"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

Monday, February 28, 2011

Board Game Twitter: Trying to Make "Can't Stop Shopping" the Next Monopoly ...

While Sinatra sings “Blue Moon” off my old turntable, I’m typing new title ideas for fortune cards in a board game you have not yet heard of, a game called Can’t Stop Shopping. My friend Boyi Yuan (above) and I, who invented what is sure to rival Monopoly (you need self-motivation to embark on these projects), played it a few times last night. A “Sale Ends” card means any discount cards held by players must be returned. Boyi excitedly declared, that should include ALL fortune cards, including free taxi rides to anywhere on the board.

Really? Creativity, sometimes in a burst shaking a fragile status quo, can lead to the changes you need. So I listen to Boyi, as he listens to me. Did you Monopoly lovers know how long the game (my one true love) was played in many forms before Parker Bros in 1935 finally, after grave doubts, took it on and made history? It came from an earlier invention called The Landlords, created by a woman in Philly. Even a recent sensation out of Germany, Settlers of Catan, took a few years to take flight. Yes. Go look it up. (Please take note, any Mark Monopoly Zuckerbergs out there: our design and rules are fully copyrighted, Sorry.)

Monopoly in the beginning: The Landlords, patented in 1904 by Lizzie J. Magie, a quaker who belonged to a tax reform movement advocating against landlord advantages.

So here I am, in our The Landlords stage, thinking of how to clearly link the discount AND free taxi ride cards under an umbrella title, which I will propose to Boyi when next we network. See what he thinks. Discount Days Coupon? Sale-Athon Coupon? (How clever I thought, until I found that “Saleathon” is already a word. ) Sale Away Coupon? (That sounds original!?!) I settled for now on simply "Sale Day." I'll run the other ideas by Boyi and see how he reacts.

We’ve put up a Flea Market (for losers needing to raise cash fast) amidst the various stores from which players make purchases in a mad ruthless scramble (dice rolling luck and shrewd strategic planning) to be the first to reach one of two shopping goals.

Sinatra just sang “It all depends on you”. He means us, the inventors?

We play the game with as many testers as we can con – Experts tell you to sit there and watch the reactions of others. That’s the only way your game can viably develop. Body language does not lie. Wordlessly, people reveal a whole lot. And you gotta take it.

First and second games played over Chinese rails last April, on the T15 from Beijing to Guangzhou

Third and fourth games played in room 1110 at the Taishan Gaoyi Hotel in Taishan


Carping comments from the unimpressed? “That’s the best feedback!” Boyi once remarked after I’d played another of my game attempts in San Francisco to some uppity game board addicts (OK, that game -- Hired! Fired!, in limbo, was way too complicated). Can’t Stop Shopping is causing more player excitement as we make changes. A month or two ago, one glum guy, himself a game inventor who claims to make a living at poker, sat there not revealing a shred of emotion. Humbled, only thing I could get from him at the end was, ‘I think the players need more choices.” A few words can open big creative doors.

After a day or so of acute wandering-in-the-darkness depression, I pulled out an older idea that Boyi had floated in passing, tweaked it a tad, we talked about the tweaking angle and it lead to a major revamping of how to win our game in a way that allows all players to easily track the progress of their rivals. Which is like suddenly watching a horse race in the sunshine (good) that you were trying to watch through a dense fog (bad).

I’ll show these new title ideas and other stuff we talked about needing clarity when I see Boyi end of the week. We go back and forth, easily ...

Sinatra is now in his blue heaven, not one of his best efforts. But I wait for “September in the Rain.” This is not an album I give my full attention to. Tonight, to compensate for giving him short shrift this morning, I might sit down and savor every monent of his classic LP, “Only the Lonely.”

As for next, semi-background: maybe the CD that I first heard at the tea house, Gran Riserva? I'm tying to read the cover; it's in a foreign language! Some names: Dzihan - Kamien -- “Deep Kitsch” is the track I heard that made me buy it. Most of the tracks amply fine.

I couldn’t stop shopping after I heard that one beguiling track — even without a free on-line taxi ride.

Our semi-latest prototype version reflects critical design changes, some prompted by test-player feedback


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Big Apple Circus in Tricky Transition: Owners, Not "Artistic Directors," Chart the Course, Make the Difference

When the future of Ringling-Barnum hung by a thread in 1956, a humbled John Ringling North hired back Art Concello, above, granting him the authority of virtual owner to move the circus from the tents to the arenas. A brilliant move.

The departure of Gary Dunning as executive director of Big Apple Circus raises some pressing issues that circus companies, by and large, do not face.

Big Apple's operating mode is an anomaly. It has increasingly relied on corporate charity (aka: "funding") for needed revenue. Paul Binder, de facto symbolic owner, had a fine lucky streak of lush fund raising, which he used to build up an incredibly complex, incredibly overstaffed "non profit" company. The funding binge has dried up, and the show is now stuck at the ticket windows hurting for sufficient cash to sustain its operation, more important, its upscale New York reputation. And there are less folks -- at least beyond New York city -- eager to spend a few hours under the tent.

Which makes the now-struggling show alone in its predicament. Yes, other troupes, like Circus Flora, also rely on local community support. But they are very small and play out very short seasons compared to the institution developed by Binder and co-founder Michael Christensen. Let's not forget they have been going for 30-plus seasons. But, without Binder?

I can think of no circus in this country that has done well for very long using the BAC non-profit structure. A circus is not a symphony or ballet company permanently anchored to one city where its artists live and in which it presents, year around, the majority of its performances. A circus is a band of gypsies who rely on a multitude of dates across a wide geographical swatch.

Art Concello once told me that the circus "is an animal that labor does not fit into." Same goes, I think, for the circus as being an animal not practically operated by a traditional non-profit performing arts entity.

While BAC searches to find a new executive director, itself theoretically the most critical position (the closest to owner), the new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy stands to enjoy additional clout. And he needs to work fast while he does, that is assuming he has strong artistic designs that stand a chance of reversing declining ticket sales. Based on lackluster response to his first fully self-directed outing, Dance On!, this seems a long shot.

What do Barbara Byrd, John Ringling North II, Johnny Pugh, Cedric Walker, Guy Laliberte all have in common? They are all circus owners. Their word is final. They do not report to boards. They hire artistic directors to serve their visions, brilliant or banal. Under this arrangement, the owner is forced to make decisions in a constant battle to "make nut," as they say. The owner, indeed, is in closer touch with retail realities, and therefore better positioned to stay corporately afloat. I assume that Binder grew to rely too much on the next fund-raising venture on the calendar to bring in that long hoped for miracle donation.

Dunning (credited for effective fund-raising until the Great Recession arrived) came from the world of dance, from the non-profit performance groups whose existence depends as much upon the kindness of corporate America as it does on the number of tickets sold. In the wake of Paul Binder's recent retirement, Dunning made waves about shaking up the show artistically and even extending its touring reach far and wide. I would love to have seen both goals reached. But Mr. Dunning harbored some oddball ambitions, like the rock and roll show that caused a mini riot, got closed down and deepened Big Apple's debts. Now he leaves to head up Celebrity Series of Boston, touted as "New England's leading performing arts presenter."

Unfortunately, or so it would appear from tepid reviews and consumer feedback, Dufresnoy's first effort, Dance On! was far from a box-office hit. Possibly the board decided to blame Dunning more than Dufresnoy.

Which would be considered a practical reaction in the real world of big top survival. Nobody really blames director Richard Barstow for the fall of Ringling under canvas in 1956, anymore than they would blame the current Ringling-Barnum "director" for the collapse of Feld Entertainment productions -- were that to occur. They blamed John Ringling North, just as they would blame Kenneth Feld.

The Big Apple Board has its work cut out for it; who to find out there who can carry on like an owner more than an "executive director," or, weaker yet, "artistic director."

They are facing their own John Ringling North 1956 moment; they need to find an Art Concello to put the pieces back together and make the thing run, just run.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Incestuous Dreams Ad Nauseam: "Inception" is Ridiculously Overrated


What an evening, trying to get through a bad bad cinema dream called Inception ... Struggling not to hit the pause button, then the eject drawer, then go surfing for junk TV relief.

I am ASTONISHED over this film having suckered so many critics into embracing it. Who could possibly be enthralled by such a pretentiously obtuse script other than maybe a brain scientist specializing in the overactive subconscious during sleep; a critic fearing being seen as out of trendy touch; or anybody who believes that any flick in which the once-compelling Leonardo DiCaprio appears just must be, has got to be great.

Item: The King's Speech, and my favorite, The Social Network, are tremendously realized works that make utter plain brilliant sense, and has anybody a problem with that?

Item: But then again, I harbor no illusions about dreams having a reality of their own.

Item: To my reassuring delight, wondering if I had reached a new low in move-going under comprehension, I looked up the reviews and the following lights also were left dumbfounded and put off: New Yorker, Chicago Reader, Village Voice, New York Magazine, and the ever delightful Rex Reid, calling this vain celluloid puzzle "drivel." Thank you, T. Rex.

So there, I just had to get this out.

DiCaprio was a marvel in his youth playing poets and painters. In recent years, mostly he has fallen prey to mediocre roles in mediocre films. The one sterling exception: His superlative performance in Revolutionary Road. Therein, we did not see Leonardo; we saw and believed in the character he was evenhandedly playing.

Inception goes totally off course when it resorts to all sorts of hokey James Bond-like shoot 'em up scenes, evidently inserted for those suffering from Inception-induced fatigue. Does anybody really care what this mess might be about?

Final kicker! Guy at my local video store up Piedmont Avenue said, what many straining defenders are saying, "You you have to watch the film at least two or more times to understand it." And then? Said the same guy, "The second time I watched it, I became even more confused."

Whoever worked early PR on this Hollywood clinker deserves the P.T. Barnum Humbug of The Year Award.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tech World's Youthful Myths Laid Bare in Brilliant Movie: The Social Network is Chilling ...

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg

What a challenging thematic transition -- having, only a few hours ago, glanced at Steve and Ryan's blog and feeling a certain romantic respect for youthful dreams, talent and ambition; and then, a few hours later, watching from Netflix The Social Network. This is one riveting film about Facebook, the incredibly successful website founded by Mark Zuckerberg, who comes across as a thoroughly amoral genius. The word "monster" fits perfectly.

So loathsome is the movie's early depiction of Zuckerberg, during his nerdy Harvard days where he virtually steals the idea for Facebook from two brothers, leading them to believe they were forming a partnership with him, that, not many minutes into the film, I wondered if I would soon be shutting down the damn DVD and defaulting to Judge Judy. I couldn't stand the character.

But then, with the entrance of a truly decent young business major and highly sympathetic figure, Eduardo Saverin, callously set up by Zuckerberg to be used as a convenient funding source and quasi "founding partner," I was soon hooked. Just how far might Zuckerberg go in his Machiavellian manipulation of Saverin and others?

No need to describe the story; you must watch it. We tend to praise in idyllic terms the tremendous creativity of those young and carefree, innocently non-greedy "entrepreneurs" who have made the internet such a phenomenon. But they, I'm afraid, often prove to be no different form the railroad tycoons of yesteryear. From the Bernie Madoffs of Wall Street. 'Twas ever thus; Microsoft's Bill Gates, who made a fortune ripping off Steve Jobs and others, is now -- we must, I suppose, thank him -- supporting and pouring millions of dollars into "worthy ventures" aimed at righting environmental harms to the earth and other various evils, ironically much of them caused by the manufacturing operations conducted for years by the likes of Microsoft itself and and other such global behemoths .

The Social Network is chilling. Absolutely brilliant in its relentless dramatic spine -- assuming it to be accurate. Yes, there is much debate about the long-term implications of our increasing deference to cyber society as virtual reality. Are we losing a more vital in-person contact with each other?

Moreover, have I been suckered by a grossly distorted work of cinematic fiction? This we learn at the film's end: The brothers who sued Zuckerbeg for theft of their idea settled for $65 million. Saverin received an "unknown settlement," and his name was restored to the masthead as co-founder.

How apt that the man who turned himself into "the youngest billionaire in the world" by linking "friends" together largely in front of solitary computer screens -- had, himself, not a single friend in the world.

2.9.11

Two Big Big Tops Blasted: Feds Fine Pugh's Cole Bros. for Illegal Elephant Sale; Parent Pans UniverSoul for Stripper & Pimp Skit

Endangered Species Act violators: John Pugh and Wilbur Davenport, between whom a nefarious sale of two Cole Bros. Circus elephants occurred in 2006, both now facing three years of probation mandating 100 hours a year of community service. Prosecutors, who reached a plea agreement on misdemeanor charges last Tuesday in Texas with Pugh and Davenport, leveled a $150,000 fine against Cole Bros. Circus itsself and placed it on a four-year probation. Pugh admitted having "failed to assure" that Davenport had secured the papers necessary to satisfy federal regulations. Cole's Renee Storey characterized the issue as a "technicality."

Hardly a technicality if, in fact, Davenport mistreated the bulls as he was subsequently charged by federal inspectors. Davenport, in fact, lost custody in 2009 of the two purchased pachyderms, Tina and Jewell (companions for 30 years) after sufficient evidence surfaced that he failed to ensure for their safety and to provide "adequate veterinary care or food." ... An especially sad tale coming after upbeat reports of Cole Bros. reaping some boffo crowds last season and now considering the addition of more seats and/or rings to its apparently rebounding big top ... Now, just where and how, I wonder, will Johnny serve out his" community service"? ... Why, Johnny, why? ...

Shame Over Sawdust! Mini dramas under circus tents are not, historically speaking, new. The early American shows presented narrative enactments, however crude, of great themes. Here comes UniverSoul Circus, which per custom, usually ends the show on a low note of sex, drugs, gospel hymns and and more sex and drugs, all of it parading under the dubious guise of a morality lesson. This year, producing pastor Cedric Walker (he's the guy who owns UniverSoul) has uncorked a shocker of a ring grabber replete with strippers, Johns, coke sniffers, and a woman who is sold to a pimp by her very own boyfriend, gets slapped around until she surrenders to her new job description. Which brings to mind what a terrific spec could be told here through the novel use of such traditional circus items as the trampoline, the springboard and the cracking whips. Not all the mothers out in the audience were thrilled ...

One acutely offended patron, Kristine Brown, told WSBTV in Atlanta of having been absolutely outraged. "I didn't think that was child friendly at all," she complained. The whole sordid spectacle caused her to hustle her two kids, aged five and eight, out of the tent in haste -- she missed the tale's redeeming end where the woman forced into prostitution finds an escape route (a magic act?), "giving her life to Christ." Defending the item as a "gospel-themed finale" (I am laughing out loud as I write this), the show's spin master Hank Ernest explained, "Our show is about positive messages and sometimes to get to these you have to go to those lows." A few other mamas agreed with Ms. Brown, but others defended the skit as being not "too graphic." I recall, at UniverSoul about five years ago, having to endure a loud obnoxious ringmistress who called herself "grandma from the hood" and who carried on like a woman in her declining years forging the streets for fast thrills. The message in that, pastor Walker? ...

2.26.11

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why Did Cole Bros. Circus's Biz Take Big Bounce Up in 2010? Here's My Best Guess ...

When a circus breaks the norm and does better than average biz, the question is, why?

I am here addressing fairly well founded reports that the show did some great biz last season, particularly during its lush New England swing.

I've downloaded the lineup of acts offered by Cole Bros Circus of Stars last season, to study them as best I can. And what I come up with recalls a program paradigm of the 1920s on Ringling (and probably most other shows for that matter), when animals and aerialists ruled.

Okay, here's the program they offered: It's a bag of strong basic muscular circus turns of the sort that once drew your mom and pop to the old big top: Tigers, dromedaries, llamas, horses, zebras. Dogs. Elephants.

In the air? From what I can make out -- some of the act descriptions are very sparse -- a revolving ladder, flying trapeze, cloud swing aerial ballet on lyras, the Thunderdrome Globe of Death (motor bikes, I take it), and the cannon act.

And yet one more visceral thrust: A free style motor show "featuring daredevil drivers and their topsy-turvy ATVs."

Rounding out what looks like a lean machine of forward power, hand-standing (one finger?) acrobatics and a trio of clown turns, one about "a wacky taxi trip."

All of it together suggests a no-nonsense circus out to grab, hold firm, and entertain from start to finish. What a contrast to the year, 2005 I think, when Cole hit rock bottom. That was the season when Johnny Pugh removed the animals. Soon, they were back. Johnny listens to his audiences.

Something brought the crowds out in 2010, when other shows did not do so well. Might it, miracles of miracles, have been the performance itself?

2.12.11

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ringling Storms North Carolina ... UniverSoul Rails Against Hookerhood ... Kelly Miller Packs the Tent in Texas Opening ... Egypt Juggles Free!


Good Morning, Egypt! Welcome to your brave new world! Your story is heart-warming, and now may I ask aloud, whatever happened to your flair for juggling? Funny that I can't recall ever watching an act from Egypt. And they say the whole thing, juggling and all, started right in your midst, whether you invented the ancient arts or were taught them by visitors from India. Anyway, please get back with the program. Another country that lags woefully behind the circus-producing curve is my own U S of A, where, once upon a raped civilization, the natives are said to have also juggled. Sad story. We do share that much in common, so it seems ...

Feld fondles North Carolina with all three of his touring circuses. What with all the concessions I assume to have been foisted upon the public, NC must have doubled its landmass weight over the weekend. Ringling history was made, claim the Felds, when the Red, Blue and Gold Units appeared simultaneously in the cities of Fayetteville, Raleigh, and Greensboro through yesterday.

UniverSoul Circus boss Cedric Walker telling an Atlanta reporter, "our non-black patrons are increasing every year and loving the show." I might love your show, too, Mr. Walker, if you'd bring it my way and not pitch it next to a social dump where pushers and pimps rule the night. Walker earlier conceded that his circus simply could not find enough African American performers to make it an all-black show. That realization is something most of us, going back at least to Paul Binder, have known for some time. Nationalities represented in UniverSoul's talent pool this year include Cubans, Chinese (of course), Russians, French, and Latinos. "We haven't' done or discovered anything new," says Walker. "We've just mixed it with an urban lifestyle ...

And Church, too. Mr. Walker's big top still comes with a sermon, this year's admonishing the young ladies to resist the spell of street pimps and the Johns with cash from suburbia in for an hour of relief. Says the boss preacher, proud to be a black man operating a circus for 17 years now, his show also "speaks to how young ladies can get dragged into a lifestyle because of music videos and flesh that has to be shown." Well, his heart is in a good place, but sawdust and salvation don't mix very well. During my one visit to UniverSoul, when the sermon came on, half the women in the seats, many of them young and with children in toe, fled the tent ... Back to those mean American streets, where fast sex is the default culture to the mindless masses (sorry for my own sermon) ...

Update: I wrongly identified the picture above as that of David Smith, from its misleading placement in a story in the Daily Times out of Farmington, Indiana. This fellow is likely Smith's nephew-in-law, Chachi Valencia, who stepped in while Smith was recovering. Other corrections appear here.

We all were young once, even I: At 68, senior human cannon ball David Smith is still young enough to take on bookings to supply that good old reliable circus thrill. And then some! At a show in Farmington for Jordan World Circus of Las Vegas last week, Smith got tangled up in the netting after a 200-foot flight, and ended up on crutches, a first for the senior daredevil during his 36-year-career. His nephew, Chachi Valencia, filled in. Smith gives good press copy: "My body still says, Yeah, I can do it, but my mind says, You're crazy!" Another zinger: "You've got to be smart enough to build it," remarked Smith, with more than 9,000 launches under his belt, "but dumb enough to get in it."

Clowning for Gold on Kelly Miller: The show kicked off its now-annual opening weekend at Brownsville, Texas, packing the tent for the majority of shows, some so well patronized as to necessitate the old spiel, "Please folks, can you move a little closer so all of your neighbors can see the circus too!" Oh, yes, I remember that spiel, so many years a go. Such sweet music it must have been to the ears of Kelly-Millers own Ringling, John Ringling North II. Maybe it even sweetened his reaction to the acts (show, on paper, appears to be staying last year's course). After one of the performances, he approached clown Steve Copeland with Cadillac praise for Steve and Ryan's newly installed spitting gag. "the funniest clown gag I've ever seen," sang the North of Norths. Giddy with joy, wrote Steve on his blog (from which this report was derived), "SCORE." Ah, yes, let's leave the tent on a high and happy note. And may all your all laughs be circus laughs! ...

Monday, February 07, 2011

Big Top Bits: Redoubtable Carson & Barnes to Open in Paris; Show Has New Routing Agent on Advance ... Cirque du Soleil Still Hunting for More $$$$$$$

Way Back When ...

Alex, a star of Carson & Barnes Circus, returns in 2011

All is well in the variable world of tent shows: Carson & Barnes, reportedly routing its new season behind the skills of a new agent with fresh ideas and maybe angles, touting its engagement, via Las Vegas, of the Rinny Family from Buenos Aires (a little Evita music, please), who work "a never before seen" act involving juggling and unicycles. "King of Comedy" Alex returns -- he, I know, has amassed something of a fan base. I recall liking him a lot, though not so much when he had to interact with an overbearing ringmaster ...

So, where might Barbara Byrd's big top be headed? I'm hoping they return to my sinking state of California; my dreams of the ultimate circus experience under any-sized top never die. I'd like to take another look at Alex in action ... This I can report: C&B opens a series of three one-day stands come March 19 in Paris (TX), leading me to wonder if I had it right -- that they might scale down to mostly one dayers; there are also some multiple day sleepovers in the early season frame. Still, I'm feeling like a provisional prophet, if you'll indulge my overworked ego ...

Cirque du Soleil may end up needing much more than a new routing agent. You may remember when they sold 20% interest into some Dubai investors; bye, bye, Dubai? Original expansionist plans on hold. King Guy Laliberte now telling the press, "There has been no contribution to growth from that partner." Heck, I don't hold an MBA, but, was not the check itself (to the tune, I believe, of $400 million) not the "contribution"? The King expects follow-through on new venues promised, in which, presumably, new CDS shows would play to, well, who? "They can't sell their shares without our approval," says the King, who also says he is open to selling off another ten percent of his empire to yet another investor or two. This all from the London Daily Telegraph by way of the Covington Courier, only adding to the impression that CDS is walking its own perilous corporate high wire. It may well be hurting for cash, what with contracts for new shows at Radio City Music Hall and the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood ... "To protect against over-expansion," says Laliberte, "we have made a decision of not creating more than three new tours or permanent shows a year." Know what I think? This guy, a poker player on the side, has a dangerous habit.

No need for liability insurance? Lady Circus elephants

An Actuary's Price on Peril: New niche shows out there getting regional attention include Lady Circus, out of Brooklyn; Aerial Angels of Kalamazoo, Michigan; and the Imperial OPA Circus in Atlanta. As reported by Lauren Cannon in INC.Com, a spin-off issue concerns personal- versus company-funded accident insurance for performers. Workers Comp, which Big Apple Circus artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy believes every troupe should have, is expensive, he acknowledges. This results in many circus owners requiring their artists to sign waivers of liability. Dufresnoy "scoffed" at the common use of waivers, albeit a little hypocritically. "We use them, too. I think it's a first line of defense, but they're easily challengeable." The man's candor impresses. Me, if not his superiors.

So glad I simply sit out in the seats, even without a policy covering against getting bonged on the head by a falling tent pole or a backfiring clown act. Suggests Anya Sapozhnikova, founder of Lady Circus in which she performs, "If you're really paranoid about getting sued, you probably shouldn't be a circus performer." Another Big Reason, I assume, why the Mexican Family Plan can be so attractive to our struggling shows.

End Ringers: Happy days down there in Oklahoma, where an abundant flow of happy Hugo families in force held the first International Red Nose Cafe fundraiser, proceeds to benefit the construction of a new building for the Circus City Museum and Park. Home to three tent shows including Carson & Barnes and Kelly-Miller, Hugo's been a mighty little circus town since 1942 ... Craig Voise, nephew of famed Harold Voise of the Flying Voises -- or Harolds, e-mailing me about his new blog featuring photos many should enjoy. When Harold flew for the Clyde Beatty Circus in '52, the program magazine, treating him like a Codona god, claimed he was turning -- "what no other aerialist even attempts -- triples. Very very young then, I saw the show, but can't recall such high drama. Two trap troupes worked, the Voises and the Harolds. Give Craig's blog a fly! Here's your connection: haroldvoise.blogspot.com ...Swiss daredevil, 46-year-young Freddy Nock, knocking down high-wire records with clean aplomb. Now attached to his name -- highest cable walk in recorded history (who knows what those creatures who came before us did): 10,836 feet high. The down hill stroll itself, from one mountain station to another, covered a distance of 5,249 feet! A first attempt was aborted by bad weather. AP reports playing up Nock's not using "a harness of safety nets." Just how would he, were he so inclined? I can't imagine he was insured, and I'm starting to feel belatedly, if you'll pardon my chronic naivete, why so many circuses are so willing to tolerate if not mandate the use of lifelines. And why, on PBS, we watched Paul Binder fretting over the slightest hint of a performer approaching an accident. Safer? Yes. A boon to the box office? You tell me ... Oh, so many things out there to emasculate the ageless delight!

The Jose Michel Clowns at Circus Sarasota earned a so-so nod from the Herald Tribune's Jay Handelman in his generally upbeat review.


Ouch! Turn off the Dark, Spiderman: Early reviews out for the new musical on Broadway that trades on circus dynamics are positively dreadful. From the Washington Post, "a formidable contender for the worst musical ever."

First posted February 7, 2011

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Circus on Film: The Many Reasons to Love "Spangles," a 1926 Silent Classic ...

I was hesitant to have it Netflixed my way -- only a two star rating, but I must keep reminding myself, don't trust the mob, not always. Trust my own personal mob mentality. Movies can dash low expectations, too.

This little flick will charm any circus fan of a certain age who loves the lyrical sight of large tents billowing over grassy (or weedy) lots, oh so idyllic compared to the asphalt at your local mall. (You go, Kelly Miller! -- your Brewster NY lot, rough and tumble country turf under dark teasing clouds, was the real thing.) Spangles is made of big sunburst wagon wheels, even if only in black and white. Of the messy opening "spec" (crudely alluding to opera over sawdust) that could nonetheless fill up three rings with jubilant animation. Here is evidence of the old muscularity of circus (notice how I avoided the word "masculine"?). Here on parade are grizzled men bearing spears, busy chorus lines (Geishas from a Hollywood back lot?) moving submissively into and around the rings while, overhead, ladies swing on revolving ladders, and Spangles, star of the big top, rides her horse in a solo circle.

It's the kind of action you just know a young Dory Miller fell in love with during his boyhood, a production paradigm he would forever after try recreating over and over again in his scaled down five-ring Carson and Barnes versions. A few of them hit the mark with glorious gusto.

Spangles bears the distinctive markings (here I am guessing) of the Al G Barnes Circus, a California-based show that entertained the Golden state in the early springs. My mom once saw them in San Francisco; her ticket stub celebrates the occasion in an old scrap book.

We get fleeting glimpses of action down at the runs, of a hippo I take to be Lotus, a lovable pin head called Biff -- did I not see him years later touring with the Foley & Burke Carnival sideshow? Biff's playful elephant Sultana charms backyard visitors with his big trunk -- until he, in the end, gets even with the Big Boss for having once stupidly mistreated him. No, no, goes one of the movie's Big Themes: "An elephant never forgets."

So many wonderful little things earning a push on the pause button: neat shots under those old seats consisting of, if I have this right, jacks and stringers and -- planks? The genuine item yes, so much like what I as a kid helped erect when Clyde Beatty Circus came to town.

Best of all by far are some wide-angled shots inside the tent of the spec, "Pageant of Nations," in abundant motion. Probably derived from existing Barnes costumes, with Barnes "performers" (canvas men, some, no doubt) marching in. All of it happening in and around a rather intriguing tale about a man on the run, falsely accused of murder and taking refuge in the circus, in particular in the arms of Spangles, the lovely equestrienne horse rider. A dramatic endpoint brings a rope around his neck at the hands of a lynch mob, right there under the tent, and to his rescue comes Sultana, lumbering boldly through the sidewall and under a section of the seats, turning them into toothpicks. How much fun! Better than De Mille's train wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth.

And more, like the bawdy brawny remnants of old Rome (we must never forget our roots) in the chariot races hearkening back to Circus Maximus; even that I luckily sampled, very close to its final fade when the old Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros. Circus came to Petaluma, CA, circa 1960, reachable right there at a Greyhound bus stop by a blanket of free flowing grass that still flows freely.

Best of all, perhaps, the midway itself, oh those tall tall banner lines promising such oddball attractions, and the characters promised standing there proudly, brazenly on the platform while the barker barks and the crowds surrender.

Go rent the movie for yourself and take a look at what the younger generations today, defaulting to veiled porno-kink, may be earnestly trying to recapture.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Another Kelly-Miller Texas Storm Thriller? Show Slated to Hit Toubled Trails in Days...

Kelly Miller Circus under a Texas snowstorm, 2010, photo by Ryan ("Radar") Easley

There is, no there was, a reason why our tent circuses, for years and years, started their seasons in the spring rather than mid-winter. The reason was weather. Simple as that, at least as we see it here in our Circus 101 Classroom.

Examples, from old route books: Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. in 1995 opened in mid March; Kelly-Miller in 1956 opened in mid-April.

A season from spring to late fall can bring rain and wind and blow downs enough. Pushing opening day up can only add terrific stress to a time that, ideally, should be spent in preparation and rehearsals -- rather than having to give any new staffers of the first-of-may brand a crash course in cherry pie.

Over at Kelly Miller, John Ringling North II and James Royal evidently are going to risk another early opening, down there in Brownsville, Texas. In only ten days from now. A snow storm last year in Texas (possibly Brownsville) placed enormous hurdles on the troupe. In the opinion of many with the circus, it caused a devastating drop off in ticket sales. Ryan's photo, above, landed high honors at the Monte Carlo photography contest, making it onto a calendar they put out.

But this precarious quest for early revenue could throw new costumes and truck designs into the mud fast. Could rattle nerves into premature-season traumatic stress syndrome. When did a show throw its destiny so precariously into the grave possibility of giant mud puddles and torrential rains? I can remember one -- Circus Vargas, when Cliff Vargas pitched his huge tent (at one time, a six-poler) on the most unlikely Northern California lots in February! To Mr. Vargas, the word "madness" applied; Is Mr. North channeling Mr. V?

OK, I'm hooked already. I will be returning to Steve and Ryan's blog, and I know most of you will, too. For Steve, say what you will, gives a blow by blow account of weather, lot conditions, overall size of audiences, not to mention how their gags clicked with audiences or malfunctioned. Please, Steve, spare me your trips to ER (just assume my prayers will be with you). Yes, I'm a non-trouping wimp.

Is there another circus blog out there that takes us that up-close to the action?

Yes, Annie, a lot can happen in a week of lyrical turnarounds by Mother Nature. Song cue: The sun'll come out Tomorrow! Bet your bottom dollar!

I am convinced this troupe harbors a perverse addiction for tough trouping the old fashioned way. Heck, I have an idea, North II & Royal I : Why not trade in your trucks for wagons, hook 'em up to tractors or donkeys, rig some bed frames on the tops, and have yourself a lovely little Toby Tyler tour?

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, is only a bright sunny lot somewhere, somehow, maybe over or under the rainbow, or around the back of Wall Mart or down there next to, see, those lovely trees by that, grave yard? ------ away!