Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rethinking Ringlng '56: Costumes by Vertes Inject Erotica into Circus; Floats Dead on Arrival

When this photo first grabbed me by the eyeballs, I could finally understand why critics of John Ringling North had been accusing him of staging a "night club circus." The costume was designed by French artist Marcel Vertes, hired by North to color-coat the 1956 show. Not just colorize, but evidently sex it up a lot; you need only study some of the Vertes sketches, which Life Magazine published, to spot erotic shadings in various states of fleshy titillation. The dancer, above, appeared in the hot-off-the-moment pachyderm production shaker, "Ringling Rock N' Roll."

The performance rarely captured the pagan abandon that simmers in the above rendering of a floridly sensual procession. More often, from visuals left behind, '56 costumes lent a rather delicate, lovely, and un-guady air to the spartan festivities, crimped, one can only surmise, by a circus hard-pressed for money to get itself back on the road, up to Madison Square Garden. At their best, the Vertes designs lent a graceful air of impressionistic elegance. A number of the critics were seriously impressed, as we shall see in a future post.

Above, the artist's rendering of a tulip float for the spec. Below, the actual float itself, as executed apparently without even a death row reprieve. That this photo made it onto page 14 of the program magazine, if nothing else tells us how brain dead the Ringling PR department was that sad chaotic season; indeed, North should have fired the magazine editor and all press flacks responsible for allowing this atrociously unflattering visual into print.

This and other barren floats were featured in the spec, "Say It With Cement" (excuse me, I meant to say "Say it With Flowers"). The parade that year was an utter embarrassment, for which, whom to blame? Costume and float executor Max Weldy, himself a former designer who seems sometimes to have derived perverse pleasure in sabotaging the work of rivals? Or simply a glaring lack of funds? Some troupers remembered with amusement a J.C. Penny label attached to dresses worn by spec showgirls.

This float strikes me, comparing it to everything I've seen in stills and footage, as remarkably lush and lovely.

Actually, John Ringling North's signing Vertes was a theoretically smart move, for it generated considerable press coverage in New York and helped give the show a fresh new look.

My quintessential moment with North, years later: During the one interview he granted me, I asked him if, looking back over the seasons in general, he had any artistic regrets. "I could not get Salvador DalĂ­ to design the show." The famed surrealist wanted too much money.

That Life magazine chose to feature the painterly design sketches of Vertes rather than photographs of the actual costumes they inspired may tell us as much as we need to know.

Here is a Life photo, four months later, of the last parade in Pittsburgh. In black and white, Weldy held his own. Vertes, maybe not.

Above three photos, in color, by Sverre Braathen, The Milner, ISU.

First published 8.31.10



The picture with the two women wearing black body stockings covering even their heads and yellow straw skirts brought back wonderful memories.

They were from the exciting 1956 menage number that had the great song that went "Jungle Voodoo, Jungle Rhythym......."

The costumes would be frowned upon today.

LL said...

SB David, thank you for posting. My mother was with the circus in 1956 and I just finished scanning in some of her old photos an hour or so ago. I decided to see what I could find on the internet, and ran across your photo of the float with bicycles on it. One of the photos of my mom is of her standing next to the same float, though I couldn't tell what it was in her photo. Very cool!