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


an animal life said...

How nice to find your blog. Such a pleasant change from the usual negative comments circus's seem to get these days. You can guarantee I will be reading it in depth over the next few days.

B.E.Trumble said...

Watching Katherine North running the moonbounce on the Kelly Miller midway while she was here, I couldn't help but think, "if only people knew what weird wonderful world circus can be sometimes." Of course no more weird and wonderful than watching JRN II leading ponies on the pony sweep, or helping a patron to understand the Reserved Seating system. It's no wonder that people are falling in love with Kelly Miller again. The last couple weeks in MA have seen great business in many towns and lots of new friends.

RinglingBook said...

I think Lou Ringling is greatly overlooked and should be up for a nomination. However, she did form a strong bond with Marie Salome (Mama Ringling) and family attributes this to her knowledge of poetry which Mama liked, especially Julia Ward Howe.
Lou and Al had a secretive relationship as she was trying to finalize a divorce the first years they were together. They were later married in Hoboken, NJ. She likely was the heart and soul of the RB show in the 1884- 1889 season, but don't underestimate the closeness that the family felt for her. Al did not leave any shares to her, but did leave her $1,000,000, about $12,000,000 in today's dollars. The Ringlings were a solid family unit and lived for each other - differences or not.