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.