Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Circus on PBS: Big Tents - Big Dreams - Big Betrayal

I found the anthology gifted with much to enjoy and admire, but shockingly irresponsible in its narrow coverage, its eviscerations and aborted ending.

More about this in the future

Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Morning Midway: PBS Big Tent - Big Dreams Delivers Big in You Tube Ballyhoo. Show Hits Town Monday

I was so taken by the two 9-minute You Tube previews I saw, that I have very high hopes for this documentary from American Experience,  a long-time leader in such fare for PBS.

The overwhelming imagery throughout  is of IMMENSITY.  Immensity of tents, of parades, of surging crowds, here and in Europe when James A. Bailey took Barnum & Bailey abroad.  That he stayed there five years suggests a towering reception at the ticket wagons he could not resist.  Of course, when he returned to America, he had five brothers named Ringling, now a formidable force, facing him.

Debbie Walk eloquently gives Al Ringling due credit for the primary role he played, with his brothers, in making their mark as circus kings.  P.T. Barnum seems properly placed  here as sideshow king and ballyhoo genius. 

You see the trains clanging in.  You see the mass of humanity spreading the canvas, raising it high, and the locals on the sidelines, captured and enthralled by it all, believers without issues or hesitations in this once great and magical and very American spectacle.  I almost cried, so moved by vivid scenes of what the American circus was in its heyday.  No wonder, the program is said to end with the fall of the last Ringling big top in Pittsburgh, 1956. 

How will the rest hold up?  I am guessing very well, as long as they don't get side tracked filtering an emphatically populist form of entertainment through PC-obsessive analysis.  This is not a story best told by self-serving academics.

The Big Show comes your way Monday night!

Monday, October 01, 2018

But Only a Few Remained: Circus in a World Without Ringling

Pardon me, but I've got the shrinking big top blues.  For walking wounded fans, you enter here at your own risk.                                    

At Rngling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, circa 1920s
When Americans embraced circus without question, without issues, without iPhones.

How do you frame it now?  Dead?   On life support?  In-between engagements?  Gender equity reassignments pending?

Spin it any way you wish.  Facts are — if facts count, undeniable truth.  Remember when fans counted tent poles, wagon wheels, elephants?  What are they counting now? Hula hoops?  Peanut pitches and pony rides? ... Empty seats?

                             Drum Rolls for Less is More!

Fewer Tents: Remember Ringling? Remember Clyde Beatty Cole Bros?  The last two American railroad shows both fell in 1956 -- the circus, they said, was dead!, but regrouped and kept on going.  Quite well, or well enough for a long time. “Well enough” was wonderful enough in a business perpetually on the brink. Both Ringling and Cole are now over the brink.  On the watch list: Kelly-Miller, maybe Carson and Barnes.  Big Apple?  I’d say promising so far, but far from certain. 

Fewer rings: A no brainer.  Who can count three?  Okay deduct two, and you have one. Deduct another (think stage, cruise ship, concert hall, Vegas, hat on cement), and you have none.

Do I sound like Mr. Rodgers in the hood? .

Fewer acts:  The “new” Big Apple Circus is touting six acts, not counting horses and dogs and clowns.  Not so radical given a trend in the Cirque era for less is (maybe)  more.  But what less can also mean is less variety – the biggest draw under booming  big tops in better times.  SO much to see.  SO much to be surprised and amazed by!  SO much to remember!  

Fewer smiles:  The lean BAC lineup, when I study it, tells me why I  miss a Chinese troupe on the menu, which was nearly a staple during the last Paul Binder and  Kenneth Feld  years.  Those exhilarating acrobats from a land not high on psycho-babble brought lots of bodies into a single ring and therefore a degree of spectacle — plates spinning, hats flying, rushing runners through hoops diving, bikes in motion, energy and gusto -- and without a shred of big top broccoli.  They give us unadulterated joy. 

Oh, Joy, where did you go?  Now we have the show being directed by Bergman or Freud, the modern act choreographed so internally, that we are pushed even further way from the artist, as if allowed, oh how lucky to be allowed, to admire  his or her self-possession. To behold the artist working out his/her/its issues on the tissues (fabrics, kids).   Pardon me for failing the post-performance exam. I did not go expecting to observe the damaged soul in therapy on a static trapeze.

                            Now: At Melha Shrine Circus, 2018

Fewer seats: Can you kindergarten count along with me?  The Felds deducted thousands of arena chairs, blocking out maybe a third of them, not to achieve greater intimacy but to shut down damning evidence of paltry patronage — until, they would claim, PETA ran every last customer, in public shame, off the lot. Sure.  And who managed  The Greatest Show on Earth  into oblivion? Not a Ringling.  A billionaire named Kenneth Feld, whose late father Irvin, god bless his look-at-me-ballyhoo, must be screaming for a way back.
Kelly Miller fired the animals to beat down PETA,  shrunk the  tent size, threw out VIP chairs and settled for planking it.  Circus Vargas, striving to be Cirque for families on a budget, is also going smaller.  And hopefully not under.   Carson & Barnes, another down sizer, now skips summer stops — a season once, I thought, lush with crowds.

How much more of this shrinkage before the patient shrinks away like a deflating  balloon before a couple dozen souls out there on the planks, half of them in free and already bored,  the other half on their cell phones? 

So here we are, on the edge of another deserted lot where once, great tented cities that traveled by  by night — thank you, Bev Kelly —  pitched their glories for a day, and great crowds of curiosity came to be astonished and thrilled — and not to be  lectured to, or badgered by angry leaflets from PC purists, or dragged through another dreary allusion to some obtuse self-help drama -- troubled soul seeking The Way and The Light under what’s left of The Big Top.

Ooops. Hope I didn’t depress you too much.   Are you amply amused, Anon?  Truth is, I giggled part way through this; my tears, you see, are all used up. There’s nothing left but. what? ...  Laugh, clown, laugh, I guess.


P.S.  What a lovely postscript  came my way after drafting the above.  A link from Don Covington to a captivating promo tease of Big Tent, Big Dreams, the PBS American Experience documentary coming to the  screen on October 8 and 9.  The  one-minute promo conveys what it was like when circus-loving Americans flocked to the big tops  A phenomenal clip of Pinito Del Oro in motion is just fabulous -- it stops my heart every time I watch  it -- unlike anything of her work I have ever seen on video, which only reminds me of why I was so mesmerized by her act when I first saw this aerial goddess perform under the Ringling-Barnum big top in 1955.

Bring it on, PBS. I can't wait!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Morning Midway: Gay Cinema Without Bars, Hustlers & Suicide

Imagine this:  A young college student comes home with stars in his eyes, and is happily surrounded by his loving mother and sister, sensing he has just met someone special. So you can imagine them asking him, "Who is she?!"  No,  in this film they ask him "Who is he?!"

Movies about gay men have advanced by leaps and bounds away from the freak show that was Boys in the Band -- yes, an admirable ground breaker in its time to be respected.

How apt that one of the better examples of a new gay cinema without traumatic "coming out" segments, should be found in Akron  -- an intelligent, sensitive and very moving film that deserved far more attention that it has received.

I took a chance on Akron, a  2015 film containing the above scene -- the dad was also pleased over the news.  Surprisingly, it was ignored by virtually all film critics, save for two, the two issuing a split verdict.

From Film Inquiry,  "The film explores the complex emotions that come with any relationship, gay or straight. What it means to forgive, even for something minuscule, is questioned here – daring us to define what it is that makes us carry on. It is in this way that Akron succeeds: its ability to get at human experiences without coming across as cloying.

From OUT,   "Akron is a nice try at normalizing gay romance, but the film making needs the erotic and spiritual masculine energy of great gay cinema.

Excuse me, OUT, but why does a "gay" film need to be loaded with erotica and  masculine energy? 

Akron is one of a growing number of non-stereotypical movies that avoid the bar scene -- loners over pin ball machines,  hustlers working the room, riff raff casing it, couples in for a drink or for a  late night take-out to share.  I could list many other such films that are casting gay relationships in Normal Town, USA. 

I watched in the Specials section of the DVD, the writer and co-director Brian O'Donnell discussing the reception they got while filming in Akron, his own hometown.  The people, he said, who knew what they were up to, could not have been nicer.

And isn't that itself a great advance?

A few other fine films on Netflix I can recommend:

Call Me By Your Name
Holding the Man
In Bloom

Can you believe this: I am writing this during the latest Smut & Smear Circus in DC, too sick of the whole disgusting mess to have the TV on.  Silent it will stay.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Falling Faster than Big Tops: The Circus Blogs

One of the fallen: Steve Copeland and Ryan  Combs

 How lonely it feels, surfing the remains of once-active circus blogs.  Too many of them are now but abandoned graveyards for yesteryear’s postings.

In fact, most of them have died.  Some due to the bloggers passing away, but where is a new generation of big top bloggers to fill the gap? 

* Most disappointing  no-shows, not heard from since last August, the blog of Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs. We know they are still out there entertaining, currently at the Circus World Museum.  They were my favorite blog during their heyday blogging  years when they toured with Kelly-Miller. Steve's daily postings put us on the lot in real time. His candor could cause sparks to fly.  In recent years, he would periodically put out very long catch-up postings.   They were way too long for me to get hooked on.

His last posting, last August, ended thus:

"I think that is about it for now.  I'll see you next week when our summer season is finished and I have my first chance to sleep since may!  Peace!"

I wonder what happened on his way to next week?

* Wade Burcks Circus no Spin zone. gone since March 2016.

Doc’s Midway Cookhouse, gone

* Last updated,  December 27: Paul Binder’s blog. A sad puzzling mystery to me why he had not posted anything about what the new Big Apple Circus offered New Yorkers last October.   He worked so hard to keep it going to the bitter end.  The silence suggests — well, no, I had better not go there  either.  There is enough conjecture out there parading shamelessly as fact..

Circus Anonymous, last posting -  December 24

Remember Pat Cashin?  Dick Dykes?  Jack Ryan and others?  Many long-gone blogs are still listed on Ken Young’s Circus Links .  It, too, appears to have ceased updating.

I can’t bring myself to remove those blogs from the right sidebar.  The void would be too  painful a reflection of our drastically shrinking American circus scene.(May we once more collectively boo  Kenneth Feld?)

Still open for business:

Jim’s My Days Are Circus Days, bright and colorful

Circus and Fairground Art, rich in art work

Circus blog, a charmer

Circuses and Sideshows, kind of

Buckles blog – He was been counted down and maybe out two times in recent years.  But returns with the help of others.

John Towsen’s All Fall Down 

I am starting to wonder what I am still doing out here on this decimated midway.  Will I be the last one out of the tent?  That would be too chilling for me to handle.

Bottom line: I continue to believe, that without a culture of open discussion  and debate within the circus community as freely exists among other entertainment fan bases and media coverage, there will never be the drive to nurture and embrace  circus blogging.

All those wonderful pictures of past glories can only go so far.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Morning Midway: Next up From Big Apple Circus -- Lean Lineup Has Russian Artistry, Tuniziani Double Trap, Vidbel Animals, New Clowns and Ringmaster

Returning to Big Apple Circus: Desire of Flight.

So, how do they look on paper?  Make that on You Tube, where I’ve watched clips of all  the acts in previous performances.

Six acts are listed on Broadway.Com — not counting animals and clowns -- suggesting a Cirque du Apple in the making.  This leaves me a bit skeptical, the reason concerning heavy-handed ballet interludes and operatic music that can soften if not emasculate the potential impact of strong tanbark action. The six:

Desire of Flight, with Melfina Abakarova and Valery Sychev on straps, is justly revered.  They first appeared on Big Apple Circus in 2012, and won a Gold Clown at Monte Carlo in 2014.   The team offer a killer payoff when they connect only by their ankles.  No mechanics here. This is the real thing, and is sure to wow the crowd.

Duo Fusion by Virginia Tuells and husband Ihosvanys Perez, an overly muscular contortion workout, to my jaded eyes (if I never see another contortion act in my life, I won't feel deprived).  Which does not mean it won't impress the crowd.  American audiences really lap this stuff up. Slow slow slow.

Horizontal juggling by Victor Moiseev, all very mystically staged, with large balls floating through space,  away from and back to Victor so smoothy and perfectly as to feel more cinematic than human.  The essentially one-theme act turns a tad repetitious.  However, depending on how it's staged, this could be another big wow.
Away from the cerebral, other three acts promise more old fashion action:  At the top of the list, a double trapeze by the Tunizianis, which I hope means two simultaneous triples up there, like they did for Ringling on its way out of this world.  Now, that's a major thrill.  Ammed will still  be turning or attempting the quad.  Promo claims the feat has been "only successfully landed by ten people in the world." This would be like claiming the Unus' one finger stand to have been accomplished by only  ten others.   Duh?  Who is in charge of ballyhoo on this show??? 

Free-standing ladder balancing by the Emil Faltyny.  It’s a good enough act, but I'd far rather see the kid Wesley Williams, who offers more and with such youthful gusto -- an element I don't feel much of in this program.  Remember GUSTO?

What does promise to humor the house are the Spicy Circus gals, who cavort playfully from a trampoline, bouncing up and onto and off walls.  It's ladies day this year at Big Apple, with the distaff side being played up in press releases.

Of course,  offerings from the clowns -- Mark Gindick and Adam Kuchler -- and from the Vidbel dogs may bring sufficient levity to the intensely introspective moments. Returning to direct is  Mark Lonergan; to lead the music,  Rob Slowick.  New to the ringmaster's whistle will be  Stephanie Monseu.

Yes, I am, you realize I trust, speculating.

On balance or off, I'd venture to guess they have a potentially more entertaining program ambitiously in the works. But they need to hold back on the artsy asides and operatic music that may come with these brooding Russians. How I'd love hearing Ravel's Bolero* during The Desire of Flight. Last time I heard that at a circus, Clyde Beatty was pacing the big cats through their routines over sawdust -- not exactly on pointe.

* I have an even better number, just heard on our jazz station here:  the moody Poinsettia.  Anything to give the weeping violins a rest.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The Wall Street Journal Reviewed or Did Not Review Big Apple Circus? Here is How Each Replied to My Request for Comment

For the background to this, see the post that follows below.   

To The Wall Street Journal:

I decided it best to begin with Charles Passy, who the wrote Journal article.  I sent him a link, and wrote:

I am hoping you will consider answering the following two questions:

1.  Is the Wall Street Journal aware of this?

2.  If so, how would it explain allowing for such?

In addition, I would welcome any comments you may have

From the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Passy replied almost immediately:

“Wow, that’s pretty amazing.  When I used to be a reviewer, I was accustomed to critiques being taken out of context, but this is a whole other thing.

Thanks for bringing to our attention.  I’ll alert editors and let them decide if they want to follow up.”

To the Big Apple Circus:

Their website gives three contact e-mail addresses.  I addressed my request to two of them — Inquiries and Creative Director:

I refer you to the posting I did on the Wall Street Journal quotes about last year’s show, as they appear on your website. I would welcome your comment.  Am I wrong?  Might you have made made arrangements with the Wall Street Journal to quote from the article?  Thank you for your anticipated reply.

From the Big Apple Circus.

So far, nothing. 

I did notice yesterday, when trying to pull up their website, that you are sent directly  to Ticketmaster for sales.  The website itself appears to be totally missing in action.

Speculating, it seems most likely to me that either.

1.  Big Apple Circus publicists quoted the article without permission, and, if the Journal noticed it by accident, they did not take the time to realize what had actually happened, or looked the other way.

2.  Through possible inside connections with the Journal, Big Apple Circus secured, or thought they secured, permission to use the quotes.

It is impossible for me to believe that the Journal, which employs some of the best critics out there, would condone such a thing.


Solved: The Mysterious Origins of a Wall Street Journal "Review" of The Big Apple Circus

Last fall, when the new Big Apple Circus opened in New York, naturally I wanted to see the reviews.   There were only a few of them from major publications, and the show posted excerpts from them on its very impressive website, the quotes appearing one after another in a kind of stream.   
I had already read The New York Times notice, which I I have discussed here several times.

One in particular, from The Wall Street Journal, stood out on the Big Apple Circus website.   “It’s the most star studded show!  The most daring feats in the world.”

Phantom review

I’d call that a flat-out rave, and so I goggled it up, hoping to read the complete notice, ready to be awed.  But no matter how hard I tried, I could not find a review from the Wall Street Journal.  The only thing I could find was a story in advance of the opening.  And it was impossible to read the item, for soon after its appearance on my screen, a large “subscribe-now” ad blocked most of the screen, obscuring  my view of the story.

Okay, I let go.  For a time, I wondered if Big Apple had informally secured the quotes from a Wall Street Journal staffer who had seen the show and gave  his or  her permission to quote.  Those words — “the most star-studded show!” —  did not come out of nowhere.  Somebody had to have written them.

Advance to the present.  I have been lately looking at the Big Apple Circus website, interested to see what they might announce for their new show due out this October.   Each time you log in, you will see the same quotes that were used last year from the reviews.  Thus, I again  faced the confounding WSJ mystery:   Why can’t I find an actual review in the Journal?

Goggling in the dark

So, this time, about ready to give up,  I goggled a few of the words quoted by Big Apple Circus along with  "Wall Street Journal".  The story with which I was already familiar but had never been able to read in full again popped up.  And I spotted a few of my search words -- maybe they did review -- only to lose them when  the large Subscribe-Now ad blocked me out.  I had to get back in there and get more.

Feeling like the fashion photographer in Antonion’s film Blowup,  who studies enlarged photographs of shots he took in a park where a murder had been committed, I was scanning my pc screen as fast as I could each time I got the Journal story back up, only in seconds to be blocked out again by the the Subscribe-Now ad.  I linked off and  back on, and hurried to scan more words. I repeated this furious chase over and over, each time racing across text to find where I had been the previous time in order to read more: "put on one of the most star-studded shows ..."  It was a review.

Shocking discovery

Or was it? Ad block!  Out and back in: “For its return, the Big Apple Circus says it will put on one of  most  star studded shows since it began four decades ago ... The show features two of the most daring acts in the circus world -- the quad on the trapeze and the seven person pyramid on the high wire.  ‘We wanted to make sure we had the best show we could put together,’ said Neil Kahanovitz.’”

Jackpot!  Nailed!  From the boss himself.  And then, why hadn't I thought of this until now, I took screen shots of the text with  my iPhone.  So now I have the complete text.  And by now, too, that obnoxious ad gave up on me, and left me alone.  Out of robotic respect?

The story itself was written by Wall Street Journal staffer Charles Passy, who was in no way reviewing a circus yet to open, but passing along what he had been told about it by its management   “The Big Apple circus says.”  .

Double Duplicity 

So, here we have one extraordinary deception: a  circus quoting itself from a story in which it is quoted, and then framing its own quotes to appear as excerpts from a review by somebody else in the very same publication.

And yet another deception.  Note how Big Apple Circus edited  its own quote to make it appear even stronger:

What the Journal wrote: "one of its most star studded shows."

How Big Apple changed the wording": "it's most star-studded show!"

Mystery solved. And what a shock.  I can’t recall false advertising ever stooping to so shameful a low, not just under the big tops, but all along the entertainment spectrum.   I doubt that even Irvin Feld would have had the nerve to try bringing off such a brazen appropriation.  And if the Wall Street Journal actually approved of this, they come off looking equally duplicitous.

Fake media captured  

The whole thing  causes me to wonder about a number of things I have here addressed about the new Big Apple Circus last year, not the least being the New York Times giving the show a Critics Pick when its critic gave it a  ho-hum write up, at best.   And to wonder about inside connections, etc and why, when interviewed by chirpy Anthony Mason of CBS and then later, by the Washington Business Journal, Kahanovitz was never once asked by either for attendance figures or profits earned.  Not even from a "business" journal?

Hyperbole has always been a factor in circus ballyhoo, and something the public has looked for, and enjoyed, despite grumbling about it.  Ballyhoo is a form of courtship, which is why reputable objective reviews from reputable sources play an even more important role than ever before.  Beware of fake reviews.

 From The Wall Street Journal story, High Wire Act for Big Apple Circus,  October 26,   2017

As posted on Big Apple Circus website


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John Ringling North's Cavalcade of the Centaurs at the 1939 New York's World Fair, was the site of a beauty contest televised locally.

Watching the magic box in its inaugural 1948 season.

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

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Outrageous charmer: Liberace dazzles Americans with keyboard virtuosity.

Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on The Honeymooners.

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 Elvis Presley shakes up the Ed Sullivan Show.

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

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

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Thursday, August 30, 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.
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.