A Year With a Union Contract

Circus Trumpeter Reflects on New BenefitsOrganizing Matters

Volume CV, No. 3March, 2005

Mikael Elsila

How many musicians have to work alongside camels, dogs, and a guy who juggles vases? For musicians at the Big Apple Circus, that’s just part of a day’s – or night’s – work.

The Big Apple Circus first opened in Battery Park in 1977. It stays in New York in the winter and also travels to the East Coast, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. Musicians perform about 340 shows a year.

One year ago, the musicians of the circus decided to form a union with the help of Local 802.

Musicians won wage hikes, recording pay and doubling pay. They also achieved a $5.50-per-performance contribution into 802’s health plan. This increases to $7 in August, enough for each musician to reach Plan A.

In the third year of the contract, pension of 5 percent kicks in.

But perhaps most importantly for the musicians, they won job security in the form of a primary hiring list.

Now that musicians have had a year to work under a union contract, Allegro decided to talk to one of the musicians and find how life under the big top has changed.

Allegro editor Mikael Elsila spoke with Johnny Hodges, who plays trumpet in the Big Apple Circus band.

Hodges studied with Lee Rucker and Kent Kidwell at the University of Central Oklahoma where he also freelanced around the Oklahoma area. He spent 11 years playing music on Carnival Cruise Lines, ending up as senior onboard musical director. He’s played with everyone from the Temptations to KoKo Taylor to Clark Terry and more, including a stint on “42nd Street.” He’s been an 802 member since last year.

Mikael Elsila: What does the Big Apple Circus band do?

Johnny Hodges: We’re the orchestra, so basically we play behind all of the acts, provide all of the music in the show, pretty much have to follow what’s going on in the ring and the conductor. So we follow whatever happens in the ring, as all live acts do.

ME: So you have cues – if the elephant is doing its thing, you play the “Elephant Dance,” or is it all improvised?

JH: It’s all structured; there are some improvised solos within the pieces, but as a whole, the pieces have segments. We’ll go from section A to section B on cue based on what’s happening in the ring.

ME: Is it the same show every night, or is the conductor following what’s in the ring?

JH: The conductor is following the circus. In essence the music is the same, but there are pieces that have extra music. We have more music than we really need in case something were to go longer.

ME: Could you tell us what some of the acts are?

JH: Yes…we have very interesting acts. We have an animal act that has dogs and cats and birds. We have a handstand act that is just beautiful: the accompaniment is a beautiful piece as well – Satie’s “Gymnopedies.” We have a nice arrangement; it’s really, really good. We have a great juggler – we’ve got an act where he balances vases. It’s almost like juggling, but you’d have to kind of see it. He’s from China. The finale of the show is a teeterboard act – like a giant see-saw. You’ve got one guy that jumps on one end and catapults the other guy into the air and he does several things. There is a really unique twist to it. At one point a couple of guys jump on one end of it and he catapults up and he does somersaults on stilts. Then, later, we’ve got a guy that actually does a somersault on a single stilt. It’s pretty amazing…a pretty cool act.

ME: What’s one of the funniest things that’s every happened to you while playing this job?

JH: We’ve had some pretty interesting situations. Any time you deal with live animals, you never know what’s going to happen. Last year in the show we had camels. And there was one camel that was a little more ornery than the other camels. A little more active. It was very funny. The first row of seats is very close, right by the ring. If you were in the ring you could easily touch the person in the front row. So the camels came out and they were doing their little walk around the ring and this particular camel stopped and looked over at one of the spectators, reached his head in and started eating the man’s popcorn. And of course the spectator thought it was great; he thought it was part of the show. The crowd loved that. Up there on the bandstand, we were just rolling; we were just dying.

ME: Bottom line: how has the new contract made your life better?

JH: For one thing, the peace of mind of everything being set in place and not having to worry about whether I’ll have a place to work tomorrow and have to scuffle for a job every day. I’m getting too old: scuffling for gigs like that is a young man’s game. I like the idea that I can come home, plop my feet up, watch some TV and know exactly what I’m going to be doing tomorrow. The peace of mind is priceless, really. And how many times have we heard about stress-related disorders and medical things? All of that stuff is off my plate now. It’s turned out wonderfully. One of the other benefits that’s come to us was something I didn’t foresee: the quality of the substitutes has gone up since we went union. Now we can get a quality substitute that before might not consider coming. So that’s been a kind of side benefit I don’t really think anyone foresaw. It’s really worked out well. This year all the subs that we’ve had come in have all been excellent. They were good last year but now they’re better. I personally attribute that to our contract.

ME: Your employer really didn’t put up a fight when you decided to unionize a year ago, right?

JH: Mr. Paul Binder is one of the founders of the circus and also the artistic director. He’s been really good with us and this whole thing. He wanted to make sure that nothing would endanger the circus – but he was also very fair and very cooperative. I hope that everyone who’s in a situation like ours has someone like him in a position of supervision. He’s been really good – he’s really helped us along.

The circus is up through March 27 in Bridgewater, New Jersey (Somerset County) at the Commerce Bank Ballpark. For more information, see