Taking the New Lincoln Center Tents for a Test Drive

Photo: Joseph Sinnott

I interviewed Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week’s then-director Fern Mallis when I first learned they were moving from Bryant Park this past fall. And this summer, I was interested in using the new tents at Lincoln Center for a private event I was doing—the Big Apple Circus has taken over the tents to house its show, as well as space available for events—so I contacted Roy Braeger and got a drawing of the new digs. And of course I checked out the whole setup for Fashion Week.

But despite BizBash editor Anna Sekula’s venue report, I still didn’t really get how it was going to work. There are fashion shows … then there’s a circus … but you can still throw a private party—it was all so confusing. I ended up going a different route for the event.

So when I was invited to the first outside event held in the new tents, I jumped.

On October 21, PBS held a 700-person benefit screening of its new documentary Circus, which premiered this week. The series is a warts-and-all look at one year in the life of the Big Apple Circus, done by the team that did last year’s Emmy-winning PBS series Carrier, Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre.

A premiere party for a documentary about a circus at the circus—what could be more fun? But my sister Kerry (who works for WNET 13) was leaving the kids at home. The invitation made it clear that the documentary featured adult themes (though that didn’t stop everybody from bringing their children).

An adult-themed party for a documentary about a circus at the circus—what could be even more fun?

The show was screened in the Big Apple Circus Big Top, but was preceded by a cocktailer in a large reception hall (catered by Canard Inc.), where I luckily ran into Gary Dunning, the executive director of the circus, who explained how the new tents work.

The whole structure goes up each year in August. Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week/IMG and Big Apple Circus both contract directly with Lincoln Center for the use of the space at Damrosch Park (where some neighbors complained that an excessive number of trees came down when the tents first went up). If you want to book an event during Fashion Week, you go through IMG: People looking to book fashion shows, contact executive producer Christina Neault and expect lots of attitude. People looking to put on benefits or other events during Fashion Week (which I did a few times in Bryant Park), expect even more attitude. Getting even this information was a highly unpleasant experience.

After Fashion Week ends, Big Apple Circus moves in until the first week in January. Then they clear out to make way for Fashion Week again. There is a downtime between the circus and runway shows, but the tents are not available for rent while they are reconfiguring. But until January 9, 2011, if you want to do an event in the tents, you contract with Big Apple Circus via Roy Braeger, whom the circus has tapped to act as manager of the facility.

Once the fall 2011 shows (which run from February 10 to 17) are finished, the whole structure comes down and gets replaced with the tent used for the spring Lincoln Center events, which is called the Tent at Lincoln Center. Then that structure comes down for the summer. In August, the whole schedule starts up again.

You can do like PBS did and contract with the Big Apple Circus to customize entertainment at your event. In their case, execs opened and closed the event speaking from the floor of the Big Top with handheld mics. Then a clown named Mark Gindick, who is a focal character in the Circus series, came out and did a short presentation that concluded with the director’s adorable seven-year-old daughter, Su Huai, being swung around on a cable.

After a few acrobats and contortionists did their thing, an impressive 30-foot screen (two Christie 18k double converged and HDCam playback, provided by Michael Andrews, if you’re curious—I was) descended from the ceiling and a special cut of the documentary aired (with, as promised, lots of adult themes like circus terrorists and squabbling twin-brother jugglers). Then the house lights came up, and guests were served dessert in the big top. Fun! I never wanted to run away with the circus; I’m more of a hotel than a trailer guy. But, sure, I want to walk around the ring. Who doesn’t?

But not everyone has a circus documentary to premiere, or wants the whole vibe. If you just want a big venue in the Lincoln Center campus, there is a series of options. The tent that the circus uses as its reception area is the most finished, with V.I.P. lounges, acoustic ceiling discs (which were designed to serve as projection screens), and two giant curved walls in primary red and blue. If you can’t live with primary red and blue, there’s another rectangular tent that was a pretty blank canvas.

Planners should expect to spend $50,000 to $100,000 for a show buyout with the circus, depending on time and date. They have a fee schedule if you want the tents without the Big Apple performance.

What’s good: location, location, location. Just like Fashion Week, guests get to enter through the Lincoln Center plaza, which lends drama and credibility. Plus, the Big Apple Circus is a not-for-profit organization, so there’s a feel-good element. And if you have an event with kids involved or just want the circus element thrown in, this is your space.

What’s not so good: the bathrooms, for starters. And I for one think a little more signage on the Amsterdam Avenue side telling guests where to enter couldn’t hurt.

But who can beat a night in the big top?

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