Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Under Falling Big Tops: How Bad Was it? Can You Spell Catastrophic? Let's Talk Historical Context

In the anxious annals of American circus history, the Big Theme seeming to be — Can The Show Make it Another Week? —  two bleak years stick out. 1938 was  by far the worst, possibly of all time, for Yankee canvas. By the end of 1938, eight circuses had hit the sawdust, and only two of those would ever live to see another crowd (or a few strays, all with free kid’s tickets) at the ticket wagons.

Advance to 1956:   King Bros. fell, its gas-less trucks stranded along a road, home made signs reading “donations accepted.”    The mightier Clyde Beatty circus was bankrupt by summer. And, on July 16, John Ringling North declared an end to the tented circus — as it then "existed."    

The press reacted as if a cherished American holiday had been mass executed over night.  The press ran with gloom and doom.    Cartoonists put aside levity to shed tears.  Well, they had a pro-circus public to play to.  But the press proved premature.  Beatty resumed its aborted season under new management.  And Ringling would return the following year, as promised by Mr North, to play out its annual opening date at Madison Square Garden  followed by a string of stands in tent-less venues.  Only did the much smaller King Bros. Circus remain shuttered.

Sixty years later, such a press as the one that properly covered the traumatic 1956 season was not there to make much of what we have lived through: the collapse of two of our nation’s three biggest big tops, both long-stays along the East Coast corridor. To repeat, two of the BIG THREE.  But then again, neither was the public there.  By now, it had been worn down by pushy progressives seeking to remove the circus from the circus.   Activists armed with indisputable visual evidence of extreme animal training that rightfully, I must concede, pushed the skeptical public into a withering state of mounting apprehension.

Thus did the Ringling elephants leave us in 2016.  But the Big Show went on, although whether its waning crowd base was lured back in lush turnouts may be hard to know.  Lackluster LA biz was not a good omen, kids.

What to say about 2016?  On another front, one thing it did give us was a presidential election — this one truly a hell of a circus —  the outcome of which, a very red one, may re-embolden  populist affections for the real thing, people ready to take in big tops without fear of public humiliation.  Mr. Tweety Trump, as daring a political act as ever there was, had a field day trumpeting against PC targets, and this may help the circus, of late, another PC target in need of rescue.   Before all the animals and clowns have fled the scene.

Missing in action, 2016:  Johnny Pugh’s Cole Bros. did not even get out of the barn. But now, he’s talking of meetings with money people over possible plans to reboot in 2017.  I’d put more money on Pugh making a comeback than on the other show that folded in a much more emphatic way.  Read on!

Who will buy this beautiful circus?   The latest  news about the spiraling Big Apple Circus meltdown is that everything is now up for sale at a pending bankruptcy auction,  the big top included. Prospective buyers said to be lining up.   And then I read something that crashed my hopes of a more practical return, albeit in a scaled down version, smaller tent and band, etc. touring in New York's parks during a spring and summer tour.  Seems that the powers still ineptly in charge are wanting  to “save” the Lincoln center date.  What about just saving the circus itself?

Does anybody back there have one pragmatic brain cell in their head?  They want to salvage a winter date lasting three month, the rental tab for which is half a million? Really?   In the beginning, Paul and Michael started out under a smaller top in a place called Battery Park. Four years hence, they were opening each October at Lincoln Center.  Thanks to lavish Wall Street funding, they never really had to face the forces of a true market.

What circus anywhere plays the same place for nearly three months every year without changing the show during the run?  In its heyday, Ringling could pack the 14,000-seat Garden when it opened there every spring, but it never stayed more than five weeks.   

Piece by piece, tent pole by ring curb, New York's own circus, in my once idyllic view a national treasure, is sadly being shredded into oblivion.  Look for your favorite BAC props and mementos to appear on eBay soon. I had high hopes.  Not anymore.  Curiously, Paul Binder is mum about this all on his blog. 

So, let's shake a little hope into our battered hearts.  Neither Kelly Miller nor Carson & Barnes did well at all last year, but I know that Kelly Miller plans to go out.

In regards to which, I got an e-mail from James Royal, telling me in a few words of why his “partnership” with John Ringling North II had been dissolved at the end of 2015 to the satisfaction of both parties, so I guess we won’t be seeing them on Judge Judy.  The two were at odds over how to run the front end.   And we all know how important the front end is — if you wish to keep your back end off its ....

Signing off, Jim wrote,   “The future ...who knows.”

Truer words were never spoken.

In my reaching back, I sent Jim some general questions about the state of our circuses, hoping he might consider answering them  He tells me he will, and so, as soon as I have them, I will post them here as an update.

Surely 2017 can’t get any worse than it now is?  Right?

Other than that, have a HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!


David Carlyon said...


You make a key point when you refer to the "pro-circus public" of 1956. In my experience as a Ringling clown, that positive enthusiasm lasted into the 1970s. People were usually impressed on learning I was with Ringling, and no one declared a fear of clowns. Crowds were eager enough to warrant 11 weeks at Madison Square Garden, as we played to thousands every show.

You make another key point, that enthusiasm has diminished. So while criticizing producers' decisions can provide a helpful perspective, it might also be helpful to keep in mind that the producer's task has become much harder. No longer is it enough to claim their circus is better than others, producers must persuade people to attend circus at all.

Historically, it's like the first few decades after the first American circus in 1793, when people didn't know what this form was. That includes circus managers and performers, who were figuring out what worked, what appealed to people, in an amorphous enterprise that wasn't even called "circus" at first, the name referring for 30 years to the circular tent or building.

Showbiz David said...


Thanks, and I could not agree with you more about looking at it from the producer's plight. You write, "producer's must persuade people to attend circus at all." YES, I totally agree, that is probably the biggest and most vexing challenge facing circus owners today.

Which is the reason for my post, "U. S. Circuses in the Age of Virtual Realty," which you will find by scrolling down through five or six of my posts. It is there.

I had forgotten that Ringling once place the Garden for 11 weeks. That would have been through the Irvin Feld era.

You make some good points.