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]


Amy Shmamy said...

Do you know of any circuses other than Ringling that tour up north here in Washington?

Showbiz David said...

Amy, Carson & Barnes, I think, played some dates up in Washington recently before coming down to the bay area. C&B only plays the west coast at the most every other year. Not many other shows that I know of. Possibly some Shrine Circus dates in the larger cities. By the way, you asked about Paul Pugh's long-lasting Wenatche Youth Circus, in operation since 1952. Sounds like a marvelous opportunity for the youth. I do hope to see it some time. You might have to go on tour if you want to see more shows!

Amy Shmamy said...

I have seen the Youth Circus I think 3 times. For some reason they were always up at Roche Harbour when I would be up there with my folks on our boat during vacation. Just pulled up a seat on the lawn and watched. Nothing spectacular, but amazing performances for their ages. The one problem I noticed in the show, was there really was no direction. Acts came out, performed then left. Same music, no transitions, which eventually for me let my mind wander to other things. (i think I have ADD since I cant seem to complete anything.)
I hope you can come up and see it sometime too. It is an experience and I wish more places offered programs like this.

Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
Your review of C & B was almost apologetic at times, as if you hated to point out the short comings. If a valid opinion/review is to be accepted factoring in friendships or who is nice and who is not doesn't do it real justice.
Just as poor acts are held up as great, because of the "cute and charming" factor it may give the wrong impression of what something factually is.
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

Wade, since you seem to believe that C&B "friendships" or "who is nice and who is not nice" have influenced my review, I should point out that during my entire day on the Carson and Barnes lot, I spoke with nobody other than a few of the guys on the tent crew about some technical aspects of their work, and to a woman at the ticket window who sold me a $26.00 ticket. In fact, I interviewed Barbara Byrd, by phone, in 2005 for my book "Fall of the Big Top," and she subsequently refused to sign a form allowing me to quote her directly, which she had every right to do.

Now as for my terming certain acts "cute," although I did not use that word, it does apply to the delightful elephant routine, which I enjoyed about as much as the one I saw on Ringling's Bellobration. (I loved the way they curtsy at the end.) These things are in the eye of the beholder.

I would welcome your sharing with us your own specific reactions, pro or con, to the acts ...

Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
Boy you are rangy today. The review just seemed a bit apologetic in comparison to your normally "whack them hard" words. I saw the elephants a couple of years ago when Tim Frisco was presenting them, and if they are the same one's, yes it is a great act. The rest of the show appeared to be pretty much what you saw this year, but all that said and none of the American Circu's have fallen to the depth of Cirkus Charles Knie in Frankfurt, although Zumanity is trying hard to get there.

henry edgar said...

wade -- one thing david has never done, to the best of my knowledge, is soft-pedal a review. he is one of a very few writers to present his his own honest opinion of a circus act or a production's shortcomings
in a fan publication, with no attempt to ignore or play down the problem areas. most writers have traditionally adapted the "don't ask, don't tell policy" regarding weak acts or weak shows; praise what's good, ignore everything else.

today, i have learned to ignore many reviews simply because everything often seems to always be the best the fan has ever seen. "all the hometwown talent was good" reviews may be appropriate for community theater or localm symphonies or dance recitals presented as ballets, but inthose caes the shows are never sold as professional and have a different standard. then average touring circus is sold as professional entertainment and should offer professional entertainment. david was probably the first real circus critic, usimg the term critic in the sense of a theater, movie, music, dance or televison critic. i have not always agreed with him but i respect his integrity completely.

he found more to like in this review than i did the last time i saw carson and barnes, but we're talking about different years, different shows and different acts. the last time i saw the show, the only act that impressed me was baby jennie, a truly entertaining display presented by frisco in which jennie looked like she was having the time of her life. even the show i saw at that time was entertaining; it just had no acts with a "hey, wow!" factor and lacked the punch i looked for. Competent but no climactic moments, seeming to end before the finish trick.

david has made a career of calling it like he says it, with sheer honesty, and i have no reason to doubt that this review was his honest opinion. anytime i have an opportunity to see a show david likes, i will do everything i can to attend.

Adaline said...

So sorry that we didn't get to meet each other.

I too, felt as though I was watching a moment in history.

See you down the road, hopefully,


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the reason that there were fewer people at the circus is that most people don't care to see animals used in entertainment. The abuse that goes into the training of the "nimble footed-pachyderms" is common knowledge, as is the pitiful existence circus life is for intelligent, social, emotional elephants.

I notice tht you have posted "Comment moderation has been enabled. All comments must be approved by the blog author." It will be interesting to see if you post my comments.

Showbiz David said...


I only moderate comments posted a month or so after the posting. You arrived quite late. BTW: the animals on Carson and Barnes looked splendidly cared for to my eyes. It puzzles me that, given the seeming sincerity of your views, you would not give us yourname. Very strange.

Janet said...

Hi David,
I tried to sign in, but I couldn't remember my password, so I just clicked "anonomous" in the interest of time. I am impressed that you posted my comment. Unfortunately, body weight is not always a good indicator of humane treatment of animals. The Carson and Barnes elephants in the video at all have a good body weight, but even the most casual observer can see that they were being abused when Frisco was shocking them with electric prods and teaching the new trainer to sink the bullhook into their feet until they scream.
Spending a lifetime in chains, living in parking lots, traveling from venue to venue in trucks, performing tricks taught through fear and dominance is no life for an elephant. Those poor elephants live 40 and 50 years of that terrible existence.
The life of the little horses tied up to walk in endless circles while giving rides looked pretty pathetic, too.
Most enlightened people do not enjoy this sort of entertainment.

Steadyeddie2 said...

I suppose we Mid Westerners aren't as sophisticated as people living on the West Coast. In June we sponsored the Carson and Barnes Circus and the ticket sales for two performances amounted to $50,000. We couldn't get one more person into the big top for either performance and patrons didn't leave at intermission. We thought the show was great. And listen to this over 1,000 people showed up for the setup. Again I say we poor Mid Westerner aren't as upscale as West coast people. We do know how to promote the circus.

David said...

I have seen Carson & Barnes 4 or 5 times now in Columbia MO during my College years and most recently in St. Louis when they perform here. I have never seen ANY animal abuse at ANY circus (and I go to a lot). I have caught PeTA lying and distorting the truth in an effort to get their name in print and their faces on camera so they can raise money to funnel to the Animal Liberation Front (a Terrorist organization). It's a shame that an organization that claims to support animals is in reality only interested in self promotion and funding domestic Terrorists (PeTA by day, ALF by night). Circus-David

Anonymous said...

I was very disappointed in this show. This was the first time since i was little to see this show. My kids loved it. My wife and I hated it. I just came on to this site to see what other people reviewed on this circus act. I watched it in san diego, and it was as you described it. Many people left at intermission. Every thing is very expensive, and not worth the money paid. I spent over $200 dollars for cold pop corn, a little bag of peanuts one ride on a camel in one little circle. same on a elephant and supposed VIP seating in plastic patio chairs. I was very disappointed. But it was for my kids. But I will never do that again. I was thinking ringling bros or bartenum bailey would be better but now i am scared of any kind of circus. I only have a yahoo account so i am anonymous but my name is Marcus Bethea

Showbiz David said...

Marcus, Thank you for sharing your comments. I put some on my recent post dated 5/8/09. I assume you saw the show recently in 2009.
I would recommend Big Apple Circus, though it only plays the east coast. They do not throw concession stands at you every footstep. Ringling is certainly worth a chance, EXCEPT, I must warn you, you will be swamped every step of the way in very high priced concessions. Maybe you could have a pre-agreement with your kids to accept NO CONCESSIONS.
Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I just have questions about the elephant rides. I'm 20 yrs old and my favorite animal is the elephant, so I'm very excited to have a chance to get close to one. I was wondering how much the ride costs, and whether or not one can ride them before the show or only during the show? I have class later on this afternoon, but I wanted to be able to do this before class. It would be the highlight of my day!