In the 1960’s prime time television gave the Baby Boom generation The Flintstones, a long running animated series while along with it’s Saturday morning counterpart The Jetsons made the Hanna-Barbera Animation studios very rich indeed. Both the Flintstones and the Jetsons took a comic look at suburban America with one series set in the mythical prehistoric world of Bedrock, while the other imagined the Space Age as it might exist in Leavittown, on Long Island, or in a planned community of the future like Columbia, Maryland. Despite giving lip service to the past or the future, both shows were purely early 1960’s. I mention the Flintstones, because Fred Flintstone and his best friend Barney were joiners. Both men took pleasure in their membership in the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo. Think Moose, or Elks, or Optimists, or Lions, or even the Masons. Did the Water Buffalo ever sponsor a circus? Probably they did. Did they sell a lot of tickets for the circus? It’s likely… it was the 1960’s.
The enduring model for traditional circus marketing for at least sixty years has been to partner a circus with a local sponsor. Local sponsors represent a broad spectrum of organizations, from the ubiquitous Chamber of Commerce, to the PTA, to the Volunteer Fire Department, but one constant has been the fraternal or civic organization. There was a logic to such partnerships. The generation that came home from the Second World War, like Fred and Barney, were also joiners. The popularity of civic clubs, social clubs, and fraternal orders in the 1950’s, the 1960’s, and the 1970’s was enormous. In fact most towns and villages had so many clubs, a circus booker could pick choose between potential hosts. The Mills Bros. Circus, of Ohio one of the best traditional shows to ever load onto trucks drafted contracts with sponsors with stipulations so exacting – if a sponsor failed to meet the requirements… not only was there no circus, likely the whole affair would wind up in court. Other shows like the Miller family’s 1950’s era Kelly Miller Circus were so profitable for sponsors, some booked or rebooked dates years in advance. By the 1960’s phone rooms working both circuses and sponsors could virtually promise profitable days for some shows before they ever arrived on the lot.
In economic and demographic terms, the joiners of the greatest generation represented a bubble, and bubbles are periods of rapid short-term growth. The me generation of baby boomers that followed the greatest generation did not, generally join the Moose, the Lions, the Jaycees, the Elks, or the Masons. By the middle of the 1980’s fraternal, social, and civic clubs were in decline. I’m not suggesting that many communities no longer have vibrant Lions Clubs, or Optimists Clubs, etc.—but rather the reality is that many of those clubs have an aging membership. In some communities groups like the Oddfellows and Rebekahs have disappeared entirely, along with like groups like Redmen Lodges, At least through the mid-1990’s the declining membership in fraternal and civic organizations had little impact on show business. In the era of strong phone rooms, a sponsor and a circus alike could count on phone sales to make many circus days profitable. The first blow reducing the effectiveness of of phone operations came with the widespread adoption of telephone answering machines in the 1980’s, allowing residential; phone subscribers to screen calls. Still, most household continued to answer the phone when at home. Federal Do Not Call lists proved far more devastating to strong phone rooms. Even organization exempt from Do Not Call restrictions found that households registered with DNC were as unwilling to listen to fundraisers and market researchers as they were to for-profit telemarketing pitches. The goose that laid the golden egg was on life support, and as cell phones replaced landlines entirely the goose was cooked. Today’s phone sales, directed at selling blocks of tickets for kids, and seniors to businesses represents a small fraction of what phones once generated.
With the demise of strong phone operations, the onus for advance ticket sales fell squarely upon local hosts. Some local sponsors do a magnificent job at selling tickets, others don’t. In the case of certain fraternal organizations, hosts capable of selling significant numbers of tickets even five years ago frequently see those numbers falling, along with their own memberships rolls. Some sponsors have never done much of a job at selling tickets in the post-phones era. Personally I find it vexing to sit across the table from the chief of a volunteer fire department when his group has sold fewer that twenty circus tickets. The excuses or justifications always sound about the same. The economy is bad, teher was another show thirty miles away a month, ago, the group had a conflicting fundraiser. The economy may indeed be bad, and there in fact have been another show in the area – but not infrequently in the next town, where all the same conditions apply, another sponsor may have done very well. Trey Key noted in 2009 that in recession some sponsors seemed to be working harder and selling more tickets, because fundraiser was a greater priority in a down economy. I think he was right. The Kiwanis Club with five well advertised ticket outlets and table set up two weekends in a row at the supermarket shows up for settlement having done well, and apologizing for not having done even better. The Chamber of Commerce with a few unadvertised outlets, no push to sell tickets, and an Executive Director interested onlky in the annual Awards Gala never apologizes for her lack of ticket sales. The Chamber doesn’t see the show as fundraiser. It’s enough to say they brought the circus to town. Unfortunately for the circus itself, that doesn’t fill seats. Some Chambers are great sponsors year after years – Soledad, California comes to mind. Some Kiwanis Clubs aren’t.. How do you even the odds?
I’ve been blathering a bit lately about issues involving the advance, or what perhaps it ought be on a traditional. I’ve focused on media –which – I know best. But when it comes to hosted dates it seems to me that “the advance” goes all the way back to initially booking a route or a run. Historically in the great age of circus booking was a function associated with the General Agent, the last couple of generations it’s been handled by front office and associated bookers. For a show playing primarily lot and license dates booking a route largely over the phone is quite practical. Likewise bookers working from home or the office can frequently sign past sponsors for whom the circus has been a success. On the other hand booking fresh towns, working with new sponsors, or assuaging the collective egos of past sponsors for whom circus has been a disappointment seems to work best when a personal contact is involved. A booker working on ground actually visiting communities and potential sponsors. The success of very good bookers like Bob Lessard, or Doug Stalker is based in part on knowing how differentiate between a good potential sponsor and sponsoring group that simple isn’t up to the task. Nobody can get it right all of the time, particularly a booker responsible for putting together an entire season. The show has to park someplace every day, and sometimes that means signing a weak sponsor to fill a date. Sometimes a strong sponsor from years past is no longer a strong sponsor owing to things like a change in officers in a particular club. That said, for sponsored dates a hands on booker, somebody who can put on a tie and talk to the Rotary Club will, I think, generally deliver better dates than a phone booker in this day and age.
Assuming the booker delivers a contract from a potentially successful host, it’s up to the home office and the rest of the advance to turn that sponsor into a winner. It’s sometimes suggested that the success of the David Rawls era Kelly Miller show owed much to Mr. Rawls and his ability to cultivate relationships with his sponsors. If the home can’t convince a sponsor that the show is intensely interested to making their particular date a success, is it any wonder that they lack the motivation to hustle tickets? Some sponsors jsu need encouragement, others the carrot and stick. While it may seem like a chore to talk with every sponsor every day in the two or three weeks leading up to their date, isn’t the proof in the payoff? In recent years some remarks here and there have suggested that the routing, booking, and advance on one Oklahoma based show has had problems resulting in disappointing seasons. While that may or may not be true, elements of the advance on that show did/do work very well. Couples traveling weeks ahead of the show and meeting with sponsors puts a human face on the enterprise and reassure sponsors. Likewise an active billposting crew ten days or two weeks out, and an advance clown traveling a week ahead of the show help to focus sponsors on the fact that the circus is coming. Moreover each element of the advance gives the show a heads up when potential problems may be looming.
The hard edged contracts that once defined a show’s relationship with a sponsor are mostly a thing of the past. Holding any sponsor to a specific presale is tough. Even five years ago it seemed quite reasonable to require that hosts of the Carson & Barnes Circus sell at least 250 Adult tickets on top of their original signing fee – or come up with a like amount out of pocket. Certainly the nut for the show was much greater than that presale would begin to cover – but the requirement held the sponsor accountable and at least in theory motivated most sponsors. Today for smaller shows requiring a host to sell even one hundred tickets just makes it harder to book the circus. The “stick” has to be purely psychological. If you don’t sell tickets you don’t make money. If you don’t sell tickets the seats are empty. Empty seats and a deficit spells failure. Filled seats and a profit and your organization is a winner. Money and acclaim within the community are the carrot.
Finding the right mix between sponsored dates and lot and license dates isn’t necessarily easy. While shows like Lewis & Clark appear to do a pretty good job, and hedge their bets even on sponsored dates with free kid tix laydowns, most shows are rather more comfortable doing one of the other well. On Kelly Miller several years ago we played a lot and license at a fairgrounds in rural western MA and absolutely died. Not a big surprise. There was no town there, no place for a plethora of paper or ticket laydowns. With a strong sponsor that fairgrounds might have worked. A license and license date that works well for a mid-sized show in or around a city won’t necessarily fly in the middle of nowhere. Likewise a hosted date in a town that’s too small is going to be problematic. “Fit” isn’t unimportant. A show without the office staff or advance to prop up sponsors will run into problems every time with sponsors who aren’t on top of their game. The show without the motivated bill crewing to put up p[aper and lay down tix for a lot and license will have similar problems. Anyway, that’s how it appears to me.