Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Under Falling Big Tops: How Bad Was it? Can You Spell Catastrophic? Let's Talk Historical Context

In the anxious annals of American circus history, the Big Theme seeming to be — Can The Show Make it Another Week? —  two bleak years stick out. 1938 was  by far the worst, possibly of all time, for Yankee canvas. By the end of 1938, eight circuses had hit the sawdust, and only two of those would ever live to see another crowd (or a few strays, all with free kid’s tickets) at the ticket wagons.

Advance to 1956:   King Bros. fell, its gas-less trucks stranded along a road, home made signs reading “donations accepted.”    The mightier Clyde Beatty circus was bankrupt by summer. And, on July 16, John Ringling North declared an end to the tented circus — as it then "existed."    

The press reacted as if a cherished American holiday had been mass executed over night.  The press ran with gloom and doom.    Cartoonists put aside levity to shed tears.  Well, they had a pro-circus public to play to.  But the press proved premature.  Beatty resumed its aborted season under new management.  And Ringling would return the following year, as promised by Mr North, to play out its annual opening date at Madison Square Garden  followed by a string of stands in tent-less venues.  Only did the much smaller King Bros. Circus remain shuttered.

Sixty years later, such a press as the one that properly covered the traumatic 1956 season was not there to make much of what we have lived through: the collapse of two of our nation’s three biggest big tops, both long-stays along the East Coast corridor. To repeat, two of the BIG THREE.  But then again, neither was the public there.  By now, it had been worn down by pushy progressives seeking to remove the circus from the circus.   Activists armed with indisputable visual evidence of extreme animal training that rightfully, I must concede, pushed the skeptical public into a withering state of mounting apprehension.

Thus did the Ringling elephants leave us in 2016.  But the Big Show went on, although whether its waning crowd base was lured back in lush turnouts may be hard to know.  Lackluster LA biz was not a good omen, kids.

What to say about 2016?  On another front, one thing it did give us was a presidential election — this one truly a hell of a circus —  the outcome of which, a very red one, may re-embolden  populist affections for the real thing, people ready to take in big tops without fear of public humiliation.  Mr. Tweety Trump, as daring a political act as ever there was, had a field day trumpeting against PC targets, and this may help the circus, of late, another PC target in need of rescue.   Before all the animals and clowns have fled the scene.

Missing in action, 2016:  Johnny Pugh’s Cole Bros. did not even get out of the barn. But now, he’s talking of meetings with money people over possible plans to reboot in 2017.  I’d put more money on Pugh making a comeback than on the other show that folded in a much more emphatic way.  Read on!

Who will buy this beautiful circus?   The latest  news about the spiraling Big Apple Circus meltdown is that everything is now up for sale at a pending bankruptcy auction,  the big top included. Prospective buyers said to be lining up.   And then I read something that crashed my hopes of a more practical return, albeit in a scaled down version, smaller tent and band, etc. touring in New York's parks during a spring and summer tour.  Seems that the powers still ineptly in charge are wanting  to “save” the Lincoln center date.  What about just saving the circus itself?

Does anybody back there have one pragmatic brain cell in their head?  They want to salvage a winter date lasting three month, the rental tab for which is half a million? Really?   In the beginning, Paul and Michael started out under a smaller top in a place called Battery Park. Four years hence, they were opening each October at Lincoln Center.  Thanks to lavish Wall Street funding, they never really had to face the forces of a true market.

What circus anywhere plays the same place for nearly three months every year without changing the show during the run?  In its heyday, Ringling could pack the 14,000-seat Garden when it opened there every spring, but it never stayed more than five weeks.   

Piece by piece, tent pole by ring curb, New York's own circus, in my once idyllic view a national treasure, is sadly being shredded into oblivion.  Look for your favorite BAC props and mementos to appear on eBay soon. I had high hopes.  Not anymore.  Curiously, Paul Binder is mum about this all on his blog. 

So, let's shake a little hope into our battered hearts.  Neither Kelly Miller nor Carson & Barnes did well at all last year, but I know that Kelly Miller plans to go out.

In regards to which, I got an e-mail from James Royal, telling me in a few words of why his “partnership” with John Ringling North II had been dissolved at the end of 2015 to the satisfaction of both parties, so I guess we won’t be seeing them on Judge Judy.  The two were at odds over how to run the front end.   And we all know how important the front end is — if you wish to keep your back end off its ....

Signing off, Jim wrote,   “The future ...who knows.”

Truer words were never spoken.

In my reaching back, I sent Jim some general questions about the state of our circuses, hoping he might consider answering them  He tells me he will, and so, as soon as I have them, I will post them here as an update.

Surely 2017 can’t get any worse than it now is?  Right?

Other than that, have a HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Thinking Kelly-Miller Circus: Then and Now ...

During the depressing summer just past, when Big Apple Circus and Cole Bros. Circus both stayed in the barn, I was overly sensitive to any sign of another one falling.   And when, by summer’s end, the mailman had failed to bring me a package from John Ringling North II, I started fretting for the future of Kelly Miller, too.

So, big  big relief in my mail box a few days ago.  Came a parcel from Ireland.  Yes!   he hasn't forgotten me!  A DVD of this year’s show from Johnny Come Lately. He's been sending me one for the past several seasons.

Elated to be in receipt, I looked forward, more than I now look backward, to watching the DVD.  I hate to spread even a sliver of doubt during these difficult times, so let me merely say that, of course there are some good acts -- the dancing elephant is back, but on balance, I was rather disappointed in what I saw and heard.

I should hasten to add two big drawbacks to watching it: First of all, the tent is nearly empty, most of the front rows filled, and without an audience, a key component is missing. Secondly, unlike the previous DVDs I’ve received from the generous John in charge, the cameras on this show do not roll continuously, but after each act, there is pause in darkness with the name of the next act appearing on the screen. Thus, one is deprived of a sense of watching a show as the audience does.

                                            BACK TO 2012

Be that as it may, wanting to reboot my confidence in the House of Ringling, the next night, I decided to go back in time and watch the first DVD that John II had sent me, of the 2012 show filmed at Mendon, MA on June 26, not remembering what I had thought of it.

a screen shot of the DVD

What a remarkable difference  First off, a virtual full tent.  People, people, people.  Secondly, the cameras roll on through the entire show, so that you get a sense of actually watching an unedited performance.  This may have been the best staged and directed of JRN II’s editions.   Production values make a big difference, for which kudos to key contributors:

* John Moss III, for performance direction and for tip top to-the-point ringmastering with command and restraint.  A class act all the way.

* Music.  Two musicians, Michael Harber and Marshall Ekleman produce a terrific score, most of it of course pre-recorded.  Likely the best scored JRN II edition.  And what impressively in-sync sound effects, most of them for ...

* Clowning by Copeland and Combs.  They’re many rambunctious comedy bits give the show more cohesion.  I was made to reflect that clowns as characters and in conflict are what give circus its most human side, lending a sense of theatre.

* Danny and Tavina Brown, creators of the Pirates of Kellybean production number.

* Norberoo Fusco, for Pirates production choreography.

* Pirates itself, an ingeniously staged production combining circus action, a little dance and pantomime, and  rich in exotic atmosphere.  Here, John Ringling North  II  reveals his most creative hand.  Indeed, these mini production numbers, rather unlike anything I have ever quite seen,  mark his most distinctive contribution to circus performance art.  Not all  achieve lift off, but when they do, they transport us into another more enchanting sphere.

My favorite acts:

* Ryan Holder’s masterfully crafted tiger act, the smooth executions of it all a work of art. Yes, he's an understated showman,  but he reveals a subtle command.  Maybe the way to go given today's hypersensitive audiences.

* Carolyn Rice’s doggie romp in Pirates. Considering everything that goes on, non-stop, the dogs are jump happy and how they surprise me with so many tricks, this is simply heaven. I could watch it over and over.

* Another Pirates asset:  Fridman Torales’s nerve-wracking work building a stack of planks and cylinders atop the rola bolla onto which, each time, somehow he manages to balance himself. 

* Raul Olivares’s knockout juggling.  In scope, zip, and showmanship, his wide-ranging repertoire is a fair sensation  The more I see of his work, the deeper goes my respect.  He nearly brought down the house, clearly its favorite.

Armando Royal's three winningly talented elephants,

 * Clowns Ryan Copeland and Steve Combs.  Encore kudos!  All of their bits, each determined to outwit or out-slap the other, are emphatically executed with gusto, like seeing the Three Stooges live.  Their ring interactions with straight man John Moss are wryly whimsical.  Here they are, cutting it up with Moss in an Angry Clowns app spoof.

* Finale:  Near the end of the Fusco Gauchos dancing, the lights go dark with neon objects twirling about, and I am waiting, for what? Suddenly, the house lights come back on, and the entire cast is out there in the ring. Tremendous surprise staging.

The other acts?  Good enough to keep the show in the winning category.  For example, the camels and little zebra of  Mike Rice offer a simple yet fundamentally pleasing routine, its charming little star, the little zebra, tagging along like a little kid wanting to belong.  Touching.

Joy under that big top.  Had I seen this show and reviewed it, likely I would have given it three stars (out of four)

That was then.

And now is now.  Most of the people who helped make 2016 a year to remember are gone.

Another name is missing, and perhaps this is a reason for the show’s shifting personnel?

James Royal.  In the beginning, he would be, as he joked with me in an e-mail, North's "Concello." In real life, the original John Ringing North and Art Concello split at least once, and at least once, got back together.  Maybe there is at least an at least once, too, for North and Royal?

I have no idea.  I only wonder as I wander

My deepest thanks to John II for sending me the current  DVD and the earlier ones.

First posted December 19, 2016

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Forbes Slices Feld Circus Attendance Claim in Half; Reports that Circus Box Office Accounts for Only 15% of Annual Feld Entertainment Revenue

For the first time that I can recall, a news organization has tried to fact check the feel-good claims of a circus owner talking up attendance on his show.

Kate Vinton, a reporter for Forbes magazine, working on an in-depth look into the impressive fortunes and business genius of billionaire big top owner Kenneth Feld, was not satisfied with his  account of attendance records.  "Feld is tight-lipped about Ringling's numbers, insisting as he has for years that annual attendance has remained at about 10 million.”

Of course, Feld can say whatever he wants, knowing there are no go-to box office tracking organizations (like the Nielsen's in TV) for attendance figures under the nation’s big tops, against which the claims of circus owners can be tested by reporters.

Nonetheless, Vinton dug deeper, and she discovered some telling evidence that tells a different story.

She had read the piece in the New York Observer about the plight of Big Apple Circus, and was left intrigued with how I was quoted in it as guessing that U.S. big top crowd sizes over the last few decades have probably declined by between 30% to 50%.

Kate e-mailed me with a simple question: “I wanted to reach out to you to confirm if you still think this is an accurate estimate.”

I replied, giving her the may reasons for my estimation, as I had the Observer’s reporter, stressing to her as I had to him that we are speculating in the dark, and how frustrating it can be.

Why does the topic interest me?  Because it interests everybody when discussing a particular entertainment, the two main questions usually being, the quality of the show and the size of the crowd.

Her story would go to press including my estimated 30% to 50% drop in attendance at U.S. circuses. 

And to her professional credit, Vinton dug deeper into other, more concrete sources, reporting, relative to the Kenneth Feld claim, “but the little data that does get reported tells a very different story.”

Here is what she found:

 * The trade publication Venues Today reported that Ringling’s Out of this World drew 56,000 people to 12 shows at Staples Center, marking a “35% drop from a comparable weekend in July 2011.”  That figure is not a surprise to me.

* The National Endowment for the Arts reported on gross revenue for U.S. circuses in the U.S. falling almost 9% between 2007 and 2012.  I’m not sure what to make of this figure, for I assume that NEA would not be in touch with most U.S. circuses, which operate in the private sector.

* Circus revenue makes up only 15% of all Feld live events.  

* Finally, writes Vinton, “Forbes estimates that the Ringling Bros’ annual attendance numbers today are closer to 5 million.”

This is responsible journalism of the first order, if only we had more of it.

And interesting to speculate. If Forbes is correct, let’s then give each of the two Feld circus units a total of 2.5 million customers a year.  In 1967, the last year of Ringling family ownership when they operated only one unit, management claimed a total attendance of 4, 164,029 people.  Under the early Irvin Feld years, the number is likely to have risen.   Back in the old six-pole tent days, maybe many more.

How refreshing for the circus to get more realistically reported on by a major news outlet.

Next: What other things we learn from the fine Forbes coverage.

Thanks to Don Covington, for a link to the Forbes story.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

U.S. Circuses in the Age of Virtual Reality: The Struggle to Placate Ambivalent Americans

The late Henry Edgar once posted a comment on this blog to the effect, What if you were to offer the customers what most of us would agree is the best circus possible and yet they still failed to fill up your seats ?  A very good question given shrinking crowd sizes over the last thirty years.  Maybe it's time to review not the show but the audience itself.  To continue Henry's thread, I have a question:

What is the circus owner to offer a jaded public turning fickle on big top staples?  

The Very Real Circus:  Not Virtual Enough?

Perhaps the force of circus being a live show no longer holds the same drawing power, as more people turn to virtual realities, albeit it everything from texting to eDating, video games to porno.  

I have long argued the compelling reality of circus.  More and more, I am starting to doubt the argument’s relevance in this new and rather frightening era of electronic interaction where, one day — people as smart as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak have ventured — “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.”  Wozniak can see ourselves becoming the pets of our robots.   

Item: A group of friends sharing restaurant table space, but not each others company, preferring interaction with their smart phones over the people actually sitting next to them.

Item:  Check out the movie Her, in which a man forms a relationship with an advanced operating system named Samantha.  Frightening.  And very believable.

Enter the Ambivalent American Audience

Yes, Mr. Producer, I feel your frustration, even if you don’t.  You no longer enjoy the total attention of a crowd.  You now must complete with smart phones and tablets and other tweety distractions, ad nauseum.

You now must also compete for the respect of a crowd that arrives with issues about the contents of your show.  Oh, those weird looking clowns.  Don’t .. Come ... Near ... Me ... Look at that draggy tiger, think it's been mistreated?   Which reminds me, I've got to get some suppression pills for my pit bull. No, he can't attack anybody in the nose muzzle when we go out walking. ... Oh, no, look -- she's not wearing a safety wire, is she?   Sometimes they don't?  What if, oh God!  [Another day, another show]: Oh, look, she’s strapped to a wire!  Must be a beginner.  I could do that.

Even granting that a live show can still draw big crowds, then what next to question under the big top?  There's plenty according to the critics.  On parade, here come the most politically incorrect offenders.

Circus Staples Under Siege


This key element of circus  may be losing its luster to more spectacular acts of risk-taking on TV reality shows or aerial stunts in the great outdoors captured on film.  Compared to which, the sight of a mere human scaling a wire only thirty or forty feet above the ground may somehow seem, reverse affect here, old school.  Another trend that is emasculating the show are the solo and duo fabric aerialists who throw more focus onto slower balletic moves. I think this sort of action, some of it, to be sure, quite exciting, has nonetheless eroded the public’s taste for the more perilous tricks we associate with the single trapeze.   Would Pinito Del Oro, above, have settled for a silken web? For a static trapeze?

The protected aerialist: The presence of lifelines (mechanics) has done more than anything else to produce today’s ambivalent audience.  Courage or cowardice, which will it be today, Circus? With some performers flying under protection, others not, the vacillating impression does nothing to sustain a committed identity.  And the primal power of circus suffers.   


This old-time jester might today consider either less greasepaint or horror flicks

The heavily painted funny faces are not so welcome anymore.  Reports and images of creepy characters in grotesque clown makeup terrorizing citizens on city streets and in public places have produced a growing number of adults who fear taking their kids to a circus for this among the other reasons.  In Europe, there seems to be a trend towards less makeup, down to a red nose maybe and a few whimsical marks, sufficient to paint a face in mirth, but not one of implicit mayhem.  This is a viable route for today’s jesters.  After all, a clown is a character far more than a painted face.


The elephants may be on the way out. So, too, the big cage cats.  But there are still plenty of dogs, horses, camels and other critters — well, if  Jenny Vidbel can find and train them. I think that John Ringling North II made about as shrewd and sensitive a move as a circus man can make these days by featuring just one small elephant, Louise, on his Kelly Miller show last season.  The dancing of Louise, nothing like I have ever seen, was pure magic.

Encore for Elephants?  If the public’s skittishness over performing pachyderms is ever to be reversed, it may take one elephant at a time.  And it may take a far simpler approach like the one advocated by UK author and critic Douglas McPherson in his book, Circus Mania

“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.” 

Indeed, a day may come when an audience new to such a spectacle as elephants on parade will thrill to that alone.  Certainly the children will.

Bring back the one-act show:  Circuses may help their cause by removing the intermission and running a shorter show straight through, as once they did.  Promise patrons less time away from their gadgets.  On their way out, happier, they may still be more inclined, maybe more so, to patronize the rides and concessions — the vain lure of selfies.

 Remember When Circus Day was Guilt Free?

Unlike their forebears, today's patrons enter the tent loaded with electronics and with overwrought minds buzzing with issues over whether to patronize a circus is even a good idea in the first place.
That long-gone circus day that enjoyed the total attention of an undistracted crowd not fraught with issues, that long ago world in which we once thrilled to a circus show feeling not a qualm, reveling in the honest and simple joy of it all --- that wondrous world, I am sadly afraid, no longer exits.

The Big Show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 23, 1953

Next: Can Kenneth Feld Rebuild The Greatest Show on Earth?

Photos above: On horseback, the Cristiians
On the high wire:  The Wallendas
On the single trap:   Pinito Del Oro
Clown Buzzy Potts.
Barnum & Bailey on parade, 1908
Under the big top At Gil Gray Circus (from the Circus Blog)
Ringling elephants on Parade, 1978, with Ana May in the lead, the Woodcocks in charge

First posted January 18, 2016

Monday, November 21, 2016

Big Apple Circus in Bankruptcy ... Cole Bros. Circus in Plans for 2017 Return ... Carson & Barnes Indoors for Winter Dates ...

 Let’s start with Happy, and work our way down to Sad.

Armando Ferrusco, left, his son Armando Ferrusco Jr. , and John Pugh.  Beacon photo by Anthony DeFeo.
Good news on the Cole Bros. Circus front: A peep and a picture from Johnny Pugh in a story out of Deland, in the West Volusia Beacon, that some Flea Market operators in the area may use his winter quarters space, since they need to vacate the lot they currently occupy and flea elsewhere.

Buried in the story is news alluding to a possible return to the road in 2017 of Johnny’s endearing school of circus (Cole Bros Circus of Stars).  Said John to a reporter:  “Election year for a circus is always considered a bad year. I’m glad I took the year off,” he said. “I’m in the middle of right now planning for next year. I have some people that want to come here and join me.”

And how does that make you feel?  I’m floating.   Something to warm our winter months and keep our dreams alive for a season yet to come.

Seems he never sold the land, and, as I recall, the Pugh trucks were all returned to Deland following the near-instant disaster of the King-Cole Circus, another short-lived no-show taken out by the wrong Garden.

Okay, let’s take some comfort, next, in the goings on at Hugo, as in Oklahoma.   I wasn’t to happy to hear from a trusted insider, a while back, about Barbara Byrd e-mailing him, “business is not good at all.”  So, that much more cheered to see that the Byrds are taking out an indoor unit of Carson & Barnes for a few winter dates around the area. 

And what about Kelly-Miller, you may be asking?  I only know that the same trusted insider passed along news that the show, apparently far from buckling under to the no-elephants trend, will have a few Big Ones from Carden being worked by Joe Frisco in 2017. That suggests to me that John Ringling North’s trick is sill on the road.  Pardon my paranoia, but I am still recovering from the dreadful season just past.   So, set 'em up Joe.  I have a little story you  need to know ...

Okay, the bad and depressing, though not exactly unexpected news.  In today’s Wall Street Journal, the headline rushed to me this morning by Anonymous, Big Apple Circus has filed for bankruptcy protection.  I read it myself, only the lead off sentence is accessible on line,  to verify. Thank you, Anonymous A+   And I was hoping for a truncated, more sane and far less costly tour of Paul Binder's show come next season, say starting in the spring at Prospect Park (are you reading me, Paul?) with a very good show, say a smaller band.

This latest does not auger well for an imminent return.  The question, as I see it, is a psychological one: Can Paul Binder, whom I am convinced must be a central part of any revival, settle back into simpler?  Or will he feel more defeat than delight in taking a more well traveled course? 

Know what I think?  Heck, what do I think?  The life of a dreamer is fraught with numerous let downs, but the dreaming may be worth it, right?  Johnny, please, don't let us down!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Academics Want What the Circus Will Never Give Them

 What Will Have Been (that never was?), from Australia's Circa Ensemble
In the current issue of Bandwagon (very heavy, very very late, and very deep in detail), there's a talking thesis by a retired college professor, Robert Sugarman, arguing, I think, for a "rationale" approach to circus history. Or I might have missed the point.

In his earnest consideration of modern day examples of how the circus has evolved in size and content, Mr. Sugarman seems to have fallen prey to some easy assumptions about circus entertainment (let's put the word "art" aside for the moment) and in his descent, he has missed huge chunks of the contemporary panorama, including CHINA. In particular, the tricky relationship between the act (yes, "act" does sound like a crude word) and production (or should I say contextual stimuli?)

But, to get to my provisional impatience, here is where the professor goes off the track: In his view of Cirque du Soleil, he is prone, as some are, to see the triumph of spectacle over artistry. Not a new epiphany. Thinking types in previous generations complained along similar lines about Barnum & Bailey, about John Ringling North's "night club" productions.

Finding Cirque du Soleil showmanship analogous to a Busby Berkley musical of the 1930s, Mr. Sugarman argues, not to resolutely (he is, after all, an academic being more politely collegial than persuasive), that Cirque "exalts not the excellence of its performers so much as the awesomeness of is productions." Furthermore, "it is the effect, not individual performers, that is the point of it all."

 Cerebral Cessation between acts:  Seven Fingers - Sequence 8

And there is where he and his thesis derail. How tempting it is to underestimate not only the depth of the artistry inherent in many of Cirque's best touring shows (the very accomplished Russians compete to get in them), but in the splendor of the staging techniques that actually exalt world class performers.

Academics, because they need to be digging deep for meaning that is often not there, will in vain default to strained intellectual constructions. They must redeem the circus of the circus, must make of it more than it is to the common eye. Must discover and amplify deep meaningful reflections of societal dynamics and great historical shifts. Pardon me for sounding obtuse. The circus is not theatre. Is not cinema. Is not ballet. The circus is circus.

 The Zingaro Show:  That Way to Oblivion? 

Reading through Mr. Sugarman's paper, which he presented at the American Cultural Association in San Antonio last April, I ended up in a semi-daze, a little like the way I can feel trying to understand a Cirque du Soleil program magazine article describing the deeper philosophical underpinnings of the show I just sat through. The thunder of a great acrobatic troupe, the mesmerizing dexterity of a great juggler -- these moments generate a power that is universally understood and felt, without textbook, without an overwrought mind.

I am hoping to track down a copy at a local library of the book by Janet Davis, another professor, -- Circus Age: Culture and Society; Ms. Davis seems to be the most respected authority of the moment; I hope she does a better job lecturing under the big top than does Mr. Sugarman.

If not, I'll take an F and leave early.

First posted February 7, 2012

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

How Soon They Are Missed: New Stage Show, Circus 1903, to Revive Virtual Elephants. Will Virtual PETA Protest?

If you're feeling blue about recent events, tents falling,  waffling crowds walking, watch this, a brilliant tease of a new stage show, Circus 1903, with film clips of our American circus the turn of the last century.


Circus 1903, now touring the world, will hit the States in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater on Feb. 14

Thanks to Don Covington for the link.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Baraboo Shelters Fallen Big Tops ... Wild Animals Face New York Eviction ... Bloody Buffoons a Curse on Jolly Jesters ... It’s Not Been a Pretty Circus Season, Kids ... Cry, Clown, Cry! ...

Scott O'Donnell and Dave SaLoutos review documents received from Cole Bros. Circus

“Looks like the fat lady really sang for Cole Bros.  So sad!” e-mailed Barry Lipton.  Yes, Barry, so very very sad.   With the season over, now the question is, who will go out next year?   How close, I shudder to think, are the likes of Carson & Barnes and Kelly-Miller to the brink?

At least there is Baraboo, where old circuses go to die gracefully, their once vibrant wonders still wonderful to true blue fans of Hemingway’s Ageless Delight.  Remember when going to the circus was a GUILT-FREE amusement?  Go watch Ring of Fear or The Greatest Show on Earth.  Behold the audience un-ambivalent,  and savor their innocent engagement -- embracing believers, all, in Circus Day.

Into the protective barns of Circus Wold Museum went collections from Cole Bros. Circus and the Royal Hanneford shows, both now officially off the road.  The Cole treasure includes attendance records, marketing notes, press kits, 130 video tapes and blueprints, and “a lot more,” reported the Baraboo News Republic.

At the receiving end, museum director Scott O’Donnell delighted to be adding a significant trove of recent circus history to his holdings.  “It was a challenging year for some circuses,” he told the News, “but thankfully they didn’t toss everything in the dumpster.”  Scott has a gift of some 28 filing cabinets and nearly 40 boxes to open.  The catch spans a good 25 years, some of it extending back to 1978.

But the donation gives Cole’s long slow closing a  painful finality.  I can only hope that Johnny Pugh will talk to somebody about what he has had gone through the last difficult seasons.  Lane Talburt, where are you?  Please, get your camera down to DeLand!  Surely Johnny will talk to you? 

Ringling elephants en route to Madison Square Garden in the 1950s.

First, it was the elephants. Now, if the New York council has its way, other wild animals will be banned from circus rings as well.   New York Post none to tickled with a city council wanting “to run the circus. Strangely appropriate, isn’t it?” 

Egging the NY Council on to codify the proposed ban is a group, NYCLASS, that fought for a ban on horse carriages in Central Park!   Why do I have a feeling that I am back in Berkeley.

Back to the Post:  “Here’s hoping the more adult lawmakers find the spin to ignore the animals rights activists.  If the council insists on messing with the circus, it’s proving itself a pack of clowns.”

Ah yes, a pack of clowns, remember them?   Now tagged with the “C” word — CREEPY – many are being shunned from parades, losing out on clown bookings at kid parties, even accosted verbally by screaming hysterics.  “It's not funny being a clown these days,” said Gerald Herdegen (Cho Cho) to the Wall Street Journal.  Some risk arrest in the act of performing.  The mere sight of a funny-now-creepy face can cause a crowd to panic.  The very word “clown” on a poster can cause screaming reaction.

"I am a comedy character," says English Clown Alex Morley, in his sixth year with Russells International Circus.  He may be wearing less makeup, as, indeed, other jesters are doing in these dispiriting times.  He is hoping to reverse the public's negative attitude toward clowning in general.  "Killer clowns are making people afraid."

So, we have fewer animal acts.  And clowning is in peril.  What next?  Vulgar Human Daredevils?  Humans even?

An adult in the tent worth quoting:   Drama critic and perceptive circus fan and follower, Chris Jones, of the Chicago Tribune, whom I believe speaks for many of us: Often I've sat wondering if that tiger or that elephant is happy, musing to myself how you possibly judge animal happiness, especially given the Darwinian alternative of the wild. And what of those circus animals of a type that have centuries-old working relationships with humans? Would they really be happier put out to pasture? Who could say? They look like they're having fun. And since I'm recounting those justifications, there is the further question of when some kids would ever otherwise see a big cat. Is it not conceivable a conservationist could be nurtured right there at the Greatest Show on Earth?”

END RINGERS: Target to stop selling clown masks ... Are you afraid of the dark? That means you are more creative, so says a survey ... Allen awful, Woody's latest stillborn, Cafe Society, is so anemically bad, if you do rent, skip trying to watch, but play the hapless flick as music, and enjoy many great old Rodgers and Hart tunes in the background ... California banning bull hooks, the kill bill signed by Gov. Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown ... Garden Bros. Circus now retiring its elephants ...  The retreat goes on .. and on ... and on ...   What will next season hold? ...

Thanks to cyber courier Don Covington, for linking me to some of this information.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


This just flashed my way from Douglas McPherson:

"As the evil clown craze sweeps the UK, Zippos has turned it into a publicity opportunity by removing clowns from the show. Not strictly true, as revealed on my blog, but still a reflection of how the pranksters have unsettled the pros."

Or scroll down to the Circus Mania link on the right sidebar 

As reported also in The Sun: "Martin ‘Zippo’ Burton, who used to be a clown himself, is worried the ‘killer clown’ trend will affect his shows."

Friday, October 07, 2016

Creepy Clowns Grip the Nation! ... Letizel and Codona Movie in Works at Warner ... Cirque’s Paramour Gets Scripting Overhaul, Biz Remains Stagnant ... Vinyl is Back ... Farewell, Jack Ryan and Pat Cashin ... and More on the Inside!

Do Creepy Clown lives matter?  That’s what I heard this morning on a radio talk show having fun with the issue.

This latest media storm is becoming fodder for late night  TV comedians.   It’s also no laughing matter for our struggling big tops, unless some really smart circus can spoof its own jesters into a new kind of merry mayhem.  Ringling, you’ve tried outer space. What say, a trip to the asylum for retired clowns on parole?   Bring on the Scariest Show on Earth!

Creepy clown sightings are spreading like a visiting virus    Another gift of social media, the demented darlings are rattling news wires, stalking schoolyards, scaring kids half to death.  But what a nice diversion from that political circus going on all around us.  Maybe Lady Hillary or Lord Donald will show up at the next debate in gory greasepaint, or is that what they are already wearing?  (shhh! Think Hillary's laugh, kids ...)

Pity the well-intended circus clown: If this creepy movement isn’t reason enough for all circuses to ban traditional jester makeup in favor of the harmless red nose, (okay, to be extra safe, a pink one)  I don’t know what is.  More and more adults are outing their own fear of funny faces.   No longer something to hide from.  Simon Cowell on America’s Got Talent, for one.   Just another nail in the coffin of our sadly beleaguered big tops.

P.T. Barnum once said that "clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung."  Well, these days, they may be hanging it — literally

Onto great promising news  Have we, at last, a high-drama quality film for adults about a genuinely tragic American circus story?  New flick about aerial thrillers Lillian Leitzel and Alfred Codona in the works at Warner Bros, and how I hope the Weinsteins have their hands in this one.  Heavy weights already signed on include producer Andrew Lazaar, who handled Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, and Aussie actress Margot Robbie, right (The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad), to play Leitzel.  I’m thinking this could be The One I’ve been waiting for through too many mediocre big top flicks  Think of the background alone --- Ringling in the ‘20s!.  The rivalry between Leitzel and her scheming nemesis, conniving Vera Bruce ... Of the tragic ends that would befall both icons.  

To be based upon Dean N. Jensen’s 2013 book Queen of the Air, and I can’t wait.  Yes, I might have said that before another film, Water for Elephants, came out, but I’d not yet read the wretchedly brutal book from which the latter was faithfully adapted. 

Can Queen of the Air achieve what all other circus flicks have failed to do: Mine cinematic gold from genuine big top history? Film Makers and documentarians  have long shunned compelling subject matter staring them in the face: I’m thinking the towering figure of reckless circus king John Ringling, who lived a colorful and ultimately tragic life, and I’ve thought of Leitzel and Codona, and of course of the catastrophic Hartford fire, not to mention its genesis in a fractious war among Ringling heirs for control of the circus.

What do we usually get from Hollywood?  Of late, Water. I mean, tell me, please, was there ever a circus as thoroughly sadistic as that one?   As improbably untrue to any semblance of tent show history, then, before or now?

Another Cirque du Fizzle?  The company’s ill-reviewed New York stage show, Paramour, closed down quietly for a few days in late Auguest to reivse script in reponse to public feedback, some fans wanting “more acrobatics earlier in the show during the exposition,” others hungering for more meat on the bones of an empty-headed plot.  Post revamping, the altered Paramour is enduring ticket sales still ranging from pretty good to ominously stagnant, hovering too often in the 65% range.  I still think they have a chance.

Will the eggheads on the lot ever learn?  When I came across a New York Times review of two new stage shows, headlined “Identify Crisis: Theatre Productions That Refuse to be Theater,” I thought of how well it applies to circuses refusing to be circuses.

END RINGERS: Sadly, the passing of  Pat Cashin, clown and blogger, and only 48-years-old.  When I started up this blog, he was an early supporter.  That support faded away over the years, down to zero. I never exactly knew why, but likely something I said ... Also departing us, on August 25, another early supporter of my blog and the person who coined "May all your days be circus days," Ringling PR man Jack Ryan, at 77 ... Yet another circus school is rising, this one over Philly, site of the first circus to play America .... Warning to freak show imitators:  If you try dining on blades, be sure to order them Dull.  An Indian man suffering acute stomach pains, discovered by doctors to be harboring 40 various blades and knives in his guts.  About the unnamed patient, you’re thinking. extreme side show trickster?  No, think 42-year-old policeman – and maybe, on the side, a petty thief with a built in fencing flow  ... Retro trendy vinyl record lovers not going away.  It’s no passing fade.  Some new CDs coming out on old wax, too.  Down the street, just opened a vinyl-only shop.  Exciting!  Many of my old LPs from the fifties are still cracking-free good, I’ll have you know ... Sinatra never sounded better ... Oh, you gotta love the kids who don’t dismiss everything that came before them ...

Chase a creepy clown into a panic.  Pray for a great circus flick from the great Warner Bros.  And buy a vinyl record on me! 

Thursday, October 06, 2016

How Well is Cirque du Soleil's Paramour Doing Compared to Other Shows on Broadway?

Currently on Broadway, 29 shows are up and running.  The Broadway producers data base issues weekly business records.  One of the key factors reported on is gross percentage potential. 

Last week, Paramour ranked at 44.1%.

This would place the Cirque du Soliel production at number 26 out of the 29 shows.

Only three others ranked lower thank Paramour.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Big Apple Circus in Meltdown? The Paul Binder Equation May Not be Sustainable – Without Paul Binder

Given the urgency of the moment, I am bringing the one back.

Part 2 in a Series
Bottom Line, from the top:  Paul Binder lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the entire company and its many supporters could cohere.

 The proposed circus school, in the beginning.
The most oft-visited reality of circus -- forever on the brink of disaster -- is once again threatening to put another show off the road.  Now, it is the theoretically formidable Big Apple Circus of New York --  not for the first time, but once more comes news of severe cutbacks and shake ups at Big Apple.   These are dire reports.   And so, direly I speculate:

Circuses by and large rest and move on the strong shoulders of one person -- the owner (or a figure virtually occupying that position) at the top.  They by and large do not work well as non-profit performing arts entities, which have a way of self-expanding into payroll-crushing monsters, not to speak of constant internal battles over who gets to run the show. Circus Vargas may call itself non-profit, but it hardly fits the profile.  Is it thriving?  I can’t say it is.  Please understand, one of the factors I look at is audience size.   I’ve seen mostly good crowds at Big Apple, mostly meager turnouts at Vargas, including, most recently in my own backyard, in Hayward.


At the foundation of Big Apple circus, founder Paul Binder, wanting it to be non-profit from the outset, built up a complex arts organization, to which his multiple talents seem to have been effectively applied.   Back slapping to fund raising -- big bucks in better times from corporate NY; discriminating trips abroad to scout some of the best acts in the world; a warm personal connection with the audience in his ringmaster red -- I fondly recall, during a performance in Brooklyn back in the 1980s, Binder taking some time, not overdone, to insert bits of historical information about some of the acts. A touch pastoral. 

 The Dusov Troupe: Big Apple books world  class acts.

There are many things of which I am uncertain, but here goes my best long-held impressions -- key components of the Paul Binder Equation -- primarily in the positive.

* An infections pied piper:  Great at fund raising, from the man on the street to the CEO in a glass tower. I can picture him talking the City of New York into giving him space at Lincoln Center, if not free, at dirt cheap prices.  Through the worst of times, he found ways to muddle through.

* The bogus (as I see it) repertory type troupe he commandeered — don’t think it ever produced first rate acts, but it added to the elitist imagery surely designed to impress arts-conscious New Yorkers.  This they could believe was their own circus.

* The Clown Care Unit, a noble venture, has helped sell BAC to corporate sponsors.  To this I see they have just added an Autism wing.   Charity has been used in many ways by circuses as a survival tool — pardon my pragmatism — but it can’t, I don’t think, save a show from irresponsible budgeting and top heavy management, or temporizing showmanship.

* Binder’s adoration of Bary Lubin’s Grandma, seen above in Dance On!, was,  I will concede, arguably well placed.  From on the ground experience, talking to a few Gotham locals around the Queens lot, while I do not believe that Grandma could solve all the problems,  I’ll be the first to admit, there are lot of New Yorkers out there who took this classic clown to heart, and were none to happy when he was let go.  Comedy is the trickiest thing to bring off, they say, even more so perhaps in a sawdust ring.  There are some great clowns and comics out there; BAC should do a better job at finding them.  In other words, Give the French their walking papers. 

* Binder paid great attention to the concerns and feelings of each and every member of the board, I can only infer, from his having, during our one interview, spoken highly of somebody who had just joined the Board, wanting to be sure I wrote down that person’s name.  A master diplomat in my distant view.

* Animals.  Genuinely sensitive to changing public sensibilities, Binder steered a wise course, safely in sway with domestic animals.  In recent years, Jenny Vidbel, above, has delivered delightful originality to the ring bordering on pure genius.  Photo by Bertrand Guay.

* Bureaucratic bloat:  On the downside, Binder's biggest shortcoming and  miscalculation, as I see it, was to foster too complex and far too costly an operating bureaucracy at the top.  Only he seems to have been able to sustain it through thick and thin.  The Great Recession took a terrible toll on the lush corporate funding that had given Paul & Company a free ride.  Much of that funding has dried up, and has evidently yet to return.   Barring a big box office turnaround --- in other words, evidence of showmanship that fills the tent day after day, I can't see it ever returning.

* Altogether, these attributes composed the Paul Binder equation.  There were, of course,  other more minor counterproductive policies and traits. He could not make his founding base, the circus school, work.   And he has been said by more than one source to have treated the lower working class ranks  with a cavalier disregard bordering on disdain.
**** Summing up, given the man's multi-faceted gifts, I have to believe they lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the company could cohere.  Since his retirement, an increasingly ominous succession of short-lived CEO’s has left a clear impression of disarray and chaos at the top.  Can you imagine Apple or Goggle or Facebook — or even Ringling — being run in so slapdash a fashion?  I can’t.

And that’s the way it seems to be from my perch here in Oakland.

First posed September 27, 2015

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Creative Shanghai Acrobats Sizzle and Soar in Plodding Circus Ballet

Circus Review
Shanghai Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China
Shanghai Nights at Berkeley, CA
September 10, 2016

The richly talented Shanghai Nights, from one of the country’s leading troops, offers yet another one of those tortured patch works combining  ballet, theatre, opera, and circus.  But the circus parts are well worth the patience it may take for you to sit through the story-alluding segments. If I got it right, two fated lovers get torn apart, until they are reunited, and a clown is murdered.

How Novel: A Chinese Clown

The clown is played by the gifted Nia Jian, a charming asset to the troupe and to the story telling, such as it is, or may have been; I don't pay much attention to those things, and I don't think anybody else does, either.  Jian has comedic flair and charisma, agility and deft dancing skills.   A star jester, I'd guess, and in so unexpected a setting!

Show starts sluggish and slow, opening sequence needing to set up the story.  But once the best acts hit the stage, you will be amply rewarded.  The inventive genius of this troupe is stunning to behold. They employ clever new props, twists and turns to most of the familiar staples, ball juggling and bouncing, hat exchanges while dancing, diablo and teeterboard and the hoops, among the standout displays.

For example, when Nie Jian takes time out from his clowning for some serious work on the rolla bolla, he places cups on the tip of his balanced board, and flips them up onto his head. First one cup, then two, all the way up to five.  Five.  Get this: They are all flipped together, though separately, into the air and manage to land, each in succession, one after the other into the preceding cup! Jaw dropping.  

Collectively Dazzling

Much of the circus in this show is like that.  At delicious intervals, ensembles blossom into mesmerizing charivari action, banners flaring, people jumping off springboards in one direction, flying up in another, yet others dancing or juggling in a front line, the hyperactive juxtapositions a work of great joy.  So many tricksters doing so many wonderful things at the same time!  The hand of Buzby Berkeley comes to mind.  Yes, sit there through the big top broccoli servings and take it -- if you want to get to the good stuff -- the cotton candy thrills.  Oh, the sacrificial drudgery (pretending to be following a plot) of circus-going these days.

Imprisoned in Darkness

But don’t count on the first half stream of pure circus to be as abundant after intermission.  In fact,  the second half grows darker and more dramatic with the invasion of “evil forces.” The ballet crowd may go for some luminous stage pictures.  And those who favor Bach on solo violin may feel placated.  Yes, Cirque du Soleil’s fetish for opera comes annoyingly to mind.  Some of the recorded scoring, to be fair, is strong and relevant.

The Shanghai Acrobats have performed  with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and, lately, in concert halls to the music of the masters.  I think I would much prefer the symphony showcase to this.  But then again, I suppose they have their eye on patrons of the higher arts who want their circus free of all the things with which they have their "issues."  The perfect show for this crowd, which filled the Zellerbach.       

Were Shanghai Nights true, with every frame, to its acrobatic brilliance and compelling creative genius. I’d gladly give it at least 3-1/2 stars

But, it has all the other stuff that can feel stifling, however well intended or execuited.  Sorry, something about the weakest links in a chain, you know.  So, I'm giving it a decent 2-1/2 stars.

After the show talk: Shanghai Acrobats appeared at the ERA Intersection of Time, In Shanghai, in 2010-2012.  When I was there in 2010, I saw another very creative show, but with no where near the same problematic story line as this one.   I discuss it in my book, Inside the Changing Circus ... I'd love to have a photo of Nie Jian, but can't find any in my searches. Were I to contact the management, I am almost sure they would not favor me. I think they have a thing against giving any individual artist a shred of individual attention ... Was every act a gem? No, there were a few so-so routines.  The lady plate spinners, this time on stilts, did nothing but keep the plates spinning while walking around and around during one of the most boring narrative sequences.   I saw few flubs at the show I caught, doubly remarkable among the populous ensembles when so many things were in motion.  Much of the group work manipulating  similar objects was outstanding. As you know, it is not always that way.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Pig Goes to the Circus, and the Circus Comes Home

  Elmo Gibb and his Teeny Weeny Circus -- no pigs yet, but there's a mind-reading pony.

Full disclosure:  Nothing at a circus delights me so much as a very unusual animal entering  the ring, even if it only does, well, almost anything   All it need do is something unexpected, and I’m a happy fan.  Yes, a bag of popcorn please!

Perhaps the sheer elation, the humor and joy of it all reconnects me to how the circus can delight children.  How it, I suppose, delighted me in my boyhood.

It’s a reason why I love the more bohemian animal acts of Jenny Vidbel, who’s been a regular of late on the Big Apple Circus.   A while back, she had, did she not, a rodent and a performing skunk?  Critters off the beaten big top path.  And she had them snapping to and fro on cue.  Now, that’s entertainment!

When my friend Boyi Yuan, who went to Ringling’s Out of This World with his girlfriend, told me about the experience, I asked him what he thought of the show.  He twisted his face in frustrated  ambivalence.   “I wish there wasn’t so much stuff going on,” he said, stating his preference for watching the acts in a less overdone format.   He thinks the show might please the children more than the adults

And then his face brightened fully. “I loved the animals!” 

I told him how much I agreed, how they had, for me, made the show, too. 

“The pig!” he said.

Around a pig Boyi and I could rally a shared joy.  We talked about how it reached the top of the slide and stood there for a moment, looking down in hesitation, and then on all fours, and ever so cautiously, made the slide all the way down.

Boyi, raised on a farm in China around barnyard critters,  wondered, in a kind of awe,  how it could have been taught to perform as a it did.

So did I. 

Up there at the top is a photo found and linked my way by Don Covington, of the Teeny Winny Circus, whose mover and shaker, clown Elmo Gibb, presents it at fairs.  It reminded me of the old John Strong circus when it played county fairs under a tiny little top, when John greeted the audience as an ambassador of great and looming gratitude. “Oh, look who I see in the crowd!  Well, how are you!  Hey, there’s Art!” 

When he coached a gaggle of home grown mutts through their boisterous basics.

When he touted big moments in his humble ring.  “Got a good hand, Muster the Clown!”

When he even once had a little elephant, Nina, in his mighty little lineup.

Boyi and I fell into accord over how the animals at Ringling made the show.

In my opinion, they rescued  a shaky space voyage. When all else fails, bring in the dogs.  Even better, give us a pig fit for the greatest show on earth!

originally posed September 14, 2016

Monday, September 05, 2016

San Francisco and the Circus on Labor Day

For over half a century Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey came to the city by the bay every year without fail, and on almost every Labor Day weekend.

They played the Cow Palace, where they had turned crowds away by the thousands in 1948, above,  the year the building was built.  I saw the circus there in 1955, during a labor strike when more than half the seats were empty

 The Ringling side show, in front of the Cow Palace, 1955

The show returned in 1957, and would play the Cow Palace every year without fail, up until a few seasons ago, when the modern scene with its many issues coming into conflict with circus made it near impossible to pull decent crowds without animal rights protestors spoiling circus day.

In San Francisco, the city of my birth, I saw my first circus, Polack Bros, at the Civic Auditorium.  Three images would stay with me: the flying trapeze net, elephants  entering the arena, and a clown gag that made me laugh: They lit off a cannon, which only made a squeak, then a small firecracker which produced a huge cannon blast.

The San Francisco I was born into was a real city.  Working class families.  Factories and produce, and all the ships of commerce that came in and docked, were off loaded and on loaded,  and sailed back across the sea.   After graduating from high school in another town - Santa Rosa, I went down to live in San Francisco, still enamored of the city.  I worked as a bus boy in Foster’s restaurants and as a clerk typist at Planters Peanuts in the warehouse.  The SF stint lasted less than a year.  I would never live there again.

Because a thriving middle class once lived there, it had a great amusement park that entertained the masses.

Today, Playland-at-the-Beach is long gone, which may tell you something.  Most American cities have retained their amusement parks.  But San Francisco has dehumanized itself into a cold and heartless, elitist and greedy metropolis for the one percent crowd.  Here, the rich make an art of it. And here over precarious landfill by the bay, buildings continue to rise.  Nauseating.  Now the developers are reaping engineering nightmares:  One of the new towers is leaning, believe it or not, and owners of million dollar condos are beside themselves, filing lawsuits, fearing the unthinkable.  I feel little sympathy for these high rise hedonists.  

All over town, renters, some up in years, are being callously evicted or run off by steep rental hikes, the owners lusting after the new crowd willing to pay anything to live here, or the tourist trade. 

I have little feeling for this city.  They can’t destroy its natural beauty, but they can and are destroying its character and spirit.

What remains is a freak show of in-your-face liberation fanatics.  A smug “sanctuary city,” driven by white guilt.  A navel-gazing playground for digital airheads.

San Francisco has a circus school, Static Trapeze among its studies, and some in places of higher leaning point to it as one of America’s best.   The roster of teachers is so long, I wonder if there are more instructors than students.  I have yet to come across an artist or act at a real circus that came out of the school.  No surprise, for that is the state of the States.  This country simply does not produce world class acts.  Too long a story to substantiate here.

I thought that Ringling might play the Cow Palace to show off their new circus without elephants.  But they did not.  That's right, the show still flaunts wild animals in the big cage. For this reason alone, not exactly a surprise that Out of This World was panned by the S.F. Chronicle.

I suppose the Felds have had their fill of this place.  I can’t blame them.

My mother once saw Sells-Floto Circus in San Francisco. And once upon a season, every labor day, I went to see Ringling Bros. at the great and glorious old cement barn, the Cow Palace.

Other than that, Happy Labor Day everyone!


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Heavy Scripting at the Circus: Ringling's Tediously Overwrought Out of This World Loses Heart in Space ... Animal Stars Save the Trip

Preface update, 5/16,17: First posted last August, this will have been my last Ringling review. How sad and sorry I am that it will be the last Ringling circus seen by the public. Whatever its merits in experimentation, it is arguably the most un-Ringling performance of them all.  How I had wished the public could have seen the more traditional Circus Xtreme. What will I remember the most about Out of This World?  Not the cold ice.  Not the plodding space ventures.  I will happily recall  the absolute delight that a pig sliding down a slide gave the audience. Then we were as one. Joyfully amused. Fully connected to “the ageless delight.” But there are other high points to, well worth remembering ... Au Revoir, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey,  the Big Show, the Big One, Big Bertha, the once great Greatest Show on Earth!

Circus Review:
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Out of This World
Oakland, August 20

Having just seen the new edition of Ringling Bros. Circus, Out of This World, I am filled with a disorienting mixture of exasperation and exhilaration, and, mostly a sadness for something so ambitious that left me so wanting.  Or feeling so cold.  Even the mere sight of ice makes me feel that way.

You can’t blame the Felds for trying.  They are up against an increasingly jaded ticket buyer.

What they give us here is a tediously complicated sight and special effects show adding up, in its weaker frames, to much ado about nothing. If you want flash and lots of ensemble action on skates, you’ve got plenty of that.  If you want substance and clarity, don’t expect much here.  Perhaps this one was tailor made for the Disney on Ice moppets. 

Out of This World strains to tell a story, much of it ill staged off to one side, that may have more potential in cinema.  Since I did not buy the program, and could not understand all the announcements about it over a variable sound system, I will defer to a description of it on the website: “A heroic quest of good versus evil.” And how does that grab you?  Opening segments  run very slow.

How absolutely ironic, given the Felds stated need to compensate for the absence of elephants by breaking ground in new directions, that their first outing, post pachyderms, should realize its greatest appeal over the audience in old directions -- through its animal stars.  Through two acts, in particular:  The magnificent  tiger and lion display of Alexander Lacey, and the Cossack-style horse riders.  Yet another winning animal turn, no plot necessary,  has Lacey working a mixed group in the one fixed ring, including goats and a jumping kangaroo, while dogs and pigs nearby delight the crowd.  Ringling's website does not mention any of the acts by name.

Entering the arena, you are immediately placed in a very definite atmosphere that conveys the imagery of space travel.  Opening music, pre-recorded, is very strong.  When the band takes over and the animal acts hold court, the disconnect between the older fashioned circus and the rest of this overwrought hodgepodge is remarkable to behold: Circus, straight up, is far and away the more compelling force at work here.

I counted three standout routines: Lacey's cage display, the Cossack horse riders, and  probably the best flying return act I've seen in years. The Tunziani Troupe. Multiple riggings with flyers working side by side, offering a wealth of twisting and turning, deliver the real thing.  A thrilling climax has two triples executed simultaneously, the flyers moving perfectly in sync, AND in opposite directions, and both landing.  Who could ever ask for anything more?

It is revealing to feel so calmly anchored by the Lacy cage act, the flyers, and the horse riders.  This  same feeling of steady and compelling focus, however,  is hard to come by when heavy-handed ringmaster Iverson and others are hard at work trying to push a frivolous and plodding tale.

During the Cossack campaign, which lifts the show to a rousing end-point, I thought of  the English equestrian Philip Astley, who invented the circus over two centuries ago.    Here, his vision came brilliantly through: Power, speed, courage, agility, grace and gusto, and all in a ring.  CIRCUS, my friend.

For me, this was the true story line.  Compared to trying to make a circus into a lame play, the broad  strokes of the best performances were  far and away what moved the crowd.  I was there to hear it and to share it.  And when audiences leave this show,  the memory of those acts will give them greater pause to question the validity of everything else in the coldly alien Out of This World.

Despite the high points, frankly, it was something of a pain to sit through to the end, but I did.

Ringling, come back to earth!

Overall rating:  (out of four stars max)  2 stars 

Originally posted 8.20.2016