Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Morning with Jack Kerouac: The Joyful Confusion of Youth

"There he is! That's him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes! And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean's gasps, and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn't see. "That's right!" Dean said. "Yes!" Shearing smiled; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. "God's empty chair," he said. On the piano a horn sat; its golden shadow made a strange reflection along the desert caravan painted on the wall behind the drums. God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe. This madness would lead nowhere. I didn't know what was happening to me, and I suddenly realized it was only the tea that we were smoking; Dean had bought some in New York. It made me think that everything was about to arrive --- the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever."

-- from his novel, On the Road.

Finally, I picked up a copy, to give it a chance despite ignorant skepticism. So far, half way through, I'm loving it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Rebirthing of Kenneth Feld? Big Show Boss Tosses Aside Adding Machine for Director's Beret (so he says)

Erase from your mind the classic Kenneth Feld image -- obsessive nerd with adding machine at desk awaiting daily phone-ins from fretting event directors reporting on the day's ticket sales.

Enter the new, artistically repentant Kenneth Feld, the Big Show's Big Picture Man. Hey, I read all about it in The New York Times. To breathlessly quote:

"My strengths are really in the creative side, coming up with big ideas, knowing how to get them done. But the day-to-day and the administration are something that I wasn’t good at, because I didn’t have the interest. I started restructuring the company around ’94, and I found out that you never stop. And I now have an outside president and chief operating officer who take care of all of the day-to-day, and we have constant communications and meetings. But I don’t get involved in the detail the way I used to."

This he explained to the Times Adam Bryant for a Corner Office Q&A profile in last last Sunday's edition. Interesting story worth a read. We might have a little more fun with it here somehwere up the road.

I am fairly shocked, after all the years reading about the Feld of Felds referring to his happiness at the desk pouring over stats and invoices, ordering up fireworks between hiring and firing. Just being a common ordinary anonymous producer in the background, humble worker bee operating a huge honey hive, if you will.

Listen on!

"As a result of that, I’ve been able to become a lot more objective in looking at the business — what’s happening today, but more importantly, what do I think is going to happen next year and in the next five years. "

He paid tribute to his president and chief operating officer, Michael Shannon, hired only a few years ago following a 10-month search, whose name appears directly under Feld's on the corporate masthead.

I know people buried out there in cyberspace, pro people in the "know"who would have me believe that this Mr. F. is a career iceberg doomed never to change course. That he lacks the infectious enthusiasm and, well heck, the warm fuzzy humanity of his late father Irvin.

I don't know. I've always seen KF as a sinister version of detail-obsessed James A. Bailey. But in his own reigning right, he is one shrewd operator who absorbs exterior trends into his own shows, something like Billy Gates imitating Steve Jobs. 'ya know, that mouse thing. He may have found a new role model in Cirque du Soleil's Guy Laliberte, who is well known for having a very strong CEO at the desk while, he, Guy, serves as "The Guide" in birthing new baby Cirques.

The biggest status quo buster to the Feld empire was that one-ring thing, a crushing occurrence under U.S. big tops which forced the Felds -- one father, three daughters in all, so far -- to regroup, rethink and reproduce, out of which emerged one brilliant solution in last year's Boom-A-Ring fling in Coney Island. I'm waiting for another Boom-A-Ding-A-Dum-Drum thing as talented and tight and taut and straight ahead and ticklingly fresh ...

A fresh metrosexual makeover for the numbers cruncher-turned-impresario? Perchance a cape? Perchance a photo sit for Maxwell Coplan?

Enter Ringling's new "Guide" -- Kenneth Feldiberte.

[photo above by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times]

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Morning Midway: Recovering Animal Trainer to Wed Gaily in the Big Cage ...


They're hailing it "My Grrreat Big Tiger Wedding."

Titanium tiger man Christian Walliser, back from a month-long coma caused by an attack of his Bengal tigers, is about to be signed, sealed and caged when he and gay partner Jan Birk exchange vows before a local registrar on December 8. Registrar agreed to "join the couple in the tiger cage" just before circus show begins.

What precipitated the tragic encounter was the 28-year-old trainer's tripping during a performance, rendering him ready meat to his charges. Sent to the hospital, bone fragments were removed from Walliser's brain. Titanium plates rebuilt one of his hips.

About the formalities, for you of proper tradition who doddle over details: "Best man" will be one of the cats who nearly mauled Groom Number One to death. Three of the guilty others will serve as "witnesses." And let's hope none will growl "No!" when the preacher asks, "If any among you know why these two should not be wed ..."

"I've never held a grudge. I fell and they seized the chance," said Walliser to the German Herald.

Now there's an animal trainer with a Big Understanding Heart.

Welcome back to captivity, Christian!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When Ringling Took the Low Road ... “Don’t Count Your Change!”



Update, 10/10: The Bandwagon article is laid out in such a way, though not intentionally, as to lend a clear impression that Taggart was hired to sell tickets during the 1953 season. In fact, Taggart was hired during the 1954 season. Arthur Concello left the show at the end of the 1953 tour, and did not return until 1956 -- after the show closed and returned to Sarasota.

Sobering are the revelations from former Ringling ticket seller William Taggart in the current issue of Bandwagon about how he was instructed (perhaps the word should be "invited" through friendly persuasion) to handle the flow of cash during the 1950s. They leave little doubt (assuming Taggart is correct, and he strikes me as sincere) that the Greatest Show on Earth, at least when Arthur Concello managed it for hands-off producer John Ringling North, engaged in its own fair share of shortchanging customers at the ticket windows and during come-in when bleacher seat patrons were offered discount upgrades into the reserves.

Call me naive for feeling a degree of shock and sadness, even though Taggart’s story does not come as a complete surprise. I recall a few veterans in past years claiming that Ringling was not grift free. Yes, I knew it was not — some of the money from ticket and concession sales, instead of flowing into circus coffers, slipping into personal cookie jars. And when, last year, Bill Taggart sent me a copy of the manuscript that he had submitted to Bandwagon (surprised to receive it, I offered to remain silent pending its publication), my eyes were opened to a subtle shortchanging operation that shamelessly mocked the very essence of the ethical dealings for which the Ringling brothers stood. The question remains, how high up did the payoff money go? We may never know for sure. Perhaps Taggart will spell this out in greater detail in his next installment.

Bill, then a young and likable college educated man who took great pride in his swift advancement into the ticket department in 1953, was introduced to the art of extra revenue by fellow ticket seller Tommy Reale while they met in a bar near the train yards. “He said not to worry about management. Although it was a so-called Sunday school show, ticket sellers were expected to make extra money, and to pass a part of their extra income each night along to the head ticket seller for the privilege.” And that person would be ticket department superintendent William P. McGough, to whom Taggart handed a five or a ten “after each show, depending on my income.”

“I was lucky and never had any serious beefs with any customers.”

Did Concello know about this? It’s hard to believe he did not. But then again, maybe he looked the other way. It’s always been my understanding that Ringling management condoned many forms of tips and skimming, but never tolerated messing around with the public’s pocket book. Never.

During my 1986 interview with Pill Hall, who worked the pass exchange booth in the big top, he addressed the sporadic infiltration of short changing and AMC: “If they caught up with you, they’d fire you. They didn’t want to disturb the public. Concello was strict about that. Rehashing tickets didn’t disturb the public. It cheated the show itself.”

“King” Otto Ringling, who sold tickets in the early years while another man stood by shouting “count your change!” must be spinning in his grave. I doubt John Ringling North is, for he sensed widespread cheating when he tried to enforce strict accountability during the last canvas days, largely in vain. And when, on a Ohio lot the day before Pittsburgh, North took a withering walk through the big top and decided to fold the tents for good, possibly the idea of even the customer getting shorted was one of many reasons that drove him to that fateful decision.

By then, Concello was gone. So too was Bill McGough. Michael Burke, the outsider brought in to clean up the mess, would soon be out of a job.

It’s a depressing tale, but one that needs to be told, because it’s part of the story. Bill Taggart is to be congratulated for his honest contribution to history. It adds detail to the deteriorating relationship between North and Concello that led to Concello’s quitting at the end of the 1953 season, only to be coaxed back three years later to oversee the transition from big tops to hard tops. Indoors, ticket selling changed, being shifted into the hands of the arenas for the most part. The days of easy skimming from a high ticket counter were a thing of the past. I recall Bob Dover in the early indoor years standing by the turnstiles and watching like a hawk. Now, more than ever, I understand why.

[photo by Ted Sato, Ringling-Barnum at Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 23, 1953]

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Morning with Agent A: Advance Peek at Big Apple Circus "Dance On!" and Backyard Intrigue ...

Will it Dance On?

On rare occasions from far and near, pro inside sources travel the e-mail lanes to my little stand on the midway. Some ask up front for anonymity before proceeding. And usually their wish is granted. After all, this opens a secret door to privileged information, and gives them a chance to explain why they do this or do not do that. Circus owners and their VP operatives often engage in artistic indiscretions that, as some of you know, bring out the rant in me, but I also realize that they do what they think they have to do in order to avoid creditor attachments, humbling 7-11 night shift work interviews, and food stamps.

Now comes a fresh source bearing a pseudonym, saying some nice things about my prickly prose & offering an insider's take on BAC developments. He presents himself as one with vast experience in virtually all avenues of entertainment for many years, and nothing said in his e-mails leads me to doubt his credibility, so let's give him allllllll ears.

To double protect my charitable informant incognito (believing this may yield even more juicy jackpots down the road), I am removing his identity one step further by christening him, a Showbiz David first, Agent A. You like? Okay, imagine us, if you will, huddling in a damp early morning dawn with coffee cups (tea for me, please ... ) in hand by the old ice house, exchanging our dire predictions of a big top Armageddon while awaiting a doomed circus train's arrival. However, I must advise you up front, keep in mind that Agent A's comments are coming from someone still in the biz, sans food stamps, I trust; could be colored by rivalries of which I am unaware. Could also be, for sure, right on. I've looked for NY reviews, none could I find so far.

Agent A on Big Apple's latest: "First half of the performance is long, slow and almost exclusively acrobats. There is no energy. The second half works fine, but probably looks better than it it is compared to the first half."

Strong acts: Jenny Vidbel and Rob Torres. Agent A gives high marks to Regina Dobrovitskaya (my spell checker just went berserk) --"most talented and attractive woman in the company," but faults her cloud swing, the only aerial turn in the show, for being too far out of sight. "It seems to be an attempt at a thrill act. It doesn't work."

Set features a very expensive looking slide that is "unrelated to the performance."

As for the dance theme, Agent A feels it "doesn't work on an extended basis."

Costumes are "for the most part dreadful." Ouch! Well, early press photos I received from BAC PR dept. of cast members affecting dancerly poses were terribly bland. No background whatsoever. No context. So there, another provisional ouch.

Now, let us hurry out the back door to where intrigue may be unfolding as we gossip gloriously on. Agent A opines that exec director Garry Dunning, from the dance world "seems to pursue ideas that won't work (remember Oops) instead of concentrating on what he has."

Hmmm, that remarks suggest to me that Dunning has the "yes and the no" on this precariously overstaffed lot (remember when it was just Paul and Michael and their little tent?). This raises once again the Big Question that is yet to be answered to my sanctification. Who really is in charge over there.

Rumors have it, according to A A, that a former marketing operative "may soon be returning to the show in a management position. Many believe he was a contributor to the problems it now has, so this does not sound like a positive step."

Lot layout at Lincoln Center, where the new show just uncorked, includes two "huge new" reception tents. "They make the show appear small and do not contribute to concession sales or a fun atmosphere."

I'm waiting for the reviews. I'm also wondering how spot-on Agent A might be. To him for his candor, I send my anonymous thanks.

Stay tuned. And oh, by the way, give yourself a break, stop shivering outside the ice house and go home. I just heard that the circus train you were waiting for is headed back to the barn already. A week or so ago. Show went broke.

Friday, October 22, 2010

TV: Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Leaves Too Many Questions Unanswered


TV Review: Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook
, aired the last three nights on PBS

Only on PBS could he get away with it. Yes, he is passionate and yes, he has some wonderful discoveries to share, among them a wry set of lyrics, never used, that Irving Berlin wrote for his great anthem “There's No Business Like Show Business." And sharp observations up his sleeve, one so obvious you might wonder, why did I not see that until now: This would be Al Jolson rolling his hips while he sang, just like a young troubadour named Elvis Presley would do thirty years later on national television.

And there are the songs, some of which he sings so tenderly and with such conviction, songs composed by a bygone era of great Broadway tunesmiths, starring his all-time favorite, George Gershwin. In their day, those Tin Pan Alley composers wrote the hit songs that America sang.

Unfortunately, cabaret singer Michael Feinstein is woefully (or conveniently) ill disposed to give “the great American songbook” (GAS, my term here for a great American song) a form and a history, so that we are left to ask and try to answer our own questions.

Why did Michael sing a patriotic composition of his own on the Washington mall? That a GAS? I hardly think so. Why a lame Elvis Presley throwaway number composed by an old time favorite of Feintein's? That a GAS? If so, why not a much better ditty from, say, the Beetles? Or, okay, an American team?

I would love to have been told who composed the first GAS, and who the last. Did dirty rock and roll kill it? A Seals and Crofts tune “Summer breeze” from a more recent era surely deserves membership as a certified GAS, no? And so many others.

And what exactly, by the way, defines a "great American song"?

Feinstein’s rambling three-part celebration which aired last week on PBS looked nagglingly more like a promo for the host than a valid documentary. The man's enthusiasm is infectious. I was both entertained and left perplexed by the format’s schizoid focus, however: Feinstein’s commentary about various songwriters and eras, which overlapped without any clear chronology; his visits to avid collectors; glimpses into his personal life, hardly personal here at all given that his partner Terrence Flannery (the two exchanged vows in 2008) comes off strangely as something of a stick figure in Feinstein's seemingly self-obsessed world.

And, of course, there are clips of Michael's vocalizing around a piano or in front of an orchestra, the latter platform revealing him to be, alas, a man of surprisingly uneven vocal talents. He is at his most affecting simply sitting at a Baldwin keyboard and crooning a lovely Gershwin ballad. "Our Love is Here to Stay" for starters. On his feet with a mike in stand up, his belting efforts strain a little.

Has the "songbook" been closed forever, or is it still open? Had Feinstein been able to embrace so many wonderful manifestations of it today, surely he would rejoice in how some of the greatest GAS are being rediscovered by, of all heathens, some gifted rockers, among them Rod Stewart who now has CD number 5 out. Stewart's renditions are nothing less than inspired. I just might buy one. And you, Michael?

The story of America's love affair, possibly past tense, with artfully created pop music (as opposed to folk, and, later, rock) has yet to be told in either a chronology or a format that can give us a handle. This was not that show. Somebody needs to grab Michael Feinstein by his neck and sign him to a contract to host such a documentary — not about himself but about, really, the Great American Song Book. And what a GAS that would be.

[photo, above, of Feinstein in the late 1970s in Los Angeles, with lyricist Ira Gershwin]

The Morning Midway: John Ringlng North II Joins His Own Band ...

This from Steve and Ryan's K-M blog:

We had a decent sized crowd for the second show. Mr. North sat with Lucky and Vicky in the bandstand to watch. He didn't want to feel out of place there, so he borrowed Ryan's horn and played air trumpet for some of the acts.

That's a surprise, but should we be? Music runs deep in the House of Ringling. August Ringling, father of the fab five, longed to see them accept positions as makers and pursue their serious musicianship. Charles and Alt T. musicians. Al and Charles loved opera so much, Al built that charming playhouse, very much alive today.

The nephew heir appardent, John ?Ringling North, spent a lot of late night fun time tooting off a saxophone, and I will be one to say that some of the original songs he wrote were very very good. Native talent never pushed onto Broadway.

North's nephew, John II? You might spot him some time on the little Kelly Miller and stand blowing hot or not hot trumpet.

It's in the family blood.

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Sunday Morning from Santa Rosa: A Circus Surprisingly Appears


On Friday morning at the fairgrounds for other reasons, I discovered the bright inviting tent of Circo Hermanos Caballero going up, right on the empty space you see in this photo. Many years ago, that is about the exact spot where the Clyde Beatty Circus spotted its seat wagons, into which I jumped after being offered a job, to lift up the jacks and stringers and push them over the sides.

Caballero's first show would not be until 7:30, too late for me to see and get back to Oakland. Wish I'd taken my camera.

Walking across the quiet grass, I counted about a dozen trailers, and as I strolled past them, I glanced at simple scenes of domestic tranquility -- kids playing under the sun, somebody working at their PC through an open door. This was a trouper's good life.

And I could understand why so many of them, when pressed during interviews, will state simply that this is how they prefer to live. This is where they belong, where they intend to keep working despite the economic hardships and everything else that gets in the way.

Oh, what a lovely little walk through a peaceful circus backyard ...

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Chinese Double Decker Rolla Bolla Bowl Kicking from Beijing Flyin Acrobats Show

Such an act! The reason most of us go to the circus, for that rare experience, as John Ringling North would say, "something I haven't seen before."

This was my greatest thrill in China.

video

Stephen Sondheim, Please Write Another Great One, and Here's How ...

Yes, I rise to yet a new level of pretentious admonition. I admire the greatness of Stephen Sondheim as much as anyone. Sadly, that greatness vastly diminished after Sweeney Todd (1979), through the impossibly unengaging Merrily We Roll Along, with a great score and a not great book.

On a PBS program covering his 80th birthday celebration, I felt such a sadness. He has lived so many years, striving to recapture his glory years (the 70s), when, in fact, there is little evidence ofa ny Broadway composer delivering first rate work once he leaves his early 60s.

Sondheim, I have often wondered, collaborated with at least two terribly ineffectual librettists, Geo Wideman (Pacific Overtures, xxxx), when he should be working with the most practical and pragmatic of dramatists, as a challenge and counter force against Sondheim's dense cerebral inclinations.

Not likely.

On a News Hour interview tonight, Sondheim explained how a lyric could not be "packed" with too many words or ideas (something like stuffing an omlet), and yet this is very tendency to overwrite and overreach has hampered many of his later works, riddled with obtuse lyrics flailing intellectually in too many directions. More than once during Into the Woods -- a veritable smorgasbord of dispirit ideas -- I asked myslef, what exactly is he NOW saying?

My favorite of Sondheim shows i Follies. Even watching a bus and truck production of the show in Northern California many years ago, the challenging questions it raised about how dreams end up as bitter-suite memories -- held me in thrilling thrall.

Because the man is such a theater giant, I am touched seeing him, so vital and alive still, knowing the roads he did not travel are the roads he will continue to travel, even more adamantly abstract, I fear.

Most of the songs sung on the PBS birthday celebration where the great ones. Elaine Strich nearly self-resurrected with her riveting of "I'm Still Here." We understand the words. We follow the feelings clear through to the end. We are not stranded as the show goes on trying to figure out in our minds what exactly is being said.

After his string of great works culminating with Sweeney, Sondheim began reaching to deeply into his mind (Sunday in the Park With Geroge), as if he had to continually go deeper, and in that futile excrecise and self indulegne, he committed the very sin that tonight he was preaching against: the overly loaded lyric. Is there anybody within the city limits of New York City willing to call the genius on this?

Please, Steve, get back to the basics. Believe in what you did in West Side Story and Company, and find yourself a grounded book writer. Stop dwelling on esoteric rhymes and the thousand degrees of ambivalence. You need to once gain tell us how "it's alarming how charming I feel." Might not make literal sense, but in a theatre, the rhyme scheme flys.

I would love to see you deliver another Big One and trump the historical odds against a composer of your age engineering so epic a comeback. Perhaps YOU are the one to do it.

The truth is, genius is a fleeting state of being. E.M Forster turned out four great books in not much more than a decade. F. Scott Fitzgerald turned out only one bonnafied mastepiece, Gatsby.

Sunday Morning with Henry Ringling North: The Greatness That Was Codona

"Again I say without fear of contradiction that Codona was the greatest flier of all time. Though he was not the first to do a triple somersault from the flying trapeze to the hands of his catcher, Lalo Codona, he did it better than anyone before or since. Arthur and Antoinette Concello both did the triple later, but they were never able to emulate Alfredo's apparently effortless style. Indeed, that word -- style -- was the mark of Codona's greatness. Whether in the most difficult feats or a simple pirouette from the catcher back to the bar, his form was as classic as Nijinsky's in ballet. When he caught the bar he seemed merely to touch it weightlessly, and when he flew through the air it was as though he were moving in his natural element. Even if he missed and fell to the net, it was gracefully done."

-- from his and Alden Hatch's book, Circus Kings, 1960.

There was a time in this country, and how well I remember it, when no circus act could excite, enthrall and satisfy an American audience quite like the flying trapeze -- even the most fundamental of troupes turning the passing leap. Americans together leaned forward on the edge of their seats, smiling brightly, attentively, ready to be taken on the greatest of all big top rides.

I'm not sure exactly why, but that majestically commanding moment seems to have long past us by.

Morning Midway: Paul Binder on Guillaume Dufresnoy to The New York Times

Interesting story in the Times, yesterday, "No Net For the New Man in Charge," by Felicia R. Lee.

Some things I did not know:

First of all, very sad to report that Bary Lubin has been battling cancer. I wish him excellent prospects for a full recovery and many more productive seasons as Grandma.

Show's budget was reduced two years ago by $5 million, down to $17 million from $22 million.

This season, the tour will be 2 months shorter, down to 8 months, to "focus on the Northeast corridor."

And here's retired Paul Binder expressing how he views the course that his replacement artistic director, Guillaume Dufresnoy, should take: "Guillaume wants to put his own stamp on it, but he's also aware that continuity is important."

Is that the previous Big Boss stressing what he expects to happen? I looked up the word "continuity," for an exacting refresher:

"...without essential change."

I'm not surprised. I've seen Dufresonoy's appointment as engineered to preserve what Binder has established, but the question remains, is this really what the show needs? And can Dufresnoy be satisfied mimicking what came before?

Next year's opus, he told the Times, will be handled "a team that has done mostly opera." That does not sound imitative to me.

Earlier comments in the wake of Binder's retirement by executive directory Gary Dunning alluded to bold new directions being envisioned, including tours extending far beyond usual BAC territory. Perhaps humbled by economic problems, they have shelved some lofty ideas for the moment.

At this point, likely they are hoping for the kind of continuity that will spell large turnouts, rebounding ticket sales revenue and corporate funding.

New edition, said to be "shorter and faster paced than last year's Bello is Back, because Mr. Defresnoy likes it that way," is now up and running at Lincoln Center.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Morning from China: Food, Glorious Food!


More delight to the bite: Want your noodles less slinky and sticky? Here's how, says Chef Boyi, recalling this dish from Taishan: After regular boiling, drain to dry, then pour cold water over and shake a little. Place in a bowl, and pour soup over. In Boyi's own words, noodles become closer to "rubber bands," giving off "a better biting feeling."


Rice on the table, noodles on the run: A feast in Guangzhou, of the sort Boyi prefers, but thereafter, noodles noodles noodles. Round the clock. Convenient in a pinch. Some mornings, we heated up a round carton in our hotel room. And on the trains. Reliably safe and filling. What I missed the most? Fresh produce.

Here we are in a typical small eatery, in the charming HouHai district of old Beijing.




A gentleman proud of his country: We exchanged many smiles, in the spirit of each of us wanting to communicate with the other (learning a foreign language is not in my genes). Through Boyi, I asked him if he felt proud about China's progress. "I feel very proud" he answered, "and things are getting better every day."

How far I had traveled from dread to delight. Here's the back story:

From my boyhood in Santa Rosa's Twin Dragons Restaurant, where my mother took me, my sister Kathy and brother Dick on very special occasions, to the land where it all began. I grew up loving mandarin dishes. So why my dread and fear of the food over there? Can you spell D-I-A-R-R-H-E-A? You are warned in advance: Nothing raw. Nothing off the street. Nothing that isn't served piping hot. Nothing on the train. NO tap water, only bottled, even when brushing your teeth. Boyi daringly brushed his in tap water, not I. In fact, a couple of Boyi's friends, visiting the year before, had spent a few days in a Chinese hospital stricken with the Big D.

Upon entering that other world, I obsessed over the tiniest quiver in my paranoid stomach -- was that it? Nothing ever happened, and so I never asked Boyi, "Why don't we try some American places?"


Small town hospitality in the world's largest city: Only a few blocks from the Bund Hotel in Shanghai where we were staying, one morning we wandered into a small restaurant, thinking it was open, and took a table. A few moments later, in entered a lady (seen in the photo, above, first row far right) who sat down with us.

She and Boyi conversed fluently over various food options; she gave us such attention! Turned out, she was the mother of the owner, who himself was away on business in London town. And the place had not yet opened. A great "breakfast" we had, very Chinese -- fried rice, two different soups and bacon rolled around mushrooms.

Trendy soups down there: Looking below on a typical outdoor sit-down, in Taishan. Only once did I depart the Asian grills, just to try a restaurant I have never been to in my own country -- McDonalds. (OK, just a joke; I haven't been there for maybe ten years). Staff looked properly Americanized. I ordered a chicken burger and fries, very good facsimile.




Dining on dollars in high fashion: At the magnificent Taishan Gaoye Hotel, $46.00 a night landed us a lavishly spacious room looking down upon a suspiciously murky brown river. This classy restaurant in the hotel is an event to remember. Among perfect palate pleasures -- Bone Soup, so subtle. Fried rice of white, black and brown, so delicately textured. Steamed green beans. And we took our breakfast, mornings for free, in the Western Buffet, below. I've never enjoyed so richly endowed a smorgasbord encircling the entire room. Many items cooked for you on the spot. I'd like to move in the hotel for a week or two and spoil myself.


The differences between here and there: Chinese food in China seemed fresher and tastier (I suppose, plainer), at the same time less elaborately enhanced with the sauces and seasonings that can make it more like cotton candy, in the states, and less like bone soup. And SO generously inexpensive. A meal for two under ten to twelve dollars? Not a problem.


Desert, anybody? A most interesting concoction was this ice mountain covered with red beans. I sampled a sweet nibble or two; the main courses are so richly satisfying, who really needs a sugar payoff?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sacramento to St. Louis: PETA is Now Teaching Local City Animal Control Inspectors How to Detect Evidence of "Abuse"


What a doozy this one is, forwarded to me by Don Covington. PETA infiltrating municipal animal control departments, offering free instruction on what to look for, how to monitor elephant walks, inspect living quarters etc., etc.

No doubt, a lot of brainwashing is going down as well.

Remember Sacramento last year, for a time ruling out the appearance of Ringling elephants in the show? Sacto's inspectors, as it turns out (I didn't know) had been given the run-through by PETA operatives, for free. Resulted in the pachyderms first being refused the right to perform, then allowed to appear.

Now, in St. Louis, as reported yesterday (10/14) in the Post Dispatch, city animal control inspectors, having just taken PETA-directed instruction, were on "an elephant stakeout, deep in the city's urban heart," gazing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus train, ready to follow a two-mile trek of the elephants out to the Scottrade Center.

This latest PETA strategy seen as as giving agencies around the country "greater familiarity with circus animals."

St. Louis officials said to have "welcomed" the Newkirk gang, characterized by the paper as "an avowed enemy of using animals for entertainment."

You can thank PETA in action, responsible for a St. Louis vet developing an aversion to the circus. That would be Abel Lopez, a nine-year animal control vet, who said he was "shocked." Before he took the PETA primer, Lopez had planned to take his two young daughters to the show. After the class, "But how," said he, "I don't want to take them."

The five-hour training class features "undercover footage of elephants being mistreated," according to the story. Class was presented Cindy Machado, a member of the Marin (CA) Humane Society.

With his new found expertise, Lopez thought he spotted arthritis in the knee of one of the elephants, and asked a PETA-hired vet for an opinion. Yes, agreed the vet. "But further examination was needed," reported the paper

Upon reaching the arena, Ringling officials refused PETA's operatives the right to take part in any inspections. Arguments flew back and forth between circus and city officials. A compromise brought in a St. Louis Zoo vet for some sort of consultation. The story goes on and on, and my patience is wearing thin.

Animal control officers are to stand vigil near Ringling's menagerie 15 hours a day.

Now to balance this all out, as I and a few others have said, that ugly PETA video taken of apparent mistreat of Ringling's elephants last year cast a blot on the show, and has yet, to my knowledge, to be answered back by the Felds, who originally claimed it to have been misleadingly edited. I'm still waiting to be told how.

All of these tangible setbacks. such as the damaging video, I am sure, have to have some kind of a cumulative adverse effect on all circuses. All the money in the world and all of the smartest Feld Entertainment lawyers and "expert" witnesses may not be enough in the court of public opinion.

Meanwhile, get used to more dog and pony acts.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Morning Midway: Another Victory for Venice? Old Ringling-Barnum Arena Still on Life Support ...

Venice City Council given a "list" six months ago by Venice Circus Arts Foundation promising things it would do if city would not tear town the 5,100 seat arena where Ringling once rehearsed and opened their new shows after switching from tents to hard tops.

So now? "We've done everything on that list," asserts Karen Dove of her consulting firm.

Circus Foundation, the brainchild and passion of trapeze great Tito Gaona, now seeking a "formal letter" from the council allowing its drive to save the arena to continue over the next three to five years.

Last month, city council showed twelfth hour sympathy by nixing $250,000 for a then-planned demotion of the old Art Concello designed building from its budget, thus holding back wrecking crews for a season or two of hope.

Circus Arts foundation has since crafted a three-year operating budget, first year's outlay of $86,000 to pay for cost of repairing the roof's "gaping holes."

According to a report by Terry O'Connor in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, even if the council gives a green light to foundation goals, two major challenges remain:

$10 million needed to renovate the arena, after which, per federal law, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus museum that Gaona hopes to create "must be a revenue producer for the airport fund" because it occupies airport property.

They've got some heavy lifting ahead if they intend to get their pie-in-the-sky project off the runway and into the air. Gaona make take his biggest tumble yet into the net.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Morning Midway: Circque du Soleil Acknowledges (Finally?) its Russian Roots


Daniel Lamarre, Guy Laliberte, the Mayor of Moscow and Russian managing partner Craig Cohon, in Moscow, November, 2009

To my eyes, from the first time I saw them in L.A., 1987, there can be absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Cirque du Soleil's deepest artistic roots are in the Soviet Circus scene of the era, and not in any noueau French movement.

In fact, are you listening, Russia? Had there been no Moscow Circus, there would never have been Cirque du Soliel as we know it, not the incredibly reinvented circus presentation that wowed the world upon its ground-breaking premiere in the City of Angels.

Cirque now plays only three Russia cities, and plans by 2015 to add seven more to an annual tour, said company president and Chief Operating Officer Daniel Lamarre to Reuters during a visit to Moscow, in front of the opening this Saturday of Coreto (my least favorite of all Cirque shows).

A permanent show for Russia is also on Cirque's "things to do" list. Throw in around $30-50 million for this little project.

Here comes a surprise, from the man second in command to Guy Laliberte. Corteo "had input throughout from Russian directors," revealed Lamarre. Show was originally created and directed by Italian Daniele Finzi Pasca, pushing a cerebrally fluffy vision that struck me as the work of an unmolested director having been given generous autonomy. Perhaps the Russians were later imported to put some muscle into Pasca's yawning sight and fashion show.

According to Lamarre, Cirque draws 20% of its acts acts from Russia, another 20% from China.

"Russians are the best performers on the planet. Any time we have a Russian, we take them."

I'd not go quite that far. Now that the Chinese acrobatics are taking to the air and, with exciting new direction (yes, influenced by Cirque) reshaping outstanding privately funded and produced shows in Beijing and Shanghai, China could well end up equal to the greatest circus capitals on the planet.

The leading Russian deficit? Those emasculating life lines which they introduced into the program back in the 1920s, and which have gradually infected circus art around the world.

But another matter, right? Yes, I know. I need to get over it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mine Rescue Trumps Moon Landing....


8:03 PM PST:

I'm watching it on CNN, excited and heartened and fearful. First miner now on the way up.

"in just a minute and a half, maybe two minutes from now. Family members waiting, 69 days now."

8:05 MINER ON THE SURFACE! MINOR ON THE SURFACE! NO, FALSE ALARM ...

8:07: little boy in hard hat waiting. steam from hole. "they will see that wheel stop, and they will know" ... nearly 14 minutes ... about two minutes before ... "upper parts of shaft secured with metal" ...

8:12: hoking horns! Cheering and applause! Fenix capsule up! miner's face behind capsule bars. Miner out, smiling, hugs crying son, wife ... Another miner standing by in tears. The world maybe in tears of joy ...

the pride of a rescue crew, of a man and his family, of a country, of the world up here ...

8:47: I am still riveted, waiting to see the next miner emerge. Waiting upon another elation of the first order. I must sign off.

But I can't stay away.
9:03:

We watch for a rope to move
over an old pulley, and hope
It will not break, nor stop
not digital, no
as old as a gold mine it is
how now it looks so fine!
rope over pulley,
lift slowly up
bringing next minor to the top
and more flags wave, waiting
and more kids cry, hoping
the moon was never like this
technically superb
humanly, spare
I marvel more at how humans can connect and care
down in earthly air.

Morning Midway: Baraboo, You're Back On! We Gotta Talk Some More


Where's the good Doc Dewel? And Steve (P.T.) Freese of Circus World? The Chamber of Commerce? Greg DeSantos from clownland?. You are all hereby summoned to my symposium, continued, on how to better market your considerable historical assets.

As you may know, I've made a late-breaking career of ranting on about how your town, Baraboo, should sell itself to the amusement going public as a package of easily linked delights in the most charming of small town atmospheres, rather than a ramp-o-round from one isolated attraction to the next. In a Sunday paper here in the Bay Area, I came across an item that affirms the unsolicited advice I've been tossing your way, that my ranting makes good business sense.

The story is titled "Just the ticket for circus fanatics." Item lists four places to satisfy the urge, including Circus Circus in Vegas (calling it "the obvious choice" because of its inclusion of amusement park rides--keep this rationale in mind); Circus World in your own backyard; your Ringling rivals down there in Sarasota; and that darling of revenue-producing instruction to nowhere for the blase of "The City," as they call it, known as the San Francisco Circus Center, the later likely inserted because it plays to the local audience.

Here's the kicker, the clincher, the test run payoff:

"If you're looking to make a big trip out of this, consider heading to Baraboo, Wis. This is the home of both Circus World and the International Clown Hall of Fame."

Let me repeat in bold: "This is the home of both Circus World and the International Clown Hall of Fame."

Jackpot! Another plus is the position given to your two attractions in the article, two short paragraphs down from the first recommendation, Circus Circus. And, your listing takes up the most space.

Okay, that's only a start. Here's my marching orders: Go back and dig out more of your native treasures. For starters, pull out the Thimble Theatre fun house, get it back in pristine working order, and put out the historical hype it deserves -- a charming gem from an age gone by.

The Al Ringling Opera House. This towering gem must play a starring role in the package. Here's how: Get your local thespians to check their snobbery at the stage door and spread summers of old time vaudeville -- or suitable music theatre, Sugar Babies and the Will Rogers Follies come to mind -- across the magnificent proscenium of this sainted playhouse. Does anybody remember that the Ringling brothers, yes, those boys who grew up in your own shadows, started out giving music hall shows on theater stages? Songs. Dances, Skits. The works.

That's history. That's Ringling. And that's entertainment!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Monday Midway Mad: Aussies Give Millions to Circus Oz; Paris Gives Boot to Roma Gypsies; Vazquez Bros. Give History Gold to Milner Library


First Draft Netless: Those Circus Ozzies, clever little subversive big top deconstructionists just keep subverting along. Latest handout (a government gift) for Australia’s most famous touring big top is, can you count over a million dollars, kids? — $10 Million. Go ahead, American big top survivors struggling on peanuts, eat your starving hearts out! ... The Big Bucks to refurbish and fancy up the former TAFE College in Collingwood, to serve as home base ... “This is a remarkable bunch of people,” chirps millionaire administrator to be, Oz Chair Wendy McCarthy, “and a remarkable affirmation by the state government of Circus Oz and the role it plays in the Australian, and particularly Victorian arts, community." Oz, a Victorian art form? Boy, what a weird sense of humor these Ozzies have ...

Let’s hurry over to Paris before its talented gypsies are all homeless jugglers having been 86d across the border. Paris hot shots not to fond of the free-roaming set, fuming over low wages dolled out to musicians, dancers, and acrobats, in hissy fits over young kids dawning spangles to dazzle crowds. European Union, none to happy either, by a callous French eviction crusisade to rid the precious landscape of these traditional entertainers, calling the campaign “a disgrace” and threatening legal action. A thousand Romanian and Bulgarian “migrants” forced out so far, thousands more slated for expulsion. EU considers the act a violation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights ... Okay, not so much fun in France. So back we fly to America, remember America? I say, Tarp Money for our distressed big tops!

Little Top Bits: Zerbini Family Circus hiring UniverSoul’s founding ringmaster, Calvin “Casual Cal" DuPree to blow the whistle, and that could shake things up over there. Dupre’s talent pack is loaded with contrasts, bombast to soft sermonly admonitions, prayerfully down to a hush. I’ve only seen him once, and was mighty impressed — up until he turned pastorly. I did not convert. He and a stable circus deserve each other, so long as they can agree on who passes the plate ... Ringmasters of caliber are not easily found. Tendency nowadays to overplay bombast in the new one-ring format. Already, tho, Casual Cal and another Zerbini operative taking opposite sides to the press about the animals — Cal glad show has no elephants, while local event coordinator Andrea Murray claiming that in 12 years under the big tops, never once did she spot a mistreated pachyderm. IS THERE A PRESS AGENT IN THE HOUSE?????!!!! ...

Star Trapeze Mementos to Milner Library: This is a big one for Illinois State U, which seems to be growing up as impressively as did the once young and future quad prince, Miguel Vazquez. He and brother, Juan, graciously giving a gold mine of their assorted stuff over to The Circus and Allied Arts Collection in that up and coming Milner Library. Previously, I waxed exuberantly rational about the unit's staggering stash of photos by the brilliant Sverre Braathen. Now, they're getting from the greatest flyers of all -- hand grips, trap bars, news articles, wardrobe, and more. A heart-warming legacy. Says Steve Gossard, Circus Collections curator, "I can't think of a more significant acquisition than the trapeze bar donation." Twas here in Blomington-Normal, you experts may know, where countless American flyers were trained for the air.

The brothers, notes librarian Maureen Brunsdale correctly, "will forever be remembered as the first pair to successfully and consistently catch the quadruple somersault."

And maybe, sad to say, the last. But oh, just to have lived through it ...


[photos, from top: A pair of Circus Ozzies; Miguel Vazquez, in 2009, back into the air for old time's sake, photo courtesy of Philip Weyland]

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kelly Miller Circus 2010: As Ben Trumble Sees It

Note: I came across this on Ben Trumble's blog. Another view, and one from a trouping pro worth reprinting. (I assume this is ok with you, Ben.)

John Ringling North II’s Kelly Miller Circus played the final weekend of its 2010 New York route in Southwood, and Cortland, NY. Now in its fourth season under the management of Jim Royal and John Ringling North II the KM show continues to get better and better living up to its moniker “America’s One Ring Wonder.” The ever evolving, incredibly complicated Cainan tigers (Casey McCoy) opening the show are like nothing seen elsewhere. Extreme trapeze and the very talented KM clowns serves as reminder that KM may be from Hugo, OK – but show enjoys a long reach seeking out talent. The Mike Rice camels work flawlessly, and a medley of acts framed around the 1950’s is good fun. Only the peanut pitch rang hallow with a fine start but devolving into an auctioneer’s foreclosure sale. Nice to see a risley, a classic act made new again.

The audience for KM in Southwood was sparse. Playing the same lot with KM two years ago I wondered why the Southwood date, only a mile from the Syracuse city limits wasn’t marketed in Syracuse proper? Conventional wisdom sometimes states that audiences won’t travel from a large community to a smaller one to see circus, but cross billing Southwood as Southwood/Syracuse and coupling paper with media in the Syracuse market might have made the difference with this particular date sponsored by the volunteer fire department. Robert Childress’s marketing plan on Lewis & Clark, sponsors selling only adult tickets, allowing the laydown of free children’s tickets would almost certainly make sense for a town like Southwood where presales may have been less than outstanding. Laydowns on the south side of Syracuse might have driven traffic, particularly as the show competed with a nearby carnival. Cortland, on Sunday was a bit better.

Lack of gate did nothing to diminish the excellence of KM’s program, as the show cut across New York from a New England run, and with major dates in Ohio coming up shortly.

Over the last four seasons Kelly-Miller has transformed itself from the small, successful Hugo-style circus of the David Rawls era into a powerhouse circus. Much effort and money has gone into reinventing the performance, adding and upgrading equipment, and improving the Oklahoma Winterquarters. With an outstanding road office staff, and a home office directly overseen for part of the season by Jim Royal, logically the next “project” in KM’s evolution would focus on marketing, the advance, and public relations and media. For a decade beginning in the mid-1990s it appeared that shows could realized significant cost savings using internet and direct mail resources to handle many marketing, advance, and media tasks previously performed by individual either on or ahead of a show. Web pages with sponsors tutorials, promotions keyed into zip code demographics, e-media kits, and online ticket sales were all great ideas. However in retrospect the communications revolution seems to work best augmenting rather than replacing bodies on the ground. Advance clowns still have a role on circus ten days ahead of the show, particularly when school is in session. It pays off handsomely on a circus like Culpepper. An advance person, or team several weeks ahead of the show can go a long way in bucking up disorganized sponsors, buying local print media or radio spots, and spot checking local regulation and the ultimate suitability of a lot. A strong marketing effort from the home office, and strong billing crew with at least a few suave English speakers puts up more paper and lays down more discount coupons or free kid tickets. And well thought out media and publicity campaigns are far more effective than merely faxing. When all the pieces fall into place, no current tent show does a better job handling marketing, media, billing, and the advance better than Cole Bros. Likely future Kelly Miller efforts in this direction will match or better those efforts.

Sunday Morning with Frank Braden: "Bulls Eye for Big Bertha"

"Spectacular has been the Big Show's season of 1948 -- spectacular in its triumphal coast to coast tour, in its mighty operation, in its phenomenal grosses and its never-to-be-forgotten performance.

Spectacular is the word for it. And don't overlook the nut, pardner. It's a bit of a show off-too.

The Madison Square Garden engagement was fabulous -- hot out of the cosmic dream books. Enough people were turned away during that epichol run to fill the Yale Bowl thrice over, two laps high. Showman pinched themselves in Broadway producers' offices, in Lindy's, in '21, in Sardi's and in vain to make sure they were awake. 'It's the show business millennium to end all millenniums,' chorused three Harvard refugees from the Theatre Guild. In Moscow, Joe Stalin, awaiting the flash on his hoped for U. S. debacle, observed the world rushing through the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey gates and gnashed his Odessa store teeth. 'We're double-crossed,' he howled. 'Fire the whole Red American Fifth Column! But liquidate John Ringling North first.'"

-- from Braden's story in the RBBB 1948 Route Book.

Was one of Ringling's most gifted press agents merely flaking here? I think not. In 1948, Ringling-Barnum turned 'em away by the thousands in San Francisco's Cow Palace. In 1948, maybe the last great year, Americans were yet to be introduced to a dazzling new invention in a magical box waiting around the corner to steal them away from live entertainment: television -- SD

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?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Morning Midway: California Welfare Handouts Helping Boost Sagging Cirque du Soleil Vegas Ticket Sales?


Reported today in the Los Angeles Times, millions of dollars in welfare aid to California's allegedly "neediest" are ending up on Vegas tables, and, presumably, over the counters for show tickets. The latter option no doubt includes Cirque du Soleil's many Vegas shows.

Added to this revelation is news (nothing new, really, but severe in degree) that Vegas itself continues to suffer its worst economic depression since the slot machines sprang up in the hot desert in the 1940s. The New York Times trailing this ominous saga reporting Nevada unemployment at 14.4 percent, highest in the nation. Along the strip, figure reaches 14.7 percent. (The figure was 3.8 percent ten years ago.) Plaza Hotel and Casino, symptomatic of dire times, laying off 400 workers, shutting off its rooms and parts of its casino for "eventual renovation." Said to be "the lataest high-profile hit" in a city that's seen a "a steady parade of them."

So far in 2010, bright rebounding news was followed by a reversal of modest fortunes. Following grinding months of "precipitous declines," revenues rose by 3 percent during the first quarter, only to be wiped out and worsened by a cruel and cracking 5 percent drop in the second quarter.

August marked the 44th consecutive month for Nevada leading the nation in housing foreclosures.

And, what of the out-of-towners needed to play the slots, deal the cards, and snatch up the Cirque tickets? CDS still offering discounts. So far, all its shows appear to be staying the course.

On a larger note, one might well wonder how well Cirque advances its public image -- which translates into ticket sales -- by touring damaged goods (Banana Shpeel), by steeply discounted tickets, and by continuing to saturate markets with more new Cirque shows.

Ticket prices: On one website, VegasView.Com, Cirque's tickets among virtually all Vegas shows hold the higher priced positions. Very impressive to the roaming eye. Perhaps a shrewd marketing ploy, for Cirque du Soleil's own website offers a number of enticing discounts, including tickets starting at just $50.00 for all but one ("O") of their seven shows. Obviously, here is evidence that the Montreal monster has also been hit hard by the Great Recession. Tantamount to Ringling offering $10 ducats to the Garden.

Moody's Investors Service senior VP Keith Foley told the Times, "Don't automatically assume that when the economy comes back people will start gaming at the same level. We put this in the grand scheme of of things. This is a highly discretionary form of spending. People lost their savings."

So now, they're cashing in their food stamps for a ticket to Believe?

[photo at top: City Center, conceived before the economic downturn, by Monica Almeida/The New York Times]

Monday, October 04, 2010

Kelly Miller Circus Pushes Power in Website Video Samples, But Do They Give Too Much Away?



UPDATED, 10/4: See Paul H's comment
Back to the promise of John Ringling North II, should I reinstate my "obsession"? I just revisited his website, and to my surprise and provisional delight discovered a couple of professional promo videos, one 15 seconds, the other twice that, that are, through and through, professional. The promos are clean, to the point and strong: "At last, a real circus!" Good hook. "America's one ring wonder!" Excellent.

This tells me, despite my earlier concerns, there is somebody over there minding the marketing store. Sometimes, that is. Read on.

Also to be found on the same website are video clips, not professionally produced, from five of the show's acts in a You Tube gallery. On balance, they fairly impress, but they offer prospective patrons probably too much. Contained therein are clips lasting from a brief effective half minute to over four minutes. Yes to the former, NO to the latter.

Such a video should tease and not satiate. Should not give too much away, which is exactly what happens with Armando Loyal's six well handled elephants -- did you hear me, six -- more than Ringling? -- earning over four minutes. It does not make marketing sense to me.


The good: Casey McCoy's cage turn, clocking in at 37 seconds, making hay with yet another winning item (I've only seen this guy's work in the world of You Tube): One of his agile charges on hind legs approaching another tiger and jumping over it erectly with captivating dexterity. You can hear the crowd's proper appreciation.

Single trap enthusiast Nikia, A "first time in America" import for North II, fills the air with fast-moving energy and abandon.

Some very cute tricks in Roxie Montan's dog and pony drills, but not easy to make out in less than ideal lighting. Too bad these clips could not have been shot under a full tent.

Of course, the show-stopping Poema kid charms the crowd, I just don't understand the value in giving so much of the act away.

Music comes through as strongly supportive and relevant as I recall on my visit to the show in Brewster, NY. Classical ringmaster John Moss III's announcements are resilient and to the point without being overbearing for a one ring frame.

Okay, Kelly Miller loyalists. Yeah, I'm still here. Still have a pulse. Before you lurch forward with irrational exuberance, spell check your profanity.

[photos, off Kelly-Miller website, from above: Adrian, Jr. and the Poema family; Casey McCoy]

9-24-10

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Sunday Morning with Francis Beverly Kelley: A Fleeting Brilliance Almost Gone the Moment it Arrives ...

There are only two days in the circus business: today and tomorrow. Always the course of the show's bloodstream lies a hundred or so miles ahead where cheerfully and competently it will repeat today's routine. Only the name of the town, the weather, and the spectators will alter the mammoth animated mural which is circus day in America.

Bright ribbons in the coiffure of springtime are the brilliant pictures of snarling wild animals, tumbling acrobats, pretty circus girls, and laughing clowns that quicken the pulse of kids from eight to eighty. These are the trumpet notes of spring expressed in color; and yet the men who bring about this magic on barns and fences and in store windows act so inconspicuously that their "art work" seems to have been executed by sheer magic.

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

Friday, October 01, 2010

Finding Love on Dangerous Ground: A Film Noir Worth Spending Some Time With ...

For lovers of film noir, take a look at Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground, one of my favorites. The DVD version offers, among its extras, a highly instructive commentary by film editor and critic Glenn Erickson about director Ray (In A Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause), the film and film noir in general. For serious movie buffs, Erickson's clear analysis of how the movie was originally shot and then extensively edited, post production, is worth the price of admission.

Ground has a memorable score by one of Hollywood's greats, Bernard Hermann, a score of symphonic depth that, at its best, captures in delicate tones the inherent sadness central to the lead characters. Erickson contends that what Ray gave us is a sensitive character study much more than a cop movie. With that I'd agree. He even makes a persuasive argument for the affirmative ending that was added well after principal shooting wrapped in 1950. The studio, RKO, was run by the incessantly meddling Howard Hughes, who held back on releasing it until early 1952.

On Dangerous Ground shifts mid way from the dark and moody rain-swept streets of a big city by night -- very noirish -- to the open snow-covered mountains where a killer is on the loose. The story follows the journey of a jaded and angry police detective named Jim Wilson, played by Robert Ryan, who ultimately finds redemption in a fragile connection to a blind woman essayed with tender conviction by Ida Lupino.

It's interesting to consider how the extensive changes made to the film after it wrapped may have actually improved its impact. Erickson, a superb teacher, leads us through the many script revisions, first from novel to screenplay, then in post production work. When finally released, the movie suffered generally negative notices; it would take decades to reach the acclaim of film scholars and buffs. Today, On Dangerous Ground is regarded as a film noir classic.

I highly recommend your taking a look.