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 people like Holder may be able to foster a continuing --- ore 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.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Circuses Under Siege: From Creepy Clowns to Abused Elephants, What Next — Bloody Big Tops?

The collapse of the Walker Bros. Big Top at the Lancaster, NH fairgrounds last week, as a storm approached, leaving two dead, and many injured, called to mind the collapse of a section of seats on Toby Tyler Circus a number of years ago. 

The falling seats did not kill anybody, but the adverse publicity may have kept a few people away from canvas arenas.

And I wondered, putting the tragic Hartford Fire of 1944 aside, has there ever been a single circus patron killed due to a circus tent  getting knocked about in the wind, or, worst of all, loosing stakes and crashing to the ground?  I can't think of an incident. 

A week or so earlier, there was the news of a few people dying inside a falling “circus’ tent at a festival in Chicago. Circus tent. Those two words.   Yet another setback for our beleaguered big tops?

Early reports suggest careless mismanagement on the part of Walker Bros. Circus  No permit to operate on the fairgrounds. No testing of the tent prior to the shows going on.  No taking action in the face of severe storm warnings.

Given all the storms through history that have visited our nation’s big tops, it now seems remarkable that not more people have been killed under battered big tops.

And then I thought of the Carson & Barnes big top that was felled earlier this year down in Texas, and of a home made video taken, just before it happened, showing an aerialist doing her routine when, one might argue, the show by then should have been halted, the crowd carefully ushered out.

But, nobody was seriously injured, as I recall, at Carson & Barnes Circus.

It’s a pity when one show operates in so apparently reckless a fashion. It hurts them all.  The Robert Ringling run Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, when it reached Hartford in 1944,  from courtroom accounts following the tragedy was recklessly supervised and operated, key safety precautions ignored.  Two or three men went to prison.

It appears that what happened to Walker Bros. Circus should not have happened at all. That somebody was not minding the tent.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You: American Violence

Thank God for Netflix and TV, DVDs and streaming live, not that the sort of a movie to which I am now attracted would attract to a movie house enough young people to also a attract a young maniac armed with guns sufficient to defend himself in a call to duty abroad.

It is bloody and horrifying.  And it is, sad to say, the American way.

My only wonderment is, when if ever will it be terrible enough to effect real changes in our obscenely uncivilized  gun laws.  Ooops,  that's right.  They tell us that this is the price we must pay for "freedom."

Perhaps we need to redefine "freedom" for the modern age.

I won't linger.  This is supposed to be an entrainment blog.  And know what?   In too many depressing ways, this is all about American entertainment.

Monday, August 03, 2015

MIDWAY FLASH! Big Top Collapse Under New Hamphire Storm Kills Two, Injures 15

Update,8/4/15: ABC News reports Walker Bros. did not have a permit to play the lot, nor was the tent inspected prior to performance time.  Also, some are questioning why management would have even allowed patrons into the big top, given the severe storm warnings.

  Emergency vehicles converge onto the scene

Just flashing across national news wires, the Walker Bros. Circus tent at the Fairgrounds in Lancaster, NH was felled by a storm, killing two people, including a 6-year old child, and injuring fifteen others, so far.
A crowd estimated at 100 people were under the tent when it broke stakes and came down. Some managed to make early escapes just before the big top fell.

In a related story, the Walker Bros. collapse occurred only a day after another circus tent at the Chicago Prairie Festival went down over a crowd who had sought shelter in side it during a storm.  One man was killed, more than a dozen injured.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hang up Now! Kelly Miller Phone Room Shocker - Telemarketers Spooked by Violent Threats - Sponsoring Jaycees Cancel Shows

Nasty threats bordering on gun violence rocked and shocked the Hugo-based telemarketing lines of Kelly Miller Circus pitching tickets for its date in South Russell, Ohio to local businesses.  Story reported by Patrick Cooley on Cleveland.Com.  

But when questioned about the names of those called, the telephone solicitors could not recall.  Nor could an investigation by the Chagrin Falls Police Department yield any leads.

How very Strange.

It simply does not make sense for the telemarketers not to know whom they were calling--- unless they were using automatic mass dialing systems, in which case they must have been dialing beyond local retail shops, into homes.

Why the threats?  Were they from people who simply did not wish to be bothered by yet another solicitation?  I can’t imagine a locally based business reacting in so reckless a manner.

Or, might the threats have come from somebody connected to an animal-rights group?  In fact, Cooley's story noted that animal rights advocate Linda Hernandez of Solon, OH,  had launched a petition on to ban Kelly Miller from South Russell.  

And so the Jaycees, their nerves understandably rattled, canceled the date.  When I contacted Kelly Miller general manger James Royal about the matter, he replied that the story and angle “was from a sponsor who acted in haste, and didn't report the facts.”

The story, in fact, had caught my attention, not because of the animal angle, but because I had nearly forgotten that there are still phone rooms in operation.  Yes, naive of me.  And so I e-mailed Jim, sharing with him my view that telephone sales may be key to how the show continues to stay on the road despite puzzling evidence from a variety of sources suggesting that attendance is lackluster.   

At the time, Jim was on his way to participate in the World Circus Summit in MA, but promised to respond in greater detail.  And he did.  Here, in his own words:

“Regarding telemarketing, the era of big promotions is long gone.  There was a time when day and night rooms could keep a show on the road, but not anymore.  We use a very small operation that sells discounted children’s tickets to businesses.  A large portion of our dates are repeats, so the local companies know this is a good way to help the local sponsor and buy reduced price tickets.  These tickets are mostly used by the companies, although some are returned to the sponsors. If we were to rely on phone sales as the major source of income, the show would still be sitting in Hugo.  It is just another tool in marketing mix”

Royal would only describe business this season as "not terrible, not great."

“Still sitting in Hugo.”  Okay, so there is still the nagging issue of all those empty chairs, and the tempting rationale to follow the phones.  I am no stranger to the power of advance “boiler room” operations to keep circuses solvent even when the "customers" don't come.

Boiler Rooms from Hell, there was a day, and I was there ...     
When I was working as press agent for Sid Kellner’s James Bros Circus in 1969,  upon my entering St. Louis, I received word from the front office to refrain from any and all publicity efforts.  No trying to get performers on TV or radio. DON’T.  No ads; at least, keep them to the smallest size with very few placements.

Why?  Seems the phone room had so outlandishly oversold tickets, they feared  that even should a fraction of those tickets end up in the hands of people wishing to see the circus, the building might overflow quickly, and the sham promotion would be exposed.

Ah yes, back then, boiler rooms ran rampant through the notorious 1970s, in many ways the worst decade in American circus history.

Kelly Miller phones rooms, a far cry?  I suppose they are, but I have a feeling they are more critical to John Ringling North II’s sentimental journey than James Royal would have us believe.

END RINGERS: In my correspondence with Jim, I also asked him, in two different e-mails, two questions.  1.  Whatever happened to ringmaster John Moss. 2.  Does he see the Ringling elephant retirement issue eventually effecting his own show in the future.

He declined to comment on either.

Finally, for a good tickle.  Among 100 comments left at the end of the Cleveland.Com story, there was this, which I offer with no implied connection to any particular party.

"Progressives go to Mars for candy bars; conservatives go to Jupiter to get stupider."

Well, South Russell, wherever you are or go, you do have a refreshing sense of humor.

"When grift went out, the phones came in"

   -- Arthur Concello, as quoted in my book Inside the Changing Circus

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Send in the Nuns When the Clowns Can't Make 'Em Laugh

Long interesting story in the Wash Post about Sister Dorothy Fabritze, who gives Communion at five different circuses, currently traveling with a sister companion, Mary Seibert, from one show to another.  To reach Kelly Miller, they follow the arrows.  Such true sawdust saints, they!

Sister Fabritze started out 16 years ago spending all her days on the Ringling show, but now she shares her faith with many other believers or spiritual seekers on smaller shows.  Blessed are the humble, out of their spangles.

Greatest Mass on Earth: Ringing believers await the sisters 

On Kelly Miller, the sister's most avid listener of the moment is Finnish ventriloquist Sebastian, a European import by John Ringling North II, who works with his puppet Hector and who describes himself an "inquirer.”  (Hector is apparently abstaining).   It seems the two are not always making them laugh, and the silence of a crowd, to be expected inside a chapel, can be traumatic under a tent.  Writes Post reporter, Abby Ohlheiser,  Sebastian  "killed [em?] in the Rio Grande Valley. But last week in New Jersey, “it was very difficult,” revealed Sebastian.  A true confession from a true pro.

On the road with altar to go:  the two sisters in their sanctuary on wheels

After spending an hour with Sister Fabritze,  Sebastian, maybe a convert, maybe not, needed to be up and out -- to get ready to do his act.  Another crowd. Another chance to entertain.

The visiting Sister offered the humble ventriloquist  her daily blessing, tailor made just for him: “Make ’em laugh.”

If he can, perhaps our touring nun has one more for the flock

Thanks to  Don Covington, who sent  me the Post story
Top two photos from Washington Post
Photo of Sebastian, by Rick Purdue

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pissed Off Pachyderm Pitches Parked Auto in Denmark ... or, Was He Just Wanting a Taxi?

Fuzzy details on CBS News.  Seems, if I got the drift, a perception that the elephant did not welcome the attentions of some Denmark circusgoers.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Circus Bella Spreads a Gentle Magic Over Summer Grass


Here are some pics I took of Oakland's own Circus Bella, at the town's Mosswood Park, on July 3rd.  The park is only a short walk from where I live.

A cat who stole the show:  First number out was warmly amusing. We see a stranded cat atop the pole.  Several performers try in vain to rescue the morose puffer, who reacts with a repertoire of squeaky meows, as if either fearing for its life --- or resisting rescue.  Finally, the show's merry jester, Calvin Kai Ku, tries his luck ...

And... succeeds!  A genuinely funny little gag that struck me as an instant clown classic.

As usual, group juggling, directed by Pickle Family Circus vet Judy Finelli, was the highlight of the show.

The spirited Bella band, again ingeniously directed by Rob Reich through his own original score, has a whimsical way of seeming to comment on some of the acts in a very personal manner, at times addressing every move with a specific reaction, slyly shaded with comedic undertones.  All of which helps Bella, in its best frames, take on a Fellini-esque spirit.  Remarkable moments, those. 

Circus Bella gives a dozen or so free summer shows throughout the Bay Area.