Sex Death And Ronald Mcdonald
ON THE ROAD DURING THE ERA OF GREATEST PERIL FOR THE ONE INDISPENSABLE AMERICAN SHOW
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
After answering an ad in the Washington Post , he had traveled with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for ten years, working in various front-office jobs. He had joined the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus in January, when he got a call asking him to help the circus put together an experimental marketing and promotion strategy.
“Since the beginning of time,” he said, a shaman reciting his tribe’s history, “tent circuses played in some farmer’s field or on fairgrounds. But fields and fairgrounds are too far off the beaten track for people today, and they won’t bother to go. So we have to go to them, to where they gather, where they shop.”
The Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers show was, for the first time, going from mall to mall. Ever since the early 1950s, circuses, unable to compete with television, movies, theme parks, and professional sports, had been playing to smaller and smaller audiences. In 1956 Ringling Bros. tore down its big top for the last time and decided to play only long engagements in large cities inside arenas like Madison Square Garden, which it has played for more than 125 years. The few circuses that still played under canvas, like the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers show, began depending more and more on dates sponsored by the Shriners, the Police Benevolent Association, and the Knights of Columbus, for which they were guaranteed fixed fees. In each city the local sponsor would sell tickets, treating the circus as a fundraising event.
“Last year almost all our dates were sponsored like that,” said Tim. “It’s more secure than cold dates, just going into a town and trying to drum up an audience, but if you fill your tent, it’s not as profitable. And it’s not as exciting. If you know you’ve got a guaranteed ten to twenty thousand dollars coming in, there’s no risk. If there’s no risk, and the circus is just another show, the circus starts dying.”
Stinson and I crossed the lot to the dining tent, where the workers ate. Most of the performers cooked for themselves in their own trailers. Outside the tent were galvanized tubs, one full of hot soapy water, the other full of hot rinse water. Inside the tent the light filtering through the canvas was sepia, and the workers, who were sitting at the tables in white T-shirts and staring, still groggy from sleep, straight ahead into space, looked like figures in turn-of-the century snapshots.
“This year,” Tim said, “almost all our shows are cold dates. We’ll be at malls where the people are. If they want to see the circus, they’ll come; if they don’t, they won’t.” He made it sound like a test of the American character. “It’s a make-or-break situation,” he said.
The side poles were being fitted into grommets around the edge of the big top canvas, and the elephant, Sue, now in metal harness, was dragging them upright. When all the side poles were raised, the tent was concave, an enormous bowl. Sue, hooked to block and tackle, lumbered along, pulling one of the metal rings up a king pole. The big top billowed and massed like a time-lapse film of a thunderhead gathering.
The line was guyed to a stake. Sue, released, rubbed her forehead against the front of one of the sideshow trucks and swiped at the ground with the curled tip of her trunk, the gesture of a crapshooter scooping up dice.
The record time for setting up the big top was two hours and fifteen minutes. But the day was humid. The workers moved slowly from task to task. It wasn’t until noon that the tent was completely raised and the riggers could start hoisting the flying bar for the trapeze act and the iodine-quartz spotlights. One of the big-top crew was pounding in the last stakes, which would guy the inclined wire for the motorcycle act. To put up the circus, Stinson told me, the workers had to drive two hundred to three hundred holes in the asphalt, which, when they left, they had to fill at a cost of about a dollar a hole.
Greg, Stinson’s young cousin, who also had joined the circus in January, wandered up, juggling three hard pink balls, his head nodding like the bobbing head of one of the dogs people put in the back windows of their cars.
“I’m a Coke butcher,” he told me, still juggling as he talked, “but I’m getting an act up. I practice juggling, magic tricks. About everything I see I try. Most of the guys who work the concessions are trying to put together some kind of act.”
“Everybody doubles up,” said Stinson. “Everybody does two or three things. There’s no dead wood in a circus. If everybody doesn’t do his job, you can’t put on the show.