Sunday, August 28, 2016

... TEN YEARS POSTING ... TEN YEARS TOASTING... TEN YEARS ROASTING ...

Showbiz David opened this blog on August 24, 2006

8.24.16

Ted Sato's Beautiful Big Top

From the first year of posting ... 
 
I love Ted Sato — and I never met the man or even talked to him. That's him, left, with John Ringling North II and chef Henry.

I spoke with his wife briefly on the phone back in1991. I was seeking illustrations for my book on John Ringling North, Big Top Boss, hoping to use some of the wonderful shots that Mr. Sato took while serving as Ringling-Barnum’s official photographer during their last four seasons under-canvas (1953-1956) .

Following up on the call, I sent Mr. Sato a letter dated February 26. Six days later, he sent me a large envelope containing over two dozen black and white glossies with a short note; evidently he was a man of few words: "Hope they may be use for your book. Good luck." He didn’t ask for a penny. What a gift.

Among the treasures, there, above, is the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen of a big top — a Sato classic — and it’s mine, if I may gloat — taken on the D.C. lot in 1954. I used it in Big Top Boss, and I’m giving it a well-deserved encore in my next book on the modern circus scene due out next year.

Tiger, tiger: On the back of this photogaph, Mr. Sato wrote, "My pride and joy." This ended up on the cover of Big Top Boss.

And here is John Ringling North in a remarkably (and atypically) relaxed pose, totally free of the aloof imagery that so defined his showmanly aura to the world. Sato found that warmpth in a number of shots he took of his boss alone or with others.

There is another original Sato photo I recently discovered at the Ringling Museum, of a young ticket seller, Bill Taggart, in the yellow ticket wagon. Beyond Taggart, you look out the window onto the midway. It will also be featured in my next book because Bill shared his first-hand recollections of the last day in Pittsburgh when the big top went down for the last time. Had Taggart not identified the photographer — the two were good friends, both stayed on Car 369, and he was overjoyed when I e-mailed him the image for verification — the world might never know who took the picture. Same, probably, for many other Sato images floating anonymously around out there.

Actually, I did meet the photographer once, although it did not dawn on me until long after our 1991 correspondence. This earlier meeting took place many years earlier when Mr. Sato gave me his autograph — he had to because he was also, in 1995, the show’s official representative on the lot, and to him I went, seeking a press pass that would allow me to roam the backyard area. Gosh, I was so young, but I guess my membership in the Circus Model Builders gave me rare cache. Here is the pass Mr. Sato wrote out for me. How privileged it made me feel! How could I have ever guessed that, thirty-six years later, I would be reaching out to the same man for use of his illustrations and that, once again, he would favor me so kindly.

Ted Sato died a number of years ago. His remarkable images of the greatest show on earth will live on forever.

[12/16/06]

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Heavy Scripting at the Circus: Ringling's Tediously Overwrought Out of This World Loses Heart in Space ... Animal Stars Save the Trip

Circus Review:
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Out of This World
Oakland, August 20

Having just seen the new edition of Ringling Bros. Circus, Out of This World, I am filled with a disorienting mixture of exasperation and exhilaration, and, mostly a sadness for something so ambitious that left me so wanting

You can’t blame the Felds for trying.  They are up against an increasingly jaded ticket buyer.

What they give us here is a tediously complicated sight and special effects show adding up, in its weaker frames, to much ado about nothing. If you want flash and lots of ensemble action on skates, you’ve got plenty of that.  If you want substance and clarity, don’t expect much here.  Perhaps this one was tailor made for the Disney on Ice moppets. 

Out of This World strains to tell a story, much of it ill staged off to one side, that may have more potential in cinema.  Since I did not buy the program, and could not understand all the announcements about it over a variable sound system, I will defer to a description of it on the website: “A heroic quest of good versus evil.” And how does that grab you?  Opening segments  run very slow.

How absolutely ironic, given the Felds stated need to compensate for the absence of elephants by breaking ground in new directions, that their first outing, post pachyderms, should realize its greatest appeal over the audience in old directions -- through its animal stars.  Through two acts, in particular:  The magnificent  tiger and lion display of Alexander Lacey, and the Cossack-style horse riders.  Yet another winning animal turn, no plot necessary,  has Lacey working a mixed group in the one fixed ring, including goats and a jumping kangaroo, while dogs and pigs nearby delight the crowd.  Ringling's website does not mention any of the acts by name.

Entering the arena, you are immediately placed in a very definite atmosphere that conveys the imagery of space travel.  Opening music, pre-recorded, is very strong.  When the band takes over and the animal acts hold court, the disconnect between the older fashioned circus and the rest of this overwrought hodgepodge is remarkable to behold: Circus, straight up, is far and away the more compelling force at work here.


I counted three standout routines: Lacey's cage display, the Cossack horse riders, and  probably the best flying return act I've seen in years. The Tunziani Troupe. Multiple riggings with flyers working side by side, offering a wealth of twisting and turning, deliver the real thing.  A thrilling climax has two triples executed simultaneously, the flyers moving perfectly in sync, AND in opposite directions, and both landing.  Who could ever ask for anything more?

It is revealing to feel so calmly anchored by the Lacy cage act, the flyers, and the horse riders.  This  same feeling of steady and compelling focus, however,  is hard to come by when heavy-handed ringmaster Iverson and others are hard at work trying to push a frivolous and plodding tale.


During the Cossack campaign, which lifts the show to a rousing end-point, I thought of  the English equestrian Philip Astley, who invented the circus over two centuries ago.    Here, his vision came brilliantly through: Power, speed, courage, agility, grace and gusto, and all in a ring.  CIRCUS, my friend.

For me, this was the true story line.  Compared to trying to make a circus into a lame play, the broad  strokes of the best performances were  far and away what moved the crowd.  I was there to hear it and to share it.  And when audiences leave this show,  the memory of those acts will give them greater pause to question the validity of everything else in the coldly alien Out of This World.

Despite the high points, frankly, it was something of a pain to sit through to the end, but I did.

Ringling, come back to earth!

Overall rating:  (out of four stars max)  2 stars

Friday, August 12, 2016

Big Top Tremors: On Carson & Barnes, A Second Spring ... On Ringling, Will Ice Suffice? ... On Bella, a Ringmaster is Born ... On Vargas, A Dog Might Help ... On Big Apple, a Llittler Apple Would Do ... And More on the Inside!

Back following the arrows, Carson & Barnes is NOT down and gone.  Not by a dozen scrappy seasons, I’d guess.  As C&B goes, I have come to feel, so too goes the circus. The Byrds have a way of making it happen, assuming they are not running a Ponzi peanut scheme on the side.  They took an ominous “mid-summer break” and some wondered in dead-season dread, are they doomed?   Not so.  And that cheers my battered big top heart. 

So, too, is Circus Vargas — still on the road, that is.  And headed my way.  A wining Vargas TV ad looks awesome.  Makes me want to go again, and hope again, and rue the dismal setting in which they, the antiseptic circus without even a dog or a cat, so fittingly pitch their top -- on another one of those dying American malls (no tears here, I’m old-school Main Street)  in a place called Hayward, CA.  So depressing, the tent over asphalt, the tent up against a cold thundering freeway, the tent lost in a concrete canyon, one by one, big name tenants deserting.  Macy’s gone.


How good or not so good is Ringling in its new space age colors?  Strange they could not pull a major review in Los Angeles, where they uncorked Out Of This World. New York Times sent Brooks Barnes out to cover the prior try-out date in Fresno, and his report offered two views of the space voyage.

THE AUDIENCE: “Judging from the zealous applause ... Feld’s vision has its fans.”

HIS OWN OBSERVATIONS:  “Modernization efforts are never easy, especially when the product being updated relies on nostalgia for a great deal of its appeal. Ringling’s customers tend to be parents wanting to pass along a rite from their own childhoods — the smell of the sawdust, the drippy snow cone, the booming voice of the ringmaster. Too much change too fast could upend a form of live entertainment that remains an enormous draw, particularly among working-class families.”


The Little Apple Circus, anyone?  Let’s put this theoretically out-of-business show on the Watch List.  All they need do is run the bureaucratic bloat off the lot, let go of Lincoln Center — You are NOT a Broadway show, Big Apple  -- and put on a dandy enough circus in city parks.  Me thinks, if there is to be a future, it is in Paul’s hands.  Me thinks, he  awaits a Wall Street angel-to-the-rescue.



On a Bella Bounce: Once Oakland based, the student-family Circus Bella, with a dozen or so free summer shows in Bay Area Parks, again juggles up a modest little energizer,  managing to keep most of the clubs in motion. In its favor, Bella has retained its engagingly inventive clown, Calvin Kai Ku and its tip top band leader, Rob Reich. Best of all, Bella’s best new discovery is a ringmaster named David Hunt,  above, the fellow who co-founded the show and did a slack rope act --  until now.  Let’s hype Hunt: A natural born charmer, smartly short of overkill, Hunt combines the zest of a carny baker with the cool of a stand up comedian warming up a studio audience for a TV show taping. Circus owners are you reading this?  The name, to repeat, is David Hunt ... As for the music man, I still recall Reich’s joyful score two years back (the best Bella show, one could feel promise then), which capered and giggled, tooted and rooted on  a breezy melodic bounce.  This year’s music is more grunge than than gusto, more sax than piccolo.  I prefer the latter.

Shunning its roots, Circus Bella now calls San Francisco its home, and what a groveling and sad sell out to the epicenter of narcissism and greed. A city where circus skills are pitched to the rich with an itch to dabble. A city of pretenders.  Welcome to the club, Bella.



END RINGERS: Rhode Island banning bull hooks.  Might the issue end up in the supreme court?  Not without Feld contesting it; perhaps they will put their retired bulls back to work in some other world. The Elephant exit is not about to be overturned, kids ... John Ringling's old private car, The Jomar is now a restaurant.  Why did one of the museums not grab it up?  ...  The Windjammers recently gave three concerts in Baraboo, two on the square, and one at Circus World.  Circus Historical Society President Don Covington, and himself a piccolo player, likened the experience to “coming back to Mecca.”

Anybody watching the rah-rah Olympics? I got so frustrated with the NBC schedule, which did not match what I actually looked forward to seeing, because of that schedule, that as long as they try making me watch everything, I won’t watch anything.   Besides, I am still smarting over the chronic absence  of roller sports at the games. 

Go, Carson & Barnes!  

 Big Apple Circus in the beginning

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

U.S. Circuses in the Age of Virtual Reality: The Struggle to Placate Ambivalent Americans



The late Henry Edgar once posted a comment on this blog to the effect, What if you were to offer the customers what most of us would agree is the best circus possible and yet they still failed to fill up your seats ?  A very good question given shrinking crowd sizes over the last thirty years.  Maybe it's time to review not the show but the audience itself.  To continue Henry's thread, I have a question:

What is the circus owner to offer a jaded public turning fickle on big top staples?  

The Very Real Circus:  Not Virtual Enough?

Perhaps the force of circus being a live show no longer holds the same drawing power, as more people turn to virtual realities, albeit it everything from texting to eDating, video games to porno.  



I have long argued the compelling reality of circus.  More and more, I am starting to doubt the argument’s relevance in this new and rather frightening era of electronic interaction where, one day — people as smart as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak have ventured — “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.”  Wozniak can see ourselves becoming the pets of our robots.   

Item: A group of friends sharing restaurant table space, but not each others company, preferring interaction with their smart phones over the people actually sitting next to them.

Item:  Check out the movie Her, in which a man forms a relationship with an advanced operating system named Samantha.  Frightening.  And very believable.

Enter the Ambivalent American Audience


Yes, Mr. Producer, I feel your frustration, even if you don’t.  You no longer enjoy the total attention of a crowd.  You now must complete with smart phones and tablets and other tweety distractions, ad nauseum.



You now must also compete for the respect of a crowd that arrives with issues about the contents of your show.  Oh, those weird looking clowns.  Don’t .. Come ... Near ... Me ... Look at that draggy tiger, think it's been mistreated?   Which reminds me, I've got to get some suppression pills for my pit bull. No, he can't attack anybody in the nose muzzle when we go out walking. ... Oh, no, look -- she's not wearing a safety wire, is she?   Sometimes they don't?  What if, oh God!  [Another day, another show]: Oh, look, she’s strapped to a wire!  Must be a beginner.  I could do that.

Even granting that a live show can still draw big crowds, then what next to question under the big top?  There's plenty according to the critics.  On parade, here come the most politically incorrect offenders.

Circus Staples Under Siege

DAREDEVILS
 .

This key element of circus  may be losing its luster to more spectacular acts of risk-taking on TV reality shows or aerial stunts in the great outdoors captured on film.  Compared to which, the sight of a mere human scaling a wire only thirty or forty feet above the ground may somehow seem, reverse affect here, old school.  Another trend that is emasculating the show are the solo and duo fabric aerialists who throw more focus onto slower balletic moves. I think this sort of action, some of it, to be sure, quite exciting, has nonetheless eroded the public’s taste for the more perilous tricks we associate with the single trapeze.   Would Pinito Del Oro, above, have settled for a silken web? For a static trapeze?

The protected aerialist: The presence of lifelines (mechanics) has done more than anything else to produce today’s ambivalent audience.  Courage or cowardice, which will it be today, Circus? With some performers flying under protection, others not, the vacillating impression does nothing to sustain a committed identity.  And the primal power of circus suffers.   

CLOWNING


This old-time jester might today consider either less greasepaint or horror flicks

The heavily painted funny faces are not so welcome anymore.  Reports and images of creepy characters in grotesque clown makeup terrorizing citizens on city streets and in public places have produced a growing number of adults who fear taking their kids to a circus for this among the other reasons.  In Europe, there seems to be a trend towards less makeup, down to a red nose maybe and a few whimsical marks, sufficient to paint a face in mirth, but not one of implicit mayhem.  This is a viable route for today’s jesters.  After all, a clown is a character far more than a painted face.

ANIMALS


The elephants may be on the way out. So, too, the big cage cats.  But there are still plenty of dogs, horses, camels and other critters — well, if  Jenny Vidbel can find and train them. I think that John Ringling North II made about as shrewd and sensitive a move as a circus man can make these days by featuring just one small elephant, Louise, on his Kelly Miller show last season.  The dancing of Louise, nothing like I have ever seen, was pure magic.

Encore for Elephants?  If the public’s skittishness over performing pachyderms is ever to be reversed, it may take one elephant at a time.  And it may take a far simpler approach like the one advocated by UK author and critic Douglas McPherson in his book, Circus Mania

“The elephants don’t need to be oversold with gimmicks.  Just walking into the ring and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough.” 

Indeed, a day may come when an audience new to such a spectacle as elephants on parade will thrill to that alone.  Certainly the children will.

Bring back the one-act show:  Circuses may help their cause by removing the intermission and running a shorter show straight through, as once they did.  Promise patrons less time away from their gadgets.  On their way out, happier, they may still be more inclined, maybe more so, to patronize the rides and concessions — the vain lure of selfies.

 Remember When Circus Day was Guilt Free?



Unlike their forebears, today's patrons enter the tent loaded with electronics and with overwrought minds buzzing with issues over whether to patronize a circus is even a good idea in the first place.
.
That long-gone circus day that enjoyed the total attention of an undistracted crowd not fraught with issues, that long ago world in which we once thrilled to a circus show feeling not a qualm, reveling in the honest and simple joy of it all --- that wondrous world, I am sadly afraid, no longer exits.

The Big Show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 23, 1953

Next: Can Kenneth Feld Rebuild The Greatest Show on Earth?

Photos above: On horseback, the Cristiians
On the high wire:  The Wallendas
On the single trap:   Pinito Del Oro
Clown Buzzy Potts.
Barnum & Bailey on parade, 1908
Under the big top At Gil Gray Circus (from the Circus Blog)
Ringling elephants on Parade, 1978, with Ana May in the lead, the Woodcocks in charge

First posted January 18, 2016

On Big Apple Circus: I Am Very Depressed

UPDATE, 7/29/16: Carson and Barnes  now shows future 2016 dates on its Facebook page.

I have little will to say much at this point, considering how devastating a season we are living through.   I would like to lay down and cry.

No Cole Bros.

For an ominous spell, Carson & Barnes, after half a season, went on a break.  And then came a terse announcement on their website, still posted, "No upcoming events." I tried calling the number and got no where.

And Big Apple.  They aren't going to play Lincoln Center, and that seems final.  But that alone does not bother me so much -- as long as they play somewhere.  Surely, Paul, you can do that, can't you?

I am feeling very sorry for all circus owners and producers, so here is this, from earlier in the season of 2016.

7.17;16

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

America's Got Circus, Too: TV Judges Give Tanbark Talent Genuine Respect

Big Top Action Helps Power America's Got Talent

And what a pleasure it is. And how glad am I that I took the time to check out the current season of America's Got Talent.

I'd known of the show's history, circus acts appearing now and then, but haven't watched it for a few years.  Simon, yes Simon Says Yes - Simeon Says No is what brought me back.   What I like the most is how the judges embrace the best circus acts, their raving reception making them seem fresh again.  

I assume that audience members surrendered their smart phones upon entering.

Really, most of these acts are hardly amateur.   


These veteran wire walkers performed a fairly standard routine.  The judges appeared to be in such dread,  that I wondered if they were overdoing it a bit. 

I've never felt so unnerved by a knife and fire throwing routine. 


Simon, of course, is the star judge.  The one whose word we await.  But the other judges form a most winning panel.

Yes, if this act is not razor-edge dangerous, I don't know what is.

Back to no-nonsense basics: TRICKS

Circus "tricks" is not a dirty or passe word on this program -- as it has become in higher quarters of advanced circus learning and credentialed creation.  Said one of the contestants, proudly to the judges, "We have new tricks and surprises." 





A dancing dog.  Wish I had better pictures to show.  These were taken on my iPhone in front of my TV screen.

The judges loved this oddball character, half clown, half experimental prankster.  Why can't we get somebody like him under a circus tent?


 Pure circus -- hold the big top broccoli 

As some of you may have noticed, circus acts today may come to you in any number of overwrought formats -- straddled to a "story" line; rendered inside a black S&M tent drenched in blood; over ice or under water.  Here, circus is performed straight ahead, and what a pleasure that is. 


Which is to say that Cirque du Ballet  has not infected the program, And this speaks well of the producers, who apparently have a good understanding of what circus is all about.  I compared it to the earnestly plodding   Celebrity Circus on NBC back in 2008, whose Cirque-obsessed contestants seemed driven to land contracts with the Montreal monster.  After five labored episodes, that tediously pretentious sell-out to fringe circus was history.

Minus excessive airs, our attention is thrown exclusively onto the tricks themselves. 


The judges -- Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Mel B, and Simon, :  I like all four of them a lot -- augmented here with the fellow in the middle, a guest judge that week. So much better than some of the sleazy panels on Idol in recent years, which put me off and left me with no desire to watch the foundering program.   Simon works well with his cohorts.  I would venture to guess that this panel might be the most winning of all on either of the talent shows so far.  The cool and warm Nick Canon is the perfect host.

Okay, yes, notwithstanding the above, this amphibious  ball juggler looked like a veiled promo for Cirque du Soleil.  The judges loved him.  I found him slightly more repellent than riveting. 



 WARNING TO ALL CLOWNS.  You SCARE Simon.  Apparently, he suffers from coultraphboia, a recent British diagnosis for the fear of circus clowns.The put down "creepy clowns" was uttered more than once.

And this overdone Bozo drove Simon close to the edge.  The guy was stupidly silly.  I doubt he made it through.  Maybe a future on the Shrine clowning circuit?

Call the doctor! Simon is having a coultraphobia attack!


When I first watched the program some years ago, I don't recall as many circus acts.  Perhaps the producers are banking on big top gusto to give the show more variety and surprise.  And think of it, where in the world can a circus performer get an audience in the millions? Where?
 
 

So let's all hear it -- GO CIRCUS on America's Got Talent!

************  THE RATINGS  ************* 

So, how are you doing, circus?  After writing this, I just checked on the ratings, having no idea what the show has been doing.  Whopping good!  They drew over 10 million viewers last week, more than twice  that of second place The Bachelorette:

Yes, Go Circus Go!