November 21, 2016, USA Today
Many nonprofit organizations perform without a net and that means that a loss of balance can be fatal. Such is the case with the Big Apple Circus. Founded in 1977, the nonprofit voluntarily petitioned for Chapter 11 relief in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan this past Sunday, listing $3.8 million in assets and $8.3 million in liabilities. Judge Sean H. Lane is assigned to the case. Debevoise & Plimpton LLP is serving pro bono as Big Apple Circus’ legal counsel.
The circus, knowing it was in trouble, launched an emergency “Save the Circus” crowdfunding campaign in June with a lot of positive publicity, declaring the immediate need for $2 million to stay aloft. Indeed, major donors had saved the classic circus in previous years; but this time only $900,000 was raised. So the one-ring bohemian wonder performed its final public performance, The Grand Tour, in July 2016 – and now it is left to juggle its draining liquidity and debt under bankruptcy court supervision.
The Big Apple Circus might take its name from the intimidating city, but its unique magic had an intimate, loving feel. None of the 1,700 seats under the Big Top was more than fifty feet from the ring. It’s aerialists, contortionists, animals, and (not creepy) clowns were right there. The show made children and most everyone genuinely laugh. This circus was decidedly not a corporate Ringling Bros. or Cirque du Soleil mega show. Its animals were much-loved dogs, horses, and camels from an upstate New York farm.
The Big Apple Circus founders Paul Binder and Michael Christensen met in San Francisco in the late 1960s. They travelled the world together and discovered the European circus tradition, “one that privileged artistry over vulgarity.” They returned to New York City and created their own circus with a mission to bring wonder into the lives of children, especially poor and sick kids.
A glance at the Big Apple Circus’ 990s tells the tale. Earned revenue began declining during the 2008 financial crisis. Tickets sales remained healthy, but the Big Apple Circus needed the $2 million it made each year from private performances. Contributions provided, among other services, the funds for poor and disabled children to see the circus free of charge.
The decline is clear to see. During its 2007-2008 season, its best season ever, the circus generated about $19 million in revenue from approximately 350 shows in eight U.S. cities and towns. But last year its revenue was $14 million and it estimates its revenue for 2016 will be $11.9 million.
But, as with many nonprofits, the circus hopes to live on at least through its spawn if not through an outright resurrection.
According to the circus’ website:
During the bankruptcy case, the Big Apple Circus intends to continue operating some of its community programs, which may be transitioned to other suitable nonprofit organizations, and to sell certain of its assets. In the meantime, the bankruptcy filing preserves the opportunity to restart the Big Apple Circus’ one-ring show, either with new financial support or through a sale of the circus to a buyer interested in doing so.
Countless families are certainly mourning the loss of this cherished oasis of heartfelt fun and joy. It is not the first beloved New York institution that could not be sustained commercially or philanthropically, but some have been brought back more than once. Let’s hope Binder and Christensen can manage find a way to revive their baby or hand it over to others who will nurture it as lovingly.—James Schaffer