The House of Ringling is in the Tent: John Ringling North II watches a performance of his Kelly-Miller Circus. All photos by Block News Alliance/Michael Henninger.
It may not be New York City, but neither is it Hugo. The Toledo Blade, which reaches a metropolitan area numbering well over half a million people, lavished an impressive three-part story on John Ringling North II and his Kelly-Miller Circus, complete with a slate of professionally flattering, albeit ill-lit, photos snapped by Michael Henninger. Blade writer Zoe Gorman obviously did not recycle a press kit to produce this stellar report.
It may well mark the most significant coverage yet accorded North II, now in his fifth season running the show. Kelly Miller clown and blogger Steve Copeland has posted links to all four articles. Steve himself gets engaging attention, along with the Poema family, ringmaster John Moss III, and a few other staffers.
Most revealingly, North II speaks of his youth, of scheming to be free of attending all-male prep schools so he could sit in co-ed classrooms, of his circus dreams, duties on the show, learning basic rolla bolla and juggling. Of special interest to doubting circus fans will be John's recollections of his famed uncle, John Ringling North. On that fateful day in Pittsburgh, PA, back in 1956 when North declared the tented circus "a thing of the past," says nephew John, his uncle "was too upset to watch the show." Traditional fan speak has is that JRN was a callously detached "absentee owner," as they believe him always to have been -- despite his having spent much time on or around the show during its last two years under canvas. And despite all of the radical changes he was implementing at the time (many of which were ahead of their time). In deed, North virtually never attended a performance of his own circus once it finished out rehearsals and made it through opening night. A mystery I am hoping his nephew will one day explain.
After Ringling North I sold the circus, then a thriving indoor operation once again in 1967, as remembered by nephew John he "was kind of lost. He used to write the music for the circus and dream up the production numbers, and he had no more circus. He was always planning how he could get it back, but he never did."
The Poema family rehearses backstage, while ringmaster John Moss III stands by, ready to blow the next whistle.
Today, there is a Ringling most definitely inside the tent. John Ringling North II travels with the show for half its season, and when he's on the lot, he takes in virtually every performance. "They put the show on; the least I can do is watch it."
When Kelly-Miller came up for sale five years ago, a key component in North II's sudden decision to make a purchasing offer was his long-time friendship with seasoned trouper Jim Royal, who was, around that time, serving on Big Apple Circus (a very very high class show) as general manager. The two have apparently worked well together. The show is now, said North to reporter Gorman, "breaking even."
Altogether, the three articles project a high morale among company members to be working for a real Ringling, in fact, the first Ringling to run a circus in 40 years. Remarked John Moss III, "It was a great thrill and honor to be the first ringmaster in decades to be able to say the word Ringling and have an actual Ringling in the audience as an owner of the circus."
John II compares an indoor circus to "spending a day in the supermarket." He never felt much magic inside the arenas.
This hardly looks like the flop house we thought this clown was driving! Steve Copeland puts on today's face. And the laugh's on us.
And he may be bringing smiles to the departed souls of not only his father and uncle, but to the Ringling brothers, who started out in 1884 and wound up the undisputed kings of the circus world, envied around the globe. Surely founding brother Albert, who never liked the three-ring set up, would be pleased.
During each performance when he's with the show, North slips out of his seat at a certain point to make an entrance and demonstrate bull whip cracking while the ring is being rigged for the aerial ballet performed by "the North Starlets," John's continuation of the name given them by his Uncle John. Once there were dozens floating in unison over three rings. Now there are only four. But in today's single ring market, no longer are tent size or number of performers -- and elephants -- the makers by which the public judges a circus.
Next year's show, we learn, will carry a pirate theme, and the Poema family will be back with a Russian swing turn. [not so, see update above] That means the House of Ringling, to its sterling credit, is keeping one of Spangleland's most dazzling showman, young Adrian Poema, Jr. under its little big top. This kid lights up "America's One Ring Wonder" with rare charm and humor. He is circus. So, evidently, is his promisingly engaged boss.
Post update: Zoe Gorman followed the show onto Kelly's Island with extended coverage. Describing high points in the show, wrote Gorman, "The energy reached a peak when Adrian 'Gordo' Poema, Jr., danced to 'Gasolina,' -- flipping backwards in the air off his father's feet in a foot-juggling routine and pointed to the crowd."