Saturday, July 28, 2012

"I Want to Own The Best Circus in America" -- John Ringling North II in His Own Words

Updated: 7/29, 9:50 AM PST

Too close to the show to let go of stale programing and personnel? John Ringling North II regularly watches every performance when he is traveling with the circus.

He will not be able this time to accuse me of misquoting him, or to point out that, although I quoted him accurately, the reporter from whom I derived the quote got it wrong.

Recently, I quoted John Ringling North II as stating, shortly after he purchased Kelly Miller Circus in 2006, that he wanted to bring "a little Ringling magic to the show." No, he wrote me, he never said that. Then came Jim Royal arguing that the show's intent was far more modest, even if he, Royal, may have made the "Ringling magic" remark to a small Texas newspaper when they took control of the show. Combined, their communications lent the impression that they were proudly defending a tepid status quo. And that maybe I should just back off and retire into the mist of an unrequited dream.

But now, JRN II is being anything but shy in reasserting his original posture. To Lane Talburt, who interviewed him on the Kelly Miller lot recently, stated North (his actual words):

"We still hope we’ll get even better ... I want to own the best circus in America, and that is still my ambition."

The best circus in America. Might that not entail importing a little Ringling magic, or some other form of magic, certainly a more active turnover in the cast?

I saw modest evidence of North's creative inclinations in the 2010 edition. Two years later, Ernest Albrecht, reviewing in Spectacle, saw perhaps a little less evidence. And for the record, to shoot down any conspiracy theories out there, I have never met Mr. Albrecht, although on a few occasions he has e-mailed me to correct something I had written or offer helpful information. Nor do I read his reviews, for the simple reason that I do not wish to be unduly influenced by his own thoughtful critiques of circuses that I might myself see and review. Since I had not planned to take in Kelly Miller this season, and since Mr. Albrecht sends me a link to his on-line version of Spectacle, I decided to read the review and write about it. Steve Copeland reprinted it in full on his blog.

I can already feel some agitated souls on the Kelly Miller lot, possibly at their keyboards ranting out their put downs of yours unruly. Sign your name to them, avoid profanity, and I might put them through.

Now, as for all the empty seats you will see in the Talburt K-M videos, so sadly typical of what we encounter all too often at the circus these days, take heart. From the boss man himself, we are told, "Actually, we’ve had the most ticket sales so far this year of any year.” That's good news, if it's not pure spin, because it should embolden Mr. North to try harder. And, if, indeed, he wants to own the best circus in America, he will have to try a lot harder.

Although Lane Talburt, in general, will rarely if ever take on the more probing realities of the American circus scene -- actual attendance and performance quality, both taboo subjects in this very small, very insulated little world -- at least we owe him a degree of gratitude, because, when it comes to filmed evidence of acts and attendance, his camera, so far as I know, does not lie.

So, just when I was about to give up on this latest Ringling incarnation, maybe I will allow myself the fun of expecting more and risking the fallout of reporting when I am unduly let down.

A bonus Talburt tidbit: John Ringling North II was at one time led to believe that he would take over the Ringling circus when his uncle retired. That day never came. And why it never came has never been adequately explained. Here, he tells Talburt that he did not like the indoor show set up at all, so, instead of trying to become the replacement Ringling for his famed uncle, he was offered the cattle ranch, and went with that option. It's a nice little thought, but I have to think that JRN I was so impressed with Irvin Feld's ambition and money, that he easily gave up on his ill-prepared nephew. Moreover, when I interviewed JRN II many years ago on the subject, he vaguely alluded to his father and uncle having told him that running a circus was no place for a family man -- by then, he had married -- and offered him the cattle ranch to run. So....? We can only hope that, one day, JRN II will shed more light on this murky chapter in Ringling family history.


Lane Taburt said...

David: Barbara Miller Byrd often noted that David Rawls' version of Kelly Miller took home more money than the Carson & Barnes 5-ring, then 3-ring editions. North credits Rawls for being a very savvy circus maven. One of the beauties of the one-ring show, of course, is lower operating costs. Empty seats at one location become a full house in another town, and North was pointing out that, on average, his show is performing well this season. I don't act as a critic--not do I consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to be one--as I approach circus people and their lives. I'm trying to capture the essence of their personalities and why they do what they do. But I've seen enough circuses to sense that what JRN II is attempting to do is to provide a quality performance within the format of "traditional" circus for mostly non-urban ticket buyers. Will Kelly Miller go back to Hugo a winner at the ticket wagon? That remains to be seen, because the show is on a trajectory that probably will take it through rural areas where drought is the rule and not the exception. And that's where having a guy like Jim Royal comes in handy. Thanks for your feedback, David. Coming from an author who is the subject-matter expert on the Ringling family, it's a reminder to me not to invent words or history that cannot be supported by solid research. I try to adhere to the old bromide of writers: If in doubt, leave it out.

Showbiz David said...

Thanks, Lane

Unfortunately, all circus fans, even though they may -- and DO --share pointed evaluations of a show between themselves in private, close ranks in public and act as a defacto press corp. for the American circus field.

While I do not believe you are obligated to provide such critical coverage, I do think there is a valid place in any form of entertainment journalism for business reporting (far beyond defaulting to a show owner's claims), even though, I will be the first to admit, getting the truth about attendance under big tops is virtually impossible. The circus has no TV Nielsons, no movie weekend box office scores, or Billboard record sales charts, and you can be sure the circus owners would fight such an entity all the way. Perhaps this is why Steve Copeland no longer gives out rough audience size estimates, as he did until sometime this season. Harry Kingston left a comment, asking Steve how business had been through the north east area. Steve’s reply:”Business as usual.” Steve, I assume, has fallen in line, but we can’t blame him. He works for the show.

Shoot on! You rang a whopper of a quote out of JRN II, and you've put this modern-day House of Ringling back into my blood. Pity, North & Royal.