Reinventing the circus

Ringmaster, Simon Tait, is excited that Silvers Circus has significantly evolved through international acts and technology.

Ringmaster, Simon Tait, is excited that Silvers Circus has significantly evolved through international acts and technology.

When you think about how businesses must evolve and adapt to survive, no better example comes to mind than the circus. Dating back to the time of the Roman Colosseum, circuses have undergone huge changes, particularly in the last twenty years, to meet public demand and take on the challenge of new entertainment mediums. 

So, when Silvers Circus rolled into my home town of Castlemaine I just had to pop in and have a chat with its owner, the quietly spoken Anton Gasser, and two of his key staff members. 

Silvers Circus owner, Anton Gasser, believes that a circus is very much like farming.

Silvers Circus owner, Anton Gasser, believes that a circus is very much like farming.

Instead of running away to the circus Swiss born Anton was quite literally born into the circus with a family history of circus performers going right back to the 1600’s.  With circus blood in his veins and celebrating 40 years since establishing Silvers Circus with his wife Anna here in Australia, there is no doubt that it is as much lifestyle as it is a business to this hard working couple and their grown up children.

“If you want to make money, then don’t buy a circus,” says Anton with a wry smile. “But if you want lots of work and to put a smile on people’s faces, then do buy a circus.”

Anton likens a circus to farming which is also dependent on weather and the economy.  “We have our good years and we have our bad years.  Sometimes we have to go without,” he shrugs philosophically, “but we make sure our bills are always paid.”

The fact remains, where many circuses have come and gone, Silvers is a survivor and I was keen to find out how.

When I asked long time employee, Simon Tait, what the secret is to a successful circus, his answer was clear. “Location, location, location!”  The big top is by far their best advertising as no-one can miss it as they drive and walk by.

This is a particularly interesting point given that, for the first time in my memory, a circus has been relegated from the town centre to a reserve on the town outskirts with very little drive by traffic.

One of the negative changes he admits, has been the way circuses are received into towns. 

“In the old days the town would roll out the red carpet and offer us the very best spaces at no charge; they were just so glad to have us come and provide entertainment.”

But times have changed.  Not only are municipal councils now looking to recoup the cost of power and water used, they insist on substantial bonds amounting to thousands of dollars, to cover any damage that may be incurred to the grounds.  Sometimes this is unavoidable due to wet weather and heavy trucks but other times it is a disreputable circus before them that tarnishes the industry image.

Another long term employee is Margaret Petersen. Melbourne born, she actually did run away to the circus and has been with Silvers for 35 years.  Firmly ensconced at the helm of the ticket box, she is in charge of the nerve centre of the circus, efficiently handling the logistics for each town they travel to Australia wide.

“Essentially Margaret has to set up a new business for us in every location,” Simon explains. “She has to jump through the same hoops again and again.”

“We start with the Victorian Building Authority, then have to get the ground lease sorted, contact neighbours as part of the Good Neighbourhood Code of Practice, and then there is council,” Margaret says stopping for a breath.  “Not just one department but engineering, OH&S, building and by-laws.”

“Everything goes by the book,” Simon chips in. “We have to be one hundred percent professional or we go under.”

Well maybe not the time that the monkeys escaped from their enclosure during a sea voyage to Tasmania which I’d dearly love to hear more about but I digress!

With all these additional barriers Silvers has had to work extra hard in marketing their shows.

Well in advance, like a well-oiled machine, the posters pop up in shop windows and advertisements on television and radio herald their arrival in the region.  In addition there are blow up clowns on street corners and vehicles with signage strategically placed around the town.

And then there is the show itself that was voted one of the top ten circuses in the world in 1992.

Driving up to the big top, Silvers gives the external appearance of a traditional circus. The obligatory side show alley clowns, fairy floss and jumping castle can be found outside but the program is vastly different.

Thankfully Margaret doesn’t have to worry about escaping monkeys anymore because the circus has transgressed from exotic animal acts to highly skilled human acts. 

Yes, you will still find the clowns, illusionists, jugglers and acrobats appealing to all ages, but new acts include ones like The Globe of Death featuring motorbike riders who defy gravity and thrill their audiences.  I confess I found this very hard to watch but then again, I didn’t like my son riding a peewee at age five either!

Simon gets visibly excited at this point of the conversation.  He believes that circuses are continuing to evolve and there are two main factors contributing to this; the calibre of the international acts and technology.

“The thrill acts are very appealing to the teenage market,” he explains. “They come on their own and don’t have to be dragged along by mum and dad.  We are competing with so many forms of entertainment these days that everything we provide has to be a quality act.”

I wonder about safety and how the increasing Occupational, Health & Safety regulations affect circuses?

“We have incredibly dangerous acts so safety is paramount,” says Simon. “In many ways circuses have been way ahead of other industries in this respect. These are our family and friends so we have always worked hard to keep them safe.”

Technology is also a big part of how circuses now function.

Far from the old cumbersome canvas tents, the new tent design features only four king poles that can be much more easily erected and yet withstand gale force winds.  Technology enhances the drama of acts through sophisticated music and lighting.

With lifestyle a major factor drawing people to work in the circus industry Simon reflects on how digital technology has also made life on the road easier for him since starting in his early 20’s.

“I remember lining up at a phone box to ring my parents on a Sunday evening to get the cheap STD rates,” he recalls. “Now I can ring family and friends on my mobile, email or skype.”

Performing as Ring Master and an illusionist in the show, Simon can also be found helping out with the publicity and driving trucks. “We all multi task,” he admits. “You should see me on my day off!”

In fact, the more I hear about Silvers Circus, the more it reflects the qualities of any other successful family business.  Anton and Anna are clearly loved and respected by their employees that can number as high as 35 with support staff during peak times.

Silver’s circus performers enjoy a month off just before Christmas but another dream of Anton’s to provide quality children’s entertainment has seen a new show evolve especially for the Christmas market.  Each year in November and December the big top is now set up at Caulfield Racecourse for Santa’s Magical Kingdom.

When I ask Anton what the success of his business is, he puts it down to team work and attention to detail. “We all work together and, if it’s important like making sure your customers have clean toilets, sometimes you have to do it yourself.”  While some of the vehicles may be twenty years old they are meticulously clean, as is the big tent and all Silver’s facilities. This is clearly a source of pride for Anton.

“Silvers Circus is all about quality,” Simon reiterates. “People are totally entertained and remember the show.”

With a clearly happy audience vacating the big top at the conclusion of its last performance in Castlemaine, the team is anxious to start packing up before setting off in convoy to Ballarat. Performers are shedding their costumes and rolling up their sleeves to lend a hand.  From Margaret’s perspective, it is all about jumping through all the logistical hoops again, but for Anton it is about seeing the smile on people’s faces.

Silvers Circus is coming to town!

KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE