Sunday, October 18, 2020

Fearlessly a Princess, Faithfully a Fan: Princess Stephanie Slams French for Banning Circus Animals



She grabbed Daily Mail Headlines.  And she did not hold back this time.

How refreshing!  The woman has guts. The woman pokes holes in nonsense.  The woman spots hypocritical bias against select animal events a mile away.

And she appears to have had it with those fussy French.  And, for that matter, with the whole lot of the whole earth loonies bent on running every last performing non-human out of the ring. Blasting the antagonists "'a minority who wish to impose their will upon others."

She nailed it in The Daily Mail, and they ran with her rage, the story reported by By Claire Toureille

Circus animals are "loved and spoiled" 'declared she, just warming up into a royal snit. "We've come a long way since the stool and the whip,"

'They're members of the family. They are not trained or mistreated, but simply loved, fed, spoilt"' 

Once more, French logic is prejudicially applied:  "Other trades where animals are exploited should be banned under the logic of the new French ruling"


 You're on a roll, Princess.  More, please!   'I will add that in France, everyone is free to work, or else you'd have to forbid farmers from making money from cattle breeding."

Boffo!   "They'd have to ban horses races, because it's also animal exploitation,"

And .., and ...?  'If I want to eat a good steak, I'm not keeping someone else from enjoying soybeans.'

Lima beans, too, Princess?

Notes The Daily Mail, " It's not the first time she has lashed out at those who criticize circuses for using performing animals, claiming they're just trying to be 'fashionable'."

Summing up, says the circus worlds greatest defender and preservationist,   'This is part of our cultural heritage. It's a whole, with clowns and acrobats"

Encore, please!

"They should ban everything rather than hammering on the circus families. Circus has changed, it lives with its times." 

We need more voices like these on our side of the pond, who can command media attention and exposed blatant bias. Who have we here. Of course, the biggest name is Kenneth Feld, but he is out of the circus business at the moment, and bears a ragged history of his own.  Paul Binder is a natural, but I fear he is on the fence, and certainly not easy about  lobbying for the elephants.

The saddest truth of all is how the world is closing down on wild animal acts -- a turning away I fear it may take a long time to reverse.  In the meantime, please do roll on, fearless Princess of the ring.  You may start a new movement "Performing animals matter, too!"

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Calling All Big Tops! Sleuthing Through Sawdust for Signs of Something That Looks Like a Circus

See any stirrings out there?  A lose club stuck in a tree branch?   Suspicious red arrow tacked to a light pole?    If one day in the park counts, then yes.  Here you see the Chicago Boyz performing in the Midnight Circus, at Foster Park, on September 22.   Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones was high on the performance, calling it  "A good deal more than your typical local circus in the park."  And drawn to the troupe's  "global vibe."

I’ll take any kind of a vibe.  Okay, a one day stand marks some kind of a start.  I have always said that the closer to the outdoors a circus can get, the better off its chances are of gaining sanction from city hall and drawing a crowd.  How fringe might they be?   One of their early stars was Lola, a real dog.  Any animal of any kind spells counter revolutionary in my mind. Give me more.

Flickering right on, here comes a glorious sign of future dates for a real circus in the U.S. And how did I come about this good news?  I had to laugh, for ironically it was brought to my breathless attention by my cross-pond connection, Douglas McPherson, who covers the UK circus  scene for The Stage and various other newspapers.  He feels a bit of our pain.  He must also feel a bit plum about how well the big tops are doing on his side.  California based Circo Osorio?  I remember that name from ten years ago, a thread-bare show under a small tent lasting about 40 minutes, including intermission.  But ten years, later, hey, bring it on, guys!  Your VIP seat plank prices?  Not a problem!  

I am learning in the Circus Corona waiting room to re-set my expectations down to humble.  Might Plato’s Theory of Forms argue that any circus act need only recreate the essential elements of a form to merit our respect?   I think that my visits to the great and little John Strong Circus taught me how to apply this.  

 I AM!!!

 Wanting to stay current, I walked the midway of websites and took the pulse of each. My readings:

 Big Apple Circus. Deleted: the headline promising October dates at Lincoln Center.
Carson & Barnes:  Website unchanged.  I called their phone number, it rang and rang. Great news!      The operator did not come on the line with. "you have reached a number that  has been disconnected."                            

UniverSoul: Same.
Circus Vargas: Same.
Culpepper & Merriweather. Same.  This is the most attractive of them all. The colors glow.
Feld Entertainment: No mention of the projected Ringling return next year.

And then I bumped into this outrageously insensitive image of American know-how thriving under tents on that other, infuriatingly prospering side of the pond.

Can you believe?  What nerve they have, flaunting our imagery and hoopla,  "The Greatest Circus on Planet Earth" Talk about shining our once intimidating dominance back in our faces. Let me out of here!  I want my Barnum animal crackers back!

What do they have that we don't have? 


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Morning Midway: Why I Listened to The Sound of Music Instead of Watching the Debate

I turned the TV off.  Why? To explain would be to run the risk of slipping into a dangerous minefield out there of thought police at every turn, ready to pounce over the least trace of residual insensitivity, to shame and shout you  down. And more.   Have you noticed how we have become a nation of judgmental fanatics constantly rendering critiques against other? Render the wrong word, suggest a contrary point of view, yawn too long, and  all hell make break loose.

I skipped the debate, suffice it to say, for I did not wish to witness the spectacle of one man losing his mind, another man mocking him.  I have no idea at this point how it came out.

So, I played the original cast album of The Sound of Music, in my view the best version, for it includes the complete original score, including a lovely ballad, An Ordinary Couple.  The composer, it has been said, never liked the song, and 86d it from the movie in favor of his own ditty with his own tortured lyric that defies logic, something about the two leads fessing up to possible wickedness in their childhoods.  Maria, ex bad girl?

I am watching less and less television news, having some years back junked cable news. It is one thing to be informed. Another to be hectored by the same news and the same competing views over and over all day long.  While going down to get the mail, I noticed a young woman out on the street walking her dog. So I guess I was not the only one ignoring the media's latest orgy.

Update, 11:30am. I read that TV ratings were down 36% from the first debate in 2016.  "Widely panned by most observers," reported the Hollywood Reporter.  I slept well last night.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Movies in the Dark, An Exasperating Challenge to the Mentally Awake -- A Candle, Anyone?

By tragic accident, I put in for Arkansas on Netflix, believing the movie had been nominated for some big Academy Awards, or maybe by overhearing a talking voice on radio or TV raving it up.  Big  Big mistake. That I had to wait a long time to see it only added to my misconception of ground-breaking cinema. Those words should be banned for ten years.  So, I received the film in my mail box  today with high expectations.  At least here, in the room where I watched it, the lights were on.  I have this inconvenient fetish for movies I can actually see.

A few minutes after running it, I wanted to run from it.  Like  too many modern films,  this dog wallows in darkness.  These films should come with a medical alert: Some scenes in extended darkness may strain weak eyes, consult with your optometrist.  Another barely visible challenge that left my eyes groping was a Netflix series,  Better Call Saul.  Again, darkness prevailed. An no, my vision with glasses is perfectly fine.  One of the main characters is an older man who spends a lot of time not speaking, just maybe flexing a few wrinkles, real cool like. The closeup was meant, I charitably assumed, to convey the heavy heart, weary of it all and about ready to call it a life.  In that morosely dark set, I would have. 

See the figure lower right? That's Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes, I think, in Rules Don't Apply.  I would have opted for light bulbs in the 150 watt range.

The old classic film noir in black and white had lots of shadows, but the single contrast between the two colors made them much easier to watch. In color, today's imitators  swamp themselves into abject gloom, making me want to scream: TURN THE DAMN LIGHTS ON, YOU IDIOTS!

Losing patience, I headed to Rotten Apples, hoping to find some bad reviews, and then to feel not so impetuous about shutting down this  dreary valentine to Arkansas.  47% !  The state should sue.  Didn't Nellie Forbush in South Pacific hail from Little Rock?

I don't get it.  And I don't much care.  If filmmakers can't afford to pay for good lighting, the Hollywood censors should add another warning code: BAF: Bring a flashlight.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Ringling Forever: Revisiting the Last Great Big Top Through the Pen of a Master

John Ringling North

How bitter-sweet it is, reading Center Ring, the richly endowed book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert  Lewis Taylor, published in 1956 — the year of Ringling’s last big top.  Between its covers are a compilation of pieces Taylor turned out over the prior seven seasons for the New Yorker magazine.  These were based on his talking to the show’s leading stars and support staff on the ground.  If you have never read Center Ring, you have deprived yourself.  This one goes near the top of my list.

Bitter-sweet especially because of what we are living through — by far the worst season in American circus history. In fact, no season at all.  Among Corona’s long-term blows to American life, the circus may come out high on the list.  Pray it won’t.  As you know, it was already on life support.

Taylor’s literary treasure trove captures the golden years of John Ringling North.  Never, it might be argued, was the American circus more lavishly costumed, more profusely talented or daringly inventive.  That was the time of Cecil DeMille’s award winning movie, The Greatest Show on Earth.  The time when Europe's top acts counted a ring in the show – any ring – as a summit in their careers.

Is Taylor’s narrative all true? I can’t say it is. There are errors I have spotted. For example, I was surprised to learn that North was “usually accompanied by his brother Henry” on his talent scouting abroad. I thought that a female supplied companionship.  Nor did North discover Pinito del Oro in a “gypsy Cave.” 

Perhaps the show's vocally captivating publicist, Roland Butler, put some tale tales over on Taylor, who described him, “unquestionably the world’s  most skilled composer of embroidered news,"and rewarded him with the longest page count of all his profiles. 

As for the input of all the others quoted, their words ring true to me  And I fact checked a few of Taylor’s accounts to find them valid.

The author’s witty and clever prose makes for not only a damn good read, but a very instructive one.  There is so much here to learn from and be well entertained by. Among the depth of research, I was impressed by the information revealed on animal trainers and their insights.   And by, best of all ---  credit Art Concello, the ways of trapeze flyers.

Some excerpts:

Merle Evans on making song selections and how he arranged segments of them in an order “to sound like one natural composition.”

English circus owner Bertram Mills, in a desperate wire to John Ringling “I want that band leader of yours, and I want him bad.”

A “hardened circus hand” on the music for Wedding of the Winds:  “the minute I hear those first three notes of that god-damned waltz, I want to sit down and bawl.”

John Ringling in reply to Roland Butler about a piece fraught with lies, cooked up on Tom Mix by a young Ringling publicist: “Heat it up! Heat it up!  What do we care where it came from.”

 “For Pat Valdo, variety is the essence of circus” Amen.

Pat Valdo; “Most circus people perform for each other — the real critics – rather than for the crowds.”  I  believe this.

24-year-old Flyer Fay Alexander to Art Concello, at the start of spring training in Sarasota: “Art, I won’t put on another Mother Hubbard [for spec] ...  It’s professional suicide.”  Nonetheless, the sulking Fay could not get out of spec, but put on  something.  They hated it then as much as they do — did — up to the present time.

This is a remarkable achievement in circus literature, a great enduring read about the ways of circus people. how they do their work and how they feel about each other.  And now it offers us a radiant reminder of what we once had on these shores.  

By    the    way:  Where are all these hordes of people crowing around my midway coming from?   Have none of you the courage to make a non-anonymous peep -- in the heroically self-sacrificial act of daring to put your own name to it?  In fact, have you a name? You're not all robots, are you?  Pardon me for  just wondering.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Stravinsky Over Sawdust: How Wonderful or Weird was His Music for Ringling's Ballet of the Elephants? ... We Ask, We Answer ... Finally, a Review ... and a Mystery: Whose Music Was Ripped Off?

Although I regard Igor Stravinsky as the greatest composer of the twentieth century, he was closer to a hack with a headache when he concocted his oddball Circus Polka.  The work was commissioned by  John Ringling North in a whimsically Barnumesque from of mind, for a three ring ballet of elephants.  JRN talked another one of those infuriatingly talented Russians, dancer George Balanchine, into choreographing the work -- in consultation with head elephant man, Walter McClain.

I have never been able to track down a recording of the music, until now, by merely You Tubing it.  So, finally, 78 years after the number's inception, I listened last night with baited breath, only to be left irked by how  aggressively unmusical it is.  Just to be sure, I played it again,  for sometimes, the second time around will grab you. But Stravinsky's frenetic, heavy handed composition only shrieked and sputtered there in the sawdust like a dying dog gasping for breath.

And then I played a U.S. Marine Band's rendition in 1998, more interesting because orchestrated -- but who said that lipstick on a pig will do much good?  I played yet another pianist's rendition, this one the worst.

Killer notes

This novelty is close to awful -- a mess of unruly, refusing-to-be-melodic notes jumping all over each other in fits and starts. Heavy handed all the way through, it opens with an infectious melody that goes nowhere fast, and closes with the composer shamefully quoting a few bars of familiar music superior to what is otherwise on display here.  In fact, when the Great One's ditty first hit Sarasota ears during spring rehearsals, rumors of plagiarism quickly spread through town.

Judged by Variety, "so weird, that it does not belong in a circus," Merle Evans told me in an interview for my book Behind the Big Top,  "It was the hardest music I ever played. One bar was three-four, and the next bars four-four ... The boys didn't like that Stravinsky thing, and I don't think the elephants liked it either."   After all these years, how his words resonate.

Stravinsky was not exactly a song and dance man at the piano, even though North's idea made for brilliant publicity.  Had he instead recruited someone like Richard Rodgers,  a classic circus tune might have come out of it.

Perilous Pachyderm Premiere 
The three and a half minute work  premiered at Madison Square Garden in 1942, where the circus opened one of its most memorably staged and costumed shows -- the sawdust rings tinted in various hues -- drawing raves and winning even the favor of  esteemed theater critic Brooks Atkinson.  The elephant ballet itself garnered split reactions.  And if it did not close down the show that season, it may be a big reason why the musicians went out on strike.  The show made-do by playing phonograph records, but what for the then unrecorded Circus Polka?

Jane Johnson, secretary to North, recalled excitedly hearing a song on the radio that sounded a lot like the music.  She called the radio station, to be told the piece was by Chopin.  When I interviewed her about this, she could not recall the title.  They found a copy in a nearby record store and played it for the rest of the tour.

Can you name that tune?

But by another account, Stravinsky's alleged plagiarism drew from Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli, composed for his 1876 opera La Guiconda and featured in Walt Disney's 1940 film, Fantasia.  I have played this work, too, but find no connections. There is that distinct melody in my mind that I will one day hear on the radio, or hum for someone who will recognize it and tell me the name.  Maybe you know?  I'll let Anonymous through on this one.

Given the work's daunting complexity (did Igor have in mind driving the musicians mad?), it is a stretch, no, make that fun trying to imagine how it sounded from the Ringling bandstand.  Perhaps,  Merle and windjammers were able, at least, to make it gloriously bad by exaggerating its rowdy spirit with true bombastic force.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Belated Happy 250th Birthday, UK Circus of Philip Astley!

9.10.20: While I have been spending virtually all of my virtual blogging time at the moment Over There, reason being there is a there over there, I dug this one up, which brings back many fond memories of my days in the enchanting Scotland.

Posted 3.2.19:

Why did it take me so long?  All through last year, the Brits were celebrating  the 250th anniversary of the founding of our modern circus --- created by English horseman  and showman Philip Astley.
A gift to the world. 

Why was I a no-show in the parade?   Blame it on the fall of Ringling.  Blame it on my funk, caused by the Feld of Felds turning into the Flake of Flakes.  Going through some old drafts on my blog, I was surprised to discover that I had started a post, quite a while back, to honor UK circus history. I had meant to share my own brief experience under British big tops.
Here are notes on three circuses I was lucky to see, in and around gritty, entertainment-rich Glasgow in the mid-1960s.  I scribbled down raw first impressions in the programs as the shows were proceeding.  These program magazine pages bearing them would not be on display here if they had veered too much toward the negative. Trumpets, please ...  They do not!  I am very impressed with what I saw, based now upon what I noted.

Remembering back ...

I had forgotten the staggering array of animals acts that were featured on  Chipperfield's Circus. And to think that Martin Lacy, Jr. who just won a Gold Clown at Monte Carlo,  can't perform in his own country.  At Monte Carlo, he represented Germany's Circus Krone

This gentleman, who worked on props, took me on a tour of the lot.

Up goes the tent -- Roberts Bros, I think.  What a setting.

My favorite circus was the one at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, over the holidays.  Fine acts, and great music by the "Circus Grand Orchestra" led by Billy Rose.

Me on wheels.  The warm gentle countryside can feel like  life is floating.   You have to be there to experience Scotland's subtle beauty.

Belated Happy Circus Birthday, Great Britain!

Saturday, September 05, 2020

The Morning Midway: What Did Bill and Jan Biggerstaff Know, and When Did They Know It?

Stranded here on our bleak American midways, the weirdest thoughts of paranoia stalk my mind. One being about the Biggerstaffs shutting down their bi-weekly Circus Report ahead of a circus season not to be.

In fact, had they keep it in ink, they would have soon run dry of stories to ink. In fact, by early spring, when our remaining circuses usually hit the road, there would be no roads to hit. And nothing to report on other than what was not going on.

Most federal, state or local agencies would soon effectively-- many would say capriciously --  close down most of life outside the home.  Broadway would go totally dark.  I am waiting on how this will be reported one day when all of those meddlesome droplets have settled down or collectively died in a billion discarded masks.

Still, I miss Circus Report, even a shell version of it.  It's most winning feature --- the one thing our fan friends on the other side might envy, was the formidable routes  page -- a page full page of circus routes of not just our own big tops commercial to community, but of visiting troupes from foreign lands.   

What the UK circus scene needs the most, I propose, now that I am de-facto an avid follower,  is such a regular listing of upcoming circus dates.  But given the dogged secrecy of circus lords over there not wishing for their whereabouts to be made known in advance and stolen by rivals wanting to beat them in first, I can't see this happening anytime soon.

What would Circus Report's route page look like had the paper not caved?  It could and should stay stark blank-- until the sun came out once again over grassy green lots topped with billowing canvas tents and giddy pennants galloping gaily in the breeze.

Or it might turn its attention across the ocean and replace the blank page with The Great British Circus Routes Prognosticator.  And cause an uproar from the tenting tycoons.  Know what? I think the Biggerstaffs could find a way of telling us where this one was and where that one might be headed ...  

Monday, August 31, 2020

Rebounding Brit Big Tops Brace Boffo Bizz: Sell-Out Crowds Cheer Covid-Cautious Circuses of All Manner -- from Drive-Ins to Dine-Ins

Circus Mondao

Once again, back across the Big Pond we go -- for relief and rejuvenation.  Back over there because something is happening over there. Can you count 15?  There may be that many circuses now playing UK dates   More than half of their seats are off limits to customers, but the other third or so are getting filled up fast.  This by way of my Atlantic correspondent, journalist and author Douglas McPherson (Circus Mania), writing me that all of the show owners he has spoken with “reported good business and regular sell outs.”

For example, take the charming little Giffords Circus, an annual staple in the enchanting Cotswolds region of England.  Early in the year, they were forced to cut short their tour of The Feast, a circus and dining experience under the big top. (What a novel twist on restaurants featuring circus acts.)  When Number 10 Downing Street lifted restrictions by granting tent circuses (without sidewalls) outdoor event status , Giffords regrouped to salvage the rest of its season by offering The Feast at its winter quarters in Stroud.  They are now doing three shows a day — virtually sold out for the rest of the run.

Ingenuity rules circus lots in the land of Philip Astley.  Currently celebrating it’s 25th year, the apparently booming Circus of Horrors — I’d be inclined to designate it a fringe circus —  yet has my respect in at least one regard: Clearly, it is not another Cirque du Soleil wannabe.   In fact, in spirit defiantly anything but, I would argue, Circus of Horrors comes closer to capturing the gritty old American circus show complete with kinky midway attractions: As described by McPherson, “They’re kind of the heavy metal circus, with a lot of rock music and freak show-style performers.”   So freaky, indeed, that last year they featured a daring young legless man on the flying trapeze.

And what have we to show for our efforts over here?  Exhibit A: Author and critic Ernest Albrecht was forced last April to suspend indefinitely his online Spectacle Magazine.  Reason? No circuses here to review and pratically nothing to report on, not to mention the hazards of traveling to get to any events.  An e-mail from Don Covington explained, “He considered publishing a discussion of the state of circus during the pandemic, but his research provided results so scattered, it confirmed his suspicion that no one rally knows what the future may bring.” Sadly so.

Which gives me added respect for UK circus owners, a doggedly determined band ready to adapt and innovate and fight their way from one stand to the next. “Against all odds,” wrote McPherson to me in an earlier e-mail, “big tops are on the move all over England — everyone is pulling out the stops to open for August, the busiest month of the year.”

What might we learn or surmise from of all this?  The critical component of course is management.  Here in the U.S. I can think of three major forces in very recent times who presided over our three largest circuses, neither of whom was active when Corona hit: Kenneth Feld (Ringling), Paul Binder (Big Apple)  and John Pugh (Cole). Their loss, I believe, may have  marked the most crippling blow ever to our American circus scene.

Tricky new terrain ahead?  On opening night in mid-August at the Big Kid Circus, one family left halfway through the show, the father complaining to The Daily Star about the lack of social distancing and face masks being optional. In fact, the show's seating capacity had been reduced from 1,000 to 300.  Big Kid's Facebook page clearly spells out Covid guidelines. An audience photo above.

The future is far from a settled matter.  Who really knows when a vaccine will come, and what unexpected misfortunes Corona  may yet throw at us?  In the meantime, Over There the spirit of survival is heartening.  “Circus is as popular as ever,” said John Lawson of his John Larson Circus. “Everyone is saying we’re heading into a recession, but normally we do quite well in a recession.  You very rarely hear of a circus closing in this country.  You hear of circuses starting.  The circus has been around for a long time and I’m confident it will be around for a lot longer.”

I believe him.

Thanks to Douglas McPherson and Don Covington for their contributions to this post.