Who next?

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: End of the Road

Seventh and last in a series 

Don in the 1970s

The day was Sunday. Don Marcks did not know that I spent my 50th birthday with him, at his house.  I did not play up my birthdays.  I had more intimate friends, and there was always that reserve about  Don, but we shared circus, the reason for my having invited myself over, as I had many times before. 

Now, that is how I intended to open this post, but that is not exactly true. I discovered, when returning to my weekly At-A-Glance booklet for the year, a more  specific reason for my seeking  Don’s company: This I wrote: “Why Marcks?  Because I’ve known him longer than any of my other friends, and we share circus”

I point this out because, memory alone can be a careless editor, which is to say that some things in these posts may be inaccurate constructions of what actually happened.  Oh, how a  single document can be such a beautiful thing!
Our personal lives were rarely if ever discussed other than Don now and then talking about a woman he was trying to date, or more likely, hoping to.  His romantic pursuits felt to me a bit more like a pattern more than a passion.

Aches and Pains -- and More

The most intimate encounter I ever had with  Don was in the ICU at Doctor’s Hospital in Richmond, only a few miles from where he lived. He had survived some medical crisis — he would suffer many — and was hopefully on the mend. I could tell it had shaken him to the core.  He looked into my eyes almost with tears, and practically reached out to hold my hand, and, as if making a sacred vow, promised to continue on and make Circus Report even bigger and better than ever. I knew it was the great love of his life.

He almost never took a vacation. And rarely, to my knowledge, exercised.  The only time that Circus Report subscribers missed copies was when Don was hospitalized, usually announcing in advance of having to take so many weeks off. He suffered many medical problems through the years.

    Resisting Rivals

Don did have an ego. He coveted his position in the CFA, as a prominent and maybe senior member of the  Joseph Andrew Rowe tent. So prominent, that when another local fan, new I think to the CFA, made waves about wanting to reboot the dormant group, Don spoke harshly of the fellow – as if a move was afoot to topple his position. 

Don  grew suspicious of people offering to help out with Circus Report.  Two locals from Berkeley wrote him with such an offer, the implication being that there would be someone to carry on when his time had passed..

Nov. 6, 1983:  “She says I ought to relax the strings a bit and not work so hard, but I’m not in favor of their helping out ... I keep getting the feeling they just want to see how things are done and go get a chance to see what money comes, in. etc.”

The next time I visited Don  he brought up the matter, pulling out the letter.  I encouraged him to consider that their motives might be genuine.  And there before my eyes, he tore it up almost in a peevish fit, and threw it into a waste basket. 

The Gift of Praise

The greatest compliment he ever gave me was to bring up the subject of my book, Behind the Big Top, and to tell me how books like mine had never been written before.  More than that, how it seemed to me like he had made a conscious effort to force himself out of his comfort zone in order to make his recognition known.  I regarded this as a supreme compliment, coming from Don.  Touched by the adulation, yet there had been other books, by Dexter Fellows and by William Coup, that candidly covered some of the darker aspects of circus life, such as grift and animal abuse.  Another time, Don offered me my own regular space in the paper for a weekly column. I wrote to him of my gratitude, telling him of my fears that I would write something that got us both in hot water. I had not contributed a single piece since my Irvin Feld story.

 A Long and Long-Forgotten-Why Silence
There came an impasse between us, a wordless falling out if you will.  There had been no arguments, nothing dramatic, just perhaps, on both sides, a growing number of  irks and perceived slights forming a mass of vague, lingering resentment.  Either of us could easily have lifted the phone and dialed the other’s number, and likely, the conversation would have flowed on.

In his last letter to me, dated Dec. 3, 1995, Don ended by talking about a showboat model he had been working on, having discarded one and now considering a second try at another: “Only recently found some folks who have knowledge of the thing, because of their study or River Boats  - who knows, it might arise from the ashes, as they say.”

We never arose from our own ashes.  I have no letters from him during all of 1996, not a single one.  Which even intrigues me to try recalling what might have silenced our dialogue

My subscription came up that year for renewal in October. $40 a year.  I had grown, frankly, a little  disengaged by the papers particular style  — unless there was something he had done that set me off and hastened the cancellation.  In the last issue I have, Oct. 28, 1996, Billy Barton’s column is missing. Perhaps he had been gone for some time.

And so I decided to spend my money, instead, on the Bandwagon, and in a brief note, dated 10/22/96, made this known to Don, singing off  “Good luck on CR’s future ...”

Yes, I know, the sound of betrayal.

Seven years later, Don Marcks passed away.  He left behind his widow, Martha.  I believe she was the woman at the post office who had through the years been of great support to Don in his weekly send outs. 

                      A Circus Auctioned to the Wind

Truly saddest of all, Don left his model circus to Richard Tuck’s then-in-the-planning Playland Not at the Beach on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerritos, where it would be displayed in separate cases. And when the museum closed in 2018, the circus, like every thing else, was auctioned off in sections.  A terrible pity that it could not have been offered to a single entity, such as one of the circus museums.

The house at 525 Oak Street  is no longer recognizable as the one I knew when I visited Don.  The large side yard of grass upon which stood the old shed where his model circus was kept, is now a faded pink, one-story motel-like apartment house. In that long-gone shed, a  twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy had once stood in rapt awe while  the builder of the wagons opened large trunks to take out one, and then another, for the boy to see and to hold.  To his eyes, they were the most magical objects he had ever seen.  And from that same house on Oak Street, for thirty four years there had gone out a weekly circus paper to subscribers near and far.

Bill and Jan Biggerstaff bought Circus Report after Don died, and did a fine job of keeping it in circulation, twice a month, for the next nineteen years.  Now it, too, is history.

And thus, the story of my friendship with fellow circus fan Don Marcks comes to a close.  One day maybe, I will be on a bus going up  San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, and get off to walk up to Mechanics Bank on the corner of Fairmount --- where I got off a bus one day long ago, to walk five blocks up and make a left on Oak.

P.S. today at 4:35 PM, I just went down to my mail box to find the last last issue of Circus Report. It feels so bleak and sad, like a defining death that I can't put into words. I don't want to put into words. As if, trying, some kind of a reigning light above the whole of what we had has gone out. Thank you, Bill and Jan,  for keeping it going as long as you did.  Goodbye, Circus Report, good bye.


All of Don’s letters will eventually join my archives at Illinois State University’s Milnar Library, under the direction of Maureen Brunsdale.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Circus Staggering Into 2020: Say Goodbye to One Dreary Decade, But Don’t Put Your Dreams Away - Not Yet

Sequence 8 from 7 Fingers 
New Circus companies combines diverse forms, 
including aerial  and acrobatic arts 
FACING 2020 feels more to me facing a  new century.  Blame it on my having lived through too much disappearing circus history in the last ten years —  or did I inherit this feeling the moment Kenneth Feld announced that he was shutting down Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey for good?

SO MANY CLOSINGS give me pause, and you, too?, to wonder if there is to be a future for what is now more frequently being called  “traditional circus.” I merely call it, pardon me, circus.  Is South Pacific a traditional musical?  Gone with The Wind, a traditional movie?

THOSE TWO WORDS  may mark a condescending dismissal by a class of culture vultures who inwardly despise what circus has meant to the masses.  And so they hold a patronizing stance, while waiting for the last dog to leave the tent, the last scary clown to renounce his greasepaint and join Old Clowns Anonymous.  Waiting and ready, honing their skills in classrooms and lofts, parks  and on small stages, to make their case in larger venues as the only option left, and therefore, theoretically more marketable to the public at large. Indeed, their day may be upon us.  Read the reviews in CircusTalk, and behold. 

THE TRAUMATIC FOLD fold, two years ago,  of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey opened the gates for “new circus” advocates to assume a greater,  more believable force.  In fact, I think it is far more honest  of them to call themselves “New Circus”  and let “circus” alone stand.  Drop the “traditional.” Some New Circus enthusiasts proclaim to be witnessing a “renaissance” of what they call “circus arts.” This may be so, but it is  not a renaissance  of circus, period.  Need I even try explaining why?

7 FINGERS, a collective among early-day innovators, with roots in the old Pickle Family Circus,  set out to humanize the face of performers, as if driven to prove themselves well educated, intellectually engaged, and normal.  To make clear that they are not related in any way shape or form to that vulgar  old world of Barnum & Bailey.  The exotic other worldly mystique of circus was purged, clowns and animals removed.  The luckiest of these troupes  are finding some success, albeit with funding, before audiences who patronize theater and ballet.   To its credit, 7 Fingers does not hang “circus” on its moniker, but, to be sure and safe, they talk it up aplenty, obviously to draw in the kind of ticket buyers who want some circus acts but not the circus.  

THE TEST OF WHAT SELLS:  When did you  last see a TV promo from Cirque du Soleil or any other new circus promising any of the following:



CURRENTLY FOR ME, the most interesting thing to observe is how all this will all play out. To wonder if, out there somewhere lurks a showman yet to surface who can make circus thrive again.  More likely, the ageless delight may yet rebound, come a day imagined, long in the future,  when cultural shifts favor the public’s re-embracement of circus’s  defining staples.  Americans may then again accept circus based on a new, more trusting pact between themselves and the owner-producers — a pact more open and transparent where animals may once again be welcome in the tent.

IMPOSSIBLE TO IMAGINE so magical, instructive,  and inspiring an enterprise as animal training being outlawed forever. 

IN RECENT TIMES,  a segment of the young clamor to hear new pop recordings on vinyl, as in LP.   Down at Issues on Piedmont Avenue, near where I live, a surprising show of younger people flock to the shelves, to consider a dazzling array of books and magazines from far and wide. Can you spell p a p e r?

So, too, the circus? 

Circus may be down, but don’t count ten yet.  

To quote Douglas McPherson from London: “Let’s hope these twenties roar like the previous one!”

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: Anger in the In Box ... The Invasion of Cirque du Soleil ... The Heartbeat of Billy Barton ...

Sixth in a series of seven

Prime contributors to the last great circus decade:
John Pugh, Kenneth Feld,  and Cliff Vargas in the excellent 80's

Into the mid-1980s,  Circus Report was riding as high as ever it would go. Came December and Don was facing a surprising parade of incoming ads for the upcoming Christmas issue.   “It has been growing, and right now we are looking at 56 pages, so it will easily grow a bit more.”

Rival upstarts  had come and gone.  November 2, 1985:  “So far I have outlasted all of the other attempts to put out a paper, including the magazine in England called ‘Performer.’ It closed after 4 issues.  One thing in my favor I think is that I can keep things cheap since it is only me and everything is done right here – if someone has to pay help and a printer, etc. then it certainly does get to be costly.”
Big Top Bullies
Growth, of course,  meant more ads, and with it, more pressure to please the advertisers. In deed, anything less than the expected feel-good coverage might drive a show owner over the cliff.  How dare he!   And they called him.  And they rattled him.   Some  even practically demanded that a review or item be retracted.  While he usually did not accede to their childish wants, their rattling kept him closer to playing it nice. Don't believe me?

July 7, 1986: “I had a call from the Gatti show saying they were really upset over the article that I had about their show in the recent issue - the item was titled ‘circus on the move’ I thought it was a nice article and said good things about the show.  Now they want me to run a bit that the show is much better than was described, etc.”

“So, like I said there is no way to please everyone and at times I’m too thin skinned for some of the backlash on things. Try to do a good job and what do they do, they kick you anyway.”

Another caller the same week, wrote Don,  “says I’m losing some credibility of the show folks because I print such glowing remarks about Toby Tyler by and then don’t print any bad things.”

Precariously Yours

Between 1973 and 1984, I turned out about a dozen pieces for Circus Report,  some feature stories, some reviews-- none of which, by the way, he ever made any moves on editing. The story I am proudest of was a profile of Dory Miller, drawn from a generous interview  he granted me. My favorite quote: “Nobody is disappointed in the AM.”

Nothing I ever wrote  – in fact nothing ever published in the Circus Report, to my knowledge ---drew such vitriol  as did my looking back piece on the passing of Irvin Feld,  The Uncertain Legacy. Virtually all the raging letters came from those employed by the Feld organization.  Star witness for the professionally offended took out a full page ad:

Did it hurt? Of course, it did. Deeply. Was I really that  wretched a soul?  Perhaps the most hazardous thing about writing is trying to  tell the truth.

“What is interesting," wrote the ever-calm Don to me on December 3, “is that I have had several calls from folks saying they thought the article was right on an all.  However, they didn’t want me to to use their name or to put their comments into print.”

In fact, there were a few readers unafraid to go on the record, J. Scott Pyles calling it “the finest analysis of the man I’ve ever read.”

Have Typewriter - Will Fly

If there was a “star” contributor to the Circus Report, that would certainly be the flamboyant cloud swing aerialist  Billy Barton – dubbed "Mr. Sensation" by his long time friend Mae West. He might have become the Rex Reid of the big tops had he not been so deeply entangled in the circus community.  Billy penned a weekly column of light gossip delivered with a sense of urgency, and he  made you want to read him.  He did me.  He gave the paper a buzz, a touch of flair, a soul if you will, a  reason to read.  And sometimes he took bold stands, intelligently advanced.  Some samples:

Animal Rights Activists: “The real horror story is from England.  Animal acts are no longer permitted in metro London, where Austin Bros. circus was victimized when animal rights activists literally set fire to a horse tent and destroyed the horses, justifying their barbaric behavior with the remark that they were better off dead than with circuses!”

Cliff Vargas:  On his passing away in 1988, "He not only rekindled public interest in the nations big tops, but single-handedly resurrected a fading industry and instilled it with a glamour and excitement heretofore lacking.”

Cirque du Soleil: Addressing the show's top guns for snidely disparaging the American circus, especially the Ringling show: “It’s easy to be disdainful of the North American circus when you don’t have to fight or struggle for existence, when you have government support and private funds as a nice cushion ...  No one resents their presentation.  What we resent is their attitude, and their rude unwarranted remarks.  They are guests in our country, and Quebec, after all, is a short trip north across the border.  Let’s face it. We have the Big Apple Circus and Circus Flora, both of which are theme circuses and real circus, and animals! ... I say, Cirque du Soleil, go home. We don’t need you.”

Don covered the remarkable rise of Cirque du Soleil fairly and fully. 

The Last Great Decade:  On July 10, 1982 in Tucson, Arizona, 
Miguel Vazquez became the first flyer to turn a quad.

Several years prior, Barton and Marcks had had a falling out, over exactly what, I can not recall.  I think Don may have passed on one of Barton’s submissions.   A few months passed . September 26, 1983: “Had a letter from Billy Barton who said he would like to come back...Promised he wouldn’t get on the soap box and his column would be gossip just like when he started.”

I wished Barton and stayed on it more.  For, to be fair, many of his columns were fairly humdrum accounts of this and that person signing on to this or that show. Nonetheless, yet another parting of the ways occurred five years later. Billy may simply have been too busy  with his circus performing dates. 

February 22, 1988: “What to you think about Barton coming back?  Boy do wonders never cease.  He was was getting back to writing because of pressure from folks who missed his column — but that pressure must have come from others, it didn’t come from me ... One thing, it adds more names and info to the paper than I manage to get in otherwise.”

Billy came back.  And he always signed off, “see you down the road, luv’s.”  However long he lasted this time, I would not be around to know.

Next:  Don's last letter to me, and mine to him.  

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Best American Circuses, 2011: Showbiz David & Others Rank them -- Only One Show Makes Everybody's List

From Showbiz David, Critical Feedback Division

No two people will ever agree on which show is “best,” and where to place the rest in order of quality. At the bottom of this post, I am pleased to include, in the order in which they were received, the top three picks of other contributors, which makes this so much more interesting.

My ranking criteria

For my money, what separates the best from the least? Surely, the strength of the acts, but that alone is hardly a guarantee for a winning program. Making the biggest difference are production values, from lighting and costume design to music, announcing, pacing and contrasting dynamics.

Some trends, good and ill

Every show offers reasons to go: All of the circuses listed here featured at least one or two — or more — notable acts, and most offered a wide variety of action.

Animal Attitudes: With the one exception of Circus Vargas, all of shows continue to offer the public entertaining animal acts. And the majority of the shows — five — still usually include wild animals in the mix. All of which evidences the public’s continuing preference for the full “traditional” program and the success of circus owners in fostering its confidence.

Ringmasteritis: A disease suffered by hack virtuosos of verbosity (aka: “ringmasters”) who can’t shut up and/or grovel to the crowd for coached applause and cheering. “How are you enjoying the show so far, everybody?!!” Four of the companies — Ringling’s Barnum 200, Cole Bros. Circus of Stars, Circus Vargas, and Carson & Barnes -- all carry verbal blowhards worthy of gag-order restraints.

The carnival in the tent: The crass integration of concession pitches throughout the program and hyper-active intermission rides and photo ops does nothing to enhance a show's artistic impression. Four of the shows listed here continue to pursue this course at their own risk.

Effective tape-recorded musical scores: Two of the companies — Cole Bros.Circus of Stars and Circus Vargas — prove that well constructed musical scores tape recorded for playback can actually be superior to small straining bands. “Live” is no good if your musicians are too few in number or can’t cut it.

The shows considered

I saw five of these circuses in 2011. I am factoring in two others: I caught Kelly Miller in 2010 (quite similar to the 2011 edition), and UniverSoul in 2005. I believe my rankings reflect their general quality. I am including only medium to large sized shows that present fixed programs during a regular touring season lasting many months. Thus, for example, shows like Circus Osario or Circus Bella would not make my list.

The Showbiz David 2011 Picks

1. Big Apple Circus (Dance On!) A nearly perfect performance. Superlative production values, not overly wrought, excellent acts of noteworthy innovation. Excellent music and clowning, a joyful reach. New Artistic Director Guillaume Dufresnoy is good news — the perfect figure to extend the Binder-Christensen legacy.

What to wish for: More substance in the air. If there is to be a ringmaster, let him/her speak a few words.

2. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey For all that’s been said, the Felds continue to scout some of the best acts in the world, and they experiment with compelling new modes of presentation, even if they can’t resist overplaying their bag of flashy visual tricks. The acts may vary from first rate to forgettable, the music from brilliant to pedestrian, but their costumes and stage pictures are atmospherically outstanding, and they know how to build to a rousing climax.

What to wish for: A more consistently high grade performance, less heavy-handed showmanship. At Coney Island over two summers in a single ring, where they placed talent over fireworks, they produced their best two editions in years.

3. Kelly Miller Circus A promising work in progress from John Ringling North II, who has proved his Ringling credentials revealing a conservative deference to traditional circus while modestly testing the creative waters.

What to wish for: A more frequent turnover in performing personnel. This may be the most critical issue facing North, who at some point will have to let go of favored performers, that is, if he does not wish to alienate his positive relationship with the pubic. He needs a little stronger lineup. And, if he wishes to go the distance as a first-rate showman, he will have to shake off those old show-disrupting Hugo merchandising habits — a direct smear on the House of Ringling. This show has a nice warm feel and a friendly flow, and it covers the solid basics with good music and announcing.. In fact, the two circuses I most looking forward to seeing again are this and Big Apple.

4. UniverSoul Circus A difficult call, because I’ve not seen the show since 2005, but given website information on the current edition, it likely deserves this or a higher slot in my rankings. The funky UniverSoul Circus offers a strong muscular mix, if awkwardly merged, of traditional circus acts (some imported), Afro-centric hip hop routines, wild animals, a quirky character clown named Onion Head, and the oddly incongruous end-of-the-show morality skits.

What to wish for: a smoother integrated program minus the preachy melodramas that can drive customers to an early exit. Truly, these veiled sex, drugs and misogynistic enactments give breathtaking new meaning to the term “Sunday school show.”

5. Circus Vargas A show of moderately engaging action that varies from first rate to acceptably standard. It could and should be so much better, if only the owners would step back, let go and hand over the direction to a strong outside party. Along with evidence of smart staging in precious few spots, there is a lingering air of audience pandering desperation throughout the overly-hyped performance, including the exit path that patrons must take past performers waiting out in the connection to be flattered, smiled at, asked for autographs.

What to wish for: Better comedy, a better presentation. And, irony of ironies, a flying act that actually flies.

6. Cole Bros. Circus of Stars A far cry from the old Beatty-Cole three-ring show (presented in three rings) when the music was live, the clowning strong, the mid-level acts of even merit professionally paced. Cole’s taped musical score, as noted above, is generally excellent. Its lineup is wildly uneven, from charming animal and aerial ballet effects to pedestrian thrill turns rehashed year after year. The rectangular arena-shaped setting gives the performers a semi- stranded look. The excessive announcements grow quickly grating. And the clumsy staging (including a gauche fork lift truck for major prop changes) casts a dreary impression.

What to wish for: This show needs a total rethinking of the performance format. Messrs Pugh and Bale need to focus less on tent-show logistics, more on the performance itself.

7. Carson & Barnes It’s obvious the Byrds, to their credit, are genuinely trying to upgrade the show, what with a few world class acts and a rather expansive spread of action, some of it unfortunately bordering on rank amateurism. Most of their best moves forward are sabotaged by stale production elements they seem unable to retire (a bombastic ringmaster entirely out of place, for example), and the usual crass inclusion of concession pitches throughout the show.

What to wish for: Gutting the intermission, hiring a clown who presents new routines each year, and hiring a new, less talky, less overbearing ringmaster, would work wonders for the lineup. When they ran the show straight through without an intermission, Carson & Barnes now and then produced some of America's most exciting performances. They can easily do it again, but they must make drastic structural changes.

How Others Judge Them

And now, to the rankings of my guest-volunteer judges. After having set my own rankings in stone, I invited others to send in their top 3 favorites. The reason I confined the number to 3 was to make the task as easy as possible. A few of shows listed here do not appear on my rankings; since I have not seen any of them, I was in no position to consider including them on my o1n list.

From Harry Kingston

Says Harry, " I am always in favor of tent shows right or wrong"

1. Cole Bros. Circus of Stars

2. Kelly Miller Circus

3. Carson and Barnes Circus.

From Don Covington

1. Big Apple Circus

2. Kelly Miller Circus

3. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

From Ron Finch, Newark Valley, NY

1. Kelly Miller Circus

2. Billy Martin's Cole All Star Circus

3. Cole Bros. Circus of Stars

From Becky Ostroff

1. Cirque Polynesian

2. Kelly Miller Circus

3. James Cristy Cole Circus

From Charles Hanson

1. Carson & Barnes Circus

2. Kelly Miller Circus

3. Cole Bros. Circus of Stars

Kelly Miller's Rare Popularity

For the fun of it, pooling all the scores -- mine and my five guest judges -- I assigned three points to any show getting a first place ranking, two points for a second, one point for a third. Here is what we get:

1. Kelly Miller Circus (12 points)

2. Big Apple Circus (6 points)

3. Cole Bros Circus of Stars (5 points)

The only show to make everybody's top three list, what is it about Kelly Miller? I believe it has something to do with the intangibles of spirit. Here is what Becky Ostroff said about Kelly Miller in her e-mail to me:

"I felt this gem of a delight flowed and kept my attention and was over before I knew it. What was not to love! All the elements of a classic show, animals, comedy, acrobatic, aerial, clowning and music."

Thanks to all of you, my guest judges!

first posted 10.19.11

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: Into the 1980s, Thriving and Diving Through the Last Great Circus Decade

Fifth in a series on my friend  Don Marcks and his The Circus Report

October 25, 1984:  “I wish I could offer you a job with CR should you return to the Bay Area.  Am not sure I could pay what you might need and deserve."

In the paper’s peak years, Don now and then employed a part timer, usually a student “just out of school,” but he found them to be undependable. His dependable mom was always there to help out with folding, stapling and stamping fresh sheets  off the press for assembly and a trip to the local post office.  One of the postal clerks showed Don support and compassion, and he would eventually marry her.

His greatest challenge were the never ending struggles to sustain circulation.  He sent out free copies to new members of the various circus clubs, hit the lots with samples.  His circulation high, this number sticks in my brain, may have been around 2,400.  I doubt that any of the circus magazines ever matched that.

Fickle Subscribers 

October, 5 1984: “Oh, I forgot to tell you. I’ve lost almost 300 subscribers,  so I guess I have to figure out something to improve and make CR a bit more appealing.  That’s a pretty big loss over the last few month.  Wouldn't think it was due to my having been laid up, but never can tell."
As a news source, how good a job did Circus Report do?  On the plus side, the routes  were outstanding, the reporting equally so when he picked up from AP stories about mishaps under the big top (such as the Toby Tyler seating collapse), and the animal rights movement. He did not shield readers from any of these controversies or misfortunes. From corrupt phone room operations in the 1970s. He did not hide from the world.  I admired that about him.

But How Many People Were in the Tent?

On the debit side, what  Don’s weekly most sorely lacked were attendance figures under our big tops. Of course, this was not primarily Don’s fault, for the American circus has never had its own Nielsen's — and I am dead sure never wanted  them.  Not then.  And certainly not now.  The old Billboard, edited by Tom Parkinson,  did a far better job of a least estimating crowd size on the lots.  Nothing was more compelling to my young eyes than the headlines on the first page of its Circuses section.  Example, those in the August 6, 1955 number:

Chicago Attendance Poor For Ringling; Plan to Cut Prices ... Beatty Score Well at Vancouver Stand ... Truck Delays Hit King; Crowds Fair ... Polack's Strong Spots Make Up for Decreases ... Kelly-Miller Going Strong on Extensive Wisconsin Tour .. 

July 31, 1954: Cincinnati Gives R-B Strong Two-Day Biz.  As reported,  "Show registered one-third filled houses for the two matinees but racked up capacity business for both night shows."

To Review or Not to Review?

Sorry to say,  rosy Circus Report reviews could be numbingly predictable. And predictability does not make for must-read news.  Don fell in line with other fan publications, afraid to alienate his core subscriber base.  He once complained to me about all of the glowing write-ups he was getting of Circus Vargas.  He did not want to print them all, but he probably did.  Another time, he told me of having received a review of Vargas.  “It wasn’t very good, so I didn’t print it.”

Feb. 27, 1966: “I know that you feel things should be iron clad in review with positive like or dislike.  I’m inclined to present the facts and let the reader decide what he thinks.  Guess that I might not make a reviewer for I just like the shows too much.”

He wanted “better reports on shows and such.”   He addressed a subject that would regularly dog him,  that he could never fully resolve, writing to me that it was “also too bad, like the one review when the fellow says the bad was bad that so much uproar results.  It would seem that if it were true you ought to be able to say so.”

He did share with me his unease over rah-rah notices, and stories that went on and on, but he was beholden to a loyal base of contributors, who supplied the necessary content.  He was skittish about asking  writers to cut back on excess.  

Another force that kept him playing it safe were the circus owners themselves,  who took out the ads and were not accustomed to what we might call objective reporting.

Next: The Invisible Red Pen of Circus Oowners ... The Heartbeat of Billy Barton  ...  The  Invasion of Cirque du Soleil  ....

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: The First Issue Out

In his own words, from a voice message to me, 1982:  “In case you forgot, now you know: Tonight's the Ringling circus on channel something or other at eight o’clock.  You  can check that out now.  Also, I wanted to tell you, I got a copy of your book [Behind the Big Top]  in the mail today.”

The phone rang.  I picked up.  Hello?
Hey, got a moment?
Listen to this  ....
His voice, low, secretive, discreetly  amused by juicy gossip
Big flare up at Ringling. Concello is out
You’re kidding?  I said that a lot.  Best way to extract more.
North blew a fit over in Paris
Tell me what happened!

And we talked. And talked.  Was there ever a more interesting subject than circus during the creatively and organizationally turbulent years of John Ringling North?

In some ways, thank you Ma Bell, it was more fun talking to Don by phone  than face to face.   Maybe the one-on-one secrecy of a Ma Bell connection made everything feel more confidential. We lived close enough to avoid long distance bills. And so we talked.

And I got to respect the way his mind worked.   Remarkably, when it came to politics and current affairs, Don was placidly calm, as if he had been born naturally objective, as if  nothing out there could ruffle him. Well, maybe except me, once.  And how refreshing were his calm observations during those volatile years in American politics,  I never knew what poetical party he might belong to. This bent of nature would serve him well when he turned the love of his life into a little weekly paper.

In covering this chapter in his life, incredibly  ALL of his letters to me from the 1970s are missing.  The fact that I have not a single one tells me they are all together somewhere in a folder, if still in my midst.  So, some the following details may be inaccurately recalled.

Sometime in 1971, the White Tops offered Don the job of editor, and he was mulling it over, frequently with me on the phone.  I was surprised that he did not not jump.  At the time, however, as I now hazily recall, Don had been batting around the idea of putting out a weekly paper.  The White Tops offer knocked him off course for a bit, and we hashed it over at length.  He wondered how he could handle editorships of two publications.  Possibly the CFA got wind of his other idea, for, to Don’s acute consternation, they withdrew their offer — or worse, simply dropped communications and he found out from a third  party. Whatever had happened, the about face did not go down well with Don, and that’s putting it mildly. He felt betrayed.  At the same time, it stiffened his resolve to move ahead with some kind of a weekly.

The first issue of The Circus Report came out on January 10, 1972.  Its humble graphics barely passable, it consisted of three 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper, stapled on the top left hand corner.  Top of page one, .Vol. 1, No. 1:

On page 3, NEW LAW: “One frequently hears the question ‘how come all the shows are going out to the Cow Palace?’” The story was about a new San Francisco city law to keep hippies and hippie caravans off the streets.  Circus caravans that  parked outside the civic auditorium got lumped in with long hair squatters.  The Cow Palace, in Daily City, did not have a hippie problem.

Reported Don, “Polack Bros. Circus was was the first show to feel the wrath of the city fathers.  They were forced to commute from out of town trailer courts for each performance during their brief run here in May.”

On page 5, WE START This is the first issue of “The Circus Report” which will be published on a weekly basis.  We hope that you will enjoy the paper and find each issue of value.  Send $1.00 for a month’s subscription and don’t miss a single copy. 

There was but one lone  advertiser in that first issue:

Tape music from the Ringling Barnum Circus while under canvas.
Send details to

Guess who? Clue. The advertiser lived in Oakland.

Just getting the weekly printed, stapled and addressed gave Don choice satisfaction. A weekly roll to ride.  A weekly challenge. To his advantage, he would quickly manifest a trait that  many other would-be publishers did not  possess: He delivered on time.  He never went to third class mail, mainly to avoid having to annually disclose circulation figures.

Subscribers gradually trickled in. Within weeks, Don was listing circus routes, perhaps the paper’s most valuable feature for both show owners and fans  But the ads did not roll in that year nor the next.  In fact, they were a long time in coming.  Circus Report endured a long slow crawl to prosperity.

During the second year, on July 2,  Don made a format change that would, for me, define my favorite Circus Report size.  He printed off legal sized paper, and made a fold, producing a  7" wide by, 8-1/2 “ high size.. 

In time, Don had ample advertisers, and he would note a  disparity between pro and amateur.  The fans wrote all articles and reviews.  The circus owners took out all the ads..   And those advertisers would come with pushy expectations, believing  that their shows would not be knocked or even slighted by reporting or reviews.  These owners and their loyal acolytes  lived in a world insulated by fan worship. A world that even The Billboard shied away from objective reviewing.  Don’s advertisers were accustomed to being loved and rarely if ever questioned.  They were, kids, a spoiled lot. 

On occasion, when Don dared to depart  script, the phones rang and all hell broke lose. Never as loud as when an earthquake of vitriol slammed something I had written for Don, throwing us both for a loop.  Blame it on White Tops Editor Walter H Hohenadel, who first published me at age 14, and let my nit picky cracks stand. 

NEXT: To review or not to review?  Never-ending circulation struggles ... Covering animal rights and Cirque du Soleil.  Half staffing  the office, and Billy Barton.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: Journalist to Variety Show M.C.

Hey there!
Hi, there!
Time to sing
time to raise the roof!
Show time
Go time
This is no time to be aloof!
       California Varieties           
That’s our show, and we’re on
So, welcome and cheers ...
Here’s Don!

The above was composed in one take by yours truly, on the backside of an Econo-Car Rental System Inspection slip – my day job at the time.  It might have been the opener for the amateur revue that Don produced and booked into various community venues throughout  Northern California.  He had local singers and dancers, maybe a comedian, a good little local home grown dog act.  And did a little plate-spinning.

“I was thinking about your recent show at the college and wondering why you don’t write something for me to use in the shows we do?     2/27/66

Well Don, how about that?

No, not about that, David. Without hardly a comment, he stayed aloof to the shameless rouse I had offered his stage entrance. 

In tone an temper, Donald Marcks, born in Pittsfield, Mass, was closer to a bookkeeper — or pastor —  than ringmaster.  Think somber.  Is there a soul dead who ever left behind as few photos of themselves as did Don?  I know of only one.  But then, while digging up info for this post, I found a second photo, right down there!  Looking back, I wonder if he lived on a low-laugh diet.

The old Key System terminal in San Francisco.

By day when I met him,  he worked as managing editor of the one-man office of The Guide, a daily shipping newspaper based in San Francisco, its history dating back a hundred years. To get to The Guide from the Key System bus and train terminal in the city, Don took long strides at the breakneck speed of a race track trotter. I should know, for I once met him at the terminal, and trailed him, panting all the way to his workplace.  He answered phones, took down news items and wrote them up, and set them in type on a Linotype machine. Then to a small press, and into the mail and to distribution points around the city.  .   

In many ways, he supported my writing ambitions. He later encouraged me to consider penning a column for the paper. We called it Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.  In tone, perhaps deferring to my no-pay employer, I turned out my most restful prose ever.  This venture  lasted through about three months.  I don’t know why it ended.

Don Marcks now and then dabbled in writing himself.  I can only guess that he never took any ideas very far because he was too bottled up inside.  Too afraid to disclose.  He did disclose quite  a lot to me in his numerous letters, impeccably typed out, some going on for three pages, many without a single typo! .I have a note from him in which he announced how his marriage (the first one) did not work out and was thus annulled.  He seemed accepting of fate, without any show of emotion one way or the other.
I always felt a certain holding back, a puritan restraint? Or maybe it was something about me.  Once, he blew up at me on the Kelly-Miller lot in Petaluma, over something I was being critical over.  And I did go on, and so I rather understood his explosive ire that day. I had to respect him for putting up with me.  We remained friends.

On the social side,  Don’s California Varieties, a showcase for eager young amateurs,  gave him a break from circus obsessions. He did a little plate spinning and was the show’s straight-faced MC.   He also would change coats several times through the program, a rare show of flair for Don.   

Sometimes I rode with him to one of the dates.   Many were at rest homes, some on military bases or at  small county fair fairs.  Nice good people.  One of his best friends was the woman who trained the dogs.  She also lived in El Cerrito, and spoke freely and openly.  A city adult.  After the shows, my favorite part, the company would adjourn to a nearby restaurant. Since I had grown up in a church where the performing arts where encouraged, I could appreciate spending time with these kind of people 

 Don wanted his variety show to become  bigger and more professional.  While I was on the road, in 1969, ahead of James Bros. Circus as press agent, in a letter to me, he excitedly raised the subject of my helping him promote California Varieties as a fund-raising venture for local groups.    “I think [there ] could be a field here for us which would give everyone some money ... (but no phone crews).”

I made a big effort out of it, talking to many local churches, following up, calling back, reminding.  Gradually, I had to let go of our not-very-strategic game plan. 

Don should have hired a phone man.


Next: Rise of The Circus Report