Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Hold that Calliope Hearse! Big Apple Circus is Still Alive!

Caught me totally by surprise —  a link down the Covington Chute to a Broadway World story dated Monday announcing the return of the Big Apple Circus to Lincoln Center.  A slew of new names and titles assigned, including CEO, suggest a traffic jam of managing egos. And that Nik Wallenda was history.

But he act is back, and he gets prime attention, though the biggest question of all remains, who really owns this bankrupt big top?  Last year, Nik claimed to be the owner.  He might be smart enough to have learned that he needs somebody else running the operation.  For the release lists a new CEO named Marty LaSalle, who previously delivered a wham juggling act with his brother on the show.

The show's website is a bare bones affair, lending a  rushed feel of something hastily pulled together following a harried campaign to raise more capital and cling to another season.

And there’s a new producer named Arielle Tepper. With numerous NY credits, among them, chairwoman of the Public Theatre.  She may be the producer, but so, it would appear, is Michael Cohl, formerly of Live Nation and more recently of BAC.  This will mark, technically, the fourth BAC management configuration.  

Also new to the show is  “award winning animal advocate” Jill Rappaport, with whom BAC will partner to host a doggie rescue adoptions bash under the tent, promised to feature “fabulous dogs from shelters around New York." .                                                                                                                            
And there will be one lone animal act on the bill, a gaggle of "incredibly adorable" dogs presented by a 12-year-old from Florida, Veranica.  Anything to soften the choke of woke, I'm all for. 

The annual Gotham run has been cut by one third, with a Nov. 9 opening for eight weeks. No mention of a road tour of any kind.  Ticket prices seem much friendly than last year.

It is still out there, and that is good news.  What is not so welcoming to my skeptical eyes is how the show’s history is worded in the release ...  “founded in 1977 by two circus performers.”
The names, Broadway World,  are Paul Binder and Michael Christensen.

Last year’s edition was virtually ignored by the entire New York press.  Can this latest re-configuration of a shaky masthead re-boot local respect -- or will the strange, sad shrinkage continue?  

END RINGERS:  Musical CEO chairs?  Biggest question of all -- who, if anyone, has the final say in this sprawling organization?  Or as Concello  called it, "the yes the no." The best run circuses are usually run by a single force, be it blood brothers (Ringling) or a strong impresario.   Group Think is usually doomed to  failure.  ... Destined for the Ring of Fame in Sarasota are 2023 Circus Hall of Fame inductees  Peggy Williams, the hand-balancing Alexis Brothers,  Jeanette Williams, and Father Jerry Hogan, famed for his role as national Circus Chaplain.


Saturday, September 24, 2022

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

Those days now seem so golden.

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A Football Fairytale Worthy of Shakespeare

I can't believe I am posting this, I almost feel like a traitor to my own blog. But I can't resist.

On Sunday, not having watched any football games, I never do -- I tuned into the news and at sports, they showed coverage of the new SF 49ers QB, Trey Lance, going down, and it was serious.  A season ending ankle injury.  Were the gods kidding? The new promised kid on the field and down so soon.  And I should state here that I feel genuinely sorry for the guy, even though I had been rooting for another player to eventually retake his old QB position with the 49ers.

And then, moments later on the same newscast, same field, there came that player,  that very same player -- Jimmy G., as those of us who love him call him, back in uniform and back with the ball in hand, tossing it and moving as if Superman himself had swooped down to save the day.  Jimmy G delivered a great decisive win for his old team!   Like a stand-in actor during a drama more epic than life, having waited in the wings, just in case. An actor of cool aplomb having been perfectly prepared for such an unexpected moment, to fill in if need be.

At the end, through his head gear, you could see pure joy on Jimmy's face, and the joy of his teammates patting and hugging him -- affection through a tangle of protective metal.

Talk about a wildly impossible tragedy-to-triumph drama unfolding before our very eyes.  Something you would only see in a movie  But no, you saw it here on an unscripted football field.  Maybe that is one of the reasons why this game is so so popular. 

Okay, back to the circus.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Circus Vargas Lands Prime Time NFL Coverage --- Almost ... Get Ready to Be Blown Off the Field

In what has got to be one of the biggest fiascos in big top product placement history,  one of our finest circuses apparently allowed the NFL to feature snippets of its action in an NFL season-kickoff promo —  without even a trace of the show's name appearing anywhere in the  promo. How many old time press agents are there screaming their guts out six feet under over this Name-Game wipe-out:  NFL: 100.  Circus Vargas: 0

Yes, ZERO.   You see those big brawny brain-busters hustling the ball and themselves against each other, and you see some terrific circus action between the body blows that the public can’t get enough of. OK, though I never watch a single game, but I do enjoy the human interest stories on sports talk radio, and I’m rooting for Jimmy G. to make it back into the starring role.

News of this heist arrived in my e-mail on 9.11 at 2:46 AM, from Alex Smith in So Cal, whom I am starting to think of as a symbolic blood brother to myself and Don Marcks, since we both, though generations apart,  enjoyed rich friendships with the very sharing Don.

“Vargas enjoyed a great media PLUG on Fox sports”

Awesome!  I opened the link to be dazzled by first-line football action interspersed with some clean and compelling circus acts – the sort that make you want to go to a circus. Where was the name Circus Vargas in any of this?  Say, a view of its logo over the performers entrance?  Alex?

I e-mailed him my puzzlement.  Had I missed something?    

In return, a corrective from Alex, holder of a giant popped balloon. 

“Circus Vargas got a great plug on NFL ?? SPORTS PRE GAME—— (well maybe it’s not a plug if they don’t mention them by name and use the new dirty word “circus” ) anyway it’s cool, check out after the :30 mark on link below.”

And on a subliminal level, consider this, Alex:  Circus performers were equated with the most athletic and skilled football stars.

Down the Convington chute,  on 7.13, came a more accurate headline:  Circus Vargas Adds Excitement to NFL Football"  

Alex sent in-the-field details on 7.15:

 "As far as I know, FOX SPORTS showed up Saturday, shot footage, and then over night infused it with their PRE-GAME Promo for the Saturday Fox football intro”

Which amounts,  I’d add, to their walking off the lot like a pack of old-time bill-posting bandits, stealing away captivating Vargas posters and tacking their names over them.

Directing your attention to the sign over the banner. top of the performer's entrance:  I see garble. Might it have replaced the words Circus Vargas?

Further  from Alex,

“I hope they were at least paid well because CLIFF VARGAS is turning over in his grave with no mention of them or the VARGAS name or brand.  Still, these days in the Mecca of
“Circus hate” which is Los Angeles, it’s probably as good as it gets.”

Looking good, people!  And what was the name of your show???

And how sadly symbolic of the  American circus, getting both smeared on the front lines of circus day, but used in a more populist ballyhoo to snare a crowd.

 “I only hope that Nelson and Katya made a ton of money out of this, which I doubt.”  

In this day and age, the prominent placement of Circus Vargas in the same context as NFL (what, the nation’s most popular sport?) would have been infinitely more valuable than a cowardly payoff.  Don’t drop the word “circus.”  Just tease the suckers with those amazing performers they can’t stay away from. 

Was that all there was?  Yes, Peggy, that's all there was.  Things have changed a lot  since you last walked a midway.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Queen and I: A Nation Unified in Peace is a Nation to Respect and Believe in

 My thoughts are with the Brits. And as I watch the coverage, I am moved by a quiet and firmly shared  respect among the thousands along the parade route for what, it feels to me, Queen Elizabeth gave the people every day of her life: the comforting spirit  and symbolism of Continuity.  How eloquently she served that one word.  Maybe the monarchy is earning a renewed respect for its soft maturing power to elevate and lift and render as one, all of the people.

It approaches the majestic and the rhapsodic, and you can see and feel it in their eyes. They are in touch with a higher state of being.

And am I lost in my own  sentimental fabrications?  I know of the  family's dark history.  And of the  recent scandals. And of others likely to come in freshly written books.  Imperfection marks the course of all ruling parties.  I once nearly worshiped JFK. It took years of revelations to deconstruct my fantasy.  He surely made us feel good at the time.

For now, I'm feeling a belief  in the new king.  I think he is off to a remarkable start.

God bless them all.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Desperate to be Loved, Talky Talky Circus Vargas both Excites and Irritates

Looking back 14 years, when viewers chimed in ... LOL everybody!

Circus Review: Circus Vargas
San Francisco, August 13, 7:30 p.m.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission.

Watching Circus Vargas is like sitting down at a fine French restaurant, the first entree magnificent, only to be interrupted every 5 or 10 minutes by one distraction after another — a man off the street with a pet alligator offering to let you touch it and to have your photo taken with it between the main course and desert; another fellow running up to your table, shouting “Are you enjoying your meal?” And still another wanting to pull you into the kitchen and teach you how be a star chef. After this going on half the night, you leave exhausted and irked, fighting to remember why you ever went there in the first place.

Oh, yes, to see a circus. Actually, there is enough fine talent with this year’s edition of Circus Vargas, if only somebody — a director, a truant officer, a screaming Richard Barstow back from the dead — would grab the throat of this overstuffed mess and shake it down to length. Like down to a tautly restrained one hour thirty minutes. Out would go audience participation filler, clown routines needing the scissors, and desperate verbal interactions with the audience designed to force applause and fake displays of customer satisfaction.

Circus 1A: It’s a pity and a crime, because on many levels, Vargas excels, from an exemplary front door staff (the classiest I’ve encountered in years) to a string of stellar artists who deserve a far more focused and professional showcase..

The strong turns:

* The opening sequence — no circus I can recall in recent years has opened with such heart-pounding force. A captivating original song, "Circus Vargas,” sung with power by Ted McRae underscores the ensemble performing a variety of routines. Class A all the way.
* Engaging and diversified juggling from Esquedas. Great showmanly act.
* An amply amusing (no shills involved) safari spoof from two clowns out of the Torreblanca Family — in the mode of Lou Jacobs with shooting tears, but they advance the routine with additional touches, including a head of hair that raises high and the emission of white powder from -- oh no, how do I put this? -- from an area of the human body known to cause unpleasant odors. Overall, an absolute delight. This is clowning we need more of.
* Memorable trampoline exploits from the Martinellis.
* A clean classy flying routine, with a solid triple, from the Tabares. They have the flash and the flair, and I only wish they would have stayed up there longer.
* Rolly Bolly from the Espana Duo. Although this is not a gracefully enacted turn, the payoff trick is so amazingly good, I wanted to stand up and shout “Bravo!"
* Franciso Mendoza's mock bullfight. Am I glad they brought him back, for he totally turned my attitude around. Last year, I was left wanting. This time the entire act proved to be one of two comedy highlights of the evening, the other being heretofore mentioned.

Other notable moments: An ambitious female duo working the lyra, with their end items worthy of respect. And there are some winning tricks that just need editing down. For example, during a slow-moving equestrian pas de deux, a shill apprentice dragged from the crowd, dangling off the horse by a mechanic, grabs hold of John Weiss and they become a graceless duo in motion. Very very funny! Weiss, in fact, could have been given sole master of ceremonies and announcing chores. A shrewd director might have woven his mischief into other acts, but with BREVITY.

This show seems to have been produced under a couple of dubious assumptions: One, the longer the performance takes, the more the audience will respect it. Two, audiences need to be talked to a lot, which made me wonder if this show was directed by a group therapist. Actually, the talking begins with an engaging 20-minute “Interactive pre-show party” for the moppets hosted by tv personality John Weiss (left). All good and well except this party begins when the show should, so we the adults are held captive. After that, Weiss then becomes one of three announcing figures. Another is ringmaster Ted McRae, who gets to show off his cobra snake and offer photo ops to the audience during an obscenely protracted intermission. Throughout the show, he repeatedly works the crowd for applause and shout backs. “Are you having fun, San Francisco!” “Are you enjoying the show?” “I can’t hear the other side of the tent!” So annoying, it felt like being part of a studio audience before the taping of a tv show when a guy comes out to pump you up.

And I wanted to shout back, “Shut up, will you!” Polack Bros Circus co-founder Louis Stern, who lasted forty years in the business, once told his last ringmaster Robert Mitchell, who had been asking the audience before each intermission, “Are you enjoying the show?" to knock it off. Said Stern sternly, “One time they booed us.”

Lighting and costumes are generally excellent. The taped music, I must admit, is quite effective for much of the time, relevantly scored to the action at hand, though it does start to wear thin as the evening wears on and out. Following two motorcyclists from the Willy Family circling each other in the big cage, finale comes on with smiling faces. The audience (a very small crowd, maybe a quarter house) seemed moved. Then out go the performers through the front door to congregate around, there to interact with the exiting crowd. Nice touch, I suppose. I have only ever seen this done once before, at a community theatre.

The tent itself remains a work of art, mysterious and enchanting and so inviting. It deserves a superior performance that already exists in the ingredients. Another asset would be at least the handout of a one-sheet program.

Circus Vargas: Go to the back of the tent and repeat a thousand times over: "Every action, every moment, every pause and every word spoken either propels or retards the action." Were your strongest offerings to be placed back to back, and were all the irritating forced audience interactions and pitches routed, what a show you might have. Might that be, per chance, what you really want?

Overall score: * * 1/2

From August 14, 2008

Thursday, September 01, 2022

The Silence of Circus Fans: Why Circus Reviewing Can Get You Banned from the Big Top

 A circus fan's only outlet: Anonymous

From across the big pond, Douglas McPherson responds to a comment I recently made -- “If only circus fans would debate like sports/musical theater fans”

“But why don’t they?” he asks.  “What’s your theory?”

Oh, my, where to begin.  Monograph or sound bite?
“Circus fans” of the CFA kind are a breed unto themselves.  The CFA was organized to “Fight anything that fights the circus.”   That included by implication negative reviews.  And the fans fell in line.

CFAers in the early days were about the only local contact that circuses  had in many communities.  When adversity struck, the owners were damn well grateful to have a tried and true circus fan around to help defend them.  Some held respected professions.   The last thing any circus needed was a bad review. Especially from an iron-clad supporter of big tops.  Defending the circus to the point of holding back on publicly debating its artistic merit  became a kind of religion.

No Stage Door to Crash

In return for their loyalty, circuses opened their backyards to the fans, and even issued passes to some. Come right in, knock directly on our doors, or tug at our tent flaps. We’d love to see you!  In what other realm of show business can a customer walk right through to the backstage area and knock on a star’s dressing room door, in effect, inviting themselves into their privacy?  You usually get as far as a security man at the Stage Door.

Naturally, in the backyards, enduing friendships  formed, and thus the incestuous relationship between performer and full-access fan.  What fan would dare turn out a negative notice on people whom they consider to be their friends? And if they did, it’s doubtful The White Tops would print it.  For myself, a friend is too important a part of my life to risk losing over an honest review, and so I won’t review their work, but support them in private.  Which is why I long ago stopped going into the backyard.  This position became a mantra for me when I read of the great New York Times theater critic, Brooks Atkinson,  revealing how he avoided socializing with people whose work he might be reviewing.  What perfect sense it made.
Douglas: “I’ve noticed a distinct touchiness among circus owners, who will pick up on the slightest criticism, even within an otherwise positive review”

So have I, although not so much with the owners as with performers and fans.  I could issue a strong positive review overall, but dare to criticize one or two of the acts, and I am Judas Iscariot   A rare piece of hate mail gave me pause to ever consider showing my face anywhere on a certain lot.

                                    The Value of Many Voices 

Were there many reviews for a given show to draw from, any individual review would not be as offensive as it alone can be.  A wide range of opinions is the healthiest option, and such is usually the case in other venues.  Think Rotten Tomatoes.  But not in the circus world.  

Circus owners, I believe, are ill-served by the fans issuing non-stop, one way praise.  Smaller shows can tour for years without ever facing an objective notice. And if they do face harsh criticism, it can be a tough experience to deal with. 

Douglas: “I have been banned from reviewing a couple of circuses.”   

Now, that's extreme. And I am rather smiling at the perverse honor!  I do not know of that ever happening over here.  I can recall the efforts of a fan, long ago, to get press passes from the Ringling show, who was refused.  The reason given was negative coverage the show received from the same magazine, though not by the fan. Coverage that I myself was likely responsible for.  

“I also wonder if circus fans are very small in number. By that, I mean maybe most circus goers don’t consider themselves to be ‘circus fans.’

Right.  Beyond the few thousand hard core American fans out there who remain in lockstep, the  public that will argue over a film, a play, a book, a ballet, rarely takes the time to view circuses critically.  I think the kiddie factor is another softener --- just watching one’s  child take such joy and delight over a mediocre act can win the heart away.

When Candor Crashes Through

So, the owners have been able to minimize critical scrutiny by their hold on the fan magazines. But not always.  In his sharper moments, the late Ernest Albrecht turned out hard-hitting notices in his magazine, Spectacle.  In the pages of  Circus Report, I was refreshingly shocked to see Herb Ueckert now and than turning critical on a few artists for under-par work.  One performer’s irate reaction to a Ueckert review was to claim that only a performer of the same skill was qualified to review another, i.e., jugglers reviewing jugglers!

 Beyond all of this, American press agents loved casting circus day as another (sacred by implication) American holiday. They passed out hordes of free tickets to city editors, and the editors largely went along with the feel-good embracement of circus.  And the ageless delight too often gets a pass when it might have been better served by the sting of honesty.  As my friend Boyi Yuan once said, “a bad review is the best review.”

Carry on, Sir Douglas!

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

New "GOLDEN AGE" for American Big Tops Forecast by Circus Historical Society Ringmaster-in-Chief

 Bruce Hawley, Circus Historical Society President, goes all uptempo on the circus.

One thing can lead to another – like a nudge out of nowhere -- to a link to a You Tube --- to a dive into cyber worlds I have yet to swim. Such was my recent conversion into a new area of knowledge.   “Afer reading your interesting review of Circus Extreme” e-mailed Culpepper & Merriweahter’s Jim Royal “I thought of something you might enjoy hearing.”  He directed  me to a Hideaway Circus Podcast hosted by two smartly curious souls, Josh and Lindsay Aviner,  featuring an interview with the Culpepper & Merriweather owners, Trey and Simone Key.

Thus was I finally dragged into the world of the pods.   Minus the thrashing vulgarity and flying graphics of commercials, there is only a stone silent background. Is anyone really there? Hello!   Credit the saner silence, also the long-winded running time of these, on their freedom from corporate control.

After The Keys talked about the all-importance of the advance promotions, etc, Trey admitted to a certain loneliness out on the mostly vacant midways of yesteryear, where he is the last and only show out of Hugo to follow the red arrows.  I can feel a similar feeling out here on blogger land, where most of the circus circus blogs are long gone.  We enjoyed a brief shining moment in open discussion. If only circus fans could/would freely debate like sports fans do. Like musical theatre fans do.  Like movie fans do!

Enter the President

Down the list of other Hideaway Circus pods I gazed, settling upon their visit with the new Circus Historical Society president, Bruce Hawley.  He is old enough and yet not too old enough to be a very good bridge between we who have seen circus in its heyday and those much younger  who know it from Cirque du Soleil.  Above, Josh and Lindsay

Hawley and the Aviner’s had a good time wondering when circus came into being, which strikes me as something of a non issue. It was as if Astley had never happened, as if, somewhere back even before bloody Circus Maximum, there was the first circus.   Okay, have fun going nowhere with that.

Hawley sees the roots of circus in the relationship of a man to a horse which is, bingo, an unacknowledged tribute to Astley.  It is so hard for some Americans to fathom the idea that we did not invent circus. Example: One of the talking voices on that half-baked PBS circus special pointed to Rickets Circus in Philly as evidence of what America gave the world!.  Does PBS even care?  Even three rings was an idea initially dabbled in by the great Brit tenting impresario, Lord Sanger. Barnum is thought to have maybe seen his short-lived efforts with  multi-performance action.   But Barnum and Bailey made it work — Americans, I believe, tended to lead the way in what I call presentational showmanship. More than the one-act-at-a-time recital format.

And then came a  rainbow from Hawley, talking up the golden age of circus in the roaring 20s as having followed the carnage of the 19l8 flu epidemic.  He can see  a repeat of this about to happen, following the long grueling tyranny of Coronia’s shut downs and mask overs.

A golden age, but of what?  Barnum & Bailey? Five Fingers?

What really is this thing called circus?                                                                                                 

When people argue over definitions, often they confuse production for core elements.  In fact, since Astley and  up until the PETA smack-downs,  virtually every  circus carried  the same three essentials: Acrobats, Animals and clowns.  Critics of new staging styles down through the ages have blasted those that even contained all the staples.  Some old timers hated the new three-ring spectacle.   Too large, no talking clowns!.  But the clowns adapted and were still fanny, maybe funnier.  Some blasted John Ringling North’s theatricalized make over, co-starring the costumes. Too much like a night club, they flippantly complained. Above, Zefta Loyal at C&M.  

 But the same North imported some of the best talents in the world. (See the movie, Trapeze)  One season he paraded fifty five elephants around the rings.  He had a few dozen clowns out on the track. Whirling bodies over sawdust and in the air. The staples.  The staples.  The staples.   Some shows today are valiantly hanging on to them.  There is evidence of a public out there eager to patronize the real thing. This story is far from over.  

Trey Key and friend         

But this post should be, I suppose.  And where was I, if anywhere??  Oh yes, in podcast land.  Thank you Jim, for getting me there, and I am glad to hear, as you report in closing off, that “we are having a good season.” When last I checked, C&W still toured with a little cage act featuring a big live tiger.

This circus is still on parade!

Sunday, July 17, 2022

What Circus Extreme Teaches Us: Don't Give Up on the Past


It has been a long while, perhaps too long, for a circus to so directly ignore virtually everything that Cirque du Soleil has come to stand for in the public’s mind.  UK-based Circus Extreme is not a knock off. Not a made-in-Montreal souffle. This is the genuine article, unafraid to get down and daring, and a little messy around the edges, without softening its impact by pretentious allusions to stage or ballet.

Owner-producer John Haze’s welcome audacity is more an attitude than a revolution, drawn from the roots of circus – when sawdust literally flew out of the ring.  Circus Extreme is, when you think about it, only extreme in its daring-do to go for the gut in a show largely shaped the older fashioned way, albeit with modern  scoring and active lighting that gives it a darker, dare I say more hip James Bondian feel.

Pinito Del Oro, above, and Harold Alzana, below, thrilled Ringling audiences in the 1950s

In a pitch- dark tent which seats up to 3,000, a cool first frame assaults our senses with flaming yellow screens and flashing blue strobes.  Female faces appear in small windows. A woman enters to sing a song, and in a sensitive bow to shared tensions beyond the tent, performers silently parade, bearing placards that read, samples, HOPE— FREEDOM — EVERY MIND MATTERS.

Underscoring the first segments is a haunting abstract soundscape that I wish could have extended deeper into production.  While the musical selections overall are not particularly memorable,  they do  stay fairly relevant to the shifting moods.

A man cavorts inside a large ring. Sexy exotic dancers take a brief roll, and a pair of roller skaters take to a small circular platform. The show is now on.

The talent lineup proves to be something of  a mixed bag,  veering from the banal (a labored low wire workout not ready for prime time)  to absolute brilliance – one of the greatest juggling turns I have seen in years.   Each act is briefly prefaced by a line of cool dancers to variable effect.  The performance winds it self up on into one of the most undeniably griping payoffs to any circus I have yet beheld: Hip young motorcycle riders, gunning up a ramp and catapulting themselves into space over  the globe of  death.

I am reminded of an old Barnum & Bailey poster depicting a small auto somersaulting off one ramp to land on another.  We are persuasively reconnected to the  primal lure of the big top.  Circus Extreme's madly fearless young riders deliver a wham bang finish to a high-tension show, all of which together forms a rather mesmerizing collage of bodies artfully in motion.

This may not be a perfectly rendered work, but a perfectly arresting sampler of what circus crowds live for. And let’s give John Haze more than a little slack here: The war in Ukraine, not to mention the lingering chill of Covid, has crimped his producing hand and narrowed his scouting options, critically depriving him of the Russians and Chinese, while leading him deeper into South America — a viable source of top grade wizardry.

For my eyes, five highlights merit solid respect:

* the exceptional aerial Aerial Duo Polischuck.  I judge this kind of act as much by the fluidity of transitions from one item to the next as by what they actually do.  Their mastery in both realms left me thoroughly satisfied.           

   * The tremendous dexterity of ball bounce juggler Tony Garcia. Built like a wrestler, he delivers a powerfully compelling display utilizing (if I counted right) six balls and a little fire. Those balls sometimes look like a dozen or more, and when he descends a small staircase, they are bouncing with him every step of the way!

 *  The refreshing high wire exploits of a crack South American troupe, fellows who attack the narrow strand with eager agility, passion and pizazz.  The dance. They scamper. They jump over each other. 

 *  Henry the clown, in a genuinely charming comedy pantomime, set in a small cafĂ©.  He plays the smitten waiter to a lovely patron.  It’s a perfectly wrought little masterpiece, unlike anything I’ve ever seen at the circus.  Pure gold.

Henry also excels as a surprise member of the high wire act.  He is badgered into taking a go at it up there.  He turns out to be as accomplished as his South American brothers -  riding a tiny unicycle, taking part in perilous pyramids, and jumping rope at hurricane speeds  (his record is said to be 211 in 60 seconds). 

On the ground as an audience participation buffoon, Henry keeps his lively presence felt with a fairly predicable bag of tricks, all except for being chased around the ring by a loud buzzing bee, which put a grin on my face.

* The motorcycle  riders, catapulting themselves off the start ramp, into space through increasingly more daring stunts, and onto the end ramp into near- darkness on the other side.  This is what thrills the crowds, period.  What re-energies their love of circus and brings them back.

This gutsy atmosphere cries out for a thundering roll around the ring of horses and acrobats. I see that previous editions have included animals.  John Haze may be building up a PETA-proof reputation, should he dare push the envelop deeper into history'  And the crowds might cheer him on.  Those muscular roots are never far from the surface, always hovering below,  never far.

In the end, the public will say, yes, come back!  It could not happen in a more appropriate land than the birthplace of circus

End notes: This review may not reflect what you actually see if you watch a video of the show.  To explain, wanting to watch the video a second time, I was clearly watching another video,  or another performance.  While the first video gave me a better view of Tony Garcia's act, the second one gave me a superior view of the bike riders flying over the globe.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Where Is There a Notable Voice for the American Circus, Where?


                Over there, they have Princess Stephanie                  


     BRIT BIG TOP watcher Douglas McPherson is not a celebrity per say, but as a journalist and author, he enjoys byline access to such major UK outlets as The Stage and The Daily Mail, and thus is able to supply coverage of the circus on his side of the pond, and now throughout Europe. If only we had a McPherson over here, over here ... (can you hear the song rising?)

     IN HIS LATEST report on the subject, McPherson details the tragic plight of Ukrainian circus artists being rescued and given ring time under Brit big tops, and I am once again reminded that, on our side of the Pond, we do not enjoy such serious coverage.  Tis a pity. Observes McPherson in The Stage, “The inherently international circus industry has rallied around its Ukranian colleges”.  He talked to many of the key figures. Among them:
     PRINCESS STEPHANIE organized a benefit show for Ukraine circus schools at the Princess Grace Theatre in Monte Carlo.  The Ukraine  has 100 circus schools and seven permanent circus buildings, including the formidable National Circus of Ukraine building in Kiev.  How well I know that magnificent old landmark, from reaching it up a sweeping staircase  in 1989, when I visited the USSR on a research mission for my book, Circus Rings Around Russia.

     WE LEARN FROM McPherson’s report of Aussie Jasmine Straga, a director of the World Circus Federation, helping evacuate over 290 circus students from Kiev and Kharkiv, and finding places for them in circus schools in Sweden, France and Germany.  Noted she,  “Circus is very much socially focused and always comes together to help those in need.”

    WHO OR WHAT have we over here to keep circus USA alive in the public’s mind?  Don’t look to major media, fearful of wokeland’s wrath. In days gone by, The Billboard supplied weekly reports on circus business, daring to reveal crowd size estimations.  Variety once sent out three scribes to Madison Square Garden, each to review a separate ring of Ringling!   Life magazine loved photographing the show in its spring New York premieres.  And remember watching top circus acts on  Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night program?  Not to mention Circus of the stars, which first aired in 1977, and for which hundreds of big name celebrities appeared. 

   NOTABLE FACES in American culture were known for their  love of the big tops, be it the columnist Gabriel Heater, author Ernest Hemingway,  or any number of actors who enjoyed dabbling on the low wire, or juggling a few in early reality shows.

     TODAY? A AND B LIST celebrities rarely associate with U.S. big tops, and are more likely to shun them,  prone to side with, or be bludgeoned by, PETA.

     EVEN THE MAGAZINES are largely missing in action.White Tops down to only four issues a year.  Circus Report called it quits a few years back, and to Don Covington I e-mailed a suggestion that he consider taking over the magazine. He e-mailed back, neither saying yes or no.  Don?

     IRONICALLY, THE ONLY major media voice cheer leading for circus on this side, is actually from the other side, Simon Cowell. On his America’s Got Talent show, Cowell is a fearlessly  unashamed  sucker for the old knife throwing act, a lover of performing dogs. In fact, of many things from the sawdust rings.   I have yet to see a mechanic attached to any of the contestants on AGT. All of which offers compelling evidence that the lure of circus is still a powerful force for average ordinary Americans.

The Olate family dog act blew the judges away on AGT's 7th season and barked off with the million dollar first place prize.

SIMON, I BELIEVE, is helping to reestablish respect for what Hemingway called “the ageless delight, by daring to open many shows with circus act teases.  He knows well how to grab and hold a crowd.  And we are lucky to have him, from over there over there.
     END RINGERS, following the movements of the still-trouping: Culpepper & Merriweather played an appropriately lovely location, Green River, Wyoming, in early July ... Circus Funtastic rolling through Canadian dates, all of July ...Venardos Circus, “the little circus that could,” is still proving its metal, tenting up through Washington, Colorado, and Texas, North Carolina, wrapping in Florida....Circus Vargas currently entertaining in San Luis Obispo, CA  ... UniverSoul  opened a two-month run at  National Harbor, Maryland ...  The sporadically touring Zoppe Family Circus, when I call, answers yes. they are sill set for Petaluma, CA in August. Cheers to them all!