Feature Article Vol. VIII, No. 3

Jeanette Williams Has Seen It All From All Sides

For Jeanette Williams, a woman who has seen it all from all sides,  life today is very different than it was just a few years ago. Descended from the renowned German circus family named Althoff.  Jeanette began her full time circus career when she was 18, fresh from boarding school and a German business school degree. She emigrated to America fifty years ago with Gunther Gebel Williams to whom she was married at that time.  They were the star performers in what became the Red Unit of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  Their combined talents provided the new second unit with no less than eight acts.  Along with her liberty horse act of 18 Arabian stallions Jeanette also presented a bird act, an uncaged cheetah act and a dressage routine.

Her life changed again when she was married to Elvin Bale at a time when he was touring on his own. Jeanette opened a restaurant in Venice, Florida, near the Ringling Bros.  winter quarters.  In the three years she ran the Continental Café she managed to win a Pride of Service Award from the local Chamber of Commerce.

Once she stopped performing she became a booking agent for circus talent, a job she has prospered in for the past thirty years. But that too has changed , most drastically in the past several years.  “I used to have 2,500 DVDs,  and it cost me a fortune to convert video tape to a DVD.  But today you can’t even send the DVDs.  Nobody wants them.  So now I’m sitting with all these DVDs.  I sorted them out four times. Some I just can’t let go of.  But I did send a lot to Maureen Brunsdale at Illinois State University.  I sent her boxes and boxes of acts with the understanding that they were only to be used for reference or research.  I asked Pedro (Reis) if he would like to have them for the school and he said, ‘Oh. God, No!’ “

Speaking of her contribution to the university she says she would like to see Brunsdale organize the collection so that there is a section for each of the various kinds of circus acts. Her agency, itself, is made up of categories just like in a grocery store, she says.  That is why it is very difficult for her to find people to work for her who won’t need to have every act explained to them.  “People don’t know the business.  They call anything over six feet a flying act.”

Although she has been in the United States for fifty years now and in that time learned the American circus business inside and out, most of her business today is in Europe. “Everybody offers me acts for the winter because in Europe all the shows do really, really well at that time.  There is a Christmas circus in every city. I make good money in the winter,” she says, but in the summer which in the States would have been the prime time for circus activity, now there is not much business for her.

Today, she says, she is eager to help circus acts find work, but they must be someone “whom I feel I can represent with pride.” She does not take on any talent exclusively.  “I  don’t do exclusive because if I have a performer exclusive, and if he doesn’t work I wouldn’t be able to sleep.    But today with the technology of the internet if I take a performer on, and I present him in some entity like a cruise ship, a fair or circus park I immediately will ask him to make a note that I offered him the job, and then when  I get closer to negotiating the contract, it is very clear that I was the one who booked him.  So this is what I do.

“I get about 40 to 60 emails a day from people all over the world looking for work. It’s not that easy anymore because we are now dealing with a lot of people who don’t have any pride, loyalty or honesty.  Sometimes I offer an act to a producer,  and they are look at it and reject it and then it is hired by the producer bypassing me.  That is something I cannot accept.  I’m very old fashioned.  You hurt me once and maybe again but then I am out. It’s not that easy because a person could say I want a juggler and press a button and ten jugglers jump up.  I don’t do any business on Facebook.  If you want to work with me I do it the old fashioned way:  email.  That way I can see what they have and what I can do and make suggestions for improvement.  I have been a judge in many festivals:  Monte Carlo, China, Rome, Budapest and Paris.  I am proud that I was asked to go there because of my background and my family; they know  that I know what I am doing.

“I do very well every year in Puerto Rico. I brought a lot of shows to Puerto Rico.  One year we brought a show there with an unbelievable spectacular water show;  we called it Agua and before intermission there was this huge water display with classical music.  It was enormous.  The producer, Pepo Bareras, will bring me in there as if I were family.  I have been working with them for almost 16 years now.  The show runs for six weeks.  We can clear millions.  It is massive.

“Many years ago when I started with the Chinese state circus I brought them to Puerto Rico. It hurts me to think of what has happened there since first Irma and then Maria .  This circus is produced  in a huge tent with air conditioning and flooring the minute you leave the ticket office all the way to the VIP tent and the concession tent.  In the top three rows they serve tapas and drinks during the show.  It is all very elegant, probably the best looking show I have ever seen other than Circo Tihany years ago.

“I was doing a Chinese production that we had worked on for a year. I had four containers of equipment come from China, along with 27 performers.  Then along came Irma, and so we tore everything down to save the tent,  and we put the artists up in hotels because they were living in trailers in the back. It was like a little city with a kitchen for the Chinese so they could cook their own food.  Three days later we had them all back,  and we put the tent back up and started again and worked one week , and  then here comes Maria.

“Everything came down again, the king poles were staying there; we put the young people who were between 22 and 28 years old back into hotels and condos and apartments. It was a disaster.  These people were sitting almost two months in Puerto Rico, and I couldn’t get them out.  There were no flights, no airport.  Finally I was able to get six boys out to France, and they lost the engagement back to China. It was a nightmare.  Puerto Rico is still not the same.  Some of the crew are working for FEMA. “

To keep up to date in the booking business Jeanette says it is important to stay in touch with both the individual acts and the presenters. “You have to keep your eye on the entire business, like for instance cruise ships. I used to work with the Royal Caribbean and I booked a Polish couple with them for twelve years. They did an adagio act and a perch pole act.  Then all of a sudden I am told, no more single acts only total productions, so I lost that.

“I have done entire shows but not for cruise ships.  I had done Detroit, an open- air show for seven years, and I also did a show for the McDonald Co. in New Zealand.  We did a show for the Ronald McDonald House.  We called it Circus Rocks.  I had a good budget there, and I did this for four years in a row.  I had Tino Wallenda there and a flying act and the famous motorcycle jumpers.  They are very expensive.  They are like stars.”

Reading about the salaries commanded by sports stars Jeanette can’t help but observe with regret that none of the circus performers who risk their lives every day make even a small percentage of what professional athletes make. “ It’s very sad,” she says.

There are other ways in which the circus business has changed and/or become more difficult. Flying acts, for example, are often problems because their contracts specify certain tricks that must be included.  It is difficult to guarantee certain things because the personnel in flying acts often change and abilities as a result also change.

Jeanette says she has often been burned by Russian acts. After some years of being coddled by the state they do not have the same work ethics that other performers have.

Arlette Gruss, one of the most active producers in Europe has recently told her, “Don’t offer me any acts that don’t have their own trailers. I don’t give trailers anymore.”   And nobody wants a cat act anymore.  Carson & Barnes hires one Mexican troupe that can do four acts.  How good can every act be?

Perhaps the most discouraging thing about some American circuses is that they don’t look for quality, just quantity. In contrast, one of the producers she has always had respect for is Wayne McCary.

Although immigration issues are much in the news today, Jeanette feels that for performers the immigration situation is not too bad. Lawyers  are getting more expensive, and a clean record free of criminal activity and up to date health papers are essential.

With all these concerns, Jeanette admits “I get frustrated some days. I’m not yet ready to retire, and I won’t as long as I can think.  The people I deal with know they can trust me.  I have to keep my European contacts open otherwise I am out of the game.  In contrast American shows don’t return calls.”