Friday, December 29, 2006 

Noted. Driving through Salamanca in western New York State yesterday: fresh paper for Billy Martin's Cole All-Star Circus, appearing there on January 6th. John Kennedy Kane, everybody's favorite Wizard of Ahhhs featured. Like robins in the springtime, fresh paper is the absolute harbinger that there will be a 2007 circus season.

Thursday, December 21, 2006 

My mother Nancy Holden Plunkett Trumble passed away today at St Vincent's Medical Center in northwester Pennsylvania. She was in her lifetime a superb horsewoman, a respected judge of hunters and jumpers, an oustanding teacher and the first person I ever heard of to have Jack Russell Terriers. From the time she graduated from Cornell University until her death she was in one sense or another an equestrian. She was also a great mother and grandmother, and no distance was too far to drive to visit the circus lot. I miss her already.


Ten days in northwestern Pennsylvania, to date. Unseasonably warm, not that it means much. The brown fields, bare trees, dark skies and wind off the lake still speak of winter. According to the calendar, it’s almost Christmas In a winterland it is hard to recall the summer country of circus. Here however the circus has known both seasons. Each day on the interstate I pass by Girard, once as important to circus as Baraboo or Peru or Hugo. Girard, home to Dan Rice and headquaters for a half a dozen shows in the days before the Civil War. Home to Stewart Craven, among the first of the great elephant men.

In the outdoor show business there are skills that almost carry over into real life, I tell myself each day in hospital in Erie. Carrying injured circus folks to emergency rooms one becomes accustomed to translating from Spanish to English, or English to something else. I have learned to question doctors carefully. Doctors and nurses sometimes speak to patients in shorthand, with too much left unsaid.. My mother’s doctors, though skilled, are no better at communication than most. “Why are you so aggressive when you talk with them?” my brother asks me. “Because I want to know the whole story,” I acn only answer. I sit in a hospital room and I listen, wondering why it is that patients of a certain age, older women are “honey” or “sweetie” to nurses and doctors who have never met them before? It’s an attempt at kindness, but hospital is frightening enough without a demeaning pseudo-familarity layered on top of medical jargon.

Through the years my own trips to hospital have been associated with animals. Horses, cats, primates -- they’ve all taken their pound of flesh. I am the rare character silly or careless enough to have scars from an elephant bite. At least with a horse, or a cat, or a spider monkey, or even an elephant you can calculate the damage done before arriving in the ER. With the snakebites i’s more of a guessing game. “Do I feel lucky today?” You run the numbers and reckon the odds. Thirty percent of all bites are “dry.” Fifty percent of all bites inbvolve only moderate envenomation. Once, in Gainesville, I walked to Shands Hospital after a rattlesnake bite and sat quietly in the waiting room for two hours before deciding to tell the triage nurse that I needed medical attention. Other times I’ve been truly scared. Misadventure, I suppose they call in in mortality and morbidity reports.

Dan Rice died thirty years after the height of his fame, a singing clown in a world where joeys were seen and no longer heard. He was nearly forgotten outside the circus world for decades before historians belated crowned him as America’s first entertainment superstar. In Girard each summer the town celebrates Dan Rice Days remembering when it was once something other than a hamlet along a highway. When it was a circus town.

Monday, December 11, 2006 

When I think of carnival, and circus, and Wild West shows I think of my father, those were his things. But when I think again it was my mother and my grandparent who took me, at around the age of 5 to see Mr. Beatty in the early 1960’s. And it was my mother who, this season, would drive for five hours north or east or west or south to visit us on Carson & Barnes. I suppose when I think of my parents (my father has been dead for many years) it’s always as they were when I was seventeen. Somehow it’s hard to reconcile my mother as older.
On Friday morning my brother Lewis, a well know horse trainer phoned from Pennsylvania to tell me that our mother was in hospital. Five years ago a cardiac problem led to open heart surgery and she endured a long slow painful recovery. During her convalescence in upper New York State I remember the Ringling dates in Madison Square Garden, and the Shrine dates in Rochester. By the time that I returned home to California winter had turned to spring. On Friday there was another surgery for an intestinal resection, and now I am in the east again, in the snow again, driving the same road I covered in circus trucks when it was summer. It’s a hell of a way to near Christmas.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 

Back in the days when my hair hung down past my shoulders, back in the dark ages when I still had hair a popular book in the kind of homes where everybody played guitar and dined on tofu (generally out of economic necessity rather than for political reasons) was a tome entitled Small Is Beautiful. Small Is Beautiful was in point of fact an economics primer written by EF Schumacher, a British economist who had spent a life time managing coal reserves in the U.K. Schumacher”s thesis, the antithesis of of our own late SUV culture was strikingly simple. Finite resources are not to be wasted. Development utilizing appropriate technologies conserve resources, while the use of inappropriate technologies squander resources. For generations appropriate technology was the stuff of circus. Circus could not afford to squander.

On the Circus Fans of America website, among the many treasures are a series of recollections written by Rev Don Brewer. Mr. Brewer’s travels with small circuses in the 1960’s and 1970’s represent a chronicle of the mudshow world on the small and on the cheap. At least one circus described by Rev. Brewer performed in a tent just 30’ wide. Small was beautiful. And it has to be said that the 1960’s and the 1970’s were a good time for circus. The last of the baby boomers still kids, the explosive growth of suburban communities. A relative lack of regulation. (At least when compared with today.) They weren’t small circuses intended, by-and-large, to troupe for a generation. For a few seasons they catered to a market, then disappeared. Circus both in the Americas and in Europe had always had room for the little shows.

Today not infrequently the lament is heard both within the circus business, and among circus fans that the mudshows are disappearing. I confess, I’ve prattled on about that subject with some regularity. I remain convince that mudshows will be around for a long time. Still small is beautiful. If an angel asked me if I wanted to frame a circus, I’d be shopping for a 60 X 90 tent (Or even a 40 X 80.) The economics make sense.

I’m devoted to the traditional American circus, shows that can move often, visit almost any town. But it’s hard not to admire the European circus where less frequent jumps and economies of scale have allowed for the continued success of shows both grand and diminutive. In Denmark Cirkus Mascot plays a fully traditional show with 260 seats beneath the bigtop. Equines, dogs, acrobats, jugglers, clowns, aerialists – and tickets priced at $16-$22. They couldn’t do that and move it every day across Nebraska. Or could they? Small circus, particularly in Europe also allows for a seasonal flexibility rarely found in America. How many of our shows could fit into the corner of a downtown parking lot in the snowy north offering a “Christmas Circus” throughout December? Cirkus Baldoni just opened their Christmas show beneath a bigtop in Copenhagen, Cirkus Arena has a show opening in Roskilde (also part of Copenhagen) and Circus Merano is never afraid to play in the snow. Here in the States only the Big Apple Circus with its annual Lincoln Center engagement in New York exploits the possibilities of a tented holiday show in winter. Christmas circus is a market largely untapped by other American tent show operations, or unfeasible because of the required lot size. “You just can’t compete with the big indoor Shrine dates,” I’m sure many people would argue.

Really? Who exactly has tried?

The same economies of scale that give small European shows seasonal flexibility seem to afford at least some very small American shows greater freedom in booking and routing. It doesn’t take much of a town to fill 500 seats. Lots measuring 150’ X 150’ can still be found with some ease, and low seating and or rigging has regulatory advantages. In recent years, at least according to fans who have seen the show, Mr Childress with his Lewis & Clark Circus has enjoyed great success with that kind of operation – a show requiring no big rigs, no CDL drivers, and neatly packing into a couple of trailers carrying everything including the 60 X 90 tent.

Small isn’t just beautiful, it turns a profit.

By no stretch am I implying that larger circuses aren’t important, or desirable, or practical, or magical. Of course they are all those things. Rather what I’m suggesting is that small circus feeds large circus cultivating an audience, whetting an appetite, kindling a love for circus and reaching out to places and spaces where other shows simply can’t afford to play, or play regularly.

Small remains, beautiful.

Monday, December 04, 2006 

Years ago I lived in Gainesville in a trailer park off Alachua Road. Sometimes in the winter in the early morning riding a bicycle up the grade by Shands Hospital and across the University campus I would stop for alligators crossing the road between the fresh water ditches on one shoulder and the warmer pools that made up the water treatment plant on the other. I have a particular affection for crocodilians. Yesterday when the BCS announced the names of the two teams in the college football National Championship Game to be played in January ’07 in Arizona, I wasn’t going to say that the voters got it wrong. Go Gators!

But this is a blog where talking about Florida really means talking about circus and not about football. I have a theory when it comes to the special relationship between circus and Florida, one that almost everybody disagrees with. I’m convinced that the State of Florida, with it’s population of over eighteen million people (nearly 1,200,000 under the age of 5 – and nearly 4,000,000 under the age of 18) is the most underplayed circus market in America. People who know better tell me that I’m nuts. “Everybody plays Florida,” they like to say.

“Oh yeah? Who exactly is everybody?”

Here’s what I think happens. Florida is the home to such a large percentage of people in the circus business, we tend to make assumptions about it. Florida is a place where we (as an industry) leave our professional judgements behind and think like locals. It’s certainly true that Florida based shows play the state moving north and south in the spring and fall, but it’s also true that there are fewer Florida based circuses than there were a decade ago. It’s certainly true that Hanneford plays some great Florida dates, and RBBB plays the major indoor venues. Walker Bros has played tours of the Keys, and other shows play dates here and there, but when was the last time that a serious tent show looked that Florida and tried to book the length and the breadth of the state with the same effort that goes into booking other populous regions that aren’t “home?” Armed with a map and 2005 census estimates it isn’t hard to find several dozen towns in south Florida each with at least 25,000 people that rarely see a traditional circus. We wouldn’t pass over those same towns if they were in Texas, or California, or Illinois, or Michigan, or New York.

Again, back to the Census numbers. What are desired demographic characteristics for circus? In recent years most people suggest, homes with children, Hispanic households, lower-middle and middle class households. Twenty Florida Counties with populations of over 250,000 people match those desired demographics, and at least another ten with populations over 100,000 are in the mix.

It could easily be argued that history, not numbers are against me. Several recent shows framed in FL opend to such poor business, they either limped out of state to die elsewhere, or never made it out of state at all. Then too the window for Florida dates is narrow. Do you play the State in the spring and fall when there is certainly competition from other shows coming and going? Do you play the state in winter when you are competing against large indoor shows? Can you play the state in summer when the weather is hoy, and humid, and hurricane season is a very real fact? Avoiding all that, most likely you are left with April-May, and November. So if you are already based in Florida, where do you spend March? And you’re coming in to Florida from elsewhere, how do you route in and out without following the shows headed north for the season when you play the Panhandle or the northern portion of the peninsula? Nobody said it’s easy, but again, when the numbers look so favorable it’s worthy of serious consideration.

...Except that I'm probably wrong and I'd love to have somebody smarter tell me why.

Sunday, December 03, 2006 

In a few hours the Carson & Barnes Circus will kick off the final performance of the 2006 season. there have been a lot of shows since the circus opened in March in Arlington, TX. By late this evening the trucks will be packed for the last run back to Hugo,OK. Geary and Barbara Byrd, along with daughters Traci and Kristin deserve enormous credit for guiding the circus through this 70th season, as they have guided it through so many others.


Hats off too, to Aaron Broderick, who will never be a "First of May" again.


Finally, I've said it before, now let me say it again. With the best management in the business, and the finest perfomers under the bigtop, it's still impossible to stage 500 shows in well over 200 towns without a world class bosses, and no boss is better than Armando "Loyal."


So this has been a mudshow season on the Carson & Barnes Circus.

Tomorrow's it's just my blog.

Friday, December 01, 2006 


Winter weather stretches from Texas to Pennsylvania today. It is I suppose fitting then that the Carson & Barnes Circus ends it's 2006 season today, tomorrow, and Sunday with arena shows in Mesquite, TX. Showtimes today are at 4:30 and 7:30PM. On Saturday showtimes are 1:30, 4:30, and 7:30PM. Sunday's performances are at 1:30 and 4:30PM. Coupons for free children's tickets and discounted adult tickets are available on our website. Just click coupons.

2006 marked the the 70th consecutive season since Obert Miller, a dog and pony show trainer, and his son's Kelly and D.R. started the circus that became Carson & Barnes. It has in this 70th season been an honor and a pleasure to come to your town. Since March we have visited Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

Our families entertaining your families.

And next season we will do it again.