Saturday, September 28, 2013

Out of the Past, Symphony and Sawdust: Strike up the Clowns! Circus Musica Promises to Raise the Conductor's Baton

 Originally posted  September 28, 2013

Update, Today The show is still on tour, with a date December 19 at Portland, and dates before and after that in British Columbia.

Roll up your rings!  Here's Comes the Concert Hall Big Top!

Europe's renowned audience participation jester, David Larible stars. 

Down the Covington chute:  Direct from Texas, yet another alternative big top rises from the Long Horn state, which is turning itself into a launch pad for The New.  If their latest invention, Cirque Musica, pans out through inaugural dates in a few concert halls (Baltimore, Buffalo and Calgary), the majority in arenas, you may get to watch buffoonery to Brahms, rolla-bolla to Ravel.

For the Double Wheel's furry, I recommend a touch of  Shostakovitch

Cirque Musica promises a program that "blends the grace and thrills of the world’s greatest circus performers with stunning symphonic music from classical, POPS, and popular repertoire."

Already, I'm a sucker, waiting for them to play the Paramount Theatre here in Oakland. The perfect venue for what it looks like they are up to.  The Oakland Symphony could be had, I suppose, for a bargain basement price.

 Looks maybe cool

Who is behind this Brahmsian ballyhoo?  Producer Stephen Cook, who comes with "leadership" positions, according to website bios,  from the Dallas Symphony to Feld Entertainment. Not bad.

He has a vision.  Will the people come?  A teaser video is a fair wow.  A violinist appears to have been extended to the upward tip of a free-flowing fabric, playing away.  A young singer delivers a soulful modern ballad.  Most of acts bear strong classical scoring.  Count me in on this one!

Check out their website:

http://www.cirquemusica.com/about

Imagining the impact of Old World music on a conventional lineup of circusy acts, here is my wish list for high- brow sawdust scoring:

 At least, she's riding her hoop, not navel-twirling it

Number One:  Stravinsky's Petrushka gets my top vote.  I can't think of a more jubilant musical background to run, tumble, cavort and sore with the joy, wonderment, thrills, chills and thunder of a circus show.  Best of all, it's in public domain, so producer Cook and Company would be spared any inconvenient fees to the Mother Monster of Musicians-Come-First greed - ASCAP.

As for select acts, here are some suggestions:

Fabrics:  Ravel, Daphnis and Chloe

Jugglers:  Debussy, Calliwog's Cakewalk

Canon:  Respighi, Roman Festivals

Flying Trapeze: Ravel, La Valse

Kelly Miller Peanut Pitch: Rimsky-Korsakov, Flight of the Bumblebee

Elephants (none here, but heck, for the fun of it ...):  Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra. Band 1: Introduction.   Bartok's bleak landscape, haunting and primordial, should give the pachyderms a more authentic sense of place, re-birthing them into their native terrain. Of course, PETA might complain that the number is too too existentially depressing.

Dogs:  Gershwin, American in Paris, the opening sequence.  They will love.

Clowns: Beethoven's Ninth  (I just threw it in for effect). 

David Larible: Ives, The Unanswered Question

My prognosis:  Sounds enchanting, if they play my favorites. Perhaps too good to be true, considering the musical preferences of a populist audience.  Therefore, as iffy as twelve tone.

 How about Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker for a whip-cracking Texan?

9.28.13

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lonely Ahead of the Big Show: Ticket Seller Bill Taggart is Sent to Sell Advance Tickets for Ringling in 1955; Engaging Bandwagon Account Takes Us Back to Another Time, Another Place


Ringling-Barnum set new records at Madison Square Garden

Marilyn Monroe's famous appearance opening night at the Garden

 Ready for another day in the yellow ticket wagon: Bill Taggart. Bandwagon photo.

He was the ticket seller everybody liked.  Midway in Bill Taggart's 1955 season with Ringling, he  reaches an unexpected detour in the road. He is assigned to go on the advance ticket sales to fill in for another ticket seller on the sick bay.

The circus  employed seven men that season, who each leapfrogged, handling select dates, setting up a booth in a local store, staying there from a few days to sometimes over a week.

Taggart’s first town was an eight-day stint in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where he stayed at the Noble Hotel.  What a far cry from how the advance is worked today.

The Holidays spec, designed by Miles White.  Ted Sato photo.

Only 24-years-old,  the amiable young Ringling representative took the temporary stint in stride, yet he missed the action back on the lot, where he enjoyed the friendship of so many Big Show people, among them, the young Alfred Burton, Deiter Tasso and the Fredonia family. 

On Honolulu Bay featured the incomparable Pinito Del Oro


His account takes us into the cities, into its hotels and cafes, and he recalls the scarce presence of African Americans, who lived in the shadows, in fear.  On Ringling, the canvas went up and down, says Taggart, mainly because of the black men upon whom it critically relied. 

“I was well aware of the fact that I was in the segregated south, and you did not see blacks on the street at night and few in the daytime.  I remember the black porter who worked at the store where the advance sale was.  He was friendly, but shy.  No black ever bought advance sale tickets.”

Once the circus reached up with Bill, the next day he was sent ahead to his next stop, to handle the advance in Barrett’s drug store in Greenwood, Miss.  “I liked eating at the post office cafe ... There were lots of interest in the 1955 edition of the Greatest Show on Earth, and I was proud to be working ahead of the show.  I remember lots of middle aged and older people checking out my big top seating plan and by late in the afternoon I had a good first day ...”


Looking for a camera at the Greenwood Camera store, he made friends with a "sales chap," and at the drug store, with a young medical student it employed.  “Once in a while he joined me at the hotel for dinner and drinks.”                                                                                

At the last moment, the show changed lots -- moving west on Cutting Blvd. to Pt. Richmond. 

I’ve anxiously waited this particular season from  Taggart’s pen just to see how he  would treat the Richmond, CA date.  It was there where I saw Ringling-Barnum under the big top for the one and only time in my life.  His details are regretfully few.  In a season of many so-so days, few marked by great overflowing crowds, Taggart remembers strong customer turnout in Richmond. So do I.

“We had a fair matinee and a good house that night.”  Yes, it was very good at night. That was the performance I attended, and the tent seemed nearly full to me.

Bill's story has a quiet appeal for any good and hopeless Ringlingphile;  Because we are traveling on the Big Show, every little encounter can seem bigger than life. 

After working a few towns, Bill got to return to the show itself and resume his regular duties, some in the yellow ticket wagon.  But he proved to be a very fine goodwill ambassador ahead of the circus.   In one city, he was invited to talk about the circus several evenings on a local radio station.  It “helped to boost my ticket sale at the drug store.  I had dreams of becoming a pres agent like Frank Braden or a radio man like Bev Kelly.”


Off axis from Sweden: Everto, of Evy and Everto, on his Anglo-Cycle

And, then, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Bill was so liked by one Mr. and Mrs. Fincher, who dropped by the store to purchase reserved seat tickets, that a dinner invitation  ensued.  “Wow, I thought to myself, I was actually going to be in a real house.”  He became good friends with the Finchers, and they corresponded for many years.

Another meal in Ft. Lauderdale would prove to have historic meaning.

“No one could have possibly imagined that this was the last Thanksgiving dinner served by the great Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey cookhouse.”

The last full season was soon coming to an end.  Taggart’s graceful account, attractively illustrated in Bandwagon, with some of Severe Braathen’s brilliant color photography,  leaves us all with an up close and personal route book, complied by a young man liked by many who harbored visions of a career under the greatest of big tops. A career that, sadly, came to a sudden end when the big top came down for the last time, the following July, in Pittsburgh, PA.

[the color photography you see here, not ideally reproduced, first appeared in a lavish Life magazine spread "New Shine for the Circus" -- and, who knows, might not appear here for long]

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cheers to Thomas Chipperfield! His Lion Training Video Diary Redeems Circus From Damaging Frisco and Feld Footage


Part Two in a Series, Is It Time to Retire the Circus Elephants?



The big cage is back in Britain, tanks to a Chipperfield most worthy of respect

Like emerging from a dark barn of animal abuse hell into the sunshine of a remarkably humane circus backyard, that's how I felt as I watched the six videos put out so far by the young Thomas Chippefield titled
Circus Lion Training Video Diary.   They show two lions, the brothers Tsavo and Assegai,  being taught several of the tricks we often see and, I suppose, take for granted.

These videos are not slick or professional.  Not garnished with a charming sheen or a no-questioning pro-circus sycophancy.  They were made by a stationary camera, they look home made, which gives them a more authentic air. Reassuring, unpolished evidence that, yes, circus animals can be treated with respect, patience, kindness, and that they can be taught to do remarkable things in the most fundamentally humane one-step-at-a-time manner.  I've never totally doubted this, but there is much most of us, myself included, do not know.

I urge you to take a look. Here is your link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0L9aFKX8H4


Among comments posted on the You Tube revelation:, this from Scorpwas!, 6 months ago:

"This this video is amazing. I totally respect the hard work what it takes to train these animals. These cats perform their tricks with enjoyment and it looks like it makes them healthier and more enriched as Lions. Keep doing what you love and never stop or question whatever you do because someone doesn't agree with it. I admire Circus people and wish your act was in the UK! Keep up the fantastic work"

This is what we need more of.  Much more of.   This is the future, if there is to be a future.

If the horrific Tim Frisco C&B video has done more damage than anything else (which it likely has) to turn people off to watching circus animals of any stripe perform, these Chipperfield You Tubes should go a long long way towards regaining the public's confidence.  They demonstrate without fanfare or verbal gild how very possible it is to train an animal to perform wondrous feats without treating it like a doomed slave and nearly torturing it to death.  Without, in fact, abusing it at all. 

My eyes were opened, my heart warmed.   And it all makes sense.   How a lion (or tiger, I assume) can be gently coaxed  by the sight or promise of something to eat to merely, for example, stand up in order to reach the tasty prize. Stand up not under pressure, but under its own ability to contort its body in order to reach a desired goal.  How much like humans they are!   (No, I'm not quite as naive as I sound, although I am naive, as you will see in a future post when I ask questions such as, "when an elephant screams, does that always mean it is in pain? Or might it merely be resisting something that is not necessarily itself painful?)



People of PETA and circus skeptics on the fence:  YOU should take a look.  YOU should face another kind of music that exists side by side with those terrible images that have been filmed showing apparent animal abuse.

The Chippefield You Tubes all makes sense. I will never again view a big cage act the same way.  I will appreciate both trainer and beast much more.  I will recall all the time they must spend together, the one coaxing the other into positions and movements through rewards and good words in order to achieve a magical result.


Thanks to London author and critic Douglas McPherson (see his Circus Mania Blog, linkable to your right), who brought this to my attention.  McPherson is carefully and constructively following developments across the Big Pond.  Under approval of the British government, the cats of Chipefield are performing again on English soil.  The Brits, who gave us the modern day circus, may be the ones who will save it.

I'm waiting for the next page in the Chipperfield. Diary, to see how Tsavo and Assegai, who are already doing lay-overs and jumps, can finally stand on their hind legs without the rest bars upon which they currently rely.

For you who have "issues" with performing animals in the circus, these videos should at least partially restore your faith in the humanity of the big top 's best and certainly most civilized trainers.  There are many of them, I have no doubt.

Thank you, Thomas Chipperfield!

Next here on the platform:  Can the same humane techniques, as demonstrated by Mr. Chipperfield,  be used to get an elephant to stand on its head?  You may weight in on the question now, if you wish!

Thanks to Jack Ryan for additional input

9.6.13

Monday, September 16, 2013

Showbiz Icons: What They Did To Grab and Hold the Audience ...

Thanks to the vaults of Netflix, I'm discovering many treasures from the past


I never saw Milton Berle in his day -- unless it was he whose figure flickered across a snowy screen on a strange box in the window of the used car lot office just around the corner from where I lived in Santa Rosa.  On that enchanted evening long ago, they say the first TV set was put on display in the town. My friends and I, out playing games in the street like kids used to play, stopped in curiosity, not knowing what to make of the thing.  Soon, it would start showing up in homes around town. Soon, Lucy and Groucho, Liberace and some funny puppets would become weekly household guests.  We did not buy our own TV until 1956.  By then, Berle's career was on the wane.


What a terrific showman he was!  Funny, quick on his feet, able to ad lib his way around technical glitches in a manner that others, even Johnny Carson, would follow.  Restlessly real, Milton Berle proved the perfect force to carve out a solid undeniable presence on those early-era snowy TV screens.     



Watching some old Liberace shows, I recall our going to some friends house down the street, where we took in I Love Lucy, You Bet Your Life, and the floridly amusing pianist-singer.  His shows were, looking at them now, impeccably crafted and performed. And before live cameras!   Liberace had a way of placing his face directly into your eyes  Of pulling you into the set.


Notice the superb stage pictures.  These early day TV entertainers brought the best of Old Vaudeville, along with a new kind of intimate showmanship, into American homes.



"I'll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places ..."

How sadly melodramatic that Liberace should end up on the Neon Strip, gilding his flamboyant showmanship with ever more outrageous modes of costume overkill and Let's-Love-Me! behavior.


Television also gave new life to Old Icons, such as the great Fred Astaire, seen here dancing up a storm, in 1971 and the age of 72, for hit and miss talk show host Dick Cavett.  Some of the Cavett interviews are classic.  And some, like the time he allowed a rambling and very unfunny Groucho Marx far too much camera time, were a bust and a bore.   


Of Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson once complained, the trouble is, "Cavett interviews himself."  How well I recall being irritated by that quality, and yet, when Cavett talked to Astaire, and to Bette Davis, he was absolutely superb in holding back, asking simple questions and letting these giants reveal themselves in a totally unrushed manner.  Perhaps, those long gratuitous Cavett-on-Cavett asides have been edited out. 




And here is the Goddess herself. Bette Davis.  I have seen her tear up scenery, yes. But I have also marveled at her best work, such as her aging in Mrs. Skiffington.  The night Bette Davis visited Dick Cavett, she came across with a rare compelling honesty, and I don't think it was a performance.

For example, Davis revealed both great affection for the savvy of the old Hollywood moguls, even though she granted  that they, including her long time boss Jack Warner,  had no loyalty whatsoever for the actors they employed -- including herself, at the end of her Warner days.. 


Was it for fame? For the money? Davis said she savored the art of acting itself, going so far as to advocate a degree of visible effort.  Naturalistic acting? To a point, she conceded.  But a touch of theatricality is something the audience expects.   Money never came first for her, she claimed.  Nor the great opening nights and the fan letters.  She valued most of all the passion to act.  "You wanted to get on that stage and work."  I believed her.  In Death on the Nile (1978), she took on a relatively small role, hardly a supporting role, and yet excelled in the part with a remarkable I-am-not-Bette-Davis-the-star-of-this-movie restraint.  Among her best work.


The life of an artist, she said, is usually a lonely one.




Ego.  Ambition.  Passion.  Rivalry.  Revenge.  Loneliness.   Oh, but how they entertained us!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Talking Up The Next Season, Wondering What Shows Would Come Our Way ...



Reading back through a letter I received from Don in 1956, some six months before Big Bertha (Ringling-Barnum) would meet its tented end in Pittsburgh,  I was reminded of how much fun it was hearing from him and talking about circuses we might be able to see the next season.  The talking part likely did not happen until I lived closer and local phone calls were far cheaper than those between El Cerrito, where Don lived, and Santa Rosa, my home.

Just discussing the possibility that, say, Carson and Barnes would make the west coast, was amply exciting.  Even then, it might begin with something Don had heard, and over time, the routing rumor would either pan out or pan under.

We were two fans sharing a mutual interest in looking forward to taking in more big tops shows.

Here, from Don's letter to me:

"On Tuesday, Feb. 7th, there will be a small indoor circus at the high school in Petaluma [about 10 miles south of Santa Rosa].  I plan to attend and if you should perhaps be there, I'd bring along the horses for you then [for my burgeoning model circus] - let me know for sure about this ...

"So far, I haven't heard a thing about circuses for this part of the country so I am rather anxious to learn what  will be coming up for us during this season.

"Last year, I saw Polack, Beatty, Tex Carson, Ringling, Ward Bell, and Disneyland circuses so I hope that I can do as well again this year."

And what might Don have looked forward to this past season in Northern California?  I'll just name the shows that I can recall, although I've not seen them all: Circus Oz, Circus Bella, Ringling, Circus Vargas, Cirque du Soleil (not sure he would have jumped to that title), and, no doubt, he might have known of a few others, smaller shows, that missed my routing radar.

It was fun looking forward, speculating, in a way ... dreaming ...

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Oh, What A Glorious Addiction -- I've Just Discovered Doc's Midway Cookhouse!


Clyde Beatty Circus meets another dawn in 1956

Rows and rows of delicious discoveries.  Circus and carnival.  Midways and big tops.  Pole wagons down the runs.  Girly show facades along Park Avenue Royal American.  Ringling  canvas sweeping into high tide over Cleveland cement.   Strings of glittering Edison bulbs ringing the lot.  Freaks and flyers.  Hot dog pushers and creepy old wonderful clowns when clowns were true characters.  When a kid knew a character from a would be.

Here's your ticket to the best free photo show on earth:

http://www.docsmidwaycookhouse.com

Among a seemingly endless parade of darkroom wonders, I was struck by the image, above, of John Ringling North, slumbering in his private car, the Jomar, in 1953.  The year when he, in high heady  form (Hartford fire settlement claims finally all paid off), parted ways, fatally,  with Art Concello.  That sublimely detached air about JRN only adds to his mysterious aura.



Here's a great Foley & Burk wagon I'd seen year after year when the carnival came to play the county fair in Santa Rosa.  There's about a couple thousand of these visual gems in Doc's Midway Cookhouse.

This is the Midway Cookhouse of David "Doc" Rivera.  And wouldn't you know it -- he's a Gibsonton man, a carnival veteran who would likely, I would like to think, welcome receipt of the Foley & Burk Thimble Theatre fun house, which withers away in brazen neglect at Circus World Museum. 

This monumental website find tied in nicely to my listening, only yesterday, to a tape recording I had made of a conversation I had over the telephone with Gene Cardoza, back in 1992, about his days with Foley & Burk, "Best in the West," as it billed itself.  The show spent the off season only a few block from where I lived, at the fairgrounds. Into a big building that bloomed with spectacular flower displays during the annual count fair's ten day run, two months later came the great wagons of Foley & Burk to commence their winter hibernation.  I practically had them all memorized by heart. 

 And look at this! -- A Hennies Bros. Shows fun house made of two wagons lined up side by side.

Talking Foley & Burk with Gene Cardoza

Cardoza joined out in 1930.  Must have been a kid punk. (On the phone, he sounded the perfect gentleman.)   Gene worked on the Ferris wheel, an "Eli 12," he told me, for many years, ending up as Foley & Burk's  ride superintendent ... "from poler, to tractor driver, to train master - you doubled in brass."

What did he enjoy the most?

"It was a challenge.    You got to put it out to do it.  I had great people around me. I had some of the best drunks in the world."

Laughter.

Rails versus asphalt: 

"And when they moved to trucks, jeez, I hated that.  I miss them dirty old tractors, and working your butt off on that train, and getting them wagons up and down, and making the spot.

On perilous train off-loadings,  every wagon's down-the-runs-destiny a riveting suspense drama to me, standing there next to my bike, I recalled to Gene the drama of watching wagons nearly tipping over and off the flats as they were pulled from one to the next ...

"Oh, yes, they don’t fall to the ground.  They fall in between the flats, and with their loads on, and you got to jack them up, and screw em around some way, and get em back on  ...But the guys, they get to know their wagons, and all wagons have a different touch to them, you know, because they can knock you, oh boy, that tongue can wash you out, if it hits a little rock, a pebble on the runs, on top of the flats. Yep.

There was a little white office wagon, I recalled.  There were actually two, he said.  "My office wagon was the one that had all the decor on it, and those two would sit side by side up at the head of the midway.   I kept my parts and stuff like that in there."

Evolution of a great classic ride 

 
Notice how primitive this Tilt-A-Whirl looks?  It's an early 1920s version.  All these photos are from Doc's Midway Cookhouse, THANK YOU, Doc.

Let's hope the new Circus World Museum director, Scott O'Donnell , will bring a flash of common sense and a true passion for the preservation of history to Baraboo, the home of fanatical every-last-piece-of-a-lost-circus-wagon-on-earth restoration, even if it means practically building from scratch.  I'm praying that Scott will be Judge for a day and grant the Thimble Theatre fun house, now slowly rotting away on Circus Word's infamous Death Row, a reprieve, by virtue of, SUGGESTION! HINT! -- sending it down, no strings attached, to the good folks in Gibsonton.  There is where it belongs. There is where a brand new museum of the outdoor show worlds is in the works to go up.   There is where,  therefore and to wit, I have no doubt it would find the attention it will never get in Ringlingville. There, the public may actually be able to look at it. 

I remember Kenny Dodd once telling me that he had far more fun hanging out in Gibsonton than Sarasota.  I am gradually coming to realize why.   By the way, does Amtrak go there?

 
Ready for Spec in the 1930s   

Who said Art Concello copied these Curtis seat wagons?  I think not.

  

Sig Sautells midway in the late 1880s

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: A Day at Carson & Barnes Circus in 1965


Lucky find:  I was going to say, this is the closest image I could find of a circus off a country road, and then, I discovered - look closely - "Carson & Barnes on a truck!  Not sure the year.

Some of my most pleasant circus-going memories are of select past editions I have seen over the years of the Carson & Barnes Circus, when it spread its magical, if sometimes modest, assets across three to five rings.

For years, I have thought back on a day, up near Calistoga in Sonoma County, when I and either Hugo Marquardt or Don Marcks went to the show.  A nice grassy lot on the side of a country road.  Plenty of people in the seats.  It's a standout day.  Sometimes, C&B would breeze across the sawdust in a kind of rough yet straight-ahead manner, no intermission to stop the flow, a live band adding gusto to the merry mix.

So I was delighted, by serendipity, to find this entry in a 1965 diary, which I'd been going through, researching another subject altogether:

The date is September 11.  It's a Saturday:

"I went this morning on the L bus to El Cerrito, where I met Don Marcks, who took me with him to see the Carson & Barnes show in Vallejo [so that's where it was! Not too far from Vallejo.}  It was a pleasant day.  The performance was 'good' - well paced and noticeably free of commercials (there were no signs in the big top).  Sky King was there to entertain the kids, and he sang a song about the circus which he had written for the finale.  It was nice -- Then I came home with a Mr. Bert Hanson, an elderly man who works magic for a hobby."

From nit-picky me, the above sounds like a near-rave.  Some circus shows remain a flowing stream through our honoring memories.  That was surely one of them.