Ladies and gentlemen, the circus is coming to town with its "rollicking ribticklers, dauntless derring-do, titans of tigers, enthralling equine spirit, bonanzas of bounding bravery, troupes of transcendent trapeze technicians." All the traditional trappings. Elephants and clowns. But the advance man is missing.
The blue team of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey opens tomorrow at the Starplex, but its arrival has gone unheralded by advance men, those colorful characters of yesteryear who would come to town before a circus to "paper" it with posters and drum up interest. They would carry paste pots and long-handled brushes to hang their posters, and, of course, pocketfuls of free passes. "Ringling has had none since 1955," said circus historian Charles "chappie" Fox. "Television and radio, slick advertising agencies and newspapers have taken their place. They used to call the men 'billers.' They rode railroad cars called bill cars. Each car would carry anywhere from 25 to 35 men who went about two weeks ahead of the circus, and ate and slept on the trains.
"When they went into a town they managed to paste lithographs and date sheets on nearly every flat surface they ran across. And if there weren't that many areas, they would go to a lumberyard, buy lumber and build a fence along a vacant lot and hang posters."
They were young men, mostly between 20 and 30, and worked for $25 a week back in 1925.
Big circuses had two to four bill cars.
The first crew would go out to the countryside, the second crew would work the town. Each crew would keep a list of addresses where the posters had been hung, and another crew would follow a few days later to make sure they were still on display. "A farmer would accept a couple of passes and then take the poster down off his barn," Fox recalled. "Or another circus would be coming to town and the farmer would also take passes from him and let him hang his poster over the other one. "If a rival show was coming to town a week later there was competition to plaster every available space. Once in a while during a real competition, some advance man would pay a kid 50 cents to drop a couple of yeast cakes in the opposition paste busket. The yeast cakes would destroy the adhesive quality, and a couple of hours later the posters would just peel off the wall.
"But mostly the competition was clean. They were just a hard-working bunch of guys trying to outdo each other."
Sometimes the competition was not so clean.
Business was divided four ways. Fighting was bitter. Each tore down the other's billing, or plastered his own gaudy posters over those of his rivals. Dates were changed by simply pasting new ones over old. Fists, clubs and tack hammers were used in hand-to-hand combat that left workingmen disabled or jailed. -- Circus warfare of 1896 described in "Those Amazing Ringlings and Their circus."
George Gallo, who now lives in a trailer in Florida, still goes out posting for carnivals.
Once upon a time, Gallo was out in the countryside somewhere, doing barns and sheds across from a railroad track.
Suddenly there was a freight train derailment and the cars piled up for half a mile, some standing on end, some on their sides, every which way.
Seeing all that wonderful empty advertising space and realizing how much time it would take to unravel the mess, Gallo sneaked back that night and papered every inch of freight. And, what's more, the ads faced the highway.
His ingenuity was parlayed into still more advertising when the local newspaper sent a photographer out to record the resourcefulness of the advance man.
The freight cars were still there a full two weeks later when the circus hit town.
A good-sized circus would post 6,000 or even 10,000 sheets a day. Once the circus took to the road for the season, work never stopped for the advance man.
"Inside, the bill cars had great long tables over storage lockers jammed with circus posters in a multitude of sizes," said Chappie Fox.
"Above the long tables were standard Pullman upper berths where the crew slept when the day's work was done.
"There was an office for the advance car manager and another for the contracting press agent.
"At one end there was an upright boiler to produce steam for cooking flour-based paste. About half the bill cars tied that boiler to a galley where the pastemaker doubled as cook for the crew.
"On the worktables the crews made up their loads, or 'hods' of paper for their next day's work."
There were also specialists called banner men who climbed tall ladders or dangled from roofs to reach high walls.
Attacking a city or town with posters was not unlike a military operation with the car manager mapping out the work -- assigning streets or country routes.
After a long day, the crews reassembled at the advertising car, dined on the pastemaker/cook's offering and turned in.
Sometime during the night, the car would be hitched onto a regular passenger train, and by morning the crew would find itself in another town and the day's work started again.
It wasn't unusual for the circus to do 15 to 20 one-night stands with advance men trying to keep ahead.
In 1891 the Adam Forepaugh Circus left Omaha on May 28 and hit 39 towns. Forty-seven days late the advance car was in Portland, Ore. It had traveled 5,000 miles and posted 300,000 sheets.
There probably never was an advance man to equal Phineas T. Barnum himself.
In 1882, Barnum negotiated to buy Jumbo, the largest elephant ever seen, from London's Royal Zoological Gardens. This resulted in all sorts of publicity for Barnum on both sides of the Atlantic.
On the day Jumbo was to leave the Gardens, Barnum's agent cabled his boss: "Jumbo has laid down in the street and won't get up. What shall we do?"
Replied Barnum: "Let him lie there a week if he wants to. It is the best advertisement in the world."