Frills Not Needed: Out of a Ringling cannon at Madison Square Garden

Frills Not Needed: Out of  a Ringling cannon at Madison Square Garden
That's how it appears to me. I like the compositional clarity, the depth, the crowds in the seats. I'm guessing, the figure on the left is Harold Ronk; on the right, Trevor Bale. This Edward Quigley photo appears on Facebook's Circus & Fairground Art

Saturday, June 13, 2009

John Ringling North II Three Years Later -- Might the Party Soon Be Over?


Showbiz David Speculates

Nobody that I know of has put out more positive prose heralding the return of the House of Ringling to the big top than myself. Three years later, I am looking at things a little differently.

Now, I must warn you in advance, this is NOT a review. These are only impressions of the current show gleaned from blogs, You Tube clips, photos, e-mails, and a close look at the actual lineup of acts supplied to me by show manager James Royal. I have learned that not until you actually watch a performance from start to finish can you really know what to think of it.

I also know how long it took Cliff Vargas to achieve near-greatness for a few fleeting seasons in the mid 1980s. It took him about 10 years. Perhaps Mr. North is in his early Vargas years, in which case, incredible patience is in order. Jim Royal e-mailed me that they did not expect to become the Ringling circus of the early 1950s overnight. So maybe they have some promising dreams up their sleeves.

But North II may not have ten years to make a mark while the unique envelope he holds is open. When the nephew of John Ringling North entered the circus world in 2006 by virtue of purchasing the Kelly -Miller title, the most valuable asset he brought with him was his name: Ringling. Still a magic word to many Americans. And he was shrewd enough, working with evidently savvy legal counsel, to take on a lawsuit by the Felds and at least end up with the right to post his name in certain places, altering “produced by” with “proprietor.” This impressed me.

Is he linking that magic name with a performance that compliments it? Indeed, one that lives up to it? Very doubtful. My impressions of this year's edition being mediocre, at best, are gleaned from the following:

1. The “vaulting” act as promised did not materialize. Royal tells me it was dropped "due to time restraints." Why drop so potentially exciting a number? Why not drop the hula hoops? Can anybody out there tell me that an audience would not be wildly more responsive to vaulting than to hoops???????????????????

2. The family riding act as promised sounds from all accounts like an earnest work in progress, with performers coming and going.

3. The flying trapeze skips some dates over asphalt. This I learned from reading Steve Copeland’s blog. Royal explained in an e-mail to me earlier in the season that this happens only when a contract prohibits the driving of stakes into cement.

4. The flying trapeze “triple” by Renato Fernandes is only an announcement gimmick, as I suspected when I saw it attempted on Carson & Barnes last year. Royal confirmed this by writing to me that Renato "is extremely close to catching the tripe, but has not as yet."

Also:

5. The inclusion of low-end generic acts., motor bike up inclined wire, hula hoops.

6. A troubling turnover in performance personnel. Early in the season, the Fusco brothers, jugglers highly regarded, were booked for a few weeks pending the arrival of others from Mexico. And the "Kelly Miller Festival circus" that fans see in Milwaukee in July will be a completely different show, only an hour long (I assume this means they will miss watching the great pony rides) while the regular "touring unit" makes dates on the east coast. We can only wonder what sort of a show North II will mount. I find this very strange. It raises many questions.

7. The inclusion of peanut pitches and coloring book sales by the clowns. By any measure, sub-Ringling standards.

8 The carnie aspect, pony rides during intermission, etc. Again, sub-Ringling all the way.

9. You Tube Revelations: Except for the wonderfully accomplished three-tiger hind leg walks in Casey McCoy's act, the You Tube footage in which I discovered this also included brief portions of a few of the other acts in the show that left me, sorry to report, distinctly unimpressed.

10. A misleading website. At last, they have updated it (a marked improvement in the right direction), but the baffling incompleteness does not flatter the show. Half a program is listed, and is highly misleading. What about the other half? There have been photos of acts or names (like juggler Brett Michael) that no longer appear. JRN II strikes me as very weak in the most critical area -- the advance promotion.

Sorry, but altogether these items do not add up, in my speculative opinion, to a memorable circus experience. This sort of a show might work fine for the niche public it serves down the road. Claims Royal, predictably, it is "going over well with our audiences and we are getting excellent feedback from our local sponsors." What else would a good circus man say? But North II risks losing the luster and good will of his name power if he continues offering pedestrian fare.

Of course I could be dead wrong. It is possible on the other hand, that altogether these modest elements jell into a delight. I know that Casey McCoy and the clowns Copeland and Combs, from video clips I have seen, both offer high quality acts, which is a credit to Mr. North. But the image of them, early season, peddling coloring books makes me want to cry.

Is this what a real Ringling stands for? I'm already waiting for next year. I'm waiting to see how far Mr. North might push himself into a more artistically significant direction -- if he can. And I'm not holding my breath. More and more, I'm wondering if the spectacle of a tent full of cell phonies jabbering away while the show was on, as complained about by Steve Copeland, is not a more telling portrait of an under performing circus. Methinks that a lot more of the "Ringling magic" proprietor North promised to insert into the performance when he took over might be woefully over due. If John Ringling North II is really serious, he needs to complete the triple.

[photos, from above: John Ringling North II and James Royal; juggler Raul Oliveras; Ryan Combs and Steve Copeland]

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Sub-Ringling"??? Is this word to describe the Ringling currently on the road, in front of audiences? Or the Ringling of our memories, bathed in the pink & blue hues of wispy cotton candy, woody aromas' of sawdust and buttery pop corn?

While clowns on the Ringling show do not peddle coloring books, in very recent years I seem to remember them tossing bags of marshmellows into the crowd during the warm-up while a commercial for said treats played on the big video screen. I doubt that was a class taught by Lou Jacobs or Frosty Little at the much missed Ringling Clown College.

-Bob Pintavalle

Anonymous said...

Look with so much to say about Kelly Miller and Mr North don t you think you sould see the show

davidyoung_360 said...

Who made you the critic of circus showbiz for some one who have not even seen the show you sure have a lot to say.

Casey McCoy Cainan said...

Thought you would enjoy this quote, if you haven't already heard it.

"Life is much simpler ignoring reviews, and the nasty people who write them. Critics should find meaningful work."
John Grisham

Surely he jests...

Anonymous said...

I think you should stick to talking about Broadway. You do not know Circus!

Anonymous said...

I saw the Kelly-Miller Festival circus in Milwaukee on opening night. It was there for the Great Circus Parade. The crowd watching certainly didn't think anything was wrong with it. The people who passed by Mr. Royal & JRN2 on their way out thanked them & said they enjoyed the show. An authentic circus ticket wagon, elephants, and everything else that makes for a circus was there.

roy maloy said...

I am looking to send an email or letter to John Ringling North II. If anyone knows where I can address either I would be very gratefuk to know. roy@roymaloy.com

Showbiz David said...

Roy,

Here is the show's e-mail address:

bigtop@kellymillercircus.com

This should work.

Anonymous said...

Went to s the traveling show a couple of weeks ago and the 500 or so kids in the audience ( along with this old-carnie)just LOVED it.

What a sad life, to make a living by critiquing what REAL artists do for a living ....

Hank Chase