"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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Catching Cliff Vargas on a Good Vargas Day


Of all the big top bosses I have observed, the most exciting figure among them, by far, would have to be Cliff Vargas.  His unpredictable moods combined with his relentless drive to make his circus the very biggest and best is what enamored him, most will agree, of virtually everybody in the circus community.

How I miss just being able to spot him slipping across the lot, like he did that rainy morning at Farmers Market in L.A as the big top was rising, accompanied by Joe Muscarello. Vargas looked weary and worn down, but a man who would not stop.  Within several years he would no longer be with us, another tragic victim of AIDS.

He could be boyant; he could be nasty.  Somehow, his greater desire to deliver trumped the many moods when "Mr.V.", as they called him, came onto the lot.

Southern Californias will fondly remember the show opening in the Hollywood Bowl Parking lot on Highland.  What glamorous openings they were.  One night, just returning from the Bay Area, I made a mad dash over to the lot, intent on taking in the show again.  In fact, I would usually see the show more than once during its golden years in the mid-1980s, they were that good.    "Sold out" a man standing near the tent told me.  The only other time I can recall being turned away at a circus was at the Moscow Circus in Oakland in 1967.

Here is Don Marcks, in a letter to me dated May 18, 1983:

"I then spent the next two days with Circus Vargas and do you know what.  The attitude was different than it has been and in fact the people seemed different and so I enjoyed it.  Was in Wally Naughtin's trailer when there was a knock on the door and in walked Vargas.  He acted like he was happy to see me.  Another time he was going through the backyard and came over to tell me that he had been selling tickets and said, do you know those people who buy the tickets are crazy.  He was certainly in a good mood. To say he has a good show, etc. is to repeat so many others but it is true."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Big Top Bits: Big Apple Circus Inks Ringmaster Kane to 3-Year "I Do"... Ringling Trucks into Brooklyn ... Nik Wallenda Takes on Grand Canyon the Old Fashion Way ... And ... End Ringer Surprises

  
A Big Apple future blossoms for the jolly ringmaster

This ringmaster has a big whistle to be proud of:    John Kennedy Kane's contract with Big Apple Circus has been extended by three years, and he's feeling lucky to be focusing in on the performance rather than having to do everything but -- "selling the  popcorn and all (the other  things)."  Indeed, given BAC's  indifference to the man in red in recent seasons and, moreover, the company's annual drive for a complete new lineup of acts, Kane's contract extension amounts to high praise from the company and its artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy.  Notes Kane to a reporter, "They create the show from the ground up, and it’s really quite amazing to  watch .... I’ve never  been on a show that had that  much rehearsal time, maybe  four hours sometimes, but not  four weeks. And, man it does show in the performance."  Yes, it does, Sir Kane.  Ringling-Barnum once spent six weeks in Florida sun rehearsing production numbers, etc..


Big Apple's founding ringmaster, Paul Binder

Their man Kane snared lively buzz from the NY press, a rarity for circus announcers, too many of whom blow hard and long, acting as if microphones do not exist, and the tents in which they hyperventilate seat 15,000 people ... Perhaps he's seen as a spiritual replacement for Grandma, the human link that Paul Binder  has so valued ... To his and the show's credit, Kane has adapted from blastmaster down a more intimate presence.  "I don’t  have to bellow ‘Ladies and gentleman and children of all ages!’ It’s more of a conversational tone because it’s more  like you are in my living room and I’m taking you through the show.” Somebody out there is finally getting it right.  Fact is, the so-called "classical ringmaster" (wordy, loud, in your face) is largely a myth.  No?


A passion for skywalks: Nik Wallenda

Famous High Wire Guy, Welcome Back!   He's showing his true Wallenda blood, Nik is, after the Viagra Falls PR fallout.  People everywhere noted, even if only they whispered, "but his feet were tethered to the wire!"   Just as they are now noting, "he'll be walking without a safety harness."  They know. You can't fool them.  Nik signed to cross the Grand Canyon on June 23, to be telecast live.  Very daring.  He's instantly earned back my respect, though I would have not urged him onto this latest exploit, and I prayerfully wish him a fine heroic crossing.   Hmm, was that earlier Niagara gig a set up for this, to exploit, in comparison, the fact  that he will now be walking the wire cold turkey?   It alone is driving the story, and it alone, I predict, will pull in an ever larger TV audience.   Karl Wallenda, I can hear his spinning silenced, a smile of family pride returning to his face. 

Trucking into Brooklyn, the Big Show Way.   Now that Brooklyn has its own Madison Square Garden (the new Barclay's Center), Ringling, of course, lusts after the new venue, and in order to reach the place, they've got to park the trains in Seacusus NJ, and from there, rings, elephants and concessions will be trucked the rest of the way, performers bussed. I imagine, this being their first year at the new Barclay's, they'll pack 'em in.

  
A passion for circus: Johnny Pugh

END RINGERS:  Trucking forever, Johnny Pugh's "I-95 Circus," as he calls it (Cole Bros.) staying true to its tried and true territory.  Come fall, going south, "we do make a right-hand turn on I-10 ... so we kind of play the Gulf Coast." ... In Baraboo these days, the great circus parade of yore is now a little town procession, not even as a long as the one of 2005.  This July 27,  they'll parade during the downtown Circus Celebration.  Circus World hosting a wild west re-enactment that weekend, and it'll make parade as well. ... Tito's vanishing dream - City of Venice director declaring the 50 year old structure, where Ringling circus shows once rehearsed, "unsafe," mandating swift action in 60 days. Among building hazards, roof leaks.  Locals coming to grips with "the end for what was once the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus"  This idea for yet another museum never made sense to me.


 A passion for airhead blather, bla! bla! bla!

Comedy Closer:  If you lose your audience to insulting cellphone addicts, clown your way into their conversation, which is exactly what Kelly Miller buffoons Steve and Ryan did during a recent performance,  unable to get any respect from a teenage girl jabbering away in the front row.  Blogged El Steveo, "I walked over and took the phone from her and started talking to whoever was on the line. I then handed the phone over to Ryan and he carried on the conversation a bit before we finally hung up and returned the girl's phone."  Way to go!  I can see this nervy duo,  capriciously improvisational, making it a recurring gag, wandering into the audience to join any other cell phone conversations insultingly in progress.  Another reason why I recently called these creative goofballs, "The Steve and Ryan Comedy Workshop Performed Before a Live Audience." Well, most of it live.  How I'd love to book myself a front row seat at K-M under the circus critic witness protection program, go to work on my cheap little cell, and ... see what happens.

Oh that was fun, and not too insulting a wrap, I trust ...

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: What He Really Thought of Ringling-Barnum, 1955 -- And a Rumored Ballroom Big Top After the Big Show


Art Concello, right, with John Ringling North, center, at a spring publicity shoot for Concello's ingenious new seat wagons, Sarasota, 1948

On rare occasions, in his letters and on the telephone, Don would level with me on what he really thought.  When Big Bertha rolled down through California in 1955, Don visited the show in four locations - Seattle, Richmond, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Whether he watched it that many times is doubtful, but how I envy him for all his time spent around the last great big top.

Here is a taste of his candor, never revealed in his writings, from his letter to me dated October 19, 1955:

"They had some very good acts, and [I] tbought the show was very good except that it was too slow and too long.  Without a doubt it could have been speeded up and cut at least an hour off the time. Boy to sit and watch a circus for three hours for the public is a long time."

It may have been closer to 2-1/2 hours, but others, too, would complain about excessive length.  For myself, I was so enchanted by the whole thing, and just to be watching Ringling-Barnum for my first (and, as it would be, my last) time, that I could have sat there all night in circus heaven.  In a near full tent at the night show in Richmond, CA, I recall some early exits, though not in droves. But, to a greater problem, continuing ...

"...and I don't care what anyone says those seats of theirs are the most uncomfortable things I've ever sat on."

Right he was. Even in my early teens, I felt cramped sitting on my reserved seat on a Concello seat wagon.  The wagons themselves were a dazzling thing to behold in the erection stages, but their inventor, the diminutive AMC ("Little Caesar") must have satisfied only himself when testing a seat.

Okay, what Don did not like about the performance:

"As for the specs, I was rather disappointed in them, for I don't go for too much of that stuff and in my own opinion they could drop them without anyone noticing it.  Take for example what did they call it? 'Mama's in the Park' that was supposed to be an elephant number. Except for their running around the track what did they do?  Boy if they are going to have an elephant number they better start getting them to perform."

And then, onto talk about the next season, Don's referencing rumors about the show adding a very novel new kind of tent to the midway:

"Oh, well, I'll bet there'll be some big changes next year and believe me it won't be having the Dosey band with ballroom dancing after the show for the public!!"

I remember those dance band rumors; actually, in hindsight, a rather inventive idea, no?

3.23.13

Monday, March 18, 2013

Big Tops Hit the Road, Here's a Sneak Peak Under The Biggest (if not the best) Tents

 
The beat goes on, some shows stressing themes, others peanuts.  The beat goes on, under tops smaller than then, more ambitious maybe than when last you walked the lot.  Look here!  Circus Vargas has a big grabbing theme for this year's outing, Magikaria, which sounds like one of those tongue twisters thought up by the Feld of Felds. 

Circus Vargas with illusions from a "handsome" guy named Patrick Gable.  Down to one ring, Carson & Barnes still turns its arching theme on size:  "The world's biggest big top show!"   Cole Bros. Circus of Stars can't let go either: "The World's Largest Circus Under the Big Top!"  Hollow hype be dammed, they're all out there, or about to be, pitching perennial good will for the kids, maybe a pinch of class or two for mature moppets.  Blitz 'em with free kid ducats, then go to work on popcorn, pony rides and coloring books.

As long as newkids keep getting born, piped a smart guy long ago, circus has a forever future. New baby customers get harvested every year, and onto the lot they stream, free coupons off the drug store counter in hand, the mamas and the papas about to be separated from their cash in hand, their plastic down deeper.

These days, they gotta give the public a little big top broccoli, for folks need the illusion of meaningful amusement --- then they'll buy your one-thousand percent markup pink sugary stuft.  That's how the rings roll.  The Vargas website looks mote intense, more committed to the Big Theme. This high-on-magic opus might suit show's newish ringmaster, Kevin Venardos, a dude who projects rough surly power, something like a suave barker in a red light district luring kids of advanced ages behind shady black doors. At least, give Vargas credit for trying.  We here in California deserve our own version of Big Apple something.  This outfit, as I see it, comes closest among the four under review here to reaching that higher level in solid 3-star territory .  Production values last year easily trumped a so-so lineup. Two or three more first class acts, please, CV! 

Cole promises NEW.  That would be "a new white tiger act, and a new high wire act, and a new dog act" --- which stirs the inner circus in me. Inner circus meaning primal power.  Wire to cage.  Romping dogs to messy elephants.  Pachyderm poo forever hovers not far ahead.  You buy your ticket, take your seat, and wait to see if the whole thing can go on without one amusing emission.  Or one juggling flub.  Or --- oh, no! -- worse.   That's the real big top.  The real deal.  The rings of reality.

Which takes us to the Kelly Miller, blogged about incessantly by You Know Who.  Whilst taking my crisp morning walk this AM, musing over the mud in my mind I was struck by an epiphany. Trumpets!  If Kelly Miller has anything close to a Big Theme at all, this is how I'd  phrase it:  The Steve and Ryan Clown Workshop Performed Before a Live Audience, Season 5. Or would that be Season 6, or Season 60?  

Say whatever you will, they're all still out there, over asphalt, in mud, troupers who know how to extend seasons.  Troupers who may settle for tacos over steaks.  Why is it that I have a  hapless hankering to see The World's Biggest Big Top and The World's Largest Circus Under the Big Top?  Am I still a sucker for such hollow hype?  Blame it on an early spring.  No, make that a bird in a pew.  (get it?  Byrd -- Pugh, HaHa! Naw?)

Well, the joke was free.  Now, hand over your PayPal account number, please. Have I got  a slew of boffo  broccoli to sell you -- fifty percent off with an elephant ride.  Your money back if it goes poop on you.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: John Strong Versus John Ringling North



1957 was a terrible year for John Ringling North.  Reviled by angry circus fans for having struck the big top for good the previous summer in Pittsburgh, now there was another reason for acute discontent: having to watch the show, in many towns, not even indoors but around a ball park or in front of a fairgrounds racetrack grandstand! 

Grown men hated what Mr. North had done. So could I, a kid, not also complain?  I turned from fan to foe overnight. 

In 1957, John Strong was still in his relatively innocent era, before high power phone men got a hold of his little show and exploited it to hell in possibly  the most corrupt boiler room operations your average American towns had ever suffered.  At our local county fair in Santa Rosa, I loved sitting inside the little tent while ringmaster Strong held court. Simple.  Home made.  Charming.  What a fizzy splash John made with his big heart and friendly chatter!

Here, from Don's letter to me dated August 9, 1957:

"Was happy to know that you had seen the John Strong Circus and also I was glad to know that you liked it to. I think that this little show is about the best there is all things considered.  Certainly the folks and all go away feeling happier and glad that they saw a little performance.  Also it is so close, everyone's personality is great and everything just sort of blends together there for the entertainment of both children and adults."

Later in the letter:

"This last issue of Life magazine has a small article with some pictures on this years Ringling show - the Circus without a tent. Think that I would be disappointed in the thing seeing it outside.  Of course if they do finally end up and play in the Cow Palace it might not be too bad since we have seen it inside before [since 1948].  Only thing with cutting down the show and then playing the Cow Palace, it seems to me they might be lost more than ever there."


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: The Wide Disenchanting Line Between Fan and Trouper


Not so enchanted?  Showbiz David with Wallace Bros. Circus, trying to be "with it and for it"

Some travel along for a week or so, in their own mobile homes, parking across the street, or checking into motels, during the day helping out on the midway, inside the tent, for the satisfaction of "traveling with the circus." 

But not until they cross the line between their own world and that other one back of the big top -- living within the community under canvas, maybe sleeping in a long semi on a narrow bunk, eating in the Ptomaine Joint (aka: the cookhouse) will they ever begin to comprehend how different the world of the circus really is. It may be less socially messy today than it was when I, for only six weeks (hardly a boast), went out with Wallace Bros., thanks to Bob Mitchell who got me the job.  First week or so, I felt like I were floating through the most wonderful fantasy.  After that, gradually, the reality of living in such close quarters around the clock with all kinds of people of the sort who endured the daily hardships began to stalk my idyllic vision -- not unlike a veiled hustler turning "love" on its head.  It takes guts to work for what I'd call a real circus.

Don Marcks, to my knowledge, never really crossed that line, although he harbored dreams of crossing it. He once I think spent some time working for John Strong, but at an across-the-street distance.  Maybe it's a good thing he remained a fan.  I myself lived to value remaining a patron out in the seats.  Yes, a few years later I did do press work for Sid Kellner, but far ahead of the show itself.  I was on my own. And Don offered great encouragement and support when I was making up my mind whether to accept the position.

Not long after I moved to Los Angeles in 1983, Don wrote me this, on June 10:

"This sure is a busy time - saw Carson & Barnes for three days and enjoyed it all.  No wonder folks want to be around the show.  It is like they used to be in the old days, everyone is friendly and it just feels good.{I have to wonder how he would know that.] I was ready to throw everything away and sign up for the tour. Someone told me Dorey would like to have me with it, but even if that were true I can't go now, not until all this hospital stuff is over. What would I do with Circus Report, so guess I'll stay home, weep a bit but keep the paper going?"

Yes, Don, I think you made the right decision. 

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Barnum & Bailey & Magic: When the American Circus Scene Dazzled, Awed, and Astounded with its Vast Variety of Attractions


At no extra charge, patrons toured state-of-the-art illusions under a black tent in 1889. 

Reading through John. F. Polacsek's wonderful article in Bandwagon, "Magic Under the Barnum & Bailey Big Top," I was struck, as if by retro revelation, by the multitude of attractions our American big tops once offered the public in their competitive quest to fill up the huge tents during the halcyon days.

In 1889, a Strobridge lithograph promised "40 supernatural illusions."  These appeared in a black tent.  Add to that a menagerie and, of course, the three-ring big show under the biggest tent of all.

Quoting Polacsek's most captivating statement: "Breaking new ground and providing multiple venues for magic on the circus brought new dimensions to the 1889 Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It took only one ticket to see 'Acres of canvas, Three Colossal Circuses, a Wild Moorish Caravan, a Paris Olympic Hippodrome, and immense Double Menagerie, a Magnificent Horse Fair, a Gigantic Marvel Museum, and a Wonderful Black Tent Illusion'."

Fast forward a hundred plus years. At its most minimal, today an American circus may offer you some fine jugglers, acrobats, maybe an aerialist or two. Perhaps even a bouncy dog act.  Yes?  No?

Which is not to say the shows today do not hold their own.  Some of them do, for sure.  Think Big Apple. Think Ringling, for examples.  But, but ... what once was the circus in this country truly deserved the title The Greatest Show on Earth.

Talk about a gigantic entertainment bargain!  Yes, this Barnum & Bailey showmanship blitz was an exception, one might argue. But in its expansive essence, it epitomized, I believe, what we have been shrinking down and away from, season by paltry season: that vast variety from long ago of fascinating things to behold in a number of venues, loosely connected under the words "magic" and "exotic" and "incredible."  Even "shocking."

The once great circus in America.

[Bandwagon photos. Sorry, my scanner must be dying out on me]

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Blood Over the Balshoi: Mad Dancer Now Behind Bars for Acid Revenge on Ballet Chief; Villain's Girfriend Denied Major Roles, the Assumed Motive



The dancer as Ivan the Terrible. 




In street clothes, he looks like a lawless Birmingham punk rocker.  In costume at the Balshoi, above, he excelled as Ivan the Terrible, among other notorious roles.  He is famed for dancing down the dark side.

And now he is behind bars -- gaze into this killer's eyes, and decide for yourself -- he, one Pavel Dmitrichenko, 29, is charged with organizing  a near-blinding assault of acid into the handsome face of Bolshoi Artistic Director  Sergei Filin.  Doctors are fighting to save at least partial vision for Filin.

The villainous attack -- which will one day likely become the libretto for an opera or ballet -- rocked the ballet world, though it did not shock seasoned insiders, privy to intense rivalries behind the magic-tragic curtain.  And to think how lushly lovely they all looked when, back in 1979 while researching my book on the Soviet Circus scene, I was taken to a performance at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses.  Like a water color come to life, that fluid, that perfect. 

On the CBS Evening News tonight, the motive points to Pavel's wanting to get even for his girlfriend, another dancer, having been overlooked for a recent role, the alleged reason being that she was "too fat."

Looking at her in motion, I had to laugh at such an assertion.  And, another thing:  Who said all male ballet dancers were gay? Not quite in Russia.  So, we can now agree that we have one?  I never bought the claim, not on the Russia side.

Earlier reports surmised the attack to be motivated out of jealousy by a Russian dancer (not sure if it was Ivan) losing out to a role handed, instead, to an American import.

Right now, I am not feeling so sacredly reverential to this bloody troupe.  Russia: what is it about the place?  Are the people really that cold? Recently, I watched a well reviewed movie, Elena, in which a basic heartlessness pervades the lives of virtually all the characters. So utterly dismal. 

PS. Please, everybody, don't give out my e-mail to Ivan the Terrible. We have enough loose cannons on the lose here in Oakland, though not exactly where I live, but, thank God, the city has finally said yes to purchasing on-the-scene advice and assistance from genius top cop, Lord William Bratton of New York, and already, crime is down.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Circus World Museum On the Rocks Again? Latest Move Would Grant Total Operational Control and Hiring to State Historical Society

Pardon me for not knowing how to jump onto or run with this one --- that is, all the fretting over yet another imminent demise of Circus World Museum.  These predictions of The End seem to occur about every four or five years.  The details this time around are mind boggling.

There is a move afoot in the office of the state's fiercely decisive governor, Scott Walker (you've no doubt witnessed his gutsy revamping of state pensions and unions).  Seems he wants to roll Circus World Museum into the Wisconsin Historical Society control.  For 54 years, the grounds have been operated on a lease agreement between the state and the Circus World Museum Foundation, Inc.  The state currently pays about 30% of operating costs, with hefty private funding picking up the rest.

Let me quote from the Baraboo  News Republic:

"Just in time for March Madness, leaders at Circus World Museum and the Wisconsin Historical Society are unleashing a full-court press to convince donors and lawmakers they have the better plan for the Baraboo historic site.

"Gov. Scott Walker recently unveiled a budget plan that includes rolling Circus World — whose property is state-owned but whose operations are funded privately — into the Historical Society. This would include making Circus World’s staffers state employees; funneling the site’s revenue into state coffers; and ending a lease agreement between the state and the Circus World Museum Foundation, Inc.

Walker's proposed budget would feed $1.2 million to Circus World  over the next two years to pay for 10 staff members.

Were this to go through, current staffers, it is said, would face fresh interviews and be expected to produce documents of education and/or valid experience in order to be considered to stay their desks.  Freese, you can feel, is fairly furious, and protective as well -- in a way he was apparently not with previous professional archivist Erin Foley, who deserved far better than she got from being hired and let go, not once but twice.  Perhaps her sin was that she did not know how to restore -- or would that be, how to create virtually from scratch. -- an "historic" circus wagon?

Freese's most startling disclosure may be this, concerning his employees:  "I don’t think any of them have an opportunity to be hired.”  He added that some staffers are already job hunting.

His job may also be on the line as well (politics, you know), although from the spin back there, he seems to have done an above average job at increasing attendance and funding. He, of course, stands to lose autonomy were he to suddenly be reporting directly to the Historical Society. Can you imagine wannabe Freese replacements lining up in the backyard, already pitching ideas for a far better patronized Circus World to Historical Society big shots?

Pardon me for yawning.  I love the Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall, love the library's awesome archives. But I find the grounds a bit sprawling and nondescript, and all those carefully protected wagons a tad over the top.  Especially comparing their tony storage quarters to the shabby condition of the case and wall exhibits in the older Ringling buildings -- as I found them about six years ago.  How many more newly "restored" circuswagons before they declare a moratorium on adding to what one cynical insider has called "the world's largest full scale model circus wagon collection."

Yes, I am still steaming over their brazen disregard for the Thimble Theatre Fun house which rots away back of a fence, out of sight.   A wagon that would have added a touch of rare variety to the repetitive parade.

Where will it all end?  Scott Walker is one powerful politician.  I think the devil is in all that acreage. Think "real estate."

Howard Tibbals to the rescue? 

A Tale of Two Museums: Baraboo Revisited; New Visions Needed ...


This was originally posted on February 16, 2010


Third in a Series: Discredited Baraboo Museum Places Circus Producing Above Artifacts Preservation

When viewed from an aerial graph, the buildings and grounds of the Circus World Museum look uniformly arranged. To walk the same turf on foot is another matter. In the late spring of 2007, when last I visited, I found a run-down sprawl of random exhibits, wagons and buildings of all styles and shapes, giving off the musty mystique of both a long-forgotten circus rusting away in the sun and a Section Eight playground. An inglorious mishmash.

Not inspiring. Was this were the show ended? Once upon a season, this was where the show began. Where the “World’s Greatest Shows” produced by the five Ringling brothers came each fall to rest and renew for another spring. This is where they built up their fame and fortune. A place funded by wealth then; a place forever close to bankruptcy now.

Time has not favored what is now called just Circus World, even though they still alternately use the original three-word title. Time demands a serious restatement of what it can and perhaps even should be, given its diverse — if hidden — holdings. Since its founding in the fifties, CWM has spent, as I see it, too much of its time and money in the relentless obsessive “restoration” of old circus wagons, some of it bogus. How many of them must you “restore” before you can turn your attention to other resources in your keeping, such as a quaint clutch of old carny wagons and a few rides shipped to the museum over forty years ago? Did that donation come with any legal strings attached, somebody should ask somebody.

Another question: Does this museum bear an ethical obligation to restore and exhibit what it willingly accepted when California carnival man Lloyd Hilligoss offered to send the artifacts east? Or is it simply okay to let them fade away into Baraboo oblivion, conveniently out of the eye of patrons? Well, not if you read the guidelines put out by the American Association of Museums (AAM), which revoked its accreditation of Circus World in the late 1990s.


Let’s make one thing clear: Lloyd Hilligoss could have sent the Thimble Theatre and all the other wagons to the junk hard. Could have turned them into fire wood, as show owners have been known to do. He must have admired their historical value (gaze upon the artwork and animated mechanisms of the fun house in this photo). So he took the time. in 1971, to offer them to Baraboo. And since the gesture was obviously made for people like me, I feel compelled to write in his defense.


Can you feel my emerging drift?

This piece of real estate was not willed by the brothers to anybody for any particular purpose, and so, unlike what is happening down in Sarasota where bureaucratic interlopers labor morning noon and night to reconfigure an art museum into an art-circus combo, in Baraboo, the powers that be can do whatever they please; they could even, I think, sell the property and be done with it. Rumors suggest even this bleak scenario has been periodically considered.

The museum that Chappie Fox built, and the formidable library that Robert L. Parkinson stocked and cataloged (it alone earning respect from the AAM), has for years been handicapped by diminishing crowds, by a loss of crucial funding from Schlitz Brewery, and by vacillating leadership extending clear up to the Wisconsin Historical Society that owns and controls the precarious operation. Recently, the board laid off half of Circus World’s staff of eight, including thoroughly professional archivist Erin Foley, who had kept a world-respected research library open and in active responsive operation. Also to her formidable credit, Foley had taken measures to open the Ringling-Barnum Archives, a rich source of Ringling circus documentation that had for too many years remained in custodial limbo. At last, this trove of history can be mined by researchers and the public at large.

A staff member who runs a summer time circus, itself hardly an authentic museum exhibit at all, remains on the payroll.


Today, you will find indecision and sporadic neglect everywhere. Compare the first-rate quarters accorded restored circus wagons inside two modern buildings to a shabby off-site shelter (roof only, if I recall correctly) under which a number of carnival wagons rot away. Walk the exciting Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall, a marvel of captivating wall and display case know-how, and then wander out through some of the older Ringling brothers brick barns, where photos and posters and text materials posted are fraying at the edges; that’s how I found them in 2007, prompting me to ask Erin Foley about certain historical inaccuracies contained therein. Explained, she, library staffers can “comment” on historical content — only. They have no control over what goes up for display. How oddly counterproductive and totally irresponsible for a “museum.” No wonder its AAM accreditation was revoked. Among a number of suspected reasons driving the AAM’s dismay, there is the nagging issue of whether or not many of the so-called “restored” wagons are in fact real artifacts. Numerous replacements of their original materials and parts have rendered a number of them virtual recreations. A lot of them contain no more, if that, than 25% of the original wood and metal.

Indeed, the Great Milwaukee Circus Parades of the past, Fox’s dazzling dream come true, put a moving spectacle of artifacts at grave risk (inordinate wear and tear), while at the same time deceptively pushing total recreations as authentic. This illusion did not please the auditors from the AAM, who will refute any attempt to pass off a recreation as the real item, as well they should.

CWM was then, and it still might be now, a sad reflection of a history of administrative expediency and neglect — and extra curricular showbiz ambitions. The Ringling circus museum in Florida has mover and shaker Deborah Walk and her funding sugar daddy Howard Tibbals. Circus World in Baraboo has Wisconsin politician Stephen Freese, latest in a series of executive directors to hold its precarious reigns. So far, his modest to moderate fund-raising efforts have at least kept the creditors at bay, but he has just shrunk museum hours down to only three summer months a year, for official word is that, without the circus it presents during this period, the six- to seven-hundred people it draws on the average day would melt away. During the winter months CWM was drawing less than 10 customers a day. Sometimes one or two. Did I not suggest that a new vision is in order?

How long before Freese, too, uplifts off to another post, or runs for another office, throwing a hundred question marks once more into limbo?


About what it might be — how about the American Outdoor Amusement Museum? There are, to my sketchy knowledge, virtually no carnival museums in the United States; one is being planned in Canada. The Foley and Burk wagons, along with a few other rides said to be stored somewhere on the premises, could form the nucleus for a historical carnival midway display. The gem of the bunch is certainly the old time Thimble Theatre fun house (a.k.a.: Fun on the Farm). For starters, there are thousands of potential customers to draw from who frequent the amusement park up the road at The Dells. Even a hundred of them a day would expand the paltry six- or seven-hundred souls who pass through CWM turnstiles on the average summer day to watch the circus show.

How I’d love to see an old fashion 10-in-1, historically accurate, sans the crippling constrains of PC paranoia.

And if not, CWM surely bears an ethical obligation to offer their carnival holdings to a carnival museum willing and ready to preserve and display them. Among the elements of acceptable “Collections Stewardship” specified by the American Association of Museums, there is this: “The museum provides public access to its collections while ensuring their preservation.” On this count alone, CWM’s consistent refusal to exhibit its carnival artifacts amounts to a gross dereliction of duties. No wonder they lack accreditation.

But wait for the circus! That’s this summer. That’s when the charade continues. Yes, let the librarian go; why do we need her? We are running a circus, not a museum.


New vision: Why not combine Baraboo’s attractions into a one-tour ticket: include the Al Ringling Opera House, claimed to be the first movie palace in America for a city of this size. Stage a nightly vaudeville show on its boards recreating what the Ringling Brothers gave the public during their first years in show business. Move the recently arrived International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center down to Water Street where it rightfully belongs, for heaven sakes! Baraboo also contains, heck, Baraboo itself, a sleepy town of old-world enchantment.


Tis a pity that Circus World has been so woefully mismanaged. Perhaps it needs simply to be mismanaged into something a lot more colorful and exciting, diversified and compelling. They insist they need a circus show to pull in a crowd? Okay, then give them one hell of a circus -- songs and jokes, bawdy pratfalls and freaks, old time rides like The Whip, spooky fun house walk throughs, a goat named Billy Rainbow (the brothers' first animal); a snake charmer named Louise Ringling — all of it authentically historical.

That’s all.



2/16/10

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Ringling Trapeze Wars Aim to Maim; Vicious Rivals Fired, Told to Hit the Road

Don and I talked often on the telephone.   We lived maybe 12 miles apart.  He seemed to enjoy ringing me up with the "latest."  "Hey, have you heard," he'd begin.  "I just got a call from ..."   I knew something juicy was coming my way, and I could almost hear a gleeful sigh on the other end of the line.

When I lived in L.A., there were more letters.  But still, up here before and after my stay in L.A., he would now and then dash off a letter, usually two pages long and impecablly typed, with this and that, and, of course, sometimes "the latest."

From September 11, 1988:

"Not sure if you were aware of it or not, but there has been a lot of trouble between the two flying acts on the Blue Unit this year and this has resulted in some fighting backstage, even filing charges against one another, some talk that cables were filed through, etc. Anyway, it all ended here in Oakland when the Caballeros were fired.  I don't know wher they went, but no doubt they will pop up on some show soon or at least for next season anyway."

And, then, about his model building:

"This week I received amerry go round horse, well it is a plastic modled horse from a 1927Phila. Tobaggan Co. ride.  It is quite nice and is what they call a stander, so is larger than most of the other horses.  I wanted this one, but it is larger than I expected it to be.  Think that I will keep it in the back room which someday will get turned into some sort of circus room. [never happened]  I was thinking of it for the living room, but because of its size I think it is better in the other room."

The "back room" might have been his medium-sized bedroom in what felt like a basement, which I often visited, because in it, at the far end, stood a desk upon which, his current model wagons under construction were to be seen.  Not much else in there but a bed without the color of a spread.  A rather blank room otherwise.  

The Vazquez, with Miguel spinning his magical quads, stayed on Ringling, and, after that, continued building a phenomenal quad legacy that is, to this day of diminishing aerial heroics,  unmatched by any other troupe. 


Saturday, March 02, 2013

Will Cinderella Break the Broadway Rewrite-Revival Jinx for Rodgers & Hammerstein?

Update, 3/4: The early reviews, ranging from downbeat to very good, appear to give this story some promising legs, at least for the near future.


In 1957, Rodgers and Hammerstein's original made-for-TV musical, Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews, was seen by 107,000,000 TV viewers. Yes, that many million, and nearly twice the number who had tuned in to see Elvis Presley, the year before, roll his rebellious hips on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Cinderella would go on to be performed in a number of versions on stages around the world from time to time.

Now, at last! -- that's what the spinmasters at R&H of course are singing -- it's finally coming to Broadway! Official opening night is March 3.  Will be interesting to see how it is received. It has a totally new book, more hip, we are told, by Douglas Carter Beane (Sister Act, Xanadu).

Will it overcome a perennial problem that such contrivances face:  How to merge old fashioned songs with smart new dialogue? (well, if not smart, new)


Oscar Hammerstein II, center, and Richard Rodgers, pioneered the celebrated "integrated musical play" concept, where the songs are there to advance the story, to flow believably with the dialogue.  But when, decades later, a playwright is allowed access under the hood to install a new libretto, this can cause unflattering tension between the sentimental content of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics and the out-of-sync dialogue of a contemporary writer -- much the case when David Henry Hwang landed incredible latitude from the R&H office to produce a new libretto for Flower Drum Song. Not only did he totally ignore the original script, he ignored, as well, the novel by C.Y. Lee upon which it was based. But, of course, irony of ironies (if we are to believe and honor the "integrated musical play" claim), Mr. Hwang could not change a single note or word of the songs.  Makes sense?

Cinderella, of course, was not written for the New York stage, but for the cameras of early-day television. It was and remains a rich delight.

Tonight, when Cinderella sings, "A lovely night," will audiences agree?

There is always the outside chance that by some genuinely clever stroke of a playwright's pen, old songs can severe a quirky new context.

I saw Xanada on Broadway.  I heard a few good old disco ditties, Evil Woman being almost worth the price of admission, and I wanted to like the show, but I was relieved when it was over.  Pretty bad script. I was hard put to understand how something so trivial had ever manged to secure space in a Times Square playhouse. Well, they need product back there to keep the tourists lined up at the windows, ready to shell out big bucks for hundred-dollar seats.

The question for Cinderella might be: Does it have a redeeming song comparable to Evil Woman to offer today's younger audiences?  "A Lovely Night"?  I think not.


The Miraculous Waltz for a Ball: Julie Andrews with the prince, played by actor Jon Cypher, in the original 1957 version. The waltz was one of the most gloriously choreographed dance numbers ever -- doubly remarkable because it was performed in such a confining space and performed live on national television.