Saturday, February 27, 2010

Figure Skating Sans Commentary: The "Not Scott" Mute Button ...

Why do I resent having to listen to Scott Hamilton's excessive know-it-all chatter while skaters compete? Here's why:

1. He conveys the narcissistic attitude that not until HE tells us what a skater has just done, can we validly enjoy it. Not until HE comments, has anything in fact of any import taken place. We are treated by this "commentator" like helplessly clueless spectators who lack the intelligence to enjoy a skater's performance without an expert giving us official permission. He actually may believe that we tune in more to hear him than to watch them. Not I, Mr. Hamilton.

2. In the earlier years when I first tried tolerating Hamilton, he came off as a squeaky voiced insider flaking for his friends, particularly for American skaters. He sounded so provincial. Up in Victoria during the women's short program, his irritating commentary was nearly non-stop at times.

3. Maybe he, or let's say NBC directing him, decided that it was important for him to verbally exploit every jump and spin of a skater's routine in order to foster an athletic image of figure skating. If that is so, then why not axe the music and have each skater demonstrate the required items, each item numbered and announced and scored, no footwork in between, no theatrics. As clinically executed and judged as indoor gymnastics?

The world of ice, I must inform you at this point, is a billion dollar industry, forever in fear of any of its competitive events being sidelined or eliminated, or treated like curling. In fact, I've heard they may have to 86 their humdrum compulsory dances, because those redundant set patterns bear too little visible difference from the original set patterns. You may recall that the school figures were thrown out some years back.

The world of ice has a great stake in the Olympics. Coaches make big bucks. Ice champions earn millions from endorsements. Producers tour the champs in special shows. Compared to this cunningly self-perpetrating industry (a veritable As The World Turns on blades), competitive roller skating (what's left of it) is but a puppet show on wheels.

You have, up there, my three rational reasons for avoiding commentator Hamilton. Which is why I have skipped many Olympics in recent years. Actually, Hamilton has given me a good reason to put off being dragged through three hours of commercials in order to watch 12 or 13 minutes of variable "championship" skating.

The Hamilton victory laps have also heightened my appreciation for Dick Button. Here is why: Seems, as I fondly recall before the Scot onslaught, classy Dick staying mostly silent during a skater's program. Once it was completed, and I waited for this, Dick would then offer a little summation. Some people have claimed he could be nasty. I don't much recall nasty; to overly sensitive ears, however, any non-affirmative, non gushing "YOU are the greatest!" testimonial is tantamount to heresy.

Peggy Flemming was a pleasant presence, although I don't remember her uttering many insightful things. I found Sandra Bezic, new to my ears, a pastel pleasure compared to hack Hamilton, who might, by the way, make a lively radio announcer for football or cock fighting. But others posting their rants on my blog detest Betiz. Makes me wonder if they are Fleming fans.

How to survive ice skating without Scott Hamilton? In fact, I may have already tried this before. From now on, I will simply mute my TV and play favorite CDs or tapes. Even old phonograph records. Heck, they should come out with a new television set containing a built in "NOT SCOT" mute button. The thing would somehow play the music but delete the voice.

And if Mr. Hamilton is ever muted by NBC, or should another network land future Olympics and decide not to use his services, he might find viable employment in a new mice on ice show as its star Mouseketeer.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Figure Skating at the Olympics: When the Skater Transcends the Skate

Why does Michelle Kwan come to mind? I recall a few years ago, 99% sure, watching her at a U.S. or Worlds, and marveling at how her skating seemed willed by her spirit alone, rather than by physical technique. As if she had in the moment dreamed her body into exactly what she wanted it to do and where she wanted it to go. I detected not one trace of compartmentalized effort. I saw triumphant poetry over the ice.

This is what we look for -- the journey away from physicality into spiritual transcendence. I think competitively unlucky Paul Wylie also had it.

Watching the electrifying Evgeni Plushenko through his short program (I missed the long, nor did I see his rival skate at all), yet in honest recall, compared to Michelle, Evgeni is more passionately ice-bound, his repertoire loaded with dazzling tricks and torrid choreography.

These mortals who seem to reach a supernatural realm are far and few between. They begin, or did begin once, on the school circles mastering edges, learn to spin and jump, advance to complex interlocking maneuvers and, finally, to the crafting of a program. Just as, with the actor, we wish to see not the actor at all but the character, so with the figure skater, we wish to witness not the technical effort at all but the exhilarating imagery of a dancer perfectly and freely in flight.

Which is a principal reason why the "quad" must never be exalted at the expense of the "routine." If jumps and spins alone were the only imperative components, then why music? Then why the intricate footwork linking them into a whole?

Michelle Kwan, that magical time I saw her, skated her way into the purity of a powerfully controlled dream.

[photo by Jonathan Ferry/Getty Images]
2/13/10

Out of the Past: Midway 'Round the World: Have the Russians Refound Their Circus Groove? ... St. Pete Puts Shakespeare Over Sawdust to Packed Houses

Mammoth elephants and auto-driving bears cavort with acrobats in a most unusual new circus bearing a theme based on the comedies of William Shakespeare. Cast of 58. Bring it on, Russia!

Don't give up on those revolutionary Russians, the inventively deft souls who came of age after the revolution of 1917 and redefined circus art by incorporating shades of ballet and mini narratives into their acts. The same souls who mesmerized American audiences when they came west in 1963 and 1967.

Now comes, and maybe with it the return of dominant Soviet creativity, "The Mystery of the Giant Elephants." World premiering at the famed St. Petersburg circus building, now called Bolshoi State Circus. How I love that preciously quaint old arena complete with museum one or two floors up.

This is the arena built in 1878 by noted Italian impresario Gaetano Ciniselli, who ran the nation's most popular and acclaimed circus shows before the Bolsheviks took over.

"Mystery" opened on February 12, and is packing 'em in, says director Alexander Chervotkin, noting early worries among the staff that "a conservative audience would not understand or appreciate the concept."

So far, it's an artful Russian smash. Performances on tap through July 30, then a tour through Russia and the CIS (the old Soviet states). After that? Delighted with the boffo reception, they are not ruling out a tour to Europe or the U.S. Oakland, California, too, please.

Go, dude, go!

First posted February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Morning Midway: Felds Sue U.S. Humane Society Under RICO Laws, Alleging $ Laundering and Hiring Paid Witness to Lie; The War Goes On ...

Oh me oh my, sigh, isn't this fun, imagining the exposure of crooked animal rights groups getting their due. And so legally complicated, but let me give it a little grasping attention. What I learned in reading through a long posting on Margaret's Circus Anonymous blog about a Feld Lawsuit against HSUS, recently discovered by David Martosko, Director of Research at the Center for Consumer Freedom, is that the circus is fighting back for damages arising out of false testimony, among other spitefully motivated acts pulled against it by a number of animal rights groups, and it may have a good shot at victory.

Named in the suit, among others, are Born Free USA and ASPCA, all of whom have relentlessly bashed the circus for alleged acts of animal cruelty. One insider is quoted as believing that the only reason they [Ringling] were mired in nine years of ligation (a judge recently ruled in the circus's favor), was because of these various groups and their lawyers committing crimes "to game the system." If they are found guilty of a conscious conspiracy, that rises to a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) offense.

Among the salient points addressed on Margaret's in-depth posting, the result of a telephone call she made to Martokso: "HSUS is just PETA with a nicer wristwatch and fewer naked interns."

It's expected that HSUS, in retaliation for the Felds daring to sue it, will "turn their high-priced, hired gun lawyers on the plaintiffs. It could be a really bloody battle."

To reach Circus Anonymous, you'll find my link to your right. A very informative piece.

And, super sigh, just today, forty-year-old Dawn Brancheau at Sea World in Florida who works with killer whales was herself killed by one while a stunned audience watched in horror. I could cry.

I gotta go somewhere else, people. Back to figure skating, maybe, or to a bloody good game of curling, whatever that is ...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Morning Midway: Atlanta Police Chase Runaway Ringling Zebra up Freeway; Sean Penn Loses "Water for Elephants" Role to Christoph Waltz

Possibly defecting, maybe tired of show business or under secret contract to PETA, A Ringling Bros. Circus zebra named Lima, ostensibly limbering up for a night show in Atlanta, got "spooked," ran into a fence and through it in full-mode escape gallop, spooking out local pedestrians and motorists (those not lost in cell phonery) during rush hour! ... Police in hot pursuit, the chase lasting 40 minutes, over city streets, onto interstate 75, cutting through city center. Give this zebra credit for proper product placement -- assuming Lima was wearing a prominent Ringling insignia. Law enforcement in hot pursuit, blocking off southbound lanes.

Not Amused in Atlanta: "All of a sudden a freaking zebra comes running down the street like a car," recounted Daniel Nance to the Atlanta Constitution. "But then I got scared, thinking ... what else is loose?" Oh, let me leave that alone. Lima gradually coaxed off a freeway entrance ramp, into the arms of his trainer. Over the weekend, Lima was reported to be resting and under the care of University of Georgia Veterinary school staff for wounds to his legs suffered during his dangerous bolt outside -- or would that be inside? -- captivity. PETA soon after in hot pursuit of media attention to protest Ringling treatment of zebras.

Waltz for the Elphants. Now in pre-production, the movie Water for Elephants, earlier said to be in hot pursuit of Sean Penn to play a mad wild animal trainer, reported to have dumped him (assuming he was ever picked up) for Christoph Waltz, fresh from Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds ... Heck, maybe Lima was auditioning to nab a cameo.

Kelly-Miller respects its clowns: Last season, fraught with mixed feelings, to put it politely, Stephen Copeland and Ryan Combs pitched coloring books and signed autographs during intermission. Last season is history. On their reactivated blog a week or so ago (you can reach it here to your right), Stephan shared "good news." No more pitches, he reported, "and we don't have to sign coloring books during Intermission." I am very happy for these apparently dedicated jesters. Respect well earned. An artistic trend in the right direction for John Ringling North II and James Royal, busily at work on the show as it breaks in down there in the Texas (no, I WON'T say it) terracotta ... And may all your days be asphalt days. How do I say this, K-M? I just don't get it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Morning Midway: Cirque du Soleil's Banana Shpeel NY Opening Delayed Again ...

Add three more weeks onto your wish list for an opening night seat at a show reported to be deeply in trouble, currently in pre-Broadway rehearsal (or re-birthing) in the windy city ... Originally slated to take the Beacon Theatre stage in January, Chicago tryouts slipped into creative chaos and wretched consumer and critical feedback, so Banana Shpeel moved back its opening night back to February 25.

Now, as witness this small add in Sunday's New York Times (so meek compared to a full page splash in same paper a few weeks ago), seems Guy Laliberte's latest "reinvention" will now uncork on March 17 -- barring further birthing glitches. I'm still not convinced this thing will raise a curtain over Big Apple land. On the other hand ...

This banana could maybe be not a disaster but a triumphant turkey attracting curiosity seekers to a new form of old vaudeville. With Cirque, you just never know. Problem is, you need comedy writers for a variety stage show more than you need mindlessly exotic Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Vegas next?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

At the Olympics: Dancing on Thin Ice

Inconceivable that NBC should hold back the men's figure finals until around 10 PM or after out here on the coast, and yet give prime time coverage to compulsory dance. I am now convinced beyond a shadow of Jay Leno that NBC is run by idiots.

Because of this inane scheduling, I missed watching Evgeni Plushenko and Evan Lysacek battle it out.

The old compulsory dance event is simply too redundant and too similar to the original set patterns, either of which would be a sufficient lead in to free dance finals.

Athletically speaking, dance has little credibility at the Olympics. And it's easy to see why the ballroom crowd has been clamoring for years for a place at the summer games, just as have roller dancers, who -- in the compulsory division, bring far great technique and team unity to the compulsory set-pattern dances than do their famously-established counterparts on ice.

I'll let this issue alone, other than to note that Sonja Heine helped turn ice skating into an Olympic staple and entertainment industry. The rest is a colorful and skillfully exploited history that keeps on giving..

For the schooled skater on any surface who values baselines and lobes, three turns and partner alignment, there is -- or was -- nothing so technically satisfying to watch as a crack American roller dance team, before American rollers began mimicking the comparatively wild and free ice "dancing" style. For those of you in the dark, imagine the more conservative champion ballrooms dancers you see today on PBS, only performing with the same flawless execution on roller skates.

Of course, the public would likely find them boring, as they tend to the ice teams in compulsories. In the beginning, the icers in tandem placed rigorous if clumsy emphasis on edges, edges, edges, at the expense of partner unity and flow. Remember the school figures? From those, emerged teams "dancing." At their worst (even in the Ice Follies), partners cut deep edges while holding onto each other as music played.

The American roller dancers during the forties and fifties broke free of edge-centric styles and achieved matchless levels of breathless perfection in symmetry, upright posture, partner unison, smooth creamy movement of skates. Roller dance champion Bob Labriola and his partners, then those teams he taught, epitomized an idyllic form of roller dance that has virtually vanished as the roller crowd, pathetically bent on doing it the ice way, believing that is the only road to Olympic glory, laboriously and slavishly imitates ice dance styles -- to a point of grotesque exaggeration and overkill.

I'm waiting for the free dance, in which icers excel, for here the partners can widen and liberate the space between themselves that, on blades, never came natural but always looked forced. At this break-away point, dancing on ice comes very close to pairs skating, minus the lifts. The French team years ago were a revelation in creative artistry.

A sheet of ice invites the body to soar.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Morning Midway: Job Postings, Post Rantings

Twitters and tweets, have I. Let me see what tonight the ice my bring, which may bump this fun thing a day down the road ... The Vancouver bladsters due in fifteen minutes, but I'm NOT sitting up all night through a thousand commercials to see whether it's Japan, Russia, or the U.S. (the latter looks lithely, statuesquely spectacular -- if he delivers, I'd say Him).

No, this is not the Showbiz David Talent Agency, but here I go none the less ...

E-mails I now and then receive. Got one from a cool sounding dude, into magic and other things -- stress "other." Asking me for advice: how to get a circus job. Magic, etc. I was about to post his link, which suddenly vanished, causing me to dig deeper for info on the guy. Kinky. S&M. Bloody. Makes that Cirque sex thing in Vegas look like a Lawrence Welk Christmas show. Today's subversive kids may yet revive Circus Maximus. Mother Theressa I am not, but neither do I dig the Tarantino tent.

Let's retreat to normal everyday chaos: Onto Showbiz David's Shock Therapy Division: My pointed posting about Circus World Museum's travails and troubles brought out the edge in otherwise gingerly Doc Bob Dewel, protectorate general of all things Baraboobian (Sorry, doc, I just couldn't resist quoting John Ringling's snide contortion of your town's name). Those CWM remarks of mine, diagnosed by Baraboo's cheerleader-in-chief, amounted to a "broadside." Something "a little more constructive and less denigrating would have been welcomed."

Boy, am I glad I'm not up for a root canal from dapper Doc Bob.

'Twas a bleak set of hard cold facts only recently discovered by yours truly that drove my terse thesis: not even 10 paying customers a day during the off seasons; Only six or seven hundred visitors a day during the summer months. A museum that lost its accreditation. Exhibits needing text revisions. I could go on.

Something about Bob's ruffled persona brings a laugh to my mug. Blame it on his good discrete humor: "Now really on my 91st year, and hating it."

Heck, how many bridges have I broken? If I attempt another circus book, will any museum out there lend-sell me photos? (Note to myself: leave the outfit in Peru and that library in San Antonia ALONE -- end of note to myself)

It's nearly 10 PM here, and NBC has still not brought out men's figures. Jay Leno may appear before they do. I'm not waiting. Need my rest for another brooding early morning walk through the misty moors of Oakland's Rose Garden. Thick delicious fog! So atmospheric, and I get to wear my winter cap and gloves.

Showbiz David Tanbark Therapy/No-Blood Talent Agency is now closed -- under Doctor's orders.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cole Bros. Circus Owner John Pugh, Just Inducted into Circus Ring of Fame, Bound for Haiti with Big Top Shelter for Quake Victims ...

8/6/17: About the nicest person I ever interviewed.  So naturally down to earth.  He seemed as eager, as challenged and happy to be running a circus then as I imagine he was when he took over management of the Beatty-Cole Circus many decades before.  How I wish Johnny Pugh was still on the road. He brings pure gold to the Ring of Fame.


He just might be the nicest guy under the big top. A native of England, he started out as a movie stuntman and performer, along the way executing the more difficult moves as a double for Richard Burton in Cleopatra, and watching the Burton-Taylor romance bloom before his eyes. He joined Clyde Beatty Circus in 1961 and has been with the show ever since.

First performing as an acrobat, following a career-ending injury, Pugh was offered the assistant manager position. From there on up he advanced to the top of the big top.

"For job preservation, I went on to be the owner," Pugh with a laugh told Pat Hatfield of the DeLand, Florida West Volusia Beacon.

Johnny Pugh is not resting on yesterday's spangled memories, and shows no signs of slowing down. "It's a seven-day-a-week job. I enjoy it. It's a great life."

He has also served as a judge for the world's most prestigious international circus competition -- the annual Monte Carlo Circus Festival in Monaco.

Soon, Pugh will be giving something back to the world when he boards an airplane bound for Haiti with a lot more than the acceptable carry-on-bag. He'll have with him a complete three-ring size circus big top, taking it there in response to a Haitian government request. Pugh estimates, given the local help he plans to personally supervise, that it may take a day or so to set the canvas up for much-needed temporary shelter.

The name JOHN PUGH in the Sarasota Circus Ring of Fame should add luster to an institution that in recent years has honored some not-so-distinguished figures. Pugh said the induction was emotional for him. His wife, Brigitte, introduced him at the ceremony.

And the show goes on. Cole Bros. Circus, marking its 126th year in business, opens its 2010 season in DeLand on March 20.

Congratulations, John! Well deserved!

First posted February 18, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday Sendoffs: Monte Carlo, Have I Got the Judges for You ... Detroit Shrine Under Canvas; Kelly-Miller in Texas Rain ...

America Judges the World: Who better to adjudicate the Monte Carlo Circus Festival than those producers who for years made American shows hot hot hot by importing great ring stars from across the great blue ocean? Remember John Ringling North, Europe? Before him, John Ringling? Somebody hitting my midway under Anonymous came up with this outrageously brilliant idea, and I am elated to front post it. It should impress Monte Carlo because it draws on circus owners, and circus owners are what they are obviously the most comfortable with. Stresses Anonymous, "you KNOW there won't be any acts from here competing and none of the world class acts perform here anymore, so our producers would be more than impartial as judges." I don't agree that "world class acts" skip us, but still I love your overall reasoning ...

My Dear Princess Stephanie: Here’s your panel of five, personally selected by Showbiz David putting all bias aside to spread the credibility around fairly: Paul Binder, Kenneth Feld, Struppi Hanneford, John Ringling North II (he’s got two imports to his young legacy); and Johnny Pugh (he’s already been there). ... And how about, good Princess and friend of the circus, giving your prestigious event the clean transparency of Olympic Judging? Above each of my judicial appointments on your behalf, display their marks on a prominent digital score board, so that after each act appears, each judge’s scores are posted for all to see. You see, Princess Stephanie, we may not know how to create top acts in this country, but we have a history (if currently trumped by a certain circus north of our border) for casting the talents Europe fosters into some of the most excitingly directed show. Is it a "go," Monte Carlo? ...

Back in operation, most popular circus blog? That would be Kelly-Miller Circus clowns Stephen Copeland and Ryan Combs (the latter, just married). The Stephen in this partnership has a natural bent for telling it like it is, assuming that is what he really does, and I have no reason to doubt him. So, he takes us right down into the dirt with the rest of the company. Still a Ringling North-ophile, I can't help myself again. I've just rejoined the blog, after last season giving up midway cause of all the bum houses or dead audiences dissed. But, heck, it's spring! And spring in Texas is, so far -- spring in Texas: Three slated rehearsal days shot down to mud and hell; gosh, at times like this, global warming, please! Day before opening, they rehearsed from 8AM to midnight, blogs Copeland ... Okay, I'm on their lot again, until I can't take any more complaints about stupid audiences or malfunctioning clown gags. Check back with me in May ...

Big Top Bits down the Covington Chute: A new Blacktop Circus hitting Big Apple cement come March said to be hip hop oriented, featuring among others the King Charles Troupe. Well, they have a name if nothing else, thanks to Irvin Feld's marketing zeal ... Baby Barack, sadly ominous to report, down with Herpes, and experts say that 85% of elephants who contract this disease end up in the hereafter. Here's hoping that Ringling's new in-vitro pachyderm can trump the gloomy odds... Detroit Shriners -- remember, 'twas they who launched what once upon a season was a significant producer of American circus shows —- recently kicked off the fairgrounds. Now saved and slated to go under canvas on a lot next to the something called the Hazel Parkway. Welcome to the mud, Shrine clowns ...

And that’s a rainy wrap. (P.S., Anonymous: Your American Judges idea, brilliant brilliant brilliant!)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Morning Midway: Cirque Turkey Headed for NY Chopping Block? Critix Pens Loaded with Red Ink ...


Already, NY press talking down Cirque Du Soleil's troubled Banana Shpeel, the recipient of wretched notices in its Chicago shake-down mode, still set for NY opening on February 25 at the Beacon Theatre, where a bloody reception may ensue. New York Post writer Michael Riedel nearly salivating over reports of a colossal catastrophe, noting that Madison Square Garden, having "shoveled $10 million into this fiasco, is furious."

His report dances on the expected grave of a deliciously awful, or awfully delicious flop. You can see the red ink already gushing out of his pen, quoting "several people" working on the project as calling it a "train wreck," "a nightmare" and, if that doesn't suit your sadistic fantasies, "one of the worst shows you've ever seen."

Hmmm, might that become a marketable hook?

A couple of "scary clowns," first let go, were rehired by Guy Laliberte, feeling they give the show "edge." Riedel had found them too much like Wayne Gacy, the Chicago serial killer. Overactive critics -- beware.

What a spectacular gamble King Laliberte is taking; does he really want the bad press this one seems destined to generate? In the BIG APPLE, of all places? On the other hand, this banana may be frenetically weird enough to connect with audiences hungry for not the same old same old. Sometimes new bad can do the trick.

"They are proceeding without a script or any idea of what they need to do in order to fix the show."

How eccentrically creative. And how I'd love to be there on opening night. Whatever hits the boards, there should be plenty of mouth-dropping drama, intended or not, at or around the Beacon.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Morning Midway: Out, Damn Judge Judy!

I have an embarrassing confession to post: I may have fallen into a Judge Judy addiction. Help! Started maybe half a year ago when I, with ample time, decided to indulge in a nightly fix of this hooky TV courtroom show. Cases are real. But it's Judy whom I question. Her hot-button vocabulary is limited to maybe 5 or 10 derisive words: moron, idiot, imbecile, and so on. Her verdicts are in black and white. She claims to know who is telling the truth and who is not. Really, she is like a loud vindictive aunt ordering everyone around. "You are a liar!" "You are stupid! Do we understand each other?" "Sit down!"

And maybe that's why we watch. We long for moral clarity. This feisty character, who spent years hearing cases in family court, draws millions to her chamber of insults and lectures. In a world of shadow morality and existential excuse making for every crime imaginable, this lady's lip sees only good or evil, right or wrong, period. And this makes her simplistic verdicts refreshing, even when we suspect they are only wild guesses, or rigged just to amuse the crowd.

I have watched her rip to shreds young people who don't deserve it, but who stand there and take it, their 15 minutes of reality TV fame the payoff.

For a while I found her entertaining, wondering how often she is onto the truth. Now the cases are growing same old same old: Man "lends" girlfriend money. Girlfriend claims it was as only a gift -- until they broke up.

In this made-for-TV courtroom, our judge's theatrical mannerisms rival in texture and subtlety those of the Three Stooges. She specializes in making faces and insulting people. "Look at me, you loser!" "Sit down and shut up!" "You are an idiot!"

I'm waiting for her, any moment, to partner up with the bailiff guy, and the two of them to break out into a song and dance. Judge Judy: The Musical?

She's due here in about thirty minutes. Out of principle, I think I will tune in NPR -- if Terry Gross is not interviewing a transsexual Seventh Day Adventist brain surgeon -- or Judge Judy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Morning Midway: The Bright , Then Very Sad Life of Circus Man Charles Sparks


As I read through Bandwagon's coverage of circus owner Charles Sparks, reprinting, in its latest issue just out, many of the letters he wrote to colleagues, friends and fans over the years, I was reminded over and over again of how big top business can be, in fact, more often that not is, so wildly, depressingly fickle. It takes leathery resolve to stick out a series of seasons, and those men and women who succeed do not retire gracefully from the rings.

Charles Sparks was, according to Pfening's take, loved and respected by many. Pfening begins his coverage by reprinting a story about the man written by Earl Chapin May in 1924 for Collier's magazine. Sparks addresses the old tent-show article of faith: "If you can't be for it, don't be with it," meaning that, no matter how many personal or trouping frustrations you may face, you are either for the circus itself above all else, or you had better go somewhere else. Sparks had scarce patience for people who put personal issues above their daily jobs.

The man was a hands-off owner who granted his bosses -- as would Ringling ace manager Art Concello in later years, generous autonomy.

"The best people on the show are the people you hear the least from."

"If you give the average man some responsibility and show your confidence in him, nine times out of ten he'll do his level best to make good."

"Having picked a department boss, I have to leave him alone [exactly what Art Concello imparted to me during an interview.] You see the results. Trainmaster Cross has the runs down and the wagons coming off the flats ... I hardly know his voice ... Singleton --- the boss canvasman -- gets up the big top, poles, ropes, stakes, seats, and everything, and gets it down again almost without word."

Plagued by health problems and depression, in 1928 Sparks sold his Sparks Circus at a huge profit to the American Circus Corporation. Almost immediately following, he regretted the move, and his trouping life thereafter, at one time operating the Downie Bros. truck circus, was fraught with depression era struggles and finally, by the death of his believed wife Addia in 1938.


His most painful professional blow was a promise reneged upon that Robert Ringling had made Sparks while the latter was managing Ringling's one-ring show Spangles at Madison Square Garden in 1943. Sparks recounted this bitter betrayal in a letter to his close and dear friend Bert Cole: "I was promised by the Ringlings that if they ever leased the Sparks title to anyone, that I would be the only person that they would lease the title to."

Instead, the title was leased to Jimmie Edgar. Sparks felt "double crossed," and he nursed the wound for life.

In and out of hospitals through the 1940s, and still wanting, ambivalently, to get back in the business, ironically he delighted in how circuses were once again attracting larger, more profitable crowds. But the parade had passed him by, as it had John Ringling in the 1930s. Now, he observed the action from the sidelines. Charles Sparks died on July 28, 1949.



[Bandwagon photos, from top: 1924 courier; Addie and Charles Sparks; Bert Cole, left, and Charles Sparks

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Morning Midway: The Bandana Bowler Ruffles Up the Green ...


So very rare that so eccentric a figure, and so so young, should surface on the tranquil greens. But he did, and what a breeze of heady gossip among the older pros he must have stirred, Dame Dither! His hair swirled up like one of those softie ice cream cones, and around it, a festive bandana! As if, without a trace of being ill-at-ease among his lumbering seniors, he'd been one of them for centuries. Such an easy stride, so much like one of them. Have we here a Great Gatsby moment?

How refreshingly eccentric in his own youthful way, unlike his more stodgy same-age peers who now and then grace the greens with ambling curiosity, and never return. But he has returned, a few times over, and what a spectacle, this attention being paid the game by one who, I can only imagine, at other hours is laughing the nights away under naughty strobe lights. And let me tell you why ...

Sitting there all to myself at my usual green bench post, half watching my favorites struggle to sustain credibility, clomping into view came a youngish psychedelic looking female, as flagrantly overdressed as a retro hippie street walker on acid. And what had SHE in mind? Closer to my solitary bench she floundered --- was she, well, not to use the word, about to try working me? Onto the edge of my well-guarded space, she plopped down. "What's that game?" she blurted out, spotting the young sportsman at the far side and waving to him. And he waved back, running our way to greet her. Relief, a reason to relax and enjoy this funky cameo. The three of us chatted a tad. The two of them knew each other in some murky way, as is the case with the carelessly young. Seems he had recently landed here from somewhere up there, perhaps Canada, and what a comedy riot I could have produced had I baited them humorously (for she laughed at my slightest remark). However, deferring to the game and my mysterious connection to it, I refrained from falling out of my stolid spectator post.

After the bowlers had finished, I learned from one of them that their young player, who bowled quite well, was actually brand new to the game. He had played Boccie Ball, a sport allowing for traces of spontaneous human emotions.

He continues showing up for games. And the intrigue rises, minimally, of course, as is the game's wont. Last time, nearing the final round, he ran across the green, bounded over the fence, galloped into the clubhouse and. moments later, emerged peddling a bicycle. "I'll be back in five minutes!" he shouted to his puzzled team mates. "Have to let a friend in my house!"

And I wondered, who might that be? Perhaps the spaced-out female friend (assuming she was still alive or not in jail). Or maybe another strange addition to his dubious social circle. He returned, more than five minutes later, after the bowlers had finished and were shuffling their balls into bags, returned with a different female friend on another bike, this one, relief, a regular sort.

Perhaps he is independently wealthy. Time on his hands. I told him about young Jonathan from Berkeley and his two younger brothers and their mad father (lawn bowling's own John McEnroe), who sometimes play right here in local tournaments, sometimes beating the seniors. I'd relish watching the bandana bowler meet up with the Berkeley brood. (Now, with my new digital camera in hand, I will try stealing an image or two of our invading curiosity for your discrete amusement.) Just a few more sporty delinquents on the green, and, at last, the game might stave off the ever-present threat of sudden extinction.

Although I can't picture casually conservative Jonathan wrapping a bandana around his flat cool hair, I can well imagine him taking delight in the sight of somebody on the green so much closer to his own age. And his father feeling emboldened by this bizarre turn of events.

Oh, Dame Dither, such unexpected drama here on the green!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Morning Midway: Monte Carlo Honors Big Top Stars ...


How fair are their judges? I always wondered how fair a panel of circus owners could be, and yet, come to think about it, how fair would any panel — performers, “critics,” or seasoned patrons — be? The Monte Carlo winners, such as I’ve followed them, rarely with consistent attention, have usually struck me as worthy.

Sure, there is always human wiggle room for honest debate: Should Artist A have been awarded the Silver instead of the Gold, or vice versa? Overall, I’m not aware of glaring surprises that raise suspicions of advance fixes or payoffs. But then again, as I’ve said, I do not regularly follow this most prestigious of world circus competitions, nor do I see anywhere near all of the competing acts that appear to have any of my own opinions. Here are this years winners at the 34th Festival International du Cirque:

Gold Clown: Martin Lacey, Jr., big cats, from ENGLAND
Gold Clown: The Shangdon risley troupe from CHINA

Silver Clown: The Flying Michaels from BRAZIL
Silver Clown: Alegria Russian bars with Cirque du Soleil, from CANADA
Silver Clown: Eshimbekov Cossack riders from KURKISTAN
Silver Clown: Petra and Roland Duss, pressenting sea lions, from SWITZERLAND

Bronze Award: Duo Garcia, aerial rocket, from SPAIN
Bronze Award: The Rossyanns, clowns from FRANCE and ITALY
Bronze Award: Sonny Frankello, elephants, from GERMANY
Bronze Award: The Blue Sky Girls, contortionist from CHINA

Why the countries in caps? Always of great interest to me are the points of origin. Being an American, I learned at an early age to respect the term "First Time in America." No surprise that China is stepping up to the podium; rather surprised not to see any Russians in the finals. The United States? We are still what we have always been, at our best (okay, now and then), innovators unbound by fixed traditions in casting world-class circus acts into new performance formats -- some ground breaking -- but rarely up to par in producing them from the ground up.

Most of all, I am heartened that H.S.H. Princess Stephanie of Monaco is dedicating so much passion and intelligent respect to circus art by continuing the legacy established by her late father. After all, is there any form of entertainment more universally shared across all languages and cultures than the magic we together witness in that wondrous circle of miraculous human achievement?

Thanks to Raffaele DeRitis and Don Covington for sending out the word.

Congratulations, Monte Carlo Champions!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sunday Scramble: Cirque Marches On, World Domination the Goal... Texas Animal Lady Lands Behind Bars ...



UPDATE: I mistakenly reported animal trainer Barbara Hoffman as having been baned from Edinburgh, Scotland. In fact, she was baned from Edinburgh, Texas.

Hungry for Power: In Cirque du Soleil speak, says Montreal CEO Danile Lamarre, “I can easily see Cirque developing two or three new shows a year. Right now, we have 20 shows. It doesn’t matter if we have 30 or 35 shows, 40 or 50 shows.” Oh, it doesn’t? Thinks Wayne Newton -- remember him, one of many Vegas mortals reduced to warm-up act status in the selfish shadows of the Cirque juggernaut, CDS has actually reached its saturation point and is now — hold onto your seats, voyeurs of catastrophe, “on the wane, no pun intended.” Others of the envious class agree, and they might be right — what century ahead, not sure. Still, I marvel at how those Montreal magicians hatch one after another — almost — hit show for the well healed masses. Example in point: the terrifically talented and tight OVO. But, yes, But — the Criss Angel showcase, Believe, is still not a turn away smash, although, not to worry, insists Lamarre, Guy Laliberte’s right hand executive on the spot, to Las Vegas Sun reporter Steve Friess (not the guy whe runs Circus World Museum), it's just a fixable work in progress. Okay, if that's what you want to believe .. .

Angel, No Angel: This hotshot TV celeb who stars in Believe is no breeze to work with. Among his most recent unangelic tantrums, and hardly illusional were they, were obscenities “bellowed” at Perez Hilton and a trick during which, pops up the word “fagot.” More than once have Cirque officials been compelled to apologize for “the tempestuous Angel.” ... This Cirque empire is so sickeningly successful, speaking not of course for myself but for their put-upon competitors: A new touring show in the works said to tout evolution, with the image of a turtle dominating early marketing designs. Why not a clowny version of Charles Darwin's face? ... Appoint me your next director of creation ...

Hound Dog Next: Sorry to dwell on and on, but CDS keeps on giving: Once they get Viva Elvis in flight, or at least flapping like an ambitious turkey (early bum feedback reminiscent of shocking disrespect for Believe during its troubled previews), what next, the Second Coming? Beyond Elvis, Team Guy Laliberte have that semi-dead Kodak theatre in Hollywood to fill; and this month rising, they are actually taking their dreadfully reviewed vaudeville stage show, Banana Shpeell, onto a New York stage. I ask you, World, have these Montreal mavericks no fear? If this Banana slips on its own bumbling ineptitude, what an epic collapse will that be — if you’ll excuse my perverse expectations. But then again, Cirque might turn a Times Square misfortune into another — yes, Cirque du Soleil show.

Stay well and warm, baby Barack. Ringling’s one-year-young in-vitro pachyderm who sampled sawdust and applause recently in Florida, is on medical leave, suffering a disease EEHV (I will not spell it out; my spell checker would have a nervous break down). The little one, say vets, expected to survive.

Texas trainer jailed: Poor old Lone Star state, so many losers end up down there. Last was a foundering horse show from Russia; Now comes Barbara Hoffman from the Edinburgh that banned her for harboring a seedy performing barnyard numbering 60 creatures, among whom: lizards, turtles, one cougar, a wallaby (whatever that is), and the usual stripped staples. In her default digs in another Texas town, hoping to open an educational wildlife preserve for children and Winter Texans, her animals found crammed into tiny little cages, some sharing cramped quarters with Hoffman and her partner, Fred Lulling, the duo discovered sharing a close RV with about a dozen cats, a sugar glider, three guinea pigs, birds, four — count ‘em, four — boa constrictors, and, just for added Disneyesque decor, a mice in every room. Gosh, why not make that a living side show all in itself? I’d pay a buck or three to peer in at this cozy manege-a-menagerie.

Those tolerant Texas, outraged, I said outraged! And now, lady barnyard is behind bars, caged up herself and facing charges of animal cruelty. Marion County Humane Society President Caroline Wedding beside herself with pity for, to her eyes, one gruesome discovery: “The tears running down our faces when we saw these animals. I don’t see how she lived in there with them, but I really don’t’ see how these animals were surviving.” Well, Ms. Wedding, how are we to know? Maybe they were just one little happy family ... Before we leave Texas to the lossers, let’s welcome a modern day winner: Brownsville hosting the 2010 premiere of John Ringling North II’s fourth edition of Kelly Miller Circus, prepping (in the mud?) To uncork its splendors come Thursday. Ah, the beauty of the single, non franchise circus! BTW, you Ringlingphiles: Did ‘ya know that North’s first genuine import was Chinese contortionist Chung Sigh. Now you know. And here comes the Ringling-Barnum 61-car train through Decatur, Illinois. Whoo! Whoo! Jumbo lives on!


And that's a clickety click wrap ...

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Morning Midway: Miss Minnie’s Wild Ride on Zing Zang Zoom


She called me, wanting to share her family’s thoughts, having just seen Ringling Bros. Circus down in Miami. The family would be Miss Minnie, second from right in the above photo with her husband, Brian, their 3-year-old son Noah, and Brian’s son and daughter by his first marriage, Taylor and Dwyer.

“Miss Minnie” is actually my niece, Lisa, daughter of my proud sister, Kathy, of Omaha. Some of you who fly or flew the friendly skies might recognize Lisa. Nobody was a better flight attendant than she. A few years ago, Lisa retired to raise her very first and only child, Noah (an experience that has brought new-found joy into her life), while hubby Bryan pilots the mighty United birds; they live in Ft. Lauderdale.

First of all, said Miss Minnie, no make that Lisa, “I’d like to hear your thoughts, Uncle David.”

Oh no. Not so easy. I politely deferred to a fresh look at the circus: “I do not want to influence your reactions in any way.” She hadn’t read my review and we’ve not talked about anything Ringling in quite a while. "Okay," said Lisa “first, the good things,” and she thought. “I loved being there at the circus.” She thoroughly enjoyed the pre show all-access party (“great), where Mr. Gravity entertained her, Noah, Captain United and Dwyer. (Taylor was not able to join them.)

Lisa mostly wanted to share with me particular acts that one or another or all of them liked: “We missed the motorbikes a lot,” she said. “I loved the guys on the two wheels.” Evidently, this act was a first for her. They enjoyed the Russian swings, the Asians on the two swinging planks. The family pilot liked the duo working from the fabrics. Lisa enjoyed seeing the elephants, but (read on) ...

After it was all over, Noah said “let’s go back to the circus!”

Okay, onto what she didn’t like, which in a way, thinking back, struck me as more significant than what she did. Mind you, I am still mum with Miss Minnie here, hearing her out.

First she addressed the production concepts: “Too song and dancy,” said she, “too much girls and dancing.” She wanted more circus in the circus.

Here comes her first of two major criticisms: Music. “Relentless,” she complained, and it did feel like a complaint. “Fast, fast ... no variety, no let up. Constant,” However, she does report all of them leaving the show singing the very catchy title song. Lisa feels that if the music on balance was better — like in times past when the band moved back and forth between more distinctly different moods - the show would have been better.

A few more regrets. Our Floridian wished there were more clowns. And where were the animals, she wondered? Then she thought. Yes, they were there. But why weren’t the elephants costumed? She has fond memories of pachyderms in exotic blankets and frills; the bare skinned mammoths struck her as circus-incomplete. She spoke of the ringmaster. “He was very young; I guess he was okay,” but she missed the authority and bombast of a more customary orator in red. Indeed, she had hoped for more “traditional” elements.

Lisa's second great qualm: The ending. “All of a sudden” They looked at each other: “It’s over? That’s it? ... You just ended? ... Weird.” She missed a bigger finale on parade. She guessed that only one third of the company came out for final bows; that's a surprise to me --- I thought they all did.

Now, here’s a surprise: They wished the show was only one ring! Too difficult trying to take in multiple acts at the same time. Have we here a Ringling renaissance?

How would Minnie of the moment rate the show, A to F or 10 to 1? She mulled it over. “I’d give it a 7” she answered.

At this point, my listening to Lisa concluded. Now we engaged in a discussion.

I told her how surprised I was that she had not discussed any of the illusions, especially given that this edition was built around them. Reminded of this, Lisa said that she found two of them “stunning,” but overall she used words “obvious” and “standard” to describe them.

She reiterated her two biggest complaints: music and the unsatisfyingly brief finale.

As for the redundant music (I'm in strong agreement with her on this) somebody should listen to an old Merle Evans tape to study about contrasting moods. About drum rolls and fanfares.

What to say? For one thing, people still go to circuses to see amazing things done by performers, rather than to watch line dancers from Vegas. Zing’s hyperactive production stressing flash over focused artistry is what I call Feldian.

Lisa asked me out of curiosity about other types of animals that appear with circuses. I mentioned the demise of monkeys and seals and bears.

We talked about the high wire troupe using mechanics. She totally agreed: “There were wires all over the place.” She would have preferred a pad on the ground rather than the lifelines. She said the wires make her wonder if they are actually helping the performer.

How many people were there? “It was packed,” she said.

Okay, enough from me. I am always interested in speaking to friends and kin who might have been to a circus to get their take. Most surprising to me is the pull of the motorcycles in the big cage, although it shouldn’t be. Obviously, the producers keep bringing this thrill item back because it delivers big.

Onward to your next circus ride, Miss Minnie & Co.! Perhaps, sometime soon, co-pilot Noah will favor us with us his favorite acts — or tastiest treats and twirly things that glow in the dark recommendations.


1/25/10