Sunday, June 02, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: When The Greatest Show on Earth Became a Weekly TV Series

In 1963, the John Ringling North regime signed a contract with the Desilu production company for the use of its name, act footage and color background for a weekly one-hour dramatic series based around circus life.

I was out of the country at the time. The event was sure to have excited circus fans. Each week, a storyline centered on some backstage conflict.  Show starred the formidable Jack Palance as a tough boss.  Passing shots of the actual circus in action were used to pace action and imagery.

The show aired on Tuesday night at 9 PM on ABC. Don was left distinctly disappointed. On September 20, 1963, he wrote to me:

"This program was made in Venice, Florida and at a few dates in the East when the Ringling show was operating ... The first show this past week wasn't good at all.  It was about a lion trainer, who had lost a leg to a cat years ago.  He came back and wanted a job.  Since he and the boss were friends, he got the job.  Then he started to ruin the show's present trainer and finally worked himself into the position and from there went on to attempt to get the friend (Palance) killed by a cat."

That, I must say, at least sounds dramatic ...

"It didn't work of course. The story was pretty thin.  The action couldn't have happened in a circus, they just don't operate that way."

Yes, Don, if only you'd  have been around to stomach the ridiculously over the top Water for Elephants.

"Well, to make things short, the critics really panned it.  One said that if this is an indication of what the show will be, then by Thanksgiving it will have been taken off the network. Another cried out in anguish against it, while one in the city [San Francisco] said that if you want to see a circus program, he recommended 'Internationnla Showtime' on Friday nights."

Perhaps the closest this curious enterprise came to Ringling authenticity was to name one of its characters Otto King.

It seems that, either abroad or upon my return to the states, I caught one or two of the episodes, and that they moved rather passively across the screen.

"The Greatest Show on Earth," TV version, did last through Thanksgiving, but before the next Turkey day came around, it too was a turkey.

Fascinating historical footnote:  An original theme song for the series, "March of the Clowns," was composed by the great Richard Rodgers - unless the tune had come out of his Jumbo, which I find no record for in my reference books, or out of one of Mr.  Rodgers trunks.   Jumbo, as some of you will know, contained the wonderful "Circus on Parade."

[Photo above: Lucille Ball and Jack Palance in the episode Lady in Limbo].

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This show only ran for the one season, the premire episode was filmed in Venice and there are quite a few brief glimpses of real RBBB performers and acts from that era. The most notable aspect of the show was its variety of guest stars, ranging from Buster Keaton, Joan Blondel, Joe E. Brown,Betty Hutton and Lucille Ball herself. -Greg DeSanto