Thursday, May 03, 2012

At the Editor's Desk, "Bandwagon" Magazine Changes Freds -- From Pfening to Dahlinger

Fred D. Pfening III, who assumed editorship of the Circus Historical Society’s Bandwagon following the passing of his father, Fred D. Jr, seemed the perfect successor. But he is walking off the lot after only 18 months, or nine issues, under the tent. I feel a tinge of regret, although I am not all that surprised.

When the moment was his, Pfening III accepted the position under a cloud of reluctance. Something like "for now." More ominous still, the issues he edited straggled into the mail later and later. When Pfening III's final issue, numbered November-December 2011, arrived in my mail box over three months late, I said to myself. Ohio, we have a problem.

At least, let's hope, the late delivery problem may disappear when new editor Fred Dahlinger, Jr. assumes full control.

Nonetheless, I feel provisionally sorry that Pfening III is gone because, on balance, he seemed a natural to continue the welcome mix of serious and light material that his father published — even if, at times, he revealed a somewhat troubling penchant for favoring the arcane in heavy doses. I’ve, honestly, not felt as engaged lately as I did earlier.

In an editor's note explaining his exit, wrote Pfening III, "I never shared my dad's love of editing. My passion has always been researching and writing about circus history."

That makes perfect sense. At his best over the years, Pfening III would find articles from decades back that shed light on interesting issues, even if some of his finds, by virtue of their having originally been crafted for popular media (remember magazines, anybody?), were more likely to be riddled with errors.

One of them, a page-turning tale that borders on tabloid, “The Mad Love of Alfredo Codona,” which arrived in the latest issue (see the post below), strikes me as a perfect candidate for more critical editorial scrutiny up front. Pfening, in his preface to the piece, acknowledges “a few factual errors.” The real questions is, minor or major? The article might be a major spin job by the mother of circus star Vera Bruce, not nearly as innocent as her mother would have us believe.

I'm glad to find it there, but I would have liked more perspective on the story's validity.

Might new editor Dahlinger, Jr. (now working on the January-February issue), have struck a more skeptical view in a preface had he published the Codona tale? .

Several years ago, Pfening III brought to our attention an expansive piece about the reception accorded Barnum & Bailey’s first three ring circus in New York. In his preface, curiously Pfening lavished puzzling praise on reviewer Edward Hoagland, whose notice is clearly a work of triumphal everything-is-fine at the circus prose. Another review in the same story reveals a savvy New York critic taking a candid look, which itself constitutes a valuable contribution to history.

So these finds of Pfening III’s were rich in primary research; I hope he continues apace as back to the status of contributor he goes.

How might Bandwagon change under Dahlinger's direction? Hard yet to tell. He certainly enjoys widespread respect for his apparently encyclopedic knowledge of circus history, and so we can only wonder how he will apply it to the articles submitted to him for publication, and how he will treat those that contain significant nuggets worth publishing and are yet riddled as well with misinformation. Dahlinger's preference for excessive cross-referencing and accuracy (not always on display in the epic picture book Circus: 1870-1950, for which he reportedly was recruited as a master fact checker) may prove beneficial -- or a hindrance.

There is reason to wonder if Dahlinger will turn Bandwagon into Monograph City. He has a way of answering questions with lengthy dissertations, for which there is perhaps an appreciative audience, but not as great a one as there is for the more easily readable fare, such as Lane Talburt’s series on Pete Cristiani and his family, or Bill Taggart’s yet-to-be-completed series on his work as a ticket seller with Ringling-Barnum during its last under-canvas years, complete with revelations of petty grifting at the ticket window and on the inside against the customer.

In a good move I think, Pfening III dropped the annual season round-up story that was so randomly organized as to leave me only faintly engaged; Better yet, in my opinion, would be a George L. Chindahl approach, alphabetically organized, to a listing of every circus on the road, with precise component information as to such things as number of performances, dates, size of show, owners, size of band if any, etc. Facts. Facts, Facts.

Lastly, book reviews: Since Bandwagon's main focus is history, its editors and contributors should be in the best position to weigh in on the historical accuracy of new books. It is hard to understand why this has not all along been a regular feature. Circus Report, to its credit, appears to cover new books, from what I have seen, only having recently re-subscribed.

All of the above having been said, I am still surprised, or should I say disappointed, that Pfening III walked off the lot. This means that the Pfening reign, which lasted over half a century, is now over.

Perhaps the best to hope for is the continuation of the magazine itself. Dahlinger is a formidable and serious force, and so theoretically the magazine falls into trustworthy and competent hands. Like virtually every aspect of the American circus world from shrinking tents to shrinking fan magazine subscriptions, Bandwagon operates in near obscurity; it has few takers, but it somehow troupes admirably on, from one shaky season to the next.

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