Monday, March 31, 2008 

Rayville, LA 12 miles. Grass lot. Showers. Fair crowd for the first show.

Tomorrow CM moves into Arkansas. Before the jump we needed fresh equine health certificates. Rayville has exactly one vet, and he was booked up. Finally after considering our options I drove out to the animal hospital prepared to grovel. Dr. Morris agreed to come by the show on his way home from work. After the exams were done and all the paperwork completed I asked the vet how much we owed him. "I'll tell you what," he said. "Just have a Blessed day." Maybe there's something to idea that God looks out for all creatures great and small. And certainly there are some wonderful people in small town America. And maybe the circus brings out the magic in some of them. Thanks to Chris Morris who made today's road a little easier.

Sunday, March 30, 2008 

Mangham, LA. 70 miles. Dirt, gravel, wood debris lot. Hard ground makes for difficult stake driving. One of the least attractive lots We've seen this season. Great pre-sale two years ago. Even better this year. Nice after a light cold date, and two sparsely attended days in Visalia. The good days make up for the one we'd rather forget.

Saturday, March 29, 2008 

Culpepper & Merriweather's Great Combined Circus remains in Vidalia, LA today. Down time last night after the second show allowed for visits to to casino buffets in Natchez. Never tell somebody I mudshow there's all you can eat crab just across the river. If we were moving today we'd be carrying an extra thousand pounds in weight.

Warm today, overcast, chance of rain.

Friday, March 28, 2008 

Vidalia, LA/Natchez, MS. 75 miles. Green lot. Warm, muggy, overcast with a chance of rain. The Mississippi runs alongside today’s lot on the Vidalia riverfront. This is a two day stand. The Mississippi runs through the heart of America, and heart of American Circus History from Wisconsin and Iowa to New Orleans. Before the trains and the railway shows the riverboat shows along the Ohio and the Mississippi made the clown Dan Rice the most famous entertainer in the pre-Civil War United States; made cities like Pittsburgh, and Louisville, and St. Louis, Cairo, Illinois, and Vicksburg great show towns. Natchez with it’s rough waterfront was just plain infamous..

The Mississippi is a natural boundary separating the high grass territory of the west from the older eastern lands. Shows born along the river were in a sense, western shows much as shows born in New England were decidedly eastern. By the 1890’s the Ringling Bros, from Iowa and Wisconsin owned the western country as surely as James Bailey’s Barnum show owned the eastern seaboard.

But the show business isn’t just about circus and here in the Delta amidst the cotton fields another subversive art form was born. In the juke joints at the crossroads along dusty roads the great bluesmen invented a musical form that would travel up and down the river lending its genetics to the jazz birthed in the sporting houses of Storeyville, in New Orleans, and reinventing itself in the Blues clubs of St Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago. Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B.B. King the legends of the Blues and the music they made famous influenced the first Rock n Roll sounds of Chuck Berry, the country sounds of Jimmie Rogers, the hillbilly music of a kid named Elvis Aaron Presley, and the best working of the Rolling Stones. . No Delta Bluesman was more famous than Robert Johnson, the man legend says made a deal with the devil himself before picking up the guitar. Johnson recorded few songs and in his short life rarely ventured far outside the Delta, but he remains the ultimate icon of American Blues. If the riverbanks are circus country, the back roads are blues country. Both tenacious forms of show biz.

City Parks Dept is sponsoring the circus today and tomorrow. Shows today at 5:00 and 7:30, tomorrow at 2:00 and 5:30.

Thursday, March 27, 2008 

Columbia, LA. 60 miles. Grass lot. Fair, warm, and gusty. Reasonable pre-sale. Columbia is an old river port where the brick-faced building of the waterfront, once hotels, and saloons, and sporting houses have been replaced with antique stores, crafts shops, and a few coffee houses. Spring has again caught up with us in Columbia. The bare tress of yesterday’s town are green with new leaves in today’s town. The azaleas are flowerings along with rich tulips in some yards. This is drainage of the delta where the river systems of the Mississipi still flood cotton fields after a heavy rain. This is the south where circuses linger before chasing the last frost northward.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008 

Bastrop, LA 65 miles. Overcast, warm. Fairgrounds grass/gravel lot. First lot and license date of the season. Tent crews weren't the only guys impacted by H-2B Visa issues. Our billposter didn't reach the show until a few days ago. As a result, Bastrop is lightly billed with limited laydowns of free kid tickets. We certainly hope to have a good day, but our expectations are tempered with a healthy dose of reality.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008 

Grambling, LA. 70 mile jump. Mowed, field, rough lot. Perfect circus weather.

Grambling is home to one of the great historic predominantly African America colleges, Grambling State. Two years ago Culpepper & Merriweather played here to good audiences, and the presale today was strong. One truck breakdown, but all vehicles made it to the lot. Route for the rest of the week includes Bastrop, LA, Columbia, two days in Vidalia, LA, then Maugham.

Monday, March 24, 2008 

Benton, LA. Good first show today, lighter in the evening when the chill settled in. Farrier visited the show today. He hit a ride pony with a cocktail of Ace and Rompum. He'd never used a chemical restraint on a pony before and the dosage was a little off. Pony went down hard. Suspect he was unaware that Epi can counter both an adverse reaction to medication and can reverse Xylazine sedation. Pony was down for a solid hour and banged up from the initial thrashing. Stress and overheating are the major risk factors with this particular restraint, and the pony's respiration and pulse remained steady -- but it was the first time since I left zoo work that I found myself wondering why anybody who can't titrate dosages is driving around with restraint meds in the truck? Pony will be off the ride until the abrasions around the eye have healed.

Live and learn.

On the road we're sometimes at the mercy of sponsors when it's time to find a farrier, or a vet, or even a good bale of hay.

Sunday, March 23, 2008 

Benton, Louisiana. 30 miles. Grass lot. Down day for Easter. Two shows here tomorrow. Sometimes it's easy to see the ghosts of the great shows have traveled the same routes. Certainly the Christy show in Texas, or the Mighty Haag here in LA. Circus is a continum. Shows follow shows as generations of children follow other generations, still captivated by the lady on trapeze.

Saturday, March 22, 2008 

By any measure, it's been a long week for circus. On Monday in Pottsboro we began to hear rumours of severe weather aimed at north Texas with high winds, heavy rains, and hail forecast to stretch over a solid several days. The storm hit on Monday night. On Tuesday morning we learned that more of the tent crew had left, and we made the 37 miles jump to Bonham reckoning that getting the tent up in too much wind with too few hands might be impossible. We dodged a bullet when we found that the lot included a building more than large enough to put the entire show inside, playing an indoor date. The weather remained problematic, as most people simply stayed home, but the circus did enough business to claim that we saved the date. We later heard that several other shows had big problems as a result of the weather.

Wednesday we made a 40 mile jump to a soggy lot in Cooper. Our Mexican tent crew finally arrived on Wednesday when Roy Ordez delivered them to the lot around Noon. The last of our Mission tent crew immediately decamped, returning to Dallas.

Thursday saw the show jump 70 miles to green lot in Linsdale on a picture perfect day
. Our Chinese Acrobats joined the show a few days earlier and were becoming accustomed to the early jumps. On Friday we jumped another sixty miles to Rusk, our last Texas date, on a wooded lot in the hills. Business pretty good several days this week.

Today we jumped90 miles into LA for two early shows in Greenwood, and then another jump forty miles to Benton. Show ill be closed for Easter.

Monday, March 17, 2008 

The last weeks of winter in Texas offer a touch of springtime, a taste of summer to come,and enough snow and cold to remind us that it isn’t April yet. On Culpepper and Merriweather’s Great Combined Circus the first weeks are about hard-assing, learning anew to thrive on little sleep, some long drives and for the tent crew, back breaking work on a tight schedule. In 2008 circuses are short on manpower makings the tough jobs tougher.

On Friday the 14th the 24 Hour Man picked me up at a bus stop in Corsicana, TX and drive me the thirty miles to the green lot in Fairview. The sun was shining and the temperature was in the 80’s. I was just in time to work the front door for the first show.

On Saturday the show jumped forty miles in the morning for two early shows. The lot was soft and the first truck through the gate buried the tractor to the axles. Two hours later the truck was free, the tent carried with a bobcat, and the midway spotted on the closed street. It was cooler, with a breeze. After teardown the show made a night jump 125 north across Dallas and to the north to Celina. The ground was hard with frost in the morning as the circus set up on an asphalt lot at the high school. A new working man joined the show on Saturday, off to see a piece of the world, or a piece of Texas, while another man blew the show in the wee hours on Sunday, not even sticking around for his pay. He chronic labor problems on every circus and carnival this year may define the seasson.

Monday March 17th. 40 mile jump to Pottsboro, TX. Asphalt and packed earth lot. We’re under a severe storm warning with heavy rains a possibility. In storm weather it’s all about the presale, because you can’t count on long lines at the box office if it’s raining. Another short jump tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 

Off to Texas today. Should arrive on the Culpepper Merriweather Circus in Fairfield, TX on Friday to begin my season.


Anyway you measure it, this is a big weekend for traditional circus. The Carson & Barnes Circus opens in Dallas over the weekend, while John Ringling North II's Kelly Miller Circus is opening in Hugo, OK.

Hoping everybody stays well and makes money!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 

The First Route Card of the Season

Sunday March 2 Trinity, TX………………………….309
Monday March 3 La Grange, TX……………………...129
Tuesday March 4 Eagle Lake, TX………………………47
Wednesday March 5 Shiner, TX……………………………54
Thursday March 6 Bulverde, TX…………………………92
Friday March 7 Blanco, TX…………………………...26
Saturday March 8 Liberty Hill, TX……………………...70
Sunday March 9 Llano, TX…………………………….51
Monday March 10 Lampasas, TX*………………………56
Tuesday March 11 Lago Vista, TX……………………….60
Wednesday March 12 Hutto, TX…………………………….34
Thursday March 13 Franklin, TX………………………….77
Friday March 14 Fairfield, TX………………………….60
Saturday March 15 Kerens, TX…………………………...47
Sunday March 16 Celina, TX…………………………..118
Monday March 17 Pottsboro, TX* ………………………36
Tuesday March 18 Bonham, TX………………………….37
Wednesday March 19 Cooper, TX…………………………...39
Thursday March 20 Lindale, TX…………………………..69
Friday March 21 Rusk, TX……………………………..57
Saturday March 22 Greenwood, LA………………………92
Sunday March 23 OFF—Easter Sunday………………….0

*Mail pickup these dates

Sunday, March 02, 2008 

For those who were wondering. For 2008 I invited everybody to step into the mud with Trey Key’s Culpepper & Merriweather Great Combined Circus, of Hugo, Oklahoma. I hope to join the show for the season in it’s second week, around March 11th or 12th. While I may not have a regular internet connection, I do intend to post entries thereafter on every town and every jump.

A little history. Culpepper & Merriweather , celebrating its 23rd season (a pretty good run for a small mudshow) was started by Robert “Red” Johnson, formerly the canvas boss of the legendary Big John Strong Circus, and Wayne Franzen’s Franzen Bros Circus. Mr. Johnson’s early cohorts included Jim Hebert and Curtis Cainan. Legend has it in the early days the show didn’t sell tickets, but passed the hat. From humble beginnings long-lived circuses are born.

It’s no secret that the 2008 outdoor circus season is coming out of winterquarters with labor difficulties. The failure of Congress to address H-2B temporary worker visa caps means that every show is understaffed. Bear with us and we’ll get the tents up. Likewise the bubble in crude oil prices threatens four dollar diesel and gas before summer. With those costs, no show will be routing the long way around much of anything. In the meantime it’s Spring in the southland, even if it’s still very much winter in places like Wisconsin. In a few weeks the green lots of East Texas will be alive with bigtops, and if just a whisper now, listen closely – summer is coming, and the circus will be back in town.


Despite the poor economic numbers in the US, the price of crude oil has surged to over $100 a barrel. Fuel prices continue to climb according, and the reality of $4.00 a gallon gas and diesel has an enormous impact on show costs. Maybe there's a way to offset some of those increased fuel costs.

-- Can a Fuel Surcharge Help to Move the Show?--

Ben Trumble

We see them every time we open a phone bill, buy an airline ticket, or ship a package at UPS. Surcharges, they’re everywhere. And with the run-up in oil prices fuel charges in particular have become ubiquitous, we barely notice so long as they are modest. Could fuel surcharges work in circus, helping to move a show and adding to the bottom line? Maybe they could.

The small business economics of recession and downturn are a juggling act worthy of Monte Carlo. In a recession credit is tight, unemployment is high, consumers are scared, and monetary policy can lead to a weak dollar and inflation. Many of us can remember the 1970’s when three Presidents took on soaring fuel prices, significant job loss, and a double-digit run-up in core prices. Sometimes only time can heal an economy. Approaching the 2008 outdoor amusement season most economists suggest that the American economy is slipping into recession, others suggest that it has already arrived in the localized economies of Florida, California, and Michigan. The last two recessions, in 1990-1991, and in 2001 were mercifully short-lived. Economists like Paul Krugman at Princeton suggest that the current recessionary cycle will likely last well into 2009 with continued problems in the employment sector thereafter. It may be several years before real estate values decline to the point where the housing market recovers, and stock prices, still artificially boosted by interest rate cuts will likely retreat with the Dow bottoming out in Bull Market territory.

During a recession tight credit, market fears, and a natural inclination to save money leads to a decline in consumer spending. It isn’t just that families put off buying a new car… in an effort to better “budget” entertainment expenses are frequently early and easy hits. Thirty-six dollars NOT spent by a family of four to see a questionably entertaining movie at the multiplex is thirty-six dollars saved. Likewise a hundred dollars not spent on a theme park is real money. It isn’t that families forego entertainment entirely, but they search for bargains. Circus profits in a down economy when circus is seen as a good value. When a recession is coupled with inflationary pressures the cost of taking a show on the road can actually increase at a time when boosting ticket prices is virtually out of the question. A bargain is a bargain when consumers say it’s a bargain. A twenty-dollar adult ticket to the circus may be a real deal on the outskirts of metro New York, or San Francisco, while in Buffalo it isn’t. Reducing ticket prices at least in some local economies to boost admissions, or the use of special price coupons relying on a greater total dollar revenues is nothing new, but admissions can only be cut so much and there’s limited wiggle room for discounts and laydowns particularly when playing sponsored dates. Certainly traditional shows have and will continue to use laydowns and mail-outs for free or reduced price children’s tickets, two for one adult tickets, and flat price family passes to fill a tent or a building because these marketing schemes often work well. But in a recession all the free kiddy tickets in the world won’t entice anyone into a show if the full priced adult ticket is perceived to be too expensive within the new parameters of the family entertainment budget. Perception is everything and sometimes we fall down in explaining why a bargain really is a bargain. Simple math should convince anyone that if three children and two adults can be admitted to a circus for twenty-five dollars using free tickets and two for ones, it’ s good deal and less than the price of a movie. But unless that math is spelled out, consumers focus on what they’re paying for that one adult ticket and not on what they’re receiving for free. The better the explanation before mom and dad stand in the ticket line the fewer the walk aways.

If inflation means that costs are rising, and recession means that ticket prices can’t, how to recoup some of that expense? Experience indicates that adding fees on to free and or discounted tickets can be troublesome. Whether described as processing fees, or seat fees, even when implemented by legitimate shows hidden charges have been viewed by circus patrons and by at least several States as deceptive. Often the legality of fees seems to hinge upon how ticket offers are described and fair warning alerting consumers that additional charges may apply. Sometimes it’s all in the wording. If fees have gotten a bad reputation as a result of their misuse, surcharges are something most of us understand. A modest fuel surcharge applied to seats rather than tickets would seem to be a reasonable revenue enhancement. Cruise ships add fuel surcharges, taxis add fuel charges and virtually every common carrier adds fuel charges. Virtually any product or passenger moving from point A to point B is so charged.

Circus is a product. Fuel surcharges for circus or carnivals are legitimate because carnival and circus producers are shipping/delivering a commodity to a new community each time the show jumps. A sponsor for all practical purposes orders a show and a producer/leasing company delivers the show to that town. Or the producer orders the show for a lot/license date and the leasing company delivers. Until the show is set up it’s all about delivery and shipping and transit costs. So long as any surcharge is modest (say fifty-cent on every occupied seat) and so long as tickets, laydowns, and promotional materials refer to a modest fuel surcharge on each seat (to be charged at the gate) no deception is involved, nor is the amount great enough to discourage attending the show. Because a fuel surcharge is attached to seats rather than tickets, this revenue stream does not impact agreements with sponsors nor does it alter sponsor ticket prices. For lot/license dates a fuel charge might allow for a slightly reduced general admissions price when marketing deems a price cut beneficial to overall admissions numbers. For example, if a family of four attends a show using two free kid tickets and one two for one adult coupon, the general admission price could be reduced from twenty dollars to eighteen dollars with no real difference in revenue. Psychologically eighteen dollars seems like the better deal, thus the circus becomes a better entertainment bargain. Because a fuel surcharge could be used even for sponsored dates, it really does decrease the percentage of costs associated with gas/diesel. If a show fills 1000 seats a day that’s $3500 per week in the fuel fund. For many shows that’s comparatively little, but it translates into a saving at the pump equivalent to fifty cents a gallon on 7000 gallons of fuel a week. Because fuel surcharges might be viewed as shipping costs and are stated separately from ticket prices, such charges are not universally taxable, depending on the rules in each specific state. Admissions charges on the other hand are taxable in most sales with a current sales tax.

So it works and it makes sense, but how would sponsors and circus goers react to fuel surcharges? While nobody likes to spend more money a modest fuel charge is generally painless and easy to understand. For several years now we’ve all watched prices at the pump soar, particularly in summer, and we’ve seen those price bumps reflected in similar charges on other goods and services. A fuel surcharge shouldn’t alienate anyone while on the plus side it might be another piece of the puzzle keeping circus on the road through a recession.


Sometimes in winter there's just WAY too much time to think. Fortunately Circus Report sometimes needs to fills some space.

-- 2008 By The Numbers –

Ben Trumble

It’s January and in winterquarters whether in Sarasota, or Hugo, OK, in Missouri, or in California circus dreams the dreams of another year. In the lean months between seasons there’s more than enough to worry about, more than enough to keep anyone busy, and with luck at least a few dates far to the north and indoors beckoning over a thousand miles of icy highway. The winter is a numbers game wagering on the seasons that will follow. A time of concern and a time of hope. A reminder that in the circus business everything old becomes new again. What are the numbers for 2008? What are the reasonable expectations?

According to old time circus logic, quadrennial election years have been less than kind beneath the bigtop. Oh, they may start well enough, but come the conventions in summer public awareness fixates on the presidential race. There’s little more than anecdotal evidence supporting this nostrum, and we can all think of a few banner years coinciding with elections, but it’s certainly true that a Presidential race fixes the electorate on money issues and a less than rosy economy deflates consumer confidence and leads to worry. Unfortunately in ’08 those fears may be very real. The probability of downturn, looming four dollar a gallon diesel and gas, a poor jobs outlook, tight credit, the sub-prime mortgage fiasco and a free-fall in real estate values are more than enough to scare many Americans with or without an election. According to a report in the New York Times, “Strong evidence is emerging that consumer spending, a bulwark against recession over the last year even as energy prices surged and the housing market sputtered, has begun to slow sharply at every level of the American economy, from the working class to the wealthy. The abrupt pullback raises the possibility that the country may be experiencing a rare decline in personal consumption, not just a slower rate of growth. Such a decline would be the first since 1991, and it would almost certainly push the entire economy into a recession in the middle of an election year.” Even Starbucks has discovered that in the present climate a five-cent bump in the price of a coffee drink has customers racing for less costly alternatives.

The funny thing about numbers is, as much as they can frighten us, when we dig deep enough there’s usually something worthwhile to be learned. Historically the great circus bosses are the ones who make money in good times and bad. We’ve all heard of the talents of Jess Adkins even in the deepest years of the Great Depression “making it work” despite the overall economy. Mr. Adkins wasn’t alone. Now famous titles like Kelly Miller were born in that era of little money. And as far back as Mr. Coup’s Barum show economic intelligence (the numbers) have allowed circus to weather the downturns. This is not a nostalgic evocation for the old days and the old ways, economic intelligence, timely information and the ability to use that information is at the heart of every circus business success story from Mr. Bailey and Mr. Cooper, to Charles Hunt, to the owners and managers of today’s shows. Whereas the great bosses of the past routed around areas suffering from crop failure, or draught, low agricultural prices, or Yellow Fever, today’s manager may look at other data, passing communities and states hardest hit in a downturn, or finding a better means to market a show despite the crunch.

Almost certainly in a downturn no intelligence is more important than notations on localized economic conditions coming first from an astute booker with the where-with-all to inquire about employment/unemployment, real property trends, and the health of the retail sector prior to booking in to a town; then an informative advance providing a timely “heads up” a month or more before circus day if all is not as it should be. A generation ago at least some shows had the luxury of dramatically altering routes mid to late season responding to bad economic news from upcoming dates, today it’s up to marketing to make a show attractive even along an under-performing corridor. We all know with circus you’ve got to park it somewhere every day. Flexibility in ticket prices, promotions, and built-in to agreements with sponsors is never more vital than in down years when there may be less money for advance events, mailings, television buys, or co-sponsorship with radio.

If numbers are prognosticators fortunately we have better access to intelligence today than ever before. Months ahead of the outdoor season a quick glance at reports from the Federal Reserve Bank, Moody Financial Services, etc. paints a clear picture of those communities worst hit by the collapse of the mortgage market and an implosion in real estate values and associated equity. Conservative estimates suggest that home prices across the US will decline by 13% by the end of 2009. While that number impacts all but a handful of communities, far more dramatic are the declines in the Sunbelt where prices overall could dip by 20%, or Florida, California, and Nevada in particular where some communities will see a likely drop of as much as 35%. Showing in communities like Modesto or Stockton, California, or Punta Gorda, or Ft Walton Beach, Florida may take deep pockets and a brave soul, highly motivated sponsors, or a smart marketing plan taking in to account that these are among the hardest hit cities in the country. Even middle-class families will be budgeting with care. Michigan, likewise, so often a place of boom or bust for outdoor shows is already in full-blown recession. On the other hand states like Texas, Montana, and Colorado look pretty good, while some areas of the historically depressed Northeast (Binghampton, New York for example) fare better because home values remained relatively stagnant through much of the recent bubble. While brokerage houses like Goldman-Sachs predict that recession is very likely across all of the American economy through 2008, estimates from The Conference of Mayors tell us that some communities like Anderson, SC, Cedar Canton, OH, Fort Smith, AR, etc. will be impacted far less than places like Salinas, CA, Orlando, FL, or Charlotte, NC. Marketing that directly reflects conditions in localized economies might weigh toward higher admissions prices in the oil patch or the grain belt where commodities values are stronger, and lighter touch elsewhere in an effort to fill seats. It’s always interesting to look back at the many seasons of the Hunt Circus and Mr. Hunt’s willingness to peg admissions prices to conditions in the communities he played. Today’s twenty-dollar ticket in one town may be a fourteen dollar ticket in a town just across the state line. The right price is the price that brings out crowds allowing even a recession battered per cap to generate more dollars.

Selling circus has become a sophisticated enterprise and any show using direct mailings relies on demographic and census information to make or break the day. Further filtering based on current localized economies and pricing and marketing accordingly is just the digital application of the same make or break economic intelligence as old as the railroads. The down economies throughout the 1970’s saw a rise in the number of small and medium sized circuses, as did the affluent years of the mid-1990’s. While it’s easy sometimes to blame poor business on competing entertainments, in reality there are 100 million more Americans today than there were in the 1960’s. It’s no secret that regulation and a massive scaling back in phone operations have probably had as great an impact on circus as changing audience habits. Heading in to this election year, rather than looking at the numbers too pessimistically it’s well worth remembering the positive. We’ve been here before. During downturns families look for bargains. So long as a show is perceived by consumers to be affordable as defined by the economics constrains of their own community, so long as they believe they are receiving good value, so long as the advance works and the sponsors are motivated and the lay downs are there, so long as folks actually know that the circus is in town, the numbers should be all right.