R.I.P. Big Apple Circus


I will take it as a sure sign of the un-momentousness of the news in our headline when (as they inevitably will) people respond to this when I post it with remarks like “What-? When did this happen? That’s terrible!”

Because it is not breaking news. The New York Times reported its closing in July, about six weeks ago, and reported that it was seriously in danger of closing in early June — three months ago. If it truly mattered to New York, or the nation, or the world, as it ought to have done, the public outcry would have been tremendous — unstoppable. Instead it drew its last breath like a vagrant in a flophouse, ignominiously and obscure: “Where’s Old Pete? I haven’t seen him around lately.” “Oh, didn’t you hear? He died — about six years ago. They say he was drunk and fell asleep on the railroad tracks.”

This pops into my head this morning for a couple of reasons. One is that I heard the other day, from someone who should know, that it’s not just the big top that’s been put to bed, but also their community programs (like the hospital clowns and so forth), which they had promised to keep alive. File this under “unsubstantiated rumor” for the nonce (since the Circus hasn’t made any announcement on the subject) but it comes from the most creditable sources. (But either way, though those programs are wonderful, I’m not sure what a circus is without a big top). And also…here we are post-Labor Day, long about the time I usually start getting press releases and such about the fall season, which normally opens at Lincoln Center in October. And this year, for the first time in my professional life, I didn’t.

They really ought to fix their web site, which blithely gives the impression that everything is hunky-dory. But sadly, it’s a sort of echo, a ghost page.

I’ve made no secret of my ambivalence about the BAC over the years, both artistically and administratively. It’s why I’m not as sad about this turn of events as I ought to be. Objectively, I owe everything — or at least much — to the Big Apple Circus.  I worked in the development department there roughly from 1994 through 1996, first as a free-lance grant writer, then as a receptionist, then as a membership assistant, and then the membership manager. My friend Trisha Smith was their corporate fundraiser, she gave me the opportunity there (and other places, too. To her, too, I owe much). I worked under Eva Brune, a wonderful mentor, who remains a good friend. She taught me much about fundraising, but I also worked closely with the staff of every single other department and found myself studying every aspect of the organization: the marketing, public relations, ticket sales, the finance department, and of course the show itself. That’s what inspired and enabled me to start Mountebanks and the American Vaudeville Theatre, which eventually led to things like my book No Applause. And I made dozens of lasting friends there, including both my colleagues in the back office, and those performers — all those clowns and magicians and sideshow artists, my oldest friends from among that set were people I met through Big Apple Circus.

Still, I find myself dry-eyed and unsentimental. As I’ve written a few times, I was never crazy about the show itself. While I’ve absolutely LOVED the last couple of editions (ironically), for most of its life, when it was guided by its founding artistic directors it felt to me precious and frou-frou and “European”.  Everything about its aesthetics offended me: the costumes, the music, the graphic design. It always seemed calculated to impress somebody else, somebody somewhere else. Mostly, it struck me as a circus for rich little girls, the daughters of its millionaire board members, all unicorns and rainbows and magic chimes. It was a circus for Eloise, not Toby Tyler.  Yes, they toured the outer boroughs but still, I thought the fact that their annual Manhattan run was ensconced at Lincoln Center, wedged between the opera house and the ballet theatre, spoke volumes. This isn’t a true populist organization; this is a plaything of the elites. And yes, they had their community programs and so forth, but they only ever had one foot in that. What does it mean to be about THE PUBLIC? Are you down here with us? Or do we have to walk down a shining corridor to visit you on your throne? If they had truly become indispensable to the public, they wouldn’t have needed those millionaire board members.

When I was there twenty years ago, as inexperienced as I was, I could tell that they were administratively bloated — overstaffed, overly generous, overly profligate. There seemed to be an office party every week. I got something like a month of PATERNITY leave when my son was born. Was I glad to get it? Hey, of course! All I’m saying is that I am not shocked that an organization run that way has money problems.

Yet, it was a New York institution. We all thought of it that way. Its legacy is enormous. Acorns (apples) off its tree? There must be tens of thousands…if we’re counting every person who was inspired by it, invigorated by it, whose life was changed by it. My anger (the anger that seems to be standing in the way of any sorrow or nostalgia) stems chiefly from that. It’s a betrayal, a let-down, that amount of fuck-uppery. And then, in the end, having shot themselves in the head, the apparent indifference of management: to CLOSE it, rather than reinvent it in some more modest form so that it will continue to survive, or keep it on life support. It’s closing clearly because its founders are long gone, so no one there has the necessary degree of emotional investment in it. If it had been done right, the PUBLIC would have had that degree of investment. What a waste.

2 Responses to “R.I.P. Big Apple Circus”

  1. Yes, I knew it, saw the news releases. I was sad to hear it, but it somehow seemed like they weren’t trying all that hard to save it. I wondered why but resigned myself to the demise of another circus. The 1970’s were a kind of unaknowledged second golden age of the circus. Ringling was at it’s most grand and indulgent peak since the end of their big top days, and these wonderful little circuses were being created. But the Pickles, The Royal Leichtenstein, and now The Big Apple, seem so much a part of that decade and it feels kind of obvious in some way that their time is past. This century is kind of merciless about nostalgic wonders.


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