Big Apple Circus’ future uncertain

The founders of the Big Apple Circus, Michael Christensen (l) and Paul Binder, attend what may be the famed show’s final performance.
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Big Apple Circus, a nonprofit that entertains millions of children and families at Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows and Lincoln Center in Manhattan, is hoping to raise $2 million to keep the institution going.

The campaign has raised $56,237 from 587 people in 14 days, as well as more than $600,000 in total contributions and pledges raised to date online and offline as of Wednesday evening. The circus travels around the country.

The campaign would allow the nonprofit to mount its fall production at Lincoln Center and support its community programs. The organization has also developed a business plan for the 2016-2017 season that includes a more economically viable touring model that would have more shows remain in New York City throughout the year.

“Very few of those (fans) realize that we’re also in 50 pediatric hospitals,” Will Maitland Weiss, Big Apple Circus’ executive director, said in an interview. “Very few of those people realize that we’re a nonprofit organization like hospitals, like schools, like social service agencies. That’s been the challenge in terms of balancing our budget.”

In 1974, Paul Binder and Big Apple Circus co-founder Michael Christensen, both Americans, became juggling partners in Kent, England and performed on various street corners throughout Europe.

They eventually made their way to the stage of the renowned Nouveau Cirque de Paris. They came to the United States in 1976 with the goal of entertaining and improving the lives of millions of people.

By 1977, they found a site for the first tent-raising in Battery Park in Manhattan and went on to create the Big Apple Circus. The nonprofit has put on performances for millions of people inside the tent for the past 38 years.

It also has programming outside of the tent. The Clown Care program, which takes circus artists into pediatric hospitals to kids, serves about 250,000 children in 50 pediatric hospitals around the country every year. Three of the hospitals are in New York City: Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, Harlem Children’s Hospital and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Before the financial recession in 2008, the non-profit would buy out the whole house or tent for private performances to banks or law firms, which would use it for employee awards ceremonies or for events for kids and families as an additional source of income. That would generate about $2 million, according to Weiss.

After 2008, about half of that money dried up, Weiss said. The non-profit still gets about $1 million per year. For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Big Apple Circus realized just over $1 million from private performances. He said Bloomberg L.P. bought a couple of performances.

“It’s less money than we used to make and sometimes we have been fortunate and received a major gift from what we think of as a knight in shining armor, but if someone gives us a million dollars it’s fabulous but that’s not sustainable, that’s not the business model,” Weiss said.

He said the nonprofit would lay off 125 seasonal employees after June 12, as planned, after the last performance who would not be rehired until August.

In the administrative office, the number of full-time employees has dropped from 25 to 14 over the last 18 months. The marketing department had 10 employees and is now left with only two.

“The danger is if we don’t have enough operating cash, I have to let some people from the full-time year-round staff go as well,” he said.

Next year, the nonprofit is committed to doing the show at Lincoln Center in the fall and playing at Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows in the later spring.

But between those two shows, they are planning to do arena shows, which would use the same artists but rather than taking the tent from city to city or town to town, the tent could stay resting in New York City. Big Apple Circus would still have a need for marketing, fundraising, finance and human resources employees who would be working year-round.

Phil Thurston, a publicist for the National Minority Supplier Development Council, worked for the nonprofit for nearly 15 years and was laid off at the end of June 2015.

He said that in addition to the 2008 economic downturn, the Boston Marathon Bombing, Superstorm Sandy and an ice storm in Atlanta that kept people from driving on the roads contributed to a decrease in ticket sales, leading to furloughs and pay cuts over the years.

Thurston said the big top show is key to sustaining the nonprofit’s community programs. Although he initially felt raising the $2 million will be “a long road,” he noted that the campaign has been coming along well and that he now feels hopeful.

“I really feel strongly that Big Apple Circus as a whole is a vital institution, especially to the parents of small children, but also those children who may be in a hospital or in an after-school program,” he said. “It would be a real sad thing to lose the Big Apple Circus.”

Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at or by phone at (718) 260–4566.

Posted 12:00 am, June 16, 2016
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Reader feedback

Hilda from Bayside says:
More and more people are getting hip to the fact of animal abuse in these circuses et al plus don't especially like that animals are used for entertainment purposes. Add to that the $5 charge for a bag of stale popcorn.
June 17, 2016, 3:19 am
Emily from Bayside says:
Yes Hilda is correct. The public no longer agrees with the use of animals in the circus and the abuse they suffer as apart of training. Why don't they retire their animals? It would save them a ton of money. Why automatically go to no circus? If no other talent exists w/in that org then they shouldn't be in business to begin with.
June 17, 2016, 11:49 pm
Laura from Staten Island says:
As someone who grew up with the Big Apple Circus in the field across from our home every year, I can say their animals were always very well cared for.

They hired locals to help set up tents and do work on the grounds and we never, ever heard of the animals being mistreated.

If you really think "no other talent exists within that organization" then you have never seen this circus and readily dismiss all their hours in hospitals working with sick children. You paint with a broad brush just because it's a circus.
June 20, 2016, 11:20 am
Charly from Queens says:
Why would they stay in Lincoln Center? That lease in monstrous. There must be a hundred large parks in the NY metro area that would be thrilled to have the circus come to their area (for example, Universoul pitches a tent every year - why not work in their paradigm?)

Sure, it's a NYC institution. That's great. But they didn't react to changing times EIGHT YEARS AGO. The fact that the company is begging for a last minute cash infusion shows that these folks are pretty entitled and have a stagnant view of what the public wants.

If they're not willing to adapt, then maybe it should die off -- and let another circus company take its place.
July 14, 2016, 6:23 am

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