Big Top Tycoon on Top - the Heyday Years at Ringling

Big Top Tycoon on Top - the Heyday Years at Ringling
John Ringling North, Circa 1949, at the Garden. The juggler is Francis Brunn, who held me spellbound like no other single artist I have ever witnessed. The aerialist, I guess, would be Antoinette Concello

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hang up Now! Kelly Miller Phone Room Shocker - Telemarketers Spooked by Violent Threats - Sponsoring Jaycees Cancel Shows

Nasty threats bordering on gun violence rocked and shocked the Hugo-based telemarketing lines of Kelly Miller Circus pitching tickets for its date in South Russell, Ohio to local businesses.  Story reported by Patrick Cooley on Cleveland.Com.  

But when questioned about the names of those called, the telephone solicitors could not recall.  Nor could an investigation by the Chagrin Falls Police Department yield any leads.

How very Strange.

It simply does not make sense for the telemarketers not to know whom they were calling--- unless they were using automatic mass dialing systems, in which case they must have been dialing beyond local retail shops, into homes.

Why the threats?  Were they from people who simply did not wish to be bothered by yet another solicitation?  I can’t imagine a locally based business reacting in so reckless a manner.

Or, might the threats have come from somebody connected to an animal-rights group?  In fact, Cooley's story noted that animal rights advocate Linda Hernandez of Solon, OH,  had launched a petition on to ban Kelly Miller from South Russell.  

And so the Jaycees, their nerves understandably rattled, canceled the date.  When I contacted Kelly Miller general manger James Royal about the matter, he replied that the story and angle “was from a sponsor who acted in haste, and didn't report the facts.”

The story, in fact, had caught my attention, not because of the animal angle, but because I had nearly forgotten that there are still phone rooms in operation.  Yes, naive of me.  And so I e-mailed Jim, sharing with him my view that telephone sales may be key to how the show continues to stay on the road despite puzzling evidence from a variety of sources suggesting that attendance is lackluster.   

At the time, Jim was on his way to participate in the World Circus Summit in MA, but promised to respond in greater detail.  And he did.  Here, in his own words:

“Regarding telemarketing, the era of big promotions is long gone.  There was a time when day and night rooms could keep a show on the road, but not anymore.  We use a very small operation that sells discounted children’s tickets to businesses.  A large portion of our dates are repeats, so the local companies know this is a good way to help the local sponsor and buy reduced price tickets.  These tickets are mostly used by the companies, although some are returned to the sponsors. If we were to rely on phone sales as the major source of income, the show would still be sitting in Hugo.  It is just another tool in marketing mix”

Royal would only describe business this season as "not terrible, not great."

“Still sitting in Hugo.”  Okay, so there is still the nagging issue of all those empty chairs, and the tempting rationale to follow the phones.  I am no stranger to the power of advance “boiler room” operations to keep circuses solvent even when the "customers" don't come.

Boiler Rooms from Hell, there was a day, and I was there ...     
When I was working as press agent for Sid Kellner’s James Bros Circus in 1969,  upon my entering St. Louis, I received word from the front office to refrain from any and all publicity efforts.  No trying to get performers on TV or radio. DON’T.  No ads; at least, keep them to the smallest size with very few placements.

Why?  Seems the phone room had so outlandishly oversold tickets, they feared  that even should a fraction of those tickets end up in the hands of people wishing to see the circus, the building might overflow quickly, and the sham promotion would be exposed.

Ah yes, back then, boiler rooms ran rampant through the notorious 1970s, in many ways the worst decade in American circus history.

Kelly Miller phones rooms, a far cry?  I suppose they are, but I have a feeling they are more critical to John Ringling North II’s sentimental journey than James Royal would have us believe.

END RINGERS: In my correspondence with Jim, I also asked him, in two different e-mails, two questions.  1.  Whatever happened to ringmaster John Moss. 2.  Does he see the Ringling elephant retirement issue eventually effecting his own show in the future.

He declined to comment on either.

Finally, for a good tickle.  Among 100 comments left at the end of the Cleveland.Com story, there was this, which I offer with no implied connection to any particular party.

"Progressives go to Mars for candy bars; conservatives go to Jupiter to get stupider."

Well, South Russell, wherever you are or go, you do have a refreshing sense of humor.

"When grift went out, the phones came in"

   -- Arthur Concello, as quoted in my book Inside the Changing Circus

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Send in the Nuns When the Clowns Can't Make 'Em Laugh

Long interesting story in the Wash Post about Sister Dorothy Fabritze, who gives Communion at five different circuses, currently traveling with a sister companion, Mary Seibert, from one show to another.  To reach Kelly Miller, they follow the arrows.  Such true sawdust saints, they!

Sister Fabritze started out 16 years ago spending all her days on the Ringling show, but now she shares her faith with many other believers or spiritual seekers on smaller shows.  Blessed are the humble, out of their spangles.

Greatest Mass on Earth: Ringing believers await the sisters 

On Kelly Miller, the sister's most avid listener of the moment is Finnish ventriloquist Sebastian, a European import by John Ringling North II, who works with his puppet Hector and who describes himself an "inquirer.”  (Hector is apparently abstaining).   It seems the two are not always making them laugh, and the silence of a crowd, to be expected inside a chapel, can be traumatic under a tent.  Writes Post reporter, Abby Ohlheiser,  Sebastian  "killed [em?] in the Rio Grande Valley. But last week in New Jersey, “it was very difficult,” revealed Sebastian.  A true confession from a true pro.

On the road with altar to go:  the two sisters in their sanctuary on wheels

After spending an hour with Sister Fabritze,  Sebastian, maybe a convert, maybe not, needed to be up and out -- to get ready to do his act.  Another crowd. Another chance to entertain.

The visiting Sister offered the humble ventriloquist  her daily blessing, tailor made just for him: “Make ’em laugh.”

If he can, perhaps our touring nun has one more for the flock

Thanks to  Don Covington, who sent  me the Post story
Top two photos from Washington Post
Photo of Sebastian, by Rick Purdue

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pissed Off Pachyderm Pitches Parked Auto in Denmark ... or, Was He Just Wanting a Taxi?

Fuzzy details on CBS News.  Seems, if I got the drift, a perception that the elephant did not welcome the attentions of some Denmark circusgoers.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Circus Bella Spreads a Gentle Magic Over Summer Grass


Here are some pics I took of Oakland's own Circus Bella, at the town's Mosswood Park, on July 3rd.  The park is only a short walk from where I live.

A cat who stole the show:  First number out was warmly amusing. We see a stranded cat atop the pole.  Several performers try in vain to rescue the morose puffer, who reacts with a repertoire of squeaky meows, as if either fearing for its life --- or resisting rescue.  Finally, the show's merry jester, Calvin Kai Ku, tries his luck ...

And... succeeds!  A genuinely funny little gag that struck me as an instant clown classic.

As usual, group juggling, directed by Pickle Family Circus vet Judy Finelli, was the highlight of the show.

The spirited Bella band, again ingeniously directed by Rob Reich through his own original score, has a whimsical way of seeming to comment on some of the acts in a very personal manner, at times addressing every move with a specific reaction, slyly shaded with comedic undertones.  All of which helps Bella, in its best frames, take on a Fellini-esque spirit.  Remarkable moments, those. 

Circus Bella gives a dozen or so free summer shows throughout the Bay Area.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Showbiz David's Carny Classics Play YouTube

Happy July Fourth!
This Way to My Century of Thrills Amusement Park! 

Ride the Big Dipper roller coaster ... The Whip ... Tilt-a-Whirl ... Ferris Wheel ... the Swings and the Thimble Theatre fun house!

The first image you will see is of my Uncle Smity atop a Merry-Go-Round horse

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Showbiz David Goes YouTube! And He's Laffing in the Dark

A momentous thing just happened.  I was able to upload a simple video made during an early construction phase of my scale model Laff-in-the-Dark Ride

I"m out there in You Tube Land!

Here is a link to my first humble offering:

This was a trial run.  I have a DVD of my entire Century of Thrills amusement park, which includes five classic rides in operation.  Among them, the Big Dipper roller coaster, The Whip and the Tilt-A-Whirl.  Yes, they ALL move as in real life.   This may take some time to figure out how to convert it some file that You Tube recognizes.

Then, too, I will make one of the front end of Laff-in-the-Dark.

BTW: the drive belt, which I said came out of a model airplane kit. No, it came from a motor in an inkjet.

I feel like a kid with the smartest new toy under the tree.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Out of the Past: A Midway of Boyhood Ghosts ...

Carnies enjoy early morning coffee and donuts.

A peek at my favorite ride, The Whip. Watching it being laid out and assembled was a production. I loved the harsh heavy industrial music of its moving parts, the sudden jerking thrust of the cars rumbling around corners.

The old Ferris wheel turned with an almost graceful lilt.

My favorite attraction was the quaint Thimble Theatre fun house. The spooky dark walk-through labyrinth on the top floor. The grinding shuffle boards below. The air blast under skirts, and the collapsing floor section just before exit.

The classic Tilt-A-Whirl, about as perfectly designed a thrill ride as ever hit the midway, justly survives into the modern era. Its genius to me is shared by very few rides -- it delivers unpredictable action.

Instant fan: Thunderbolt of surprise for my friend Boyi, who knew virtually nothing of my model building and had never seen this when he's visited me, because the rides have been packed away for over three years. After work last Sunday he dropped by, having only been told "I think you will be surprised." I turned a switch and Century of Thrills came to life, five rides simultaneously. Boyi was ecstatic. "A triple triple plus!!!!!" he exclaimed, overcome with my scratch-built quarter-inch spectacle. What a pleasure when somebody so joyfully overwhelmed appreciates what you've achieved. And what a bummer: I had his immediate reaction on a video, I thought. But I hadn't clicked my camera onto the film icon!

Four rides -- The Whip, Tilt-A-Whirl, Ferris Wheel and Swings operate perfectly. 100% More than I could ever say for my Big Dipper roller coaster, a grand champ of derailments. Once upon a time, it might circle the track nine out of ten times. Not lately. I've accepted its chronic imperfections, but still soldier on, fixing this over here only to be vexed by that over there. BTW: Among others, Paul Horseman was of immense help to me on the Whip and the Wheel when I built the park (1990-2003). I'd like to add a boat ride, if I could bring off a little big splash when it hits the water. And figure out a way to get the tubs back around and connected to the lift chain.

I'm keeping Century of Thrills open up until my niece Lisa and her little boy Noah visit in August. Then down it goes so that I can lay out the roller coaster, section by section, and embark yet on a new set of prospective solutions to make the track and the train that travels it more compatible partners. Finally, I've accepted the coaster as being a permanent "work in progress." The impossible dream lives on ...

Originally posted on July 21, 2010 

Below: My New Laff in the Dark, completed in May, 2015

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Growing up in the Shadows of Playland at the Beach: The Ocean Roared ... The Big Dipper Clattered ... And Through the Fog We Romped

I was raised across the street from the Big Dipper.  So many photos and videos about Playland have surfaced in recent years.  And what wonderful memories they stir!

Proudly he stands, top of the photo, my Uncle Smity (William Smit), directly above park owner George K. Whintey, with Whitney's son, George, Jr. to Uncle Smitty's left.  This revelatory photo, new to my eyes, appeared in a great new book by James. R. Smith about the history of the park, Playland at the Beach: The Early Years (and a second volume, The Golden Years).  And it shows me how important a figure was my uncle to the Whitney brothers, who owned  and operated Playland as one of the classiest amusement parks in the nation.  

Up goes the Big Dipper, 1922.  It only took them a few weeks.  Uncle Smitty, who at the time was managing the Merry-Go-Round, took on management of the Big Dipper as well, a position he held for the ride's entire career.  It came down in 1956. 

A great coaster it was.  It's most thrilling drop was the second one, seen below, which traversed the entire length of the ride.  I took this shot when Uncle Smitty invited me, one day before the ride opened,  to go inside and walk around.

This horrendous second dive gave you a feeling that you were crashing down into and through a forest of white lumber!  Nothing in any other coaster I have sampled could quite compare.  

Dangerous Walk:  My Uncle Jack, one day while working on the track before the Big Dipper was  about to open, did not hear the first train coming down the first dip, and was struck by the first car, resulting in his left leg having to be amputated.   Uncle Smitty once told me that, during the lifetime of the Dipper, some ten or eleven people were killed (or injured), if I heard him right.  Almost always from some reckless punk standing up in a car to show off.

1949: Playland thrived weekends and holidays, the park and beach drawing up to 50,000 people a day.  Its best years were the war years.  Sometimes the sun actually came out!  To the far left, above, you can see Skateland-at-the-Beach.  A great roller rink.  After heating up our bodies rolling round and round for a couple of hours, we exulted, upon exit, in the fresh salt air!  Walked down the street to the pie shop for a sit down, to eat and gossip and laugh.

You can see the Dutch Windmill in the distance, beyond the Big Dipper.  And beyond the Dutch, there's the Murphy.

It's all gone today, replaced by architecturally sterile condos and a large Safeway. How insultingly drab for a world class city of rare charms.

On many days, the chronically pervasive fog made Playland a grey land

A fun house like NONE OTHER:  Was there ever one to match Playland's?  You think that's the slide?  No, that's the little slide.  Look below.  We ran up over rambling boards to reach the top of the Great Slide, hustled our bodies onto gunny sacks and careened down like giddy birds in low flight.  I've been to Coney, and to the others.  I've looked at photos and You Tubes,  and have never found a fun house so generously endowed with so many amusing things to do. 

When it opened, the failed to slide right.  Too George Whitney went my Uncle Smitty, thinking he could fix the problem.  Please, go ahead, said George.  In short order, the slides worked.

The Laff in the Dark did not circle around inside a single dark room or expanded carny truck, but followed a long snake-like tunnel, so that you had a true feeling of actually moving through a spooky tunnel.  My father, an electrician, installed many of the scare devices -- skeletons that popped out,  the sound of crashing dishes as the car pushed through a door.

Playland offered many standard rides, like the old Tumble Bug, the classic Tilt-A-Whirl and the Octopus, the Roll-O-Plane and the Caterpillar.  

Such a dreary midway it was under the ocean fog.  But that did not stop us from going.  Open every day, noon to midnight, they advertised. On cold damp nights, the crowd(s) retreated, I assume, under cover at the games, and inside the fun house, where you could stay as long as you wished.  We ran up wobbly stairs, gazed at our distorted figures in crazy mirrors, rode rocking horses and dared walking through the barrel of fun.

If you are interested in the history of Playland, I can't recommended Mr. Smith's books enough. I once harbored half a desire to write a history myself;  I could never have brought off what Smith has so magnificently achieved -- his two books are deliciously rich and thorough in photos, coverage, design drawings and more.

Many in my father' side of the family worked at Playland.  The woman, below, in the overcoat is my Aunt Olga, who married Uncle Smitty. For a time, the two lived over the Merry-Go-Round.  They ended up owning their own home only two blocks away.

And here, below, is another photo of Uncle Smitty, during Playland's declining years.  Such a true gentleman whenever I paid him and Aunt Olga a visit.  Best of all, just as I was about to leave, he would always rise from his chair, walk over to a closet in the hall, reach up and take down a strip of free tickets to all the rides!   Among his many talents, he kept the mechanical organs and instruments on the Merry-Go-Round tuned up and going.  From Holland, he was a quiet-spoken and even tempered man, far closer to an engineer than to a midway barker. 

Many great cities have retained their amusement parks.  Sadly, not San Francisco.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

More Pin Pricks in Space: A Sci-Fi Thriller that Fails Its Tragic Potential

Last night, while riveted to a film of mounting suspense, Europa Report, I had not felt this enthralled with science fiction in space since, as a kid, watching Destination Moon.  And I started imagining a great tragic story of human folly in the making: Space ship destined for Jupiter's moon ends up stranded in a hostile environment while coming upon evidence that there is, indeed, life out there — at least a blobby form of it lurking under ice.  And the entire crew, consumed by alien forces or its own misadventures, never returns.

The only evidence of the doomed mission would be visuals transmitted back to earth of a creepy creature bearing light bulb eyes and the physique of an octopus.

That would have been a powerful end.  But, no, it had to be another example of American — or should I merely say scientific? —  triumphalism. Look, see!  There are signs of life!  Frozen water!  We must keep probing!   Surely, we will ultimately find half-way hospitable landscapes to develop!  Ice Condos!  Even living things amenable to cross-planetary communication!  So, bring back NASA! 

Yes, bring back NASA and make a few more futile pin pricks in space. And bankrupt what's left of the U.S. economy.

Here on earth, the brainy brigades still dream of conquering a corner of the outer worlds, of laying claim to barren real estate and luring to it earthlings seeking escape from the mounting hells of war-torn Planet Earth.  And the same thing won't happen out there?

First of all, we would have to get out there. Please feel free to laugh -- or scream -- along with me as I ponder all the billions, if not trillions of dollars, it would cost to even bring off Stage One of such  a ridiculously esoteric adventure.

Pin pricks in space.

When real astronauts landed on the Moon in 1969, yes, I was as thrilled as everybody else.  But that was yesterday.   Today and tomorrow, have we not yet learned, should look much different, should they not?

All the tiny years later, I am no longer a space age dreamer.  Where will it get us?  How much will it cost?   How many infinities will it take to stake out claims, tame the land and build the protective bubbles to contain the doomed dreamers?

Pin heads in space.

Could have been a great movie.  Although, I’m not sure how it would have played on Jupiter's moon.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Joy in Oakland -- Almost! The Hoop Circus Knocks Another Win for the Hometown Boys ... I'm Feeling Giddy and Glorious

And I don't even watch the games!!! 

But sometime after they are over, I hear about it on the news.  Just now, this AM, learned about it on TV.  Three games down, one to go!

Yes, right here in my own backyard.  Exciting to anticipate positive coverage, for a change.  Don't know how it's gone, at all.  You might have been shown views of lovely Lake Merritt, around which I have walked probably hundreds of times.

If you see an old three-story Victorian, edge of the lake, with three turrets on the roof, I once lived in a third floor studio just under one, and there I wrote my first book, Behind the Big Top.

If you happen to see the old Oakland Auditorium, on the south end of the lake,  that was the best place to see, indoors, the Ringling show.  It sat around six or seven thousand at the most; perfect size; would be ever better today than watching the show in the oppressively huge and dark arena, where the NBA finals will begin.  So dark and night cluby in there, I hate the place.

Doubt I'll be watching the hoop-diving stuff. Not a fan. 

But what a high, getting the kind of coverage this town deserves -- if, in fact, that happens.

It took East Coast Eyes  -- The New York Times, a few years back, to come out here and be very impressed and call Oakland the "Brooklyn" of the Bay Area.

I'll take that.

Even over in "The City" (San Francisco), we are getting a little respect.  SF seems to live in fear of its lofty status being knocked down a peg or two.  Not likely.

Did I show a snide lack of respect up there?  Gradually, it is nesting in my noggin that these basketball players, whomever they are, are one terrific tribe.  Maybe they will decide to remain in Oaktown, as the local boys call it, rather than defect to a new arena promised them by a much  bigger city -- Yes, the one incessantly in love with itself, where to live there, you have to be either very rich or very poor -- across the bay.

I took this picture several years ago.  The one above is not mine.