Monday, October 30, 2006

Out of the Past: A Ringmaster to Remember

From the first year of posting ...

The arena fell dark. The band fanfared up. The blast of a silver whistle pierced the air. We could feel a thrill coming ...

Spotlights shone down on a man in red raising his hand with a flourish -- like a magician about to pull a spectacle out of a hat -- and turning twenty magical words into the most important-sounding announcement in the world:

Children of alllllll ages! John Ringling North welcomes you to the 95th edition of the Greatest Show on Earth!

He was maybe the greatest ringmaster on earth -- the one and only Harold Ronk, who died at the age of 85 on August 2nd in Canton, Illinois. He had been away from the big top for twenty five years, content to spend a quarter of a century in near-anonymous retirement.

What made this particular ringmaster arguably the undisputed king of an art from that he himself helped define? First and foremost, the statuesque and commanding, blond-haired Ronk was blessed with the fullness of a smooth stentorian voice. Not shrill or grating, it had timber. He shaped his introductions word by word -- each like a choreographed step forming a visual pattern. And, once delivered, he stepped discretely aside, never one to overstay his welcome. In fact, so above it all was he that he never even lived on or rode the circus train, opting to drive overland and reside in hotels.

In 1951 (or 1952 -- a mystery to be explored here sometime up the road), Ronk was hired to sing songs for spec and production numbers. On occasion, he filled in for big top announcer Count Nicholas, and when the circus went indoors in 1957, Ronk became both its ringmaster and vocalist.

There were rare Ronkian touches. He once spoofed old-fashioned circus hyperbole as a leaper was about to dive from the upper reaches of the rigging to a tiny net below. Declared Ronk, stretching out just two words in low foreboding tones, "W a a a t c h - - - h i i i m!"

Ronk's robust figure, his overall elegance and majestic oratory suited the classic American three-ring circus. Al Ringling, who is said to have defined the mystique of the ideal tanbark orator in three words -- "elusive yet vital" -- would have approved with a smile, we think. Ronk was a gracious personality away from the ring, a tactful diplomat for the show, both for the Norths and for the Felds. He avoided controversy and refrained from criticizing any acts -- or, for that matter, any other circuses. He was, indeed, as classy an act as ever appeared with Ringling-Barnum.

I, like many others, hoped that he would one day return. He never did.

The ringmaster waved the crowd farewell

and whistled down the drums

His magic kept us dreaming still

of a season that never comes

Au revoir, Ringmaster Ronk ...

First posted October 30, 2006

Can a Clown Save the Circus?

Holiday Look Backs, this from 2006 ...

A number of producers, among them Kenneth Feld, seem to think so. They are elevating star joeys to the level of what the Wall Street Journal has dubbed "the power clown."

This artistically expedient trend began with David Larible landing in the Feld fold. He may have been good for a single-season-novelty. Beyond that, Larible hogged too much ring time and overstayed his welcome by too many seasons. I avoided one edition of Ringling because of him. I couldn't take it anymore. I have always argued that Larible's presence, by then old hat to most circus goers, did not help Barnum's Kaleidoscape; to the contrary, had Larible not been there, Feld might have been forced to engage more acts. What a novel concept. Did the expense-heavy BK go on to turn millions for the Felds and make showbiz history? Just asking.

There was a time (and with some shows there still is, thankfully) when funny faces cavorted briefly in spangled shadows between top-flight acrobats and flyers. They mocked the airs of the stars; they pranced around the hippodrome track with their hilarious get-ups, contraptions and semi-delinquent swagger. They provided wonderful counterpoint.

When did they themselves become the stars? In Europe, maybe they always were; on American sawdust, the latest to assume the role is Giovanni Zoppe, who plays a clown named Nino, starring in the ultra-small, ultra embracing Zoppe Family Circus. I saw the show last night in Hollywood, where it was making its first appearance at the city's annual Feast of San Gennaro -- a combo of eats, neat old carny rides and singers. The Zoppe program contained only two or three good acts (the dogs stole the show); the rest was Nino Nino Nino nearly non-stop: Nino in the seats. Nino in the ring. Nino in disguise. Nino padding a very thin program to give it a one-hour look.

Giovanni, to his credit, did deliver some tickling turns. The best was an amusingly inventive ride (something I've never seen) around a loop-the-loop. Bravo to that! The rest was not much, but then again, what can one expect these days for a ten dollar adult ticket? (Kids got in for half that). You got to sit down under a charming old tattered tent around a real ring. The crowd of maybe four hundred souls appeared to warm to the unpretentious party atmosphere.

Strange, though, that from the famed Zoppe Riding Family (yes, the troupe that carried lovable Cucciola clear into De Mille's film The Greatest Show on Earth) came only one horse, and only one horse rider, a "ballerina" -- you guessed already? Yes, Nino in drag.

Did an overworked funny face carry this $10 show? Nope. Can a power clown save the circus? I think not.

[photo, above, of Poodles Hanneford]

10.30.06 12.10