Friday, September 26, 2008

Out of the Past: Friday Flip Flops: Give 'Em Cotton Candy, or, No, Give 'Em Blood ...

Shame on Me! Should have never taken up the pretentious art of “circus reviewing.” Fact is, were I not the only one out there doing this (yes, I know, I’m not the only one, but still), I would not strike others as nearly so odd or eccentric or strange or extreme. Or, what, so stupidly critical ... When 4-letter hate mail arrives, as it did today, aiming profanity at my 2-star review last year of Circus Chimera, I shudder, wondering how much of this I should allow before civilized eyes ... Must mull it over ... In my precocious youth, as opposed to my precocious now, I once irked a Circus Review reader, who had had enough of my lip. Poor editor John Swan, who spent many a page on my out-of-control teenage prose, must have wondered what sort of a monster he’d unleashed ...

Complained the letter writer, regarding something I’d written in a state of anti-John Ringling North who killed the big top discontent, “if you can’t say anything good about somebody, don’t say anything at all.” Lately, I’ve even heard another strain of reader saying, “If you can’t say anything bad about somebody, don’t say anything at all.” Heck, World of Wonders, they once wanted cotton candy. Now they want blood. Brrr ...

Boyi, a “tea tender” here at L’Amyx, noticing a program magazine next to my Dell, mentioned having seen a circus out in Hayward when he was in high school. Boyi is from China, though he never saw any of its famed acrobats. Got as far as a zoo. Wasn’t too high on the tent show he saw, so I asked him (always interested in cold public opinion) to grade it from A to F. He answered, D-plus. Ouch, am I infecting others? Boyi knows nothing of my subversive background (I might soon have to hire protection when I enter big tops with pencil and pad). He said if the circus had “more flips flops, and more animals” (he recalled a single dog), he would have given it a C-+. Boyi, and people think I’m tough.

When I think of the quibbling though favorable notice I turned out at age 14 of a Polack Bros. performance, I am still amazed at how that one publishing breakthrough may have addicted me. Blame it on Walter Hohenadel and the White Tops, if not the CFA. Never could quite figure out the latter. But then again, who can figure me out. Not even me. Next year, I’ve made this resolution: Of any circus I see that I gave less than three stars to this year, if it doesn’t rank in my virtuous view a half a star more, I simply won’t review it. Call it kindness & Tact. Really, I don’t like being so, well — me.

How did we get here? Promise you, I did not bring this up. It was that program magazine, about which I am about to comment. It’s from Kelly Miller, and from John Ringling North the Sequel, and what a touch of rare class! I’ve grown to expect so little, I had no idea K-M puts out one (to be fair, I’m told this they’ve done regularly, so kudos to you, too, David Rawls). Over the last few years, none of the following shows even offered a one-page handout: UniverSoul, Moscow Circus of Stars from Sarasota, Chimera (during its last year), New Cole (recently) Vargas, Carson & Barnes. Simply inexplicable. I mean, when does one, even entering a puppet show, not receive something?

Royally reporting in, Jim Royal tells me of their pleasure with September biz, which he terms “very good.” Just now, back from tea, here’s his latest: “On the good news front, we had a terrific day yesterday, and excellent business again today.” That’s sure to please the House of Ringling, now traveling with the troupe. Well, if the performance is as classy as the magazine, what a calling card. K-M actually lists the acts as they appear. How novel. Ringling no longer does. CDS does not. This heroic action alone demonstrates to yours unruly rare artistic resolve.

I started out with so much to blab about, and I’m using up my hot air fast. Blame it on the Chinese guy who got intrigued with the K-M magazine. BTW, my one quibble: Why “John R. North II presents” on the front cover? That’s what John Ringling North (the original) was called by his relatives when they threw him out. Why not "John Ringling North II" front and center -- or is North's nephew barred by the Felds from using his full name in such conspicuous places? At the end of the listed acts, JRN II does revive a classy salutation known to circus fans of a certain age, "Thank you and Au Revoir ... John Ringling North II." Nice touch!

And so, taking my turn, may I say thank you and au revoir ... So much more out there to chat up when next we meet: Big top books that weigh tons, the new rage, I guess ... Ben Davenport and stark revelations in Bandwagon about Ringling ticket sellers in the last fast canvas days. I must ask Boyi what he would think if he walked away with not all his pennies.

Call this a profanity-proof wrap, I think, while it lasts ...

First published on September 26, 2008


Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
I can't believe you are just now realizing, ask the public what they thought of a show and they will give you a very different impression depending on who and where the asking is being done. This inviting them into the ring for a double cheek kiss hug fest, or chatting with them on the midway is not the real word. Run into them incognito 24 hours later at the supermarket, and you will get some real honesty.
FYI, better to be hated for taking a stand or accomplishing something, then loved for saying nothing and accomplishing less.
"Cute and Charming" just takes a free ride in life.
Wade Burck

henry edgar said...

david -- i certainly understand your frustration. at a seminar for newspaper entertainment critics, we were told to welcome complaints because (a) they show people arer reading the reviews and (b) they show people care what you write. no critic can ever satisfy everyone. many considered walter kerr the dean of critics, others blasted him as a fraud because he was married to a playwright whose work and friends he reviewed. everybody in new york hates clive barnes who seems to like nothing but british works and performers. and seems to hate anything people can actually understand -- and maybe even enjoy. everybody wants to read a review that mirrors their own feeling, whether they've actually seen the show or not. as i've said before, i once thought we should only say nice things about circuses to show our support. your style of reviewing, and my own expience with movies, tv and theater, showed me waht a dis-service that can be; it's enabling medioctity. anyone who is honest knows that few circuses or any other shows are always good or always bad. there are usually elements of both. my pet peeves include lack of professionalism, walking through a show with a small house, and generally lackluster work -- work that accepts the minimum necessary to get hired instead of trying to be the best they can be. i hate things like performers who don't change costumes with each appearance as well as performers who are seen by the audience in costume before their time to perform. taking one last drag of a cigarette before stepping into the spotlight.

paul newman told me how he gauged his own performances. "I hate it if i see myself acting." by that, he meant he should always appear natural. he should always be in the moment, he should always be the character instead of paul newman. he was particularly proud of a difficult scene in "Fort Apache The Bronx" because he got through it without being able to catch himself acting. he loved "the verdict" and said it was his first movie where he never saw himself acting. yet how many critics were as hard on newman as he was himself? even bad newman is still so much better than the best of so many other actors.

back to circuses: i tend to be much harsher now than a few years ago because i don't see the dedication, the imagination or the professionalism i once saw. is there an aerialist in the air today who could even come close to the beauty and perfection we expected of LaNorma? how often do we see the smiles through the mud and the bad weather and bad lots that were one demanded as part of being a professional? even the girl sitting on the elephant head in spec. they don't balance and point their toes like everyone did in the past; they hang on between the head and the body and look about as graceful as a sack of potatoes most of the time. maybe we all felt differetly in the past because of the standards that were set.

looking back to your own experience with cristiani-wallace, where do you see anybody with the natural class and polish of cosetta cristiani or norma cristiani? the originality of the hippo walkaround, even though it had been done many times before and the hippo never really did anything. a ringmaster like bob mitchell, who enhanced the acts rather than trying to upstage them. the solid teamwork of the arturo father and son team? i know everything wasn't perfect -- but all the acts had finish tricks, they didn't learn a couple of things and try to pass. and we all took them for granted. i'd love to read a rave review of a show and then see the show and say hey, that was great. most of the raves today come from fans who send in reviews that are printed with no editing -- and no credibility. they don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. i never wanted to hurt anybody's feelings either. but as a critic, it was my job to be honest. it took a long time to realize that with circus, though even at 18 i had no problems panning a thetarical set that looked discomombulated or actors reciting lines they didn't try to understand. i don't think anybody wants blood; we just want honesty.

and that's something you've always given us. whether i agreed or not, whether i liked what you said or not, i know you called it as a you saw it. that's the job of a critic. keep doing what you've been doing since you were in high school. you're doing it well.

Wade G. Burck said...

I will take a strong exception to some of your comments about todays performers. What airealist today makes anywhere near what LaNorma and other greats did X cost of living? Not even a little bit close, Henry. I suspect some of Paul Newmans self critique/striving for better had a lot to do with earning power, pride, self worth from directors/producers, etc. etc.
There were a lot of hippos living in dirty, unfiltered tanks, contained by broken, wired together fencing before it was decided it was not worth it for the sake of the animal, to walk in a circle. You can view them today underwater on any great animal program or zoo.
No Henry, it is 100% the producer and the fan/critic base that permitted it to reach the low point that it now has.
I sat with the owner of circus Vargas in 1999 watching the show, as he remarked about the cage act, "this thing goes on forever, never works right, and puts people to sleep, but it's cheap enough so I have to use it." Ask any "fan" and next to Clyde Beatty the act was the second coming, yet Vargas closed in 2003!!!! In 2008 they are crying for a cage act yet none are available, because there are none. Not just animal acts Henry, but all act's have left the profession. What's left are a lot of new young performers, who are enjoying the the life for as long as they can afford to, or until they are no longer single, and need to earn a real living.
The Circus used to offer more weeks of work, instead of more money, and it was taken because there was no other option. Imagine a job telling you we can't give you a raise this year, but we will let you work Christmas and Easter if you want, or we can't give you a raise but we will let you work 14 hrs a day instead of 8!!!! That is how a performer earned money to keep up with the cost of living, and now they can't even offer more weeks because those are gone. There is nobody in the world today that would stay or get into a profession with that future.
No Henry, it was the self serving fan, the self serving performer, AND the self serving producer who lead it to its current state. The mediocre shows/performers were accepted graciously for a long long time. They bided their time, got what they could, smiled and signed autographs, and disappeared with their portfolio of false achievements.

Alan Cabal said...

"Paycheck whore wears a dollar bill gown to the funeral of hope". ---Charles Manson

If you're in the circus to make money, you're in the wrong line of work.

Wade G. Burck said...

Great quote from a "world leader." LOL. John Ringling had a quote, about the "Circus is a jealous wench" or "eating up the folks in it, and spiting them out" or something like that. I can't seem to find reference to it anywhere. Are you familiar with it?
Wade Burck

dpowhitetiger said...

Circus Love
The circus is a jealous wench
Indeed that is an understatement
She is a ravaging hag
Who sucks out your vitality
Who kills the brightest stars in her crown
And who will allow no private life
To those who serve her
Wrecking their homes
Ruining their bodies
Destroying the happiness of their loved ones
By her insatiable demands
She is all these things
And yet I love her
As I love nothing else on earth.
Henry Ringling North

Wade G. Burck said...

Mr. Orr,
Thank you very much, that's the one. What has always been very strange to me, was if this quote had been attributed to Adolf Hitler and the word "circus" eliminated, and Nazi added, we could assume it was a blue print for the Final Solution. Transpose Idi Amin and change "circus" to Uganda and human rights organizations would work around the clock to destroy the regime. The industry remained "with it and for it", and in the 21st century scratch our heads, in wonderment at "what happened" here.
Wade Burck

Douglas McPherson said...

Ringling's quote could be about writing, too. Probably why so many writers are drawn to the circus. We share similar addictions.