Big Apple Circus tries to keep its tent upright

This year, contributions are expected to decline by more than a third. An institution in this positi
Clowns perform at the Big Apple Circus in New York, June 1, 2016. The cherished New York institution, currently riding out the second half of its 38th season with its finances depleted, is turning to online crowdfunding to sustain it. (Nicole Craine/Th...
Clowns perform at the Big Apple Circus in New York, June 1, 2016. The cherished New York institution, currently riding out the second half of its 38th season with its finances depleted, is turning to online crowdfunding to sustain it. (Nicole Craine/Th...

NEW YORK — In Cunningham Park at the eastern end of Queens, the Big Apple Circus is riding out the second half of its 38th season. Ninety percent of those who attend the circus come from not very far away — for years it has been one place where New Yorkers can reliably avoid tourists. But invariably, like so much else in the city that is appreciated by the people who live here, the circus is endangered, its finances depleted to the point that the current production may be the last ever staged.

On a recent morning, Paul Binder, a storyteller of the old school, pushed a piece of paper across the table in a bland conference room of a Downtown Brooklyn office building. The paper was an advertisement, created by a friend, with a picture of a bagel, outlining the problems confronting the institution.

In 1981, the year the Big Apple Circus, which Binder founded with Michael Christensen, began to pitch its tent behind Lincoln Center, the price of a bagel at Zabar’s was 35 cents. Now that same bagel was $1.66, the ad explained, and so by the logic of bagel math the average price of a ticket to the circus might have risen accordingly, from $25 in the early 1980s to $118 today. Instead it was $65. This was because the Big Apple Circus, conceived when the two men were itinerant jugglers who drove cabs and picked grapes, was born of something almost antithetical to material interest, a raw creative anarchy coupled with a desire to provide children, whether they were from Park Avenue or the South Bronx, a shared sense of cultural experience.

“Most people don’t realize that we are a nonprofit, and this is a big problem,” Will Maitland Weiss, the executive director of the circus, lamented a few days earlier in the same offices, the organization’s headquarters. Contributions provide, among other services, the funds for poor and disabled children to see the circus free. The tax status of the Big Apple Circus would be obvious to anyone who visited and took note of a television set, hanging up in a corner, seemingly from the era of “Knots Landing,” to which a VHS recorder remains attached.

The ad Binder held in his hands was theoretical, a plea to the public for money — “We need $2 million or we’re toast,” it read — but one his organization could in no way afford to publicize in the subways or on the sides of buses. The earned revenue for the circus has been declining since the financial crisis, down to $14 million last year from a peak of $19 million during the 2007-08 season. Much of the drop is a function not of diminishing ticket sales but rather of a falloff in the number of private performances, typically bought by banks for the benefit of employees, clients and their families, during the circus’s annual holiday season at Lincoln Center. That stream of income amounted to about $2 million a year, but after 2008 it fell by roughly half. From 2009 to 2015, concession sales also declined at roughly the same rate.

“For the banks getting TARP money,” Binder said, referring to the Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out Wall Street, “the optics of spending lots of money on the circus were bad.” When financial institutions rebounded, however, the money did not come back, illuminating the extent to which philanthropy in New York is dependent upon the migrating tastes of a single industry. Over the past several years, a core group of committed board members have stepped in to keep the circus going, but as Binder put it, “They are getting tired.”

Large one-time donations have come in, but the funds were used quickly. This year, contributions are expected to decline by more than a third. An institution in this position is then left, as one board member said, either to hope that a hedge-fund manager gets excited, or to disappear. This is the template set, to a certain extent, by the New York City Opera, which declared bankruptcy three years ago only to be revived when Roy G. Niederhoffer came in with a wish to save it.

Cultivating a new generation of donors in a fundraising culture obsessed with metrics has been challenging for the circus, which is already hampered by the fact that it doesn’t easily fit into any traditional giving category. It delivers a popular art, and it is neither a hospital nor Yale.

“The impact of laughter is obviously a difficult thing to quantify,” Weiss said.

From its inception, though, the Big Apple Circus held to the principle that community service would constitute a considerable part of its enterprise. One program takes circus arts to after-school groups in poor neighborhoods to help children build agility and teamwork skills. The Vaudeville Caravan, developed 15 years ago, brings a kind of interactive comic theater to nursing homes to help older people combat loneliness and isolation. There are special performances catering to children who are deaf, are visually impaired or have autism. The circus’s best-known exercise in community outreach is Clown Care, a program designed to place clowns in pediatric facilities and hospitals to visit children who have cancer, AIDS or other illnesses.

Clown Care was the initiative of Christensen, who has the presence of a life lived intensely — a face that looks as if a bus map had been imprinted on it. In the mid-1980s, after losing a brother to pancreatic cancer, he felt a religious calling, he explained, one common to those who had exhausted themselves of the previous decade’s destructive gratifications. The notion of hospital clowning grew out of a need to serve humanity more deeply, he told me. Similar programs inspired by Christensen’s have since come into being around the world. In 2006, Haifa University in Israel began offering a degree in medical clowning through its drama school.

The history of the Big Apple Circus is tied so intimately to the social imperatives of the late 1960s and the ‘70s, freedoms that allowed people in their 20s to reject conventional ambitions and forsake direction, that it is virtually impossible to imagine anything like it being recreated today.

Binder arrived in San Francisco in the late 1960s with degrees from Dartmouth and Columbia Business School that he had no intention of using. He had been working in television, first for Julia Child’s cooking show and then for Merv Griffin, when he auditioned for a politically themed mime troupe.

Christensen, who had studied acting at the University of Washington, was conducting the auditions. The men became friends and took up juggling together.

Later, they appeared in a play, “The Dragon Lady’s Revenge,” a satire about U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, which landed off-Broadway and won an OBIE award. When it closed, they drove from New York back to San Francisco, doing a road act along the way. People would put money in their hats. “I realized that juggling on the street was a ticket to go anywhere in the world,” Christensen said. So he and Binder did what would have qualified as obvious in the 1970s and drove across Europe, from London to Istanbul, in a 1957 Morris Minor, juggling in piazzas and parks to make money.

They slept in tents or with friends or friends of friends. They met the high-wire artist Philippe Petit, who, one evening in a Paris apartment, showed them a model that he had made of the World Trade Center and said that the next time they heard his name he would be rich and famous or dead.

Binder and Christensen remained unwashed for long periods. One friend, a composer, led them to a free room at La Colombe d’Or in the South of France, where they drank with the actress Simone Signoret and James Baldwin. Baldwin later housed them in St.-Paul-de-Vence.

The trip introduced Binder and Christensen to the European circus tradition, one that privileged artistry over vulgarity. They joined a French company. When they returned to New York City, they developed the Big Apple Circus along similar lines. It has always been an intimate, one-ring affair, an alternative to the mayhem of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus (which is owned by Feld Entertainment, whose chairman is the billionaire Kenneth Feld). It was while performing for children in an impoverished neighborhood in Naples, Italy, one day, Christensen said, that he was inspired to give the circus a missionary dimension.

Such is the place of the Big Apple Circus in the city’s cultural firmament that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg has served on its board. When Binder retired as ringmaster in 2008, his departure occasioned an editorial in The New York Times. When the character of Grandma the clown, a beloved attraction at the circus for 25 years, was retired in 2011, NPR interviewed Barry Lubin, who embodied her.

In the coming days, the Big Apple Circus will embark on an online crowdfunding campaign in an effort to raise the funds necessary to stage its 39th season on the Upper West Side in December. Leasing the space in Damrosch Park, behind Lincoln Center, costs $500,000. It takes approximately another $11.5 million to produce the circus each year. If it dissolves, mothers and fathers and children and grandparents will mourn it. The circus will join a long list of institutions in New York that reverence alone could not sustain.

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