Monday, July 26, 2010 

WROTE A LITTLE Last week about the necessity of using media to create buzz around an act of performer because it benefits the bottom line for a show. Wanted to look at bit more at the theoretical role of a Press Agent in 2010.


Any media, publicity, press agent strategy employed by any Circus must focus on both long term and short terms efforts; at local, regional, and national markets; leveraging a variety of media outlets both old and new including print, glossy print (magazines,) broadcast (television and radio,) and internet. To date Internet “new media” has failed to fill a circus tent or arena, but Internet resources can’t be overlooked. Fortunately in 2010 virtually everything a press agent or spokesperson or publicist needs to create copy, handle mailings, phone and fax can fit into a suitcase, so a press department consumes little in the way of space resources.

It’s a simple fact that “The Circus Comes To Town,” ceased to be much a news story fifty years ago. The traditional circus press agent, whether working ahead of the show glad-handing reporters, giving out passes, and planting stories – or working on the show itself to insure that “the press” paints the circus in colors that morph into box office green ended in the 1950’s with the advent of broadcast television as the primary source for “news.” Successful media operations in recent decades seek to create and place stories with specific angles tailored to niche audiences. Does the circus have a local connection? If the circus lacks a local connection, how can one be framed? What circus acts appeal to specific target groups? Can the circus sell “gymnastics,” in a town with a circus arts school or a college gymnastics program? Can the circus sell “horses” in a community with a large equestrian center? What’s the story the circus is pitching to animal lovers? Is there a positive political story in the circus, where foreign workers are employed legally through a temporary visa system embraced by both the left and right? What “human interest” stories can the circus pitch? What stories allow the circus to sell tickets to people of faith? What are the demographics of a particular community or region and what stories are of interest to those demographics?

Or, “Let me tell you a stray dog story…”

The point is, there are a hundred stories that every circus has to tell – but circus can’t count on journalists to find those stories without help. And the more stories they find or are spoon fed in the days and weeks before the circus comes to town, the more successful the publicity effort. Any circus that can’t serve up at least two dozen such stories as easily rewritten press releases in a media kit hasn’t given much thought to the job of a press agent. Any publicist who isn’t writing new material or revising and updating old material daily is failing. As old time editors told us when we were journalism students, “Don’t bury the lead.” First comes the media kit, then faxes, and finally working the phones. In large markets with multiple day stands, or a series of stands in a geographically self-contained area – creating “media events” should a routine aspect of the job of the press agent.

How do circus stories break down?


The circus is 200 years of American history. (Or British history, or French history, or Australian history for that matter.)

The circus can always mine a rich vein of history, peddling nostalgia. The circus was America’s first hugely popular mass entertainment. Our original pop culture icons are associated with the circus – whether Barnum, or Dan Rice, or Isaac Amberg. Our very lexicon is filled with circus terms. The circus has given us films as enduring as Dumbo, and The Greatest Show on Earth. Seventy-five years after the end of the Golden Age of circus when stars like Clyde Beatty who were household names, the bestsellers list still offers up novels like Water For Elephants recreating that age.

Let’s look at Kelly Miller. From Day One doubtlessly John Ringling North II has recognized that the Ringling North history and its association with the story of traditional circus in America plays a role in marketing/publicity efforts of the Kelly Miller Circus. “History” is the key to using Ringling North without muddying the waters of Feld Entertainment’s “Ringling” brand. Cherry picking that history can allow for the creation of media materials telling a story that begins in McGregor, Iowa, includes Yankee Robinson – briefly the greatest circus man of the post Civil War period -- utilizes photographs of a family of rather well known “brothers” and fleshes out the story of Ida North, their somewhat less well known sister and her amazingly successful sons John and Henry. KM can use that timeline and storyline because it’s John Ringling North’s story and he’s allowed to tell it – in interviews and elsewhere. Is there a risk that Feld Entertainment will object? So long as Kelly Miller is mindful of parsing history carefully, most objections would be little more than bluster even from a litigious organization.

And controversy and litigation aren’t always a bad thing anyway. Again, let’s look at Mr. North. There’s a bit of precedent when it comes to the use of a personal name in branding or brand infringement. In the 1960’s the Taylor Wine Company of Hammondsport, NY was a strong regional and national brand, producers of a variety of popular vintages blended from New York State grapes and California “tank” wines. Taylor competed well against E&J Gallo and other national brands in many markets. Coca-Cola acquired Taylor from the founding family in the late 1960’s, planted extensive vineyards on the west coast and added Taylor California Cellars to its existing product line. Meanwhile back in Hammondsport, former Taylor VP Walter S. Taylor, an outspoken critic of his family’s winemaking methods, opened the Bully Hill Winery, the first truly successful east coast “estate winery.” There was no mention of “Taylor” on Bully Hill labels, except for Walter’s signature. Coca-Cola filed a trademark infringement suit against Walter Taylor and a judge in Rochester, NY found for Coke. Thus began a brilliant media and marketing campaign waged by Walter Taylor, who claimed in countless press releases that Coke had stolen his name and tried to steal his history. His name couldn’t be stripped from news stories or Bully Hill trucks and properties, and the name continued to appear on Bully Hill bottles, with “Taylor” intentionally blacked out. Soon every bottle of Bully Hill featured the phrase “They got my name, but not my goat.” Bully Hill thrived, producing pretty good wines. The first NASA space shuttle flight carried a bottle of Bully Hill. Eventually the courts found for Walter S. Taylor, and by then Coca-Cola was tired of playing the “heavy” in a story with “legs.” Coke’s wine business failed, and today Taylor is a minor brand of boxed wines. Walter died in a car accident, but Bully Hill continues, and their labels with his original artwork and signature sell a lot of wine.

The point is that Walter Taylor never sought to compete directly with Coke’s “Taylor” brand, but he rightly viewed his own lineage and history as an asset that couldn’t be wholly acquired by Coke. For JRN II and the Kelly Miller Circus, treading softly around the historical “Ringlings” or “Norths” is different than never uttering the name.


Any publicity/ press agent effort selling circus season after season as a fresh edition of a stand-alone product has to focus on allure of specific acts, the appeal of circus to families, and the “wow” factor. Not every season comes with “wow” automatically attached. But looking for “wow,” building “wow,” and nurturing “wow” -- with the ballyhoo has always been among the single most important aspects of the role of the press agent – is how circus reminds each new audience that what happens under the bigtop is always contemporary. Seventy years ago the Greatest Show on Earth ™ transformed tented circus with color and stagecraft and the best acts in the world. Circus was and is the most accessible of the performing arts… a notion not lost on shows like Big Apple. Circus is subversive in that respect. The same family that would not buy tickets for the theater, for opera, for ballet will joyfully attend a circus performance that includes theatric structures from of each. The classics are new again with each performance. Aristotle writing 2500 years ago On Poetics defined the elements of drama…plot, theme, character, language, music, and spectacle… the stuff of circus. Any circus “critic” who fails to see a peanut pitch, as pure theater never studied Plato. What’s the story we tell years after year? The circus is old, but beneath the bigtop it’s fresh, and it’s all new again for each generation of children, young or merely young at heart. In telling that story, in selling that notion, staying on “message” is everything. Coining and repeating phrases, whether “America’s Favorite Small Town Show,” or “Family Fun For Less Than The Price Of A Movie,” or “The American Circus Is Back!” is the stuff of buzz. Say it enough times and it becomes fact. Buzz can sell tickets, but isn’t often a “story,” just a piece of a story. Any given season it’s the job of a press agent to find and develop and pitch stories. Unfortunately in recent decades mudshow circuses have rarely employed the kinds of writers who can create exciting advance materials, the production values in the packaging of press materials to make a show look good, or a true understanding of how media outlets constitute a market separate from the broader circus-going audience.


In 2010 and beyond press agents must always narrowcast the circus message to target specific media. How does the circus place a series of stories with daily newspapers in an era when daily papers are barely afloat? How does the circus leverage a weekly paper in a mid-sized city if a weekly requires significant lead-in time? (While news stories appearing a day or a week AFTER a show leaves town may be fine for the scrapbook, they don’t fill seats.) How can a regional magazine be used to promote circus? What if any value is to be had in radio? Can the circus exploit local broadcast television? What national media can be utilized in branding? Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast television are all cash poor, does that make them ripe for stories that require less work and fewer human resources?

Daily papers grow thinner every week. In some cities last year’s newsroom with two-dozen reporters is this year’s newsroom with fewer than twelve. On the bright side, for circus, that makes dailies a natural target for stories containing local color or a local connection that can be easily rewritten from press materials. Any town with a daily paper should be receiving several press kits addressed to local editor and to local columnists. In addition to news releases (pre-packaged stories,) photos, and contact information, every kit should include a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM with an electronic copy of itself. Additionally there should be a ubiquitous daily fax to daily papers beginning ten days before the show arrives. That said, everybody uses the fax, and fax alone is simply enough.

(Worth mentioning… Finding a local angle for circus stories is pretty easy if a press agent mines the past. A show playing in or near Canton, Pennsylvania might play on Canton’s connection to the almost forgotten Charles Lee Circus that once was headquartered there. Another town might have been the scene of a circus train derailment, or an elephant stampede. Circus employees have roots in towns or regions, and historic circus figures, again, many nearly forgotten, hailed from across small-town America. Larger communities are all rich both in history and contemporary connections to circus. Give a paper a story with a local angle and they will virtually always run that story.)

Weekly papers. In very small towns the weekly paper is the paper. Weeklies in small towns are still pretty good about running a general interest circus story-- or several -- in the weeks before the show. The best way to get a front page picture in a small town weekly ahead of the show is still by employing an Advance Clown traveling 10-14 days ahead of the show and visiting libraries, schools, and day camps in the company of the local sponsor. If the weekly paper knows about the visit, they will cover it. A clown surrounded by kids gets the front page. Absent an advance clown giving a small weekly a selection of good photographs along with a strong localized press release, and a chance to “interview” a press agent or spokesperson over the phone is beneficial. In small towns sponsors should be encouraged to provide the names of the most widely read local papers – especially the village weekly.

Weekly papers in mid-sized markets.

In many mid-sized and larger markets weekly papers are the bastions of in-depth reportage for a generation of journalists weaned on the Village Voice. Generally circuses have not used these papers well. Weeklies of this type require significant lead-in time, and frankly some shows are fearful of “investigative” journalism. In ignoring such weeklies circus may be missing out on significant promotional opportunity. Inviting a writer to visit and travel with the circus for a couple days a month or more before the shows play in a particular market could mean a feature story and a cover. By keeping a reporter on the show for several days it’s easier to “manage” the story they ultimately write and to present positives far outweighing any negatives arising over animal rights. Of course it requires an empty bunk – since any invitation includes housing and feeding a writer. Lead-time is everything. In early June the circus would be pitching a story to weeklies in areas the show will play in mid-July or later, and by July pitching to papers in places the show will play in late August or September. One positive feature and a sidebar story in a good weekly are akin to thousands of dollars in ad buys.

Regional Magazines. Regional glossy publications offer a circus a chance to pitch to a friendly audience in an area where the show plays years after year. Print magazines require very long lead-in times, but regional magazines are also read and reread. For example, a writer in 2010 from Adirondack Life Magazine might visit the circus in late June for a story that finally appears in February. But the following June, magazine readers will still recall the story, or may continue to find it while sitting in the Dentist’s office. By constantly pitching to regional magazines over several seasons a press agent should be able to place stories across the length and breadth of a show’s nominal “route” with enough frequency to build significant “brand” recognition.

National Magazines. A quality mid-sized circus should be able to place 1-3 stories a year with national magazines. Again, lead-in times are significant. A 2010 story may not see print or pay-off until 2011, but the impact is very real. Too often obvious magazines are overlooked. A tiger trainer may not grace the pages of NEWSWEEK, but a good story about that trainer with both his/her tigers and house cats in Cat Fancy sells circus tickets. Likewise a circus owner or manager might be a natural fit for AARP Magazine, which likes to run features on interesting, energetic subjects over the age of 55. And circus lends itself well to national magazines with niche business readers. Over several seasons articles in lesser national magazines leads to articles in other better known national publications. Coverage builds on prior coverage publicity feeds on publicity. NEWSWEEK Magazine eventually gets around to the tiger trainer, but only after other publications build the buzz.


Most Americans still get their news from television. But television is a fickle mistress for traditional circus. A segment on the evening news the day of a show is too little too late to fill seats. Controversial stories on animal rights issues sometimes run on local television before a circus comes to town, but clearly they aren’t the stories a circus wants to tell. Two opportunities generally exist for circus to utilize local broadcast television, morning shows and media events. Morning shows, where they exist frequently require the circus to deliver performers to a station’s studio early in the morning on the day of the show. This sometimes means leaving yesterday’s town before the rest of the circus is ready to jump. A charismatic performer with a command of English and a skill that can be demonstrated in 30 seconds works best for the local morning show cut-away format. (Or Spanish language skills for a Spanish language station.) Occasionally the small market morning show will elect to do a live feed from the circus itself. Logistically such remotes can be managed when the circus is making very early, very short jumps, or is settled in for a two-day stand. In larger markets where the circus may be playing several dates in nearby suburban communities morning shows with longer local programming segments offers the circus a chance to pitch a wider variety of acts and interviews, a chance to watch the tent go up, etc. Large markets are also well suited to “media events” staged for several broadcasters. Media events are frequently built around animal acts. Lunch with the elephants, or an elephant watermelon feed, etc. (Doesn’t have to be elephants, any charismatic animal will work.) In an area like Boston or Chicago where a circus may spend weeks in various suburbs a media event can be particularly effective. In pitching to broadcast television a specialized press kit with broadcast quality video on DVD is an absolute must.

National broadcast media. Pitching a circus story to the national broadcast media almost always requires retaining the services of an outside agency. Outside agencies are staffed with former bookers and producers with ties to syndicated and in-house network shows. Otherwise, most circuses not playing long engagements in major cities must wait for national broadcasters to come to them. Employing an outside agency can be expensive, but it does increase the public profile of a performer or a show. To date, to the best of my knowledge legitimate traditional circuses have spurned offers from “reality television” production companies.

Worth noting again. Controversy isn’t always bad. Animal rights advocates sometimes boast that they are shameless media whores. They know that enough a flawed, dishonest message gets attention. No show should ever shy away from debating activists on radio or on television. So long as the debater on the circus side is well spoken and not given to merely stating that they never saw anything amiss when sitting in the backyard with Gunther, a debate will benefit show receipts. It’s message, it’s branding, it’s profiting off anti-activist backlash.

Radio. Interviews on local drive time radio programs remain a popular way to promote circus. More often than not, stations or station groups where a show or sponsor has made an ad buy are best for radio promotions and publicity because an interview whether the day of the show or a few days ahead of the show are reinforcing ad spots. Booking on-air radio is usually handled by a home office, or a p/t individual who makes calls and call backs to radio stations several weeks in advance of the circus. Radio interviews can usually be handled over the phone and the show spokesperson (press agent) or ringmaster generally takes or makes the actual call at the time of the interview. Because radio is normally tied to ad buys, its best utilized in small and mid-sized markets where radio is very affordable.

New Media. New Media in the form of a vast array of Internet offerings is both a blessing and a challenge for circus. Circus blogs are popular, but most are read by circus fans or circus insiders and do little to drive box office traffic. Video on You Tube, Facebook pages, fan groups, and Twitter are popular, but few web efforts have successfully raised the public profile or a circus. No new circus “stars” have been created via viral marketing. Most circuses have web pages, but the vast majority of those web pages are poorly designed or amateurish by today’s standards. Too often circuses have seen the web, a web site, and a few online resources as a way to cut costs associated with mounting advance efforts or publicity. A web site is not a press kit. And a post card pointing to online press kits lacks the impact of a well-packaged mailing. That’s not to say that a circus shouldn’t have a good web site – it’s a must – or an electronic press kit – or advance materials for sponsors online, but at present these efforts should augment and not replace other efforts. Thee online world is a great place to sell branded souvenirs…hats, tee shirts, mugs, videos, and a website is not a bad place to sell advance tickets. (A well-designed web site more than pays for itself hawking merchandise.) But it’s only a place to court media attention to the extent that a press agent can point journalists to a web resource. Circus can’t expect media to find those resources strictly on their own, or to get the whole story from an online resource.

Finally, press agent/publicity efforts and campaigns cost money; wages, printing and mailing expenses, phone and fax bills, annual video and audio production costs. Too often in recent decades smaller shows have seen these efforts as intangibles and an easy way to reduce the “nut.” Ironically larger organizations have learned to use “media relations” more and more effectively as lesser shows have forgotten why they once employed press departments. Metrics must exist in any press effort to make the intangible tangible again. How does a media effort contribute to existing revenue streams? In a given market where a show receives little or no publicity and significant publicity another season, were ticket sales up? Other factors must be examined before a verdict on media efforts can be made…who was the sponsor each year? …How was the local economy from one season to the next? …Where was the lot? But when all things are equal an increase in ticket sales can likely be attributed to the press agent and media/branding efforts. Without clearly defined metrics management can never know the value of publicity efforts.


Political Circus, the three rings of mayhem that make up government frequently fuels comments I might make on Facebook, but generally I try to keep my opinions on check on the blog. Sometimes however it’s worth remembering that traditional circus exists within a social and economic context – and when things go wrong in a society circus reflects the impact, for better or for worse. Several stories have led me to think about that impact in recent days.

TIME Magazine just ran a cover on year-round, or modified year round school schedules eliminating the traditional summer vacation. Summer vacation, the author argued is an artifact from the days of family farms. Today, students, especially students from lower income households seem to forget too much over the span of a two plus month hiatus. Vacation isn’t a sacred ritual of childhood, the author asserted. He’s right and he’s so very wrong. Fifty years of leveling the playing field in education here in the US has led to learning by standardized testing, and teaching for the tests. Do children who constantly cram for tests forget some of what they’ve been spoon fed to parrot on an examination? Likely they do. But that’s not an argument for longer school years, it’s an argument against standardized tests as a measure of anything. Last year the schools in the city of Berkeley, CA began debate over closing science labs in the high school? Why? Because low income students tested poorly in science. Closing the labs would lead higher income students to achieve less, while the cost saving could be used for further tutoring of underachievers. So one group would be punished in an effort to further empower another group. That’s not really how learning works. It’s social engineering. And so is a modified year round school calendar. Strictly in terms of circus, most of us know that we can actually sell more tickets during the school year, when families aren’t off on holiday. But vacations are the season for backyard circus where kids entertain themselves, learning to juggle, or pitch tents for camping on the lawn. And if your imagination doesn’t run to juggling, or to tents, half the fun of circus is lost to you.

In 2009 the National Book Award in biography in the US went to a thick recounting of the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. At the time of his death in 1877 Vanderbilt was the richest man in North America. His wealth represented a full 5% of the US economy. I read the Vanderbilt bio, entitled The First Tycoon because in his rise as the owner of steamship and ferries around New York Vanderbilt diod business with Hezeckial Bailey, the early circus owner. In the heady economic boom that followed the election of Andrew Jackson to the White House and the closure of the Bank of the United States, money was plentiful, and the circus operators around Somers, NY invested in steamboats, railroads, and hotels. The only problem was that the boom created by Jackson’s Democrats was a lot like the real estate boom that created the bubble sending so much of the world into present day recession. All that money was smoke and mirrors. It wasn’t real. The myriad of banks that sprang up after the closure of the Bank of the United States were essentially sub-prime borrowers. When cotton prices fell and credit tightened, the banks failed, and so did much of Wall Street. The so called Panic of 1838 reads a lot like financial news of today. Conservative WHIG party leaders of that era argued for regulation that eventually restored the solvency of the young Republic, but only after Jackson was gone. Bubbles are bubbles are bubbles. Economic history repeats itself. As for the men from Somers, they lost a bundle, but even in the downturn the circus business went on. Jacksonian democracy sought to level the playing field for the little guy, but did it by punishing those who were already successful. It didn’t work.

Two years ago the United States elected a President who promised his most ardent supporters that he would end a war. Not everybody agreed with him. Not everybody voted for him. But in the immediate wake of the election few politicians have enjoyed greater good will from friend and foe alike. The war he was to end goes on. The prison he was to close in Cuba is still open for business. And no leader has squandered so much good will or political capital – with the possible except of George Bush circa 2003. Today the leak of thousands of classified documents from America’s other war, the war in Afghanistan could be the final nail in the coffin at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Whether you agreed with George W. Bush or didn’t, at least the Bush administration debated issues like detention, covert ops, and torture in public forums. So of the information now leaked reveals how extension certain operations were. It turns out that the present administration, which once vocally condemned every behavior of the Bush White House continues to do all of the same things… They just don’t debate it, aren’t honest enough to admit how they operate. By any measure we might employ in the Western World the Taliban were and are ruthlessly repressive. Zealots are like that, look at PETA or any skinhead group – but religious zealots are especially dangerous, because they believe themselves to be doing holy work. Islam is only the latest flavor. Read the Book of Joshua and consider the conquest of Caanan, the Land of Milk and Honey. Consider body count Christianity ran up between the first Crusade and the Spanish Conquestadors. The Taliban as it happens were especially hard on women, and on all forms of entertainment. When Afghanistan was initially liberated in the autumn of 2001, one of the first entertainments to spring up in Kabul was a circus. It was, according to the accounts, a threadbare show – the performers mostly male, the audience mostly male – but an astonishing thing happened under the patchwork bigtop. People were laughing and smiling. Circus can do that. The mismanagement of the fight in Afghanistan, now in its 9th year suggests a possibility that soon enough the Taliban will be back. No more laughter. No more circuses.

In a nutshell that’s the state of the world this week.

Friday, July 23, 2010 

This weeks installment of the novel. Decided to cut the second chapter in two, it was long... Here's the first half.

Chapter Two

Pennsylvania -- May 1998

You can't go home again...
Or maybe you can...
The prop truck was just north of Harrisburg when Diane picked up the ticket. Mud show luck. What could go wrong, would go wrong. Dirty plates, or a cracked tail-light, a worn tire, or tattered wiper blades, the circus made for an easy mark and the cops could always find something good enough for a ticket. The pissant citations were more of an annoyance than anything else. In the middle of a jump with a late afternoon show in some town on down the road who had time to argue? When they ran her license and it came back from Sacramento with bells and whistles attached, that was mud show luck too. Six weeks out of Durham and she was starting to get used to it.
"M'am, would you mind if I took a look inside your vehicle?" The cop was young and polite, serious and very nervous.
"What for?" said Diane wearily. Just because he was ambitious didn't mean she had to be a dishrag. "Am I under arrest?" It was the kind of question she'd learned to ask sooner rather than later.
"No m'am," said the cop. "Do I have your permission?"
Diane nodded.
"Could you step out of the vehicle please?” That's when he called for backup.
She drew the line when they wanted her to wait in the patrol car. "I'll sit right here," she said planting herself on the guardrail. That was an hour ago. The circus had a matinee in Loch Haven at four-thirty. Diane tried not to worry about it. At least it wasn't raining.
Quite the opposite in fact. Were it not for the circumstances Diane would have called it a lovely day. Springtime along the Susquehanna river, the wide banks lined with willow trees and cat-tails, the warm air alive with the buzz of cicadas and the sharp raucus cries of redwing blackbirds so fiesty in the bright morning sun. Across the highway the dark canopy of maples shaded green grass, buttercups, and the first tiger lilies of the season. There were three cops digging through the circus trailer and one just watching, pretending that he wasn't afraid Diane would dash through traffic then bolt down the embankment and disappear into the trees.
Diane glanced at her watch for at least the fifth time in as many minutes. "Look. This is taking forever. Could I ask you to hurry?" she said, knowing it was pointless.
"We're trying, Ms Cash. We really are," the young cop who was pulling guard duty said. Beneath his acne scars and his short blonde hair he might have been twenty-five. "We get a lot of carnival trucks through here, and some of them are carrying narcotics. We've gotta be careful, you know."
"I'm not with a carnival, I'm with a circus," she said, belaboring the obvious. She couldn't help herself. She had to say something.
"Yes, m'am. We know that." The cop shrugged.
"If we miss our early show because the props aren't there -- because you guys are taking your sweet time with this -- there are gonna to be an awful lot of disappointed children up in Loch Haven."
"I'm sure you're right, m'am. We're doing our best."
If that was true their best was nothing short of pitiful, Diane thought. And not for the first time since the show left Durham she was very glad that Willis was far away. This was just the kind of scene her father would revel in. She was a felon. Of course they wanted to search her truck. It fit so neatly into the official family history. The one where poor Diane ran away from home, landed in San Francisco, smoked a little reefer or crack or whatever it was he thought she did, then went to jail. They’d never talked about what really happened. It was so much easier to see her life as a morality tale.
She did leave home. But home was a travel trailer and a circus lot in Oakland or a fairgrounds in Monterey. And maybe she'd done her share of drugs back then, but she finished high school with honors. She was seventeen when she went to Berkeley, and she was twenty-two when she dropped out of law school. It was only later that everything went to hell.
The blonde cop was getting bored. Diane could tell when he tried to be friendly. "So what's it like doing what you do, working in a circus?" he asked her.
Diane took the cheap shot. "It beats arresting people, but it probably pays less," she told him, smiling. No, that wasn't fair. She tried again. "I don't know. What if you'd become a cop because your dad was a cop and your mother gave birth to you in an empty holding cell? What if you'd grown up in patrol cars, and locker rooms? What would that be like? You wouldn't think about it because you'd never known anything else. Or you'd think about it all the time because you love it so much, or you hate it so much."
The cop laughed. "I think I'd get really tired of donuts," he answered. "You ever do anything else?"
"Yeah. For a while. It didn't work out."
It didn't work out.
That was one way to put it.
The same year she spent at Boalt Hall learning torts, she met a man in San Francisco. Instead of studying contracts, they’d moved to Mendocino. It was a California thing, she thought back then. A place where everyone and everything constantly changed. An actor left the movies to become a politician. A desert became a golf course. A college professor could change his name to Krisna and style himself a guru. The hills, the valleys, and the beaches of California were peopled with folks who'd given up on one life to try another. If that didn't work out, they'd try again. Up north there was a certain down home mystique to all of that. Girls from Connecticut with degrees in social work from Barnard herded sheep and spun wool, and boys groomed for green lawns and swimming pools worked as carpenters or masons.
"You can plant roots in north, " Bucky explained to her the very first time she met him, at a party in Golden Gate Park. Bucky was old Maryland tobacco money, or so he told her then. He was about as far removed from the sawdust and tan bark of the circus as anyone she had ever known. By the time Diane learned that the closest the Boyle clan came to tobacco money was a trip to the liquor store for cigarettes, she was already in love with him. Deeply in love. I want to spend the rest of my life with this man love.
Poor Bucky, such a schemer, so bitter, so charming, so heartless, and so completely corrupt.
They built a cabin on the edge of the redwood forest near Casper, a few short miles from the sea. They'd buy a boat and fish for salmon, Bucky promised. In the meantime he grew a little weed. Season followed season and there was no boat, but there was always green bud. Later, when Bucky announced that he'd found a new girlfriend in Fort Bragg, Diane took to keeping a kitchen garden planted in fresh herbs and got a job as a paralegal. She was hurt, deeply, but she couldn't hate him. She never even told him to move his “business” elsewhere.
She should have hated him. It would have worked out better.
Six years after the move to Mendocino Bucky Boyle was arrested with thirty pounds of marijuana in a parking lot in Willetts. Two hours after that the Campaign Against Marijuana Propogation had their heliocopters hovering over Diane's front lawn.
He got off easy. Nineteen months for possession with intent to sell. He'd been cooperative.
Her sentence was tougher. Nine years for sixty-eight plants hidden along the edge of the treeline behind the barn. She served almost seven with time off for good behavior. Sometimes she thought they were glad to get rid of her. She was a real jailhouse lawyer. Her clients were her friends, women who'd never had a chance with a Public Defender. When Diane filed appeals there was nothing spurious about them.
Too bad she couldn't be a attorney when she got out again.
So instead she drifted. Waiting tables in Redding. Working in a bookstore in Carmel. Helping out at a homeless shelter for families in Los Angeles, then driving a cab back in San Francisco. The worst of it was that the one time she'd seen Bucky again she'd actually slept with him. Even loaned him some money. She was so angry with herself after that, she'd cried for a week. A friend told her that he'd moved back to Baltimore and she was relieved. No more snakes in Eden.
When Jude called to tell her that Willis had suffered a heart attack she was just about ready to move on again. Eureka, this time. Instead she got a plane for Durham. "Of course I'll come, he's my father. I'll take care of him," she'd said, never hesitating.
"He doesn't want you to take care of him, Diane. He wants you to go out with the circus."
The circus.
She should have known. With Willis it was always about the circus. When she was five years old, if someone asked Diane to name the best job in the world she'd have said it was her daddy's job. Ten years later she knew it was the worst.
"The circus killed my brother. I don't want to talk about the circus," Diane used to say when anybody asked what it was like to grow up on the show. But even then she hadn't really put it behind her. She never missed a mud show that camped on the edge of Cloverdale, or a family act playing in a high school gym in Ukiah. She drove all the way to Chico to see the Circus Vargas, and once to the Cow Palace for the Ringling show.
The ring dirt was in her blood.

"Listen, I need to make a phone call," Diane said, now seriously worrying about Loch Haven. She'd grabbed her cell phone when she got out of the truck.
"I should check on that."
Diane shook her head. "Not unless you're ready to put me in handcuffs first." She needed to talk to Jude. If the props didn't make the lot until mid-afternoon he might have to reshuffle the program and put up the high wire during the intermission. Somebody should check on Ricky Meers too. Ricky Meers was a sweet man from Missouri they'd hired for his cats. There young Bengal tigers trained to do tricks like balancing and rolling on a globe, jumping through hoops, and leaping over a set of flaming bars. They weren't Siberians, but they weren't kittens either. Before Diane found him Ricky was doing school shows around Kansas City and St Louis for two hundred dollars a day. Even the Cash and Robbins Circus could beat that.
"Ricky's a wonderful trainer, and he's really working on the stage fright thing," his wife Charlene said when they arrived in North Carolina.
The stage fright thing? The stage fright thing hadn't come up when they'd answered the ad in the Circus Report. Rick could work around kids all day long, but throw in adults and he froze. Even Danny his little boy had a hard time stopping Daddy's shakes. Charlene did it the old fashioned way. She held the bucket while he threw up, then gave him a watered down shot of Jack Daniels. She mothered him. So far it was working, but he made Diane nervous. She wanted to be on the lot when he went in the cage.
The two cops searching the trailer popped out just as she started her dialing. The older cop was a man in his mid-40's with a steel-grey crewcut and a windburned face. "Ms. Cash, is this yours?" he asked ambling her way holding a prop rifle. She shoved the phone back into her pocket.
"It's an air rifle. A clown prop. Makes a loud noise. Go ahead and play with it, if you want," said Diane. Did he really think she was going to confess to being felon in possession of a firearm? Well maybe. "If you keep looking there's a shotgun in there too. The shells are blanks. That isn't mine either. It's circus property, and it's stamped with the name of the show."
"But you own the circus, don't you?" the cop asked still trying to figure out how to work the air gun. He wasn’t being sly, just perplexed.
"My father owns the circus. I just work for him," said Diane.
"But your middle name is Robbins, right? It’s on your license. And doesn't it say Robbins on the side of your truck?"
"And my mother's name was Robbins. And my grandfather's name was Robbins. He was a great clown. Started way back on the Adam Forpaugh Show, then Sells Brothers, then Hagenbeck-Wallace. He's in the Hall of Fame. Dad's name is Cash."
The officer gave up on the prop rifle and headed back to the trailer. They had to be pretty close to finished if they'd found the guns, thought Diane. Maybe she'd make the lot before doors after all.
Cop number three, her babysitter was looking at the unicycle his pals had leaned against the grill of a patrol car. "Can you ride that thing?" he asked her playing at being polite again.
"Sure. You want to see me do it?" For a second Diane thought he was tempted, then he shook his head and pointed toward the highway.
"Too much traffic. Too dangerous. You ride it in the show?"
"Not since I was a kid," Diane said. "My mom did a high-wire act with a unicycle and sometimes she let me ride with her. I was never much of a performer."
"You can walk on a tight rope?"
"I can wire walk."
"When she’s older I’ll bet my daughter would love to learn something that," said the cop. “She climbs and balances on everything.”
"It's a lot easier to learn that kind of thing when you're young."
"I'd never have the balls to watch her on a wire, or a trapeze. She might fall. She'd be fine with it, but I'd be scared to death. I think we'll stick to a pony."
"There you go, something really safe," said Diane. They both laughed. Twenty minutes later the troopers returned her keys and she headed north again.


Diane spotted the first arrows pointing to the showgrounds on the road from Williamsport to Loch Haven. You had to be circus to even notice them. Frank Shepard taped the arrows to mile-posts, road signs, telephone poles, and even to mailboxes if he had to. Frank was the twenty-four hour man. Frank traveled a day in front of the bigtop laying out the lot, marking the route, counting the porta-johns, and glad-handing the Shriners, or the Moose Lodge, the VFW, the PBA, or Loyal Order of Elks. According to Willis there were two things that a twenty-four hour man had to do well. He ought to have a knack for picking just the right spot for the front-door, and he'd better look good in a necktie if the host was a church group, or the Rotary. Frank could do both.
Diane stopped in Plum Creek to check her air-shocks, then thirty miles past Woolrich she found her turn-off. So this was Loch Haven, she thought driving through the pretty little river town. There was college nestled in the foothills beneath the white pines, and the local grade school had a sign that read "Royce Elementary Welcomes The Cash & Robbins Combined Shows." Community spirit. Willis would like that. There were posters in the store fronts along Main Street and a banner near the City Hall. In Loch Haven the sponsor was the volunteer fire department. The lot was a baseball field beside the Junior High. The tent was up and the seats were set, and the concessionaires were busy spotting the candy wagon along the midway when Diane came bouncing across the outfield grass and parked the prop truck near the back door. Jake Thurmond the prop crew boss hussled across the grass and began unloading lights as soon as she stopped.
“Took you long enough, blow the arrows?”
“I wish,” Diane said before she went looking for Jude Washington. She found him tying down the canvas over the pony sweep. "You miss me?" she asked, standing on the fresh tan bark and watching him work.
"Nope. Heard said you were busy with the highway patrol back around Sunbury," Jude said. He grinned. "Guess you didn't kill anybody. Either that or it was mighty low bail."
Jude's smile was infectious and Diane laughed. "Didn't kill anybody. And I only cried for about an hour. You'd have been proud of me," she said. "I just have bad luck with traffic cops, I guess. Maybe I ought to quit driving."
"Why?" said Jude, stepping out onto the midway to inspect the top. "Could have happened to anybody. Happens to me. You're here aren't you?"
"It wouldn't happen to my father," said Diane leaning back against the pipe fence around the ride.
"Are you kidding?" said Jude. "Willis gets more tickets than anybody else on the show. Him and that old Buick Electra of his. Folks won't get in a car with your daddy. The insurance don't let him near no trucks."
"Mom always said that daddy drove like there was nobody else on the road." Diane shook her head. "But that was when I was a little girl."
"Didn't change none. Willis is just a force of nature. Your momma used to drive her own self and make him tag along with me. Claimed he fell asleep during every jump and he snored too loud if he was riding with her."
Her poor mother, Diane thought. It was the probably the only chance in her life she got to be alone….

End Part 1 Chapter II


Merle Haggard opened the 20th Annula Grassroots Music Fesitival in Trumansburg, NY last night. Torrential rains last nioght and this morning. The Zydeco stage is under a 61' round top from Missionary Tent with three 36' middles. Very nice. On guy tightened the ratchets as the rain poured down. Would have taken three guys three times as long without the ratchets.

Thursday, July 22, 2010 

Wrote the other day about the conundrum of Worker's Compensation on circus, particularly in a state like New York -- where the legisl;ature never met a new rule they didn't like. Several State agencies have their hearts set on making circus tough in the Empire State, witness the Dept of Ag & Markets using rules intended for fairs to surtail elephant rides. However no single agency has quite the clout afforded the Dept of Labor in NY -- which seems to regulate the outdoor amusement business under the guise of worker safety. Ever wonder why a NYS permit requires an architectural drawing of the bigtop, and every town is a teachable moment for inspectors? It's all in ARTICLE 27 of the State Labor Code, Subsection 870. The only good news, tents seating fewer than 300 people and seats less than 30" high get a pass. Want to know why it takes a consultant to help wade through NYS regulation... Try actually reading Article 27 Subsection 870. Hint, coffee up.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 

Thinking about worker’s compensation costs and the adverse impact comp insurance has on circus. In several states, New York among them, all workers on a circus must be covered by compensation insurance…and if the show remains in NY for more than thirty days, disability insurance as well. While most of us don’t disagree entirely with the notion of workers comp, high costs and widely differing rules and rates from state to state serve to complicate the process and drive up rates. And workers comp[ classifications are both fickle and onerous. The basic rule of thumb works like this. Industries and occupations are assigned a classification number. At last count there were nearly 700 such classifications. Circus and Carnival employees and drivers are assigned the number 9186, as I recall. Most, but not all states use the same NCCI Class codes. Each classification is in turn assigned a Loss Cost based on potential risks associated with the occupation. In California roofers had the highest loss cost, around 17.75, while the loss cost for florist was 1.80. Rates vary from state to state, but theoretically loss cost times one percent of each one hundred dollars in an employee’s wages equals weekly compensation premium. So for a guy on a show earning $300 a week, workers compensation costs each weeks represent a loss cost around 16.10 per one hundred dollars in wages, or $48.30 a week. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how quickly compensation numbers add up and increase the nut. There are work arounds – some better than others. Low wages coupled with additional commission based compensation can cut costs. And “contracting” employees is a favored method in some states where workers compensation isn’t audited with a fine tooth comb. In New York however, most work arounds don’t survive an audit. For a small show it might be practical to insist that each laborer, performer etc. actually purchased a business license in their state of residence. A single employee/owner in a sole proprietorship is exempt from workers comp. Said “business could then be signed as subcontractors, satisfying the letter of the law. But on any show with more than a couple dozen people on the payroll, creating subcontractors would likely prove nightmarish. So the next time you wonder why some shows either don’t visit places like New York at all, or don’t stay long, think about that loss cost number. It’s one thing to buy a short term pay-as-you-go compensation policy for a few weeks, and quite another to carry a policy for several months.

Monday, July 19, 2010 

A few more comments on Casey McCoy (Casey Cainan) cat act. It's the best act on the road, and that isn't hype. FOUR HIND-LEG WALKING tigers. Nobody else has done that, as far as I know. Two courbette cats. An incredible combination of complicated behaviors presented without props.

So why isn't this act on Ringling or in Europe? Likely there are several factors. Casey's cats are standard tigers lacking the visual "flash" of white tigers or golden tabbies. (And even whites seem less impressive to the circus-going public than lions these days.)

Audiences like the McCoy cat act, and animal people are enormously impressed. But again circus-goers are a sometimes fickle lot. The cat jumping through a flaming hoop – pretty basic – excites them more than tigers playing leap frog. Show patrons must be forgiven for not knowing that tigers just don’t do that. Fifty years ago the Ringling organization created an animal training mega-star, who in return filled seats for decades. Selling Gabel Williams to audiences was a phenomenal marketing success and it took some education for ticket buyers a generation after Court and nurtured on pith helmets, blank guns, and chairs to see the wonder of the European cat act. Casey Cainan likely belongs on Kelly Miller for years to come insofar as they compliment each other. But for both the circus and the act to truly flourish, KM probably needs a publicity machine capable of making and selling a performer, whether an animal trainer, an aerialist, or a Super Clown. In the egalitarian world of small mudshows it’s nice to think in terms of management that all performers are equal, and nobody really wants to nurture and feed the ego of any “star.” But the business of circus is filling seats – because then you can sell popcorn. Loftier sub rosa ambitions require the stability that comes with strong business. Even the greatest perch pole acts in the world don’t sell tickets to an American circus as well as cats, or aerialists, or truly talented clowns. Until KM has a chance to develop marketing department with media savvy, even a change in the way the cats are announced couldn’t hurt. “Gentlemen and ladies, in the more than 150 years since Isaac van Amburgh first stepped into an iron cage with wild jungle beasts circus trainers have become legend. From Louis Roth, to Mabel Stark, to Clyde Beatty, to Gunther Gabel Williams trainers working big cats have awed and astounded circus audiences. What you will see today has never been seen before. Without benefit of props or gimmicks, the most dazzling display of behaviors ever assembled in one arena. America’s own Casey McCoy and his tigers.”

Finally, when it comes down to it any circus with serious ambitions to play larger markets should look for star making opportunities. Circuses once knew that, and the rest of thye entertainment industry still does. Today only a handful of shows seem to remember the lessons. But everything old becomes new again, and we live and relearn.

One more note on KM. ...In Cortland the show played a fairgrounds lot off Rt 11, just a mile south from the old Sig Sautelle WQ. Some of the building still stand, including Sautelle's unique bigtop shaped house. Sautelle would have enjoyed the show.


John Ringling North II’s Kelly Miller Circus played the final weekend of its 2010 New York route in Southwood, and Cortland, NY. Now in its fourth season under the management of Jim Royal and John Ringling North II the KM show continues to get better and better living up to its moniker “America’s One Ring Wonder.” The ever evolving, incredibly complicated Cainan tigers (Casey McCoy) opening the show are like nothing seen elsewhere. Extreme trapeze and the very talented KM clowns serves as reminder that KM may be from Hugo, OK – but show enjoys a long reach seeking out talent. The Mike Rice camels work flawlessly, and a medley of acts framed around the 1950’s is good fun. Only the peanut pitch rang hallow with a fine start but devolving into an auctioneer’s foreclosure sale. Nice to see a risley, a classic act made new again.

The audience for KM in Southwood was sparse. Playing the same lot with KM two years ago I wondered why the Southwood date, only a mile from the Syracuse city limits wasn’t marketed in Syracuse proper? Conventional wisdom sometimes states that audiences won’t travel from a large community to a smaller one to see circus, but cross billing Southwood as Southwood/Syracuse and coupling paper with media in the Syracuse market might have made the difference with this particular date sponsored by the volunteer fire department. Robert Childress’s marketing plan on Lewis & Clark, sponsors selling only adult tickets, allowing the laydown of free children’s tickets would almost certainly make sense for a town like Southwood where presales may have been less than outstanding. Laydowns on the south side of Syracuse might have driven traffic, particularly as the show competed with a nearby carnival. Cortland, on Sunday was a bit better.

Lack of gate did nothing to diminish the excellence of KM’s program, as the show cut across New York from a New England run, and with major dates in Ohio coming up shortly.

Over the last four seasons Kelly-Miller has transformed itself from the small, successful Hugo-style circus of the David Rawls era into a powerhouse circus. Much effort and money has gone into reinventing the performance, adding and upgrading equipment, and improving the Oklahoma Winterquarters. With an outstanding road office staff, and a home office directly overseen for part of the season by Jim Royal, logically the next “project” in KM’s evolution would focus on marketing, the advance, and public relations and media. For a decade beginning in the mid-1990s it appeared that shows could realized significant cost savings using internet and direct mail resources to handle many marketing, advance, and media tasks previously performed by individual either on or ahead of a show. Web pages with sponsors tutorials, promotions keyed into zip code demographics, e-media kits, and online ticket sales were all great ideas. However in retrospect the communications revolution seems to work best augmenting rather than replacing bodies on the ground. Advance clowns still have a role on circus ten days ahead of the show, particularly when school is in session. It pays off handsomely on a circus like Culpepper. An advance person, or team several weeks ahead of the show can go a long way in bucking up disorganized sponsors, buying local print media or radio spots, and spot checking local regulation and the ultimate suitability of a lot. A strong marketing effort from the home office, and strong billing crew with at least a few suave English speakers puts up more paper and lays down more discount coupons or free kid tickets. And well thought out media and publicity campaigns are far more effective than merely faxing. When all the pieces fall into place, no current tent show does a better job handling marketing, media, billing, and the advance better than Cole Bros. Likely future Kelly Miller efforts in this direction will match or better those efforts.

Worth noting – there are rumors floating about concerning Hugo’s Carson & Barnes Circus -- including some mention of the possibility that C&B will cancel August dates to return home and regroup after a disappointing early season in Florida and in light of continued weak economic conditions in parts of the upper Midwest. C&B speculation is notoriously inaccurate. Carson & Barnes has taken some lumps in recent years, and the downsizing of the big show has likely been painful, most C&B employees are much loved by the Miller-Byrd family. But clearly there are avenues still open that could or should allow C&B to turn things around in coming season, concentrating on their strong rooits in the Central Time Zone. C&B enjoyed its best years principally as animal based circus. The the show still has the resources and expertise to bring back animal acts in a big way while comply with restrictive regulation. Best of all, animals don’t require visas.

Friday, July 16, 2010 

Hmmm. Sorry. When I posted Chapter One of the story yesterday I failed to post the Prologue that came before it. Found in on the disk this morning while looking for Chapter Two. Anyway. I'll paste it here.


Belfast -- 1974

Some things she never talked about and never would. She was six years old the first time her father took her to the circus. There were funambulists, and big cats, jugglers, and elegant ladies in spangled tights astride their ring horses. There were elephants, and acrobats, aerolists, and comely men in leotards swinging from the high trapeze. She remembered the smell of the sawdust spread about the smooth turf and the scent of the wet canvas near their seats in the stands in the very top row. There were sweet biscuits shaped like menagerie animals and balloons tied to look like wee dachshunds. There were chocolates, and nuts, and there was spun candy floss.
And joeys.
There were so many joeys. Clowns in every size and in every shape. Clowns on bicycles, and in tiny cars, clowns on motorbikes, and clowns on ladders. There were girl clowns with bosoms like soft feather pillows, and boy clowns in baggy pants that hung so low on their backsides even her father laughed at their polka dotted underwear. She liked the clowns the best, Gillian thought. They wore painted smiles and never made a human sound no matter how venally they were treated.
After the show they found a van selling fish and chips and went back to their boarding house in fine spirits. "Now we won't be tellin' your mother how I spent my extra fiver," her father told her as he tucked her into bed. "It'll be our secret. If you're a love we'll go again in 'Derry. Will you be my love?"
"I'll be your love, Da," the girl promised dreamily. "Our scheme."
"That's my Gillian," her father said stroking her hair as she drifted off. "We’re Travelers. Always good with the sly stuff."
Later there would be other circuses.
And other schemes as well.

Thursday, July 15, 2010 

Eleven year agao I had a block of four weeks in Novemember and wanted to write something about elephants. I sat down at my keyboard and started working, and when I looked up at the end of that month I had a circus novel that wasn't about elephants at all. The story was rough, written fast, and I never found time to revise or clean it up. I'd still like to write a circus novel, but a different one... Maybe in another ten years. In the meantime, there's Strawhouse. I found the manuscript on an old hard drive the other day and decided that I would add it to the blog, a chapter every week or ten days. Nothing special, just an entertainment.

Chapter One

North Carolina -- 1998

Willis started on the sidewalls at first light. Four hundred and twenty feet of canvas laid out in thirty foot strips nine feet wide in the old tobacco flue once red gone to rust brown across three score of summers beneath a fierce Carolina sun. The sidewalls weren't really cotton anymore. The circus hadn't traveled under a bigtop made of duck in over twenty years. The fabric was polyvinyl chloride over nylon. A better tent, almost certainly. It weighed less, and it didn't burn. But the soul was still canvas. The heart was still canvas. Willis thought of it as canvas – a circus trafficked in something richer than the literal truth.
The low sky was dark grey and in the fallow fields behind the farmhouse, long given up to chokeweed, kudzu, and wild roses the red clay was still stiff with heavy frost when Willis limped across the yard toward the sheds. The morning was cold, even for early March, even for Durham, Willis thought, lighting a cigarette and clutching a thermos of strong coffee. Maybe not as cold as it had been a month ago when he came up from Florida to kickstart the outfit for another season -- there was snow on the ground then -- but still more like winter than like early spring. The thermometer on the back porch was busted and the perky weather girl on the WRAL morning show out of Raleigh said that it was thirty-one degrees, cooler up around Hillborough or to the west near Statesville. Willis could feel it in his hips and the way that his legs ached when the days were cold enough for a real freeze. His war wounds. Not from the Army, he came out of Europe without a scratch, before that, from West Texas and the rodeo. A bum pelvis and ancient scars from the horns of a bull, steel pins patching his femur, they were an old man's souvenirs of a young man's days before he was nineteen. Down in Gainesville they almost never bothered him, but in Durham some years they ached right into April
Willis had been patching vinyl in winter quarters for so many years it was like second nature to him. For a few seasons in California when the show was bigger and traveled with a five mast Italian bale ring tent from Canobbio, he’d kept on a short crew during the down months to help with the mending. But that was a long time ago. Now almost anyone could do a hot air weld with a heat gun or a bonded butt patch with a silicon roller and contact cement. If he worked at it for a couple of hours every morning the bigtop was just a one man job.
A wide driveway skirted the lawn, and crocuses blossomed beside the cracked blacktop. The rolling stock was parked across from the house. Seven trucks covered with green all-weather tarpulins. They weren't big trucks, they were Ford deisels with heavy duty springs, Class IV hitches, and thirty foot cargo trailers, two bunkhouses, and a lowboy painted red and blue and logoed Cash and Robbins Combined Shows. The Fords were cheaper than fleet vehicles, and anybody could drive one. It wasn't like the sixteen semis Willis once owned in the west, but it was still a caravan. The elephants had their own truck and trailer, a Kenworth driven by Rooster Varrick the concessions manager. Add everybody else on the show and there might be sixteen rigs when they hit the road in another three weeks.
Beyond the machine shop Willis glanced into the open sided polebarn where the show rehearsed just before the new season. A regulation circus ring forty-two feet across crowded the middle of the floor and two twenty-five foot towers six feet wide hugged the ring curbs supporting a trapeze, web gear, and a lyra. The ring was old and in need of fresh paint. Maybe he'd get around to it tomorrow, Willis told himself. The better the place looked when the performers arrived the less they worried about getting paid. Willis hadn't missed a payroll in thirty years. But it wasn't always easy, especially early in the season. Most years the show had a line of credit to cover the shortfalls, but this time out the money was tighter. Two bad autumns back to back, and it was tough floating a loan. The Wachovia Bank finally ponied up a note for enough to see the show through rehearsals and the first few weeks after that, but there wasn't a lot of wiggle room. The billposters were already working, the booker already paid, the office girl in Florida taken acre of. Insurance had chewed up whatever else was left from cash on hand.

He'd seen tougher times, Willis reminded himself staring at the ring. Lots and lots of tough times through the years. The circus would be okay as long as it didn't rain too much. Besides, he had enough to worry about just filling the program. Mike Blake, the producing clown was coming back, along with Gus Rothman, and Andy Hayes. Violet Santos would work the high wire, the slack, and do a hula hoop act. The Dubon family was coming up from Mexico. They were acrobats, aerialists, and did a pretty good trampoline number. He'd hired a Russian couple named Primatov who did a perch pole act and web routine. And Jennette Graham had signed on with five minature horses in a liberty show and her six Jack Russell Terriers. So far that was twelve performers doing sixteen acts. Twenty-three people counting assorted children and maiden aunts.
But there were still no cats, and there was no one to work Dharma and Delhi the Cash & Robbins' elephants unless Jennette did it. For ten years Willis used Sal Grillo and his tigers to open every show, and to bring in the bulls at the end. There were better trainers, but there were no better friends than Sal. When Sal’s son Kurt phoned from Gib’town in February to say that his father had lost the Sibertians to a feline virus and they wouldn't be joined the circus it sounded like he was near tears. Finding a last minute replacement had Willis worried. He couldn't afford cats from Illinois even if they were available, and the Texas acts didn't have enough open time for the whole season. So now he was running an ad in a trade paper and making calls. If that didn't work he'd bite the bullet and go out as a dog and pony show. A circus didn't have to have cats. But he might pay for that at the box office. A circus didn't have to have anything but clowns and the cotton candy Willis liked to tell himself. He’d learned that through ups and downs. Truth was in more than fifty seasons Willis could remember exactly one catslanger who took his breath away. Clyde Beatty. He'd traveled with Beatty in the early '50's when the Cash and Swiftdeer Austin Ranch Rodeo did an after-show following each performance of the Beatty Circus. That was the cowboy and Indian act he'd dreamed up in Italy with Jay Swiftdeer during the war. They toured for seven years before Jay went back to Oklahoma and Willis turned the horse opery into a bigtop troupe. Cole Cash was born while the wild west show played a ballfield in Indiana. Diane came later on a circus lot in Louisville.
His children, a son long dead, and a daughter long gone.
Beyond the polebarn Willis pulled open the wide doors to the tobacco flue and turned on the lights. Dust sprinkled down from the rafters and the dry air smelled of nicotine and bright leaf. Blue clothespins marked the piles of sidewall that he'd already inspected and repaired and folded away. More than two-thirds he reckoned. Willis went to the work bench and crushed out his cigarette. The top was another story. The top was still on the spooler trailer waiting for the tent crew. It was too big to work alone, and too heavy to unfold. On the first warm day of rehearsals the crew could lay it out in the yard. Willis twisted the lid off his thermos and poured himself some oily coffee. In winter quarters the coffee always tasted like oil. He'd been saying that for twenty years. Willis put down his cup and reached for a heat gun. Starbucks. Now Starbucks made good coffee. There was a Starbucks near the Gainesville place and he'd grown quite fond of it. Willis plugged the gun into an extension cord and turned on the radio. The radio station played big band music. He'd been listening to the Glenn Miller Orchestra since he was a kid, and he still never got tired of it. Willis could feel the sweat beading on his forehead and across his shoulders beneath his overalls. Maybe it wasn't as cold as he'd thought? Jude Washington would be coming around before too long to look after the elephants, and Jude would know. Jude had to know so he could pretend to complain about something.
"You really got that colored fella as your number one man?" some of the old-timers used to ask forty years ago. They weren't really churlish about it, they were just surprised.
"Lucky to have him," Willis answered then. It was funny how things worked out. He’d lost a son and gone on circusing. He'd lost a daughter and gone on too. When he lost his Wife, it was harder. If he ever lost Jude, he'd have to give up the show. He couldn't do it alone. Other people had children. Jude had children. Jude had grandchildren. Jude’s daughter Sondra was a doctor up in Baltimore, and his son Michael was an Army Captain. They'd been show kids too, once upon a time. Pretty fair performers.
Jude was a better father than he had been. The truth was that he'd never much of a father at all. Willis knew that about himself. He'd lived with it for thirty years. Some days he had a hard time just remembering where Cole was even buried, Fresno or Bakersfield, Barstow or Merced? A sixteen year old boy driving a flatbad truck too fast on a wet road late at night trying to catch up with the rest of the caravan. The highway patrol said he died instantly. And the circus hadn't missed so much as a matinee. The show went on that day and the next and every other day. There was no time for grief. No time to even get mad. Plenty of people sent condolences. Elizabeth cried and carried on, and still she did her wire act. Only Diane tried to pretend they were like a real family. Broken. Four years later she was gone as well. Another fifteen year old girl lost to dope, to the streets of San Francisco. Sometimes Willis thought that the hardest day of his life wasn't the day that his boy died, or even his wife, it was the day that he saw his thirty-five year old daughter in handcuffs at her mother's funeral. The guards were polite. She was paroled shortly thereafter. That was five years ago. As much as he wanted to call her sometimes, on her birthday, for Christmas, he was afraid he would weep.
Willis worked his way down two thirty foot sections of sidewall on his hands and knees ignoring his aches and pain. It was hard to breath. The dust, maybe. He was careful with his hot air gun, softening but never melting the vinyl. Jude was late, or at least later than usual. The radio played In The Mood, but the only thing Willis was in the mood for was going back up to the house and sitting down. He wouldn't get much canvas done doing that, he figured. There was nothing pleasant about getting old. Especially not old and sick. He got dizzy when he stood up again, and his chest hurt when he tried to take a deep breath. Maybe it was the flu, he thought? He'd skipped his flu shot back in November, trusting to luck. The lines of elderly patients waiting for autumn inoculations at the doctor's office always depressed him. Why anybody ever retired was something he just couldn't understand. What exactly did they do with themselves when they came to Florida besides think about dying? Willis bent dwon to grab a corner of sidewall and fold it up, then stopped to catch his breath again. It felt like the flu. Whatever it was that was wrong with him. He was burning up, but he was freezing too. Shaking. Sure sign of a fever, he was smart enough to know that. Fevers came on fast sometimes. He'd felt fine when he got out of bed. Not now, not anymore, Willis thought. Now he was soaked in an icy sweat and his fingers and arms were tingling and numb. It was like tearing down the tent in a cold rain. He'd done that enough times.
California had been the death of them all, Willis thought when he allowed himself to consider such things. They'd had a nice show in the east. Twelve trucks opening every April in Jersey City across the river from New York, then moving up into New England before doubling back down into the mid-Atlantic states, rolling into the middle west and ending every fall at home in Carolina. The circus played the same route for ten years before ambition got the better of them. It was the 1960's and everything was changing. Small shows were opening and closing and big shows had given up the tents. Elizabeth thought he was out of his mind when Willis doubled the size of the circus and headed west. The first season they'd had their best year ever. The second season they'd barely stayed in the black. The third time out he'd lost his son. Nothing was easy or quick. It took four more years to actually go bankrupt. The Cash and Robbins Circus had fourteen elephants when they first arrived in LA. When he and Elizabeth finally went home they had a pony sweep, two suitcases, and a Chevy Nova. There were people who probably thought he'd never own a circus again. Eight months later Willis was pushing a small show through Ohio in a fifty by fifty pole tent with five performers and two pickups. He and Jude handled every job by themselves. Jude's wife Cassy sold the tickets and ran the pony ride, and Elizabeth went back up onto the high wire. He'd paid everybody back. All of them. The banks, the feed stores, the mechanics, the insurance companies. It took six years, but the show never missed a season.
Willis folded the sidewall and went to the work bench for a fresh can of contact cement. There were several quarts on a high shelf and needed a step ladder to reach tem. Willis was swaying as he pulled himself half way up the ladder then stopped to rub his left arm. He sighed. What was he going to do without a cat act? His head started spinning and he grabbed for a step. Now he really wanted was to sit down. I couldn't afford to be sick right now, he told himself. There's a world of work to be done. Willis felt his head clear and he started to lift his foot toward the next step just as a hammer slammed into his chest like a sixteen pound sledge against a steel tent stake. He started to fall. It's gonna hurt when I hit, but it can't hurt anymore than this, he thought as he toppled backwards to the concrete floor. Sometime later he heard a voice telling him to lay still.
"I went off the ladder," Willis tried to say.
"Shhh... Hush. Don't try no talkin' you old fool. The ambulance is on its way. I think you had a heart attack."
Of course. A heart attack. He knew that. A flu shot wouldn't have helped at all.
"Get Jenette to work the elephants. Got no cats..." Willis whispered as he started to slip away again. "Find my daughter. Call Diane. She's got to take the show out, Jude. Tell her that. She oughta find cats."
Then the pain was back and the world went grey.

Monday, July 12, 2010 


(This is a continuation of yesterday’s entry on Robert Childress’s Lewis & Clark Circus. Periodically over the past decade various circuses have lamented the unhealthy state of the circus “industry” in the US – blaming everything from increased regulation, to fuel costs, to an aging demographic amongst traditional sponsoring organization. Business for traditional mudshows has further declined with the growth of Hispanic circuses, and a plethora of towns “burned” by ticket gouging and a trail of unpaid bills. Lewis & Clark is a wonderful example of a small regional mudshow that both works and earns. Photo from show website. My camera malfunctioned..)

… Spending several seasons here and there dealing with sponsors the conundrum presented by a weak sponsor who sells few advance tickets has in my own experience proved vexing. With a poor presale, day-of-the-show box office is held hostage to local demographics (in farming communities in the west the Hispanic audience may turn out even in the face of weak presale) and to strong phone sales. No significant phone sales, no farm workers, and no serious presale and it’s difficult to fill seats. The Lewis & Clark system using free childrens ticket lay downs in every community, even those with a strong sponsor balances the scales and promotes the show without expensive media buys.

 Lewis & Clark innovates. A great “system” works season after season because general protocols are repeated every day, while at the same time the best systems are flexible, improving equipment and the way that jobs are handled when something better comes along. Many private vehicles on the show rely upon personal generators for power much of the day and night – or on city power when its available. Small generators appear to run even the bunkhouse. The show itself can therefore run off a smaller genset, and run for fewer hours. This represents both an upfront savings in acquiring equipment and a downstream savings in daily costs. Compact florescent light bulbs illuminate the camel ride on the midway. While that may not seem like a big deal, CFLs consume a quarter to a third of the power required by holagon lights or conventional bulbs. With the plethora of new CFL bulbs on the market in a variety of designs, and with prices for CFLs falling it’s more than theoretically possible for a show, particularly a smaller show to consider using only florescents, cutting wattage requirements significantly. Smaller power footprints translates into smaller power plants. In seasons down the road some small shows could consider traveling without trailer/truck mounted gensets, running off only portable power units and flying beneath the onerous electrical regulations associated with states like Washington, and Minnesota.

 It’s been said that a circus is an excuse to sell popcorn, or balloons, or coloring books. Though some “critics” are put off by traditional “pitches” during a circus performance, short, humorous pitches for inexpensive items rarely seem to offend circus-goers enjoying a good performance. On the Lewis & Clark Circus pitches for light-up wands and swords, coloring books, peanuts, snake pictures, and balloons never get in the way of the well balanced show. Credit to the framing of the performance, enhanced by better than average lighting – and credit to this year’s announcer Becky Ostroff who makes the pitches fun. Like the midway offering, the pitches illustrate that Mr. Childress is serious about leveraging revenue possibilities without being heavy handed. Audiences leave Lewis & Clark feeling good about the circus.

Ultimately visiting Lewis & Clark is a pleasure, reminding anybody who has slogged through the mud that traditional tent shows can and still do work surprisingly well with proper attention to detail, customer satisfaction, merchandising possibilities, and watching the bottom line.

Sunday, July 11, 2010 

On Friday I visited the Lewis & Clark Circus again, this time in Coudersport, PA. It was a 120 mile drive down from the Finger Lakes, and the day was very hot with temperatures in the 90’s. The week long heat wave broke in a big way in the late afternoon with heavy thunderstorms and torrential rain. In Coudersport the Lewis & Clark show played the Firemen’s Grounds, a tight gravel lot owned by the sponsor.

There’s an expression sometimes associated with electronics items and gadgetry. A great product is ready to use out-of-the-box, “it just works.” Because we have all become accustomed to computers, peripherals, phones, and personal electronics that don’t function as advertised until after we’ve spent too much time talking with tech support halfway around the world, “it just works” is a concept we can appreciate. Engineers, product designers, programmers, alpha and beta testers, the manufacturing facility, and the marketers got it right. Steve Jobs and APPLE are legendary for “it just works.” That’s not too say that there are never problems or flaws, but they are relatively few and far between, and when they arise they’re addressed. The traditional American Circus was once a study in “it just works.” The circus moved every day, set-up, filled the tent, packed it away and moved again through the night. Along the way they kept the paint fresh. Over the past twenty years any number of factors have made that harder. Cost cutting and aging equipment, an over abundance of regulation, reliance on a labor pool requiring significant upfront costs whom although hard working sometimes don’t speak the same language as management or the audience in Today’s Town. Fleet expenses, fuel prices, insurance – and marketing models that no longer deliver circus-goers. When shows downsize the first cuts aren’t always well thought out. Midway and front end operations producing actual revenue occasionally get left in Winter Quarters while the golf cart still goes out with the road. Bill posters spend the early season putting up the tent until the visas are approved for the real tent crew – so the show plays town after town with no significant publicity. The list goes on.

In the early days of this particular blog I remember wondering aloud if the real future of traditional mudshow wasn’t in smaller regional circuses capable of greater flexibility and with certain cost savings built-in by virtue of size. I worked for a big show then, but I’ve looked at a fair number of small shows in the years since then. I bring this up because Mr. Childress with his Lewis & Clark Circus operates just that kind of smaller regional mudshow, and seeming out of the box, “it just works.” I thought I’d spent a lot of time laying awake at night thinking about the little nuances required to put a real circus with fresh paint, spangles, and all the component parts into a small package. Mr. Childress has out thought and out engineered any idea I ever came up with. Not too over simplify a complex system, the hallmarks of Lewis & Clark and why it appears to me that the show works so well.

 The show looks good. Years ago I remember days now and then on Carson & Barnes when the tent crew took the time to power wash every piece of vinyl on the show before set-up. And Barbara Byrd herself would stand on the midway making sure that paint was properly touched up, banners and trailer skirts mended, that circus sparkled. A good looking show has the same “curb appeal” as a good looking house offered for sale by a realtor or estate agent. You drive by the house and you can imagine living there. You drive by a good looking circus and you can imagine coming back in the evening with the kids. When you do return, because it all looks good, you spend money before you ever go inside.

 Miami Gospel Tent produces another winner. The Lewis & Clark Circus uses a rectangular bigtop from the Miami Tent company. It it’s third season the tent still looks good and holds up marvelously in heavy rain. The rachets simplify set-up and keeping the “canvas” tight. The blackout vinyl allows the show to employ theatrical lighting inside. The tent is well made and well cut. Certainly there are flashier styles of circus tents, but few that go up so easily, or quickly – and Miami tents are moderately priced.

 The midway sells. Lewis & Clark still carries a full midway. That’s shouldn’t be a big deal – except that some shows don’t. A slide and a candy stand do not a midway make. Once upon a long time ago, some shows had at least portions of the midway up and running even before the bigtop went up, so the gawkers could buy a soda or spend a quarter to see the giraffe. The midway moved the show. On Lewis & Clark the compact midway includes, a petting zoo, a pony sweep, camel ride, bounce (slide,) face painting, hi-striker, the candy wagon (concessions,) and a joiut selling corn dogs and funnel cakes. . Anybody who has ever spun floss in a circus candy wagon has heard customers ask about corn dogs, or waffles, or whatever. Everybody is aware of the demand. But too often that demand gets overlooked at best -- or at worst somebody says, “That’s carnival food.” In reality it’s all revenue stream. My favorite joint on the Childress circus midway isn’t something that I would have recognized as an overt income source until Mr. Childress explained it to me. It’s an ATM machine. When I spotted the ATM on the lot in Troy, PA my first thought was, “I wonder how often the cell service or satellite sign is good enough to make that work?” I’ve seen too many wireless credit card processing machines that are problematic from one day to the next. “Be great if it does work most of the time,” I thought. I could see the advantage the ATM brings to putting cash on the midway – always an issue on any show, and I assumed that shifting the cost of transactions from a credit/debit card “sale” where the retailer pays, to a service charge where the consumer pays was a real advantage. But until Mr. Childress mentioned what the machines earn in the way of fees on each transaction it hadn’t occurred to me that the ATM was a revenue stream in and of itself, as well as augmented customer service in speeding up sales at the ticket window – where no card sales are necessary. Lewis & Clark certainly isn’t the first circus with an ATM, but the approach reflects the degree to which the show is well planned and framed, and on Lewis & Clark the wireless ATM using the Verizon network is down on a few days a year.
 Fleet. On the Culpepper Circus, a show of a similar size, jumps include significant detours moving aging semis around sometimes problematic scales. The commercial fleet is a paperwork nightmare in and of itself. On Lewis & Clark the biggest truck on the show is a Ford F550. The use of standard trucks that anyone can drive – all with automatic transmissions – assures that parts and shops familiar with the vehicles can be found in any town. It’s an approach that builds flexibility into the system. Once more, Mr. Childress’s circus isn’t the first to use smaller trucks – and it’s a standard practice in some places. But this flexibility was built into the system. The earlier Hendrick Bros. show still used some larger vehicles.

 The Lewis & Clark Circus lays down free children’s tickets in every town. The billing crew stays two weeks ahead of the show. The circus plays both sponsored and lot and license dates. Sponsors sell only adult tickets in advance of the show. The ticket laydown both directly drives traffic to the show and serves as advertising. Adult tickets are reasoned priced, just $12 off the circus website, and $15 at the box office. Because Lewis & Clark is upfront about the price of adult admission, and doesn’t seek to gouge surprised parents at the gate, the marketing works well and the show returns to the same towns periodically establishing the brand identification and engendering good feelings. Lewis & Clark doesn’t use a phone room, though it seems to me that there might still be a place for phones selling Senior Tickets...

(Part II tomorrow…)

Thursday, July 08, 2010 

Pretty damned boring, but as some folks have wondered what happened to my CM season...

The great monastic traditions, whether Trappist, or Buddhist, a cloistered convent, or the Order of St Benedict all teach us to learn to leave ego at the door. It’s so hard to listen and to learn from silence when the voice of self is screaming between our ears. That said, our egos define us, or at least mine defines me. Growing up, with any luck, most of us get past the temper tantrums or a sense of entitlement – a conviction that the world owes us a living. Coming of age we shy away from the blame game, or a feeling that we are victims. We know that we must work and often work hard for our daily bread. We accept that life isn’t always fair and not everyone will see us as special, or unique and we grow comfortable with that. We judge, but with luck, not harshly. I love a circus. I may not love a circus in the unequivocal way that a fan loves a circus, but there is no place in the world that I would rather be than on a circus lot, even knee deep in mud. That said, now and then I am the worst of critics. I could claim that it’s all about “tough love” or holding circus to a high standard – but who am I to set those standards? By and large nobody has ever cut me a paycheck to gripe about every little thing that’s “wrong.” There’s much to be learned from silence and picking one’s battles carefully.

Several months ago, five weeks into the season I left the Culpepper Circus. It wasn’t one of those disagreements that led to screaming and yelling, or profound disagreement – I’ve done that. Nor did I leave CM because of some immediate crisis on the home front – I’ve done that too. I packed a bag and walked off the lot. In point of fact I should have rethought 2010 the day I arrived in Oklahoma. It was apparent from Day One that events over the winter kept circus owner Trey Key busy with relatively little time or money available for framing the show. A little paint and a lot of sweat can cover a multitude of sins – but paint was in short supply. A cold snap, snows, two days shut up in the sleeper and missing our opening day likely contributed to my own apprehension. You’re either with it and for it, or you aren’t. I wasn’t. Mechanic Scott Moss worked hard for a couple weeks in the fall and early spring on the show vehicles, but clearly several were ill-equipped for a season that would include a long stretch in the mountains, -- and replacing those vehicles on the road might mean a season of dogged financial hardship. Any money left over from 2009 after paying for wintering the cat act in Wynnewood, OK was mostly gone before March. Staffing problems suggested that early 2010 could require double jumping vehicles for days or weeks on end. The program remained in flux when the show opened placing much of the burden for the entire performance on the Ron and Robin Dykes family. Trey’s cats still opened the show, and “Melvino” the clown performed several acts, but largely the show was built around the Dykes. Part of the strength of the 2009 performance reflected the very talented clowning of Jessi Wonderfool, and a good wire act as a closer. Neither of those acts was back for 2010. While small town audiences for the most part remained pleased with the CM show, audience criticism in 2010 was far more vocal than in 2009. The Dykes family’s signature unicycle act, Simone’s strong trapeze, and April’s well- executed rola aren’t enough for a whole circus. The web act was a nice touch. The quick change was lovely. The bird act was really a filler. The gorilla comedy act -- while it worked for some audiences didn’t make up for a lack of strong clowning. New acts would arrive later, and the show, a work in progress, would improve – but knowing that somehow wasn’t enough. Agree with him or disagree with him, Trey Key is an honorable guy. Pay days might be late, but no one went unpaid. The tent might leak in the rain and shows might be cancelled when the wind was more than a breeze, but Trey never suggested it would be otherwise. A year ago when the show was flush after the California run Trey stated quite frankly that either he wanted the cash in hand for a new, high quality bigtop, or he would stick with the tent he had until he left the circus business. He wasn’t interested in a tent from Miami, OK, or from Ohio, and he wasn’t interested in a used bigtop. To his credit Trey didn’t apologize for the tent.

I left CM because I was frustrated and saw little of no point in discussing that frustration. I did want to apologize. I wanted to open my eyes one morning and see the paint, and spangles and love for circus that Red Johnson once showered on the show the first time I ever saw CM in California. That’s on me, because I know better. I love the business of circus and expecting anybody to spend an extra dime on cosmetics in the middle of a recession is likely unfair. It’s enough that nobody genuinely cares about his cats as much as Trey does, that no family works harder than the Dykes, that in most towns where the show plays circus day is still better than the day that came before it or the day that follows.

So it comes back to ego again. Mine. I was a horse’s ass. I owe everyone on Culpepper a mea culpa. I’ll try, next time, not to think less of any show – I haven't built one myself and succeeded in juggling all of those same responsibilities. The one thing I generally do well is my job. There’s pleasure enough in hard work. Time to let go of all that ego and get that job done.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010 

Northeast in the midst of the worst July heat wave in a decade, warm beneath a bigtop. In a heat wave show announcers earn the respect of anyone. Performers may spend minutes at a time in the tent. Ushers, inside seat sellers, music and lighting guys, the prop crew and announcers swelter through the whole performance. A heat wave may be the appropriate time to remember the anniversary of the the 1944 Hartford circus fire, the Mr. Barnum's birthday fell in the same stretch is also worth noting. The Kelly Miller Circus is currently making a quick run through north central NY before a long jump in southwestern PA and into Ohio. Western New York does look good for fans of tented circus this season.

More tomorrow. Hope to visited Lewis & Clark again Friday... I'll try to remember a camera.