Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sunday Morning Looking Back: Art Concello -- Did His Crusty Genius Blind Bill Ballantine to the Facts?

If anybody living — or dead — could shake down this country’s addiction to reckless overspending and set it solvent once again, surely that man would be Arthur M. Concello. He’d clear away the rot, run the lobby lice off the lot, cut cut cut, cut cut cut some more, get back the brightest minds at the cheapest wages, and put the damn thing back on the road, and make it turn out a profit ... Add get a little more than a little respect

Concello, first the great circus flyer and then the great circus manager, was the operational genius behind the conversion of Ringling-Barnum front tent show to arena attraction (Sorry, Feld family). Concello alone engineered, day by day, receipt by receipt, wining stand by losing stand, a gradual rise out of the ashes of Pittsburgh into the eventual glory of indoor salvation, and he did it for John Ringling North. Most of all, for himself.

Not a pretty job. Many early stands, at inglorious ball parks or in front of race track grandstands, were anything but the greatest show on earth. But the steady nuts and bolts man made it happen. He brought off what Irvin Feld would later grab credit for.

AMC -- or "Little Caesar" was so darned colorful, such a crusty Damon Runyon type character, that I suppose it was hard for writer Bill Ballantine not to either believe everything he was told by the Big Show's savior or just too tempting not to gild the story with additional BS.

In this latest (finally arriving) issue of Bandwagon, editor Fred Pfening regales us with our favorite subject, which means anything about Ringling history, pre-Feld. He’s been handed the original manuscript of a yarn penned by Ballantine that, in a shorter version, appeared in the October 1957 issue of Cavalier magazine as “Damndest Showman Since Barnum.” It chronicles Concello’s slow but steady and tenacious guidance of Big Bertha into her new home under the hard tops.

Art Concello gives advice to flyer Faye Alexander, as catcher Yerbe looks on from the trap net.
Top three photos from the Cavalier magazine story.

The article, a copy of which is stapled into one of my boyhood scrapbooks, rolled off the presses soiled with nagging factual errors, so many as to leave me wondering how many more there might be. But never mind, I had the same feeling after reading Fred Bradna's Big Top. In wicked truth, we all make errors; Ballantine’s prose captures so vividly the personality of his subject — I can vouch for this, having interviewed Mr. C. on a number of occasions — that it’s tempting to want to believe everything he tells us. And forget about history or nuance. Even, perhaps, Pfening has been blinded.

Here is what strikes me as the article’s biggest blunder: AMC may well have lusted after a full partnership with JRN when the two eventually agreed, in October, 1956, to work together again, but that he did not get. In spirit, yes. In fact, he achieved absolute dominance in the operational realm, getting North, a shaken and humbled impresario, to stand aside, go away, write more of your songs if you must (Concello was no fan of North originals) and book a few acts, while I get this thing back on its feet, in running gear. Is THAT a deal? What could Johnny say. In one of his most defining moments, John Ringling North, a hands-off showman, walked silently away.

But arguably the story’s principle fantasy is to picture AMC, following North’s return to Sarasota on the ill fated funeral train in 1956, as waiting eagerly in the shadows, ready to pounce upon JRN at the weakest moment and win a way back to the power of “the yes and the no.”

In fact, if anything, in my best view it was the other way around. JRN desperately needed Art to pick up the mess and reassemble it into an indoor-outdoor sans canvas operation. Not only that, but when you delve deeper into the relationship between the two — and this is not to go homoerotic, well, not quite — there is evidence that Johnny adored Art, that he felt a great affection and respect for the man.

After having read a handwritten letter of JRN's to AMC, Circa 1940, found in the Ringling-Barnum Archives at Baraboo (thank you again, Erin Foley) , I felt more drawn to this theory of mine. In the letter, John poured out his affection to Art (signing off with “Love”), taking the little man to task for appearing to side with some strikers while possibly intoxicated. I also know that when JRN would come around the show, according to what AMC himself told me, he, AMC, knew how to duck out of site in order to avoid having to spend time socializing with, technically, his boss. AMC saw in JRN the perfect partner, and it took him a little time to get the partner to stay away form the circus. JRN on the continent “scouting for acts.” AMC on the lot, keeping the forces in check, counting the money and making sure a lot of it landed in his own personal cookie jars. Was this a form of — you fill in the word.

Concello was a wiz at circus logistics, but not a marketing giant. And on his own, not a particularly memorable -- or at least well remembered -- artistic producer. He too experimented with sponsored dates in 1952, which should tell you how well the show was not doing, and when I queried him about this ill-fated episode, in his presence, there by the indoor pool at his house in Sarasota, I drew a complete blank. A blank of denial? Of embarrassment? He refused to acknowledge any such thing. Was everything I read about that season of disappointing sponsorship returns in The Billboard a fantasy? Something concocted by a Bill Ballantine? All I could conclude was that Concello did not want to be associated in history with telephone solicitations. How average that would have made him look. But even giants sometimes look only average. It was not the sort of a Ringling ballyhoo one associated with the greatest show on earth.

In that one telling moment, I felt the pride of “the little man” for his years with the circus that was then envied by the entire world. A pride so deep he could not bring himself down to the level of an average big top boss.

In my forthcoming book, Inside the Changing Circus, this from Bill Ballantine I quote, and I am wondering how true or false it might be. He is talking about elephant handlers:

“The idea that you can’t hurt an elephant because it’s so big and powerful is a popular misconception. Among bull hands, elephants feel even a fly or mosquito on their hides so they feel the hook all right. The trunk is especially sensitive. Any injury to it results in exquisite agony.”

Anybody care to comment on the statement’s accuracy?

Opening night at Madison Square Garden, kicking off the new indoor era: Pat Valdo, left, John Ringling North and Arthur Concello. Photo from Bandwagon.



Harry Kingston said...

I cannot wait to read in your new book about your impressions of some circus folks of yesterday.
Especially Concello as reading in books that what ever he touched made money.
Especially the story of him buying Russell Bros and where it went from there.
And the 1946 Clyde Beatty Circus made all kinds of money and played sidewalled in the rain in Canada and still had full houses.
I never got to meet Concello and Johnny Pugh said he came to the lot when Beatty Cole played Sarasota.
What I could never understand when Ringling closed in Pittsburgh and North was there in his private railroad car why he never got out to address his personnel.
He let Rudy Bundy do the dirty work.
Was he ashamed big bertha closed??
Then Concello rose the Phoenix from the flames.
Harry in Texas

Showbiz David said...

Good morning, Harry.
I thought I would have to disappoint you by saying there is little about AMC in my next book -- because the book is not about circus logistics and operations, but mainly about circus performers, producers and directors, about the art of the show itself, as it has evolved over time. And YET, some reassuring news for you: Art Concello, when I ran his name through “find” in my manuscript, occurs quite a few times in a number of let's say cameos. Prominently, when he enters, connected to the School of Bloomington’s great history as a world class circus talent producer, where Art was taught to fly at the Y, then moving forward in his flying accomplishments and how he inspired both his wife Antoinette to achieve the triple, and then Fay Alexander, who did the Big Three and doubled for Tony Curtis in the movie Trapeze. Art is also there being quoted about the tough realities of how circuses survived. So, yes, and relief, the Great Concello, without my even hardly trying, comes vividly through!


thanks to Art for keeping Harold's Voise circus scrapbooks after he passed for my family to have and share in a personal blog to those times. C. Voise

TCB said...

Ad hominem attacks on Bill Ballantine doesn't make you a writer. Calling his research BS is a pretty low thing for you.