Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday Scramble, Any Side Up ...

First Draft Reckless ... What hits my sunny brain. Okay, the sunny image of ringmistress Carrie Harvey, more of whose sunny style I would like to have sampled. She’s bound back to her London hearth, there to “finally have a family.” Forget my careless assumption, earlier posted, that she was not invited back to the Big Apple Circus. She was, says she. “It was incredibly difficult for me to turn this offer down, but the big ‘40' is looming,” and thus the family plan. While, I presume, awaiting mother nature to deliver, Carrie will be free lancing on old Europe soil, with, among others, The Nery Brothers, a gala in France, and at the Colosseum in Porto come Christmas. Lucky for us, she’s hoping to make a stateside return soon, “with my family in tow!” Ringmasters of the higher individualistic order are not an easy sort to come by. Please don't forget us, Carrie ...

Not bound for any old place on the planet, but up there into space, come September 30, is, yes, that Montreal mogul who operates his Cirque kingdom. That would be Guy Laliberte, and did you know that Cirque discounts are showing a kinder side? Down there in L.A., you can, if you’re lucky, nab Kooza tickets for as low as $45.00, $35 for the kiddies ... Heck, I’m tempted to L.A. my way again, for I loved Kooza ... But, I have Ovo to look forward to come November. Officially speaking, in Montreal talk, here’s the precious premise: “a headlong rush into a colorful ecosystem teeming with life, where insects work out, eat, crawl, flutter, pay, fight and look for love in a non-stop riot of energy and movement.” Okay, but please, hold the cockroaches ...

The Ring of Anybody Can Be a Circus Legend has announced its latest honorees, and most are the genuine article: In fact, all may be (note to myself; go easy here, David, you might be dissing sacred cows): Tino Wallenda-Zoppe (what a loaded name combo!); Rudi and Sue Lenz (chimps); Manuel “Junior” Ruffin (wild animals), Tony Steele (flyer — go, Tony!); and the multi-talented Dime Wilson Family.

Okay, the following has nothing to do necessarily with the previous. I’ve lost my will to check out the ring when next in Sarasota. A few names in recent years (kindly, David will refrain from naming names) have left me less than enchanted, making the entire Ring affair an equal opportunity recognizer, as long as, as I understand it, you’ve got the money to pay for your ring ... Okay, I’m onto another topic. Sunday sun brings out my kinder side, that and rice tea here at L’Amyx ...

Former Feld (as in Ringling) tout master Jack Ryan essaying a lively and informative piece on circus press agents in the current issue of the sunny and stellar Spectacle. Jack sent me a copy of the story, in which I make a cameo, by way of my sunny interactions with one of the greats, Bev Kelly, who agreed to pen a foreword to my first book (and still my favorite, I think) Behind the Big Top. I’d love to see Jack tackle the egotistically magnificent Irvin Feld, for whom, I only assume, he was happily employed; just don’t know if he could or would tell all sides of such a bigger than life character ... Jack’s article is loaded with titillating tidbits about the Ringling press agents, such as this about Roland Butler: His "flash art, with the gorilla [Gargantua] tossing natives left and right, was a brilliantly subtle manipulation of the millions of nightmares caused by the then-recent movie, King Kong. It’s genius publicity.”

Gosh, I am out of stuff (thanks a midway, Don Covington.} And I’ve stayed my reckless first draft course. Promise. What you’re getting is what the high school teacher who gave me my best grades got: If there’s one thing about my life that’s certain, it’s this: I can type.

[photo: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus]


Amy Shmamy said...

Hey David,
Long time no talk. Saw Zing Zang Zoom today and personally preferred Over The Top from last year. I thought the clowns were horrendous and everyone looked fresh out of high school. Maybe it was the arena, but most of the performers were hard to understand what they were saying. I did like the dog act, the horse act, the tiger act and the high wire trapeze. The only "magic" trick that amazed me was the tiger in the glass cage, other than that I thought the costuming and performance was way better the year before.

Showbiz David said...

Hi, Amy, thanks for checking in. I was wondering what became of you. I, too, liked Over the Top better than Zing, and it seems that both of us were only wowed by one illusion, the tiger in glass cage. All best, and don't stay away so long!

Jack Ryan said...

Hi David,

Thanks for plugging my article in Spectacle and for sharing that great story about our mutual friend Bev Kelley.

I'm now finishing part two, concerning my own Ringling publicity days, for the magazine's next issue.

Thanks again for the mention.



Anonymous said...

I have yet to see Zing Zang Zoom yet, but the issue of the clowning bothers me to no end. Perhaps this would make a good topic for future ShowBiz David reflections? As one who clowned on the big show for 10 years, and directed the clowns for another 5 winter-quarters, it just seems so sad that the current state of circus comedy is being neglected. The recent trend of featuring "star clowns" really negates the group alley efforts to little more than production elements or pre-show clowning.


Greg DeSanto

Showbiz David said...

Greg, I was rather shocked by what I saw in the way of clowning on Zing. Perhaps, to be fair, I overlooked something. Like Amy, I had such a hard time with the sound system, that I heard very little of what was being said. Okay, maybe in the future I'll try setting my brain cells on "circus clowning, state of," or something like that. A touchy subject. I will say this: despite my long-held view – or grudge – that RBBB tended to put out cookie cutter clowns (pretty faces), I HAVE seen now and then some very good clowning on the Ringling shows. This year is a puzzlement.

Amy Shmamy said...

My personal opinion is if I wanted to go see face makeup and no hair I would have went to Cirque du Soleil, I had gone to see Ringling clowns and was disappointed. There were 3, THREE fully dressed clowns. I preferred them over any of the others who looked like people from the audience with makeup on. As far as the "star" clowns go, i did not enjoy Mr. Gravity this year but the main clown of last year and his two cohearts in crime gave me a good laugh. I did not see Bello perform so I can not give my opinion on him. David, can you explain why everyone in Zing was so young? I didn't quite understand that element either.

Showbiz David said...

Amy, I don't quite relate to your question about the youth angle. Lots in the cast of Zing are not so young. If that was the Feld intent and the impression they hoped to achieve, then perhaps it is to appeal to a much younger crowd. They cross promote from circus to Disney ice shows, aiming at family audiences, so that may explain their particular focus.

Amy Shmamy said...

The majority of the performers were younger. There were a few older adults in the acrobats and other performances, maybe it was the age of the ringmaster that really put me off. I want to be dazzled by someone who I feel has seen the world and has a million stories to tell. That wearied eyed traveller who you think his days are over but he still has a little magic up his sleeve still.
And again the clowns, not all of them, but most of them looked so young. I was always partial to the more hobo clowns like Emmett Kelly and JP Patches up here so it could just be my personal opinion.

Anonymous said...

While I can't totally disagree with the "cookie cutter" result, I truly believe that Clown College provided young people with their first professional performance job. The skills taught at CC were always very specific physical elements, ie: juggling, stilt walking, tumbling, make up application, etc. "Funny" was never a class one could take. Either you were born funny or you weren't. Clown College could teach you how to translate that personal "funniness" into an arena setting, but not much else.
And during the early years of the school, and even when I attended, we learned from watching some great clowns. To watch Lou Jacobs work was to see simplicity and clarity of character, and 50+ years of experience. I think this generation of clowns miss that connection to what has come before. The lack of traditional make-up and wardrobe bothers some, but what bothers me most of all is the raw talent of some of these clowns not being reliezed in the ring.

-Greg DeSanto

Showbiz David said...

Greg, raw talent, yes, there is so much of it that I suppose never gets the breaks or the right direction and feedback. I recall Lou Jacobs in my boyhood doing his tiny auto bit, and how I loved it.
Since you have significant Clown College and RBBB performing experience, can you tell me or guess, how many of the clowns who either came out of Clown College or worked on Ringling in their youth stayed in the circus business?

Amy, your opinions are as valid as any others.

Anonymous said...

Clown College graduated around 1,200 (ballpark figure) potential clowns. Depending on the needs of the circus at any given year, around 10% of the class could be offered contracts to tour as an apprentice clown. For some going to Clown Colelge and performing a year on the circus was a lark, an adventure among many in early adulthood. For some it was the beginning of a lifelong career in the circus or performing arts. Some of the more "famous" Clown College alumni are Bill Irwin, Barry Lubin, Steve Smith, David Strathairn, Gale LaJoye, Dick Monday, Steve Glover-a/k/a Steve-O,
Steve LaPorte, Penn Gillete and Mike Davis. Everyone of these people have made their living as a clown/director/actor/variety performer and contributer to the arts. This by no means is a complete list, and no slight to the hundreds of performers who continues to work at the craft of the clown today. I personally have made my living for the past 25 years as a clown and performer. Clown College really was the opportunity to learn the art of circus clowning and to begin to develop as an artist. The chance to get in front of an audience and perform 500 times a year on the Ringling show was an incredible gift. Everything I've done since then (Big Apple Circus, Shrine Circus dates, teaching clowning & physical comedy at schools and universities) was been built on what I learned at Clown College and on the road from other performers.

I guess what bothers me most is hearing how the clowns on the current show seem to be adrift in their craft and not having the same opportunities of learning from experienced clowns that we had.

-Greg DeSanto

Showbiz David said...


Thanks for your information. If I may, here are two questions that more directly get at what I am after:

1. Out of every let’s say 100 students who went through Clown College (even those, like Bill Irwin, who were not offered contracts to work on Ringling), how many would you stay stayed in the biz for a fair amount of time, more than on a lark? In total, have you any idea how many might still be working in circuses today? Just a rough estimate

2. Had there been no Clown College, what are the chances as you see it that there still would have been a Grandma and the other names you mentioned? And let’s include yourself.

And finally, I have a nagging impression, going to circuses these days, that given the paucity of American clowns, the legacy of Clown College is minor. How far off am I? I’d appreciate your comments.

Thanks much.

Anonymous said...


If we are looking at strictly circus work, then I'd venture a guess that maybe 100 still actively pursue circus performance. Now if we say clowning in other venues like theater, street busking, cruise ships, festivals and such, then the number would be much higher.

Without a Clown College, I doubt you see the Grandma clown. Barry Lubin once said that at the start of every career, someone has to say "yes'. For those of us who went to CC, that person was Irvin Feld or Kenneth Feld. Attending the school was our way of getting our foot in the door of professional circus performing.

As for the legacy of Clown College today, it fostered a great affection for our history as clowns. As for the lack of American CC clowns traveling on circus' today I have to say the lure of mud show trouping is not a draw to clown performers who are now aging. There are many other opportunities to perform in much more creature comforts. The torch has been passed to younger clowns like Steve & Ryan on Kelly Miller who wanted to go to clown college but had the misfortune of being born too late. We had a 40th Clown College Reunion last fall her in Baraboo at Circus World and over 170 alumni attened, at least one from every class (1968 to 1997). We are a finite group who's ranks are getting older and the irony is now like in 1968 when Irvin Feld bought in the Ringling show and the alley was full of older men with little or no youth to pass the torch onto. The clowns who graduated in 1968 are now entering their 60's, 70's and 80's.


Showbiz David said...

How sad about the aging of those who went to Clown College (yes, 1968 is a long time ago!), and that the college was discontinued, meaning there are no new graduates to fill their floppy shoes. A rather poignant story. There are the impressions we in the audience get, and the very real individual stories of those who went through the college and whose lives it affected.

The figures you send are impressive, indeed. I would have not suspected the number to be 100. I sense that younger clowns, like Steve and Ryan, take inspiration in the CC legacy and in their association with some of those who were there.
Thanks, Greg.

john herriott said...

That is not true that paying for monument will get a nominee into the Ring of Fame. Naturally alot of nominees do have resources to pay for their induction expense, but some do not and some scuffling takes place to find one or more sponsors. A case in point was the Great Antonette Concello that was somewhat of an embarrasment. Certainly the Hall of Fame and the Ring of Fame would have some doubts about some inductees, but how about that Walk of Fame in Hollywood. It started out right, but has become totally out of the didnity of the deserving greats. Too bad that this situations happen. Still the St. Armonds layout is wonderful and the largest percentage of inductees are a wonderful walk thru of the great field of the circus. Its just A wonderful nostalgia and can't imagine anyone not being impressed unless they were looking for an ulterior motive. The Hall of Fame in Peru really needs some shaping up. It has great potential, but has deteriorated to a great degree. Too bad. Even their induction ceremoney is embarrasing.