Monday, June 23, 2008
Sunday Morning, Out of the Past: Ladies of the Sawdust ... Pitch Your Tents!
It should be no surprise that more and more, women are beginning to manage and direct circuses. After all, if they can rise to the title of CEO, why not that of “Circus Queen”?
Lady #1 in my Ring of Fame: Determined, committed, dedicated, multi-talented. Unknown force behind the throne of a new circus syndicate destined too dominate the entire tent show field: Louse Ringling (above). Yes, past tense. She will stand for other unknown women down through time who no doubt have helped run shows. We can only imagine the degree of family indifference and public scorn that Louise suffered in silence for her love of Albert Ringling. Female performers were then likened to prostitutes. And we will never know how intricately important Louise Morris Ringling was to the success of the five brothers. They never once, to my knowledge, publicly honored the one women who was with and behind them from the very beginning: Bareback rider. Snake charmer. Costume maker. Her life cries out for a book that may never be possible to write for lack of adequate research materials.
Dazzling dames in spangles brought thrills, chills, glamour, mystery, and, yes, sex appeal to the golden age of big tops. My mom once told me how much she admired Lillian Leitzel. May Wirth was a superstar. So was Bird Millman and Dorothy Herbert. Wild animal trainer Mable Stark stands out starkly. Can you imagine her scaring the sneer off the sour face of Ingrid Newkirk?
On my brief stint clowning for Wallace Bros Circus, it was the smiling face of a female who represented management every week when I proudly walked up the steps of the office wagon and was handed a paycheck by Norma Cristiani
Today, leading the parade is reportedly shy Barbara Byrd of Hugo, daughter of Dory Miller, who pilots Carson & Barnes three ringer. And today on Ringling, Nicole Feld (left) is now a full fledged co-producer with her father, Kenneth. Has she made a measurable impact? Hard to say for sure — yet. Since her arrival, however, the show was first reduced to half a ring, and then re-ringed, sort of.
New Cole’s Renee Storey, vice president of administration, is out there unafraid to talk to the public about raging animal rights issues. Indeed, who better to answer the attacks of groups dominated by women, than women? Carson and Barnes’ "Taylor" made a good showing on national television defending her employer.
In the world of letters, female authors are making valuable contributions. Janet Davis received high acclaim for her book, The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top. And there is English scholar Helen Stoddart, whose Rings of Fire: Circus History and Representation offers a deft analysis of the realities of life addressed by authentic circus art.
Lastly, Katherine North, daughter of John Ringling North II who purchased the Kelly Miller Circus in 2006, is showing potential interest in being a vital part of management. So the House of Ringling, back under the big top after a forty year hiatus, may once more help define circus art in this country.
The book is open. Ladies, your turn to blow the whistle!
Originally posted June 23, 2008