LA Starheads, Take Two!

LA Starheads, Take Two!
You might catch them on the run at Fred 62 in Los Feliz

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Hollywood Inflatable, Audition City on Demand. So, Who's Auditioning -- Them or Me?

We start on the 704 down Sunset Boulevard.  You tell me, please, was it a joke on me?  If not, circus owners under siege, beware! Prepare!  A new phobia may be in the air!

To your growing list of iffy things not to offer the public, here's yet another.  Bright young student-type fellow brimming with charisma, chatting merrily away with female pals on a crowded bus down Sunset Blvd, all of them standing before seated me, the fellow glibly confessing, “I’m scared of balloons!” ...  I stifled  a bus-rattling laugh. Balloons??? Fellow’s two friends, amused by the audience in me, pointed scaredy-cat in my direction, and he proceeded to entertain me with more of the same: Remember, we’re  are in Audition City:

“Yes, when I see a balloon, I get anxious!”

“You’re kidding” That’s me egging him on.  “You’re afraid of the popping sound?”

“Oh, no, everything – even if a person just holds one up to their lips, or if I see some balloons in a store, it’s scary!”

My turn. I told him I get creeped out in small elevators.

He ran with it:  “Oh, inside elevators, I love jumping up and down!”

Actors imrpov in transit?    I should have raised my camera.  Perfect opening for my three-day sprint through the city of angels and angles.

That evening, over a boffo burger at Fred 62 on Vermont in Los Feliz, I found fresh whimsy in kids around a table reveling in group selfies. When they noticed my camera rising to snatch a snap, they went into full performance mode. “Do you want us to look at you?” shouted one of them   “No, don’t look at me!”  And there they are.  Such giddy delights.  Wonder how many of them want to be in pictures.

Where the sun once met the grill:  Next morning, I had planned to share the sunshine with a stool at my favorite outdoor grill, somewhere on Vine a little south of Hollywood Blvd, a place that’s been there since 1929.  A place that felt half-constructed, like a carny joint on a midway. How I loved –  Well, here, quoting shamelessly from my book, is the set up:

“You sit there on a tall sidewalk stool in the warm easy calm with other dreamers.  And you might feel, once more, like you have just arrived.”

I wanted to just arrive again, but my stool did not.  I ran into high rise construction, or had I got the location wrong?  I approached a member of the building crew, hoping he could speak English.  Was this not where a stand had been?  Bingo!  He spoke fluently, answering “Yes,” ready to commiserate with my shock. “I went there many times. The owner did not want to sell.”

Okay, so how else can you stand me, up, LA?    I pushed on through withering heat to my next scheduled enchantment, to check out The Broad, the city’s new contemporary art museum, just across the street from America’s greatest piece of architecture, the Disney Concert Hall. Built by philanthropists Eli and Edyth Broad, so, what do you see — Sees Candy Paris?  I see an Andy Warhol stack of white wafers inflating.  Tell that scared student up there to avoid Grand Avenue.

What I respect the most about Eli Broad — the town’s art-loving sugar daddy — is that he is not trying here to compete with Disney, which he also helped fund.  The Disney floats like steel clouds.  The Broad hunkers down low in cool virginal white.

But no room in its galleries for me.  People in a long line with tickets, waiting, and I learn it’s best to book in advance.  Always free, just like the Getty out in Brentwood. Who said this town hasn’t a heart?

Some pics while killing time under too much sun, walking here, there, no where.

The Disney, of course

 Amoebas on Sunset, where vinyl lives again!

When my dumb phone dies, maybe Apple

At La Brea and Santa Monica

To Raleigh Studios for the private screening of  ... Drum rolls!

Came my Big Moment: Documentary film maker Phil Weyland had invited me down to attend a private screening of his The Last Great Circus Flyer.  In it, I am one of the interviewed.  The screening to occur at Raleigh Studios, just across the street from Paramount.   Before the audience arrived, I would get to meet quad legend Miguel Vazquez, who spun quadruple somersaults on the flying trapeze.

To get there, I’m walking down Melrose, hoping to see Norma Desmond drive by in her big old overdone auto.  Approaching Raleigh, I thread my way through an audition-happy stream of costumed characters, above, just out of a tapping of Let’s Make a Deal — a show that began 48 seasons ago and was revived in 2009.

Security checks my name, tells me where to go — no, not back to where I came from.  Inside at the far end in one of many buildings, I meet up with Phil, and, in time, he leads me up sets of stairs to a small reception room of sorts.  I wonder what it will be like seeing Miguel Vazquez in person for the first time. And there he is, calmly seated. He looks up at me, rises to his feet with a warm smile and offers an elevating hug. So naturally perfect.  A hand shake from the prince of mid-air miracles would have felt so stiff, so grounded.

Catcher Juan, Miguel's brother, is there, too.  Heck of a nice guy.  It’s good to see them both together.  Lights are popping off.  News of the World (oops! Make that TMZ) filming our meeting?  Never so much flash bulb attention.  Hey LA, nobody does it like you do!

Between Miguel, left, and Juan

Visit goes great.  Film goes great.  Since I am in it, it would be wrong to formally review, and I wuold never do that.  Can say this, there are loads of goodies in it to enjoy.  But that’s for another time, once the film is released in January, out in Vegas.   In the meantime, Phil is lining up film festivals, biggest so far being one in the Twin Cities, where Miguel is slated to give a master class to top students at the city’s major trapeze school.

Comes and goes so fast.  Next morning, before catching Amtrak for my return, I’m at Philippes restaurant mourning the death of the Los Angeles Times, a sad and embarrassing skeleton of its Pulitzer-rich glory days.  Book reviews?  Only five or six.  Can’t believe it.  I used to read it every Sunday morning, big event, until it was no longer sold in the Bay Area.

Eli Broad is said to be trying to buy it away from its parent, Chicago-based Tribune Publishing; that itself, windy city ownership, marking one of the most humiliating episodes  in L.A. history.   If Sir Eli has his way, let them nickname it the LA Broad Sheet.  Wrap the old Times building in white chiffon wafers.  But hold the balloons.

Bye for now, L.A.   Phil and Miguel – and the student suffering from inflate-a-phobia – thanks for the memories!

There it is, Molly's Burgers, last day in business.  I like the feeling this photo gives off.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Big Apple Circus in Meltdown? The Paul Binder Equation May Not be Sustainable – Without Paul Binder

Part 2 in a Series
Bottom Line, from the top:  Paul Binder lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the entire company and its many supporters could cohere.

 The proposed circus school, in the beginning.
The most oft-visited reality of circus -- forever on the brink of disaster -- is once again threatening to put another show off the road.  Now, it is the theoretically formidable Big Apple Circus of New York --  not for the first time, but once more comes news of severe cutbacks and shake ups at Big Apple.   These are dire reports.   And so, direly I speculate:

Circuses by and large rest and move on the strong shoulders of one person -- the owner at the top.  They by and large do not work well as non-profit performing arts entities, which have a way of self-expanding into payroll-crushing monsters, not to speak of constant internal battles over who gets to run the show. Circus Vargas may call itself non-profit, but it hardly fits the profile.  Is it thriving?  I can’t say it is.  Please understand, one of the factors I look at is audience size.   I’ve seen mostly good crowds at Big Apple, mostly meager turnouts at Vargas, including, most recently in my own backyard, in Hayward.


At the foundation of Big Apple circus, founder Paul Binder, wanting it to be non-profit from the outset, built up a complex arts organization, to which his multiple talents seem to have been effectively applied.   Back slapping to fund raising -- big bucks in better times from corporate NY; discriminating trips abroad to scout some of the best acts in the world; a warm personal connection with the audience in his ringmaster red -- I fondly recall, during a performance in Brooklyn back in the 1980s, Binder taking some time, not overdone, to insert bits of historical information about some of the acts.  A tinge pastoral.

 The Dusov Troupe: Big Apple books world  class acts.

There are many things of which I am uncertain, but here goes my best long-held impressions -- key components of the Paul Binder Equation -- primarily in the positive.

* An infections pied piper:  Great at fund raising, from the man on the street to the CEO in a glass tower. I can picture him talking the City of New York into giving him space at Lincoln Center, if not free, at dirt cheap prices.  Through the worst of times, he found ways to muddle through.

* The bogus (as I see it) repertory type troupe he commandeered — don’t think it ever produced first rate acts, but it added to the elitist imagery surely designed to impress arts-conscious New Yorkers.  This they could believe was their own circus.

* The Clown Care Unit, a noble venture, has helped sell BAC to corporate sponsors.  To this I see they have just added an Autism wing.   Charity has been used in many ways by circuses as a survival tool — pardon my pragmatism — but it can’t, I don’t think, save a show from irresponsible budgeting and top heavy management, or temporizing showmanship.

* Binder’s adoration of Bary Lubin’s Grandma, seen above in Dance On!, was,  I will concede, arguably well placed.  From on the ground experience, talking to a few Gotham locals around the Queens lot, while I do not believe that Grandma could solve all the problems,  I’ll be the first to admit, there are lot of New Yorkers out there who took this classic clown to heart, and were none to happy when he was let go.  Comedy is the trickiest thing to bring off, they say, even more so perhaps in a sawdust ring.  There are some great clowns and comics out there; BAC should do a better job at finding them.  In other words, Give the French their walking papers. 

* Binder paid great attention to the concerns and feelings of each and every member of the board, I can only infer, from his having, during our one interview, spoken highly of somebody who had just joined the Board, wanting to be sure I wrote down that person’s name.  A master diplomat in my distant view.

* Animals.  Genuinely sensitive to changing public sensibilities, Binder steered a wise course, safely in sway with domestic animals.  In recent years, Jenny Vidbel, above, has delivered delightful originality to the ring bordering on pure genius.  Photo by Bertrand Guay.

* Bureaucratic bloat:  On the downside, Binder's biggest shortcoming and  miscalculation, as I see it, was to foster too complex and far too costly an operating bureaucracy at the top.  Only he seems to have been able to sustain it through thick and thin.  The Great Recession took a terrible toll on the lush corporate funding that had given Paul & Company a free ride.  Much of that funding has dried up, and has evidently yet to return.   Barring a big box office turnaround --- in other words, evidence of showmanship that fills the tent day after day, I can't see it ever returning.

* Altogether, these attributes composed the Paul Binder equation.  There were, of course,  other more minor counterproductive policies and traits. He could not make his founding base, the circus school, work.   And he has been said by more than one source to have treated the lower working class ranks  with a cavalier disregard bordering on disdain.
**** Summing up, given the man's multi-faceted gifts, I have to believe they lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the company could cohere.  Since his retirement, an increasingly ominous succession of short-lived CEO’s has left a clear impression of disarray and chaos at the top.  Can you imagine Apple or Goggle or Facebook — or even Ringling — being run in so slapdash a fashion?  I can’t.

And that’s the way it seems to be from my perch here in Oakland.

Next: What went wrong at the movie house?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Is that Bette Davis in the Jomar?

John Ringling North, to her right, thrived on entertaining famous guests late night in his private car on the circus train.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Shrine Dallas Producer Nixes Wild Animals, Citing Modern Attitudes; Critics Claim a Conflict with Animal Suppliers is Really Why

NewsFix out of Dallas was none to happy when Shrine Circus producer and operator of Fun Time Shows, Bill Cunningham,  announced that, henceforth, his show will no longer contain wild animals.  He stressed getting in step with changing public attitudes over this increasingly contentious issue.

According to the report, several Shriners were not pleased with the decision.

Cunningham's reasoned stand, published in the current issue of Circus Report, states  "There has been a rapid mood shift in public sentiment."  Shrine circuses, he believes, need to implement a  "model of circus entertainment that is in alignment with today's modern families and can help sustain the Shrine Circus for future generations."

He said his show will continue presenting dog and horse acts.  But according to NewsFix, at the three-ring circus in Dallas in early September,  "there wasn't a single animal in sight."

Cunningham told NewsFix, "No lions, no tigers, no elephants. Our stars are the human performers that  are willing participate and dazzle our audiences."

He sees corporate funding, down in recent years, in time rebounding.

Countered Dallas Shrine president Doug Terranova,   "If he doesn't want to include animals, that's fine. But it's very disingenuous for him to use PETA as a ploy when the simple fact is he's had an ongoing battle with the animal suppliers.”

A very interesting story.  The ongoing  battle is sure to escalate in the wake of Ringling-Barnum about to retire its elephant force from the spangled parade.


Monday, September 14, 2015

At Circus Vargas, Alex Acero Mines Clowning Gold

Who is he, this scampering little rascal of mischief currently holding court at Circus Vargas named Alex Acero?  Whomever he is, in his best moments — wish there had been more — I thought I was watching about the best damn circus clown in America.  At the moment. 

Big Apple, anybody back there listening?

During a full and fabulous trampoline workout against a high wall, Acero worms his way into the routine like a sly invading pixie  —  grabbing audience attention with amusing  body animations laterally and off angle — his legs and arms twirling like those of a Warner Bros. carton character.  

Such a perfect pleasure!  So unexpected!   How I wish I could have seen more of him, and him alone in the ring, instead of his recurring excursions into the house to recruit volunteers for another you-know-what.  

Back a little later, after being run out of the ring by show host Jon Weiss,  Acero steals another moment atop the ring curb, taking a tiny little hoop in hand and spinning it around the tip of his pointed hair extension, itself resembling the protruding bow of a ship.    Loved it.  Pure genius.

Bello, you've got competition!

His one big misstep is to insert his acrobat talents, sans comedy, into the opening of the flying trapeze display.  The clown disappears from view.  It would be like your favorite comedian coming back between monologues to seriously recite Shakespeare.  Or the Bible.  And clearly not for laughs.

And then, it dawned on me. I think I saw this Acero a few years back on Carson & Barnes,  and didn’t think much, blame it on his soon spending more time with audience volunteers.  He does here at Vargas, too, but before those excursion bloom into humdrum filler, I witnessed a a world class funny face at work. The above picture is from Alex's C&B days.   

Give me a circus in which Alex Acero is ordered to say out of the audience. To stay put in the ring.  He is a ton funnier on his own.  Know what might happen?  The audience might get a ton larger.

Anything wrong with that?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Big Apple Circus in Meltdown? Show Owed Boston Big Time at End of Date ... Turmoil at the Top ... A Short Season Ahead Rumored ... PR Vets Dien and Thurston Out ...

 --- rang a headline in The Boston Globe last March.  Overdue rent and other costs cited.

Okay, now that I’ve got your attention, are all seven of my visitors present?  Okay, let’s go.  Call this post How to Run a Circus Into the Ground, Big Apple Style.

This one was pilot-lit by Don Covinton, in response to my post below, e-mailing me that the show  "had to cut its staff significantly to survive."  Gone, as one troubling result, are long-time publicists Joel Dien and Phil Thurston

A shock upon hearing that. And yet, I should not be so surprised.  The show has apparently displayed a particular ability in recent seasons to fail in thrilling the customer. More of this as we go on.  Some random  thoughts:

* Declining patronage.  Show continues to cut back on personnel and dates.  Big Apple has long been rumored to be on the brink of don’t-say-it, one source for this dire scenario being retired founder Paul Binder himself.

* Ineffectual showmanship, two editions in a row.  I saw them both — the first in New York, the latest on the big screen at a movie house near where I live, last November.  Some good acts, a few terrific, but the wavering direction failed to achieve dynamic pacing and  power.  Some of the blame must fall on new artistic directer Guillaume Dufresnoy, whose initial offerings included the brilliant Dance On!  

* Thus, this voluntary Memo to BAC: Stick to dance directors, avoid theatre types.  I feared that Dufresnoy might steer the show in a more Cirque-like direction.  The theatre-ness in this last season's opus seemed to slow down the show, at times, to a near standstill.  Maybe in Paris.  Not in Paris, Texas.

* French clowning.  It may make some laugh.  Most of us, beyond the obligatory giggle to show respect, grow tired of it fast.

* Bloated bureaucracy in Brooklyn. My guess:  Way too large a non--performing payroll.  

* A Void in the Center:  Who is in charge back there? An executive-go-round that suggests a TV reality show in the making promises only never to settle upon any particular CEO.  In recent years, the  names of Dunning and Berger and Stirrip have, in succession,  held the highest post.  Now there is Will Maitland Weiss.  The board of directors numbers a staggering forty people.  Among them, I can imagine a million ways to peal an apple down to a dead core.

* The crutch of charity:  When you overplay this hand (the Clown Care Unit, and now Autism), you risk looking like a charity case yourself.  Not a pretty picture.

Death on demand?

Let’s be fair, Big Apple Circus is not the only show struggling to pull in crowds, but I can't imagine any other American circus out there needing one-fourth the Big Apple operating budget to say on the road.  

Next: Where does Paul Binder fit into all this? 

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Big Apple Circus Goes on a Grand Tour, 1920s Style

On the Big Apple Circus website, general information of what is to come for the new season, to kick off as usual at Lincoln Center.

Oddly missing are actual names of the acts.

I find the production concept quite promising.

THE GRAND TOUR is a circus extravaganza set in the 1920s and featuring acts from the four corners of the globe. Ships, trains, automobiles, and airplanes will serve as the backdrop for breathtaking acts of wonder, accompanied by the seven-piece Big Apple Circus Band playing live at each of more than 200 performances. Acts will include clowns, jugglers, acrobats, and aerialists, from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America, as well as domestic and rescue animals, all creating performances that will leave audiences smiling and cheering.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Face of Tomorrow in the Big Cage -- if there is to be a tomorrow: Featuring Ryan Holder

  Ryan Holder holding court in the Kelly Miller ring

In the UK, there is Thomas Chipperfield, with his home-made videos showing in the full light to day how he trains his tigers.

Now, over here in the US, equally impressive, we have Ryan Holder, with Kelly Miller Circus, inviting the public to watch him in training sessions with his big cats.

Here, which I just came upon, is a film made of him talking informally about the tigers.   We get to watch them lazily at play in a large spacious enclosure in the backyard.   Holder is natural, relaxed, and his manner and persona points to a future when trainers like Holder may be able to foster a continuing -- or renewed -- public acceptance and appreciation for wild animal acts.  I encourage you to take a look.

John Ringling North II deserves credit for having Holder tutored by Casey McCoy, and for supporting Holder in the enlargement of his act. It now includes a white tiger.  In total, as many as eight charges in the ring.

I can't think of a more appealing and persuasive spokesman for a form of animal training that appears to be humane, intelligent, friendly, caring.

And I am inspired to remind myself that the circus, and I mean CIRCUS, was born on the back of an animal -- a horse ridden by Philip Asltey near London, thus giving birth to arguably the most universally shared form of entertainment the world would ever know.  A form that crosses all boundaries and cultures, that needs no particular language to explain itself.

Yes,  Holder lacks the fiery showmanship we especially associate with the old line of dramatic man-versus-beast spectacle.  It is the last thing any circus needs today.   More Baumann than Beatty, Holder's approach, which still leans toward the methodical, yet reveals a subtle flair and confident control that he will do well to build on.   His act is clearly on the ascent.

If there is to be a future in such animals acts, it will be the Ryan Holders and the Thomas Chipperfields of the world who make it happen.  

Check out the video and see if you don't agree.

Direct from the USA!  Produced at a real circus in a real ring.  Ah, now, doesn't that make you feel proud?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

World Wide Circus Summit -- The Point? The Outcome? Forget About That. Just Be Glad It Happened

To read about it from the warm pen of Circus Report's Chuck Burnes, it sounds gloriously social, that great big summit up in old New England, where 800 people variously connected to "circus" gathered for shows and exhibits, symposiums and networking (aka: jackpotting)

Chuck exudes a good feeling.  And I am no longer wondering what was the purpose of it all, or what, if anything, was achieved.

This is how it feels to me: They were all together in one merry mass —  circus owners and artists to fans, and that surely made them feel a bit more emboldened in their shared passions.

They exist in near-anonymity, compared to people who labor in more booming venues from TV to the movies and pop music

Tim Tegge and Paul Gutheil

Would love to have heard what was said when Circus directors met.  Quite a forum of big top lords and ladies.  From the U.S. came virtually all the major players, all except for curiously absent Kenneth Feld.  No surprise.  Methinks he thinks himself high above the pack, which of course, in terms of dollars, he is. But he could have contributed to the discussion, whatever they discussed. Anybody know?

Lovable Johnny Pugh talked about his days under tents, so he did.  Also in evidence was the Byrd of Byrds, and even, from my own state, Katya and Nelson Quiroga of Circus Vargas.

A great way for people who are “with and for it” to feel joined in a stronger circle of faith and resolve.

The tents still rise, and the shows still go on – thanks to them.

Good for you, World Wide Circus Summit!

 Paul Binder, Wayne McCary, Don Covington, and James Royal

 Brooke Evans, Bob Johnson, and David P. Orr

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ringling's Gold Bites the Dust. No New Show At All Next Year?

LATE BREAKING UPDATE:  Circus Knie to Retire its  Elephants; see below

For the first time in its history, a new season may come and go without Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey producing a new edition of itself.

Reason being that, with the Gold Unit apparently being taken off the road, the remaining two units still in operation (Red and Blue) will continue presenting their same shows across a revamped itinerary of dates.  Persistent rumors have pointed in this direction.

 Circus Xtreme goes into its second season.  Legends, embarking on its third tour, opens in Birmingham, come January.

As for the elimination of elephant acts, opines Don Covington,  "Concurrently, there is no longer speculation concerning a major final farewell tour for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey performing elephants as the current herds on the Red and Blue Units will continue to appear with the existing shows prior to retiring."

Such an idea may have been nixed by the Felds, fearing more adverse publicity from animal rights groups, who would likely seize on the historic event to push for an end to all animal acts.

Biggest Question:  Will Ringling come to California in 2016, and, if so, what show will they bring?  Of course, they could do a re-branding touch up with a new title and a few new acts, and technically call it a new edition.   

The Gold Unit reaches the end of the line this October, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Rumors about its imminent demise have circulated for years.

When Ringling folded its tents in 1956, troupers argued that, had John Ringling North taken the show out for one final farewell tour under the big top, the Big Show would have played to packed tents

But the idea of parading the pachyderms around the track for one last season does not seem nearly as wise or appropriate.   How the times have changed.

The Greatest Show on Earth, long without its big top and now without its most powerful symbols -- if we are to believe Kenneth Feld -- faces a new day of uncertainty.

The famed title GSOE was always centrally about size.  The big top is long gone.  So are three rings.  And now, the elephants.  How can it not look smaller than ever?

Update, 8/12, 4:38 PST

News in from Switzerland that Circus Knie, in 2016, will join the no-elephants parade, retiring its pachyderms, a part of the show since 1919.  Not due to protests, says Franco Knie.  The leading animal rights group in Switzerland, welcoming the move, nonetheless noted how well the Knie family has cared for its performing elephants.