Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sunday Out of the Past : Forbes Top Ten Circus Rankings — Fantasy, Farce, Fraud or Flakery?

This first appeared on October 2, 2009
When Forbes puts out a list, the media and public tend to sit up. So when I came across their recently issued “Tops of the big tops: America’s Best Circuses,” I was naturally interested.

I might have dismissed the whole thing out of hand, but when I saw “Best Clowning” going to Ringling’s Zing Zang Zoom, placing the show itself Number 1 on the list, I was rather thunderstruck, to put it mildly. Then again, we all have our own opinions, so I thought, perhaps the Forbes judge was genuinely amused. That is, if the judge did not also work for Feld Entertainment. I was close to tossing the list out.

But then. But then. Wait a minute, they are calling Big Apple Circus's Bello Comes Back “Best Family Show”? Has it even opened yet? I did a little digging. This was getting more odious by the minute.

The list was published on September 10. Bello had not yet come back. That edition of BAC was still, at best, in rehearsals, not slated to premiere until September 24, two weeks later.

I studied the list a little more. “Best Music” to UniverSoul. Sounds like UniverSoul has reinstated their band. But, no, they have not. I checked with an inside source. UniverSoul plays a tape recorded score from CDs.

All three editions of Ringling made the list. Five units of Cirque du Soleil earned citations. Some of their Vegas shows, (like Love), although I have seen none of them, have always struck me as more theatrical than circus. So, really, only three American circuses made a list that supposedly focuses on American circuses.

“Best Clowning” still stuck in my gut. Zing Zang Zoom funnier than Big Apple, or Boom A Ring?

Something about this list started to smell. Something seemed contrived. Or assembled on the fly. Parts of it may have come out of press kits. The story that came with it, written by one Meredith Hansen, quotes only co-producer Nichole Feld, of the Ringling organization, who is evidently learning how to work the media as effectively as did her legendary grandfather, Irvin Feld. Keep your eyes on this Nicole.

Such a smell to this list, I wondered what sort of PR gratuities may have been passed out hand to hand, or slipped under a table at a fancy eatery? And we’re not talking Burger King, kids

So I wrote to Forbes Traveler.Com and Meredith Hansen in the comment box at the end of the story, since it is near impossible to contact them in any other way. I sought clarification, in effect, asking them if they might explain their evaluation process. Who in fact decided on the best shows?

I asked how it was possible to issue a judgment on Bello is Back before the show had opened? And had they, by chance, seen any of the following tent shows: Cole Bros. Circus of Stars? Kelly-Miller? Carson and Barnes? Circus Vargas?

For example, I can see a good case being made for Cole; from what I have heard, they generate a lot of excitement in the air. They’ve got the seven-high wire walk. They’ve got the cannon and the gyro wheel. And they’ve got Elvin Bale’s unique motorbike Globe of Death that splits apart at the center. Cole might qualify for “Best Aerial Acts” Forbes does not address such a category.

They did not reply to my request for information. So I posted a second e-mail in the comment box.

Still no reply. Still, I am waiting.

Should I be surprised? Shocked? After all these years, no. When it comes to reporting on big tops, anything goes. Even in Variety, the so-called "bible of showbiz," which shamelessly allowed Irvin Feld to rewrite circus history in his favor, apparently ad revenue can or once did move mountains. I recall being stunned-shocked-flabbergasted when I read a Variety review of Big Apple Circus, circa 1986, in which Alfred Codona turned a triple. Or when the Variety guy who reviewed Circus Vargas in 1988 found the chimp act “captivating.” In fact, one or more of those chimps had passed away a few weeks before, and the act was no longer in the show. Is that what he found “captivating”?

Forbes and Ms. Hansen, I am waiting for you to come clean and tell us just how you reached your puzzling verdicts.

Perhaps you have another list here that deserves your impeccable attention: “Most Effective Circus Press Kits”

I can think of a few contenders. No, make that just one.



Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,

Great stuff. Now let's see if you are fair and balanced? While you are at it, as it must concern you as much as the Felds, ask this same thing of the Monte Carlo Circus Festival: "I am waiting for you to come clean and tell us just how you reached your puzzling verdicts." I should think that knowing how the "industry" picks the best of the best, would be more of a concern to you, then what a hack reporter thinks.
Wade Burck

Anonymous said...

You might recall that for years,Irvin Feld purchased a small ad every week on page two (2) of VARIETY.
In size, it was one column by approximately five inches.

Showbiz David said...

Wade, you make a good point. This is problem I would have in taking on Monte Carlo: I have so little knowledge of what they have done. I have only now and then learned of some of their selections. With Forbes, as with the Ring of Fame in Sarasota, both focusing in on the U.S. scene, I see many or most of these shows now and then, so I have a more visceral reaction based upon both observation and my own opinions. With Monte Carlo, it strikes me as odd that, if I understand it correctly, they mainly use circus owners to judge the acts, which is one reason why I have ended to view them a little skeptically. I do think you make a good case that they, if anybody, should come clean, considering their stature and prestige.

As for the next posting, yes, not only that, Feld literally wrapped Variety's annual anniversary issues in full page color ads. For a time, he practically had his own editorial desk at Variety, perhaps his central base of operations in building such a dominant influence on the media. Another interesting tale.

Anonymous said...

The big thing is; does it really matter what order they were picked. Take out the Soleil shows and there are only the Ringling shows, Big Apple and Universoul. It's not like Broadway or film, where someone has a choice of which shows to see (I know, I know New York sometimes has a couple of shows playing the same dates). The circus is basically - you see the show that's in town. In some of the European cities that periodically host several circuses in the same city at the same time, then critiques and 'best of' lists might be relative, but I doubt that Forbes readers were holding onto their seats with bated breath to see who was picked to be number one. Besides it's apples to oranges. Big Apple might be called a sophisticated family show in a tent. Ringling is (apart from Coney Island) an arena show and Soleil is a noveau tech spectacle. I don't know about Universoul.

How about picks for the best Tent circus, the best arena circus and the best cirque, The results would be the BA, Ringling and Soleil.

The rest of the Shrine producers and assortment of building and tent shows couldn't even find a place.

If a similar contest were held in Europe, of course Krone or possibly Knie would place in the top, but below that there are a good many shows that are on an equal footing (Orfei, Americano, Charles Knie, Pinder, etc) to compete with one another. it's still hard to believe that in a country of 300 million people, 8 of the top ten are the work of 2 producers.

Showbiz David said...

so could you please tell me, or give me your best guess: who at Forbes (a human, I assume, rather than a computer generated report?) placed "Best Clowning" next to Zing Zang Zoom, "Most classic" next to Over the Top, and so on, with all the "Best" or "Most" determinations? Do you believe it was the writer of the story, Meredith Hansen? An editor above her? A backroom committee? An unseen publicist? A word processor? Receptionist? Janitor? I'm just curious, that's all.

Wade G. Burck said...

This is pretty accurate: "How about picks for the best Tent circus, the best arena circus and the best cirque, The results would be the BA, Ringling and Soleil."

But this is way off base: "on an equal footing (Orfei, Americano, Charles Knie, Pinder, etc"

Wade Burck

Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
"I have so little knowledge of what they have done. I have only now and then learned of some of their selections" Yet you hang paper for winners like it is a big deal?

"they mainly use circus owners to judge the acts, which is one reason why I have ended to view them a little skeptically" If they are viewed skeptically, then they are not big deal, right? No, they don't use agents and owners anymore to judge. In an effort at validity they now use former winners and friends of the owners and agents. The Forbes broad may have been guessing, but the Monte Carlo folks know in advance. The fix is in Show Biz, just like the Ring of Fame.
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

yes, tis true, i have bought into the impression that it is the most prestigious of world circus competitions. As for hanging paper for the winners, really? I hardly ever talk about MC. Yes, I was very impressed that Monte Carlo gave the gold to, so far, only one juggler, the American Anthony Gatto. I doubt that MC grants awards to acts it has not seen, like Forbes apparently does. In hazy recall, I can't think of an act feted over there that was glaringly ill-deserving. But then again, I have never followed this event closely. Nor do I feel a moral obligation to.

Anonymous said...

Awards of any kind generally mean very little...

...unless you're the recipient.

Radar said...

The winners seem a bit contrived to me, seeing as Soleil is not even a circus. It is not billed as one, nor does the owner and founder claim it to be one. It is a fantastic show, but alas not a circus.

Showbiz David said...

Radar -- you have a cool name.

B.E.Trumble said...

David, agree with you on the notion that perhaps the fix was on the list. That doesn't mean that the shows listed aren't excellent, but several of the Cirque offerings are a stretch if we're calling it circus. And I'm sure that Bello is wonderful...but it is tough to award a prize to a show that hadn't opened when the story was written. I would also suggest that a serious piece on the subject might have mentioned the Zoppe show, or Flora, or Circus Sarasota or several others. And if we really want to get into the issue of best "family" show strictly in terms of delighted children and satisfied parents and grandparents add Alain Zerbini and several other mudshows. I'm afraid the magazine was looking for a quick puff piece and didn't dig much.