Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Saturday, December 30, 2006

From Montreal: Another Not-Called Circus: Traces

Out of the past: From December 30, 2006

Circus Review: Traces
San Francisco

Today’s younger "circus" performers want to be seen as hip and anything but circus performers. They are easily seduced into the rebirthing mills of Montreal. And out they come, de-spangled and de-programed, eager to prove how non-traditional they are while at the same time demonstrating circus skills in order to draw a crowd. Traces, which appeared in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre over the holiday, is a hard show to review for it does not want to be a show of any particular sort at all. It wants to hang out and do whatever it pleases. Its five engaging members -–– Heloise Bourgeois, Francisco Cruz, Raphael Cruz, Brad Henderson and Will Underwood ––- first seize the stage dancing a la West Side Story. Then they take turns speaking into a hanging mike, sharing trivial bits about their lives. Breakfast cereal preferences, height and weight, personal attitudes summed up in three humorously contradictory phrases. They roll aimlessly through dance acrobatics, glide winningly on skate boards, play pianos and guitars, scale the Chinese poles, jump through the Chinese hoops. Sparks of genuine creativity animate the proceedings here and there —— pointing intriguingly to new directions. Have we here a nouveau vaudeville show in the making? They are as agreeably unpretentious as those I found in a similar work —— Rain, directed by Circus Eloise’s Daniela Pasca, who himself takes a laid back approach to circus art, treating it more like a party than a performance. In fact, Rain has clearly influenced two of Trace’s creators, Gypsy Snider (daughter of Pickle Family Circus founders Larry and Peggy) and her partner Shana Carroll, who once performed for the Pickles. Less than 90 minutes running time without an intermission, Traces left me a little charmed and a little bored, and after an hour, looking at my watch and, in exit mode, not nearly eager enough to return next year to the same venue for whatever might show up. Still, Snider and Carroll are onto something that might develop more forcefully into -- who knows what. Experimentation can lead to exciting outcomes. The company of five include four who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and were trained by Lu Yi at the city’s circus school, which traces its origins to the Pickle Family Circus. Go as much to ponder the future as to be entertained.

Rating: 2-1/2 stars

12.30.06

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Columbia U Fancies my Flower Drum Songs

So now and then, you get a little high from somebody in ivy league quarters noticing your work and taking the time to recommend it to others.

I discovered in the November-December issue of Columbia College Today, an upbeat nod to my new book, Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals.

Book reviewer Laura Butchy (class of '04) calls it "intriguing."

That's a neat word. My deepest dread at the typewriter is being called "plodding." So far, I've escaped that indictment -- although an Amazon.Com ranter threw about every other derisive dart my way. These self-annointed on-line experts are so opinionated, so full of themselves -- heck, they remind me of myself.

Reviews --- any kind of reviews -- are hard to come by. So far, the critics have handed my history of the two Flower Drum Songs (the 1958 original and he 2002 rewrite) respect, some a little more. From Stage Directions: "This is fascinating reading."

The web is more than a snakepit of virtiol. In fact, I have the on-line world to thank for the only two really in-depth reviews of my book, both written by highly qualified New Yorkers who know their stuff. From www.talkinbroadway.com -- "Valuable ... worthwhile ... should be included in any comprehensive Rodgers and Hammerstein bibliography." And there's another extensive writeup from author Ken Mandelbaum on www.broadway.com.

To check out the full Columbia review, go to:

http://www.college.columbia.edu/cct/nov_dec06/bookshelf2.php

Here is my publisher's website: www.mcfarlandpub.com

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Ted Sato's Beautiful Big Top

From the first year of posting ... 
 
I love Ted Sato — and I never met the man or even talked to him. That's him, left, with John Ringling North II and chef Henry.

I spoke with his wife briefly on the phone back in1991. I was seeking illustrations for my book on John Ringling North, Big Top Boss, hoping to use some of the wonderful shots that Mr. Sato took while serving as Ringling-Barnum’s official photographer during their last four seasons under-canvas (1953-1956) .

Following up on the call, I sent Mr. Sato a letter dated February 26. Six days later, he sent me a large envelope containing over two dozen black and white glossies with a short note; evidently he was a man of few words: "Hope they may be use for your book. Good luck." He didn’t ask for a penny. What a gift.

Among the treasures, there, above, is the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen of a big top — a Sato classic — and it’s mine, if I may gloat — taken on the D.C. lot in 1954. I used it in Big Top Boss, and I’m giving it a well-deserved encore in my next book on the modern circus scene due out next year.

Tiger, tiger: On the back of this photogaph, Mr. Sato wrote, "My pride and joy." This ended up on the cover of Big Top Boss.

And here is John Ringling North in a remarkably (and atypically) relaxed pose, totally free of the aloof imagery that so defined his showmanly aura to the world. Sato found that warmpth in a number of shots he took of his boss alone or with others.

There is another original Sato photo I recently discovered at the Ringling Museum, of a young ticket seller, Bill Taggart, in the yellow ticket wagon. Beyond Taggart, you look out the window onto the midway. It will also be featured in my next book because Bill shared his first-hand recollections of the last day in Pittsburgh when the big top went down for the last time. Had Taggart not identified the photographer — the two were good friends, both stayed on Car 369, and he was overjoyed when I e-mailed him the image for verification — the world might never know who took the picture. Same, probably, for many other Sato images floating anonymously around out there.

Actually, I did meet the photographer once, although it did not dawn on me until long after our 1991 correspondence. This earlier meeting took place many years earlier when Mr. Sato gave me his autograph — he had to because he was also, in 1955, the show’s official representative on the lot, and to him I went, seeking a press pass that would allow me to roam the backyard area. Gosh, I was so young, but I guess my membership in the Circus Model Builders gave me rare cache. Here is the pass Mr. Sato wrote out for me. How privileged it made me feel! How could I have ever guessed that, thirty-six years later, I would be reaching out to the same man for use of his illustrations and that, once again, he would favor me so kindly.

Ted Sato died a number of years ago. His remarkable images of the greatest show on earth will live on forever.

[12/16/06]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Broadway Bounces Higher, Digs Deeper These Days


Exit flying chandeliers and helicopters?

Reenter old-fashioned New York talent?

I have no problem telling you what a fan I am of Phantom (saw it 5 times with different friends); of Les Mis and Miss Saigon. But its's great to see the Broadway musical stage back in the hands of a new generation of top-flight American composers and writers.

The Great White White Way nearly lost its way as the last century came to an abysmal end. Then came Mel Brooks with The Producers to prove that musical comedy can work miracles at the box office. And others followed.

Best of all, there's a new show full of laughs, melody, glamour and intrigue that I actually like more than The Producers or Hairspray: It's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The sassy jazzy songs by inventive David Yazbek (The Full Monty) are highly engaging. A taut book by Jeffrey Lane keeps on delivering yet more surprising plot twists from start to final curtain. Even the older-fashioned sets look like stage sets. How glamorous. Could low-tech be making a comeback?

On a deeper level, compser-lyricist Adam Guettel, grandson of legendary Richard Rodgers, in collaboration with librettist Craig Lucas has delivered a great musical and a great work of art: The Light in the Piazza. Interestingly, Guettel has his own voice; neither a tunesmith like his grandfather nor a follower of the more abstract school of Sondheim. He seems drawn more seriously to a quasi-operatic feel and sweep, and he tells a touching story with probing fidelity, avoiding gimmicks and show-off lyrics.

Piazza is not for everybody; my brother, who watched it on tv, was "somewhat disappointed." Go if you wish to be moved by the tale of a woman and her mentally problematic daughter traveling through Italy --- when romance unexpectedly challenges and complicates an innocent holiday.

Off-Broadway has been rocking, too. See the wickeldy satiric long-running blast, Forbidden Broadway. And don't miss Altar Boyz, a near-perfect 90-minute musical, infectiously scored in a modern pop-rock sort of style. This rousing "revival" left me singing the big city's praises: Yes, New York, this is why we come here ... Yes, at your best, nobody does it like you do!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

DVD Drivel: Going Down With the Steins


Cinema de flush

A bar mitzvah at Dodgers Stadium?

Lines like “Let’s get Jewish. Are you ready to get Jewish?”

Retro sparks between an estranged couple that go nowhere?

Funny and promising at first, this farcical contrivance, Keeping up with the Steins, tries faking its way onto a higher road of adult comedy fare under a veneer of pseudo sophistication. And from Miramx? How about from Disney?

Adam, a Hollywood agent envious of a bar mitzvah hosted by a rival in the entertainment industry, decides to do him one better by renting Dodger Stadium for his own son, Benjamin’s coming of age bash. The very reluctant Ben nixes the idea in favor of something simpler, thus exerting a degree of independence and proving to himself that he’s on his way to manly self-fulfillment. Okay, thanks, Ben. The only thing this film made me look forward to was the Dodger Stadium party.

What messes everything up is the surprise arrival of Adam’s estranged dad, the ridiculous retro-hippie Irwin, actually invited there by Benjamin. Irwin walked out on Adam and his mom years ago. Adam still hates Irwin for his slovenly abandonment, and that’s the source of the tension, which is dramatized with all the finesse of a Jerry Springer encounter.

Irwin appears to be rekindling the old chemistry between himself and Adam’s mother – who still considers the two married. This hip dame isn’t at all bothered by the sight of the much younger Sacred Feather, who comes along as Irwin’s girlfriend. This promising plot thread goes nowhere, like the film.

Key let's-talk encounters feel manufactured to supply pathos. But the scripting and the inserted jokes (a few of them are howlers) are so over the top, this workout, like one of those trite made-for-tv movies, cries out for commercial-break relief!

Rent this contrived ditty if you dote on cheap laughs and want an excuse to gulp down more popcorn. When I glanced at the few reviews featured on the DVD, “Two Thumbs Up” by those hacks who draw paychecks from Disney should have given me pause to leave the Steins on the shelf where they belong.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Beware the Boxer with Lipstick

Cinema without borders: Beautiful Boxer


Boy, did this flick surprise me. The subject matter has never been high on my wish list of things to do: a feisty Thai kick boxer longs to be a woman.

Still, it’s a cool compelling watch. Nong Toom is so much in love with and devoted to his poor nomadic farming parents, he will do almost anything for their welfare. He discovers the art of boxing and is soon a Thai champ, kicking his way to fame and fortune. Most of it he shares with his mom and dad.

When you’re hot, you get away with a lot. Toom gets away, by degrees, flaunting his inner yearnings in the ring. First comes the lipstick, then the mascara. The feminine touches soon add to his box office appeal. A freak show, some complain. The crowds can’t stay away.

There’s so much more on the sad-happy journey to Toom’s ultimate goal. It’s about who we are. It’s about our relationship to our parents. The film’s most touching moment arrives when Toom’s father is able to accept his son’s resolve to regenderize himself.

Lots of humor here, too, in the wildly bizarre spectacle of Toom's increasingly outrageous ring appearances.

Produced and directed by Ekachai Uekrontham, starring Asanne Suwan, it’s a great movie. Go be engaged, moved, challenged and inspired. Life can be like that.

[in the 1999 photo, that's the real-life Toom from kid kicker to I Am Woman]

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: The Garden: Ringling Out? Cirque in?


Facts, Rumors and Rants ... Cirque versus Ringling at the Garden? ... John Ringling North II Scouting the electronic trail, sans Cadillac ...

Fear and Loathing at Feld Central? The Garden (as in Madison Square), so go the rumors, was not singing “New York! New York!” after Kenneth Feld’s new ringless circus left town last spring ... His radically reconstructed opus struck the shocked as more like a Saturday morning kiddie carton than the greatest show on earth we sort of kind of remember from — well, how many years back?

Are Garden Officials Angling to ‘86 the Feld Parade? ... That’s what my Sarasota sources tell me ... the Garden website does not list Big Bertha as a visitor next April. The Ringling website does ... I called the ticketmaster number Ringling is giving out , but they have no NY tix for sale just yet ... I tried reaching MSG public relations, a hold line for those with nothing else to do... Ringling without the Big Apple? Last summer Ringling snubbed San Francisco’s Cow Palace (or was it vice versa?) For the first time in fifty seasons .... Perhaps the nation’s most liberal (excuse me, “progressive”) city was turning to hostile against the Ringling menagerie. :PETA types over there will chain themselves to the parking lot fence, making a trip to the circus a real vehicular challenge.

Mental Health Advisory to Kenneth Feld: John Ringling went nearly berserk after losing the Garden date back around 1929. Scrambling to recover it — and his sanity — Ringling tore through a cavalcade of reckless financial blunders that left him, alone and near-forgotten, on the sidelines.

Cirque Du Soleil at the Garden? Contrary to rumors rocking cyberspace, Cirque is NOT playing the Garden. Cirque is playing the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, a 4,000 seat venue, thank you. Billionaire new-wave big top king Guy Laliberte of Montreal inked a four-year deal with the house that Barnum built to deliver a ten-week show each winter ... Hmmm .... Could “the world’s most famous arena” be angling to replace Big Bertha with Little Quebec?

Don’t Bet on a Cirque Knockout, Not Yet. Feld is one shrewd surviving operator who defers to the crowd. This competitiveness might force him, however, to try the role of showman (as opposed to merchandiser). Although, given the man’s sudden retreat from his own artistically promising Barnum’s Kaalidsoo ... Kaldo – heck, what was it called? -- it makes you wonder if he can muster the artistic resolve and patience to forge a viable challenge to those maddeningly successful Montreal reinventers.

In The Meantime, Life Outside the Big Apple: John Ringling North II is scouting acts the new fashioned way. His partner, Jim Royal, asks ruefully, “Where is the big Cadillac with the driver, the night clubs, the circuses of Europe?” Yes, where is the grand tour once feted by North’s famed uncle? Not on the nephew’s itinerary. The younger North, you see, full wired, is, per Royal, “reviewing videos/cds in the comfort of Northbrook” [that’s in Ireland]

Okay, Kelly-Miller at the Garden?

[above: The Greatest Show on Earth at the Garden, 1954/photo by Ted Sato]

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sunday Morning, Out of the Past: My Date with John Ringling North

Enigmatic hands-off impresario John Ringling North loomed over his circus with an air of detached mystery. Over the years, I had written many letters to him seeking an interview. I even once wrote to Henry Kissinger, requesting his diplomatic skills, non gratis, in tracking down my prey. No luck.

In the end, were it not for John's less-aloof brother, Henry, it's unlikely that I would have ever met the man who hired Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine to create a ballet for elephants, who elevated three-ring showmanship in artfully spectacular and surprising ways, and who became an instant villain ("the executioner") when he struck the big top for good in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, fifty years ago last July 16th.

Sarasota, the day before Thanksgiving, 1982: That afternoon, I was perhaps better dressed than I had every been. For on that day, per previous arrangement with Henry, I was about to finally get my chance to interview JRN. I stood in the spacious living room of a condominium on one of the keyes off Sarasota where John and Henry had been staying during their annual October visit to the states. I waited, wondering when he would appear.

And when he did, I missed his entrance --- or had Henry purposely diverted my attention while John entered so that, upon looking back, I discovered the elusive circus king suddenly standing in the middle of the room? He wore a red dinner jacket (that's what it looked like to me) and, on his composed face, a fresh unassuming smile. He was discretely understated in demeanor. Yes, the whole thing felt like magic.

During the one hour and forty-five minutes that I was lucky to spend in his company, I beheld two distinctly different John Ringling Norths. The one who sat far across the room answering my questions in brief, sometimes terse replies, was regally contained, and he displayed a mental disposition as strong and unyielding as the rock of Gibraltar.

What Mr. North told me is recounted in my book, Big Top Boss. What I did not write about was the other North whom I experienced after the interview -- a kinder, warmer soul without airs. This he revealed when, referencing my earlier expressed interest in continuing the dialog in the coming days, he asked me for a number where I could be reached.

Mr. North could have easily instructed Henry to take my information and then made his exit. Instead, in the most intimate manner, he walked over to the kitchen counter and looked for a piece of paper like ordinary people look for pieces of paper. And he looked for a pen like ordinary people do. And he handed me the paper. I wrote down my number and gave it to him, and he accepted it graciously.

When I was at the door about to leave, Mr. North gazed upon my height with seeming admiration. He wondered how tall I was. (6'2") He was so utterly different from the person whom I had just interviewed. Maybe he was merely relieved (he had suffered a stroke some months earlier). Maybe he had never liked to be interviewed. I have a lingering last memory of his standing there, glancing up at me with smiling respect.

He never dialed the number I gave him. His gesture to secure it had at least shown compassion, hadn't it. Anyway, I got a distinct impression that he was not one to linger over a question or three. When I had asked him what he looked for scouting acts (thinking he might expound on various elements like an analytical theatre director will do), he answered, "Something I haven't seen before."

Strange, I still harbor a fantasy image of John Ringling North looming over the circus with an air of elusive mystery.


Originally posted on 11.23.06

Monday, October 30, 2006

Out of the Past: A Ringmaster to Remember

From the first year of posting ...

The arena fell dark. The band fanfared up. The blast of a silver whistle pierced the air. We could feel a thrill coming ...

Spotlights shone down on a man in red raising his hand with a flourish -- like a magician about to pull a spectacle out of a hat -- and turning twenty magical words into the most important-sounding announcement in the world:

Children of alllllll ages! John Ringling North welcomes you to the 95th edition of the Greatest Show on Earth!

He was maybe the greatest ringmaster on earth -- the one and only Harold Ronk, who died at the age of 85 on August 2nd in Canton, Illinois. He had been away from the big top for twenty five years, content to spend a quarter of a century in near-anonymous retirement.

What made this particular ringmaster arguably the undisputed king of an art from that he himself helped define? First and foremost, the statuesque and commanding, blond-haired Ronk was blessed with the fullness of a smooth stentorian voice. Not shrill or grating, it had timber. He shaped his introductions word by word -- each like a choreographed step forming a visual pattern. And, once delivered, he stepped discretely aside, never one to overstay his welcome. In fact, so above it all was he that he never even lived on or rode the circus train, opting to drive overland and reside in hotels.

In 1951 (or 1952 -- a mystery to be explored here sometime up the road), Ronk was hired to sing songs for spec and production numbers. On occasion, he filled in for big top announcer Count Nicholas, and when the circus went indoors in 1957, Ronk became both its ringmaster and vocalist.

There were rare Ronkian touches. He once spoofed old-fashioned circus hyperbole as a leaper was about to dive from the upper reaches of the rigging to a tiny net below. Declared Ronk, stretching out just two words in low foreboding tones, "W a a a t c h - - - h i i i m!"

Ronk's robust figure, his overall elegance and majestic oratory suited the classic American three-ring circus. Al Ringling, who is said to have defined the mystique of the ideal tanbark orator in three words -- "elusive yet vital" -- would have approved with a smile, we think. Ronk was a gracious personality away from the ring, a tactful diplomat for the show, both for the Norths and for the Felds. He avoided controversy and refrained from criticizing any acts -- or, for that matter, any other circuses. He was, indeed, as classy an act as ever appeared with Ringling-Barnum.

I, like many others, hoped that he would one day return. He never did.

The ringmaster waved the crowd farewell

and whistled down the drums

His magic kept us dreaming still

of a season that never comes

Au revoir, Ringmaster Ronk ...

First posted October 30, 2006

Can a Clown Save the Circus?

Holiday Look Backs, this from 2006 ...

A number of producers, among them Kenneth Feld, seem to think so. They are elevating star joeys to the level of what the Wall Street Journal has dubbed "the power clown."

This artistically expedient trend began with David Larible landing in the Feld fold. He may have been good for a single-season-novelty. Beyond that, Larible hogged too much ring time and overstayed his welcome by too many seasons. I avoided one edition of Ringling because of him. I couldn't take it anymore. I have always argued that Larible's presence, by then old hat to most circus goers, did not help Barnum's Kaleidoscape; to the contrary, had Larible not been there, Feld might have been forced to engage more acts. What a novel concept. Did the expense-heavy BK go on to turn millions for the Felds and make showbiz history? Just asking.

There was a time (and with some shows there still is, thankfully) when funny faces cavorted briefly in spangled shadows between top-flight acrobats and flyers. They mocked the airs of the stars; they pranced around the hippodrome track with their hilarious get-ups, contraptions and semi-delinquent swagger. They provided wonderful counterpoint.

When did they themselves become the stars? In Europe, maybe they always were; on American sawdust, the latest to assume the role is Giovanni Zoppe, who plays a clown named Nino, starring in the ultra-small, ultra embracing Zoppe Family Circus. I saw the show last night in Hollywood, where it was making its first appearance at the city's annual Feast of San Gennaro -- a combo of eats, neat old carny rides and singers. The Zoppe program contained only two or three good acts (the dogs stole the show); the rest was Nino Nino Nino nearly non-stop: Nino in the seats. Nino in the ring. Nino in disguise. Nino padding a very thin program to give it a one-hour look.

Giovanni, to his credit, did deliver some tickling turns. The best was an amusingly inventive ride (something I've never seen) around a loop-the-loop. Bravo to that! The rest was not much, but then again, what can one expect these days for a ten dollar adult ticket? (Kids got in for half that). You got to sit down under a charming old tattered tent around a real ring. The crowd of maybe four hundred souls appeared to warm to the unpretentious party atmosphere.

Strange, though, that from the famed Zoppe Riding Family (yes, the troupe that carried lovable Cucciola clear into De Mille's film The Greatest Show on Earth) came only one horse, and only one horse rider, a "ballerina" -- you guessed already? Yes, Nino in drag.

Did an overworked funny face carry this $10 show? Nope. Can a power clown save the circus? I think not.

[photo, above, of Poodles Hanneford]

10.30.06 12.10