Feature Article Vol. V – No. 7

A Not So Surprising Surprise

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The reaction around the circus industry in the United States, and in fact around the world, when news of the Big Apple Circus’ ceasing production was announced was shock. How could that be?  To the casual observer the Big Apple Circus had an unassailable reputation for excellence and quality production. It was an established tradition that enjoyed the prestige of an annual engagement in New York City’s Lincoln Center imbuing it during its nearly forty year run there with the same sort of solid  permanence as that enjoyed by the Metropolitan Opera. To anyone who was paying close attention for the last several years, however, the news was not so surprising.

That image of stability masked a phenomenon that grew in seriousness over the years: a declining loss of earned income. That, of course, put an increasing strain on funding efforts to make up the difference and keep the show financially viable. That effort was anything but easy, even, in the beginning and it never got any easier as the years went by.  Au contraire, it became more difficult. It has always been a struggle not the least because the idea of a not-for-profit circus had absolutely no currency at the time. The closest thing to such an entity thing was on the West Coast with the Pickle Family Circus which relied on sponsors to keep themselves afloat.

In addition, the show was never really designed to travel to a new venue every week,  so eventually several dates had to be abandoned as their profitability disappeared.  In a few years the opening date in Virginia, and others later in the season in Shelburne, VT and Atlanta, Georgia, were all abandoned.  For a time the only dates that were self-sustaining were New York City and Boston and these held on because of the show’s reaction to its audience’s needs by adjusting the pricing to a sense of what the market would bear and by altering its performance schedule.  But eventually, the box office at these dates also began to experience a creeping but steady decline as well.  Where was the audience development department all this time?

And then the show itself began to change.

In addition to the loss of the elephants after the 1999 season, other factors contributed to this subtle change of character of the show as an entertainment.  One was the abandonment of the concept of a circus company.  The returning company members and the clowns gave the show a warmth and a soul and a sense of comfortable familiarity.  Grandma was a vital  part of the show’s soul.  The character departed in 2013 after having been around for twenty-five season during which time she established a presence that many members of the audience responded to with great affection.  The character made you feel as if you were a member of a family.  Paul Binder, himself was another such factor.  He retired in 2011.  Binder’s appearance in the ring was one of  the hooks that kept audience returning to the big top for several generations.  Once they had departed there was a sense of a loss of ownership by the audience.  It no longer had the same personality that they had come to know and love rather intimately.

After Binder left there was an effort to renew everything without paying attention to the core. The productions thereafter were never replaced by a different sort of show, despite the fact that it now was something significantly different.

That meant the audience development department needed to focus on building a new audience, a much more difficult assignment. Even in its best years the show never did any better than break even, although for several of its best years that included putting aside a fifth of the cost needed for a replacement big top. Cash flow was always a problem, complicated by the seasonal nature of the income.  After the Lincoln Center run the show was forced to seek commercial loans and to institute cost-cutting measures to keep afloat.  The details of the show’s finances during the term of its most successful executive director James McIntyre, from the late 1980s through the 90s is laid out in detail in my book The New American Circus in the chapter “The Most Difficult Trick of All.”

The fluctuating nature and character of the Board of Directors during all this was a constant source of concern as their interest and ability in fund raising, which should be its principal occupation, has risen and fallen over the years sometimes to levels of dangerous incompetency.

After the death of its most important benefactor, Alan Slifka, in 2011, and increasingly as the years wore on a significant schism developed in the various boards’ approach to fund raising as the need to finance both the circus and its social components like The Clown Care Unit, a split exacerbated by the subterranean but ever simmering rivalry between the co-founders Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, according to those close to the operation. This caused a critical split in the fund raising efforts.

In the early days fund raising for the Big Apple Circus was a slow, painful process that required educating potential donors to the artistic values of the classic one-ring circus.  Eventually the emphasis was put on touting the social aspects of the project. It was easier explain and to solicit funds for clowns in hospitals than a classic circus.

As a consequence, marketing went out of whack. The Marketing Dept. was cut a few years ago and what was meant to pass for marketing was outsourced, ending up costing more with little to show for it.  The public no longer seemed aware that the circus was a not-for-profit organization. Fund raising became focused on Clown Care, which by the way is no longer the institution that it once was.  The Board increasingly preferred promoting those activities and that influenced the marketing, which more or less took the circus for granted.   You don’t fill seats in the big top that way. The Board didn’t want to hear about the circus being neglected.  It preferred dealing with feel good images of kids in hospitals instead of a cutting edge circus.

The marketing for the show itself therefore was increasingly aimed at kids, but it was never designed to be that kind of show.  The circus’ ideal was corrupted by marketing heavily to kids, and that was the tone taken by most critics. Instead of renewing its audience, as a must see event, everything seemed to point to its becoming an event one had to take one’s children to, an idea that was reflected in the more or less dismissive reviews of the New York critics. This shift in emphasis apparently had the blessing of the board.

As the financial situation became dire during the show’s last few years the Board’s response was to make cuts. All of the people in the press and marketing department who knew something about the circus were fired and replaced by people who had no feel for it.  The staff that remained was unhappy, disillusioned, and demoralized.

Finally the last few executive directors who were chosen because they knew something about fund raising turned out to be short-lived disasters. They tended to have little experience in show business and knew less about marketing it.

Given that a portion of the public seems to have lost interest in the Big Apple Circus, the most sanitized and refined version of something that still looked like a circus, it begs the question: Has America lost its taste for circus? If so, hopefully it will only be a temporary condition and that enthusiasm can be revived along with the Big Apple Circus.

Meanwhile, according to Paul Binder, “the story is still unfolding.”   More to follow.

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