Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: The Strange Ringling Season of '67. Big Shots Hunker Down in San Francisco to Plan the '68 Show

Only a few months before John Ringling North would sell his circus to outside hands, the status quo appeared to be intact and operational as key members of the staff converged on San Francisco during Ringling's run at the Cow Palace, for production planning.  The show they were creating would rank high on my Top 10 list of all-time favorite circus performances.

From Don's letter to me dated September 14, 1967

"The interesting thing about the date in San Francisco was that they held meeting's for next years shows.  That is all the big shots were in the city, every day.  This included Henry North, Barstow, Dover, Antoinette, Valdo, a couple of artists, etc. Guess that Merle Evans also attends these meetings."

In retrospect, the letter sounds a bit strange, as most of these people were traveling with the show,  Barstow being the exception.

By 1967, the Big Show was again drawing healthy crowds and making big money, despite s fictional back story that would be put out by the new owners to be. And here is where the story gets really interesting.

In that year's program magazine, in the usual photo of JRN with his greeting, another photo, seen here, featured his nephew, John Ringling North II, and the nephew's son,JRN III, with a message pointing to a clear continuation of Ringling family ownership and direction. Wrote North:

"It is now time I believe to start looking towards a couple of newer generations represented in the accompanying photo."

Of course that never happened.  The more relevant photo would have been one of Irvin and Israel Feld.  But North himself, now so far away, may not  have seen so different a fate hovering in the wings.

The circus, wrote Don, drew a 3/4 quarter house on Saturday, which he guessed to be the best house.  If the show could draw a three-quarter house at the Cow Palace when it plays there this summer, we would consider that boffo biz.

How times change.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

America’s Got Circus, Too: TV Loves the Daredevil Factor ... Johnny Pugh Straws ‘Em in Jersey .. and More.... It's All on the Inside!




Circus rings may be toughening up these circus-ballet ridden days, getting more down and gritty, a little more edgy in the air – closer to the old sawdust scene when horses and high flyers ruled the rings.

I’ve been away from America’s Got Talent TV show for a few seasons.  Checking back in, driven to see how Christian Stoinev does, I was cheered to see acts of daring-do wowing the judges, causing Howie Mandel and others to spill out two hot words in rapid succession, their faces wide awake with the awe factor:

“I love the athleticism and the danger,” declared Howie.  Ah, yes DANGER.

The tanbark may be turning — no, make that trending, to keep my purist tendencies relevant — back to reality circus.  Remember reality circus?  Before acrobatic-ballet and the stagey crowd discovered an art form needing to be saved.   Before the nagging invasion of tell-tale mechanics,  or, as they now call them, "lunges.”  Even more precious is the term "tethering," ho ho.
                                           
Item: Nik Wallenda scales Niagara Falls, tethered safely to a sterile wire walk, and TV commentators take note.  So do viewers.  You can’t fool a populist crowd, tuned in not for another BBC drama, but for a little circus.  Guess what.  Next time Nik walks the wire, down there near Grand Canyon country, he’s doing it the bold old fashioned way.  Now he’s got real respect.  Now, he’s got real talent.

Item: Down San Jose way, they’re charging foolish reality-TV type people big money, and making them sign no-fault forms, in order to be chased by a stampeding heard of reality bulls.   Yes, believe it or not, now the spectators are becoming the show.  Do we have here a deep yearning for something real, as in dangerous?

Item: Every year, Johnny Pugh can’t stop ending his show with the cannon toss.  Might that be because Johnny knows the power of a basic circus thrill through the air?

As I’ve said before (excuse me for crowing), you can take the circus out of the circus, but it will find other, more receptive venues and keep on doing what it does best, which is exactly what Mandel said in three big words.   Elements of danger stalk what they call extreme sports (I think), and the various "gladiator" programs.  I don’t watch any of them because I want my spectacle straight through,  without the endless commercials and sidebar stories.  Back at the Roman Coliseum, heck, we weren’t bombarded with all that commercial nonsense.

BIG TOP BITS:    On America’s Got Talent the other night, Stoinev made as much a spectacle of his beefcake factor (all of television seems headed for a nude beach) as he did his acrobatic moves in spiffy collaboration with that terrifically talented little dog of his.  I’d like to someday see his entire act — no, just the one he does in the ring — yes, I’m laughing inside, couldn’t resist ... Hold your breath and let’s try to hope it’s true:   Cole Bros. Cicus strawing the crowds in Garfield, NJ, per Circus Report’s Paul Gutheil.  Same crowded result in Ridgefield, and without sponsors, too. Long live Johnny!  ... Carson and Barnes,  from the CR review, seems big on dance this year ...Kelly Miller, true to it-happens-when-it-happens, has a lovely new tent, which  rose mid season.  What else?  Circus Vargas is not far from me at the moment, but with temperatures honoring the global warming argument,  do I really want to sit in a dark oven-hot tent, bringing to mind my fainting spell paranoia (never happened) while suffering the same heat under the old Circus Chimera top? I think not. Too much reality for me, thank you.

OFF THE LOT, ACROSS THE STREET AT THE BUS STOP:  Hey, what did you think of Cleveland going nuts over the return of a prodigal basketball star? Not my sport, but story warms the heart.  I’m a flaky fair weather Oakland A’s fan, fearing, rightly I fear, that they will once again fade out down the final stretch. ... So hot out here in California, I feel guilty running water thought my little fountain on the balcony.  One day, it might get me arrested.  One day, we might be bathing out of buckets of rationed water; I learned how on the Wallace show ... So, I watched all the movies nominated last year for Best Picture. What a lousy lot.  Made me appreciate TV even more (now I'm watching, finally, Big Bang Theory, and love it).   I only liked the one with Judy Dench, and another called Her – great flick about a guy having an affair with OS in his computer, she is virtualy reality.  Scary and brilliant, a truly remarkable  film, check it out ...  Mike Wallace, what humor that guy has!  Other night on Larry King, King asked about how life is treating him these days, answered Mike   “Any day on this side of the grass is a great day.”...  Can you beat that? ... Oh, there’s my bus .... I think .... ah .....Yeah,that’s it! See you later!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: My First Book Lands Major TV Attention ... Don's Circus Report Subscriptions Plunge ... Faultfinding Circus Review Draws "Uproar"

Yes, it's been a while.  Don is back. While reigning in my clutter, as I periodically do (I hate clutter), I came upon a bulging folder of his yet-to-read letters, and, looking through a few, was put back in a certain mood.  All it took was something out of the ordinary to reboot my interest.  Once in a while, something jumps out.

Today, from his of March 5, 1984:

"Did you watch the TV show on Ringling last night?  If so you already know what I am going to say. For at the end they named three books viewers should check in their library for in order to learn more about the circus.  One of these was 'Behind the Big Top.' So, I thought that was a pretty nice plug.  Also shows some recognition that you might not have thought about."

Was I ever flattered to learn of that!  Not sure if Don's letter got to me before a phone call from somebody else delivering the same news.  Was hard to believe.

Behind the Big Top was my first book, and I suppose the first book is always the most exciting, as long as it does not flop. Mine earned enough enthusiasm from most book reviewers and readers to give me a genuine feeling of accomplishment. Amazing, considering the incredible number (it would be too embarrassing to say) of typos and misspellings that are in it.  This alone should land me in the Guinness Book.

In Don's three page letter (his flawless typing is so impressive)  here is what surprised me the most: 

 "Oh, almost forgot to tell you - I've lost almost 300 subscribers, so guess I have to figure out something to improve and make CR a bit more appealing.  That's a pretty big loss over the past few months."

The understatement may tell you something about the man's cool, at least on the surface.

He had been "laid up" for a time, probably for medical reasons, and wondered if that was a reason.  In fact, he constantly struggled to get new subscribers to replace departing ones.  He sent out free samples every week to a good number of prospective takers, drawn from circus fans lists.  Now, it seems, the fan magazines were listing far fewer newer members, and thus Don had fewer people to pitch to.

Here is another of his disclosures that could surprise me.  "One thing that would help is to have better reports on shows and such.  It is too bad when you have to depend on gratis reports, also too bad that  like the one review when the fellow says the bad was bad that so much uproar results."

Yes, indeed, same then as now.  Dare criticize a single element in a circus program and you're a traitor to the big top.

"Then that musician [I've no idea who he is talking about here] opens up a can of worms by saying that anyone can become a performer with practice but not so a circus musicians.  Well, if nothing more it makes some interesting copy, I guess."

I think that awareness of "interesting copy" was one reason why Don had little trouble reporting on both sides of such contentious topics as the emerging animal rights movement and Cirque du Soleil.  He seemed easily able to report what came down the pike, often drawing from the AP.   No, no real circus reviews, but hard news, yes.  That impressed me. 

So, how does he close off on March, 5, thirty years ago?

"Well, got to get back to work."

Heck of a nice guy, Don.  We talked many times on the telephone, not just about circus but about issues  of the day, and how refreshing it was to hear him take on a subject without politicizing it.  Being open to considering all points of view out there.  I never quite figured out what his political party may have been.

Maybe he didn't either.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Back to Court for the “Greatest Show in Court”? Recovering Ringling "Hairialists" Hire Attorneys ... Lawsuits Loom over Failed Rigging

From July 18, 2014


After the fall, yesterday, far from full recovery:  Dayana Costa, right, tearfully reads a statement to the press at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.  AP photo.

Back before a judge or jury may go “The Greatest Show in Court.”  That’s what Feld Entertainment calls itself these days, gloating in the wake of its big Pay Day victory against animal rights groups that had smeared it  for years with fraudulent Tim Rider testimony.

But now, the show may not be so happy about a return engagement to court, or look so well when four of the eight aerialists who performed a spectacular hair hanging stunt, still recovering from a fall on May 4, when the rigging from which they hung betrayed them, consider taking legal action for damages.  The four have hired attorneys and are talking to Big Media.

Investigation of the rigging continues.  Evidence so far suggests that, indeed, it was a critical component of the rigging that broke apart, leading to the shocking descent of all eight aerialists to the floor of an arena in Provedance, Rhode Island, wittinesed  by 3,900  stunned spectators.

The entire incident,  as previously speculated here, may be history making.  When has an aerial apparatus of this complexity broken apart -- or simply collapsed to the ground?  Luckily, nobody, from what we know, was seriously injured.  But that story, too, is yet to be fully told.

Among major network reporting, this morning on CBS, one of the performers was quoted as saying she once dreamed of being “a star performer.”

Now, she just dreams of getting out of her wheel chair and walking again.

A sobering account, compared to earlier reports alluding to good recoveries for all.

Thanks to Don Covington, who contributed to this report.

7.18.2014

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Big Top Book Unlike Any Other: Paul Binder Teases With a Winning Big Apple Circus Sampler



The title may be too clever for it's own good, but Paul Binder’s new book,  Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion, is easy and fun to read, a charmer, filled with anecdotes about his years in and around the Big Apple Circus that he and Michael Christensen founded in 1977.

It is noting like I expected, although I don’t know what I expected, come to think of it, other than it would not tell us much about company conflicts, about Binder’s views of other circuses.  The book does, however, dish a little inside dirt (and pachyderm poo), some of which the author may live to regret.

Best of all, and rather surprising considering that Binder is possibly the most intellectually inclined circus producer in American history, the book is not a plodding polemic or an “academic,” to its redemptive credit.  So, those seeking a gender-bending study of how circus “reflects” the changing socio-economic-astrological-digital shifts in society will be just as let down as will the fans who count wagon wheels, tent poles, stringers, jacks and elephants.  Especially the latter. For several seasons, New York’s own circus has stuck with house-friendly critters, like horses and dogs, and the occasional tent-crashing skunk.

Here, Binder is a charming host, and here he does not drop the word “retirement.”  In the end, a third- person account states that he  “stepped out of the ring.”   I believe he did not want to retire, that he was gently, if not firmly, shown a way to make happy in the backyard and continue helping to raise money. 

How to talk about or  review this book? The best and fairest thing to do, it seemed, would be to go with questions raised by what appears on the printed page, rather than, for example, comparing what I find here with what  the author told me during a generous interview several years ago.

He jumps back and forth like an acrobat, and so there are holes in the narrative, some gaping and, one could argue, negligent.  Such as this:  Binder’s early account of how he set up the New York School for Circus Arts, which itself would present the circus, does not cover what became of that short-lived school. When I saw the show in 1978,  I was swept up by its youthful energy and creative spirit.  Some of the acts, as I recall, were developed at the school. Nothing from the ringmaster on its early demise.  I told you not to expect scholarship.

 Old World tested and certified:  Binder, left, and Michael Christensen, who honed their juggling on street corners in Europe, before returning to New York to found the Big Apple Circus in 1977.  Seen between them are Russian clowns Nina Krasavina  and Greory Fedin.  Binder also appears above, as the show's ringmaster.

 In its youthfully ambitious beginning, when the New York School for Circus Arts was a dream: Students perform New York Charivari, in the 1978 show. 

Another amazing gap: After writing about how he and Christensen secured their first  tent, a lot, and funding support, nothing about the first show, the reception, reviews, or the circus school’s diminishing role.  In fact, from there, the narrative leaps forward by five years! 

To his credit, Binder allows us to view his intense temper, in particular, during a box stacking act by David Casey (Oaf)that should have stopped at failed box number 3, but would not, due to the performer’s dogged resolve, contrary to Binder’s cues, to keep going until he succeeded.  Cut to an ugly row backstage — some of it shockingly audible to audience members  —  resulting in what, for a moment, sounded and looked ominously violent.  (Casey alleges in an angry review of the book on Amazon, that Binder’s account is partly fabricated.)

 In its matriculating years, when the circus turned away from youth and presented world class acts, like the Carillo Bros on the high wire, in 1984

Another inexplicable omission is the name of a legendary flyer, only alluded to in this rousing passage:

“Fifteen hundred people stare upward, motionless, neither breathing nor thinking but believing there is no way that flyer can ever break out of four — four! — somersaults, find a catcher’s arms in the blink of an eye, grab them, and hang on.  But what happens in the next instant calls into question every assumption this crowd has made about how the world works: hands and forearms do meet; they clutch, grasp, and hold ...
    And the crowd goes wild.”  

Guess who he’s talking about?  Not Tito Gaona, whom he loved, as anybody would, and who gets prime coverage in Never Quote.   No, a guy named Miguel Vazquez, whose name appears no where in the text.  The slight is astonishing.

For me, by far the ringmaster’s most memorable prose describes the feeling of connection to the crowd that came over him when he and Michael stepped into a circus ring for the first time, to appear at Anna Fratalinies new circus in France.  Here is how he begins: 

“... what I felt when I entered the ring was nothing less than pure joy — not just a personal sense of satisfaction and pleasure, but something far more powerful and deeply primal: true, elemental ritual celebration ...”  

His mantra is a two-word descriptor, “classical circus.” But he spends little time defining what exactly this means.  Would the definition include aerialists hooked to lifelines?  Does Ringling present “classical?” circus?  Or how about bout UniverSoul, or Cirque du Soleil?  And if not, why?

Binder believes that he, and a few others his age,  reintroduced the one ring show to a American audiences. They did not.  That distinction goes to  Polack Bros. Circus, which, in 1935, opted for one wonderful ring, and presented, during its heyday years, some of the greatest “classical circus” acts in the world.  In my boyhood, I saw the great Francis Brunn with Polack that Paul Binder would announce in his  own show thirty years later.

On animals, Binder's thoughts about their moods, and about how the best trainers work around those moods, are quite interesting and may be helpful, may not be.  I was impressed.

On occasion, he takes more space than need be, when he recounts acute looks of displeasure on the faces of opera patrons, Lincoln Center bound, having to pass a circus area freshly scented with late-breaking elephant emissions. 

Final chapters bring on some high drama from the Middle Kingdom, with the arrival of the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe from China, resulting in one of its performers, Lanrong, wanting to defect, being locked up in a room by the troupe’s stern task master, Lu Yi (who now teaches circus arts in San Francisco), actually wanting free of  Yi rather than her country.  Here lies a tale made for a movie,  But, please,spare us the languid cameras of PBS.


Production soars in Pictureque, 2004, a near masterpiece.  That season, the Kovgar Troupe, from Russia, sent the show into orbit at finale.  

It’s a book you’ll be beguiled into meeting on its own randomly organized terms – part of its quirky charm.  Which gives it a rare easy-to-take effervescence.  The informally artful layout (short chapters, most headed with small sketch drawings, charming) is another asset.  Only are the poorly reproduced black and white photographs a drawback (and I thought some of mine in recent books were bad!) -- but who cares.  It's the writing that counts.

Binder’s mother never seemed sure about her son’s career choice.   He would call her up after another opening to share his enthusiasm, and she, per he, “asked hesitantly, almost as if she feared what the answer would be: “But ... Paul, ... are you ... are you happy?”

Perhaps more then than now.  Just after announcing  his retirement, the ringmaster told a TV reporter what a joy it was, every single day, to dress up in his costume and wait to go on. To face another ring. Another crowd.

You'll never read about this in Don't Quote the Weather.  A showman to the end, Paul Binder spares us a sad closing parade.


Act creator Paul Binder gave artistic birth to the clown Bello Nock, after watching him perform with his family on sway poles, and offering to help him create his own solo act.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Big Top Bits: July 4th Semi-Sizzlers, Fireworks Not Allowed Here

Charles Demuth

Bella to Binder: Fresh off the grass of Circus Bella, holding court last week in the city that works either for the very rich or the very poor (San Francisco), I scampered across the mean streets (most dangerous for pedestrians in Calif, if not the country, if not the world) to the lovely homeless sanctuary known as San Francisco Public Library, Central ... On one of its shelves, I would find a copy of Paul Binder’s new book, Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion,  which I checked out after renewing my library card.  All for the book, nothing like I had expected.  Read a little there; decided to bring it home and take the full tour.  More on this to follow; I must first try quoting the weather to a sea lion.

Race to FaceBook, those of you who enjoy painterly visions of circus, going way back to when, remember the horse? Remember the acrobat riding the horse?  You’ll be regaled by a treasure trove of wonderful art that captures classic circus in its many manifestations, pre-animal rights anxiety.  We have Jim Stockley to thank for this wonderful gallery.   Jim, whose mother and her brothers managed Chipperfields Circus,  brought his Facebook page to my attention recently by e-mail.  Thank you, Jim!

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Circus-Fairground-Art/1459386264294299

Putting “Ringling” and “Art” back togetherThe Wall Street Journal calling the Ringling Museum “an amazing place with an amazing history,” and they aren’t talking circus. They’re taking ART.  A work by Bernardo Strozzi, “An Act of Mercy,” profiled back in the March 23 issue.  How refreshing to see the museum that John Ringling built getting major recognition for the reason it was built -- before the big top invasion, and I'm putting that politely.  I promised to withhold my sparklers.

Alice Neel.  1932.

America’s Got Circus Talent, Too!  On the popular TV show, Christian Stoinev, and his doggy partner, Scooby, to compete on  July 17.   I’ve seen winning pictures of Christian holding a hand stand, while atop his back, stands Scooby.  Can't wait to see the act in motion.

Where was the "circus" inside Circus Maximus?  Once more, another reason to wonder.  I took on Mark Twain's vastly long Innocents Abroad, and surprised myself by staying with this great writer to the end.  When he gets to the ruins of the Roman Coliseum, he, whose other writings are sprinkled with circus accounts, describes every last bloody thing that thrilled the crazed spectators there, but says nothing about any circus acts.  Maybe he knows more than we.  Has anybody out there (among my 7 visitors) ever seen an ancient ad, herald, etching in stone or painting depicting circus action at Circus Maximus?   I'm starting to smell myth.


Everett Shinn

END RINGERS:  Aerial ballet heaven: Not one, Not two, but THREE ballets were witnessed on a Hamid Shrine unit in Hamburg, NY. Wrote Circus Report's Joy Moreau, “What is particularly well planned ... is that each is completely different in theme.”  Ah, Barbette, the Great One must be smiling in his grave.  Sour Song of India: Country now rules out wild animals from circuses.  Domestics, including moneys, are okay.  Down in Tinsel Town, city exacting steeper permit fees for circuses wanting to flaunt wild animals, causing Ramos Bros. to cancel a horse and camel display in city limits. ...Cirque du Soleil’s new opus, Kurios, drawing early strong notices.  Still, when it comes to San Francisco, I’m gonna read the local reviews first before deciding whether to go.  I’ve been burned by this company twice in a row now ... Vargas  tenting through the Bay Area cities... Kelly Miller’s first time in America bounce juggler from Ethiopia, Abraham Tarat. said to be nearing his first appearance in the ring, pending prop completion.  With all the delays, might this season turn out to be Tarat's Last Time in America?  Sorry, I just couldn't resist that ... John Ringling North II has around three acts in the "First Time" category.  His mind is in the right place, if not his operation ...  I've seen no reviews so far, not even in Circus Report. 

OFF THE LOT, OVER THERE ACROSS THE STREET:   Did you know that a clear majority of U.S. youths would flunk military standards for service?  Blame falls on drugs, felony convictions, high school drop outing, HDD's, and the B\ig One, Obesity.  ... Our local track celebrity, California Chrome, thrilled me, too, and I agree with its complaining  owner, who argues that it had to race, unfairly, against horses who had not appeared in the first two races.  In fact, Chrome outran those horses that DID, like he, run all three courses...  Beware of Drones!  I’m waiting for a direct hit mailer from Feld Entertainment, summoning me to its next show. Perhaps one day, Amazon will deliver by drone ... BTW: Ramos Bros. is a new name to me.  Some come and go incognito.  Ah, the circus, a form of entertainment that entertains whether anybody shows up or not ...

All images from Jim Stockley's Facebook Circus & Fairground Art.