Good morning, Monday. I now think I have amassed enough video evidence out there in You Tube land to form an opinion of the new show, which opened last October in New York, and is still on the road, next stop, Philly. This is NOT a review, but my best guess at to its overall quality.
That said, it's possible that the better parts of some of these acts were not filmed, in which case, my remarks would be premature.
This post was hastened by my discovery of two You Tubes, apparently taken by patrons in the audience (if not plants), each around eight minutes long. Against these, there are the video teases on the BAC website. And there are the words of new BAC boss, Neil Kahnovitz, over the past few months to media, alluding to a performance that he likes to think is “superior” to what went before. At least one of the notices more or less conveyed the same impression. All of which, in my opinion, shows an astonishing disregard for the legacy of Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, who co- founded “New York’s own” back in 1977 and who were prone to present, overall, a higher caliber of acts, many of world class stature.
Based upon everything I have heard and read, and, most of all, what I have have seen on You Tube, this Big apple Circus is a skeleton of its former self.
Yes, a few of the acts impress, as we would expect . I think I saw Ammed Tuniziani turn the quad, his lean streaming form as powerfully commanding as that of Miguel Vazquez. And I saw the Wallenda 7-high walk, seen above, which felt more like a militaristic sprint across the wire in order to get there as fast as possible and avoid the unthinkable. When I was a kid, seems the Wallendas took a slower, more majestic walk that prolonged and intensified the tension.
Other highlights? The most riveting moment, in my book, would go to juggler Gamal Garcia Tunizini, whose brilliant ball bouncing exploits earn center ring respect.
The Anastasini brothers turn in a solid enough risely workout, although the extent of its variety is hard to estimate.
Okay, as for the rest: What to get excited about?.
Roller skating? The rolla bolla? The bow and arrow? One might wish to argue technical content in any of these. That does not necessarily make them all that exciting to watch. Jenny Vidbel’s horses prance about pleasantly, and her dogs are pleasant too. I have seen far more engaging dog acts. Vidbel once impressed me with her oddball collection of unlikely critters, including a skunk, and of how she produced some rare combos, such as, I recall, a goat riding a horse. I loved that stuff, and assume it is now gone. She appears now to be temporizing over her every move, as if living in fear that she will be the next PETA target. This action is timid. Great circus is not timid.
Grandma is gone. I found a video of Bary Lubin’s water gag. Very funny — in spots, and so very long as to make too much of the spiting in gushes redundant. What I always liked the most about Grandma was (1) her mere endearing presence. and (2) her more quickly executed gags. The more she lingers, the less she appeals.
Costumes are not memorable. Some of the music is.
Is that all there is? The overwhelming impression I get is of a skimpy lineup.
What Came Before
In years gone by: The Dusov Troupe
From Dance On! The Kenyan Boys, above
The Wuqiano Acrobatic Troupe, below
I thought back upon some great Big Apple shows I have seen in recent years: Picturesque and Dance On! I went back to take another look at my DVD of 1989's Grandma Goes West. That program is generously stocked with first-rate performers. Among them, the most gifted and human-like elephant I have ever seen: Is that Benny Williams working Ana May? Lord of Circus Gods above! Miracle of miracles! What an inspiring collaboration between man and beast! This is unreal. This is surreal. This is, drop dead, a revelation. Show that clip to parents and kids, and then ask them ...
In contrast to the above, some if not many of the acts in the current edition I would expect to find on smaller shows.
Coddled by the Times, Snubbed by the Post and the Daily News
Finally, I returned to the New York Times review, which drove a group of outraged fans over the edge, blasting reviewer Alexis Soloski as being totally unqualified I will once again challenge those same malcontents to read the very positive Times review of the previous BAC show (The Grand Tour), written by the same critic. Was she equally inept when she wrote that review?
Ms. Soloski it seems, was not too impressed with what she saw at Lincoln Center last October. But instead of being more direct in her appraisal, she issued little digs. And this plays into my theory that the Times decided in advance to give BAC a glowing pass. They had the carping report from Soloski to deal with, and so they held back on printing it for a week or so, and then gave the show a pre-ordained critics pick. (Curiously, neither the Post nor the Daily News reviewed the show.)
I think Soloski got it right when she signed off, “Might as well take a bite.”
Let’s look to October, to see what kind of a program Dr. Kahnovitz can bring off next, assuming a second season is in the works. He has stated that they did not have the advance time needed to book the best acts for this, their first outing. Okay, doc, what next have you to offer? I would suggest looking beyond our borders.
First Draft Furious: Getting ready to hit the rails, I was drawn to a Dell dazzler (if the reviews are to be believed) called XPS 13. Very light weight, and that’s mostly what I wanted. Also, connection to the net -- I avoid going near the net with my beloved 10-year-old Dell 14" Vostro laptop with Windows XP -- no longer supported by Microsoft.
Came the XPS and with it, Windows 10. And with it, all sorts of overactive little devils. First to annoy me, a new visitor called Cortana, who pops up anywhere, anytime, asking me if I need her assistance. Trouble is, I could not get rid of this annoyance. So I called Dell. A very nice tech lady, I’d say somewhere on the planet (have they outsourced yet to Mars?) struggled with such devotion to banish Cortana from my life. It appeared to work. For a few microseconds. No, this crap app would now and then still find corners or groves through which to sneak in, such as, horror of horrors, while I was trying a current version of Microsoft Word. Yes, while trying to write, there she was: "Hey there! What's up?"
More problems. Cutting to my rant: Windows 10 must be the worst of all operating systems every foisted upon the fickle public. I refuse to be fickle. I called up Dell. There were other problems, such as trying to press the X on the upper right corner of those annoying window ads, only to watch them refuse to leave. After a million punches, they left. Which makes me wonder: Are those concessions paying Dell to freeze them for so many minutes, thus holding me captive, until then leaving?
I called Dell to return. They could not have been nicer. The very idea of my sacred privacy while writing (or trying to) being invaded at will by Ms. Cortana still leaves me outraged.
What I most looked forward to, over hot rails, was blogging from XPS 13 dot dot dot. I will be instead traveling with my trusty Vostro Windows XP, only for my typewriter. And I will NEVER take my Vostro near the internet (you know its dangerous with the Microsoft updates no longer there), let alone within shooting range of Cortana — assuming she has not all ready been digitally gunned down.
War of the Apps. Might it be that you heard that phrase here for the first time? May I then take a provisional bow -- wow wow?
Big idea: surely, out there in Silicon valley where the average salary is well over one hundred grand a year, there lurks a genius who can invent the app that will fill in for what Microsoft does when it sends out updates and patches -- until it ceases to, so that we who love XP and even Widows 7 can keep our gadgets protected forever.
Yeah, I know, instant death for an industry that survives on tomorrow's new iWhatever.
So, copy this to a USB, take it to my desktop and blogger it out.
What a time I would have had blogging like this over hot rails. No, we're talking Amtrak. Make them there rails rocky light.
When I read Ben Trumble’s Mud Show blog, mostly because (like the old Billboard magazine) it reports day to day business on the Kelly-Miller lot, I almost feel like a circus owner being apprised by an employee on how (maybe) not to run my show.
Trumble, who himself aspires to own a circus, not only reveals crowd trends (so far this season, from spotty and sparse to the occasional straw house), but unstintingly shares his theories with us about what a good booking agent might do to avoid dry markets and concentrate on harvest dates. He praises the old-era advance men for savvy research. But they too erred. Tent trouping has never been easy.
Says Ben, for example: “Business continues to be off in rural small town MI. A year ago the economic data for MI pointed to a rough time of it outside the metro- Detroit suburbs. The collapse in housing values in MI rivals declines in parts of California and Florida. That creates a credit crunch arriving at the same time as a slump in MI manufacturing. Not exactly sure why so few shows actually look at localized economic and demographic data in booking.”
Aside from arguing, incorrectly I believe, that “for the last hundred years ... we put on a show to sell popcorn and elephant rides”(elephant rides the last hundred years???), Trumble’s shared musings raise timely questions. He’s a thoughtful guy.
Bloggers on the midway, ironically, tend to be, from what I can tell, the pros and not the fans. From clown Pat Cashin down to Wade Burck and Balloon Man Dick Dykes, and first-of-may kid Logan Jacot (Sawdust Nights). Even I’ve earned a few bucks under the tents. Turns out I have a tenuous professional connection to probably the most popular blogger of all, Buckles Woodcock, for in 1969 we both worked on George Matthews Great London Circus (known as James Bros. the year before). See that photo there? I had a stack of them in the back of my Ford Bronco when I drove across the country as “national press representative” for the excitingly erratic Sid Kellner.
Where are the circus fans in all this? Peepless as usual, I suspect — unlike their counterparts in all other venues from sports to pop music, who have no problem shouting out opinions — second guessing coach calls and telling big shots how to conduct a business. Here, the pros are doing it — over the internet.
New age, indeed. Ben Trumble, who actually works for Kelly Miller in “media relations,” seems to be working more for the media as a field reporter than for KM. Or is this simply a new paradigm in a new age yet to be sorted out? Once upon a time, press agents spun tales of happy crowds up and down the sawdust trails. Now, at least one of them wonders what went wrong every other day.
Earlier this year, a few months after bequeathing my papers and interview tapes to Maureen Brunsdale at Illinois State University, I was struck by how significant a role three towns in the same state — Illinois – have played in my circus writing life. Call it a late-breaking epiphany.
Rochelle was once home to the Hohenadel Printing company, whose Walter H. Hohenadel also edited the White Tops Magazine. It was this kind gentlemen who would accept for publication a review I sent him, at the age of 14, of Polack Bros Circus. I have no idea what prompted me in the first place to write a review. One of the big mysteries of my life. Or of how Mr. Hohenadel may have decided to send my rough words to the typesetter. Maybe a blank page was waiting for something to fill it.
That's me, around the time of my first byline
Whatever happened back there may have been ordinary. What happened at 609 Brown Street, in Santa Rosa, CA, was extraordinary. It marked a monumental turning point in my young life. Without that big break from Mr Hohenadel, I might not be writing this post, or hosting this blog.
I was published! I was somebody, so I thought. Best of all, the White Tops editor did not in any way edit out my picky prose, leaving in the few carps I made about certain aspects of the show. And by so doing, whether he intended to or not, he codified my critical inclinations, and sent me into orbit. Nobody could stop me now. (Some, I know, would have liked to.) Of course, I had a lot to learn, and learn I would, all the way through to my next stop in Illinois: Champaign.
On the green at the University of Illinois
About thirty years later, having penned a biography of John Ringling North and getting turned down by many of the major publishing houses, I decided to test the University press circuit, and sent off a book proposal to the University of Illinois. Not sure why this one. I know I had not yet considered the state itself to be a lucky charm. But the move turned out to be another stroke of good fortune, indeed, even though I would suffer through the most trying editorial process I would ever face. In the end, I had a book that drew generally wide acclaim and sold the most copies of any of my books. Mark one for the editors of Champaign.
Finally, the third town: While searching for an archival home for my papers, I chanced upon a most passionate and welcome response from Maureen Brunsdale, archivist at the Milnar Library at Illinois State University. Last spring, we came to terms, and I sent her a slew of boxes containing manuscripts, notes, correspondence with publishers and others, and the tapes for all the circus-related interviews I have conducted over the years.
Rochelle. Champaign. Normal. I nominate myself an honorary citizen of the good state of Lincoln.
Inveterate letter writer, Henry Ringling North
Since then, I was cheered to learn that the private papers of Henry Ringling North were also bound for ISU. Charmed to know that I may be sharing shelf space with Mr. Henry, the Ringling who answered my many letters over the years and who made it possible for me to meet and interview his legendary brother, John.
Mark Schmitt and Maureen Brunsdale, perusing the Henry Ringling North Collection at the Milnar Library, ISU
Charmed also, over news of a new archival neighbor coming my way (actually, more like a Lord of the Manor): the staggering circus collection of Herb Ueckert and Neil Cockerline. Their 250,000 item gusher was amply noted by Smithsonian on line. The World is taking note. Milnar is on the map
For myself, I take comfort and reassurance in knowing that my papers and tapes are in the steady and knowing hands of Maureen Brunsdalde, Steve Gossard, and Mark Schmitt
Thank you, Maureen, for saying YES so resoundingly when I first knocked. Like a trumpet blast on high telling me, this is the place. You are the third lucky charm!
Those Brits should keep patting themselves on the back for their very own Philip Astley, the dazzling trick horse rider who invented the circus — two hundred and fifty years ago. His anniversary being celebrated over there with bonny good cheer, a plague to Astley raised near the site of his first shows, and various books and articles touting the rich UK circus history.
Douglas McPherson, penning a great piece on the Chipperfield Circus in The Stage. Show in its heyday toured under a 6,000 seat tent, 17 tiered rows high. The family staged chariot races in 1953. By the time I caught up with them in the mid-1960s, tent was much smaller. Twas a bright and lively show overflowing with animals galore -- among them, canines and crocodiles, sea lions and pigeons, tigers and elephants and bears, and the list goes on! Some terrific ground and aerial acts, too.
Since those halcyon years, various members of the family have splintered off to take out their own shows. The leading Chipperfield of the precarious moment is the young and articulate Thomas Chipperfield, known as “the last lion tamer.” Thomas will be touring this year as An Evening With Lions and Tigers. A link to the Mcpherson story, thanks to Don Covington:
Astley was not the only trail blazing tycoon on English sawdust. Lord Sanger, who purchased Astley’s Amphitheater in 1871, was a publicity hound with a flair for enterprise. One of his most audacious boasts was that Queen Victoria had granted him a peerage for “allowing” her to inject her royal head into the big mouth of a lion (I hope to see this episode on BBC’s fine new Masterpiece series, Victoria). Actually, kids, Lord Sanger granted himself the title and made up everything else. On a higher level, this outlandish Lord out-did Astley’s showmanship by introducing a far grander spectacle that would find an audience, not over there but over here.
The Three Rings that P.T. Barnum did not invent. One account credits Lord Sanger for being the first to put out three rings. I’ve also read that, in fact, the Sanger setup was more like two stages on each side of a single ring. In any case, the idea fizzled fast. Americans would embrace the concept with glee and demand — at one time, even the smallest U.S. truck shows advertised “three rings!”
Astley's Royal Amphitheatre
I tip my cap to the ever-theatrical Brits, thanking them for a form of entertainment that has enriched my life. I only hope this celebration will counter animal-rights extremists throughout the UK and dissuade parliamentary action from banning all animals from the circus. The House of Un-commons needs a new party: Fops for Big Tops.
Over Here: How goeth the new Big Apple Circus? On paper and on the show’s website video tease, to my still skeptical eyes, act lineup looks meager. In the seats, how are they doing? Dare I go near the third rail of circus reporting -- bodies in seats? I dare. Big Apple Circus boss Neil Kahanovitz was interviewed by The Washington Business Journal (note the word business), in which, not once was the subject of actual business raised! Lord -- excuse me, Doctor. Kahanovitz, was asked by reporter Sara Gilgore, who did not go in for the killgore, How has the show changed? Answered the good doctor, out of surgery, "I would like to think that creatively it's better."
And yet he noted, by implication, how not easy it was to cobble together their first show. “At this point last year in March, we had no acts booked, we had nothing from a production standpoint ... From an artistic creative standpoint [that] was very difficult because most of the acts you want to book, book out one or two years ahead.”
Which raises the Big Question: How much better might the next show be, if there is to be a next show? "It's really a learning year for us, and hopefully it will be a successful one from a financial perspective."
Yann Arnaud and daughter
END RINGERS: John Ringling North II, e-mailing me: “I don’t recall anything about animal abuse in my father’s book [Circus Kings].” Very sad to report, the tragic fall of aerialist Yann Arnuad on Cirque du Soleil, a shocker for many. An issue overblown by others, with one hysteric claiming how much better safety has become, compared to the 1950s-1960s when four or five performers were killed every year.” Oh really? But for Cirque marketing, the image of death may not be what they want. .Given their surreal product identity – circus arts glorified in ballet and special affects -- I think this image is all too real. The company risks being lumped together with all of the other, less cerebral, but very real big tops still on the road.
Feld family in retreat, take note! Out there now, there is something calling itself “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” and the New York MetropolitanOpera is referring to itself as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Hurry, hurry! Put something out on the road that warbles like a Wagner, stage it under falling fake snow, and call it your very own Greatest Show on Earth. All in the name of trademark preservation, you know.
Was that even funny? Well, had you anything better planned for the moment?
Next: Stuffings from off the cutting room floor. And, oh, I meant to tell you (or myself, if I am the only person reading this) about this phenomenal new movie I just saw, The Shape of Water. Maybe next time ...
Chipperfields Circus posters courtesy of Circus Mania blog.
Yann Arnaud, above, lost his grip with an aerial strap and fell a dozen feet to the "stage" at 10 p.m. last night in Tampa.
Tampa Bay Times, reporting the incident, said Arnaud was rushed to a local hospital, where he later died from injuries.
The 38-year-old Arnaud was performing in Cirque's new show Volta.
“The entire Cirque du Soleil family is in shock and devastated by this tragedy,” said long-time company president Daniel Lamarre in a statement published in the Canadian Press. “Yann had been with us for over 15 years and was loved by all who had the chance to know him.”