"Every crowd has a silver lining" - P. T. Barnum

"Every crowd has a silver lining" - P. T. Barnum
Wonderful quote, which I found on Johnny Pugh's Facebook Page -- a sparkling midway of some great Bill Carter photos, historic videos and mementos. The spirit of the old Cole soul comes alive!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Out of the Past: Copeland & Combs Leave Kelly-Miller: Steve Talks About Their Days on the Show, From Pay Scales to Coloring Books.

Showbiz David Interviews Steve Copeland

When two young clowns named Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs,  who teamed up while working on the Ringling show, were hired by John Ringling North II in 2009 to produce the laughs for his Kelly-Miller Circus, they joined on with a degree of skepticism,  not knowing exactly what to expect.  But Steve was reminded by a Ringling clown of having once cracked, “I’d never work on a mud show!”

He’s not sure he ever said that, but he and Ryan faced a whole different set of circumstances in the great outdoors, much of it in the mud -- a totally different experience from appearing  in city arenas with the Big Show  The boys, you might say, had fallen from the Fields of Feld to the House of Ringling/JRN II version.

Who pays the most?

The bargain offered a tempting pay off: “We were making substantially more on Kelly-Miller than we were on Ringling.”

It helped them adapt to under-canvas life, playing to hundreds rather than thousands.  “A month into our fist year,” recalls Steve, “we had already decided that we enjoyed being on the show, and we definitely wanted to stay for a second year.”

He began blogging about the day-to-day details of trouping, and quickly drew an appreciative group of followers. He did not hold back on unflattering matters, such as bored or snotty audiences (cell phonies came in for put downs, from funny to scathing), or depressing days when the customers didn't come. But, when he told us about surging crowds, about straw houses and rousing tent-wide laughter that  greeted  their work, we, too, could savor the happy moment. Could feel his joy.  It was not spin.  It was real.  This gave Steve’s blog a raw vitality. Came a second year, and a third, and then a fourth and fifth, and they were still with Kelly-Miller. The blog evolved away from realism, from its early tell-it-all grit to a more upbeat  focus on their work in the ring and their personal lives.  House size estimates vanished. Management feared its bottom feeder rivals taking note of lush little markets.   Management conveyed these concerns to Steve and Ryan.

Precarious beginning

“If I can be honest, I thought the show was very weak our fist year,”says Steve, in reply to one of the questions I sent him, all of which he answered.  “I definitely think the quality of the show has improved since 2009.  Ryan and I tried our best to add to that quality over the years with our material, props, costumes, and talent.”

If the boss seemed to favor a static turnover in talent, bringing back the same faces year after year, this did not bother the more artistically ambitious Steve, a soul driven to innovate, albeit it, one might advance, sometimes mired in a surfeit of knockabout slapstick.  Some of their brutal attacks on each other, Three Stooges style, can be gloriously indulgent, bringing to mind the Fumagalli brothers. Others, like their big teeth gag, can seem mechanically executed, more clever than amusing, failing to deliver the big payoff one might expect from these inventive funmakers.   But, back to North's arguably static showmanship;  says Steve:

 “I don’t think that’s particularly strange in the circus business.  I can think of other shows that have almost the exact same program year after year, save for maybe a different clown.”

Color me unhappy

In the beginning when Steve’s blog let it all hang out, there were stressful moments that he did not shy away from recounting . For my money, the worst of all were those nagging coloring books that the guys were expected to sell.  It was clear that Steve did not relish the task, and when relived of it a season or so later, you could feel his elation.  

So why, last year, did the boys take back the concession they had so despised?  “Going into our fifth year, Mr. North and Jim Royal asked us to sell coloring books during intermission.  I didn’t feel like a negative answer would have dampened our chances of renewing our contract, but after how good K-M has been to us, we felt it would have been rude to say no.”

Insulting Intermissions
The funny fellows were all along, it would appear, coming to grips with  the realities of American circus trouping –  away from the few exceptions, be they Ringling or Big Apple. In fact, it was Big Apple Circus’s  current ringmaster, John Kennedy Kane, who helped persuade Copeland and Combs to embrace the advantages of pitching the crayon-ready books.  Kane, says Steve, is “one of the biggest advocates for clowns selling coloring books, and he actually sold us on doing the job while he was  filling in for John Moss as ringmaster.”

The task could be fun, and it could be “the pits,” concedes Steve. From his encounter with fans, he did harvest  “tons of funny quotes for my blog.”  What he didn’t relish was having to deal with  “rude or angry” customers.

Enter accidental agent John Ringling North II

Came Circo Vazquez “with an offer we couldn’t refuse.”  It might not have happened at all without the curiously unorthodox assistance of their own employer -- yes, John Ringling North II.  Earlier in the season, North told the fellows that Vazquez was interested in them. The gesture marked, in Steve’s words, “an excellent example of what a stand up gentleman he is ...one of, if not the nicest men I have ever worked for.”

There were awkward laughs to share when Mr. North approached them after learning that they had signed with the Mexican show.  ‘Now, I’m not trying to get rid of you guys!  You can stay on Kelly Miller as long as you want!”

Maybe one day they will return.

Circo Varques will compensate them with “a substantial raise,” and they will do a post-show photo concession, a gig they themselves solicited.   “We had seen other clowns doing the same thing after the show.”

“We had a good run on K-M, but after 5 years we felt it was time to make the next stop in our career.”

“The creative freedom that Mr. North and Jim Royal gave us can not be overlooked.”

Triumphal Texas premiere

His warmest memory?

“I fondly look back on our first two shows with Kelly Miller in Brownsville, Texas.  We had two packed houses full of cheering people, and we absolutely brought the house down with our sink repair gag. That was when we knew that we had a shot at making it in the business”

His digital diary has marked a new kind of living circus history, to be sure,  more-so in its early years.

Will he continue blogging over at Vazquez?

“Indeed, I will!”

Long term dreams?  “my ultimate goals are Big Apple Circus, and major circuses in Europe.”

“My greatest dream in circus .. is for me and Ryan to continue making people laugh using physical comedy.  I’d like to go farther in my career than I ever imagined when I left Ringling and I want to keep the forward momentum going.  Onward and upward!”


[The following does not apply to this posting of 7/5/15] On Wednesday or Thursday, I will be posting a print-out of the complete e-mail interview. It will  not be placed at the top of the blog, so you may have to scroll down a little to find it.  I will post a note to this effect, however, at the top of the blog

First posted November 18, 2013


Harry Kingston said...

Steve and Ryan are on there way to being the top clowns in the circus business.
These two guys are the best I have ever seen and get many laughs and excellent routines.
Any circus in the business would be glad to have them.
These guys are real clowns and not whistle blowers.
And build there own props.
I watched them grow on Kelly Miller to where they are today.
Thanks guys for making this old world a better place and make us laugh and forget our troubles.
Harry in Texas

Lane Taburt said...

This piece captures exceedingly well the Steve and Ryan that I have admired from my very first meeting with them in upstate New York. They're very accommodating guys, with a sense of spontaneous humor that can't be beat. Along with their thousands of other followers, I wish them well at Vasquez, though I also admit I'll miss their presence on Kelly Miller. Great job, Dave.

Don said...

A nice interview with two up and coming talents. They will be missed on KM, but we look forward to seeing what they can do in a completely different venue on Circo Vazquez.

Don Covington

Showbiz David said...

Thanks Harry, Lane, and Don.

Yes, Don, a new venue. As creative as they are, I believe they will answer the challenges. And it will only expand their repertoire and talents.

I'm hoping Circo Vazquez comes this way sometime!