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.