On The Front End

“In show business, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” That is a line often attributed to Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers Pictures back in Hollywood’s heyday. I take this to mean that even if some scandal or misfortune comes to a movie production, the worst that can happen is having no mention of the film at all. So, in a sense, if you are compelled to choose between a publicized catastrophe or crickets, Warner seems to be saying, choose publicized catastrophe.

Retail establishments and the goods they sell can possibly develop a following over time, sometimes by word of mouth, sometimes with the help of advertising — but show business is different. For concerts, plays and movies, time is of the essence.

My show business experience was with a traveling circus. I worked in the publicity and advertising department of Carson & Barnes Circus. That enormous show mostly played towns in a single day, moving down the road the next morning. In other words, for each town we played, I had only one shot to make the date a success. Oh, yes, and there was a pile of money on the line. The figures I was able to obtain showed that Carson & Barnes, in the days I was on staff, had to sell between eight thousand and nine thousand dollars in ticket sales each day to “get the nut”, i.e., break even. My old friend John Carpenter, who was also on the publicity and advertising staff, once said to me, “We eat pressure for breakfast.

Traveling shows are especially vulnerable to the need to make money to survive. A traveling show that can’t move due to lack of money, is doomed. The show I worked for was largely a cash business, and if the money ran out, for most circuses, the show closed — often hundreds of miles from the home base. So, if nobody knows the show is in town, then the circus is unlikely to “get the nut.” Come up short for a period of some weeks, and often the tent comes down for good. The same principle applies to movies, plays and concerts.

I know this because I worked locally in the 1980s and 1990s to promote performances of both the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and the Jacksonville Theatre Guild, in the years after I left the circus. The performances didn’t move from town to town, of course, but performances were very limited — in the case of the Symphony, concerts were performed usually one night only. With tight to non-existent advertising budgets, I had to make it work. When Ken Bradbury reported at a meeting of the Jacksonville Theatre Guild board that publicity for the musical “Shenandoah” was “smothering,” it was one of my proudest moments. Now, I’m mostly out of the publicity trade. However, I still watch with interest as local organizations try to get the word out; some are successful, some are not.

I mention this because of a local upcoming event that has been well publicized. The Prairieland Chautauqua is scheduled to open a two-day run in Jacksonville’s Nichols Park Pavilion, September 1 and 2. Chad Boehlke and his team have done a good job getting the word out, which is enough to make this old circus front-end guy proud. The theme this year centers around Morgan County’s bicentennial. I plan to attend. I hope you will, too.

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