Editor’s Fanfare Vol. III, No. 5


 A Farewell to Canvas

July 16 was the 58th anniversary of the end of the tented era for the Greatest Show on Earth.  Depending on your disposition that date may either be mourned as the day the tents were folded for the last time or celebrated for the circus’ belated entry into the 20th Century.  I find myself more inclined to be counted among those in the latter group.

I saw the Ringling show under canvas only once in 1951.  Beginning in 1942, and every year since up to the present with just three misses, I saw the show in Madison Square Garden.

If one is nostalgic for that bygone era it can only be for those things that are tangential to the real circus—its performance.  If one considers the performance, be he performer or fan, one can only hail the move into buildings as a great improvement.

I recall speaking with the great Ringling clown Lou Jacobs backstage at Madison Square Garden a few years before he retired and asking if he missed playing under canvas.  I don’t recall his exact response but in effect he said something like, “Are you kidding?  Why would I miss that?  It is so much better for the performers nowadays in buildings with indoor plumbing and showers, and decent places to dress.”

He might also have added that equestrians didn’t have to worry about muddy tracks or uneven rings.  The accounts of the days under canvas are filled with times when the chariot races had to be cut because of the conditions of the track, or the spec had to be cut because of the weather or people sitting on straw along the track.  Rarely, it seems, did an audience see a complete show, something or another was always being cut or curtailed.  And then, of course, audiences also had to contend with all those poles obstructing vision.

Once the circus moved indoors the production values continued to improve until today the performances of the Greatest Show on Earth are unsurpassed technically.  They compare favorably with  anything in the touring entertainment industry.  The lighting, sound and the condition of the costumes were all improved when management no longer had to contend with the forces of nature and generating its own power.

The seating also improved enormously.  Imagine sitting through an entire performance on a backless seat in the blues for example.

During some research I did recently for a book project, I had occasion to examine the lengthy correspondence between Pat Valdo and Sverre O. Braathen.  Annually Valdo kept urging the devoted fan and photographer to come to New York to see the show in Madison Square Garden, where he assured Braathen it is at its best.

So I don’t mourn the passing of the Ringling’s big top, especially when you take the quality of  the performance into consideration.

Once More on Intermissions

In the previous issue, III-4 (which can be uploaded by clicking on the proper topic in the right column) I spoke about the various ways in which an intermission can impact on a circus performance.  Don Covington, who has had first hand experience in this matter, contributed some further considerations:

By the time that I began seriously observing circuses, only one major show was running without intermission.  Carson & Barnes Circus, under Dorey Miller, seemed the odd man out in those days with its practice of not breaking for intermission.  When asked about it, Dorey said that individual audience members could come and go as they liked during the performance, but that if he stopped the show and thousands of patrons headed to the donikers, it would take way too long to get them back into the seats again.  He was not concerned about concession sales, because his butchers roamed the seats with food and novelty items throughout the show.  He also had to be sure to get the public in and out on schedule because he moved every day and had to get to the next town without delay.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Big Apple Circus, conceived from the start as a theatrical experience.  The creative team wanted to control the atmosphere in the Big Top as if in a theater, therefore, once the performance began, there were no vendors distracting the audience and the action in the ring was choreographed for maximum impact.  The directors carefully considered how best to orchestrate the mid-show pause so that patrons could anticipate the delights to come.  Novelties and food items were available at intermission, but until recently, they were carefully selected so as to not interfere with the show (e.g. no light-up items, balloons or noisemakers were sold).

The Ringling show, in those days, broke for intermission to give their crew time to re-rig for the second half while the audience had the option to stretch their legs or visit concessions.  Many buildings stipulated that there be an intermission of a certain length so that their in-house concessions could operate.  As you may recall, there was a lively discussion in the industry when the Greatest Show On Earth  changed their policy on vendors in the seats.  The Big Show had been hawking everything that they could carry into the seats since they moved into arenas from the big top.  People expected that butchers were part of the package when they came to the circus.  In the tenting days, it was a matter of convenience and expediency to bring sales to the seats.  Management had a system in place that controlled the take and with a “captive audience” in crowded conditions, the vendors could work the crowd to maximum advantage from before the start of the performance to the end.  Buildings, on the other hand, were designed so that customers had the option of buying from a vendor or could go to the source for fresher or more varied selections.  Circus contracts were carefully negotiated to ensure that everyone had a piece of the action.  Buildings had the advantage in food service, so the circus needed to concentrate on other areas.   At some point, Feld Entertainment decided that the ideal situation for them would be to send vendors into the seats only before the start of the show, then again during intermission.  At the same time, the Greatest Show On Earth  saturated the lobbies and common areas with elaborate concession stands staffed with uniformed salespeople selling branded merchandise.  If a customer wanted a circus souvenir, there was no missing the location where it was sold.  Now that vendors no longer prowled the aisles during the show,  the creative team could design shows with blackouts, special effects and interaction that, in the past, would have hampered sales in the seats.

Circus owners of all stripes quickly learned how best to adapt to public tastes in novelties and souvenirs.  Intermissions became sales opportunities and were exploited ruthlessly, at times to the detriment of the total circus experience.  If the only thing that a customer remembers from his visit to the circus is the excessive length of the intermission, chances are good that he will not bring his family back to the circus anytime soon.