The life of a circus promoter—a profession recalled in Jamie MacVicar’s fascinating new memoir—is a curious one. An advance man is thoroughly immersed in the show’s operation, but rarely travels with it. His job is little noticed by the performers unless something goes wrong. Dwelling among townspeople, he really isn’t one of them, either. His life lacks permanence, as he labors long, lonely hours in empty arenas and at local advertising agencies, in different cities, to create the magic of the circus that he is really only a witness to. He is very much of the show, but, in circus parlance, not truly on it. As one of his mentors tells him at the start of his career, “Wait until it’s only you, and you’re all alone in a city for weeks before the circus arrives. It’s a whole different story.”
MacVicar’s memoir about promoting Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey during the Irvin Feld era describes vividly the duality of an advance man’s existence. The illustrated cover itself suggests ambiguity—a well-tailored business figure, back to the viewer, coat slung over his shoulder, briefcase in hand, staring down from a hillside at a picturesque village in the distance below. Is he anticipating “capturing” this new town for the circus, or wistfully regretting that he cannot truly live there? Is he eagerly looking ahead in his life or sadly behind? Or, as the author suggests later in the book, is he at heart a happy refugee from all things predictable and stationary?
The daily existence of a promoter, according to MacVicar, leaves little time for that kind of personal reflection. He is obedient to the relentless scheduling, mailing, telephoning, faxing, calculating, tallying, projecting, analyzing, bargaining, and manipulating that ensure box-office success on circus day. He becomes a PR performer trained in multi-tasking without a net. Joining the Feld operation in the 1970’s, MacVicar inherited marketing practices that had long since become systematic in the arena version of the circus. He offers a contextual synopsis of the evolution of The Greatest Show on Earth to that new identity; by the 1950’s, he recounts, the Ringling big top was losing money, ready for its next managerial act—control by Irvin Feld. For the Washington, D.C.-based Feld organization, the modern circus required reinventing, its legendary spectacle reformatted for air-conditioned arenas. The name of the game was branding and marketing, from the concessions down to the cost basis of every last seat in any given venue.
It is said that the best storytelling teaches the reader something. Here, you learn the media-buying angles, the Nielsen TV and Arbitron radio ratings systems, the psychology and politics of event promotion, the economic geography of urban America, the back end and the front end of the circus business. What Barnum, the father of modern advertising and mass persuasion, invented a century before resides now in color-tabbed briefing binders updated for the media age and guarded as industrial secrets by supervisors. At the heart of the memoir is the endless organizational detail of a traveling circus that someone has to attend to, from counting tickets to driving advance clowns around to assisted-laughing facilities to marking performers’ dressing areas with tape at 5 in the morning. Thanks to its perceptive read on human nature, a skilled, novelistic writing style, and striking detail about the personalities MacVicar came to respect, it’s all a lot more entertaining than it may appear.
Much has been written about the physical efficiency of the circus, romantic images of legions of workingmen erecting a 10-acre tented city each day. A reader won’t find that here. MacVicar’s vision of the circus is as much statistics as logistics; the fiscal, not just the physical. Written in a style more understated than his colorful, hyperbole-prone subject (but without the overbearing cynicism many show-biz writers are tempted to invoke), his book seems sometimes less Barnum than Bailey. Or perhaps it is Barnum doing the math of ballyhoo converted into modern entertainment demographics. Yet MacVicar remains in awe of the show, loving what he does and preferring not to depict the institution of the circus as a jealous mistress, as some writers have done, but rather as a stunning siren who ends up as a vulnerable and still-seductive, if high-maintenance, wife.
The story is punctuated by anecdotes of many of the great names of the period like Gunther Gebel-Williams, Prince Paul, Rudy Lenz, and Charley Baumann. Promoters, we learn, have a ringside take on celebrities. Michu refuses a reporter’s question about the sex life of a Lilliputian. White-haired Hollywood legend Cary Grant maneuvers to get in the show for free. A planned photo-op with superstar Gunther goes awry, turning into a security debacle.
MacVicar’s story comes together beautifully because of its buttoned-down appeal, its nod to the temperamental, unpredictable, and insatiable nature of circus existence, and its portrait of a life lived on the edge—the advance—of a surprisingly fragile enterprise that is dependent on the work of a few solitary, motivated professionals working out of windowless offices. It is not a glamorous career. MacVicar’s references to the Roman Coliseum bring to mind the true nature of a promoter’s existence: within the bowels of a great edifice reside spirited creatures—in this case, advance men—whose fate, like that of the ancient gladiators, awaits upstairs for all to see.
I remember a booking agent telling me that he heard the sound of the circus trucks every night, relentlessly driving toward him in his sleep. MacVicar sees the circus train coming at him, too, but he also describes poignantly the sudden, stabbing loneliness of any of us in marketing, fundraising, lobbying, or similar fields, who have stared anonymously, longingly from a hotel room—from a concrete cubicle like a thousand others in dozens of cities—down at the resort’s swimming pool glistening in the morning sunlight.
MacVicar was an ambitious, 22-year-old Feld trainee when he contemplated that view. But the image offers a foreshadowing to his story. Amid his tale of the adrenaline rush of hyping the big show, there is a creeping isolation stowing away on his “journey into the world of the circus.” His sharp recollection of the vast circus parade of the great and the insignificant, of the transient nature of what a promoter does, is accompanied by deeply affecting emotional asides. Advance men have real lives, too, unseen by the audience and little noticed among the constant demands of circus life. They briefly enjoy the triumphs, inevitably revisit the failures, take some time off for personal guilt. In this way, MacVicar offers a narrative that is more than a collection of incidents and anecdotes. He is not afraid to take the reader down the long and sometimes dark corridor of memory into a bright arena in search of the glittering destination of the circus itself.
The result is a cautionary tale about life and as compelling a circus book as you are likely to read. Advance Man contains no photographs from MacVicar’s career, only historic shots drawn mostly from archival files. Building unity in his narrative with irony, humor, and rich detail, the author suggests that one’s personal perspective and word imagery matter more than pictures.
For an advance man, MacVicar seems to be saying, memory is what he unpacks when everyone else has forgotten the show. - By Mort Gamble