How Sad it Makes Me Feel

How Sad it Makes Me Feel

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Finding Circus on TV, In Small Towns, at Auctions ... Bow Wow, Big Top Simon! You Are the Spirit of Circus Past

    "'MORE THRILLING ACTS to come!” Yes, bring them on!  This from America’s Got Vaudeville (excuse me, Talent). This sly manipulator knows how to exploit thrilling aspects of authentic circus to its scheming advantage. If only they would axe that idiotically annoying on-stage host who mugs it up while acts are on, what, telling us how to react? Snippet watching, I caught a fellow juggling what looked like pancakes!  Three strong men in an incredible  balancing act worthy of high Monte Carlo recognition.  A rabbit that failed to do most of its tricks, and still fooled three foolish judges, but not the critically correct Simon Cowell.  I’m watching and wanting this unpredictable jamboree more.  But  it you ask me, most of the singers are all the same ... Booooring!  Bring on more Barnum & Bailey! ...

Simon loves dogs ... Simon, wait! -- A full fledged Brit, might he be the spirit of circus past helping to keep it alive in a form over here that plays to the millions?

   ON THE DARK SIDE of AGT, they dared to present a vulgar spectacle that should be outlawed: young woman against a target on wall, her mother shooting arrows at the edges of her face. The judges cringed, and so did I.  The judges swooned, and so did I not.  But, but ... Yes, you could argue the roots of gutsy circus in that too.  Okay, Simon, yeah, show us the beef. AGT hasn’t a second to waste on Cirque su Soleil tripe.  Bravo! 

     UK, YOU'RE ON:   From Simon to Boris the Great (the government), who is leaving things open to circuses and their patrons to more or less, between themselves decide on the proper protocol for masking and distancing. And I say that’s the right way to keep on living   But not so easy to bring off. This from my London source, Douglas McPherson, reporting in general that the same shows are still on the road as of this posting. But with customers polled by the big tops and split down the center on the issues of mask and distance, wonders Douglas “Which half of their audience will they please?”   It does not suggest an easy road when customers are at odds with each other.  “Time will tell, but it looks to me that the government's mixed message is handing all the problems and potential confrontations to businesses and the public.”    

   LITTLE TOPS on precarious parade.  I hold my breath when I try goggling up on their current status.  The shows are pitching to smaller population pools.  VENARDOS -- "the little circus that could" -- and ZOPPE planning dates in Colorado hamlets.  VARGAS on the west coast playing to mid-sized places like Santa Barbara and Downey, with Temecula on through August 23 .... UNIVERSOUL into National Harbor, MD, CULPPER &MERRIWEATER onto Princeton, same state.   HANNEFORD slates an August run in Cobleskill NY.  We’re not seeing big cities at the moment, and might not for a spell ...  CIRCO CABALERRO'S  last date shown in June 28 in Vegas, with no futures in sight.... The past haunts BIG APPLE CIRCUS.  Last item I can find about them alludes to an auction of assets ... Surprised Gotham is not covering this ... Well, that's right, it's only circus, hardly able to compete with hysterical media exploitation of Covid, Racism, and DC politics. 

At Zoppe & Zippos Circus!  Okay, NO, it's a Zoppe kid above, but I could not help merging these two zippy names into one. I am absolutely gaga over the name ZIPPOS.  Zip! Zip! Zip! Hip, hip, zip zip, and ain't that a pip!

   MEDIA, SHUT UP! And I watch you less!   It shamefully distorts numbers to lend catastrophic impressions.  New covid infections, yes but 99.5% of those infected have NOT been vaccinated.  99.5%. Source: Fauci and the Surgeon General. The un-vaccinated  will continue to prolong the economic hardships for everybody, and I fear tops big  will disproportionately suffer with their profit margins are so thin.

      AND THAT'S  not a cheery wrap.  No, it isn’t.  So, did I unmake your day?   Paging Kenneth Feld! ... Kenneth Feld to the rescue! ... 


Yes, cry clown, cry ...

Saturday, July 10, 2021

What About Irving J. Polack? What About Louis Stern? How American Circus History is Not Written and Why ...


7.22: CROWD LINED UP FOR MILES -- TURNING  'EM AWAY! What is it about this post?  Or is it another?  Is it L.A.? The last two days, surging crowds the likes of which I haven't seen in years. Looking back, seems that you -- whomever you are -- are drawn to the more serious stuff on or around our biggest circuses.

Update: In comments below, Jim Royal fondly remembers as a boy seeing Polack Bros. Circus in 1961.


My little litmus test, whenever I pick up a new book about circus, is to look in the index for the names of Irving J. Polack or Louis Stern.

Almost always, they are missing. Almost always, once again ignored by those press agents or fans or operatives (as mostly they are) who write these books that are rarely questioned by the people who review them. Does it even matter, many will ask, yawning off. It’s only the circus. Well, if as they say the victors in war get to write their own history, what can we expect under tents of popular amusement so far removed from urgent matters of life and death — of stock market crashes and presidential elections? Not much. To me it matters, and so, buckle down and get ready for a little shock therapy over sawdust.

Let’s begin with a simple overview of the problem. When the late Don Marcks and I would converse on the telephone, as often we did (only living about 15 miles apart), he once mentioned the name Joeseph Bradbury in connection with a circus video somebody hoped to get reviewed in Circus Report. Marcks told me that Bradbury sent the man a note, something like “send me a comp copy and I’ll give you a good review.”

A “good review.” No surprise at all. Pick up a copy of this or that fan magazine. In this cushy context, at least the blogs out there dare to issue adverse views now and then, which theoretically refreshes.

How are circus books written? Notwithstanding the scholarly treatments (although they too tend to distort issues in the heat of pc-induced epiphanies), usually they are penned in one of three manners: Author scratching backs of those who have either scratched his or will in return; Former press agent goes to work (like lobbyists are known to do) for ex-boss with puff prose, maybe getting something under the table or hoping for future employment; Circus fan just can’t bring himself to utter a down word. Or there’s the well-intentioned writer simply lacking in the basics of American circus history. It is not with relish but with a deference to respect for the neglected Mr. Polack and Mr. Stern, that I am about to step onto some tender toes. Somebody must. And If I am wrong, be my guest and step right back. But keep the expletives to yourself or you will be escorted into this midway's mandatory anger management course hosted in the big cage by Clyde Beatty.

Messrs. Polack and Stern have gotten shockingly little respect from libraryland. In John Culhane’s acclaimed The American Circus: An Illustrated History (that’s the one that reprints the Irvin Feld press kit by eliminating Art Concello from the picture), the name Polack Bros. Circus gets dropped a few times, but only in passing when a few of the acts who appeared with it are mentioned. In the cheerfully embracing, if not always reliable Step Right Up, by LaVahn G. Hoh and William H. Rough, whose text, claim the authors, was combed for accuracy by a brigade of historians, there is not a single reference to Polack or Stern or their circus. Ditto Ernest Albrecht’s seriously informative The New American Circus. And now we have The Circus: Garden of Eden-Pittsburgh (some of you, who have installed this magnificent piece of furniture in your home, will know it simply as The Circus: 1870-1950). This latter tome at least contains a few index entries for Polack Bros. Circus. Stern or Polack themselves? Nothing.

But, still, I keep looking. Out there in cyberspace, there is an ambitious new circus website that longs to be the end-all in on-line research for circus buffs and nerds, launched by Big Apple Circus. A lovely layout, it calls itself Circopedia. With promises to grow in coverage and scope, so far it is woefully incomplete and blatantly selective in who and what gets attention. And in predictably telling ways. No surprise that Paul Binder, who for many years employed the site’s principal contributor, Dominique Jando, merits a lush and adoring multi-paragraph tribute. We'll skip the glaring absence of John Ringling North, about which it's a given that Binder, no lover of three rings, would not have much to say. But nothing on Guy Laliberte? Now, this is tantamount to a ballet website failing to profile Sergei Diaghilev. In fact, Binder was a preservationist, not essentially an innovator.

Circopedia, (in which, presumably because it is cyber fluid, the names of Stern and Polack may one day yet appear) makes a rather bold claim that Mr. Binder’s show “reintroduced the one ring circus to America.” This is a little like the impression left in Mr. Albrecht's book, for it, too, seems curiously unaware of Polack Bros history, a subject most germane to Mr. Albrecht’s focus.

Let me tell you, if I must be the one, about the fine producing team of Polack and Stern. During the Great Depression, they operated essentially a carnie circus, something along the lines of what Hugo, Oklahoma, has been known to send out with funding from Peterson Peanuts. Stern had a conscience attack and talked his partner into cleaning up their vision. Or getting one. They pioneered a then radically new concept and took the idea to Shrine Temples, seeking sponsorships: A one ring circus. They produced some of the best ring performances ever, signing a steady succession of ex-Ringling stars, who themselves had been imported from abroad. The great Barbette, a true visionary, directed some of the Polack shows. In his memorable 1953 opus, Barbette inserted an enchanting little ballet, Carnival in Spangleland. The show drew big crowds; In San Francisco, it played 10-day engagements at the Civic Auditorium. It covered the U.S. with two units, the Eastern and the Western, each one touring for ten to eleven months. Some circusgoers preferred it to the mighty Ringling.

And then came to these shores, in 1963, the even more mesmerizing example of a one ring powerhouse in the form of the Moscow Circus. Three seasons later, Famous Circus Bartok was born. Sarasota based, it patterned itself after European styles by, among other things, placing its band above the performer’s entrance. The Russians returned in 1967 and played to sold out crowds in Oakland. I should know; I was one of hundreds turned away. The stage was more than set for the likes of the Pickle Family Circus, which followed in 1974, and Big Apple's first date, three seasons later.

Will Irving J. Polack and Louis Stern ever receive their just due? Thanks to the internet, they surely will -- the moment I click "publish" on this post.

[Polack Bros. Circus photos, from top: The 1955 program magazine cover; Irving J. Polack in a photo from the Showmen's League of America, for whom he served as president in 1947; Louis Stern in 1955; La Norma in 1953; Barbette's Carnival In Spangleland, 1953: Seen here are clowns Chester and Joe Sherman, dancer Marilyn Hightower, and Ronnie Johnarud; The Ward-Bell Flyers, 1953]

First published 2/27/09

Lost Angeles: Backlot City Spreads Gold Among the Garbage

The City That Never Is: One vast junky back lot of sets old and new — the best too bright and full of wonder to ignore.  Sharing space with this vast nothingness, they are the reason you go.  Find them and be entertained.   Be inspired.   Find them and believe in this sporadically brilliant one-story metropolis, squeezed callously between a rape of incestuous freeways along a dried up river bed, cemented over, a real river that once flowed with pure water and glistened under a paradise of endless sun.

Now, the “L.A. River” lays there like a disgraced skeleton nobody dares claim – they are all too busy making deals, tearing down the old to make way for the new in an ever-expanding mess of off ramps and on ramps, over and under.  Detour City.  Perhaps one day there will be no way out. Coming back over the Grapevine, the bus came to a stop, and for two tortuous hours I watched the same trucks and cars moving ahead then behind us, over and over in slow slow motion, wondering if we would ever see land again.  When we did, we managed to reach the place, where you transfer from bus-to-rail, called Bakersfield.  (No, no, David, leave that one alone.)

But, it’s the “in-between” that counts.  Move this way or that by a few miles, and another cultural oasis will smash your low opinion of the town.   Will make you fall in love all over again with the  towering treasures that keep its depressing sprawl an irresistible draw.  The Disney Concert Hall, up there on top, soars and glides, dances and swirls — without ever moving an inch.  Its mere existence, a miracle, shows the world how.  Los Angeles knows how to show the world how. The Getty museum, next three images, elevates art high on an exalted hill overlooking the insulting urban patchwork below.  It’s the American story, brother — you’ll find smaller versions of this depressing challenge everywhere.   Maybe a few blocks up the street from where you live.  Northern California’s Santa Rosa, once a  tender little town, also suffers the rape of auto-mania. Guns and gas.  Point made?   Consider that last sentence a sincere act of honest journalism.

Come here and gawk: oil wells in front yards!  Maybe still.  A brand new modern subway of ugly claustrophobic carriages (who designed these -- the IRS?) putting you six feet under — when the Big Earthquake breaks you’ll already be where you may have ended up, anyway, your burial on the town.

I have come to loath a subway system I loved when it opened.  Its individually designed stations, real artists in charge, showed the world how.  But one rush hour, a few visits back, I pushed myself down below into a stuffed and hot Metro car, which stalled now and then, and could not wait for the liberation I prayed God would grant me.  Suddenly, I rediscovered the charming relief of an above-ground bus ride!  Glory on high!  Something about fresh air and sunshine (okay, even smog) that appeals to my earth-bound nature.

Above L.A. once again, I exult in the humdrum rides that show me exactly where I am and where I am going.   And, of course, the MTA is cutting back on buses to force commuters down into these rat holes of human transport.  Why is it, then, that I never feel so doomed riding New York's rattletraps?  For one reason, perhaps: the riders in Gotham speak my own language.

Here are a few of the bus-stop photos I took on my bus ride out Sunset Boulevard to Westwood for a connecting bus to the Getty art museum   (This was intended to be a very sociological, award-winning photo spread, but then came Beverly Hills, with not a single soul anywhere at or around a bus stop.  And there my project died.)


The elevated  Gold Line, God bless it, feels so perfectly L.A.  Something about the sunshine it favors.    You glide, Disneyland-style, past a panorama of contrasts, cement plants to houses on hills, Italian style.   To another great museum, the Norton Simon, you are sanely delivered.  When the Big Quake rocks, I'd rather be above than below earth. 

Now the Gold Line, extended, moves the other way too.  I took it to reach another lovely oasis, Little Tokyo – the place that gave birth to the international acclaims that put a new troupe from Montreal, Cirque du Soleil, on the map.  In 1987.  I was there.   Wherever it was that Cirque pitched its little tent, there should be a plaque marking the historic occasion.    At the East West Players, they were presenting a revival of their 1999 work, Beijing Spring.  There was much to enjoy in thunderbolts of youthful passion and protest, passionaely scored, crossing a busy stage.  But the  scene inevitably expected, "tank man" stopping a column of tanks dead in their tracks, never arrived.  A major let down.


Sometimes, the city gets it right:  That depressing slab of old downtown, around Broadway, that festered with huge homeless encampments, along with society's dangerous outcasts, is now being transformed into thousands of upscale new condos and apartments, and a thriving working class revival. Anything wrong with that?  I have no problem with a return of civilization.

You can't sit here anymore!   Shame on Union Station for these ropes, that deny one the right to enjoy its phenomenal atmosphere

Worst thing about L.A?  Well, I see less and less of my own whenever I visit.  Ask somebody for directions and hear them tell you: “Me no speak English”.  Half the population is now Mexican. They keep on coming (I’ll refrain from going political) and will soon dominate the demographic contest.  What then? Our own version of South Africa -- hard working poor in tense alliance with a narrowing rich upper middle class? 

An exhilarating bus ride to the Getty out in Brentwood takes me through Beverly Hills. You are in Never Never Land. Gorgeous scenery all the way. 

At Fillippe's sawdust-over-the-floor restaurant, near Union Station, photos and posters hung during the era of the Paul Eagle's Circus Luncheon Club, ever shrinking in number and space allocation, still grace one wall.

Farewell, Back Lot City. You always send me away with a fresh goal; this time, I'm dreaming, how long before Union Station returns to its senses and cuts down the damn ropes encircling the lobby seats like prison-yard chains, killing the freedom for anyone to walk in, sit down, and savor the magnificence of it all?  It's up to you L.A -- L.A.!

[all photos by Showbiz David]

From June 14, 2014


Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Welcome to Little Circuses, America's New Normal ... To the Season of 2021!

 Good bye to ..

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

Cole Bros. Circus

Big Apple Circus

Carson & Barnes Circus

Kelly Miller Circus

And welcome to Little Circus, USA. Welcome to little big tops with big hearts.  This is the new normal in America. And, it would appear,  ours are no longer the most prosperous rings in the world. England now seems to be in the lead.  I can't think of a more deserving place, for they invented this thing called circus.

At the Zoppe Family Circus.  You can see horse riders and trapeze flyers. 

Warms my heart to see that Circus Vargas is back in operation.  They should have California all to themselves, far as I can see.  Please don't forget us up here in the Bay Area, Mr V.! Ah yes, the great "Mr. V" as he was so fondly called when he produced awesomely. 


I'd love to see the "dream-come-true" for former Ringling ringmaster, Kevin Venardos -- as he calls his circus. His lovely little tent seats a compact 350 souls, easier to sell out --- I hope  He is now trouping through  Colorado. 

 And here's the redoubtable Culpepper & Merriweather Circus. They've got a big little cage act in the show!  

I'd guess that Hanneford may have the best show on the road. Or, could it be ....

Yes, "America's black owned circus," as they ballyhoo it  to the max.  The cool are calling it the coolest show on Earth.  It's funky, I know that, painted in exotic colors, humored by sass and jazz.  I only saw one show, years ago, and was struck by two or three outstanding acts. The rest was a fizzy funny party.  

I have to hand it to them for marketing.  They got a full proof lock on protest-free patronage.  Funny, I do not recall the best acts being of black skin.  But of colors elsewhere.  You got to hand it to them: This is -- I assume -- a show cleverly and naturally in sync with woke culture.   So then, the big UniverSoul Question: Will they draw the big crowds that few circuses have been drawing the past few years?  And how will we ever know?  Maybe it's best not to know. 

Wait just a moment! Writes Don Covington, bringing to our attention another big player now brilliantly in motion,  "Las Vegas based Circo Hermanos Caballero is also back on the road, featuring young Anru Caballero performing the quad in the flying act.  He hits it just about every show.  After two Nevada stands, the show will move into California."

YES!   And I can't wait!

A ringmaster watches his little living dream.  John Strong would happily relate.  I am urging everyone to spend high at the ticket window.  Show a lot of green.  You know what they have all been through.


Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Train Ride to Sane and Serene

Greeting me at the Culpeper, Virginia train station: Sister Kathy, once employed by Sigmund Travel in Pasadena, niece Debbie, who handled the phones for American Express/travel, and niece Lisa, 20 years a flight attendant at United.

Waking up to a bright golden haze.  We are a million miles from the state of insanity out on the far west, hell bent on denying even nature it’s ways and dictates. Hell bent on rewriting the script of human existence.  The freaks are now running the show in San Francisco.

Kathy's talking wonder

We drive to Luray, pop: 4, 800, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, where normal is still in fashion. Oh what a beautiful feeling!   First stop: Kathy's house on Willow Street. In the mornings, we take walks with her little dog Scooter along the Green Way, a lovely river stream winding through downtown. Scooter is a go-to attraction all in himself.  The way he lavishly licks you upon entering.  The way he can look up at you. STARE at you.  At one surreal point, by the sounds of his almost audible grunting, I could swear we were that close to actually conversing!

A few night later, to the world of Lisa, her husband Brian, and son Noah I go.   Their 18 acre spread is  surrounded by farmland — cows to crops.  The glow of barley now covers an open field directly in front of their house, now rented to a nearby farmer.  Howdy, neighbor, howdy seeds!

Riding the Rails of  Bureaucracy 

To get me from here to there, Amtrak’s perky little Cardinal out of Chicago railed through what felt like a living painting of lakes and streams and deep green  mountains rising undisturbed.  I'm calling this my second favorite train ride, second only to the Coast Starlight through Oregon, The Cardinal’s staff is something of a fiefdom unto itself, bending the rules a tad and coming off a little more human -- the perfect fit for treading the uncertainties of a pandemic. This is your down home train. Note the Corona-crimped table plating.  Food is quite tasty, if a bit mashed together.  Amazingly, coach passengers are denied access to it, but stuck at the heartless sodium dispensary (aka: lounge cafe). A shame.  Amtrak's lame excuse: With distancing, we haven't the space to seat them. But, you haven't the room for take out?  This really shocked me.

         Beware the Amtrak  Obstacle Bedroom

Not so down home or comfortable are Amtrak’s super pricey bedrooms.  After sampling them three times now, I am walking, no running back to the more user-friendly little economy compartments, and here’s why:1.  Sound through the walls is louder then in the small units.  2.  The toilet and shower are squeezed into such a small space, it can be an ordeal to maneuver in. And I am skinny. Are you not? Good luck. Compared to this,  the public toilets downstairs are a spacious luxury 3. In the smaller compact economy compartments, you have objects closer at hand to grab if the train throws a curve at you. 5.  When the lower bed in the bedroom is down. you get about five inches between it and a cabinet with sink – and the door to exit.  So, I’d suggest bringing a bridge ladder or be prepared to crawl or high jump over the bed  to reach the door.  A MAJOR design flaw.

Hello, Neighbor, Hello Cow!

Out Lisa and Brian's way, I stayed in the latest addition to their property, actually an old abandoned farm house on the grounds, built c. 1880, which they have magnificently renovated.  At daybreak,  I slip through a door in my bedroom out onto a restful porch. Spotted Lisa dabbling around her two ducks.  The breakfast she served me included lettuce fresh from her baby garden. They are not farmers per say, although Lisa is dabbling in ducks and vegetables and maybe chickens. Corn will soon be on the rise.                         


This old shed is deliciously authentic.

Captain Sky (Brian, who pilots for United, here recovering from surgery) barbecued some great blackened hot dogs and whipped us up strawberry shortbread, served  out on the east deck  of their  large wood house, which they call "the cozy cabin."  This is what sold them on moving up from Florida to Luray.  To get to work, Brian drives back and forth to DC, up to two hours each way.

Curtain up, Japan! 

The grill his stage, the utensils his props

One evening we drove to the town Front Royal, to be regaled around the Mikado grill by Chef Anon from Indonesia. He juggles utensils, and taps them against the grill, producing  rare waves of clicking sounds. He paddle-tossed shrimp to open mouths, and managed to land one or two.  The one for me landed on my left lens, and got a laugh.  This is a big event – the most entertaining meal of my life.  What a showman!  And then I was told there are many like him in other eateries, having been trained in a long Japanese tradition.

Not to overlook American soul food, another evening, chef Kathy had us her over for a wonderful spread of roast beef, mashed potatoes, all the fixings, topped off with apple pie. Mmmmm yummy good.

Somewhere in the scramble of action from barnyard to board game, we took in a movie at the Page Theatre, a multi-plex operation still in operation, thanks to the family who bought it and are keeping it on life support.  The film was  Disney’s high voltage Cruello, in its best moments riotously funny. Haven’t laughed that hard in a long while. This town incredibly now has three stages.  What next? The Luray Metropolitan Opera?

My board game, Cant Stop Shopping, created with friend Boyi Yuan, is finally-- maybe -- taking off. With the addition of Act On coupons, players have more options – rolling dice or playing them.  And here am I, once again losing, this time to Debbie, down from Alaska'.  Shame on me! 

Brian, observing  shrewd shopper Noah plotting, dubbed his son a "15-year-old capitalist."   Noah recently landed his very first job, as a guide on weekends at the Luray Caverns, a big tourist draw for the town.  He loves it. Last weekend, the place was swamped with Indians from India.  They do love their caverns, I believe, recalling Forster's A Passage to India.

           Monopoly Lives Again!

Just when I had about given up on ever getting back the fun Monopoly had once given me, a turn of fate and a kid named Noah revived it.  There I sat, about to wipe him off the board, when this cunning little sneak charmed me into selling him for outrageous sums of money— where did he get it all? — property on the cheapest side.  He then  preceded to build off of it an empire of quiet retaliation.  Gotta concede, it was fun being demolished by so sly an opponent.  Next time I face Noah, I am having legal counsel at my side, preferably somebody from the better business bureau. 

I Talk to the Trees

Lisa pointed to “the grove,” and I did not see a grove.  She focused on a lone row of trees in the distance and I still did not see a grove.  Then she walked me over there, and I was soon feeling something , let’s call it transcendental.  At the end of the row of trees,  a few  almost formed a kind of  circle, and in it I almost felt a connection to Waldon Pond – without the pond. I went there again. Perfectly still, tranquil, detached.  So many moods on this plantation.

Lisa and Debbie took the train ride with me, as far as Chicago.  Never have I traveled through a state so thoroughly enveloped in green.  Au Revoir, fun family of Luray!