Saturday, March 10, 2018

Battered Big Tops Fight On: Melha Shrine Circus on the Brink ...Kelly Miller’s Judkins Deletes Exotics, Exhorts Fans to Lobby PETA ... Young New Ringmaster on the Rise ...

"There will be no elephants thundering into the Melha Shrine Circus ring this week, no fearsome lions or tigers – and no cute little dog acts either. "
                      ---The Republican, April 26, 2016

Tis the make-or-break season for Melha Shrine Circus, or so I’m told, by an inside source  — inside being the man who answers the phone.  Twas he who took my muck-racking, mud-raising  call, on the spur, wondering in half a question, whether the crowds who stayed away in 2016 or demanded refunds because the elephants were missing, came back in 2017, when they returned?

Answered my informant,  “Well, somewhat, but not what we had hoped for.”  Not an exact quote, but in honest essence, what came through on my end.   My toughest question — this should land me on CBS Six Minutes -- Could you give me the attendance records?  That nasty squirm-churning word: “attendance.” My Shrine source did not know, but the chairman should know, he told me.  So far, with zero effort,  I have been unable to statistic-cate this any further.  And did I just invent a new word back there?   

Exclusive disclosure from the Melha man: This will be third year of a “three year plan,” evidently, from what I gathered, the first being 2016 without exotics, then next, the return of same, and now  — this make-or-break  third year, to Jumbo or not to Jumbo?  Beyond that, to have a circus at all?  The best he could give me was, I know we are going to have a circus in 2018.”

Yes they are.  Early May dates have been posted on their website

And for all this trivial typing, what?  Well, to bring you down-to-the-moment speculation from here inside the State of Idiocy (California)   I’m guessing maybe half of the irked Shrine patrons who snubbed the 2016 show, returned in 2017.  Guessing, too, that the run barely broke even – and that’s not fake guessing!  Can you do any better? As you know, bodies in the seats is a taboo subject in circus jackpotting and reporting.***  You risk coming off like an insensitive jerk who should be run off the lot whenever you dare raising the third-rail subject.

So let me risk another subject worth tip toeing around:  Kelly Miller.  The show’s new owner, Jim Judkins, came up through older-fashioned trenches, managing for gutsy, menagerie-heavy Carson & Barnes.  But when he and Dorry Miller severed ties  – tantamount to a shootout at the OK corral – and Jim gave birth to  Circus Chimera, he broke totally from the older paradigm (Oh, I just had to use that word, kids – a first for me – look it up!).  Jim boy down-produced Chimera  the Montreal way, but on bargain basement budgets.  All human.  Come on how, Jim, how about taking a few steps backward towards common sense, and relenting a little with, say,  a dog act?

To bark or not to bark?  Judkins may be facing another make-or-break year.  He’s valiantly trying to shake off those pesty  protesters who hounded the K-M midway, trying to lure back its  vanishing crowd base.   And he’s proving himself to be the adult in the tent by wisely  vowing to tour without the exotics.   Better yet by reaching out to the fans, asking them to get out the word to their local animal rights groups.

Top drawer thrill: hoop juggler Deyanira Rosales returns to Kelly Miller

Way to go, Jim!  And, NO, I am not nor have I ever been a member of the PETA party.  I am on record many times over as arguing for displays of magical interaction between man and beast that the circus can give us — safely short of performing pachyderms, in our time RIGHT NOW the kiss of death were tickets to circuses are sold – or ignored. 

Advocates a thinking Jim Judkins in a Circus Report ad  “I hope that the animal rights movement is as active in contacting local sponsors, officials, and media in urging support for Kelly Miller as they were in the past with negative comments about Kelly Miller.”

  Headed for Kelly-Miller:  Ringling clown college grads,
and four years with the show,  EZ and  KoZee

“When I compare the photos I see of elephants in India being set on fire because they are  considered pests, contrasted with the care that elephants receive in the Endangered Ark Foundation in Hugo, OK, I am saddened that there has been such a radical agenda against animals in he circus,  and cannot see that everything is not completely black and white, but many shades in the rainbow.”

It’s the way of today’s world.  Even Cedric Walker, whose UniverSoul Circus has doggedly stayed the elephant course, is now said to be re-thinking the issue.  Look for his rethinking the exotics into early retirement.

Taking heart in scholarly validation, here’s noted animal authority, Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington, whom I happily quoted in my book Fall of the Big Top, and who Douglas McPherson recently quoted on his Circus Mania blog:

"There are very important arguments why pleasant interested contact between animals and humans should be encouraged and fostered and circuses can do this.  These are: 1) because relationships between humans and non-human animals can be mutually rewarding and enriching for both (and not just for therapy). 2) Because humans then have some experiences of direct contact, experience the emotions and mental abilities of different animals and realize that they too are sentient, thinking beings with desires and needs of all kinds, have value in themselves (not just an instrumental value for humans to benefit from) and therefore must be conserved. No TV documentaries, films, or watching through binoculars will provide these emotional exchanges & experiences that contact with others does provide "

Exit with a fanfare:  Believe in tomorrow.  Kelly Miller has a new ringmaster, showmanly Fridman Torales ...

A promising paradigm!

(Do you feel any better?)


*** Circus Report's reprint of  The Atlanta Journal Constitution review of the  Big Apple circus omitted the following:  "At a recent Thursday night show, there was a smattering of empty seats for a magical performance that deserves a sold-out audience every time."

Monday, February 26, 2018

On Olympic Ice: Commentary from Hell and Mediocre Judging --- Their Scores Against My Notes and Dick Button's tweets

 Yuzuru Hanya

When I learned of NBC ice commentators — Tara Lipinski and  Johnny Weir — being stunned over the failure of the apparently pre-ordained Russian Evgenia Medvedeva to win the gold medal, I grinned with glee.  In fact, had I decided the event, Ms. Medvedeva would not have earned the Silver Medal she was handed, not even a bronze.  At best from me?  Perhaps a tin foil medallion.  In my notes scribbled out in haste while taking in the women's long program, there is only one word:


In Dick Buttons tweets about her, which I discovered to my great pleasure after these events were over, there is this: “Not elegant, technically strong, little performance ... less satisfying to watch than some others”

Kaetlyn Osmond 

And there are others.  So let’s have some fun with this.  Okay, Button is a legend.  Who am I?  In fact, I knew nothing of any of these skaters at the outset, nor, your could argue, am I anywhere qualified to know the difference between a triple this  or an upside down that.*

How the judges ranked them
(based on a total of the scores for both their short and long programs)

1. Alina Zagitov, Russia
2 Evgenia Medvedeva, Russia
3 Kaetlyn Osmond, Canada
4 Sakota Miyuahara, Japan
5 Carolina Kostner, Italy

Satoko Miyahara

How I ranked them, based on only the long program
My notes follow the skater's name, and on the next line, Dick Button's tweets.  To be clear, he did not rank the skaters in any order.

1. Satoko Miyahara   choreography great all way through.  ... creamily expressive,  her hand movements always integral
    Button: steady jumping ... doesn’t’ have worthless arm movements.

2 Kaetlyn Osmond   dashing .. flawed landing ... jumping a delight
    Button: Beautiful skating ... elegant jumps ... marvelous.

3 Alina Zagitova  mostly ballet ... heavy
    Button:  beautiful jumps, little height ... wildly secure  .. a lot of arm flailing.

4 Evgenia Medvedeva   labored
    Button:  not elegant, technically strong, little performance ... less satisfying to watch than some others

5 Kaori Sakamoto   flubs
    Button:  charming. just not perfect

6 Carolina Kostner   mechanical ... klutzy
    Button:  Elegant, old fashioned, enjoyable and where mistakes don’t matter

How the judges ranked the men

Yuzuru Hanya, Japan
Shoma Uno, Japan
Javier Fernandez, Spain
Jim Boyang,China
Nathen Chen, U.S

Javier Fernandez 

How I ranked them, based on only the long program

1  Yuzuru Hanya   gripping bravado ... ballet on fire ... one of the greatest  I’ve ever seen.
    Button:  Gorgeous. ... beautifully choreographed with the music.  Terrific theatre!

2  Nathan Chen  (a tie with Fernandez)   great choreography
    Button: Complete package. Good for you ... you’re back on the stage.

2 Javier Fernandez  Strong, commanding.
    Button: Prime example that you cannot have Artistry without Technique, and you cannot have       Technique without Artistry.  He along with Hanyu have it both.  With Fernandez having the edge of a terrific performer

4  Patrick Chan**   masterful fullness of body expressions
    Button   Quad security is not one of his elements

5  Shoma Uno (a tie with Rippon)   Heavy ... strained theatrics ... a big fall
   Button: Doesn't have the elegance of Hanyu , but a very strong secure program.  

5  Adam Rippon   solid perfection
   Button:  Rippon you had a beautiful skate.

 Nathan Chen

Commentators from the Twilight Zone

Adam Rippon was invited by NBC to be a  commentator. He declined, wishing to support his team. Which brings us to the obnoxious experts in residence: Tara Lipinski who jabbers on as if this were a bob sled contest (“another quad! ... another quad!...”)  on over the music I would like to hear — or is music now secondary to Ms. Lip?  I muted her out, and watched in silence.   About her bizarre partner, gender-bending fashion freak show provocateur, Johnny Weir.   I’ll give him this: His voice is softer, although I don’t think I trust his opinions much, especially after hearing him purr over Carolina Kostner, “Her artistry is captivating.”  Who were the clowns at NBC who hired these two  self-adoring irritants?

All of which gives me scant desire to await the next Olympics,  and to hope another network gets the rights. NBC programming was wretchedly frustrating – It took me a five hour sit to see the last half of the  men's long program.  With the women, I think I came in near the last group.   I would loved to  have taken in dance and pairs, but not under such imprisoning conditions. 

As for the skating in general, have I grown jaded, or is there a certain predictable air about too many of the programs seeming to conform to a narrowly defined template?  Too little variety between them?  On his twitter, Dick Button raised this issue, so I don't think it is just me thinking that.

Scroll down for my take on judging at U.S. Nationals


* Having grown up on wheels, and favoring dance and school figures, I wrote the book Roller Skating for Gold, the research for which took me to ice meets, and to skating lessons at Berkeley Iceland.  I do believe I can spot a clean execution  over a messy one, and the overall variety and complexity of a program, thank you.

** I had to wonder, was I that wrong with this guy?   No, I'm sticking with my initial gut reaction, no matter how foolish I may appear.  Then, I looked up Patrick Chan (did I not tell you
that I knew nothing about these skaters at the outset)  He has quite some record, I discovered --- three times world champion!

If I'm in the mood and NBC is not broadcasting it, meet me here  at the next U.S. Nationals.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Trapeze in Our Time: Beyond Elusive Quads -- Novel Riggings and Expanding Flight Patterns Deliver Fresh Thrills

Upon reading about  the Espana family being inducted into the Ring of Fame in Sarasota, I instantly thought –  Ramon Espana.   One of very few flyers whose names remain burnished in my brain.  He flew for Circus Vargas in the mid - eighties, and he flew with the greatest of pizazz.  I can picture him him up there on the pedestal, reaching out to grab the fly bar, as if to be be shouting — Give it to me!  I can’t wait any longer!  Gotta fly!

On, what a showman.  I think he even out-showaned  Tito Tito. Although I don’t recall his having as full a repertoire of tricks as did the Great Gaona, seen here, Ramon's zesty demeanor was infectious. He and the family reached the pedestal on high like attack flyers on a mission, burning to conquer the crowds below — their body language screaming, Okay, we’re here!  Now the real show begins!  When they were on, they were ON.  Ramon and his brother Noeh both turned triples, as did the Rodogels over the center ring.  The tent exploded with joy.

No doubt they were one of many reasons why I saw that wonderful edition of  Circus Vargas five times in three SoCal locations in 1985.  This was, for my eyes and ears,  Mr. V’s best ever. 

Once upon a season, circus-loving Americans banked on the biggest moment in the show --- when the nets went up, the fliers hit the rings with flaring capes and scampered up skinny rope ladders to daring-do and bravado at the top.   Once upon a season, whatever they did up there — remarkable or not  — spectators loved it.

I thrilled to  the Ward Bell Flyers on Polack Bros in its 1950s heyday, when three troupes of them worked side by side, their big climax being a simultaneous passing leap. Maybe they were ahead of their time.  Among the troupe’s  members were Harold and Eddie Ward, Jr., the later seen here, right, with Art and Antoinette Concello. The brothers  had grown up in Bloomington, Illinois — a veritable training ground through the first half of the twentieth century for many if not most of the best aerialists who flew over rings around the world.  America was once a major player.

Around that time, when the triple was still an elusive wonder, came an outstanding film on the subject  -- Trapeze.  In it, the character of  John Ringling North visits the famed Cirque d’Hiver in Paris,  to chart  the progress of a young flyer named Tino, struggling to master the triple.  Tino’s dream is to fly high at Madison Square Garden for The Greatest Show on Earth.

Once upon a time seems so long ago.

Ramon Espana surly realized his own dream through  the 1980s, in my view the last great American circus decade.  Another flyer with an advanced vision and more muscle yet, was the majestic Miguel Vazquez, who caught his first quadruple somersault  before a Tucson, Arizona audience while flying for Ringling-Barnum in 1982.  As the seasons flew by,  Miguel, seen below, had scarce competition, save for the Caballeros, whose quad career, from what I vaguely understand, was short lived.  In circus history, the lone figure of Miguel’s dazzling triumph still looms alone -- almost -- in its greatness.

Almost.  In 1991, the Russians included a quiet quad, executed by Vilen Golovko and  Pyotr Serdukov, in their celebrated aerial epic, The Flying Cranes, a tribute to fallen soldiers in WWII.  But ballyhoo the trick, they did not, fearing that the feat alone would detract from the sensitive story line. Which begs the question, with what frequency did Golovko and Serudkov succeed?

The Russians were already redesigning human flight patterns in circus space and time,  adding multiple riggings into novel configurations, to turn the standard daring-young-man appearance into a constellation of daring souls in motion at the same time.  I first beheld their thrilling vision at the Old Circus in Moscow, in 1979.  A stunning revelation of how and why the greatest  ring stars push to break new boundaries. 

After the 1980s, things began to slacken off in this country.  One shocking year at  Ringling in the 1990s, there was not a single trapeze act on the bill!.  I could hardly believe it.  Kenneth Feld, his own innovator, believed it. And the show went on.  Other countries were following the Soviet lead.  From Shanghai to America came the Shanghai Swingers, a sensational hyper ballet of complex aerial patterns, which I caught at UniverSoul Circus.  Other similarly inclined troupes landed prime time on Ringling. One always wanted more, and so more is what we got.

Today still, a number of ambitious young flyers take their turns at the elusive quad.  So far, they invariably fail to reach the golden altitudes with any degree of consistency.  Might this not possibly make the standard trapeze act, where a triple is no longer a notable exception, feel a tad, passe?

Ringling’s last show offered the crowd an exhilarating twist on a trapeze staple, thank you, Feld Family in fearless retreat, when two of the Tuniziani flyers, a fabulous troupe from Venezuela, turned triples simultaneously from separate riggings, flying in opposite directions past each. Spellbinding.  At least in the air, Ringling-Barnum went out in a blaze of glory.

Trumping the quad, something even more miraculous has come to flight: At Monte Carlo three festivals ago, one of the flyers in a troupe of eleven turned the quintuple  — yes, five somersaults.  The house was  ecstatic, on its feet, encoring.  Three or four minutes on its feet.   How I would love to have been there.  The judges sighed, GOLD.

From whence that monumental achievement? From Pyongyang, North Korea.

Some fans quibbled about the flyer, Ching Leong Chang*,  seen above, being given an unfair advantage, his takeoff catapulted from a small Russian swing type rig attached to the pedestal, with another flyer behind him helping to propel it.   The critics might be technically correct, but of greater import is what occurs as a result: The flyer is able to produce a more spectacular upward-reaching liftoff, and to trace a much wider arc on the ascent, as if to be literally flying through space  before falling into the hands of the catcher.  And thus, the trick is not only easier to watch, but it produces a longer lasting thrill.  Anything wrong in that?   You can see it here:

Back on earth, the standard trapeze turn may no longer dominate the bill as once it did.    And the fine young flyers failing to achieve the quad may not be  helping the cause any.  Latest is Ammed Tuniziani, claimed by Big Apple Circus to be "the ninth person in history to catch the quadruple somersault."  In her enthusiastic review of Big Apple for the Atlantic-Journal Constitution,Becca J. G. Godwin wrote:

 “Another seldom-attempted trick came from Ammed Tuniziani, who tried to complete a quadruple somersault on the trapeze. The effort failed when his hands didn’t connect with his partner’s after the midair tumbles, causing him to fall to the net. The crowd hollered anyway, perhaps feeling oddly reassured by the mistake.”

Were they — are we, too ? — “oddly reassured” over what might be considered a symbol of what is happening to the American circus  as, one by one, its core elements are seen as no longer working?   We are living through some kind of a very strange and uncertain time, the outcome for which is too hard and painful to predict.

One thing is certain, with kudos to some young North Koreans:  These rare mortals in lands far and near who hurl their spinning bodies through space like invincible birds of steel — they will  not go away.  They will not be denied.  Were John Ringling North alive today, I can’t imagine him not trying to get the Korean flyers over here.  Refusing to be denied.

Pray for North Korea to take a more civil road.  And, by the time that should happen, for there to be a circus owner still around with the drive and resources to book the Koreans for the First Time in America.

Jeff Bezos, are you available?


 *  Ching Leong Chang is what I hear the ringmaster announcing.   I have seen another video of what appears to be another Korean flyer turning the quin, whose name seems to be Han Ho Song,  but his takeoff is produced in a different manner, by his being capitulated from his feet by another flyer sharing the same swing.

Read about legendary flyer Miguel Vazquez and his phenomenal Gold Clown performance at the Monte Carlo Circus Festival, in Showbiz David's critically acclaimed new book, Big Top Typewriter: My Inside Adventures through The World of Circus.   Buy it now on Amazon at specially reduced Presidents Day prices.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Monte Carlo Gold to Shanghai Acrobats, Richter Animals .... Colossal Ueckert Circus Collection to The Milner ... Big Apple Circus to the Road Without Grandma ...

Enter Princess Stephanie and Circusdome's Royal Family

Once again, Asian acrobats shine in the circus world’s most honored spotlights.  One of two Gold Clowns handed out at the recent 42nd competition went to the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe, the other to the extraordinary animal acts of the Richters –  and how pictures of them inspire.  One Silver Clown was awarded to D'Argent Prosvirnin Duo Stauberti Duo Balance.  And two acts received the Bronze: the inner Mongolian Acrobats Duo 2-Zen-O, and the Troupe Vavilov Michael Ferrerir performing on monocycles.  A shower of other awards, as well, from different groups, made the festival a glorious affirmation of great good  cheer.  Touring these dazzling images, how impressed,  proud, and hopeful I feel for the future of world circus arts. Thank you for another spectacular showcase,  Princess Stephanie!

Colossal Collection, Sarasota to Normal: 250,000 circus items bequeathed to the Milner Library at Illinois State University by partners Herb Ueckert and Neil Cockerline.  I had no idea that  Herb, a retired school librarian, was such a prolific collector.  In a statement he issued through ISU, said Ueckert,  “We are absolutely thrilled they have accepted our collection and look forward to seeing the items shared and used for educating ISU students and the larger public.”  Thrilled to accept was the Milnar’s  Special Collection librarian, Maureen Brunsale,  seen above, at her post since 2008, calling it “the largest donation during my time here ... When you think of circuses, these are the kinds of things you think of ... I would love to be able to show this stuff off." ... The awesome archival acquisition follows another formidable gift — the papers of none other than Henry Ringling North.  All of which should give CFA circus fans, who convene for their annual convention in Normal, come April, reason, I suspect, to await tantalizing previews of the goodies from Brunsdale & Company ... Take your bows, mighty Milner!


END RINGERS:   Carson & Barnes Circus is on the road. Show opened season in McAllen, TX, there now through Feb. 5. ...  Watching old Ed Sullivan TV programs — my, did Ed know how to pace a program  — the occasional circus act, unadorned by modern day pretensions, reminding me of how wonderful it was, long ago, when watching a circus act on its own terms was easier to appreciate and enjoy, and more than enough ... Do you know the name Deyanira Rosales?  I do now, having been blown away by her dazzling hula hoop routine on a video John Ringling North II sent me, of the last performance of Kelly Miller under his ownership. WOW!  You older ones, think of Francis Brunn manipulating hula hoops like he juggled clubs over his body.  The best damn act on the show.  And from a garden variety hula hoop  hater, that’s the kiss of exaltation.  Indeed, one of only two hula hoop acts I can recall sitting through that swept me away, the other being the wondrous work of a Russian kid with Jim Judkin’s old Circus Chimera, whose mother dazzled equally well with big box illusion ... What a segue -- I’m hoping that Jim, Kelly Miller’s new owner to the rescue, will route his show out my way into markets he played annually with Chimera.  We are in desperate need of a real circus out here, Jim!   But, please, at least give us a dog act.
, .
And finally, about Grandma and Barry Lubin. I think we are all suffering a silently shared shock and sadness over what recently happened.  It hit me hard.  I’ve read the New York Times report at least five times, and find it somewhat meager.  I do not know what to say, and so I will not say much, other than to express my great sorrow and sadness to all parties concerned, and to note that sometimes a fuller truth not known in the beginning may eventually surface ... This will not diminish my respect for the wonderful character that Barry created, a character I hope will ultimately live on in some form.  Most of all, I feel a deep sadness for the American Circus, at a time when it struggles to reverse an ominous downward trend, and so, the best I can do is to end this on a note of admonition, to quote from my musical, Those Ringings:

The show must go on,
must be moved every night
If you love it, you shove it,
you push, you pull,
and you fight! 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

MIDWAY FLASH! ... Showbiz David Called "Borderline Racist" in Amazon Book Review .... Has He Finally Reached Prime Time, He Wonders ...

Full disclosure:  I have never asked a single person to post a review for any of my books on Amazon.

For the most part, I believe my books have been fairly reviewed by Amazon consumers.   Only twice have I been savaged, by somebody working an agenda, I believed, but never on a circus title. 

Recently, very recently, checking up on two of my books, I came upon very good news and very bad news.

First, the good:

FALL OF THE BIG TOP: When it was published, it garnered  a couple of good reviews on Amazon, and a 2-star stinker, my being accused of “a lot of whining and ranting about the old days."    I could see how it might have been my fault, in not making clear that the narrator, a guy called Sage, was  meant to have a voice of wistful regret, going a little poetic in his exclusive hold over a small crowd of people having arrived on a near deserted midway to see a circus.  Yes,a little tongue-in-cheek, I thought.  On this count, I wish I had done a better job at the outset of setting up and defining Sage.  (I talk about this in my book, Big Top Typewriter)

Well, let the whining and ranting take a bow.  Yesterday, I discovered to my elation  a five star review on Amazon, posted by one Hugh Lowther, about whom I know nothing.  I checked on his other book reviews, and there are dozens of them on a wide range of subjects. Of a few other circus titles he has reviewed, he gave four stars to The Circus Fire, only two stars to The Great Circus Train Wreck, and four to The Hartford Circus Fire.

Surely, he was well prepared for the adversity that opens my book on that fateful day in Pittsburgh. I had often wondered about its placement.  Now, I’m glad I put it there.

Okay, onto the bad news, I guess -- to my alleged status as a "borderline racist"

INSIDE THE CHANGING CIRCUS: When the book came out, it received two good reviews, a five and a four star.  Now comes a blast to deflate my air, if there is any left in my ego.  Me, a racist?  My mind scrambled to recall, defaulting to the usual object of such complaint.  What had I said about or referring to  African Americans?

No, turns out that BaderState Transplant, the Amazon critic, was offended by a term I've coined and often used, "The Mexican Family Plan," meaning a family of Mexican performers with varied talents, bringing many acts to a show, some average or below, one or two possibly outstanding, and likely a good bargain for your typical struggling circus owners.  But let me quote my new accuser: 

"The final nail in the coffin for me was his borderline racism. He often referred to shows use Latinx circus performers as using the 'Mexican family plan.' It doesn't matter that a large amount of these families come from Central and South America, he lumps all Latinx performers as Mexican."

I checked Transplant's other reviews, of which there are six, one of another circus book -- five stars for Paul Binder's tome with that impossible-to-remember-spell title about Sea Lions, a book I also much enjoyed. Congrats, Paul!   And, please, another? ....

What can I say?  I'll  only note, that on this very blog, I recently raved about one of the top acts that appeared on Jim Judkin's Circus Chimera: Alex Chimal.  The gifted juggler came with a Mexican Family Plan, THANK YOU, Chimal family.  And Gaonas and Vazquez, and on and on ...

This borderline jolt has caused me to wonder:  whenever I criticize a white circus performer, am I not also being a racist?  And if I am, who will accuse me of the sin but another person of my own color?  White performers matter too!

ALREADY GONE TOO FAR, David. No, No.  I could have a field day with this one.  Oh, could I ever.  I'm putting a gag order on myself.  NO MORE.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Euro Ice Nationals Transcend Quad Mania ... Young Russian's Brilliant Blades Make the Big Trick Secondary ... Tara Lipinski Commentary Merits the Mute Button

Dimitri Aliev is the name.  And how many quads did he execute?  Funny, I have no idea, if any.  I know I was mesmerized by the totality of his generous program.

And how refreshing a break from last week, when over here we were driven to count count count quads. All the talk dominated by quad obsession.  He may do five!   Oh, well, he did get in two!
That was a surprise, we had not seen that quad coming!

And how narrow a focus, reducing the event to a one-theme contest.  Great figure skaters should sweep us up into a journey of flight. I caught the top rated  men in finals and posted my own grades.   I gave Dimitri my highest score -- 94, my second highest, 92, to the commanding Spaniard, Javier Lopez Fernandez, a little more athletic, if only he had not missed or smeared several ill-fated landings.  He seems to hold the "reputation" factor.  Between the two men, the competition in Korea next month should be fierce.

This event was never intended to be a showdown over just one item.  The ridiculous focus on quads --- seems more prevalent over here --- shoves us into a fixation on just that one component, rendering all the other jumps and the spins less important,  the routines less wholly satisfying. 

Leave it to Russia to show us the way.  And the way is only 18-years-old.  Dimitri is a compelling artist on blades, from his mastery of big tricks to an interlocking choreography that does not seem secondary at all.  A sublime pleasure to watch, his body movements forming fluid sculptures in motion.  Rare to have artistry and athleticism so evenly matched.

And what a surprise, his routine was over, already?  I  couldn't believe how fast it went - the mark of a skater's avoiding middle-of-the-program slumping and slippage. Other than one failed landing, Aliev was near perfection.

Commentary from hell

About the side line critics:  I rather enjoyed, actually could appreciate the brevity of Johnny Weir's  remarks, certainly compared to the annoying jack hammer banter of  Tara Lipinski, who sounds like a stock market analyst rattling off facts and figures.    Seems to me that a skater's performance, like that of any talent show competitor, should be, for the most part,  critiqued after the event, not during it.  I don't need the condescending  Ms. Lipinski to tell me what I can actually see for myself.  She is such an in-our-face annoyance, that I may turn down the sound while trying to watch the Olympics, or I may skip the whole damn thing altogether.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Ice Dancing at Figure Skating Nationals - a Refreshing Break from Quad Mania ... What Grant Hotchstein Shows Us ...

Sanity amidst the madding crowd: Grant Hotchstein

Watching men's singles at the Nationals, it felt as if I had been away for ages. I recall when a few of the best men were turning a quad.  I said, a quad. I returned to witness an insane obsession with but one goal: FIVE QUADS.
Where have I been?   He did five!    Oh, how brilliant, that's four quads  ... only one to go to hold his place! ...  He is absolutely on fire with the quad. This sport is rocking!  Look, another!  Are you kidding? No, no, who knows, he may try for a sixth!

Pardon me, you raving Hamilton cheerleaders, but am I watching an ice skating competition --- or a reality TV stunt skating contest?  This giddy preoccupation with quantity effectively renders second or third rate all of the other items.  The fourth quad down, and, and, and ....  FIVE!  Nailed!  ...  In the bag! ....

I am bored already.  How about half a dozen?  Or better yet, a mandatory cap on the maximum number allowed.  Oh, say ... a thousand?

There was one lone skater in men's finals who did not produce a winning routine, with too many passive sections, but gradually he earned my respect with his artfully expressive moves, some of them thrilling. He looked lost in the pack, a stranger from another time and place, and  I was reminded of saner days that delivered more fully satisfying free style routines.   I think his name is Grant Hochstein.  He missed his true calling. He should have been a dance skater.  Let the vulgarians chase the quinny.

The hucksters who run this so-called sport should cut the pretensions and  carve out a new, more honest and potentially more gripping event, guaranteed to inflate crowd size.

In this more athletically pure event, no music allowed, each skater will have to execute a set list of items in fixed order -- such as axle, salchow, camel, chop suey, loop-the-lutz, traveling camel, upside down camel, and then onto mandatory jumps -- single, double, triple, quad.  And by God, as many of those as he/she can bring off, the first one missed spelling sudden death.  Option:  After completing a quad and then, and then, landing a QUINNY (quintuple), INSTANT victory.

For this mathematically scored challenge, a file clerk from the outside will check off each item completed.  Only one fall allowed.  As for sloppy landings, a panel of judges will deduct points from the score based on three degrees of slop:  Barely missed.  Heroically clinging.  Creatively executed.  This will keep the door to trickery slightly ajar, where judges can still make their under-the-table deals with each other for mutual score fixing.

ONTO DANCE, and please,no quads!

Hubbell and Donahue

I was appalled at how the pairs team of Kayne and O'Shea, were robbed of first place, and then outraged when I learned that only the first place team, Sciemeca and Knerium, won a spot on the Olympic team. So, once again skeptical of the judging, I took out pencil and paper during the last five free dance teams, to seriously look at each and commit a sore of my own prior to the judging marks being made known.  You may have done this on occasion, too.  It''s fun.  Here are my scores (1-100), in order of ranking, with a few words describing my overall reaction, and then, on the next line, how the judges graded each:

Hubbell and Donahue  Compelling creativity   93
               judges: 197.2

Shibutani and Shibutani  Accomplished  91
              judges   196,93

Hawyayek and  Bake  Dancing on waves:  90
                 Judges  187.61

Chock and Bates:  Hard working  75
                 Judges:  196.60

Parsons and Parsons    Humdrum:  72
                 Judges:  176.01 

For my eyes, the marvel of Hubbell and Donahue's skating is how they use acrobatic movements to serve dance itself, rather than treating dance as an excuse for a veiled, pandering pairs program. We too often see dance teams defaulting to light pairs gymnastics for easy showmanship.  To sustain dance is the great challenge.  Hubbell and Donahue were dancing, and that's what I loved the most about them.

Okay, now I'm psyched up.  Now, I'm waiting for the Winter Olympics!

A little ways down, soon, I will be re-posting something I did on the judging in 2014. 

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Highway Robbery at Figure Skating Nationals ... Ice Those Judges! ... I'm Watching Now ...

 Magnificent unity through and through:Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea
Okay, let's give all things Ringling a rest. Make this a segue from Out of This World to In This world.  (Ringling, if you bladsters are wondering, was a circus)

I've been out of touch over ice for a while.  Yesterday, I nearly bumped into U.S. Figure Skating Nationals by channel surfing, sat down and watched a few of the pairs teams.  Some pretty nice.
Then came a couple, Kayne and O'Shea, who totally grabbed me.  They struck me as a little heavier than some others, but oh, how their bodies in motion matched, spatial relationships being symmetrically near-perfect, the fluid program a seamless work of art.

Great content, as well.  One or two minor flubs,  but nothing to doom their supremacy over a field I had so far seen,.

I had them easily in first place.

And then came a human interest story, a married pair returning after hardship.  They were Alexa and Chris Knieirim, an obvious crowd favorite:  Full disclosure: I knew nothing about any of these teams. I'm watching the whole thing COLD.

Alexa and Chris produced, I'll give them this, a spectacular fireworks lift off, the woman soaring high in the air.  But this is not supposed to be -- or is it? -- a stunt skating contest.  Reason I say that is because the rest of their routine was a rather messy affair, more like failed sparklers in fizzling disarray. Nothing to compare to Kayne and O'Shea.  In my mind, I gave Knierim and Knierim a second or third place.

Okay, are you ready?  Knierim and Knierim swept the field, easily outscoring Kayne and O'Shea.

ARE YOU KIDDING?  Talk about highway robbery in plain sight.  I can't recall witnessing such flagrantly biased (or fixed) judging at an ice meet, though I'm sure it has happened.  We all know about a fix between judges two judges a few years ago.  Big scandal.  

Not sure about the commentary voices. Seems one of them, once he would hear the scores given, would them come clean on what he really thought of a routine. Finger- in-the-wind scoring?

I am not going to knee-jerk a wish that Dick Button had been there instead.  But I just did.  Or anybody else with a sharper tongue.  How about, say, they get Tanya Harding or her mother to mouth off on the sidelines.

I watched casually then.  This afternoon, I'm going more serious.  The free dance will be on, and that's perhaps the most challenging event to score.  Much of it is, or once was, about subtleties.  I wonder how acrobatic it has become.

See me back later, for more icy impressions ...

Friday, December 29, 2017

Life Without the Big One: In a New Post-Ringling Age, Why Ringling Still Matters ... Splintering Circus Arts Seek Salvation in Offbeat Venues

The season about to end began on a date that will live in big top infamy: January 14, 2017.  On that day, Kenneth Feld announced that he was closing down both units of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and sending them permanently to the barn.  So, it took a multi billionaire to run Ringling off the road.   The irony astounds: A big top, and not just any big top, going down with plenty of money still in the till.  Simply incredible.  Someday, the truth behind a lame blame game may come out.  And maybe they will make a movie of it.

Just when the Brits are gearing up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of horse rider Philip Astley’s dashing  entrance into public performing — a move that would soon give rise to the modern circus — Americans are wondering if they are witnessing the death of their own.  Say it ain’t so!

Why Ringling still matters.  The show’s relative size and supremacy, compared to all other shows out there, epitomized a near-indestructible force of American culture.  A still-thriving industry.  Splashy television ads alone symbolized to millions of Americans at least the illusion of endurance. The Greatest Show on Earth  would be with us forever, promised a more passionate Kenneth Fled only a year before to The New York Times.
So disproportionately vital had Ringling-Barnum become to public perceptions of the industry’s well-being that, without it, other circuses are already suffering.

Trickle down publicity

Circus Vargas co-owner Nelson Quiroga told Alex Smith of Circus Report that, when he played in the Bay Area around the same time that Ringling was also in town, he got a good boost in ticket sales from his proximity to the Feld ad campaign.  But no longer.  “It hurts us ... Circus gets into people’s minds, somewhere, they may not even go to Ringling but it’s in their mind when they drive by and see our tent, many times, they come. This year they thought it was over.   All circuses.  So attendance dropped for a while.”

How savvy an observation. Many with a shrug dismiss the demise of  the Big Show as not all that important.  Others will pick up the slack, they assert.  That’s a mighty long and wide slack to pick up.

When I am asked if the circus is dying, my answer is always the same.  If you are asking me,  will there be jugglers and rope walkers, daring acrobats and somersaulting flyers a hundred years from now?  Of course there will.   Individually they will live on –- but in what form, I can not say.

That word “form.”   Now I am feeling corned by my use of it –  cornered into a new mediocre reality of splintering circus arts taking refuge in fragmented forms —   from concert hall to cocktail lounge, stage (Five Fingers - artsy, slow), to television  (Got Talent — good and glamorous) to cinema  (The Greatest Showman – not yet seen) 

So then, ask me, is Circus Circus in Vegas a circus?  No, it is not.  Is a night at the symphony with a few circus acts thrown  in between the woodwinds and the strings,  a circus?  No, it is not.   Neither are many other clever incarnations, however well intended.  They may contribute to whatever some future genius may do to reinstate the form essential: Acrobats on the ground and in the air; performing animals in the rings,clowny characters who are us.    Do you feel a musty antiquity in my definition?    Am I myself a purist morphing into a fossil?

Can a surgeon make it right again?

At the tail end of this painful season, by far the worst in American circus history, Anthony Mason injected a note of unequivocal optimism on CBS Saturday Morning, when he interviewed the cool and affable new Big Apple Circus boss, retired DC spinal surgeon Neil Kahanovitz, above, in the ring.  Some soft CBS reporting pointed  to declining ticket sales as having driven Big Apple Circus into bankruptcy in 2016.  Out of it, a few months later it came, under new ownership.  Big Apple Circus is back!, chirped  Mason with a confidant bounce.  But are the crowds back?   An issue not addressed.  It took the skill of a crack doctor to render it whole again, implied Mason, failing to mention ticket window health or the rather weak critical reception accorded the show when it opened last October at Lincoln Center.    

To be or not to be?

So, where are we at this moment?  There are some out there, more pessimistic than I, who believe that the nail in the coffin has already been driven. “How do you revive square dancing,” asks Anonymous.  In fact, I did not know of square dancing ever having gone  away.

Out-of-work elephant trainers may find a second career as pachyderm puppeteers

We have many new forms and venues in which to view the surviving fragments of our decimated big tops.  Contortionists and fabric aerial duos are way in.  Funny faces and four legged charmers are half way out.  Puppet pachyderms -- might puppet PETAs follow?    Most of these truncated half-circuses will invariably pass..  The stage show Circus 1903, seen above, holding court at the Paris on the Vegas strip —  expecting a very long Vegas Run — after five months is closing. 

On the screen, the new film about P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman, faced with blistering reviews from half the critics, yet  “blew away” my family relatives n Luray VA.  Audience reactions, as rated by CinemaScore, totaled a solid A.  If only its climactic scenes had allowed into the action elephants on parade, so integral to Barnum’s actual fame after he and James Bailey added a third ring in 1881 and called their concoction the Greatest Show on Earth. Instead, the pachyderms in mass are missing, and even then, PETA is back breathing fire at all parties remotely responsible, calling for a boycott of the film, blasting away at the legacy of alleged animal abuser, P.T. Barnum.

If only the film had dared to embrace the thrilling guts of Barnum’s ultimate show biz triumph.  Obviously, the producers were too afraid to face truth of what circus was then: Exotic, messy and muscular, gloriously alive with incredible death defying feats, and tense-to-inspiring  encounters between man and beast.

As we enter 2018, the most famous show biz slogan - GSOE - is now only  the subject of a recent  lawsuit by Kenneth Feld claiming trademark infringement against singer Kid Rock and Live Nation for using it.  I’ve heard others lately refer to their wares as greatest shows on earth. Me wonders with a grin:  In order to validate the value of the title in court, might the Felds have to put it back into legitimate use?  It's okay to laugh.

Bring on 2018 

A new season ahead  under new managements.  2018 will tell us how successful the new BAC owners are.  They open a “national tour,” not down in Atlanta, as Anthony Mason spun it, but in a town some 26 miles north called  Alpharetta    Pop: 63,000+ The run to last four weeks.  Long sigh.  Really?

Jim Judkins, the new owner of Kelly Miller Circus, having picked up the title from the departing House of Ringling (dogged traditionalist John Ringling North II, shot down by Illinois banning exotics), promises some kind of a new day.   We’ve been promised many a new day by others before. And we continue to believe. 

Why not?  Pray for another Astley or Barnum — or for a cool surgeon-turned-showman making it big in a second act career.

And don't give up on Johnny Pugh, who only needs 350K to put Cole Bros. Circus back on the road.  The road he wants to keep traveling may be the most practical of all.  Pray, too, for Johnny, for a well-deserved miracle.

Other than that -- HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!


Travel with Showbiz David through over fifty years of American circus history in his acclaimed new book, Big Top Typewriter: My Inside Adventures through The World of Circus

Now available on Amazon in paper and kindle.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Cicuses Under Seige: Judkins Jumps into Kelly-Miller Circus Ownership, Drops Exotic Animals ... Lane Talburt Interviews Copeland & Combs and John Kennedy Kane ...

So, shall we face the music once more and still try dancing?  That's how I started  the post, two down, that pulled in a staggering 3,358 page views in a single day — stratospheric for me.  Almost twice the previous high for traffic inside this here side show.  The postings that pull in the mostings are those that wallow in — or wallowed in,  thank you so much, Kenneth Feld —  all things Ringling. Maybe now all things Big Apple? 

On that stat-busting  post, "A Little Apple Reception," I took on the generally tepid reviews  that covered the new Big Apple Circus opening at Lincoln Center.  Since then, I don’t know how the show has been doing, but there’s some good news —  two dates on a so-called "national tour," at Alpharetta, GA, and National Harbor, DC, are now being touted with tickets for sale on the show's website. Hardly national, but it's a start!

It's been reported that the Anastiani Brothers, this not being their first time with Big Apple, recently set an all-time record for the number of flips on the risley.

Now, the subject  for today will not wow the mini multitudes who sometimes, by accident or intent,  gawk anonymously upon my banner lines, making me feel like one of the  tenters out there playing to hundreds rather than thousands.  (so now you know).  Let me alliterate:

Jomar to Judkins: The Jomar refers to the mobile home that was occupied by John Ringling North II, while traveling with his Kelly Miller Circus.  Unwilling to continue on without exotic animals -- and possibly having to subsidize the struggling operation, North threw in the towel and sold Kelly Miller to veteran big top boss, James Judkins.   The sale made a big front page interview in Circus Report. This should be interesting.

Judkins, made known  that, for a number of  long-time Kelly Miller staffers — I assume those who have clung to the show like orphans to the last foster home on earth — the time to leave is at hand.   I can think of a few names, but kindly I refrain.  Jim, who managed Carson and Barnes Circus for a number of good years, later spent an awful lot of his own money starting up his ambitiously non-traditional Circus Chimera, a kind of bargain basement Cirque du Soleil for struggling families on lower income levels.  Jim’s impressive  first season’s lineup cast a take-notice impression.  Over its decade-long struggle, Chimera slowly lost appeal with a class of people who still want some animal acts— at least, say, a few gifted dogs. I could never understand why Judkins was so puritanically self-restrained in this area.  Just as the same mindset on Circus Vargas makes no sense to me at all. AT ALL!

Among a handful of outstanding acts that appeared on Circus Chimera over the years, surely the brilliantly creative Alex Chimal is a true star.  The variably talented Chimal Family, a staple for many season, supplied plenty of engaging action.  

Jim told Circus Report of how happy he was when John and Shirley North reached out to him “to reinvigorate and reinvent the circus.”  Ah, yes, yet another reinvention.  I'm not sure he can match the best North II years,  but surely he can and must offer the customer a  better program than what John II allowed into his ring the last few hapless seasons.  Lord knows, there are plenty of top grade circus acts out there no doubt looking for work. 

The new Kelly Miller owner speaks of “developing a more precise image for the show,” of exotic animal acts being too costly to foresee including  in  2018.  Without the exotics, Judkins should find the trouping ahead much easier.

Over Talburt tanbark:   Open-minded video journalist, Lane Talburt, continues to capture on film what is going on on out there in the shaky present tense.   Best of all, he is able, in a few words, to ask big questions and then let his subjects answer without interrupting them or hording the spotlight.  Talburt is amassing a formidable canon of on-the-lot interviews with the trouping wounded , to wit a pair of recent examples:

Clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs talking about the changes they are making in an effort to avoid being fatally associated with another aspect of  our battered big tops — clown alley in greasepaint — that has fallen out of favor with the issues-driven public.  Says Ryan, “It’s an uphill battle when you start out looking like a clown.”  You, Ryan, are one smart, articulate cookie   Steve notes  how the same gags, whether executed behind or without makeup, still draw laughs.  I agree, although I might suggest a few facial marks to subtly convey —  say, a safe degree of acceptable eccentricity? ...

A Kane for all seasons:  Talburt landed a most entertaining interview with John Kennedy Kane, sometimes a ringmaster, overtimes, well, whatever the job was that fate dealt  him down the sawdust trails.   The humbly flexible Kane, who must have left his ego inside the womb before checking out, wanted to start out clowning for Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros, but, instead, was offered the flaming role of fire eater.  Quickly, he learned, and safely he burned.  Along the way, he has pitched concessions one year, blown the whistle the next.  A shame he was not kept on with Big Apple Circus.  That warm heart of his might have warmed up a tent that — recklessly speculating here — might be a little too on the coldly serious side. ...  Which reminds me, what a shame it was that another top ringmaster,  John Moss II, left Kelly Miller a few seasons back.  That was about when the program began to deteriorate ... Next stop down the Lane of Talburt: Circus Smirkus.

End Ringers,  Covington Connected:  Here comes Cirque du Soliel in another corporate contortion, this time joining forces with the NFL to supply sideline acrobatics — or eye candy.  Perhaps CDS will give those “taking the knee” a more artfully mystical execution  ...  The passing of UK circus fan, David Jamieson, who edited King Pole magazine  for many years and was involved in many aspects of the circus scene.  Such a nice fellow, who reviewed my books fairly.  Which means, he gave  one of them only a luke warm notice.  Funny how David’s face, a photo of which came through in Don's link, is so different from an image I have for years hosted in my fuzzy mind. .... The passing, too, of Pinito Del Oro,  the most mesmerizing aerialist I have ever beheld.  Something about the way she moved (like a Beetles song) while standing on a free swinging trapeze bar, especially when she drove it in concentric circles. Luckily, I first saw her under the Ringling big top. She seemed to loose herself in a kind of surreal self-hypnosis ...Those are the moments than burn circus magic in your soul forever ...

Last tickle::  When I stepped up to purchase my ticket to the first edition of Jim Judkins  Circus Chimera, ready to join ten or twelve other souls to watch the show on one very cold San Francisco night, the fellow on the other side of the glass looked awfully familiar .. who is he?  Could it be, Oh, are you  ... Yes, I know!

Herb Ueckert.

Are we still  dancing?

Anybody still there?

Now forming in my posting mind   Trapeze in Our Time.