Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Worldbuilding From Reality Part 6 - Ringling Brothers Closing

Worldbuilding From Reality
Part 6
Ringling Brothers Closing 
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

The previous parts to Worldbuilding From Reality are here:

Part 5 is the "Realistic Happily Ever After" post from November 2016.

Part 4 - Creating a Story Canvas

Part 3 Creating Future History

Part 2 Advertising Video Writing


Back in January 2017, an announcement came out on a weekend that Ringling Brothers Circus was closing.



They are currently running two different shows.  A while ago, they eliminated their display of elephants in compliance with the outcry over how badly those elephants were treated.  If they were losing money, that might be where they would cut expenses.

This past Christmas selling season, Mall traffic was down -- overall spending was up a little, maybe about the amount of inflation.

Stadiums filled up nicely for political rallies and sports games, but apparently are not filling for Circus shows, or at least not at the prices necessary to put on a good show and move it around.

Or there could be other factors, such as difficulty getting the right talent under contract on the right terms.  For whatever reasons, the Greatest Show On Earth is over, and a huge number of jobs will  be lost.  It isn't just those who travel with the circus (performers, animal handlers, facility managers), or who stay at home-base and do upkeep, or advertising firms and ticketing offices that facilitate the crowds, but also souvenir makers and sellers, plus a lot of ancillary personnel you never hear about.

Great Romances and fabulous classic films have been made with the Circus background.  Memorable episodes of TV Series have been set on Circus lots.  Circus performers have been the subject of many more stories, novels, and films as they live lives outside the Circus.

This is the Reality that you can grab hold of and Build a world from.

Think deep into history -- the Roman Circus.  Think of Europe in the Middle Ages, and traveling troubadours, or Court Jesters, doing physical stunts or displaying animal training skills.

Think of where the traveling tent-show originated.  Think of all the "acts" that have been invented, displayed, turned profitable, turned professional, and died out for lack of interest among audience members.

Analyze everything you love about the circus (or hate).  Now find the essential humanity inside that colorful package.  What happens to the package if you take OUT the humanity and substitute your non-humans?

This blog series is about Alien Romance -- romance between a human and an alien, or between two aliens.  It is Romance with a twist.

But what makes Alien Romance interesting?  What makes the Happily Ever After ending necessary to the Romance into something any reader could understand is realistic, provided you explain it well enough?

What could make the general readership admire and respect the Romance Genre?

That is the question we have been pursuing for a few years here, and we have found many answers, no one of which is sufficient by itself.

The main complaint against Romance is that it is not "realistic."

The main attraction of Romance is that it is not "realistic."

And that is exactly the attitude contrast that science fiction genre faced for decades before Star Trek proved that Hollywood could make money on Science Fiction films and franchises.

Ringling is closing because of money -- (or so they say) -- and science fiction gained status in Hollywood because of money.

Dreams are worth money -- if you dream a popular dream shared by others and can articulate what those others can not quite say for themselves.

And, well, nightmares are also commercially salable.

Many people find "Clowns" scary - nightmarish, threatening.  I never have had that response, and I don't know why.

"Why" is always the question writers have to be asking themselves, proposing answers and writing stories assuming those answers are worthy of reader consideration.

I have been asking myself for decades, "Why are circuses popular?"

Now of course we have the question, "Why is Ringling not popular enough?"

I have thought wide and deep and beyond the ends of imagination about what traits make an "act" -- a circus act, a Vaudeville act, a variety act, a skit, standup comic, -- an ACT?  What is it about an "act" that captures popular imagination?

Of course every would-be stage performer, musician, singer, garage band, has asked that question, and if they hit on a good answer, they go professional.

At the beginning of television, Ed Sullivan presented the nightclub variety acts to the general US TV viewing audience and became the "must watch" show for a very long time.  Elvis Presley made his national debut on Ed Sullivan, as did many other greats.  He also showcased many Radio personalities such as Red Skelton.  They all had "acts."

In fact, Ed Sullivan presented many circus acts -- balancing acts, clowns, gymnasts, and even aerial flying acts.  Getting on Ed Sullivan made you instantly famous.

The Ed Sullivan Show was composed of acts - just like a circus or Vaudeville presentation, or a circus -- or an online magazine with embedded videos, or a YouTube channel!

Maybe YouTube videos (which pretend to be amateur but are actually professionally made, often in studios or with professional actors or gymnasts) are replacing Circus and Ed Sullivan?

Look at some of the YouTube Videos that have "gone viral" (often as a result of professional promotion).  They are "acts."  Unless you are looking at a crime in progress or a real road accident caught on dash-cam, you may be looking at an "act."  In fact, some of the "crimes" we see on YouTube are actually staged, which vitiates the import of the real ones.

I know that many viral YouTube video "acts" are professionally produced because one time I was stuck in a waiting room with a TV on -- and the TV had a documentary about professional studios being built to be rented to people making YouTube videos they wanted to make "go viral."  It is a new business model.

And much of what is being done with YouTube channels (the acts, the very professional editing, the advertising) is hauntingly similar to what Ed Sullivan did with the brand new medium of television as he brought radio talent and nightclub touring acts (and circus) to the general audience that had never seen such things.

So maybe YouTube is putting Circus out of business?  Ed Sullivan didn't make a dent in circus attendance -- in fact, he increased it and Ringling bought up other touring shows and finally fielded two separate shows.

There is a thirst for "acts" and people will pay to see "acts."

But what is an act?

I have long wanted to come up with a brand new circus act, something Aliens might bring to Earth, that would "wow" human audiences -- then tell the tale of the people involved in creating and selling that act to humans.

I haven't got it yet, but many authors have sent human circus acts to the stars.

I still don't exactly know what the essence of an act is.  The news of Ringling closing for lack of profit was a shock.  But I don't think "acts" have lost lustre or popularity, though apparently huge numbers of people aren't taking their children to circuses.

My mother took me to see Ringling when I was about three or four years old (and a few times after that).

I remember the trip, I remember the city.  I remember that during the show, we had seats way up at the top of the auditorium, the nosebleed section.  I remember that a few children were chosen to ride in the circus parade, and I wanted to be one of them in the worst way and had no idea why they got chosen.

Many circuses later, I fell in love with the flying act and wanted very much to be a circus flyer.  My mother told me that I couldn't be a circus performer because only people born in those families could be.  I believed her (for a few years).

Years later, when I had children to raise, and I was still working furiously on an interstellar circus concept that never got written, I did some interviews with small traveling circuses and thus connected with a newsletter subscribed to by circus performers.  And I went to Ringling every time they were in town.  Eventually, I brought my children -- and yes, we sat up in the nosebleed section -- and yes, I wanted ever so much to get my children chosen to ride in the parade.

I learned via circus performer contacts that to be chosen, you had to sit in certain seats right up by the front rail on the floor -- the most expensive seats.  Finally, I knew the secret of being chosen!

So I saved up, scraped, didn't buy certain books I wanted, did without other things, pinched pennies off the food budget, and did all the usual money-save maneuvers everyone does -- and for several years in a row I took my children to the circus to sit in the front rows.  I learned about box-office sales and geography, and tricks about where certain seats were sold (and where you could not buy those seats even if they had not been sold).  So I made a special trip to the arena box office the very day the tickets went on sale and demanded the very specific seats that I had finally figured out were where kids get chosen.

I dressed my kids carefully, and orchestrated the whole thing, being there as early as possible, right when the doors opened.

It took a couple tries, and some very un-ladylike behavior on my part, but I got my kids chosen!  Of COURSE one of them screamed and cried and didn't want to go -- but in the end I got to live that one triumph vicariously.  I never did that to my kids again.

I kept going to Ringling after that - every year - with or without the kids.  One time I bought and learned to use a motion picture camera, (the kind that used film), and sat in the balcony seats level with where the flyers would perform high above everyone else's heads.  The front seats in that section were also very expensive.  Took a few tries, but I finally got film of the flyers -- way too dim for cameras at that time, but I had photos of the MOVES, the gymnastics, in detail.  I finally understood one of the things that fascinated me about "acts."

So I have studied circus and I have studied Ringling's show composition and content to a fair-thee-well.  It's a lifelong obsession started by my mother (who also brought me my first science fiction novel that led to a whole profession!) I've spent hours at Circus Circus in Las Vegas just staring up at the flying rig with or without performers.

I can't express how devastating the idea of closing Ringling is.

I do not remember that first show itself except for one act.  Not the flying act which later captivated me when I was in my teens.  A clown act.

The act that has stayed with me all these decades, that defines what an "act" is to perfection, and that spurs me to want to invent an Alien "act" that could be imported to Earth, is Emmett Kelly as "Weary Willey."  And that character may be why I've never feared clowns.

This is from Wikipedia - an excellent article I think you should look at.


"Weary Willie" was a tragic figure: a clown, who could usually be seen sweeping up the circus rings after the other performers. He tried but failed to sweep up the pool of light of a spotlight. His routine was revolutionary at the time: traditionally, clowns wore white face and performed slapstick stunts intended to make people laugh. Kelly did perform stunts too—one of his most famous acts was trying to crack a peanut with a sledgehammer—but as a tramp, he also appealed to the sympathy of his audience.
---------end quote--------

The sweeping up a pool of light act is the one that symbolizes "clown" for me -- it uses modern technology (the spotlight) to express the ancient myth of Sisyphus


Or as Babylon 5 always put it -- Donald Duck is the god of frustration.

Here is an article that says pursue endeavors outside your comfort zone and the resulting frustration will be associated with longevity.


Frustration is very central to my lifestyle, and I don't do it very well.  That could be why that clown act with the light circle that could not be permanently swept up just spoke to me on some non-verbal level.  It is symbolism, as we've discussed many times in Why Do We Cry At Weddings:


I am also acquainted with much of Emmett Kelly's later film and TV work, but I do know that my first encounter was the spotlight act, live at a Ringling show.

Think back to your very first encounter with an "act" -- something you still remember vividly that bespeaks everything important about life.

Try to figure out what exactly hits you in the gut, and package that in new, modern symbolism for your current (and future) readership.

Emmett Kelly used the spotlight technology, Ed Sullivan used Television, a lot of people are now using YouTube to present "acts."

What can you use?  What "act" can you invent for your Science Fiction Romance novel that can be explained in words, create a picture in the reader's mind, and express something so profound it can not be said in words?

Look hard at the headlines you can rip material from.

An item like this one on Ringling Brothers' Greatest Show On Earth will resonate for generations and perhaps become a myth that will live on among Earth's otherworld colonies.

Perhaps a Lost Colony will be legitimized as a descendant of an Earth Culture because they retain this myth -- or because they recreate Ringling Brothers.

What makes a circus?  Why do people flock to see these "acts?"  Why have people stopped going to see Ringling Brothers?  Because there are elephants?  Or because there are not elephants?  Because people find clowns scary?  Because people think trapeze work is easy?  Or because people think high wire or trapeze work is too dangerous?

There are still many smaller circuses performing, even advertising on Television.

Check out


------quote from NY Times ---------
So now Cirque is trying a high-wire hybrid — a combination of theater and acrobatics, with a splash of old Hollywood, in one $25 million musical called “Paramour.” And, never one to bet small, it is opening the show cold on the world’s most famous stage: Broadway.

The timing is, to put it mildly, challenging. The company, long dominated by its storied founder, the fire-eater-turned-billionaire Guy Laliberté, just last summer was acquired by a group of investors, led by the private equity firm TPG, that is closely watching costs as it seeks revenue growth.

And Broadway, always home to more flops than hits, is particularly competitive this year — there are currently 36 plays and musicals, many with strong reviews and crowd-pleasing titles or stars, vying for attention and audience before “Paramour” begins previews this weekend at the Lyric Theater in anticipation of an official opening on May 25.
-----------end quote------------

There have been deaths by falling at various circuses in recent years.  Is that attracting crowds as it used to, or is that deterring people from bringing children?

The economics of "acts" on stage before live crowds seems to be turning against purveyors of this type of entertainment.

Why is that?  What are people spending their entertainment dollars on?

Circus and PARAMOUR?  Would a music concert do better in this market?

Think about what Earth circus acts your Characters could take on the Interstellar Road, and what acts they might bring back.  Could they make money?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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