First published October 1, 2008
So you want to be a circus owner? So you think you got the goods? So go try your luck in tough fickle Chicago and then see. It’s a town of straw houses or raw houses. The late Cliff Vargas struggled for respect, mostly in vain. Binder and Christensen, whose Big Apple Circus should have done well there, did not. Left ‘em humbled. No, sir, the windy city can turn on your tents like a sub prime nightmare. Kelly-Miller just enjoyed near-full houses last weekend, and that’s something to Ringling about — or John R. North about. (It’s that Feld Entertainment litigation thing, you know.) Nonetheless, JRN II dared to tell a reporter along the road that it was time to return to the family business. “When you are born in the circus,” said he, “you might go away but you never forget.”
Guy Laliberte may be wondering if he’s losing it, or overextending his global ambitions following the rocky launch of his latest Vegas entry, evidently a flimsy thing called Believe at the Luxor starring tv illusionist Criss Angel. Opening night crowds dozed off ... Down the Don Covington chute comes a story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal noting a dreadful reception. London fans flying over to preen for the premiere were left mumbling unpretty expletives to themselves. “Dude, it’s a train wreck,” groaned one. This I think more than ever: Guy Laliberte sold 20% to Dubai because he’s dug himself into a hole, having promised too many venues too many new shows that he suddenly lacks the money to fund. Believe may bear the tell tale marks of a famished Montreal kitty. Or has the dude lost his billions in high stakes poker “derivatives”? Might Canada have to bail out its famed circus reinventer? CDS’s infallible image could erode fast with bad word-of-mouth getting stuck to any of its teflon tents.
Talk about deception, why I like the Bandwagon: It’s unafraid, as I see it, to disclose historical truths, and now it’s Ringling’s turn to be sullied with the onus of shortchanging rituals. In my gut, I can’t imagine the Ringling family ever tolerating this, although surely John Ringling North sensed its sketchy existence; we know he tried up until the final canvas days to root canal it. Anyway, I applaud the courage of ticket seller Bill Taggart and the straight ahead Pfennigs for telling the story. After all, unfair to point fingers at others and give Ringling a Sunday school pass. Speaking of grift, Lane Talburt takes on more of Ben Davenport, whose notoriously crooked and ultimately self-destructive Daley Bros. Circus has always been a vexing artistic enigma to me. Talburt makes it crystal clear how flagrantly crooked an operation the man ran. And another reason why (Norma, please turn away, I love you forever), Mr. D’s shocking addition to the anybody-can-be-honored Sarasota Ring of Fame has reduced that sideshow circle down to junk bond status. No wonder why, when I took a bus out there a couple of years ago, the driver had never heard of the place.
Big tops may be shrinking, not the books about them. Cheering the epic photo spread of The Circus: 1870-1950, Amazon reviewer Jack Hunter weighs this laptop library in at about 20 pounds. Which makes me wilt and wonder, does the book arrive in sections preceded by a flying squadron table of contents? Next in the parade comes Raffaele De Ritis of Italy, with a new tome in Italian, Storia del Circo. 580 pages, 300 illustrations. Sounds like a pocket book compared to the other giant. I think I’d rather learn Italian than take up weight lifting.
End ringers: Water for the Elephants, the best selling novel set in the depression, set for the big screen by Fox ... Big Apples’ latest, Play On!, uncorking to a warm notice in the Washington Post. Show has returnee Guimming Meng, who works a thirty five pound vase on his nimble noggin. This is one of the best realized acts I’ve ever seen. Perfect in form, development, execution and crowning climax. Another item on the BAC bill, identical twin brother jugglers, Marty and Jake LaSalle, set to go their separate ways at the end of the season, one into med school. Why do I feel strangely uninspired? Nobody walks out on the circus, dudes! ...
Thank you Barbara Byrd, for bringing your Carson and Barnes Circus to San Francisco, city of my birth. You turned a Cow Palace parking lot into sacred asphalt for me, for that’s were I will have likely witnessed my last three ring circus if you stick to your downsizing threats. Rues local fan Adaline, sharing my sadness, "I too, felt as though I was watching a moment in history." In 1948, RBBB played the Palace for the first time and turned ‘em away by the thousands. 1955: I saw Big Bertha there for the first time in an arena, the day after the only day I ever saw Big Bertha under canvas. In fact, it was in SF. where I saw my first circus, at the Civic Auditorium (Shrine produced by Polack and Stern, who loom much higher than many Ring of Fame inductees).
Lastly, under Buckle’s big tent (I should sneak in more often), I discovered some rumoring about JRN II only having the K-M title for two years, and then what, wondered one? Proposed another, why not “John Ringling North presents The Circus.” Not so easy, I fear, in the shadows of the Feld lawsuit, which I have to assume, given what I see, has restricted North’s use of his full name. Might have to be “John R. North, permission granted by K. Feld, presents the circus formerly known as R. Brothers Barnum & Bailey.” And here he is in person, daring to visit the big cage with Kelly Miller cat man Casey McCoy. Note to a matriculating tycoon: Not so sure about your Clyde Beatty impression. I see more of a slack wire walker in you, or maybe a little rolly bolly. But, please, don't go near the hula hoops ...
And that’s a wrap that needs a bailout — by tomorrow, Mr. Paulson, or this tent blows down.