Sunday, September 14, 2014

Carny Rides To Die For ... Check Out This Wacko Showing Off His Firm's Monster Midway Death-a-Whirls

Centrifuge Brain Project

If you want a good laugh, the Centrifuge Brain Project is a satire on the ultimate lunacy in EXTREME carnival ride design.  These horrific screamers make your common wood roller coaster look like a horse-drawn buggy ride in Amish country.

Sent to me by new nephew, Jeff, at first, I took the thing on face value, wondering where in the world these rides were in actual operation, and wondering if the narrator had spent some quality time in a nut house.   

Second visit, now in on the joke, I laughed my head off!!!!

Fasten your seat belts and sign your wills; you may never return.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Ringling Magic," At Last, Under Kelly Miller Canvas

Tonight, just now, seconds ago, I re-watched the Kelly Miller DVD that John Ringling North II had sent me a while back, wanting to take a second look at the sensationally captivating young ball bounce juggler from Ethiopia, Abrham Gebre, making a  "first time in America" appearance on the show.

I was even more impressed, thinking I might have slightly overreacted when first I saw him on the video, his presence lifting the show truly into Ringling territory, far beyond the normal fare of a pleasant JRN II circus program.   He is a fair sensation,  somersaulting into the ring (I hadn't noticed that the first time), grabbing the audience's attention with an ingratiating charm full of a sharing energy, and proceeding to dazzle with his routine, ending up atop a ladder on a table, to produce a neat payoff.  This is the stuff of Gold.

End of act, during moments when I heard a drum roll, and saw blue canvas, I felt almost as if I were back in De Mille's The Greatest Show on Earth under that gorgeous big top.

When North bought the show back in around  2007, he or Jim Royal issued a statement to a press person about wanting to bring a "little Ringling magic" to the show

Well, this is that magic.  Gebre is probably the best act  North & Royal have ever signed, the Poema family coming in a solid second.  There were some African tumblers, I believe, whom some thought were the high point of the edition, one of the first,  in which they appeared.

Perhaps Johnny Come Lately has a way of finding and signing newer talent on the rise, at good terms.  A flair for the foreign.

Here, in the charismatic attack of a great performer and  entertainer (like Brunn, Gebre's body is in constant motion, too, complimenting his diverse repertoire),  North II presents the genuine article.

I could almost hear  Merle Evans' men thundering through, "Sing Hallelujah!" ... the ringmaster shouting high and wide ... the Greaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat Sebastian!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Concello Gets “Kicked Out” of the Ringling Show... All About that Strange Ill-fated European Tour

 Photos from the program magazine

The recollections of it, depending upon whom to believe, are so wildly variable as to leave one in a complete muddle.  Was it that bad?   Or, no, you say it was quite good, really?  When John Ringling North took Ringling-Barnum  to Europe in 1963, banking on continental acclaim, great business, and  a regular annual our of major Old World capitals, he left virtually all of the planning and delivery to Arthur Concello.  The two had, what would become, a legendary history, something like Barnum & Bailey.

We know the show may have opened in shambles — director Richard Barstow curiously not called over to begin his work until the show was well into rehearsals, under the default direction of Concello’s girl friend, Maggie Smith.  The reviews were good, business fairly good and building.

From Don’s letter to me dated November 13, 1963, when I was in Scotland at the time:

You’ll be interested to learn some information I picked up while visiting James Bros.  Everyone was talking about the fact that North has kicked Concello out of the Ringling organization.  He is reportedly suing Concello for something like $2 million.  As I understand things Concello will manage the New York World’s Fair circus and then his connection with the Ringling show ceases completely.  What has happened or why the sudden outburst I don’t know.  In fact I’m most anxious to learn about this myself, so will surely keep you posted.”

A page from the program magazine. I do not see a dearth of talent.
About the “sudden outburst,” years later, while interviewing Mr. Concello, indoor pool side, in his Sarasota home (he was kind to me, always) when the subject of the European tour came up, at one point in the disintegrating relationship between AMC and JRN abroad, Mr. Concello motioned me to follow him around the pool to a closet.  In it, he reached up to retrieve his diary for the year 1963. He thumbed through it to a page, and held it up for me to read;

“North raising hell”.

He stood there looking a little amused by my serious reaction.  But, in fact, I got a distinct feeling that he had felt very very uncomfortable being around North at the time.  He did not know, although he may have suspected, that, upon returning to the states to work on the World's Fair unit, he was about to be fired.

The two men were equally strong willed, from my observations. Concello’s handling of Ringling in Europe seemed engineered to favor choreographer Margaret Smith (the two later married) over the director of record, Dick Barstow.  And here is the strangest part of the story: Barstow kept waiting to be called over to begin his work, and kept being put off.  Finally, he was notified to come, and when he arrived, the show had already opened. Flabbergasted at the chaotic state of the program that he claimed to have found, Barstow bolted up to JRN and demanded that his name be taken off the program, that he was going back to the states.  North talked Barstow out of it. 

Henry Ringling North, in an interview he gave me at the Yale Club in NY, some years later, called the Paris opening “an absolute disgrace.”  Meaning, I think, the program was a mess, as sometimes they can be the first few performances out.   Based on the program lineup, no way can anybody claim that the roster of performers was not generally top drawer.  But, of course, it’s all in how the whole thing is put together. 

They played a few cities.  Photos show most of the seats filled.  Ken Dodd, who has seen a video of the show, thought it looked very good.

John Ringling North let go of his dream, in my opinion, not wishing to harm his high reputation over there, as he had already done in the states when he struck the big top.  He wished more, I believe, to sustain the peace and respect he had found in the Old World.


Monday, September 08, 2014

Struck by Kelly Miller on DVD: A Tale of Two Circuses Under the Same Tent

 First Time in America: Abrham Gebre

It came in the mail, not unexpected, per what seems a friendly tradition, a big envelope which, when squeezed, suggested the inclusion of peanuts. MMM, those I will like, for sure.  It came without a note; perhaps the sender sent it reluctantly, though I have never solicited such.  Perhaps he could still not resist, wishing to maybe tease me with evidence of the kind of a circus he is on record for wishing to produce – the “best” in America.

On the top left of the envelope was one word, written in letters: NORTH.  Of course, we know this to be none other than John Ringling North II.

Inside, a program and a DVD of the 2014 edition, still out there somewhere on the road.

Of course, I would watch it, forever interested in what the House of Ringling may be up to.  At the same time,  I had no intention of reviewing the show on the basis of a DVD.  My thinking along these lines is “evolving,” however, because recorded videos can contain an entire performance, unedited for the most part.

But, at the end of the first half, I knew I would not be commenting at all.

And then, in the second half, came an act so good, it felt like an out-of-body experience at Kelly Miller.  A young juggler from Ethiopia of inventive skill, showmanship, and a fast gripping delivery,  sending me into Ringling or Big Apple territory.  Maybe  not perfect, but Damn good.  This guy would hold his own in any ring.  His name is Abrham Gebre.

 And then yet another act of high-line showmanship, this involving fire, the artist, Lamount, returning for his second year on K-M, and earlier seen on a Lane Talbert You Tube,  but only in a sampling of clips, and no, I do not review clips.  Here, in complete, the act is remarkable in its variation and complexity, in how a series of blazing stage pictures in the dark can build to a mesmerizing climax.

And so, here I am, to a degree commenting on the two circuses I saw in that one tent.  Never have I witnessed a performance so incredibly varied -- from rank amateurism to virtual world class fare.

First off, to a couple of very good new acts that lift the first half into pro territory: Veteran juggler Nicholas Souren, and two finely choreographed Mongolian contortion acrobats, Amina & Zaia, who come with a touch of Vegas razzle dazzle, offering some novel moves on an act we see perhaps too often these days, the public seeming never to get enough of this type of slower moving artistry.  But they give the show class, if only they had a stronger pay off..

So, at Kelly Miller circus 2014, a show otherwise staid. stagnant, and numbingly redundant redeems itself at four intervals with a much higher class of action than we have grown to expect from Johnny North  II’s Cherry Pie Repertory company.

** Juggler Noholas Souren.  He offers a full winning repertory, but what I lacked was a more flashy presentation, perhaps just a more colorful costume.

** The Mongolians.  Lots of meticulous class and styling.  I'd expected something rudimentary, but got a polished frame.

**  Ethiopian ball bounce juggler, Abraham Gebre -- a star in the making, and a credit to North’s potential ability to go after and book some of the best out there. 

**  Biggest surprise: Lamount, The Human Volcano. 

The other circus under the same tent?  I will not dwell, I am not here, believe it or not, to rile those who detest my line of critical prose.   It would be pointless.  But for those ready to claim I haven’t the guts to come clean on what exactly it is I find weak, okay, a few examples:

* Dogs that appear to be in training rather than performing.

* Clowning that falls woefully short of the mark.

* The Carousel "production"  number comes up a blank, a void.   Almost nothing happens, and it was a let down, for I have noted in past comments that JRN II shows a flair for production.  Not here.  The action is pinned on pleasant, slow moving  aerial work of little consequence.

Three examples, there.   The rest of the show, I suppose, is adequate.  Now, please, if you yourself are on fire, ready to fire off hate mail, may I kindly propose a way to cool off?  Consider that Circus Report called the show “the best in America,” and that Spectacle gave it a fairly glowing pass.  Still upset?  I’d suggest ditching this blog for good, pal. That’s what I do when I can’t stand whatever it is I can' stand anymore, like obnoxious talk show hosts -- or critics.

I will not linger.  Sometimes, a first draft is the most honest draft.   I did enjoy a new brand of peanuts, thank you “North.”

And I might now replay the DVD, just to enjoy what there is there to enjoy.  A friendly piece of unsolicited advice: Let go of your comfort zone, Johnny the Sequel, and think NEW.  And if I don't get a big envelope from you  next year, I will understand.  No hard feelings, okay?

End Ringers:  Incredible.  Three of the four acts I mention, all first timers, do not have photos on the show's website.  Steve and Ryan are still there, as are acts from other years.   Go figure.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Ringling Quad Wars Produce Backstage Blood Between Rival Flyers, Charges Filed, Rigging Sabotage Alleged, One Troupe Thrown Off the Lot ...

We all know, I assume, that Miguel Vazquez was and is the undisputed Quad King. It was he who threw the first four somersaults into the hands of his brother-catcher, Juan, during the Tucson, AZ date  on July 10, 1982.  

A few seasons later,  Ringling boss Irvin Feld booked another high-flying troupe, the Caballeros, who had achieved similar quad success with Carson & Barnes.  The Big show now gave the public the spectacle of two quad kings battling it out, show by show, blow by blow.  And  to the latter, it nearly came.

Not sure if this was such a good idea.  Seems, in retrospect, like an insult to Miguel, who had achieved such greatness in Feld’s center ring (excuse me, ring number 2), and who would continue with other circuses, near and far, to sustain a legendary record that nobody since has come even close to matching, those anonymous Russian flyers, The Cranes, perhaps notwithstanding.

Tensions between the two troupes fired jealousies and anger, and led to allegations that somebody was trying to sabotage the other troupe's rigging. 

In his letter to me dated, September 11, 1988, Don Marcks was addressing the subject of Big Irwin being only one of three Pickle Family Circus clowns to achieve first line success on Broadway, in connection with the MacArthur Genius Grant he was awarded, and of the other two — Larry Pisoni and Geoff Hoyle, naturally wanting, but being unable, to match Irwin’s celebrity.  Hoyle came closer, albeit in local regional theatre venues.

Here comes the big shocker, from Don:

“Not sure if you were aware of it or not, but there has been a lot of trouble between the two flying acts on the Blue Unit this year and this has resulted in some fighting backstage, even filing charges against one another, some talk that cables were filed through, etc.  Anyway, it all ended here in Oakland when the Caballeros were fired.  I don’t know where they went, but no doubt they will pop up on some show soon or at least for next season anyway.”

How fitting that the quad was first thrown, and then thrown regularly by Vazquez, during arguably the last great American circus decade --  the 1980s.

Those greater and richer years, and that greatest of all circus achievement, are now history.  Yes, now and then we hear of somebody catching a quad, although  sometimes in an easier manner, thus diminishing the trick's integrity.

Now and then, a quad maybe out there, for one brief shinning moment.

During the 1980s, brief shinning moments were a more regular part of the program. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Waiting for a poster to appear on the side of a building. Reaching for rumors. Wondering if the show might already be somewhere in the area ... Might already be, horror of horrors, gone! ...

A sunny pleasure it is, these summer days, sitting out on my balcony on Saturday afternoon, wandering through the many letters I have from Don Marcks.  Looking for something meaty (rare), or just a few words or images that fire a feeling, a memory, a thought.

From June 13, 1965:

“Had hoped that on your trip to Santa Rosa, you’d run across some information on Carson & Barnes - Haven’t heard or learned a thing myself.  Wish that I knew where they are and just hope that I haven’t missed them completely.  Boy that would sort of be tragic to say the least.”

Ah, yes, Don, it would!   The mystery of where they where that moment in June.  Before the internet, and all these modern gadgets, you waited  for big gaudy lithographs to blossom on the sides of buildings, and was that a thrill.

No posters in Santa Rosa was a sure sign that C & B hadn’t been there, yet, if, indeed, they planned to play the town at all.  For, when this show did come to town, well in advance it threw up lithographs wherever it could.

Newspaper ads, if there were any as I recall, did not tend to appear until right near show day.

Once, I came upon a dazzling, indeed, rather brazen sea of Carson and Barnes lithographs covering, it seemed, the entire temporary (construction)  wood wall that surrounded the Courthouse in the middle of  town.  It felt like an invasion of sorts.  Carson and Barnes posters screamed CIRCUS!  Screamed,WE ARE COMING! 

Carson and Barnes Circus midway, around this period

The mystery for Don and me.  Yes, were they at that moment somewhere close?  They tended to pitch their tents in smaller towns, so they could sneak through without our ever knowing.

Routes in the Billboard would often arrive too late.

My most vivid memory of coming upon a circus litho was one, medium size, posted on a wall around Fourth Street, of a man who appeared, miraculously, to be standing on one finger!  I couldn’t believe what I was watching.  Did this really happen?  The words Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey were prominently displayed across the sheet. But the image of the man was stunning.

It would forever epitomize for me the startling and superior magic of circus.

The year was 1953.  Ringling had staked out prime visual notice of its coming to San Francisco, some fifty miles south of Santa Rosa.

I was too young to take a bus ride down and see the circus.

I can’t remember if Carson and Barnes played any Bay Area dates in 1965 close to either Don or me.

Ah, the mystery of wondering, waiting, hoping, dreaming ...

And of fearing, in Don’s words, “something tragic.”

I can tell you this, had I gone all the way to Richmond, in 1955, only to find that the great Ringling Bros. Circus under the big top had skipped the date, now, that would have been tragic.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Big Top Bluster: Zerbini Dares Canada with Animals ... Baraboo Flares High with Million Dollar Parade ... Big Apple Hits Big Screens in November ...

Zerbini Family Circus, in collusion with go-for-it Shriners,  to invade the land of no-animals Cirque du Soleil in a few perilous weeks, daring to dazzle – or nauseate -- the locals with genuine old fashioned big top fare, not with circus ballet but with circus bravado of the older sort.

Reporting on MTL, blogger Michael D’Alimonte writes of the Zerbinis  “bringing clowns, acrobats, and elephants (oh my!) to Parc Jean-Drapeau this September.”

Did I detect a touch of breathless ambivalence?   Reigning question, will anybody go?  That partly depends on another, not so delicate question:  Will the show be any good?

What’s even more brazen  is the location itself.  Where is Parc Jean-Drapeau, you ask, as did, I, myself?   I googled it out, and, Oh my!  Right there, “situated to the east of downtown Montreal, Quebec, Canada.”

Which makes me wonder if the Zerbini operation may come off looking like a flea-market and flea circus combined to the Quebec snobs, this indiscretion inspired by D’Alimonte’s post being answered by a rush of angry traditional circus haters, not a one of them daring to defend the performing menagerie about to spread sawdust, shame, and pachyderm poo, to wit, a few examples:

Horrible, this makes me want to fly out of town and never read the mtl blog ever again.”

“this is fucking bull shit and must be stopped!!!!! big tents are NOT fun especially for the tortured animals!!!”

“time to start writing to the mayor's office in protest. these are your tax dollars going to promote animal cruelty.”

Oh my!  Oh my again!  Is free speech up there so uniformly predicable as that?  All of which makes  Canadaland look a tad too in the pocket of the Cirque King.  Might half the population be, one way or another, above or under board, on his payroll?   For one, the drama critic on the Montreal Gazette never seems to take in a new Cirque show that she does not like.  Then again, down here, she'd be called a good and trustworthy circus fan, she would.  Oh my, where am I going with this?

Back in the States,  let's go basic and savor a min-victory in the land of Ringlingville, where the locals are “feeling like a million bucks” over the rousing success of their Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration Days, which filled and thrilled the great little town last month.

From a news flash, dispatched my way by cyber courier Don Covington, “Organizers reported this week that the Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration Days drew double the crowds of last year’s parade and generated more than $1 million in spending.”

The Aniskin Troupe return to the Big Apple Circus

Big Apple Circus  comes to the Big Screen, maybe at a movie house near you. From Crane’s New York Business News, the show's new edition, uncorking in Gotham in late October, to be broadcast nation-wide in some 400 to 500 movies houses, same as how the Met Opera spreads is grand operas across big screens.  Says  Julie Borchard-Young, of Brooklyn-based  BY Experience, the circus will be streamed live from Manhattan ... And that's great news for me, oh my, yes it is!  Can't  imagine it not being picked up in some S.F. Bay Area theatre, and I'll be there ... A genius idea from BAC and/or BY Experience.  Tickets slated to sell for from $12.50 to $15.    Now there's the best damn big top bargain on the planet.

Memo to Montreal:  If Zerbini turns out to be not your cup of poison, well then, wait for Big Apple Circus on the big screen, due out in November.  Horses and dogs, that maybe a little okay?

Off the lost, across the street:  Wait!  Somebody waved at me over there.  Could that be?   Can't believe it.  See you later!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks, Thirty Years Ago, Today: Trying to Crash Ringling, Don Gets the Boot from Famous Performer

Ringling was in town, and Don was happily engaged, or so for a while,  going out to visit the show, until he practicably got run off the lot.

From his letter to me dated August 24, 1984

“I went down to the Ringling show on opening night which was Tuesday.  They had a good crowd as usual.  I spent most of the time in the backyard to be available to anyone who was interested in CR [Circus Report].  I did pass out a fair number of samples, etc.  Also peaked at a part of the show.”

He wasn’t to impressed, but he rarely was.  I would know this, although he would never publish such feedings in his paper, but he often felt a let down, perhaps comparing the present to a past he much preferred.  I got a kick out of Don, sometimes seeing him approach me in the higher side seats at the Oakland Auditorium (that I had bought, if not getting through the back door myself), to take a seat himself for a while and carp about the performance.

“The big spec just didn’t seem to make any sense to me.  It was dancing girls and guys more than anything else.”

Nonetheless, he returned the following night, only to be met by a rebuff in the backyard by one of the most preeminent wild animal trainers of the era.

“Talked to the backdoor guy for a time then walked down the ramp to the backyard, hoping I’d have some success with getting money, new subscriptions,.”

                               Bad Boy Don is bounced!

“Guess what.  Charley Bauman told me to get out I didn’t belong there. So I went back up the ramp.”

Circus Report's rebuffed publisher chatted for a little with the backdoor guy, got tired, got chilly, and went home.  I doubt he ever saw the show itself.

“I’ve often heard from others that Bauman is a very difficult man to get along with and he has been rough on others who come to visit. Even to the point of going up in the seats and telling them they have to leave and can’t have a free seat at the circus."

Well, here I’m on the show's side.  It may be bad form to remove unwanted “lot lice” from the seats, unless, of course, they are asked to show their ticket stubs.  We don't know all the details.  But it is very bad form to steal into the arena or tent, especially when the gate crashers are not starving kids off the farm, but adults, likely well employed and the very fans who belive in suppoting circuses.

Yes, I once then, too, loved the challenge of walking right through for free.  Ir was almost a badge of honor among fans.  And what a perverse thrill. Once in, you were in!

“However, this is the first time he has ever done anything like that to me.”

I think the Felds were getting tired of indulging fans one of their most selfish fantasies, built on a wish to feel "with it and for it," for if that was, indeed, their status, why should they have to pay?

Don loved to stand at the performers door, for that made him one of them.  I knew the feeling, but I wanted to be seated with a good view of the show.  I guess I was funny that way.

“I’ve been  thinking I might go down to the train this weekend and take a photo of each car for the files

“Not much doing otherwise.  I have been thinking that it would be nice to have like an Open House each Friday evening for fans and model builders.  They could come and just talk,work on models, exchange ideas, even see a movie.  No politics, no minutes or anything like that.”

One of many of Don’s inklings that never flew

“That Little Theatre group in Point Richmond opens their show George M this evening.”

I doubt, if he went to see George M, that he got in free.

Thirty years ago today.  And may all your days be free circus days!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ringling's Latest, Legends, Delivers Terrific Action, per Feld Formula. Lacey, Chinese Acrobats, Cossack Riders, Pigs and Kangaroos Star ...

  Alexander Lacey

Circus Review
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Oakland, CA, August 26, 2014

What is the most interesting thing to ponder about this year’s edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey?

Around some outstanding action, there are perhaps more Feld fireworks than ever, more flash and thunder, dazzling special effects and oratorical hyperbole, more Jonathon Lee Iverson in our face, and more redundant “spectacle,” some of it pointless, all of which, in total, suggests to me that either one of two realities is responsible for this extravagantly overactive attack:  Either the Felds know that this is exactly what their patrons want, and that this is what will likely keep a diminishing customer base returning -- or they are desperate.

Hard to know. At the Oakland arena, where I took in a Saturday morning show, 20 minutes before showtime, at one point there was but a single soul standing at one of five or seven open ticket windows.  I recall recent years when all the windows were jammed.

Inside, however, the crowd added up to — a guess —  not quite what it’s been the last many years, maybe a thousand or 500  less.   A good decent crowd, anyway, by today’s standards, considering that perhaps one third if not more than the arena seats are darkened and shut out of view by the backdrop. My guess: 3,900 and counting ... Maybe 4,500 tops

It’s a big crowd pleaser, in the Feld smorgasbord style.  And it tells me that, like father, like daughter, producer Nicole Feld seems geared to perpetuate the formula.

 I floated out of last year's opus (credit a brilliant second half), feeling quite fine. This time, I left feeling more than a little used, worked over, assaulted with all the flash and ringmaster bombast  — something like, how to put this, the night after a marathon of hot you-know-what, when you end up feeling a little led on and then abandoned, a little empty. 

I’m not going to file a full review, for if I did, it would feel like writing a review I have already written too many times.  And you might turn away in disgust, or take out a class action law suit against me for hazardous prose.

So, cutting to essentials, from the good to the bad, here goes.

The Review

* The opening number is absolutely, flat out, the most visually stunning and bizarre piece of circus stagecraft I have ever seen, and during it, I felt like I was truly at the Greatest Show on Earth.  There is something supernatural about it, something truly otherworldly, as if a circus from a far galaxy had entered the house.  Here is where the Felds never let you down. 

* From Vicki Zsilak and Hans and Maria Close,  a mixed animal display, some of it stagnant, but with wonderfully trained dogs and pigs, and — are you ready? — two kangaroos jumping into the ring and over obstacles!   What an exhilarating surprise!   Now, that’s circus in the ascendant.

* Great Chinese hoop divers, about as great as they come -- one of four offerings from the China National Acrobatic Troupe.

*  Chinese female bike riders forming captivating pasterns in their ensemble,  complete with a human pyramid built on two bicycles. Loved it.  They also work a big group diablo display, some of it a little shaky, lifted to a solid climax by two nifty solo turns.

* Kanat and Tatiana Tchalabaev, and their horse riders, Roman to Cossack style, pound and pulse with raw primal power, made even more rewarding by the robust inclusion of women riders.  If only there was some sawdust to raise.  The Ringling set continues to be about as glamorous as a K-Mart parking lot.

*  Animal trainer Alexander Lacey, one of the reasons I went to see the show --  knowing little about him, but what a revelation.  A true star, offering the most fully satisfying  cage act I think I have ever seen, certainly in modern times, and why?  Finely wrought executions, marvelous moments when the tigers and lions appear to be acting out certain attitudes and behaviors; novelty and a tender rapport through a little Russianesque narrative, with the trainer talking to his charges and giving each, in turn, permission to  “go home.”  One,  a lion, wishes first to spend a little quality time with the other lion.  A little intimacy begins to surface.  “Okay,” says Lacey,  “that’s for later.”  Only drawback is a tiger who angrily gets into the trainer's face, smacking of a staged crisis.   But altogether, Lacy’s warm persona, his easy relationship with the tigers and lions, and the act’s developing shape, mark it as a high point in circus history, I would venture.   Monte Carlo Gold.

Okay, onto the other stuff, so-so to forgettable:

 * Clowns score well in their first outing, satirizing the Chinese bike-riding number. but their subsequent contributions are ho-hum, never very funny, and lamely lacking payoffs.

* Too much filler, such as:  Self-loving, self-acclaiming Jonathan Lee Iverson’s frequent shout outs to the audience for shout backs to the veiled question, are you at the Greatest Show on Earth?  He, a first class pain in the posterior, works the show like a political rally, and maybe people love being worked over this way.   Is there such a thing as being verbally groped?  His fine singing voice is clear and powerful, and he holds his end notes so eternally long, I could see myself booking passage on one of them for another trip to, say, China.

* A big mammoth meant to astonish turns out to be a costumed, rather threadbare illusion, worked by concealed understanders. It fizzles.  And always never far away is a repetitive slow moving spectacle that seems to keep returning, each time in a slightly altered format and content.  In one instance, it comes off as a little pointless, and just before intermission,  it feels more like a finale.  This show was not smartly directed.

* Like the show, the loud, far-from-subtle music is a mixed bag, from artful to awful.

* Some stuff is humdrum, or just flops out, like the flying act, during which a back-to-back triple was promised, but only attempted once, the flyer missing, but not trying again. That made me suspicious of his success rate.

Thus, my quick overview, not wishing to linger.

Back to my “evolving” theme, bottom line: This circus almost certainly on average pulls more people around its ring(s) than any other circus in the world.  Forget about yesterday.  We live in today.

3.900 (just throwing it out -- the actual number of people who witnessed the Providence aerial collapse) may not seem big.  But compared to the others, 3,900 IS big.

The Felds may have figured it all out, that is, speculating here, that the average city simply does not contain as many people as it once did who are eager and ready to patronize a circus.

Overall rating for Legends (four stars max): Three Stars

Next on: Can a circus be as bad as a certain circus out there  is, and as good — at the same time?  Guess which one?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: The Glory that Was Vargas

In the 1980s, perhaps the most glamorous circus opening anywhere was that of Circus Vargas, when it pitched its blue and yellow big top over a parking lot across the street from the Hollywood Bowl.

Fans came to mingle on the midway, hoping to catch a glimpse of "Mr. V," hoping, better yet, to cut up jackpots with the fiery circus owner.  This man of humble origins stared out a phoneman, and ended up a showman.

The crowds were healthy, sometimes the tent was packed, a rarity for me one night, returning from the Bay Area, after jumping off my bus, hurring over to the lot, only to be told, "it's a sell out."  The show had just begun.  I felt a let down, of course, but also a great joy for the show -- and for the American circus scene.

Here. from Don's letter to me, dated February 8, 1985

"Not much else happening.   I heard that this year Vargas has his best show yet."


"Also, that he is excited about the fact the CFA will use his show as their convention circus this year."

It was, in my book, the best of all Vargas years, a peformance that topped all the others.  He had a five piece band in the tent, riding the charts of pulsing jazz and Latin, interweaving songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook, with a few old fashiony circus tunes tossed in.  He had a well dressed show, a good balance of acts, a formidable elephant herd.

I probably saw the show three times.  I used to do that, when I liked a show, I would go back.  Did it with Ringling, not recently, though sometimes during Feld years as well as during the John Ringling North era.

Three rings still resonate in my mind.  

Within only a few years, Circus Vargas would begin a gradual slide in performance values, as Mr. V. chased after other markets, and then started appearing in arenas, in direct contradiction to the press campaign upon which he had built his name:  "A return to the circus under the big top, as it once was in America!" 

He cast a spell over the entire circus community.  In my lifetime, I can't think of an owner who was so admired, respected, and appreciated as much as Cliff Vargas.