Tuesday October 9th, 2009. Piedmont, OK. 35 miles. Mowed field. Wind, rain.
Leaking heater core on my wife's Beetle. Bad news is that it takes 8 hours to pull the airbags, dask, instruments, steering, etc. Going to try to nurse it to Hugo for the fix.
With a bit more than a week to go in this 25th edition of Culpepper & Merriweather’s Great Combined Circus it’s as good a time as any to recap the season that opened in Antlers, OK in March and saw the show play west to California, up the coast, east across the northern high plains, then linger in the upper Midwest before turning south again.
The season started with a literal bang when the show generator threw a rod just before opening. Times are always lean at opening, and the expense of replacing the generator was significant. Initially the decision was made to leave the ride ponies at home and to haul a rental generator behind the cat truck. The rental was replaced with a used unit with low hours while we were in the TX Panhandle a couple weeks into the season, however that unit proved problematic and we continued to pull it for some time – until Globe, AZ – and ultimately went the season without the pony sweep.
Business in OK and TX was strong for the first few weeks of the season with outstanding dates in places like Lawton, OK. A freak snowstorm buried the show in Canadian, TX in late March and we lost several days. Business remained good in west Texas, but upon entering New Mexico the poor state of the economy took it’s toll. CM had a good date outside Albuquerque, and another outside Phoenix, but generally the southwest was disappointing. In New Mexico we were forced to replace a truck when the Ford that carried electrical equipment and pulled the seat wagon looked like it would need a new diesel engine. In Socorro high winds forced the show indoors at the fairgrounds.
Business did not improve initially when we reached California in mid-April. Dates in Blyth, around Palm Springs, near Victorville, and in Lucerne Valley were slow. After the expense of replaced equipment and three weeks of sparse attendance in late April 2009 did not look promising. Everything changed when we left the desert and reached California’s Central Valley. Thereafter for several weeks CM did the best business in the show’s history, and very good business continued in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. South Dakota disappointed us, and a long stay in Minnesota saw good crowds but lower per caps. Business through most of midwest was average.
The show changed only slightly through the season with the addition of a “Quick Change” to the first half of the show beginning in New Mexico. Through the season we lost only one working man, who blew the show in Deming, NM when we were near the Mexican border. We suffered the usual mechanical problems, but show mechanic Scott Moss kept us rolling.
CM’s historic cable bigtop survived its 15th season in 2009. After over 6500 performances seen by two and a half million people it still goes up and down every day.
Trey Key’s big cat act, in its second season continues to be a crowd pleaser. While Trey’s act may be simplistic compared to Casey Cainan’s hind leg walkers on Kelly Miller, or a Hawthorne act, few shows put the audience so close to the big cats. Almost certainly circus clown Jessi Wonderful was the most popular performer in the 25th edition of the CM show. She’s a very talented entertainer.
In retrospect a few things about 2009 might have been handled differently to the show’s benefit. While snake pictures inside the bigtop during intermission were popular, the lack of a pony ride or any other animal ride on the midway probably cost the show money both directly and indirectly. Animals on the midway get people out of the tent during intermission and increase concessions sales. In many towns intermission concessions sales were disappointing as only smokers exited the seats.
Likewise in concessions placing butchers on the midway before “Doors” almost certainly hurt window sales – great for the butchers, who earned more – but not so good for the circus.
If any one issue has vexed CM this season it would have to be the ongoing dispute over the show’s USDA status. CM Circus does not and never has abused or neglected animals, nor been accused of animal abuse. However in the summer of 2008 two elephants leased by CM Circus took a walk in Kansas, initiating an APHIS investigation that resulted in a formal USDA Complaint against both the circus and the owner of the animals. Additional non-compliance issue were raised over the course of the investigation. CM has every expectation that this complaint will be resolved, however protecting the good name of the show is an expensive process involving Major League attorneys. Ultimately the cost of defending the show against spurious charges certainly impacts what can and can’t be done in winterquarters and equipment purchases for next year. CM successfully received a California exhibitors permit this year – much harder to qualify for than many Federal permits – and we have a spotless inspection record this season. We will be vindicated.
2010 will be the 26th annual addition of the CM Circus…in its 25th year. That’s a pretty impressive record for a show started by three guys in a Florida campground. Red Johnson, who owned the show for so long, Jim Hebert, and Curtis Cainan can be justifiably proud of what they wrought.
Let’s hope that if somebody ever turns Culpepper into a boardgame is just as much fun to play as it is to troupe with.