Thursday, April 18, 2013

Paging the Japanese Circus Artists: Where in the World Are You? Are You Anywhere in the World?

Billed for his "Suicidal Pursuits On A Steeply Sloping Strand,"
 slide wire star Takeo Usui, with Ringling-Barnum,1955
 photo by Sverre Braathen, used  with permission from Illinois State University’s 
Special Collections,  Milner Library

A new book out, which looks to contain significant scholarship, should, as a byproduct, remind us that once upon a season, great jugglers, acrobats, wire walkers and other sawdust wizards came to us from Japan.

No longer, and I am suddenly asking myself, WHY?

What in the friggen world ever happened to you?  Did you take your stellar aristy to another planet?  Sell out to the Cirque King and hide behind his worn out masks?  Get suffocated to death under all that dry ice?

Consider this most deflating measurement of the Japanese circus artist.  From Monte Carlo, yes -- attention, please!  From Monte Carlo, a list of various countries that have earned Gold Clowns at its annual festival contains, in total for Japanese artists, 0.  Shall I spell (or misspell) it out?  ZERO. Nyet.  Nothing. Perhaps some silvers or coppers, they are not listed. 

Was it simply, here Showbiz David is putting his best brainpower to work, a matter of the advancing Japanese trading  in their acrobatic skills for technology careers? 

There is a new book out, Professor Risely and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan --- and Japan to the West.

This is not a book review.  I have not seen it, but I congratulate its author, Frederick L. Schodt, for having undertaken the research and time, and I hope he sells many copies.

In essence, in 1866, Risley assembled 18 top flight Japanese acrobats, named them The Imperial Japanese Troupe, obtained Japan's first civilian passports for its  members, and brought them to the States, opening in my home town of San Francisco.  (No, I wasn't there to review the show, sorry.)

Their arrival in the City by the Bay marked the first time in two hundred years that Japanese had  been allowed beyond their coastal waters.  They were generally referred to as jugglers.  

They saw much of the city, and it seems the city could not get enough of them. They rode in carriages out through the sand dunes of western San Francisco (I was raised in that area) to the Cliff House and Seal Rocks, and marveled at California sea lions.

They gave their first performance on January 7 at Maguire's Academy of Music for a three-day run. A huge success.  Seats were jammed to overflowing.  Doors were locked shut.  Acts worked on ladders, tubs, bamboo poles, and many of the best jugglers were female.  

Perhaps the troupe's biggest hit was a young very showmanly lad named Umekichi, who took on the name "Little All Right."  Noted a New York Times writer,  "The ladies will faint and the men go crazy over a juvenile performer whom we have called 'All-Right.'"   He was such a sensation working the crowd that at the completion of Little All Right's "perilous ladder feat," the audience stormed the stage with "half dollars, five, ten, and twenty dollar gold pieces."

The clever little guy shouted back, "All right, you bet!" which spirited another rainfall of coin.

In New York the following May, the same raving reception greeted the Japanese, extending their run by nearly two months, producing turn-away crowds at many shows.

I could go on.  My source is an excerpt from the book published in The Bandwagon, thanks to Bandwagon's on-again, off-again editor Fred D. Pfening III.  Harper's Weekly gave the troupe prime coverage, spoofing, seen above, the effect it had on the moppets - "The children have been to see the Japanese."  Harper's helped seal the troupe's fame, finding in it valid and flattering evidence of the land from which it came.  They "reveal to us a phase of the interior life of Japan which can not be otherwise gained in this country, and which no one should miss seeing."

Japanese artists eventually became significant contributors to our American shows:  Quoting from  the Ringling Bros. Route Book for 1892, in its listing of displays:

The Mikado's Troupe of Royal Japanese from the city of Yedo
Whose feats invade the realm of the impossible.
S. Qura, Manager. Ando Hamakichi, Akimoto, 
Tan Zabaro, Toyou Kichi, Sam Kichi, Miss Quome, Miss Okee            

Sigh.  Out there surfing the internet of today, I find a troupe called Kinoshita Circus that tours Japan, and it apparently offers a wide-ranging mix of international circus acts and animals, and even Ringling-trained clowns.  It does claim to include "traditional Japanese acrobats."  

Perhaps not all is lost, but as for the bigger picture, you be the judge. At Monte Carlo, as of a few years ago, here was the total Gold count:

Russia 11
China 11
North Korea 10 
United States 4
France 3
and so on down the line, country to country to
Hungary: 1

Japan was nowhere on the list.  Maybe their acrobats have all fled to North Korea.

Members of the Yueno Troupe added choreography and atmosphere to Ringling-Barnum production numbers in 1955
Photo by Sverre O. Braathen, used with permission from Illinois State University’s Special Collections,  Milner Library 

[black and white sketches from Bandwagon]

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