Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Morning Midway: The Taschen Photo Book: $19.98 at Barnes & Noble ...


[The above photo from Life magazine would have given this book a much needed dramatic end point: The finale "Hoop Dee Doo" at the last performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus under the big top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 16, 1956]

When I read on Steve Copeland's blog that he had picked up a copy of The Circus: 1870-1950 for only $20.00 at a Barnes and Noble in Texas, in Santa Rosa today visiting a friend, out of curiosity I stepped into the B&N outlet there;; they had at least 20 copies on display, price: $19.98. I couldn't believe it. Too good a deal, so I fell for it. However, this turns out to be a junior edition of the monster museum-in-your-lap original.

It has a new title: The Circus: 1870s-1950s.

It has lost a lot of weight since my visiting it at the S.F. Public library last year when it hit the scale at 15.5 pounds. Now, about half that, I'd guess. This truncated edition was put out by Barnes and Noble last August, and no longer totes text in two other languages, French and German. It numbers a manageable 383 pages compared to the original edition's 670, so some photos have also been discarded. So beware. After all, isn't that what you are after? I'm happy to settle for a book that, when I change positions in my chair, won't attack me. If you want the full museum, it's on Amazon, down to $125.00 from its $200.00 list price.

This has got to be about the most ill-defined and disorganized circus book I have ever come across. Why that title? We are given rich illustrations of circus skills in Egypt and China going back thousands of years. We briefly tour the Astley era. The book ends up, visually, with American thrill acts from the turn of the last century. We have been deprived a journey of any consequence, but lured through a jumbled landscape that jerks back and forth in time. Although many if not most of the photographs may be familiar to the seasoned reader, the reproductions are without parallel.

Might they not, however, have arranged them to depict some sort of a narrative arch, say from the garden of Eden until Pittsburgh, which is where they decided to stop? They might have, for example given us a set of images from the last day under the big top at Pittsburgh in 1956. And then images of the first tentless years following -- not so beautiful but spectacular and vividly revealing. What is glaringly absent, given this publisher's brainless fetish for high-level photography, are images from Life magazine, both of the last shows in Pittsburgh as well as of the gorgeously costumed John Ringling North-produced shows of the era. (To sample a couple, scroll down to the bottom of this page and try imagining them reproduced to Taschen standards.) There is a grainy black and white of a vague high wire figure over the rings of at Madison Square Garden at 1955.

And then there is the text itself, so dismissively small in size as to discourage us from a serious attempt to try reading it. About its factual component, anyway, I have grave reservations from having, while cruising some of the essays and captions, stumbled over such obvious blunders as these:

Karl Wallenda died at the age of 61 in 1970.

Lottie Brunn was just as talented and accomplished as her brother Francis.

Takeo Usui was an "acrobat" (in one photo) a "high wire walker" and "dancer" (in another).

And since when would a circus allow a fan to walk right up to an elephant and pet its trunk? A photo so captioned is actually looking straight at, if I'm not wrong, Betty Hutton during the De Mille shoot of his film The Greatest Show on Earth.

Three experts on this project, among them Fred Dahlinger, Jr. who should know better, and they can't even get the fundamentals correct? Three experts and this?

Aside from the abundance of glorious photography and illustrations, especially those validating the brilliance of costume designer Miles White, I remain senselessly overwhelmed, disoriented and unimpressed.

Is that all there is?

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