardous," Mr. Obert "stupendous," Lydia "humorous." John held out for a month before finally giving it up, while Lydia, 30 years with the circus, "cooperated quickly and agreeably." Ah, a trouper clear up to her trunk.
The year was 1980.
Aroma Bomb Stuns Newspaper Office
And here is how it all went down. Book reviewer Allen Grasso never received the gift package. It got only as far as the desk of the librarian at the Sentinel. She, according to a juicy conversion I slyly extracted from the receptionist answering my call, apparently ran through the newsroom exclaiming "Can you believe this! Can you believe this!!?"
Nor was she at all charmed by a small packet of a brown substance labeled "from Lydia, with love." "Horrified" was more like it.
Is There a Moral to This? Some Gifts You Just Don't return
The Sentinel's switchboard was, or may have been, jammed with inquires from press rooms all over the country. My publisher refused to share any action on their own lines, no doubt lividly determined not to embolden my ego. So I was kept in the dark. But the offended newspaper shot off a letter my publisher, accusing me of "harassment," of acting in a "childishly indigent" manner. Okay, if you wish. But the Sentinel refrained -- what a classy crowd -- from answering in kind by deciding not to return the unwanted offering. Taking a higher road, they reasoned that the Smell Edition "would more than likely clear out your offices."
Was the effort worth it? Hard to say. The book, with some smashingly good reviews as well, sold outs its first printing in less than two years; by then, Oak Tree Publications in San Diego, which had purchased New Jersey-based A.S. Barnes, was close to going under, so no second printing.
Those were the days, my friend.