They’re now circus staples, but it took more than a decade for the Big Apple circus and Cirque du Soleil to gain worldwide recognition. More than any other entertainment venture, a family attraction like a circus needs time to cultivate, to garner the love and support of its audience.
In its 14th year, UniverSoul, the only African-American-owned circus to tour the country in more than 100 years, has had plenty of time to cultivate an audience. This year it made Ticketmaster’s list of Most Requested Family Attractions, coming in at number eight and rivaling the established corporate productions of Feld Entertainment, responsible for producing Disney on Ice and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
Rise to the Top
“We went from being 16 on the [Ticketmaster] list to being number eight and next year we’ll be number four,” says UniverSoul’s founder and CEO, Cedric Walker. “It’s our time.”
Rooted in a strong cultural tradition, the circus proves that innovative entertainment can still dazzle even the most jaded of youngsters.
“Our show delivers a certain funky-ness that families want,” Walker says. “We meet the urban lifestyle of hip-hop and jazz and blues. Our language is fresh and effervescent.”
Going to the circus has been associated with nostalgia, a longing for the good old days before Nintendo. UniverSoul takes this concept further by weaving together centuries-old American circus folk with an old school urban soul and a beat of hip-hop. The conceptual three rings captivate children and parents and even grandparents.
“Our show is about bridging the generational gap,” Walker says. “You have a grandma snapping her fingers to hip-hop and the grandson singing along to The Temptations.”
But UniverSoul is not just putting on a show–it’s delivering a message that African-American families are willing to spend their time (and their money) watching an interactive, clean family attraction. Walker set out to create more than just a circus; he wanted a cultural experience enriched with themes of perseverance, tolerance, and social responsibility. At its core, UniverSoul is a tribute to African-American history.
“[UniverSoul] is offering something that connects with their audiences and it resonates so strongly either in a cultural or emotional level that they’ve almost become evangels, working towards supporting their circus that gave them this experience they couldn’t find anywhere else,” says Irving Rein, Professor of Communications Studies at Northwestern University who teaches a class on Marketing Popular Culture.
The Other Circus Folk
Even the big names in the Big Top business are trying to renovate their shows to attract a younger, more media savvy audience. Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, is no exception. The Feld family business produces four of the attractions on Ticketmaster’s list, Disney on Ice, #1, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, #2, High School Musical — The Ice Tour, #5, and Doodlebops Live!, #10. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, in particular, have been significantly revamped in the past year to keep up with the times. “The Feld family has incorporated some aspects of the [Ringling Bros.] show to captivate a younger audience, like a giant screen so that the audience can see the performer’s every move in clear detail. Also, the music is more contemporary, with hip-hop, music that kids nowadays can relate to,” says Enrico Dinges, National Public Relations Director for Feld Entertainment.
Although Walker wants to make a larger jump to the top of the Ticketmaster’s list, he says that it is possible for all family entertainment shows and attractions to be profitable businesses. He even says there have been times when UniverSoul, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Cirque du Soleil, and Big Apple have performed on the same week in four adjacent parking lots in Atlanta and they all managed to do healthy business.
“Ringling Bros. is as American as apple pie, and just as good,” Walker says. “But UniverSoul speaks a different language.”
Nicole Feld agrees. The daughter of Kenneth Feld joined her father’s business in 2001 and states that even with the saturated market in family live entertainment, there is room for various high-quality shows as long as they can deliver a unique experience for families.
The Business with Soul
Never a fan of cheap tricks, Walker first noticed a gap in family entertainment featuring African-American talent when he worked as a promoter in Atlanta. When he began his plans to start a touring variety show with black performers, his friends and investors thought he was crazy. The more he kept talking about it, the more it sounded like a circus. So that’s what it became.
UniverSoul opened in Atlanta in 1994 in the parking lot of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. Walker used money he had saved from his past theatrical productions to fund it and solicited the help of Atlanta franchiser La-Van Hawkins. Today the circus is a multi-million-dollar venture, appearing in many major cities across the country.
“The idea sold itself,” says Walker who gained support from sponsors like Coca-Cola, investors, promoters, producers, vendors who genuinely believe in UniverSoul and wanted to see it succeed.
But despite the initial support and the investments, it took time for families to jump on the UniverSoul bandwagon. “The first years we lost a lot of money. Our first show cost $600,000 and we only ended up making $200,000. The next year, we only lost $35,000,” Walker says. “I was actually excited about that.”
But instead of letting the fantasy go, Walker continued putting on the show because UniverSoul was the type of idea to flourish with time. His background in the entertainment business taught him that in the circus industry, it all takes time. Even an established name in family entertainment, Sesame Street Live, spent six months touring before it began to break even. “Family attractions have such a longevity. Ringling Bros. has been around for over 200 years, what was I going to learn by losing money in the first year? I was familiar with the industry and I know how this business worked, these attractions need time to develop,” Walker says. “It’s not like putting on a rock concert where you see profits almost immediately, you’re talking about families here. They are secure about what they want and what they don’t want, they need to believe in your idea before they will support it.”
UniverSoul now has that support and it makes sure that the audience becomes a part of the experience. During one of the initial shows, Walker recalls having an argument with the producer who rented him the seating system, stating that the audience was destroying it, getting out of control, singing, jumping up and down, dancing in the aisles. “It’s an interactive show,” Walker says. “Our audience contributes just as much as the performers.”
Trapeze artists, clowns, dancers and magicians comprise the 75 performers hailing from more than 10 countries to bring the largest number of black performers under the Big Top. Also featuring elephants, lions and bicycle stunts, UniverSoul is traditional circus entertainment with contemporary urban funk. It connects with their loyal audience and shows them something they can’t find anywhere else — not on the Disney Channel with Cirque du Soleil. The concept doesn’t only connect with the audience, but with the performers as well. Prior to UniverSoul, they lacked a means of expressing themselves.
Walker spent three years researching the culture of African-American performance and recruiting top talent for his show from all over the world. He traveled to Valencia, Spain to persuade Nayakata, an African-Spanish contortionist, to join his show. Even though she didn’t speak English, the concept of UniverSoul and Walker’s enthusiasm didn’t need translation.
Other notable performers include several renowned black performers that got their start with Ringling Bros. The third generation of the King Charles Troupe of unicyclists performed with Ringling Bros. for over 20 years, Pa-Mela was the first Black female aerialist with Ringling Bros., and Danise Payne was the first Black female clown on the “red unit” of Ringling Bros — now they all perform with UniverSoul.
The Challenge Ahead
More than a decade since its conception, UniverSoul visits 26 cities during its 10-month season. But perhaps the biggest challenge that faces UniverSoul is the same that has faced urban-rich entertainment entities ever since the era of jazz. If UniverSoul wants to survive, it will have to cross over to mainstream America, white America. “We want to be like Motown and Soultrain, it’s urban-rich but everyone enjoys it. And urban doesn’t just mean Black. Over the years, we’ve been seeing a growing number of Asian families and Hispanic families coming to the show. We want to grow financially so we can market to different cultures.”
Walker’s circus relies on traditional marketing, TV, radio, print, and favorable word of mouth to reach its audience. “But in order for those to work, you have to have a fresh product and present something that the people have been craving,” he says.
And although Walker admits that he does some slight promotional work on the Internet with contests on radio station Websites and the like, the most significant form of marketing might not be in Walker’s hands. The Internet and cell phone technology are revolutionizing the concept of word of mouth. Families have more power over generating buzz and they are using it to promote events like UniverSoul.
It would’ve been very difficult for UniverSoul to gain this sort of momentum through merely word of mouth 20 years ago, according to Rein. “The distribution channels have amplified. With cell phones and blogs and podcasts, word of mouth is reaching more people a lot quicker,” he says.
In order to accommodate the circus’s growing popularity, Walker purchased a 2,500-seat tent for $250,000. Much like the Harlem Globetrotters (number nine on Ticketmaster’s list), UniverSoul has become a fixture in family entertainment in the African-American community. The circus with a soul has a life of its own.
“With this current fascination with reality TV, what’s more real than the experience of a live show, the circus,” Dinger says. “There are no strings, no tricks, it’s all being performed live right in front of your eyes.”
UniverSoul seeks to expand with merchandising opportunities, and also plans to secure a permanent venue and take the show on international tour. “It’s all about creating the brand,” Walker says, “establishing a name that families have come to love and trust.”