Friday, February 06, 2009

Irvin Felds’s Epic Circus World & Ego Revisited


Had it come to pass as he gloriously envisioned, Irvin Feld’s Florida circus theme park would have crowned the man as one of the greatest American showman who ever lived.

Instead, Feld’s debatable legacy will depend on the kindness of future historians, writers and thinkers objectively removed from his manipulative powers. Of course, in the affirmative, it can be readily advanced that Feld's extravagant ballyhoos and historically imaginative press agentry gave him and his circus the aura — or should I say the illusion -- of greatness, at least to those for whom circus art is a secondary pleasure.

I have always felt that, far more interesting than the circus the Felds produce, are the Felds themselves. They are so utterly, shamelessly ruthless. I have sometimes felt like an amateur psychiatrist trying to unearth their sundry motives beyond taking rightful credit for a job well done. Among those motives, the inelegant removal of one Arthur M. Concello from American circus history. Timely kudos and formidable profits were never enough for this family, which could well prove itself more lasting and corporately successful at running the circus than did the five brothers from Baraboo who started the whole thing up in1884.

The Florida Park is the subject of an informative King Pole tribute reprinted in the latest issue of Bandwagon by Don Stacey, whose agitated references to his and my differing takes on Mr. Feld’s legacy always leave me feeling perversely flattered, if nothing else. As seen through Stacey’s rhapsodic pro-Feld eyes, the park looks like a great enterprise that missed its mark for reasons Mr. Stacey seems never to have understood or accepted. In fact, so enamored was Stacey of the park, providing a wonderful account of its many inventive attractions (and they do impress, I must say), that his sorrow over its failure cries out for a sympathetic explanation from someone. So, here I am, volunteer grief counselor on the spot, Don.

“Circus,” in the minds of the American public, is a once a year holiday. It comes to your town. You might take the time to patronize it. Then it leaves. Your typical non CFA citizen no more desires to live the circus experience other days in the year than he does to relive Christmas or Easter or the Fourth of July except on its precise calendar date. This, World, I offer you for your belated consideration.

About the curiously over driven Felds, there is something all too predictable about how they succeed and how they don’t — confirmed by the sudden closure of Kenneth Feld’s critically endorsed Kaleidoscape: Clinging to their security blankets marked “Ringling” and “Disney,” they have no patience with their own ground-breaking creativity, some of it quite remarkable. The senior Feld struck out with more than one venture, for example with his attempt to tour the cream of the Monte Carlo Circus Festival gold under an original tongue twisting title I am hard put to recite. Feld’s Florida dream was, within a few years, taken away from him by Mattel Toy, who then owned the circuses he ran. The failure of Circus World, we must reason, is likely not the failure of Irvin Feld’s grandiose vision but of his failure to realize ahead of the outcome what he himself would teach us ---- that circus as perceived by the average mortal is a fleeting annual event. Kenneth Feld also floundered, if I am journalistically correct, with a chain of Ringling retail stores, none of which ever came to mall near me. And there are plenty of malls near me.

Someday, perhaps not until after Kenneth Feld has left this planet (for what author out there, other than possibly Don Stacey, wishes to risk having his or her life invaded by an ex-CIA operative working spin control for the Felds?), a writer will do justice to the egotistically limitless Irvin Feld, a fascinating character who injected a lavish and lively ballyhoo aesthetic into the Ringling-Barnum enterprise and whose most promising bid for immortality in the Florida sunshine went down in asphalt over sawdust. To circus man Floyd King, Mr. Stacey wisely defers, giving King the last word via my book Behind the Big Top, for which the last word, during an interview granted me, was uttered. I vividly recall meeting with Mr. King inside a mobile home in a woodsy area outside of Macon, Georgia and being amused to hear a veteran trouper sum up what did not go as planned for the ambitious dream of Irvin Feld. “A complete flop. The worst location in the world. They thought they’d get an overflow from Disney World. Instead of that, Disney got all their business.”

2/6/09

24 comments:

henry edgar said...

david - you hit the nail on the head with this one. objectivity seems to have never been a thought in the original story. i've said it before and i'll say it again -- i admired irvin feld greatly and liked him a lot personally and i think he left a great legacy all his own without having to try to rewrite history. and you're right, i'm afraid we will both be on the big lot in the sky before an objective biography is written.

Showbiz David said...

Henry, I fully respect those like you who hold Mr. Feld in a higher regard than I generally did. For, after all, circus is in the eye and heart of the beholder. We each harbor slightly different images and expectations when we take a seat around a ring or three.

B.E.Trumble said...

Got a show coming up, so I'll be quick. I lived around Gainesville during part if the Circus World saga, and passed the empty parking lots many times on drives down to the zoo at Cypress Gardens. Location was certainly a factor, but so was scale. Part of RBBB's success was predicated on it's size... it was The Big One... When Disney built in Orlando they didn't start small and grow, they started big and grew. Circus World was simply another minor attraction dwarfed by a giant. Could it have worked elsewhere? Maybe. But again only if it followed an actual theme park model incorporating circus as an element. Busch Gardens proved that Disney hadn't sucked all of the air out of Florida. Mr. Feld's biggest msitake may have been believing that he could reinvent the wheel instead of copying somebody else's wheel.

Ben

Wade G. Burck said...

Showbiz Dave,
Bravo to both you and Mr. Stacy for stating you belief with conviction and from the heart. I applaude both for not hiding under anonymous. It is what makes both of you valid, and points can be taken from both sides.
Dave, you questioned by anger in the past, and I see you have none.
Ben, Busch Gardens, Sea World, etc. are successful because they change their show's. The animals alway's do different behaviors each year when you go back. When was the last time you saw an elephant act do anything other then get on a tub, salute left, salute right, waltz, sit up, etc? When was the last time you say a cat come in the cage and go left or right, on a seat of a seat, left right, pyramid, roll over, fire jump, etc. etc? A bear riding a bike, Ben? I bet you've never seen that? Irvin took something he loved, and assumed the public loved it as much as he did. They didn't!!! The movie has to change Dave. You know that. A broadway show runs it's course and it changes. There are even afficianatos of the circus who object because we don't use old Merle Evans music. They have looked at the same thing for over a hundred years. Once a year fine, 5 times a year. Forget it. Same show 100 years ago. Get a membership in the CFA and enjoy it every day, like Henry Edgar and 1000's of wonderful fans. But we need the public to buy the tickets.
Dave, who is this sage Mr. King inside the battered old mobile home, advising on how Irvin Feld mucked it up. I'll bet he wished he had been more concerned with the cost of living, and had not swept it under the rug, in an effort to "be with it and for it", or afraid of offending someone.
Gentleman, always a pleasure
Wade Burck

Wade G. Burck said...

Dave, I would like to mention we have a fledgling blog up and running. No anonoymous, and absolutely now censoring. In fact we publish, censored comments from other blogs. You have a thought and it's been censored, I'll take it. State your mind, but be geared to have it stated back. You have an ax to grind, convince us why it need's to be ground, and we are the whet stone. It's about History, partner. Not what 1 individual thinks.
www.circusnospin.blog spot.com

We will look forward to hearing from you Dave. Maybe a mutual hookup can be arranged.
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

Wade, it's great and cool and authentic that you have a blog up, which I could see coming as I told you. Kudos to you guys! I will try now and then to check in. But be warned, I am a loner, not a joiner. At one of my next laptop tea shop tie-ins, I will have more to say to you, among other things, about the "King" man who intrigued you.
Happy turbulent blogging, Mr Cage Man!

Wade G. Burck said...

Showbiz, If you love this deal of our's you have to be a "joiner" for a while. Trust me, as you may have guessed by now, I know what a loner is. Is there a Starbucks near that Tea House? Double Columbian, no sugar, and absolutely no sweet and low. (Until Henry leaves, then I'll have an Earl Grey, two lumps please.
My best,
Wade Burck

henry edgar said...

wade- floyd king was the greatest advance man ever. he owned his own show several times, from the 1920s through the 50s, climaxed by the giant king bros circus and the king-cristiani circus, both huge truck shows. but the shows he owned always went broke because he trusted too many people too much. but working for other people, he made those people a fortune. he handled press for many top shows in the 30s and served as general agent on many others, directing all advance work. he was general agent for beatty-cole in its heyday, when it was truly the world's largest tented circus, in charge of the entire adance -- contracting, press, billposting, promotion. and he knew more about each aspect than anyone else. even in his later years, he had an amazing memory -- mention a town and he could tell you where the best lot was, the post office and western union, the cheapest hotel, the most likely sponsor, the town's principal industries, etc.
nobody could route a show like him. i didn't realize his circumstances at the time david saw him -- that was after he retired. i was fortunate enough to do story work for beatty-cole for their first New Orleans date, when bill english loaned me to beatty-cole, and i worked with him every day for two weeks and it was like getting my master's degree in circus advance. i learned so much from him. his mind worked 24 hours a day; i don't know when he slept. it was not unusual for him to call me at 3 or 4 am to run across the street to get him a coca cola-- that's all he drank and they were cheaper across the street than at the hotel. if you talk to any of the old-timers you will hear many floyd king stories -- and most are true. he was an amazing man. there will never be another like him.i'm proud to have worked with him, learned from him and call him my friend.

B.E.Trumble said...

Wade, I don't think there was anything wrong with the circus theme per se, but a theme park is more than any one thing, and most of the successful theme parks over the past fifty years have used rides to draw the bulk of their audience, with shows as the secondary attraction. My point, was, or should have been that for Circus World to work it probably needed to follow that some formula. You don't open with just the circus elements, because as you rightly pointed out -- what's new there? You build the hotel, the park grounds, the rides, AND you add the circus... then you have a park.

Ben

Wade G. Burck said...

Ben,
My point was also that there was nothing wrong with a circus theme, just that it was too weak to be the attraction or draw. Rides, changing shows, something "different" periodically is what killed it. Even movie theaters which used to be one Grand structure, now give you a choice of a dozen different features to see. "Different" is the key. Clown face painting to the left, elephant training demonstrations to the right, and trapeze skill straight ahead is not different.
Years ago, Hawthorn appeared at Marineland and Game Farm in Niagara Falls Ontario. For 10 years the greatest animal show in North America. Tigers, elephants, bears, dolphins, killer whales, sealions, sea elephants, all in the same stadium. It went from 3 half full shows a day to 6 shows a day full capacity of 2000 within 3 years. Each year the show changed it's theme and stage setting. And the sea mammals were trained accordingly. With the circus animals a change was to light the fire hoop or not light the fire hoop. The point being we could have trained something different for the park, but we didn't have the time to change it back to the circus when we left in the fall. When they added rides and other attractions that could change in 1984, the "circus" was let go, as it could not change.
They did extensive marketing surveys two years before the made that decision, and on a scale of one to ten the Killer whales were the favored part of the show, followed by the tigers. The most objected part of the show was the bears wearing "costumes" and the circus animals doing the same thing each year.
They have continued since 1984 with the show changing each year, adding new "attractions" to even greater success. P.T. Barnum, Mr. King, or God Almighty could not show the same movie over and over, before he has to shut down the movie house. Unless you can support it long enough to do a "cult classic" once a year, like our traveling circus.
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

Hey, you guys, for your stimulating feedback -- will there be a test? -- here's some tea-free spiced lemonade on me. Henry, I didn't mean to imply that Mr. King lived in shabby quarters. My word "battered" not well chosen. I recall him in a large if old and cluttered mobile home. Such a charming, self-effacing soft spoken man, whose first words to me where, "Sit down, boss." So much circus history in the music of his voice.

Wade G. Burck said...

Showbiz,
Now I understand the difference in mobile homes. "Battered" or "shabby." Kinda like Bill Clinton's idea of what is sex, and what is not sex. It address's the subject, everybody is so afraid of. Not the individual but the society. Very few who are the best at what they do, reside in a mobile home of any kind. If you love the Mr. Kings, address it for the future Mr. Kings.
Wade Burck

henry edgar said...

david - glad you clarified it. but i have to admit mr king was much better at making money for other people than for himself. cluttered-- i understand. mr. king did not drive but traveled on buses and trains. i was never around at travel time, but i heard that with all the contracts, photos, press releases, etc that he traveled with, as well as typewriter and clothes, people would joke about adding a trailer to the bus to carry his luggage. and the people at bus stations and train stations who helped with luggage would want to run when the cab pulled up and luggage came out like the clowns in the clown car.

i certainly understand more about why circus world folded. i'd never thought about everything involved. all of you are right -- there just aren't very many of us who would spend the day there. the old circus hall of fame in sarasota did well but it was much smaller and expenses were lower. and the circus acts and puppet shows were much more popular than the room where the circus greats were honored or tom thumb's carriage or jenny lind's sleigh.

Wade G. Burck said...

Henry,
Circus Hall of Fame, Circus World Museum, Circus World, Peru, Baraboo, Sarasota all struggle. It can't stand on it own. Because it is not GREAT. No, because Joe public does not appreciate and love it as much as you and I. We have to address it's issue, we have to admit she is not perfect, we have to let her be what the paying public want's her to be. Like a dog that has grown old Henry, we will still love her, even if she can't hunt any more. But we can't keep her what she was, if we do we will eventually destroy her.
Your friend,
Wade

B.E.Trumble said...

Interesting recollection of then Niagara Falls shows Wade. I imagine what you're rightly arguing is that training new behaviors was in a sense discouraged because "circus" didn't want those behaviors, "circus" wanted the same old thing. And that's pretty sad.

Ben

Anonymous said...

I saved the segment about Floyd King living in a mobile home in Macon, Ga. Being a Maconite during this King Bros Circus time frame, I had the privilege of visiting Floyd and Vicki King and family many times. For the record, the King Family owned a very nice home in a classy part of town. I was there many times over the years. It is true that after the death of Mrs. Floyd King that the home was sold and Mr. King and his daughter Linda moved into a mobile home. This was in the later years - During his working years the King Family lived the good life. Floyd Kings home was saved when King Bros circus went into bankruptcy. However, Arnold and Esma Maley were not so lucky and lost thier home in Macon, Ga. Thanks Charles Hanson

Marian Collins said...

I enjoyed your discussions about Circus World. It seems as though it was a pawn in the big game of real estate. I sure enjoyed working there though and many many of our patrons said they liked it better than Disney. I have to assume it was the live acts. No animatronics here folks. Thanks.

Marian

Anonymous said...

David-- I remember Irvin Feld quite well. I worked with him for two years then moved on. Brilliant at times, but looney as well. In my short tenure I watched him decline and Kenny begin take over. By the way, that name which was hard to recall was: The Festival International du Cirque de Monte Carlo Spectacular / Under the High Patronage of His Serene Highess (H.R.S) Prince Rainier III. He and Feld as I recall we quite fiendly, thought many said old Rainier was simply a cigar smoking gangster.

Logan Jacot said...

So when do we get a new post :-)

Showbiz David said...

In about 2 weeks, Logan. BTW: Good timely postings on your blog, specially the Cirque insects.

Alan Cabal said...

http://www.1010wins.com/-The-Greatest-Show-On-Earth--Heads-To-Coney-Island/4222688

Jeff Swanson said...

I was in my late 20's when I was in Florida on business. I planned my trip so after the business week I could spend a day a Circus World. How disappointing! I admit I thought the location was weird but not knowing the lay of the land in Florida I quickly dismissed that notion. What I couldn't dismiss was what wasn't there. I paid my money and within an hour I was pulling out of the parking lot having seen all there was - not the day I had hoped for. I remember spending a good deal of time reading the display showing what Irvin was planning and wanted the place to be. I tend to agree with Ben who states it was too little too soon.

Bill Laurence said...

Wade is correct about the circus needing to evolve, and I think we're seeing it now in a glorious and beautiful way with shows like Cavalia - high quality enviroment, beautiful horses in exciting and inovative routines and world class acrobats. And, you can see how well the public is responding to the new format.
It's almost like Astley's first circus, horses and acrobats and the kind of show people had never seen before.
Almost all shows now have adopted the European format, paying attention to creating a more elegant, comfortable interior. If the programs are a bit humdrum and repetative, it's probably because of a serious lack of talent available, and this may change as former cirque performers dribble out into the real world.
Frankly, although the pictures on Dick Dykes blog make me nostalgic, I'm happy to see the end of the tattered tents, splintered wooded seat boards and ring curbs, peeling paint and run down rolling stock. Not to mention the low quality, unskilled acts and primitive animal care.
So, just because the greats as we knew them are gone, don't give up yet. This new thing that's been given birth to is going to surprise us all.

Anonymous said...

In the early 1980's I visited Circus World in Florida after spending 5 days at Disney World. Always a big Circus fan, I stumbled onto Circus World. The parking lot had just a handful of cars in it but I was delighted to see the Circus wagon near the main entrance. I was thrilled by the Imax presentation which was exceptional and spent much time absorbing the many minature circus
collections on display. However, after being treated so royally by all the employees at Disney World, I was appalled by the Circus World's rude employees. They acted as if they could care less if they served any of the customers. The Circus "show" was enjoyable. The walk around where the remainder of the "rides" were located was sad to see. My stop in the "Gift Shop" annoyed me because they had no scale model circus trains for sale. That's my hobby and such items are available. The highlight of my visit was being able to partake of the elephant ride. Once the swaying of the elephant started it felt so very familiar. I must have lived in India in another life. One of the saddle straps broke on the elephant I was about to ride, causing a half hour delay. It was nice to see their herd of elephants out in their pasture. However, I was out of the park, greatly disappointed in less than two hours. But at least I got the thrill of a lifetime riding that elephant.