16.1.17

THE BIG TOP BLOWN DOWN BY A GALE OF CREATIVE DESTRUCTION?

That appears to be Tyler Cowen, this time at his Marginal Revolution winter quarters, assessing the end of Ringling Barnum.  (But not, mind you, all itinerant circus!  Expect me to be giving the surviving truck shows free plugs once summer nears.)  He links a Chattanooga Times Free Press story about life on the road with the Ringling Barnum gold unit, a truck show.  The star of the Globe of Death (a popular show-ending motorcycle act) also worked with the pachyderms.
Alex Petrov is a Ringling Brothers star given his rare talent for racing a motorcycle across a thin, high wire. He can hold his own in the Globe of Steel, which looks like a Thunderdome death trap where three motorcyclists zoom past each other, often upside down inside the cage.

Despite his skill, Petrov has the humble, smelly task of shoveling elephant poop out of the two semi-trailers where Asia and April dwell. Petrov trains the two elephants, which requires him to park the RV he calls home next to their trailer in case they want his reassuring company in the middle of the night.

When April and Asia retire to Florida in 2018, Petrov will miss them, but he shrugs off any worry that their departure will dent circus attendance. Despite the controversy over the ethics of circus animal acts, Ringling seems able to coax a lot of people off the couch and into the tent.
The expression "doubles in brass" is a circus expression for a trouper, sometimes a laborer, with musical ability, who fills in on the sideshow band-wagon.  Not sure what role the musicians' union played in changing that.  To this day, though, you'll find the acrobats also serving as animal trainers or climbing the Spanish Web or juggling.

The itinerant circus practiced just-in-time logistics long before that became a management fad.  Still true.
[Ringling Barnum general manager Jason] Gibson describes the economic impact on Chattanooga: 40 of the 120 circus employees stay at a local hotel; 24 travel in RVs that are parked in a nearby field.

Each day, truckloads of hay and produce are hauled to McKenzie Arena to feed the animals. The circus vet banned peanuts from the elephants' diet for being too fatty but allows them an occasional loaf of unsliced bread or some marshmallows for treats. On performance days, a local caterer feeds the human employees, or they buy their meals in restaurants or grocery stores.
The two train units still operate pie cars, and some of the smaller itinerant shows featured a cookhouse.  On Carson and Barnes, it doubles as the classroom.  (The kids, and the circus is very much a family business, sit at the tables where meals are served at mealtime.)


Mooseheart, Illinois, 27 August 2011.

So what went wrong?  Mr Cowen offers six provisional hypotheses.

1. It is now cheaper to bring people to spectacular events than to have the spectacular events travel around.

Perhaps true of Ringling Barnum, which played in big-city arenas (the famous November "circus trip" of Chicago's Blackhawks and Bulls being a consequence of The Greatest Show booking the United Center, and the Chicago Stadium before that).  Not true so much of the smaller truck shows, which play county fair grounds and school practice fields, or work with the Shriners.  And the Shriners pledge, to the extent allowed by local law, to continue to offer the big cats and the performing pachyderms.

2. Kids get enough drama through social media.

Information technologies destroy attention spans.  Ringling Barnum might have "dumbed down" (to use one critic's observation) its show in response.  For all the good it did.  The smaller shows have a lot more audience participation.

3. Circus jobs stink, and it is increasingly hard to attract and retain the talent. Might there be a visa/immigration issue as well?

In fiction, on Public Broadcasting, and in life, the itinerant circus has always been a hard-knock life.  The Cole Brothers show had a number of workers from Mexico and Central America on a visa program, apparently making a case for temporary help on the circus is similar to making a case for temporary help writing code.  Performers are akin to the boomers of the steam-era railroad, I have seen what looks like the same people and the same act on different shows in different years.  All the same, you have to like living on the train (Ringling Barnum will be finding permanent homes for some of its crew) or out of a motor home for long stretches of time.

4. Circuses are mostly boring, and some of the highlights can be watched, in one form or another, on YouTube. Even as a kid I was bored by the circus I saw at Madison Square Garden, relative say to watching Fischer vs. Spassky on TV. What’s the actual drama in a circus?

Watching Ringling Barnum upstairs from Penn Station doesn't strike me as edifying, either.  At the 2015 Worldwide Circus Summit, I noted that the professionals struggled with what, exactly, they were providing.  Excessively Earnest People might have dragged the Big Apple Circus too far to the public-radio, virtue-signalling, preachy side.  Perhaps all the elephant rides at extended intermissions, and special sales of peanuts, some of the bags containing a prize, at the smaller shows, is for a reason.  Plus the audience participation, and clowns that play to the kids.

5. Fewer circus animals, including fewer or no elephants (none for Ringling since May 2016), hurts circus demand by a significant amount.

No elephants, no circus.

6. I don’t know if contemporary circuses still degrade women, the disabled, and other groups, but of course the contemporary world won’t sit still for that any more, not in any sphere of life.

There are no sideshows, if that's what this point refers to.  There still are athletic women in spangly costumes riding the elephants and performing on the Spanish Web or the trapeze.

Perhaps the itinerant circus is going to live on in the models.


We will continue to alert children of all ages to opportunities to view real circuses under Shrine auspices and otherwise.

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