Wednesday, April 15, 2015

World Circus Day is Coming, Saturday -- So, Let's Talk Books!

Circus books.  What makes for a good read?   Prose or scholarship?  Please be aware, there are many books I have never read.  I rarely buy books, but read them from the library, if they are available.  These personal favorites are here primarily because they entertain me and I find them generally trustworthy.  All doubtlessly contain errors.  It's the bigger picture that counts.

Books that fail to make my list strike me as agenda-driven, giving undue or disproportionate attention to favored figures or to fringe groups or social and cultural "studies."  Others come off as irresponsibly incomplete, such as Linda Simon's vividly-written The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus, so exciting at the outset, so limp and empty at the end.  Example?  She completely ignores the entire Russian-Soviet circus scene -- a colossal blunder.  And it suggests, the best reason I can come up with, a political bias against Communist countries (she also, as I recall, ignores China).

Yes, books about the Ringling juggernaut tend to dominate anybody's list, as they do mine, because that's the circus in this country that everybody wants to write -- or read -- about. 

Be warned:  "scholarship," no matter how many footnotes or end notes, is only as good as is the objectivity and honesty of the author in bringing it all to the table.  Even then,  any quoted "source" -- an interview, a passage from another book, press releases and program magazine materials  --  may itself propound misinformation.  Most troubling is the compromising writer who excludes knowledge in order to serve a preset narrative. 

My top of the list.  I discovered Earl Chapin May's classic at a very young age.  Loved the way it is written, the fast-moving parade of actors on the stage of circus history.  I still refer back to the book, time and time again.   May coined the phrase  "the ever changing, never changing circus."  Too bad the book came out in 1932, just before a war among Ringling heirs for control of the circus was about to be waged.

Barely in my teens, I found This Way to the Big Show (1936) high on a library shelf in Santa Rosa, took it down, checked it out, and was fascinated.  Dexter Fellows, one of the most colorful circus press agents ever, flacked for Buffalo Bill, P.T. Barnum and the Ringlings.  He paints a richly detailed account of how circuses operated, including a juicy chapter, The Customer is Always Wrong, on how con men worked suckers in so many clever ways. 

Possibly the most entertaining circus page turner of all time.   Its author, Connie Clausen, joined the Big Show as a "ballet broad," during the boom years of  John Ringling North, who himself, so it is written, discovered Clausen on a Sarasota street in 1942, and talked her into joining the show.   And what a tale she tells!   

Famed Ringling equestrian director Fred Bradna,  sharing memories and inside information with writer Hartzel Spence, offers a vibrant account of his life with the circus.  The man who blew the whistle to keep three rings and four stages in constant motion, Bradna offers incisive critiques of the greatest ring stars.

Henry Ringling North, adoring brother of John, fashioned, with Alden Hatch, a warm and wonderful history of his Ringling family story.  

Gene Plowden's cheerfully informative  chronicle of the Ringling Bros. story contains a compelling subplot on John Ringling, most famous of the five brothers, who outlived them all, only in the end to rule recklessly and lose all of his power.  A haunting tale of the arrogance of success in a world of  dazzling risk takers forever on the brinks of disaster   How I wished that Plowden had made the life of John Ringling his central premise.

Reader beware:  Like too many circus books, and that surely would include some put out by the academics (Linda Simon, mentioned above, is a college professor), Robert Lewis Taylor's captivating Center Ring, one of the most literate books ever penned about circus, is perhaps as much fiction as fact.  Example: The song  "Lovely Luawana Lady," as featured in the movie The Greatest Show on Earth,  never became, as claimed in these well-paced pages, "nationally popular."  Nonetheless, Center Ring's profiles of major Ringling players during the heady days of the John Ringling North era, which originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine, make for a deliciously good read.

Let us now cross the Big Pond to the land were circus was invented.  Antony Hippisley Coxe's A Seat at the Circus is a must-read for fans of tradition-rooted artistry.  The author, a proper English gentleman, shares with us in elegant fashion, his fastidious knowledge of the various ring acts, of what to look for and how to judge measurable achievement.  He has little patience for the embellishing spectacle that marked American three ring big tops, and, before that, early British circus shows, too.

UK Journalist and critic Douglas McPherson (The Stage, Daily Mail, Guardian) takes a refreshing, in-depth look at the contemporary  circus scene over there.  Right Now. Today.  Remarkably,  McPherson became something of a circus fan, not as a boy, but well into his adulthood, and so he brings a fresh perspective to current issues shadowing the big tops.  Example:

"As with horses, the elephants don't need to be oversold with gimmicks.   Just walking into the ring and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough."  Given recent Ringling plans to retire its performing elephants, how brilliantly McPherson's suggestion now resonates. Heck, I can  actually, yes, see myself thrilling merely to a parade of pachyderms!

Ringmaster, by Kristopher Antekeier and Greg Aunapu is a bold rarity among circus books, offering a candid look behind the scenes during the Irvin and Kenneth Feld era – doubly amazing considering how shrewdly effective are the Felds in manipulating the media to buy their grandiose press kit fictions — from fans to willing authors.   In these stark pages, fraught with depressing work conditions and low morale, the staring antagonist is Gunther Gebel Williams, who reveals a nasty controlling nature.  For Antekeier, his first season goes from euphoria to disillusionment, and so, rather than re-sign for another tour, he walks away. And writes a remarkable book. 

For all true Ringling fans, Jerry Apps offers a meticulously researched study of how the five brothers worked so well together to build arguably the most famous circus in the world.  We follow them season by season.  The book is particularly rich in correspondence between the brothers, illustrating how they planned new shows and scouted acts.  Lushly illustrated, too.  A center ring treat.

Fast, breezy, as light as a souffle out of the oven.  This delightful sampler of Big Apple Circus history and lore comes from its founder and ringmaster, Paul Binder, who puts aside his scholarly bent to charm us with effervescent memories of life in and around New York's "own circus."   It's a hit and miss affair, leaving out things I wished he had discussed, like his short-lived circus school.  Maybe he will follow up with another book, let's hope.    The Binder parade bounces and shines with brevity.  And what a nice little one-ring charmer to end this post on.

Next: My favorite circus flicks.


Douglas McPherson said...

Well... (momomentarily speechless) I'm humbled and honoured to be reading a list of such time-proven books and to stumble upon my own Circus Mania among them.

Showbiz David said...

You're very welcome. I hope you survived the stumble. :-)

Douglas McPherson said...

Slipped on a custard pie...