Oakland to DC: Strike up the Bella Band!

Oakland to DC:  Strike up the Bella Band!
One of the best scored circuses in America. Scroll down to see the full story.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Humphrey Bogart, Managing Editor ... Old Movie Addresses Timely Media Issue with "Read All About It!" Force


Movie Review: Deadline U.S.A

This 1952 film in which Humphrey Bogart plays a crusading managing editor as his paper, The Day, is about to be sold, has finally made it to TCM, and it’s more than worthy of prime time attention. The issues about the critical important of journalism that it raises, that in fact propel the story of a great newspaper being sold against the will of the wife of its late publisher, resonate perhaps more poignantly today than they did back at a time when daily broadsheets were taken for granted.

Much of the film was shot in the press rooms of the New York Daily News, and the passionate scripting by Richard Brooks reminds us of how journalism can expose and challenge and rally the populace to demand correction action from its leaders and judicial systems.

“A free press is like a free life; it’s always in danger,” says Bogart, caught up in his last great act of exposing a crime syndicate guilty of election fraud, murder, police bribery and cover ups.

As I watched courtroom scenes in which a judge considers a petition by a rival paper to purchase The Day (and stamp out the competition, many fear), I was reminded of the sad tragic sale of the Los Angeles Times away from the Chandler family, under whose aegis when Otis Chandler assumed control in the sixties, the paper achieved world wide renown and racked up Pulitzer prizes one after another. I still miss that paper as it once was not so long ago on Sunday mornings; in fact, no longer can I find it on newsstands. The sale of the Times about ten years ago to the also-foundering Chicago Tribune happened because Chandler family heirs were apparently far more interested in money than in any of them assuming the publishing reigns that Otis had so brilliantly held. Since then I’ve watched the Times editorial depth and scope wither and shrink slowly away.

Deadline USA’s most affecting scene is when the humble mother of two kids who get embroiled in a crime syndicate and as a result are murdered, does not go to a corrupt police department to offer incriminating evidence but goes instead to The Day to see “the boss.” She waits for Bogart to show up, believing in a paper she has trusted for decades, so that she can share with the “boss” evidence that will bring the gangsters and killers finally to trial. We must not forget that, day after day, year after year, such justice happens because of courageous newspaper reporters taking risks to dig sometimes dangerously deep, to get the facts and tell the story.

As our nation’s newspapers vanish and as they are replaced by the bloggers, the question remains: will a new kind of “freedom of the press” in cyberspace sustain a culture of investigative reporting. I’m not so sure. It takes a lot of money to fund the people and the resources necessary to track down the facts and put all the pieces together. As they say, most of the blogs and websites (mine included) continuously quote from our leading newspapers still in operation.

To my eyes, even if Deadline USA, with a trio of plot lines, is a bit contrived and "melodramatic," as New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther charged when it first came out, yet the movie achieves a certain raw excitement because of the essential truths it champions. Even Crowther had to concede, "the honesty of the effort rates a newspaper man's applause.” Surfing a few movie blogs, it seems to be enjoying serious respect, perhaps because of the time in which we live as we witness journalism's possible demise. One blogger calls it an "underrated gem."

I agree.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Circus Museums: Popcorn, Politics & Patronage ...



Museum: “A building, place, or institution devoted to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and educational interpretation of objects having scientific, historical, or artistic value.”

If any place in this country deserves to host circus history, surely that place is Baraboo, Wisconsin. This is where America’s most celebrated circus dynasty, the Ringling Brothers, was born and came of glorious age. On the grounds of what would later become the Circus World Museum, the five Ringlings worked and argued and innovated, plotted how to compete against and eventually buy out Barnum & Bailey, signed contracts and repainted wagons, built a huge rail repair barn of daunting industrial magnitude. That is where it all happened.

Today, the site houses dozens of gloriously restored circus wagons, posters and photographs and rare documents. And it boasts a library of unparalleled resources upon which countless concerns the world over have called for documentation and research assistance. Its deliciously arranged Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall is a captivating blaze of circus memorabilia. And there are a number of old barns that survive from the original winter quarters. The small sleepy town itself offers just the right idyllic setting for this long-gone slice of Americana.

But Circus World, as it now calls itself, is a rambling spread of exhibits not particularly well joined. Its commercial centerpiece is a generic one-ring circus program it puts on during the summer months, said to help draw about 700 people on average per day. Although the number is hardly impressive, compared to the seven or eight customers, if that, who might appear on a typical day during the long winter months, 700 suddenly looms large.

And then there is Sarasota. That’s where circus king John Ringling built an art museum and not a circus museum, in case you forgot. Today, were the imperial Mr. Ringling to walk the grounds, he would likely be horrified at how his original intent has been somewhat squished into the shadows of a grand new entrance design that first directs visitors past a spanking new circus exhibit building. When Henry Ringling North, driving me back to my motel about 25 years ago after my interview with his brother, John, made a pleasant detour onto the Ringling grounds, as we drove past the older, much smaller circus museum that came about in 1948, Mr. North slowed the car down a little, peered at it in silent dismay, and said, “that never should have been built.”

I did not air my feeling that I considered it a charming and self-effacing little circus museum tucked discretely away into a corner of the estate so as, it seemed, not to detract from the main attractions — John Ringling’s art museum and his palatial residence by the bay. It was the work generally credited to gifted Mel Miller, who managed to artistically evoke feelings and magic about the circus as no other museum has since done. Miller achieved this with taste and restraint by first leading us into a small circular room of photos and posters and letters, then into a larger hall graced with old circus wagons and side show banner lines, more photos of ring greats, and finally, into the most wonderful exhibit I have ever come upon anywhere —the wondrously atmospheric Backyard Scene. Under a simulated twilight sky, you walked among the actual wagons that moved the show years ago. In the background you heard the Merle Evans band playing the 1955 score. This was a museum. This was not a commercialized circus performance. It did not last very long. Somebody in later authority either willed it into oblivion or let it fall by the wayside -- much like what happened in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1956.

Today, were Henry Ringling North to return to the scene of a Sarasota sell-out, he might drive his car up a pole in shock -- or straight through the plate glass doors of the new entrance arcade and shout "STOP IT!" The expanding presence of circus exhibits on the grounds originally purchased by his uncle, John Ringling, to build the art museum and his architecturally outlandish home, Ca’d’Zan, would be analogous to Al Ringling’s famed opera house in Baraboo being turned into a multi-plex cinema and pool hall. Because Al Ringling loved opera, Al built an opera house, just as because John Ringling loved art, John Ringling built an art museum.

Nonetheless, with its money and glamorous location easily reachable by bus, train, plane or roller skate, Sarasota seems to have enjoyed a much luckier outcome (I do not have actual attendance records, nor should we assume they are strong). To the Ringling circus museum’s rescue in recent years came a model builder with millions named Howard Tibbals, whose lavish funding has guaranteed him prominent display space for his circus models and name, including a large display room honoring the man and his craft. Too much. Now, when you enter the reconfigured grounds, the first thing you come upon is the Tibbals Learning Center (the audacity of it all rivals that of the Felds). Housed on the top floor of a two-story building is Mr. Tibbals' triumphant panoramic model circus day exhibit, complete with a circus train unloading at dawn, although short on historical accuracy and muddy realism; on a 1920s Ringling lot are models of 1951 spec floats. Curiously, the whole thing is not quite as enchanting to my eyes and heart as the older model circus in the older original building from 1948, possibly slated for demolition when newer circus museum buildings are constructed. You see, those Tibbals tents, as spanking clean as a Christmas tree gift just opened, lack dirt, which seems an apt symbol for the money and ego that has transformed John Ringling’s art and nature estate into a plastic showplace for Barnum rather than for Rubens. Say what you will about curator Deborah Walk, she is one cool calculating mover and shaker. To her goes credit — or blame — for the circus diaspora spilling out on the land left by John Ringling to the state of Florida.

And yet, the eye-popping Tibbals model circus, a dazzling feat in its own right, is far more valid a museum piece than are the summer circus shows at the other museum up north. Up north is where a succession of circus fans, including Greg Parkinson, have fallen prey to their own dreams of proving themselves to be big top men. Of maybe getting hired by Kenneth Feld to operate a real Ringling show. And so the politics of fanship favors a ring performance over a professionally maintained and staffed circus library of world renown. Which is why, as I see it, in recent days the Circus World Museum Board of Directors, claiming cash problems (ironically in the wake of a huge boost in attendance this past summer), let four people go and kept only three on the payroll. Of the three left to labor the year around, one is “Performance Director” Dave SaLoutous. Not among the three left to labor the year around or to labor any time at all, spring summer winter or fall, is ace archivist Erin Foley. And that’s a shame and a pity. A three-month summer circus program is not a museum.

I think that the current executive director, Stephen Freese, needs to reexamine what his and the museum’s mission should be. For instance, does he want the summer show to be an historically accurate recreation of the first circus produced by the Ringling five in 1884? Or of what they offered the American public under a three ring big top during the heyday 1920s? Either of those realizations might count as true museum manifestations.

Other Baraboo drawbacks: There is apparently scare support among Baraboo residents for the museum. In fact, there is a strong snob element among town residents that is of the theatre not the circus, thank you. As for prospective out-of-town ticket buyers, without a car, try getting to Baraboo by plane or train, bus or buggy or snowmobile. You can’t. Roller blades, perhaps.

Erin Foley’s professional neutrality (not a circus fan or would-be performance director) made her ideal, I think, for the post. So professional that, after being laid off a few years ago, she was offered her job back a year or so later. And I’ve benefited greatly, as have many others, by her no nonsense research assistance. We must be eternally grateful to Erin for satisfying all parties concerned (including the formidable Felds) and getting all the papers doted and signed in order to finally, finally, finally, open up the magnificently rich Ringling-Barnum Archives. At last, after more than thirty years of inaction when a lucky handful of privileged insiders were allowed to view them, a vast new treasure trove of circus documentation can be mined by fans and historians.

And how was Erin let go the second time around? Board president Paul Karch escorted her out directly after the layoff. Karch is credited with getting all board directors to unanimously approve what is called a “new model for business operations” by the Baraboo News Republic.

Another senseless and highly counterproductive action in an ongoing saga. Here is who to write to if you believe it is more important to maintain the nationally respected Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center than retain somebody to book and run a summer circus show that runs only three months:

Circus World Museum Executive Director Stephen Freese: sfreese.cwm@baraboo.com
CWM Board Chairman Paul Karch: pkarch@gklaw.com
Peter Gottlieb: peter.gottlieb@wisconsinhistory.org

If anybody at the Circus World Museum deserves a third act, that person should be Erin Foley.

Next: The Rape of an Estate

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Morning Many Seasons Ago with John and Henry Ringling North ...

"Through letters from many individuals, wide editorial comment from the nation's press and direct expressions from the country's Army, Navy and political leaders, it has been made clear that the public wants The Greatest Show on Earth to carry on during war time. Everyone can not shoulder a gun, nor is everyone expected to. Many millions must work at home, in factory, field and office to supply and maintain our armies and our fleets. These millions must have diversion when released from their labors, and so far it has been our duty and privilege to help in providing such diversion ...

Hard and trying days are ahead for all of us, but such prospects have never before chilled American spirit or stopped American initiative, and we feel that as long as these two qualities are alive the American Circus, too, will roll on -- on to provide entertainment for the public, employment for our own kind, and an example of cooperation, skill and imagination which is unique in the field of entertainment, and of which all of us who are part of it may well be proud.

And so our Policy: -- Advance planning and preparation to make next year's show Bigger and Better than Ever in Quality and Spirit, if not in size. And our hope that our Circus will continue just as our American Way of Life certainly will!"

-- John and Henry Ringling North
from the Circus Route Book of 1942

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Morning Midway: Can Cirque du Soleil "Save" Vegas ...

This from CNN's Don Simon: As a vast new hotel-condo-everything else complex called City Center is about to dump six thousand new rooms onto an already depressed market, the question is -- will it lure new visitors to Nevada or only drain the other hotels? And they are wondering if the new Elvis Presley Cirque-produced bash will pull in a rebirth of tourism dollars. This following a 22 month decline in business, and with City Center having been barely able to raise construction costs. One of its hard-pressed sponsors is Dubai World, currently unable to meet its debts.

Can Cirque du Soleil save Las Vegas? Believe it or not, that was a question framed by Simon to a local official.

The betting and entertainment capitol has suffered 22 straight months of declining gaming revenues. Unemployment is over 13%, and the foreclosures here lead the nation.

What a story. Will the fortunes of both Cirque and Sin City collide into a heap of unsustainable over expansion? They're calling it the biggest bet ever to be waged in the town.

"Hound Dog," they're counting on you!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Out of the Past:: Wintuk’s Growing Charm ... A Feld Press Flack Kindly Recalls the Fun ... Fabric Flyers Keep Falling ...

First posted December 16, 2009



Wintuk
on the Rise?
I took a look at some recent reviews of Cirque du Soleil’s third season at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, where Wintuk, a show designed for holiday-happy moppets, seems to be growing in luster and charm. That kindly supporter of all things circus, The New York Times, offered a more affirmative review of this latest return visit. “Though the plot is little more than an excuse to move from act to act, the performances are invariably impressive,” wrote Ken Jaworowski. Okay, I am falling too; were I back there, I would love to give Wintuk a chance. Seems it has a simple yet doable “story” premise, good-sounding acts and the big snowfall payoff ... Talking Cirque, the pre-Broadway shakedown in the Windy City of its oddball stagecoction, Banana Shpeel, was met with a downbeat notice from the Chicago Tribune’s respected theatre-circus critic, Chris Jones, basically echoing a slew of angry consumer reviews. “cold, chaotic , clipped and cacophonous” is what Jones found. “There is a great deal to fix before this show opens in New York.” ... BTW: Did you know that the Montreal monster flopped out in the distant past with another try at going legit, a “musical” presented in arenas called Delirium?

Flacking the Feld Way: To ask a good circus press agent for a critical take on his boss, well, when his boss was the late Irvin Feld, is probably asking too much. Jack Ryan, who came on in 1968 when the Feld family took over for the Ringlings, has penned a lively looking-back piece, “Bards of the Big Top,” the last of two installments now on display in the new issue of Spectacle. I felt a strange sadness at the end of the story, because Jack (seen here in his youth with Clyde Beatty) no doubt has the goods on so many things he will likely never reveal. Not that he should. He only hints at dissatisfaction, says he quit after five years, feeling “burnt out.” He did return now and then over the years free lancing for the Felds. I suppose a good press man is by nature too upbeat to feel very good about producing a tell-all tome. In his amiably entertaining book, This Way to the Big Show, the great Dexter Fellows wrote a chapter “The Customer Is Always Wrong,” full of candor concerning all manner of circus rackets against customers.

Is That All There Is, My Friend? As for Mr. Irvin, I’d love to know, for example, whether it was Jack who dropped Feld's name dozens of times in some of the program magazine articles, or if he was under orders from a driven megalomaniac out to upstage even Barnum's legacy? It’s not a nice question to ask, but oh-so-intriguing a story yet to be uncovered, and, judging by the enormously successful press campaign that built up Irvin Feld as the ultimate great hands-on circus boss (based on historical fictions landing in the pages of Variety), Jack on this count alone must at least share high honors with Feld colleagues as a master spinmaster. This does not however diminish my my grave misgivings over the rearrangement of circus history (doing great harm to, among others, Art Concello), likely ordered by the Felds, forever insecure under their own skins ... On the upshine, we can thank Jack for the creation in 1969 of the stirring Ringling sign off, "May all your days be circus days!" which director Richard Barstow set to music and ringmaster Harold Ronk sang. Jack calls this contribution his "fifteen minutes of circus fame." Now, there's a crack flackmaster at the top of his game ...

Danger in the bed sheets: Another sad tale of fabric aerialists (or aerial dancers) falling to the ground. This from Moscow, where Yulia Volkova and her husband-partner Alexander during Nulikin Old Circus rehearsals (sans mechanics) took a terrible fall while "wrapping their limbs in long swaths of cloth." Both were hospitalized with serious injuries ... In recent years, why so many other such mishaps on the fabrics? My guess is that some of these artists are too much into their “choreography,” too much into ballet, and thus lose practical contact with the inherent danger of aerial work ...

End Ring Chills: Trainer Christian Walliser, 28, at Pagel’s Dinner Circus in Germany close to death after being mauled by three tigers ... Reality remains the circus’s reigning feature. I wish a fine and full recovery for all of these fearless, very real, performers ...

MM: 12.16.09

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Morning with Gabriel Heatter: "Give Me the Circus" ...

Preface: News that Circus Vargas continues to offer free tickets to out-of-work families inspired me to recall this wonderful article written by the late American radio commentator Gabriel Heatter, revered for his morale-boosting rhetoric during some of the nation's darkest hours in the depths of Word War II. This article appeared in (and was likely written for) the 1943 Ringling-Barnum program magazine -- SD.

"We have heard a good deal about that word MORALE and its importance to us all. Put me down for the circus as the greatest morale tonic of all. Give me the circus to make me feel young again in spirit. Give me the circus and the laughter of children and the whole parade of wonders to make me realize life is good to live and worth living too

Give me the greatest show on earth — Lord how we need it now as never before. Give me a few hours to invite my soul in this wonder world and fine blessed forgetfulness for a few hours away from all the wear and tear and care of a world outside.

Give me a seat near the circus and let me hear stirring fanfare and let the great parade of wonders begin — and I am young again in heart and spirit. Give me a boy and girl close enough to share it with and to hear all the exclamations of wonder, bewilderment, surprise, and let the laughter ring out.

For the circus is a part of everything we mean by morale – a part of everything we mean by America. As much as Yellowstone or Pikes Peak or Yankee Doodle. Let me walk by the side shows and gaze in wonder on all the sights which remain unforgettably in one’s heart and memory. Give me all this and I’ll come out refreshed, happy, keen in spirit, and keen to come back again and again.

Why you could no more speak of America without a circus than America without baseball or football. Let me hear that circus band and feel the tingle and the warmth racing into my heart as it always does — and let me see all the eager, happy faces around me. Lord, how we need it now – as never before.

Yes, and give me the clowns and all their falls and tumbles and let me drink in all their generous and wholesome fun. That’s the word — fun — for man, woman, boy or girl for we need our share of it now. And the place to find it is in the circus — the greatest show in all the world. And here I’ll let myself go, and here I’ll shake off my cares for a few blessed hours, and here I’ll find all the reminders.

Life is good to live when there is a circus in town. So — on with the show. The circus has come and I and tens of millions will know there is a priceless bit of heaven-sent joy waiting for us all."

Thank you, Gabriel Heatter, and Thank you, Circus Vargas.

12/13/09

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Out of the Past: Sunday L'Amyx Scrambler: Circus World Bans Winter, Axes Ace Archivist ... Gardens Grow More Weeds .... Barbette's Lip Lives On ...

First posted December 20, 2009

Post Update, Monday Morning: How sad to have to revise this post. I just learned from two comments herein that Erin Foley was let go. What an inexplicable loss. Politics? I found her to be a total pro. Let's not forget that under HER direction, the Ringling-Barnum Archives, for far too many years horded over exclusively by a good old boys club, were finally opened to ALL researchers. Does Museum Director Freese have any idea how significant that action alone was? I am waiting to see if she gets replaced by the good old boys and just how open those Ringling-Barnum Archives remain. This development merits further investigation.

Sad news to hear that Circus World Museum's exhibits won't be open during the winter, but hear this, in the chilly off months often they draw only 7 or eight people a day, if that. Good news: Under the evidently swift direction of new exec director Stephen Freese, revenue rose by 22 percent this year. Paid attendance was up 17 percent from the year before. Ringmaster Dave SaLoutos guessed that Circus World’s 50th anni bash helped accelerate turnstile action. “I think we just had a dynamite set of programs during the summer season and word of mouth kicked in, too.” ... I trust their stellar library remains on scholastic high level alert the year around ... And Christmas Cheers to your archival excavations, Erin Foley!

Oh, what is it about those Felds and their optimally obtuse title ticklers? I think that Kenneth Feld is a frustrated medical research scientist wishing to assign trenchant terms to strange new diseases. One of his next shows to be called Illuscination. And it stars "illusciantor" David DaVinci (I guess magic is selling these days). Now, to me it could be either a drug for self-induced acid fantasies or a gigantic gadget to crumple them into shreds ...Then there’s Funundrum, which I rather like riding. A pill for too much fun up the ears. Dr. Feld?

These Gardens Grow More Weeds. I'm talking about Canada's reigning impresarios of dreck, Richard Garden and son Niles, who just tore up another lot. 'Twas they or he alone who gave us the precarious Toby Tyler Circus seats. They who brought a true circus from hell to the Cow Palace over there in Navel Gazers Central some years back ... Something about their latest aborted venture, if nothing else, shows how shameless they are. A Sarasota something or other billed as “a larger than life New Year’s Eve dinner extravaganza", going for ticket prices up to $550 ($2,400 for couples seeking heaven on earth, stretch limb included) — is not to be. The Gardens suddenly canceled. Not the first time that they’ve pulled the plug on a venture. Per the Sarasota Herald Tribune, which aptly describes them a "father son promotion team," this dubious duo has "been sued more than forty times in Manatee and Sarasota counties, largely for non payment of bills.” Oh, let’s leave it there. For every Guy Laliberte, there are a dozen Gardens.

Not for the Kids of Yesterday: Here’s another Barbette howler, courtesy of former Ringling flackmaster Jack Ryan (thank you, Jack) Barbette was at work in the Ringling winterquarters on the aerial ballet when a Hanneford girl showed up hung over in a black leotard and proceeded to stumble through rehearsals. Cracked Barbette as only he could, “Miss Hanneford. We all know your ass is dead but MUST you drape it in black?” More, please, Jack ...

High Seasonal Thanks to Don Covington, who sends me so much stuff that he sniffs out on the cyber midways of life, so much that informs this tent and makes it that much more fun three dotting away, dot dot dot ...

End Ringers to Go: Goodbye once again, friend Henry Edgar. How I miss your comforting contributions. I, too, am human. And how sad that Henry’s passing last September, inexplicably, seems not to have been noted by the bigger big top blogs in which he actively took constructive part. That he loved in his last years. Is it really that callous a midway I hang out on? A provisional Humbug to such indifference! ... Speaking of which, to all those few mortals (a tiny fraction of my tiny crowd) who do leave comments here now and then, they are regularly appreciated. Sometimes I’m flattered, other times challenged if not shattered, which serves to keep me in a sort of accidental classroom, and open to new-fangled views, so my life is still ALIVE, thank you ... Despite the profane grumblings of some, I am open to all points of view. I have my idols. You have yours. On with the Show. And, in deepest appreciation once more, I raise my Sunday Morning Tranquility Mao Feng teacup to you, Sir Don of Covington! ...

12.20.2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Looking Back: Kudos, Jeers & Tears: Still Defying “Dying” Predictions, Circuses Shine (Sort of) in ‘09 ... So Long, Farewell, Henry Edgar

.Pardon me for chirping eternal, but whatever you have to say about our battered big tops, virtually all of them finished out the season, shook the mud off their boots, maybe turned their penny profits into Zero percent CDs, and are back in the barn gearing up and fearing up to do the same all over again in 2010. Oh, are they brave.

From sketchy information I have at hand (isn’t it always), I hereby happily state — or provide free press agentry to all — that customer turnouts were probably somewhat better than the tour before. Count that a good omen.

Before listing some high and low lights of the season just wrapping up (not a comprehensive survey, I must warn you, but based on the circuses I saw and reviews or reports I have read about some of the others), let me blow the whistle loud and long for the owners who manage by hook, crook, rain dance, prayer, reverse mortgage, accidental showmanship or the Mexican Family Plan, to keep their tents in the air, enough of their seats occupied.

Kudos: John Ringling North II faces his senior year as circus owner of Kelly Miller, representing a return of the House of Ringling to active circus management. North's "Concello," manager Jim Royal, reports that business in ‘09 was the best so far for the two partners. Let’s hope that North II has better marks yet to make. From what I know, he is one heck of a nice approachable guy, and he’s a patient and attentive producer. His dad, Henry, would, no doubt, be proud as popcorn and lemonade.

Kudos: Kenneth Feld, who mined basic unadulterated gold from his Gold Unit (Boom-A-Ring) at Coney Island out under canvas. The best damn complete circus I’ve seen in years. Will it return? I'm not as hopeful as I was a few minutes ago.

Kudos: Guy Laliberte, founder, owner and “guide”of Cirque du Soleil, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, for his extraordinary (dare I say unprecedented) producing talents. He astonishes, challenges, inspires, and he is only 50-years-old! His new show OVO proves beyond a shadow of a peanut pitch that he fully understands and respects the power of top-drawer circus talent to sustain patronage. That, kids, is why the customers return in droves. Let the Cirque gang fuss and Frenchify over thematic mist, as long as they deliver the beef.

Kudos: John Pugh, for being John Pugh and for putting out a show that seems, from reports and reviews of his Cole Bros. Circus of Stars, to represent a swing back up the artistic ladder.

Kudos: Abigail Munn and David Hunt. Your promising new Circus Bella (right here in my own Oaktown backyard) rekindles the simpler charm of the old Pickle Family Circus. May you find a viable road to future success. We still await our own version of Big Apple Circus on the west coast.

Kudos: Philip William McKinley for his expert direction of Boom-A-Ring

Kudos: Rob Reich, arranger and conductor of the Circus Bella band, for proving what a thoroughly satisfying score five crack musicians can deliver.

Kudos: Circus Vargas for giving free tickets to the unemployed (up to four per family) in many of its Southern California dates.

Jeers! Kenneth Fled, for his unbelievable public indifference to the YouTube PETA video showing clear mistreatment of his elephants by circus hands. And for issuing a press release claiming the damning film footage was “misleadingly edited” but then, strangely, failing to reveal how.

Jeers! Big Apple Circus for refusing to state on its website that morning shows are cut in length, which left suckers like me who went to see Grandma “singing in the rain” out in the rain (outside the tent on Long Island). Inexcusable!

Jeers! Shrine Circus potentates, too those of you who continue your clumsy assault on circus entertainment with carnival tie-ins, obscenely long intermissions (up to an hour) pitching concessions and animal rides, and for your pitiful acquiesce to your own Shrine “clowns” in lieu of professional fun makers. Have you lost all respect for your once-glorious history?

Jeers! “Author” Ian Halperin for his tawdry hit-job on Cirque’s Guy Laliberte. A lot of people indulge in late night sexcapades. How many people can achieve what Laliberte has with Cirque du Soleil? From what the critics are writing, that’s what your book should have been about, and that’s probably why I won't bother to read it.

Tears: With sadness I report on the recent passing of Dothan, Alabama native Henry Edgar, who ran a community theatre company (once called Almost Broadway) and spent some years press agenting for, among others, the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. I got to know Henry through our correspondence over this blog and the many comments he contributed. I have no idea what Henry looked like, and I never heard his voice. He loved touring the midway of circus blogs, and he was such an affirmative early supporter of mine. In his teen years, Edgar interviewed famous people who came through his town. Later, he covered entertainment for the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, interviewing a parade of greats including Ethel Merman and Dolly Parton. He also issued a glowing review of my first book, Behind the Big Top, many years before the community of blogging introduced us to each other.

We shared, I think, a similar sense about going and growing with the ever-changing flow of circus art. Here is what Henry e-mailed me not long after my blog was up and running:

“I can’t tell you how many times my friends and I bitched about the old-timers saying, ‘That’s nothing. You should have been around when the show had three rings of liberty horses and a 20 piece band and a 4-mile street parade, etc. Now, we’re the old-timers telling younger people, ‘That’s nothing, you should seen what it was like in the 50s and 60s!’ But we’ve worked to reach out old-timer status, and we deserve it!”

What an empty irretrievable loss I feel. I last heard from him in July, only two months before his passing on September 13, at age 65, when he shared with us his low regard for the Haperin book on Laliberte, a regard later shared by a Bloomberg reviewer.

After reading this afternoon an e-mail and obit I received from Daily Press editor Ernie Gates confirming Edgar’s death (which I suspected but had to search deep to locate), by coincidence my tape of the Ringling-Barnum 1951 score was playing. In motion was the "circus Serenade" spec. Down my face trickled tears for Henry as this I heard that season’s vocalist sing:

There will be no sorrow tomorrow
if you’re singing a happy song!

So long, Henry, up there on the Big Lot. Whenever the ‘51 Ringling spec is making its way around the hippodrome track of my mind and they’re singing that song, I’ll think of you, friend.

 12.8.2009 / reposted Jan 2014

Monday, December 07, 2009

A Magnificent Classroom on PBS about Philosophy and Justice


He is a thoroughly engaging professor possessing a rare gift of clarity, who quotes from the great philosophers (Kant and Aristotle, among others) in a challenging discourse on how to debate and decide the morality of contemporary issues. His manner is both instructive and generously respectful. He engages his students in congenial exchanges. And now, thanks to the TV camera, we are there too. How richly satisfying it is to vicariously attend a class at Harvard.

His name is Michael J. Sandel. A wonderful new PBS series televising his lectures is tilted "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?" And, oh, what a right departure it is from all of the ersatz self-help gurus whose slick presentations before tidy little audiences of doting admirers clutter up PBS pledge breaks, ad nauseum.

I can't recall feeling this genuinely stimulated since -- when, since perhaps when the great Krishnamurti lectured all alone on a bare television set back in the '60s, or when David Suskind conversed with active minds on his "Open End" TV program.

An A+ to you, Professor Sandel. How lucky I am to be auditing your class!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Reviewing Cirque du Soleil OVO: Circus and Music Soar; Storyline Lays an Egg

Out of the past: From December 3, 2009


Review of OVO from Cirque du Soleil

San Francisco, November 29
Tickets: $65.00-$250.00

Bravo, bugs of the big top!

The “wow” factor of authentic circus is abundantly on display at this latest offering from Cirque du Soleil. OVO is a brilliantly scored work of cold seductive power, perhaps a little too cold and faceless for some, that just misses the mark of a true masterpiece, blame a fatally directed second half.

The stage seems to be set, pre show, with the entrance of figures in protective gear and gadgets, wandering slowly, apprehensively into a tent of gigantic cobwebs and wild nocturnal sounds of nature. Are they agents on a mission to suppress or eradicate creepy crawly things? Oddly, the atmosphere begins to feel more like an outer space spook show. This could be fun. Certainly, the bizarre costumes prove to be. According to program notes, insects will “crawl, flutter, play, fight and look for work.” They will also perform circus tricks that will make you quicky forget that they are bugs from a “colorful ecosystem teaming with life.”

But those intriguing agents in protective gear never return. And there goes a promising comedic conflict. A huge egg surfaces, causing confusion and excitement among ants and crickets, scrabs and spiders. Will it eventually crack wide open? Out of it, what might appear? While you wait to find out, settle back, turn your brain off to narrative nonsense, and hold your cockroaches: A circus is coming! This one packs riveting artistry drawn from China, Russia, Europe, and the Ukraine, much of it, no doubt, shaped, badgered, honed and polished to incredible new heights by the demanding masters of matriculation up in Montreal, to whom I toss flu-free kisses.


From China, six young girls — Han Jing, Su Shan, Wang Shaohua, Zhu Ring, Pei Xing and Kong Yufel — engage in foot juggling on their backsides, building up their agile executions while also juggling each other, and you’ll fall breathlessly in awe. Also from the Middle Kingdom, a young man named Li Wei works a wide ranging slack wire routine on a rig that elevates his latitude. He ends up riding a unicycle on his head! This cool “spider”will satisfy fans of a certain age who long for old-fashioned daredevilry. Wei has it. Go, China!

Other outstanding first-half features (really, there’s not a single weak act on the bill) include buoyantly lithe hand balancer Vladimir Hrynchenko, who begins his work with a series of sculptured slides down a spiraling pole. Lee Brearley’s squishy “Creatura Manipulation” is infinitely delightful. Adagio aerialists Maxim Kozlov and Inna Mayorova posture and float through increasingly complex patterns, hitting a lovely persuasive payoff. A diablo spun with effortless ease by Tony Frebourg delivers ok — from what I could see of the number — slivers of action disappeared behind a tent pole. Then there’s a knockout modern Russian flying act combining trapeze swing-outs with triumphant pole vaulting landings. It brings into the tent the largest spread of rigging that CDS has ever raised. And the nine flyers who perform it bring the first half to an exhilarating finish.

Now, onto a somewhat problematic second half. An “Acrosports” opener of dance and gymnastics presented by five women stirs up an easy breezy pleasure. Solid plus. Then comes the crack slack wire work of Lei Way, and after this, the first of two mood-melting detours. It arises out of an ongoing feud between three clowns, Joseph Collard, Francois-Guillame Leblanc, and Michelle Matlock, the latter, one of two cast members from the U.S. I must state here (CAVEAT) that I was viewing this all from a far seat and partially obstructed view – I could swear the Cirque ticket seller at the box office sold it to me using a misleading diagram. Anyway, I may have missed some humor in the bickering exchanges between the two male jesters, rendered sometimes in inaudible conversations and excessive facial expressions. All of which, to me, was like trying to watch a puppet show from a mile away. Their visual slapstick registered the best on my fickle tickle bone; I loved a sword fighting bit, pantomimed to sword-clashing sound effects — clever, charming, funny. Got that.

Now, as for all the other bits, too much of them rendered in minuscule body language — is this what they call “Frenchness”? They tried their hand at working the audience, too. One of them pulls from the front row a succession of female patrons, testing the sex appeal of each on his love-starved mate and getting back in return only contorted looks of rejection (he’s really got a thing for Lady Bug). Okay stuff, I suppose. But over all, their contributions, the work of David shiner, did not strike me, sitting up in the Gods, as clowning deluxe, and a circus of this glorious stature deserves clowning deluxe. Otto Griebling, come back! Hobo Ewrecktus needed to stir up fussy French nest. Fumagalli! Are you available?


Last act is one of the most thrilling things I have ever seen in any big top anywhere (I actually felt my spine tingling), to do it justice would take hundreds of words. They call it Wall and Trampoline. Suffice it to say that the eleven participants drawn from various European capitals contribute to this showstopping finale.

But, wait ... That’s not the end. OVO has more, which proves to be incredibly anti-climactic, blame director-writer Deborah Colker, who also serves as her own choreographer. Colker, who in a program message thanks her employer “for this unique opportunity to bring the world of circus and dance together” (hardly unique, Ms. Colker), blows her moment in the Cirque sun by bringing on a superfluous Latin-flavored ensemble dance number. It is simply inconceivable how any circus would not advance directly (as did Ringling so smartly in Boom A Ring) into a company chivari or bows, especially given the victorious climax they have just achieved. Nor does anything happen to that egg I told you about. It remained uncracked. Just a prop tease, I guess.

Production values are absolutely stellar, as always. Deserving top honors in this category is composer Berna Ceppas, whose score deftly interweaves new age with African drums. A recording of it should sell well and might earn a Grammy nomination. Marie-Claude Marchand’s soft, pensive vocals are unusually fine. I’ve never purchased a CD of a Cirque score; this time I may.

Overall, OVO’s terrifically staged acts and the deeply moving music that intimately addresses each leaves a searing artistic imprint. Then why did I leave feeling both astonished and a little emotionally empty? Was it that botched up ending that felt so unconsummated? The uncracked egg? Those strange, somewhat obtuse clowns? Sometimes great works of art are like that, like a night of unexpected love full of a primal force that is gone the next morning. Make no mistake, however, for anybody thinking that Cirque has flattened out or lost its way, go see OVO. Cirque King Guy Laliberte has not lost his touch. To the contrary, he may be getting better at it. Whether intended or not, against all of the competing subsidiary elements from atmosphere to dance to character-driven allusions to plot, it’s the circus in OVA that steals every step of the show and proves how very much alive circus art still is.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars) 3-1/2

[photos above from OVO program]



12.3.09

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sunday Morning, Looking Back -- A Lesson Facing Cirque du Soleil on a Banana Shpeel: When Circus and Theatre Collide, One Must Die

This first appeared on November 27, 2009


Cold in Chicago. Critically cold. Cold as out-of-down doom for a Broadway bound show in deep deep trouble. This one is a Cirque du Soleil production called Banana Shpeel, and it's being tried out prior to a New York premiere in February. Originally billed, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune by Chris Jones, as a “distinctive fusion of vaudeville, clowning and musical comedy” (did we not get that in Gene Kelly’s lavishly ill-fated ClownAround?), this was to be the company’s auspicious foray onto the legit stage.

Going into rehearsals, they had the talent to do theatre. Songs by Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blond). Neon stars like Annaleigh Ashford and Michael Longoria to sing them. But the creative staff evidently hadn’t the stomach to rewrite themselves out of a mess that blossomed during some ominously troublesome run-throughs. Gone in a Montreal bloodbath were the two stars, the composer and all his music. Director David Shiner, not among the yet evicted, defended the pre-Chicago purges: “The show was becoming too story based. We also wanted to include clowning and variety. But the story element was outweighing everything else.”

The show’s producer, Serge Roy, said it was “dragging.” Shiner called it “a learning process for everybody.”

Cirque King Guy Laliberte, whose world wide creative reach is a spectacle to behold and whose idea it was to mount a vaudeville show, may be in for a sobering reality check if he does move Banana Shpeel all the way east onto the Beacon stage. The effort to merge theatre and circus has never really worked. One of the two forms must take the lead, allowing the other shadow status. And when that happens, we assume the survivor — in this case, cirque rather than Shakespeare -- will be strong enough on its own time-tested terms to win profitable patronage.

Long identified in the public’s mind as acrobatic-centered entertainment, Cirque now has an uphill battle. Even if they can salvage their ailing patient by defaulting back to acrobat & clown mode, how well might a circus from Montreal come across on stage in mid-town Manhattan?

Customers during Chicago previews have been acutely unkind. On the website Yelp!, the average rating (out of a possible 5) is 2. Among nine contributors, groused a self-described CDS lover, “rotten ... I felt like I was watching a bad episode of the Stooges.” And, noticed he/she, many around did not return after intermission. Seems a repeat of the early bum audience reception to Cirque’s Vegas magic show, Believe, only this time it’s worse.

Probably, imbued with a touch of hubris, the Montreal fantasy factory threw this thing into rehearsals believing they could easily shape and hone it as they have virtually all their other shows. "We were getting into a world in which we are not at ease," admitted Roy to the Tribune.

They may be learning a lesson -- or not. “Cirque, in essence,” wrote Jones, “went back to a world in which it is more comfortable. And within which it has never failed.” But that might not be quite the case. Even though there are some circus acts in Banana Shpeel, the show, states Shiner, is now "based in comedy and dance." Dance? By that statement alone, I'd say that things still seem dubiously off the usual Cirque axis.

Perhaps the blood bath will have proven a wise act on the road to another fail-safe success. But I’m not betting on anything at this point. Laliberte could decide to shut down a shaky experiment and spare himself a widely-covered Big Apple fiasco. On a Broadway stage, critical expectations are much higher than they usually are under a tent.

Banana Shpeel, now in previews at the Chicago Theatre, opens on December 2.

[photo by Scott Strazzante/Tribune photo]

11.27.09

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday Fliparounds: China's Emerging Greatest Show on Earth ... A Tawdry Bio on Cirque King Guy Laliberte Fails to Deliver, Says Bloomberg ...


A terrific new Big Apple Circus YouTube teaser left me charmed by one act in particular — two wry Chinese guys, the Long Twins, who end up in two barrels cavorting in a very funny manner. Comedy from China? Once seriously ground bound, their crack acrobats are more and more flying high, and now they are clowning it up or down, too. What next — a dog act that doesn’t end up on somebody’s plate, ho ho? I am starting to see a Buddha big top. All they need are a few animals. I share this remarkable insight with friend Boyi, and he tells me of a very clever monkey who performed for him years ago in his village. The charming chimp did “flips,” dressed up and walked like a human and then “passed a tray around” for donations. Okay, so maybe we've got a bookable chimp, and I've heard of two pander bears over there who perform. All they need are a few Montreal designer insects. Read on ...

Speaking of which (animals, that is), Wade Burck takes me to task for maybe being to hard on Kenneth Feld. Says the cage man, “the animal rights movement kicked into justified action with a full head of steam in the late 70s/early 80s fueled by many producers/trainers revered as heroes. The ‘Feld myth’ that you point out as ‘crashing’ is residual fall out from the sorry history that the industry had before it was forced to change itself. Everybody operating today and tomorrow will be dealing with the sins of the past. Point a finger in the right direction if you want to help change the situation.” ... Okay, Wade, but we still have that awful video issued by PETA appearing to reveal blatant elephant abuse, and I remain more than curious about how, according to a Feld Entertainment press release, it was “deceptively edited.” Believe, me, I would love to learn that the damaging film footage was edited into false testimony, but I can no longer hold my own (possibly self-created) myth about Mr. Feld as being a man genuinely dedicated to the proper treatment of animals.

Monkeys to Insects: From Montreal to San Francisco come the latter, all dressed up for Cirque’s new touring attraction named OVO. $65.00 (not counting additional fees) will get you the best worst seat in the tent. Maybe I’ll try to sidewalling this one. I’m skinny enough to pass for an insect myself. (I’m laughing, are you?)

About Cirque du Soleil, its fearless leader Guy Laliberte could not nix the publication of the sleazy tabloid tome about him that alludes to all sorts of late night parties for free lovers and loaders. Reviewing it for Bloomberg News, Steven Frank expresses acute disappointment that a major chance to deliver on this remarkable story was so botched up and blown aside by gossipy author Ian Halperin. Says Frank (largely in sync with what Henry Edgar earlier told us), the author “skims over parts of Cirque du Soleil’s history while spending an inordinate amount of space on titillating tales from people identified only by a first name or a pseudonym.” Laliberte is a “great creative force worthy of a major biography. But Halperin’s book, sadly, isn’t it.”

Naked Residuals: When I read about the Naked Clown Calender 2010 being put out by the San Francisco Circus Center, all I can do is rue the strange subversive demise of its once-vital predecessor named Pickle Family Circus, and wonder why this had to happen to Larry Pisoni’s little touring gem. Nothing more is what’s left of the post Pickle operation than a concession cow for a few individuals who pitch lessons to students seeking circus careers who mostly dabble and then go no where. Maybe as insects they’d have a future. Sad but true. I sigh. And I take heart looking elsewhere, such as to Oakland where the promising Circus Bella (there they are in the photo), a new Bay Area troupe reminiscent of the old Pickles, is striving to make a name for itself. I hope they can. We need a circus, not a failed institution that pushes veiled porno. Yuck! What an insult to the Pickles that were. Go, Bella, Go! (in your costumes, please)

End Ringers around Dragon Well: Heck, there are none. They all got puffed in the Big Show! Meet me here for more of the same in a few or a thousand days ... No more teasers, Big Apple. I am not calling Amtrak!

[top photo: Qibi Acrobatic Troupe, China]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Broadway’s Cruel Reversals Tumble, Humble Once-Invincible Neil Simon. Is Disney Next? ...


What a breath taking shock to discover that Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, greeted in revival by a slate of glowing notices. closed in just one week. Repeat: one week.

Simon, once the king of comedy along the Great White Way, told a reporter how he was “dumbfounded after all these years.” Indeed, what happened to his revered play feels almost like a public assassination. The New York Times described it as “one of the biggest commercial flops on Broadway in recent memory.”

“I still don’t know how Broadway works, or what to make of our culture,” said the humbled 82-year-old author of numerous hit shows, among them The Odd Couple.

And now, another planned Neil Simon revival, Broadway Bound, is no longer Broadway bound, nixed, too, for lack of sufficient advance sales.

Next for the chopping block may be Disney, already in a slow motion free fall. The tortuously adapted stage version of its instant film classic, The Little Mermaid, which provoked scathing notices, closed last June, less than two years on the boards. Today, less than two years on the boards amounts to box office failure. Before that, another Disney turkey, Tarzan, clomped out of town amidst critical disgrace and customer indifference.

I never quite bought the Disney act. Its productions have a slick manufactured look and feel to them. Yet to be seen is how long its Mary Poppins, a mixed-notice co-production with another foundering producer, Cameron Mackintosh, can last.

Simon may not have lost his touch; audiences may no longer respond to his pen. But there are things to be said against Brighton Beach, essentially about a contrived third act that resolves conflicts raised in its finely wrought earlier scenes with sit-com simplicity. I left the show years ago feeling that Simon had missed a chance to reach the level of O’Neil or Williams.

Broadway produces high drama itself, merely by dramatizing the vexing ironies of how art and commerce intersect. I’ve seen plodding audience pleasers in recent years (Elton John’s cardboard Aida – it did well) and absolute gems (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -– it didn’t).

Has anything really changed on Times Square? Gone, it seems, are the long-running contributors who can be counted on to stock stages with popular entertainment over long lush hauls. The remarkable Richard Rodgers, who worked first with Larry Hart and then with Oscar Hammerstein II, enjoyed four prolific decades. So did pop master Irving Berlin. Cole Porter’s output spanned a good thirty years. Other master creators, like George Gershwin, died all too soon.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, a contemporary giant, suffered widespread critic indifference -- some might call it outright abuse -- when he came to town. Never mind the envy. This master of melody and showmanship landed five hit shows in New York, and his Phantom of the Opera is now the longest running production in Broadway history.

From whence the next Rodgers and Hammerstein? The next Andrew Lloyd Webber?

We can always count on the one- and two-hit wonders. Think Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line; They're Playing Our Song). And the town is also a place where promising talents get many second chances and yet still fail to turn a profit for the producers. Think Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, whose plodding and didactic Ragtime is now in previews, set to be revived next Sunday. Maybe this time it'll work. Advance praise from avid fans and a good notice in Variety suggests a better outcome the second time around. But don't count on anything. New York has yet to weigh in.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, a couple of giants, came to town with many fine shows, but only two of them clicked, and one — Chicago — is now New York's longest running revival. The other is Cabaret. I'm hoping their score-rich Steel Pier will get a second chance someday.

Indeed, musical theatre is a devouring mistress who usually turns away her most ardent creative suitors sooner than later. Lerner and Loewe first struck gold in 1947 with Brigadoon. Thirteen years later, following the lucky success of their critically dismissed Camelot, they went their separate ways. Two revivals of the leaden Camelot suffered more critical disdain; both return visits were out the door within weeks. Remember the long-running off-Broadway phenomenon, The Fantasticks? Its creators Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones landed just one hit on Broadway -- I Do! I Do! Popular music giant Johnny Mercer courted Times Square for many years, mostly in vain. In 1956, he finally hit a minor jackpot with his Ll'l Abner, which managed to outfox a set of widely mixed reviews.

And what is to become of the ultra gifted Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers? His masterfully wrought, Tony award winning The Light in the Piazza played out a respectable thought profitless run at Lincoln Center. I fear for the future of so accomplished an artist in so treacherous a place.

Now, in lieu of established names, Broadway gets by with more than a little help from a handful of monster hits (Lion King and Phantom of the Opera, Mama Mia, and promising new candidates like Wicked and Jersey Boys) that can generate winning ticket sales for decades, a feat unheard of thirty seasons ago. And Broadway stages stay open, thanks also to rentals for revivals of popular shows created by yesterday’s top talents. Finian’s Rainbow just opened to upbeat notices. West Side Story is doing well in revival. So is South Pacific and so was Hair, but “golden age” classics rarely hang around for longer than a couple of seasons. Others less lucky or ill-directed, like Guys and Dolls and the recently opened Bye Bye Birdie, do not enjoy guaranteed respect and patronage merely by returning to the Broadway battlefield.

Steven Schwartz is something of an aberrational rarity -- a composer who struck gold in a second act that may turn out to be bigger than his first, with his mega hit, Wicked. And then, at the top of the revival heap, there is legendary Stephen Sondheim, the prince of trenchant tuners whose acclaimed musicals rarely turned a profit when originally produced. Sondheim has great shelf life; his work gets revived regularly.

Broadway is a strange place. A show can bomb there and have a huge afterlife elsewhere. A Broadway flop is a Broadway show in any other town, and a Broadway show is all the public wants to see. They're funny that way.

“I‘m dumbfounded. After all these years, I still don’t know how Broadway works or what to make of our culture.”

Neither does anyone else, Mr. Simon. Welcome back to the club you once ruled.


[photos of people: Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers; Chicago cast members Nicole Bridgewater, James Patrick Sands, Dylis Croman, and Donna Marie Asbury; Adam Guettel; Neil Simon and Elaine Joyce on opening night of the revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs]

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday Morning with Carl Augustus Heliodor Hammarstrom: An Artist Awaiting Recognition? ...


Across the street to Playland-at-the-Beach we went on foggy nights, my sister Kathy and I holding his big warm hands. He would buy us salt water taffy or popcorn, or a hard crunchy chocolate covered “It’s It” ice cream bar. Neons flickered through surging ocean roars, through the shouts of soldiers and their girlfriends riding the Big Dipper roller coaster.

Across the street from the Big Dipper is where we lived, in a two story brick house in Golden Gate Park, set poetically in the shadows of the North Windmill. My grandfather and then my father following him were park gardeners. With their city jobs came the house. My Uncle Smitty managed the Big Dipper directly across the street. My dad installed electrical shock effects in the Laugh-in-the-Dark and the Dark Mystery rides, and he worked on the Dipper, too, night after night through the war years, manning the grips.


Out back of our house stood an old shed, filled with must and paint and canvas. And old clocks and easels. Filled with a special atmosphere. That’s where my grandfather had labored over his passion in days gone by. Now, he lived in a small tent a few hundred feet in front of our house, where on pleasant Sunday afternoons, the locals would picnic on a spread of grass. Each morning I would take Grandpa a cup of Oval-teen. Under his bed once, I discovered the bike that Santa had planned to give my brother Dick on a Christmas day. The same magical December morning, I received my most prized gift ever -- a Lionel train set.


I’m not sure what dampened Grandpa's spark for painting. I never saw him create a single canvas. By the time I came along, he was spending most of his time sitting in a chair in an engine shed that drew water from the ground. The power for that task had been supplied by the windmill until it was stripped of its muscle and steel for wartime use.

What a family: A painter. A father (seen, right, in the photo) and uncles who worked on a roller coaster. A great uncle (Eugene B. Lewis) who enjoyed a screen writing career in the silent days down in Hollywood. And my mother, who had wanted to be a singer and got only as far as one timid audition, and never went back. She settled into the safe inviolate role of full-time recreational dreamer.

My kindly, quiet grandfather, the son of a sea captain, had come to San Francisco from Gotland, Sweden in 1885. He worked as a street car conductor (during spare moments, sketching out the faces of his customers); by another account, he worked on the cable cars. Following the earthquake of 1906, which demolished his studio, he lived in a tent next to the Cliff House. Whether his wife, one Anna Pelch from Bohemia, shared the tent with him I do not know. She died at a very young age. Sometime later Grandpa got the park job. With it came the windmill which he operated and maintained, and the brick house in which he alone — with the help of a murky succession of “house keepers” -- raised six or seven children.

Artist Carl Augustus, who studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute and privately with Gottardo Piazzoni, made a local name for himself. From two news stories I have, evidently he was called simply "Hammarstrom" by local critics, whose discriminating respect he enjoyed. Some of his work won display space at the San Francisco Art Association, the Del Monte Gallery in Monterey, the Alaska Yukon Exposition in Seattle in 1909, and, finally, at the glorious Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939. I am so happy to know he got this far, for from the movies I have seen of the event, what an enchanted setting it was. Close to his 90th birthday, he passed away in 1954.


Hard for me to judge his work; he is my father's father. That having been said, some of it I find perfectly fine. Especially am I engaged by its serene moodiness, a mark of the period. After all these years, there is some interest out there in cyberspace for the work of Carl Augustus Heliodor Hammarstrom. Here are a few of the images I came across on the internet. My brother Dick discovered that one of them sold at an on-line auction this summer for $600.00. Yes, not much, and I hope it wasn’t to a member of our family. I do know that a few years ago a Los Angeles gallery owner e-mailed me, expressing interest in acquiring what I might be willing to sell. We talked by phone. She judged him "a fine landscape painter," but said she would need a large body of his work for a viable try at building up a demand. I only have a precious few of his paintings, one being the last displayed here (misleadingly lit when I snapped it), my favorite. Not for anything would I ever give it up. That lonely enchanted place is exactly where I came from.


Thank you, Grandpa, for reminding me.

11/8/09

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Sunday Side Up: Crash Moreau to Feld: Fire Bad Trainers! ... NYT to BAC: Yes, We Still Love You ... Bandwagon Remembers Stuart Thayer

Crashing a Feld Myth? I was gratified, reassured, reinforced and retrofitted, validated and exhilarated to discover that Crash Moreau, sometime recently on his blog (you’ll find it to your right) has challenged Kenneth Feld to fire the animal trainer(s) responsible for the abuse that is all too convincingly obvious on the tape made by an undercover PETA agent, a tape that has left many of us aghast. Here are the main points in Crash's posting:

“I have to express my feelings ... I am not an animals rights activist as I believe animals should be in the entertainment business. But what I saw and I know, this is not an old video clip as one of the handlers has been with Ringling since 2008 which makes it an updated video ...The time has come for the Ringling organization to do the right thing. First: Anyone involved on the tape should be ... fired with no exceptions. This does no need to happen for any reason ... Second: Ringling should bring up charges against all the ones that were beating on the elephant and the judge should throw the book at them PERIOD.”

I can only hope-assume that most in the circus community share Crash’s outrage and demand for corrective action. I would add one other request: Ringling needs to immediately back up the claim it put out in a press release alleging that the video was “deceptively edited.” If so, Ringling, how, how, HOW??? Mr. Feld: my long-held respect for what I perceived (naively, I'm afraid) to be your total micro-attention to proper treatment of your animals has been shaken to the bone. I no longer believe you. Now, if you can prove to us that the video was "deceptively edited," once again, I ask you to show us now. Thank you, Crash.

Another Big Apple Circus Charmer: The annual New York Times valentine to Big Apple Circus in the form of a thoroughly positive review was composed this year by one Ken Jaworowski, who gives them a full White Tops endorsement: He loved Bello, found nothing to carp or question. “This is one terrific troupe.” New York, you are one lucky town!

Remembering a research master of many index cards: The passing in June of circus historian Stuart Thayer, as covered with profound affection by Fred D. Pfening III in the latest issue of Bandwagon, is a sad story. Sad because if Thayer was, as Pfening alleges, virtually the greatest in his class, why such anonymity? According to Pfening, Thayer’s “best work is the best ever written on the subject ...the quality of his scholarship is unprecedented and unmatched.” What is so puzzling is why Thayer could not find a publisher to promote his work and get it out to readers beyond the CHS. “He had little interest in impressing anyone,” Pfening writes. “He self published his books, usually with minuscule press runs.” We are not told whether or not Mr. Thayer actually tried to find a publisher. And if not, why not? Was he forced in default to publish himself? (I know, through countless humbling rejection slips, how hellishly difficult it can be to find a regular royalty publisher out there.)

I could not purchase any of Thayer’s books on Amazon if I tried. All “unavailable.” I did a world library search to discover that one of his tomes is on the shelves of only six libraries, another on just sixteen. Compare that to Earl Chapin May’s 1932 masterwork, Circus From Rome to Ringling, which remains in well over 500 libraries. A brief Wikipedia bio of Mr. Thayer that reads as if it were penned by Pfening is preceded with this note from the editors: “This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party publications. Primary sources or sources affiliated with the subject are generally not sufficient for a Wikipedia article. Please add more appropriate citations from reliable sources. (June 2007).”

Because I have great respect for the CHS (recent Bandwagon articles by Bill Taggart on Ringling grift, Mike Straka on phone rooms, amount to courageous revelations), I have to give Pfening’s Thayer claim strong consideration. But Pfening is a human being, too, with opinions of his own; he previously slighted the magnificently rich (in my opinion) May work. Why not, Pfening & Pfening, an article in your words telling us why Mr. May’s book is so “overrated,” and listing the top three books on American circus history from your well-informed points of view?

Truth has a hard time finding an audience, I fear, if there are too many foot notes, too much contextual detail, or too little narrative thrust. Now, if it was Stuart Thayer who tracked down the first portable circus tent back to J. Purdy Brown in 1825 (identifying a signal turning point in U.S. circus history), that is the sort of research that merits lasting respect, whether found in a compelling read or a finely wrought thesis.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Biggest Mystery Under the Big Top: How Many People Went to the Circus? ... Ringling in Europe Illustrates ...

Are you a Yankee’s fanatic? I bet you could get me annual attendance figures if I asked.

Film buff? You probably know that 90 million people went to a movie every week during the forties, but only 30 million during the fifties. They say it’s a fact.

Hard core Beatles fan? I assume you know which of their albums sold the most copies.

Now, I’m a circus fan, so please don’t ask me any such questions, for I can’t answer them, and I'll tell you why. In fact, I wish I'd addressed this vexing historical issue with TV documentary film producer Philip Weyland during my Miguel Vazquez interview in Los Angeles last July. Here is what I might have said:

“Let me tell you something, Phil. You and I both share a general sense that attendance at circuses has declined markedly over the last thirty years. In fact, we are both only making guesses, because, and here it is important to note, unlike virtually all other entertainments, circus ticket sales are not tracked by any agency whatsoever. They remain a total mystery. Reporters and writers following the movie, theatre, pop music or sports fields, in comparison, enjoy the luxury of transparent factual sales information from independent tracking sources. We who write about circuses have none. And so we speculate based upon our own head counts at the shows we attend and upon rumors and reports, many of which are likely slanted to either puff up or push down the actual number of bodies in the seats. And that makes it, personally, very frustrating for me in trying to write accurately about historical business trends at circuses.”

Here is an of-the-moment illustration of the problem: A few of us have been wondering aloud about business at Ringling’s Gold Unit in Europe. One Anonymous source implied poor advance ticket sales in Spain. Another source, “Barb D,” who works for Feld Entertainment and has toured with the Gold Show in concession sales, has posted a couple of comments that challenge skeptical views of ticket sales. Compared to Steve Copeland's vague references on his blog to business on the Kelly-Miller Circus ("average sized crowd," etc.), Barb D's summations offer breathtaking clarity. However, since she works for the Felds, I must be on my guard, which is not to say that I distrust Barb D, only that I must take her information in context. Here are excerpts from her two comments:

1. “Milan opened with a bang...again, capacity about 2000 with only a few empty seats.”

2. “Milano was decent....the house held approx 2000 and most shows were three quarters.”

Now, how are we to interpret this? I’d say that a strong opening fizzled out to “decent,” agreeing with Barb’s account and assuming it is accurate. “Most shows” to me suggests that probably more than half the shows did about three-quarter business. So I would then guess that, overall, the circus played to, let’s assume, 60% capacity, or — if the venue actually seats 2,000 people — 1,200 to 1,300 patrons per show on average. Do I believe this as fact? No. I regard it as a strong likelihood. "Fair business" is how I would characterize the stand. And that is my best guess based on the information that I have at hand. It is, sadly, nothing like what I would have to work with were circuses accountable to a neutral reporting agency, same as -- you name your favorite entertainment pastime.

Be it a rock concert, ice show, Broadway musical or hot new film, everybody wants to know: How many people went?

At the circus, unless you were there, you may never know. It remains the best kept secret under the big top.


[photos, from top: Ringling-Barnum at Verizon Center, Manchester, New Hampshire, 2009 -- crowd size estimated by Crash Moreau to be less than 25% of available seating -- about a third of the seats were not used owing to the new truncated performance setting; Kelly-Miller Circus plays to a full tent in 2009; the last under-canvas performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in Pittsburgh, July 16, 1956, with approximately 9,000 people inside the big top]

First published October 28, 2009