"No Clowns. No Animals. No Ringmaster"-- No Circus? Return of "Greatest Show" Now Happening ...

"No Clowns.  No Animals. No Ringmaster"-- No Circus?  Return of "Greatest Show" Now Happening ...
They opened, not in the mud with this show, but in the same venue, down in Boissier, LA, at the Boissier Grocery Arena, on September 29.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Boob Tube to You Tube ... Lost in a Billion Bytes, the Circus from Astley to Zippos ...

Blame this post on Comcast offering me a better price if I would only upgrade.  New cable box and modem (do they still make those?) and I fell into a dizzy smorgasbord of infinite video footage fit for big screen TV. And am still falling. So Easy (and tempting) to get lost, looking for this but caught by  that over there that shamelessly plays to my non-circus interests (what else do they know about me?).

But out of nowhere, too, can pop surprising delights, like Big Top Circus from 1954, a weekly “kiddie” circus, cheerfully ring-mastered by Jack Sterling. It  looks more like a circus for all ages, free of the pretentious ballet- and narrative-driven drivel that’s draining the life out of our big tops.  Take Mel Hall's three Cycling Wiz Kids, from around 5 to 10 in ages, who score big and breezy on unicycles.  The littleest one, a boy,  falls and gets back up and tries and tries again, four times, and achieves the trick before our astonished eyes. And, are you kidding me, world? – a man dancing with a bear, smooth as two aging adults over a waxy floor? 

Sunday School Barnum?   In You Tube land you learn the damndest things, such as this whopper: Not only did Barnum & Bailey invent the three ring circus, which they kind of did, but they cleaned out all grifting on their midway, thus earning themselves she honorable put down among competitors of  “Sunday school boys.” Are you laughing?  Ringling brothers: SUE.  Historical fictions leak through even on loftier PBS-certified documentaries, such as The Circus, in which it is claimed that TV killed it in the 1950s.  So, have I been been hallucinating for the last fifty years?

A sharper image through fewer pixels: Looking back at the bear and  man dancing together, and the little ones riding their one wheelers,  you can feel what it was like to be fully and perfectly pleased by a circus act plain and simple, before the invasion of Cirque du Precious.

Countdown to Ringling Redo, beginning TODAY. And how might production embellishments  be used —  or abused —  by the Felds when they launch their sanitized version of the new Greatest Show on Earth?.  This is finally happening within hours, down in Boissier City, LA. Juliet Feld in a promo, chirps up how the audience will be more intimately involved by being seated closer to the action and connected digitally to closeups of performers.  Yawn. Didn’t they already try this in their last edition, the one that went out of this world and ended up in the graveyard? The year 2017.   Have they learned nothing?  Like really,  who wants to see a Broadway show from premium seating in the wings?   I am reminded of Al Ringling’s definition of ringmaster decorum, which might as well count for circus itself -- “elusive yet vital.”  In my book, a million less pixels will do.

So, back to earth and across the big pond, let us go zip zip zipping up and over to Zippos Circus.

Revered ringmaster and incomparable bird trainer, Norman Barrett

Hilariously original from diminutive dynamo Paulo Dos Santos of Brazia : How a balloon can be contorted into so many amusing sizes and connections to the human body.this one nearly brought down the tent. ZIPPOTASTIC.

There’s a clean effervescent flow and glow to this straight ahead big top. For my taste, the three most memorable moments are: (1) a most engagingly clever juggler who keeps tennis rackets and luggage in motion (2) that HUGE  balloon you see being ingeniously worked by Paulo Dos Santos, and   (3) The Temujin Troupe from the Mongolian Steppes.  At their best, these eight agile acrobats execute voltige and casting in a continuous stream, lending the feel of a novelized flying return act, which I could have watched  over and over again, But NO, Wait, Hold on —  STOP, correction!  Blame it on You Tubery!  Why did I say so little about them on my notes and yet now give them the center ring status here? Why? Here’s the reason why.

How you Tube scrambles reality into billions of bits, some getting mixed up with others, leaving us with fractured impressions of what really happened . Turns out, the Zippos performance I watched on You Tube contained a version of their act very different from another one I subsequently watched, from off the show's website.  Apparently, on their way to Zippos the multi-gifted Tumujins were re-programed down to a more static series of human pyramids, each followed by a drawn out reach for more applause. Gone were the streaming acrobatics.

 Something I haven’t seen before: These five words usually come to mind when discovering that rare novelty at the circus that I live for, and I think of the man who first spoke them to me when I asked him what he looked for in scouting acts: John Ringling North.   Another discovery I made was scrambled my way by You Tube, ever ready to sustain my primary focus at the moment  —  a clip of ringmaster Norman Barrett, who has previously blown the whistle for Zippos,  performing the most astonishing bird act. Now, I am in awe of the man’s talents. In his youth, I am told by Douglas McPherson, he rode horses roman style.  “He stood on two galloping horses while a third ran in the opposite direction between his legs!”

"When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling ... the whole world smiles with you,” sings Sir Norman while gingerly coaching a dozen or so trained birds who fly back and forth between two little turning carousels.  How did he ever get them to .. How?. These are the moments when circus proves its true genius.        

You Tube excels when rolling out footage unmolested by expert voices telling us what we should think.  You don’t go to a circus to think as much as to feel — to gasp and awe and laugh and thrill and scream with joy.  Or to smile over  the simple yet wondrous charm of a bear dancing with a man.


Sunday, September 17, 2023


Just wondering,  Visits to this blog have skyrocketed, sometimes into the thousands, over the last few months, making me wonder more than ever who you are. Circus?  Musical theater? Still, virtually nobody leaves a comment.  Has no one out there a pulse strong enough to post a peep?

Or ...  are my sky high stats a fluke of AI?  

Just wondering. 

Have a nice anonymous day!

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Sledgehammer Showmanship on Parade: The Ringmaster Screams, The Music Drones On, and Circus Vargas Sinks to a New Mediocre

Circus Vargas -- Bonjour Paris
Seen at Corte Madera, CA, August 12, 1 pm
Tickets: $19 - $75 

Note: Website photos of the acts do not give names or bios.

What a difference a few critical seasons can make.   The Circus Vargas you first spot this year, with a state of the art tent, can hold its own in design with the best of them. From a distance it’s a wow.  Up close, you might be  charmed by the sight of comfy couch chairs on the midway. The prelude air sparkles.  


But all things in life do not always unfold to favor first impressions, right?  This will be a doubly challenging review to write. So those who prefer their reviews sunny side up are encouraged to go sunny side down and out of here,  while you have the chance.  I do not bow to sacred cows.  

I have never, in trying to form a notice, been so compelled to weigh talent against “production values” (announcing, music, set, costumes and props, direction and pacing, etc) First, to talent. On balance overall, I’d place it in a respectable  B- range.  Good enough for an average audience, certainly for crowds newer to the circus, and especially the young  too young to have much to compare it with.  .

For my eyes, the most gripping moment came on the rolla-bolla, our maniac for the afternoon stacking seven blocks on a roller and then proceeding to place himself at the top. The crowd went wild.  We agree, crowd.  The performer’s hyper jittery nerves, real or not, intensified audience fears.  

I also liked the breezy, ingratiating fellow who works with an upright ladder, and balances large objects. Maybe on the basic side, but refreshing in its delivery.  It’s an act I would welcome seeing again.

Circus Vargas, which has long excluded animals, now seems to be moving out of the aerial sphere as well.  There is virtually little of memorable consequence in the air (only two strap acts, one in each half, well rendered), and practically no clowns.  Yes, there are two guys who make funny faces and funny sounds.  

 Safety first in the modern tent

On the ground, there’s an ambitious teeterboard troupe, a bit of a work in progress.Biggest item is a  woman in harness who is catapulted to form only a three-high. Usually, it’s a four stack that gets wired.  But now, the lifelines, it seems, are becoming more and more an accepted element in the “new circus.” In fact, our protected diva advances the acceptance of them by being lowered to the ground twice with the aid of her safety wire, thus giving it the respect of a co-participant.  She did execute a nifty feat, landing between two under-standers in a splits position.  

What else?  A young juggler offered a wide variety of manipulations, if only so many of them had not turned messy.     

There is plenty of dancing, purpose being, I took it, to flesh out a flimsy theme about the show going to Paris. An accordion player serenades us, and the cast whoops  it up line kicking in a winning can-can.

Second half packs a little more power, what with the standard double wheel and then the cage of three spinning motorcycles.  A more exciting turn had the bikers out of the cage and rip-rolling up and over a ramp to the other side.

Okay, ready or not, here I go.  Production values: They should enhance and elevate the action.  Here they nearly smother it.  This show looked and sounded very different from those I have seen several seasons before, and so I  wondered if there had been a regime change at the top.  Turns out, no, Katya Arata Quiroga and Nelson Quiroga,still own it.  How strange that they, in their heyday top-flight trapeze artists, should now give us a largely empty shell above.

But like it or not, there is a regime change of sorts, an overbearing regime named Jonathan Lee Iverson.  You will know him as a Ringling ringmaster. Here he also serves as performance director.  At the start of his career on the Ringling show, Iverson cut an appealing figure, and I saw great promise and gave him high marks.  But then he was restrained. Repeat: Restrained. Over the years, he has only grown more annoying, especially inside a small tent compared the huge arenas he played.  During set up for the motorcycle cage, I wondered whether a long buzzing noise I heard was part of the operation — or Iverson himself going for a new record in vowel extension.    

This advanced version of  Iverson conveys a belligerent undertone of egocentric control.  Indeed, he has a way of sucking the oxygen out of the tent with his proloooooooooooooooooooonged introductions, which he can't seem to get enough of.   To be fair, the man’s verbal blasts are not without precedent, however questionable.  I can think of at least another blowhard —  the abundantly large one who bellowed away for Carson & Barnes, as if believing that the louder and longer he screamed, the greater would be his  impact. Iverson did excel surprisingly and  magnificently in going operatic in a baritone outburst — a second career in the making?  Or mere lip syncing?

Enough. As for the vaguely dreary recorded music, how best to describe it? In a word, MO-NOT-O- NOUS  Together, ringmaster and score form an oppressive barrier  between  artist and audience.

But ... the crowds the day I attended – I’d guess they filled about half the seats —  were wildly alive, and lapped up most of everything.  Circus Vargas has had 15 shows to do in the small upscale town of Corte Madera, in rich Marin County.  They must be doing something right -- although, and I could be wrong, there seemed to be noticeably fewer people in the seats after intermission.
I know I won’t be returning until there is yet another regime change.   

 Early exit?

 END RINGERS Trooping in Turmoil?  Website does not name the photos.  A total of 3 ringmasters appear in two images, one seen above  Did I miss him? I only saw Iverson in the show.   There's a foot juggling act I would love to have seen  -- woman works large lotus leaf objects. She did not appear. What goes over there? ....  Music that Sounds Like Music: There is music out there that can have strong multi-generational appeal, and the '80s stand out. I bring this up because, while on the way, my Lyft driver, a young guy from Brazil who is training to be an airline pilot like his father and uncle,  had some ‘80s sounds coming from out of his system. We had fun talking up the era.  Beware the Vargas Discount Coupon.I came across a large Vargas ad in the East Bay Times, which read: Save 15% on your tickets!  Use code 15AD23"  I tried using it at the ticket window, only to be curtly rebuffed: “We don’t do those here.” Oh, really? How unlike the previous regime ... They are next headed to Petaluma up the road. I wanted to post more photos, but the website disallows saving copies. 

Sunday, August 20, 2023


From Russia with Lust: Not a pretty story, not for the Essex, Vermont Circus Smirkus Academy that was. Smirkus a few seasons back hired an ex-Russian ring star Vladimir Avgoustov, 56, to coach its students, and he did more than that, at least with one 7-years-old girl during a 2006 summer camp. She was a student at the Vermont School of Circus Arts, which succeeded the Smirkus Academy. Our ex-Soviet ring star, pleading guilty to sexual assault, will spend at least five years in prison. He could be deported. It happens not just in confession booths.

It Happened on Wallace Bros. Circus many years ago, soon after I had joined on as an “usher”(ho, ho, little did I know about “cherry pie”) and one of the joeys was discovered under the seats between shows having a good time with a young female. (On another day, he virtually invited me under the seats, too; I declined) After his hasty removal from the Wallace lot, I was asked if I would like to replace him in clown alley, and thus was born my short-lived career in greasepaint.

Beggars in Spangles: Those once revered Russian circus icons, so mysterious behind the iron curtain, are not so other-worldly anymore, not in the States where they are finding steadier work. Here they run pony rides between performing. Some show up on America’s Got Talent. Did you see the sad spectacle of the Popovichs, descendants of a famed Russian artist, with dogs that delighted the judges one week, then, back the next with too much “story,” resulting in the same judges, no longer entranced, telling them to stick to the animals and leave the cerebral froth behind. Off they got booted. Cold tip to circus performers: Do your hardest tricks and keep those inner narratives to yourselves. Outside of a Cirque ring, the public still expects a circus act to be -- well, a circus act.

Beyond the big top, your average circus act rarely gets much respect anyway. Television fails to capture the live nature of the brilliant beast. Sure, you can perform in Vegas while your “audience” slobbers around slot machines. The Felds have tried in vain to set up circus retail shops in malls. Like a Christmas tree laying out there on the street after New Years, circus is a one-day-a-year holiday. Been there yesterday; done that for a year. Now, go away. The public wants it fleeting — just like it advertised itself for centuries.

Jack Hunter reminds some of us of a certain age (I plead guilty) of how lucky we were to have seen Ringling-Barnum under glorious canvas. And we were. And, no, kids (and you know who you are), it’s not likely to happen again — unless Cirque’s billionaire big top mogul Guy Laliberte suddenly has an urge to revive the golden age. Only could he bring it off, so send him your wish lists.

Small Is In. Even first-of-may showman John Ringling North II figured this out when he purchased established one-ringer, Kelly-Miller. Now as for those (well, the one of you out there) who laughed over the thought of a Ringling running so small a trick --- consider this: Ringling circus founding genius Al, who to his dying day loved — some claim favored — the one-ring show, would likely delight in his grand nephew’s late-career achievement.

Animals Should Floss, Too. Baraboo’s man for all seasons, Bob Dewel, who once upon a time practiced dentistry for humans, was approached by one local vet seeking Dewel’s help in putting stainless steel crowns on the teeth of cows. And what for? “To prolong their life and milk production.” Since Bob had just set up his chair, he was afraid to curry an unsavory reputation so he turned away the cattle crowd. Crowns for clowns worked better, I assume. You might have made a fortune, doc!

And that’s a cow wrap from Oakland.

 Big Top Bits, and Astray We Go, from 8/1/07

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Sunday Morning from Out of the Past: And You Wonder, What Are They Thinking? ...

Rumblings down at the runs, waiting on a circus train from nowhere... Once upon a season they were all in the barn by now -- red wagons in need of fresh red paint, ring curbs for new stars, jacks and stringers for repair ... Now the elephants wait for cues that may never come ... To be or not to be? To perform or not to perform?

Down at the runs, you wonder what Barbara Byrd is thinking. Strange how it should all come down to this -- from a man to a woman, from William Coup adding rings in 1872 to Barbara Byrd being the last to keep three of them in motion under the same canvas. Is she too thinking a single circle, or does she hear the ghost of her dad Dory telling her to stay the American course? ... Down in Florida, what is on Johnny Pugh’s mind? Time to retire? Or time to go for broke in a daring blaze, to reinvest and bring back the band?

A thousand miles down a spur track to a humble dream, a new circus is being formed in somebody’s ambitious mind, and maybe that circus has a crusty old midway to offer the jaded patron in search of the past ... Strange gaudy banner lines in flagrant violation of PC standards ...

... What might Paul Binder be thinking when he notes how long it’s been since he presented either a pachyderm or a flyer? Big Apple opens in the fall when circuses once closed, and closes come summer ... Once upon a season, the white tops slept during winter, awoke in time for early spring and were out in the sunshine chasing after the money that harvests put into farmer’s pockets....

Down by the old ice house where the train once arrived, you can almost hear the sound of a faint whistle up the rails and remember when they clanged into town under the cover of a damp morning mist. When the world was barely born and then suddenly appeared before your eyes under pennants galloping in the wind. And you wonder what Renee Storey is plotting when she considers how PETA gives her employer, Cole Bros. Circus, more publicity and might not be such a bad thing after all? What Kenneth Feld is thinking when he continues pitching the Big Cage act to customers who who evidently still want their circus on the wild side ...

And out in San Francisco, where patrons prefer Perrier over lemonade, ballet over big top, even the nuovo rich are growing restless for a taste of reality. They are taking in a very different version of Cirque du Soleil at the moment, a version called Kooza, and some of them are realizing what they have been missing for more than a season.

“This production feels like a heart-pumping cocaine binge for thrill addicts,” proclaims Nathaniel Eaton in the ultra-liberal S.F. Weekly, coming honest on how “ho hum” he found the three Cirque shows that came before.

Animals? Weren’t they supposed to all be gone by now, asks the Savvy Insider, elsewhere at work on routing and promotions, taking time out to answer his own question. No, says he, animals acts did not go away as planned. In Europe, they “have instead been reinvented” ... And you think how wonderfully ironic, that those uppity Brit Lords, sure of their agenda, paid for a study to prove that elephants are really mistreated at the circus —- a study they proved the very opposite! And down at the runs waiting for a train to pull in, you wonder what the public is thinking now...

Over road maps and sponsor contracts, watching videos of acrobats and jugglers and plotting another season, you wonder what John Ringling North II is thinking ...Bigger and better —- or the same?

Even more fun to ponder is what S.F. Cow Palace big shots, without a circus for two years, may be thinking? ... And you can almost hear a distant train whistle somewhere out there on real rails or in the back of your mind, racing forward with a world of spangled wonders to capture a waffling public restlessly ready to be thrilled by something either very new or very old ... And optimistically, you enjoy remember being told over and over again that history repeats itself ...

Down at the runs, Byrd and Pugh, Feld and Binder and Ringling North and Judkins, and yes, Laliberte the Great reinventing himself, are watching and waiting, too. Maybe wondering what we are thinking

First posted December 7, 2007.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

How Hollywood Wreaks Havoc on Broadway Musicals --- Flies Higher Creating Its Own


LATEST EXAMPLE of how Hollywood can turn a Broadway smash into a 5-star bomb is Cats, based on the Broadway phenomenon, and declared by one of its hissing critics (20% Rotten Tomatoes) , “catastrophic.”  I saw the bloated stage show once, and once was more than enough.  And, no I am not a knee-jerk Andrew Lloyd Weber hater – I saw Phantom of the Opera five times. 

FROM THE WOBBLY  get-go, musicals are like rambunctious children refusing to grow up. And even when they manage to bust Broadway and grab a few Tony's on the run, chances are, most of them that make it back to revival row will be subjected to “rethinking” and “re-imagining,” by self-appointed experts, who are just as likely to convert  good-enough material into ground breaking drivel.   And then there is Tinseltown – beware!  All that money, all those lavish sets!  All those interfering stars and marketing hustlers behind the scenes pushing a stage darling into an overwrought embarrassment  — everything that a musical does not need.  The producers of Cats promised "astonishing new technology." Can you spell   o v e r  - p r o d u c e d? 

 It's About the Songs, Stupid!

WHENEVER I GO near a movie adaptation, I best try forgetting that I ever saw the original stage show. But with The  King & I,  how can I not be shocked by the criminal absence of three Rodgers and Hammerstein gems -- I Have Dreamed, My Lord and Master, and  the comic masterpiece,  Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?  High Treason! Worse yet,  we are made to  suffer through a tediously long middle section, devoid of song, about Anna and the King  getting ready to host their English visitors, which feels more like a period piece in  minuet-land, all of which leads to a tiresomely repetitious 14-minute-long ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas.             
The Shocking Truth About Maria

I AM NOW going to movie musicals, or they to me, with but one default expectation: Just entertain me and keep all the talking down to a bare a minimum. This new attitude was hastened by disclosures in recent years of how the The sound of Music is almost a total fairy tale.  Did you know that the real Maria could not play a guitar? That the real Maria did not teach those Trapp darlings how to sing Do-Re-Mi? That the real Maria did no fall in love with the Captain, and that the real Maria  was hated by the Captain’s real-life oldest daughter?  

  Climb Every Mountain – At Your Own Risk
OH AND YES, among other shameless fabrications, had the family actually  followed the dictates of Climb Every Mountain and escaped over those singing hills,  they would have ended warbling out their favorite things in the backyard of one Adolf Hitler.       

IN FACT,  by one account, the Trapp boarded a street car for Italy; by another, they walked out of town.  I will give Oscar Hammerstein II a pass on this almost fraudulent  glorification.  He  did not write the libretto, but composed more great lyrics under the cloud of a cancer diagnosis.  One of Broadway’s true giants would be gone, only nine months after his last musical reached Breakaway. 

AND THEN CAME the movie, which only made the musical sweeter and longer.  And the critics  even nastier.  They tossed out the score’s two most sophisticated songs, numbers that had given the original work a little dramatic relief — How Can Live Survive? and No Way to Stop It.  With Oscar gone, Dick composed two ditties of his own, one, the atrociously awful Something Good.  By then, the critics were onto this flimsy con job,  Pauline Kael calling it a “sugar coated lie,“ Bosley Crowther,  “romantic nonsense and sentiment.” Judith Crist deemed the film suitable  for  "the five to seven set and all their mommies.”

                          Cary Grant's Cole Porter Charade

ALL OF THESE revelations have given me a reformed disposition to enjoy, guilt-free, whatever Hollywood may have to offer, however flagrantly untrue.  Creating from scratch, Tinseltown  would whip up a string of captivating originals through the 1949s-1950s.  

SO LET US advance to another fairy tale (pun not intended) masquerading as a true-to-life bio, the movie Night and Day, allegedly about the life of Cole Porter. Back in 1946, had the producers even wanted to, a Hollywood code would have disallowed them from depicting any element of Porter’s well-known homosexuality.  And so the film focuses on Porter’s platonic relationship to wife Linda, with whom he spent much time abroad traveling museums and sites, oddly not shown here.

WHAT DOES Night and Day do right?  Plenty.  First and foremost, this bright winning treatment in rich technicolor from Warner Bros. keeps those fabulous Porter songs rolling steadily along, the haunting title tune, a recurring motif that I never tire of hearing.  Glib supporting players include Monte Wolly, Eve Arden,  and Mary Martin.  Cary Grant’s charm is a pleasure unto itself.  

ALL OF WHICH makes this treat so much easier to love than De-Lovely, the 2004 film about Porter that in its own way may be  just as much fairy tale, working overtime to build up a great heterosexual love between Cole and Linda.  Director Irwin Winkler's  straining overreach can't help itself -- speculatively, Porter experts would argue  --  from having Cole impregnate Linda, who soon after miscarries.  In fact, the real Linda did suffer a miscarriage.  But she was a social climber and lesbian who latched onto Porter's rising star, and pursued her own affairs with women while Cole pursued his, relentlessly -- not a one of them significantly fleshed out here.  No wonder the film split the critics (48% Rotten), Rex Reed libeling it  "phony .... wooden, artificial, contrived." 
Another white wash? Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd as Cole and Linda
"De-Lousy" -- Los Angeles Times
BACK TO Cary Grant. To its credit, Night and  Day effectively dramatizes Cole’s tragic fall from a horse, and this scene  brought tears to my eyes, knowing that, through dozens of operations  on his right leg to merely save it,  he would yet turn out more marvelous  songs.  Kiss Me Kate gave us, in my view, his greatest ballad ever, So In Love.  (I have never known a piece of music and a circus aerialist to connect so thrillingly as when Ringling star Gerard Soules flew to the  pounding pulse of this mesmerizing number.)  A noteworthy Cole  Porter 1950 flop, Out of This World, supplied an abundance of the man’s magic, including a song dropped on the road to opening night, From This Moment On, which Frank Sinatra and others would later immortalize: Two more Broadway  hits, in Can Can, and Silk Stockings, kept Cole Porter’s name alive in the l950s.                                              

Frank Sinatra’s Nearly Perfect Joey 

FRANK SINATRA'S  Pal Joey on screen is so good, I have bought the DVD.  Purists complain of its botching up the original, in which, in the end, Joey walks off alone; this, they rightly argue, marked a realism that distinguished Pal Joey from others of the day.  In the movie, Joey walks off arm in arm  with Linda English (Kim Novak in perfect form). And, all the years, later, I say – so what.  I have grown to like the sunnier ending, and, besides, how could anyone dump Kim Novak?  The witty, worldly screenplay does not flinch from  making clear the kept nature of Joey’s relationship to Vera Simpson (Rita Hayward)  All players are superb.  And what a sublime treat  are the songs of Rodgers and Heart, especially those crooned by Sinatra, then at his vocalizing prime.

Through the heather on the hill ... 
Never was a movie musical more enchanting
WITH THE exception of Pal Joey and Brigadoon, none of my other other favorite movie musicals are Broadway adaptions, which usually run well over two hours — Sound of Music at 174 minutes  may be longer on film than on stage. South Pacific at 166, My Fair Lady at 172.  One thing my favorites have in common is that they all clock in under two hours, thank you: The Band Wagon, Gigi, Singin' in the Rain, Holiday Inn. Joey wraps up in 114 minutes, Brigadoon in 108, Singin’ at 103. 

HOLLYWOOD MAY have learned that telling the truth won’t get you a crowd.  A recent big screen hit was Hugh Jackman’s historically empty The Greatest Showman, another high-flying fairy tale makeover with a winning modern score,  that at least in one respect meets my criteria: Only 105 minutes long.

And that’s entertainment!


Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Circus Vargas My Way Comes ... Maybe Zoppe, Too .... And then Comes Ringling --- If Philly Comes Through

Finally, a circus in my own backyard!

At last, I can see Circus Vargas in a more Idyllic setting, “Idyllic” meaning not an anonymous mall over asphalt, or that seedy lot from hell by a harsh freeway in Oakland’s netherworld —  but closer to an open field -- the (comparatively) gorgeous scrappy old Petaluma Fairgrounds, prominently located near the middle of a charming town.

They're slated for a week of shows in late August.   And now that I once again have my  own wheels, I can make it there in good time.  I’ll be getting there in my Lyft (model yet to be determined), one hour instead of the three it would have taken had I roughed it out on public transit.

Those delightful Zoppes , who played the same lot last year, will be trouping in Northern California again, so I’m hopeful they’ll spring some other dates closer.

On the return of Ringling

Yes, Alice, there is a greatest show on earth, and it's coming back later this year,  though not under a tent.  Going against modern trends, they are still sticking to the mammoth hard tops that were increasingly harder for them to even half half way fill — back in the days of lions and tigers and elephants — even dogs and ponies.  All of that older stuff erased from Kenneth Feld’s hard drive, in favor of — as I see it — Circus du Ringling on steroids

The name Nicole is nowhere in evidence. Now, the name is Juliette.   And here, I had assumed that Nicole was the heir apparent.   Me wonders if she disagreed.

    What can we expect?

From Kenneth Feld, to the Associated Press:

“We knew we were going to come back. We didn’t know exactly how,” says Kenneth Feld, chair and chief of Feld Entertainment. “It took us a long time to really delve in and take a look at Ringling in different ways. It became a re-imagination, a rethinking of how we were going to do it.”

From the company:

“A group of 75 performers from 18 countries will carry out the acts, which combine artistry, skill and strength. Some will perform jumps, runs and other tricks on a wire high above the ground. The wire is stretched into a triangular path more than seven and a half meters up in the air.

‘Flying trapeze artists will also cut through the air way up high, flipping as they move. Others perform acts on self-turning wheels, bicycles, unicycles and skateboards”.

Reviving so little

Why  have I not heard or seen a single news item about this?  Why the total silence?  It makes me wonder if the media for some reason is against it.

This will take guts to bring this off – with so much that in the public’s mind stood for CIRCUS no longer there. I do believe that Kenneth Feld has the resources and the adaptability to make changes if necessary.  He is wisely  staying away at first from  major spotlights. This way, he can avert embarrassing publicity if his first reboot backfires.

Five stars for daring-do.  And five more  for having our own Wesley Wonders, the One Wheel Wonder, on the all-human (not sure about “binary”) bill.

As I see it, they may need to infuse the proceedings with plenty of levity and clowning, for this high-tech heavy may get mired  in too too  serious a tone.    

Let it Roll!

Here's their route, which I share with you in the late great tradition of Don Marcks and the Biggerstaff’s much missed Circus Report.  They’re selling tickets up through Philly, into next February.  Why the stop gap?  A safety value to fold or re-think if the first dates fail expectations?   Pardon me for being prematurely paranoid, but Philadelphia is in the state of Pennsylvania.  And it was in that state at Pittsburgh, where the big top fell in 1956.

Best of all, Ringling is back in operation, and this alone may send a message that circus is still a viable option.  Kind of, a little .. It would be like Apple dumping i Phones or tablets from its offerings, only to bring them back, but vastly emasculated. Enjoy looking forward!       

 Bossier City, LA
Sep 29 - Oct 1, 2023

Cleveland, OH
Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse
Oct 6 - 8, 2023

Milwaukee, WI
Fiserv Forum
Oct 13 - 15, 2023

Pittsburgh, PA
PPG Paints Arena
Oct 20 - 22, 2023
Cincinnati, OH
Heritage Bank Center
Oct 27 - 29, 2023

Rosemont, IL
Allstate Arena
Nov 3 - 5, 2023

Kansas City, MO
T-Mobile Center
Nov 10 - 12, 2023

Detroit, MI
Little Caesars Arena
Nov 17 - 19, 2023

Baltimore, MD
CFG Bank Arena
Nov 24 - 26, 2023

Indianapolis, IN
Gainbridge Fieldhouse
Dec 1 - 3, 2023

St. Louis, MO
Enterprise Center
Dec 9 - 10, 2023

Oklahoma City, OK
Paycom Center
Dec 15 - 17, 2023

Tampa, FL
Amalie Arena
Jan 5 - 7, 2024

Orlando, FL
Amway Center
Jan 12 - 15, 2024

Jacksonville, FL
Veterans Memorial Arena
Jan 19 - 21, 2024

Sunrise, FL
FLA Live Arena
Jan 27 - 28, 2024

Greensboro, NC
Greensboro Coliseum
Feb 2 - 4, 2024

Greenville, SC
Bon Secours Wellness Arena
Feb 9 - 11, 2024

Philadelphia, PA
Wells Fargo Center
Feb 16 - 19, 2024

Brooklyn, NY
Details coming soon!

Newark, NJ
Belmont Park, NY
Bridgeport, CT
Buffalo, NY
Boston, MA
Worcester, MA
Wilkes Barre, PA
Providence, RI
Hartford, CT
Columbus, OH
Phoenix, AZ
Tucson, AZ
Austin, TX
San Antonio, TX
Houston, TX
Dallas, TX
Fort Worth, TX
Ontario, CA
Anaheim, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Oakland, CA
San Jose, CA
Sacramento, CA
Denver, CO
Salt Lake City, UT
Las Vegas, NV
Tulsa, OK
Little Rock, AR
Grand Rapids, MI
State College, PA
Albany, NY
Manchester, NH
Allentown, PA
Charleston, WV

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Brit Circus Kings Keep Rings Rocking with Foreign Talent, Aggressive Showmanship. Two Giants Among Them, Now Gone ...

Circus Funtasia

The old and the new, one going, another coming.  First, to acknowledge here the passing of “Doktor John Haze,” as John Hayes Mabley was known, a dynamo showman known for his hard-edged Circus Extreme that fielded  UK’s biggest big top.

                                          Circus Extreme

Haze was considered the nation’s reigning circus mogul after the late Gerry Gottle, with whom he founded another long-running  hit —  their runaway success, Circus of Horrors,  billed the “world’s longest running alternative circus show.” Thirty years on, and still playing to sold out crowds. 

 Doktor Haze

Modern-Day Barnums: Cottle and Haze

A full menu showman not of the Montreal class, the dexterous Haze promoted a truly daring stunt over the sainted Thames, balancing 16 men 150 feet above the famed river in a “human mobile.” Had one of them slipped , the whole lot would have gone down.  Actually, going soft here, I am supposing that water may form a safer landing surface than your standard trapeze net — that is, for those who know how to swim.  A chilling stunt, nonetheless.  It speaks to the man’s gritty, knock 'em dead showmanship.
At 12, Haze teamed up with his dad --- just released from prison (reasons not given) –  to join Circus Della Beck in Ireland.  There he learned how to swallow fire, and how to fake reading gullible  minds in a crowd.   A thread here?  Again, echoes of the tough midways that once prefaced earthy tent shows of spangled glories.  They gave you the dirt. They gave you the stars.  Ballet and theatre interlopers will never understand.

In his random early 20s, Haze dabbled in rock, forming Flash Harry, its players turning circus-type tricks while riffing on.

These British impresarios strike me as adaptive, flexible, and prone to inventing as they go. And maybe more open to collaboration. What bothers/disappoints/puzzles  me about them is their nearly total deference to the no-animals format (three shows still carry domestics) .  Maybe they know something. They’ve produced shows abroad, and they’ve managed UK tours of both the Chinese and Moscow state troupes. Haze for a time ran the latter. You have an idea, comrade? Heck with the “C” word —  Let’s talk! Da?

During the crippling Corona look-downs, Haze led a campaign to unlock them, clear up to the front door of 10 Downing Street. Boris! Are you in there? Boris, beleaguered big tops calling! Boris  said yes, UNLOCK, and a nation of circuses were spared collective implosion.
Okay, your turn, Tracy Jones!  Her take on the biz  tells of a nation weak on the talent needed to energize the rings of today’s successfully produced shows.  Sounds a whole lot like over here?

Tracy slipped into the life by accident, when taking care of horses for the French stunt rider, Gerard Naprous. When he landed a four-week gig in Gandey’s Circus, she followed him as a horse groom, and fell for the whole party.  Told mum, “I’m going to join the circus.” Mum  put her and bag on a train.  She stayed with Gandeys for the next twenty eights years. Phillip the paymaster threw blades within inches of her fearless face, and she took them. “I trusted him completely.”  She learned the basics of trapeze and of trick riding on horseback.  Toured with  Gandey’s Circus through Shanghai, Honk Kong, and Dubai.  

All of which well-grounded our Tracy to start up her very own show, Circus Funtasia, now celebrating its 10th anniversary.  The ring is gone, in its place, a rectangular stage.  Our ringmistress is  giddy and remains optimistic. 

On Saturday nights, the tent is reset for the adult-only Cirque du Vulgar. I love it! A clever play on the Montreal formula. I can imagine a legion of restless adults sick and tired of du Precious and flocking to kink and gore for du relief.  

Biggest problem running Funtasia?  Tracy wishes there were more (like, how about a few) Brits willing to join up. “It’s really, really  hard to find British people who want to travel on a circus.... We’re in the ring one moment, selling popcorn the next." More than that, a dearth of skills and training among the hometown pool. “We [also] have a Cuban troupe of gymnasts because in Cubans they train them from very young age.”

Those communist powers do have a way with steel-handed restraint that fosters the disciplines needed to produce competitive thrills.  Now, without naming shows (you will know who I am talking about) in freer places we have kids from today’s snowflake generations being harnessed to safety ropes while performing relatively simple feats barely as high off the ground as a low wire.  Blame the whole damn thing on the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Tracy’s strategic planning for the next ten years? “Just carry on and enjoy every minute of it.”

Ah, what a lovely note to go out on.

A young Gerry Cottle starting out. How I wish I had met him.  

Acknowledging my sources here-- but one: All of the above and the quotes were gleaned from Douglas McPherson’s fine profiles of Haze and Jones, as published in London’s  The Stage.

Friday, July 07, 2023

Chasing Circuses Through The Killing Fields of America

How guilty should I feel for passing up two  circuses that recently played in my area?

There was a time before the streets were so randomly dangerous. A time when, at the age of 15 and alone, I walked a mile or two down a Richmond, California street before day break,  to reach Ringling Bros circus rising.  Don’t blame a mass shooting being the cause of the tents having already  been pitched  –  they’d snuck into town the day before.

Back then, after getting off a bus somewhere, I’d  walk the rest of the way for Carson Barnes or Beatty-Cole. With each passing step, my heart jumped higher.   (No wonder I love to walk!)

Today, the same landscape is riddled with the bullets of an America going mad. Bullets from drive-bys and shoot outs between passing cars. Bullets into school yards and churches and malls.  Bullets of anger and greed, defiance and retaliation.  Bullets from, if you ask me, suicide protesters. This year, there have been over two hundred mass shootings. So, how do we rank up against other countries?   This I got serious about.     

And here’s the top ten from one of the reports I found. Not sure what the numbers mean, but the contrast should suffice.

 1. United States – 101

2. Russia – 21
3. France – 8
4. Germany – 5
5. Canada – 4
6. Finland – 3
7. Belgium – 2
8. Czech Republic – 2
9. Italy – 2
10. Netherlands – 2

Stunning? Yes, gawk and behold.  

How does that make you feel about, as many claim it to be,  the world’s oldest democracy? 

UniverSoul Circus was inexplicably ignored by a local media that treats Black History Month more like Black History Year. The show played the iffy Hilltop Mall in Richmond.   All but one TV station appears to have ignored  “America black owned circus,” as it bills itself. I had half way toyed with the idea of risking it.  The lack of coverage, of a single poster, did nothing to push me on.  In fact, I forgot all about it.
Caballero  is now playing, on a wretchedly ugly patch of weeds crammed between a freeway on one side and a parking lot for the Coliseum on the other.  I went there once, to take in  UniverSoul, and have since preferred  avoiding it.

But now, I have better options.  After going for decades without a car, I found the perfect one for me: The make is Lyft, the model, whatever the car driven by the driver answering my call. Heck, I can get from my apartment in Oakland to the front door of my boyhood home in Santa Rosa (owned by my niece, Lisa, who now rents it for short terms) for as little as $70. And the ride takes one third the time it would take were I sharing public transit seating with bums and junkies and sex crazed wackos.

I might have lyfted myself to the Caballero tent, but, after the show, how to tell Lyft where to find me?  By three low-life misfits in hoodies squatted near a scrappy blob of a tent that does not sing CIRCUS?

Perhaps there is only one thing worse than too little freedom: too much.  

Here in the State of Insanity, I don’t walk to the circus anymore.