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Friday, August 29, 2008

Our County Fair Is the Best (if Not the Safest) County Fair ...

Can you imagine the Frake kids — Margy and Wayne — going to their state fair in Iowa (actually, to the Rodgers and Hammerstein version in the 1945 movie musical) and being patted down as they enter?

That’s what faced my sister and I, neither of us currently on parole, as we passed through security at the entrance to the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa a few weeks ago.

Different world, isn’t it? They’ve been patting down fairgoers for several years now. Why people of our ages, I will not understand. The problem darlings are young gang members who, on the carnival midway, give vent to their worst urges. While sister Kathy and I were sampling a few spooky rides on the midway (they fascinate me still), around that time, we would later learn on TV, a kid was stabbed by a rival gang member. He survived okay. Another night at the county fair.

Maybe it’s time to repeal the carnival. Even it is a far cry from the much simpler, far less frenetic Foley & Burk Shows that once set up the Whip and the Thimble Theatre Fun House, the Giggle In and the 10-in-1 sideshow. And a Ferris wheel that, compared to today’s sky-high contraptions that flash like Vegas, looks fit for a Victorian high tea.

It’s no fault of the carnival owners; they do the best they can. It’s something about a zone of whirling action where restless teenagers meet up as hot summer darkness descends. Santa Rosa, once a sleepy small town, does not go peacefully into the night anymore.

Come October, there’s the three-day Harvest Festival, with wine tasting, crafts and jazz music. Now, that appeals. No midway, thank you!

Here are some photos of captives playing my board game inventions: Me; my victorious sister beating the so-called "inventor" at his own latest creation, called Train Derby; and “the Dame” of Ditherhood, Judy, recently of L.A.

Still love the sweet pungent smell of the cow barns. Sometimes the right whiff provokes rich memories I can’t put into words of how going to the fair when I was a kid made me feel. Wonderfully connected to something very real outside myself ...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rising and Falling: End of an Era for Quebec? ...




Latitude Laliberte: A deal made in hell? Okay, I’ve poured over articles about Guy Laliberte selling 20% of his Cirque du Soleil empire to the state of Dubai — it owns the two firms who have each acquired 10 per cent. This leaves G.L. with 70% — closer, closer to a John Ringling North-style family feud ... WHY did he do it? WHY? (Crashing Wagnerian symbols and weeping violins please — yeah, I know, I’m revealing my chronic fanship). Laliberte claims, when pressed by Canadian reporters, “I don’t know why you’re thinking I’m selling Cirque du Soleil to the world. I’m not selling Cirque du Soleil. I’m giving up 20 per cent of the company.”

Some of the more telling statements that I’ve raked up from press droppings:

“Some reporters question whether the Dubai deal would put Cirque in the same position as such companies as Alcan and Moison, which were taken over by foreign interests.”

The CDS website covers the deal as a “partnership” venture, excluding any mention of a sale.

They are talking up a CDS show in Dubai last year that pulled in “over” 100,000 people in a month. What is so remarkable about that? An average US tent show could do the same over a winning 30 days, I do believe.

Laliberte states, “We’re having better results than last year.” So, was last year not so hot; I mean, not all full houses???

“...as he [Laliberte] tries to douse speculation that the Dubai government’s purchase ... is the precursor to a takeover.”

“Truth is, Cirque Outgrew Quebec,” headlines a story in the Globe and Mail.

“These things are often the first step towards toward a complete sale,” said Robert David, a management professor at McGill University. “If we were to talk in five years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing had been sold.”

Here is what I think: Either Laliberte is hurting for money, having recklessly overextended his future projects, and has caved into a veiled foreign bail out in desperation to save himself — or he just can’t stop trying to conquer the entire world. What next, a “partnership” with NASA to land Cirque du Soleil on the moon? Oh heck, King Cirque, you just might have to settle for that two-bit space station up there — that is, unless you can create your own personal planet ...

I have a sinking feeling that we may soon be saying goodbye to Guy. I’ve been on both sides of the fence about his work — some of it brilliantly ground breaking.

Big and Little Top Bits: Dogs as literate listeners: They're listening with smiles as children in Chicago schools read to them. Those mutes, who might prefer comic strips about their own, are pretending to be attentive, and it’s helping inspire the kids to read better. Says a grateful young girl of her book partner, “She makes me smile. She’s a good listener when I read to her.” The program, Kids Reading to Dogs, is now in eight Windy City schools. I was touched... God bless you, Chicago children getting a little help from a man's best friend...

...Sad to report the passing of Lottie Brunn, about whose life in the states I knew virtually nothing. She was loved by some adoring friends, among them juggler and circus director Judy Finelli, who once presided over the Pickle Family Circus ... While surfing around for news on our lead off issue, I came across the most interesting website. Jean David is putting out a mini-history of Cirque du Soleil. There’s a link over there to your right. Some quite revealing information on how they shrewdly marketed from the outset. The late cutting edge showman who invented the three-ring revolution, William Coup, wrote that he spent up to half his money on the advance. CDS may have equaled Coup’s commitment to publicity and advertising. This website is worth a visit. [I can't seem to post the link. Google: "Jean David & Cirque du Soleil]

... When both Wade Burck and Henry Edgar show up at the same event, as they did to witness my first annual Ring of Shame Awards, now that’s a full house. Burck skipped opening night (too late), with scarf and popcorn in hand. Next season, gentlemen, VIP Ring of Shame seats for the both of you ... French high-wire extremist Philippe Petit profiled in a new movie, Man On Wire, landing four stars from the NYT... Marian Collins, having chanced upon my piece about Irvin Feld’s Florida Circus World, writes “...seems as though it was a pawn in the big game of real estate. I sure enjoyed working there though and many many of our patrons liked it better than Disney. I have to assume it was the live acts. No animatronics here, folks.”

...This ancient photo of me is placed here for the possible amusement of the folks who Pat Cashin sends my way. No other blog on the midway sends as many folks to my concession as does Pat’s popular Clown Alley. Thanks, Pat ... That’s me spoofing Nikita K, photo taken by Edward Dowling at a Sharon Hill, PA stand . They gave the show gag to me when the guy who was doing it got terminated for getting too friendly with a young girl under the seats. A three ring Johnny, he tried working his charm on me, too. No luck. Motel or nothing ...

About the lead item, even Canada is reeling from the odd ball news. And I can’t blame them. Cirque has given our neighbors to the north a tremendous source of international pride, and perhaps some tax money too. I’ll tell you this, World: The moment the impresario at the top exits is the moment the empire he built comes crumbling down.

Enough melodrama. I'm outta here. Pat, are you still open up there? I could use a good old fashioned laugh ... A walkaround, sunny side up, please!

8.8.2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Don’t Tell the Doors I Watch Lawrence Welk ...



If you live a long time, expect to end up knee deep in layers of culture. So much like music. All those moods, textures, rhythms. Some from childhood. Some from a lost love. Music from disco nights. From radio days. From cabarets and stadiums ...

I hear Le D’s “Float” on a Comcast station and write it down. Must buy, whoever Le D is. So, too, one called “Kazumfumi Kodama & End” by D.J. Krust. In cafes, the occasional sound I can’t resist leads to CDs on my shelf: D. J. Shadow, Bombay Dub, the latter’s “To the Shore” the hook that sold me.

In the beginning when my mom served us Ovaltine, I hummed along while the Sons of the Pioneers sang “See Them Tumbling” on a radio program. Patti Page charmed my ears with “How Much Is The Dogie In That Window.” Then came Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole, Lena Horne and my all-time idol, Frank Sinatra

And then — sorry, Frank — in a fish and chip cafĂ© in Thornlibank, Scotland, outside Glasgow one damp evening in 1963, from a juke box I heard for the second time a song that now totally won me over:

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!

The ‘60s spoiled me ("Summer Breeze," "Saturday in the Park"), and none did a better job than the Doors — “Light My Fire” ... Here were poets with guitars. “When the music’s over, turn out the lights,” cried Jim Morrison, only years before turning out his own, doped and dead in Paris. As great as that music was, strangely, I have no desire to return to the troublesome era from whence it came.

What followed foundered. An album by Boston, given to me one Christmas, paled; I could hardly make it through once. So superior to 70s “rock” were groups like Chic (Dance, Dance, Dance Yowsa! Yowsa! Yowsa!), Heat Wave's "Boogie Nights" and Evelyn Champagne King’s “Shame," my all time dance favorite. “And The Beat Goes On,” sang another group. How I wished it had.

Since then, once in a while while not paying attention, something new invades my soul and it's love at first sound. On a bus to L.A., a dude was playing something so beguiling, I had to ask what it was. "RainForest," he told me. Paul Hardcastle, the composer and musician, remains high on my list. There was Depeche Mode, whom a younger friend sold me on, and Michael Jackson’s hot Off the Wall. But now and then, still, I drift back to Sinatra and Broadway. And to Jo Stafford, whose deep smooth voice is like non other. Who said you can’t go home again?

Sometimes, The Lawrence Welk Show satisfies another urge. Since I’ve not been active in the church in which I was raised for many years, the sainted Welk Family is the closest I get these days to church going. Some of the singers (Ken Delo, the most interesting of them all) are tops. The band is dependably solid. It’s that down home spirit bordering on Christian fellowship that keeps me coming back, I suppose.

Now Comcast is playing something called “Night Sight” — or Pocket Symphony. Another soundscape I'd like to hear more of. Quiet and misty, forlorn, out there in a twinkling void. These young music makers, born into a world so different from the one that greeted me, seem unafraid to address the lonely uncertainties that surround us all -- or is that my own soul I hear singing?

Layers of culture. So far away from that little dogie in the window...




[photos, from top down: Jim Morrison; Lena Horne; Frank Sinatra; Chic; Paul Hardcastle; Lawrence Welk band; the Beatles; Lawrence Welk; Michael Jackson; Patti Page]

Monday, August 25, 2008

How Not to Run a Circus? Just Ask the Bloggers

Blogging in reverse

When I read Ben Trumble’s Mud Show blog, mostly because (like the old Billboard magazine) it reports day to day business on the Kelly-Miller lot, I almost feel like a circus owner being apprised by an employee on how (maybe) not to run my show.

Trumble, who himself aspires to own a circus, not only reveals crowd trends (so far this season, from spotty and sparse to the occasional straw house), but unstintingly shares his theories with us about what a good booking agent might do to avoid dry markets and concentrate on harvest dates. He praises the old-era advance men for savvy research. But they too erred. Tent trouping has never been easy.

Says Ben, for example: “Business continues to be off in rural small town MI. A year ago the economic data for MI pointed to a rough time of it outside the metro- Detroit suburbs. The collapse in housing values in MI rivals declines in parts of California and Florida. That creates a credit crunch arriving at the same time as a slump in MI manufacturing. Not exactly sure why so few shows actually look at localized economic and demographic data in booking.”

Aside from arguing, incorrectly I believe, that “for the last hundred years ... we put on a show to sell popcorn and elephant rides”(elephant rides the last hundred years???), Trumble’s shared musings raise timely questions. He’s a thoughtful guy.

Bloggers on the midway, ironically, tend to be, from what I can tell, the pros and not the fans. From clown Pat Cashin down to Wade Burck and Balloon Man Dick Dykes, and first-of-may kid Logan Jacot (Sawdust Nights). Even I’ve earned a few bucks under the tents. Turns out I have a tenuous professional connection to probably the most popular blogger of all, Buckles Woodcock, for in 1969 we both worked on George Matthews Great London Circus (known as James Bros. the year before). See that photo there? I had a stack of them in the back of my Ford Bronco when I drove across the country as “national press representative” for the excitingly erratic Sid Kellner.

Where are the circus fans in all this? Peepless as usual, I suspect — unlike their counterparts in all other venues from sports to pop music, who have no problem shouting out opinions — second guessing coach calls and telling big shots how to conduct a business. Here, the pros are doing it — over the internet.

New age, indeed. Ben Trumble, who actually works for Kelly Miller in “media relations,” seems to be working more for the media as a field reporter than for KM. Or is this simply a new paradigm in a new age yet to be sorted out? Once upon a time, press agents spun tales of happy crowds up and down the sawdust trails. Now, at least one of them wonders what went wrong every other day.

First posted 8.25.08

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Midweek Madness Check-In ... Remember Vaudeville? Remember the Circus?


Okay, in a rush, here we go down the flats and off the runs. See the stranded wagon in the weeds marked Max’s Vaudeville? Been there since the thirties. Not even do I remember vaudeville, but its elements live on — singers, dancers, comics, strip teasers. So, I fear, the circus. Already here are the contorted spin offs, some on stages, some without rings. Theatre heavy, circus light. A table under the trapeze for you, sir? ... Ken Dodd wistfully asked me, “what happened to vaudeville, David?” and said nothing more. In denial he was not.

So, too on the midway: Acrobats to Save-The-Planet here, jugglers and joeys addressing existential gloom over there. Daredevils without mechanics? Check out the BMX bike competions. Under our shriking circus tents,the basics are more and more missing in action. If Circus Oz doesn’t kill the circus, nothing will. Cirque du Soleil, in a fit of brilliance, somehow foresaw the changes coming and leaped by decades ahead over night.

To review or not to review? Two Big epiphanies this season left me wondering why. First one, Circus Osorio, a nice outfit, minimally talented, pleasing families who can’t afford high prices on a low budget. Why review what is not reviewable? So I didn’t. And why, at the other end, review the Ringling high tech concession pit for consumer mad moppets? The marvel of Walt Disney was that he turned out great cinema that appealed to all ages. Those movies were worth reviewing. I do not see that same genius coming out of Vienna, Virginia.

Reading Steve Winn’s scathing put down of Over the Top!, I saw myself in him, and considered us both irrelevant under that tent. Which makes me feel more pretentious than ever. (Blame it on the CFA, who published me at age 14) Better leave the judgments to the younger set. Don Marcks would bristle whenever I told him, "I refuse to go see a circus at a ballpark”. No setting. No context. No-rings may be next. Now on that last count, Don might have held his bristle. Another friend (we exchanged our views of Ringling every year) nearly had a nervous breakdown when I once I told him I was going to skip Ringling that year -- I just couldn't sit through another David Larible show. There should be a song, “When the Audience Came To Town.”

Around the lots ... Hey, watch out — that’s the pole wagon coming down! ... Glance back in awe to a display of circus dazzle in the year 1932. Captured on a You Tube video of Ringling flapper Tiny Kline. She iron jaws across Times Square, spinning stylistically with elegant abandon as she goes. And best of all, you will hear this glamorous diva speaking with the self assurance of a Gabor. A thousand pictures can’t match one priceless video. To the waiting cops, says Kline, “At last, I found a safe way to cross Times Square!. I’m saying ‘ hello’ to Broadway!” ...A memoir by Kline, edited by author Janet Davis, now out. Sounds like a juicy read.

Here’s Ringling production manager Georgia Stephenson telling the San Jose Mercury News that Over the Top! is “wooing audiences with a shorter running time.” Nice try. Two and a half hours won’t cut it. ... Ringmaster Chuck Wagner missed his calling by three rings and three years. Might have reached Ronkian stature in the older bolder set up. ...Thanks to Don Covington for correcting my error about the principal clown in the red hat duel. Should be Tom Dougherty, to whom I apologize. Ringling’s program magazines become more vague with each passing year. Putting out a libretto would help, along with a diagram for dummies of the metaphors (Mr. Winn spotted a few fumbled metaphors).

“The curtain descends, everything ends too soon, too soon,” penned Ogden Nash for the song “Speak Low."

Too soon. Always too soon. Wagons all off the flats, waiting for tractors to pull em out to the lot. Pickets lined up. PETA with banners. I know this, the circus we remember, it ain’t coming back... If I can just adjust to these ingenious story lines, the trenchant themes, the lazy synthetic pachyderms whom for all I know, were cloned, and the ever-engaging power clowns.

Swing that pole wagon over, guy! Line up those metaphors!

[photo: Circus Oz]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Circus Reviews and Why There Are So Few ...

Preface: Henry Edgar, who has held positions both as press agent and newspaper journalist, left the following very insightful information as a comment. I bring it to your center-ring attention, for I think it sheds light on the vexing issue of circus reviewing. Its honesty from an insider's point of view is admirable.

david - regarding your comment about Ringling encouraging features rather than reviews -- this seems to be a general trend with newspapers today. they prefer to send someone to do a feature rather than an interview. i think it's a combination of both improved journalistic standards and taking the easy way out. the feature enables the paper to cover the circus without the inherent problems of a review. few papers have staff members who are even semi-qualified to review a circus, and the editors know it. at the same time, any good reporter/writer can do a good story on something/somebody without knowing anything about the subject. it's win/win -- the show gets a story without taking a chance on a review, the newspaper gets a quality piece without taking heat from readers about the writer's opinions, one way or another. also, the feature can usually run earlier, while the show is more likely to be in town. a review often runs after the show is gone or nearing its final performance unless it's at least a 4-day stand. the writers also prefer this approach because they aren't going out on a limb on something they know nothing about. Cirque du soliel is an exception; it's theatrical nature puts it within the qualifications of a theatre critic rather than somebody trying to analyze the bungee poles or how good an aerial act with a mechanic might be (ie is the mechanic really necessary or covering for a performer afraid to go into the air without one)

I've always been suspicious of small town reviews. i know how easily writers can be fed info -- i did it on a regular basis and it worked extremely well, particularly if i sat with the reviewer and made sure his family had plenty of popcorn, cokes, cotton candy, etc. it resulted in great reviews with "inside knowledge" as i spoon-fed info . on the other end of the spectrum, once i made the switch from press agent to entertainment writer, i was sometimes subjected to second guessing. for example, an editor outranking me saw the show and says "I hope you say nice things about that act because my kids loved it." even if i knew the act was a badly-done firstie act. one incident i will never forget involved one of the burn-the-town circuses, which i gave probably the worst review i ever gave a circus. i gave more space to the band than anything else because the band was much better than the show, which was lousy. i turned in the review about 2 am and went home. i was awakened at 8 by my editor, who said she had received so many negative calls that she couldn't run a review that was sugar-coating a circus just because i loved the circus. i was forced to turn a harsh review into something vicious because my editor -- without seeing the show -- decided it was absolutely horrible. the same editor who backed me up on so many things, who fought for extra money for out of town trips, etc. it's easy to complain about journalistic meddling, but the reality was that if i had refused, she would have rewritten the review anyway. in that case, wouldn't a feature story have been better than a review?

newspapers are sometimes caught in bad situations because of the complexities of reviewing a circus, the variables that can determine quality from one day to the next (does the lot make the riding act and the other horse acts unsafe? losing them is often the difference in a good show and a bad show) and add in the increasing sloppiness of today's circus performances overall, and most shows might be better off without reviews.

-- from Henry Edgar

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How Good – or Bad – is “Over The Top!”? Is Ringling These Days?

After posting my own review, I searched cyberspace to see what others are saying about the show. The only review I recalled before writing mine was a favorable notice in a New York paper.

First, cybercritics, among whom, I must skeptically assume, there are shills galore. Either blasting Ringling because they hate the sight of animals on parade or praising Ringling because, well, you know about the Feld press department. That having been said, here they are.

Trip Advisor lends a fairly uniform impression of bitter customer disdain: “A waste of money!” “Worst circus I ever saw.” As with all sites, hard to know in every case which edition is being reviewed. Seems the Gold edition in particular has patrons cursing. But remember, these are impressions from questionable sources.

Two ticketing websites, TicketsNow and Goldstar, are both loaded with near uniform praise. Strange, on one site, participants often select “brilliant acting,” and “engaging plot” to describe their overall appreciation.

Newspapers: Unlike the Big Apple Circus, which prints many of the reviews it receives (I do not know if that also includes the bad ones, I have not checked carefully), Ringling — and I searched as hard as I could — does not print any. Could this be because it gets so few? Might the Felds, in fact, work the press for feature stories that lend the appearance of reviews rather than actual reviews?

My searching turned up notices in only two major cities:

New York: Two major dailies both turned out sunny notices. One is The New York Times, which seems to be a friend of Ringling's. It also endorsed the first ringless outing in 2006, in glaring contrast to mostly negative reactions from a number of big-city critics. Of Over the Top! Lawrence Van Gelder’s rather non-specific notice reads more like a recycled press release than the sort of review I would expect from the Times. “And for the most part,” he concludes, “Over the Top attains the summit of spectacle.”

San Francisco: The San Francisco Chronicle published a scathing review (surely one of the worst ever awarded a Feld product) by Steven Winn. And who is Winn? A long time theatre and arts critic for the paper, who issued highly upbeat reviews of at least two previous visits by Ringling to the city, in 1996 and 1999. In fact, I have found his writing to be generally even-handed. Here is a link:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/16/DDNT12BTEI.DTL&hw=ringling+circus&sn=003&sc=207

Mr. Winn’s review, published the day before I posted mine, eerily echoes many of my own feelings.

What really matters, I suppose, is what the kids think, for they are the ones for whom these shrunken Ringling deconstructions are being fashioned and scripted. From a youngster writing for The San Diego Union Tribune, Cristina Martinez: “The show has something for everyone and will leave you on the edge of your seat, in awe ... I do have to say that there was almost too much to look at, and it was difficult to focus on the individual acts. At times, it seemed more like a musical than a circus...My rating: B”

And that’s entertainment.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ringling-Barnum's "Over The Top!" is Another Ringless Grab Bag


Circus review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Over the Top!
Oakland, August 16
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Given a looming lawsuit over its disputed handling of elephants, reports of declining attendance and the understandable desire to redefine itself in the vexing age of Cirque du Soleil and PETA, what, indeed, is “The Greatest Show On Earth” to do?

Go European and anchor itself to a star clown? Lay on more Disney? More Cirque? Back to the straight-ahead past with a no-nonsense parade of authentic circus turns?

Whatever it is to do, Kenneth Feld’s smorgasbord approach continues apace, with a new emphasis on old-world clowning. This means that the art of circus per se must take a back seat to the hyperactive Feld framework. There are the usual fireworks and visual add-ons (gone are those annoying video screens; new are overhead grids on which Times Square-like images, some nicely atmospheric, are flashed); And there are degrees of admirable inventiveness here, too, although they tend to consume far too much time. Featured clown Tom Dougherty engages ringmaster Chuck Wagner in a running duel, grossly in need of editing, for possession of the latter’s red hat. Altogether, these sidebar elements both enhance and drag down the program’s principal assets. Over the Top! is not nearly as exciting as it may sound.

The competent performers of the 138th edition seem at times to have been inserted between the ongoing duel over that red hat, a story line given Shakespearean attention. It did, to be fair to the kiddies, engage their emotions now and then. As for the dozen or so house joeys, they are little used to any great affect.

Remember the Felds, only a few years ago, opting for two-hour brevity? Very welcome, wasn’t it. Didn’t last very long, did it. Maybe concession sales plummeted. And the designer souvenirs on sale here, if you take the time to look, deserve an art gallery of their own.

The most troubling deficit here is Ringling’s apparent refusal to reinstate its famed signature set pieces, despite reported indications that it had done so. Now, there is not even half a ring. Only a black-top performance area about as inspiring as a spanking new Nevada airstrip. There is one moment, to be sure, during Jenny Vidbel’s delightfully well crafted white horse drill (a refreshing first half highpoint), when we are confronted with the image of a ring in the form of a giant inner tube. Black too.

Artistic suicide -- or a shrewd artistic transition in progress? Whatever it may be, by depriving the “acts” of a ring – and by squeezing them between red hat episodes — these actions have the unintended effect of minimizing and even degrading their potential impact. In particular, the animals seem lost and in limbo out there without the circular symbols of magic that link them in the public’s mind to “circus.” A pity. It made me feel in limbo too, watching maybe the passing of an era. I longed for that familiar sense of place. Remember when the arena went dark, three illuminated rings appeared and the audience shared the most wonderful sigh?

(At the ticket window, I was shown a diagram of the arena that included three rings, and my heart skipped a beat.)

Co-producers Kenneth and Nicole Feld seem resolved to dump the old format. Maybe they are subliminally preparing their customers for a day without Jumbo, a day inevitably closer to an ice show without ice.

Production numbers deliver the expected flash and pyrotechnics. The kids are again hauled around the arena during a token parade that leads into intermission. Music and/or amplification is simply awful through the first forgettable half, but it does come impressively alive with the tiger act in the second part and redeems itself somewhat through the superior end sequences. (I can’t believe that I was thinking more favorably of the Vargas taped score than of this live band.)

To the rescue, late in the program, comes yet another rush of exhilarating Chinese acrobats, the Henan Troupe. They thrust themselves from poles to poles, turning somersaults en route in a manner I’ve never before seen. They are phenomenal. They get a very effective production build up, memorable in costume design and scenic effects, even if it sounds and looks like Cirque du Soleil meeting up with the Lion King.

Preceding the Henans are a trio of solid offerings that offer the class and dazzle that Ringling-Barnum once delivered in spades: Wellington Silva works between two single traps with old-fashioned bravado; the Flying Caceres twist and twirl from a two-tired rigging; and the elephants charm, although at a tepid pace. Indeed, the exotics this year are so well behaved, they hardly look exotic. More like animated props. Another curious deficit brought to us by the modern era.

Most everything else is respectably adequate. Overproduced and yet oddly under realized. Geared, I take it, to tickle the moppets and sell plenty of designer concessions. Kenneth Feld is not for nothing probably the richest man who ever ran an American circus.

After taking in last year’s show, I felt a keen interest to return. Sorry to say, not so much this time around. Perhaps I am already dreading the birth of another “power clown.” Now if I were only ten years old I might have been genuinely charmed by all the fuss over that red hat. Might not still be wishing instead for more jugglers and tumblers. The circus: is this its future?

Overall score: * * 1/2

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Desperate to be Loved, Talky Talky Circus Vargas both Excites and Irritates

Holiday Look Backs, this from 2008



Circus Review: Circus Vargas
San Francisco, August 13, 7:30 p.m.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission.

Watching Circus Vargas is like sitting down at a fine French restaurant, the first entree magnificent, only to be interrupted every 5 or 10 minutes by one distraction after another — a man off the street with a pet alligator offering to let you touch it and to have your photo taken with it between the main course and desert; another fellow running up to your table, shouting “Are you enjoying your meal?” And still another wanting to pull you into the kitchen and teach you how be a star chef. After this going on half the night, you leave exhausted and irked, fighting to remember why you ever went there in the first place.

Oh, yes, to see a circus. Actually, there is enough fine talent with this year’s edition of Circus Vargas, if only somebody — a director, a truant officer, a screaming Richard Barstow back from the dead — would grab the throat of this overstuffed mess and shake it down to length. Like down to a tautly restrained one hour thirty minutes. Out would go audience participation filler, clown routines needing the scissors, and desperate verbal interactions with the audience designed to force applause and fake displays of customer satisfaction.

Circus 1A: It’s a pity and a crime, because on many levels, Vargas excels, from an exemplary front door staff (the classiest I’ve encountered in years) to a string of stellar artists who deserve a far more focused and professional showcase..

The strong turns:


* The opening sequence — no circus I can recall in recent years has opened with such heart-pounding force. A captivating original song, "Circus Vargas,” sung with power by Ted McRae underscores the ensemble performing a variety of routines. Class A all the way.
* Engaging and diversified juggling from Esquedas. Great showmanly act.
* An amply amusing (no shills involved) safari spoof from two clowns out of the Torreblanca Family — in the mode of Lou Jacobs with shooting tears, but they advance the routine with additional touches, including a head of hair that raises high and the emission of white powder from -- oh no, how do I put this? -- from an area of the human body known to cause unpleasant odors. Overall, an absolute delight. This is clowning we need more of.
* Memorable trampoline exploits from the Martinellis.
* A clean classy flying routine, with a solid triple, from the Tabares. They have the flash and the flair, and I only wish they would have stayed up there longer.
* Rolly Bolly from the Espana Duo. Although this is not a gracefully enacted turn, the payoff trick is so amazingly good, I wanted to stand up and shout “Bravo!"
* Franciso Mendoza's mock bullfight. Am I glad they brought him back, for he totally turned my attitude around. Last year, I was left wanting. This time the entire act proved to be one of two comedy highlights of the evening, the other being heretofore mentioned.

Other notable moments: An ambitious female duo working the lyra, with their end items worthy of respect. And there are some winning tricks that just need editing down. For example, during a slow-moving equestrian pas de deux, a shill apprentice dragged from the crowd, dangling off the horse by a mechanic, grabs hold of John Weiss and they become a graceless duo in motion. Very very funny! Weiss, in fact, could have been given sole master of ceremonies and announcing chores. A shrewd director might have woven his mischief into other acts, but with BREVITY.

This show seems to have been produced under a couple of dubious assumptions: One, the longer the performance takes, the more the audience will respect it. Two, audiences need to be talked to a lot, which made me wonder if this show was directed by a group therapist. Actually, the talking begins with an engaging 20-minute “Interactive pre-show party” for the moppets hosted by tv personality John Weiss (left). All good and well except this party begins when the show should, so we the adults are held captive. After that, Weiss then becomes one of three announcing figures. Another is ringmaster Ted McRae, who gets to show off his cobra snake and offer photo ops to the audience during an obscenely protracted intermission. Throughout the show, he repeatedly works the crowd for applause and shout backs. “Are you having fun, San Francisco!” “Are you enjoying the show?” “I can’t hear the other side of the tent!” So annoying, it felt like being part of a studio audience before the taping of a tv show when a guy comes out to pump you up.

And I wanted to shout back, “Shut up, will you!” Polack Bros Circus co-founder Louis Stern, who lasted forty years in the business, once told his last ringmaster Robert Mitchell, who had been asking the audience before each intermission, “Are you enjoying the show?" to knock it off. Said Stern sternly, “One time they booed us.”

Lighting and costumes are generally excellent. The taped music, I must admit, is quite effective for much of the time, relevantly scored to the action at hand, though it does start to wear thin as the evening wears on and out. Following two motorcyclists from the Willy Family circling each other in the big cage, finale comes on with smiling faces. The audience (a very small crowd, maybe a quarter house) seemed moved. Then out go the performers through the front door to congregate around, there to interact with the exiting crowd. Nice touch, I suppose. I have only ever seen this done once before, at a community theatre.

The tent itself remains a work of art, mysterious and enchanting and so inviting. It deserves a superior performance that already exists in the ingredients. Another asset would be at least the handout of a one-sheet program.

Circus Vargas: Go to the back of the tent and repeat a thousand times over: "Every action, every moment, every pause and every word spoken either propels or retards the action." Were your strongest offerings to be placed back to back, and were all the irritating forced audience interactions and pitches routed, what a show you might have. Might that be, per chance, what you really want?

Overall score: * * 1/2



8.14.08 12.10

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Midweek Mixorama: Rings of Promise Come My Way ...

At the edge of every vacant ring, I wax hopeful. This may be the One. This may be a tentbuster. Indeed, in my program, the most intriguing thing about the American circus is how unpredictable it can be — and I am talking ALL shows — from the tinniest to the tallest. In any, a star may appear ... If chasing the red wagons has taught me anything I can count on, it is that any show can drastically change from one season to the next, for a changing lineup of acts and other variables (direction or lack of) spell the dramatic differences that can leave you bored or thrilled ...

Which is why the search for this nation’s or the world’s “best circus” eludes me, and makes no sense. (Yes, I'm waiting to hear from you, Wade.) Any circus company, no matter how established, will NOT deliver the same quality year after year ... That elusive quest to sanctify "best circus” misses the mark, overlooks the younger upstarts who can ring magic, too, and risks awarding sacred cow adulation to sacred cow duds. I refuse to kowtow to any name. They all must renew their credibility each new season ...

And here come three more, right in my own backyards:, all reachable on foot and bus without hassles. Ringling=Barnum rolls into the Oakland Arena tomorrow, Circus Vargas tenting up over in SF this very moment. Not to mention the invasion next month of Carson & Barnes, throwing forth banners and canvas, elephants and acrobats over the Cow Palace parking lot, which may mark a daring first ... How lucky I am for a change; In years past, I have walked many dedicated miles to take in a number of Carson & Barnes dates. Sometimes well worth it, for the intriguingly unpredictable C&B will now and then, by direction or wonderful accident, snap crackle and rock in the older bolder vein ...

Around the lots: E-mailing with a chirp, Kelly-Miller’s Jim Royal exudes implicit relief in the wake of weeks of rain rain and mud mud mud. “We are in Flushing, MI today. Beautiful small town, nice lot (a park downtown), fine weather and good business. Shouldn't it always be this way?" -- confirmed by the Ben Trumble rumble on his mud show blog, conceding how "delighted" he feels to have been "wrong” in his forecasting (or fearing) weak turnouts at the Michigan dates ... Nicole Feld, who before the big top seduced her wanted to be a photographer, nicely & politely profiled in a New York Times piece.. “I knew it was an irreversible decision. It was nothing my parents ever said. It was pressure I put on myself. There was an expectation I had to succeed and be brilliant to carry on the legacy of my father and grandfather.” ... So, let’s see what this 30-year-old can do — most critically, what sort of an influence she might wield over her control-freak dad. Perhaps traces of it will leak through at the Oakland Arena...

Come August 20 in select movie houses for a limited time, Cirque du Soleil offers yet another variation on its uniqueness titled DELIRIUM (the caps, theirs), touted by CDS to be a “ground breaking living dance and musical extravaganza.” which tells me they continue to move closer closer towards circus ballet ... I'm sticking to sawdust this weekened --I assume.

Best in the world? Best in the US, that year, that lot, that performance ... That mood.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

May I Say this About Roller Skating and the Olympics...

As I behold the tremendously exciting bike races (over the finish line like Derby thoroughbreds), as was just evidenced with a Brit woman speeding victoriously into Gold, and when I think of what authentic athletic excitement a group of roller skaters could supply traversing the same breathtaking course across this most beautiful country (China), I think of how the IOC has relentlessly (likely bowing to payoffs from the ice lobby) kept the sport of my boyhood out of the games year after year, century after century. Most of all, I think of the Judas Iscariot of the IOC, former president Juan Antonio Samaranch, himself an avid roller hockey competitor in his youth who could have easily moved speed skating on roller skates into the games, but in the end turned on his own sport.

To all the roller skaters out there who have for years deserved better, I share your outrage. The Olympics to which you aspire? As political and phony as the entertainment world it so shamelessly serves and is driven by. Which is why I rarely watch these slick spectacles of sponsorship mania, rhetorical allusions to "international good will," drug-enhanced cheats and naked patriotic narcissism.

Am I, by chance, bitter? Yes -- and proud of it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... Laliberte sells 20% of Cirque Du Soleil to Dubai Interests...

In what may be a harbinger of his eventual exit from the empire he built, owner Guy Laliberte is reported in Business Week (flashed to me by Don Covington) to have sold a 20 percent stake in his world-wide operations.

Property developer Nakheel and an investment company, Istithmar World Capital, who purchased the shares, declined to disclose how much they paid.

The agreement puts "to rest, for now speculation that the troupe would be sold outright."

For now -- two operative words. This only confirms earlier rumors of some sort of a sale, and it leads me to ponder Laliberte's ultimate motives.

Stay tuned for my paranoid speculations, to follow in the days to come...

Out of the Past: Showbiz David’s Annual Ring of Shame Awards

The following five inaugural inductees are this evening dishonored for their unwelcome acts against the American circus

Ingrid Newkirk. She leads the parade of infidels. A shameless animal rights activist and founder of PETA, for hypocritically inflicting untold damage on the circus world through malicious innuendo and smear tactics (on her below-the-belt "circus criminals" website), distorted and often misleading inaccuracies, and a relentless campaign on selected circus lots to harass and intimidate the public away from attending circuses.

James C. Petrillo. Union tyrannizer who coerced musicians into expecting prohibitively expensive wages, in effect turning them into another world’s oldest profession. Petrillo’s money-hungry campaign was launched against Ringling Bros Circus in 1942, resulting in a mass walkout of windjmmaers and the trend-setting substation of canned music in the wake of their exit for the duration of the season. Most American circuses today, minus theirs bands, bear the infamous legacy of this man’s gargantuan greed.

Sid Kellner. Operator of James Bros. Circus, later, George Matthews Great London), for squandering away his great potential to be a major showman on his notorious phone room addictions. Kellner, perhaps by sheer accident, produced a classic, near perfect performance (scored by an exemplary live band) under a big top in 1968, then reverted thereafter to a slow downward slide chasing his insatiable appetite for maximum profit through fraudulent phone room tactics that placed a quick buck over a good show. The charismatic and talented Kellner, sadly, must stand with the giants of telephone room ripoffs of the seedy 1970s.

The Unknown First Hula Hoop Performer (possibly a Russian). Subjected the sawdust ring to a display of domestic recreation passing for circus art. So many third rate hula hoop acts have followed, it’s a wonder we are not now witnessing marbles and mops in motion or triple somersaulting blow dryers.

Dick Garden. Canadian huckster of haphazard mediocre lineups whose sterling credits include the collapsible portable seats he used on his since-shuttered Toby Tyler Circus and, in recent years, the mass saturation of free kids tickets to promote his paltry wares. For example, at a Cow Palace date in San Francisco operating as Sterling and Reid, Garden’s three ring set up looked more like a carnival midway, pre-show; and there, the “performance,” truly a circus from hell, contained sub-mediocre acts scored by pop CDs pumped through an atrociously loud, ear shattering sound system. Garden’s operation (and others like it) are an assault on Spangleland.

Indicted Inductees, take your proud places in the Ring of Shame!

First posted August 6, 2008

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sunday Morning Scramble: Phonies Unlimited

At the supermarket check out stand, I see that Dr. Phil’s wife is reportedly fed up with their marriage. Surprise! These so-called relationship experts are about as lucky in love (or lust), I suppose, as the head shrinks who make millions correcting the alleged (and very billable) psychic disorders of others. My late cousin once worked for a psychiatrist in Santa Rosa, who defined his job to her as “a paid friend.” Dr. Phil may be paying for “professional” advice for himself shortly. And did radio's reigning queen of morality, Dr. Laura, not also once suffer a set back or two in the boudoir of life?

It’s all about entertainment. Even PBS (Pledge Break Society) has turned itself into just another midway of life-advice expects, some of whom, who knows, may be only a few convictions short of malpractice. And on afternoon television, of which over the years I have watched a collective total of maybe an hour, you can witness, among other sordid modern-day spectacles, teenagers cheering on teenage infidelities. Adultery, once shunned, is now a spectator sport. It sells products, mind you.

San Francisco, of all places, gave birth to talk show lunatic Michael Savage, a theoretically brilliant Berkeley educated man who veers way off course too often in his irrational outbursts of hate and intolerance. His most recent attack was charging autistic kids with the crime of impersonating autistic kids. I’ve listened to many talk hosts from all ends of the polarized spectrum; Not even the best among them is intellectually honest all the time. The ratings war and job security drive them all now and then, I am sure, to the feigned advocacy of extreme positrons in order to jack up flat tire ratings.

We seek out the counsel of “experts” in hours of need — or for the chance to be seen by millions letting all of our problems hang out — between commercial breaks — on some silly and mindless TV program. And then some of us are genuinely in pain and close to the edge, and sadly vulnerable to another magic remedy offered by another self-proclaimed guru. No, the snake oil salesman never left town, did he? But America seems to have talked itself into one gigantic fit of collective depression. It’s hip to be manic! Hip to work out your differences with others on a television set before a fake audience.

Dr. Phil: go take a pill.

Due Next: Showbiz David’s Inaugural Ring of Shame Awards