Friday, October 08, 2010
Rethinking Ringling ‘56: The Reviews
Fourth in a five-part series: The Critics Issue Ambivalent Praise
"Big Top Goes Park Avenue," headlined Variety.
"Circus Opens Run In Old-Time Style," reported The New York Times
"Big One: From Troubled Seas A Great Show," rang The Billboard.
Behind the generally affirmative notices, all around Ringling-Barnum in 1956, trouble was stalking the Big Show in spades. Ominous turnover in many departments, including the all-important press and publicity brigades. Sparse cash flow in the red wagon. Moving into New York City for its annual spring opening at the Garden, wagons and elephants met up with barricades of striking performers and roustabouts demanding better wages. The teamsters union refused to deliver dirt and tanbark to the Garden, forcing the show to make do with a coconut fiber matting and sawdust substitute. As an unflattering result, horse routines, liberty and family riding, suffered noticeably over this precarious foundation.
Nonetheless, virtually all of the unionized performers crossed their own picket lines to make the program.
Opening night drew a capacity crowd of around 15,000. Promoted as a benefit, Ringling handed over $76,000 in total tickets sales to the Police Athletic League, perhaps desperately counting on that body, in return, to protect it from its picketing adversaries.
Prominently absent, and duly noted by the press, was Emmett Kelly, afraid to jeopardize his union affiliations owning to a portfolio of work from night clubs to stage and film. Interesting to note that, following his no-show at the Garden, Kelly never again worked for Ringling-Barnum.
Known for bold innovations, in 1956 John Ringling North had only a whole new set of production values to show the public. Most noteworthy, the performance moved to a very different musical sound, complete with violins, and it bore a distinctively different look in totally new costume and float design schemes by French artist Marcel Vertes. The majority of its acts, however, brought little novetly to the program for they were standard Ringling headliners from previous tours. Of eight new acts signed, only one landed a center ring spot.
Surprisingly, critical reception was strongly favorable, if somewhat ambiguous. The actual "critics," if that’s what they were (not always easy to separate a validly objective review from a warmed over press release) reacted with a mixture of good will, appreciation, and skepticism. Variety's Joe Cohen questioned a slant towards a more “Broadway facade.” He leveled his strongest sting at diluted packaging: “The bold and traditional strokes with which the circus floats and decor were painted are lacking. ... A lot of frou-frou has been put into the works. The sets and costumes designed by Marcel Vertes, the gifted French artist, indeed have a delicate air.”
The New York Times delivered a kindly form of traditional affirmation — the show is back and it’s “the fine and tinseled daring and nonsense a circus should be.” This from Michael James, who identified a crowd stealer in one of the new imports, six chimps working horizontal bars and trampoline presented by Victor de Jonghe. Other writers, too, cited the monkeys as a hit.
James, the most ambivalent of the scribes, seems to have struggled to reach an opinion on the contributions of Vertes and, by extension, perhaps the show itself. Compare his opening declaration, above, to a later comment he made addressing costumes and decor: "... all very pretty, frilly and delicate, and not at all the robust and gilded foolishness that was so much fun for so many in the past.”
Act wise, earning favorable nods were Titos, who bounced on his head, the Nocks on sway poles (drawing “gasps” from the audience), Harold Alzana, Pinito Del Oro, Takeo Usui with free-standing inclined wire slides, Tonito, the Fredonias, the Cordons, Alfred Burton, The Oliveres -— well, practically the entire line up. On balance, there is scare reason to believe performer power was significantly stronger or weaker compared to previous tours in recent years.
Of course, I am only quoting from two trades and one New York daily for opening night impressions. The town had at least six other newspapers, all of which routinely filed reviews. After the show fell in Pittsburgh and was back in Sarasota, John Ringling North, interviewed by Variety’s Abel Green, made a most curious claim. “Strangely enough, the 1956 circus, as an attraction, garnered perhaps the best press of any Ringling show in decades.” This is hard to believe. Was he just spinning, something he usually did not do?
Amidst the cheerfully upbeat, if slightly ambivalent notices, The Billboard offered clarity, whether right or wrong. Going against a usual Billboard tradition that favored supportive reviews, vet staffer Jim McHugh crafted a notice more critically discriminating.
“Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus got off to a spectacular and successful start at Madison Square Garden Wednesday (4/4) despite ominous rumors relative to the stability of the organization and the best show-stopping efforts of two unions, the Brotherhood of Teamsters and The American Guild of Variety Artists.”
“In format the show remains a facsimile of North innovations, with dozens of smooth circus turns woven into displays separated by four arena filling ‘spectacular’ displays ... The unique, solid, thrilling substance of the big show was built around acts previously identified with the circus."
Perhaps no one performer impressed McHugh any more than the dashing dressage riding of Roberto de Vasoncellos. "His turn approached perfection."
Departing script, McHugh addressed the most controversial changes — costumes and music — with uncharacteristically sharp reactions -- sharp for The Billboard. To his ears, the band came through “at best, as insignificant, despite the efforts of veteran bandmaster Izzy Cervone.” He returned to his dissatisfaction with a sly reference to the band's participation in the finale, "Hoop De Doo," reporting that Cervone’s men came marching into the arena, “tooting, but not necessarily blowing, various horns.”
About the visual makeovers created by Vertes, although McHugh acknowledged a certain dullness to the new “Say it with flowers” floats (“none of which approximated previous efforts"), nonetheless, in summing up the performance as a whole, he wrote, “The costuming is brilliant and the production shows the unmatched Ringling effort and expenses from start to finish.. The credits are well earned by Richard Barstow for the direction and Vertes for the costuming.”
To whom goes the final word? I am inclined to give it to a Philadelphia reviewer, Rex Polier, covering the show as it appeared under the big top for the Evening Bulletin. The Ringling circus of 1956, declared the unequivocally positive Polier, “demonstrated very convincingly that it has something that television, the movies, and other forms of entertainment can’t take away from it.” He called it simply "a pleasing blend of old meat and potatoes circus fare with spectacular modern theatrics.” Count this as something of an omen for how the red wagon fortunes were about to change.
[photos, from top: Hoop De Doo finale; Ringling Rock N Roll elephant band; Takeo Usui; Tonito; Justino Loyal Troupe; John Ringling North, right, Michael Burke, Richard and Edith Barstow examine a "Mexicanorama" costume worn by showgirl during Sarasota rehearsals;]
Next and Last: How Great the Crowds?