Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Old Circus, Gold Circus on Grainy Film Footage, Thank You, Ken Dodd!

To Ken Dodd -- many of you know him as former producing clown for Beatty-Cole, as once it was called -- is my latest book dedicated.

Since Ken's days down sawdust trails, he's kept more than active in Circus City (aka: Sarasota) preserving and prolonging American circus history on video and tape. From Ken over the years, I've been the lucky recipient of numerous golden olden delights.

While a copy of Inside the Changing Circus for Ken was in the mail to Florida late last December, amazingly a package of DVD goodies from Ken was simultaneously en route to me here in California. Mere coincidence? Yes, I wondered if somebody with an early copy had called up Mr. Sarasota to tip him off; he swears, not so! OK, the cross exchange of gifts could not better reflect the reason why my dedication page reads ...

To Ken Dodd
My sharing Sarasota friend

In a host of CDs and DVDs from Ken, there came footage to die for, if, that is, you happen to be a Barbette fan and were, better yet, around when Barbette's wonderfully cutting edge little ballet, "Carnival in Spangeland," was presented at Polack Bros. Circus (western unit) in 1953. I saw it, my pre-teen eyes wide open, my attentions riveted.

I don't recall thinking "oh, that is really so cutting edge," but only being utterly enchanted by the entire little ethereal episode, as beguiling to the ear as to the eye -- with perfect scoring by Morton Gould's hauntingly yearning "Pavan."

And now comes, yet more! Yesterday from Kenny, additional Polack footage that only reaffirms my high regard for the mid-fifties showmanship of one Louis Stern and Barbette. A few highlights:

The showmanship of Professor George J. Keller, the art instructor turned big cage man, tallking to his charges, charming them through their tricks. The impeccable ballet of low wire artist Lola Dobritch, whose execution on the ground of classical bellet moves before going aloft only lend greater authority to her wire walking exploits. The engaging Ward Bell Flyers (the first time I've seen their act since seeing it at the circus) -- three troupes swooping casually through the air side by side by side (fit for the Sondheim tune, Kenny?).

Melita & Wicons -- perch pole performers sans mechanics. What can I say other than, without a lifeline, the integrity of aerial art is totally restored. I find myself watching them with respect, rather than turning away in dismay.

Not everything is as good as we may remember. Some sloppy executions from the Fredonias. But, on balance, and here I may be losing it -- it seemed so damn much more interesting a show to watch, what with a more diverse array of animals, those subversive clowns, perhaps more comedy in some of the ground acts.

A year or so ago, coming across a You Tube of Francis Brunn, I was a little afraid to watch it; might not be what I remembered, 10-years-old then and new to the spangled parade. Sometimes the past is not as great as we recall. I watched it anyway, and Brunn was even better. Yes, better. He did so many more things that I had forgotten.

Perhaps the circus, fifty years later, has simply devolved into something less interesting? A thought for the day ...

For this latest gift -- evidence, perhaps, of why most of the seats in those old movies are filled -- thanks, Ken, my sharing Sarasota friend.

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