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 (or a figure virtually occupying that position) 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.
THE BINDER EQUATION
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.
First posed September 27, 2015