Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Morning Midway: I Went to Ringling Bros. Circus Last Night, When Merle Evans Rode the Band

Latest big top icon to fall: Circus Report, come December.

In this  bleak landscape closing in on us, last night, I went to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and, oh what a show!  Twas an old TV preview of the 1961 edition, with Arthur Godrey and horse hosting.  Merle Evans came back that year, and how wonderful the band played.  It did not always play that uniformly well under the big tents, but in the arenas, in cities where he hired out local musicians, the sound overall was superior.

Gerald Soules flew to the band playing Cole Porter's torrid "So In Love," and I felt the chill ahead, knowing I would be witnessing  the single most thrilling moment I have ever braced  at a circus -- Soules' diving forward into a heal catch.  Powerful, direct, vividly accomplished, daring as hell.

Evans played one of John Ringling North's better melodies, from an old spec, and he played lots of terrific music. Solid. Smooth. Remember when we watched acts perform to the great American songbook?

The Stephenson's Dogs.  You might argue there are better dog acts, maybe more tricks, but what that  family did with their mutts, and the way they kept the party in exhilarating motion  I'd rank them Number One.  Yes, I would.

And the audience!  An arena in North Carolina, filled, engaged, taking it all in without hesitation.. This was our greatest show on earth.  This was before the protests began, back when America was  , not so complicated a place. Remember the telegram boy at the door?   The phonograph player?  The three TV channels we had to choose from?

The Ringling program presented  32 displays, in total, about 37 acts not counting clown bits.  Most of them, like Unus and Alzana,  did not make the one hour special.  Loved Santos on low wire, Klausers Bears, stupendously adroit, the Yong Brothers. .  

No wonder the show back then was so DAMMED INTERESTING. All that variety, the action, which they had to move through fastly to get everything in. I always at Ringling never looked at the listing of acts in the program magazine, wanting to be surprised.  The battleship for Anchors Away aerial ballet evoked a nostalgic tingle.  I remembered it that from when I would see the show crowded gloriously into the  more intimate Oakland Auditorium, seating maybe 7,000. The perfect size.

When Maestro Evans rode the band onto and through "Sing Hallelujah," oh what a high they put me on. I was back under the tent in 1955. 

Now, in its fifth year indoors, the show was coming into its own once again.  Art Concello, firmly in command, was the primal force.

And there it stays, on a book shelf here in my living room.

I was struck by how different is the mood and tempo of a circus show today, with far fewer acts, and some of them , contortion a good example, so serious and slow-moving.  The rollick is gone.  Things have turned so deadly serious.  That's right, these performers have heavy themes to impart.  They are much more than circus, plead the academics.  And they are also at times much less.  I will be kind and not name names. 

I  can't see Ringling in the flesh anymore. But I can see it whenever I want to pop the DVD into my Sony.

Oh Hallelujah!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Circus in the Year 1, AR (after Ringling): Wild Animal Acts Banned in New Jersey ... Big Apple Circus Panned for Lacking "Heart and Story Telling" ... What Next — House Arrest for Hazardous Hula Hopping? Check Your Sanity at the Marquee ..

Were I sill penning articles on circus for Variety’s annual anniversary issue – a long-gone tradition –  what a ball I would have on this one, though in a form much different from what follows.

Canine charisma at the Big Apple Circus.
    FEELING LITTLE DESIRE to post an end-of-the-year looking back piece —  what is there to look back upon over a landscape as baron as Germany after the war?  Without Ringling and without Cole,  that’s how it feels to me.  And so, I came close to  not posting at all, but then by luck, I stumbled onto a remarkably contrary review by April Stamm in Broadway Blog of the new  Big Apple Circus. I had a hook in.  Ms. Stamm stakes out her position thus:

   “IN THE MIDST OF ALL the trapeze, acrobatic, and clowning fever [in Manhattan] you’d think that an actual circus in its 41st performing year would at the pinnacle of the trend.”  She found this not to be the case, describing the Big Apple acts as executing cleanly but lacking  “an apparent degree of difficulty ... The juggling came out without a hitch but wasn’t gasp worthy.”  Most of all, what she found missing was “heart and storytelling.” She talks up acts in the more experimental troupes that  “craft not only a well-told story, but also explore emotions and relationships."
   OH, GOOD GRIEF!  They are now in our faces -- fringe circus advocates no longer hoping for but now nearly demanding equal time for theatre. That word equal. I have seen plenty of legit critics disparaging artsy allusions to narrative by Cirque du Soleil and others of its ilk.  Virtually none of them took story telling to task other than to wish it wasn’t there.

 Solid thrills from the returning Tunizianis.

    HOWEVER, WHEN STAMM points to groups like 7 Fingers as examples of pushing boundaries,  I can and have to appreciate her point of reference —  a little.  In fact, at the last visit I paid to 7 Fingers, I was swept away by at least two absolutely terrific acts on the bill, one from Alexandra Royer on pole vaulting (I’d never seen anything like it); the other, Ugo Dario and Maxim Laurin deftly working off  a single teeterboard.  Both flat out thrilling.  If only there had been more of this, and a lot less of the humanizing angle.  Really, I don’t care to know what a juggler has for breakfast.

    HOLDING THE VERY opposite view of the Big Apple Circus is Michale Sommers of The New York Stage, writing, “This seasons’ theme-free program wastes no time on presenting extraneous fiddle-faddle and simply gets on with the show ...keenly talented artists.”

   WITH A SHARP EYE for nuance, Alexis Soloski of The New York Times clearly enjoyed this year’s show more than she did last year’s.  Even then, her notice leaks  telling qualms that give some credence to Ms. Shamm’s own regrets.  The show, wrote smith, is  “high flying, but also more low key ..... The marquee acts are fewer.” The horizontal juggling: “visually ravishing  --- but unastounding.” Upright ladders: “astounding discipline, but isn’t much to look at until he adds a soccer ball.”  Curiously, Ms. Soloski believes  that the public expects flying trapeze acts to perform without safety nets, which they never do.  She writes,  " I’ve always found the alternative too stressful."  Indeed!

Failing to impress:  New ringmaster Stephanie Monseu

    OVERALL, THE IMPRESSION  I glean from various reviews is that Jenny Vidbel’s potbellied pig is the star, clowning is weak, new ringmaster Stephanie Monseu, with little to do, is rendered ineffectual, and most of the acts are moderately entertaining, with a few thrills on the side. And Grandma is still missed.
    COCKTAILS AND COTTON CANDY: The revamped Big Apple Circus website, in gorgeous yellow, opens, not with a tease of those acts, but  with snazzy videos of customers meeting the cast in a cool-looking VIP Tent, and dining at cozy tables.  Booze is now on the bill.. Streaming excerpts from reviews draw on last year’s as well as, shamefully, still including bogus excerpts from a Wall Street Journal review that never was. The ruthless fabrication quotes from a pre-opening Journal story last year quoting BAC describing its own show!   Astonishing. 
Above, the Journal story on October 26, 2017, interviewing Big Apple Circus on its new show, three days ahead of the opening.   Notice "Big Apple Circus says ..."

Below, the quotes as turned into a bogus Journal review of the show, on its website.

    HOW CORRUPT to the core might this new Apple be? Another matter emboldening my question is a lawsuit alleging breech of contract against new Big Apple Circus owners, Compass Partners, filed by Larry and Rita Solheim.  As reported October 15 in the New York Law Journal, the Solheim’s claim they were instrumental in persuading the old Big Circus board to sell to Compass.  The new group promised the Solheim’s key executive positions on the show (Solehim had been VP and general manager of BAC since 2015), but they were gradually pushed aside, and then fired.   I’ll have more on this ahead.

A RESPECTED NEWSPAPER allowing its reporting to be so corrupted?  Kids, let me lay it out plain as A B C:   Look up there ---The Big Apple Circus is conning the public into believing that the Wall Street Journal filed a rave review of the show.  Not just last year, but this year, too.  I have never witnessed such fraudulent advertising.  I doubt that even P.T. Barnum would have stooped this low.  But as for the Journal apparently condoning itThat's the bigger story. 

    END RINGERS: The other significant milestone in 2018 is New Jersey being the first state to ban all wild animal acts, and were any of us not ready for that? ...  Paul Binder, now hanging out on Facebook, but going circusless, seems to be banning himself from posting anything about the circus he founded – or any others --and I can only wonder why Paul is so mum, and stay mum myself ... Another inactive impresario,  Guy Laliberte, maybe angling for a way way back into artistic control of  the Cirque du Soleil he co-founded and brilliantly developed, telling  The Canadian Press he is always always involved in "creative thinking" within the company ... And yet another retired big top tycoon, Kenneth Feld, riding high on his new Monster Jam roller coaster, pitching it to theme parks.

   BINDER, FELD, LALIBERTE: What if, just what if, all three of them were to suddenly spring back into action?    Can      you     imagine?


Thursday, December 13, 2018

In Other Rings: Channeling Bette Davis in Song and Dance

 A narrow face in the crowd: My fifteen minutes in the movies

I'm writing a musical inspired by the making of the Bette Davis movie, Storm Center.

Opening scene finds the cast at Union Station, L.A. about to board a train for Santa Rosa, where the film will be shot.

Bette Davis, high on getting another role during a difficult time in career, is talking it up to Hedda Hopper, and Hopper asks her to share her philosophy of acting.

To answer the question for Bette in a lyric,  I googled up many of her quotes.  One of them in particular shows marked enthusiasm, and I worked it into a line.  Guess which line?

This much is clear:
They're gonna get me
I go for broke in every role
Goddess or tramp,
I'm bigger than life --
That's my goal

I think it's pretty obvious.  In Santa Rosa, when they shot scenes at and around the library, I was lucky to be there one night as an extra in an exterior crowd scene. So was my Mom.  I could not remember ever seeing the film when it came out -- critically dismissed, it suffered a quiet and short-lived  fate.  When I finally got a copy of  Storm Center off  TCM I slow-forwarded through the scene many times, and finally found my mug in the crowd!

My most memorable moment observing Bette Davis was one quiet afternoon along Fourth Street.   I noticed a black Cadillac purring slowly up the street, towards the library.  In the back seat sat the aging diva, perfectly composed, eyes straight ahead, as if  on her way to an opening at Grauman's Chinese theatre in Hollywood amidst idolizing crowds.

Except, on that  afternoon, the only person looking at the figure in the back seat was me.

Bigger than life!

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Morning Midway: Circus Bella Looks Teeerrrific in You Tube Tease ...

Just when I thought life support for big tops does not inspire, I discovered A CAPTIVATING You Tube sampler of action under Circus Bella's first little, very classy big top on Treasure Island. Heck, if it was not so damn difficult to get over there --- a bus from Oakland to San Francisco,  another bus  back in reverse to the enchanted Island -- I might go.  I know I'd sooner go to Bella than to Cirque's Volta.

This floating island (that's how it feels to me) hosted the San Francisco World's Fair of 1939, many seasons later, Circus Vargas.  Some non-circus friends and I went over there and saw a good Vargas show.  And during intermission, the three of us (all, technically speaking, adults) took the elephant ride!  (OK, there was a romantic element to it.)

The Bella sampler (2:25 min), colossal caveat here, is of course selective, but I did not expect to see them expand and blossom into something so much more than what they were.  And it pulled me into its fast-moving magic much more than did Big Apple Circus's video tease last year.

The snappy Bella band is a friendly charmer. LIVE music.

The small though bright tent bears the stately shapes of modern styling.  And, inside, I saw a good crowd of people in the seats.

My only ominous wonderment:  How they can pull in crowds on such steep prices --- $39.00 to  150.00

Go, Bella, go!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Travel Back From the Beginning ...

Fanfare from The House of Ringling

"A book I enjoyed to no end.
What memories it brings back."
-- John Ringling North II 


Television was first covered in 1928, 20 years before it became a national reality.

"A treasure trove of early day TV programing"
Watching the magic box in its inaugural 1948 season.

Lucy and Ethel on top of the TV world in I Love Lucy.

"Rare, hitherto-unseen images"
Outrageous charmer: Liberace dazzles Americans with keyboard virtuosity.

Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on The Honeymooners.

 Elvis Presley shakes up the Ed Sullivan Show. 


 Jack Paar, cutting it up with Judy Garland, kept the nation wide awake, late night

Rodgers and Hammerstein created Cinderella for television, seen by 107 million viewers.

 "A celebration of 1950s TV"

Westerns dominated TV screens through the late1950s.  The cast of Gunsmoke.

Eddie, left, and John Glen, on Name That Tune, discuss the Russian launch of Sputnik into space only three hours after it happened, in 1958.

"Captures the flavor of the times"

The "Kitchen Debate" in Moscow, 1959, between Richard Nixon, right, and Nikita Khrushchev, seen on Face the Nation.
Rod Serling's Twilight Zone:  The Eye of the Beholder.

"Travel through time ... 
The special attraction of Prime Time Rising lies in its ability to retain and maintain a vividly engrossing atmosphere throughout"
 --- Midwest Book Review

All of the great moments are there!
Read about and and see about them in
Prime Time Rising: Growing Up at the Dawn of Television

Can you name key events in Ringling history in the years
1907, 1937, 1947, 1957, 1967, 2007, 2017?


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Morning Midway: Kelly Miller Plots 2019; Bella Blossoms into Tent Status; Big Apple Sued, Website Turns Yellow ...

Ominous: Big Apple Circus in the yellow, or is it my computer?

   THIS IS NOT A HAPPY DAY.   I'm cooped up on a tragic California afternoon, when so much is on fire, up north and down south, splashes of sunshine against my large window gracing me from the unhealthy air out there.  I’ll skip the afternoon walk, and let this one roll, and turn the TV back on.  I marvel over the heroism of the fire fighters, by the thousands displaced, taking it on the chin, so many and maybe all being extra good to each other, knowing what means the most in life, the old and the young bringing tears to my eyes. A whole town, gone. Others in the balance, forever, I fear. 

    WHAT MOVED ME to this keyboard was a You Tube I chanced upon featuring clips  from the Big Apple Circus’s Grand Tour of 2015.  What a feast of tent-filling action.  This is what I live for.  Inventive all over. Lots of movement.  No wonder the New York Times raved. I offer it to you below. 
   NOW, SIGH,  to the present tense. I shall strive for positivity.  When I think of circus in bits and pieces today, I think back on the little John Strong Circus tent.  It would fit in quite dandy now, as the tops grow smaller, the ballyhoos more eager than egotistic.   Our local community ring, the free-to-see Circus Bella, advancing up and over to Treasure Island for a month-long holiday run, and under  their first little big top.  And they’re not giving this one away (more, maybe stronger acts touted), tickets going from $39 to $150.  What a daring leap from free.  Out of the diaper stage, at last. I'm feeling a rare Bella bounce, relearning to be John Strong grateful.

   NO LONGER RINGLING or Beatty-Cole.  Now UniverSoul, the  new Big Show?  Or would that be Big apple?  They, the latter, are hiding their wares behind a screen full of lovely yellow, or that’s what I keep pulling up when trying to reach inside their website.   It’s happened before.  What is going on, or coming off, over there? Too much unwanted drama, perhaps.  I know, for one thing, that a lawsuit has been launched against Big Apple Circus by two of those who helped sell the Big Apple Circus Board on selling to the Sarasota partners.  The two, in the beginning promised prominent operational roles, were gradually sidelined and then fired. Not a pretty picture.

   OF REVIEWS FOR Big Apple’s latest, I could only find two legit notices, one from New York Stage Review, the other out of the Philly’s Inquirer.  Both were pleased, though not steeped in awesome adjectives.   “Colorful and fun,” the kindly kudos.   One critic laughed a lot at the clowns, or his kids did; the other did not laugh at all.  Grandma still missed, and how sad I feel over what happened, wondering, if you will allow, if it had to happen?  

   ALL GOOD NEWS feels more terrific in these tentative times, like feeling good about Kelly Miller advertising in Circus Report for marketing people to front the 2019 tour.

When I see Asian faces on the bill (The Mongolian Troupe with Kelly Miller), I anticipate inventive, cerebral-free excitement, and I want to go.

   BIG JOHN STRONG WOULD fit in, peachy well, under the small tent he pitched (or thumb tacked up)  at country fairs, offering for free the fundamental magic in a charming showcase, he being the talky star.  “Got a big hand, Cindy!“   I just loved hearing him say that, when a young juggler kept three sticks in motion, a clown, the kiddies in tickles   When once Big John spotted me on the planks (how I wished he hadn't), the way he announced me, I felt like a potentate from foreign shores. I was somebody then.

   CIRQUE DU SOLEIL, still posturing  and preening in heavy-handed narrative, putting up its Volta tent over in San Francisco, for a long three-month haul.   I might pass.  Sounds like some very good acts, but even the Canadian critics were down on this show when it opened, fed up with another dull story line mucking up and retarding the program. The Globe and Mail declared the "thrilling Volta is crippled by its story."  You won’t see any of the acting stuff on TV ads. You'll see CIRCUS. So I have little will to drag my self over to SF, and there be dragged through another schizoid Cirque combo.

   SO WHAT WILL I have seen this year?  I sat on rough dry grass over hard clumpy dirt in a gritty  Oakland Park to watch Circus Bella put on a cute little show -- The Cutest Little Show on Earth? -- I'm trying.  At least they are high on Joy.  In these darkened days of diminishing glories, Joy is a comforting element.  The John Strong factor.  Got a great hand, Bella!

   I'LL ADMIT TO BEING envious over the circus fan (CFA-er) who has built into his/her DNA, the capacity to enjoy almost anything that comes their way titled circus.  I’m thinking how Plato’s theory of forms may explain for this phenomenon.. But more on that trenchant topic some other time. 

   IT IS STILL sunny bright outside, lending local peace, in a land perpetually on fire.   Somebody needs to cut down half the trees and all the dry brush, mandate stone or steel houses, restrict population, order power lines under ground. Mother nature may once have set off the sparks; now humans are doing what appears a far worse job.

Let me send you off on  a  joyful three-minute sampler of Big Apple Circus's Grand Tour, from 2015:

Got a great big hand, Big Apple!

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Why So Few Reviews for PBS The Circus? ... Fans and Pros Sounding Off in Circus Report Supply Some Possible Answers

I’m pretty surprised that the show was ignored or watched and then ignored by most main stream media.   At the top of the list, The New York Times. Defaulting to the ever-reliable Rotten Tomatoes, there are a grand total of 3 reviews, all colored in red, though two of them bear serious discoloring smudges.  Compare this to 45 reviews for Ken Burns The Vietnam war.

The write ups come from  The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and The Wall Street Journal.  I could not access the Journal, because you must subscribe to read. I can only trust it was a real notice, not the kind of bogus con job put over by Big Apple Circus last year, quoting back its own quotes from a feature story the Journal did on the show prior to its opening — and framing those quotes in the form of an excerpt from an actual Wall Street Journal review!  Yes, we/they live in desperate times.

One of many circuses snubbed by American Experience.
Well, of course, Barnum's name does not appear

Tellingly, perhaps, here are some acute reservations that leak through the generally positive write ups:

From Robert Lloyd in The Los Angeles Times:    “The Circus” is at times difficult to watch, because the circus, though in most respects a wonderful enterprise, has also been an awful one, particularly in its use or misuse of wild animals – many of which, more than once in this history, will perish in fires -- but sometimes in its treatment of people as well. (People, too, will perish in fires.)”   

That word “awful”... feels awful.

From Verne Gay in Newsday (3 out of 4 stars, really?): "MY SAY Just to hazard a wild guess here, 'The Circus' must be the most exhaustive documentary on the circus that the TV medium has ever known, and — just to hazard another one — that's about five times too exhaustive for the average viewer.

“Do you need to watch all four hours? Not really. For an average viewers' guide, the second hour Monday (at 10) and the first hour Tuesday are the best. Meanwhile, Leitzel aficionados will want to savor the full four”     
To be sure and fair, all of the reviews have much to sing about.  The film footage alone is a wow, and opening segments captivate with tents going up, locals off farms roused to the riveting spectacle of circus day once upon a glorious time. Just thought I'd get that out of the way.

Okay, onto the program's unfortunate missteps.

Circus Reporting from the trenches

Latest issue of The Circus Report has done a bang up job in printing a wide array of feedback from circus fans and pros, 10 in all.  Here are some of the comments:

Thanks to Bill Schreiber, who allayed my shock over the gruesome image of a huge elephant entrenched in chains coming out of a box car, which to the average TV viewer surely screams ANIMAL ABUSE!  How glad  and relieved was I to learn  from Bill, recounting in Circus Report something that Slim Lewis had told him:  "Most of the chain was for show and truly unnecessary for controlling him, but it made Tusko seem more formidable  than he actually was."   Very troubling (or spiteful ) that this context was not mentioned.  Given the typical sight of elephants coming out of the cars fairly freely, did someday even ask?

Don Covington:  "It also incorrectly suggested that the Ringling enterprise was the only significant circus of the day, ignoring almost all the competition.”

Maxine House: “All those wonderful tented (and Shrine) circuses were left out!” 

And then comes Pittsburgh

One thing everybody seems to agree on is that the show’s abrupt ending is beyond comprehension. This will surely leave an impression with younger generations that the circus died right there.

My favorite quote, from Gary Payne: “Born in 1955, I can attest to having seen about 1,000 circus performances that apparently didn’t exist.” 

                                    Why, oh why?

Wayne McCary: “Only the producers know why they chose to end the show with the closing of the Greatest Show on Earth in Pittsburgh in 1956.  That finality in the program undoubtedly gave the impression to the general public that the circus industry came to an abrupt end at that time.”

John Ringling North's first season opener, 1938

Okay, let me guess.  While working on my review, I  developed a profile in my mind of producer-writer-director Sharon Grimberg.  I could see her coming  from the New England area, where she would more likely have been exposed to the Barnum lobby, and I wondered if she might be an animal rights activist  or sympathizer.  After posting my review, below, I went a-goggling. I found that American Experience is based in Boston, but I could find nothing about Ms. Grimberg's personal life or politics.

I have two theories:

1.  She started out intending to produce a biography of the Prince of Humbug. The one through-line through this jumbled enterprise is the name Barnum.  The other showman covered were all significantly involved with him -- Forepaugh as principle rival (I'm surprised they missed the Sacred White Elephant war between the two), Coup, Costello and Bailey as partners, and the Ringlings, who kept his name famously alive.  Somewhere along the way, the story got extended beyond its original focus.  By then,  Grimberg ran out of funding or interest, and rushed to wrap in Pittsburgh.  21 minutes for John Ringling North.  Actually, deduct the minutes taken covering the Hartford fire --- North was not running the show then -- and North gets maybe a total of 16 minutes.   I rest my case.   A bit too far fetched?  Okay, how about this:

2.  Harboring a private disdain for various alleged forms of abuse under the big top, Grimberg  wanted to end on a down note, sending viewers off subliminally conditioned to feel guilty about ever again patronizing a circus with animals.  

Am I off the cliff? Then, the laugh’s on me.

Thank god for the DeMille film. No, they can't take that away from me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

PBS Under the Big Top: Circus Kings Shine, Barnum Dominates and Darkens Half-Baked, Error-Prone Three-Ring Charmer

Television Review:  The Circus
PBS/American Experience
4-hour anthology in 2 parts
Twice seen for this review, October, 2018

When I learned that the formidable American Experience was coming out with a documentary on American circus history,  1793 to 1956,  naturally I had high expectations, wondering how they would treat the period through three epochs -- from the one ring show of English horse rider John Rickets, bringing to America the modern circus invented by  Philip Astley, to the three ring spectacles of Barnum and Bailey, and then onto how they were artfully transformed and refined by John Ringling North in 1938.
Although, in real life,  P.T. Barnum did not enter the picture until 1871, here he enters it from the get-go, fairly dominating the first two hours of The Circus with his bombastic,  perversely amusing ballyhoos, his freaks and fakes, clever humbugs and various exotic animals.   The talking heads who wax lyrical about circus artistry -- the consensus seeming to rise on the word “transcendence” -- do not wax lyrical about anything that Mr. Barnum brought to the tent.  In fact, he was obviously more a sideshow huckster than ever a circus king

 Barnum on Broadway, at the Museum: Frank Lentini,  above; Jo-Jo, the Dog Faced Boy, below

When producer-writer-director Sharon Grimberg finally  gets around to the starting point at Philadelphia in 1793, incredibly, no mention is made of Philip Astley -– an unconscionable insult to the British, who this year are celebrating the 250th anniversary of Astley’s one-ring gift to the world.

Instead, one of the talking heads (name not shown), rhapsodizes over the launch in Philadelphia of a “distinctly American”circus.  Nice try.  Distinctly American lay decades ahead.   The exceptionalism on display at Ricket’s Circus was very British.

Beyond Barnum, whom Grimberg can’t seem to get enough of, she turns her most passionate attention upon a select few big top movers and shakers, telling their compelling stories with a rich array of visual materials at hand.  Among the many nuggets, film footage inside the big top during the 1944 Hartford fire is stunning; a clip of Con Colleano dancing on the low wire is pure gold.

The good news is that Adam Forepaugh receives outstanding coverage.  So do William Coup and Dan Costello, who talked the retired Prince of Humbug into joining them to take out a  new circus, which opened in Brooklyn in 1871, and within a  year, was on rails and appearing under a large tent in two rings.  Not noted is how Barnum simultaneously rented out the use of his magnetic name, two summers in a row, to a  rogue showman, Peggy O’Brien, which gave rivals ad copy ammunition: “Barnum’s Show is Divided!  One Half Here, and The Other There.    Which Are You Going to See?”  The  treachery so disgusted Coup and Costello, that the short-lived partnership was soon history.  Barnum’s New England lobby may wish to skip this one.

Most impressive of all is James A. Bailey, who joined up with Barnum in 1881 to form — distinctly American —  the first three-ring circus.  His genius for big top logistics shines through, especially when. in 1897, Barnum having died six years before, he manages to ship the entire show, tents and all, to Europe,  where he tours it triumphantly for five years to “almost” constantly packed houses. I question that.  Back in the states, now facing a five-brother juggernaut, Bailey’s invincible grip on public favor wanes.  Like a man yet to come bearing the initials JRN, he suffers seasons of declining patronage.  They all do.
Around about here, we are pulled down into gloom and guilt by the intrusive allusion to animal abuse, which feels like a PETA pop up ad appearing on the screen.   In this instance, of  how only less than 20% of the animals Barnum and Bailey purchased from other lands allegedly survived the cruel shipping conditions to America.  Pretty shocking.   There’s also the account of how P.T. wrested away Jumbo (it feels more like a theft) from the British Zoological Society, leaving countless children in tears.  I’m siding with the moppets.

Other issues raised concern a display of “uncivilized peoples” in the menagerie and, of course, the freaks.  Is the imposition of learned commentary even appropriate?  I say no, for these reasons:  Imposing modern sensibilities on the circus as it impacted the public over a hundred years ago throws everything out of wack, out of a reality far removed from today’s. Being pulled into the classroom, so to speak, detracts from the experience of watching circus in context of the times. I want the closest thing to what my forebears experienced.

It is worth noting that the recent Ken Burns film on Vietnam, a staggering masterpiece, left a panel of academic historians miffed overs its “deliberate exclusion of professional historians from their 80 talking heads”  “We weren’t trying to make arguments.” explained Burns.  “ We didn’t have a political agenda..”

Like a bright new sunny day dawning, come the Ringling brothers, who were  young and gleamingly  handsome on bill poster art, open to new ideas (giving some customers their first look at a movie, inside a special black tent).  They paid female performers the same as they paid the men, and they supported the suffrage movement among like-minded women on show  They became famous for being by far the most honest-dealing of the lot, although as to the hiring of Pinkerton detectives to monitor the midway for all manner of pick pocketing and card sharkery, curiously, that credit goes here  not to the Ringlings, but to  Barnum & Bailey!  A baffling revelation.  

By the time that The Circus reaches the year 1938, John Ringling North barely makes it onto the lot in this lopsided 4-hour anthology – long enough (21 minutes) to come off looking like a talented but inept manager in a final segment that feels fragmentary and rushed.  He gets credit for his whimsical elephant ballet and for some rave reviews his upscale brand of circus received, but no mention of  the great crowds his eclectic showmanship drew in the best of seasons.  He is implicitly  linked to gross mismanagement partly blamed for the 1944 Hartford fire that killed 168 people, mostly women and children.  The fire, which dominates this section, did not not occur on North’s watch, but on that of his cousin, Robert Ringling.  Left unrevealed is the long-simmering enmity between the houses of John and Charles Ringling, and how it erupted into the Ringling family wars of the 1940s, with North eventually prevailing.

Not until I watched the film a second time was I hit like a bolt of lightening by the most shocking and shameful omission of all, which raises all sorts of questions concerning Grimberg’s true intent.  (I will not look into her background until after posting this}.  Comes the season of 1956, plagued by a long-festering Teamster’s strike.  One talking head: “The circus was writing its own ending.”   Then comes Pittsburgh, where the show gives  “one final performance.”  Another troubling error.  The circus gave two shows that day —   the first, to a half house at 6:30; the last starting two hours before midnight, when all 9,856 seats were packed and another thousand or so were strawed.    

North issues a press release announcing that he is closing the show and sending it back to the barn.   Alright, yes, he did.  And so then ...?  I am on the edge of my seat, wondering if, during my first viewing, I missed the part when North announces his plans to open the circus the following spring at Madison Square Garden, as usual, and then take it out on the road playing indoor arenas. No, I did not.  Incredibly this key part of the release – so integral to understanding the truth of that last stand under canvas -- is left out.  Whatever  Grimberg was trying to achieve, it seems clear that evidence was willfully excluded to advance a false reality. One can only speculate what her agenda might be, but certainty it was not to affirm any future for the circus.

Twenty one minutes for John Ringling North, one of the towering creative forces in world circus history.  Twenty one minutes for him to look like a loser and vanish.  So much for the captivating parade of circus stars from far and wide that he unstintingly offered Americans; for the ingenious seat wagons of Art Concello;  the arguably unprecedented costume design brilliance of Miles White;  the dazzling midway makeovers of Norman Bel Geddes and then Bill Ballantine;  the academy award winning movie by Cecil B. DeMille that captured it all so gloriously.  None of that is  here.  What is here, instead, is the end.

Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde in The Greatest Show on Earth

Why the abrupt fade out in Pittsburgh?  Why so misleadingly bleak an ending?   The documentary is pitched as  “the rise and fall of the American railroad tent circus.”  Okay, technically, this may give them cover for bringing down so ruthlessly premature a curtain on Pittsburgh, but it hardly gives them cover for the 80 or so years they spend on Barnum’s pre-circus antics and early American circus history — eighty years before , repeat, before that great American circus train they ballyhoo even began to roll. Not their stated focus.  Makes no sense.

All of which amounts to a wholesale evisceration of all that came after Pittsburgh, and I need not go into detail here, other than to make clear, The Greatest Show on Earth continued on for sixty more years.  North put it indoors and back in the black, and, ten years later, sold it to the Irvin Feld family.

I can’t help but wondering why so many major contributors to American circus were missing in action during the film’s time frame. To name but a few:  Arthur Concello, Antoinette Concello, the Bloomington circus community, then the prime source of leading trapeze acts world-wide,  Dan Rice,  Miles White, Barbette, Irving J. Polack, Louis Stern (Polack Bros), Gargantua, American Circus Corporation shows, Cole Bros, Sells Bros, Alfred Court, Francis Brunn, Lou Jacobs.

Given the vast terrain of circus history either ignored, short-shrifted or bungled  by Grimberg and colleagues, I  am left, still, dreaming of the ultimate documentary from Ken burns.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

A City P. T. Barnum Could Not Have Topped ... The Side Show is Now Us -- No, Them

     SAN FRANCISCO, ONCE the enchanted city of my boyhood, is sinking deeper into greed, decadence and the insane building mania over land fill that may one day turn tragically soft under the wrong earthquake.  A PBS Nova report some time ago raised the sobering possibility.

     ON A RECENT VISIT to Baghdad across the bay, I grew instantly dizzy and vaguely disoriented, assaulted  by jackhammers pounding, angry cars flying through intersections,  building cranes  shifting ominously overhead. Will the madness ever end?  At Market, I ran for a bus which took me through what felt like the aftermath of a local war — more demolition and/or construction under way, more filth and litter along streets ruled by human slugs.  If you plan on visiting the central library, you might consider bringing your own porta-potty. Ikea?


    THE FREAK SHOW that has been San Francisco ever since the sixties is only getting freakier.  Halloween every day?   Barnum could not have competed with the emerging class here of self-defining characters, each his/her/its own universe.  But the clever Barnum  might have rented space nearby and offered them free living quarters with wide window views -- of  ticketed museum-goers passing by.

     HOW TO KNOW who they are? I wonder what the average old-world Joe from out of town is to do when facing a woman on a pre-arranged date, or by accident, but now feeling uneasy about said mortal’s true nature?  Does he outright ask?  Good grief, he’d risk getting arrested for sexual harassment.  In this mind-boggling new world disorder where new gender options are being added to the pool daily,  perhaps Apple will come up with a new app,  GAB--Gender at Birth, a device to detect the native truth of the person before you.  Of course, said person might  have an app designed to thwart the signals from yours.  But then again, here you just might meet the freak of your dreams.

     LET ME GET to the point: San Francesco is a moral toilet.  Sample exhibit:  I remember when Willie Brown was elected ‘Da Mayor and, soon after, as reported, he attended a late night private party at which one man stripped to the waist and bore the sliding  knife of another against his willing back, while a third  urinated into the fresh blood stream.   On a local radio talk show soon after, the righteous indignation of Bernie Ward, who also hosted God Talk on Sundays, was answered by the ‘Da Mayor telling Ward to mind his own damn business.  Ward, minding his own damn business, was later convicted of circulating child pornography on the internet,  and sent to prison.  

     BUT THE EGALITARIAN toilet on ground level is safely avoided by the billionaire renters above living in higher realms behind glass and steel and praying for structural stability. You’ve heard of the sinking tower of condo?  Another new monster showoff, the Trans Bay Terminal,  has  likewise shown evidence of shoddy construction with the shocking discovery of cracks in two critical brand new beams.  This multi billion dollar extravaganza was designed to host the SF bullet trains championed by CA Gov, Jerry  “moonbeam” Brown, trains stalled in state-wide litigation that may never arrive. The terminal's proximity to the sinking condo — which now also shreds cracked  glass -- has caused people to fear that other new high rise darlings may likewise be perilously compromised below street level.  Oh, the irony of it all. Imagine New York's Grand Central Terminal exclusively hosting but one occupant: Greyhound Bus Lines.

     SO, FOR NOW, while the Transbay beauty is shut down for repairs, the old “temporary” outdoor East Bay bus station is back in use.   How relieved and happy I felt to be leaving San Francisco on a bus bound for Oakland’s idyllic Piedmont Avenue neighborhood.  Sanity and peace.  Oh, what a joy is simplicity!  The sunshine never felt better.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Shocking, Simply Shocking! British Museum Rebuts Feminist Myth About Women in Circus

It may come as a blow to traditional circus-hating feminists, New York to San Francisco, that women actually did perform in our earliest American circuses.  And we are not talking ornamental sex props placed in the shadows while male stars hoarded the rings.  As you may have observed, that’s the knee-jerk line they’ve been dishing out for years.  Fake news has been around long before the current occupant of the White house moved in and took it on.

This belated bow to historical truth comes from across the Big Pond. Circus! Show of Shows, a new exhibit at the Western Park Museum in Sheffield, England, sets the record right.  As covered in the Smithsonian Magazine, the display focuses on women and black performers said to have found “an unusual degree of independence and professional success in circus.”

Oh, really? 

I am shocked! And lying through my teeth.  Actually, relieved to know that all the wonderful female performers who thrilled me in my boyhood were not figments of my imagination.  Ask me to name the greatest names of circus long before I was born:  I will probably recite more women than men.  You want a list?  Go look for yourself, or Ask Fred.   

Of course, anybody with half a brain who has read a circus history book or two (not written by an academic peddling the party line) would already have known this.  The rant is re-issued periodically, and those who print it don’t take the time to fact check.

 Edgar Degas, Miss La La, at Cirque Fernando, 1879

Patty Astley, wife of Philip, founder of the modern circus, performed in the show, and not as a king pole dancer.  She rode a galloping horse while swarming bees buzzed lyrically around her hands.  How charming.

As quoted in the Smithsonian, says  the exhibition's curator, Vanessa Toulmin, “Women were granted freedoms that would have been unthinkable in broader Victorian society.”

And over here, one particular woman who  rode horses, charmed snakes, sewed costumes and dragged canvas across muddy lots, among a host of daily thrills -- was helping five young brothers  become circus kings of America: Louise Ringling. Truly troubling is how little recognition the brothers gave her.  Those were times when women in spangles were equated with women in garters.

What’s more, because those doing dames were seen as “athletes” —  they got away with performing in brief costumes, thus exposing arms and legs.  

“In a culture that emphasized women’s domesticity, female circus performers were hard at work.”

Are you reading this, San Francisco Circus Center?  Are you reading this, Sarah East Johnson,  New York’s go-to  expert on such issues who, writing in the The Wall Street Jouirnal in 2011, declared how “nice it was to see women “ in the ring,  and made clear that “rigid gender roles under the big top [were] really traditional.”: And that’s the best  the Journal can give us on the subject?  Ms. Johnson may have been ill-informed while under the spell of the San Francisco Circus Center, where she spent (or served) time years earlier.  Oh, those PC-addled feminists across the bay just can’t let go. A sad and regrettable legacy of the old Pickle Family Circus.

And more from Toulmin:  “Women could be circus proprietors, they could have their own business.“     

Among museum artifacts on display, there’s a 1940 photo of Lulu Adams, below, one of the first female clowns in Britain.  Lulu incorporated bagpipe playing in her act.

Nice job — British Museum of Sheffield!