Carson and Barnes Circus, in the 1960s

Thursday, October 19, 2017

October in Oklahoma: Hugo’s Three Big Tops End Seasons Only Days Apart ... First Fanfare on October 23 ...

Culpepper and Merriweather Circus

... That’s when, in Honey Grove, TX (okay, not OK, but less than 40 miles from the border), the sprightly Culpepper & Merriweather Circus rings in its last show of the season, and thence, only a few hours later, pulls into the  Hugo barn. The next day, at the Choctaw County Fairgrounds in Hugo, Carson and Barnes will give its final show of the six-week fall tour.  And let’s hope, in TV parlance, it’s a season end, not a “series” end ... Two days later, in Ardmore, “Bronco Johnny,” as he calls himself, presents what looks to be his last show as Kelly Miller circus owner.  And the spangled curtain will, I fear, fall forever on the House of Ringling. Say it ain’t so, somebody ...

I love the symmetrical chronology of it all.  (Big Apple Circus opens in New York the day following Johnny’s last stand.)  I am, yes, trying to make the most of desperate times.  And spending more time touring favorite circus lots in my muddled memory.

Without all those lots to stand on:  Grass beats asphalt, any day.  That is, on any day there might still be a circus out there actually looking for lots over which to pitch yawning canvas and giddy banner lines.  This came to mind while thinking back upon my one visit to the Kelly Miller show produced by John Ringling North II.  The location: Brewster, NY.   The lot had grass!  And weeds!  And rough clumps of dry mud! The ground wobbled up, and it wobbled down..  And it had half the backyard in the front yard, and over thick black cables I fearlessly trod, to reach the big top.

Wonderful day, light rain parting under a sky of dancing sun and clouds, nothing to spoil the show.  A very good show, full of ingratiating spirit.   So much better than a sterile mall.  Best of all, there were PEOPLE in the tent.  A lot of PEOPLE.  These downsized days, I enter circus tents with a silent prayer to the man on high: “Please, let there be at least, say how about 250 people in the seats?  I don’t ask for much, God.”

  A circus fans's dream setting: Kelly Miller in recent years

The shopping malls were once a boon to circuses, as when Cliff Vargas drew lush crows into his tent.  The peak years, the mid 1980s.  But today, there is  nothing sadder than a circus over asphalt when so few people show up.  Add to this the gloom of a dying mall shadowing “circus day,”  of so few cars in football sized parking lots, of the tent standing next to a freeway, and you have a Circus Vargas at the Southland Mall, in Hayward, CA.  About the only place for me to catch the show during its quick sprint  through the Bay Area.    

I’ve not seen a single circus this year, and for me, that’s a first.   That show might have been Vargas, but I just can’t take the experience in that dismal location any more.  Were there a few dogs in the show, something more down to earth, I might have felt a driving emotional connection. I might have gone. 

When I told Jim Royal, once of the team of North II and Royal I,  about my visit to the Brewster lot, he wrote,  "Yes, the date in New York.  When I booked the date, it was going to be on a school practice field....large, level, and plenty of parking.  There was a last minute change and we ended up on the weird lot. That was probably the worst lot of the season for you to visit.  Oh well, even RBBB played many lousy lots when it was under canvas."

Give me grass and weed, mud on the side,if you must, okay, a little bit “lousy.”  Give me a down-to-earth experience where wizards and animals make magic in rings.   Give me the Real Circus, thank you! 

Now, here’s to those lucky enough to be close to the Hugo action:  Get thee down to “your doing fine, Oklahoma” land.   Book a flight.  Jump a Greyhound.  Ride the rails.  And enjoy the next few days.  And pray for the tents to rise once again, when a new spring blooms over old, vacant fields.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Showbiz David’s Year End Circus Kudos (if others can do it, why can't I?) ...

Yesterday Never Dies ...  three years ago almost feels like now.


 Legends, at Ringling-Barnum
 
First off, please take note:  These kudos are based upon my having seen, in some form, the following shows during 2014:

Big Apple Circus, Luminosity, Queens
Circus Bella, San Francisco
Ringling-Barnum, Legends, Oakland
Kelly Miller (from a DVD of the entire performance)
Big Apple Circus, Metamorphosis,  live streaming tape delay, in a movie house, Emeryville, CA
Cirque du Soliel, Kurios, San Francisco.

So, to be clear, among the shows I did not see, there are these:
Carson and Barnes
Cole Bros.
Universal

Thus, I am issuing Kudos rather than Awards.


Drum Rolls! Fanfare! Enter the Honored!

Outstanding Circus Performance of the Season
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey - Legends 

Greatest Advance in Showmanship for a Single Producer
John Ringling North II.  Two of this years best acts are first-time-in Americas.  North is proving his potential to rise higher.

Best Staged and Scored  Act
Dosov Tetterboard troupe, Big Apple Circus - Luminocity.  Bloody brilliant.

  
Best Contortion Act
Amina and Azai, from Mongolia, Kelly Miller Circus
Transcending the tortuously slow muscularity of arguably far more complicated contortion routines out there, yet these two gals invest their crisply animated  repertoire with intricate leg movements, impressively unified and coordinated. It is the only contortion act I've seen in a long while that I would welcome seeing again. (Yes, and yes - slow slow slow leaves me bored bored bored.)

Single Most Mesmerizing Display
Ty Tojo, Big Apple Circus - Luminocity

Best Original Score
David Bandman and Jeffrey Holmes, Big Apple Circus - Lumnocity

Best Live Music, tie
Big Apple Circus, Luminoicty, Rob Slovki, director
Circus Bella, Rob Reich, composer, accordionist, and band leader.  Reich's work bubbles with giddy melodic bounce and enthusiasm, making Bella a continuous joy to the ear.


Outstanding New Discovery
Showmanly Abrham Gebre, ball bouncing juggler, Kelly Miller Circus.  He somersaults into the tent, makes charismatic eye contact, and pulses the show with natural star power.

Best Ringmaster (Role) of the Season
John Kennedy Kane appearing to play John Kennedy Kane, Big Apple Circus, Luminocity

Best  Reliably Good Ringmaster
John Moss III, Kelly Miller Circus
Moss repeats a recurring traditional role with class and power, unhampered by the scripting that can
compromise or corrupt the natural talents of others, like John Kennedy Kane or Jonathan Lee Iverson.

Outstanding Novelty Act
Lamount, the Human Volcano, Kelly Miller Circus. 
A work of deft ingenuity and staging based on fire eating, Lamount expands standard fire-eating tricks into a riveting spectacle of panache, funky humor, and dazzling fireworks in the dark.

Outstanding use of hula hoops in atypical fashion
Natasha Kaluz, Circus Bella,
for fashioning a most engaging juggling routine using hula hoops as props


Outstanding Wild Animal Display
Alexander Lacey, Ringling-Barnum - Legends

Outstanding Mixed Animal Display
Vicki Zsilak and Hans and Maria Close, featuring dogs, pigs and two jumping kangaroos.
Ringling-Barnum - Legends

Most Promising Young Wild Animal Trainer on the Rise
Ryan Holder, Kelly Miller Circus.  One of his charges moves about upright on his hind legs for an impressively extended period, his expressive front paw movements seeming to "feel" the music of Michael Jackson's Thriller.  Memorable.

Outstanding Razzle Dazzle
Smirnov Duo, Quick Change (attire), Big Apple Circus, Metamorphosis.

Outstanding Production Number
The opener at Ringling-Barnum - Legends
A supernatural sensation; I've never felt so far out -- into another world. Absolutely stunning.


Outstanding Creativity in Circus Production
Cirque du Soleil - Kurios.

Outstanding Presentation of Traditional Chinese Acrobatics
The hoop divers,  Ringling-Barnum - Legends


Outstanding Combination of Ground Acrobats and Aerial
Trampoline and Vaulting, Cirque du Soleil, Kurios.  These two terrific turns electrify the crowd.

Funniest Clowning  
(not easy, there were so few well-earned laughs out there):
Ringling Clowns spoofing a bike riding act, Ringling-Barnum - Legends.

Most  Exciting Ringmaster Announcement
John Moss at Kelly Miller:  "Children of all ages!  John Ringling North the second welcomes you to the two thousand fourteenth edition of the Kelly Miller Circus!"

Yes, I'm a hopeless Ringlingphile.  But then, so are you, right?

First appeared on December 30, 2014

Friday, October 13, 2017

John Ringlilng North: 'SHOW IS FOR SALE"

This just received, in response to an email I sent John Ringling North II two days ago:

"Show is for sale. Several interested parties. Best Regards, Bronco Johnny."

That's all he said.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Big Top Blues, and Lane Talburt to the Rescue: Yes, I've heard the rumors about Kelly-Miller closing ...

And I've talked to Brenda Rawls about it at their Hugo headquarters.

And I've e-mailed former general manager, Jim Royal.

And I have an e-mail out to John Ringling North.

And I've taken about as much as I can take, for now, with the continuing collapse of what is left of the American circus scene.  You will maybe understand.

I think we all feel the same confounding pain.

Eventually, I will wrap this into something, I guess.

In the meantime, check out Lane Talbert's heart-warming video of his visit to Bill Martin's Big E Circus Spectacular, complete with forthcoming interviews with Martin, a classy guy, I'd say, with one of my favorite ringmasters, John Kennedy Kane (so good to see him out of the role of BAC story teller), and with Jenny Vidbell and great clown guys, Steve Copeland and  Ryan Combs (I loved the mop across face, guys).
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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7sy3mYlhN0

All so accepting of what is happening, all so understanding, non vindictive about it, just doing the best they can to make the most along the shrinking sawdust horizons.

Troupers we can all be proud of.

More sometime later ...

Friday, October 06, 2017

Shell-Shocked Inside a Ken Burns Masterpiece: The Vietnnam War Marks New Highpoint in TV History

If anyone deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for anything, the names Ken Burns and Lynn Novick should be at the top of the list. 

I’ve never been a Burns fan, maybe more out of impatience, finding some of his PBS documentaries so very very long.  Here, I was resolved to give him another chance and stick to it.  And it stuck to me, so staggering is this gripping 10-part account of one of the darkest chapters in American history.  Possibly the.


Walter Cronkite, reporting from the war.

If, as is generally assumed,  Ken Burns works from a liberal bias, my litmus test for him was to see how he might address the murky issue, long debated, of what John F. Kennedy might have done had he lived. He had brought the first military advisors into the war.  How much further would he have gone?   Far from giving JFK a pass, the answer comes through with stark clarity when we see him declaring to a close advisor that the war is unwinnable, but that he is not ready to pull the troupes (which could have saved countless lives), not until after the upcoming elections.   Kennedy feared that such an action would doom his re-election hopes.


This sobering revelation lowered further my once idyllic regard for the young charismatic president from Camelot.   Sadly, I am forced to see him as only another self-serving politician like the rest of them. They all lied through their teeth. 

With this one segment,  Ken Burns gained my trust and had me for the rest of the way.

Still, the rest of the way to many Vietnamese Bay Area locals, former generals among them, felt more like a Ken Burns betrayal, they complained to the media. They feel that their valor and participation was unfairly downplayed.


There are scenes of horrifying brutality, of the heartless, chaotic slaughter of so many innocents in the battle zones, of children and mothers being mass executed by soldiers gone mad.  Of the Vietnamese at war with each other.  Of a succession of corrupt politicians (aka: American presidents) who placed careers and ego above leveling with the American people.  Shame on them all. We are taken into the heart of a particular darkness, of a civil war not our own.  There is no doubt in my mind that we went over there to fight the communists.  The Vietnamese happened to be in the way.

For, once we gave up – another revelation for me — we turned our backs on promises made to the South Vietnamese.  Heartbreaking are scenes of them waiting for American air power to counter the invasion of the Viet Cong, two years later, as they had been promised by Richard Nixon to expect.  It was part of an exit agreement.  To see them waiting patiently in vain for their long-gone protectors to return is painful. One of many moments that brought tears to my eyes.  Surely, this was not American exceptionalism on parade.


Another issue that moved me — actually enraged me as it did at the time  — was the ugly contempt shown returning Vets by young American protestors without a shred of common decency in their stoned-out heads.  How vividly I recall this  disgusting spectacle of unconscionable ingratitude.
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When will we ever learn, goes the familiar song in the background – part of an inspired soundtrack of pop songs of the time, and how vividly they capture the atmosphere of those days.

My Enemy, My Friend


Many years pass.  Returning vets go back to the country to visit and reminisce, hoping to find soldiers they once fought alongside, and open, as well, to the forgiving arms of those they once opposed on the battle fields. Friend or foe then, they embrace now.  Tearing eyes radiate humanity’s noblest reach.  The perfect ending.

Such a terrible tragic waste.   Yes, when will we ever learn?

This is a monumental work of documentary art.   A shining moment for PBS, and for the giant at the helm.

Thank you, Ken Burns, and thank you, Lynn Novick.

********************************************************************************



Henry and Christine, a Chinese couple from Vietnam, lived across the hall for about four years.

How warm a presence they were: She would sometimes gently knock on my door, offering a treat of some sort. And I, likewise, would take them things.

When I learned, a few months ago, that they were moving to an independent living facility, I was crushed.   Henry needs more friends and a safe space in which to walk.  Christine flourishes, as does their son in Southern California, who manages his own computer-related firm.

I called Christine to tell her about the Vietnam War on the night it began.  Not sure if she watched, judging  by her muted reaction, nor if I will bring up the subject.  I have no idea what their lives were like during the war.  I would deem it insensitive to ask.

Their departure felt like a death in the family. It took me weeks to get over.  How I miss their sweet spirit, still.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

What Do Circus and NFL Fans Share in Common?

 Three for the knee in San Francisco: founding dissenter, Colin Kaepernick, center.

We of the big top crowd know what it is to try enjoying a circus --- just a circus --- without being distracted by animal-rights protests we are forced to pass on the midway.

Well look what's happening in another,  far more popular forum. Now,  NFL fans are starting to suffer their own new antagonist, and inside the venue, where multi-millionaire football players are turning their backs on the National Anthem to protest the plight of African Americans.

Taking the knee, as they call it. 

Ruing the current situation, one local sportscaster today remarked that the fans go to the games to enjoy a great American sport, to have a beer and savor the event in the company of friends and fellow fans.

What is not entertaining them is the invasion of these displays of disrespect -- the easy exploitation by the unhappy players,  and on their employer's time and dime, to grab and jerk around a media that lusts after such conflict.

Rush Limbaguh a few days ago: "You can't t watch the NFL anymore and just watch football."

Welcome to the tent, Rush.  Oh, how I smiled.  Oh, how I relished another PC snit-fit visiting another venue.  We of the circus community have lived with it for many trying years.
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I am not a football fan, but living in ultra blue Bay Area, I can't escape the constant reporting on both local teams -- the 49ers and the Raiders, neither doing well.  Both lost today.  Can you feel my tears?

Rush reminded me of my own feelings: How I would love to go to a circus, and just watch the circus.

 No, but thanks for the offer!  Could I take a rain check?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Aspiring Young Master Chefs, Paced by Ringmaster Ramsay, Stir up a Sizzling Good Show ... I Am Happily Hooked ...

So much so, that I actually denied myself the next episode of the compelling Vietnam War, playing the same two-hours, feeling my greater loyalties to these enthused and dedicated and charming young cooks.  I had to see who would be crowned Master Chef.


I was so late in getting hooked on this show, mainly because I avoid all competition shows, save for the circus parts of America's Got Talent.

I guess it was a matter of surfing past the show one night, and being taken by the competitors toiling over their grills.   I loved their enthusiasm for what they were doing. Real non-digital work!  And not another veiled flesh show.  How about that!

Jason Wang, below, was one of my favorites.  So passionately expressive!  Turns out he is a 34-year-old music teacher.   He was one of the three finalists, and well deserved to be there.






Yachecia Holston. eliminated only one week before finale,  was my favorite.  Loved her embracing spirit.  I just discovered she is a minister from Michigan.  Heck, I'd give her pulpit a try.  I bet it sizzles.


Another of my pets was the cool creative showman, Dino Angelo Luciano, a free spirited dancer from Brooklyn who crossed his heart the Catholic way many times..


Why had I resisted the program for so long?  About head master,Gordon Ransay, seen here, center, I remembered trying to watch his Hell's Kitchens, only to give up on what struck me as scripted, the restaurant operations so bad as to feel facial.  Heck, I could have been a master chef in one of those dumps! I make a great mock red potato garlic fry. My no-frills specialty are frozen  stir-fry vegetables over the frying pan.


Gordon and a guest judge are conferring with Dino.  They were obviously impressed, to such a degree that I wondered how the final decision was actually made ... 

But then, came Eboni Henry, below, with a dish so admired by the judges, I got a feeling she was going to be the winner.  But, oh no!  One of her items in the next entree fell apart upon closer examination.  You can feel her heartbreak.


Dino wins!
They loved his daring creativity. But they also loved Jason's, too.  I guess we can only assume the judging was as fair as it could be.


What not to like about Master Chef? First of all, the one-hour programs are ingeniously staged into sections that each move at a good clip, driven by a spirit of intense urgency (the Ramsay factor) at every frame.  There is very little off the off-set stuff that clutters up the other shows, such as footage of home life.  None of such bloat that would keep me away.  The Master Chef cameras stick to the action down on the grills.   Great fast-moving showmanship!  Give an A to all the judges: Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi and Aarón Sánchez, for working so well together.

Most of all, to the can-do spirits of the captivating contestants.

I already miss Master Chef.

I see they are re-running an episode next week.  I liked the aspiring grill masters so much, I may tune just to relive old times with them in the kitchen.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Step Right Up, Book Buyers! More Acclaim for Big Top Typewritter Calls for an Old Fashioned Midway Ballyhoo ... Buy Now for only $10!


Update 9/20: Publisher raised the price to $18.50, but Amazon has retained the sale by offering a nearly 50% discount


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Hear what the leading voice in book reviewing says:

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Blasting News




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Index -- might your name be in it?
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5.18.17 
6.21.17

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ringling Homecoming in Baraboo Gives Circus Alumni an “Electrifying” Show to Remember

 
A couple of months after the official final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey on Long Island, another show that felt to some like the real last show took place in the very town in which the famed circus  was born.  Baraboo.

How I would love to have been there when a tent packed with Ringling alumni, in town for the circus days celebration, were given a private show on the grounds of the Circus World Museum..  

On the eve of the annual Baraboo bash, former Ringling employees shared hugs and tears and cheered ecstatically during the special performance

What a heart warming close to arguably the most famous circus name in the world  – under a small tent not so different in size from the one under which the five Ringling brothers gave their first circus, back in 1884,

Said Circus World executive director Scott O’Donnell to the Baraboo News Republic “So many people who attended said that that show almost meant more to them than the last show of Ringling Brothers ... It was an electrifying night under the big top.”

Ringmaster David SaLoutos and the performers sang and danced between their acts.  As cheers rang through the tent, tears flowed across grateful eyes. At least 16 standing ovations stopped the show during the private performance.

O’Donnell described it, one of the most “raw, emotional” shows he had ever seen.

Can you feel what I feel?

Here is where the Ringling brothers began their legendary ascent to the rise of American circus kings.

And here is where (thank you, circus Gods of the State of Wisconsin), the wonderful  Ringling story and  history will continue to be kept passionately alive for many seasons to come.  There should be a Congressional degree mandating the permanence of Circus World

 “They hooted and hollered — you never felt so much love in your life,” recounted SaLoutos, above, summing up the rapturous reception.  “It was like getting 500 hugs. We were on such a high after that performance I don’t know if anybody slept that night.”

You might say that a circle of history was closed.  The symmetry alone is a beautiful thing.

Au Revoir ...

Baraboo

Ringling

Circus

The Greatest Show on Earth

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Bello Nock Wows America’s Got Talent — Until He Doesn’t ... In the Wider World of Reality TV, a World Acclaimed Circus Star is Just Another Humble Competitor ...


 
The millions who watched Bello perform so winningly on America’s Got Talent would not have known of his world-acclaimed status.. I have a feeling that the show actively recruits circus acts — the better the act, the better to give the programs more variety and thrills.

A few weeks ago during semi-finals, I finally got to catch Bella’s act on the Wheel of Death.  Indeed, to watch the best of Bello (I imagine) for the first time. For, you see, I am now after all these years a  fan of Bello’s unique gifts.  Call it a belated discovery.
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On the big wheel, he ingeniously combined acrobatic dexterity, bravado and comedy to win me over in a big way.  What I liked was how he built his routine, first inside the wheels, and then on the outer rims, cleverly escalating the danger.

The prop itself is one of the best props ever to give the circus an almost guaranteed thrill. One need only ride it and stay aloft to keep any crowd awake and tuned in, cell phones ignored.

And so I had my breakthrough moment with this Bello fellow, whose relatives I remember on Ringling in 1955, atop their tall lean "sway poles," but not really doing much.  Made for great ad copy --- mid air exchanges!  Nothing like what you might be imagining, folks.

I remembered Bello’s early days on Ringling when I could never know where to place him — goofy kid clown?  Lazy daredevil?  I could not find a compelling focus.


On the AGT stage, the judges were wowed. And scared to the pits of their stomachs.  So was the audience. Indeed, what won them over was true danger -- the stark clarity of Bello working with no safety aids. This will only deepen their respect for the genuine and artistic risk-taking performer.  

Alas, the Monte Carlo Gold Clown winner ended up, as eliminations proceeded, being pitted against a roller skating act.  One would stay on. The other would go home.

What an odd pairing.  The judges had expressed possibly more enthusiasm over the skaters. And so I grew anxious.  Could he really lose out to ... the unthinkable ???



I cast my silent vote for Bello.

The judges cast theirs for the skaters   A roller skating act!?!  Bello lost out to a roller skating act!  What a humiliation.  Okay, to its credit, the skaters did more than I usually see in these types of acts.
I have seen so many of the same sort over the years, that I have grown jaded.

I felt such a sadness for Bello, who had to take it, and take it,  graciously he did..

Really, what Bello achieved encompassed many more skills. In my book, there can be no comparison.

What next for this open-minded television show that is  helping to keep alive the ageless lure of ring wizards?  And before not thousands or hundreds – or dozens – but millions.  Doesn't that make you feel good?  It does me. So what next?  Jenny Vidbel's bohemian barnyard?  A young fiery flyer attempting the quad?

Why not? 

Best of all, these judges appear totally free of a tainted bias for the precious Cirque du Soleil school of circus.  It is so satisfying just to watch them react with almost a child like wonder to what passes before their eyes. They are the perfect panel for circus performers of all stripes.  I say, bring more big top on!

The circus has three very good friends in America’s Got Talent. And in this we can take heart.