Friday, February 06, 2009
Touring Death Trails for Fifty Years and Counting: They Call it the Circus
“Not one circus will be left in ten years,” predicted a top-drawer press agent not long after parting company with the Ringling-Barnum show. He was famed Roland Butler, a victim of drastic Ringling rethinking in a new age when the lure of TV advertising favored the ever-experimentally minded John Ringling North (above). ... And that was over fifty years ago (okay, my age can not be denied). Butler’s comments to a friend were mentioned to me, then a kid, in a letter from circus fancier and collectibles dealer Harry (Doc) Chapman, who at the age of 10 could have seen Ringling under canvas in 1893 ... Wandering back today through boyhood correspondence, how favored I was by a steady stream of historically rich letters from Mr. Chapman, who addressed me in any number of ways, one being “P.T. Hammarstrom.” I should will these mighty missives to the Pfennigs of Ohio.
... Some things never change: Back then, old timers talked up the older shows; and now, technically, I’m one, sometimes ruing performances of yesteryear. Back then, JRN turned the circus into a “nightclub” act they said; today, Cirque du Soleil is charged with similar crimes. But the beat of the big top somehow goes on, and it’s still out there on halfway hospitable death trails managing to stay alive. Chapman recalled a time, around 1955 or '56, when Ringling had sold about 675 tickets going into a night show in or around Rochester, NY, and decided to blow the date.
“Full house” or “straw house” are aberrational norms too often expected by yours impatient, who now and then must remind himself that showbiz of all stripes rarely plays to full houses. But, oh, today’s tenacious tenters (all of last season’s contenders are still in biz, as far as I know) seem to be perfecting the art of a fifteen-percent house salvation. In my impetuous youth, I don’t recall empty tents. Gotta tell you, today’s woefully under-attended shows kind of get me down; and they might turn me yet from chronic critic to born-again booster rehabbing to redeem himself in the eyes of the every-protective CFA ... Reading back through my teeth-cutting correspondence, what a pesky know-it-all I was — oops, was? Maybe it was my sheer verbosity that sunk John Swann’s otherwise engaging Circus Review, and caused one reader, Sony Edgar (Henry, was that you?) to tactfully take it to task. I turned out a bloated essay, “How Much Circus Does a Circus Need.” What rhetorical quicksand it was for Swann’s exasperated subscribers; some may have suffocated to death into the third paragraph .. And, still, I ramble on.
Big tops continue to face big hurdles. Now, Big Bertha’s Kenneth Feld finally appears, it would appear, in court to answer charges of animal cruelty and/or domestic insensitivity before, not a jury (how lucky, I’d venture), but before one judge. Trial was said to have kicked off last Wednesday. Considering the money Feld has and the lawyers he can afford, and considering his apparently exemplary track record in handling animals (I am a believer until otherwise convinced), I’d venture to guess that he will walk free; so will those perky pachs ... Said the Big Show’s big man to The New York Times, “I love these animals.”
Circuses reinvent themselves to stay on life support. Now that Big Apple’s founder Paul Binder is officially retired, yet he and new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy are off to France shopping for fresh talent. Mr. D. sounds stable and eager. Promisingly, says BAC executive director, Garry Dunning, to the Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph: “He has a clear and individual perspective for the company that’s going to be exciting to watch as it grows.” That’s the right start. Tanbark tycoons need full autonomy to find their way.
Out of the Past: Ringling ‘20s aerial icon Tiny Kline in her new book is said to lend a clear impression that Art Concello more or less stole his seat wagon design from Captain Bill Curtis. I’ll hold judgment until I see details. I’ve seen the Curtis wagons, and structurally they bear virtually no resemblance to what Concello invented. Speaking about seat wagon lure, we’ve added a third person to our circle of addicts. Kelly Miller’s own James Royal admits to his own flights of fancy. “Many is the hour I have spent trying to dream up the ultimate seat wagon.” ... Also out of the past and now appearing at the Ringling Circus Museum, formerly known as the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, is the majestically restored private car Wisconsin, in which John and Mable sometimes resided during the touring seasons of 1905-1916. The museum’s sugar daddy, Howard C. Tibbals, evidently assisted in this latest installation. BTW: are those Rubens still somewhere on the premises?
Oh, how I’d love to ring up Roland Butler, where he still ringable, and ask how long he thinks today’s big tops will be around ... I'll defer to the still-unsinkable sawdust world. Mr Royal, please, a seat at your wagon.
[photos of John Ringling North, 1949, from Circus Anonymous blog. Above, on his private car the Jomar. I couldn't resist; what a work of cinematic art this impresario was]
first posted 2/6/09