Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Morning Midway: A Man and a Dog Wow Gong Show Judges ... "Memory and Time" Star in Brainy New Big Top from Montreal ...



Back to Gong Show Gold ---first act on week before last's parade, a perfect wonder.  Fellow doing hand stands on stacked blocks, then contorting while a little doggie named Scooby jumps aboard his back and does sit ups and cute posturing.   Pure joy!  (Pardon my barbaric enthusiasm, PETA)   Now, for the big surprise: Fellow turned out to be upon closer examination — a mass of well defined muscle plus accumulated age had initially fooled me ---  yeah, isn’t that Christian Atayde, once of the Big Apple Circus?  It is! A bow wow wow to these two great ring stars.  They won the judges, though I think they were aced out by another act when tie scores were thrown to an audience vote.

Smirkus will work us:  Covington connected, Don sent  me the link to a Lane Talburt interview with Welsey Williams, last week’s Gong Show dazzler.  Fine insight into Wesley's winning personality and his early self-directed career.  He advanced to and got plenty of help from Circus Smirkus, and he talks up how they teach the kids to do extra duty (Cherie pie), this meant to ground them in the realities of a life under many American tops.  Hooray for that, Smirkus!  You impress me, you do.  Hard to imagine some other certain circus schools (I’m not mentioning names) deigning to dip a student’s artful ambitions into the sawdust under the sawdust.

Comes yet another circus loaded with brain power, by way of a write-up reprinted in Circus Report: Shanna Kennedy, founder of Philly’s School of Circus Arts, waxing obtusely about circus needing to connect audiences with deeper themes — and when have we heard THAT before?   Kennedy high on a recent visitor to the city, Montreal-based  Barcode Circus offering “Sweet and Ink.” Its theme is described  “a surrealistic and dreamlike exploration of contemporary society’s relationship to memory and time.”  Oooooookay.   Kennedy adds her own push for more such big top broccoli: “Where circus becomes more powerful to modern audiences is when we can find points of connection and communication ... There can be all kinds of emotion that happens in a really good circus performance.  Just ‘wow” isn’t enough for us.”

Maybe not enough for you.  But for the average sucker out there like myself who jumps to the magic of great acts, like what Christian and Scooby give us, that kind of “wow” is  meaningful connection enough.  Here, I'm quoting from the website, Decider:

"Christian and Scooby seemed like just another pair of contestants on The Gong Show, but they proved to be all the joy, talent, and amazement our hearts always needed.

Yes, all we ever needed.

Monday, July 09, 2018

A Cave of Compassion: The Miracle of Humanity at its Best

 

Never can I recall being so moved by a rescue operation, in this instance, the rescue of the 12 Thai boys from the cave.

"Now, there were eight!" came news on the radio this morning. Eight freed.  Five to go.  Never had the sound of an ambulance -- rushing another freed boy to the hospital -- given rise to such joy and jubilation    It was hard to sleep last night, fearing something too terrible to put into words.   The world was watching.  The world was praying -- and connecting.  And so was I.  Navy seals and scuba divers from far and wide were coming to aid in the rescue.  Experts in related fields were coming.  Collectively, the genius of engineering and navigation and problem-solving, people from may lands collaborating, showed the world at its life-affirming best.



The 2-1/2 mile route they must take (horrifying to contemplate), is a winding snake in the dark through treacherous terrain, at one point, down to 15 inches wide.  It is fraught with danger. And yet, the heroic rescuers are finding ways and saving lives.  Not a new story, but a story worth telling and respecting over and over.

Images on TV are what have  made it all so real.  On the faces of those young soccer players, there shines patience and hope and trust in the world to help them find a way out.  On those sweet innocent faces, a spirit that captures your heart.

Here are some photos, which tell the story much better than I could.




 Some of the boys and their coach.
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When early this morning, out of bed,  I saw on the TV that they and their coach were all out of the cave, and beheld  pictures of cheering rescue workers and parents, and of Thai people on the streets singing and chanting in celebration, I wept.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Morning Midway: Gong in the Gold ... The Unencumbered Joy of Circus We Once Knew

Last night on the Gong Show, there came a kid, wholesome, sweet disposition, on a unicycle.  Okay, what might he do, I wondered, thinking mid-level. Eager aspirant maybe trained in a class room. Average routine.  Oh,  what a false prophet  I was on this one.  The kid blew me away with his act.  Name is Wesley Williams. He's billed The One Wheel Wonder.  I did a little cyber looking.  He  comes from Florida, and I wondered if he is a Williams from the famous Williams.  Didn't find the connection.  Seems he has a little Ringling in his resume, some Smirkus, too ... So rare to see an American born talent rising to the top.  He could do Big Apple. He could do Kelly Miller ...  Heck, give him a few more years, and he could do Monte Carlo.   And, to think, made in America!


Neat to know that Big Apple Circus is still on the road.  They've put up dates for Lincoln Center, and how surprising that they will play not a part January, but the whole damn month.  Opens October 20.  I am anxious to see what Opus 2 from the good Doctor will deliver. He has been spinning  a recurring theme: We Had to make do with what we could get on short notice.  Okay, Doc, what can you show us now on long notice? 

Gong Show Gold: Another terrific act was a girl with dog, the dog flying all over the place. Loved it. From AGT to the Big Gong,  I am realizing how much we have lost beneath too much cirque-y production garnish and goo.   Paul Binder knew it when for a moment, one of his shows was all covered with Cirque-like masks. Off they came before the show went on. 

AGT and the Gonger let the acts be acts.  I remember when late old timer Tom Upton would set up a projector backstage at Polack, and the fans would gather round to watch film footage of acts.   Acts alone.

What mostly should have been gonged off the Gong Show were the timid, temporizing judges, each seeming to wonder what they others might say before they put out a score.  But the payoff was when acts tied, and the final vote went to the audience.  Old fashioned and fun!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Coming Soon to a Theatre or Tablet Near You: PBS on American Circus History --- Warner Bros. on Leitzel & Codona -- Disney on a New Dumbo ... And There's More on the Inside! ...


Still waiting-praying for a great  new movie on the  circus, might PBS have the ticket? Come October 8,  American Experience to present a two-part, four-hour documentary. The Circus.    I can’t wait.  I keep telling myself that somewhere, somehow, a film maker is bound to stumble upon big top gold.  It’s  loaded with triumph and tragedy, skullduggery and betrayal and spangled glory.  Too much of this is too often ignored (The Greatest Showman) or grossly overdone (Water for Elephants).

Also come October, comes the return of Big Apple Circus to Lincoln Center — IF BAC returns.  My projection is devoid of solid evidence, although a very nice lady who answered the phone when I called (she sounded like the member of an Old World circus family) told me, yes, they are coming back, she thinks, or I am the one thinking?  She just does not know when. Anybody out there know what kind of business they have been doing?  Anybody out there still reading this? (Update: Show opens at Lincoln Center October 20)


Hollywood is on a sawdust roll:  Just when I was about to give up on the once-touted new film in the making about the tumultuous lives of Leitzel and Codona, Queen in the Air,  I googled up good news: Indeed, according to Deadline, as of April 12 last, the producer  “is sticking with Warner Bros. and the theme” It's the WB name that fuels my enthusiasm   Dream along with me for an epic set starring the  mammoth six-pole Ringling-Barnum  big top of the 1920s. Take a look up there ... Can ... you ... imagine? ..

 When elephants flew: Disney is remaking its celebrated 1941 animation,  Dumbo. This will be a live action, directed by Tim Burton.  Due out March 29.   Wonder if Dumbo will fly?  Hard to tell by the charming tease.  There are images of a real baby elephant.   Dumbo airborne is likely to be a puppet or robot.  Regards to which, people in high tech places are talking up robotic acrobats, jugglers and peanut vendors (I added the vendors)  soon to be stiff-executing your way.  I just can’t wait.  No, I CAN wait. 

In the meantime, back here in real time:  CBS Sunday Morning did a sweet little segment on Kevin Venardos, he once of Ringling red with whistle, then for a time a “homeless ringmaster.”   He’s now fronting his own one man,  one very long truck show.  He sets up outdoors, acts coming and going over various dates, ringmasters them with humble joy, and seems to love seeing even a few dozen people in the seats.  His fate is a poignant sign of our trembling times, and you gotta respect Kevin's infectious dedication.  For CBS, he revealed a warm,  sincere passion for the Big top that I hadn’t felt from him when he ringmastered for Big Apple and later Vargas.  I feel for this guy and wish him grateful crowds.
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SIDE SHOW STOPPERS: Sir Harry of Kingston writing up Kelly Miller in Circus Report: “It has no animals, but many great acts. It is not a circus without animals, but a circus according to Jim Judkins.”  I feel your let down, Harry. . I have argued for a few dogs, etc.  And yet, I can see the smartness in what Jim has done.  He has made it impossible for the animal rights activists to muck up the midway. They are anointing his tent for this fact alone.  I hope, assuming Jim can come home a few pennies richer,  that he will relent in time and let the dogs in the tent.  Hey, they are stealing the stage on America’s Got Talent. ...... Tim Tegge,  spinning out a persuasive review in Circus Report of  the Nellie Hanneford  Shrine show in Oklahoma city, for which he ringmastered.  I so enjoyed Tim’s deliciously detailed write-up, that it felt like the best damn circus I have been to in some time!  Oh, wait, I haven’t been to any circus in some time ... Kenneth Feld, remember him?   Broadway producer? Wondering what he is up to these post-Ringling daze,  I googled his name and was mighty impressed to find that he and wife Bonnie produced the big New York hit, Dear Evian Hansen.   Really?  When you report, you are supposed to dig, so dig I did, all the way to the Broadway database. Turns out the Feld names appear among literally dozens of other names, all  listed as “producer."  Once upon a season, there were backers, sometimes called angels. Now called "producers".

END RINGERS: Sad to see that France's long-venerated Pinder Circus sliding into bankruptcy.  It’s not as easy over there as some over there would have us believe ... The ever precarious Garden Bros. Circus  rated F by the Ohio Central Better Business Bureau.  Reason being, beyond free tickets, adults complain of having to fork over  too much money for concessions. Well, at least the show showed up before  proceeding to piss them off.  That’s a Garden bonus ....

Back to Queen of the Air:   Here is how the producers can make the film --- an imperative these daze --- PC-certified. And shut down feminist rage against women not getting stardom in a sexist circus back then.  Give cameos to a few of them who did:  Bird Millman, May Wirth, Mable Stark, Ella Bradna,Winnie Colleano,  Luicita Leers (surprised?)  I could go on....If I am asked to name the greatest stars of the golden age, I would come up with more women than men.


Oh, what glory Winnie Colleano brought to the big tops. Behold and believe:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DEBzkC3cnE

 

Photos: Lillian Leitzel, May Wirth, Bird Millman, Mabel Stark
 
PBS -- Warner Bros. --  Disney.  Heck, we've got some heavy weights on our side, and I'm waiting to NOT be disappointed again, with regards and regrets to the P.T. Barnum who never made it to the screen.

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Showbiz David's new book Prime Time Rising
rises in nine days!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Greatest Showman: How to Review a Film I Can’t Review


 Step right down! I have finally seen The Greatest Showman, and I am at a fumbling loss for words.   My mind is a scramble of clashing story lines  --- some true to life, many not, and of voices shouting – that didn’t happen!   Self-esteem and respect for all seems to be the big theme of this movie musical.  Never mind that Barnum lived over a hundred years before before the dawn of the PC Enlightment.   Perhaps the most winning song is  “This Is Me.” 

Thus, we should not be surprised by the following scene:  When  P.T. takes Tom Thumb on tour abroad and is given the chance to entertain Queen Victoria, the Queen must also accept all of Barnum’s freaks, insits the showman, arguing equal respect for even the weirdest among us  The Queen accepts.  In real life, nothing like that.  Tom Thumb made a solo appearance.  The freaks would have been back in New York holding court at Barnum’s museum.

Mostly, I feel cheated by my own nagging knowledge.  It gets in the way of what’s up there on the screen.   How I wish I knew nothing of the legendary showman   Absolutely nothing.  And then, maybe,  I could enjoy the The Greatest Showman as are its legion of raving fans -- my own kin among them --  who have have seen the film more than once, and who have made its sound track a best seller. 

These things happen,  Tinseltown to Times Square.  For example, don’t go near a recent new film out out called The Trapp family of Singers — that is, if you treasure the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.  Turns out that the the Sound of Music is mostly a  fairy tale.

Here is a scene in The Greatest Showman that  I would love to have experienced in a blissful state if ignorance: The P.T. Barnum Circus (in real life, it was called Barnum’s New York museum, NOT circus) goes up in flames  (yes, it did).  Barnum hasn’t the money to rebuild (no, he did).  So P.T.Jackman, our engaging actor playing the role with winning gusto, is inspired to speed-walk victoriously across town to salvation on a vacant lot.  Skip having to raise money for another firetrap!  Up pops a lollipop of a big top,  as bright and clean as a Disney balloon. Heart-warming transition to a higher level of showmanship — you’re right, none of it happened that way.
 
No, nothing like that will you find in dull, medllesome history books.  I was left feeling cheated of my fair share of tears over that triumphal climax.  And left knowing that I can’t review this film in any way approaching “objective.” So I won’t.  The less you know about P.T, the more likely you are to enjoy the musical in the movie.  Look for a run on  Broadway. 

And what, I wonder, might the Prince of Humbug himself have thought of The Greatest Showman?  I can see him, his own self-esteem elevated by Hollywood,  smiling down upon an ambitiously clever cinematic illusion with a rare twinkle in his scheming eye.

“Job well done, gentlemen. – Jumbo of a humbug!”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Deminse of Ringling Bros by Terri Silver ... Rare In-depth Analysis of the Greatest Betrayal on Earth ...

It's a very long and thoughtful piece in Hobby Lark, but you may find it of interest.  Terri Silver gave much though to the suddenly inexplicable closing of the Greatest Show on Earth.  Here's your link:

https://hobbylark.com/performing-arts/The-Demise-of-Ringling-Bros-and-Barnum-Bailey

A sample I especially like:

"Out Of This World could have been part of the Feld Entertainment presentations that they currently have in their stable. The problem was, in my opinion, that they put the Ringling brand on it -- that was a huge mistake. As good as elements of this show were, the entire production was not what people want to hold onto as "circus." Sure, not having elephants kept some people away but that is exactly the reason to make the rest of the show a more traditional draw."

Amen!  I wish I could have said it as well as she does.  In fact, I had imagined the ideal first no-elephant edition being a return to a more down-to-earth Ringling circus (irony not intended).

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Why David H. Lewis? The True Story Behind My Name Change

The following is from the opening of one of two chapters I dropped before my book Big Top Typewriter went to press.  I came to believe that the subject of skating wandered too far off course.

17

Enter David Lewis

           
How ironic that the very first publication to accept my circus writing — The White Tops — would be the last to reject it.
            Believing the 1980s to have been an outstanding decade in big top history, I wrote an essay about its memorable attributes, “Circus in America: The New Golden Age,” and sent copies out to national magazines.  None jumped, and so I jumped back to my alma matter, sending the piece to The White Tops’ editor. He telephoned me about it, believing he might need to cut it by a third, were he to go with it, and how would I feel about that?   I replied that I was open to the idea.  
            A few weeks later, the story was returned without a cover letter.  How naked it looked inside a lonely envelope.  As cold as the editor’s cavalier rejection felt, it also felt liberating.  Suddenly I felt the freedom necessary to treat other subjects as fully as I had treated the circus.   Maybe in this way, I might now be able to achieve some success in other fields.  So I made a promise to myself, and wrote it down, that not until I realized success in writing on other subjects would I ever again write about the circus.
            So, what next? 
            Roller skating.  Why not?  If you have a problem with that, please lighten up for a few pages, for that’s where we’re going next.   Organ music, Maestro, if you please!
            I had enjoyed test and competitive roller dance from my boyhood up.  For a few years, I had taught dance and figure skating. In fact, when I received the first invitation from Able Green at Variety to write a piece for the next anniversary issue, I took his letter to Roll-O-Torium, the skating rink in San Pablo where I was then employed.  I had to show it to my boss, rink operator Betty Bendit.  She was working behind the refreshment counter when I met up with her.  She read the letter with delight, happy for my good news.  And then I skated back to the record-player booth, to announce — Couples Only!
      

How to Avoid Getting Stereotyped

To continue quoting from the deleted chapter: 

    
            Here is where my story took a sharp turn. After suffering numerous rejections of my roller skating manuscript by a multitude of book publishers, I began to wonder if they  were stereotyping me.  David Lewis Hammarstrom.  Isn't that the guy who writes circus books? Covers the subject for  Variety.                                       
             Desperation by default:  I needed a new identity, a new name, maybe shorter, yes shorter, that would make it not so easy for acquiring editors in a hasty rush to turn me down before even giving my sample chapters a decent peek.  Where have I seen that name before?  Oh yes, he writes circus books?  Oh yes, dear stereotyping editor, it’s me, and does that mean that I can’t write anything else?   
            I decided to scale back and go with my first two names.  But when discovering how many “David Lewis” authors there were out there, I added H for a middle initial.  That narrowed my name competition down to one doctor.  
            Under my  new name, I sent Roller Skating for Gold out to a small house in New Jersey, Scarecrow, that I had somehow overlooked or maybe deemed unsuitable.
            Never trust an assumption.
            From the very first publisher to receive samples chapters of Roller Skating for Gold by David H. Lewis — Drum rolls and trumpets!  — came …
            A phone call of interest ... A few months later, a contract!

I could thank veteran Macmillan sports editor David Biesel for that.  A true gentleman, and one of the best editors I would ever work with.  Dave was then turning out a series, American Sports History, for Scarecrow.   Did somebody say that timing is everything.  Or that most things happen by  accident?  I call it fate.

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By the way, I still regard the 1980s as the last great decade in American circus.