Thursday, December 18, 2014

Circus Scramble: Telling Cirque’s Survey What I Think ... When 3-Rings Ruled ... Grandma, Was That Really YOU? ... Ringling Promises New Old Fashioned Danger ... And More! ...

Update:  12/21/14:  Cirque du Soleil now said to be looking for major investment partners, including possibility of selling a "majority stake," as reported in The Financial Times of  London.



Finally, I opened a survey sent to me by Cirque du Soleil, since I had invested $95.00 to get a decent seat at Kurios - not without sight line obstructions.  The questions are extensive, all of them being answered by the usual 1 to 10 rating system.  At the end, comes a blank window, asking me to post a comment.  And here was mine:

“Here is my biggest surprise.  Guy Laliberte talked about returning to the company's roots. This is hardly that, but an ever more elaborate special effects production, giving short shrift to circus acts of a world class order."

Among tons of questions -- choreography, direction, characters, lights, --- the only mention of circus action comes in a two word descriptor "acrobatic performances".  They did want to know if I thought there were enough of those, and I think I answered a five or six.

Can Kurios curb an ominous downward trend in critical reception and ticket sales for the company?   Sorry to say, at this point, I don’t feel so emotionally connected to the troupe as I once did -- whatever else they may wish to give me, the circus part should be just as outstanding, too, thank you.


What next down the stack?  From a promo leaflet put out by the American Circus Corporation back in around, I’d guess, circa 1920s, and how stunning a contrast to the above:

“The uncensored circus has received much editorial attention during the current year ... all sorts and conditions of humanity boost the circus spirit, and any organization which will energetically awaken the circus microbes which seem to be inherent in human nature — will sure reap results — but to do so and to give satisfaction a REAL THREE RING CIRCUS IS NEEDED, an ordinary vaudeville or variety circus can no longer be passed off as circus.”

Cultural whiplash:  Where am I now, and how far have I traveled away from that old three ring circus?   I am, it feels, centuries away:  Down Mexico way, more than rumors warn that the big shots who run the country are bent on running animals acts off the lot, and those who pay money to see them are showing up, not too impressed, asking “where are the animals?”  Without which, me no wanna buy a ticket to your dull show.

And here in Oakland, to further deconstruct what is left of the one ring standing, the city council has officially voted bull hooks off the lot, come 2017, giving Feld plenty of time to do his deal making behind the scenes – unless the man can break his fixation on elephants.  If the bans hold, he won’t be welcome in Oakland OR L.A., and who knows what other cities.  More out there are lining up to take similar stands. They have, like it or not, CFA, that damming You Tube of Feld’s elephants backstage getting cursed out and slapped around.  Not pretty when it came out five years ago.  Not any prettier now.

END RINGERS: I’m cooking up an end-of-the-year random list of Goods and Bads, Naughtys & Nices. Did you know, juggling records as of 2006 included 13 rings, 12 balls, 9 clubs — and a partridge in a pear tree?  ... The recent passing of Struppi Hanneford, fabulous in the air, wonderful lady on the ground,  marked a big loss for the great Old Guard of ring artists who once wowed our senses ... Is that really YOU,  Grandma, showing up on the Hanneford show, or is it one of your licensed stand ins?  A Circus Report review drops the name Bary Lubin, the Original as you in the know know, but in other quarters closer to BAC land, Lubin is thought to be living in Sweden. Speaking of clowns,  those who hide out behind funny faces bent on scarring to death the public are now stalking the streets of France, attacking innocents, per Chuck Burnes, in CR ...  Now, even circus clowns are becoming an endangered species.  No animals ... fewer daredevils to speak of -- we are nearly down to the last remaining acceptable default act, to quote from the CDS survey, "acrobatic performances" ... Ah yes, and just in the nick of posting this one, it just hit my brain that Ringling's new opus soon to be uncorked down Florida way is to be called.  Circus Xtreme.  Love it ... And look here -- they are still sending in the clowns!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Cirque du Soleil’s Intensely Creative Kurios Works Overtime to Win Us Back: Give Them Passing Marks for Trying


 
Circus Review
Cirque du Soleil - Kurios
San Francisco, December 5

In its most infections frames, what the latest offering from Cirque du Soliel seems the most happy doing is simply dancing.  Being a little goofy and off axis juggling and tumbling, making magic and riding upside-down bicycles — and dancing.  It's happy heart is that of a free spirited Italian variety show romping through the streets of Rome.  Fellini would have loved filming it all.

The agreeable spirit of quirky invention can make the more standard circus turns (two of them attached to lifelines) seem a tad secondary, or make that obligatory (a touch of Corteo comes to mind).   Even, slightly passe, as if we have somehow left the big top rather than entered it, and are on our way for other worlds to conquer and charm. The attractive revelers, who engage more directly with the audience this time around, have a ball cavorting about on ingenious rigging devices that lift and drop them with terrific force and agility.


Directed by Michel Laprise, the party begins at the wacky control panels of a whimsically mad-scientist character, who is very funny just to watch waddling about, puttering through a maze of gadgets, turning knobs to test lights, ridding oddball contraptions to prove his obscure genius – all of which gives the company ample sanction to flex its abundant creativity.  That’s about the gist of the first half.

It is not until after a long intermission, only lacking a pony ride to make the mechanizing orgy complete (there is free water this year, but no cups – they cost a buck), that Kurios turns itself into a high powered circus spectacular, and here the Montreal monster proves that it can still rise gloriously to the occasion when it has to, as here it surely must.  Public patronage has been ominously on the decline in recent seasons, a fact even acknowledged by the Cirque King himself.


First to soar are troupe exploits over a super-large trampoline, followed by a couple of fellows working straps in a clean efficient fashion.  After more audience clowning and dancing, and a rather drawn out finger puppet show, big top gusto resumes on the ground, where the company develops vaulting acrobatics in fantastically thrilling ways.  Much too marvelously complicated to explain, nor have I at hand a program to name names.  On principal, I refused to invest $20 in one. 

So, whatever you may think of the part that came before the break (I recall a blur of phantasmagorical stage pictures) , you are sure to go out singing at least half the show’s praises.  And the captivating special effects alone may haunt your imagination.   There were a large number of kiddies in the audience who sounded tickled.   I keep thinking movie.  I also keep thinking another cinematic bomb.   Antonioni might get it right.   Is he still alive?


On film, it would certainly be far easier to take in and comprehend.  When Kurios is working its many optical illusions, it is a campaign that demands meticulous attention, which can make being a patron to this party a bit of a workout, doubly so if your view is partially blocked by one of the four imposing tent poles – or if you are not particularly fond of craning your neck to peer deeply into a cosmos through an opening at the top of the tent. Bring binoculars.

Another question mark in my mind is the featured clown, who took up plenty of time with the audience being enormously clever and drawing ample laughter, or so I heard. Yes, it's that kind of a circus, too.

This is the Cirque du Soleil that some of its most devoted critics are calling the “comeback" edition, perhaps responding to Guy Laliberte's promise to return the company to its roots.  Strange, this is hardly a return to the ingenious simplicity that marked the company's first efforts under a smaller tent with virtually no special effects.  Kurios is really an extension of a habit for ever more clever high-tech stage wizardry that the Cirque King can't seem to break himself of.

So as for “comeback,”  I’m not so sure.  And given the swaths of empty chairs under a fairly near-full tent pitched in a city perhaps best suited by liberal bent to embrace what is on parade at the moment — San Francisco may not be so sure, either.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars tops):  3 stars                                 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Peter Pan Live! on NBC Savaged by Those Who Wished to Savage it, and Many Did -- Ratings 50% Below Sound of Music



Warning: If you are Peter Pan fan, please go no further.  It is not my intent to rattle your  dreams of flight – at the end of a long rope.

I nearly slept through the first Peter Pan, decades ago when NBC presented the original Broadway version live. All I remember was Marty Martin flying over a stage attached to a long wire, singing some songs that sounded more like songs made for TV than for hit Broadway shows, and this funny man, Cyril Richard, making me laugh.  Lots of pirates running around the stage, but, somehow, the whole thing never hooked me.  I sat there trying to feel attached to a story -- if only I could find a story.

           
When Mary Martin flew, yes, the show on TV truly took glorious flight.  Back down on the stage, it looked and sounded like a second rate musical made for  television.


Thus, I grew up Peter Pan-averse, unable to catch the spirit of flight when endless touring productions of the show flew in and out of town – even when my late friend Mike, a Peter Pan nut, managed to pin me down into a seat before the show by announcing on my birthday – Surprise! – that he had purchased two tickets to the show and ONE was for me. The venue was in San Francisco, where Peter Pan, adapted for the stage,  first flew.  On Broadway, it only flew a total of 149 times – by today’s standards, a full scale fiasco.  But Peter Pan on TV and on National Tours would not be the first  Broadway turkey to enjoy a successful post-New York career.

Sitting next to Peter Pan advocate Mike, I managed to put on – force would be more like it —  a happy Peter Pan face, faking it all the way.  All the while, praying for the final curtain to fall.  Maybe by then, I was just to stubborn to give the show a chance.  My brother Dick is a great Pan fan.   You see, they are all around us.   Maybe I should try facing the show with him.

So, yes, I was more than ready to be tickled by a barrage of nasty anti-Peter Pan reviews, over NBC’s recent Peter Pan Live!, a followup to last year’s NBC Sound of Music.  The show starred Allison   Williams, daughter of the network's newscaster, Brian (a mere conincidence, I imagine), and Chritsoper Walken, seen above.  Viewership, half of that for last year's Sound of Music, was still considered a big success. On balance, critical reception favored Peter Pan over last year's more even ill-remembered Sound of Music.  This Pan was panned by many.


I only watched a few minutes of the show,  deciding I would rather rent it from Netflix than sit through a three-hour commercial-intense ordeal.  When I tuned in, Williams was finely at work on a song, and her winning voice did engage me.

Critics,  you're on!

Associated Press: Peter Pan needed a lot more fairy dust. NBC's live telling of J.M. Barrie's classic tale Thursday was an oddly ponderous, disconnected, disjointed and jerky mess. If it had been a Broadway show, it would have gotten the hook (pun intended).
It wasn't the small things that broke the spell. Ungraceful wire work, clunky transitions, a Tinkerbell that was as annoying as a mosquito and sounded like a wind chime, a tea cup that fell from Peter's head and some technical glitches.  "Peter Pan Live!" simply never flew.

Variety: A woefully lifeless production that, the fancy wiring notwithstanding, never quite got off the ground. (And neither did your boring review, Variety)

Huffington Post:   ... it became monotonous. Many of my friends with kids said their little ones lost interest halfway through ...Then I went back and watched Martin's version and no contest, the latter still shines like a new penny and holds you captivated in its magical spell.

Morning After:  a three-hour college musical theater show whose dullness was punctuated with impressive gayness.

Los Angeles Times theatre critic Charles McNulty, tweeting:

Tweet:  With “The Sound of Music,” NBC seemed to be employing a strategy of saving the American musical by killing it.

Tweet: With Peter Pan, I think the plan is to save the American musical by etherizing it.

Tweet: I think this experiment in live musical theater may just prove that the age of enforced commercial viewing is over.

Given my Peter Pan atheism, for you whom I may have offended, here, from the New York Times, a gift to restore your faith:
                       
New York Times: Peter Pan Live! was a loving, lavish tribute to a beloved musical that offered a new generation of children a chance to use their smartphones to keep Tinkerbell alive. (Peter asked children to clap, but an NBC crawl urged them to also tweet.)
It was a cautious, please-all production, but it took guts to do it.

What next, NBC Live?  Here are some ideas:

Annie Live! -- perfect for your target audience, and a great show

Sweeney Todd Live! (take it to your critics, and dare them to dis this one)

Oklahoma Live! -- hard to imagine your messing up this indestructible classic, but what a challenge to try.

Sunday in the Park with George Live!  -- If you can bring this Stephen Sondheim yawner to life, that would mark a first for the show, and a public service award for you.

YOUR SUGGESTIONS?

12.11.14

Monday, December 08, 2014

Feld Deals Down and Dirty with Oakland Coliseum, the Arena Considering a Ban on Bull Hooks

It just came across on ABC TV's San Francisco affiliate, KGO:

If the Oakland Coliseum Arena follows through with a proposed ban on elephant billhooks, they stand to lose over a million dollars a year.  Here's why, and here is what grabbed my attention fast:

Not only will Feld pull the circus, he will yank his fluffy Disney ice shows and something called, I think, Motor Cross

This strikes me as (legal, I suppose)  calculated coercion. and I wonder how it may play out on the PR front in the Bay Area, not the most hospital place for traditional circus. 

When the news came out, earlier in the year, about the L.A. City council having banned the use of bull hooks (to take place in a couple of years --- this should be interesting to watch unfold), the only thing I heard reported from Feld Entertainment was that the circus reacted more along the emotion of regret, stating that it would not be able to bring the circus to Tinsletown.  Nothing was said, to my knowledge, about the blades and trucks being denied the city.

Can you smell a slowly seething anger gathering flames?

Peevish? 

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Selling Circus Arts on TV and At the Movies: It Rarely Works

PART ONE OF TWO PARTS

Back in the world of John Ringling North, the impresario who produced some of the greatest editions ever of the circus, in the 1950s he faced two tough competitors —  movies and television – and he successfully met each on its own terms.  "Success" meaning lush patronage for the filmed versions – if not a boost at the ticket windows for the touring circus itself.  But the winning formats he helped launch would not be duplicated years later, when two major touring companies, Cirque du Soleil and Big Apple Circus, both tried to pitch their goods in the same mediums, to abysmal results.

When North and Art Concello were trying to figure out how to use cinema to their marketing advantage, if not by deft adaptation, then by luck going with the right people, did North’s brilliant showmanship conquer both mediums.

First, at the movies.  Cecil B De Mille’s academy award winning (best picture of the year) epic, The Greatest Show on Earth, wowed the nation with its gripping story line (gripping for the time), its dramatic depiction of the logistical movement of the show itself (complete with an overwrought train wreck that retards the film’s natural pulse – I fast forward through it), and scenes of actual circus acts and specs in performance.  How big a part had North played?  For one thing, through take-charge Concello, he refused to renew an earlier option held by studio chief David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind), and signed, instead, with De Mille.

The movie was such a sensation, that, ironically, it — along with the early force of television — may have suppressed annual attendance at the circus.  But one thing it did for sure was to sustain in the public’s mind the dazzling superiority of the Ringling product.  One might argue that, had the movie not been made, business may have been even weaker during a tricky decade when the rise of TV was dominating American entertainment habits.

Which brings us to television.  In 1955, North, televised a one-hour highlights of the new show, on the eve of its opening in New York, on CBS, doubtlessly seen by millions.  The format was repeated later that year for a Christmas Special with Charlton Heston, from winter quarters.  And they did another TV highlights in the spring of 1956.   Experts debated whether North was giving away too much of the performance.  The 1955 season's attendance was down, but business during the aborted '56 tour (the big top falling for good in Pittsburgh), was said by some to have been rising. Six years later, North reinstated the TV highlights program, with Arthur Godfrey that year serving as host.

North also flirted with television in 1963, when he signed with ABC to include footage of Ringling acts during a weekly one hour dramatic series in color, called The Greatest Show on Earth. The series starred Jack Palance, seen here, right, with Lucile Ball,  who played a tough circus boss keeping peace within the family. It was certainly not a flop, but facing stiff competition from the Jack Benny program and  Petticoat Junction, ABC pulled the show after one complete season, "Mostly," writes a viewer on the IMDb website, "I remember enjoying the acts that were featured - lion-taming acts, trapeze acts, etc."

After the Felds bought the circus in the fall of 1967, they retained most everything that North had developed, including the annual TV tease.  The last such telecast occurred around 1989.

In his turn with cinema, the dynamically aggressive Irvin Feld  had, at one time or another, a major motion picture about the circus in the works (one with "master of disaster"filmmaker Irwin Allen), none of which got made.
                  
So, John Ringling North’s two major excursions into film and television would mark a remarkable exception to the failure of contemporary cinematic efforts, as witness two circuses each lending its acts to the cameras.  What had North done right that isn't being done now?   Hard to say.  It might have been a matter simply of glorifying circus artistry itself rather than  trying to connect it to some big "arching" sociological theme.  People much prefer cotton candy over the big top broccoli that too many circuses today seem bent on serving them.  And people tune into television to watch -- television. Not circus.
 

Cirque du Soleil:   Incredibly, the company granted PBS widespread access to the acts from its many Las Vegas units.  They called it Flowers in the Desert.  Two hours. The result, in my view far from captivating, fed the viewer an overdose of the Cirque formula stressing acrobats, which, lacking the variety of traditional circus, can wear out a welcome mat fast.  I have yet to see a  PBS rerun of this overstuffed slog.  Yes, it did have a few golden moments, but not nearly enough.  PBS gives prime attention, through endless reruns, to virtually all of the other performing arts.  Not the circus.
.
Big Apple Circus: Another date with PBS that has yet to be replayed would be Circus, a six-part series broadcast in 2010.  The reviews, not surprisingly, were lukewarm  The sprawling treatment, lacking a strong central focus, came and went like a strange sad parade of disconnected souls attached to a struggling enterprise, at a time of organizational upheaval.  During filming, Paul Binder announced his plans to retire.  Sporadic film clips of the performance seemed disconnected, too, and rather secondary compared to back of the tent interviews with cast and crew.

The producers gained more traction in the shadows, listening to the personal stories of company members, and aiming their cameras at some unflattering things, such as into a filthy truck-mounted restroom used by non-performers and roustabouts. Just another contradiction to a non-profit circus claiming to be New York’s own and to humanely care about  the people it employs.  We watched Paul Binder throwing a tantrum in one scene, Paul Binder, in another, humbling himself to reveal that his retirement announcement had not generated much response. In other words, nobody seemed to care.  The thrill of circus? Too little of it under this tent.


If the producers of Circus wanted to go deep, perhaps they should have gone deeper.  Symptomatic of the rambling treatment was how they played up the New York opening just ahead —  This is the Big Test!  The ultimate arena for any performer! We're in the Big Apple now! What will the reviews say? --- but then never disclosed what the reviews said.  The program's most poignant thread was the plight of a new clown. Glen Heroy, above, he feeling completely ignored and ostracized by the company.  Paul Binder gave him, face to face, high marks, lending the impression that he was a clown they were looking for, but he was not invited back. Frontline, how would you like to go under this big top?

It reminded me a little of the glum dry book, Mud Show, a big seller that followed the dreary lives of circus people on the old Hoxie show, but failed to evoke the magic of circus. 

Tackling the Big Screen, Not


Cirque du Soleil collaborated with famed film director James Cameron (Titanic) for a screen treatment of the show, Worlds Away 3D.  A barrage of negative notices complained of it coming off as a tired and and hollow advertisement for a lot of emotionally empty action. Rotten Tomatoes gives the video a rousing 47%, and that, kids, marks a critical flop.

Next, to be explored in greater detail: The recent Big Apple Circus date, streaming its latest show into hundreds of movie shows, nationwide.

What in the world happened to this bold and revolutionary misfire?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Nik Wallenda's Dangerous Addiction, I Won't Be Looking ... A Silence Surrounding the Providence Aerial Tragedy Inquiry, and WHY?


Continuing from Saturday, as I was about to say, before a creepy clown in my window interrupted my circus train of thought:

I’m looking through the stack.  Took another peak at the CFA website, only to find no followup from them on the Ringling Providence aerial disaster, a few months back, Feld having been found responsible for mal-rigging the prop ... I wonder if the CFA does not feel a moral responsibility to take reasoned positions on issues of major import and national coverage that affect the circus scene?   No, they just say, “we fight anything that fights the circus,” but what if the circus fights itself?

And what about Circus Report?  No mention so far of the damming Providence investigation. Perhaps a piece is in the works.  I can't imagine Don Marcks, who founded CR, not picking up and going with this national report.  It's the stuff that gives a pulsing relevance to such publications.  Those of us on Don Covington's e-mailing list (bloggers, magazine editors, vetted clowns, etc.) are lucky to receive what cyber courier Don finds out there and sends our way..  A past president of the CFA, Don evidently has no problem facing the hard truth of journalism. 

End Ringers: Cole hitting the barn early, having nixed a few last Fla dates, reports pointing to “financial” reasons.  That’s a strange one ... Nik Wallenda’s seemingly insatiable drive to keep walking higher and  higher, taking greater risks, and for what?  I genuinely fear he may be harboring a death wish; either that, or has addicted himself on the crowd’s adoring clamor and the blaze of cameras obsessing over his every move ...  Nik, it’s time to come down! 

TV tickler:   From a cartoon, Rhymes with Orange, woman watching a dorky celeb cook onTV, bubble reading, “Thanks again for tuning in to the cooking show ... Coming next, the Dishwashing Show!” LOL, I remember back in junior high working an automatic run-through dishwashing machine and loving the job’s hot steamy action .... Talk about steamy, here’s a kinky PBS Canadian talk show star,  Jan Ghomeshi, getting fired for  charges of having gone too too far with his female partners into S&M, he being the desperate dominator.  Oh, those PBS icons of advanced human behavior ... I just hope this character stays away from clowning as a career makeover.

For those who take the silly profession seriously, Cry, clown, cry.  And, when you wipe your tears away, start showing a little less paint, a little more facial flesh.  Or wear a badge that reads “Certified Jester, Registered, Bonded, Insured, CIA Vetted, every move electronically tracked.”

Or go back to washing dishes.  And become a celebrity dish washer.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I’m Going to the Circus, Out West, With Grandma ... Wondering Why Cole closed early? ... Steaming Inside, Still, over Big Apple’s Big Screen Fiasco (Assumed) ... Laughing About New World Clowning Creep Outs ...

Okay, you there, all seven of you?  Ready .... Set .... GO!

Where was I?  Forgot already.  Oh yeah, while wondering when Ringling did the annual TV highlights thing, after first doing it in 1955 (anybody alive back then?), I surfed into Tim Tegge's Circus Video store, to find that he is offering the 1961 and 1965 editions of the same format, which I ordered.  This, in preparation for something on and around Big Apple Circus’s recent rather stillborn visit to movie houses nation-wide, apparently streaming dead.  Did anybody out there see it?  Based on my knowledge of the action in three theatres, a total of eleven people came to watch Metamorphosis.  And five of them returned after intermission. Do any of you respect hard facts? There they are.

So, that’s the making of a roast post, upcoming sometime.  You see, it’s not about my having fun hyping so ineptly handled a great opportunity for national exposure (BAC hardly half filled the tent in which it streamed — or strangled itself); it’s because I am a fan of Big Apple Circus, pardon me, and I want to see them succeed.  They seem to have a way of self-destructing when cameras roll; their visit to PBS has not, to my knowledge, ever been rerun .  Had the Movie house streaming been better attended, had the show itself had a stronger pulse, that would have been all to the better for Paul Binder’s residual crowd, said to have been struggling for some time to make ends meet, and maybe even close to an economic abyss.  Okay, enough.

Whilst surfing the titles that tanbark Tim offers (I am paying for mine, just for the record, in case you think I'm spinning), there was Grandma going west, full BAC show. I’m getting that one too!  I need reason to re-convert to Gotham's own circus.

What else lies here before me, next to my PC?  A big laugh from Circus Report’s Chuck Burnes, he saving  an otherwise rather fallow issue (a cloudy parade of tributes to the recently departed that gives it a funeral feel), Chuck, in a tone of levity, talks up the eerie emergence of a new generation of funny felons, AKA: scare clowns.  A fourteen year old kid in Bakersfield (Ca) donned mayhem makeup and scarred a little child beyond amusement.  Seems to be the craze, these dayz, to go dark on big top buffoonery, thus further setting back the plight of traditional rib ticklers.   Gosh, it’s not enough for the star animals getting run off the lot by the do gooders, but now, are the jesters next? ...

Burnes, you’re on fire:  “If the movies It and Killer Clowns from Outer Space [I know some from inner space] gave you the heebie jeebies ... there’s now another reason to be scared of clowns.” That would be the younger set running amok in gory greasepaint.  Freaky trend spreading, just another gift of Social Media., thank you Disgrace Book.   Chuck, himself once a clown, seems to be having a little too much fun reporting on these funny felons.  The only good that may come out of it, I’m thinking darkly, is somehow, somewhere, someway, the END to Shrine clowns.  I’d almost welcome being creeped out, safely, over being bored by the former.  Burnes writes of these insidious new funny faces, “wielding machete, and baseball bats” And I won’t take that into a far more disturbing realm, if you know what I’m thinking.  Ah, yes, the latest proof negative of American exceptionalism, right?  Okay, I can feel your mounting unease.


Onward to where? ... To be continued on Monday. I just saw a creepy face outside my window. Gotta call the Funny Felon Hotline.  Somebody, save me! 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Flashes: Circus Blogs on the Wane, and Why? ... Circus Report on the Rise: Ueckert Shows How to Review More Honestly - and Still be Kind ... And More!


  Logan Jacot
 
In no particular order, here ... we ...  go!

Where have all the circus bloggers gone?  Well, there never were many, but, take a look at those I've listed to your right, and wonder, with me, why so few?    Even the regulars only now and then put something out.  I've removed a few either gone (the late great Dick Dykes, Balloon Man) or dormant (Wade Burck's No Spin Zone).

Curious about other showbiz sectors, I found a list of 500 movie blogs, and there are doubtlessly more.  There are dozens of theatre and Broadway blogs.  Pop music and TV may produce even more. So, why only a dozen or a half under our littler big tops?   My best answer is this:  Circus fans and pros in this country shun taking positions -- other than, I suppose, hiding out behind cowardly Anonymous. Thus, we end up with streams of pretty pictures, and all that Those-Were-The-Gold-Old days stuff.   Nobody wants to offend anybody.   Nobody dares risking a view.  Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part, the American circus community (and this may go for the world) has long ago locked its lips in public.  You just don't criticize a circus or a performer.  No, no!

So, okay, let's bring on a better act.  Refreshing it is to be offered by Circus Report's Herbert B. Ueckert  real circus reviews, meaning, he tells us what he liked and what he didn't like.  And in so doing, however small a step this is, count it a giant leap for authentic circus reviewing, of which by tradition we see almost none.  (Perhaps Ueckert's reports are picked up by the White Tops, I don't know.)

A few excerpts from Uekcetr's review of Sahib Shrine Circus, and, to be clear, he found a lot about the show to like.  I am focusing more on his quibbles, to prove my case in praise of Circus Report's appearing to break a tad free of a moldy traditionFor starters, Ueckert takes Shrine clowning to task:  "Even [Joseph] Bauer's running patter could not save this skit!  ... Shrine clowns were back (ugh!) in another painfully pitiful skit" ..


Elan Espana

Other examples:  "Tattoos on performers do not enhance appearance but instead detract ... a highlight was the one-paw stand by the Fox Terrier ... leaps over fire hurdles concluded this great act."  On Diablo juggling from Elan Espana:  "Watch for this amazing and talented young man!"  On Jennifer Herriott Walker's mixed liberty animal review:  "The act still appeared to be a little rough around the edges."  And finally, lamenting the demise of Shrine circuses that once contained "glorious productions," elephants and cats and "professional clowns," Ueckert concludes, "Temples need to do some serious soul searching if they wish to come up with winning shows." Ooooo, I said to myself. 

This sort of a review is far more interesting to read, and far more informative. It thrives in virtually all other showbiz venues.  Maybe there is a tie-in between my two lead topics? Pretty pictures are nice; I enjoy them, too.  A few thoughts now and then, aired freely, might even be better. CR publisher and editor Bill Biggerstaff and contributing writer Herb Ueckert are showing a middle ground, both discriminating and supportive, that others may feel more safe and confident following.  Big top bravos to that! ...


Logan with his two-boddied frog, among the Barnumesque curiosities at Mr. Marvel's Wondertorium  Great name!  Photos, Baraboo News Republic.

End Ringers:  About circus bloggers, I wondered about a young fellow,a while back blogging for a bit, named Logan Jacot, to find that he is now centered, or was, in Baraboo, there presenting last summer Mr. Marvel’s Wondertorium at the Al Ringling Mansion.  Logan performs contortion and fire eating, among other side-showish amusements.  He loves side show culture, giving off a little of the old intriguing P.T. Barnum spirit..  For a time, Logan traveled with Lewis & Clark, and then helped manage a Ringling train. ... The CFA's website does updates on ongoing stories, but I can't find a whisper about Feld Entertainment having been found to blame for the rigging collapse in Providence.  Lip locked on that one, too, CFA? ... Where are we?  Okay, new paragraph!

Look, to support the circus is wonderful and all, but do you give an automatic pass to major management blunders?  Which makes me wonder if the Felds hand out corporate grants to various circus entities; if they were able to charm (what a wimpy euphemism!) Variety into rewriteing  John Ringling North half-way out of history, well, how much easier elsewhere?  ... Circus World Museum reporting a one percent drop in business for the season just wrapped ... Anybody see the Big Apple Circus on your local big screen?  Between my brother and his wife,  fan J. Kurt Spence in PA, and my own trip to the cinema, total attendance, before intermission, for the three lonely venues:  ELEVEN. After intermission, EIGHT.

Off the Lot, Across the Street:   I'm bummed out that Mayor Jean Quan did not get reelected here in Oakland, she has done so much, such as bringing in Police wiz William Bratton for advice, which enraged many PC locals -- the woman who beat her has vowed to take a more "holistic" approach to crime, and this when the murder rate is down by 30% ... It takes the New York Times and Bloomberg to go beyond a tired old story about Oakland being the armpit of the Bay Area to discover all the great things happening here. A couple of years back, the Times likened crusty creative Oakland to the "Brooklyn" of the Bay Area.  I'll take that, and, oh, there's my bus.  Give me a call next week, about the, what was it?  Tell me when you call!  See you! ...

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Big Apple Circus Lays an Egg on the Big Screen, I Fear



 Update, 11/9:  This is not a review of the show, although I had hoped it would be.  I continue to believe, based upon my experience watching a tape-delay of the live performance, that it is a very tricky matter trying to review a circus in any other way than actually seeing it in person, most importantly from a fixed position.    I had hoped to feel differently, but I do not.   To its credit, the show is drawing great reviews from the New York critics. I can only hope these will translate into crowds far larger than the one on view during this particular show.

*************


Back from a modern movie house, the seats spacious and comfy, the decor fine.  Back from watching, as it felt to me (I hate to say this) Big Apple lay an egg in hundreds of movie houses coast to coast, into which its Saturday afternoon performance was streamed live.  On the West Coast, it was tape delayed.

First part of the show felt stillborn, even the opening charivari was woefully anemic.  Talky Talky.  When will circuses learn that audiences do not really want to be treated like children being told bed time stories or taught how to be this or that?  They want to be wowed.

Even the music, oftentimes a major asset at the Big Apple Circus, here seemed decimated, perhaps just an ineffectual score – or maybe a sound system that did not carry well in theatres.

Lots of audience participation,  and here is where, I hate to say this, we may be seeing a downside to artistic director Guillaume  Dufresnoy's ultimate vision for the show.  When he was appointed, I feared he  might give into his French side and follow more precious Cirque trends, narrative interludes, ultra silly clowning as only the French can get away with, elsewhere. Evidence of that abounds at Metamorphosis. 

I don’t like writing this first draft, which may well be what I will post.  I was shocked at how many seats in that tent, rows and rows of them, were empty, silent, dead.  And in New York, of all places.  Shocked that the company would not have stuffed the tent with shills – give the show away, if you have to in order to create the ideal picture, no?  I saw the usual concentration of kiddies and parents, and very few adults in singles or couples.  And then this sobering item came to mind:

A while back, on this blog, Paul Binder himself left a comment, related to my excitement about the show going into movie houses, Paul sharing a wistful hope that licensing royalties due BAC from  the venture might stave off the end of the road.  His tone sounded dire. All those empty seats.  All that dead space between a handful of very good acts. And I no longer feel certain about the show's future, not if they can't do better than this.  And that makes me genuinely sad.

I’d hate to see that happen, what Paul implied.  This latest looks a bit threadbare.  They have cast ringmaster John Kennedy Kane (too many unflattering closeups of the man) as the magician-in-chief, and handed him way too much dialogue; the program lacks any semblance of dynamic direction, with an air of wandering aimlessly about in the dark from one item to the next.  We are in the hands of people who have talked themselves into believing that something more intimate (say, like kids being entertained at school under the guise of magic and science demonstrations) will engage the audience in a new way.  When will the circus learn that Theatre is NOT its forte, never was, and never will be.

The clown, Francesco, was a  pre-show charmer, going through the seats and being silly.  That would have been okay, but no, he was far from done with us, and would return and all too soon wear out his welcome mat with more of the same.  Ho hum. All those empty seats left me wondering if the circus is merely suffering weak word-of-mouth?

Highlights that brought a little relief here and there: Fine work on risley, on rolla bolla, up there in the air, yes.   Again, I wonder whatever happened to Slowik's band?  Sounded like fewer musicians, augmented by pre-recorded music and/or a  mogue synthesizer (do they still make those?).  Slowik can put out a terrific sound. Not this time around, or, at least, not in this movie house.  Now, get ready for the Big Let Down:

Intermission came.  In the lush movie house room, seating capacity 230, there were a total of 8 customers, four adults and four kids. After intermission, only five remained. I vaguely recall a mother of two children being talked out of staying by one or both of them.

What were they thinking when they planned this show?  You can read, on  the post below,  J Kurt Spence telling us how much he loved what he saw (and I hope the others did, too, that I am wrong).  Kurt and I share one thing in common about this show -- we both saw it in ideally uncrowded circumstances.  Kurt says he was the ONLY person in the movie house. I feel some dry tears coming on.

I never felt authentically connected to the show, given constantly shifting camera angles moving my vision too frenetically this way or that.

Damage control.  I rather like the idea that not many people will have seen the Big Apple Circus in a so lackluster a shape.  Grandma, come back!

Francesco:  The charm wears thin well before the gig is up.  

Big Apple Circus Hits Movie Screens Nationwide in 9 Minutes

And I won't be watching. Out on the west coast, we are being forced to watch the show in tape-delay, at 12:30 PST.

LIVE it will not be.  I can only hope that movie house business and reception is good enough, so that this great new delivery system becomes an annual event, and then the powers that be will move the
filmed performance back, to say 2:30 EST, so that we out in the west, like others, can watch it LIVE.

So, I leave here later this morning for the movie house of my choice.

I'm still excited. Well, forcing myself to be.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... Ringling Blamed for Hair-Hanging Collapse in Providence ... Misuse of Rigging Caused “Catastrophic Failure”


OSHA’s investigation into the shocking collapse of a rigging in Providence, as reported by AP,  has concluded that Ringling riggers, “misused a key rigging component in a hair-hanging stunt, causing a fall that seriously injured eight acrobats, federal workplace safety regulators said Tuesday.”

The good news for Feld Entertainment, cited by OSHA for a “serious safety violation,” is that the company may only have to pay a proposed $7,000 fine.

The bad news: A looming PR disaster.  But likely Feld Entertainment will move its money and damage control masters into overdrive, and the whole thing may soon fizzle out.  However, several of the injured aerialists had earlier engaged a law firm to represent them in seeking damages (see the post below), and this could bring negative attention onto the circus. My guess is that the Felds will make every effort to settle out of court.

Already, Ringling’s PR operative Stephen Payne, Vice President of Corporate Communications, is disputing the finding.  Said he to AP reporters, “the clip was carrying a lower load than it was rated to hold.”

As reported by AP, quoting:

OSHA investigators said the company attached two rings to the bottom of the carabiner, rather than one, in violation of what it said was industry practice and of the manufacturer's instructions. Investigators said that caused the clip to be overloaded.**

Payne disputed that, saying the clip was carrying a lower load than it was rated to hold.

David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, called it a "catastrophic failure," and said it demonstrates the circus industry needs professional engineers to develop, evaluate and inspect the structures it uses in performances.

End of quoting.

** This strikes me as highly damaging evidence, it is so specific.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Nik Wallenda Crosses Chicago By Night, No Safety Devices, Part Way Blindfolded, Part Way Inclined -- Televised with a "10 Second Death Delay"





Here, quoting verbatim, from the first section  of a great story in today's Daily Beast, by Jacqui Goddard:

QUOTING:

The heir to a tightrope walking family has tried some crazy stunts in his day. But his planned attempt to walk over Chicago on a slanted rope while blindfolded may be the craziest yet.
.
There isn’t a hint of intended irony in Nik Wallenda’s voice as he responds to That Question, the one thousands have asked him, the one he’s probably tired of addressing but entertains patiently, knowing that it is key to his reputation as King of the High Wire.

It’s the small matter of why he would rather risk death than wear a safety tether when he walks between skyscrapers 65 stories above the streets of the Windy City this Sunday, on an uphill high-wire three-quarters of an inch wide, at night, in near-freezing temperatures. Oh, and did we mention the blindfold?

“It’s nerve-wracking wearing a tether,” he shudders, in the way ordinary mortals shudder at the thought of him not wearing one. “The truth is, the dangers are real—I know; I’ve trained for them, I’ve prepared for them, and everything I do is calculated. I’m doing this because I love what I do. I know it’s hard for people to comprehend.”

END OF QUOTING


Nik with his wife, Erendira, left, and sister Lijana

This is one of the best articles I have ever read on the symbolism of risk-taking by circus artists, rife with rich quotes from the Wallendas about how they view that symbolism and their work.

Link in a blink to read the complete story:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/11/02/nik-wallenda-s-blindfolded-tightrope-caper.html

May the Gods of Circus be with Nik tonight.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

San Francisco in the Movies: More Wonderful Black and Whites

These from a 1952 noir flick, The Sniper, directed by Edward Dmytryk.  Not very good, except for  ex-con Eddie Miller, played sensitively by Arthur Fran\z, drawing rare sympathy (he did from me).  He's described as a psycho who is unable to connect with brunettes and, in retaliation, believes he must kill them all.  Besides Franz's superb acting, the evocative San Francisco settings make it a little worth watching.


There is something about San Francisco's hilly climbs and its dark asymmetrical streets that makes it, for my eyes, the ideal setting for film noir.   Drop me into a movie made in this town, and I will almost immediately know where I am.


Not sure why Los Angeles noir writers claim the City of Angels  to be THE perfect noir set.  Yes, by night, it has been deviously photographed to appear so glamorously sinister.  But for shadowy hills,  twisted streets, fog and mist, waterfront  ambiance and creepy old Victorian apartment houses, I don't think you can top San Francisco. 


I used to walk up those steps of Telegraph Hill, below, often.  I've told you I stopped walking across the city every week because I was nearly run over twice.   Amazing that, after all these years, I have finally considered that, unlike other great U.S. cities, New York and New Orleans, and Chicago,  San Francisco's hills truly make it unique.  Perhaps, that is the greatest tourist draw.  


Some of the hills are so steep, it feels like mountain climbing.


In my last San Francisco posting, I was telling you how the city was once a real town, with working class families, produce and industry, and shipping.  So much more gritty than now, which made it infinitely more interesting a place to walk.


The cable cars preserve the city's more authentic charm, except that they, too, so swamped with long lines of takers, come off looking like another Disneyland attraction.  Indeed, the city has become a theme park of itself.  And, yes, I should stop writing that same rant over and over.



They -- locals and movie makers -- ironically favor the Bay Bridge as background over world famous Golden Gate Bridge.



Really, the story struck me as rather flat and one dimensional. They make the guy out to be a dangerous sex criminal, but we never once seem him intimate with a single woman he pines for.  I wonder if they had massage parlors back then?



Going home to no where, in a hotel room. It's a city of loners, more than ever. Even the hotel rooms give off a distinctive worn down used-up end-of-the line San Francisco feel.  In the end, our serial killer leaves clues, wanting to be caught, wanting to be apprehended and protected from himself.




And in the end, Franz got me in some abstract amoral way.  I've never quite felt so sorry for a lethal predator.  


Off axis on dangerous land fill.  Experts warn that, despite all good measures taken to retrofit old buildings and hold newer ones accountable to  far stricter building codes, a big quake could reap catastrophic devastation on Noir City, North.  (L.A, you are South).

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tito Gaona, Like a Kid, Says Goodbye to a Red Ring in Venice


Strange to note that its exposed frame looks so Art Concello, so aeronautic and really not of the big top at all.  So much like the sleek structure for a seat wagon ingeniously designed by Concello back in 1948.

 Tito's great dream failed to fly

Sorry to say as the curtain comes down, that the Venice Ringling arena never struck me as glamorous or "circusy."  No atmosphere. Too much Concello.  The setting holds greater meaning, me thinks, to performers like Tito Gaona than to fans like me.  Ringling would put together a new show there, whip it into shape and try it out on a new test audience, before hitting the road north for Madison Square Garden.


They dreamed, too, but how many museums can a small circus community support?

But all of that is gone, leaving Tito, who waged a valiant campaign to save the arena, now felling like a kid having just watched a circus throw down the canvas, pack the wagons and rumble off into darkness.  "There was a red ring out there where they trained bears and different acts from Europe," he says.  He envisioned the arena being turned into a museum.

After the Clyde Beatty Circus left the town of my boyhood, Santa Rosa, back in the early 1950s, there were three circles traced in the dirt.  I know the feeling of loss, Tito.  If you're lucky,  you might find a few ticket stubs amidst the Venice ruins.

Art Concello designed it to be functional, period

The great flyer did everything he could to save the architecturally sterile arena.  "It was a sentimental thing that I thought everybody would stand up and help,” he told Josh Taylor of ABC's Mysuncoast.com  “Save this landmark. This landmark was Venice."

Some things just aren't worth saving.  Other things more than worth saving are callously ignored. Hell, and I do say Hell, we haven't even ONE Concello seat wagon to walk around, stare at in retrospective wonder, dream over and under and around. Not ONE, damn it!   Who let that happen? 

I hereby challenge the millionaire land grabbers at the Ringling Art Museum, fighting to trump paintings with peanuts,  to build from scratch a full scale Art Concello seat wagon.   I know of a rich model builder there who could easily make it happen.  For him, chump change.  Or maybe down in Baraboo, where they  have experience building full scale model circus wagons

In spirit, I agree with Tito Tito, who, in many sawdust quarters, is everybody's favorite trap star.  He flew like a well controlled fireball. Sizzled, from swing to catcher’s grip, turning three and flashing his sky-wide smile out of another aerial orbit. 

"To save something historical is very important,” told the circus fireball to Josh Taylor “That's why Europe is so famous."


The spirit of Gunther Gebel Williams may remain, it alone, in the form of a little barn in which the great German animal trainer paced his cats through practice. 

“At the same meeting where Venice City Council members approved the demolition of the large arena,” reported Taylor, "a majority said to hold off on destroying a small octagonal building commonly referred to as the Gunter Gebel-Williams building."

"It just gives me chills to walk in here,” says Tito. “A tribute to Gunther Gebel-Williams. A great man.  A great performer."

Well, Tito, when Bob Mitchell once drove me down a Florida highway, stopped along an open field,  pointed to an object half burred in the distance, I got out and crunched through rattle snake-laced grass to reach the thing, to climb up into a small back section, and for a magical moment stand inside a piece of hallowed history, where once, big top icons dressed and rested between performances: A Concello seat wagon.

I know the feeling, Tito.  It gave me chills.


Thanks to Don Covington for linking me to this report, filed yesterday

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: When Circuses Landed Major Sponsors -- When Kelly Miller Pachyderms on Parade Pitched Chevrolet


While I tend not to regret having taken circuses to task (or did I blast them?) for the crass insertion of advertisements during the performance, I can be nice when it comes to ads on the edge that do not stop the flow of action.  Yes, I am a Pep and PACE-aholic.

Such as, so charming an image from out of the past, this from Don’s letter to me dated October 25, 1958 – anybody out there alive that far back?

“Would be sort of nice to have that idea as the Kelly Miller show had, a large elephant and a small elephant with No Job To Big for the Chevrolet and No Job Too Small for the Chevrolet.”

He waxed reflective: “Actually, you might say this is too commercial but yet all circuses throughout history have done that sort of thing so it wouldn’t be out of line.”

The practice also showed up in circus parades, Don reminded me.  “... but guess they like the money that is in it despite the fact that we don’t care too much for it.

Right on that point, too.  However, that stuff never much riled me.  Such ad art, in motion, never stopped the show.  I think they had painters on the payroll who, daily, created simple ads  on large sheets of paper for advertisers, which they hung around the tent. 

In recent times, I’ve blasted Cirque du Soleil for its high-tech neon ads encircling the tent on the sidewalls.  Ringling, back in the fifties, took a lot of heat for signing onto a multitude of walk around clown gags pushing various popular products, toothpaste to  Tums (for the tummy).  The spectacle became such an orgy of commercialism, the show finally put a stop to it.

Then again, however, I enjoyed the veiled commercials if they were funny, although I can’t recall specifics.  I’d like to see today’s jesters spoofing some of the more obvious targets. Oh, just for starters, the ad for a certain pill to give couples in need a thrill.   Can you see them going to town with this?  

My newly late friend Liz once commented that sometimes, the best thing about television were the commercials.  Either those, or her  favorite program, Masterpiece Theatre.

Towards the end of Don’s two page letter, this:

“If ever you wish to come over it would be nice to have you once again.  Hope to hear from you again and to see you too.”

That’s how it went.  He was a most generous correspondent. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

1955: In the Ringling Backyard ...


How I love this photograph.  There she sits, and how slyly ... one of my aerial idols, Pinito Del Orro (I assume),  relaxing in front of her "private" dressing room, in the back end of a Conecllo seat wagon.  To us then, such quarters seemed absolutely glamorous.  Gone are the days, yes.

I came across this image while moving through back posts as I assign each topics for my massive indexing underway.  

So, here it is, posted again for your charmed consideration. I wonder who took the picture?  Anybody care to make a guess? I would love to have it super-enlarged and framed for my yet-to-be Wall of Fame.

Enjoy the Greatness that was Ringling!