Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What John Strong Teaches Me About Circus Performance Showmanship

I was lucky in my boyhood to see circuses so imaginatively directed, from Polack Bros. to Ringling-Barnum, to -- yes, the tiny John Strong Circus that played the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rose for free. How I looked forward to this diminutive delight!

In my forthcoming book, Inside the Changing Circus, there are two chapters that, now I realize, are related. One, "Directing the Impossible" (about the circus being the most difficult form to direct because of how abstract the acts are) appears early in the book. The other, "High Wire Critic," in which I advocate a certain path for reviewing a circus, is the penultimate chapter (ho, ho, you with your dictionary and thesaurus -- have fun looking up "penultimate"!)

What was I saying and where was I going with this?

I envy the circus fan who can enjoy the acts themselves without being bothered or swayed by all of the elements that can turn a random lineup into a cohesive driving performance. I can't. I go looking for presentational values -- the showcase -- as much as I do for the individual artists who supply the critical content.

And so it is always a new challenge for me, facing each new show.

There's a tension I feel in considering the balance between raw content (the acts) and performance showmanship (how they are linked, costumed, scored, paced, presented as a whole).

And how does John Strong fit in here? Remembering him, I was struck by a late-breaking mini-epiphany laying in bed this morning (sorry, just had to use that "e" word). JOHN himself was the production. HIS sparkling presence. HIS smile. HIS hokey mannerisms. HIS announcements. How he would chirp, "Got a great hand, Dixie!" after a lady performed the most basic trap act ... "Hey, Rainbow, listen to that applause! They loved your shenanigans!"

And if you he saw you sitting there in the audience, what a big deal he would make out of it. He once, discovering my skinny figure in the seats, introduced me as if I were the Secretary of State. I was all of maybe 17 years old.

From the simple to the sublime, ever since English equestrian Philip Astley added acrobats and clowns to his horse riding exhibitions to reverse flagging business, the circus has presented itself to the public as a performance. The Europeans did little other than to run the acts one at a time, with a ringmaster stepping into the ring between each, same old same old, to issue an announcement. Stodgy Old World reliable.

We Americans had performance showmanship in spades, and we still do. The Russians possessed it as well. And now, of course, those infuriatingly brilliant mortals up in Montreal.

Maybe because Barbette was on the scene when I, barely into my teens, fell for the big top, I was conditioned to expect production splash.

Summing up a review with a starred rating: A great exercise, for in struggling to commit, I am forced to re-examine my notes. I always list the acts on a piece of paper, next to each, something indicating my reaction. "*"= tops. "so-so" == well, you know what. Keep going back to the list, it's my anchor. No matter how great or lousy was the production, the acts must take precedence.

Sort of.

Did I say "directing the impossible"? Okay, let me add, "reviewing the impossible."

Hopelessly addicted, I plead guilty. Blame Barbette. Heck, blame John Strong.



Harry Kingston said...

I had the pleasure of seeing Big John Strong's Circus one time in Houston, Texas.
There were about 8 of us circus fans visiting the hsow and we had a great time and yes John was the show.
We were called out and recognized in the audience.
John needed a jack hammer as the lot they were playing was on a mall and my circus fan friend and I went to get him one.
He show was very small and as I remember Fisher Bros was like Ringling to John show.
But he was the man and made us all feel like we hd known him for many years.
Another one of your California Circus's with many fond memories was Sid Kellners George Mathews Great London and another great man to us fans.
I even arrowed the show into my area of Texas for them.
Harry in Texas

Showbiz David said...

Yes, Harry, you too were lucky to experience the folksy showmanship of John Strong. There will never be another like him!

BJ said...

Big John Strong gave me my start in the circus business. After 31 years on tent shows, I still thank him every day. -BJ

Jim Pryts said...

In 1990, I believe it was, my wife and her clown club got a call from the Big John Strong Circus, which would be performing in El Cerrito, California. They were asked if they would like to perform with the John Strong Circus. They jumped at the chance, and I watched with great satisfaction as my clown, "Pom Pom", and all her friends got to perform with John and the rest of his great performers. It was a day to remember, and I took many photos. One that stands out in my mind, and my favorite, was a photo taken after the performance, with all the clowns and Big John Strong beaming for the camera.