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.

6 comments:

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Anonymous said...

The best acts have always been the imported acts, and you can go all the way back to Barnum. Mills Bros brought in a ton after the war at rock bottom prices and many of those families are what carried the talent pool into the 80's and beyond (Sylvia Zerbini is an example). Then came the school trained, Eastern block acts and now the Chinese. God bless the Mexican acts, but few came close to the Soviets and Hungarians.
I think there is a parrallel here. European circus families were pretty strict diciplinarians when it came to practice. In today's diminishing parental influence in society in general, schools (in general) have had to assume many of the duties that parents used to. So, schools for circus have taken on the role that circus families used to. Much is made of the Chinese somewhat harsh training of performers, but I'm not sure that isn't much different than the training of the older generation of performers.
The circus was such a closed society that it was rare that any outside youngster would be brought into the fold. Half of the program was devoted to animal acts, but with that a thing of the past, there are just not enough decent acts to fill the vacuum. So, we see a wheel of death on every program, along with the globe and hula hoops. No more teeterboard, tight wire or unsupported ladder. And, like Henry mentioned, the outstanding trapeze acts. That, I believe is that no one wants to do the work to guy out a rigging. If it can't be suspended from a single cable (like lyra of silks) they can't be bothered. There was also the use of heel and toe gimmicks in the 80's that made it possible for any performer to fake - in a practice or two - what Jackie Zerbini and Struppi took months and months to learn. It all comes down to laziness and don't give a c---. Struppi used to say "the feathers get bigger every year and the talent gets smaller"
Funny how shows like Big Apple (which I recall was dismissed as "for the artsy elite" at one time) and Soleil are the thriving shows now, and are not downsizing every year. You can still go to BAC or Soleil and come out shaking your head in disbelief. Which, was always what the circus was about. And, that's about as traditional as it gets.

Wade G. Burck said...

Anonymous,
"Unsupported ladders!!!" Now there is an athletic marvel to thrill children of all ages. Mechanics, gimmicks, have you ever had a job that offered no disability/death benefits? If that was the case, you may be scrambling for a mechanic. Don't hold up shows that have State/National "aid" as examples of making a buck doing it right. That's some of the "one sided" history that has played havoc on this profession. Take your time, but do a valid study on how many of the big successes in this profession came from outside and not within. You might be shocked. A good place to start in my profession would be Clyde Beatty, Charley Baumann, and GGW, Marcan, Clubb, Bottcher etc. You do the leg work on elephants and horses. The outsiders had to prove a whole lot more just to be accepted. Hard initially but 20 years later the assumption was you had to be "royalty", as good as you were. There is a reason why a law was enacted forbidding the giving of family and friends select jobs. Not only did it cut down on competition, but the quality of the work suffered.
Wade Burck

Anonymous said...

An unsupported ladder act takes a great deal of skill and training. You might not have seen some of the good ones. Circus is made up of a lot more than aerial and animal acts with clowns thrown in here and there. The variety of acrobatic, balancing and other ground acts used to be amazing, and often the acts that took the greatest amount of training.
Animal acts are close to being irrelevant anymore in America. The AR and low life trainers saw to that.
I'm glad to see that Big Apple, Soleil and Ringling are continuing the tradition of bringing the jaw dropping acts from overseas. Trouble is that few will stick around to raise the next generation of performers after their contracts are up since there's almost nowhere to work in the US

Wade G. Burck said...

Anonymous,
Correction. Somebody had to hire the low life trainers, and somebody had to accept them and not object long enough for the AR to get a toe hold in the wall. You should have spoke up 20 years ago.
Wade Burck