Tuesday, May 20, 2008 

Seems only fitting to make a few retrospective comments on Culpepper Merriweather as they apply to the show historically, now in its 23rd season, and to the 2008 year specifically.

In an era when it’s popular write off tent shows as a dying art form, much of the time Culpepper still works. It’s a show that can and does make money; can and does provide small town audiences with a traditional circus experience. Some of the credit for CM’s success is certainly rooted in the efforts of original owner Red Johnson. Mr. Johnson created the show with the help of talented people, and like other high-grass showmen “Big John Strong” and “Wayne Franzen” he built a “title” that became a genuine “brand.” Culpepper & Merriweather meant something to the sponsors who worked with the show and to the audiences in the towns along its historic route. That brand loyalty remains strong in many communities. CM continues to be an “honest” show working well with sponsors and giving a performance suited for the communities that it visits.

After many years of success in the late 1990’s CM suffered from several poor seasons leading to the sale of the show. In retrospect at least some veterans believe that the show had simply outgrown some of the towns that it traditionally played. The early Culpepper show was framed to play for a sold month in school yards around Arizona. After a dozen years the show was too big to work schools. Even the poor years were likely something that the show could have overcome with a new routing scheme, and the old route proved to be profitable again in 2000 when Trey Key came on board as Red Johnson’s partner.

Trey Key brought several ideas to Culpepper that have allowed the show to continue in the increasingly difficult marketplace of the last decade. Separation of the “title” from the corporate entity owning the equipment helped to safeguard assets. A revision of the show’s contract with sponsors and a strong advance, ideas borrowed from Trey’s years at Kelly Miller helped to minimize losses in towns that just didn’t work or with sponsors who simply couldn’t promote a circus. New routes may have punished the show financially in the 2006 season, but modifying those routes appear to be rewarding the show in 2008. Modest downsizing has cut fuel consumption and labor costs. Through much of his tenure Red Johnson was described as a very hands on owner. He could pound a stake, or drive a truck, or load an elephant, or walk the wire, or eat fire. In contrast Trey Key is more of a traditional “business” manager. Until 2008 Trey generally confided his efforts to simple lot layout, purchasing, managing the advance, and office functions, or occasionally selling tickets or helping with concessions. In 2008 Trey has added the presentation of a cat act. Initially trained as a clown, he’s an adept performer. It’s important to stress that Trey’s efforts in the office juggling numbers are hugely important. Culpepper has never missed a payday and has bounced back from the poor seasons at the close of the Johnson era and from the down seasons when the show played untried routes. Trey’s honesty in business dealings with sponsors is not be discounted.

But not everything about CM works, and what doesn’t work is important too. If Red Johnson succeeded in building a brand around the Culpepper Merriweather title, it might be argued that the value of that brand has been diminished in recent seasons. While a hands off approach to managing the nuts and bolts details of a circus allows talented people in each department to work at their best, it also tends to diminish the importance of some of those departments or show equipment in the eyes of the front office. A show mechanic no matter how talented, hardworking, trustworthy…no matter what a nice guy he may be isn’t a lot boss – it’s just not something that can be learned in a few seasons. A good lot boss allows a show to play a bad lot well, and an impossible lot adequately Culpepper tends to play the bad lots badly, lacking a real lot boss to second guess the layout, or the equipment to really pull the show out of the mud. Likewise a circus owner who had never pounded stakes and put up a tent may fail to fully understand that a day comes when all the patches in the world have only made the tent twice as heavy and it won’t keep out the rain.

The issue of the condition of the bigtop on CM can’t be ignored. Eight years ago when Trey Key bought the circus it seemed that the then six year old tent would need to be replaced within a season. Instead through the years there have been new cables and new patches, new jiggers new holes and countless repairs. Fans comment on the condition of the bigtop. Performers endure working in the rain. The canvas crew can spend an hour a day sewing ripped vinyl and applying contact cement. Customers complain. Now and then the bigtop is an issue with sponsors who claim that patrons are reluctant to buy tickets for CM after previously sitting in the tent during a rainfall. Trey argues accurately that a new tent is expensive and that there simply isn’t $30,000 available to replace the bigtop. But there may be other issues. Several manufacturers offer 80X120 in the $19,000 - $25,000 range. Still a lot of money. On the other hand CM doesn’t really need a new bigtop so much as the show needs a different bigtop. A similar tent used and in much better condition could probably be found for less than $10,000. What a new tent of a different tent might really symbolize is commitment to continuing the circus beyond the next season. Still, even without that commitment whether emotional or financial. In the meantime the current tent, Red’s old tent strains men and equipment, may impact bookings, and almost certainly disqualifies CM from playing lot/license dates in shopping areas where certain aesthetic rules apply. Trey Key has made himself a good showman, and he would probably remind us that the circus isn’t the tent, it’s the performance. True enough. But why not switch to playing behind sidewalls like Osario, or in front of grandstands like Gatti if the whole season could end with one big blow?

I don’t have much more to say about Culpepper & Merriweather’s Great Combined Circus. I’m an optimist. CM will continue trouping so long as Trey Key wants to keep it out. For many years, we can hope. He’s a smart, talented guy. And if it isn’t the show that was once upon a time – pretty on the lot -- Trey might say, “What show is?”

I miss the mud.


I don't have that much more to say about CM. It remains a wonderful little circus staffed and peopled with great folks. But BJ told me the stories and it's hard not imagine the wonder that surrounded Culpepper once upon a time. A very special circus.


Friday, May 16, 2008 

There comes a point each and every day when any circus tent no matter how tattered is a cathedral vested with our dreams. I miss it already.


Before the jump. By the way, driving that seat wagon has not been my idea of the perfect morning commute.


May 13th St Marys, KS 60 miles. Grass. Warm, rain likely. Good pre-sale. Show is playing just beyond the suburban Topeka communities today and tomorrow (Carbondale, KS 50 miles.) Very good business yesterday in Seneca. Brian Franzen stopped by the show to visit on his way to Plunkett dates with his cats and elephants in Nebraska.

Blog is going on hiatus for a week or ten days. When Shane Johnson was forced off the show I gave my notice. There’s not a single person on Culpepper & Merriweather whom I don’t like. However, on a very small show with 25 people sometimes the dynamic is more like that of a large family with all of the bickering you might expect between parents and grandparents and children. . Maybe for me, as it stands right now, as it’s operated right now, this show is just a little too small. After a third of the season the show is financially strong. I’d rather leave on a high note.

I’m going home to California for a bit. In a few weeks, with any luck, maybe I’ll be back in the mud again elsewhere. I’ll post the details when they’re worked out.

CM Schedule for the remainder of this week.

Carbondale KS 50 miles
Neodesha, KS 103 miles
Marion, KS 125 miles
Rose Hill KS 74
Winfield, KS 30 miles


It's all about the arrows

Monday, May 12, 2008 

We don't need no stinkin' internet

May 12th, Seneca, KS. 25 miles. Gravel lot. Warm, windy. Strong pre-sale.

The business model for a circus like this one is designed to reduce financial risk. Most dates are SPONSORED by a locaal organization that agrees to provide certain services in return for a share of ticket sales. The sponsor signs an agreement and puts up a SIGNING FEE of several hundred dollars. That signing fee helps to pay the booking agent. The fee is refunded if the sponsor sells a certain number of tickets. The TELEMARKETERS enter into a separate agreement with the sponsor to sell children’s tickets to local businesses. The businesses give them away. The show gets 35% of the revenue from those tickets. The sponsors are asked sell ADVANCED SALE TICKETS at a reduced price. For the first 100 ADULT tickets sold the circus receives all monies. For addictional tickets sold the show and the sponsor divide the proceeds, and there is a division of proceeds for all childrens tickets. Combined these elements make up the PRE-SALE. Tickets sold on the day of the show make up the BOX OFFICE or GATE. The sponsor gets a smaller percentage of the gate. Ideally most days the circus makes enough money off ticket sales and concessions revenues to cover expenses. On a good day the show does better than that. On a poor day, worse. So long as the good days outnumber the poor days the show stays firmly in the black. With one-third of the 2008 season completed, the show is in the black. Audiences are good in most towns. Labor remains problematic, but that isn’t going to change. The wild cards for the remainder of the season are the route – will the towns in the west pay off – and the price of fuel. High fuel prices cost the circus more money every days, and impact what the audience has to spend. We’ve learned to live with $4.50 a gallon diesel, can anybody live with $5.00 or $6.00 dollar fuel?


Interenet Status: Down

May 11th, Sabetha, KS. 40 miles. Grass lot. Very windy. First lot was unplayable. Jeff, the 24 hour man re-arrowed to a better lot but left enough of the old arrows up to send several trucks to the original destination. I buried the seat wagon in a gravel pile trying to get unstuck. It’s Mother’s Day and cellular service is so awful I can’t even make a phone call.

Addendum. Good crowd, mediocre per cap. Wind died in the afternoon. Lovely day. Lost one tiger cub to respiratory problems. Hope to find a zoo vet near Topeka.


Internet still down...

May 10th. Horton, KS. 70 miles. Gravel lot. Rain, wind. Poor advance sales.

And so we reach Kansas where the middle west meets the real west. When the show leaves Kansas for Colorado we will have ascended into the High Plains five thousand feet above the river banks of southern Missouri.

The west is the land of high grass circuses comfortable on the sparse lots of the prairie. Culpepper was born for the high grass country, conceived in the imaginations of performers who cut their teeth working Big John Strong’s famed high grass show. CM is most at home in the west.

But the greatest of the western shows wasn’t a high grass circus at all… The west was the land of Sells-Floto, a railroader born in Denver and for twenty years comfortable in the stretch between the Texas tablelands and the sleepy town of Los Angeles in California. Later Sells-Floto would join the great circuses that called Peru, Indiana home, but before that it owned the Plains, sharing Montana rail crossing only grudgingly with easterners. Only George Christy’s Texas based Christy Bros Circus of the 1920’s and Al. G Barnes’s great California wild animal circus were equally comfortable in big sky country.

Horton was probably the worst day we’ve had since Waldo, Arkansas. We’ve entered a state where fuel is nearly $4.65 a gallon. The good days needs to outnumber the bad ones.

Have been thinking all day about imagination and role it plays in how we look at any show. On one day, with sufficient imagination even the most threadbare of circuses can appear to be magic. Without that imagination it’s just a ragbag sitting in the rain. Fiften years ago a British writer named Geoff Ryman revisited the OZ story in a novel called WAS. In Ryman’s tale Dorothy Gale is a bitter, bully of girl living in abject poverty in a cruel Kansas, escpaing into an OZ of her own imagination and despising the world she lives in when she can no longer make that leap as she outgrows childhood. Last night a little boy dragged his grandmother out of the tent saying, “I want to see the rest of the circus.” I wanted to tell him, there is no circus outside of the tent, outside of the ring – everything else is just equipment and flash. The ring inspires our imagination and gives a luster to the rest of it. Walking around Horton today with its empty storefronts I thought of Dorothy Gale and her dreary Kansas, and her imagination and the weariness that’s overcome my own this week. The circus is the circus. People falter and fail.

Culpepper has reentered its native territory.

Friday, May 09, 2008 

Labels: ,


Savannah, MO 70 miles. Mowed field. Sunny, warm. Rained hard through the night and the muddy lot is almost impossible. Left all trucks parked on the street. Good presale.


May 8th, Kearney, MO. 35 miles. Grass lot. Warm. Good presale. Replacement tiger props arrived from Hugo. Excellent business in Platte City yesterday continued in Kearney today.

The CM Circus has completed one-third of its 2008 season. Thus far business has been good despite the economic recession and high fuel prices. Whether this good fortune will continue into the summer remains to be seen. One possible explanation for strong ticket sales is the idea that circus represents affordable entertainment, while theme parks etc – more expensive entertainment – can no longer be justified in the family budget. An elephant ride is bargain compared to some coaster admissions.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008 

May 7th. Platte City, MO. 65 miles. Grass lot. Overcast. Awakened for a 5:30 call this morning to discover that the fuel tanks on my truck were empty. The truck was used for a hay run yesterday. The only station that sold road diesel in Lexington didn’t open until 9AM. Call the show mechanic who left for Hugo, OK yesterday looking for new cat truck ramps and props and told him to notify show office that I would be late. By the time I arrived in Platte City at least some people were convinced that I had blown the show taking the seat wagon with me. It’s like that here right now. I like every single person on Culpepper & Merriweather. I believe that Trey Key does a great job juggling numbers, and James “BJ” Hebert the concessions boss represents the institutional memory of this nearly 25 year old show born in the brilliant imagination of Red Johnson and brought to life by the dedications of so many people who believed they could create a slightly different kind of traditional circus. It’s easy to understand why CM was so beloved in its Arizona years.


May 6th Lexington, MO. 40 miles. Grass lot in park in lovely town. Poor pre-sale. Lackluster gate. Walker Bros. played this same lot ten months ago. Almost 1/3rd of the way through the season tensions are arising – something that can happen on any show, large or small. The test of any season, above and beyond the business end of things is how tensions resolve themselves. Some very good shows have seen seasons ruined by the natural animosity that bubbles over in July and August. Here things have come to a head a bit earlier. Owners successful or otherwise are tested by how tensions are resolved. With all of the pressures associated with moving the show every day things snap. After driving five hundred miles from Texas Shane Johnson was ordered off the lot today. He took his cat props and loading ramps. We loaded the cats out with a forklift last night. Two animal grooms went with him. Shane is a nice guy, and so is CM owner Trey Key. Hard not to believe that this might have been resolved pacifically.


May 5th. Cinco de Mayo. Sweet Springs, MO. 40 miles. Grass lot in park outside of town. Strong advance sale. Shane Johnson rejoined the show after several weeks off playing Shrine date. Stealth Bombers flying low over the lot reminding us that the United States is still fighting two wars overseas.


Internet service went down with a dish problem during our last date in Illinois in Dupo. Jumps over the week that followed were:

April 30 Wellsville, Missouri 98 miles grass lot at the high school.
May 1st Farber, Missouri 21 miles. Mowed corn field
May 2nd Paris, Missouri 36 miles. Grass Lot
May 3rd, Glasglow Missouri, 62 miles. Riverfront Park
May 4th Slater, MO. 13 miles. Grass lot

Business was good in all towns except Paris. Wellsville was probably the strongest day we’ve had all season. Incredible work by the host in selling out all advanced sale tickets. Host in Farber also did an extraordinary job. Three tiger cubs were born in Glasglow – two white males and a tabby female.

Friday, May 02, 2008 

Satellite internet is down. No updates for about a week.