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


Margaret said...

I'm honored that you visit my blog Showbiz Dave..(even if it is just to snitch my pics..LOL..) I got these from Life Magazine..Google has a new project to add 10 million photos from their archives to the web..Just add source:life to your google image search and it will take you there..

Showbiz David said...

Margaret, I love your blog; just discovered it by accident, but will take more active looks, and I will add it to my list of blogs to the right. Such fab photos of the great Ringling impressario. You have high taste! And THANKS for the wonderful Google photo link.

B.E.Trumble said...

David, I don't think there's much doubt that AC borrowed from Capt. Curtis, and I'd probably argue that Curtis was a far more practical designer. I'd bet that Jim Royal could come up with a pretty good design too. While some modular seating systems are pretty impressive, the perfect seat wagon remains to be constructed.

Circus goes on. I was in Hugo, OK last weekend and spent time with folks from the three shows based there. Kelly Miller left winterquarters a few days ago making the 700 mile jump to Brownsville, TX -- where the show opens later this week. Like last year, John Ringling North II is recreating classic circus with the help of Jim Royal and John Moss. This year's KM features a flying act and a traditional riding act as well as the clown, jugglers, web girls, acrobats, dogs, elephants, and maybe the best tiger act on the road this season. Pretty impressive. Carson & Barnes opens around Dallas toward the tail end of March with an all new show and a different configuration. 2000 seats, every one of them a good seat. Not to be outdone, Culpepper Merriweather opens at the end of the second week in March celebrating their 25th season since Red Johnson, Curtis Cainan, and James Hebert started the circus in a Florida campground passing the hat at the end of each performance. Owner Trey Key notes that this season every show needs to watch the unemployment figures and consumer confidence. He's absolutely right, in recession shows work smart and hang on. Culpepper has engaged the very talented clown Ms Jessi Wonderfool, fresh from RBBB. Should be genuinely fun.


Showbiz David said...

Thanks, Ben, for your promising update. KM is out of the barn so fast, opening weeks before they did last year. I'm curious: who are the acrobats, the African guys from last year I heard good things about? C&B in one ring? That's a lot of seats for a one ringer!

Anonymous said...

Hi Showbiz: Not only are the Rubens still there, but they have been moved into new galleries that showcase them better than ever before. Although the Circus Collection has finally found its just desserts and Ca d' Zan is glowing in brilliance after it's multi-million dollar restoration, the art collection has not been forgotten by any means. A huge new gallery was added just a few short years ago that more than doubles the gallery space and now the Ringling is able to exhibit parts of their growing modern and contemporary collections as well as a new permanent Asian Collection of several hundred extraordinary works that were gifted by a single donor- quite a coup in the art museum world! The Ringling Art Galleries with a total revamping are now just as spectacular in scale and scope to the Circus Collection quarters, and not a dime from Mr. Tibbals went into the art museum! The Ringling is now one of the best Art Museums in the Southeast and their reputation in the Art World has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. The museum deserves congratulations all the way around from circus fans and art aficianado's as well. It is not-to-be-missed when anyone is in the southeastern U.S.
Neil Cockerline
Minneapolis, MN

Anonymous said...

Dear David, Louis Stern and Irving Polack did not have press agent Frank Braden on their payroll as did JRN. That is why they did not get the press. I will send you8 a great pic of
Frank one of these days. Bill Taggart