As the sales manager attached the Permit of Occupancy on the automatic glass door on August 1 st , 2005, the applause from all our employees cheered the opening of New Shanghai Theatre.
The New Shanghai Theatre is located on the busy road, State Highway 165, in Branson, Missouri, USA. The new theatre was co-invested in by Sino-US companies and it is managed by our company independently. With occupancy of 1,000 seats, the new theatre features modern lighting and sound equipment, and the most popular wide-screen style stage. The outside of the theatre is richly decorated by various kinds of flowers and plants, cascading waterfalls, and on the front wall of the theatre four top-to-bottom vinyl banners featuring stars of the show. In the centre of a red stone courtyard, a more than 6 feet tall three-leg bronze pot (Chinese name “Ke Ding”) from Xi'an, China displays a unique visual charm of oriental culture.
I was standing on one of the steps in front of the new theatre, and my minds was overwhelmed by all kinds of emotions as well as memories of my unusual adventures in the land of the United States of America...
In early 1998, after finishing tour shows in USA, my troupe arrived in the small and mysterious town of Branson in the heartland of America. Branson, known as the “pure version of Las Vegas”, is and one of the top three entertainment destination cities in America, with over 100 shows and 7,000,000 tourists per year. It's a paradise for family vacations and youth tours.
In our first year in Branson, we did shows in the morning at a small theatre located on the edge of the city. We announced the opening of Acrobats of China show on May 11, 1998 and did our very first show on May 12. There were only 15 people in the audience when the show started. In the following weeks the attendance stayed with only dozens. When summer came, the number of audience members started to build up, sometimes it reached up to 50 or 60. There was one day that the number exceeded 100. All of the acrobats on backstage leapt with joy as the goal of our first year's effort is getting 100 in the attendance. However, they found out later that it was an “area appreciation” show, a show presented to local people for free as a way to express the show's appreciation to the community. Our show was recognized as part of Branson after the area appreciation. Meanwhile the attendance number began to increase after the busy season hit Branson.
The officers from Chinese Consulate in Chicago heard about the Chinese Acrobats in Branson and asked us to present a report about our work. I wrote four reports to the Culture Department of the Consulate in June and July. The officers from the Culture Department affirmatively approved our thoughts and deeds. “The Chinese Acrobats should have entered Branson even earlier, since it has a healthy entertainment market which is ideal for the show.” They said. However, they also indicated that the some of the active relative policies would not match the up-to-date overseas circumstances, and probably what we were trying to do could be used as references for the formulation of new policies in the future.
Our work was recognized and supported by the Culture Department. Our project was put into operation. The significance of all that we did in Branson went far beyond presenting shows. The significant part is that we were directly involved in an international live show market, by performing acrobatic shows. Beside that, we justly competed with the agent and finally obtained the profit which had been earned by them for ourselves. The way we operated overseas performances was revolutionary in China. Our way was the closest to international show market practice and was the most promising way. Our achievement is a milestone in the development of the cultural delivery from China to the world, marking the beginning of a new era when Chinese culture delivery was commercialized even after it's first step from non-profit events to profitable events.
In the fall of 1998, our show moved to the Remington Theatre on the main street, when a new favorite turn started. In those days, I had another surprising discovery in Branson: the lake surrounding Branson looked like a Chinese dragon! When I realized that I was suddenly filled with energy. I could even imagine the picture that the 3,000 years old Chinese acrobatics would sweep and awe the audience just like the rushing river!
On November 24, a representative of the well-known Hall family of Branson appeared at the Remington Theatre. The Halls are famous as bankers. They operated entertainment business as a sideline. Soon after, the acrobats were ready to move to the Wayne Newton Theatre, which was one of the theatres owned by the Halls and named after the great singer.
Finally, after we returned to the sunny town of Branson - a place full of hope - from Broadway tours in May, 1999, I met with the first of the most important people in my show business in Branson - the head of the Hall family - Mr. Melvin Hall. Mr. Hall was an easy-going person. He talked about his four life dreams in our first conversation: becoming a millionaire, owning a plane, shooting a grey bear and finding a black pearl. The first three dreams had been realized when he was still a young man, but the “oriental black pearl” which he read in novel had not been obtained yet.
Mr. Hall seldom invits people to his home. Probably he no longer cares about socializing with people. However, after the young boys and girls of our troupe came to his theatre, Mr. Hall became more outgoing. Mr. Ron Zumalt, the manager of the thratre, told me that Mr. Hall decided to invite all the acrobats to his mysterious ranch house. I could tell Ron was surprised himself. All of sudden I got an idea. Why shouldn't I look for the black pearl for Mr. Hall in China and give it to him on his birthday as a surpirise. I was sure that he would be very happy. Maybe I am always a lucky guy. I cautiously planned a “treasure hunting” trip back to China and almost failed and gave up, when I accidentally found a shining “black pearl” around the neck of the Deputy Chief Mr.Cheng! An X-ray appraisal assured me that the black pearl was genuine. I made Mr. Hall realize his last dream on his 85 th birthday. From then on we became very good friends inspite of the gap of ages between the two of us.
The Acrobats of China were ready to perform at the Wayne Newton Theatre. We expanded the cast with new acts and made numerous new backdrops and stage settings. All of the efforts made our troupe become increasingly famous in Branson. We had more audiences and the attendance almost doubled the number of the first year.
The Acrobats of China decided to host local residents a special “appreciation show of the year” on July 10, 1999. We specifically decorated the lobby of the theatre for the event. The over 10,000 square feet lobby was filled with lanterns, colored ribbons and joyfulness. A traditional Chinese style gateway was set up in the lobby, furnished by a huge banner with New Shanghai Circus picture and more than ten bright red lanterns. Local VIPs were invited to a reception with hors d'oeuvres and refreshments, and a full-length show which followed. The Cultural Consul of the Chinese Consulate in Chicago arrived in time, after ten hours of driving. Mr. Schafer, the mayor of the city of Branson, gave a gracious speech before the show started. At the end of his speech, Mr. Mayor presented a Key to the city of Branson to me as the highest honor from the Mayor, and I gave him, in return, an out-of-edition silk woven world map. The precious moment won prolonged applause.
Finally the show started. The opening of the curtain immediately revealed rich oriental flavor to the American-style auditorium. Two majestic-looking and stone-carved lions were sitting on the two sides of the stage. Four exceptionally huge drums sitting in the middle of the stage played a Chinese melody heavily. The Chinese wind blew through the Great Wall which was lying among the high mountains painted on the backdrop. The gorgeous lights from dozens of high power computer lights and the laser light polished the stunning performances to an even bigger extravaganza. During the whole two hours of the show, applause and cheer never ceased in the audience. Professional critics from American show business highly praised the show for its good-looking performers, elegant modeling, beautiful costumes, amazing lighting, charming music and high level feats!
Later in the year, on Thanksgiving Day, Mr. Hall hosted all his employees and the acrobats to a banquet in the lobby of the theatre. Before the banquet, Mr. Hall announced that he had something to say. The crowd quieted. Mr. Hall handed a letter to my secretary and asked her to read the letter to everyone. I figured it out when she was half done. It was a five-year contract. I remembered that when I was celebrating Mr. Hall's birthday at his home, he asked me what I wanted; I said that the current contract was too short and I wanted it to be five years. Surprisingly, he kept that in mind and waited until the Thanksgiving Day to give it to me as a surprise. Thanks to the five-year contract, the Acrobats of China show had a chance to develop itself stably.
Early in June, 2000, we received a letter from the PBS (Public Broadcast Station) inviting the “Incredible Acrobats of China” show of the New Shanghai Circus to its broadcasting network. The news immediately spread out and Branson was shocked.
There came the recording night. On the evening of July 14, 2000, all the 2,400 seats were sold out. Nearly ten cameras were moving in the auditorium. Mr. Randy Fivasch, President of Branson Chamber of Commerce, gave a speech as a representative of Branson and presented flowers to all of the acrobats. Mr. Schafer, Mayor of Branson, was once again sitting in the audience with his wife and watching the whole ceremony.
Being broadcast on PBS is really a big event to Americans. It is even more important than performing on Broadway. It is for sure that “The Acrobats of China” would become popular in the North America, and gain both fame and fortune through the airing on PBS.
Here is a list of awards that we have obtained, just to mention a few:
In 1999, we were rewarded the highest honor of Branson: the Best Non-musical Performance of the Year.
In 2000, the Acrobats of China show was nominated one of the four best shows in Branson.
In 2001, we were rewarded the Small Business of the Year by Branson Chamber of Commerce.
On September 17, 2002, I was awarded Honorable Doctorate by the William Woods University.
That is not all. Although exploring the market is our first priority, we also have the passion to enhance our artistic creativity. Our performers in Branson have also won medals, one after another, both in American and international competitions. Here are just a few of them:
On July 4, 2003, one of our magicians, 22-year old Ms. Yijia Hong's “the Doves and the Maidens” won the 2 nd place at the I.B.M. (International Brotherhood of Magicians) Stage Competition.
On October 11, 2003, 16-year old Ms. Shengsheng Gao presented her “Eastern Angel – Handstand Art” at the 7 th Les Feux de la Rampe international acrobatic competition in Paris, France. The exquisite visual effect of the act and the series of extremely difficult feats which are rarely seen at international competitions led her to the honor of the Gold Cup.
Another important friendship that I made in the US relates to Mr. Kaiyu Yu, an American Chinese who immigrated to the US from Taiwan in his early years and later on became President of Organization of Chinese Americans St. Louis Chapter. Mr. Yu also works for Anheuser-Busch's headquarter corporate office as Project Manager. I first met Mr. Yu on China Day, an annual festival presenting Chinese culture and tradition in St. Louis. We were invited to perform on China Day while Mr. Yu was the host of the performers of the festival. We became good friends since then.
Mr. Yu is a forthright and generous person who always treats his friends with absolute sincerity. He has been our free resource of information with great enthusiasm. His efforts were decisive in our fund-raising effort for the new theatre. Our business income fiercely dropped in 2004 due to the change of management of MGH Performing Arts Center, formerly the Wayne Newton Theatre, which caused us unusual delay and stacking of unpaid bills throughout the year. The huge marketing budget in winter season (without immediate income from shows) and large cost for preparing the new theatre even worsened the situation and stuck me in the corner. Mr. Yu helped me generously all the way through the financial difficulties. It was at that time that I decided to ask Mr. Yu to be the Business Consultant of Acrobats of China. Fortunately Mr. Yu accepted my offer.
Mr. Bill Dailey is the third decisive person that I have known in the US. My association with Mr. Dailey was extremely short but significant to my life and career. Without him, we would not have had the new theatre and the immediate interest which resulted in our moving into our new theatre.
The first time Mr. Dailey made me an offer was back on June 8, 2004 when my representative was invited to attend a private charity fund raiser party, at the famous live comedy show star, Jim Stafford's house. Mr. Bill Dailey approached my representative quietly and asked for meeting with me as soon as possible.
On June 14, 2004, an historical meeting about how to work together to build a new theatre was held in Mr. Dailey's office. After the meeting, Bill and I drove together, in high spirits, to the land belonged to him on high way 165. While we were standing there and looking at the busy traffic going by, Mr. Dailey told me seriously: “Since we are standing here together now, everyone in Branson will know by tonight what we are going to do here. This is Branson!”
On June 18, both of us discussed the details about cooperation, and we decided to retain an architect to build the new theatre which is technically designed for acrobatics only.
During a marketing meeting held by me, the consensus of opinion was to name our new theatre the New Shanghai Theatre. We felt that because “New Shanghai” sounds more fashionable and friendly, it would be accepted by modern people. Then we decided to use the name of “New Shanghai ”as the theme of all future promotional plans.
Through the days of building our new theatre, almost every day Mr. Dailey came over and observed the construction procedure. His last visit was early this May. The seating system was almost finished, so he sat on the last row of the theatre, and talked to me. He said he had overspent by $ 800,000 on building this theatre, and I smiled back and told him I had spent much more out of my budget. Everyone laughed at that moment. In the meetings that followed, Mr. Dailey didn't show up. His assistant told me Mr. Dailey had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Early in June, this lively and funny old man was told he could only live for three more months by his doctor. Everyone was astonished and deeply saddened by this bad news. We decided to give him our best wishes by making a thousand paper cranes and placing them in a beautiful bottle. All of the acrobats of our troupe spent many days on this project. We sent this bottle to Mr. Dailey's office and the translator told his personal assistant the beautiful story about “a thousand cranes” in China with our best intentions and sent our best wishes to him.
The New Shanghai Theatre finally opened, but investor Mr. Bill Dailey has gone and is missed by all. The first day of the show on August 1 opened the door to our new adventure in Branson. In this adventure of managing our new theatre, we can develop new techniques, which are totally different compare with our last 7 years in Branson. We demonstrate the advantages of co-operation between all departments: marketing and sales, sales and box office, box office and customer service, customer service and management, management and production. All departments of the theatre work together smoothly to maintain the high level of the performances.
Nowadays in Branson, each and every event requests the Acrobats of China, including Branson Fest and World Festival of Branson. More over, the city of Branson's advertisement includes us, we are included in the All-Star show, we participated yearly in Branson's Antique Car show, and all of the major publications list us as one of the “do not miss this show”. We are even invited to community social events. People feel the presence of the Acrobats of China at almost every important event in Branson. Our troupe have been deeply involved with the American community and become member of this city, in spite of the cultural difference.
Our venture has received full support from the cultural departments of local, state, and national government and also from the world of media. In 2002, the officers from the cultural department of Chinese Consulate in Chicago specially visited us in Branson again. They were assigned by the Vice Consul General and the officers from the PR Bureau of The Culture Minister of the Peoples Republic of China. In 2003, the culture delegation organized by the Shanghai municipal PR department and the Culture and Broadcasting Bureau journeyed south to Branson all the way from New York City on the north east coast. They carefully researched our daily life, including the shows, our studies and our way of living. They highly praised our advanced mode of overseas management. In 2004, the delegation from the Culture Minister of The Peoples Republic of China arrived in Branson. They had a comprehensive meeting with leaders from local businesses and government. As a result, they highly praised the contribution of our troupe representing the culture of China in the American show markets.
In 2005, the delegation of the China Acrobats Association arrived in Branson. Mr. Jian Lin, Secretary-General and Mr. Xuemin Shao, Deputy Secretary-General were deeply attracted by this small cultural town in the center of America. “How can a remote and unknown area assemble so many shows of acrobatics, magic, dance, music, horsemanship and comedy? This place has everything that one wants to find including a beautiful lake which makes you want to linger on with no desire to leave…” They had meetings with representatives from Branson's government, local businesses, media and entertainment. They were invited by Branson's mayor to visit Branson's City Hall, where they had a constructive conference with the Mayor and members of the city goernment on issues including the development of Branson, the tourism market, and the contribution of Chinese acrobatics to local show business. In appreciation for the visit of the highest leaders from the China Acrobats Association, Mayor Lou Schafer presented a Golden Key carved with his name, a Key to the City of Branson, to Mr. Lin. A key to a city is the highest honor offered to a visitor in the United States.
After an 8-year endeavor, the New Shanghai Circus has passed through the long hard night and has finally seen the dawn of a new day. We have proven that the acrobatic artists from China survived by hard-beaten will rather money sponsored by others. We have created a world of our own with our must-win faith. It is no longer just a myth that a giant dragon from the Orient resides in Branson!