Feature Article Vol. VII, No. 8

The BAC on Verge of Expanding Operations

onto a National Stage

After working in the medical field for thirty years Neil Kahanovitz, now sixty-nine years old,  is returning to his first love, the circus, where he worked as a performer while in his twenties.  “It’s something you can’t get out of your blood.  It meant so much to me when I was younger.  Those early experiences are helpful in my new vocation.”

I recently met up with Neil Kahanovitz, who is listed in the program simply as the Big Apple Circus chairman, and he was excited  and eager to talk about a new direction the show was about to embark upon. We met in the new indoor Spiegeltent the show has erected to provide an unusual measure of hospitality for its VIP patrons.  It was the perfect setting to let his enthusiasm and excitement have free rein.  He began by informing me he had a scoop for me.

“We are in the end stages of formalizing an agreement to launch an arena tour in July after we close the tent tour,” he said skipping any preliminaries.  “The tented show will then transform in a matter of two or three weeks into an arena tour.  We would then go ahead and mount the next Lincoln Center show again like we always do in late August and early September, so that in the fall, once we open here again at Lincoln Center in a tent, we would also have the concurrent arena show, which we had previously mounted and hopefully will be able to keep going for an unlimited number of weeks. “

With barely a pause for a breath, he forged on.  “It is a significant undertaking on various levels, not only in production.”  It is his goal for the arena show to maintain the intimacy for which the Big Apple Circus is known under the big top, not only from the floor perspective but also from a vertical perspective, so that when people walk into that building and go to their seats they will feel like they are in a tent.  The set designers Anita La Scala and Rob Bissinger, who designed both this year‘s and last year’s sets, will be working on trying to deliver that kind of environment, so that not only will audiences have the feeling that nobody is more than fifty feet from the ring, but also that they’re not in some cavernous arena looking at the hockey banners hanging from the rafters above.

Because of what the Big Apple Circus has represented for so long, it is Kahanovitz’ opinion, that this feeling of intimacy is vital.  In addition he wants to be sure audiences feel as though they are “really part of the circus.” The objective is to create an environment that is the opposite of the feeling projected by the arena shows staged by Cirque du Soleil.  He is absolutely sold on this idea of intimacy.  “I think to the point where we may limit the number of tickets sold.”

Another reason for the excitement is that the Big Apple Circus is about to enter into a partnership with Specter, the division of Comcast that deals with arena management.  “They are going to be our partners and obviously we will play all of their buildings that they manage all over the country, but also they will be our partners in booking and setting up the rest of the tour as well,” he points out.  “So I think it’s very exciting from another  perspective:  the brand will go into places and into cities it has never been able to go before.”

A recent public relations coup that should have a large impact on spreading the brand is the segment of the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon that ran on Thanksgiving evening.  It was filmed on location with the show under the big top in Lincoln Center.

The arena show will be adapted from the current tent show, which means keeping the current cast together. “There are a couple of contractual problems with the current cast but I think we can work around that and most of the show will remain intact, and It’s exciting.’’ A good deal of that excitement, as well as confirmation of the show’s quality, is a result of a favorable review  published in the New York Times the day before we met.  The day of its publication proved to be the best day for ticket sales, in fact the biggest single day sales, since he took over the Big Apple. As for the overall sale of tickets this year, “I have to say it has been very encouraging;  we are way ahead of last year.”

As for last year, “I think we have had highs and lows.  Boston was terrific for us.  It  was a complete success.  National Harbor in the DC area was a new site for us.  We did well there and this year we will do even better. We go there after Lincoln Center.  Philadelphia was probably a poor choice of venues.  This year we will finish the tour in Philly, but at Valley Forge, which is where Cirque du Soleil played last year and did very well.  So we are very hopeful that that will be a much better location for us.   This year we will be at Lincoln Center two weeks longer than in the past.  Then in mid Feb to the third week in March we will be at National Harbor and then Boston.  We haven’t finalized the deal but we will probably be at North Shore Mall in Boston, and then during Patriots Week, during May, we will end the tour at Valley Forge around the middle of June.  Then rehearsals will start again for a new version of the arena tour, with maybe a couple of weeks off.  We will have to do at least a couple of weeks of rehearsal for technical adjustments of the lighting system. “   Speaking of lighting, the arena show will carry  it’s own lighting grid much as Ringling did. Jeff Croiter will do the redesign and transfer the lighting from the current tent  show for the one in arenas.

In addition to looking ahead, the show has already installed some upgrades to the production at Lincoln Center.  There  is a brand new concession stand and a VIP area.  The latter is being promoted more ardently than it had been last year.  VIP ticket holders are invited to spend some time and enjoy refreshments in a  Spiegeltent which is clearly something that has been enjoyed  by those attending  the private events that are packaged by the show.  “We didn’t really push the VIP sales last year, “Kahanovitz explains.

“I think what people don’t remember or forget is that we didn’t really take possession of the circus until  March, and we  were scrambling around just to know what was in the trucks much less everything else.” Obviously it has been a year with a very steep learning curve.  The first order of business was  “just putting on a quality show like we did.”

The new concession area is populated by costumed characters who interact with the public and are available for photo ops.  “They are there to improve the experience before the audience even gets inside the big top.  The effect is much like that created in the reception tent of Barnum’s  Kaleidoscape.

Asked what image he would like the show to project to its public Kahanovitz was quick to answer.  “I think what we are trying to do and it is something that we already accomplished last year and have done even better this year which is to put on the best circus that we possibly can,  and I am confident in saying that today we are clearly the best circus on the road in America.  Having been to Europe in recent months, to see acts on other shows, I believe we are on the top of the list of circuses in the entire world.  Quality is the word, and I think if you put on a quality show it really broadens your appeal not only to families which have always been the core audience but also for people who aren’t coming with children.

“It always comes  back to that word quality.  It has to be a quality show.  Guillaume [Dufresnoy] and I take great pride in and spend a lot of time going around and looking for the best acts in the world.  It is not easy to be able to achieve the kind of success we would like, but you can’t do it without a quality show. It starts and ends with a quality show.”

The two men are already looking for acts for next year.  “We are about ready to make some offers and send out some contracts,” Kahanovitz acknowledges, “but I don’t want to say anything until we get some of these contracts back.  The challenge and the hurdle is to find the best possible acts and to make sure that within the show the acts all work together.  We are looking in the bigger shows in Europe.  Last Year we went to Monte Carlo.  I am just back from Circus Knie.  We will go to Cirque d’Hiver in Paris this year.  We’ll go really anywhere.  We get videos all the time.  We search for acts of a certain variety that we think will fit.  It’s really a combination of people telling us about acts and us going out to look for specific types of acts.”

There is one artist the show is ready to confirm.  That would be the European clown Housch ma Housch.  He will be making his American debut next year. “I saw him last year at Knie,” Kahanovtiz says.  “ We both come from the same area in Kiev.  My grandparents are from there.   We are excited about having him.”

One of the big challenges the show faces insofar as booking big acts is concerned, there is  only so much space to house everyone in trailers or  sleepers on the lot.  This year the space is  packed.  “So we can only have so many troupes and one of the big troupes we are looking at for next year is a big teeterboard act.  They have been here in the past.  It is a pretty impressive troupe.  We had to build a new marathon sleeper for the Spicy Circus [the five member wall trampoline act] this year and last year for the Wallendas.”  The other sites the show plays are not as tight.

Kahanovitz has an office  at 3 Columbus Circle, which is convenient because it is only a few blocks from the lot. The show’s corporate offices are also located there. “But,” Kahanovitz confesses, “I like to use my office here.”  That would be his Spartan space inside a truck parked at the curb on W. 62nd St.  He shares the space with Dufresnoy. “I get a lot more work done there.”

The original group of investors continues providing financial support.  They have been joined by a new group that has come in this year.  Remarkable Entertainment has a lot of past experience in immersive entertainment, a side of the business which takes place primarily here in New York but at other sites as well.  Helping out promoting the VIP experience is a new PR group that concentrates on lifestyle, food and beverage.  Otherwise the PR group headed by Leslie Papa continues to provide the general promotions.

At the suggestion that he is young enough to have many years left to enjoy his new position, Kahanovitz replied, “If it doesn’t kill me first.  It certainly has its challenges.”  What has been the most difficult? “It depends on the day.  The most difficult thing is getting as many people into the seats as possible.  And keeping  it as financially viable as we can.  But again it begins and ends with a quality show. There is no longevity without a quality show. “