Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Thursday, January 26, 2017

James Royal on Keeping a Circus on the Road Today

With Ringling about to close for good, the sawdust scene continues to favor smaller, and there is nothing wrong with smaller. Because fewer people are going to circuses than in more prosperous years past does not mean that there is no market for the circus.

A while back, I sent some questions to Jim Royal, who has managed both the Big Apple and Kelly Miller circuses, asking him for any comments he might have on recent closings and the future of big tops.  He has kindly taken the time to answer them from his unique vantage point.

Only the sub heads are mine.  I've not changed a word of Jim's report.

From James Royal

Like so many others in this business, I wish I had the answers. This thought reminds me of the Kelly Miller season of 2012, a presidential election year.  Tradition has it that it would be a poor season business wise due to the election.  For us that season, it was the reverse...we had our best season.  Did we drastically change the route, no.  Did we make big changes in the front end, no.  Granted the weather was good for most of the season, but why we had such a great season, I don't have the answer.

Big Apple's Crippling Operational Costs
I spent just short of 4 years with Big Apple, joining the show in Atlanta just after the Lincoln Center run.   This was in 2003, the 25th anniversary tour.  So, I can't speak of the earlier years.  There was great attention to detail, to make sure that everything about the show was right.  That costs money.  So many parts to the puzzle and all had costs. One example - Moving the show was extremely expensive.  In those days, the show moved on 33 semis, plus vans, pickups and RVs.  The air conditioning for the big top required 2 semis, a special fork lift and a separate generator. We also had a semi load of heating units for the cold weather. The show could do good business in a smaller venue such as Charlestown, RI or Hanover, NH but the cost of getting it there and out was huge.  Getting the show set in Lincoln Center took several weeks, and intricate planning.  The lot was on top of a parking garage and no stakes were used.  This required a special system of very large heavy concrete blocks and cable.

Gas Pumps are Kinder ... Getting Worker Visas Can be Vexing

Some shows have done well in 2016, so there is hope.  I don't think it is a bleak picture.  There are certainly more challenges these days to keeping a show on the road.  Fortunately fuel costs have come down, but for how long?  That has been a serious issue, for fuel not only moves the show, but also powers the generators.  The number of permits required and their costs have increased.  Even simple circus/carnival permits in smaller towns have cost more, as local authorities see this as a way to help their budget shortfalls.  Many shows depend on H2B seasonal worker visas for their workers.  This provides a dependable workforce that gets a show up and down without problems.  The government is continually tinkering with this program and making it difficult to obtain these legal visas. The visa process costs are considerable.  Now adding to this is the time and resources spent in lobbying Congress regarding the H2B program.  These days, it seems that damn near every show vehicle requires a driver with a CDL license.  Those operating scales and state DOTs are quick to issue fines.  For shows with animals, the extremists continue to cause problems.  Another issue that requires a great deal of time and resources to combat.

Booking Dates More Time-Consuming. Costly

Circuses that use local sponsors such as Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs etc., are finding the process of booking dates with them more time consuming. Many of these groups are "graying", losing members and not as active.   Also, gone are the days when there were agents out there who could book these dates.  The costs of keeping an agent on the road is certainly more expensive than it used to be.

So Many Ad Outlets, Which Ones to Use?

Advertising costs have increased as it is harder to reach a broad spectrum of people.  Now we have endless TV channels, radio in its various formats, podcasts, blogs, and social media.  The audience has to be reached through so many new avenues resulting in a more expensive advertising budget. The marketing dollar has to cover a larger number of outlets.

Traditional Circus Still a Draw

There is one bright spot in recent times.  I have found that with Kelly Miller and Culpepper & Merriweather (where I am currently employed)  the customers like traditional circus.  It still appeals to people of all ages and demographic factors.  A traditional show with a strong performance and good customer service pleases the clientele.   Getting them into the tent, now there is the challenge.

Thank you, Jim!

Monday, January 23, 2017

"Hundreds" of Circuses Still Thrive in Europe, Says Bello Nock on Fox, Fighting to Save Big Apple Circus ... Across the Nation, Reactions to the Shocking Collapse of Ringling, Now Headed to the History Books, the Train for Sale

On Fox News, iconic daredevil acrobat and clown Belo Nock claiming that in Italy, there are two hundred circuses, in Germany, three hundred.  Nock stressing the two word-phrase "show business," arguing that to put on the show, you must do the business part, too.
The sudden shut down for good of the Ringling show has generated mourning and sympathy, however scarce, across the country, one-time Ringling clowns shedding the most tears. From a quick scan of what few comments follow news reports, the majority appear gleeful over the "success" of PETA and others in driving the Greatest Show on Earth off the road. Here is a sampling of what I have found, so far, from those who care about circus.  If I find more, I will add.

Cry, Clowns, Cry

Sean Davis, who advanced from prop hand to clown over a ten-year period with Ringling:  “I cried like a baby last night. I’m not going to lie. I really did. It hurt, just as much as losing someone close to you and your family for me.”  Amen, Sean.

Tricia Manuel, another former Ringling clown, to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “We’re a community in mourning. It’s the end of a special era.”

D.J. Weiss, also from the Feld fold.   “I’m heartbroken, "but I’m just so thankful to have been a part of it.”
We have a customer. Jodie Januszko of Wilkes-Barre, PA, having taken her her children and grandchildren to the circus:
 "I'm kind of shocked. I know they were having problems with protesters about the elephants and everything, but I didn't see this coming ... I think it's sad because it was great family entertainment."

From Katya Quiroga at Circus Vargas  
 to the San Diego Union-Tribune

“It's devastating.  A lot of our colleagues will be out of work and it’s like a part of Americana is going away ... It’s a form of art and culture that is going to be disappearing and there’s only so much we can do on our end.”

  Today Ringling, tomorrow your horse, dog, cat and Big Mac
-- The headline on Circus Mania blog

Blogger Douglas McPherson directs our attention to a thoughtful piece written by the UK's last and only still-active tiger trainer, Thomas Chipperfield. You can find a link to it at the right. McPherson adds his own words:  "Perhaps one day, when it's their dogs and cats and Big Macs at stake, the world will remember that a lion tamer tried to warn them that it was about much more than circuses all along." 

From the Carson and Barnes family:

HUGO, OK — The Carson & Barnes Circus family is heartbroken by the decision of the Feld Family to close the Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey units of their corporation. Ringling Brothers has been a household name for more than a century and has been a leading force in the entertainment business.

We extend our gratitude and appreciation to Kenneth Feld and his family for their contributions to the great American Circus. Our thoughts are with not only the members of the Ringling Brothers directly, but with the worldwide circus industry and primarily to our entire nation…for we have truly lost a great American icon.

The circus is woven throughout our American History, bringing thrilling entertainment and family fun to cities and rural communities across the land. Children of all ages have been introduced to the wonder and magic of talent from around the world thanks to the traveling circus."

Thanks to Don Covington, who linked me to many of these news reports and others that have informed my coverage.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tim Tegge on the Ringling Shocker

Almost by by accident, and luckily so, I came across this on Tim Tegge's Facebook page, and what comfort I take in it.  The story is such a painful one.  Big Apple, Cole, and now the Big Show itself

I have many many thoughts and questions about Kenneth Feld's sudden move in declaring an end to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  I may turn them into a future post.

Here, Tim eloquently puts it all in a calming and affirmative perspective:


Feld Entertainment has made it "official" this evening (1-14-17) that they will pull the plug on Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, forever, in May of this year. A sad announcement, to say the least, BUT... they cannot pull the plug on the circus! It's really that simple. There IS, indeed, a place in today's world for the traditional circus, and although Barnum coined the iconic phrase, which has been RBB&B's trademark for 146 years, it is the CIRCUS as an entity (not a monster truck show, or Disney on Ice, or any sporting event) that remains the Greatest Show On Earth.

Thank you, Tim.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

MIDWAY FLASH! ... MIDWAY FLASH! ... Ringling Folds for Good, Last Shows in May ... Feld Blames Retiring Elephants for Plunging Ticket Sales ...

It must be some kind of a sick joke, I thought, waking up this morning to find on my computer a link from my brother Dick,  proceeded  by a short note  -- "Sorry about that!" -- to a story that Ringling-Barnum is closing down for good and will give its final performances in May in Providence, Rhode Island, May 7, and Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum. May 21.

Some kind of a joke?  But no, in another e-mail,  this one from Don Covington, came a link to a statement from CEO Kenneth Feld, coming clean on how, since removing the elephants, business has plunged even deeper.

The total collapse of  the Greatest Show on Earth?  I never could have imagined living to see this.  For one reason, the circus is owned by a billionaire. 

And, just after landing nation-wide press over the hiring of the circus's first ringmistress in its history?

I still have a hard time believing it.

A while back, I reported on the fall of two of the nation's big three, the two being Big Apple Circus and Cole Bros. Circus.

And, now, the third one has fallen, too. It is so unreal, I feel almost nothing.  Perhaps I am in denial.

I never thought I would live to see this.  What I've been thinking lately is that they could well phase out one of the two units, and keep only one on the road, even in a truncated operation, no train but trucks.  Smaller show.  The Feld one-ring unit that played Coney Island (first one to play it) was simply terrific. 

Can you believe that the Felds are effectively out of the circus business?

Am I lost in a sick dream?

Is this fake news?

Is there more to the story?   The incredible abruptness of Kenneth Feld's sudden decision is itself a rather incredible act. One might wonder what, if anything, possible infra-family squabbles had to do with it.

More to come as I sort out my thoughts.  Meanwhile, ALL of your thoughts are welcome here.  Please do share ...

BTW: I will be posting a piece by James Royal, this week, about his thoughts on the challenges facing today's circus owners.

With the Ringling exit, count the year 2016 as the worst in American circus history.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

A Big Apple Circus Story on a Sad Day in Oakland

A cold grey empty day here in Oakland, I can’t remember a winter EVER this cold.  Even my electric blanket shivers.  If the sullen sky would only produce real rain, as was predicted, what  poetic relief that would bring.  Nothing.

This morning, a discovery on my PC of the full details of the auction to come for everything Big Apple Circus.  It brings the truth of what has just happened before our eyes home.  

And, then, this email from Gareth Denham, only moments ago.  It touched me.  So in sync with my mood.  I don’t know Garaeth. Maybe some of you do.  I'm posting this because it’s part of Big Apple Circus history, and I fear that from now on out, Big Apple Circus is history.

I feel a certain solace in the act of sharing it with you ...

From Gareth Denham

I've suddenly found myself with time to catch up on one of my favorite things, circuses, and thought I'd drop you a short note. 

In 1981, I was 16 and living in Baltimore when the Big Apple Circus made one of its first trips out of New York.  When they left, I went with them and spent the rest of that summer and the next traveling with them.  It was exciting and romantic and I was in awe of the people I met — Buckles Woodcock, Philippe Petite, Michael and Karyn Christensen, John Harriott, Dolly Jacobs, Ben Williams... — late at night I would sit and listen to Buckles tell stories for hours....

One day, though, Michael Christensen sat me down and strongly suggested that I "run away from the circus and join real life". Reluctantly, I did that. I settled down, raised a family.  The work ethic I learned from everyone in the circus served me well as I have just retired from a career at UPS.  (I delivered packages to Nicole Feld when she was just a teenager living in Maryland!)

So I just wanted to say, to you, thanks for stories, and  to Michael and Karyn wherever they are...thank you for pushing me to run away.  I did okay with my life, and I hope they would be proud of me.

~Gareth Denham

 Thanks, for taking the time to reach out to me-us, Gareth.  And congratulations on your life turning out so well!

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Elephants Returning to Madison Square Garden! ... Surfing Dogs Make Rose Parade! ... Kelly Miller Peanut Sales Sell Out! ... But It's Tough Trouping in Tough Times, Royally Speaking

Welcome to 2017!
Or, should I say 1903?

This might be fun, come spring when a circus of sorts plays Madison Square Garden, complete with performing pachyderms!  Yes, but, wait.  Close your eyes to the wires and all the artificial joints making them so nimble.  They are puppets.   And you, Mr. and Mrs. VIP, who can afford the pricey seats ($139-$129), may have to put aside your issues with show-off animals.  Circus 1903, a new stage show,  will give you a virtual elephant act, the purpose being simply to celebrate their prominence in the “golden age” of the circus. 

           Why Wait for Puppet Pachyderms
           When We Offer You the Real thing!

That should be a banner line on all circus ads for the show(s) still daring to present living breathing elephants.   Kelly-Miller Circus, said to have signed on with one of the Friscos working a trio o f Big Guys, might make it work. For, per the show’s former general manager, James Royal, in the small towns were the circus of John Ringling North II likes to pitch canvas, “the customers like traditional circus.  It still appeals to people of all ages and demographic factors.”

More from Sir Royal, below...

          How authentic, The  Circus 1903?

Yes, the posters look very enticing, indeed.  But, from one review I read, with high hopes at the start, the stage affair sounds maybe more artsy than authentic.  Like, say a, mixture of old time imagery and costumes with new time Cirque du Soleil posturing and contorting, etc.   I was set on going down to LA in February to take in a performance at the Pantages Theatre.    Not so sure now.  They have themselves booked across the U.S. through a slew of big cities, making a 12-day appearance in New York at the Madison Square Garden Theatre, April 5-16.

          Puppet PETA Protesters?

Why not.  After all,  to be true to their  progressive opposition to circus animal acts of all kinds, dare such a liberal — the sort to whom, I’d guess, this show is being marketed, patronize a show that celebrates performing elephants in any form?  Is such chic patronage, therefore, not an act of philosophical hypocrisy?  (Somebody, check the Constitution, please.)   If you cheer the imagery of a circus staple fast disappearing, do you not embrace the actuality of it?  I take heart in  Circus 1903's glowing embracement of elephant acts of yore. 

         Surfing dogs at the Rose Parade

Yes, and what a hoot, and just another circusy manifestation on the edges, proving the enduring appeal of true circus itself.  I’m hoping that President-Elect Tweetie Trump will take in a real circus, make a big Tweet over it, and make it okay once again for the public to do likewise.  Do you remember the Trump Tent, as it was called --- when, as I fuzzily recall, Mr. T. funded a new big top for Big Apple Circus?

          Royally Speaking ...

James Royal, who has managed both the Big Apple and Kelly Miller tops,  had a lot to share with me on the challenges facing today’s owners, and I intend to reprint his full e-mal to me in the coming weeks.  For now, suffice it to cover a few points that caught my eye:

Big Apple Circus’s Big Operation: “Moving the show was extremely expensive  ... The show moved on 33 semis, plus vans, pickups and Rvs ... The show could do good business in a smaller venue such as Charleston ... but the cost of getting it there was huge."

Did you know they took their air-conditioning units on the road?  Now I do.  Another two semis, fork life and separate generator, details  Jim.  Now, do you see why they are bankrupt? 

North and Royal.  They ended their partnership at the end of 2015

Kelly Miller’s banner season, when?  Seems it was 2012, during a presidential election year, when,  by tradition, big top biz usually drops. “For us that season, it was the reverse  We had our best season.“

How very interesting. The DVD of the 2012 show, which I just reviewed, a few scrolls down, with high marks —  might that show have been a big part of the reason?   I did not ask Jim. 

Jim’s reports that Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, which now employs him, had a good season.

          The Peterson Peanut Test

I am really stretching it here by making a good sign of the fact that,  before the end of the Kelly Miller season just passed, per John II in his note to me,“Petersen Peanut Co ran out of peanuts. So, no nuts." He always enclosed, with his new DVD, a package of Peterson's finest. 

Somewhere, somehow, someway, there are evidently still hordes of people with a lingering yen for the common peanut.  But not the sparse crowds who turned out to see Kelly Miller in 2016.  When I asked Brenda Rawls about how the year had been, by phone  — I had called to see how I could send JRN II a thank you note, Brenda answered with a long sigh. “This was a down year”.

And then she added, with a good Hugo Byrd Chirp. “But, we’re going out!”

Read Jim Royal’s full missive in the coming weeks, right here.

Here are some Kelly Miller photos ...