Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 6

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Sawdust and Spangles by William Cameron Coup
Booming the Big Show

VI

BOOMING THE BIG SHOW

It may not be generally known to the public, but it is a fact, that nearly one-half of the entire expenditure of a circus is incurred in the work of the advance brigades. The advertising material, its distribution, express, freight and cartage, together with the salaries, transportation and living expenses of seventy-five to one hundred men, amount to vast sums of money. The largest number of men I ever used in advance of my show was seventy-five, and for this people called me crazy.

Though, of course, there is a limit to possible receipts, there is no doubt that the business secured is in proportion to the sum used in advertising, and it is almost impossible to draw the line at which judicious advertising should stop. This is demonstrated by the fact that the dressing-room tents of the present day are larger than were the entire old-time circus canvases, when the advertising was done by one man on horseback and all the paper used was carried in his saddle-bags, and the salary of any star advertiser now is as much as was required to run the entire show of years ago.

NOVEL ADVERTISING FEATURES

I early learned, by experience, that big receipts at the ticket wagon followed big advertising expenditures. In 1880, in order to boom the "Newly United Monster Shows," I arranged some very peculiar and novel advertising features in the way of three cars especially fitted out for the use of my advance agents. The first brigade was accompanied by an enormous organ, for which a car was built, the latter being drawn through the streets by an elephant. This organ was a masterpiece of mechanism and was specially built by Professor Jukes. Its tones resembled the music of a brass band and could be heard at a great distance. This, of course, attracted the people, and the brigade would then advertise the show by a lavish distribution of handbills.

Unfortunately the elephant and the music combined to frighten many horses, and I soon found myself defendant in numerous damage suits. Indeed, that single elephant seemed to frighten more horses than did the entire herd with the show.

At one place temporary quarters for the elephant were secured in a stable which could be reached only through a private alley. When we came to take possession of the barn, the owner of the alley, with several policemen, stood on guard and undertook to stop the progress of the huge animal. Their efforts, however, met with no success, for, with the most sublime indifference, the beast moved quietly forward. For this I was sued for "trespass" and "injured feelings." As the elephant was the offender, my lawyer proposed to bring him into court as the principal witness, a proposition which caused considerable amusement. As no damage had been done, the "laugh" was decidedly on the owner of the alley.

The "Devil's Whistle"

My second advertising car was fitted up with another enormous organ of far-reaching power, and attracted much attention, while my third and last advertising brigade rejoiced in the possession of an engine to which was attached a steam whistle of such power and discordant tone that it could be heard for miles. This the men would blow while going through the country. Professor Jukes had christened this diabolical invention the "Devil's Whistle," and so well did its sound fit the name that the people must have frequently thought His Satanic Majesty was near by.

As that car with its whistle would steam into a town, the inhabitants would flock as one man to see what it was that had so disturbed their peace, and thus we were enabled to advertise more thoroughly than any show before or since. I have often thought that I really deserved punishment for thus outraging the public ear.

Between these three advertising brigades I had smaller companies, accompanied by a colored brass band, which discoursed pleasant music while my bill posters decorated the dead walls and boards. The band also gave concerts at night upon the public square and, between pieces, a good speaker would draw attention to the excellences of the coming show.

A uniformed brigade of trumpeters was also sent through the country on horseback, and a band of Jubilee singers marched through the streets singing the praises of the "Newly United Shows." Added to these attractions were two stereopticons that pictured, from some house-top or window, the main features of the show. This, together with perhaps the most liberal newspaper advertising that ever had been done, made the whole advance work as near absolute perfection in show advertising as possible.

One of the picturesque features with the advance show was Gilmore's "Jubilee Anvil Chorus." The anvils were made of wood with a piece of toned steel fastened at the top in a manner which secured a volume and resonance of tone that could be heard much further than that of an ordinary anvil. At intervals, to strengthen the chorus, cannon were fired off. This, though a great novelty, caused some dissatisfaction, especially amid crowded surroundings. My excuse was that the chorus was a free feature furnished by my friend Gilmore, and that, as it cost the public nothing, the latter should be satisfied. Never before nor since was a country so startled and excited over the coming of a show.

"SPOTTERS"

A great circus uses large quantities of advertising paper—so much, in fact, that it is difficult to keep track of it. True, the superintendent of the advertising car gives each man so many "sheets" in the morning and the man at night hands in a statement which is supposed to show where and how he has placed the paper. These brigades are followed by "watchers," or, as the railroad men term them, "spotters," who look carefully over the ground. But the impossibility of detecting all crooked work may be readily understood when I say that from eight to twelve wagons containing bill-posters and paper start out on country routes in as many different directions, so the "spotter," not being ubiquitous, cannot follow every trail. One of my "spotters," however, did once ascertain that a party of my men had driven into the country and dozed comfortably in the shade all day, had not put up any paper and had not fed the hired horses, although they did not forget to charge for the "feeds." The horses were thus made to suffer and the men pocketed the money which should have gone for oats. Of course my superintendent discharged the entire brigade, although, when the season is well under way, it is very difficult to obtain skilled bill-posters, for it is quite a difficult craft and experts are in good demand.

The reader, however, can easily see what a great loss such doings entail on a show, considering the cost of the paper at the printer's, the freight or expressage, the cartage, and the money paid the men for putting up the sheets. The printing bills of a first-class show are enormous. My lithograph bill alone, the last successful season of my show, amounted to $40,000, and this was before the days of extensive lithographing. I believe I ordered the first three-sheet lithograph ever made, and also the first ten-sheet lithograph. This was considered a piece of foolishness; but when I ordered a hundred-sheet bill and first used it in Brooklyn it was considered such a curiosity that show people visited the City of Churches for the express purpose of looking at this advertising marvel. How things have changed! The Barnum and one or two other shows now use nothing but lithographs, and many of their bills are beautiful works of art, some of them being copies of really great pictures.

I can remember when one-sheet lithographs cost one dollar each, and for several years later they could not be bought for less than fifty to seventy-five cents apiece. They can be had now in large quantities for about five cents or less the sheet. As shows nowadays frequently use hundreds of sheets in a day, imagine what would be their cost at the price paid in the pioneer show period.

The circus of the present day is judged by the quality of its paper. One season I arranged with a publisher to use a folded quarter sheet, three sides of which advertised our show and the fourth side contained the first chapter of a story about to be published in his magazine. These were furnished to us in enormous quantities and our agents distributed them. In Boston we had four four-horse wagons full and these followed our parade. The men tossed the folders high in the air and the wind carried them in all directions. While this style of advertising surprised the people, it was soon stopped, and properly, too, by city ordinance. I think circus people would be better off if ordinances were passed wholly prohibiting bill posting; but unfortunately such a movement would go far toward breaking up a profitable industry, since many of the bill posters are rich men, some making as much as $25,000 a year and a few fully $50,000. I believe Mr. Seth B. Howes, the veteran circus manager, was the first one to order a billboard made or paste paper on the outside. Previous to this all bills were hung or fastened up with tacks.

Rivalry in Exploiting Opposition Shows

There was always a sharp rivalry between the advance brigades of opposition shows, and many are the tricks which they play upon each other. Perhaps the most serious and daring trick played on me was when the agent of an opposition show actually went to the railroad office and ordered a carload of my paper, which was on the sidetrack there waiting for our man, to be shipped to California. Believing him to be representing me, the freight agent did as requested, and my advance brigade was delayed until a fresh carload could be sent on from New York, which could be done in less time than it would have taken to have brought the original carload back from San Francisco. After accomplishing this contemptible trick the fellow escaped, and, although I had Pinkerton men closely on his trail, I was never able to get service on him. Of course the scamp's employers were legally responsible; but in those days we never thought of bringing suit in cases of that kind, although I was strongly tempted to do so in one place, where an opposition show had covered my dates with their own and had greatly damaged us by misleading the people.

Of the many other sharp tricks played on me by opposition shows, one of the best, or worst, was that of equipping men with sample cases, and sending them in advance of my show in the rôle of commercial salesmen. These men would step into prominent stores and, after a short business talk, incidentally mention my name and then impart the information that my show had disbanded and gone to pieces. This, of course, would set the whole town talking, and the news would soon spread over the entire country, thus doing me irreparable harm.


COSTLY RIVALRY

The general public has very little idea of the extent to which opposition tactics are carried by the representatives of circuses and menageries. The rivalry between two shows often costs thousands of dollars and is sometimes kept up by the agents long after the proprietors have become reconciled. Once we became involved in one of these contests, and the opposition, in order to harass us, actually had four of our men arrested in different States on a charge of libel. The Indiana libel laws were very severe, and in each instance we were compelled to give a heavy bond for the release of our man.

That year the train of a rival outfit ran off the track, and one of the proprietors, in the course of time, became my agent. One day, in a confidential chat, he alluded to the mishap, and told me that at the time it occurred he fully intended accusing us of having had the switches turned, thus causing the disaster. To that end he had even gone to the length of swearing out warrants for our arrest. They knew that we were perfectly innocent, but their object was to gain notoriety and sympathy. At the last moment, it is to be presumed, their better natures asserted themselves; at all events, they weakened.

Another party in opposition warfare copied our money orders. Orders of this kind were given by our agents and paid by our treasurer on arrival of the show. They were given for services rendered or goods bought, and covered the expenses of livery teams, distributing bills, flour, feed, advance brigade supplies, newspaper advertising, etc. They were made out something after this style:


"On presentation of this order and ten issues of ——— Newspaper, containing advertisements of the Coup Show to exhibit at ——— on the ——— day of ——— pay Mr. ——— $ ——— amount due him.

"(Signed) ——— ———, Agent."

Sawdust and Spangles (141).jpg

"WHEN RIVAL SHOWMEN BURNED A BRIDGE TO PREVENT THEIR KEEPING A DATE."

These orders were extensively used by the opposition for some time before we discovered it. Its object, of course, was to make the newspaper proprietors and the public think they were advertising the Coup show, while of course their own dates would be inserted instead of ours.

At a certain place in Ohio a bridge was burned in advance of us and entailed the loss of our next "stand," or date. We could not safely accuse any of our competitors of this contemptible and incendiary trick; but we knew they were driven to desperation and were capable of resorting to any such outrage.

There were agents so utterly unscrupulous as to receive pay from opposition shows for disclosing to them information that should have been jealously guarded, even betraying the advance route. I knew one agent who was an expert telegraph operator and able to take messages by sound. He would scrape acquaintance with the regular operator and pass his spare time in the telegraph office secretly taking our messages as the latter were being sent over the wire, the local operator being ignorant of the loafer's telegraphic skill.


IDLE BILL POSTERS

These opposition fights greatly benefited the local bill posters and were frequently urged on by them. Sometimes a show would send a brigade over the country at night, placing its own dates on the paper of its rival, thus getting all the advantages of the first show's paper. Sometimes the indolence and laziness of my own men have annoyed me greatly. I am reminded that, while my advance brigade was billing Texas, one of my agents became utterly disgusted with the sleepiness of his men. They were mainly of corpulent build, and their captain actually sent me this message:

"Waco, Texas, July, 1881.

"W. C. Coup,

"Sturtevant House, New York City:

"There is one more shade tree in Texas; send another fat man to sit under it."

On numerous occasions I have had to pay dearly as a result of the sharp practices of unscrupulous people, and it is a well-known fact that a circus man has to deal with a great many of this class. Our advance agent always engaged the lots on which we were to exhibit, and he did so at Austin, Texas, renting the necessary ground at a most exorbitant figure. As usual, he gave an order on the company which was to be paid immediately on our arrival. But the owner, or pretended owner, inserted a clause in the agreement that the lots were to be used if still in the possession of the signer. Immediately on our arrival the bill was presented, and as promptly paid. Imagine my surprise when, as the show opened at night, another bill was presented for $150. It seems that this sharper had made a fradulent sale of one of the center lots on purpose to swindle me. Of course I paid it, under protest, in order to enable the performance to proceed, as, anticipating a refusal on my part, they had illegally attached some valuable ring stock.

Some years ago when George Peck was struggling with Peck's Sun, long before it had been recognized as a "leading comic paper," I visited Milwaukee with my show. My invariable instructions to my agents were to advertise in every paper, but especially to place an extra advertisement in all young papers struggling for recognition, provided, of course, that they had merit. For some reason, or through oversight, George Peck's Sun had been entirely forgotten. Nevertheless, I found on reaching Milwaukee that Peck had, on several occasions, good-humoredly alluded in his columns to my coming, and had not "roasted" me, as many other editors so slighted would have done. Accordingly I sent him a check which would have more than paid for the advertising he should have had but did not get. To my surprise he returned the check, saying I owed him nothing. I declined to receive it, and once more sent it to him, telling him not to come any of his "funny business over me," and to reserve his jokes for his paper. This brought him around to my hotel, and I was delighted to become acquainted with one of the cleverest men I have ever met. Later he became Governor of his State.


COURTESY OF EDITORS

As an example of the courteous treatment I have invariably received at the hands of the newspaper editors I cannot refrain from giving the following incident which occurred when the show was in North Carolina. In a town in that State one paper, through an oversight, had been skipped altogether in the distribution of the advertising. When the second brigade of the advertising army arrived in town, it found that the issue of this paper had already been mailed to its subscribers. Nothing daunted, however, this agent arranged with the publishers for a special issue which, teeming with praises of the Coup show, was issued and mailed to all subscribers. As a result excellent houses greeted us when we exhibited in the place.

The rivalry between the great shows extended to the newspaper advertising as well as bill-posting department. I remember that once, at Pittsburg, the opposition was very strong, and I had as press agent a brother of the man who held the same position in the employ of my rival. They were both excellent newspaper men and thoroughly understood their business. We would take whole columns in the newspapers, and my men with the show would telegraph to the papers at Pittsburg after this manner:

"Wilkesbarre, Pa.

"The W. C. Coup show did a tremendous business here to-day; the largest and best show ever seen here.

These telegrams would be used to head our other notices in the Pittsburg papers, and whole columns would follow, setting forth the merits of the show. With more solid indorsements these telegrams so worried my agent's brother that he was at a loss to know how to overcome them. He finally hit upon a novel and dashing plan. After our columns had been set up in the various papers, he would then engage the adjoining columns. In this space, in display type, he denounced our telegrams as bogus, stating that he had seen his own brother write them at the hotel. This announcement completely took the wind out of our sails.

JUMBO'S FREE ADVERTISING

Many amusing things of this sort occurred in the war of opposition, but others of a more serious nature would, of course, come up.

The greatest amount of free advertising ever received by a big show, within my knowledge, for any one thing, was that which was incident upon the purchase of "Jumbo." The elephant was bought by Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson from the Zoological Gardens in London. When the day arrived for his removal, the elephant lay down and refused to leave his old home. This created a sympathy for the dumb creature, and the children became so interested that petitions were signed by hundreds—yes, thousands—of children and adults of Great Britain, protesting against the delivery of the animal to its new owners. Jumbo's stubbornness proved a fortune to his new owners. Taking advantage of the opportunity they began to work upon the sympathies of the Humane Society, which made every effort to prevent Jumbo from being sent to this country. The news was cabled to America by the column. I happened to be in the editor's room of a daily paper in New York when one of these cables came into the office. The editor laughingly called my attention to it and threw it into the waste basket. I said: "What, are you not going to use this?" He said: "No, of course not."

"Well," said I, "you will use Jumbo matter before the excitement is over."

I saw how the excitement could, and surely would, in such able hands, be kept up. I left that night for St. Louis, where my educated horses were being exhibited, and made a call on my old friend Col. John A. Cockrill, then editor of the Post Dispatch—when another associated press Jumbo dispatch came in, with which they were delighted. I then related my experience with the New York editor who had refused to use the cable that came into the office while I was sitting there. The colonel and Mr. Pulitzer said: "Well, we are glad to use it—this and future dispatches."

The next day the colonel handed me a New York paper, which proved to be the same that I had mentioned, and in it appeared a double leaded account on the Jumbo excitement. Their show agents in London did wonderful work in keeping the associated press filled with new matter, and the free advertising they secured would have cost at regular rates a half million of dollars and even then would not have been as effective.

The agents succeeded in working up this opposition to Jumbo's removal until they induced the editor of the London Telegraph to cable Barnum, asking what price he would take to leave Jumbo in his own home, explaining the feeling of the people, especially the children. This editor had no idea then and perhaps does not even now know that he was made an innocent agent in the big advertising scheme. The children of Great Britain had ridden on Jumbo's back, fed and fondled him for years, so that it was easy to arouse this feeling of indignation and sympathy. The multitude even threatened violence if he was removed. The excitement had purposely been kept up to such a pitch by these people that it became international.

There was also much excitement about Jumbo's wife, Alice. Elaborately written articles were cabled over, expressing the sorrow of Alice at the enforced departure of Jumbo and her consequent separation from her husband. The feelings of the people were so worked upon that sympathy for Alice and Jumbo almost equaled that aroused for the slave by the description of Uncle Tom in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The advertising matter for Jumbo—the lithographs, etc.—had already been printed, and in them he was called "Mastodon." When he refused to be moved his right name, Jumbo, was used, as the dispatches had gone out in that name. The strategy used by these managers and their agents to get all this notoriety did no one any harm and made good sensational reading for the newspapers.