Friday, August 29, 2008 

August 29th, 2008. Momence, IL. 30 miles. Ballfield. Tight lot behind a school. Overcast, humid.

Beautiful little river town. Today is the start of the Labor Day Weekend. Alway hard tgo predict business on holiday weekends. Travel tends to hamper business, but fuel prices may keep some people home. Jumping back into IN for a couple days starting tomorrow.


August 28th, 2008. Watseka, IL. 20 miles. Field. Showers. Good crowds and business.

We’re back in the land of Lincoln. I first visited KM in IL while I was still on Culpepper & Merriweather in the spring. High prices for corn haven’t helped the local economies here yet. I always think of circus pioneer Yankee Robinson in Illinois. First show with a forty horse parade hitch. Business partner and mentor to the Ringling Bros...

Animal trainer Doug Terranova visited the show today. So did circus owner manager Jim Judkins.


August 27th, 2008. Goodland, IN. 20 miles. Grass. Hot. Disappointing business.

Yesterday’s town was booked only a few weeks in advance, which didn’t translate well into circus business. However, Rensselaer did look like a fine town to play with a good host. Thus far strong commodities prices for corn and lower exempt fuel costs in Indiana don’t appear to be resulting in stronger local economies, or at least we aren’t seeing that strength if it exists. Without looking at Indiana economic data county by county it’s hard to know if there’s greater strength further south. We played well in a few southern IN towns in the early spring on the Culpepper show.

It did occur to me yesterday that while performers say it’s no fun working before a small audience, it’s certainly a special event for circus-goers themselves. Every seat is a great seat and every kid can see the gleam in a tiger’s eyes. It’s almost like a command performance. No show can afford too many days like that, with small houses – but I suspect the people who do come out for the show will remain circus lovers all that much longer for the experience and they would gladly drive to another town to see the show again another year. Is it worthwhile to put on a circus just to make six dozen kids happy? Not really, but it isn’t all bad if the rare “down day” for business becomes a “special” day for those kids. Write it off to extending the “brand.”


August 26th, 2008. Rensselaer, IN. 55 miles. Grass/asphalt. Cool, sunny.

One seat wagon involved in minor fender bender on the jump this morning leaving yesterday’s town. Today’s show is a lot/license on a rural fairgrounds. Expectations are seemingly low as we are setting only three sections of seats. Memorial service held here in Indiana today for Ruby Haag, one of the grand ladies of the circus. Died at the age of 96 last week.

Meant to mention that Father Notter a well known Toledo area circus fan traveled with us for three weeks working the front door and saying Mass several times in the cookhouse. It was pleasure to have him with us through parts of Ohio and all of Michigan.


August 25th, 2008. Crown Point, IN. 50 miles. Grass. Cooler.

Large crowd for morning setup, but both shows were lightly attended. First day of school in much of Indiana.

Sunday, August 24, 2008 

August 24th, 2008. Knox, IN. 75 miles. Central Time Zone. Grass. Warm

Strong business yesterday in Middlebury, most Amish crowd. As in the Ohio Amish communitities the box office is strong, but circus-goers haven’t been clued in to the secret of the circus business for the last hundred years, that we put on a show to sell popcorn and elephant rides. Sell enough corn and floss and the show could be free. Seriously though, it speaks to the strength of the 2008 edition of KM and to the hard work of John Ringling North II, Jim Royal, and John Moss that the excellence of this circus itself goes far beyond something cobbled together to hawk peanuts.

We are back in the Central Time Zone and will be for the rest of the season. A few flocks of Canadian Geese could be seen flying south tody and small town billboards advertise upcoming fall harvest festivals in September. On the Culpepper show where I started this year when it was still winter in the north in five and a half weeks the showwill end its year back home..

It’s said in the heyday of Peru, IN the circus trains would stop a few miles outside of town and fire up the Calliope and steam in the train sheds playing Home In Indiana at the end of the year. This section of our route includes old Franzen towns, and Hoxie towns and Fisher Bros towns. Indiana is rich in old shows that came here every year.

Small crowds in Knox. There’s a carnival here in town too.

Saturday, August 23, 2008 

August 23rd, 2008. Middlebury, IN. 31 miles. Grass. Hot.

Michigan is behind us and we're in and out of IN over the next ten days on the way to our long Chicago area run.


August 22nd, 2008. Edwardsburg, MI. 40 miles. Field. Hot, overcast, rain.

Even the rains can barely keep the dust down in this mowed hayfield. This is an old Frazen Bros town just north of Elkhart, IN. As we finish out Michigan in the next few days you can feel the pull of Indiana, for many years the greatest circus state of them all.. We’re a couple hours north of Peru, once the heart of the Golden Age of the traditional circus and the home to the greatest, the best shows of them all. Hagenbeck Wallace, then Sells Floto too, and finally up the road in Rochester the 1930’s Cole show. Peru, home of Ben Wallace, as much a Godfather of the great American circus as W.W. Cole, or Mr. Coup, as Mr. Bailey, or the brothers Ringling.


August 21st, 2008. Paw Paw, MI. 61 miles. Dry grass lot five miles outside of town. Hot, overcast, muggy. Lot/license. Strong second show..

Remembering Bobby Fairchild.

There is no solace for such as we –
searching for distant cities that we may never see
There is only sun, and the wind
And the watch fire at night.
Then when the morning comes –
The road again.

John Masefield


August 20th, 2008. Caledonia, MI. 57 miles. Field. Sunny, warm.

Excellent day yesterday in Grand Haven. Best in a week. Again speaks to the strength of this show in suburban locations where population, demographics (families with children,) and a stronger localized economy works in our favor. Caledonia is a suburb of Grand Rapids and with luck will play out much the same, though the lot is less visible.

ADDENDUM: Sparse crowds in Caledonia, whether the lot, the sponsor, the local economy, or a conflicting event, who can say?

I wonder sometimes why so many traditional tent shows seem to actively avoid lengthy stays in major markets? Historically I imagine regulation played a part in that. Urban and suburban communities have more regulation, require more permits, have stricter inspection, etc. But these days almost every show is well versed in jumping through regulatory hoops anyway. Culturally for the shows based in the west once upon a town the allure of small towns may have spoken to shared values, but again, small towns have grayed and changed. Marketing costs are probably the single biggest issue when it comes to playing more urban areas. While KM played very successfully in suburban Boston with traditional hosts, etc. – had the show played shopping centers for several days at a time, promoting that kind of date even with a nominal sponsor involves media buys, direct mailings, maybe ticket lay downs, significant expense. One interesting thing about the run up in fuel costs in recent years is that it takes some of the pain out of marketing buys. There’s a certain appeal to two and three days stands with jumping, or even a week – and when the money that would otherwise go into fuel can offset media buys it might be said that while playing small communities has become dramatically more expensive, the expense for playing more urban areas for several days at a time has remained rather more static. Urban marketing in that sense has become less of a risk. To be accurate, some traditional tented shows like Cole have played highly urban centers all along, as did the Vargas show, especially in the days of Clifford Vargas. But the western shows, though comfortable now and then in a mall parking lot have less practice in the cities. The successful of Hispanic shows playing long stands in major cities should be a heads up to every traditional show. If circus goes where the crowds are, the crowds are in bigger towns building over longer stays


August 19th, 2008. Grand Haven, MI. 75 miles. Grass. Cool.

Two and a half hours alongside the highway with a broken down truck. Long breakdowns two of the last three days. That point in the season where the wear and tear shows.


August 18th, 2o008. Scottsville, MI. 35 miles.. Mowed field. Warm.

Shortest jump this week according to the route card.

Still not seeing half houses in rural MI.

There’s a theory pretty common in circus routing and booking that suggests, given one hundred towns, if a show does very well in twenty, and poorly in only a dozen, the remainder of the towns can be relatively neutral, either paying for expenses, or at least not losing much – and the show will still end up in the black. Most towns under that formula and waypoints, places to park the tent. It’s a very practical theory, and not unique to circus. The downside is that it’s theory that sometimes goes wrong if the good dates aren’t all that good, if there are more bad dates than anticipated, and especially if any significant number of those neutral towns slide into decidedly negative territory. It reminds me of the way that the Miami Dolphins played football in the 1990’s, clinging to a slight lead rather than risking much to extend that lead. Dan Marino never won a Superbowl. Kelly Miller certainly benefits from the strength of its appearances in many suburban markets. However in the small towns in rural areas where presumably it once prospered there appears to be a real weakness. Local economies play a role. Both Michigan and western Upstate New York are mired in deep recession. But the character of small towns themselves has changed. A community of 1500 people a decade ago had more families with children than the same community has today. Younger wage earners move away to strong job markets and raise children there. While the ideal “town” for a show this size might have been twenty-five hundred people in the 1990’s it’s almost certainly twice that size now. Understanding the demographic shift in the “graying” of small town America has to be a piece of the routing puzzle for every traditional circus in the years to come. If the target audience requires a larger population pool, and if the “nut” the cost of doing business is increasing, shows can’t afford long runs through small towns. That doesn’t mean abandoning small towns – some continue to perform exceptionally benefiting from great local hosts. But it does mean that no show can assume a town is playable based on a visit five years ago, or even three years ago without a clear picture of trends in that town. And that should be part of the job of a strong booking agent. The information is available. Every traditional show needs to stretch a bit when it comes to passing on too many easy bookings in towns that no longer fit the profile.

ADDENDUM: Business was slightly better in Scottville. Well known circus/carnivalist Jim Elliot came by in the evening.


August 17th, 2008. Reed City, MI. Warm and overcast.

Business continues to be off in rural small town MI. A year ago the economic data for MI pointed to a rough time of it outside the metro- Detroit suburbs. The collapse in housing values in MI rivals declines in parts of California and Florida. That creates a credit crunch arriving at the same time as a slump in MI manufacturing.> Not exactly sure why so few shows actually look at localized economic and demographic data in booking. Certainly in the “Golden Age” of the circus business management and general agents were keenly aware of th health of local economies.

Saturday, August 16, 2008 

In the news... Latest "Bigfoot" carcass proves to be something rather normal and mundane after DNA testing...

But that doesn't mean we don't all love a bit of great fakery.

Circus was once the place of sideshows after all. (Though the best today plays fairs and rodeos.)

But lately I've been thinking about the real mastery of such fakery, gaff maker Homer Tate. Lacking the modern materials of current artists, or the taxidermy skills of those now craeting Nature's mistakes, Mr. Tate produced gaffs that made money on circuses and carnivals for forty years. What would Mr. Tate have thought of the latest "Bigfoot?" Nothing special. With a little toilet paper and some sawdust and paint you can create anything.



August, 16th, 2008. Edmore, MI. 38 miles. Mowed field. Warm, clear skies.

Quiet yesterday. To date rural small town MI isn't giving us business the way the Detroit suburbs did.


August 15th, 2008. Merrill, MI. 95 miles. Tight lot. Mowed field. Scattered showers. Cool.

Yesterday in Port Austin we had a celeb visitor, musician Jack White of White Stripes fame. Overall since leaving the general Detroit area business has been slow. Today we jumped nearly 100 miles into mid-Michigan. Myrna Silverlake the show cook mentioned this morning that she had spotted a maple tree with it’s leaving changing color. “I guess it’s fall,” she said.

Thursday, August 14, 2008 

August 14th, 2008. Port Austin, MI. 38 miles. Mowed field. Partly cloudy. Cool.

We are on the shores of Lake Huron now – in many ways the least accessible of the Great Lakes, from the American side. Standing on a rock jetty at the end of Main Street I try to imagine what it must have been like for the first French explorers, fur traders, and Jesuits who discovered these inland fresh water seas and their connection rivers. It must have been a magnificent, primitive, harsh world. It’s hard for me not to think about literature in northern Michigan. Detroit as all Motown sounds, or Iggy Pop or Bob Seger or MC5 and rock and roll., but northern Michigan and the even more remote Upper Peninsula is the land of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories.. This is the place where Jim Harrison tells his stories. If Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion was the great sprawling failed American novel examining modern man in the shadow of the forest, Harrison’s Legends of Fall takes a stab at a similar story – the torment of family – and comes closer to the mark. The novelist Lucius Shepard paid his dues in Michigan too.

Once a long time ago in the late 1970’s I hitch-hiked back and forth across America a dozen times. For years I could remember every ride. I thought, in those days, that I knew my country and loved my country from Leadville, to the top of Tijeras Canyon, to New Orleans, or Key West, or midtown Manhattan. I could sing the song of my country as Whitman sand his song. Then I lived in Florida, and New York, and I lived in Honduras, and I moved to California. I forgot the words to the song and in the mudshow seasons I tried to rediscover them, but even now I find myself mostly confused as what American’s lyric is currently about. It’s an election year, but there seems to be no great passion for it. It’s as though many of the people whether in Missouri or Michigan no longer believe that politics in any flavor can improve on things. They remain unpersuaded.

What does any of that have to do with circus? Increasing in reading local news stories about Kelly Miller on the internet in the “comments” section there are nice things said about the show with off-the-cuff remarks stating, “Oh, but the elephants are probably abused.” Nobody references seeing the elephants abused in any way. And in fact the elephants most certainly are not abused. But just as the messages that politicians are not to be trusted has seeped into our core, so it seems that the notion that elephants are circus “victims” has also become a widely held belief even amongst people who come to and enjoy the circus. Changing that widely held perception is a tall order and almost certainly must be a priority over the next several years on any show that carries “bulls.” Somehow we aren’t selling the message. We talk about animals as “members of our family” and people clearly aren’t buying it. Maybe we need a new slogan.


August 13th, Cass City, MI. 70 miles. Grass. Overcast. Cool.

Light business.

Casey Cainan added the leap frog to his tiger act today. With three hind leg cats in a four cat act it appears that the old notion that it takes “special” cat for this kind of trick may be less true than many people think. It takes a “special” cat when you have a lot of cats to choose from. When you have only a few cats it looks like they can all be taught to be hind leg cats with enough practice.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 

August 12th, 2008. Flushing, MI. 62 miles. Grass. Perfect circus day.

Delighted to be wrong about business in MI thus far. The down economy hasn’t hampered excellent business. Whether it’s strong hosts or the circus as an affordable entertainment, something is working in our favor. Hope that I continue to be wrong throughout our stay.


August 11th, 2008. Romeo, MI. 37 miles. Grass/gravel. Overcast. Warmer.

Jump through Detroit felt like it was a lot longer than forty miles. We are headed north now away from the city. Ten days ago, before Kelleys Island I got an odd insect bite on my left leg. Now it’s a lrage growing scab with an ulcerated edge. May have to find a doctor.


August 10th, 2008. Wixom, MI. 18 miles. Grass. Cool.

It was almost cold at 5:15 this morning loading ponies on the truck. Should be a lovely day.
Long time circus buff Hartland Smith visited today. I’ve admired his website.


August 9th, 2008. Plymouth, MI. 12 miles. Grass. Cool. Scattered showers.

Excellent business both yesterday in Redford and today in Plymouth. Awakened this morning to a slight chill in the summer dawn. It’s only August, but this is Michigan, and Canada is a scant few miles away. In a few weeks the first geese will fly through Michigan to the north, migrating south. The chill portends something that will be finite in a few more weeks, late summer then early autumn. A circus season I think is a bit like the old legends of the Fisher King a great seasonal monarch, a being of magic born in the late winter and wounded and laid to rest when the frost returns. We chased the summer through rains and floods and late snows back in March. We found it in May. Come September it will leave us and even in August we can feel that. A month from now we will know what this season was about and in the weeks that follow that until closing a circus is about winter and what follows.

Friday, August 08, 2008 

August 8th, 2008. Redford, MI. 25 miles. Grass. Nice weather.

We’re a bit slow in the morning after a night jump. We continue our tour of the Detroit suburbs.


August 7th, 2008 Ypsilanti, MI 80 miles. Grass. Thunderstorms.

Two trucks with tire trouble on the jump, and another pulld over and issued a fix-it ticket. Last minute lot change. Because of the lot change we jumped again immediately after the show to Redford. That’s three night jumps in a week. Moderate business.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008 

August 6th, 2008 41 miles. Gibsonburg, OH. Sunny, warm. Grass Lot.

The last trucks decamped Kelleys Island on a ferry at 11:45 last night, making the mainland after twelve. And rolling into today’s town around two in the morning. Ariel Terranova Webb the grad student in geography from a British university who has traveled with the show since opening in Hugo left us to return home and spend the next year making sense of it all. In February when winter is hard on London will she sit in flat writing, remembering that in the valley in Texas it’s almost springtime, and in a few weeks the circuses will stir taking their first tentative steps north towards their rendezvous with summer? Will she wish, fleetingly, that she was along for the ride? Good luck Ariel.

In trying to understand the affinity between the circus and Kelleys Islanders it occurs to me that it’s an annual meeting of insular cultures both of whom survive on the largess of the mainstream while fiercely standing apart. On the island, for a couple of days both cultures let their guard down.

Gibsonburg is our lat date in OH. Tomorrow it’s into Michigan. Writing last autumn about circus routes MI scared the heck out of me. Localized economic conditions and fuel prices would define ’08, I thought. Every database, every market prognosticator for Michigan looked awful. It’s a state in deep economic recession. Historically MI been good to circuses, but for the last ten years business for shows has been spotty. It will be interesting to see how we fare over the next few weeks. And it may say a lot about the viability of the upper midwest for several seasons to come. As fares Michigan, so fares Wisconsin etc.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008 

Water 4 Elephants

Second day on Kelleys Island. Shows yesterday were well attended and the rain missed us. Tonight after two more shows we will pack up and reboard the ferries for the mainland. Going to be a long night.

Monday, August 04, 2008 

Kelleys Island, OH. 40 miles. Grass. Possibility of rain. The thing about an island is, you have to cross the water to get there. John Ringling North II's Kelly Miller Circus loaded on to ferries last night for the annual trip over the waters of Lake Erie to Kelleys Island, Ohio. Kelley's Island is a "destination" one of those place the show builds a route around visiting. Even after six or seven years the entire community turns out for the two day stand. It's a place where the circus is still something special. And there's a lesson in that for hosts everywhere -- because handled correctly the circus can indeed be something special anywhere.

Sunday, August 03, 2008 

August 3rd, Norwalk, OH. Jumped yesterday to the fairgrounds in Norwalk. About 60 miles. Beautiful day.

The great business in Sagamore Hills waned here in Norwalk where we are playing a two day lot/license. A 15% grade along the route of the jump delayed our arrival yesterday. With any lot/license date the marketing plan is generally a combination of direct mail, using demographic data to target households with children, and free ticket lay downs. As Norwalk was booked late, I suspect there was no time for a mailout. Likely it would take 100,000 tickets spread over many locations to work the town successfully entirely with laydown, since the return is in the 1-2% range. Don't know if the bill crew had time for that. With any free kid tix offer a lot of debate goes into the ticket itself and the art work. Is FREE big enough? If we don't have an elephant on the ticket will they think we don't have one? What about the tigers? What about the girl on the trapeze? Whetehre the artwork and graphic really matter is a subject for debate. The notion is that the more the ticket offers -- like old circus heralds -- the better it may work. Who knows....

Friday, August 01, 2008 

August 1st, 2008. Sagamore Hills, OH. 27 miles. Grass. Possibility of showers.

Excellent business yesterday. Attendance has been very good in all OH communities, though the crowds in Middlefield were largely Amish – attending the shows but spending less per cap on concessions, and little on novelties and rides. I wonder if shows with some flexibility in ticket prices at the Box Office don’t have an edge in communities like Middlefield? If advance ticket prices remain the same, would an extra buck at the box office have depressed attendance in Middlefield? I suspect not – but that extra dollar could have helped to offset the low per cap. On the other hand no legitimate show wants to be seen as playing fast and loose with tix prices the way that less legitimate shows sometimes do with free kid tix dates. Probably no single simple answer.