Interview with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey General Manager

Friday night's "Dazzle the District" event in Playhouse Square was, oddly enough, not this weekend's biggest news story involving a chandelier. Sunday afternoon, nine Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performers were injured during a matinee show in Providence, Rhode Island, when a "human chandelier" apparatus plummeted to the ground

The accident occurred an hour-and-a-half into the show at the Dunkin Donuts Center. And in case you're wondering, the Human Chandelier suspends performers by their hair. 

Back in October, 2013, when the circus was in Cleveland, Scene spoke with general manager Jeff Boudreau about his life on the road. Though his comments aren't directly related to this weekend's horrifying accident, it does offer some insight into the culture and logistics of circus life, and the vigilance necessary to prevent accidents like Sunday's from happening.

Sam Allard: I imagine a general manager for a circus probably enjoys a slightly different job description than a GM for a football team?   
Jeff Boudreau: Yes sir. You could say I am the mayor of a town on wheels. We’ve got about 300 people that travel with us: about 125 staff and crew members, 15 performers, and the rest sell all the toys. We travel, live and transport our equipment on a mile-and-a-half long train that consists of about 32 coach cars which are divided up inside in different configurations depending on the performers or crew members living in that car. I live in a what we call a half car. Each car’s about 100 feet long, and about 40 feet of that is my real estate.

So that's, like, your house? 
It is, and it's one of the highlights of my job. I love riding the train. I love getting done with work, going home, going to sleep, and waking up on the way to the next place, not having to kind of really pull or tow any of the stuff myself. One of the cool things is you see a lot of countryside that a lot of people don’t get to see, because rail tends to go wherever it goes and there’s no exits or stops or even towns in a lot of the places we go through. It’s peace and quiet because our lives get pretty hectic here on the road. It’s nice having a few hours when I can just kinda disconnect from everything.

What about people with kids?  
I’ve got two children myself, a five-year-old son and a soon-to-be-nine-year-old daughter. And the education my kids are getting blows away what I got growing up in public school in Galveston Texas. Look, we’ve got everything a traditional small town's got. We’ve got a school that travels with us. We’ve got a nursery. We’ve got two school teachers and they teach Calvert and the American School, which are both nationally accredited home school programs. We’ve got about 20 kids in our school and about 15 kids in our nursery. They operate whenever we have shows, and they wouldn’t be operational today as we’re loading in. But tomorrow, we’ll set them up in whatever building we’re at, usually in a dressing room or locker room near the arena. 

Sounds like you've got to be pretty flexible. 
Our lives are kind of adapted to the circus. My kids don’t tend to go to sleep until about 2:00 in the morning, because our days don’t usually end until 10:30 at night after the last show. We’ll go home, have dinner, relax for a little bit and then go to bed.

It's just dawning on me that "having dinner" is probably an elaborate undertaking. Do you have a grocery store? 
We have a food services division on the show called our pie car. Two different units. We’ve got a whole train car dedicated to it. On the train, it’s open 24 hours a day when the train’s moving, and abbreviated hours during the week according to the show schedule.

Selling more than just pies, presumably. 
Then we’ve got what we call the Pie Car Jr., which is a traveling kitchen that we bring to each venue and provide meals during the call times during the week for our employees. It ends up being a full service kitchen for the arena workers as well. The chefs running the pie car have been serving circus employees for at least a decade. We tend to have some pretty good food.

What's like a general weekly schedule for you? 
Usually we travel on Monday. We pre-rig the show on Tuesday — that’s when we go in and mark the points for the truss structure that we hang in the air — and unload all of our semis. The animal crews at that time are setting up tents and preparing for the animals’ arrival. And then Wednesday we bring the elephants to the building and load in the show. Today [in St. Louis], we did both the pre-rig and the load in on the same day because of a hockey game in the building last night. So we had to cram everything in one day. Luckily the train was early.

Is it often late? 
Well, because we travel on rail, and there’s only a certain amount of rail and a lot of cargo that goes through, we do get delayed pretty often. We’ll get stuck behind a malfunctioning train or rail that might be closed. 

And you're not the only traveling circus for Ringling Bros., correct? 
Right, this is the red unit. Our sister unit is the blue unit. I believe they are loading into Boston today. [The accident in Rhode Island occurred on the Blue Unit] And then we’ve got the smallest show, the Gold Unit, which is in Des Moines. My mother is actually the concessions manager for that unit and she drove down today so we get to hang out. It’s not often that the shows get real close. The bigger units alternate years. At the beginning of this year, we opened up in Tampa. We do our schedule this year, and then next year the blue unit will do the schedule we’re doing this year and we’ll do theirs. So every town that we visit gets a brand new circus production every year.

Do you ever get vacation?
Ahhhhh, sometimes. The first year, we work normally around 40-43 weeks a year. This year,we’ll have one month from when we close Indianapolis Dec. 8  [2013] to when we open in Miami January 8. And in that month, we'll be going down to Orlando, unloading all this equipment and refurbishng the wagons, the lights, the props...However, the other unit is about to build a brand new show. So they’ll start building Nov. 15ish, and it is pedal to the floor for the next month, getting a complete brand new show built in order to open in Tampa January 1. Those guys will be working harder in that month than they do during the year. We travel generally two years and in that two years we’ve got about four weeks off.

Do you have a 'home away from home'?
Some people have homes off the road. A lot of people own property in Florida, which makes it easy during the down month or two. But honestly man, my home is the circus. My train room’s kinda like a Manhattan apt. It’s small but I’ve gt everything I need. Man, I’ve got a 55-inch TV with satellite, Xbox in my living room. My kids' room is stocked full of toys and video games. This is our home.

Seems like all those cars would take up a lot of space.
This week, we’re all in one location, but there are a lot of times when the coaches — where people live — are in one place and then the stock cars, which house the animals, are in another, and then the flat cars with all of our equipment is someplace else. And a train master organizes all of that.

Where do you stay in Cleveland?
There’s a yard where we’ve been staying for the past decade… It’s a more industrial area. It’s a railyard here in Cleveland.

I feel like maybe interest in the circus is declining a little bit. Does that seem true to you? 
Man, when the bubble burst in ‘03, I expected a decline in our business. I was afraid it was going to limit my options in regards to work, but I was wrong. We have been doing well. Audiences keep coming to see these shows. My philosophy is that even when people didn’t have money, they needed to do something with the family. Instead of going out, going on that big vacation or buying those jet skis, we provided an affordable option for parents to come take their children to be entertained. Audiences have been flocking to the shows and business has been great.

Huh. I thought maybe because of, on one hand, a growing sensitivity to the treatment of circus animals, and on the other, kids' wavering attention spans, it just might no longer be a viable entertainment option. 
I know that with my kids especially, it's so hard to impress them, but there’s nothing like seeing this stuff in real life. Live entertainment, in all aspects, is impossible to duplicate on a small screen, on a TV. I think it’s going to be more valuable. I think we’re going to be a stronger company because people want go see the real thing. You can only see so much on a computer before you want to go see it with your own eyes.

And are the elephants still sort of the flagship attraction? 
Most definitely. When the elephants show up in those buildings, the crowds go absolutely wild. They are most definitely the stars of the show. And our schedules and procedures are focused around the safety and well being of our animals.

Are you seeing an increase in animal cruelty protests? 
In California, there are a bunch of people who come out and make our lives difficult in regards to protesting the show. It’s really difficult in California, but they protest everything out there. It tends to get better as we come out east. We see the occasional protester, but it really doesn’t affect us operationally. We coordinate with local authorities and the buildings to make sure protesters have an area to practice their free speech rights in every town we go to.

Would you say that's one of the tougher parts of the job? 
The elephants thing? The animal thing is challenging, but I’d say the toughest thing about my job is that there’s not really a school to prepare you to be someone’s marriage counselor and social worker and bank and food service captain. You’ve gotta kind of be a jack of all trades doing this job, and the hardest thing is being there for 300 people, making sure that everyone has what they need to be happy out here.

What kind of person is suited for the circus life? 
It’s a real mixed bad. A lot of the performers are multig-enerational performers. Their families have been doing circus for years. My wife is a fifth-generation performer. She’s a trapeze artist. I met her 12-13 years ago on the Blue Unit. I came over from a theater background. A lot of people on the tech side have theater backgrounds but a lot of people are just circus people. Even the working guys used to be performers or are related to performers. And once you get sawdust in your blood, it’s kinda hard to shake it man. This is a pretty exciting lifestyle we live. 

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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