Sealing a Kiss with Princess Stephanie for a Gold Clown?

Sealing a Kiss with Princess Stephanie for a Gold Clown?
at the 41st Monte Carlo International Circus Festival in January

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.

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