The circus is all about excitement and flash — bands blare, sequins shimmer, humans and animals perform acrobatic feats.
Behind the scenes, things are considerably more businesslike, although clowns still clown around.
“We started preparing nine months ago,” said Shrine past potentate Lucky Seibert. The circus in Billings has seen changes as it adapts to entertainment in a new century.
“This is how things traveled around for entertainment” when the Shriners adopted the circus in the early 1900s, Seibert said. “There was no TV, a little bit of radio.”
Today, there are a lot of other entertainment options to compete with. One way the circus works to stay relevant is by tapping into its roots.
“They’re nostalgia,” Seibert said of the acts. “There’s only this one opportunity each year to see a live elephant or to see a live tiger. We give them a chance to have that memory.”
Other tweaks are more practical. Over the years, the Billings circus has changed schedules, acts and venues — it’s in its 18th year at the Shine Auditorium.
“Each year we try to add something new,” Seibert said. One of this year’s new attractions was a high-wire motorcycle act.
By making scheduling and marketing adjustments, the group boosted attendance for its first show from 300 last year to 1,000 this year. They expect a total of 15,000 people will see 10 shows.
During the first years in the auditorium, the group aimed to fill it to its 2,400-seat capacity.
“It was so packed they wouldn’t even get up to go buy a snow cone,” Seibert said. Now, the group shoots for about 1,400 people per show.
The circus serves as the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Shriners, but it doesn’t support Shriners Hospitals for Children — it helps keep the lights on in the auditorium and provides a backbone for other fundraising efforts.
Seibert knows how important the hospitals are. His 21-year-old daughter, Whittney, was born prematurely and has cerebal palsy. She was treated there.
“I got to see what the hospitals did,” he said. It was more than enough to get him involved.
But the Shriners have been grappling with declining membership across the nation as more and more outlets for charitable work pop up.
“We’d love to see more people get involved and help us out,” Seibert said.
Plenty of people plucked cotton candy as they watched elephants prance, tigers leap and acrobats launch themselves through the air Wednesday night.
Elephants are still the biggest attraction, Seibert said, but their days in circuses are numbered. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced they’ll phase out the animals, and Seibert said Shriners have discussed plans regarding the future of elephants in their show.
The animals can no longer be imported, and breeding pairs are getting too old, he said. A general trend in circuses now emphasizes “more artistry through humans than animals.”
Many of the acrobats would probably agree — it’s all about finding a balance.