Saturday, November 25, 2006 

Carson & Barnes Circus 2006 – A Successful Animal Activist Strategy

In February of 2006 in Hugo, OK the Carson & Barnes Circus decided to reexamine the way that the show answered anti-circus rhetoric from organizations like PETA. After years of shrill charges from animal liberationists a tipping point was approaching. Both the media and the public were ready to hear our story, to listen to our side of the animal argument. Telling that story became part of the focus for 2006. The circus resolved that the time had come to stop speaking defensively about the use of animals, to answer every anti-circus charge with the facts, to educate and to remind our audience of the importance of Asian Elephant Conservation. As 2006 winds down, it’s clear that a tipping point is indeed in the offing, and 2007 may see a continued erosion in liberationist credibility

Several specific decisions and events aided in the promotion of the pro-circus, pro-animal message. The decision to designate a single spokesperson to address animal issues when talking to the press and the electronic media allowed the Carson & Barnes Circus to stay on message. The use of graphics to explain conservation and training helped to sell that pro-circus message to visitors, and to the circus audience. The use of electronic mail and faxes to answer every negative utterance from anti-circus campaigners allowed the show to level the playing field. Adaptive measures, examining PETA’s 2006 anti-circus methodology and creating materials directly countering that methodology kept the show competitive in the usual war of words.

In 2006 PETA may have been its own worst enemy in attacks against circus in general and specific attacks against the Carson & Barnes Circus and Feld Entertainment shows. In Virginia PETA lost a major lawsuit against Mr. Kenneth Feld and Feld Entertainment’s Ringling shows. In New Jersey a federal court convicted animal liberationists of multiple felony counts stemming from both direct and indirect attacks on Huntingdon Laboratories, a biosciences company. Among the convicted, Andrew Stepanian a frequent and outspoken anti-circus activist. The death of an elephant groom at a so called elephant rescue facility in Tennessee called into question the way that sanctuaries supported largely by animal liberation dollars are actually run. The fact that such sanctuaries are rarely subjected to same kind of oversight as circuses and zoos is appalling. The recent news that another rescue facility touted by liberationists is building a Visitors’ Center suggests that such facilities are really zoos, the very institutions that AR claims to loath. On the legislative front several state level bills endorsed by animal liberationists to needless hamper elephant management practices failed to muster sufficient support to become law. PETA’s own defense against felony animal cruelty charges in a case in North Carolina continues to dog liberationist credibility, as does PETA’s association with Animal Liberation Front icon Rodney Coronado. Coronado was imprisoned in the 1990’s after firebombing facilities at Michigan State University. Later he received direct financial support from PETA. In 2006 Coronado was imprisoned again, for vandalism. Recently Coronado has repudiated his involvement in extremist causes and “direct action,” and stated that he is disillusioned with the groups he has been associated with, and he is no longer a vegan.

PETA orchestrated attacks on the Carson & Barnes Circus through much of 2006 was surprisingly tepid. No one incident better illustrates liberationist failures better than events in Gilbert, AZ – where electronic email from an anti-circus organizer leaked to a statewide newspaper. (The Arizona Republic.) In that e-mail PETA activist Jan McClellan enthusiastically encouraged circus critics both to lie, and to deny any PETA affiliation. In other news stories PETA came off badly. Sometimes getting what you ask for can backfire. In Auburn, NY the Cayuga county Executive forwarded PETA abuse charges to county animal welfare officials asking for a full report. Cayuga County SPCA used both uniformed and undercover officers to thoroughly investigate the circus. Instead of supporting PETA charges the resulting report lauded circus animal care noting the obvious bond between our elephants and their handlers. "Investigators were impressed by the care given to elephants and horses," said Legislature Chairman George Fearon, told the Auburn newspaper, The Citizen. By no means should liberationist failures be viewed as a softening in the animal rights position. A lie spoken loudly and frequently carries weight. No evidence exists suggesting that PETA campaigns keep would-be circus goers away from a targeted show, but certainly liberationists have successfully scared hosts and venues on occasion. Hosts that refuse to be intimidated win out. In Milford, MI in July 2006 liberationists pressured local hosts and local government relentlessly in advance of the circus. Liberationist efforts if anything aided hosts in selling thousands of pre-sale tickets and boasting full houses. The Milford Police Department politely corralled a handful of activists near the circus grounds. Pressure brought to bear on property managers by PETA strategist Lisa Wathne proved equally ineffective. At no time did liberationist activities interfere with circus operations, or normal business activities at a mall, park, or fairgrounds. In fact Ms. Wathne admitted to at least one property owner that she hasn’t seen a circus since she was a child, and she’s never seen the Carson & Barnes Circus.

If the Carson & Barnes Circus successfully turned a corner on animal liberation issues in 2006, the two people deserving the lion’s share of the credit for that change in direction are Kristin Byrd Parra, and elephant manager Randy Peterson. As head of animal operations for the Miller-Byrd family, Kristin Parra’s genuine commitment to first rate stewardship and to regulatory compliance is evident in a lengthy list of outstanding local, state, and federal inspection reports. Kristin’s husband, Gustavo Parra brings a sense of levity to those rare confrontations with activists, diffusing tension with good humor. In the post-Woodcock era of circus elephant management few road managers bring more skills to the table than Randy Peterson. Schooled in media savvy during his years in the Feld elephant program, well practiced in elephant education from his tenure at the Circus World Museum, Randy is affable, informed, and happy to talk to a crowd; the ideal public face of elephant management.

Media savvy alone can’t negate charges by anti-circus critics and animal liberationists. Quality animal care remains the best defense against spurious attacks by liberationists. On the Carson & Barnes Circus the caliber of our elephant care, so evident on the road goes back to Hugo and the merit of our elephant care at home in Oklahoma. Ironically no elephant manager in America has been as unfairly maligned by liberationists as Tim Frisco; while by and large it’s Mr. Frisco who deserves kudos for the outstanding health and well-being of the Miller herd.

Predicting PETA actions in 2007 is beyond the scope of these comments. 2006 saw fewer PETA inspired activists on or near circus lots, and little in the way of anti-circus legislative successes. Every show providing animal entertainment requires continued vigilance by circus fans, animal fans, and host organizations to counter liberationist propaganda. For the Carson & Barnes Circus, lessons learned in 2006 will allow us to move into 2007 recapturing the headlines from anti-animal critics.

The circus is coming to town.

And that’s a good thing


For several weeks now I have been in contact with a reporter from news magazine, working on a story on the survival of the tented (traditional/popular) circus in this age of giant video screens or ringless Ringling offering. On several occassions during these conversations I have found myself gently steering the topic away from the notion of the demise of the traditional circus, back toward firmer ground.

"There are a world success stories out there when you look at tented shows," I keep saying. "I really don't think that popular circus has to change to be more like an arena entertainment to survive."

This is just an opinion, in no way connected to the Carson & Barnes Circus or any other show with which I have been associated. 2006 was a great year for a handful of shows, a poor year for several others, and a down year for several more.

"We've forgotten how to sell a circus," I've heard several people say along the way. I don't entirely disagree with that. Industry-wide we are still looking for new models to sell circus replacing the earlier models that guided the business for the past fifty years. Where do you find hosts when the membership of so many franternal organizations are aging and no longer up to the task? How do you sell blocks of seats with the restrictions on phone rooms? Personally I am convinced that the new model extists, and everyone has tried it now and then with mixed success. (What is it? That's not important.} What scares me more than a collective amnesia haunting the way that we fill the seats is a collective amnesia associated with how much we sell those seats for. The basic economics of traditional/popular circus. Obviously the issues are intertwined.

During the baby-boom years of the 1960's and 1970's the price for Adult admission to a tented circus was about 4X the price of a gallon of gasoline. The price of a circus ticket was roughly equivalent to the cost of a movie. During that same period many tent shows were highly profitable. There were kids around. (And children remain an part of selling the circus.) The cost of admission was reasonable and no one ever complained too loudly about the price at the gate. (At least for a legitimate show.) Over a span of thirty or forty years there are a myriad of good reasons for inflation at the Box Office, but today for many "mudshows" the ticket price is 8X-10X the price of a gallon of gasoline and 2X-3X the cost of a movie ticket. While it's certainly true that for many shows making a buck on a $8 Adult admission would be tough, it doeswn't follow that the "average" tent show can now charge $22-$25. At $22 dollars people notice. Does that mean that a circus performance isn't worth $25? I believe that almost any circus is worth that -- infact it's a bargain. Where else would find world class performers at the top of their game for that?

Live entertainers.

But what I believe and what the man or woman standing in line at the box office believes may be two different things. The man or woman at the box office picked up a few free kids tickets at the filling station. The ticket says it's an $8 dollar value. The man or worman knows that he or she will be paying something for an adult ticket -- and it will be at least $8 -- but how much can it be? $10? $12? Certainly no more than $16. If instead that ticket is $22, or $24, or $25 that man or woman -- the customer -- feels two things. First he or she feels stupid. Second she or he feels duped. If the show is great maybe he'll get over that. If the show is run of the mill it's a good bet that she won't. We all know of very successful shows that have worked free children's tickets and $22 (or more) adult tickets, but how many of those shows play the same towns the same way successfully year after year under the same title?

Plenty of people a lot smarter than I am disagree with me on this issue. Still, I remain convinced that part of selling circus is understanding the economic realities of the towns that we play. If a ticket costs $20, why are we afraid to say that?

(Because it'll keep people away, wiser minds tell me.)

If a $20 ticket keeps people away, then we are (as an industry) charging too much money. There is an issue of price points involved. Somehow a ticket selling for $18 feels different than a ticket selling for a few dollars more. It has nothing to do with true value, and everything to do with perception.

The 1990's were pretty good for the circus business. A strong economy, job security, and mini-baby boom meant that circus-goers were plentiful, and nobody worried too much about what a ticket cost. Looking at the enormous success of Canadian theatrical based circus with Broadway box office prices, it's hard to fault any circus for thinking, "We can charge more at the gate." Besides, charging more at the gate meant less nickel and diming on the midway.

Some shows reduced the size of the midway dramatically as ticket prices soared. Somewhere along the way maybe we forget the old rule of the circus and carnival business, "The front end pays for the backend." We forgot that sometimes it's easier to lighten a wallet one dollar at a time than it is to go straight for the sawbuck. After 2000 the economy slowed significantly, the children of the mini-baby boom aged out their early circus years, and the cost of moving a show skyrocketed with increases in fuel prices and liability insurance. Just when the circus business needed those higher ticket prices, our audience could no longer afford them. To make up the difference, we raised prices even more. In fairness there's no shortage of tent shows that have thrived despite higher admission prices. Hispanic circus in particular has no qualms about tickets in the $25 dollar range. What's different about successful niche circuses is the way they route and book the show. By remaining in a community for a week or more, a niche circus can overlap pay periods, giving the audience time to find the show, and time to set aside money to pay for a circus outing. A mudshow jumping every day for weeks at a time simply doesn't have that luxury.

Would lowering ticket prices bring the audience back to the bigtop? Probably not in and of itself. The best way to sell a circus is a motivated local host with a strong pre-sale. But at some point we have to win back the trust of circus-goers who have felt burned by free kiddie ticket schemes. Free children's tickets can still work. One very successful show this season laid down an ocean of free tickets in small towns, charging $15 for adult tickets. There were no complaints. It comes as no suprise at least to me that several of the most profitable shoiws over the last decade have been circuses with lower ticket prices and thriving midways. It may not be a universally successful model, but it's worked better than the alternative. An audience that doesn't feel gouged at the box office doesn't mind spending while attending the show. It's no secret that the overall audience for traditional/popular circus is somewhat smaller than it was a few years ago (nor that it will rise again with th the next spike in the birthrate.) Still in a nation of 300,000,000 the circus audience remains enormous, and if it takes smaller, lighter, better shows to find that audience in the communities where they live, we as an industry can do that. The good news is that next year's sixteen dollar ticket wouldn't have to stay at $16 forever. Once back inside the tent, once they trust us again the circus audience will allow us to raise ticket prices back to that twenty dollar level and beyond, at least so long as they believe they are getting more circus for their money. We can't blame them if they're a bit annoyed when they find themselves paying more and getting less.

In the circus business in America we market to nostalgia and to childhood. Circus, we like to say, is something you come back to with your own children. If a collective memory of the circus is childhood touchstone reawakened by our own children, certainly it must be the job and the responsibility of every legitimate show to foster those memories. To create at least a few moments in each performance that will linger in recall. (This is at least a part of the reason why acts with animals remain so important.) Circus isn't really about magic at all. It's about business, dollars, and cents. That said, the absolute bottom line is almost never the whole story. Give the customer something to remember at what they believe to be a fair price, and the customer is yours.

I'm not worried about the future of the traditional circus. With a few twaeks here and there the popular circus will be here for my grandchildren. If we believe in the future we can build for the future. If we believe only in the season, next season will only be more of the same. In the end this is just an opinion. Just an entry in a blog.


Friday, November 24, 2006 

Kansas Coliseum shows.

The show rolled into Wichita on Thursday night after making the long drive from Oklahoma. Today the Prop Dept will set-up for performances on Sat at 2:30 and 7:30, and on Sun at 1:30 and 5:30. Randy Peterson drove 700 miles from Wisconsin to versee the elephants in Kansas. Other Miller herd elephants are appearing in Illinois this weekend. The Wichita Eagle said this about the show today:

Three-ring circus at Coliseum this weekend

Elephants, performing ponies, horses and dogs will join clowns, flying trapeze artists and high-wire acrobats when the circus comes to town.

The Carson and Barnes 3 Ring Circus will perform at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Kansas Coliseum.

Based in Hugo, Okla., the Carson and Barnes circus has been performing for more than 70 years. This will be its first performance at the Coliseum.

Harry Dubsky, spokesman for the circus, is a fourth-generation member of his circus family.

"Our performers are multigenerational. We have many who are fourth- or fifth-generation circus performers," he said.

This year, 5-year-old Brandon Cavallini will perform on the flying trapeze.

"He climbs 35 feet in the air, flies on the trapeze and drops into the net," Dubsky said.

The circus usually performs under a tent the size of a football field, but as they enter the winter months, they will be performing indoors.

Tickets are $20.50 for adults and $8.50 for children under 12. Free admission tickets for children and two-for-one adult tickets are available at

Thursday, November 23, 2006 

Thanksgiving Day. Entering the Holiday season it seems only fitting to wish good cheer to all. For those fortunate enough to be in New York this holiday weekend, what a great chance to see the fantastic Big Apple Circus. For those in the middle west, the fabled Evanston, IL Shrine Circus is this weekend. Out Kansas way our own Carson & Barnes Circus is playing at the Kansas Coliseum in Wichita. The holidays are a great time for circus, and altogther here in the States we may not have the same tradition of holiday circus or winter circus seen elsewhere, don't miss the shows that come your way.

Sunday, November 05, 2006 

Observations on the Carson & Barnes Circus Blog 2006

In March of 2006 the Carson & Barnes Circus opened its season in Arlington, TX and an Internet link appeared on the circus website titled “Blog from the show.” Through the spring and summer that Blog (a kind of an Internet diary) followed the circus across fifteen states and into the autumn, creating something of a virtual daily route book. The Blog closed four weeks short of the end of the 2006 tented circus season only because as the spokesperson for Carson & Barnes, the media relations coordinator I am finishing the season in an office in California, and not on the road. The Carson & Barnes Blog ( was and is unique. While a handful of other blogs have documented bits and pieces of circus seasons on other shows, they have been, to date, rather more personal diaries – more about the writer(s) and less about circus. At the end of this particular experiment I think it’s worth reflecting on the pros and cons of a circus Blog as a promotional tool, and how a Blog might be used effectively to help market a given circus in the future.

The Carson & Barnes Blog never started out to be a route book. Initially as I envisioned it, the Blog was to be a pure marketing tool chronicling the adventures and observations of the show’s twenty-two year old ringmaster, Aaron Broderick. Aaron was in his first season the show and did not come from a circus background. Because of his age, I assumed that like my own children (a bit younger) he was thoroughly immersed in the world of online communications forms, of which blogs are a big part. What I failed to consider that not everyone enjoys writing. The notion that the Blog could serve as an enticement to sell Aaron to the media -- promoting the show -- simply didn’t work. (I still believe it’s a viable idea for someone who does enjoy writing, or were the Blog entirely ghostwritten.) Instead, the Blog became my own. Technical issues plagued the effort in the early weeks in west Texas. The effort to get online to post to the Blog was sometimes vexing. Internet connectivity remained an issue throughout; particularly when it came it came to posting large photo files. Much to my surprise the Blog quickly found an audience among circus fans, then later, after a number of mentions in newspapers etc, among Blog fans. By late summer I was delighted to meet people who came out to the show not because they normally attend circus, but rather because they’d read the Blog. Blogs it seems can sell a few tickets.

Blogs are sometimes incredibly revelatory documents. Blog writers occasionally presume an intimacy with their audience bordering on the uncomfortable. Blogs document a life, though it may be the life of an unreliable narrator. A show Blog as a marketing tool cannot wholly eschew conventions – it’s still documenting a life, albeit of a circus. It still requires some degree of familiarity to hook the reader beyond the first few entries. Classical marketers versed in a tradition where branding a product means never saying anything remotely negative, or neutral, or gray are naturally ill at ease with intimacy. Moreover, circus historically has its secretive side. As an industry we don’t talk about the good lots or the good days, or reveal too much about the routes. We’re not keen on giving things away to the competition. The guerilla marketers, the viral marketers, the Gen-X/Gen-Y marketers who build brands on buzz have fewer reservations about gray areas. Personally, as the Carson & Barnes Blog evolved I came to the conclusion that shades of gray were sometimes necessary to retell the story. How can we tell a circus audience that a particular act is “death defying” and then pretend that no one ever gets hurt? A the same time a Blog is not reportage and a blogger is not a journalist. If a performer is seriously hurt there is no obligation to talk about it when it happens. (Unless the media is talking about it.) Fortunately through the fall of 2006 there were no life threatening injuries on Carson & Barnes, and the one mishap that I found myself writing about in a rather forlorned fashion come late summer, actually happened in the spring. We sell circus as magic, and magic sometimes exacts a price. Similarly you can’t write about a mudshow without mentioning mud, or a day of rain. Does intimacy diminish the glitter? I don’t think so. Part of the charm of the traditional tented American circus; the popular circus as I think of it is its ability (its willingness) to move through all kinds of weather to all kinds of places. If the only thing we can sell is glitter and glamour we can’t possibly play through a month of foul weather in Nebraska. Our performers really do take risks to entertain our audiences. The logistics of bringing circus to your town really are remarkable, and trucks breakdown along the way, and sometimes there are accidents. (And fantastic show mechanics make things right.) There’s plenty of glitter and glamour and spangles on top of all that.

In technical terms the Carson & Barnes Circus Blog circa 2006 was more of a "beta” effort than it was a finished product. A blog’s value in terms of selling circus to a circus audience or serving as a publicity tool for media is directly related to the quality of the content. While a text only approach is not without value, a picture is still worth a thousand words, and video and audio are worth even more. A five year old 1.5 megapixel digital camera plugged in to a ten year old Pentium II 166 megahertz laptop with a Cingular digital cellular network card is not the ideal way create a mixed media Blog from a place like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A real mixed media/multimedia Blog might be easily accomplished at modest cost with a bit more planning. The possibilities of a multimedia Blog are exciting, following a show from rehearsals through an entire season and really documenting the public lives of circus artists, and to a lesser extent bits and pieces of the more private lives of people behind the scenes. I wish that I had written more about people behind the scenes in 2006. Armando Rosales and his incredible property department deserved attention, as did Errol and Karen in the road office, and of course the amazing Cavalenni and Parra families, and Jaime and Lisa Garcia. A few words in a daily diary aren’t enough. Sometimes you have to see people at work to appreciate the roles they play. We like to tell the press, rightly, that a circus is a place of a hundred stories. With a successful multimedia Blog I think we can better market those stories.

The novelist L.P. Hartley wrote in “The Go-Between”, that “The past is a foreign country.” Through the spring, and summer, and into the fall of 2006 I wrote often of circus history. I am not a circus historian by any stretch. I’d rather be a circus futurist. A circus, as it happens, moves through history -- leaving its own traceroutes through the seasons, continuing and revisiting the histories of all the shows that have come before it – touching places marked by events and battles large and small. A circus in that respect embodies history; and as circus lovers we carry a bit of our own story to every circus too. Traditional circus, classical circus, popular circus from a mudshow to the BAC remains a bright recollection of childhood, and in our love for those circuses we so fondly remember, we want every show to be just as it was back then. Just as circus moves through history, as an enterprise circus moves into the future changing, creating recollections for other children, for other circus-goers.

I believe passionately in the future and in circus seasons to come.

I would like to think that in 2006 I learned something about telling a circus story, and telling other circus stories, more circus stories can be a part of that future with all of its successes on shows down the road.


In Pearland, TX on a cloudy day in the mid 70’s with a chance of thunderstorms, on an asphalt parking lot on North Main, across from the Wal-Mart Supercenter the Carson & Barnes Circus ends its 70th season beneath the bigtop. While four indoor dates in Tulsa, Little Rock, Wichita, and Mesquite loom in the coming weeks, the mudshow is going home.


Tomorrow the trucks will travel 350 miles back to Hugo, and the tent crew returns to Mexico. . 235 communities give or take. 500 performances. 15 thousand miles in eight months across nineteen states. On Monday night Geary and Barbara Byrd will kick off their shoes in the house that Kelly Miller built, Dun Rovin’.

At winterquarters, quietly, thoughts will turn to the next season.