Monday, August 12, 2013

Circus Historical Society Names New Bandwagon Editor: Magazine Slips Into Bureaucratic Hands, Post Pfening Era

About the photo above: You'd have to have been there to appreciate the brilliance of these costumes (superior in the Bandwagon image to my scan), or you might have been lucky to see a video of old Ringling show clips containing a few rare seconds of the cast taking bows at the end of Rainbow Around the World. I've never seen anything like it. The entire number itself gave off a quiet other-worldly enchantment, marking a highpoint in producing art for the surreally inclined John Ringling North.

Fred D. Pfening III and Jennifer Posey. Photo by John Wells

Circus Historical Society's bi-monthly magazine Bandwagon will likely never be the same again, not with control of editing, scholarship, and layout now being handed over to a new editor who is entrenched in the bureaucratic morass of the Ringling museum of circus in Sarasota

Good News:  The new editor's name is Jennifer Lemmer Posey, who serves as assistant Ringling circus museum curator.  Among the staff there, she was the person who impressed me the most when I visited Sarasota in 2007, gathering photos for my book, Fall of the Big Top. We talked for only maybe five minutes, but I was struck by the depth and sincerity of Jennifer's interest in the circus and its history and coverage.  So, CHS is off to another good start, at least theoretically.

Not So Good News:  Very unlikely that Ms. Posey will have the control that Fred D. Pfening, Jr, who edited Bandwagon for half a century, likely enjoyed.  Nor will she have the control likely held by Pfening's son, Fred III, who has handled the editor's desk intermittently since the passing of his father.

Ms. Posey is coming in as something of an outsider, certainly not one of the Good Old Boys, but she is also part of the ever-expanding circus juggernaut that no longer merely exists but flourishes brazenly, with or without large crowds, in the shadows of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. (For newcomers to this blog and/or issue, circus king  John Ringling willed his entire estate to be maintained as an art museum and art school complex, not as a circus museum or entertainment annex.)

We may never know whether Pfening III, who all along expressed a preference for researching circus history over editing it for publication, was also discouraged or frustrated by other members who hold power in the ultra-modestly sized Circus Historical Society.  After he resigned as interim editor, to make way for Fred Dahlinger, Jr. who was named permanent new editor of Bandwagon, Pfening III returned a second time. Bandwagon had strangely stumbled to a standstill, with Dahlinger unable or unwilling to turn out a single issue on his own;  so Pfening III stepped in once again, to help bring the magazine up to speed, it was nearly a year behind.  Now it is still over half a year in arrears.  My latest issue received  is dated November-December, 2012.

What can we expect of Ms. Posey?  A greater question may be, who will exert control over what she may wish to do?  At the top of the list, there will be Ringling circus history curator Fred Dahlinger, Jr., who, as heretofore mentioned, failed at the Bandwagon editor's desk, yer remains prolific in his monographic answers to questions posted on the Circus Historical Society's website question board. 

An e-mail from CHS's Bob Cline inviting submissions spells out an intricate review process for new materials sent by writers seeking  bylines in Bandwagon, closer to that of a University Press.  I can't imagine Fred. Pfening Jr. following so complex a course.

University Press review boards can be hellishly frustrating entities to deal with; I should know, my manuscript for Big Top Boss was dragged through the process, being subjected by the University of Illinois Press to four readers reports;  I have them all, and if they tell me anything, they tell me that, yes, errors can be found, but no, errors, some major, can also be either ignored or missed.  And that politics on occasion can play a pivotal role.

Of course, we want as few errors of fact as possible.  "Scholarly" publishers like the trappings of scholarship, names (at least on secret file) of experts who vetted a work under consideration, plenty of end notes, all of which present at a minimum the cosmetic imagery of a well resourced work.

For any given manuscript, it is literally impossible to check every last "fact" (a date, a quote, name of and birthplace of individual) - unless perhaps you can engage a panel of "experts" to comb the manuscript.  Possible, that?  Hardly.

And so, there is a wide line separating the truly egregious errors (Irvin Feld takes over management of Ringling in 1956 and puts it indoors) from all of those smaller, nearly innocuous ones (Takeo Usui is a "wire dancer," so reads a photo caption in the Taschen book, itself ironically combed by three so-called "experts," one alluded to herein).  The comparative brilliance of Wikipedia is that it is not a book on a library shelf whose errors will never be corrected, but a fluid document that can easily be corrected and/or challenged, moment by moment.

This could be a very different magazine.  The Circus Historical Society is clearly striving to establish a structure to upgrade the quality of scholarship, assuming this to be a viable possibility.  So, in this noble regard, I have one Big Wish of Bandwagon's new promising editor:   

Please start reviewing new circus books, focusing on the scholarship of each, if only to set the record straight.  


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