This first appeared March 18, 2008
In a post that keeps on posting about Circus Compensation (I am waiting for the bible to appear on it), Henry Edger logged his “book” on this evidently lively blogging issue. He makes some informative points in favor of Clyde Beatty as being the superstar of all time. Not for me to argue for or against right now, but Edgar’s facts and positions did get me thinking, as in...
What makes you remember the greats who present the big cats? I saw Beatty when I was young enough to be riveted to his every move in the cage. I don’t remember having ever sat as still and fixated during an entire act as I did during that one. Every single moment, the audience was wondering will he get out alive? ... Clyde Beatty created dramatic tension. That was the premise to his greatness. A legendary showman he was ...
Scanning my memory, who are the trainers I recall? They can grab us in so many ways. Some of us look for stats — how may tricks turned; some for drama, some for looks and showmanship. Pat Anthony jumps to mind. So does Professor George J. Keller, possibly because the way this college art director-turned-trainer was sold and because of his relaxed nice-guy persona in the arena. So does Tarzan Zerbini for his amusing self-satirizing bravado. So does Pablo Noel (seen here), such a great humorous showman! Some of these trainers seemed to be laughing inside.. Another individual who amply entertained me was Josip Marcan. And so did the rambunctious Tabayara Maluenda, whom I saw with Ringling last year, carrying on like a befuddled Joan Rivers suddenly thrust up against the jungle challenge without preparation. Fine content, though I do go for entertainment. Nice to see trainers breaking free of the GGW mold which they tried cloning for so many seasons.
Mostly, wild animals acts blur past my eyes while I await aspects of a performance that usually hold greater appeal — to me. Some of us saw Trevor Bale as a furniture mover, which may be very unfair. There are those no doubt who have all the stats on what each trainer did. How many rollovers, sit ups, fire hoop jumps etc. I don’t.
Another trainer who caught my passing fancy was a somewhat pivotal figure bridging the more furious past with a gentlemanly future: Charlie Bauman. Beautiful act. Gracious trainer. Wonderful climactic ring picture when a tiger stood up on a rotating pedestal under a shower of globe lights while Merle Evans played Shangri-la. In that one magical moment, Ringling ruled the universe.
Gunther? I gotta tell you, what I most liked about Gunther in retrospect was his agile way with elephants. I realize there have been better trainers. I just liked his easy elegance and those voice commands, even if they were illusory. There are a number of cage trainers that I would place above GGW, mainly because I suppose Gunther was a bit to fey to generate the sort of drama I enjoy from a wild animal act. Too elegant. Which is the very reason why he was so perfect for a new era dominated by audiences wanting ultra-humane imagery. He connected perfectly with his time, and the Ringling productions and pr teams did a brilliant job of packaging and ballyhooing him to the public. Irvin Feld’s finest hour.
But for Big Cage theatrics, I would pick Clyde Beatty any day. The movie Ring of Fear gives us only a variety of camera angles and disconnected bits — nothing like sitting in one seat having a set relationship to the real Clyde Beatty in the cage, in real time, and watching his act from start to finish. In regard to which, I absolutely agree with Henry Edgar that circus art does not come through well in recorded media. When we are there, we watch performers survive by their skills in the present tense, in the flesh. It is not illusion (even if some of the theatrics are just that), for we sense that anything can happen.
So, my "circus compensation" post provoked a mini-stampede of commentators. Big Cage Theatrics — or PETA pandering love-ins? What say ye, anybody out there not already bored to death by this topic... Hey, it’s new on my midway...
[photos: The greats bring a distinctive personality to the ring. Clyde Beatty brought drama, Pablo Noel, comedy. And Gunther -- Mr. Cool?]