Monday, December 01, 2008

The Circus Book Paul Binder Will Never Write, and Why ...

Hard to imagine any circus producer down through the ages as well educated or intellectually inclined as outgoing Big Apple Circus founder, one-time ringmaster and artistic director Paul Binder.

Like Ringling’s late ringmaster Harold Ronk, who was himself a master diplomat who virtually never criticized big top people and the shows they presented (he did note, during a speech, that Ringling in his day was considered “the modern circus,” leaving the rest of the sentence for us to complete), Binder is equally prone to conceal any critical feelings. After all, he has spent thirty years fund raising and holding an organization together.

And yet, since Binder does not hesitate to discuss, class room style, the roots of circus and his producing guidelines, he is fair game for a set of candid questions (my wish list that follows), which he is never likely to take on. Were he to address these questions in book form, we might have something worth reading. So, I soldier on in hopes, waiting for Amazon to bring out Paul’s memoirs ...

Last week, taking to National Polite Radio’s Tom Ashbrook, Binder once again touted his oft-pitched deference to “virtuosity” as the leading criteria for selecting circus acts, along with, and he stressed this greatly, a co-criteria, “you have to be able to make contact with the audience.” Well, okay ..

He returned to this theme during the interview. “We want the audience to identify with the artists. These are not superheroes. They are people just like you. They get up in the morning ... what they show us is what we are really capable of ... that’s how the message gets across, that you identify with that person in the ring. They’re not a big superstar ... Oh, my, she could be a person — that’s a human being.”

So, exploring the idea that artists in spangles are just as likely to show up at the corner laundromat, let that be our Binderesque springboard into my questions for Paul:

* Circuses once brought mystery and magic, other worldly mystique into towns. Irvin Feld broke down the fourth wall when he invited audiences to participate more in his shows (in the specs, in pre-performance interaction with performers, etc). Does this marketing concept not match your own passion for wanting your performers to directly connect with the audience?

* Currently, Circus Vargas has its artists standing at the front door after the show lets out, in effect, a manipulative move to bond its patrons more intimately with its performers. Why have you not done the same, since this would surely advance your desire for artist and audience to connect on a more human level?

* Cirque du Soleil brought back loads of other worldly atmosphere into its tents, and for many years it has had little difficulty filling up virtually all of its seats. Is this mystique not part of what the public hungers for?

* When I attended two of your recent shows, Picturesque and, Celebrate!, certain outstanding performers (among them, Cong Tian and Gui Ming Meng) did not come off as trying to joyfully make contact with me, even though I found them to be tremendously entertaining. Were they exempt from your criteria?

* Were you able to sign arguably the world's greatest juggler, Anthony Gatto, would you require that he revise his act to bring in more of the "joyful" factor?

* When I saw the greatest act in my life, the Wallendas (before they "flew")execute with miraculous perfection and control — and courage — the 7-high pyramid, I don’t’ recall their lending the impression of a certain joy in what they were doing. Rather bravery and skill. Would they have failed under your tent?

* Since you endorse the idea of anybody being able to be a circus star, why are virtually none of your acts ever from the U.S. or from U.S. circus schools? Would this not advance and validate your philosophy?

* In the beginning, your short-lived New York school produced a few exciting acts. Evidently, they did not live up to your criteria, or you gave up on the idea. You maintain we all have it in us to be circus superheros. Then why are there so few United States-born citizens in your shows?

* Do you believe that such elements as bravery and daring do, of risk taking work against your preference for the “joyful” relationship between the audience and the show?

Circus owners, as a rule, shy away from sharing what they really think. Has any big top boss (John Ringling North, Louis Stern, Cliff Vargas) ever turned out a book of any significance? Early-day innovator dynamo William Coup did a pretty decent job in his Sawdust and Spangles: Stores and Secrets of the Circus --- I think. The Ringling Bros (via Alf T.) gave us a lovely little puff piece of a book describing their early years in the business.

And, so too, Paul Binder, I fear, will defer to a feel-good approach if ever a publisher can get pin him down to his memoirs.

Look for high-grade cotton candy and another cozy and safe NPR interview. For all of his talent, Paul is, I am beginning to realize, the ultimate spinmaster.


Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
Again brilliant, insightful, courageous, and dead on target. We have just about puff pieced phony papered ourselves out of existence. More love themselves then love the "thing."

Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
Just checking back to see if your questions were answered. Nothing yet, I see? Why am I not surprised? I have a boat load of open ended questions on my deal also. It's a special world is it not. LOL

henry edgar said...

great insight -- but would you expect anything from binder other than a spin-filled autobiography or authorized biography? i'm sure it would read as if written by a publicist. all the facts as long as they're nice and non-controversial. with few exceptions such as those written by you, vicki cristiani and the book somebody wrote about a season on beatty cole, circus books seem mostly written in a bland self-serving fill-in-the-blank format, "and this is another thing i did that nobody else has ever done," often without a consistentency in facts from page to page, history according to which friend is being written about.

for a really good show business read, you have to go to other kinds of show business. autobigraphies by people like maureen stapleton, karl malden, jerry herman, arthur laurents and a few others who saw the business from the inside out and are as honest in their writing as their acting or writing. the semi-authorized bio on david geffen is great, along with the definitely not authorized book on david merrick, the
abominable showman. or jimmy kirkwood's "diary of a mad playwright." i loved the first josh logan book but the second part of his autobiography seemed to have gone through a committee. i'm just starting a siegfried and roy book that looks like it will be good. it opens with the many different spins on the tiger attack and seems to get to the real story there.

it's rare to find someone who can write an honest book about something they love. i'm looking forward to roger smith's book on mabel stark, since we know so little about her and he seems to know so much. our legacy really needs books about clyde beatty, gunther gebel williams, karl wallenda, lucio cristiani, lillian leitzel, alfredo codona -- and yes, irvin feld, Floyd King, art concello, frank mccloskey -- books that aren't ghosted by press agents to help us to remember why they were so important in our history -- beyond what we read in the programs. we have very few books that get to the heart of somebody like johnny north like you did or the book by albrecht. a hundred years from now, historians may as well research circus programs as to try to find kernals of truth in most circus books. there are good books i haven't mentioned -- but a lot more that are self-serving than those attempting to tell an accurate story.

Alan Cabal said...

It isn't that Paul is "puff-pieced", "phony", or fixated on "spin." It's that Paul Binder has genuine GRACE. He's far too graceful to answer those questions. In private, off the record, I've heard some pretty sharp criticism from him. But he would never say anything like that if he thought he was going to be quoted.

Anonymous said...

Like the great Wizard of Oz, if that curtain was pulled back you might not like what you find. If your going to judge him on his own merits the answer may vary greatly if your response comes from a circus fan, circus employee or industry insider. I'd bet you'd be very suprised at what you'd hear, good and bad.

Johnny Ekk (not half the man he used to be)

Barry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barry said...

When I talked with Tim Tegge back at the Clown College reunion, he was working on a book on Alfredo Codona. Given the sheer volume of information he's amassed it should be a thorough and fascinating read and I'm looking forward to it.

(Had to delete the previous copy of this post due to a spelling error...drives me nuts when I do that!--bp)

Showbiz David said...

Some interesting comments, midway friends. I've been down in L.A. Barry: Be glad you are not me, because if you "spelled" the way I do, with your disposition you would be driven over the cliff. Even my spell checker has filed for divorce.

Wade G. Burck said...

WHAT!!!!! "Graceful!!!!" No disrespect, but that is the "puff-pieced", "phony", or fixated on "spin" deal that everybody has grown tired of. I am sure we have all heard lots of neat things in private. It you respect your opinion, and hope to help this ailing horse, known as the circus you make your thoughts public, and open to debate. It takes courage, similar to running a show without financial aid, again no disrespect.
Wade Burck

Nosey said...

Jus came across your article.
Isn't that Hubert Castle on the wire?

Showbiz David said...

Nosey, I am 99.9% positive it is Castle.

Nosey said...

I thought so.
I was a "TV Clown" back in the late 60's and Mid 70's.
I played the Indianapolis Shrine Dates with The Hubert Castle International Circus.In 1970....
Hubert invited to play the CNE date in Toronto.Neat!!Night shows only.nice breeze off the Lake.
saw Donny&Marie when they were little.also the Jackson 5 when Micheal was little and had not yet
become weirdd.
Really enjoy your blog

Anonymous said...

There is a book here beyond just the Circus. Paul was a jewish kid from Brooklyn that made his way to Dartmouth and Columbia and ended up juggling on the streets of Paris. He worked for Julia Child and Merv Griffin and then started his own circus. He ate, breathed, and fully lived the circus life for almost 40 years.

I think there is a book here and maybe even a sequel.