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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

PBS Under the Big Top: Circus Kings Shine, Barnum Dominates and Darkens Half-Baked, Error-Prone Three-Ring Charmer



Television Review:  The Circus
PBS/American Experience
4-hour anthology in 2 parts
Twice seen for this review, October, 2018

When I learned that the formidable American Experience was coming out with a documentary on American circus history,  1793 to 1956,  naturally I had high expectations, wondering how they would treat the period through three epochs -- from the one ring show of English horse rider John Rickets, bringing to America the modern circus invented by  Philip Astley, to the three ring spectacles of Barnum and Bailey, and then onto how they were artfully transformed and refined by John Ringling North in 1938.
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Although, in real life,  P.T. Barnum did not enter the picture until 1871, here he enters it from the get-go, fairly dominating the first two hours of The Circus with his bombastic,  perversely amusing ballyhoos, his freaks and fakes, clever humbugs and various exotic animals.   The talking heads who wax lyrical about circus artistry -- the consensus seeming to rise on the word “transcendence” -- do not wax lyrical about anything that Mr. Barnum brought to the tent.  In fact, he was obviously more a sideshow huckster than ever a circus king

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 Barnum on Broadway, at the Museum: Frank Lentini,  above; Jo-Jo, the Dog Faced Boy, below
 


When producer-writer-director Sharon Grimberg finally  gets around to the starting point at Philadelphia in 1793, incredibly, no mention is made of Philip Astley -– an unconscionable insult to the British, who this year are celebrating the 250th anniversary of Astley’s one-ring gift to the world.

Instead, one of the talking heads (name not shown), rhapsodizes over the launch in Philadelphia of a “distinctly American”circus.  Nice try.  Distinctly American lay decades ahead.   The exceptionalism on display at Ricket’s Circus was very British.

Beyond Barnum, whom Grimberg can’t seem to get enough of, she turns her most passionate attention upon a select few big top movers and shakers, telling their compelling stories with a rich array of visual materials at hand.  Among the many nuggets, film footage inside the big top during the 1944 Hartford fire is stunning; a clip of Con Colleano dancing on the low wire is pure gold.


The good news is that Adam Forepaugh receives outstanding coverage.  So do William Coup and Dan Costello, who talked the retired Prince of Humbug into joining them to take out a  new circus, which opened in Brooklyn in 1871, and within a  year, was on rails and appearing under a large tent in two rings.  Not noted is how Barnum simultaneously rented out the use of his magnetic name, two summers in a row, to a  rogue showman, Peggy O’Brien, which gave rivals ad copy ammunition: “Barnum’s Show is Divided!  One Half Here, and The Other There.    Which Are You Going to See?”  The  treachery so disgusted Coup and Costello, that the short-lived partnership was soon history.  Barnum’s New England lobby may wish to skip this one.


Most impressive of all is James A. Bailey, who joined up with Barnum in 1881 to form — distinctly American —  the first three-ring circus.  His genius for big top logistics shines through, especially when. in 1897, Barnum having died six years before, he manages to ship the entire show, tents and all, to Europe,  where he tours it triumphantly for five years to “almost” constantly packed houses. I question that.  Back in the states, now facing a five-brother juggernaut, Bailey’s invincible grip on public favor wanes.  Like a man yet to come bearing the initials JRN, he suffers seasons of declining patronage.  They all do.
       
Around about here, we are pulled down into gloom and guilt by the intrusive allusion to animal abuse, which feels like a PETA pop up ad appearing on the screen.   In this instance, of  how only less than 20% of the animals Barnum and Bailey purchased from other lands allegedly survived the cruel shipping conditions to America.  Pretty shocking.   There’s also the account of how P.T. wrested away Jumbo (it feels more like a theft) from the British Zoological Society, leaving countless children in tears.  I’m siding with the moppets.


Other issues raised concern a display of “uncivilized peoples” in the menagerie and, of course, the freaks.  Is the imposition of learned commentary even appropriate?  I say no, for these reasons:  Imposing modern sensibilities on the circus as it impacted the public over a hundred years ago throws everything out of wack, out of a reality far removed from today’s. Being pulled into the classroom, so to speak, detracts from the experience of watching circus in context of the times. I want the closest thing to what my forebears experienced.

It is worth noting that the recent Ken Burns film on Vietnam, a staggering masterpiece, left a panel of academic historians miffed overs its “deliberate exclusion of professional historians from their 80 talking heads”  “We weren’t trying to make arguments.” explained Burns.  “ We didn’t have a political agenda..”


Like a bright new sunny day dawning, come the Ringling brothers, who were  young and gleamingly  handsome on bill poster art, open to new ideas (giving some customers their first look at a movie, inside a special black tent).  They paid female performers the same as they paid the men, and they supported the suffrage movement among like-minded women on show  They became famous for being by far the most honest-dealing of the lot, although as to the hiring of Pinkerton detectives to monitor the midway for all manner of pick pocketing and card sharkery, curiously, that credit goes here  not to the Ringlings, but to  Barnum & Bailey!  A baffling revelation.  

By the time that The Circus reaches the year 1938, John Ringling North barely makes it onto the lot in this lopsided 4-hour anthology – long enough (21 minutes) to come off looking like a talented but inept manager in a final segment that feels fragmentary and rushed.  He gets credit for his whimsical elephant ballet and for some rave reviews his upscale brand of circus received, but no mention of  the great crowds his eclectic showmanship drew in the best of seasons.  He is implicitly  linked to gross mismanagement partly blamed for the 1944 Hartford fire that killed 168 people, mostly women and children.  The fire, which dominates this section, did not not occur on North’s watch, but on that of his cousin, Robert Ringling.  Left unrevealed is the long-simmering enmity between the houses of John and Charles Ringling, and how it erupted into the Ringling family wars of the 1940s, with North eventually prevailing.



Not until I watched the film a second time was I hit like a bolt of lightening by the most shocking and shameful omission of all, which raises all sorts of questions concerning Grimberg’s true intent.  (I will not look into her background until after posting this}.  Comes the season of 1956, plagued by a long-festering Teamster’s strike.  One talking head: “The circus was writing its own ending.”   Then comes Pittsburgh, where the show gives  “one final performance.”  Another troubling error.  The circus gave two shows that day —   the first, to a half house at 6:30; the last starting two hours before midnight, when all 9,856 seats were packed and another thousand or so were strawed.    

North issues a press release announcing that he is closing the show and sending it back to the barn.   Alright, yes, he did.  And so then ...?  I am on the edge of my seat, wondering if, during my first viewing, I missed the part when North announces his plans to open the circus the following spring at Madison Square Garden, as usual, and then take it out on the road playing indoor arenas. No, I did not.  Incredibly this key part of the release – so integral to understanding the truth of that last stand under canvas -- is left out.  Whatever  Grimberg was trying to achieve, it seems clear that evidence was willfully excluded to advance a false reality. One can only speculate what her agenda might be, but certainty it was not to affirm any future for the circus.

Twenty one minutes for John Ringling North, one of the towering creative forces in world circus history.  Twenty one minutes for him to look like a loser and vanish.  So much for the captivating parade of circus stars from far and wide that he unstintingly offered Americans; for the ingenious seat wagons of Art Concello;  the arguably unprecedented costume design brilliance of Miles White;  the dazzling midway makeovers of Norman Bel Geddes and then Bill Ballantine;  the academy award winning movie by Cecil B. DeMille that captured it all so gloriously.  None of that is  here.  What is here, instead, is the end.

Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde in The Greatest Show on Earth

Why the abrupt fade out in Pittsburgh?  Why so misleadingly bleak an ending?   The documentary is pitched as  “the rise and fall of the American railroad tent circus.”  Okay, technically, this may give them cover for bringing down so ruthlessly premature a curtain on Pittsburgh, but it hardly gives them cover for the 80 or so years they spend on Barnum’s pre-circus antics and early American circus history — eighty years before , repeat, before that great American circus train they ballyhoo even began to roll. Not their stated focus.  Makes no sense.

All of which amounts to a wholesale evisceration of all that came after Pittsburgh, and I need not go into detail here, other than to make clear, The Greatest Show on Earth continued on for sixty more years.  North put it indoors and back in the black, and, ten years later, sold it to the Irvin Feld family.

I can’t help but wondering why so many major contributors to American circus were missing in action during the film’s time frame. To name but a few:  Arthur Concello, Antoinette Concello, the Bloomington circus community, then the prime source of leading trapeze acts world-wide,  Dan Rice,  Miles White, Barbette, Irving J. Polack, Louis Stern (Polack Bros), Gargantua, American Circus Corporation shows, Cole Bros, Sells Bros, Alfred Court, Francis Brunn, Lou Jacobs.

Given the vast terrain of circus history either ignored, short-shrifted or bungled  by Grimberg and colleagues, I  am left, still, dreaming of the ultimate documentary from Ken burns.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

A City P. T. Barnum Could Not Have Topped ... The Side Show is Now Us -- No, Them


     SAN FRANCISCO, ONCE the enchanted city of my boyhood, is sinking deeper into greed, decadence and the insane building mania over land fill that may one day turn tragically soft under the wrong earthquake.  A PBS Nova report some time ago raised the sobering possibility.

     ON A RECENT VISIT to Baghdad across the bay, I grew instantly dizzy and vaguely disoriented, assaulted  by jackhammers pounding, angry cars flying through intersections,  building cranes  shifting ominously overhead. Will the madness ever end?  At Market, I ran for a bus which took me through what felt like the aftermath of a local war — more demolition and/or construction under way, more filth and litter along streets ruled by human slugs.  If you plan on visiting the central library, you might consider bringing your own porta-potty. Ikea?

 

    THE FREAK SHOW that has been San Francisco ever since the sixties is only getting freakier.  Halloween every day?   Barnum could not have competed with the emerging class here of self-defining characters, each his/her/its own universe.  But the clever Barnum  might have rented space nearby and offered them free living quarters with wide window views -- of  ticketed museum-goers passing by.

     HOW TO KNOW who they are? I wonder what the average old-world Joe from out of town is to do when facing a woman on a pre-arranged date, or by accident, but now feeling uneasy about said mortal’s true nature?  Does he outright ask?  Good grief, he’d risk getting arrested for sexual harassment.  In this mind-boggling new world disorder where new gender options are being added to the pool daily,  perhaps Apple will come up with a new app,  GAB--Gender at Birth, a device to detect the native truth of the person before you.  Of course, said person might  have an app designed to thwart the signals from yours.  But then again, here you just might meet the freak of your dreams.

     LET ME GET to the point: San Francesco is a moral toilet.  Sample exhibit:  I remember when Willie Brown was elected ‘Da Mayor and, soon after, as reported, he attended a late night private party at which one man stripped to the waist and bore the sliding  knife of another against his willing back, while a third  urinated into the fresh blood stream.   On a local radio talk show soon after, the righteous indignation of Bernie Ward, who also hosted God Talk on Sundays, was answered by the ‘Da Mayor telling Ward to mind his own damn business.  Ward, minding his own damn business, was later convicted of circulating child pornography on the internet,  and sent to prison.  
               

     BUT THE EGALITARIAN toilet on ground level is safely avoided by the billionaire renters above living in higher realms behind glass and steel and praying for structural stability. You’ve heard of the sinking tower of condo?  Another new monster showoff, the Trans Bay Terminal,  has  likewise shown evidence of shoddy construction with the shocking discovery of cracks in two critical brand new beams.  This multi billion dollar extravaganza was designed to host the L.A.to SF bullet trains championed by CA Gov, Jerry  “moonbeam” Brown, trains stalled in state-wide litigation that may never arrive. The terminal's proximity to the sinking condo — which now also shreds cracked  glass -- has caused people to fear that other new high rise darlings may likewise be perilously compromised below street level.  Oh, the irony of it all. Imagine New York's Grand Central Terminal exclusively hosting but one occupant: Greyhound Bus Lines.


     SO, FOR NOW, while the Transbay beauty is shut down for repairs, the old “temporary” outdoor East Bay bus station is back in use.   How relieved and happy I felt to be leaving San Francisco on a bus bound for Oakland’s idyllic Piedmont Avenue neighborhood.  Sanity and peace.  Oh, what a joy is simplicity!  The sunshine never felt better.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Shocking, Simply Shocking! British Museum Rebuts Feminist Myth About Women in Circus


It may come as a blow to traditional circus-hating feminists, New York to San Francisco, that women actually did perform in our earliest American circuses.  And we are not talking ornamental sex props placed in the shadows while male stars hoarded the rings.  As you may have observed, that’s the knee-jerk line they’ve been dishing out for years.  Fake news has been around long before the current occupant of the White house moved in and took it on.

This belated bow to historical truth comes from across the Big Pond. Circus! Show of Shows, a new exhibit at the Western Park Museum in Sheffield, England, sets the record right.  As covered in the Smithsonian Magazine, the display focuses on women and black performers said to have found “an unusual degree of independence and professional success in circus.”

Oh, really? 

I am shocked! And lying through my teeth.  Actually, relieved to know that all the wonderful female performers who thrilled me in my boyhood were not figments of my imagination.  Ask me to name the greatest names of circus long before I was born:  I will probably recite more women than men.  You want a list?  Go look for yourself, or Ask Fred.   

Of course, anybody with half a brain who has read a circus history book or two (not written by an academic peddling the party line) would already have known this.  The rant is re-issued periodically, and those who print it don’t take the time to fact check.

 Edgar Degas, Miss La La, at Cirque Fernando, 1879

Patty Astley, wife of Philip, founder of the modern circus, performed in the show, and not as a king pole dancer.  She rode a galloping horse while swarming bees buzzed lyrically around her hands.  How charming.

As quoted in the Smithsonian, says  the exhibition's curator, Vanessa Toulmin, “Women were granted freedoms that would have been unthinkable in broader Victorian society.”

And over here, one particular woman who  rode horses, charmed snakes, sewed costumes and dragged canvas across muddy lots, among a host of daily thrills -- was helping five young brothers  become circus kings of America: Louise Ringling. Truly troubling is how little recognition the brothers gave her.  Those were times when women in spangles were equated with women in garters.

What’s more, because those doing dames were seen as “athletes” —  they got away with performing in brief costumes, thus exposing arms and legs.  

“In a culture that emphasized women’s domesticity, female circus performers were hard at work.”


Are you reading this, San Francisco Circus Center?  Are you reading this, Sarah East Johnson,  New York’s go-to  expert on such issues who, writing in the The Wall Street Jouirnal in 2011, declared how “nice it was to see women “ in the ring,  and made clear that “rigid gender roles under the big top [were] really traditional.”: And that’s the best  the Journal can give us on the subject?  Ms. Johnson may have been ill-informed while under the spell of the San Francisco Circus Center, where she spent (or served) time years earlier.  Oh, those PC-addled feminists across the bay just can’t let go. A sad and regrettable legacy of the old Pickle Family Circus.

And more from Toulmin:  “Women could be circus proprietors, they could have their own business.“     

Among museum artifacts on display, there’s a 1940 photo of Lulu Adams, below, one of the first female clowns in Britain.  Lulu incorporated bagpipe playing in her act.



Nice job — British Museum of Sheffield!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Circus on PBS: Big Tents - Big Dreams - Big Betrayal

I found the anthology gifted with much to enjoy and admire, but shockingly irresponsible in its narrow coverage, its eviscerations and aborted ending.

More about this in the future


Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Morning Midway: PBS Big Tent - Big Dreams Delivers Big in You Tube Ballyhoo. Show Hits Town Monday

I was so taken by the two 9-minute You Tube previews I saw, that I have very high hopes for this documentary from American Experience,  a long-time leader in such fare for PBS.

The overwhelming imagery throughout  is of IMMENSITY.  Immensity of tents, of parades, of surging crowds, here and in Europe when James A. Bailey took Barnum & Bailey abroad.  That he stayed there five years suggests a towering reception at the ticket wagons he could not resist.  Of course, when he returned to America, he had five brothers named Ringling, now a formidable force, facing him.

Debbie Walk eloquently gives Al Ringling due credit for the primary role he played, with his brothers, in making their mark as circus kings.  P.T. Barnum seems properly placed  here as sideshow king and ballyhoo genius. 

You see the trains clanging in.  You see the mass of humanity spreading the canvas, raising it high, and the locals on the sidelines, captured and enthralled by it all, believers without issues or hesitations in this once great and magical and very American spectacle.  I almost cried, so moved by vivid scenes of what the American circus was in its heyday.  No wonder, the program is said to end with the fall of the last Ringling big top in Pittsburgh, 1956. 

How will the rest hold up?  I am guessing very well, as long as they don't get side tracked filtering an emphatically populist form of entertainment through PC-obsessive analysis.  This is not a story best told by self-serving academics.

The Big Show comes your way Monday night!

Monday, October 01, 2018

But Only a Few Remained: Circus in a World Without Ringling

Pardon me, but I've got the shrinking big top blues.  For walking wounded fans, you enter here at your own risk.                                    


At Rngling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, circa 1920s
When Americans embraced circus without question, without issues, without iPhones.


How do you frame it now?  Dead?   On life support?  In-between engagements?  Gender equity reassignments pending?

Spin it any way you wish.  Facts are — if facts count, undeniable truth.  Remember when fans counted tent poles, wagon wheels, elephants?  What are they counting now? Hula hoops?  Peanut pitches and pony rides? ... Empty seats?

                             Drum Rolls for Less is More!

Fewer Tents: Remember Ringling? Remember Clyde Beatty Cole Bros?  The last two American railroad shows both fell in 1956 -- the circus, they said, was dead!, but regrouped and kept on going.  Quite well, or well enough for a long time. “Well enough” was wonderful enough in a business perpetually on the brink. Both Ringling and Cole are now over the brink.  On the watch list: Kelly-Miller, maybe Carson and Barnes.  Big Apple?  I’d say promising so far, but far from certain. 

Fewer rings: A no brainer.  Who can count three?  Okay deduct two, and you have one. Deduct another (think stage, cruise ship, concert hall, Vegas, hat on cement), and you have none.

Do I sound like Mr. Rodgers in the hood? .

Fewer acts:  The “new” Big Apple Circus is touting six acts, not counting horses and dogs and clowns.  Not so radical given a trend in the Cirque era for less is (maybe)  more.  But what less can also mean is less variety – the biggest draw under booming  big tops in better times.  SO much to see.  SO much to be surprised and amazed by!  SO much to remember!  

Fewer smiles:  The lean BAC lineup, when I study it, tells me why I  miss a Chinese troupe on the menu, which was nearly a staple during the last Paul Binder and  Kenneth Feld  years.  Those exhilarating acrobats from a land not high on psycho-babble brought lots of bodies into a single ring and therefore a degree of spectacle — plates spinning, hats flying, rushing runners through hoops diving, bikes in motion, energy and gusto -- and without a shred of big top broccoli.  They give us unadulterated joy. 

Oh, Joy, where did you go?  Now we have the show being directed by Bergman or Freud, the modern act choreographed so internally, that we are pushed even further way from the artist, as if allowed, oh how lucky to be allowed, to admire  his or her self-possession. To behold the artist working out his/her/its issues on the tissues (fabrics, kids).   Pardon me for failing the post-performance exam. I did not go expecting to observe the damaged soul in therapy on a static trapeze.

                            Now: At Melha Shrine Circus, 2018

Fewer seats: Can you kindergarten count along with me?  The Felds deducted thousands of arena chairs, blocking out maybe a third of them, not to achieve greater intimacy but to shut down damning evidence of paltry patronage — until, they would claim, PETA ran every last customer, in public shame, off the lot. Sure.  And who managed  The Greatest Show on Earth  into oblivion? Not a Ringling.  A billionaire named Kenneth Feld, whose late father Irvin, god bless his look-at-me-ballyhoo, must be screaming for a way back.
  
Kelly Miller fired the animals to beat down PETA,  shrunk the  tent size, threw out VIP chairs and settled for planking it.  Circus Vargas, striving to be Cirque for families on a budget, is also going smaller.  And hopefully not under.   Carson & Barnes, another down sizer, now skips summer stops — a season once, I thought, lush with crowds.

How much more of this shrinkage before the patient shrinks away like a deflating  balloon before a couple dozen souls out there on the planks, half of them in free and already bored,  the other half on their cell phones? 

So here we are, on the edge of another deserted lot where once, great tented cities that traveled by  by night — thank you, Bev Kelly —  pitched their glories for a day, and great crowds of curiosity came to be astonished and thrilled — and not to be  lectured to, or badgered by angry leaflets from PC purists, or dragged through another dreary allusion to some obtuse self-help drama -- troubled soul seeking The Way and The Light under what’s left of The Big Top.

Ooops. Hope I didn’t depress you too much.   Are you amply amused, Anon?  Truth is, I giggled part way through this; my tears, you see, are all used up. There’s nothing left but. what? ...  Laugh, clown, laugh, I guess.

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P.S.  What a lovely postscript  came my way after drafting the above.  A link from Don Covington to a captivating promo tease of Big Tent, Big Dreams, the PBS American Experience documentary coming to the  screen on October 8 and 9.  The  one-minute promo conveys what it was like when circus-loving Americans flocked to the big tops  A phenomenal clip of Pinito Del Oro in motion is just fabulous -- it stops my heart every time I watch  it -- unlike anything of her work I have ever seen on video, which only reminds me of why I was so mesmerized by her act when I first saw this aerial goddess perform under the Ringling-Barnum big top in 1955.

Bring it on, PBS. I can't wait!