Carson and Barnes Circus, in the 1960s

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sunday Morning From Baraboo: New Clown Museum to Open; Tim Tegge Offers Affordable Videos -- Ringling '55 TV Christmas Special Reviewed ...



This sweet sleepy town where the Ringling Bros. launched their legendary career as circus kings just keeps on giving. So small and yet so historically gigantic. So off the beaten path, and yet, what a major path to the past.

Enter laughing! Soon to open on Fourth Avenue in historic downtown Baraboo is the International Clown Hall of Fame & Research Center, transferred in from Madison and presided over by one-time Ringling clown and clown alley supervisor Greg DeSanto. And how nice to see a circus museum run by a person with a life long passion for and working knowledge of the subject. The doors will be open daily except Sundays, 10 to 5. Super friendly admission charges are $5 for adults, $4 for kids and seniors. Among the novel artifacts on display, the first Ringling Bros. cash box made for them, when they opened in 1884, by their father! Did I say this town just keeps on giving?

"We are honored to join the Circus World Museum and the Al Ringling Theater as key spokes in Baraboo's celebrated wheel of circus history," said DeSanto.

Perhaps the Mirthmaker-in-Chief will eventually ascend to the executive throne of Circus World, which needs somebody like him, in my distant opinion, who can help them break their insatiable we-must-restore-every-circus-wagon-out-there habit. Never met the guy, but he seems a perfect fit for the post.



And here comes yet another Baraboo gift for hopeless circusphiles, from the emerging collections of Southern California native Tim Tegge, who also calls Baraboo his home when he is not on the road clowning. Great news! Tim has begun selling DVDs and CDs at wonderfully affordable prices, only $19.95 each, with shipping included. I tried and tried to reach the vast Bobby Hakes collection as a prospective buyer, but never could get an answer. Even then, the Hakes DVDs struck me, when last I checked, as prohibitively expensive.

From Tegge, I've just watched, for the second time (better the second time around in this instance) the 1955 TV special hosted by Charlton Heston, Christmas with The Greatest Show on Earth. Filmed under the actual Ringling-Barnum big top at the Sarasota winter quarters, complete with erected seat wagons, in grainy and glorious black and white. What an historical gem. I can see myself re-watching this pleasure periodically. Among the highlights:

* A young 16-year-old Tonito throwing near flawless backward and forward somersaults on the low wire, topping it off with such charismatic showmanship as he postures with confident flair to the audience. Were these kids of circus royalty born taking bows?

* A very young Elvin Bale, being interviewed by host Heston (who comes off a much happier Heston than the one you remember from the tough-guy role he played in the movie), addressing that stubborn tiger in the big cage who refuses to exit. Says Elvin to his wild animal trainer dad, "Say please, papa!" Papa takes the cue; tiger complies charmingly. One winning turn in a labored act that most of us considered to be essentially a furniture moving display.

* 10-year-old Dolly Loyal Perez, after to Heston declaring her independence from the family act, turning an amazingly full and accomplished single trap routine, complete with heel catch. The circus kids interviewed show such attractive class and crisp articulation.

* The clowns, oh those rowdy ruffians and misfits and overblown wise guys stealing as much sawdust as they could get away with, so much more real than the pretty faces who followed after the man who "saved the circus" ordered up sanitized coloring book images. They perform Paul Jung's Quick Service Laundry gag, the whole thing resembling a kind of silent flick. It has the kind of comedy payoff that can tickle you over and over gain.

* Emmett Kelly, every time he is on, whether trying to craft his own rolly bolly, or at the end of the last parade, there with the kids, hoping for his own gift from Santa, getting handed a package and then, feeling guilty, passing it along to a moppet, but still meekly waiting for something. Nothing. His walking away empty handed amounts to a minor drama. It's taken me a lifetime to finally appreciate the genius of this artist: he gave the American big top the one single emotion it for years had lacked: pathos. I have never forgotten the poignant image he cast at the end of the Holidays parade that same year when I saw the show out here, gratefully walking around the track holding a birthday cake in his hand.

* Hugo Schmidt working four elephants; am I reaching, or had he a gift for getting his big behemoths to act and look charming?

* That ultra sexy Cordon woman in the whip cracking paper shredding act.

* On and off Merle Evans, here revving up the holiday classic "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" to a peppy refrain as only HE could could do.

* Glimpses of some of the glorious Miles White costumes that appeared in the 1955 specs. For this mid-December TV special (which takes us into the homes of many television personalities, including a very young Johnny Carson, for commercial breaks) the parades were obviously thrown together from floats current and past and reconfigured to favor the Christmas tree and Santa gift-giving angle. At the end, we see the circus stars in front of a large lighted tree outside the big top singing "Silent Night."

I have to wonder what a set of very young eyes looking at this DVD would think. Old hat? Vulgarian? Too dangerous? Lacking a story line? If you are a vintage fan, and certainly if you swoon to all things Ringling, this DVD is a MUST BUY for you.

Within seven months, that big top would be declared a thing of the past by the man who had filled it so generously with such wonderful talent and lavish spectacle --- John Ringling North.

Next Stop: 13 years later for televised highlights of the 1968 edition of Ringling-Barnum.

To inquire about Tim's collection (very limited at this moment, let's hope he secures plenty more): www.circustimevideo.com

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