Monday, August 23, 2010

Rethinking Ringling ‘56: Music Added Strings, Favored Frank Loesser Hits, Rocked and Rolled, Too!

Ringling’s last season under canvas was so fraught with high drama, somebody should turn it into a movie and NOW.

For most Ringlingphiles (I plead guilty), anything about that sad tumultuous tour captures the imagination, stirs the heart, makes one cry out, “Why did it ever have to happen!?!?!?!>!” And you can’t stay away. Some are still in denial.

Now comes, belatedly published in the latest issue of Bandwagon, an account of nearly the last two weeks by Faye O. Braathen, who followed the show with her husband, Sverre, staying in hotels along the way, spending most of their time jack-potting in the backyard and sometimes taking seats, or just standing, to watch the show, part of it not all. They were "with it" almost to the end. And they sensed somehow that the end was near.

This account, informally written, with an emphasis on friendships with circus folk, is what sent me back into ‘56 revisit mode. This time: music.

I pulled out a tape of the production music, made somewhere along the route. The performance that season had a markedly new look and sound. Prior year desertions, among them ringmaster Harold Ronk and bandleader Merle Evans, resulted in replacements, Preston Lambert blowing the whistle, Izzy Cervone, with violins added, directing the band. As well, North had integrated a great many Frank Loesser hit songs into the score.

In the spirit of North's controversial bent to shake up traditions (a bent blamed by many for the show's early closing), director Richard Barstow, himself an advocate of keeping the program fresh and modern, crafted an elephant romp that literally rocked and rolled.

Which brings to the forefront a valid question: Who delivered a better sound from the bandstand, Merle Evans or Izzy Cervone?

Not an easy answer. Despite those who hold Cervone in higher regard, I tend to defer to Evans. While Cervone fostered more orchestral color and perhaps more varied and exciting dynamics, however roughly rendered (a mark of virtually all tent show bands of the era, including the hip Boom Boom Browning) Evans on balance brought in a smoother, more sonorous sound — I think.. But, keep in mind, this comes from listening to tapes made many years ago. Also, both this and the ‘55 score were orchestrated by longtime North favorite Samuel Grossman, so there are similarities, such as the dramatic inclusion of fanfare type exaggerations for dramatic effect that I have ascribed, rightly or wrongly, to the Merle Evans style..

Here is what I hear in the four production numbers from 1956:

Say it With Flowers, spec: Plenty lively, including Evans type fanfares. On the tricky basis of an old tape recording, Cervone seems to have delivered a livelier, more boisterously happy sound, with zippy contrasts.

Mexicanorama, aerial ballet: the music here is a real winner. Introductory refrains draw from sensual Latin rhythms, with Loesser's hit “Like a Woman in Love” getting a variety of tempo treatments throughout, from a tango to a waltz. But Pinito Dl Oro, the featured aerialist, does not get much musical juice from the sentimentally dull “Dolores” and “My Darling.” I wish they’d have given her a big Loesser hit, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” from Guys and Dolls, at a heightened pace..

Preston Lambert, it might be noted, articulated strong clear announcements, but, as a vocalist, he sings in a rather schmaltzy and sluggish manner, not always exactly on key. Both Harold Ronk and Ricky Dawn, from 1955, were superior crooners..

Ringling Rock N' Roll, elephants and girls: Great! Repeat: Great! This one starts off quoting familiar riffs from possibly the finest piece of original music ever composed for a Ringling romp, Henry Sullivan’s darkly primal “Jungle Drums” (from the 1950 closer). Lone drums pound. An "elephant band" of eleven pieces pumps more rock into the rock. Trumpets blare. Even a few in the cast scream wildly. Then comes what was likely composed by stager-director Richard Barstow, a title song addressing the theme with captivating force -- “Rock! Ringling rock and roll!” Looking back, this mod scoring surely gave Ringling-Barnum a very hip with-it look for the times; In 1956, rock and roll was hardly yet a known rage. Only the previous year had Blackboard Jungle, the first movie to feature a rock song, ("Rock Around the Clock") been released. And Elvis Presley did not make his ground-breaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan TV Show until September, six months after Ringling first rocked at Madison Square Garden. How I would love to have seen this production.

Hoop Dee Doo, ensemble finale, featuring (from what little detail I have) girls swinging on ropes between elephants, the entire cast and band marching around the track. The whole thing sounds bright and friendly and zippy fresh, and it clocks in (if all of it made it onto the recording I have) with remarkable brevity, unlike earlier Barstow finales that went on probably too long, rehashing featured tunes over and over. A welcome last frame. During exit, you can hear a man’s voice, “I loved it!” Interesting to note that the Braathens make reference, on at least two occasions in the article, to they’re watching the show and leaving just after "Ringling Rock N' Roll," display 22 on a program of 27 displays.

Three days after they left, Pittsburgh arrived. And that was the last finale.

Next: Costumes by — no, not Miles White; by french artist Vertes

[photos, from top, stagers Edith and Richard Barstow; Frank Loesser; Izzy Cervone; Preston Lambert]


Harry Kingston said...

I really enjoyed reading the Bandwagon Braathen article of the last days of Ringling under the tent.
His beautiful Kodachrome slides very well done and sharp focus.
Did you note that for the 4th of July party the band would not play unlike Merle always played. Sounds like they thought they were over worked.
And Merle must have figured that something was wrong real early as he would have been there.
After reading that great Bandwagon article I am surprised that North did not pull the plug way before Pittsburgh.
I just got off the phone with my circus fan friend Mike Piccolo who was there at the closing and he said the music was very different than Merle's. He said things were all meesed up as many were drunk and then out of a job.
Harry in Texas

Showbiz David said...

the only risk we take in listening to others, although your friend did not give an actual opinion of the Cervone music, is that die-hard Merle Evans fans, and I am a great fan of his work, may be unable to recognize quality, even better quality, in other circus bands of the time. When I first heard Boom Boom on Beatty-Cole, I thought it was so much more modern than Evans; but listening to a tape, it too sounds rugged and roughly delivered. I wish your friend would have told you what he thought of the show itsself? Fans, I was very young then, overnight hated North because of the closing and were therefore very critical of anything he had done.
Such an interesting tale!

Harry Kingston said...

Mike is 83 now and he said there was lots of comfusion going on then.
He said to him Merle and Cevrone were about the same to him.
Now Dave Mike and Silvus never missed any circus around the Uniontown and Pittsburgh, Pa area.
They knew them all from top to bottom on any show.
He has so many stories about the past and there adventures and both never drove a car.
Always took a taxi to the circus.
I got to know Boom Boom through Bubba Voss who lived in Orange, Tx about 15 miles from me in Beaumont.
Boom Boom was a real circus character as when he called he scared the hell out of my wife.
I also have many of his tapes and man could he play those drums. And he was so fast I asked him do you need me to pour water on them as they are going to catch on fire.
Bubba and Boom jackpots were priceless.
Both men were with it and for it.
Boom Boom even announced over on Beatty Cole.
I cannot comment of the 1956 show as it never made it to Texas.
But have read and heard from other's it was a real mess from filthy coaches, late shows, etc.
And why did Merle decide after all those years not to go out with Ringling in 1956. He saw something was wrong and was he right.
Harry in Texas