Circus Heights, 2002

Circus Heights, 2002
by Carolyn Hubbard-Ford, on Facebook Circus and Fairground Art

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Blundering Big Tops: Ringling Ditches Portland-Seattle ... Big Apple Pitches Pony Rides .... Fly-Shy Circus Vargas Dishes Half a Show ... And the Elephants Apply for Assisted Living ... Who Said the Circus Was Alive and Well?

Something happened at the Big Apple Circus that nearly took my breath away.  No, not an act of art, but an act of commerce. Commerce of the kind you normally do not associate with “New York’s own.”

Well, now, New York’s own sells pony rides!  Yes, they are that flat out desperate, it appears, this being another of their recent Make-or-Break Seasons.   Another round of bailout money from Wall Street Greed may yet come to another rescue.

I once wrote a book called Fall of the Big Top and one fan of good intent, likely speaking for many others, was Don Covington, himself then company manager for the Big Apple Circus.  Don e-mailed me his pleasure over many memories my book brought back. But he also wanted to make clear being understandably at odds with my misleading subtitle: The Vanishing American Circus.  Wrote Don, “American circus has not vanished, it is vital and evolving.”

Don may have been right, then. Now, the word devolving seems apt. In fact, the subtitle should have read The Vanishing Great American Three Ring Circus.   That’s what I was really thinking.  And so the blame lies with me for ticking off anybody else out there who felt the blunt edge of overstatement.  And still ... Now, if you will pardon my incredible disrespect, I am wondering if in fact the American circus is in any form, old, new, in rehab or on parole, not slowly vanishing?

In peak Big Apple years.  Marty and Jake LaSalle, 2008, just plain terrific.

The stomach-turning news of the pony ride felt like the last nail in a coffin.  Pray it ain’t so.  Reaching beyond White Tops and Circus Report for a sliver of reality, I found but one review on Trip Adviser.  Be warned, the following content may not be suitable for circus fans of any age:

 “Its expensive, the acts are dated and boring, both me and our 10 year old fell asleep. Everything is overpriced and the stupid pony rides a big ripoff. Ok if you're 5 and never seen a circus before.”

Fair, balanced, and boring: I must say, from the photos I’ve seen of the new show, it looks quite promising.  Reviews?  Count on the New York papers to usually give New York's own circus a valentine pass.  
What next under the Big Apple tent?   Mass audience participation?   They could sell seats in the ring itself, making it easier for audience members (or shills) to already be in place when a clown comes calling.   A one hour Shrine-like intermission for peanut peddling?  (Hey, I might go for some cashews.)  The passing of a ringmaster’s hat?

The audience getting into the act is what's packing our tents these days, right?  Hey, you won't see that at Monte Carlo!

Around other beleaguered rings, more reason to rue the same.  Take Ringling, dumping Pacific Northwest dates, Seattle and Portland not deemed profitable enough to justify rail bills into the region. Locals up there none to thrilled.  Where instead will the trains now be routed:     Berkeley?  The Bermuda Triangle?

Feldishly fading: The Gold unit is history. So, of course, soon the pachyderms, destined for medicare and Assisted Living. 

Meet forced Floria retiree Mabel, being fitted for glasses under JumboCare.

Half a Vargas:   If you go, be prepared for a great first half (to be kind, I am overlooking a lame story line too cliche to credit): a sure hand in the gifted direction to cheer; excellent taped music; inventive staging around two jugglers working simultaneously; a clown, Alex Acero, who is very funny when he is being a clown (see my write-up about him a few posts down).  There is the commanding Patrick Marinelli, an illusionist and fabrics flyer of swaggering star power; terrific trampoline and wall bouncing exploits.   There's a lovely (rather than mandatory) aerial ballet featuring the winning Cathy Poema on a compelling lyra workout, and without wires.  So, into the break, the artfully exciting first half delivers big.  And this even without a double wheel and Marinelli on straps -- two turns advertised but not seen the day in Hayward when I went.  I felt so good, that I prayed the feeling would carry over into the last half.   A solid 3-star show, minimum, in the making.

Now, if you go and feel as elated as I did at the half way mark and wish to hold that feeling on your way out, then on your way out should be at intermission. Stop there.  Run, do not walk, but LEAVE.   What will you be missing?  Other than the classy Poema family on risely, whose once cute little boy now struggles to redefine his persona (a diet would help) nothing else is notable. Nothing.   Never have I seen so many “flyers” doing so little on the flying trapeze.  With only one hundred plus in the tent the day I went, guess they weren’t in the mood.  Never are when I’m there.  Maybe if they performed no matter the house size, more people would show up.  I counted two motorcycles in the big globe. Whoopee.   Dull.  Empty.  Done.

Vargas feels like a circus not wanting to be a circus.  Lots of Cirque du Soleil posturing this year. End point offers vacuously irrelevant ensemble dancing.   Such a let down after the stellar first half.   Good golly, Molly,  would it break payroll or cause PETA to riot if a dog act was allowed into the ring.  Just a dog act?

All these depressing developments are pushing my pen into Big Think mode.  Gotta warm up another cup of Gen Mai Chi tea.  There’s a thread I’m threading through all of this — a reason why, no matter what they do, the public may still stay away in large numbers.  And here it is:

Enter the ambivalent circus audience

Come back someday, and I might run with it.


Friday, October 30, 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 the 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.

BTW: A bus ride in LA can be one of the friendliest places on earth.  This town has a sense of humor.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Big Apple Circus in Meltdown? A Flop at the Movie House -- Why Did Nobody Come?

Part 3 in a series


What in the world did not happen last November?

How exciting it felt as last November 8th approached  – I would be seeing Big Apple Circus, which never comes to the west coast,  streaming live in a movie house only a few miles from where I live!

LIVE, indeed, by far the greatest draw to potential customers.  Opera fans flock to movie houses to watch live performances of the New York Met.  So, why not the big top?

The format, long in the making according to Paul Binder, granted  movie chain Fandango license to transmit a streaming performance of Metamorphosis into hundreds of movie houses nationwide.

How bold and revolutionary!   I could imagine it becoming an annual event; maybe in time, circuses from other parts of the world would follow suit.

So, why did so promising a premise go bust?  Why in at least three movie houses I have information on, did hundreds of empty seats sit vacant?

Incredibly inept programming and promotion casts unflattering light on a foundering operation, Big Apple Circus,  said by many in the know to be at the brink of its final season.

    Let us Count the Big Apple Blunders
First Blunder:  Not live everywhere.   Inconceivable that BAC did not push for a contract assuring that the performance would be witnessed live in every movie house coast to coast.  This would have allowed for a more consistent (not to mention honest)  ad campaign promising every ticket buyer the same live streaming experience, no matter their location.  It went out to California, tape delayed.

This could have been easily brought off by a 3 PM performance in Manhattan, so that, live streaming, it would be seen anywhere in the States beginning no earlier than 12 noon.

Second Blunder: Poorly promoted and publicized.  We are talking New York.  Big Apple.  Start spreading the news!  This alone had the potential to garner national media attention.  Maybe it did. Here in the Bay Area, I saw not one mention of the event on TV or in the newspapers.  What were they doing back there?  Did anybody think of picking up a telephone to call some TV and radio outlets?

Third Blunder:  Inept advertising.  Fandango initially listed the viewing time at the movie house nearest me, in Emeryville, at 9AM.  That would have offered me the show LIVE.  Yes!  I purchased a ticket in advance, a ticket bearing a show time of 9 AM.  Luckily, in checking back closer to show time, I was told that the film would be shown at noon.  A huge marketing blunder.  LIVE is what they should have been selling.  LIVE to everybody.  Have the people who run Big Apple Circus heard of LA?  It’s out here in California.

 Francesco was one of many all-too-average acts

Fourth Blunder:   Not the best Big Apple circus.

Yes, it may be unfair to judge any circus performance on film, through various angles controlling our focus, as opposed to watching it from a fixed seat at the venue. Be that as I may, what came through in the tape delay was a meandering stream of action straddled to a plodding scenario.  Indeed, it seemed as if the show was created to look as much like a children’s movie as a real circus.  Weak.

Out of the gate, not the usual high energy charivari splash that BAC does so well. Instead, labored closeups of ringmaster Jose Kane in a talky talky scene doing little bits of magic.  Clowning?  A charming French fellow, Francesco,  soon wore thin.  Some of the acts came off slow and humdrum.   Constantly shifting camera angles gave the affair a disjointed look.  At one moment, I seem to recall peering up into the nose of a camel, no?

What others thought:

First, and with no prompting or leading questions from myself, I’ll defer here to my brother, Dick, himself, for the record, an avid fan of musical theatre but not, per say, of the circus.  I told him about the show, he found a movie house close to where he lives in Utah, and got tickets for himself and his wife. Among his impressions:

“I enjoyed lots of things ... The cube contortion, very impressed, but inappropriate for the circus.  It dragged down the show ... I loved the quick dress changes, a wow! ... Theme did not relate to most of what we saw ... The clown act not up to standards of the show – was he ready to retire? ... Magic, is this circus? ...  The [risley] was long ... Aerial number pretty good, gal clunky ... By what I saw I would never go back to this show ...  Not anywhere as good as Ringling 20 years ago.”

Here is one of two 2-star reviews out of six reviews total that appear on Fandango:

“Was not impressed for the money I spent for a child and an adult.  Really thought that it could have been better. Not enough animals too much magic. Small children did not get it. “

Fifth Blunder: Where was the audience in the Big Apple tent itself?

My brother was left astonished by all the empty seats:   “You’re looking at a loser!”

There were even far more empty chairs in three movies houses that I know of.  In mine, besides myself, there were seven other people, and after intermission, only four.  My brother and his wife were the ONLY persons in the theatre.

 A  PA fan, who loved the show, wrote me that he was one of only two patrons in the house.  Which makes me wonder if the picture, above, which I found scrolling for appropriate images, might have been taken during a streaming of the show (or replay of the film) somewhere?  She does look like she is enjoying herself!

Somebody at BAC — what in the world do they spend their days DOING back there? —  should have packed that tent, even if they had to PAY people to attend.  Of all the moments to be asleep in the backyard!

It’s a pity we did not get to see a better Big Apple Circus.   But a godsend for the company that, apparently, so few people saw this rather depressing spectacle.   Damage control by Fate.

I remain dumbfounded.

They are now at Lincoln Center.  The photos I've seen on-line suggest a very lively show of many populist parts.  Pray it is.

To read Parts 1 and 2 of this series, in the search box above, top left, type "Big Apple Circus in Meltdown" 

Also see "momentous big top transfer: Minus Paul Binder"

Monday, October 19, 2015

Talking Kelly Miller Circus 2015 Highlights, and The Season Ends This Friday

"It's good to be the king," says Facebook host Sebastian, left, of his boss, John Ringling North II

A DVD is far from a live performance, I keep telling myself, pulling back from an urge to “review” the show.

Not a good idea, and when you are sent a DVD by the owner himself, gifting you with a copy of what was intended to be “for the exclusive use of the management and personnel of Kelly Miller Circus,” doubly bad an idea. Reckless and potentially unfair.  Not to mention colossally ungrateful.

Most every season, so far, John Ringling North II has sent me the DVD taken of the current performance.  Short of getting to see the show, it gives me at least a fairly good impression of highs and lows.  

Since there are amply highs to talk about, talk I will.  And gratefully.  This, for the record, is NOT a full and formal review.

Much like Big Apple (these days)  and Vargas and, I suppose, all the struggling others, Kelly Miller offers a vexingly mixed bag.  One thing they all have in common is a risky proclivity, in my biased opinion, for spending too much time in the audience — traipsing through or pulling out “volunteers” for Pin the Donkey and Jump the Rope Blindfolded, you get my dreary drift?  New clown Fajolino, a funny fellow to look at,  may have a good future,  if only he had more of his own gags to work, if only he were barred from leaving the ring to recruit.

Kelly Miller’s strong points are about as strong as they can get.  I can think of three for sure – two outstanding jugglers and a dancing elephant that will knock your socks off, and a good fourth, a very charming, very clever, and very inventive ventriloquist of imported dazzle named Sebastian.
Let’s specify a bit.  Sebastian, his lips amazingly locked, has this funny big bird literally on hand, but he also has to deal with, nearby out of a perky little garbage can, a mouthy mute who, at intervals, pops its head through the lid to issue a wise crack.   The back and forth is warmly amusing; we are in the presence of something genuinely novel.  High marks.

Sebastian’s subsequent audience bit involving two people singing a song, their voices gender switched, is only funny for a tiny while, and then wears thin.

How I wish Sebastian and associates would have returned one or two times during the program — working a variation on the theme. I would love to have spotted that little garbage can in the shadows, causing me to wonder gleefully what might next transpire between the ventriloquist and the dog demanding attention.

Okay, onto the Gold.   Returning juggler Nocolas Souren, left , whom I liked last year, I was wowed by this time around.  Terrific formations, cascading one to another.  So perfectly wrought as to equal a seven course meal.
On the more rambunctious side, came, A+ in my opinion, ball bouncing dynamo, Abrahm Gebre, also back, who, among his rousing repertoire,  conjures up a mesmerizing  traffic jam with no stops or collisions of balls whizzing around and between each other while bouncing off angled boards. Boffo!   He has the energy of an acrobat, the precision of NASA and he’s a natural born audience grabber.

About that prima pachyderm, Anna Louise, I can’t recall ever seeing an elephant shake its limbs and strut itself so expressively to the beat as this one.  You can almost hear Anna's trunk trunking out “gotta dance! Jungle fever jump!"  Unreal.   A++!!!  

Down on  earth, there are, of course, the usual regulars — a band of performers, who will, it seems, recycle acts, take on new ones, work more Cherie pie no problem, do almost anything they can to remain employed by John the Sequel. (People tend to love working for guy.)  Some of those long termers may be good enough for a kid seeing his first circus, I suppose.  Some are the weak links in a chain of survival.

Some, like Carolyn Rice’s eager-to-please dogs, manage to entertain with a little help from the trainer.  Okay, comes a four legged something or other costumed as a life guard, and the act delivers. BIG.  Yes, very funny.  Let’s face it, dogs just can’t fail.  This act has great spirit.  Even a slightly home made quality that may add to its charm.

Two new airborne items: Here is where not being there puts one watching it all on film  at possibly the greatest disadvantage.  On the webs, Zaya and Mendee would probably be more lovely and refreshing to experience live.  Likely more compelling than they is the single trap workout of Kimberly Souren, complete with swinging heel catches.  Her climactic spinning iron jaw from the trapeze in motion would have been more exciting had it not already been done, thus its impact diminished to a degree, by new ringmistress Rebecca Ostroff, albeit stationary, during the aerial ballet. 

Most impressive surprise:  Ensemble choreography.  All hail the hoofer-in-chief!  Dorothy, we are no longer in Hugo. We are in Las Vegas. These routines are marvelously shaped and executed. 

Biggest disappointment (bear with me here John, I like your peanuts)  is the music.  Weakest of all, sorry to say; the taped score did not measure up to some better results in past seasons.  I got the feeling that whatever CDs the show was handed, those they rolled with. Case in point, a French song sung in French while Kimberly Souren flew.

Although Ostroff cuts a fairly pleasing figure in her new role, I missed the commanding aura of John Moss II, whose ringmastering power helped compensate for Kelly Miller being usually shy on big thrill acts.  I hope he returns.

So that’s it.  That’s how, here in front of my 22 inch Sharp flat-screen TV, the House of Ringling looks.

Photos by Rick Purdue.

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?