Showbiz David Out of the past: First posted on July 18, 2010
As an update to this re-posting, let me add that I hold in the highest regard John Ringling North II and James Royal, who have never assaulted me in the fashion described below. They have remained most congenial, responding to my request for photos for my last book, Inside the Changing Circus, sending me annually, unsolicited, a copy of their program magazine with a bag of peanuts.
In the Circus Report that he founded and slaved over for most of his later life, the late Don Marcks once pointed me to a small space on the back cover that sometimes hosted adds. other times went blank. Said he, “How about your column there?”
I was very touched by the unexpected offer from someone who was my direct opposite, but resisted his polite invitation, telling him “eventually, I will write something that will cause you problems, and that will be it.” Don dreaded the discontent of circus owners and as a rule edited on the super safe don’t-rock-the big top side.
I knew Don well, as I knew the small insulated circus world well. They, most of them, are sheltered from criticism by the fans and by media indifference. Indeed, many a performer could last a lifetime under small tops, even in Ringing rings, and never face a legitimate review.
Before we fell into a kind of soft unspoken estrangement, Don once complained to me over the phone (we talked often) about circus fans who sent in glowing notices of Circus Vargas. He was growing tired of it. He printed their predictably rosy notices nonetheless.
Another time, Don told me, “I got a review of Circus Vargas. The guy was pretty critical, so I didn’t print it.”
That was Don, and that is how the circus world would like it to be.
Which brings us to the thorn in your side, that nagging customer who can inject unsettling opinions into your beautiful backyard paradise where every circus is the best it’s ever been, and better than all the others.
It was in Don’s paper that a piece I wrote looking back at Irvin Feld’s career, sometime after Mr. Feld passed away, caused probably a more vicious reaction than had ever greeted anything penned about the circus. Feld employees took out venomous attack ads in Circus Report. About a dozen or more. Some full pagers. Not a soul came to my defense. They bled me yes, and I did not die. And I still will not die. Bleeding is a part of my bizarre mission. When you get away with mouthing off in national print at age 14, it tends to go to your head, especially when, many years later, Variety signs on.
My most recent encounter with a hurricane of hostility arrived upon my posting a review here of Kelly Miller Circus. Some of you have no doubt seen it. Maybe you were amused. Maybe you half way agreed. Or considered me a number of things not fit for print — in more ways the one. In the eyes of the offended, I’d made a total fool of myself. That's the risk you take for daring to reveal your feelings, for you risk going against the grain. But how else?
One of the comments slung at my posting by that ever-ubiquitous contributor “Anonymous," whose profanity I did not allow onto the lot, found irony in my “legendary expertise” (a compliment, Anonymous?) being unaware that the names “Nellie” with “Hanneford go together. No, what I really failed to link were the names “Poema” and “Hanneford.”
I looked elsewhere, to one of the three Kelly Miller blogs, this being Steve and Ryan’s. Amidst some controversy, Steve, a classy guy, posted his own comment, “everybody is entitled to their own opinion.” Among other comments, Jon turned what he doubtlessly considered a negative into what I consider rare validation. You see, Jon lumped me together with the snobby New York critics’ crowd. May I take a bow please!? “Mr. Pompous ‘I live and die in New York’” he called me. (Mr. Pompous lives in Oakland, CA.) Well, it beats beings bland. And since I no longer disco into nights of senseless danger, gotta do something for cheap thrills.
Jon described my review as “a homework project.” Now to that, Jon, I can relate. For years, even after landing bylines in Variety and getting published in book form, I still felt like I were trying be a writer; lately, I’ve promoted my self-regard to writer trying to be a writer.
I'll grant that Jon might be on to some prickly things about me, but he goes totally off the rails when he accuses me of a mind set that was “formed before the presentation was presented.” If only he knew what was actually in my mind when I sat down to take in a performance of Kelly-Miller in Brewster, NY — and how what I thought I might find was significantly altered by what I actually found.
As for my carrying on like a know-it-all New Yorker, that tickles me pink lemonade. Why? Because, for starters, I think the NY critics are the toughest, and they think for themselves. Growing up, I admired how, following another opening night, they were forced to form their opinions in hours or less, rushing back to newsroom typewriters or to telephones to call in their notices. No time to stick their fingers in the wind or equivocate their immediate gut reactions down to intellectual mush. I read and treasured Walter Kerr almost every Sunday in The New York Times. And when I landed my first byline in Variety, that only emboldened my stubbornly independent ways. Whatever I am, it's me that you get. I just wish, trust me, that you'd get a lot more voices and a lot more opinions -- in declarative review form.
"Pompous" if you please. English class room deficient if you must. But bias in advance? That I fight all the time, admitting that, yes, I too am human, but I think the conscious struggle to fight bias has made me a better, fairer reporter. Two things that remain uppermost in my thinking and approach: Number 1. Keep your mind an open slate, and let the arists in the ring paint their pictures on it. Number 2. The circus, ever since jugglers began in Egypt ,acrobats in China, is forever changing. It is not a fixed form. So, by all means adhere to a golden cliche: judge each show on its own terms.
Which can be a shock to my system as well.
And sometimes, a thrill. Never know what awaits me when, pompously, I embark on another homework review project. Considering how quaintly irrelevant I am obviously viewed by my dissenters, I'm thinking of making my entrances on to the lot in cape and carriage, but the Witness Protection Program refused me that guise.
[photo, many years ago at Carson & Barnes Circus in Half Moon Bay, CA, by my nephew Jeffrey Hoffman]