"But Circus Isn't Dead ... We're Coming"

"But Circus Isn't Dead ... We're Coming"
John Ringling North II, Keeping Proudly Alive the House of Ringling

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rethinking Ringling '56: The Acts


Widespread turmoil, from the striking Teamsters union to shaky management turnover, had engulfed Ringling-Barnum during the 1955 tour and was continuing to plague it as it headed into New York City for an April 5 opening at the Garden. As a consequence of all this, circus owner-producer John Ringling North had spent little time the previous summer, as was normally his custom, touring European cities for new acts.


Nonetheless, the 1956 lineup included a number of "first time in America" imports: Victor De Jonghe's monkeys in "high flying antics;" comic acrobatics from Rebertes; jugglers Della Chiesas; and a five act display of diversified novelties, featuring the Three Canestrellis, the Five Verdus on "Giant Balls," head jumping Titos, high ladder exploits from Les Arturos, and, center ringed, "Equilibristic Stars From the Far East" Dschapur and Rutha. That lively spread calls to mind some of my fondest circus going memories when a burst of simultaneous action could be so hectically exciting to watch. Of course, such would not be as welcome in today's one-ring environment.

In total, not counting clown workarounds and productions, there were 50 separate acts spread strongly across some 27 displays. Whatever cash-flow problems North may have been having, and he had them, he did not cut back on talent.

The majority of acts were fairly well known Ringling names by now --- among them, The Four Nocks on tall sway poles (a cumbersome workout that left me unthrilled); The Alazanas, the Flying Palacios, the Fredonias, Justino Loyal Troupe, et all. Pinito Del Oro, one of North's all time favorites, was making her seventh consecutive season starring in the aerial ballet, Mexicanorama.




The layout of acts seems to have been more effectively arranged for escalating dynamics than had been the case the previous year. Alfred Burton, Jr. (above), who in 1955 came on very late in the show with an impressive though slow routine, was blamed by some for causing walkouts, the argument being that his turn should have been spotted earlier in the performance when patrons are more receptive. This they did in the '56 show. Another good programing move was the placement of the lively pachyderm production, Ringling Rock N Roll, spotted only five displays from finale. This is sure to have enlivened any restless or sleepy customers down the final stretch. Following that modern romp into the realm of popular music came a steady stream of powerhouse turns: the clowns, Alzana, the five-act display heretofore profiled; the Four Nocks and the quick bright finale, Hoop Dee Doo.

Next: The Reviews

[photos, from top: Pinito Del Oro; Naukos; Evy Karoly; Alfred Burton, Jr.]

To read my previous Rethinking Ringling '56 posts, type "Rethinking Ringling" in the blogger search window at the top left of my blog.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tea Tent Tidbits: Ringling Train Goes Cho! Cho! ... Barnum Goes Bronze ... Baraboo Hosts Chinese Acrobats ... Carson & Barnes in Trouble?...

Okay, let’s get this Monday morning show on the road, the “show” being typed, or should I say hacked out, here on a hot Sunday morning in the L’Amyx tea tent ... Enter, leading my parade to wake you up in your cubicle, your bed, your lawn chair or cafe window seat -- P.T. Barnum! A bronze statute of the Great Showman standing all of 6' 3" was just erected to celebrate His 200th birthday and honor His Merry Suckerhood up there in Old New England, front of the Bethel Library. No, that's not the statue, I don't think; impossible to locate a photo just yet, but one I saw then lost was not nearly as impressive. Say what you may, P.T, our first great national spinmaster (or was that Mr. Jefferson?) built up a name that alone lured Americans by the trainloads out to his ever-expanding circus tents resulting in the eventual birth, by public demand, of three-ring circus Amerimania...

Hold Your Protests, Sacramento! Whether you like it or not, the elephants ARE coming (or came) .... City dads and moms, none to thrilled about you-know-what, getting one vet to claim the mammoths suffer from arthritis, worse yet, are being deprived of their meds; yet another vet, a second opinion savior, shouting out, “hold those pachyderm prescriptions!" Seems the four Jumbos are A-OK to perform. So, on with the four! ... Only four? Kelly-Miller Circus, sporting SIX, in a golden moment of power captured on You Tube, is looking Big Time. Might John Ringling North II have an angle to market here? ‘Twas his flamboyant uncle, JRN the original, who once hosted 55 on his mighty ‘55 opus.

Elephants are Gods in parts of Asia, says my friend Boyi Yuan looking over my laptop, recalling an incident in recent days when two baby elephants were injured and got stuck while crossing the rails just when a cargo train was approaching. Happened in India. “And then seven other adult elephants try to save the baby elephants, they ran and try to stop the train, but the result: seven elephants got killed by the train, and one was injured badly.” The little ones did not survive. And how did this remarkable show of compassionate Pachydermia make Boyi feel? He paused, feeling a touch philosophical. “Animals sacrifice themselves to save others; can humans do it?”


Ding Ding Ding goes the circus Train! We learn, Covington connected (thank you, Don), that Ringling-Barnum is to be pulled across silver rails by a big Union Pacific puffer, something to do with the railroad’s “Challenger” (world’s largest functioning steam producer) railing on parade across six states. On September 28 (tomorrow) Big Show flats, stocks and coaches getting steam-powered between Speer, Wyoming, and Denver. A caboose, too, I trust?

Grandma’s Circus, Still? The Old Gal’s still the ballyhooed star of the arguably staid Big Apple Circus company, and might, for all we know, have the “yes and the no” in upper management. She alone holds down the program cover -- or the image I spotted in the show's website press room. There’s a labyrinth of people power all over the lot, a board of directors numbering — are you ready? — 33. Yes, I said thirty three. New show just uncorked in NJ. I say to all BAC faithful (you can count me in, if you like), Paul Binder may be gone, but he never really went away. More on this issue up or down the road; I await answers to questions sent to BAC for comment.


** Early BAC press release features bland photos of some company members posing in dancerly positions, sans sawdust sizzle. The actual circus acts, a couple from Africa, some from Asia major, look strong. Well, if the new artistic director is incapable of flexing strong creative muscles, maybe it’s just as well that the Binder syndrome (his co-founder Michael Christensen is still actively engaged) continues to rule.

Carson and Barnes Circus on the brink of The End? Cruising onto Ben Trumble’s blog, this item struck my eye: “rumors floating ... including some mention of the possibility that C&B will cancel August dates to return home and regroup after a disappointing early season in Florida and in light continued weak economic conditions in parts of the upper Midwest.”

Ah, the rumors that never end. That dire scenario was posted back in July and C&B is still, somehow, out there, surprise! Trumble advocates the show’s bringing back more animal acts, its “strong roots.” I advocate a drastic artistic make over addressing how audience expectations will naturally rise when you go from three rings down to one. From what I’ve seen of the show and heard from comments being left here, it’s same old same old C&B — free tickets, mediocre presentation, and plenty of carney pitches. I fear the Byrds may never fly again.


Baraboo Never Sleeps! Onto the stage of the elegant Al Ringling Theatre, come October 1 , leap the Golden Dragon Acrobats (seen above). They’ve been to Broadway, but the real test is — can they make it in Baraboo? Ah, then they can make it anywhere. Me wonderith if theatre restoration angel and keyboard virtuoso Bob Dewel had a hand in this formidable booking. Is there truth to those rampant rumors, Doc, that you will be arriving for the auspicious occasion by ancient Chinese tradition? ...


And that’s a tea house wrap ...

First posted September 27, 2010 

** Update, 8/15/15: The show, Dance On! was brilliant

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Morning with Francis Beverly Kelley

10/24/15  New comment below

10/22/11 -- To members of the Kelley family: I am pleased that this post has brought you such pleasure, and thanks for sharing. I still feel lucky to have met Mr. Kelley, who so graciously agreed to pen a foreword to my first book, Behind the Big top.

"Spangled and big and red and gold, the circus smells of peanuts and cotton candy and pink lemonade and wild animals. It is as American as hot dogs.

It pops up some gray gray morning with is billowing tents and flags whipping in halyards on a horizon that wasn't there a few hours ago. With sights and sounds to quicken the heartbeat, it makes its visitors kin to Alice at the moment when she stepped through the looking glass into the realm of pure fantasy.

Here today and gone tomorrow, it is a state of restless American achievement, a pioneer peddler with magic in its pack and a timetable in its pocket --- a spangled, sparkling girl with a date in a town a hundred miles away tomorrow morning."

-- from his story, "The Wonder City That Moves by Night," in The National Geographic, March, 1948.

9.26.10

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Morning Midway: A Big Top Giant Who Might Have Been ...


Circus owners, remarkable considering all of the struggles they face, are remarkably enduring. Most of them.

Here was one who showed such great promise -- Sid Kellner, seen here in this 1969 newspaper photo with his son George, 15, when the Kellner name spelled the promise of a great success ahead. Today, while purging my "archives" (I hate clutter), I came across this picture. Such a radiant reminder of how a dream can seem so real in the beginning.

At the time, I had just finished handling "national press representative " duties for the show on its 10-week summer tour, driving a Ford Bronco (oh, what I did when I was young) from west to left coasts and back. Only job I ever had that got me one of those little business cards. I stayed in the cheapest hotels, never giving out cheap hotel phone numbers to city and feature editors at newspapers along the route.

Near the end of the tour, I pushed Sid on the idea of going out on rails in 1970. This fantasy made it into the pages of Amusement Business, and tickled Sid, though I doubt he ever gave my grand idea much attention.

By then, Kellner had been out on the road for thirteen years, most of them mediocre at best. I remember him playing the Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa and, after the show, with Don Marcks being friendly and supportive. Distinctly I recall Sid taking down a popcorn machine off a table to load it into a truck. Such youthful magic animated his smile and gait that night.

By 1968, he produce a cracking good show, rousingly scored, under the old Mills Bros. top which he'd just acquired. The performance rocked. Tom Parkinson loved it. I loved it. I think everybody loved it.

The next year, after I wrote a celebratory article about this up and coming Sid Kellner for The White Tops, Mr. Kellner warmed up to me, and I got the press agent's job that Eddie Howe had handled during the high-water 1968 tour. The compensation I was offered felt almost flatting: $250.00 a week plus use of Kellner's Bronco; I would pay for gas, hotel and food.

Now, James Bros. was back in buildings. Show was at least fair, but the magic of that sparkling 1968 performance was gone. Blame it in part the absence of the tent.

My best publicity coup, looking back over my notes, was getting major exposure in Philadelphia. ABC outlet WFIL-TV, on a Wed. at 8:00 AM. My memo sent ahead to company manager Chester Cable specified "One Baby Sue, the Woodcocks and Harry Ross or another clown." I played this one up: "This show has the highest ratings in this time period. All kids in Philly watch it. It tops Captain Kangaroo! [well, that's what somebody told me.] Miss Bresset wants a baby elephant, so let's get her one -- Baby Sue, the star!" Truth be told, I can't remember Baby Sue. I only remember my favorite, Baby Opal.

Kellner Kellnered on, a man of dynamic charm who could turn sour and vulgar on a coin, casting profanity from one end of the tent to the other. And in the presence of sponsors.

What did him in? The boiler rooms he operated so ruthlessly well. I am not even sure if he is still with us. His sons George and Matt went on to disgrace themselves in phone rooms practicing skills learned from their father.

Still, I have such fond memories of sitting across Kellner's exciting desk when he was considering me for the job, and of feeling his impressive entrepreneurial power. Both he and I merged personal dreams that would go no where.

3.25.10

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Showbiz David Goes Video! -- Not? Rolla Bolla From China's Flying Acrobats Show in Beijing, 2010 ...

video



Update: No, answering my own question down there, it can't be this easy. No luck trying to load other videos I have. One came up overly cropped beyond running. And besides, the picture quality is very fuzzy.

Very short video shot from my canon,and yes, not pro, but it was a test, and I'm too excited to hold it back, because ...

Could it really be this easy? Dabbling this evening, wondering if I could show some videos of Chinese acts Boyi and I saw last April, first I went to You Tube, thinking that would be the only way. But way too complicated and confusing.

And then, right here in my own blogger backyard -- the tools were there all the time!

Here's a clip of a great act, in my opinion, seen at the Flying Acrobats Show. You'll see more and somewhat better clips when I load them up ahead, one with great music composed by one of China's most famous modern pop composers. A new type of circus is opening up over there.

Can techno life really be this easy?

Enjoy this crude quickie premiere!

Here are two stills of the footage I was hoping to load:



Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rare Disney Delight: Toby Tyler, the Movie, Revisited





I remember loving this 1960 film when it came out so many years ago, even though virtually every detail about it had vanished from my memory.

When you revisit a favorite movie, a TV show, well anything that wowed you long ago, you risk a let down.

Disney did not let me down. Remarkably, this "circus movie," based upon the 1880 children's book by James Otis Kaler, bears a most affecting story, giving us characters of depth rather than the usual cliches -- big top going bankrupt, con men on the tear, flyers recklessly competing for the center ring, you know the hooks.

Toby, played to simple perfection by Kevin Corcoran, is an orphan living with his sweet aunt and cruel heartless uncle. He runs away to join the circus, making bests friends with a charming and sly chimp, Mr. Stubbs, and a gruff trouper, Ben (Henry Calvin, below), whose heart turns from stone to cotton candy. All of the pieces fall perfectly into place.


This little cinematic gem has a story that grows on you, and a wonderful ending bringing all parties happily back together. It warms your heart, leaving you grateful for the film's sunny humanity.

Circus? The few acts seem secondary to the story. What I liked the most were the romantic scenes of the big wagons slowly moving by night over idyllic country roads.

Toby Tyler just might be the best circus movie ever made, that is, if character and plot are what you value the most. Which is a way of saying, sorry, it may not be a "circus" movie at all. This time, I think it will stay in my memory.


9.22.10

Monday, September 20, 2010

Garland and Paar in London: Two Fading Icons Cross the Stage. One Flickers Bright, the Other Hardly Tries ...


DVD Discovery: The Jack Paar Collection, Disc 3.

She needed the spotlights to live. He needed more than that, for one thing, the continuity and comfort of a family life up in Connecticut.

She threw everything she had into her music once the lights found her in costume, ready to grasp, caress and possess another audience.

He seems to have grown weary of public adoration, restless for new places to go, new faces to amuse him.

Away from the lights, she was one of the saddest stars in the universe. On Jack Paar's TV Show taped at the Prince Charles Theatare in London on December 11,1964, Judy shared something few stars would ever dare reveal, admitting to the loneliness of celebrity once a curtain came down and the fans went home.

“They treat you like the statute of liberty ... and so no one calls you on the telephone and asks you out to diner ... ‘Oh, She’s too busy.’ And so I just sit by the phone.”

And so I just sit by the phone.

Jack joked during his opening monologue that night, “Really, I don’t do anything.” Except that what he did so well, being himself and provoking the best out of his guests, was more than enough. Except, also, that by now he had begun to take himself for granted. You could see he had grown flippant, lazy, too laid back, too ready to bring on the next guest and let things go where they may. That humdrum night, too much of the program went absolutely nowhere.

When Judy came out and sang “Never never will I marry,” how eerily appropriate did the song feel to her life. She had married. She had raised kids, but she’d never found a meaning therein that could begin to match the thrill of bonding with an audience and being loved back in return. She ended up, a prisoner to her talent, living for the illusion. And the London crowd rewarded her, as well she deserved to be, with a rousing, heartfelt ovation.

Watching this on the DVD, I study Judy’s face. It looks engraved in paint and armor, as if her persona had become its own reality and all she had left was the music inside crying out for the body and the voice to cooperate. The spirit did not fail her that evening. Whatever her technical shortcomings, the redeeming emotional power of her performance electrified the house.

Jack did no where near as well chatting it up with two stuffy guests — the talkative Robert Morley introduced by Jack as one of the two wittiest men he knew, not that night, just a dreary long-winded bore, and Winston Churchill’s son, Robert, who came across the lights as an over educated fop suffering an incurable case of intellectual constipation. Nothing stuffier than a stuffy Brit.

Within a year, Paar was off the air, having retired near the top of his game after an eight year run to give younger talents a chance, so he said. But when, nursing second thoughts ten years later, he tried hosting another late night show one week a month for ABC, time has sadly passed him by. Now he looked a little ill-at-ease and hardly in command, strangely out of place fiddling with a pair of eye glasses he now needed, seeming almost detached on a different set with a younger set of guests. The "comeback" lasted but a single season; Johnny Carson was handily beating him.

And as for Judy, five years following her triumphant appearance for Paar at the Prince Charles Theatre (I am hard put to understand why so many viewing the same DVD decry her performance), she self-directed her own final exit, evidently no longer able to bear the pain. Maybe she’d spent too many long lonely hours sitting by telephones that no longer rang.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sunday Morning Looking Back:The Brilliance of Braathen -- World Premiere of Photographer's Color Slides At ISU Puts Milner on the Map


When I first encountered, or should I say wrestled with, the extravagantly overproduced book, Circus: 1870-1950, at the San Francisco Public Library, I was soon swept away by magnificent color photographs I'd never before seen, mostly of floats, costumes, performers and backyard scenes from the John Ringling North era. Such mesmerizing revelations of a circus reinventing its lure in top-of-the-line design art. I could not stop the turning pages.


Many, more likely most, of the more spectacular visuals (can you see a foreshadowing of Cirque du Soleil, above?), are the work of photographer Sverre O. ("Bex") Braathen, and they give this huge, narratively ineffectual volume a clear aesthetic reason for being. They thrill our circus fantasies, bring glory to the big top, especially to the one operated by Ringling-Barnum during the remarkable years of artistic innovation through the 1940s-1950s. In particular, they offer indisputable evidence of the genius of costume designer Miles White; secondarily, of the captivating midway face lifts created by famed industrial designer Norman Bell Geddes.

From whence these heretofore unseen images? I assumed, giving it no thought, oh, from Sarasota or Baraboo, of course. After all, isn't that where all circus illustrations come from?


No! Not anymore. Now, in breathtaking Braathen brilliance, a new gold mine of circus photography is coming to light from out of a place called Normal -- as in Normal, Illinois, home to Illinois State University. The golden goodies, and they number in the thousands, kids, reside in the Special Collections unit of the Milner Library. Their major contribution to the Taschen tome marks a virtual world premiere for Braathen. Before that, though hard to believe, the Kodachrome slides were only viewed when the photographer himself showed them to friends. (Braathan was an attorney by trade, avid circus fan and writer.) Occasionally, some would show up in Bandwagon. Here, through the outreaching generosity of Library Specialist Mark Schmitt, I am posting a sample of the magic.


Best of all, they are now coming to a computer near you, credit the good will of some fine and sharing folks at Illinois State's Circus and Allied Arts Collection, curated by Steve Gossard. You will be able to access a steadily increasing number of Mr. Braathen's shutter delights as they come on line. Here's your link to the inaugural parade:

http://tempest.lib.ilstu.edu/braathen.php


Go ahead, be dazzled. In the current issue of Bandwagon, Fred D. Pfening III, introducing a story written by Mr. Braathen's wife, Faye O., about their 2-week travels with Ringling-Barnum just before its last days under canvas in 1956, ranks the work of Braathen as "only a notch or so below the acknowledged masters of the field, Fred Glasier, Harry Atwell, and Edward Kelty." I'm not completely sure about the sanctity of those names alone. Looking back at old National Geographic magazine stories on circus that featured color plates, several other names standout that I've never heard of. Even Ringling flakmaster F. Beverly Kelley took some superb images that were published by NG. In later years, Ted Sato, serving a brief three- or four-year stint for Ringling, with a superb eye for composition, produced some stellar black and whites; he has yet, in my opinion, to receive the credit his marvelously composed frames truly deserve. But Pfennig, as I see it, is surely correct in placing Braathen near the top.


For color, clarity and the occasional well-framed shot, Braathen is now gratefully engraved in my brain. In essence, his work lends true star power to the Taschen tome, itself essentially a lavish photo showcase with no clear structure to speak of. Mr. Braathen appears to have been particularly adept at grouping performers together in the backyard. For the most part, his camera stayed out of the tent, owing to lighting restraints. I would love to see any action photos he may have taken, but there is no evidence so far that he flourished in this area.


What bothers me the most, among a number of textual sins committed by Taschen's editor Noel Daniel, is that, of the few photo sources acknowledged on jacket copy or in a brief preface, the name of Sverre O. Braathen, is nowhere to be found. Incredible ingratitude --- worse yet, blundering editorial oversight and/or ignorance --- for a photographer whose work gives this sprawling showcase a distinctive recurring luster. Moreover, it seems a crime that photo captions could not have included a code linking each to its respective source.


In one of his e-mails to me, notes Mr. Schmitt,"1/3 of that Taschen book is sourced from our Sverre O. Braathen collection, but we have enough images still to fill, say, 30 volumes set solely devoted to our collection."

Among the gold in Normal, Schmiit estimates they have 3000 COLOR Braathens of Ringling in the 1940s-1950s, approximately 400 of Cole Bros. And for every color shot, Braathen snapped four or five black and whites. He took "thousands" during the 1930s. This epic gold mine has lay unseen for decades.


This 1942 shot of the side show is so quintessential John Ringling North -- the gaudy yet sharply atypical color schemes deliciously seductive. Even theatre critic Brooks Atkinson that spring reviewed the acclaimed Madison Square Garden premiere and issued a raving salute in a special Sunday New York Times piece. The circus of Ringling North had enjoyed a dream season the year before, greeted by one turn-away crowd after another. It's easy to understand how the public was so drawn to and infatuated with the revamped look of the show, from air conditioning units that barely worked to a performance of rare beauty. "It's the best costumed, best lighted and best presented circus in the big show's history," declared The Billboard.


"We also have Arnold Riegger's negatives," writes Schmidt. "Frank Ball's images,and what seems like an endless well of scrapbooks, and loose photographs, not to mention Charles Clark 1922 RBBB images. Thousands upon thousands."

Move over, Baraboo and Sarasota. Normal, you're on.


All photos used with permission from Illinois State University's Special Collections, Milner Library.

From the top:
Antoinette and Arthur Concello
Pocahontas float from "The Good Old Times" spec, Ringling-Barnum, 1952
Midway and entrance, 1941
Henry Ringling North, 1941
Showgirl in tiger spec number, 1944
Lou Jacobs, 1941
The Cristiani Family of bareback riders, 1941
Ringling flat cars loaded, 1941
Side show makeover, 1942
"Hoop De Doo" finale, 1956
Showgirls in spec, 1954

Below: Faye Braathen, Burt Lancaster, and Sverre Braathen.



Luckily for me, a few of Braathen's wonderful images appear in my new book, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide, though, so as not to falsely tease you, they are in in black and white -- all except for the wonderful image of the Ringling marquee and ticket wagon on a Canadian lot in 1953.

Originally posted 9.10.10

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Morning Midway: Carson & Barnes Snapshot from Colorado

The following comment, by Michael from Longmont, Colorado, was left on the post I put out last year, "Two Views of Carson and Barnes Circus." Michael has just seen the show. Though rather downbeat, it strikes me as an unfortunately accurate reflection of what I've, too, experienced. And it makes me wonder, how does this circus manage to survive, year in and year out?

"Sept. 16, 2010 went to the Carson and Barnes Circus. My wife and I felt bad for the entertainers because you got a feeling that this circus was not going to be around much longer. The show was very poor for adults. My children really enjoyed it. I am glad we had received BOGO on the tickets, otherwise I would have been really disappointed. Half the show had entertaining feats, but the rest seemed to just be going through the motions. We had maybe 100 people attending. The sound system was horrible and way too loud. The only time we understood the ring master was when he was telling Alex no music. This was not my childhood circus and there is only 1 ring now."

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Fred D. Pfening, Jr., Bandwagon Editor and Publisher, Leading Recorder of American Circus History

With regret, today I learned that long-time Bandwagon editor, Fred D. Pfening, Jr. passed away last night.

We knew he was ill. We sensed that his last season may have arrived. Nonetheless, he will be greatly missed. For 49 years, he edited the journal of the Circus Historical Society, a bi-monthly magazine that will forever be associated with his name and well-deserved reputation for excellence in honoring circus history through an unstinting fidelity to truth.

Perhaps more than any other soul, Pfening helped compile, edit and preserve an untold wealth of big top history and lore, and this he accomplished with a quiet respect for the subject he loved.

In recent times, I have particularly admired his courage to tackle some rather messy and unpleasant issues understandably sensitive to many circus fans, among them, phone room operations and a reportedly organized short-changing operation among ticket sellers on the Ringling show, of all circuses, at least during its last two or three seasons under canvas. Not easy subjects to acknowledge, but Pfening took them head on. In the pages of Bandwagon, you can learn a thousand fascinating things about the tented cities that move by night.

Born Frederic Denver Pfening, Jr. in Columbus, Ohio on March 29, 1925, Pfening's labor of love came loaded with rich historical detail well documented, and from many back issues I have drawn during the all-important research phases for the books that I have written.

I can only hope and trust -- not so difficult an exercise given that Fred's son, Fred D. Pfening, III, is the magazine's managing editor -- that Bandwagon will continue on the same even path, daring to shed light on all aspects of circus history with the same steady resolve that editor Fred Jr. gave it.

Thank you and Farewell, Mr. Bandwagon. May your legacy live on in Center Ring.

Glory to the Big Top: Photo of Kelly Miller Tent in Storm by Ryan Easley Inspires Monte Carlo Judges



Especially in the days of Leaf -- real canvas then -- I loved the sway of the big top, a living breathing thing, an extension of the earth itself, and so right for the very real world of circus. Elephants belong on dirt and grass, not over cold alien concrete and white parking lot lines. There always was something a little messy about an older fashioned tent show that gave it that extra dose of distinctive atmosphere.

Even the newer plastic tops lend that certain magic we look for. How right and wonderful, then, that this Currier and Ives-like image of the Kelly Miller tent in a snow storm, snapped by the show's assistant Big Cage kid Ryan ("Radar") Easley, should nab a prize at the recent photo contest hosted by Monte Carlo's Princess Stephanie.

A beaut. It will show up along with the other winning images on a calendar you can buy somewhere. Margaret, from Circus Anonymous, and Don Covington both sent me images, thank you, after I complained about a strange Monte Carlo PR press release lacking any visuals.

55 amateur and professional photographers from 16 countries competed, each addressing the question "What makes a circus a circus?" Thirteen photos were selected, one for the calendar cover, the others for each of the 12 months. I'd vote December for Ryan's frosty gem.

When I walked onto Kelly Miller's lot in Brewster, New York last June (no snow that day), I could hear, as I once heard, a big Circus Clock ticking away. They came in that morning from another town, and the next would be rolling out for another. In transit. Tick. Tick. Tick. Mobile homes parked for lack of space on the road up to the midway, itself half-leaning onto a slight slope. Tick. Tick. Tick. Black cables here and there. TV saucer on the ground outside somebody's home on wheels. Tick. Tick. Tick.

There was that gypsy pulse in the air, troupers barely settled in but already, you could feel, casting their fluid attentions onto the next move to the next stop. Tick tick troupers.

This show seems to revel in bum weather. I know, I just can't resist saying that; something about all the mud they've faced and fought, pushed aside and paraded over, soldiered through in spangles and shaken off and cursed and laughed at and blogged about.

Cheers to Radar eyes under circus skies!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sunday Morning from China: Otherscapes


The gold fish of Beijing


In the world's largest city, Shanghai: to your right, old town; to your left across the river, new




Country walk to Boyi's village in Taishan




Boyi was raised in the charcoal brick house, second one up the path


"Downtown" (or maybe "uptown") two or three miles from Boyi's village (a village being about ten or twelve houses and the farmland worked by the familys).


Shades of neglect beneath the bridge


Figure in red, out a rainy window on a bus ride back


High riders of Taishan


Along a freeway enroute to Hong Kong


A Hong Kong bridge.


This tall and modern and chrome city felt so far away. So anonymous. So alien. So many skyrise apartment buildings stacked so close together, the place felt so hopelessly lonely. Especially a night. Beijing operates it as a separate country, thus you leave one, via passport examination, to enter the other. From the little we saw of Hong Kong (only there overnight for a flight back to the states), and perhaps unfairly, I felt scarce desire to return. It's the real China I miss.



Near Forbidden City

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Big Top Bittles: "Banana" Hits the Road ... Kelly Miller in the Rain Wows Monte Carlo Photo Fest ... BTW, Monte Carlo, Your PR Dept. Sucks

SUNDAY UPDATE ... SUNDAY UPDATE! ... Ryan's winning Kelly-Miller snowed-in-big-top photo, which I discuss below, has been forward to me from Margaret of Circus Anonymous, and WILL BE posted here this week. A fanfare is in order ... WAIT FOR THE BIG ONE!

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE, FROM DON COVINGTON, regarding my remarks about the verbiage, driven mainly out of my frustration over the press release lacking any photos. But fair is fair: Clarifies Don, "The flowery description, by the way, was required because of the premise of the contest that required that each of the photographers explain why their photo captured the spirit of the circus." Thanks, Don. I trust the respective winners feel a well-deserved pride.

No shame in being a Broadway Flop, None at all. Step right up and fall on your face --- the road out there will welcome you with open arms. Why? Cause you made it, even if you didn't, in Gotham. You're a loser in the win category, a Real Player.

So, here comes, my way!, Cirque du Soleil's Banana Shpeel, which slipped big time in a recent shakedown and early exit at New York's Beacon Theatre, and we're talking "Broadway." Not very good reviews, some scathing, but, but, they've got a strong Variety endorsement, for whatever that may now possibly mean, and they've got what still, believe it or not, tickles my fancy from the promo angle -- something old but new all tossed around into modern dance and acrobatics, on a stage, for heaven's sake! So, heck, when it slips or lands or gropes or grovels or actually entertains (that possible too) in the city of SF over there in naval-gazing central, I'm going go get me the cheapest seat, and see what's what with this CDS property that was nearly blown to pieces by hostile Chicago reviews. New York was a kinder gentler place, if only in comparison.

Never thought I'd give Monte Carlo another plug on my plugola blog, ha, ha, they are such chintzy stingy teasers. Latest example: Sending out a press release about a so-called photo contest, to which were attached absolutely no visuals. Nothing. They've got the strangest PR department, if that's what they've got at all. I mean, a PHOTO contest and not one sample teaser? I remember visiting their website to hopefully grab a photo of the recent gold clown recipients from China. Not possible. This latest publicity blather reads like a college lecture, so preciously deep, so very French. A PHOTO anybody??? Somebody needs to tell them that a picture can say a thousand words, or, in France, half a million.

So, that's all I'm saying! No, no, now I remember the reason why I could not resist ignoring Princess Stephanie's latest Monte Carlo promotion (if that's what it is): You, see a photo of the Kelly Miller big top in blow down mode got honored. Camera snapper Ryan Easley, said to assist tiger man Casey McCoy, honored for the image he captured of the tent in a "rare snowstorm in Texas." Rare? Shows how little France knows about the U.S. According to the release, "Circus staff were roused from their sleep" (okay, I'll take that on faith), continuing, "to save the tent, their personal lives, once again, coming second to the never-ending demands that create the magic of sawdust and spangles." Those K-M troupers EARN their trouping kudos!

In keeping with the p/r release containing ample verbiage and not one image, I'm posting this one sans pictures.

And that may be the last you will hear about Monte Carlo from me until they install a working press department. Why is the Monte Carlo circus Festival virtually unknown in the country in which I reside? You take a guess.... I'm gonna out in the sun to continue my Patricia Highsmith novel.