Monday, April 30, 2012

Rants Unlimited, Continued: Circus on Film, You Have More to (Dread) or Look Forward To

My impossible circus movie dream: A director in the mold of Orson Welles crafts an adult movie about John Ringling’s last years — the circus king arrogantly losing power; the setting: Ringling-Barnum in the 1920s-early depression years; sub characters: Starved for love, and close to the brink, trapeze god Alfredo Codona and elusive Lillian Leitzel, both doomed to an early exit in separate spheres. Wrap up: John Ringling, pitifully out of power, in a wheel chair on a street corner watching Cole Bros. Circus parade by, tears down his face; Stupidly stubborn out-of-his-mind Codona, taking gun to his head after aiming it at his third wife, Vera Bruce, a beauty who had never loved him, had refused his advances, finally giving in despite declaring romantic indifference, which only drove Alfredo insane, led to an early divorce and a tragic murder-suicide down in Long Beach, California.

Another circus movie dream: Let whomever directed The Social Network or a recent film of that excellent ilk take on the remarkable story of the five Ringling brothers, who rose to world circus power. Preferably not Woody Allen or Quintin Tarantino, nor Pee Wee Goes to the Circus nor a Disney gee-whiz-we-can-put-on-a-circus, kids! This dream, I fear, has already been smashed. You see, the five Ringlings may be headed for the silver screen if a movie in the works at Paramount reaches the shooting stage. It’s being scripted by the same people who brought you the Smurfs (23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) Shrek 2 (89%) and Dady Day Camp (1%). Really? Yes, really. Pray tell, at least not another Water for Elephants. And this is only a tease ...

Will we EVER get a REALLY good adult movie seriously dramatizing the circus like Hollywood gets dramatized (i.e., Day of the Locust), like TV gets dramatized (Goodnight and Good luck)? Ever? How long since they gave us Trapeze? Which is not really about the American circus at all, except that, significantly looming in the background, is America itself in the figure of John Ringling North (how apt), checking up on the progress of Tony’s quest to land the triple on the flying trapeze — at which juncture Tony will be signed to open with the Greatest Show on Earth in New York at Madison Square Garden. So very true to the relationship then between great European talent and savvy American three-ring showmanship.

Other night, PBS took another look, charming through and through, at Circus Smirkus; they call it Circus Dreams, and evidently in Smirkusland that’s all they are, kids passing through school and spending some time dabbling in sawdust and spangles. I liked the approach, a feel-good take on young people, some promisingly talented for sure, dreaming. End credits revealed that, of those performers we saw, four years later only one landed a real job in a real circus; a young female clown got signed by Ringling. [see Josh's comment end of this post, taking issue with my take]

Lastly, those redoubtable Wallendas, all three fractious branches of the family who seem better at getting publicity than securing regular touring gigs. Do they ever actually perform? A documentary about them recently premiered in Sarasota. This one featuring members of the “flying” branch of the family; such a shamefully deceptive and irrelevant marketing ploy. May I say that I find the Wallendas these days rather a bore.

Next up in this ramble: Circus Historical Society's Bandwagon has yet another change in editors. Departing editor Fred Pfening III's last fanfare brings us the gritty dark stupidly stubborn story of Alfredo Codona's insane infatuation with Vera Bruce. An eye-opening account, if true, of the incredible madness of a circus star hounded by having been grounded, burned by being spurned by the spouse who refused to play house (in total opposition to the account of Bruce by Fred Bradna in his book Big Top) ... All on the inside! Free tickets now on sale!

To be continued, right here! ...


Josh said...

Joy Powers, the female Smirkus clown you referred to is my clown partner, along with our fellow Smirkus alumn John Stork. John and I were in Smirkus a few years before Circus Dreams was filmed, but I was on staff that year, and I am currently the Production Manager for the Smirkus tour. In addition to Joy signing on to Ringling Bros, Book Kennison and Eric Allen, who were both in Circus Dreams, signed on the Ringling alley the same year as Joy. Jacob Sharpe and his brother Nate performed at the Cirque de Demain festival in Paris, and Jacob is now in Berlin performing with The 7 Fingers. Thula, the little girl from Hawaii has been performing professionally and will be attending the National Circus School in Montreal next year, joining Lindsay, Kia, Danny and Eric Brown, all of whom were on tour with Smirkus and appear in Circus Dreams. Spencer is currently a featured character in Soleil's KA, and won the Bronze medal in the most recent Paris festival. Ariana is on a cruise ship performing as a handbalancer. Isabel is a flyer with the Cortez on Big Apple this season. Though not all of the troupers were "main characters" in the film, they were all on tour that year, and do appear in the movie. In Smirkus's 25 years, there are between 50-100 alumni who went on to professional careers in circus, including Molly Saudek, who many consider the best wire dancer today, Jade-Kindar Martin, who is a record holding wire walker, Kelly Miller's Ryan Combs, former Ringling clowns Adam Kuchler, Molly Pelley, Mike Richter, and me. Current Ringling clowns Jared and Frances toured with Smirkus after Circus Dreams was filmed. Smirkus alumni have performed and are performing in Ringling, Big Apple, Cirque du Soleil, and many other circuses around the world. Besides all of that, you should really see a live performance of Circus Smirkus before you decide it's not a real circus itself. Check out Spectacle's annual reviews and you'll see it's much more than a "kids circus." I hope you enjoyed Circus Dreams. It's a very good documentary, but you can only give a small taste of the magic of Smirkus in 80 minutes.

Showbiz David said...


My apologies if you felt I slighted you, in passing tossing out some quick impressions in lazy fashion. I did not really say "kid's circus," although I felt the charming innocence of a student show, which surely it is/was. Nor do I feel, as you infer, that your show is not a real circus. You are very much in touch with contemporary trends influenced by CDS; nothing wrong with that.

What impressed me the most were the guys working diablo.
Another PBS show on your Smirkus charmed me likewise.

From your alumni record, you appear to be perhaps by far the most productive of the circus schools/organizations in the USA. Maybe I am short-sighted; I rarely see shows featuring Americans trained here in major compelling acts, -- a stubbornly persistent reality on the American scene, and so I congratulate you on your good work!

And may your upcoming tour be a great success.