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.”