Saturday, October 23, 2021

Risky Resurrection for The Greatest Show on Earth: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Owners Promise 2023 Return ... Radical Revamping Raises Deflating Questions ...

There were tears in my eyes when I read this  And there were tears in the eyes, too, of a "choked up" Juliette Feld Grossman, seen above, breaking the news to an applauding audience in Seattle that they are "casting for a new version of the Greatest Show on Earth." 

She was seated next to her father, Kenneth Feld, who shared a vision of renewal for the most famous name in the circus world.  They talked of a "reassessment of the operation with an eye toward doing things Feld Entertainment has been doing for decades, only better."

"We looked at our company like a 50-year-old startup," said Kenneth.

Juliette, who looks at the moment to be the heir apparent of the family throne, stressed  the perpetual value of live entertainment before families, of how for decades, many voices had been telling them that virtual reality and artificial intelligence would "replace what we do." 

But there was something conspicuously missing, however, from her following quote:  "There is nothing like going to an arena, theater or stadium and being part of that momentary community, to be swept up in the excitement and the action and the experience of it all."

The word "tent."  In fact, not the theater or the stadium or the arena are central to the still-operating circuses in the UK,  not even to the once, and maybe still, powerhouse on the lot, Cirque du Soleil, which once tried to sell its shows under hard tops and struck out.  They could fill up maybe 3,000 chairs. A whole arena?  Not even close.

But most conspicuously and ominously missing from the headline came through in two words I wanted to push back -- two words that instantly deflated the bright victorious balloon of this announcement:

"The circus is coming ... back.  Feld Entertainment plans an animal free relaunch of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 2023." 

And how empty and impotent the occasion felt.

And by the morning after, the tears in my eyes have dried, as I am left wondering if they are not once again charting a major reboot with a built-in fatal flaw.  When four years ago, Kenneth Feld, in a concession to the animal rights movement, removed his elephants from the show, at the same time by not removing the big cage acts, he nullified the action, leaving the door open for PETA to stand firm at the front gates with placards and pamphlets in hand.

And now, "animal-free" feels like a rash sell out to modern culture -- a kind of pandering to the crowds that may or may not still fill up the tents of Cirque du Soleil and of, it would appear, the majority of circuses across the pond.

So, at the moment, to quote an old song, I guess I'll hang my tears out to dry.  One thing feels certain: This should be one heck of a story to follow.  The Felds have millions to spend. They have vast resources at hand to draw from.  Kenneth Feld is one of the smartest showmen who ever lived. But he, too, is human and prone to making wrong decisions, as all the mighty are. The next steps he takes may be the most critical in his career.  Pray he gets this one right.  Innovation will always be a big factor. So too, tradition. 

Thanks to Don Covington tor linking  the news release my way.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Amtrak Sinks to Lowest Point Ever in Customer Service – Denys Coach Class Passengers Access to the Diner ... A Showbiz David On-the-Scene Exclusive ..

    DATELINE AMTRAK, en route on the California Zephyr behind mask — having both shots count for nothing. Yesterday through Colorado, my mask-free windows glowed with the blossoming yellows of fall, train now three and a half hours late on its way to Chicago.  My next train, the cozy Cardinal for family in Culpepper VA (who earlier appeared here in April), leaves 4 hours after this one arrives, when it’s on time, and I fear an overnightmare of boredom in this great big city that feels so alien to me, waiting to get out and back on the  tracks.  My Grade A car attendant, Greg, believes we will make it.  As you can see, we did.

    DAMTRAK’S INFURIATING delays are caused partly by its kowtowing to freight trains barreling through as we wait on side tracks like old-school peasants accepting whatever will be. Now and then, a spectacular vista reminds me of  why I put up with our national railway.  Still, I am not ready to embrace a bullet train that blurs the landscape to nothingness.  Slow does have it advantages, does it not?  Service so far is exemplary.  Much easier these days to dine in your own compartment and not be made to feel like a snob or a difficult loner.

    HAVING SAMPLED on a few previous trips  the “bedroom” suites, I am happily for now, tucked back into the eminently doable economy compartments, where everything can be within arms reach, and where you will avoid the difficult-to maneuver shower and toilet combo.  The solo community restrooms are much easier to navigate and more comfortable.

   FOOD IS A MIXED plastic plate — the salmon divine, the baby potatoes for breakfast hard and clumpy.  Flat Iron was a tad tough The “garden salad,” an insulting joke, more aptly titled Dead Leaves of Wrath, some strands bearing odiously unhealthy colors.  Three or four small grape tomatoes, dry chicken breast pieces can be added. But other items satisfied, if overly rich.

    THE MORE MY sleeper rumbles and jerks about, the better, it seems, I sleep.  Sometimes.  Which makes me wonder if I was lullabied to sleep in a tilt-a-whirl crib.

   SO JOE BIDEN gave Amtrak a whole lot of play money. Then why does the diner, in a shocking and callous move, refuse to serve the coach set?  I ask them.  Covid is why.  Covid is so easy an excuse for any why.  The audacity of denying all coach passengers food in or from the diner, and ordering them to the hell pits of the sodium and sugar dispensary (aka: the lounge car café), is an outrage.

   THE COACH CLASS are doomed to a sentence of deprivation.  I have close up and with horror examined the glossy packages of these dastardly “café” offerings.  The lady at counter asked if she could help me.  I said I was looking for something on the low-sodium side. She said, “I don’t read the labels."  Okay, now my turn to toss around that nauseating word, Equity.  Joe, knock knock: Are you or one of your under-lords reading this?  Where is the equity in dining options on your pampered railroad?  How would you feel, Joe, setting out on a 3-day train trip and learning that your dining choices have been reduced to 7-ll junk food?  I would scream abuser of public health! You’d spend trillions on catastrophic nonsense, and leave stranded the people in coaches?

   WITH LUCK, there will be time between trains to type this out on my maddening Dell that features a wild jumping cursor, which not infrequently runs away from where I am and sneaks into something already typed ... At Union Station in savvy Windy City, there is a great subway style place that puts out the most fabulous sandwich, the  ingredients on a sheet of paper which contains info for this trip, the ONLY thing I forgot to take! ...  Maybe I can get them to pry it out of me with key words. I could use a break from Uncle Sam’s hit and miss menus. I'll wait for my subway-like moment upon my return through, and for now wallow in the thrill of having not been too late on Amtrak, again!  We don't ask much of it these days.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

The Yawn of Posting These Days ... The Vile of Anonymous, Alive At Least ... The Gore of Booming Brit Tops, Thrilling the Crowds, At Least ... Le Freak! -- Let's Dance! ...

                    The defining element of true circus? Risk

    LAZY OVER HERE. How can I make much out of not much?  I cover skimpy midways.  I wonder as I wander, how much longer a dry drill? ...  Even five years ago, I had stuff to knock around, laugh at and run with,  blow up or toss out ... Hardly anything left but scraps and peanut shells, even screwed-up documents in e-mail, such as, from Carson & Barnes to me, a print out I can' read that I am suppose to approve for my 'earnings" during 2021, under the name of Wang.  Did I tell you how dead it's getting out there? ... Tenting in the Twilight Zone ... Hugo, what were you thinking?

   BEAR WITH ME, or giggle in front of my back.  I'm scrambling around here, like poking in sticks under the old cedar of Lebanon in my boyhood front yard, looking for something to play around with ... Trying to kill time cobbling together a posty.  It's a drag when what you have to work with is the sad spectacle of the trouping wounded managing to keep their shrinking canvas in the air, smiling to the public and it smiling back, wanting to believe still in circus day. Can you hear the beat of Chic in the background ?... 

   A FEELING OF being stranded in a morgue ...  There was a rare streak of life from our beloved visitor, Anonymous, reveling in the darkness, declaring Big Apple Circus, yet to open, "garbage."  Well, it felt real, at least ... and I ponder about Big Apple Circus Comeback Season 3, to be produced by Nik Wallenda. Why do I already feel uneasy over its prospects? Stay with me here.

   NEW YORK PRESS  & MEDIA not turning even fake somersaults over the news, possibly worn down by resurrection fatigue ... What the Hook This Time? Comeback Producer 1 (the doctor) offered us stodgy, Comeback Producer Number 2-3, sleazy. And what from Nik?  Here's my queasy: Can the 7-high wire walk be really that much a pull, since it was performed in the first comeback, and anyway, as executed under so small a tent on a wire closer to low than to high, the feat may be unable to achieve maximum awe  ..  A trapeze act would be a better draw.   Production Values: Show's creative staff shows a composer and a sound engineer, but no musical director or band leader, which hints of money problems at the outset ... To Manage and Perform: Nik himself will still be walking the wire (his life). thus, his focus on managing (new to him?) may be severely compromised. Lean Line-Up  ... The solo-intense cast leaves me feeling a bit, what --recital-ish? ... Circuses for the most part thrive on the family or the partner(s) factor. Or animal friends.    

    MAKE 'EM SCREAM across the Big Pond!  Can you feel alive? Can you feel a crowd? Gore is the new freak show, and it's knocking 'em dead. Crowds so great at Circus of Horrors, producer's sending out a second tent, relays Douglas McPherson from dare-to-terrify Over There.  This may be good news, kids.  Hear me out: I do believe that the public, whether it knows it or not, is hankering for something far closer to what circuses where (as in sideshow kink and true daredevils) than to another recycled acro-ballet bore.  In other words, CIRCUS.  I saw a You Tube of another edgy UK offering that dares to call itself  "the daredevil circus," Circus eXtreme, giving acts of great skill and dangerous risk-raking.  The gall of it all!  Big crowd in the tent.  Yes, a mass of live bodies, some wearing masks.  While I'm not advocating  a Stephen King bloodbath, I do exult in the kind of authentic circus that can raise the pulse and hit a visceral nerve in the human spirit.  And when I see such a venture drawing a crowd, I can still see a future out there. We are still at least hanging on. God bless our dedicated troupers who endure against all odds ...

   FEW HOURS LATER.  Back at this whatever post, I'm now listening to Chic's 1978 disco hit, I want Your Love, and it feels good. No, no, I'm not going off my rocker, only grabbing a few vibrant bars of some of the best pop music ever composed, for inspiration. Monte Carlo is coming back in January, and that's good, right?  Who was big when Chic was big?  Cliff Vargas was in the early stages of his career, on the mad rise to something really big ... The Felds had Ringling riding high. So many solid American shows out there posting arrows, following arrows onto and off of grass and mud and weed and cracked cement. Crowds lining up to embrace the tattered magic.  The animal hysterics had not yet formed.   Some of the best tunes were composed pushing disco onto dance floors and kept it there for years ... I'd like to hear more of it under a tent ... It was always about the music for me.  And for you?  And where is this going? It's Saturday night, tomorrow is Sunday, and I may post this then ...Or maybe, NOW.  Yes, it's 9:06 pm PST. They want our love. So, let's give it back ...

Big Top Tremors: On Carson & Barnes, A Second Spring ... On Ringling, Will Ice Suffice? ... On Bella, a Ringmaster is Born ... On Vargas, A Dog Might Help ... On Big Apple, a Llittler Apple Would Do ... And More on the Inside!

From not so long ago ...

Back following the arrows, Carson & Barnes is NOT down and gone.  Not by a dozen scrappy seasons, I’d guess.  As C&B goes, I have come to feel, so too goes the circus. The Byrds have a way of making it happen, assuming they are not running a Ponzi peanut scheme on the side.  They took an ominous “mid-summer break” and some wondered in dead-season dread, are they doomed?   Not so.  And that cheers my battered big top heart. 

So, too, is Circus Vargas — still on the road, that is.  And headed my way.  A wining Vargas TV ad looks awesome.  Makes me want to go again, and hope again, and rue the dismal setting in which they, the antiseptic circus without even a dog or a cat, so fittingly pitch their top -- on another one of those dying American malls (no tears here, I’m old-school Main Street)  in a place called Hayward, CA.  So depressing, the tent over asphalt, the tent up against a cold thundering freeway, the tent lost in a concrete canyon, one by one, big name tenants deserting.  Macy’s gone.

How good or not so good is Ringling in its new space age colors?  Strange they could not pull a major review in Los Angeles, where they uncorked Out Of This World. New York Times sent Brooks Barnes out to cover the prior try-out date in Fresno, and his report offered two views of the space voyage.

THE AUDIENCE: “Judging from the zealous applause ... Feld’s vision has its fans.”

HIS OWN OBSERVATIONS:  “Modernization efforts are never easy, especially when the product being updated relies on nostalgia for a great deal of its appeal. Ringling’s customers tend to be parents wanting to pass along a rite from their own childhoods — the smell of the sawdust, the drippy snow cone, the booming voice of the ringmaster. Too much change too fast could upend a form of live entertainment that remains an enormous draw, particularly among working-class families.”

The Little Apple Circus, anyone?  Let’s put this theoretically out-of-business show on the Watch List.  All they need do is run the bureaucratic bloat off the lot, let go of Lincoln Center — You are NOT a Broadway show, Big Apple  -- and put on a dandy enough circus in city parks.  Me thinks, if there is to be a future, it is in Paul’s hands.  Me thinks, he  awaits a Wall Street angel-to-the-rescue.

On a Bella Bounce: Once Oakland based, the student-family Circus Bella, with a dozen or so free summer shows in Bay Area Parks, again juggles up a modest little energizer,  managing to keep most of the clubs in motion. In its favor, Bella has retained its engagingly inventive clown, Calvin Kai Ku and its tip top band leader, Rob Reich. Best of all, Bella’s best new discovery is a ringmaster named David Hunt,  above, the fellow who co-founded the show and did a slack rope act --  until now.  Let’s hype Hunt: A natural born charmer, smartly short of overkill, Hunt combines the zest of a carny baker with the cool of a stand up comedian warming up a studio audience for a TV show taping. Circus owners are you reading this?  The name, to repeat, is David Hunt ... As for the music man, I still recall Reich’s joyful score two years back (the best Bella show, one could feel promise then), which capered and giggled, tooted and rooted on  a breezy melodic bounce.  This year’s music is more grunge than than gusto, more sax than piccolo.  I prefer the latter.

Shunning its roots, Circus Bella now calls San Francisco its home, and what a groveling and sad sell out to the epicenter of narcissism and greed. A city where circus skills are pitched to the rich with an itch to dabble. A city of pretenders.  Welcome to the club, Bella.

END RINGERS: Rhode Island banning bull hooks.  Might the issue end up in the supreme court?  Not without Feld contesting it; perhaps they will put their retired bulls back to work in some other world. The Elephant exit is not about to be overturned, kids ... John Ringling's old private car, The Jomar is now a restaurant.  Why did one of the museums not grab it up?  ...  The Windjammers recently gave three concerts in Baraboo, two on the square, and one at Circus World.  Circus Historical Society President Don Covington, and himself a piccolo player, likened the experience to “coming back to Mecca.”

Anybody watching the rah-rah Olympics? I got so frustrated with the NBC schedule, which did not match what I actually looked forward to seeing, because of that schedule, that as long as they try making me watch everything, I won’t watch anything.   Besides, I am still smarting over the chronic absence  of roller sports at the games. 

Go, Carson & Barnes!  

 Big Apple Circus in the beginning

First posted on August 12, 2016

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Big Apple Circus Roars Back, Gunning for Gotham Return Under Nik Wallenda Control ... Solo-Heavy Lineup Awaits Phillip McKinley Direction ... America's Got Talent Alumni Promise Populist Media Eye ...

Once more rising from the ashes of bankruptcy -- a form of endurance it has become adept at outlasting --- the long-beleaguered Big Apple Circus makes yet another comeback. This third time around to uncork at Lincoln Center on November 11.  Pray they make it to Queens next April or May – and I’m going.

Alan Silva's umbrella intrigues me. The silks could use a good prop.

This time out, gone is any mention of Compass Partners, the Sarasota-based angels who bought the circus out of bankruptcy in 2017, and may now be dining on food stamps behind sad faced clown masks.  Gone too is Remarkable Entertainment hired by Compass, which not so remarkably blew its chance at Comeback Season 2.  You may remember a retired spinal surgeon who took on Comeback Season 1.  The media chirped.  Will they replay the chirp for Comeback Season 3?  Their patience may be running low. So far, little evidence of hometown media running with the news

Johnny Rocket.  He makes me laugh already. A runaway Nock?

Enter new lead man Nik Wallenda, whose name alone should guarantee ample New York press coverage.  The nephew of legendary Karl Wallenda is partnering with a conglomerate of entities too fuzzily reported on to make complete sense of.  One is called  “S2BN Entertainment,” another Grand Slam Productions. Remarkable is nowhere in sight.  I’m not wasting any more time trying to untangle this web of murky control, only wondering who really is in charge. For the moment, I’m going with Nik

And just in the nik of time, when Big Apple Circus looked eerily close to a fire sale  Shall we count on three being a charm?  Heck, I’ll even go for four, or more.

Singing swinger Eli Huber, yes she sings, too! And oh, how daring you don't look with your iron mechanic.  Nik: You booked her?  

And what to look forward to? Most impressive to my eyes are at least the first two of these three promising elements, all of which speak well to Nik’s showmanship:

1.  Show to be directed by Phillip William McKinley, a former Ringling knockout stager with a gift, when it is turned on, for brilliantly shaping and pacing circus action.  His Ringling unit at Coney was the best damn circus show I have seen in many seasons.

2.  America’s Got Talent contributes as a valuable tie-in, thanks to the populist exposure it has given to a few of the show's acts.  This gives Nik’s PR department ample human-interest material to push on the media.

3.  The Loner Edition? On paper, a slew of solo artists from around the world — perhaps too many solos —  promise a vibrant spread of intense novelty. Houdini Illusion to tiny dachshunds.   Some have worked on Cirque du Soleil shows, but none tout Monte Carlo medals. Should we be surprised by the lack of Asian faces? I am disappointed but not surprised, given the simmering US-China tensions.  The bios on them are wordy, and two do not even spell out what the artist actually does!  Excuse me?

Classy: Katya Nikiforova

From Cirque land, James, Gonzales: Let's see, at least we see some kind of a prop, and since he toured with Cirque's Kurious (the last good CDS I saw), perhaps he learned to go super abstract.

Golly, have we a duo?  Count them two solos in one! Ethiopia's Yab Brothers.  So, what exactly do they do, bio writers? Yet to be determined?  Risley, maybe.

Okay, so three’s a charm, a good theme for now.  Nik’s forebears tried taking out a circus of their own, and the tents fell in weeks. Has happened to other performers, too.   But ... but, the Ringling Brothers were performers before they turned themselves into circus kings. Paul Binder and Michael Christensen performed before they produced.

Yes, they are not miniatures but real!  And they rocked America's Got Talent.  I saw the You Tube. Pure gold, kids

"We can't wait to reveal the new show that will certainly mix traditional circus and modern updates," said Wallenda to AMNY.

On balance, I see Nik making some very smart moves at the outset. Not sure he can be both star performer and effective CEO. But this I think:  We can rest assured that “character arc” does not count much if at all in his mind.  Pray he keeps the dramaturgs out of his tent.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

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

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]

First posted January 16, 2009

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Simon Cowell -- Closet Circus Fan? -- Pumps Circus Acts to Lure in the Crowds, Dumps 'Em at Finals for His Favorite Singers. America's Got Gall!

Okay, Simon, why are you so afraid of the circus in your own show? Is that why you haven't the guts to give its best moment the honor they deserve?

I am starting to look deeper into the win history of America's Got Talent.  And I am finding what should not be a surprise.  Most of the winners are the singers.  A few are magicians and ventriloquists

Top dog?  Only once did a real circus act bark off with top honors -- an act introduced to Americans in 1989 by Cliff Vargas --- surprise! -- Olate dogs.  You did know about Simon and the dogs?

Runner up? Only once, to an acrobat

Just Another Rigged Reality Show?

To be clear, I only watch parts of these drawn-out episodes.  I have seen so-so circus acts, now and then the occasional star turn.  There were three men this season doing, from a bit I caught, a fantastic balancing act. They brought the judges to their feet, as the judges sometimes do for circus acts.   You might get from Simon rare verbal acclaim -- "The best act of your type we have ever seen here!"  Maybe even "the best I has ever seen  anywhere!"  And how exciting to hear, Simon.  And where from there?  Onto no where.  Pumped and dumped.

Here's my best guess: Simon does not want to risk giving circus the prime attention he gives to the singers, lest he produce the image closer to a vaudeville show than a singing contest, right?

Other night I tuned in and saw three acts standing on the stage -- only one would be named to go to the finals. One of them were a terrific group of ladies on unicycles who turned in a dazzling display.   Would they get through?  Of course, not.  Another singer was plucked to stay the course. Singers ... singers ... singers ... BOOOOORING.

Rigged? Who really knows but Simon and his cronies.  I've read the audience may be mostly what are known in Hollywood as "audience extras," meaning paid shills to fill up the seats. Better yet, to take their reaction cues from scripted signals.  There are plenty of complaints out there alluding to rigged judging, and I have to believe them, simply because I believe Simon will not dare turn his precious little let-me-hear-you-sing showcase into something closer to a Barnum concoction.  Thus, they use 'em for come in, shun 'em at finals.   

I have noted here how lucky we are to at least have America's Got Talent, if only for the continued national exposure it gives to circus arts. Which means that it will continue to infuriate me.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Power. Agility. Perfection. The Face of the Chinese Acrobat, No Longer Welcome?

Whether scampering up and down poles, throwing up audacious human pyramids on rolling bicycles, or diving through stacked  hoops, they win us over.  Breathlessly.  Emphatically.   They are the essence of circus. The dazzling manifestation of its ancient roots giving rise to yet more ground-breaking wonder in the here and the now. But these days, the here and now may be leaving the lot.

It is, of course, a political question, given the rising tensions between the U.S. and China.  Anti-Asian currents rattling pockets of Asian communities into fear and retreat are said to be on the rise.  The tragic irony  here in the Bay Area is that the older Asians being attacked are among the most civil and law-abiding and productive citizens anywhere, their young hoodlum attackers, the very opposite.  The crippled agenda-driven media here in the state of insanity is too timid to clarify. 

But those currents are felt elsewhere, too, and the question becomes: How detrimental will these anti-Asian hostilities be to Asian circus acts?  Hardly an issue, really, considering  the demise of the two shows that could afford to routinely import from China and other Asian capitals: Ringling and Big Apple.

     Nixon’s Gift to the Big Top

When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, he established a cultural exchange program, which opened the tent to the Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe the following December.  Chicago welcomed them with raving receptions. Dates in Indianapolis, New York and Washing, DC followed.  The ring had been set. 

China’s most profound impact on the American circus scene was produced 14 years later by  Kenneth Feld in 1986, when he ingeniously integrated the various acts of the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe into the program.  East and West merged in a spectacular three ring smorgasbord0. The public took note.  So did Paul Binder, who checked in two years later with his own The Big Apple Circus Meets The Monkey King. Any good circus producer, and Binder was one of the best,  soon learns that to get your best acts, you must go abroad.

 The British Validation

Over across the pond in the 1990s, Circus owners  Carol and Phillip Gandey were awestruck by a group of Chinese acrobats they saw at one of  Monte Carlo Festivals.  They could envision a rebounding road to robust ticket sales, and thus they smartly established The Great Chinese Circus.  The Brits responded with billfolds wide open.  In the land where circus was invented, how could they not spot the brilliance?  It has been written that for many years in the UK, Gandey’s Chinese unit drew the greatest patronage.

   Sky Bound, Too

Traditionally preoccupied with ground acrobats, in the last 20 years Asian acrobats everywhere have expended their repertoire, onto wires and swings.. One of the best multiple rigging  flying acts I have ever seen were the Shanghai Swingers, with UniverSoul some years back.   You may have seen footage of the North Koreans at Monte Carlo, of the young star flyer who executed five somersaults over a long arc.  YES, maybe not adhering to the traditional flying return set-up specs, but a hell of a trick on its own, and a longer lasting one to enjoy.

 Now A Harder Sell?

Over here, we may be seeing less of the Middle Kingdom, I currently fear.  On America’s Got Talent the other night, which I now and then scroll through, I was stopped by the sight of a group of  acrobats already in progress.  Of course, I was hoping to see Asian faces, for I knew the odds would favor something special.   Close up, the faces were not Asian.  The young men performed an ambitious routine of mediocre content, though a couple of the judges swooned, one of them conceding she loved a certain member's body. Somebody cracked that Simon had given them the buzzer. Simon knew best.

Does this mark the new normal?  I hope not.  Given the absence of Ringling and Big Apple, and worse yet, the ominous rumblings over Taiwan's precarious future (truly frightening), we may not have much of a chance in the years ahead to be thrilled by those fiercely driven wizards of wow-full invention.

But I do believe that American circus goers, who have long understood and appreciated the truly international nature of great circus, will respond as vividly as ever when offered the genius that comes our way from other lands, no matter the politics. 

Above: The mesmerizing Ty Tojo on Big Apple Circus, 2013

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Friday Flip Flops: Kelly-Miller Cookhouse, a Sizzler ... Octogenarian Student of Trapeze, a Dazzler ... The Kingdom of Feld, Why a Yawner?

Out of the past, randomly on parade ...

Kelly Miller grillmaster, Jeremiah Cook, posts upcoming menus
Cookhouse photos by Carol Guensburg/AFR

Have a seat, no, make that -- get in line at a cookhouse-to-remember,  it being Johnny North II’s designer meals for his Kelly-Miller Circus family.  As reported  a while back when the show was boating up to Kelly's Island, one Jeremiah Cook (perfect name for the job), having been hired to work the big grill in the backyard, was quoted,  “Mr. John Ringling North himself has told me he wants everyone to be fed — pleasantly.” And on this haute cuisine lot, pleasant means delicious — with a touch of nutritious ...

Rebecca Ostroff, with meals for her family, back to the RV

Chef Cook posts upcoming menus, great way to keep the staff happy and on the move, I’d venture ...”It’s my show time,” said he to the news scribe, who witnessed clown Steve Copeland waking off with “a plate of chicken, rice, mixed vegetables and an extra piece of cornbread.” ....

Story touted local edible delights favored by the troupe annually, from Texas tacos to, up Baltimore way, “Berger Cookies,” the beef adorned with a thick chocolate fudge frosting ... Mmmm, yes! .... Might a VIP ticket to the show get me into the cookhouse?   I want more than a bag of peanuts, Mr. North II  ... Cook is a modern guy, too, opting for the healthy stuff, “lean meats and sometimes fish,” produce at every meal.  Always for the taking, watermelon and popsicles ... And there's Stevie boy, accepting another great meal ...mmm, looks yummmy good, I'm jealous! ...

She’s not young and she’s not retired, no where near ... She’s an octogenarian with oomph to go,  now taking classes at Circus Harmony in St. Louis.   Cheers to the ungroundable Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring, who once appeared as a showgirl in Ringling  rings, but never, per her parents release orders, in the air. She rode elephants, high stepped in fancy frills, smiled a lot (I assume), waved and added luster to the 3-ring spectacles ...

You CAN go back:  Years later, make it six back, came Bunny’s 80th Big Day.  She appealed to Circus Harmony’s Jessica Hentoff. “I promised my parents I wouldn’t do aerial, but they are gone now ... do you think it is too late?”  No, of course not, said the Harmony mentor, and up went Bunny, at last, to grasp a trapeze bar and swing out.  ...

She continues honing her skills, learning more --- only problem being a hearing aid that keeps wanting to run away, can’t stand heights. ... Since then, our La Norma-come- lately has taught Shakespeare to men behind bars, penned a bio now on Amazon, Still Swinging In Wonderland, and wears a tattoo, the message in Latin reading: “To be rather than to seem” ... Ah, there, yes there, the true essence of circus! .. Bravo, Bunny,, Bravo! ... 
In the Kingdom of Feld, why am I yawning?  Promise, I respect and am abstractly fascinated by the  man’s genius, he could end up having run Ringling-Barnum a longer time than any of the lords who preceded him onto the lot.  Then why, when I read more about his ever-expanding empire of “shows,” do I feel, how to put this, so underwhelmed? Maybe it's  Monster Jam Truck Show division that fails to excite.

I’m an anti-vehicular nerd, you see, who, ironically, once throttled a Ford Bronco clear across the country and back, flacking for Sid Kellner’s James Bros. Circus.  Those Feldlings are now up to  something called Nuclear Cowboyz, another auto-maniac thrill show.   Now, here's maybe a real thriller for the Circus Division, which these days seems to favor asphalt over sawdust. 

Back down in average ordinary mud, but beautiful mud!  Let’s give John Ringling North II the last word -- assuming he actually spoke the Last Word.   Said he (promise, I am quoting somebody quoting him) “I didn’t really care so much about whether I owned it [Kelly Miller, which he bought in 2006], but I wanted there to be a circus like this — the kind that I remembered as a kid.  And that was pretty much the only way to make sure there was.”   Now, that one line merits an encore, so ...

“In the day and age where everybody watches screens all day long, this is real.”

Real, yes, like Medicare maverick Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring, for whom I have an idea:  Why not apply to Mr. North II for an "honorary"  place in next year's show, rumored to be populated with a number of new faces. You can make "old" "new" again.  Sounds good?  You would surely reaffirm the real magic of what the circus is and, let's hope, always will be.  They could ballyhoo your entrance, "Ladies and gentlemn, children of allllll ages --- A return to the House of Ringling! ..."

Here's a photo, only a week old, of Ms. Herring at her latest lesson with Circus Harmony.  Looks like she's prepping for an audition -- and "just a decent chance, Sir!" -- I can almost hear her saying.

First posted October 18, 2013

Sunday, August 01, 2021

U.S. Circuses in the Age of Virtual Reality: The Struggle to Placate Ambivalent Americans

The late Henry Edgar once posted a comment on this blog to the effect, What if you were to offer the customers what most of us would agree is the best circus possible and yet they still failed to fill up your seats ?  A very good question given shrinking crowd sizes over the last thirty years.  Maybe it's time to review not the show but the audience itself.  To continue Henry's thread, I have a question:

What is the circus owner to offer a jaded public turning fickle on big top staples?  

The Very Real Circus:  Not Virtual Enough?

Perhaps the force of circus being a live show no longer holds the same drawing power, as more people turn to virtual realities, albeit it everything from texting to eDating, video games to porno.  

I have long argued the compelling reality of circus.  More and more, I am starting to doubt the argument’s relevance in this new and rather frightening era of electronic interaction where, one day — people as smart as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak have ventured — “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.”  Wozniak can see ourselves becoming the pets of our robots.   

Item: A group of friends sharing restaurant table space, but not each others company, preferring interaction with their smart phones over the people actually sitting next to them.

Item:  Check out the movie Her, in which a man forms a relationship with an advanced operating system named Samantha.  Frightening.  And very believable.

Enter the Ambivalent American Audience

Yes, Mr. Producer, I feel your frustration, even if you don’t.  You no longer enjoy the total attention of a crowd.  You now must complete with smart phones and tablets and other tweety distractions, ad nauseum.

You now must also compete for the respect of a crowd that arrives with issues about the contents of your show.  Oh, those weird looking clowns.  Don’t .. Come ... Near ... Me ... Look at that draggy tiger, think it's been mistreated?   Which reminds me, I've got to get some suppression pills for my pit bull. No, he can't attack anybody in the nose muzzle when we go out walking. ... Oh, no, look -- she's not wearing a safety wire, is she?   Sometimes they don't?  What if, oh God!  [Another day, another show]: Oh, look, she’s strapped to a wire!  Must be a beginner.  I could do that.

Even granting that a live show can still draw big crowds, then what next to question under the big top?  There's plenty according to the critics.  On parade, here come the most politically incorrect offenders.

Circus Staples Under Siege


This key element of circus  may be losing its luster to more spectacular acts of risk-taking on TV reality shows or aerial stunts in the great outdoors captured on film.  Compared to which, the sight of a mere human scaling a wire only thirty or forty feet above the ground may somehow seem, reverse affect here, old school.  Another trend that is emasculating the show are the solo and duo fabric aerialists who throw more focus onto slower balletic moves. I think this sort of action, some of it, to be sure, quite exciting, has nonetheless eroded the public’s taste for the more perilous tricks we associate with the single trapeze.   Would Pinito Del Oro, above, have settled for a silken web? For a static trapeze?

The protected aerialist: The presence of lifelines (mechanics) has done more than anything else to produce today’s ambivalent audience.  Courage or cowardice, which will it be today, Circus? With some performers flying under protection, others not, the vacillating impression does nothing to sustain a committed identity.  And the primal power of circus suffers.   


This old-time jester might today consider either less greasepaint or horror flicks

The heavily painted funny faces are not so welcome anymore.  Reports and images of creepy characters in grotesque clown makeup terrorizing citizens on city streets and in public places have produced a growing number of adults who fear taking their kids to a circus for this among the other reasons.  In Europe, there seems to be a trend towards less makeup, down to a red nose maybe and a few whimsical marks, sufficient to paint a face in mirth, but not one of implicit mayhem.  This is a viable route for today’s jesters.  After all, a clown is a character far more than a painted face.


The elephants may be on the way out. So, too, the big cage cats.  But there are still plenty of dogs, horses, camels and other critters — well, if  Jenny Vidbel can find and train them. I think that John Ringling North II made about as shrewd and sensitive a move as a circus man can make these days by featuring just one small elephant, Louise, on his Kelly Miller show last season.  The dancing of Louise, nothing like I have ever seen, was pure magic.

Encore for Elephants?  If the public’s skittishness over performing pachyderms is ever to be reversed, it may take one elephant at a time.  And it may take a far simpler approach like the one advocated by UK author and critic Douglas McPherson in his book, Circus Mania

“The elephants don’t need to be oversold with gimmicks.  Just walking into the ring and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough.” 

Indeed, a day may come when an audience new to such a spectacle as elephants on parade will thrill to that alone.  Certainly the children will.

Bring back the one-act show:  Circuses may help their cause by removing the intermission and running a shorter show straight through, as once they did.  Promise patrons less time away from their gadgets.  On their way out, happier, they may still be more inclined, maybe more so, to patronize the rides and concessions — the vain lure of selfies.

 Remember When Circus Day was Guilt Free?

Unlike their forebears, today's patrons enter the tent loaded with electronics and with overwrought minds buzzing with issues over whether to patronize a circus is even a good idea in the first place.
That long-gone circus day that enjoyed the total attention of an undistracted crowd not fraught with issues, that long ago world in which we once thrilled to a circus show feeling not a qualm, reveling in the honest and simple joy of it all --- that wondrous world, I am sadly afraid, no longer exits.

The Big Show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 23, 1953

Next: Can Kenneth Feld Rebuild The Greatest Show on Earth?

Photos above: On horseback, the Cristiians
On the high wire:  The Wallendas
On the single trap:   Pinito Del Oro
Clown Buzzy Potts.
Barnum & Bailey on parade, 1908
Under the big top At Gil Gray Circus (from the Circus Blog)
Ringling elephants on Parade, 1978, with Ana May in the lead, the Woodcocks in charge

First posted January 18, 2016