Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Biggest Mystery Under the Big Top: How Many People Went to the Circus? ... Ringling in Europe Illustrates ...

Are you a Yankee’s fanatic? I bet you could get me annual attendance figures if I asked.

Film buff? You probably know that 90 million people went to a movie every week during the forties, but only 30 million during the fifties. They say it’s a fact.

Hard core Beatles fan? I assume you know which of their albums sold the most copies.

Now, I’m a circus fan, so please don’t ask me any such questions, for I can’t answer them, and I'll tell you why. In fact, I wish I'd addressed this vexing historical issue with TV documentary film producer Philip Weyland during my Miguel Vazquez interview in Los Angeles last July. Here is what I might have said:

“Let me tell you something, Phil. You and I both share a general sense that attendance at circuses has declined markedly over the last thirty years. In fact, we are both only making guesses, because, and here it is important to note, unlike virtually all other entertainments, circus ticket sales are not tracked by any agency whatsoever. They remain a total mystery. Reporters and writers following the movie, theatre, pop music or sports fields, in comparison, enjoy the luxury of transparent factual sales information from independent tracking sources. We who write about circuses have none. And so we speculate based upon our own head counts at the shows we attend and upon rumors and reports, many of which are likely slanted to either puff up or push down the actual number of bodies in the seats. And that makes it, personally, very frustrating for me in trying to write accurately about historical business trends at circuses.”

Here is an of-the-moment illustration of the problem: A few of us have been wondering aloud about business at Ringling’s Gold Unit in Europe. One Anonymous source implied poor advance ticket sales in Spain. Another source, “Barb D,” who works for Feld Entertainment and has toured with the Gold Show in concession sales, has posted a couple of comments that challenge skeptical views of ticket sales. Compared to Steve Copeland's vague references on his blog to business on the Kelly-Miller Circus ("average sized crowd," etc.), Barb D's summations offer breathtaking clarity. However, since she works for the Felds, I must be on my guard, which is not to say that I distrust Barb D, only that I must take her information in context. Here are excerpts from her two comments:

1. “Milan opened with a bang...again, capacity about 2000 with only a few empty seats.”

2. “Milano was decent....the house held approx 2000 and most shows were three quarters.”

Now, how are we to interpret this? I’d say that a strong opening fizzled out to “decent,” agreeing with Barb’s account and assuming it is accurate. “Most shows” to me suggests that probably more than half the shows did about three-quarter business. So I would then guess that, overall, the circus played to, let’s assume, 60% capacity, or — if the venue actually seats 2,000 people — 1,200 to 1,300 patrons per show on average. Do I believe this as fact? No. I regard it as a strong likelihood. "Fair business" is how I would characterize the stand. And that is my best guess based on the information that I have at hand. It is, sadly, nothing like what I would have to work with were circuses accountable to a neutral reporting agency, same as -- you name your favorite entertainment pastime.

Be it a rock concert, ice show, Broadway musical or hot new film, everybody wants to know: How many people went?

At the circus, unless you were there, you may never know. It remains the best kept secret under the big top.

[photos, from top: Ringling-Barnum at Verizon Center, Manchester, New Hampshire, 2009 -- crowd size estimated by Crash Moreau to be less than 25% of available seating -- about a third of the seats were not used owing to the new truncated performance setting; Kelly-Miller Circus plays to a full tent in 2009; the last under-canvas performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in Pittsburgh, July 16, 1956, with approximately 9,000 people inside the big top]

First published October 28, 2009


Logan Jacot said...

I was once told by Steven Santos of Simply Circus that 30 million Americans attend circuses each year. I have no idea how accurate that number is but it is the only number I have ever heard.


Showbiz David said...

Nice to hear from you, Logan. Hope you resume blogging.

If we factor IN Cirque du Soleil shows, Santos number sounds maybe reasonable. My guess that U.S. circuses play to fewer folks than 30-40 years ago is based on seating capacity having shrunk as the tents got smaller. Also on my own eyeballing crowds at RBBB in Bay Area dates and talking to in-house ushers. And going to other shows like C&B that come here. I don't recall in my earlierhood seeing so few people in the seats, in general.

All Best.

Anonymous said...

THe Hanneford picture was obviously taken during come-in, so that wouldn't show the size of the crowd when seated - bad picture to use for an example. Something like the New York times wou8ld use to illustrate an article. It's called bias in favor of personal opinion.

Showbiz David said...

I think you are a tad paranoid, and I thank you nonetheless for placing the photo, I assume, in proper context. It was far from my intent to use a photo to misleading imply a weak house, so I've taken it off. Will check it out.

Thanks. BTW: Why are you so anonymous???

crashmoreau said...

As a performer I have always counted the heads watchin the show. So when I estimate the audience crowd I come very close to the right number. My only problem is not knowing the seating capacity of the building or tent. With going to as many shows as I do a year I usually can tell if business is holding it;s own, loosing the crowds or gaining. It all depends on advertising, pricing of seats which way it goes.