Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Eye on the Big Top: The Ways of John Ringling North II

Showbiz David Reports and Speculates

A year age, he was a blank slate with a famous name. We knew virtually nothing about him save for his family association to the world’s once reigning circus.

He had just purchased the Kelly Miller show, and I recall a good friend of mine in Sarasota letting out a chuckle on the phone, comparing the Ringling name to that small one ringer out of Hugo, Oklahoma.

So, you think’s it’s easy to run a small circus? Think again about any size, Sarasota. Let’s see, there’s Pugh and Binder, Byrd and Hanneford and a few others who’ve been at it for many years. New owners of tent shows that tour complete seasons spring to fall? Name them. I’m waiting ... and waiting ... Jim Judkins, who launched Circus Chimera ten years ago (after managing Carson & Barnes) remains stranded in Hugo for economic reasons. Truth is, it is not easy running a circus of any size. Never was. Even harder today, and North the Sequel has proved he may have the stuff for a long run. Keep in mind that no Ringling save for the original North (opting out of family feuds) ever walked away from the midway at any age

So, chuckling aside, here is what he has shown that we did not know a year ago:

JRN II, like his much loved father, Henry, has a friendly way of dealing with his staff. From what I have heard, people like Mr. North a lot. Number Two, and even more promising: He is taking an active hand in the show itself. Says North’s general manager and friend, Jim Royal, “John attends nearly every performance all the way through and makes mental notes.” This Ringling cares, it would appear, about showmanship. He may feel the legacy of his famous five grand uncles glancing down upon his every move. “Friday morning, John, John Moss III (our performance director) and I had an extensive production meeting and are considering changing the running order of the performance. This will tighten it up.”

Another good sign is North's ability to turn over his performing personnel, an absolute must in these tougher competitive times. Circuses simply can not afford to risk the image of artistic stagnation by having too many of the same acts back year after year. If audiences know they can expect novelty and surprise, new faces and fresh production touches, they are more likely to return.

Perhaps Mr. North is discovering a passion inherited from his legendary uncle, John Ringling North, with whom he enjoyed a close association.

John the nephew enters the big top with formidable family assets: That name ... that mystique ... They can’t take that away from him. The idea of watching a Kelly Miller truck bearing the letters “John Ringling North II Presents” rumbling onto an early morning lot sends tingles down my spine. North II also bears the fleeting evidence of his uncle’s one-time endorsement in the puzzling 1967 program magazine photo (above), turning attention onto a new generation and hinting that its time had arrived to direct The Greatest Show on Earth.

Of course, that time never came about, and North II, when I interviewed him circa 1990, remained mum on the subject other than to state that after he got married, he was informed by his father and uncle that a circus was no place for a married man. What really happened was that the married Feld brothers bought the show.

North II can accomplish some notable milestones of his own. First, he can prove that perhaps his uncle’s faith (real or the work of a press agent) was well placed. That he is not James Ringling or Richard Ringling or Stuart Lancaster, or any number of Ringling heirs who floundered on the sidelines. Second, he can bring luster to the Ringling family name. Which is not to diminish what the Felds have done, but their marketing obsessions have tended to place top level showmanship on a lower rung. Lately, the results have sometimes been downright embarrassing.

The downside for this Ringling under review? There is that Feld lawsuit attempting to prevent him from pushing his name on Kelly Miller logo and advertising. But beyond the courage to flaunt his name, North II has so far shown little evidence of a flair for promotion and advertising. If he manifests a little of Al’s leadership, Otto’s fiscal savvy, and the sensitive artistic nature of Charles, missing in his makeup so far is ad man Alf T. Ringling, who surely would have had a more aggressive and up-to-date website running by now. Goggle “Kelly-Miller Circus” and you’ll be delivered onto a dry wasteland of yesterday’s links, with little evidence of where the show is now playing or how it wishes to engage your patronage. Displayed photos on the actual K-M website seem not to have changed in a few years. Jim Royal earlier promised a revamped website over the winter. It does not appear on my pc. Kelly-Miller’s new owner seems oddly passive in this all-important department. Of course, we can speculate he may be hiding out to avoid undue attention from the animal rights radar.

North’s attention to employee satisfaction and performance appeal should both serve him well if he is to survive today’s horrendously difficult market — gas pump blues, PETA assaults, a more picky public emboldened by the force of that Cirque thing up north. Performers can negotiate at will, can say yes to whomever. If North can build up his reputation, on that cache alone he may be able to attract a higher grade of talent at affordable rates. Perhaps he already has. Can he reach the world-class artistry of the Big Apple Circus which I saw in 2005? There’s a challenge.

How good is the show itself? I have no idea, nor have I read any reviews so far. The fans, who supply good will and support, are unlikely to provide honest accounts. A lineup of the new season acts theoretically excites me, because:

Here is a one ring circus hosting an actual bareback riding act, and that raises exhilarating imagery. The program has Fridman Torales, a young showman of rare class whose upside down loop walk I enjoyed on Circus Chimera. (He did not perform his rola bola routine that day.) There are Eskimo dogs, juggling, African acrobats working hoop diving and ropes. The Wheel of Destiny is there, Elephants and tigers, clowning by Pat Cashin. As with any circus, so much of the impact depends upon how these elements are arranged, scored, costumed and paced. The mix to my eyes looks promising, even if the presence of a hula hoop turn suggests padding. And the “Ringling magic” promised by North when he took ownership of K-M appears to be in evidence in a climactic 9 foot high Oklahoma oil well rig sending forth a gusher of confetti. I can see novelty, amusement and color.

Despite rumors to the contrary, John Ringling North II is still on the road, and that in itself is the best of all signs. In 2009 at Milwaukee, his circus will play the city prior to the resumption of the Great Circus Parade. What magical symbolism —a Ringling returning to the home state where it all began back in 1884. It seems so right with the universe.

E-mailing me today, Jim Royal closed off with this: “JRN II told me today of an idea for next year’s web display. It sounds like a winner.”

Let’s see, that would mark season number three for the grand nephew of the famous five. If you ask me, he has Ringling in his blood.


Tepa said...

I just saw the show on it's 5th day out of the barn.
It was a good show. There were 3 packed houses that day. That's always good.
I thought the music needed some work. It was not adding energy to show like it could and should.
The hula hoop act is not just "padding", it is good looking and lively. The African acrobats are great tumblers and excellent entertainers but could use some wardrobe to make them appear more exotic. Especially when a show like KM goes into smaller towns.
The acrobats do 2 numbers but the way the show is laid out, a lot of people leave after the elephants and miss their energetic 2nd number.
The riding act is a small comedic number that is fast, funny and a big hit with the crowd.
The cat act opens the second half and is very effective when the cage is rolled into the tent and people can see the tigers up close. Something the Big Apple lost sight of when they eliminated exotics.
The finale is fun but I thought it should have moved a little faster and the black cowboy hats that everyone wears, should have been white or red. They would show up better.
There is a lot of talent in this year,s show and I'm sure, as is the way, it will only get smoother and better every day.

Showbiz David said...

Thank you, Tepa, for your honest feedback, which I have a feeling JRN II will take into account and appreciate. Makes me want to see the show. I love the idea of a comedic horse riding act so close (I loved the riding of Lucy Loyalon C&B years ago, whom I think trained the K-M rider, her son); and another source, an insider, also raved about the African acrobats. Your overall impression sustains my feeling of great potential promise here from the newly emerging Ringling Grand Nephew. And "three packed houses" is such a sweetly satisfying image to a show owner. Yours sounds like a real review, and for that I and I am sure others thank you!

B.E.Trumble said...

There's a very talented Los Angeles based composer named Matt Margucci who has written about 75 original musical pieces and bits for licensing to circus. He's great about fine tuning his music for specific acts and recording it equalized to suit the general acoustics of a show. Even "canned" it sounds light years better than most recordings, and the license fee is actually less expense than the ASCAP rates for the use of material that isn't original circus. Amazing how much better an act "looks" with music specifically tailored to fit what's happening in the ring.

Wade G. Burck said...

Showbiz David,
Assuming JRNII picked out the cowboy hat's it's not odd that they may have been the wrong ones. LOL
Wade Burck

Alan Brott, Jr. said...

I was working for K-M on the props crew. I left due to an ankle injury but loved working for the show. Mr. North has got to be the most genuinly nice person I have met in a long time. The show is great and so many new acts this year. The Kenyan Acrobatics are wonderfully energetic, as are the rest of the performers. Good bio by the way.

Pat Cashin said...

Thanks for the "shout out"!

Having a wonderful time over here on K-M but I leave the show on Thursday to be replaced by the one and only Mike Smith!

Pat Cashin