"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

Friday, November 30, 2012

L.A. to U.K. -- Circus Elephants Facing Eviction ... Is THE END at Hand? Well, Might I Offer You a Pair of "Performing Chickens" -- Bull Hooks Not Required


Pink Slips for Pachyderms?

Latest to the attack against elephants in circuses is the L.A. City council, considering, among bans on porn stars without condoms, and the mere purchase of pets in pet stores,  the end to elephants in circuses.  This, of course, brings Feld Entertainment furiously to the fore, begging for public support, pleading with the fans, hauling out the experts in its defense. Contact your congressman or woman! Call up a TV station! It can't happen!

Oh, yes it can! Sorry, Feld Family, I feel not one shred of sympathy for your corporate salvation, based on your refusal to have ever told us just how the PETA YouTube of elephant abuse under your care, posted about two or three years ago, was, as you initially claimed, "misleadingly edited?"  I WOULD STILL LIKE TO KNOW.  Somebody there is now reading this, for I know you follow this blog. Whomever you are, the Feld of Felds or the night doorman, please pass my request up to the front office.

How, tell me how, and I will listen.  Until I am satisfied that you have made good on your claim, I don't give a wit what happens to your traveling fell-good menagerie. Why?  You owe it to the circus industry to come clean.  You draw the most of the attention.  You earn millions while others settle for pennies, but your cynically spun example affects them all. You claim to treat your animals with exemplary respect, and yet YouTube paints a different picture:  Elephants being slapped by bull hooks for no apparent reason (or, might it be, to keep them in a state of fear?).  Elephants being callously cursed at for no apparent reason at all.  Is this what you stand for?  

Short of explaining your evident misdeeds, you place yourself down among the bottom feeder big tops. Among the Gardens and the Davenports.  You can only spin so far before public opinion turns. And it seems surely to be turning slowly, not to your ring -- but away.

To repeat, to whomever you are at Feld Entertainment reading this blog:  Your or your employer's actions invariably effect the plight of all circuses around the world.

L.A. TO U.K

Now, over across the Atlantic to what's left of the circus that the Brits invented. From journalist and author  Douglas McPherson (Circus Mania) comes word that circus owner Bobby Roberts was convicted last week for "keeping Britain's last circus elephant chained to the ground and allowing a [Romanian] groom to beat her while unsupervised at winter quarters."  So sad, the evidence of misbehavior (how polite of me) piles up like rotting dung.

BBC aired a documentary last week in prime time in the east of England, "The Last Circus Elephants." According to McPherson, who himself appeared on the program, "all in all, I'd say the circus came off pretty well."

Roberts came out okay.  Despite a vicious front page press campaign against the circus, partly propagated by Animal Defenders International (ADI), "the vet said, 'Hats off to Bobby - to get an elephant to that age (58) in such good condition he had to be doing something right'."

Oh, what it was once like over there.  Heck, what once it was like over here.  Reports Douglas, "There was some excellent archival footage from the glory days of the British big top in the 1950s and 60s - vast tents packed to the rafters and rings heaving with polar bears, elephants, lions and chimps."

A different people, a different circus:  Chipperfields in the sixties

Roberts' sentence was a conditional discharge.  No fine.  No court fees.  Said the Judge, the beleaguered circus owner had "suffered enough from the adverse press publicity," and had displayed during most of his 70 years an "exemplary" record of taking care of his animals.  On the BBC doc, Roberts' wife was "in tears" describing e-mail threats to "shoot Bobby and kidnap their children." 

Long heavy sigh.  I have a  sliver of cheer with which to counter the mounting gloom.  We're going minimal here.  Lower your expectations.   We're not at Monte Carlo. We're under a cozy little tent full of nice people eager to put on a show.
  
Big Top Goes Chicken!

Circus Report, of course, never sees a circus it doesn't like, but sometimes something pops out, to the good or not, that grabs my fancy.  In reviewing the Zoppe Family Circus, a show Herb Ueckert seems to adore as much as Ernest Albrecht adores Big Apple Circus, this did it:

During the dog act, "Then two chickens -- yes, real chickens-- delighted the audience by walking on a revolving apparatus."

Okay, so it's not the long mount.  Or Gunther Gebel Williams shouting out mystical commands. Or Cirque du Soleil  on steroids.  "  But ... something about that barnyard image charmed the kid in me, and I'm reaching for a kind of naive satisfaction.  Getting set, am I?, to find magic in more humble rings.  If I could only erase from my stubborn brain images of Brunn, and Gold, the Wallendas (when they were the Wallendas), Klauser's Bears, Peggy and Mac MacDonalds wondrous performing elephants, starring Baby Opal.

Memo to the Brits:  Please tell your elephants for me -- good night, good luck, and sweet sawdust dreams.

The one and only Opal with Polack Bros. Circus, 1955 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Spectalce Magazine Showers Stars Over Big Apple Circus ... L.A. Showers Eviciton Threats Over Circus Elephants; Felds Fume


John Kennedy Kane:  A ringmaster  for all season?

Ernest Albrecht,  reviewing in the current issue of Spectacle Magazine,  waxes lyrical over the new offering from Gotham's treasured big top, this one callled Legendarium.  New edition, now at Lincoln Center under the tent, reminded him of why we fall in love with the circus.  Perhaps that should read past tense; why we fell in love with the circus; bit by bit, it seems to be shriveling away.  Quoting his kick off paragraph:

"The Big Apple Circus has at last come up with a show that has charm and a personality that makes it all but irresistible.  Thanks for much of that must go to the young director West Taylor who comes to the show with Broadway credits, choreographer Matt Williams whose work we have admired for several seasons past with Circus Smirkus, the renowned Broadway set designer John Lee Beatty and the costumes of Mirena Rada who returns to the Big Apple with Broadway credits of her own.  But it is not just the Broadway theater element that has turned this outing titled Legendarium into such a delight.  For that enormous credit must be pinned on John Kennedy Kane who serves as both our guide through circus history and the show’s ringmaster"

This only adds to a chorus of high favor, meted out by opening night NY critics, cheering the acts, the clear uncluttered production reach, and the music.  We are talking familiar tunes, not an original score.  How wonderful novel.  When can you recall a circus band playing a standard song, popular or classical, that you knew and loved?  How I wish I'd be seeing this show, but I won't.

Enter, at last, a charming ringmaster?  Says Albrecht of Kane, no stranger to a sawdust ring ... "In him the Big Apple Circus may very well have found the replacement for its previous icon Grandma the clown."

Good news, if true, for BAC die hard Grandma fans, for I think in Grandma what they loved was the character more than the clown.  Grandma's warm wonderful presence.

Memorable acts of high merit, according to Albrecht, roll on, one after another. "This is a very big and powerful show packed with one wonderfully entertaining and gasp-inducing act after another. "

Drats, why will in be in Gotham at the wrong time!!!!

Let's leave it there, other than to note that Albrecht is not happy with the "actual" clowns; I've noted that they draw wildly mixed reactions, some critics finding acute amusement, others not.

Personally, I am happy to learn of a ringmaster getting so much what seems genuine praise.  I am so worn out subjected to the blowhards under too many of our tents who pass for tent show orators, that last year, yes, call me a snob if you wish, I purposely did not watch Ringling's Dragons because I needed to take a year off from Mr. Iverson.  In the beginning, I thought Mr. Iverson was terrific, and so wrote.  In the beginning, Mr. Iverson was subtly restrained. Each year, more of Mr. Iverson's  inner revival blast takes over.  So far,  well at least he hasn't passed the plate.  And yes, when he gets really carried away, he himself can be a blast.  I don't know why our American ringmasters carry on as if, only because they tell us so, what we are seeing is great, and that we will believe them, like programmed robots.  Please, somebody shut me down, my battery is low. 

Oops. I have a movie to watch tonight.  Fatal Attraction.  Back at you tomorrow or the next day, with the
other part about L.A. wanting to ban the bulls.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Welcome to the Holidays


I'm feeling more connected to the holidays than the souls in this great Edward Hopper 1942 painting, Nighthawks, appear to be.  And yet, I too, can relate to the air of feeling in limbo.  Not all Holidays are alike.  I could be sitting there myself, and so I respect and  commiserate. My late friend Mike, who often rued the toll that the holidays can take on people already depressed, himself brought a long slow self-induced fade out to an end shortly after Thanksgiving six or seven sad seasons ago.

However, for all we know, those four singular figures in the cafe are doing just ducky, thank you.

Presently, my fridge is stuffed with lavish leftovers offered me after the meal served, yesterday, at my nephew Jeff and his wife Gannimed's house in Lathrop, east of here by about forty miles.  Chef Jeff calls a traditional turkey spread  "true America soul food."  Right, he is, and so little of it do I otherwise partake once the tinsel and red tin bells fade away.  Back to broccoli, wild salmon (yes, at outrageous prices), and true dark chocolate. 

Jeff, who builds all kinds of things from model airplanes to cabinets and small boats, is presently enthralled with trying to find out every thing he can about the actual design and construction details of San Francisco's old Big Dipper Roller coaster, once a landmark on the edge of the city's Ocean Beach.  I grew up to its sweet thunder, directly across the street in the house where I was raised in Golden Gate Park -- my grandfather and then father worked for the city tending to the grounds and the  Dutch "North" windmill.  The Big Dipper was managed by my Uncle Smitty.  Here it is, circa 1921, under construction.


 While Jeff helps me with my own model roller coaster, producing track sections far superior to my original ones, he also digs deeper, on line, into Dipper photos, hoping to locate the actual detail drawings used during construction!   I secured for Jeff a copy of a fine book on roller coasters, through the kind generosity of Paul Horsman.

Jeff also showed me how to Skype on my PC.  The musical I am working on will get an informal "reading" at the house of the composer in the village in New York, come January.  So I will be able to see it.  Already committed to one of the leads, for the reading, is an actress with Broadway credits.  Now, pardon my provincialism, but that's exciting! 

Last night, turkey from Lathrop.  This morning, turkey from San Leandro, thanks to my good friend, Boyi, whose father is a very clever Chinese cook.  (The family just moved there from Oakland.) He has a way of creating what I call  "candy turkey."  Even deep into the dark meat, I reach a remarkably sweet tone.  How produced? Boyi said his father sometimes soaks the turkey first in soy sauce.

So, for three days hence, I can look forward to a full course meal of "America's soul food" at lunch. And, for desert at intervals throughout the day, thin slices of candy turkey.  What a deal.

Soon, I'll be watching my favorite holiday movie -- Holiday Inn.  Its charm, great songs, fast paced story, everything about it, never tires. Thank you Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, and all the others. 
 .
And there are the lights of Christmas to savor, just up the street at Mountain View Cemetery.

Store up as many good and cherished memories as you can. Somebody, you may need them. Some day, you may be sitting in a cafe.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday In-Box: Herriott to Wirth, on the Affinity of Trainer to Horse; Feld to Florida; Circus Fans to San Diego; Chinese Acrobats to New Creative Highs

If we could talk to the animals, like a few do:  John Herriott,  in the current issue of Bandwagon, on horse training:  "I think that when you can actually communicate with an animal, you get inside their brain, and I can understand an elementary school teacher taking a bunch of little children and elevating their intelligence.  It’s a wonderful thing.”  Ah, now there’s a romantic ring rouser. ... And so, too,  was the great equestrienne May Wirth, also profiled in Bandwagon. Her written voice comes through as vividly as I recall her human voice, when I interviewed her a year or two before she died,  her most memorable expression:  “Oh, I loved Joe.” Joe was her favorite horse ...
   
Ringling goes home to Florida.   Soon rising just north of Manatee River, The Feld Family’s new headquarters, to include eventually all their activities, best of all – with their eyes on tourist trade —  The History Hall.  (Not the Howard Tibbals History Hall?)  Inside, you’ll be feted with big top lore, such as the signed contract between John Ringling North and Irvin Feld transferring ownership of the circus to the latter in 1967.  His last talent find, one might argue, among his greatest discoveries, North effectively placed the Big show into Big Hands of business brilliance. This move will only deepen fan enthusiasm for Mr. Kenneth. 


 The new Feld Entertainment headquarters

Here, only a few miles north of Sarasota (what a disgrace that Sarasota resisted the move) new Ringling shows will be crafted and rehearsed, as will the mice on ice units. Here, as well, Feld's Monster Truck shows will get annual tuneups between tours.  Over this new line of outdoor amusement, Feld is said to merrily obsess, he having tossed circus producing onto his daughters to concentrate on gas, gears, and gusto.  Not bad?  Perhaps one day,  they will roar around the hippodrome track to replace outlawed elephants.  Dancing dump trucks?  I'm already laughing.  Tickets yet on sale? 

Circus Fans to San Diego, next Feb. 20-24, and while in session. they will be favored with a parade of films about and around circus rings, lineup to include  “an award winning examination of one of the nation's premiere youth circuses.”  Also lensing, a look at circus acts rehearsing to compete at Monte Carlo, and a film about a  "legendary trapeze flyer."  Guess who?  No, not me!  But a story, just the same, of my fleeting days in the air  ...

Once, in a three or four foot space between our house and the garage of the house next door, I’d stretch a rope tight, cling to the thing while making some clumsy body movements and imagine myself to be a great aerialist. To score myself, I made shrill sounds with my lips – mind you, not just a whistle, but strange other sounds to supply crude orchestrations.  Is this getting too weird? Okay, onto the next display...

China Rising:  The newly installed Big Boss, Xi Jingpeng, is married to a bonna fide singing diva, Peng Liyuan, so expect the boss to generate a new kind of buzz.  And while on the subject, here's a link,down the Covington chute, to some visionary Chinese acrobats flexing their new-found creative musicles on the double wheel and through those every exhilarating hoops,  at the Wuhan International Circus Festival 2012.  Avidly recommended:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_8kd8bAYVc&list=LLczEbz_MzxU5-MQz9E3sZ6g&feature=mh_lolz

Walkaround Giggles:   Russia’s Putin taking the sparkle out of Germany's Markel in 2007, when he seated her (known to harbor a fear of dogs) near his Labrador.  They remain prickly — a reality show, perchance?  Da! ... Self-Acclaim Sweeps America:  Now, it's "in" to gild your resume and shamelessly strut your ego, as witness Paula Broadwell (so aptly named) describing herself  “Author; national security adviser; Analyst; Army Vet; Women’s Rights Activist; Runner/Skier/Surfer; Wife; Mom!” She left out "full service charmer to four-star fools."  I could sum her up in one word, but I'd get thrown off the lot.  What a cesspool of grasping power-hungry egomaniacs populate DC; no wonder the town leaves me feeling so stone cold, so detached and alienated from humanity ...  Free speech, of all places, on a campus?  Are you kidding? Nyet! ... Colleges clamping down on loose lips who tend to offend:  Yale bans T-Shirts quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The quote?  “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.”  Hmm, the ban seems to confirm ... Mental Minneapolis: did you know your are considered the most intelligent city in the U.S., from a recent poll? ...

That’s enough. Got to get back to my aerial practice, and I don’t even use a mechanic!  



The horse she loved:  May Wirth and Joe on the Ringling-Barnum lot, date unknown. [Photos of Herriott, at the Great Circus Parade in 1993, and of Wirth, from Bandwagon].

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Brits, Inventors of the "Circus," Now Watch it Vanish Before Their Eyes ... A New Breed of De-Inventors Take to the Ring – or Stage, Barn or Street Corner, or Whatever

 Young author meets up with old circus: Douglas McPherson

Reading Douglas McPherson’s book, Circus Mania!, I gradually came to realize that the circus of the future as I have ruefully imagined it  — circus acts, some at least, still in evidence, but the delivery form radially reduced, or should I say, shrunk, to a random landscape of residual bits and pieces – is here. May I repeat: Is here.   At least it is here in the British Isles, where it might be argued that “circus’ has taken the greatest toll. By McPherson’s cleanly straightforward account, “circus” now competes, and not too well, with “cirque” – the latter used by many newer troupes trading, of course, on the fame of Cirque du Soleil. 

The formidable UK animal rights crowd will be smiling, if not cheering.  They, who launched their campaign during the days of P.T. Barnum, have come close to getting most of what I think they all along wanted.  By 2015, wild animals acts face a "probable ban" in the UK, McPherson  informs me by e-mail.  But the functionally non-sentimental Brits are perhaps the best equipped to accept the inevitable  Even the flamboyant showman Gerry Cottle saw the writing on the wall.  He retired his animals some years back, and now runs a circus school.   Strange, old circus performers never die, they just start up circus schools.  Quite apt: We are finding ourselves vaguely aware of a spreading sprawl of younger artists who go in for “circus skills” more than they do for regularly touring circuses.

Can you see, as I do, a devolution back to pre-Astley days, when circus skills and animal acts long flourished out in the open, in randomly arranged, if arranged at all, presentations.  They were seen on street corners, at festivals and fairs. That older era is making a comeback.  Today, their default menu would be "performance art."

As McPherson reports it, and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of his wide-ranging survey, “animal circuses” as they are now called, draw small crowds, to put it politely.   The newer experimental shows, “all human,” do much better. Some draw healthy crowds. 

And to my eye, they come off as looking far less interesting.  U.S. circus fans enjoyed a spoiled status during the great age, past tense, kids, when tent shows of dazzling variety and many rings swung into towns, threw up acres of canvas and captivated crowds with fast moving programs, sans the corrupting intermissions that today have turned what is left of them into noisy and formless (may I insert "obnoxious"?) carny circuses.

Now, let me defend Cirque du Soleil — McPherson ironically is not nearly as responsive to its production reach as am I — for Cirque presents, at its best, tightly integrated, terrifically paced performances.  See why they have my respect?  And, yes, they come without animals. But CDS has found brilliant ways to approximate old time imagery; Are those exotic crawling human creatures who slither into the ring at the start of another show not an allusion to jungle land? And do not the intensely concentrated sound effects, music and lights not endeavor to approximate a three ring extravaganza? 

McPherson seems to have taken in, so far, only one Cirque show, Varakei, and to its best acts he gives highest kudos.  He leaves, however,  not much at all moved by all of the production values, which he finds off-puttingly excessive.  The Brits were never high on extraneous showmanship that has long flourished across the Big Pond.  Cirque was not well received when it first played London, nor was the business promising. 

The young author, who did not grow up around circus rings,  is struck, early in the book, by an epiphany when he and his partner (she rather reluctant to check it out) take in a “circus,” which means with animals: Martin Lacey’s Great British Circus.  The turnout, he reports, is poor. The show has been struggling to stay solvent in a hostile environment. 

“Entrance of the Gladiators,” played to begin the show, has an “extraordinary” impact on our scribe. 

“But within the big top, with the trampled mud, the sawdust and the whiff of horses, it hits me harder than any piece of music I have ever heard.  Two hundred and fifty years of tradition, the circus magic, call it what you will — it hits me like a train.”               

But, as of a few days ago, The Great British Circus is no more.  It is history. 

Next time: Douglas McPherson’s emotions take a dive, and a tale honestly reported turns depressing. Cry, Jumbo, cry.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Most Ignored "Greatest Show on Earth" Ever? ... Awating Agent X For an Answer


Only a fool would sit in a two bit coffee dive by tracks no longer trained over in the bitter of a dark fall morning, waiting on Agent X without a promise in advance he’d even show up. Waiting on a thread of hope, to toss a Big Question his way: Why almost no reviews for Ringling’s Dragons?

It’s freezing out there. Once upon a summer, Foley and Burk rattled into to town, its flats screeching onto a siding along the old ice house, long gone. Once, I’d wait to watch ‘em pull and jerk, coax and wiggle old carny wagons from flat to flat, up onto the runs and down banging against street cement, there to be tractored off to the fairgrounds for set up at the county fair.

This current puzzlement over Dragons began after getting from cyber courier Don Covington (I’m on his "media’ list) a boffo boost for the show from the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones.  Made me rue not having seen Dragons when it fired through Oakland a while back. Needed a year off from one loud ringmaster, truth be known. Sorry; I know, I should clean up my act and go Circus Report. Or White Tops.  And learn how to compose valentines. I can't.

No sight of a limbo flying past out there.  Just the blackness of a chilly dawn.  Two other souls inside the place, kind of forlorn, leaning over coffee, one staring hopelessly into a cheap-looking cell phone which I assume is not staring back.. I brought some Genmaicha tea leaves (Japan grown), just in case. A tab of Lipton black tea leaves me seriously wanting. Picked up a donut, tipped the weary waiter good for a pot of hot water, to which I’ve added the leaves. Quality on that count.

Big Apple Circus got a slew of glowing reviews from New York critics in late October. Ringling once rang the attention of virtually all the first line theater scribes. Seven of them. Once, legendary Brooks Atkinson actually took in the show (1942), and filed a notice in the Sunday section, giving John Ringling North, his elephant ballet and other assorted acts, two adoring reviews.

So why not Dragons?  In fact, bigger reach, why so little critical coverage anymore of Ringling-Barnum?  I e-mailed Jones at the Chicago Tribune, asking him if he had any reasons why.  In return, he wrote, "I don’t know why they don’t get covered. You SHOULD blog about it."

So blogging I am, doing some ground work up here north of Frisco.  I’ll nail Agent X if I can (who has contacts all over every lot out there ) on the issue.

On the window to Tiny’s coffee shop is an old photo of Tiny (a fat man, when "fat" was okay to say) and a clown. Clyde Beatty’s train bolted through here when I was a kid, but before I could bike out to the tracks to watch it unload, they'd lured me into the punk gang  down at the Fairgrounds.

Whose tire power was that out there just now? I’m straining through the window.  A white long auto streaked slowly down. Not a sound.  Maybe Agent X just pulled up. Keep your fingers crossed. I did something daring this time, sent a message to him, that I’d be seated in Tiny’s — he’d have to get out of his damn car, walk through the door were he to meet me. Think he will?

I’m holding my position, not gonna budge. He owes ME a little respect. I’ve stood out there in the damn blackness while he roared past, stopping long enough to take a question, shout back his wise guy answers, and blast off up the street, leaving me to ponder the smoke strands from his haughty cigars.
Not today. Only a fool would get up so early on the chance that ...Door just opened. Oh, there he is, I think. Still wearing those Hollywood shades


He and two characters, walking in now.  Not looking my way.  No respect.  They're going to a table other side the dinky little sit-down, Agent X and two cronies, ordering from the waiter who bounced to their patronage.  I'm getting up, going over there.

"Agent X?"  I say in a whisper.
He looks up. Smiles.  Stays mum.
‘A question or two? I called your line, somebody took a message."
"Shoot," he says, smiling frugally at his crusty cohorts. Who are they, I wonder.  They're sipping coffee and blowing cigarette smoke as if competing to out-cool each other.
"So you're the one all torn up over Ringling getting ignored?" says Agent X, grinning.
The other two smile at me stupidly.  .
"Any ideas why?"  I ask.
"You haven't figure it out?"
"I did online research."
"The computer?" he says.
"Yes. could not locate anything from New York or L.A., or this area, San Francisco"
He yawns indifferently.
"Look, Agent X ..."
He laughs.  "Where did you get that Agent X business"
"You won’t give me your name. You're like those anonymous characters who leave comments on my blog, some of  them profane."
Agent X looks at the others. "Profanity on a circus blog!"
"Isn't that how you kill the time," says one of the others to the other.
"Ringling, no reviews anymore," says Agent X.
"Did you see Dragons?" I ask.
"Hey, Shiff ... Clutch" he addresses them:  "See Dragons?"
The both nod no.
"How many rings have they got?" asks Agent X
"Sometimes, one," I answer
"Hell, is it that bad over there?" he cracks.
"What about the audience size," one of his cronies asks.
"Out in Oakland, I don’t know, maybe a third of the seats are full.
Agent X sips from his coffee, thinks. 
"Times have changed, guy" he says. "All those newspapers are shrinking themselves down to a few pages, staffs being laid off."
"Big Apple got several reviews in New York," I point out.
"That’s New York’s darling little prize. But Ringling needs the Garden, and the Garden’s closed. Under repair. New Jersey? Oh, hell, who wants to review a circus in Jersey?  Shiff?  Clutch, would you?
"I ain't no circus reviewer," answers Shiff.
The other laughs.
"Here’s your answer," says Agent X.  "That Cirque outfit up in Canada."
He turns to his gang. "They get reviewed?"
I took the initiative.  "Yes, they do."
"That's for the gourmet crowd with money.  Ringling's for kiddies.  Who do you think the newspapers want to reach, guy?"
"Yeah, I get your drift," I say, wondering why I didn't figure it out.
"Hey Clutch," says Agent X,on a roll.  "Didn’t you tell me you got writers to review that nice little high class one ringer you worked on?"
Clutch opens up:  "Some of them hacks came out, took a press book from us, snapped a few pictures, and ditched the lot before first fanfare."
"Easy money," says Agent X. sitting there, letting the others go on. "Makes for a nice notice."
"That's it," agrees Shiff..  "Newspapers would send out dupes from fashion or ballet who don’t know a tiger from a lion.  They take your press release and turn it into their review."
Agent X giggled. "Nobody reviews circuses anymore. They end up reviewing a protest.  Those high brow critics have issues with animals."
"You mentioned Cirque du Soleil, why?" I press.
"They practically own the world. I’d hate to have to compete against them!"
"They’re not a real circus," says  Shiff.
"Hell, they aren’t," says Agent X.  "That’s what they call themselves, and people are buying it"
Agent X gets up, turns his attention to some old circus photos on the wall and gazes with a grey glow. "Johnny North did something like that Cirque thing when he came on the scene, made a lot of enemies. Some said he wasn’t putting out a real circus, but a night club show. Even old Roland wasn’t too pleased."
"And what did Robert Ringling do"asks Shiff.
"Hell," said Agent X, "he tried to out-do Johnny!"
He looks at another photo 
"Good old on the wagon Harry Dann. We once had to sober him up for a full house. In attendance was the president’s daughter, what was her name, Beth?"
And another: "Pat Valdo.  Look at him!  He hated retirement"
"How the hell do you know," says Clutch.  "You drinking cool aid again?  That man died decades ago!"
"I know a lot of things, Clutch," says Agent X.
"He's been channeling again," cracks Shiff.
"Pat wanted to go out on the road in a wheel chair. Just to sit on a mess of weeds, dodge the rain, as long as he could hear the band playing --- on the other side, he'd say. "Other side of canvas, band gets toned down a bit, sounds softer.  Old Pat."
Clutch's cell phone goes off. He takes it in hand and listens. "Sure, we’re on our way."
He turns to Agent X. "The Colonel is ready."
"Shoot," says Agent X. With that, his entourage bolts up like a gust of naughty wind under a table, and hustles out the door.
Agent X glances back my way.  "Have fun with it, guy!"
He's gone.
.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Circus Mania -- and Mini-A -- In the Land that Invented Big Top Entertainment ... New Book Brings Brit Big Top Scene Vividly into Focus


 A toast to British big tops under siege: Showman Gerry Cottle, left, with author Douglas McPherson and Circus of Horrors ringmaster, Dr. Haze.

Looking for another glorious rehash of Ringling Bros. history? For a blistering account of animal abuse under the big top? For a "study" of  nasty sexist bias against female performers in the ring?  Go somewhere else, and have at it.  Now, if you'd like to know just what the hell has been going on over there, across the pond, where the modern day circus show was invented, here is a wonderful book to check out.

Traditions under attack:  You might say the trouble began when pushy pushy Brit animal activists got the government to virtually ban elephants from big tops, the ban lasting for about ten years, until the Lords were forced to repeal their ban based upon evidence to the contrary.  Among the losers, the great English circus producer Gerry Cottle, who tried putting on an all-human circus, could not make box office on the "all human" angle.  lately, he has partnered up with the founders of Circus of Horrors, which rings in big houses night after night.

The book, Circus Mania, was written with illuminating detail by Douglas McPherson, a literate journalist (think Robert Lewis Taylor’s superb Center Ring), and, while it might not be a page turner, it is for certain a chapter turner.  Circus Mania will likely take a place of honor on the highest shelf with Antony Hippisley Coxe’s classic  A seat at the circus ---- but for very different reasons. While Circus Mania, perhaps like Coxe, excels in accurately describing various acts, it also advances beyond Coxe’s arguably narrow focus (he was not a lover of production  effects or infusions at all) to examine competing  definitional claims by a newer generation  (and they seem to grow more numerous -- and ominous -- by the hour) of what  “circus’ can be, spread across a sprawling UK spectrum. The landscape may be alive with creative ferment, but the crowds, overall, still seem sparse.  More about this in a future post. I am taking notes.

We, in the USA, seem to have somehow escaped the same fate.  On this side of the pond, circuses that send their animals to the barn themselves end up in the same place, on permanent hiatus. Think Circus Chimera. Think Pickle Family Circus. The vexingly  mediocre "all-human" Circus Vargas, still out there playing to a tent far closer to empty than to full whenever I show up, could use at least the redeeming joy of a good dog act, even an amateur dog act.

McPherson’s devilishly detailed chapter about modern freak shows (and I mean the bloodiest, most kinkiest you can imagine ) is so graphic, I, a career wimp, was forced to shun sentences now and then.  It also comes with a cool Brit sense of humor.  We are not, kids, in the land of the Ringling Bros. We are not sinking into some hyperventilated academic treatise or cultural declaration of war against  how women, up until say 10 years ago, were never allowed in a circus tent to do anything other than stand half nude, posing as sexy assistants for male stars (a dreary feminist fantasy).  This is a book about the Brit circus scene that puts you right there. And because a lot of "experimentation" leads to humdrum showmanship, you will giggle and you will yawn.    I am only sorry for the author that the publisher hatched a rather gloomy and oddly uninviting cover design.                           

The UK only gave us, in theatre, Shakespeare, in film, Alfred Hitcock, in pop music – have you heard of the Beetles?   And in the sawdust ring, heck, they practically invented the damn thing as we know it.  So, how ironic it should be that the UK has perhaps been the hardest hit by the activists, who have succeeded in tarring "traditional" shows as "animal circuses."   McPherson comes into the tent without any baggage whatsoever (other than fond memories of watching some elephants parade through his town in his toddler years), so you are getting a trustworthy account of what is going on over there.  Half way through this excellent read, I can say that he seems to have developed an appreciation for traditional circus, and at the same time is youthfully able to cover the fringe shows, of which there are many.
                                   
And here I shall, for now, take a brief break.  I will have fun ahead sprinkling bits from Circus Mania in future three-dot efforts.