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.

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

DAREDEVILS
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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.   

CLOWNING


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.

ANIMALS


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.
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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