This first appeared on March 5, 2008
In order to face the task at hand, I’ve finally taken a crack at Tribute Pu-Er here at L’Amyx, which Will has been needling me to try. It’s strong enough to give me extra muscle, assuming I don’t end up in ER.
Oh, yes, the main topic at hand: Those mysterious wages dolled out to circus performers by the owners who are said to carry on like cheap low down capitalists.
Showbiz, 1A: Very few people with a few cells in their noggin expect to become rich and famous in the spotlights. Most of us sooner or later wake up to the realities. We can do it “for free” in local community groups. We can go out on the road and make a decent living, maybe, doing what we believe we were born to do because, to quote the ballet impresario from The Red Shoes, “we must.”
At the top of the perilous pile are the lucky few — screen idols, pop stars and certain wild animal trainers. THEY are, Wade of Burck, the rare MINORITY. And they always will be.
Down here with the majority and below, there is me. Where do I fit in? The author of seven books, all ‘em put out by royalty publishers who fund all the costs and pay me a standard royalty of 10 percent of the retail price, I have made a little money. Had I ever tried to survive solely on my royalties, I might have done it living in a tree house, shopping with food stamps, and mugging on the side. I have no regrets. I know I am not Norman of Mailer or Ernest of H.
Some interesting points were raised in a hearty barrage of comments left by the practicing three or four of you (for which my thanks) on the post preceding this one. Like the idea of establishing rates for various circus skills. I only thank God that James. C. Petrillo, who unionized musicians into the world’s second oldest profession, kept his greedy hands off of the ring stars who have thrilled me since my boyhood. Why? Because, for many reasons, they have a way of now and then showing up under smaller tents, which makes circus going an adventure in discovery.
You, Wade, show fearless courage in revealing your pay scale. Why not others? Most of them, like me, might not like flaunting what we don’t make. Get my drift? I feel your zeal over this topic, but I can’t see it ever much changing. Perhaps everything we can know (and already kind of know) comes through in these penetrating comments by you and your pro cohorts. And I don’t think it is that much a mystery. If you want to try uncorking a greater number of confessions from your peers, you’d likely do better under Buckles Big Big Top. I am just a concession stand, although lately it’s been a little crowded around here. I await my 15-minute stampede. Maybe I’ll have to hire a kid assistant for a percentage of my non-profits. Remember Hubert Castle once stating that he made more money performing than producing. Fake humility?
Hey, let’s take a look at the comments: Business Side is a real person known to me. Comparing sports players: They work in an industry for which putting a circus out would be mere pocket change. I thank our circus owners who, working on shoestrings and against herculean obstacles (PETA for example) somehow manage to bring affordable entertainment to American audiences, even if they often let critical me down. Sure, they are going to pay as little as they can, which is the way of the business world.
I’m just a guy who buys a ticket (and I really do) and sits down, hoping to be entertained, hoping not to see another hula hoop act or another painfully protracted audience participation filler. In the positive, if I am correct that performers can and do negotiate directly with producers, that might be why I am on record many times pointing out that, at ANY circus, there is a good chance you will see at least one or two very fine acts. Maybe they were desperate to tie down a season. Maybe they got the pay they wanted for a string of dates they fancied, or maybe they like the big top boss or are in love with an ex-con turned prop hand on the show. Whatever works.
Lauren Fairchild said what I absolutely believe, returning to my deference to the Red Shoes impresario: “I do think that most performers want and need to work SO bad, that they are willing to work for ANY salary, just to be able to do what they do.” I myself started out, and what luck, landing a testy review of Polack Bros. when I was but 14 years of age in the White Tops. No pay for that. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten published by houses that put up all the costs, market as best they can and pay me royalties. Far from rich. I guess I fall midway on the midway. Trust me, I am not being dramatic when I say that the first three of my four circus books each came agonizingly close to not finding a publisher at all. Each may have found the one house in the world interested.
Now, as for those disillusioned Cirque du Soleil artists exiting Kooza. They have every right to realize it might not be for them, especially if they value a humane working environment, and to try something else like the rodeo circuit.. As in the free job market, so to the big top. And if they want to revert to a counter career starting at McDonalds, that’s their right. In life, I believe there are no absolutes, only options. When I got a job with Wallace Bros Circus, I was thrilled at the age of 20 to be an “usher” for only room and diarrhea (excuse me, food). A few weeks later, they offered me a certain amount of money to replace a clown arrested for getting to cozy under the seats with a female patron. The pay? I’m having a hard time coming clean ... (Okay, a cheap teaser to get you to read on..)
For being just a clown? I think they needed common labor, art being secondary. Besides being a “performer,” I helped pitch the dressing top and marquee, if anybody can believe that (Pete Cristiani, watching me work a sledgehammer, called me "Snow Cone"). Ah, youth! And I helped lug the seats onto and off the trucks (reprising a boyhood gig when Clyde Beatty came to town and I got a pass for helping toss jacks and stringers off a red wagon). And I never felt disrespected. I loved Norman Cristiani, such a smiling face when I climbed the stairs to the office wagon each week to proudly collect my — no, not YET. (Business Side: It did bear income tax info) .
On the up scale, in 1969 Sid Kellner paid me $250.00 a week and the use of his Ford Bronco to be press agent for his James Bros. Circus. What seemed a huge amount of money to me did not suit Eddie Howe from the previous season, whose refusal to return was my opening), even if I paid for all my expenses including gas and YMCA hotel rooms. Thus, no newspaper I called ever was given an incriminating return phone number to call.
So, kids, ugh, this tea is turning as dark and forbidding as a muddy lot at midnight. Will took pity on my facial hints and offered me Flowery White Pekoe. Ah, back from under the earth, into the air. Maestro, if you please...I could fly. Okay, for free.(Just don’t tell anybody, contract negotiations with the Felds, you know....)
That’s about it. Maybe Wade Burck’s daring one person confessional will turn into a crowd scene of shared revelations.
Okay, what did I earn on Wallace Bros. per week back in my youth? $25.00 Can anybody out there bottom that?
[Photos of my part-time career on various midways: Skirt-raising air blast operator and relief ticket seller on the Foley & Burk lot in Santa Rosa during the Sonoma County Fair; clowning with Wallace Bros. one summer; National Press Representative for Sid Kellner's James Bros. Circus -- the only job I ever had that came with a business card. Thanks, Sid]