Baraboo on Parade!

Baraboo on Parade!
Down Fourth Street on Saurday, the fifth annual circus celebration and big top parade. Photo by Todd Krysiak, Baraboo News Republic

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cirque du Soleil Fans Don't Believe in "Believe" ...

Can master illusionist Guy Laliberte turn a turkey into a long-running turkey? Among seven or eight recent consumer reviews on BroadwayBox.Com for Cirque du Soleil's new Vegas show, Believe, all of them in negative territory, here is one from EastDakota, titled "Terrible":

A group of us in town from Boston saw the Chris Angel show last night. I had a free ticket and I still felt ripped off. It is sad to watch Cirque, which I generally have enjoyed over the years, put their name on something so awful. There hasn't been a great Cirque show in Vegas since "O" and that was 10 years ago. The Chris Angel show sets a new low.
Unlike "Le Reve" or "Ka" or some of the other Cirque-like shows that started bad but
they have tinkered with and made fairly good, the Chris Angel show seems unlikely to be fixable because the concept itself is so flawed. Magic is about taking the ordinary and, when it is touched by this one special figure, it becomes unusual. That's why magicians come off as these ego-driven, pseudo cult figures -- for which Chris Angel could be the archetype.
Cirque, on the other hand, is about transporting you to a place and a group of people who are otherworldly from the get go. Things appear and disappear out of no where. The stage is nothing but trap doors. But the extraordinary thing is that even though this place is so strange, you know that the two guys on stage balancing on a broomstick are, in fact, human beings just like you. Knowing that somehow these performers have trained and trained and trained to get to the point that they can make the impossible look effortless is why Cirque is magical.
On the other hand, back in the supposed "magic" show, the audience won't be impressed when someone disappears from under a sheet if they know the stage is riddled with trap doors. And you can't do a cliche saw-the-man-in-half trick as the show's climax after you've shown the audience earlier that you have the puppeteering technology to not only make supposedly sawed-off legs writhe around on a table but, back in the first act, dance about on stage.
The anonymous, masked performer who turns out to have some physical skill that is beyond belief is the hallmark of the best Cirque shows. That is the opposite of what a magician is. It's not surprising, then, that the traditional Cirque athleticism is almost entirely missing from the Chris Angel show. I'm sure that Mr. Angel was concerned such demonstrations of real talent would up stage him.
The show had either extremely eager, sycophantian fans or, more likely, plants who were just hanging out in the bathroom striking up conversations about how great it was with anyone who would listen. I'm guessing plants since 3 friends went to the bathroom over a 20 minute period and ran into the same woman. It wreaks of desperation. If anyone tells you the show is good, ask them how much of a kick-back they're getting from MGM/Mirage.
I give the show 2 months. Tops.
If you're a fan of magic and want to see a good show, check out "Penn & Teller" at the Rio or even Lance Burton or David Copperfield when he's in town. If you'd like to see something Cirque-like, go see "O" or "Mystere" or "Le Reve."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Out of the Past: Friday Flip Flops: Give 'Em Cotton Candy, or, No, Give 'Em Blood ...

Shame on Me! Should have never taken up the pretentious art of “circus reviewing.” Fact is, were I not the only one out there doing this (yes, I know, I’m not the only one, but still), I would not strike others as nearly so odd or eccentric or strange or extreme. Or, what, so stupidly critical ... When 4-letter hate mail arrives, as it did today, aiming profanity at my 2-star review last year of Circus Chimera, I shudder, wondering how much of this I should allow before civilized eyes ... Must mull it over ... In my precocious youth, as opposed to my precocious now, I once irked a Circus Review reader, who had had enough of my lip. Poor editor John Swan, who spent many a page on my out-of-control teenage prose, must have wondered what sort of a monster he’d unleashed ...

Complained the letter writer, regarding something I’d written in a state of anti-John Ringling North who killed the big top discontent, “if you can’t say anything good about somebody, don’t say anything at all.” Lately, I’ve even heard another strain of reader saying, “If you can’t say anything bad about somebody, don’t say anything at all.” Heck, World of Wonders, they once wanted cotton candy. Now they want blood. Brrr ...

Boyi, a “tea tender” here at L’Amyx, noticing a program magazine next to my Dell, mentioned having seen a circus out in Hayward when he was in high school. Boyi is from China, though he never saw any of its famed acrobats. Got as far as a zoo. Wasn’t too high on the tent show he saw, so I asked him (always interested in cold public opinion) to grade it from A to F. He answered, D-plus. Ouch, am I infecting others? Boyi knows nothing of my subversive background (I might soon have to hire protection when I enter big tops with pencil and pad). He said if the circus had “more flips flops, and more animals” (he recalled a single dog), he would have given it a C-+. Boyi, and people think I’m tough.

When I think of the quibbling though favorable notice I turned out at age 14 of a Polack Bros. performance, I am still amazed at how that one publishing breakthrough may have addicted me. Blame it on Walter Hohenadel and the White Tops, if not the CFA. Never could quite figure out the latter. But then again, who can figure me out. Not even me. Next year, I’ve made this resolution: Of any circus I see that I gave less than three stars to this year, if it doesn’t rank in my virtuous view a half a star more, I simply won’t review it. Call it kindness & Tact. Really, I don’t like being so, well — me.

How did we get here? Promise you, I did not bring this up. It was that program magazine, about which I am about to comment. It’s from Kelly Miller, and from John Ringling North the Sequel, and what a touch of rare class! I’ve grown to expect so little, I had no idea K-M puts out one (to be fair, I’m told this they’ve done regularly, so kudos to you, too, David Rawls). Over the last few years, none of the following shows even offered a one-page handout: UniverSoul, Moscow Circus of Stars from Sarasota, Chimera (during its last year), New Cole (recently) Vargas, Carson & Barnes. Simply inexplicable. I mean, when does one, even entering a puppet show, not receive something?

Royally reporting in, Jim Royal tells me of their pleasure with September biz, which he terms “very good.” Just now, back from tea, here’s his latest: “On the good news front, we had a terrific day yesterday, and excellent business again today.” That’s sure to please the House of Ringling, now traveling with the troupe. Well, if the performance is as classy as the magazine, what a calling card. K-M actually lists the acts as they appear. How novel. Ringling no longer does. CDS does not. This heroic action alone demonstrates to yours unruly rare artistic resolve.

I started out with so much to blab about, and I’m using up my hot air fast. Blame it on the Chinese guy who got intrigued with the K-M magazine. BTW, my one quibble: Why “John R. North II presents” on the front cover? That’s what John Ringling North (the original) was called by his relatives when they threw him out. Why not "John Ringling North II" front and center -- or is North's nephew barred by the Felds from using his full name in such conspicuous places? At the end of the listed acts, JRN II does revive a classy salutation known to circus fans of a certain age, "Thank you and Au Revoir ... John Ringling North II." Nice touch!

And so, taking my turn, may I say thank you and au revoir ... So much more out there to chat up when next we meet: Big top books that weigh tons, the new rage, I guess ... Ben Davenport and stark revelations in Bandwagon about Ringling ticket sellers in the last fast canvas days. I must ask Boyi what he would think if he walked away with not all his pennies.

Call this a profanity-proof wrap, I think, while it lasts ...

First published on September 26, 2008

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Broadway Musical Showdown: Upstart Juke Box Contenders take on Aging Blockbusters

Tea time on Times Square with Showbiz David

Reading my Sunday morning tea leaves at L’Amyx, the new season ahead (everything “tentative” and subject to change) promises a raft of ambitious new musicals and an encore parade of golden age gems from Pal Joey to West Side Story. If today’s efforts fizzle out, yesterday's returnees are sure to supply some temporary relief.

Here’s the lineup and my rash predictions:

Billy Elliot, direct from a hit run on the West End. Music by Elton John, reportedly composing more for theatre than for pop markets and impressing audiences. I'll give it a 50-50 chance.

A Tale of Two Cities, a work begun during the Reagan administration and tried out at the Asolo in Sarasota. Shaky. (update, 9/22: wretched opening night reviews; biz down to about 50%. Sarasota John Ringling Museum snobs: What did you see in this turkey?)

9-to-5, based on the movie with more songs from Dolly Parton. I see Mama Mia box office gold.

13. Teenagers perform on stage and in the band. Music by Jason Roberts Brown, whose one previous effort (Parade) was a fast flop. So I say doubtful.

Clay. About a hip-bop kid. Not commercial, says David Budah.

Shriek, the Musical, from the movie. The work of some savvy contributors. Mark that a promising maybe.

Vanities, A New Musical. About Texas Cheerleaders, JFK’s assassination, women's lib and the Vietnam war. Is that ALL? An out-of-control turkey in the making. Cluck Cluck.

Road Show, yet another attempt by aging Stephen Sondheim to get his bounce back on Broadway. That would be Bounce, aka: Wise Guys, ill-received in DC in 2003. Since that out-of-town death, it’s been “reworked and rewritten.” And remurdered? Mr. S, I’d rather you turn your talents to the horrific Wall Street crash into Uncle Sammy’s sucker hands. I’ve got your perfect title: Greed.

These assorted wannabes go up against five shows in revival, all of them composed by the masters of a golden age when Broadway hosted songwriters with glittering track records:

White Christmas, with songs by Irving Berlin. A Christmas package. Looks good.

Pal Joey, by Rodgers and Hart, with a new book. When will the pathetically insecure R&H organization (fearfully led by Traitor-in-Chief Ted Chapin) ever learn to leave their classics alone and stop rewriting them into the dumpster? Still, a great score and a possibly improved libretto might turn the corner. But I don’t see a hit.

On the Town, the Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green marvel. Doesn't work well in revival. Maybe this time.

West Side Story, to be directed by 90-year-old Arthur Laurents, who wrote the show’s book and scored last season with the revival of another of his legendary credits, Gypsy, which he also directed in revival. I can see another South Pacific triumph because WSS is in the hands of one of its creators, likely to bring it back as it was meant to be.

Guys and Dolls. Every time they bring it back, it seems less gritty, less amusing. Still, it’s a show that in the right hands can rock the boards. I’ll bet yes.

And there you have it, America, your tickets to melody and mayhem, comedy and chaos and even amateurism parading as the real ting. That’s Broadway.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Unseen Stars of the Big Top -- They Move the Show Day In and Day Out

This first appeared on September 19, 2008

Carson and Barnes Circus is now trouping north through California


On a cold and grey Friday morning in San Francisco at the Cow Palace while Carson & Barnes crews set up the big top, I can’t remember ever feeling as emotional about a circus as I did that day. Knowing this may be the last year for a touring American three-ring show under canvas, so many feelings welled up inside me. Perhaps I was living through my own Pittsburgh, for I thought about that day in 1956 when fans watched Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey pitch its tents for the last time. I remembered reading about the sadness they felt, the tears they shed. And I felt a rush of those same emotions myself.


Dory Miller once told me, “nobody is disappointed in the a.m.” How right he was.



I remembered helping as a kid to set up Clyde Beatty Circus when it came to Santa Rosa. I remembered getting off a bus in Petaluma a few years later, when Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros trucks were just rolling onto a grassy field. In the 1980s, I arrived on a Beatty-Cole lot early enough to enjoy the tents taking shape. And during the 1980s when I lived in Los Angeles, it was a big event for the fans to watch Circus Vargas set ups, especially at the Hollywood Bowl parking lot.


I’m not certain I ever saw a Carson & Barnes set up, I’ve usually reached their show after long walks from bus stops, too late for the morning magic. So I was surprised at how they go about erecting their big tent: The men start at one end, pushing a few side poles into place, then slip under the canvas in an almost mysteriously ritualistic fashion to give it form, one pole in and up at a time. It looked as if they were digging a fallen starry sky out of the dirt and pushing it back into place. One of them — maybe the boss man — later signaled me over to usher me through an opening in the sidewall so that I could witness the action in the near darkness. Gradually, working their way through, these determined canvas men turned a sea of flat canvas into a great waving amphitheater ...



Walking around the lot, not wanting to miss a thing, I was on my feet for five hours before deciding I should go somewhere for a bite to eat.


I marveled at how happy these Mexican circus men appeared. Happy with each other. Happy to have a job. Happy to be bringing circus day to a new town. And to think, sometimes they do this every day. No matter the crowds. No matter the weather. They are the unseen stars of the big top. Without them, the show would not go on. Maybe there should be Carson & Barnes alumni club for all the men who have ever spent time in the early morning hours spotting trucks, unloading props, driving stakes and pushing a starry canvas sky back into place ...


First posted 9.19.08

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Before Shrinking Crowds, Carson & Barnes Sparkles, then Glimmers Like a Fading Universe


Circus Review: Carson & Barnes
Cow Palace upper parking lot
San Francisco, September 12, 4:30 p.m.
Seats: $27.00 top
Rides: $6.00 top (elephant)

The wonder of Carson & Barnes Circus is that at its best, it is as good as Ringling once was. If only its best could last beyond the first four or five compelling displays. After that, sadly, a very promising show slides downward into a paceless hodgepodge — weaker and fewer acts, disruptive concession activities and woefully amateurish clowning.

A thrilling non-stop stream of early action (worth 3-1/2 stars) had the audience ooing and ahhing with shared delight — from festive opening splash “Be A Clown!” through three-ring displays of charming dogs and ponies, inventive contortionists and aerialists, and even a hula hoop exhibition of arresting variety and climactic punch that had me on its side. Without a program magazine for sale, these talented performers will remain nameless. Nor are the shrill announcements of an overbearing ringmaster through a muddled sound system of much help.

Trouble enters the tent with the old Peterson Peanut pitch, which looked nothing short of desperate. What price a few bucks of extra revenue? And when the carnival came to town at intermission time, ironically, the pony and elephant rides and the painted clown faces for sale would be the last time when all three rings were simultaneously in motion.

I studied the blank questioning look on the face of a man in a box seat gazing at the pony ride, and I wondered if he was thinking what I was. After intermission, he and his kids did not return (at least not to their original seats), nor did nearly half of those, mostly adults, who had occupied the two rows of VIP chairs. In the preferred seating section where I sat, there was but me and maybe a couple dozen other souls. In the entire tent, two- to three-hundred gratefully engaged customers. So lonely. So sad. In fact, the changing scene from first to second half epitomized what is happening to our circuses these bleak days: less people returned, and the performance itself went from three rings of action down to one. Even in the morning during set up (what a joy it was to watch these sunny Mexicans going about their work, so intricately organized), I did not spot a single soul who might have been another circus fan. Are they, too, disappearing?

To be fair, Carson and Barnes had more than those first five or six displays to offer the public: a nicely staged aerial ballet; wining Wheel of Destiny routine; and a lovable trio of nimble footed-pachyderms working the center ring in a sprightly fashion. Four stars to these show-stealing pros! There is also a colorful patriotic spec that likely plays better in red states. It only lacks a stronger payoff. Costumes here and elsewhere are usually excellent (C&B have raised their own standards), as is the lighting. Taped music is generally appropriate.

After the show, I overheard kids laughing and giggling, one of them telling his dad, “That was fun! Let’s go back!” How should such a remark impact on a “review”? My best guess is that, to survive, circuses must impress adults too. Showmanship makes a critical difference.

This troupe did its level best to entertain us in a worn out format that needs drastic rethinking. The animals on display looked well tended to, healthy and friendly. To be clear, I do not advocate eliminating the midway itself, which is the proper place for what should never desecrate a sawdust ring. For any struggling circus owner out there seeking answers, here is a hopefully helpful observation: When I have gone to Big Apple Circus or UniverSoul Circus or Cirque du Soleil, I did not see the rings ever cluttered with carnivals during intermission, or performances stopped for commercials. And at those circuses, at least on the few times that I’ve attended, the seats were nearly full.

Carson and Barnes has always been a gamble. Sometimes the late Dory Miller delivered very well. This time around — or was I dreaming? – it was pure heaven for fifteen or 20 minutes under the big top as the show moved briskly forward with the assurance, pacing, and high spirits of yesteryears’s greatest three ringers. If only Barbara and Gary Byrd could teach themselves how to hold that bright and shining vision all the way through straight right to the end. Is that too much to ask?


Overall rating: * *

[Due soon: Unseen Stars of the Big Top: Photos of set up]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Midweek Midway L’Amyx: Feld’s New Monster Jams, Dragone’s Touring Cirque du Seuss ...

Okay, flats cut and spotted. Runs up. Roll them wagons off, guys! ... Now you people over there, stay back, okay? And keep your kids in toe! ... Hey, Sage! Spot those monster trucks in back of the hula hoop wagon!

What’d you say? Don Covington has news? Ask him to meet me over by the ice house! Okay, get those Story Department wagons down the runs and move ‘em out!

Getting a little crowded out here? Now, you people new to this midway, check out the chat tents over there under the trees. Comments getting tossed around on the inside ... I’ve got to start taking notes myself. It’s all so mixed up, this dizzy debate about whatever it is we still call “circus.” Kenneth Feld, did you hear, just sank $175 million into a shaky venture called Live Nation Motor Sports, according to the Wall Street Journal ... To be renamed Feld Entertainment Motor Sports. Now, we all know what happens whenever the Felds concoct titles that do not have the words Ringling or Disney in them...

Why don’t I feel a thrill? Parent company Live Nation pulled in last year about 4% of its total revenue from motor sports, says WSJ, and tried dumping it for $240 million. Perfect for the Felds, who’ve got the perfect setting already in use for their ringless division — those black oval mats that Ken Dodd called “a parking lot.” Count me out...

What’s this, Sage? Here's an advance flash from Covington! Franco Dragone, who created, claim his fans, the art of Cirque du Soleil, holding Vegas auditions for a new touring tent show based on a Dr. Seuss tale, “If I Ran the Circus.” Slated to start touring next March. How I’d love to write that script. L’Amyx counter guy Will, originally from China and recently in Vegas with his new bride, tells me he did not try out and is not a Chinese acrobat, whatever that is. Did he take in a Cirque show while in sin city? No, answers Will. He saw Circus Circus. Which brings us back to the Big Issue. And here’s Henry Edgar with the ultimate Big Question: “Do we continue doing what we’ve always done, investing profits wisely and keeping the makeup and sequins perfectly in place until finally nobody wants the perfect show at any price?” Yes, indeed. What if somebody produced a big top to die for and still nobody but me came? Oh, heck, what’s an old fashioned circus guy to do?

What a difference two eyes make: Last time here, Chase told us how much he liked Bellobration. Now comes perky Amy Shmamy (trust you’re not a Feld operative, Amy), posting a refreshingly upbeat review of Over the Top at the end of my own grudging notice. First Ringling she’s seen in eight years. To her engaging write up I commend your attention. Amy felt the story line “brought everything together.” Glad you enjoyed your big top broccoli, Amy ... I still have a weakness for cotton candy.

When did the whole thing splinter off into radical disarray? Was it Circus Circus? Alan Cabal pushes for rock in the ring. Check out Circus Oz, Alan; here, you can have my ticket. No more acrobats on acid, in S&M gear, or out of rehab for me. In fact, may I have permission, World, to nix certain shows I no longer care to delude myself into believing are circuses? Hey, is John Strong on the train? ... I’m in the mood for a couple of goats, one amateur clown not holding a Ph.D in theatre, and John’s charming chatter ...

Sage! Those bed sheets belong in the Lyra Therapy wagon! “My particular nightmare,” admits Cabal, "involves Live Nation acquiring Big Apple or Soleil. As much as I dislike the Guide [Mr. Laliberte], I’ll take a single narcissistic megalomaniac over a faceless horde of bean counters any day.”

To that, I’ll raise my imported rice tea ... Hey, you guys! Move those Mighty Metaphors along!

Monday, September 08, 2008

South Pacific Rules Box Office as Broadway Biz Plunges ....

Last week on shaky Broadway stages (perhaps a back-to-school phenomenon), most shows suffered drastic declines in patronage, the worst being a not so merry Mary Poppins , down by 46.7% to a meager 46.5% capacity.

Among other surprising losers, Spring Awakening filled up only 51% of the seats; Grease, 55.5%; Legally Blond, 49.9%. Recent departures include the long-running Rent and A Chorus Line, which enjoyed a nearly two year run on the revival boards and is now touring.

Most remarkably, South Pacific in revival for the first time ruled the pack at 99.8% followed by Wicked (98.2%)

Rodgers and Hammerstein must be smiling brightly wherever they are.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Out of the Past: When Artist and Audience Share Illusions ...

Illusions: without them most of us would have little will to live. Poor Judy Garland, nearing the end of her troubled existence, there she was, all alone curled up backstage in the womb of a theatre dressing room, unable to get up and leave and go out and face the real world. Remembered talk show host Dick Cavett, on whose morning program Garland had just appeared, “I couldn’t get her out of the dressing room. I left the theatre and later walked back well after tape time. And she was still there.”

Still lost in her life-saving fantasies. Judy survived on them just as we the audience do. And so she clung to the world of make believe. Clung to the stage, the dressing room. “She was home in those two places,” remembered Cavett. “Leave them and you are back in so-called life, where it seemed poor Judy made only false moves.”

Poor Lucille Ball, who had to suffer husband Desi Arnez’s numerous affairs. Nearing the end of their successful TV run, Ball all but admitted that only when she was filming another “I Love Lucy” episode did she feel a semblance of love between herself and her estranged real-life husband. How sad that what she felt was scripted.

Performer and spectator are sometimes never very far apart ... When we watched Lucy every Monday night in the fifties, we believed that she and Ricky were a happily married pair. So too, while the show was being filmed, did Lucy.

Ricky Nelson, who in better times enjoyed record sales second only to Elvis Presley, could not stop flying across the country in dinky little airplanes to dinky little night club dates where a handful of “fans” might show up to cheer the aging rocker on. I ask you, who was more lost in their illusions — guitar player or small crowd of devoted acolytes? Nelson died in a plane crash daring a dangerous storm to make another token appearance. He couldn’t let go ...

They all live for applause, for a packed house of happy enthralled fans. From Broadway to big tops, everything else in between is just a waiting game. We dream of the next big one, and when it comes we believe in our illusions all over again. For after all, without them, what drive would there be to succeed? As Oscar Hammerstein II put it, “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Showbiz Snaps: Both Cirque du Soleil and Big Apple Circus sporting ads in today's New York Times . Cirque's full page heralds the return of Wintuk, while Grandma’s Big Apple ad, much smaller, touts its next offering Play On! ... On the radio, news of Vegas hotels reporting a 15 percent drop in reservations. So maybe what Nancy Gaona told me is spot on ... Don Marcks (as did Dory Miller, if I am not wrong) used to say that presidential election years crimp circus business ... in the Bay Area, according to one source, some blogs reported the Circus Vargas cast outnumbering the folks in the seats. I surely hope not ... Why is big top biz, overall, never reported or known, unlike virtually all other avenues of entertainment? The old Billboard once did a worthy job, week by week ... Not a very cheery Sunday report, this? ... Okay, everything’s coming up straw houses again, promise you, once I release my ground-breaking Recipe for Revival. Sure. Ooops, are my own precious illusions showing? Please close the door on your way out and let me stay here in my private dressing room ... I can't bear reality right now ...

First published  September 7, 2008

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Midweek Midway Blues? Kelly Miller Reports Better Biz --- John Ringling North II Plotting 2009 Edition ...

Okay, first off, let’s not go out and commit mass suicide — not yet. Yeah, the news out of Hugo about Carson & Barnes is depressing, but that doesn’t mean the show, or all the others now on the road, will will not return next year. May I remind you, kids, that we go through these wrenching predictions of doom about every year (yeah, I know, it’s fun being melodramatic, but this IS circus, right?) ... Sure, the tent and indoor shows are shrinking in size. In corporate America, it’s called “downsizing.” Don’t count out our fearless owners (the Byrds and the Pughs, for example) who have been keeping these tricky things on the road for ages ... Somehow, they know how. Don’t overlook Big Apple Circus (there's the BAC ring crew), a wonderfully stable organization, far as I can tell, with exemplary artistic standards in act selection ... Vargas shows notable promise, if only they’d concentrate on the performance ... UniverSoul is not well established?

What goes with Kelly Miller? Reading Ben Trumble’s blog, I get the impression that business is mostly very unexceptional, in fact, not very good at all, so, practicing journalism 1A, I sent an e-mail to show manger Jim Royal seeking if possible his take on the season so far. In kind, he replied, “We are pleased with business this season, our numbers are up from last year.” Did you hear him say “up”? Stresses Royal, “I think it is important to consider a season as a whole. There are always great dates and losers. The end of summer — back to school time period is traditionally a slow period. We had good business on Labor day (which can be a slow day) and yesterday we had a very good day. Our next stop is sold out.” ... Might they be rethinking any of their booking strategies? “We are always looking at new ways to improve business, with costs as they are it is a necessity. Our big ‘gripe’ about 2008 is a common one, expenses.”

Somebody predicted in a comment on my midway (comments are always welcome here) that most of the circuses won't be back next year. Count Kelly-Miller an already declared exception. John Ringling North II due in on September 12 to oversee plans for the 2009 tour. I said 2009,so cancel that call to the suicide prevention hot line. North’s daughter, Katherine, to rejoin the show in late September. Circus owners, I have observed, are a stubbornly dedicated lot. No matter how I may critique their shows (and I know some of my reviews have driven some of you nearly mad), I feel a profound respect for the collective efforts of our tenting lords to keep their canvas in the air. Yes, they are doing lots of things we could argue are wrong. Maybe they will be forced to take a closer look at their operations. Lord knows, they are trying. You hear newer music. You see the story lines that audiences, whatever I think, might like.

Big Top Bits: Thrillingly Ringling, chillingly Chinese. Is there a show that does a better job showcasing the great acrobats from Asia? I think not. In this realm, the Felds excel, as witness their latest gift, seen here in the photo. A simply fantastic act. As circus as circus can be, yesterday, today or tomorrow. Sad to consider, however, how young Chinese kids are basically forced into a grueling young life of daily practice to be turned into circus artists or Olympic champions ... Chase chirping over a Ringling show he can believe in. That would be Bellobration: “Ringling’s sucked a bit over the past years, but with this show they’re back.” I think you’re onto something, Chase ... Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberte telling a reporter “I love surrealism.” Fine with me; circuses should be atmospheric and other worldly, once penned Floyd King. To insure that “cirque has the pick of the best performers,” says the writer, Laliberte spends eight months each hear “looking for future circus stars.” ... Not that easy, Mr. L. I do think you dug yourself into an economic hole, what with all the show’s you’ve promised to deliver the world, and you desperately needed the money that Dubai offered you ...

Speaking of outside money to the rescue, back closer to Baraboo, Bob Dewel, who advanced from waiter to dentistry when Lawrence Welk was playing around Clear Lake, Iowa, circa 1940, spends most of his time these days looking for cracks and blemishes in the Al Ringling Theatre to restore. Our keyboard virtuoso, at the dapper age of 89, recently faced a city council and was able to help extract a $10,000 donation. Well, he once drilled for gold, don’t forget. The money raised will remove, at last, an unwanted popcorn machine and ticket stand from the lobby so that it can be restored it to its “original glory.” Go, good Doc Dewel! You and Guy Laliberte may have something in common ... Your next stop, may I suggest: Dubai.

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH. ... SAY GOODBYE TO THREE RINGS ON CARSON AND BARNES

Rush to Carson and Barnes Circus this season. Run, fly, hitchhike, roller skate, carpool, crawl, even go Greyhound -- but go whenever America's last 3-ring big top comes your way. For after it falls for the final time at the end of its 2008 campaign, you won't see three rings under canvas anymore

Next year, "it could be two," states remarkably forthcoming C&B staffer, Nancy Gaona. But it won't be three.

I spoke with Nancy this morning by telephone about business in general. “So-so” is how she characterized the crowds this year, stating that every year, business “gets worse.” And she believes such is the case on virtually all U.S. shows.

“We all know it’s going to happen,” said she.

Why, I asked?

Nancy pointed to the dismal economy. But what about those stay at home Americans who this year are “staycationing,” I asked. "They don't have enough money to take their kids to the circus," Nancy figures, stating that business is down in every other venue of show business, the movies included. (I did a brief net search, and it seems movie houses have suffered, as have Vegas hotels, bookings at the latter down by 15%.) She believes the public still likes a traditional show under the big top. They simply can’t afford to go.

And for the larger shows, hauling multiple rings around has gotten too prohibitively expensive. (Such was the case made recently by C&B marketing rep Doug Munsell to a newspaper reporter in the Washington state area.)

Carson & Barnes, to be sure, enjoyed the occasional full house during a spotty tour of Florida in the spring. Disputing what an insider, professionally connected to circuses, told me earlier this year (likening the Florida tour to "a train wreck"), Nancy said that business was “better than expected,” and that a few winning dates made up for the losers.

“It’s sad” she answered when I asked her how she feels about all this. Nancy, by the way, is a niece to famed trapeze flyer Tito Gaona.

She pointed to the country’s largest circus as an example of the drastically changing times ahead and of what we might expect for some time to come. “If Ringling can change, why can't we?”

Nancy believes that circuses will still be around, but in different forms.

Carson and Barnes, she vigorously asserted, is not going off the road.

Want to witness a coast-to-coast curtain fall on what once was known as the great American circus -- a form born 136 years ago when a circus named Barnum added a second ring to the sawdust? Now is the time. This is the moment. It may never return.

Cry, clown, cry..

[I encourage you to read the comments that follow]

Monday, September 01, 2008

Midweek Midway Mix: Long Live Sawdust Circles and Affordable Fraud

Here we go, down the flats and off the runs in no particular order ... Let’s let Paul Binder kick off this ramble, telling WCAX-TV 3 News in Hanover, NH of his life-long respect for the sawdust circle “This is the original form. This is the form that pre-dated Theatre ... pre-dated Opera and ballet and musical theatre.” Now, does that make you feel proud of our bigtopian addictions? Duz me ... Big Apple Circus’s upcoming season promises a fetching mix of talent and threatens to fly high again, says I, merely examining a released list of some of the acts: Horse rider Christine Zerbini (might that be Sylvia??), Anastasini Family dogs from Rome; the Nan Jing Troupe from China “performing incredible acrobatic ballet;" a Russian barre act named Rodion; the juggling Lasalle Brothers from the USofA — AND Brazilian flyers named Rigolletos — a welcome trend back to the air for the recently ground-bound Apple troupe. ... Remarks impresario Paul, “The work becomes secondary to the joy and passion of doing it.”

Those Funny Pfenings: Have you seen the recent issue of their Bandwagon? Upon first glance, I thought I’d received maybe a copy of MAD magazine from the fifties. How daringly different, but only did they reproduce the cover of a 1902 mag put out by Bill Poster Display advertising, to promote the services of its litho advertisers, the Courier Company splashing on both covers. “WE PRINT THEM. YOU POST THEM.”... Into the Bay Area, day and dating without lithos (but with tv ads) comes first Circus Vargas, tenting up in S.F. on August 13, and then, the next day, opening over in Oakland, Ringling-Barnum ... This one will be interesting to watch, and let's hope there's still a crowd for Carson & Barnes, when it spreads its canvas wings across the Cow Palace parking lot a few weeks later....

Why I Like Circus Animal Turns: I do not have to witness a compassionate man being jailed for daring to care for a bear. This from New Delhi, by way of AP: The man, Ram Singh Munda brought home an orphaned bear cub to “console his 6-year-old daughter,” who had just lost her mother. He was subsequently arrested and sent to jail for violating wildlife laws. All three parties were left depressed. The bear “refuses to eat,” the girl was sent to a boarding school. CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS: Maybe there is hope from those animal rights loonies, who are endeavoring, in a flash of reason, to liberate Munda from the brig and restore the family threesome. Maybe there is hope ... In the end rings, this: Should human rights be granted to monkeys? Currently, they are considered so close in IQ to humans, that the argument goes, they need to be treated as full fledged citizens. But are they smarter than a fifth grader on television? ...Whoa, we gotta follow this wagon up the road. No, no, I mean down the road...

Kelly Miller Circus inside and — inside. Some of you will recall a certain aerialist named “Holly” denied the center ring in the film the Greatest Show on Earth. John Ringling North II remembers well, for when recently coaxed into his single ring for a photo op with tiger man Casey McCoy, he quipped, “I don’t have a Holly or a center ring, so I went into a cage of tigers.” Looks to me, Mr. Great Sebastian, that Mr. North the Sequel will NOT pay for your speeding tickets, so you can turn around and go home, guy ...

In the mind of the advance man: From the same show, if you check staffer Ben Trumble’s blog, there he is wondering about the tricky mix of sponsors and locations, etc, and how they might or might not result in good and bad days ... You will also learn that not all of the show’s biz is at all busy ... This marks a new era in on-the-spot reporting. Trade talk you are unlikely to get in other quarters ... Count this a gift of the Internet generation.

Fraud is a relative sin, I hereby declare: When I hear about sub prime scams, corrupt banking tycoons, bogus lenders and the hidden credit fees that are bringing overzealous consumers to their knees (and this country, what's left of it, to the brink of an economic blowdown), I kind of wish all the suckered victims had spent their money instead on an old fashioned midway. Yeah, they might have gone home minus a twenty, but they still would have gone home to a home they could still call their own..

And that’s a random wrap, and let’s all meet here again somewhere “down” that long and winding road — or, if you prefer, down the lonesome one traveled by Sinatra in the days of three-ring glory ...

First posted, Circa 9.1.2008? [check]