"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

Sunday, July 29, 2012

All Those Empty Seats -- No, Not Under the Big Top, But at the London Olympics


It is so so sad, I felt acute pain for the people of England, even though I am hardly a booster of the modern day games: All those incredibly inexplicable rows and rows of uniformly empty seats at the venues.

When we patronize an amusement, be it theatre, sports, or the circus, invariably, we scan the seats and estimate the size of the crowd. Not just do we share with friends and family our reaction to what we saw, but usually, the subject arises: how big was the crowd?

Here, the answer must be a painful one for the locals. This is LONDON, one of the great cities of the world.

According to NBC News, "Twitter was abuzz with pictures of empty seats and criticism of the large areas without spectators at the affected events."

Stated U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, "I was at the Beijing Games, in 2008, and one of the lessons that we took away from that, is that full stadia create the best atmosphere, it's best for the athletes, it's more fun for the spectators, it's been an absolute priority."

How could it be? Perhaps as the games continue, the crowds will fill up, and these images of neglected events will disappear.

They are calling it "a public relations disaster," and it is being reported here that members of the military are being "drafted" to remedy a totally unplanned embarrassment. Their next tour of duty: Free seats at the games.

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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Second Memo to Circus Historical Society: Please Act Professional and Tell Us Why "Bandwagon" is Missing in Action

I am not the only one puzzled by the Circus Historical Society's totally unprofessional negligence in failing to communicate with its subscribers over its failure to bring out a single issue of the bi-monthly Bandwagon magazine in over half a year.

To be accurate, I did receive an answer from my first e-mail to Judy Griffith, vaguely stating it was due to a new editor and printer. I have since sought additional information, both in e-mails to the Bandwagon editor, and in the post below (scroll down a few) to which, nobody has replied.

Here are the words of one of my visitors (slighted edited so as to protect visitor's identity), sent to me in an e-mail, which at least reassures me that I am not alone in having my e-mails go unanswered;

"I liked what you said about the CHS Bandwagon as I totally agree with you, and I see you have yet to receive a response to your comment.
I paid Bob Cline $60 for my dues. In return, nothing. I am very disappointed after 7 months, with not a word from anyone at CHS.
[the late] Fred Pfening Jr. would turn over in his grave if he could see what is going on. He would have never allowed this to happen.
I think Fred Dahlinger will do a good job, but where the heck is the magazine?"


AMEN.

Out of the Cannon, "85% of people who attempt the feat are dead," says Howard Stern. Oh, Really?

By accident, I channel surfed onto an outdoor segment last night from America's Got Talent. The setting looked like Central Park.

Somebody was shot from a canon into the net, circus style.

One of the judges, over-the-hill shock jock Howard Stern, talking up the danger of the act, astounded me by claiming that, of all those mortals who attempt the feat, "Eighty five percent are dead!"

"That's a fact," he said.

Possibly, he was factoring in cannon flyers down through circus history who, by natural causes of aging, would now be deceased.

I think not.

My fuzzy impression would be more like 5-10% -- if that. Seems like maybe I've heard of death claiming a human projectile but once.

An incredible assertion from Judge Stern. If true, perhaps the deadly stat merits mentioning in ringmaster build-ups.

Have YOU ever been shot out of a cannon. If so, are you still alive?

I'm cannon-shy intrigued.

Monday, July 16, 2012

She circled the rings of spangleland with imperial aplomb

Whenever her name drops down upon my mind, I see her streaming around a circus ring, sawdust flying even when it does not fly, canvas flapping under a warm dusty breeze, a band jamming emphatically on, the tent more full than empty of people, and I hear a bolero or a tango, right now, I don’t know why, I hear “Guenevere” from the musical Camelot. Once, around 1967, near the small Northern California town of Sonoma under a sparkling Carson & Barnes tent on a buoyantly happy evening (some of their shows were, in design or by default, cracking good affairs), there I likely caught sight of her figure atop a cantering horse, for her name is in the program I still have from that day, and years later I would soon take note whenever she appeared, and forever after at intervals she would circle the memory of my mind once more — a strong vibrant figure of grace and steel, passionately reproving her act.

I once saw her down in Del Rio Texas, 1974, and when she rode, I thrilled to the discovery that she was there, again, there as before, and as ever, dancing upon the back of a horse with rugged aristocratic stamina -- a living symbol of the big top’s visceral reality, and I saw her as a mythical figure in a perpetual loop, and so I preferred keeping her in a dream distance ... and she would weave in and out of my imagination ... through Norwalk, Ohio in 1978 ... to Ontario, California in 1984, always landing praise in my large book of brief raw show notes, words alluding to her indelible impact .... “superb equestrienne bareback ... great on horseback ...”

And in my mind, she still rides on, bracing a fast moving steed. Still fills a stained canvas tent of fading painted-on stars with the magic that once the circus possessed in spades — of animals circling the rings, daredevils commanding the air ... of tumblers scampering up long ramps and twirling off at the ends into somersaults and flips over elephants, one after the other after the other. Long before a dissenting class arrived to question and probe, complain and protest and dumb down the show.

She still rides a circular path of honor in my brain ...

Luciana Loyal – 1949-2012

Memo to the Circus Historical Society: What is Happening with Bandwagon, the Magazine?

As a subscriber, with a few more issues due on my current subscription, can anybody come clean on what is going on behind the scenes?

The last issue I received was your November-December number.

So, it has been over six months, and I am still waiting for the January-February 2012 issue.

I've been told, in reply to an earlier e-mail, that the delays are due to a new printer and new editor. I read in your last issue that Fred Dahligner, Jr. had accepted the post of editor, so I assume the problem should not be finding a new editor.

Six months?

Please, if you will, consider sending a notice of some sort to subscribers, apprising us on the situation, or perhaps posting a note on your website.

I do not believe that I am making an unreasonable request.

Your addressing the matter would be much appreciated.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Spectacle Magazine Reviews Kelly-Miller Circus: How Seriously Does John Ringling North II Take His Middle Name?

In his telling review of Kelly Miller Circus, which appears in the just-released on-line version of Spectacle magazine, Ernest Albrecht's observations only add to my rueful sense that John Ringling North II may harbor insufficient desire and resolve to produce an artistically distinguished -- and compelling -- performance, more in keeping with the traditions for excellence long associated with his family's famous name. In deed, closer to what he seemed to promise at the outset of his tenure back in 2007.

Writes Albrecht, in conclusion, North "needs to decide whether he wants to produce a show that is a family affair or if he wants to reach out and bring in new talent that can produce the fully realized artistic expression he once seemed to have in mind."

Seemed seems to be the operative word here. In a recent letter to me from Ireland, North disputed ever having stated a wish to bring "a little Ringling magic" to Kelly Miller when he purchased the show at the end of 2006 from David Rawls. I had quoted this in my book, being fairly sure that I had read the remark at the time (I should have dug deeper to find it, an error in research on my part). So, feeling that perhaps I had misrepresented North, I corresponded with manager James Royal on the matter, recounting having read the remark, or something very close, in a small newspaper back in 2006 or early 2007. Royal conceded, a nice gesture of honesty, that he himself may have coined those words "Ringling magic," and that they might have been published in a Texas newspaper. I do know this, checking back, that North II stated how he intended to add a few "production numbers." In essence, certainly he was promising something closer to the circus as defined by his famous uncle, John Ringling North, than to the one he had taken over.

The way that North took issue with my having, as he saw it, misquoted him, it felt almost as if he were saying, don't blame him for my own false expectations. More disappointing still, that maybe he has no intention of doing much more than he already has.

When I reviewed the 2010 edition of Kelly-Miller, I found a lot to enjoy and appreciate, giving it a respectable 2-1/2 stars and getting in return some hate mail from Anonymous sources. I had reservations, chiefly that the show lacked effective direction. That year, the Poema Family brought razzle dazzle showmanship to the ring, and there were, to be sure, a few moments of creative direction on display -- for example, a delightful comedic interplay between Adrian Poem, Jr. (a true star) and ringmaster John Moss III in the central production number.

I suggested, nonetheless, that what North II needed most was a proven director who could give the show a stronger pulse; Steve Smith, from what I knew about him, seemed an ideal candidate, a person who could work with North in helping him to realize his goals.

Writes Albrecht, "North certainly takes full advantage of his family connection in his advertising and at the ticket wagon."

Critiquing this season's pirate themed production number, Albrecht observes, "What is missing almost entirely from all this is any sense of the kind of swashbuckling antics we normally associate with pirates ... A young mermaid and an even younger bird of paradise lounge about to little or no effect."

He has nice things to say for a number of the acts, and although he finds a little too much "repetitious" slapstick in the routines of clowns Copeland and Combs, nonetheless he offers them take-note praise: "... the blowoffs of their major gags produce major laughs."

Here is the big question about John Ringling North II, which I believe will likely be answered soon (he is heading into his seventh season next year): Does he have the will to invest more money and take decisive action to build a stronger performance? Or has he come to terms with more modest goals, content to tour a slender lineup of favored performers on a shoestring budget, fostering insufficient turnover each year to generate true excitement and healthy patronage? I liked the 2010 show enough to place it Number 3 on a "Best of Circuses" list I put out a year or so ago, just behind Big Apple Circus and Ringling-Barnum. But, would I have welcomed seeing the same show over and over again? No, I would not.

To read the full Spectacle review, here is the link: http://spectaclemagazine.com/?page_id=1631

Scroll down a ways to find it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Dieter Tasso -- Remember Him? He's Still Juggling, and He's Funnier Than Ever

Dieter Tasso today

Here's one for the ages.

Once a juggling star on Ringling under canvas, German-born Dieter Tasso, at 78, lives viably on as a comedian-juggler, and his humor -- at least snatches of it captured by Lane Talburt on his YouTube, is genuinely funny, as in pro funny.

For 30 years, he's been performing at the Tommy Bartlett Show at the Wisconsin Dells. THEY out there will hate me for saying this, but from what comes through on this eight minute video, if I had to chose between this wryly engaging one-man show and the fuller show nearby at Circus World, I'd put my funny money on Dieter. And here's why: He's got it all. Skill, comedy and aging humanity.

A senior sizzler for children of all ages? The so called "new circus" movement out there should take a look. The Felds should take a look. Heck, John Ringling North II should take a long hard look. A small solo cameo for a senior sensation? Funny, dexterous, humanly touching. I was skeptical going in. Not for very long. Sample wise crack: "If you like something, just tell me and I'll do it again. I react to anything. I got married three times."

Narrative? In the jokes, in the interplay with audience, in the life itself.

This is possibly Talburt's finest moment as a film interviewer.

Go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2_h-ZRus8A&feature=g-upl.

Tasso performing his original act

Monday, July 02, 2012

A New Book-Novel on John Ringling

A new book now available on Amazon, Ringling: The Last Laugh, authored by Michael Lancaster, great grandson of Charles Ringling, will surely arrest early interest from all Ringlingphiles.

What puzzles me are two contradictory pitches, one stating "This is the real story of the Ringling Brothers as told by John Ringling, the last surviving brother, in 1936." Another item calls the book Lancaster's "first novel."

So what is it?

Here, from the Amazon listing:

"On a snowy spring night in New York, in 1936, John Ringling, the Great Circus King, exited Madison Square Garden through a dark back alley. He walked out to 49th Street and met an old friend he hadn't seen in decades. Ringling, almost seventy, was disheveled and alone. The two of them sat at a bar near Union Square, where John Ringling recounted the story of the five Ringling brothers, their circus, and John's story as the last one on the lot. Seemingly in ruin then, John Ringling has had the Last Laugh, not only on those who forsook him but on the amusement world and the art world."

Lancaster claims to have "spent over thirty years listening to the stories of the famed Boys From Baraboo."

Sounds intriguing. There is yet to be a major book about arguably America's greatest big top tycoon, Mr. John, as they called him, by far the most egotistic and flamboyant of the brothers, who lived a life full of drama, complete with a tragic ending. He realized near-singular power during the roaring twenties -- and then lost nearly everything. Might this be that book? If not, let's hope it leads to that book.