Today is World Circus Day!


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Staggering Achievement in Circus History Captures Tragic Lives of Leitzel and Codona, Reveals Ringling as Never Before

UPDATE, 4/17, 1:32 PST: I am in communication with a well-placed source on the subject of Leizel and Codona which may result in significant revisions to parts of this review, or a separate post.

Book review
Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus

Dean Jansen
Crown, 2013

Here is a book for the ages, and why did it take me so long to get to it?

In her fiery heyday thrilling spectators with her high-energy gymnastics under the big top, Lillian Leitzel was arguably the greatest solo star ever to grace the rings of Ringling. So transcendent a figure had she become, that American soldiers during World War I voted her “the most beautiful and attractive woman in all the world,” Hollywood included. Men of note, Henry Ford among them, lined up to play suitor to the charismatic dynamo, who stood all of four foot nine.   Did they or didn’t they?  I have my doubts.  Even with Alfredo, I have my doubts.

More likely, everything was carefully choreographed to build up an epic image bigger than life, bigger even than the circus itself.  John and Charles Ringling caved to the diva’s demands for a private car on the train, her own dressing tent on the lot, both concessions unheard of at the time.  The brothers also helped fuel her flame by encouraging her various affairs, believing the notoriety would bring more glamor and attention to the circus.

Conceived in rape,  Leitzel grew up to be her own best agent, and once installed on the Ringling lot, she reigned supreme, like a self-appointed queen.   Nobody dared question the coming and goings of  their blazing headliner, whose first two ill-fated marriages come off looking more comical than sincere.  

Perhaps more sincerely, Leitzel doted on giving circus children morning lessons in her tent, and over the center ring later in the day, throwing kisses to the crowds as she whirled furiously above them, teasing her way up to the big trick — her famous one arm rollovers numbering sometimes over a hundred. Those spinning revolutions composed, so it was written, a “white blur.”  Once back on the ground and back to theatrics, Leitzel cursed out her maid and fired her. Then rehired her. Happened every day. Which sounds a bit scripted to me. And why not? Every day on the circus, she had a whole new audience to play to.

A Joyful Exuberance

How good was the act, really?  If I have a problem with Leitzel’s art and this extraordinary book, it is this: Of the scarce film footage of it from the late 1920s that have studied,  I want to feel a thrill I can’t quite feel. That “white blur” does not come through.  Notwithstanding the photo, her leg extensions can be awkward, the transitions from one trick to the next, labored.  But there is something maybe more at work here. By shunning  – or failing -- the polish of ballet that others such as Con Coleano incorporated, Leitzel may have intensified the passionate exuberance she projected, a rough tumbling spirit as lively as the three ring circus.

Enter Her Great Love

Trapeze god Alfredo Codona (not, by the way,  Mexican, but of Scottish and French blood) comes through as a bit more humble, though in the end he turns stark raving mad. He and Leitzel in love – or playing to each other’s need for constant attention and rumorizing —  tangled ruthlessly in romance, tormenting the hell out of each other by flaunting side affairs.  But Leitzel gets the prize for Greatest Act of Cruelty on Wedding Day.  She kept Alfredo and guests waiting for over three hours. Yes, three hours. The groom might have walked away. The groom was being taught how to be a more pitiful person.
Two Unforgettable Endings

When Leitzel’s rigging fails in Copenhagen, sending her to her death in 1931, I wept. So did I weep being pulled though the last punishing days of Codona’s tragic end, trapeze god felled by a fall, down to failed ringmaster, and then onto car garage mechanic in Long Beach, CA. With Leitzel gone, he defaulted to his flying partner Vera Bruce, begging her over and over again to marry him.  She did not love the man, but finally she gave in, and likely did not give out. The doomed marriage ended the lives of both in the office of a divorce lawyer, where Codona, armed for the occasion, first took down Vera, and then himself.

Ringling Revealed As Never Before

Beyond Leitzel & Codona, the circus of Ringling, as magnificently narrated by the masterful Jensen, rides high and wide on fresh revelations, some quite startling, all of which makes for an enormously enthralling read. Some nuggets among many:

John Ringling, in the painting above, admired by his nephew, John Ringling North, comes through perhaps more vividly here than in any other book I have read. 

And then there is the lowdown on Charles Ringling and wife Edith (Edie) the latter described as “extraordinarily indulgent.” Perhaps this trait drove Charlie into the charms of other women.   He tried but failed to snare touchy-feely time in the private tent of his highest paid performer.  He did better in darkened bijous with at least one show girl. And her name was not Edith Ringling,  Her name was Anna Stais. As observed by another figure in the movie house essentially up to the same thing, Charlie “had his arm around her and his head was resting on her shoulder.”   Astonishing, considering how the brothers explicitly banned all “accidental meetings”between the sexes in various public places.  

The Wallendas Enter the Tent

Nowhere have I read a better account of the Wallendas first night at Madison Square Garden to a prolonged standing ovation, declared by The Billboard “easily the best act the circus ever had, and the most daring.” I can believe this, oh can I. For, many years later when the troupe performed their legendary 7-high pyramid at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds pavilion, to the eyes of an 11-year-old, it felt as if circus gods from on high had briefly descended to give him a revelation of true wonder.  That day sealed my fate.

Troubling Assertions

Nothing is perfect, and small errors are to be expected.  Bigger ones?  Red flags must be raised here.  First and foremost, hard to understand why Jensen did not go deeper to learn, easy to learn at the time he was nearing publication, that British born Ernest Clarke was not the first flyer to nail the triple.  That honor goes to Russian-born  Lena Jordan, and if you still don’t believe me, check out Wikipedia.   Still  don’t?  Okay, how about Guinness Book of World Records?  In fact, the record was talked about  on the Circus Historical Society history message board, July 1, 1965.

Nor was Jensen without expert guidance in his research, drawing from from the likes of Fred Dahlinger, Greg Parkinson, Fred Pfening III.  I have to wonder if any of these three were asked to read the manuscript or proofs. Why oh why such an inexplicable blunder?  

Leitzel did not always get the entire performance area to herself, as Jensen fanfares.  I’ve seen her listed in old Ringling programs as appearing in seven-act displays.  Once, solo.  Here if the 1925 program:

A Legacy Barely a Blur

Curiously, the legacy of Lillian Leitzel does not hold up well in lists out there of all time circus greats. Although these lists are so wildly different as to make each seem meaningless..Her name is totally missing in several I have looked at. On others, she is never at the top. The History Channel places her at the bottom of a list of 8, below May Wirth.  She fails a list of 15, the most phenomenal female performers.

Sadly, we may never be able to see the Lilian Leitzel that others saw in her best years. What I miss the most is the white blur.  What I enjoy the most is the spectacle of her crossing the lot, with her tall maid trailing her, on her way to the tent where the crowds are waiting to be thrilled.  I love the warm waving looks she gives to bystanders on the way. Her true love.

The childless Leitzel with Dolly Jahn, 1926, celebrating the girl's birthday.

This book must rank as one of the greatest big top tomes of all time.  Need I say any more, America?  



Saturday, February 27, 2021

Now Available on Amazon! Those Ringlings: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Musical ... How True to Life Might it Be? ... Drawing From the Hints of History

"A show that is basically better than Barnum" -- VARIETY

Making musicals fly can take a toll on history.  Some of our most cherished hits (My Fair Lady, Carousel) resort to feel-good endings unfaithful to source material. The Sound of Music is nearly a total fairy tale. 

Starting from the facts 

On solid ground, the through line --- my central theme --- follows five young brothers who take on a corrupt circus world by refusing to condone or sanction all manner of grift, and win the hearts of Americans.  

But there are other areas in their story, ill detailed in history, that left me free to fill in with some creative dramatizing.  In particular:

When and how did Al and Louise Ringling actually meet?  

(Please note: See the post following this one for much more on the subject)

I find this the most puzzling of all the things we do not not know.  After all, how many couples do not remember how and where they met?  Of course, Al and Louise would know, but may simply never have shared it with others -- or with writers. In his book Circus Kings, Henry Ringling North states that Al met Louise "during his travels."   By the most persuasive accounts, she, Eliza Morris, was a widow (of 2 children, assumed to have died in their early years) and a dressmaker.  I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Al met Louise while both were working on a circus. No other account in the several books I  have verify this.* More likely is that they could have met each other when both, in their childhood years, lived in McGregor, Iowa.  It seems clear that Louse became a versatile performer after she met Al. They were married in December, 1883. But, then again in  Hoboken, NJ in 1890. I sometimes think of her as the stronger willed  of the two.

What was the relationship between Al and Louse?  

They were childless, as were both Otto and John Ringling. Might their so-called second marriage in Hoboken been taken to more firmly establish marriage, because, I am speculating, Louise became pregnant?  Did Louise, in fact, want what Al did not want?   Might they have ever taken in or befriended a young boy, running away with the circus, as a substitute figure?  She had a (possibly young) chauffeur, and rumors alluded to an affair between the two.  From one very reliable source a few years back, I was informed of Louise’s once telling a friend that Al, as he became more prosperous, became “boring.”

Why did Al offer Louise $100,000 to retire and move away?   

The incidents above may play into this rumor.  And, if true, it suggests to me  that Al was more in love with her, and on a deeper level, than she with him.  All of these elements influenced my adaptation.

What did the brothers think of P.T. Barnum?  

It’s doubtful that Barnum knew or had much reason to care about the boys in their early mud-show years.  He lived only a year after they went out on the rails, in 1890. But they surely would have known everything about the celebrated “prince of humbug.”  In fact, on March 28, 1884,  two months before the boys started up their own circus, Barnum unveiled his sacred white elephant hoax in New York city.  And his famous elephant, Jumbo, died the following year.  So, on their way up, the brothers would likely have joked about Barnum’s showmanship, and even started blasting away at his tawdry attractions — by implication, linking them to grift.

Anything goes with John Ringling

He was bigger than life, the Ringling who grabbed all the attention and bullied his brothers around  until he got his way, a self-made circus king who looked back upon the people of Baraboo, where he had grown up, as  “Baraboobians.”  

This youngest Ringling brother once audaciously booked space for their big top to rise directly across the street from the Barnum & Bailey’s Bridgeport winter quarters!  Or so it has been written.  Quintessential John Ringling.     

John in his big wooden shoes song, featured in the Rnglings' winter vaudeville shows, and likely in their first circus, from The Life Story of the Ringling Brothers  

Free and independent
advance man on the run
By day, a bid for business
By night, a run for fun!

“Oh, Johnny I’m waiting
with arms you were made for!”

Ho, ho, what I’ll trade for
garters going down
Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows
are coming to town!

“We think the script is really wonderful”
– Tyler Dubrowsky
Associate Artistic Director
Trinity Repertory Company 

Published by BearManor Media

Buy on Amazon, google "Those Ringlings"

or at the publisher’s website:  

* Sources drawn from: Harlow’s The Ringings: Wizards of the Circus; Circus Kings, by Henry Ringling North; Ringlingville, by Jerry Apps; Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, by Alf. T. Ringling, 1900;   Plowden’s Those Amazing Ringings and their Circus


Sunday Shocker: The Strange Mystery of Eliza Morris and Her Marriage(s) to Al Ringling ...


“The private married life of Al and Lou Ringling was one that is full of mystery from the beginning,” wrote Sauk County (Iowa) Historical Society President, Paul Wolter in 1915.

Indeed. And to the end.  By the most reliable accounts, Eliza Morris, born in 1851, was a dauntless woman of steely independence and diverse talents, from sketch artist to dressmaker, and then on to teamster, snake charmer, and equestrienne – after she became romantically entangled in the circus of Al Ringling & brothers, destined to reach the throne of American big top power.

First, The Facts

There are a few things we do know for certain: That Lou, as Al would come to call her, lived in McGregor, Iowa, at a period when the Ringling family also lived there.  That she eloped at the age of 16 with Jefferson Redding.  And that the date of his death is unknown.  That she later married Al Ringling, one year younger than herself.    
That Al filed for divorce in 1914, and three months later, after dropping the action, offered Louise $100,000 (2.5 million by today’s dollars) to smooth things over.

That Lou, who outlived Al by 25 years, was left with a lot of money — and more yet from Al’s will —  which she fearlessly if not foolishly invested in a number of real estate ventures that failed, one being The Fern Dance Pavilion at Mirror Lake.

That she died at the age of 91, in 1941, leaving her entire estate to William Prielipp, her long-time chauffeur, who 12 days later married.  But, as reported in The Billboard, the will was contested by Louise Ringling’s nephews and nieces, who prevailed, and the judge ruled that she had died intestate.  Her estate was valued at  $6,500 -- $167,000 in today's dollars.  I must say, I feel sorry for the chauffeur. 

What We Don't Know For Certain

 * How many children she may have had by Redding, and why virtually nothing was known about them.  Wolter claims that one census (date not given) showed Lou as “the mother of three children.”  And that none of them of them were living in 1910.

* How and where did Al meet Louise?  They may have met as children,  or at a dance, some McGregor locals believed, but in his book Circus Kings,  Henry Ringling North wrote “on his travels.”  Street Scenes from Ringling Road placed the event in McGregor.  “Albert met a young widow named Eliza Morris. Albert shared his dreams of the entertainment world with her, she listened, and together they collaborated and turned their dreams into a success.”  

* Where and when did Al and Louise marry?  By two accounts, they tied the knot in 1880.  But in a letter Lou wrote to Al’s mother and father dated  December 21, 1884, it would have been the year before on the same December date — five months before the brothers took out their first circus.

She wrote, “I suppose I should say father and mother, but it seems kind of strange to say that.  But it has been long anuff ago to not be strange by now... I supposed you knew all about Al and I being married and I think Al wrote it to you last winter just after we was married.”

Not so easy! There is yet another year and another place were they married. Kind of a circusy encore? No, I am not kidding you.  And I am on firm Sauk County historical ground. Yes, they tied a knot a second time, when in 1890, Al and lou went to Hoboken, NJ for a do over. I have never heard of such a thing, but we are in the world of Louise Ringling.  Okay, here I go, SPECULATING: (How I wish I could hire Sherlock)  Let’s say Al never wanted kids, because Lou was too much an asset as performer (not so easy then recruiting women), but gave in when they were now on rails and making good money, and let’s say that Lou got pregnant, and they did not want to have the child out of wedlock? Bit of a stretch? Lou would have been 39-years-old at the time.

 * Why did Al file for divorce in 1914?  (photo above taken that year) Adultery?  Maybe with her chauffeur, William Prielipp?  On Lou’s side, she was said to have made known that once Al became rich, he became “boring.” Somehow, the divorce was averted (court records specifying cause of action do not survive), and three months later, to “make amends,” the rapidly ailing Al gave his wife the whopping one hundred grand.  He died a year and a half later, on January 1, 1916.

 My Own Wedding Scene

In my musical Those Ringlings, there is an early scene shared by Al and Louise in a small hotel room in a small town,  alluding to their having just been  married. And now, after finding all of these new disclosures, the scene strikes me as suitably sketchy to where they were then in their lives.  A young staff member from the hotel enters to offer a gift.  And the three together form a kind of portrait — about as close as Al and Louise Ringling would ever get to having a real family of their own. 


Friday, February 26, 2021

Friday First Draft Fangless, I Think -- Therapy Parrots to Seat Wagon Sightings ... L'Amyxed Up for Take Out ...

From January 16, 2009

World, come in! Now and then, a peep from foreign shores, and it's about time. About thirty percent of the traffic on this here midway comes in accented, and I wonder as I wander what they are thinking. So, how nice to hear from a real Aussie, Barry Nixon, who chirps, “Know your cribbing is read and appreciated." Fond memories have I for the Aussies (we will table Circus Oz for the moment -- but what a stunner, Oz under a tent!). In their Outdoor Showman, once edited by the gentlemanly Richard Holden, when I was once young and full of myself (as if I no longer am), I got published many times, leading up to my big break in the pages of Variety. And during that period taken for granted (blame it on my youth), a Japanese scholar, Dr. Shigi Yajima, who also scribbled for OS, writing knowledgeably on world circuses, and I think teaching kids on one of the Australian shows, struck up a congenial correspondence with me. Had I only been more internationally grateful and sustained the good vibes into my more prolific times. We might have met, and what a pleasure it would have been to compare views on circus with a soul so far away from my own world. From what I have been able to gather, this kind and knowing man who so graciously reached out to me is no longer with us: How sad, the many chances that pass us by ...

Zoo’s in session, kids: (Me, a zookeeper, what a laugh; I tell friends “give me poetry, not biology”). Over there, somewhere near the Indian Ocean, animal trainer Patricia White floats her faithfully certain views on animal emotions my way, causing a whole lot of mostly constructive debate. (My regrets, Ms. White, over your getting unfairly battered around in here.) Now, fully aware that the views of say, a Casey McCoy are in rational sync with the majority of scientific opinion on the subject (no evidence whatever that animals have feelings), still, it’s what Ms. White has to say that plays to my romantic side: "Have I 'loved' some of my animals? Absolutely. Have they 'loved' me back? In some cases, in their own language, in their own lion-tiger-dog-horse- animal way, I'm sure of it." ... Others have added smart insights, among them Ben Trumble: “We’re hardwired to look for emotion in every human nuance, it’s hard to imagine that other animals don’t share the same schematic ... Animals learn through play and its’ enjoyable.” And Alan as in Cabal, somewhere up there in Maine, I presume, reports a wry sense of humor from his Coon cat Scooter: “He steals things and hides them around the house. Occasionally he returns them by dropping them in front of me. And laughs. He also quite obviously adores me, as I do him.” You heard it here, folks ...

Concessions to Concessions: I caused a few brain cells to work overtime with my recent rant. Says Henry of Edgar, making a point I had overlooked but kind of sort of agree with: I, too, can tolerate candy butchers working the seats AS LONG AS THE SHOW DOES NOT STOP, THANK YOU. “What makes our business look bad is the unexpected cost — the huge adult ticket necessary to use the free kid ticket. But the worst is the constant interruption of the show for pitches” Yes, Henry, let the popcorn pushers push so long as a stream of action streams thrillingly by ... And another high thinker, elevated balloon man Dick Dykes, points the finger of blame at a major culprit: “The trouble with the Ringling show they want it all! And when it gets right down to it, they are keeping a lot of people from attending any circus after they get done with them! I’m sorry but that’s the way I see it.” Dick, those Ringling designer snow cones are Exhibit A in your favor. Exhibit B: When I purchased a $3.00 reserved seat ticket in 1955, the cost of the program magazine was 25 cents. Compare that modest ratio to today's cost.

Seat wagon addicts (all three of us), this one’s for US: In the current issue of Bandwagon, Bill (Buckles) Woodcock mentions the ingeniously designed Art Concello seat wagons, remarking that they might not have saved that much labor time. In their favor? “Knowing they would not fall down as I have seen some seats do.” ... Years ago, good friend and fellow seat-wagon addict Bob Mitchell drove me miles south of Sarasota, down past an open field, and there in the distance, half mired in dirt, was an emblem of a lost golden age, fading away, and I thought I’d found a shred of the promised land. Through high grass this wimp walked (not being told that rattle snakes lurked about), and when at last he touched the frame of the wagon, into the rear compartment he climbed, imagining it to be where Unus or Del Oro, Tonito or La Norma had once costumed up and rested between shows. Is anybody still with me?

End Ringers: Cyber courier Don Covington forwards news of a big PBS TV documentary to be set in and around Big Apple Circus. I only hope it’s more exiting than this press release promise: Cameras to be aimed “not just under the big top, but far behind it — into what circus folk call 'the backyard,' the place where the trailers are parked and the real heart of the circus beats.” Not in the ring? ... Guy Laliberte, profiled by a Brit reporter over in Vegas for the Independent to check out Believe. She, one Alice Jones is fairly dazzled by the king's boast of being "The No. 1 entertainment company in the world," but not by his latest offering, starring illusionist Criss Angel. Although she found some elements to her liking, “the show never really takes off.” Post premiere, Laliberte’s concession of non-success pointed to an off-course misfire. “Cirque doesn’t work with stars,” said he, “It’s not an easy thing to do. We are a collective.” ... Circus animals are evidently emotional enough to calm the jittery among us. Here’s "service animal" Sadie, a parrot profiled in The New York Times (you just have to read the story; in last Sundays magazine), who moves about on the shoulder of troubled Jim Eggers, sensing his every mood, and issuing warnings: “It’s okay, Jim. Calm down, Jim. You’re alright, Jim. I’m here, Jim.” Oh, I had so much more stuff, and I'm just getting warmed up, but Gerti, my service turtle just whispered, “Fangs, David, fangs. Time for your daily dose of meditation?”

Alan, have you and yours yet tried off-Broadway? ...

[photo above of Sadie and Jim3 Eggers, by Jeff Riedel/The New York Times]

1.16.09 Sunday Morning Looking Back Friday First Draft ..

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Sunay Pause: Will Summer Be Another Bummer?

 I like the way they have of filling up the ring.

When will it ever end? And when it is said to, how long to get people under the tents? All the viral spin-offs out there keep me on edge.

Circus being a big thing still for little tots new to life and too young to spin conspiracy theories or cry social injustice to media whores, I'd guess, barring the teachers unions banning big tops, too, that the kids should be good to go by June. Biggest reason: the critical kiddy demographic had been thoroughly immune to corona's touch. I am deferring  to SCIENCE.

Of course, the parents might not be so okay with it. Which poses a conundrum (my first time using that word, and maybe the last). 

If I had kids, I would want to go, but inside a warm stuffy tent?  Outdoors surely is the better, safer option, requiring only the raising of the sidewalls. In the wake of the horrific Hartford circus fire of 1944, Ringling returned to the road under the open sky and the crowds came  The smaller community shows that already thrive in parks should have an easier time recapturing an audience.

Let me right now check out the Big Apple Circus website to see if I can detect a telling difference over there, one way or the other. Be back in a jiff!

Glumly unchanged, as like an empty storefront awaiting a new tenant:.

Big Apple Circus is not currently performing due to COVID-19 safety and assembly precautions.

Far more promising is the cheer and hope from Smirkus up New England way:

"Last April, when for the first time in Smirkus' history we announced the cancellation of the Big Top Tour, we never thought it could happen twice. However, public health guidelines will still not allow us to travel throughout New England, and even if the world begins to open up this spring, it will not allow us the safe and effective window needed to plan a traditional Big Top Tour.

"But the creative thinking and optimism that are part of the DNA of Circus Smirkus remain unaffected by the pandemic! ... We will have more for you in the months ahead: more virtual programming; more messages of hope and excitement from Greensboro; and more ways for you to engage with us. Let's embark on a re-imagined 2021 together!  

Wishing you joy and magic,

Jennifer Carlo, Executive Director

Now, doesn't this not  make you feel a little more hopeful?

P.S. Do you ever inside your own living space catch yourself wearing a mask, or pulling up a sweater over your nose?  Would this, too, be a conundrum? I need to look up the word.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sunday Between Pages: Circus Books that Never Die, and You Don't Need a Mask to Read Them ...

Update 1.31.21 Lately, for those who read my blog, you will know I have been immersed in my favorite books in researching Ringling history. The subject is infinitely complex, deep, never ending, as witness this list.  There were so many brothers and so many stories and so much drama. Two of them, one newly added to this last, I have reread.  

To put their dominance in another perspective concerning American big top history: How many major books are there out there on Barnum & Bailey?  On Adam Forepaugh?  The Sells Bros?  On the American Circus Corporation shows? On Polack Bros.?  Circus Vargas?  Even, to be inclusive, given there principle source of income in the USofA, Cirque du Soleil? How many?

The following post came out  five years ago.


Circus books.  What makes for a good read?   Prose or scholarship?  Please be aware, there are many books I have never read.  I rarely buy books, but read them from the library, if they are available.  These personal favorites are here primarily because they entertain me and I find them generally trustworthy.  All doubtlessly contain errors.  It's the bigger picture that counts.

Books that fail to make my list strike me as agenda-driven, giving undue or disproportionate attention to favored figures or to fringe groups or social and cultural "studies."  Others come off as irresponsibly incomplete, such as Linda Simon's vividly-written The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus, so exciting at the outset, so limp and empty at the end.  Example?  She completely ignores the entire Russian-Soviet circus scene -- a colossal blunder.  And it suggests, the best reason I can come up with, a political bias against Communist countries (she also, as I recall, ignores China).

Yes, books about the Ringling juggernaut tend to dominate anybody's list, as they do mine, because that's the circus in this country that everybody wants to write -- or read -- about. 

Be warned:  "scholarship," no matter how many footnotes or end notes, is only as good as is the objectivity and honesty of the author in bringing it all to the table.  Even then,  any quoted "source" -- an interview, a passage from another book, press releases and program magazine materials  --  may itself propound misinformation.  Most troubling is the compromising writer who excludes knowledge in order to serve a preset narrative. 

New to the list, an overlooked gem.  In my recent Ringling research tear, I took it out and am re-reading it. Published in 1950, Harlow is absolutely wonderful in how he narrates the boys' circus dreams from the first kid show onto the Big Show.  And it gives me renewed respect for how they learned to work together so well. I feel in greater awe of them than ever, how they merged so intelligently, allowing each other autonomy.  Al was first and foremost the leader, but others, too, lead.  Of course, Harlow must have drawn most of their early years from Alf. T. Ringling's 1900 tome, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers. I want to give it another read, full or selective.

My top of the list.  I discovered Earl Chapin May's classic at a very young age.  Loved the way it is written, the fast-moving parade of actors on the stage of circus history.  I still refer back to the book, time and time again.   May coined the phrase  "the ever changing, never changing circus."  Too bad the book came out in 1932, just before a war among Ringling heirs for control of the circus was about to be waged.

Barely in my teens, I found This Way to the Big Show (1936) high on a library shelf in Santa Rosa, took it down, checked it out, and was fascinated.  Dexter Fellows, one of the most colorful circus press agents ever, flaked mostly for Buffalo Bill and later for Barnum & Bailey under the Ringlings, when Otto was at the helm. He paints a richly detailed account of how circuses operated, including a juicy chapter, The Customer is Always Wrong, on how con men worked suckers in so many clever ways.  First rate coverage.

 *Update 12.29.20  I have re-read parts of it again.  This time, I was struck  by Fellows' vivid account of his tense dealings with Otto Ringling, who rode press agents hard for all the free passes they fought for and gave out.  It is eye-opening, for I had always thought of Otto as a dull bland sort of book-keeping genius. Here, he comes across as anything but, fully in command.  And this ads to my respect and regard  for the collective strength and power of those five remarkable bothers. Here, we see  Otto up close, in a way no scholar looking back through secondary research could ever hope to capture.  High recommended for Ringlingphiles.

Possibly the most entertaining circus page turner of all time.   Its author, Connie Clausen, joined the Big Show as a "ballet broad," during the boom years of  John Ringling North, who himself, so it is written, discovered Clausen on a Sarasota street in 1942, and talked her into joining the show.   And what a tale she tells!   

Famed Ringling equestrian director Fred Bradna,  sharing memories and inside information with writer Hartzel Spence, offers a vibrant account of his life with the circus.  The man who blew the whistle to keep three rings and four stages in constant motion, Bradna offers incisive critiques of the greatest ring stars.

Henry Ringling North, adoring brother of John, fashioned, with Alden Hatch, a warm and wonderful history of his Ringling family story.   Like most books, not error free. Still, a major and generally trustworthy valentine to North's famed uncles.

Gene Plowden's cheerfully informative  chronicle of the Ringling Bros. story contains a compelling subplot on John Ringling, most famous of the five brothers, who outlived them all, only in the end to rule recklessly and lose all of his power.  A haunting tale of the arrogance of success in a world of  dazzling risk takers forever on the brink of disaster   How I wished that Plowden had made the life of John Ringling his central premise, for this is clearly where his heart was centered.

Reader beware:  Like too many circus books, and that surely would include some put out by the academics (Linda Simon, mentioned above, is a college professor), Robert Lewis Taylor's captivating Center Ring, one of the most literate books ever penned about circus, is perhaps as much fiction as fact.  Example: The song  "Lovely Luawana Lady," as featured in the movie The Greatest Show on Earth,  never became, as claimed in these well-paced pages, "nationally popular."  Nonetheless, Center Ring's profiles of major Ringling players during the heady days of the John Ringling North era, which originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine, make for a deliciously good read.

Let us now cross the Big Pond to the land were circus was invented.  Antony Hippisley Coxe's A Seat at the Circus is a must-read for fans of tradition-rooted artistry.  The author, a proper English gentleman, shares with us in elegant fashion, his fastidious knowledge of the various ring acts, of what to look for and how to judge measurable achievement.  He has little patience for the embellishing spectacle that marked American three ring big tops, and, before that, early British circus shows, too.

Continuing, away from the states, and with a bright new book cover --- this one hits the jackpot --  UK Journalist and critic Douglas McPherson (The Stage, Daily Mail, Guardian) takes a refreshing, in-depth look at the contemporary circus scene in the land were circus was invented. And he serves its history well.   Right Now. Today.  Remarkably, McPherson became something of a circus fan, not as a boy, but well into his adulthood, and so he brings a fresh perspective to current issues shadowing the big tops.  Example:

"As with horses, the elephants don't need to be oversold with gimmicks.   Just walking into the ring and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough."  Given recent Ringling plans to retire its performing elephants, how brilliantly McPherson's suggestion resonates, now more than ever. Heck, I can  actually, yes, see myself thrilling merely to a parade of pachyderms!

  Ringmaster, by Kristopher Antekeier and Greg Aunapu is a bold rarity among circus books, offering a candid look behind the scenes during the Irvin and Kenneth Feld era – doubly amazing considering how shrewdly effective are the Felds in manipulating the media to buy their grandiose press kit fictions — from fans to willing authors.   In these stark pages, fraught with depressing work conditions and low morale, the staring antagonist is Gunther Gebel Williams, who reveals a nasty controlling nature.  For Antekeier, his first season goes from euphoria to disillusionment, and so, rather than re-sign for another tour, he walks away. And writes a remarkable book. 

For all true Ringling fans, Jerry Apps offers a meticulously researched study of how the five brothers worked so well together to build arguably the most famous circus in the world.  We follow them season by season.  The book is particularly rich in correspondence between the brothers, illustrating how they planned new shows and scouted acts.  Lushly illustrated, too.  A serious center ring treat.

Fast, breezy, as light as a souffle out of the oven. Maybe I'm on the fence a bit, but this delightful sampler of Big Apple Circus history and lore comes from its founder and ringmaster, Paul Binder, who puts aside his scholarly bent to charm us with effervescent memories of life in and around New York's "own circus."   It's a hit and miss affair, leaving out things I wished he had discussed, like his short-lived circus school.  Maybe he will follow up with another book, let's hope.    The Binder parade bounces and shines with brevity.  And what a nice little one-ring charmer to end this post on.

first posted 4.15.15 World Circus Day is Coming, So Let's Talk Books

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sunday Pause: Dexter Fellows on James Bailey’s Merritt Young Leads to Something Profound ...

     EVER SINCE first reading the enthralling This Way to the Big Show by famed circus press agent, Dexter Fellows, the name Merritt Young has stuck in the circus lobe of my  brain.  I long thought of Young as a secretary, which is the role I gave him in my musical Those Ringlings, when, in reality,  he was much more.

FELLOWS WROTE: “Bailey preferred bachelors in his service.  It has been said that his high esteem for Merritt Young, who was treasurer of the Barnum & Bailey Circus for many years due to the fact that Young never married and gave practically his entire time to his work.”  

         NOW, YES, from those words sprung a little seed in my mind of something special between the two men.   And so I revised a late second Act II  scene between Bailey and Merritt over Bailey’s dictating a letter to the Ringings, offering to split territories and thus avoid costly bill posting battles. (It really happened).  For Bailey, I figured, this act must have been a little humbling.  The sensitively dedicated Merritt offers his boss rare, even primary praise for his direction of the circus, over the sideshow man whose fame sucked all the attention and credit away. And Young offers it in a little song,  “Thank Mr. Bailey.” This touches the boss so, that he opens a  heart of appreciation  to Young.  

      THE WORDS felt natural.  And only yesterday, by a spectacular act of serendipity in google land, I came upon an article about Young by showman Louis Cooke in the Newark Evening Standard, NJ, dated  October 14, 1915, reprinted on the Circus Historical Society's old message board:

     COOKE DESCRIBED Young “the most intimate and business companion of James A. Bailey ... The great showman was attracted to Merritt because of his industrious habits, gentlemanly manners and ambition to make himself useful.

     “WHEN MR. BAILEY retired from the business for two years, on account of ill health, Merritt went with him. When he returned to the calling, 'Merritt' also came back.  They remained inseparable companions until he was called to his last great reward in the great unknown.”  And with those words, I feel that the few lines of dialog which I have added to the scene are true to spirit.  
     BEYOND THE BANNER lines, they were all very real people. Here is Cooke, who had been telegramed by Bailey on the morning of June 15, 1897, to meet the ailing Merritt, suffering typhoid fever, at the railway station in Chicago and take him to the Auditorium Hotel with “a good physician.”

     “WHEN WE SAW him alight from the train, it was very evident that the grim reaper had already set his seal upon the brow of the victim ... That night he died with his mother and myself at his bedside ... I remember nothing more sad than the recollection of having followed one of my nearest and dearest friends to his last resting place and it was one of the most sorrowful moments that ever crept into the sunshine of many years of travel.” Young was gone at the age of 46.  The show would head out to London come December.  Had Merritt still been at James’s side, would the show have stayed away from the states for an astounding five years? 

NOW IF I could only get more such stuff on Al and Louise — before my musical reaches Broadway.  Yeah, I know, I still have another century to go, LOL


END RINGERS: A circus giant across the Big Pond falls.  Brit’s own Barnum, Gerry Cottle (above, center), whose name lit up circus marquess through the ‘70s and ‘80s has died, of Covid.  In the words of author and journalist Douglas McPherson, "probably the most widely known name in the UK circus industry for the past 40 years." Back in 2011, Mr. Cottle, whom I  would loved to have met, sent me a copy of his book, Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus.” With inscription:  “David, I much prefer your books, but please enjoy my one off. Sincerely”  Heck, damn!  Why did his publisher bring out a paperback in print the size about as big as what you might get on a food wrapper listing of iffy ingredients they don’t want you to see? I don’t do magnifying glass, but I do hope to get the book in big people size print, someday ... Another English circus man, whom we lured over here long ago, Johnny Pugh, may or may not have finally sold his Cole Bros. Circus Florida winter quarters, or that’s how it looks to Slate Raymond, slating in from down there. The listing, writes Slate, "finally disappeared from the real estate market this past October. They had been out there since April 2016, with the asking price going down - down - down as the years dragged on (at the end, $850,000).  No idea whether they sold." ... How I miss the Circus Historical Society History Message board, dormant since 2016.  A pity... So much of American circus is slipping away ... I propose a Circus Ring of Fame Wheel for Fred Pfening ...

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Sunday Pause: Digitally Yours, At Last ... From Hectograph Machine to Kindle --- Now I know what an e-reader looks like!

Newer worlds forever rushing in and out,  and I always a year or more behind the last one, or the one before that one.  Are they still putting out iPhones?  

Of course, I know about Kindle and the various e-readers, especially in the last two years, when royalty statements for two books I have written --- Big Top Typewriter and Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History, show ebook sales at least equaling or slightly topping paper editions. Suddenly, I am taking note. 

Before that, e-sales were nothing compared to paper. So something has changed, and even me getting with it.

BearManor Media, who published my Inside the Changing Circus, offered me a contract to bring out Those Ringings: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Musical, in Kindle.  And I jumped.

How many of you will jump? Only time will tell. So, may I sing to you --- be my jumping Jacks!  Simply type in quotation marks "Broadway Musicals" and Amazon will rush in to meet you.

For those of you still typing it out on your loyal royals: You do NOT have to buy one of those e-readers. Amazon takes care of you very easily. They will send you as they sent me up to a cloud.   You will be surprised! Maybe even floating. 

Well least until the next techno trauma hits.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Showbiz David’s 2020 American Circus Evidence of Life Awards

   At UniverSoul last month

What is there to write about a season that wasn’t ?  That it will stand out in American circus history as, yes, the season that wasn’t?  And what’s to look forward to in 2021? As Nellie Hanneford so simply stated, when I reached her by telephone, “It’s out of our hands.”

And the sooner it’s back in, the better.  But even then, I wonder.  There should be plenty of Americans hungry for the kind of down-to-earth live entertainment that circus can offer.  And if the Feld of Felds does make good on his promise to bring back The Greatest Show on Earth, that will be, by far, the best thing that could happen to the big top scene here. For, Ringling-Barnum symbolizes American circus. When it died, so in the minds of many did circus die.  A successful return could work wonders for an institution that is closer than ever to the abyss.

How does 2021 look to the trouping wounded?  I dialed their numbers, sent out e-mails seeking their thoughts on what lies ahead. My rankings here are partly based on the responses received; also on my knowledge of each show’s history; and a gut feeling.

2020 American Circus Evidence of Life Awards         

1.  UniverSoul

No need to call them.  The sight of an actual tent in the air anywhere over the U.S. marks a milestone. They pitched theirs for a perilous period last month down in Texas.  Whether the crowds pitched back is another matter. Photos I have seen show only a few strays in the seats. But something is better than nothing, right?  My hat's off to you, Cedric Walker.

2.  Cullpepper Meriweather

Why so high on this list?  They are small enough to have, I assume, the smallest nut, and they’re run by pros, and have been around for a long time.  

From Cullpepper’s Jim Royal:  “Show owner/manager Trey Key is monitoring the situation daily.  We are in touch with our local sponsors and ready to set the route.  Everything hinges on the pandemic. I know, no surprise there.” 

  3.  Royal Hanneford           

I’d never spoken with Nellie Hanneford before, such a sweet soul.  She tells me they are working on dates, and she nearly mentions one in particular, but I do not press. These days, “in particular” could mean a whole season.  

4. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

They should be at the top, and soon, they might be again – if Kenneth Feld follows through on his announced plans, through brainstorming sessions with many people, to create the return of Ringling, originally projected to happen in late 2021.

From VIP Stephen C. Yaros, in reply:  “Thanks for reaching out to Feld Entertainment. Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, our plans to relaunch The Greatest Show On Earth have been delayed.  As soon as we have more information to share, we plan to do so.  I hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas.  Cheers.”

Money is no problem for the Felds.  Only key issue, as I see it, is when best to strike.  I’d say, when Americans feel safe enough to sit next to each other at a circus.  Feld has good reason to maximize the potential for a groundswell of grateful yes-give-us-the-real-circus patronage.  Was the stage ever better set for a circus named Ringling to roar back in triumph?

5.  Big Apple Circus

It’s presence remains, I’d venture, even more  murky, as witness what you hear when you dial their number.  At the other end, a recorded message from a cool sounding guy: “Hey there, thank you for calling. Please leave us a message and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.” No name of voice or circus. Us Circus?

The guy, answering my e-mail on the upbeat,  turns out to be Jack Marsh from Circus Flora — the Flora that played a hand in the last Lincoln Center date show before Covid came calling.

“Yes, life is here, indeed!!"pipes Jack.  “Obviously hard to have a crystal ball right now, but all plans are for BAC to re-launch once the world will allow. Plan A right now is to target Lincoln Center in October, our usual time frame.... Fun plans are underway.  Fingers crossed for the industry we both love.”

His name stands above the imposing title, Executive Producer.  So I e-mail back, and toss Jack be nimble some questions:

 Is Gregg Walker still in charge?
      “Gregg is moving on to greener pastures.”
Is Walker’s company still involved in any way?
      “I don’t have precise details on the arraignment but Remarkable has some ownership of the           company, as do other investors.”
Who is your CEO?
      “That’s not a position we have right now”.  
New Owners?
      “No, no ownership changes to report.  Be careful about assumptions!”

Jacks seems to be a splendid fellow. See how much space he got here?  He even offered to set up a chat, which might have been very interesting, but I did not wish to take it that far.  Given Jack’s fluidity, I might have ended up with so much inside stuff, that I would feel guilty not writing a book about it.  So politely, I declined.

Since they can’t seem to live without Lincoln Center (their Achilles heal),  they might not be too welcome back come October. Broadway is still looking uncertain about 2021. 

6.  Carson & Barnes

Both circus Vargas and Carson & Barnes are about equally inaccessible by either e-mail or phone. I am graciously awarding an edge to  C&B because they answered my e-mail of yesterday with this lovely reply.  "Hello David, Thank you for contacting us! Someone will respond to you very soon about your inquiry."  Well, I am still waiting.  

Whereas, however...

7. Circus Vargas

Didn't get back to me at all.  When I dialed there number, I was sent into a loop-the-loop extension chase down into a hole.  No reply to my two e-mails.  So I must relegate them to this bottom slot.  You have come to the end of the rankings.  You may now take your mask off, kids.

END RINGERS: This is the year when we lost Circus Report for good, when Spectacle suspended publication due to lack of subject matter to cover ... When the Brits showed us how to could keep a dozen or more circuses on the road for a few months.  From the land that gave us circus, I would hope for that.  Kudos to them!...  A year when Italy, which had suffered devastating covid deaths, warmed my heart by staging a great circus festival, in which star Italians inspired before masked-in audiences. ... The year when Cirque du Soliel went into and out of bankruptcy, as if anybody cares.  I have grown weary of the Cirque style.  And I believe many Americans have, too. I mean, really,  does "character arc"do that much for any of you? ... Feld Family: You are our last great hope, so don’t let us down this time!... And I almost forgot, when cyber courier Don Covington stuck in there, continuing to find all sorts of stories related to circus and sending them out and keeping me on the list. Thank you, Don!


Thursday, December 24, 2020

And a ... a ... a, ah ... Merry Masky Christmas!

How vividly this classic suits the moment.  Poor Santa, having to sit alone, off limits to children.  Banned from chimneys

The next one can only get better, brighter, happier, and more all-together, right?   

In the meantime, my warmest wishes for all!  Especially for those normally hard working families struggling in long lines,  patiently waiting for meals, hoping for a job to return, praying for the solace and security of a way-of-life ripped from them by fear-mongering opportunists in places of ill-held, ill-deserved power.  May God bless you all.