Tag Archives: circus

Musicians Return

Musicians Return to the Bandstand, The Circus Is Back in Town

On October 27, the Big Apple Circus made its return to Lincoln Center, just in time to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Created by former European street performers Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, Big Apple Circus debuted in New York City’s Battery Park in 1977, relocating to Lincoln Center in 1981. Over the years, it became a New York City holiday season staple. However, unable to recover from the 2008 recession, the nonprofit, one-ring circus filed for bankruptcy in 2016.

Last February, Big Top Works purchased Big Apple Circus and set to work restoring the beloved show and returning its performers to work.

Local 802 (New York City) Business Representative Marisa Friedman is in charge of the AFM contract covering the Big Apple Circus musicians. “Our main concern was that the circus would continue to use live music and that the musicians who worked for the old circus would continue to work for this new one,” she says. “Negotiations went very well. It was clear that the circus valued live music and wanted to make a fair deal with Local 802.” In the end, the union negotiated an improved three-year agreement for the musicians.

According to Big Apple Circus Conductor Rob Slowik of Local 802 (New York City), the show’s band has eight permanent musicians. “Everybody who is on the new primary hiring list has played with the circus before, but a few of the former musicians moved out of state and are doing gigs in other parts of the country,” he says.

Musicians Return

The Big Apple Circus band (L to R) back row: Wages Argott, Jacob Levitin, Jeff Barone, Brian Killeen, Patrick Firth, and Michael Bellusci; middle row Neil Johnson and Jim Lutz; in front, Conductor Rob Slowik.

“We essentially just made modifications to the old agreement. We expanded the scope of the recognition agreement to cover more work, added health and safety protections, and also included payment for promotional use of recorded material,” explains Friedman. “The musicians will receive increases in wages and health benefits—something they have not had in several years due to the circus’s financial problems.”

Among new band members is Local 802 and 256-733 (Birmingham, AL) member Wages Argott, a trumpet player who was the bandleader for the Ringling Blue show that closed earlier this year. Slowik brought him on as associate conductor. “It’s nice that I have a sub who has already conducted thousands of circuses,” says Slowik, also a trumpet player. A couple other former Ringling musicians are on the sub list for this year.

“Each year brings a new Big Apple Circus show, with a new cast and new music, but the same band,” explains Slowik. “We change the instrumentation depending on the show theme, but we always use our hiring list. Once a musician plays with us and is on the contract, they have the right to first refusal, if we use their instrument again.”

Musicians Return

The musicians of the Big Apple Circus band have returned to their bandstand with an improved three-year AFM contract negotiated by Local 802 (New York City).

The circus’s 2017 theme focuses on its 40th anniversary. “The set looks like the skyline of New York City and the music draws from all the different contemporary musical styles represented here—pop, rock, jazz, Latin, classical,” says Slowik. “It’s not music you would normally associate with a circus.”

Among performers headlining the new show are world record holder Nik Wallenda and the Fabulous Wallendas, trapeze artist Ammed Tuniziani of the Flying Tunizianis, as well as Grandma the Clown, who has returned from retirement.

When it comes to music selection for the various acts, Slowik says that the producer makes the final decision, but there is input from the director, as well as the performing act. “We try to honor the act’s needs in terms of tempo and timing, and we like to use music that is going to inspire,” he says. “While there is often some initial resistance to new music from acts who may have used the same music for 10 or 15 years, at the end of the season, they frequently want to buy the music and take it with them.”

Use of a click track helps the band keep to a steady tempo for performances, and Slowik keeps a constant eye on the show for split second adjustments. “We have a lot of vamps built into the music but often we’ll have to create new vamps on the fly,” he says. “Something can go wrong at any point, whether it’s somebody missing a trick, wanting to repeat a trick, or something that goes wrong with the rigging or a prop.”

“I try to get the dogs to count the downbeat of the bar but they don’t listen, and neither do the horses,” laughs Slowik. “One of the nice things about having a band with a lot of circus experience is that they can almost read my mind.”

Musicians new to the circus, even veteran Broadway players, require some training. “They have to come watch the show. I give them a video of me conducting and a pdf of the book. One of the things I tell them is: ‘This vamp is four bars, but the cue could come anywhere, including in the middle of the bar.’ On Broadway, if you have a two-bar or four-bar vamp, it is almost always at the end of four bars. It can take people a while to get used to that. You really have to be aware because the cue could come out of nowhere.”

On occasion, Slowik says he has even become a part of the act. He recalls a skit he did with Grandma the Clown where he was hoisted 30-feet up in the air to play his trumpet. “It was a lot of fun!” he says, adding that he looks forward to something like that happening in the future.

The new Big Apple Circus show premiered October 27 and runs through January 7. After that, it will begin an East Coast tour with stops between Atlanta and Boston. When on tour, the Big Apple Circus travels with about 50% of its core band, hiring local AFM musicians in whatever city it visits.

Musicians Bid Farewell to the Circus Life

by Michael Manley, Director AFM Touring/Theatre/Booking Division

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circuses—the Red and Blue units—give their final performances in May. Here’s a look at the unprecedented musical legacy of The Greatest Show on Earth.

A Singular Spectacle

Perry George (“P.G.”) Lowery sideshow band. Photo: Ringling Circus Museum

Every year for 146 years, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (RBBB) Circus has inspired audiences throughout North America with one-of-a-kind spectacles accompanied by professional musicians performing bespoke circus music. Though there have been many traveling circuses over the years, RBBB is known simply as the Circus—with a capital C.

For every season since its debut in 1871, each act of The Greatest Show on Earth has soared to the waltzes, gallops, marches, drumrolls, and fanfares performed by tireless professional circus musicians. While the United States Marine Corps Band and The New York Philharmonic precede it on the cultural landscape, the circus is the oldest enduring touring entertainment in US history. It arrived five years before the debut of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, and only six years after the end of the Civil War.

The train car has always been home to circus employees, and the railway their Main Street. Before the circus began playing arenas in the 1950s, workers set up temporary tent cities next to the big top. Performers—and animals—from around the globe lived and worked together in a mobile melting pot that foreshadowed the multicultural patchwork that came to define the American experience in the 20th century. Before radio, film, and television, the circus brought its singular spectacle to smaller cities and rural towns, whose residents had no access to the theatres, opera houses, and music halls of large cities. In building audiences in these smaller markets, the circus tilled the soil for future touring entertainment—from vaudeville to Broadway musicals—and even today’s sports and concert spectacles.

Music and the Circus

The final “Red” Unit Circus Band

Through every season, live music has been the engine of the circus. Its musicians are known as “windjammers,” a reference to “jamming” wind through their brass and woodwind instruments, sometimes for seven or more hours a day. In the early days the 30-plus musicians of the circus would divide so that half the musicians could play the traditional parade through town, while the other half gave a staged band concert—all before the show began. The circus provided access to jobs for musicians who were often outside the conservatory training programs. It spawned a large body of repertoire, which has become standard literature for concert, marching, and military bands. Like the well-known marches of Karl King and Henry Fillmore, much of this music was written by circus musicians themselves.

The Circus and Labor

Long-term steady employment has always been a draw of circus work. Its most famous bandleader, Merle Evans, raised his baton for 50 consecutive seasons from 1919 to 1969. In the first decade of the 20th Century, Ringling and other circuses of the day were early employers of African American musicians, though they were barred from the main tent and relegated to perform as “sideshow bands” due to the racial segregation of that era. The most renowned sideshow bandleader—composer and virtuoso cornetist Perry George (“P.G.”) Lowery—was justly famous for both his brilliant playing and his compositions, through his nearly 50-year circus career. Circus bands were not fully integrated until after the civil rights movement.

Over the years, the model for musical employment changed. In the 1950s, the circus retired the big top and began playing arenas. They toured with a small core of musicians, filling out the rest of the ensemble with local musicians in each venue. In this way, the circus provided a wealth of local musician employment over the next 30 to 40 years. In the late 1990s the circus phased out local musician hiring, and returned to traveling all of the musicians—bands of nine players on each unit—in 1998.

The 2014 “Gold” Unit Circus band. (Photo: Emily Fleck)

The AFM has covered the employment of circus musicians going back at least to the early 1940s. This continues today through an agreement between current circus owner, Feld Entertainment, Inc., and the AFM. One challenge faced by circus musicians is familiar to those in other sectors of live music—the preservation of jobs and maintaining large-size bands. The AFM has maintained the current traveling complement of nine musicians per unit for nearly 20 years, from 1998 through the RBBB Circus closure in 2017.

From 2004 to 2015, six additional circus musicians were employed on the Ringling “Gold” Unit, which was designed to play smaller towns outside the range of the railways that defined the “Red” and “Blue” Unit circuits. Since the employer was not providing train transportation, the “Gold” Unit contract contained a unique provision that allowed musicians to travel and live in recreational vehicles. This “RV clause” required zero-interest loans, the payment of a per-diem to offset vehicle costs, and an employer buy-back provision to protect musicians from incurring huge debt if their employment was severed. This was one of many “only on the circus” labor issues; problems with the train car, temperature, animal dander, or transportation from the train to the venue often trumped wages as priority negotiation items.

While the current Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circuses take their final bows, circus entertainment is far from dead. New York’s Big Apple Circus is currently striving to make a return, and Cirque du Soleil has a successful roster of updated traditional European circus shows. And it is not impossible to imagine the Ringling Circus resurrected in some smaller form in the future. What has always differentiated The Greatest Show on Earth is the sheer enormity of its scale—no future entertainment is likely to travel a company of 200-plus workers all over the continent on a mile-long train, for more than 40 weeks a year. Nor is any future production likely to generate hundreds of scores of musical repertoire, or provide a century of continuous musical employment.

The circus as an art form will live on, even as it also moves on and evolves. Still, it will never quite be the Circus.

The Clown Mohawk: A Story of Circus Solidarity

“It all started when the clowns gave him a mohawk,” the email began.

Not the usual message a union representative receives from a musician, but then nothing about the circus is usual. Former circus musician and union steward Donald Parker recounts the curious incident, circa 2004, which lead to his famous opening line:

“The circus was in Dallas at the United Center. We had a general manager (GM) who thought he could do whatever he wanted, and walk all over us. One of the musicians did get a mohawk haircut from one of the clowns, and the GM wanted to discipline him and pull him off the show because of his appearance. I told the GM he could do that, but he would still have to pay him because we didn’t have an appearance clause in our contract. The GM took issue with that, which really made the rest of the band mad.

“That night we set up a barber station outside our train car, and all nine of us in the band got a mohawk. Then we went down to a show party the GM was throwing, and proceeded to mingle and socialize as it nothing was different. We really wanted to shake him up and get under his skin. After the party, we all came back and shaved the rest of our hair off so the management couldn’t complain about our appearance on the bandstand. We shaved our heads in solidarity—and oppressive management was our best organizing tool!”

Thanks to Mike Montgomery (Windjammers Unlimited, Inc.), Mark Heter, Paul Celentano, and The Ringling Circus Museum for their research assistance in the preparation of these stories.