Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Impresario Enters ...

Read in to read opening night notes from John Ringling North to his creative staff in 1951

Only he can silence a room. Only he can still the ego of others. The abrasive choreographer ... the overbearing set designer ... the prickly composer — they all suddenly turn silent when HE enters ... They all bow to him, for he is the ultimate arbitrator of what they will do. He is the studio mogul, the stage impresario, the big top king. The audience of audiences.

In the riveting brilliance of the British film masterpiece The Red Shoes, He is Boris Lermontov, played by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook. They all talk of him, wait for him to appear, take their cues from his wishes. Walbrook (who, in real life, broke from a circus family to pursue acting) teaches us perhaps everything there is to know about the importance of that one looming figure whose demanding vision lights the path that all of the rest must follow. Many years ago, perhaps that figure was Nate Salsbury, who produced Black America , a spectacular touring exhibition celebrating “Negro life and character,” now profiled in the current issue of Bandwagon. Maybe he was once was a young Al Ringling who lured his brothers into a legendary showbiz dynasty unrivaled in its time.

Today, he surely is Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil’s founding force whose creative drive powers an operation of almost unprecedented contemporary splendor and world-wide success ...
Who else in modern times had it? I will surprise you, perhaps, by suggesting — even though he did not exactly dress for the part — that maybe Cliff Vargas had it, however crudely, however fleetingly. Maybe that is the reason why he remains so profoundly respected by, it seems, everyone under the big top

When I was not even 9-years old, I went with some kids to see The Red Shoes at the Roxie movie house in Santa Rosa, and I would remember only a cinematic image of a make-believe world anchored to selfless discipline. Those days, my mother mopped up and dusted the dance studio of one Dinah Selby, so that my sister, Kathy, could take tap lessons. There, I sometimes felt a certain magic in the air... Girls danced on pointe and, in their dedication to a difficult art, I sensed there was something more to life than baseball and Lionel train sets.

Watching The Red Shoes in recent times (the other night on TCM), I marvel at its depiction of the same world, only now I find myself even more mesmerized by the figure of the dashing and demanding Anton Walbrook, who seems so hauntingly real to me in his relentless hunger for artistic exaltation. He is not a merchant. Not a cast-couching lout. He is the producer of great performances. He is the true impresario.

In Lermontov, I can see shades of John Ringling North — the impeccably attired, elusive mogul assuming a position above it all. North must have known what an impresario can do for the circus. If his uncles gave the show the respect of a family operation, North gave it the flamboyance of one man’s superior vision. Like most entrepreneurs, he did not direct or design. More often, they inspire. Badger. Hold out. Expect. Push. Insist. Even dream, sometimes madly ...

Now at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, where at long last the long-guarded Ringling-Barnum Archives have been opened to the public, there are a couple of stunning documents written in North’s own handwriting. These two discoveries open wide a window into the emotions of a man who rarely revealed his innermost thoughts on the subject of producing. In his own handwriting, we can witness him boldly issuing notes on the 1951 show after it had just opened. There is a lot of the bluntness of a Lertmontov in them: “Sammy Grossman, arrange Veronica Martel so it will be perfection. Doug Morris, give her perfect lighting. This is a new star with a magnetic personality.”

And more, of which .. “As of today, I demand that all acts finish their numbers together and any feuds as such will engage themselves for mortal combat outside of the circus arena.” Lermontov? Walbrook?

Here is my favorite picture of the mysterious Mr. North, who strangely almost never attended any of the circuses he produced once they passed through dress rehearsal and onto opening night. So tentative, standing there all alone at the edge of the Paris opening during the European tour. Insecure about his own work? Not quite sold on the result? Holding out still for something he knows he may never achieve? Waiting, still, perhaps, for his own elusive Lermontov masterpiece?

[photos, above: Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes; Guy Laliberte; Cliff Vargas; John Ringling North, in Business Week, October 12, 1963)

First posted February 14, 2008


Raffaele De Ritis said...

so I hope your next book will be about "Unknown Johnny North", if you starts to dig into this treasure finally opened.
This Paris picture is touching.

Ben Trumble said...

I can certainly buy the idea of JRN as Impresario, those I might question the consistency of his "vision" through the years. I suspect that Robert Ringling had a distinct "vision" as well, but lack the talent for intrigue and infighting. Both were rather more interesting showmen in the theatrical sense than the original brothers -- even Al. I think Irvin Feld enjoyed playing Impresario so long as he was spending somebody else's money. Vargas had it in spades, he just played in a different league.

It's harder to see casting a glance back earlier. Was Charles Sparks an Impresario, or James Bailey? Both were certainly brilliant and detail oriented, but for them maybe it was the mechanics of circus more than the flash and the spangles once the gas lights glowed.