Thursday, December 27, 2007

Killer San Francisco Tiger: Blame the Victim?

In what is being reported as the first death to a U.S. zoo patron at the hands of an animal in decades, local officials are now raising the possibility that the victims may have provoked Titania into escaping the zoo confounds in order to chase them down in an act of violent revenge. One young man is dead, two others injured.

The same tiger, a 4-year-old Siberian, last year caused injury to her keeper and the zoo was faulted and fined by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. This time around, ending up in a zoo eatery, she was shot dead by arriving police officers.

According to the Washington Post, “The San Francisco Zoo's director of animal care and conservation, Robert Jenkins, said he had no idea how the tiger, which weighed more than 300 pounds, escaped. ‘There was no way out through the door,’ he said. ‘The animal appears to have climbed or otherwise leaped out of the enclosure.’”

What a sad tragedy. Carlos Souza, age 17, is dead. Will zoo patrons in the future be warned not to try teasing or provoking the animals? And should those animals, in any event, not be properly contained in cages or compounds that are non-escapable?

Or is it possible that somebody purposely liberated Tatiana from captivity?

Had this happened at a circus, what would they be saying? I wonder this morning.

Monday, December 24, 2007

John Ringling North II to the World: Let There Be More Circus ... New Productions, New Acts & Tigers Promise a New K-M Look in ‘08 ...

Contrary to blogging rumors elsewhere that John Ringling North II is out of the biz after a year helming Kelly-Miller, the nephew of John Ringling North is actively at work crafting a whole new show for the 2008 season.

For the first time in years, Kelly-Miller will tour a cat act.

In an e-mail to Showbiz David, North writes:

“I am still in the circus business, and, yes, we had a good season. We did have a truck burn up, but no one was hurt. We returned safely to Hugo after closing in Ardmore’

North tells me, “We have 3 new production numbers and a lot of new acts.” He plans to be in Hugo come January to discuss staging details with his manager, Jim Royal.

John Moss, whose services North evidently values, returns as ringmaster and performance director.

In another message, Royal detailed for me winterquarter activities underway. The office trailer is being revamped. A big top sleeper is getting an upgrade. Next season’s seating layout incorporates a hippodrome track, “improved sight lines,” and the ring curbs are being refashioned by North’s daughter, Katherine, herself an interior designer. The planned opening production number, says Royal, "is unlike any in previous K-M editions."

Booking is going well, he notes. “We have good feelings about 2008.”

Check back on this midway for more. My at-large correspondent, Sage, is on a bus headed for Hugo for on-location, in-depth reporting

[photo above: John Ringling North II, from a photo in the 1967 Ringling-Barnum program magazine]

Friday, December 14, 2007

This One’s for the Very Much Alive Judy Finelli

She directed the Pickle Family Circus for a few seasons in the late 80s. In 1989, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For many heroic years since, Judy has faced her illness with evident dignity, courage and resolve. And somehow somewhere I gained a sense that she had passed on. Not so. Of the many errors I have made over the years in my books — and I’ve made my fair share — reporting about “the late Judy Finelli” is surely the worst. In fact, she has just witnessed me fall off a very high high wire...

Judy called me yesterday ("David, this is Judy calling you from the grave..."), having heard from a reviewer with an advance copy of my book Fall of the Big Top, officially due out in February, asking Judy if she is still alive. Indeed, the valiant Judy is still very much alive, and very articulately so, I can vouch for that, having spoken with her at length about this issue. I recall her many warm and outgoing invitations to me during the Pickle years to attend annual openings. She served as artistic director during a most difficult time, in the wake of the big top revolution called Cirque Du Soleil, when all American circuses to a degree were struggling to answer the Cirque challenge.

My profound regrets and apologies to you, Judy. May you live many more years!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: The Barkers Who Lure Us In ... the Stars Who Lure Us Back

Circuses resort to all manner of hype and discount, pr and free tix blitz to lure us into their tents. Never an easy task. What we see, once seduced, may make us want to return ... Were it not for a newspaper discount coupon that gave my mother the will, she might never have taken my sister and me to see King Bros Circus when it came to Santa Rosa, and I would never have seen the great Truzzi — although I must rely on the word of others, for I recall so little about his act, I was so young then and so much more taken with a teeterboard display (new to my eyes) and with a group of acrobats running down a long ramp and somersaulting over a mountain of elephants.

Less than a year later, fresh out of Luther Burbank elementary school one afternoon, I ran down to the fairgrounds where a circus was playing inside the Grace Pavilion. Outside it I stood, excited and anxious and without a ticket. A tall man in a red hat reached down and handed me a free coupon, and, thanks to those wonderful Shriners, I was seconds later inside a strange spangled paradise produced by Polack Bros. And who did I see? Those early years I saw Francis Brunn and the Wallendas, La Norma and Les Geraldos, the cycling Theron Family, Lou Jacobs and so many more like them -- Spangleland's all-stars, most of them lured to the States by John Ringling North (above). They spoiled me.

Coupons and freebies, “mailouts” and “laydowns,” in the words of the Savvy Insider, who elsewhere on this midway, logging a comment, reminds us of the efficacy of such workable promotions —- well, if you’re a kid on the receiving end and your mother is struggling to make ends meet, as was mine. Thank you, Mr. Crass Promoter, who thought up the brilliant idea.

Getting there and wanting to come back. In defense of his trade, our visiting promoter commented thus:

“By any measure traditional circus is a subversive art form, whether the producers know it or not. It teaches children to love live performance in a way that dragging them to the ballet does not. And if you learn to love live performance you’ll find your way to ballet on your own when your older. A mudshow is a bargain because you won’t find live professional performance in any theater for $25 with the kids getting in for free. Shows forever like to boast about the family friendly nature of circus, because by and large we are but we sell ourselves short sometimes in forgetting the artistry of the circus even beneath the most bedraggled of bigtops.”

It cost me in the gut to see Cirque Du Soleil’s latest, and it was worth it. Among the payoffs, the most gripping juggler I’ve seen since I first saw Francis Brunn over 50 years ago when a Shriner handed me a ticket. I’m so excited over the personal discovery of Anthony Gatto, about whom I knew nothing, that I’m revved up for ‘08 ... waiting to see what the other tents have up their rings: Big Apple in the spring, Little Bertha come August, Carson & Barnes if they favor California ...

Gatto made me search my muddy memories, recalling some of the jugglers who have captivated my attention and respect down through time, among them, Wally Eastwood with Carson & Barnes, the Pickle Family ensembles, foot juggler Ugo Garrido on Ringling in 1968. What style and pizazz. And boy, did Merle Evans match Garrido’s nimble rhythm with a cha cha reading of "Ramona." Terrifically on point. Another stylish charmer is Alex Chimal who graced Chimera for a number of seasons.. Not saying they are the best. Seems there are a lot of fine jugglers out and about these days. Sometimes, a mid level performer with the right attack can make you want to return.

I loved the Osmani sisters on Vargas in the mid-80s. Maybe they weren’t the greatest, but oh did they have class and a well-matched charisma ... Delivery is more than half the battle. If you only have stats in labored motion, you miss the mark. Anthony Gatto of Monte Carlo Gold has it all in my eyes. I’m afraid to watch him again for fear he might shatter my mesmerizing image of center-ring perfection.

Circus, I’m ready for another season...

[photos from top: Old side show barker, date unknown; The Osmani sisters, Circus Vargas, circa 1989; Wally Eastwood, Carson & Barnes, 1978, left; Ugo Garrido, Ringling, 1968.  When updating this post back in 2008, I lost a photo I had of Anthony Gatto]

First posted December 12, 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why Can’t L.A. Produce a Hit Broadway Musical?

Los Angeles Theatre Critics Toss Bouquets at Turkeys! That’s One Reason Why. You Want Others?

The New York opening this week at the Public Theatre of Henry David Hwang’s new play Yellow Face to mixed notices --- some scathing and a negative from the New York Times --- is but another example of the great divide between the critics of Los Angeles and those of New York. Yellow Face tried out last spring in L.A. at the Mark Taper Forum to generally glowing reviews, which surprised me because I saw a very flawed work in need of major rethinking and rewriting. Although Yellow Face is not a musical, it’s journey from L.A. acclaim to N.Y. disdain is typical of what happens to new musicals that are born where stars are born and fade away ingloriously under the punishing lights of Forty Second Street.

Interesting that another work by Hwang, his shamelessly self-serving rewrite and virtual obliteration of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song also traveled from Los Angeles kudos to New York bricks, where it flopped.

My essay on the subject in general -- Tinseltown to Times Square, New Musicals Face Vexing Odds -— posted elsewhere on this blog because of its length can be reached by typing “vexing odds” in the search box to your left above, and it will appear directly following this posting.

To read my own review of Yellow Face, type “Yellow Face.”

Monday, December 03, 2007

Australia’s Anti-Circus is Right at Home in Berkeley

Holiday Look Backs, this from 2007

Circus Review: Circus Oz at Zellerbach Hall,Berkeley, Saturday, 2 p.m., December 1. $26 to $48

I think it’s time for me and the anti-circus to part company. A no-fault divorce on principle alone. This is hardly a circus. This is a subversive and sometimes very funny stage show referencing circus acts in the act of deconstructing them, same way it takes glee in tearing down sexual norms and old-hat morality. We are not in a ring. We are in a moody underground night club for disgruntled losers somewhere on the outskirts of a world gone half-mad. Could it be that the Aussies behind this operation suffer the guilt of their own Nevil Shute having novelized the end of the world in his nuclear war tale, On The Beach? Chilly. Poignant. Out there ...

Circus Oz lacks the will of its perversity to be a full-force theatrical onslaught. This time out, they reach their comedy highpoint trashing the flying trapeze. While bumbling about in the air, they and their rig come tumbling down. Deliciously amusing. There’s a dramatic end point here worth a play, if only somebody would have the courage to write it.

Circus acts? Mostly amateurs laboring hard to resemble the “death defying daredevils, hilarious humans, astonishing acrobats,” promised on Circus Oz fliers. This is the “Laughing at Gravity Tour” in which only a few performers show real stuff: Rockie Stone impresses on a cloud swing; Showmanly Joel Salom, a three-club juggling charmer, keeps two in motion while attempting to remove his shirt and ends up without his pants. Oh, the inner Aussie longing to go au natural. Not a problem for the show’s star, a horny little very witty robotic dog who cracks, “Yeah, I know why you really came here. You want to check out my balls.”

Rowdy Innuendos and phallic symbols (a central prop being a banana, sans condom) fly high and wide. Gender bending proceeds apace at the anti-circus. I was wondering if the clowns would enact a sex change on a low wire. Or maybe two politicians getting arrested for practicing Risley in a public restroom stall. And to think, this affair was pitched as a family package. Well no, not to think — after all, we are in the San Francisco Bay Area, a land of progressive mortals who would rather commit collective suicide than be seen as intolerantly conventional.

Perhaps it’s now considered hip to subject moppets to the kind of vulgarity (pardon me, sophistication) that will sooner than later stalk them everywhere they look. Such a bleak brittle landscape, though, and from the same country that gave us my favorite contemporary pop composer, Paul Hardcastle. He is not here. Hard rock is.

A scantily clad cabaret singer played like a stripper by Christa Hughes brings things to a close by promising to give us everything we want. Up to her ankle for a taste of skin runs dogie robot, itching to get down. Hoops of fire encircle acrobats.

When is a circus not a circus? When it is mostly something other than a circus. That’s when. And Oz is that, perhaps brilliantly so. Make no mistake, I admire their daffy creativity and dark satiric bombast. I just wish they would come clean on the “circus” angle and go for a performance piece with real dramatic force. I can almost picture a post-apocalyptic nuclear wrap-up party with side show banners burning, cross-dressing elephants rampaging down on the beach, dogie robot and Muscle Lady going at it. Now, that might get them three or four stars from me..

But ... Circus Oz, since you persist in using (and I do mean using – or should I say abusing) the word “circus” so shamelessly to haul in family audiences to your big top boudoir of lonely unrequited sleaze, I’m gonna judge you as a circus. Fair is fair?

I’m out of this tent.

Overall rating: 1- 1/2 stars (out of 4 possible)


Friday, November 30, 2007

Cirque du Suicide? ... Reviews are Tepid to Scathing ... Only Variety Likes

Has the Montreal monster fallen on its precious face? Cirque du Soleil's Wintuk just opened at the theatre in Madison Square Garden. Will New Yorkers who are not falling for a high-tech snow job close it down sooner than planned? Can the kiddies turn it into a critic-proof hit? Other than a positive nod (with telling reservations) from Variety, a blast of discontent, so far, from critics to consumers does not look promising for a New York conquest. Check this out:

From the New York Times today: "oddly downbeat and humorless."

From the New York Daily News: "...this is Cirque du So What."

From "In the great history of Cirque du Soleil, one hopes that Wintuk will be a short, unhappy chapter, soon forgotten."

The more reviews, both pro and consumer, that I come across, the more bleak it looks. Variety is either very savvy to a crowd pleaser not yet seen by others -- "Happily for all, it's a good one ... a big winner for all concerned" -- or way way off base on this one.

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Loosening up, Cirque du Soleil Flirts with the Power of True Circus

This first appeared on November 30, 2007. If Blogger stats don't lie, it is by far the most viewed page on this blog.
Circus Review: Kooza

San Francisco, November 19 at 4 p.m. $55.00 to $210.00 top.

To follow the phenomenal success of Cirque du Soleil is to wonder how long it can last and what changes it might be willing to make in the years ahead to stay in the black. The good news here is that Kooza, Guy Laliberte’s latest touring show, takes a few giant leaps backwards in time to a more authentic big top experience. May we say goodbye for good, Corteo? I can’t recall a previous edition of Cirque as powerful as this one is in its redemptive second half.

Getting there takes a little time and patience. The gorgeous tent itself remains a temple of heightened atmosphere and mystery. During come-in, a delightfully wacky trio of older fashioned character clowns (stress character) led by Canadian Gordon White are fun to watch. They will specialize at extended intervals throughout the program in a line of slapstick and toilet humor that can seem as much filler as worthy comedic invention. And their ring time adds to the impression of a variety show with circus acts rather than a cirque du ballet. This comes as something of a promising relief.

Cirque’s stated aim in this newest touring unit (no proper Cirque will dare leave home without one) has something to do with The Innocent, a “naive but charming clown striving to find his place in the world” and the exploration of “fear, identity, recognition and power.” I read that in the program, but from the show itself, what I remember the most were a handful of gifted performers who thrilled me — as they obviously they did everybody else in the near-full house — doing things that trump all such pretentious rhetoric.

The opening segments bear familiar Cirque markings --- misty allusions to another world being reached, ensemble choreography, the use of mechanics and the sketchy maneuvers of those who use them (rolling globes and a single trap aerialist). And you wonder, has nothing much changed in the Montreal mind set? A couple of acts ahead, it most certainly has. Enter a troupe of high wire daredevils who break through the veneer with dashing realism, working on two wires, one above the other. They are from Columbia and Spain — Flouber Sanchez (Pinpon) and the brothers Dominguez — Roberto Quiros, Angel Quiros, Vicente Quiros and Angel Villarejo. Together, they generate real excitement dancing and cavorting aloft. A net is efficiently extended below them, and that’s the commendable way to add safety. Our wire walkers proceed with balancing poles to execute a perfect three-man pyramid on two bicycles. Thus, they deliver Cirque du Soleil from its chronic deference to hard hats and practice mechanics. Can Laliberte break the habit? Evidently so. I told you there is good news here.

Really, to be honest, up until the wire guys come on just before intermission, not a lot has happened. And I found myself wondering, will that be all that there is to be?

Then came the second half, delivering a pair of absolutely sensational history-making performances, one a drop-dead thriller in the air, the other, a riveting display of juggling genius the likes of which you have probably never before seen. Go there to see it.

The thriller: Two guys from Colombia (Is Colombia becoming the world center of circus thrills?) named Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza who work a double wheel of death in the most recklessly accomplished fashion. I have never ever seen this rig exploited so dangerously and with such gut-grabbing bravado. Zapata and Loaiza are outrageously daring. Stars. Stars. Stars. May I repeat their names — Zapata and Loaiza. They had the crowd gasping like roller coaster fanatics. Remember the word spine-tingling? Here it applies.

Second highpoint worth a trip to this tent: A juggler so incredibly accomplished, powering through a repertoire of tricks and not making a single error, as to leave me wondering in joy: is he the greatest I have seen since I first beheld the great Francis Brunn many years ago in my boyhood? He probably is. Mesmerizing through and through. Monte Carlo should just send him the gold, no questions asked, no appearances necessary. Who is he? Of course, he is not announced, and in the program where every artist gets the same tiny space for a mug shot (shame on you, Cirque, for such miserly credit-giving), I learn that I have just witnessed the work of Anthony Gatto. Star. Star. Star.

These breath taking turns are what give the otherwise meandering Kooza an edge and a purpose. There are a number of other artists, to be sure, who demonstrate agility and polish and add a degree of pleasure to the mix: a group of intrepidly nimble contortionists; an acrobatic duo of persuasive agility; another pair who ride a bicycle inventively, combining romantic flirtations with nimble acrobatics; a guy from Sweden of all places named Michael Halvarson who mines comedy magic with a sly pick-pocketing turn using a shill from the crowd. All nice enough stuff.

Overall, however, curiously Kooza suffers from the uneasy convergence of dispirit forces competing for attention — the star circus acts who will not be reduced to stick figures in a Cirque mist; the bickering clowns who consume too much ring time, some of it courtesy of audience volunteers (who, for all I know, could be shills); the so-called “story,” and Cirque’s lingering compulsion to produce its signature atmosphere. Director-writer David Shiner has not succeed in merging these elements into an embracing aesthetic unity. In this department, Kooza is no match for the memorable Varakei, so the audience must settle for a pleasant ersatz Vegas variety format.

Shiner's writerly vision lacks rhythm, and the production lacks pacing and sharper transitions. Given Cirque’s unlimited resources, prop changes that take time should not. The narrative premise is realized in fits and starts, although the plight of The Innocent is charmingly essayed by Stephan Landry who rings a little pathos in the end when he is left alone with only his kite after the circus gypsies have disappeared into a dark mist of closure.

Music follows action faithfully, which means that we get many different sounds and styles from ethnic to jazz, yet most of it relevant and engaging and a welcome change from the operatic scores of the past.

My biggest complaint is as much a wish: There could and should have been more content here. A couple of the acts listed in the program — a duo single trap turn and the outstanding Chinese chair balancer, Zhang Congli — did not appear that day; perhaps they would have done the trick. Cirque’s billionaire big top boss has all the money he needs, and still he uses sponsors. And now he has eliminated the free water stations on the lot. The impression he conveys is of a filthy rich producer with a serious greed problem. Not a pretty impression.

At least Mr. Laliberte has shown a stomach for the authentic artistry that thrills a house time and time again. And he may have no other choice in order to stay in business but to give the public the circus it expects — no matter the format, no matter the dry ice formula.

Overall Grade: ***


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

17% Jump in Carson & Barnes Biz Sparked by "Innovative News Ads" and Free Tix Blitz ...

71-year old Carson & Barnes is riding high on a big boost in attendance this year, at least by 17% as of 2 months ago, and as high as 20%, says the tenter's new Sarasota-based marketing manager, Harry Dubsky.

How the magic? Short of giving away his trade secrets, Dubsky credits the dramatic upswing in customer turnout to the mass saturation of free tickets to a lot of different sources and inventive newspaper advertising. "We work with the sponsors a lot," he says. "We did not goof off."

Has Barbara Byrd found her Art Concello? Her Douglas Lyon? Dubsky makes clear that his efforts were only part of the mix, that everybody played a part ...

And that's a nice message given the struggles that all American circuses are facing to pull in profitable crowds. Three rings to California in 2008, please!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Glory That Was Minnelli ... The Genius That Was Allen ...

On Film Forever

Vincente Minnelli’s Bandwagon makes color look as beautiful as black and white. This has to be, sorry Gene Kelly, my favorite movie musical. Fabulous Schwartz & Dietz songs from start to finish. Superb comedy from Jack Buchanan, as theatrical a performer as ever there was. Effortless perfection from Astaire and Charisse, their “Dancing in the Dark” a masterpiece of controlled choreography second only, in my opinion, to Gene Kelly’s signature song and dance exhuberation in Singing in the Rain.

Director Minnelli (among his credits, Father of the Bride, Gigi) turned his masterfully-paced Bandwagon into pure cinematic gold. We are not watching a movie. We are inhabiting it. Surrounded, encased and embraced at every frame by the colors and stage pictures of an extraordinary artist. That was what Hollywood once gave us; pure enchantment, yes, as pure as was stark black and white to film noir classics.

Bandwagon came out in 1953. Did American culture peak about then? Let’s see, Tennessee Williams turning out his best work on Broadway. Leonard Bernstein using television to teach kids how to appreciate classical music. Lucy amusing millions on Monday nights. Rod Serling thinking up a new show called "The Twilight Zone." Richard Rodgers scoring a brilliant tv documentary about world war II, "Victory at Sea;" Rodgers and Hammerstein riding high. So, too, John Ringling North.

Minnelli should have directed a circus for North.

Woody Allen’s prime came later, and surely it began with the 1969 hit Take the Money and Run. Watching it the other night on TCM, I was reminded of how ingenuously funny this man once was. How almost alone he reigned for a spell in his inventive genius. I remember standing in lines outside Bay Area movies houses to see his work, before he retreated into redundancy and protracted adolescent infatuations, before he got too much artistic freedom and listened to the wrong people or critics and lost it. There is a new book out on Allen, who, according to a New York Times review, seems not to understand what made his most popular films so good, who prefers pointing to his recently acclaimed MatchPoint , a quite compelling film -- until it falls apart before the final frame. Of recent Allen efforts, only Sweet and Lowdown truly impressed me.

Woody Allen used to make great movies. Either he does not realize or is unwilling to admit that his comedic flair for quirky surprise humor is what set him apart from the others. If only he could muster the will to joke his way back before he becomes irretrievably lost in vanity land.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Performing Circus Animals Are A-Okay, says Brit Government Study ... Nelly Unpacks Her Trunk and "Decides to Stay" ...

Good News for real big tops around the globe

A promising Brit study, detailed in, has concluded that circus animals are "kept in adequate conditions."

Writes the Guardian, "the result will delight the four British circuses out of 27 that still use animals in their acts."

Concluded the investigating group, according to the London Telegraph, "There was 'little evidence' that the welfare of animals kept in traveling circuses was any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments."

Currently, a total of only 47 animals appear under Brit big tops. Among them, a kangaroo and 4 reindeer, tigers and lions and camels, 6 snakes -- and only one elephant, touring but retired from the ring.

Ironically, the study was commissioned by Ministers at the Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with a view towards banning wild animals from circuses. Maybe they should just ban themselves?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... Cirque du Soleil to Kodak Theatre Hollywood for 10-year Run

Just announced in today's L.A. Times. More to follow about a Hollywood themed show to be created by Cirque du Soleil for the Kodak on Hollywood and Hyland. Slated to open in 2010.

[AP photo, from left: The Innocent, the L.A. Mayor and Cirque's Guy Laliberte

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fires and Falls ... Wintuk Out of Luck? ... New Cole A Go for '08 ... Carson & Barnes Bucks Slowbiz Trends ... PETA to the Rescue???


The fight to circus goes on, through mud and slush and pickets and red tape, and the best of them take it. We’re thinking John Pugh, fearless owner of New Cole, who circuses on despite perennial rumors to the contrary. Sarasota calls every five years — “I think this will be the last season for Cole” Oh? When I interviewed John in 2005, he seemed perfectly happy even struggling to keep his show on the road. Some circus producers do not give up. John retired the bulls one season, reprieved them the next, listening to his customers say go for it ... And I say go for it, too, John! ... On the other hand, THIS is ominous: New Cole (you know, Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. for many years) did NOT offer a program magazine in 2007, a first. That bothers me ... Neither did the shuttered Circus Chimera or the still trouping Circus Vargas.

Down in Southern California, the Vargas show survived the burning infernos all around it, though biz was down. Vargas helped raise money for a non-perishable food drive in Orange County for fire victims, says Joan Hart. The daring men with hoses and emergency personnel were invited to the show, free of charge.

Not so lucky were two aerialists with Cirque’s Vegas Zumanity, the one losing her grip from a ribbon drape 15 feet above the floor and falling south, accidentally, onto her partner. Looks like both will be okay, and to that I send best wishes for a speedy recovery ... How sadly ironic given Cirque’s usual deference to mechanics and extra precautions. So many such accidents are not the fault of human error but of technical malfunction ... Life is dangerous, kids ...

Is Cirque's Guy Laliberte running low on magic? The unpretty notices in New York over the apparently plodding premiere of Wintuk at the theatre at Madison Square Garden do not bode well. Most of the critics point to mediocre acts. Said one, even a kid new to the big tops would instantly sense inferior tricks..... Which calls to mind a chat I fell into outside the Getty Museum in LA. a pair of years back with two women. Both from out of town and both Cirque du Soleil fans. Said one, “They are starting to water down the acts,” to which the other agreed. I recalled being unthrilled while I sat through Cirque’s super-abstract Coreto in San Francisco, being able to choose from many seats for about one third of them were empty. Bay Area Critics gave the show kudos. Dissenting letter writers in the San Francisco Chronicle said things I was thinking.

About Wintuk? Will the kiddies embrace it and render the critics impotent? Or, might the tide be turning in favor of tradition. Interesting to consider that Cirque, which drew folks away from circus, may eventually push them back to circus. Speaking of which -- circus --- cheers to Paul Binder's Big Apple , back in Gotham and drawing boffo notices ...

Bring on the animal-rights protesters! That's what Rene Storey, New Cole's VP, told the Orlando Sentinel's Rachael Jackson. "It usually helps our business." Now isn't that a novel twist. It suggests all sorts of devious scenarios that might help revive foundering big tops ... Love your sense of humor, Rene ...

Go, Carson & Barnes! From what I hear, your business picked up in 2007. I read it, Don Covington connected, in the Orlando Sentinel’s story about the hard times for John Pugh, who, nonetheless, is signing act contracts for 2008, putting to rest once again those tired old rumors I keep hearing. Another spring. Another chance. Maybe another crowd somewhere ... Pray for PETA publicity ...

--- filed by Cheerleader David.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Rediscovering the San Francisco of My Youth

This first appeared on November 3, 2007
From the clanging jerky rumble of a cable car ride
, San Francisco is perfectly itself: Beautiful and Vain. Quaint. Festive. Bohemian. Dangerous. An aging madam desperate to be loved. Nothing connects me more vividly to the city of my boyhood than to experience it from one of these little iron icons rattling halfway to the stars ... Many years ago when I took a night class in drawing at the Academy of Art College somewhere up on Nob Hill, I would jump aboard a cable car to get there, and the dramatic journey up and down hills past grand arches and stately Victorian mansions through sharp clean ocean air made me feel like I had finally arrived, even though I never really arrived.. ... In the lobby of an ad agency with earnest portfolio in hand, I braced myself while an art director took the time to glance over my samples. With barely a sigh, tersely he said, “You need to go to school.”

I kept on going to school, up at Santa Rosa Junior College, taking more art classes and, at home, designing more LP album covers and Ringling Bros. Circus posters .... A kindly English instructor intervened, telling me with faith in his eyes that I had what it took to be a writer ... Art director closes one door. Lit teacher opens another. Still, I’d like to draw. Still I’d like to paint... And still, I feel like a writer trying to be a writer ...

We were riding a cable car, weren’t we. Oh, how special they can make you feel the way they toss you up and down hills and throw you around curves with gusto at 5 mph! I’ve been too many years between clattering climbs and nerve-wracking drops. Too many years out of touch with a city’s remarkable charm. All those tourists at Powell and Market kept me away. Before this tough old waterfront city sold its soul to tourism, I recall the Powell St. turntable without the long Disneyesque lines. Today, I hopped the fairly ignored California Street slot, easily nabbing a seat, and rode the rumble up Nob Hill and down to Polk. Destination: game of Monopoly with a friend at the Leland Tea Company. Japanese rice tea for me, please. Not so fun, an S.F. version of the board game, even though I managed to nab the priciest lots better known as Boardwalk and Park Place ... Maybe, as somebody once said, you can’t go home again. but my niece Lisa and I agree that you can go back to Monopoly the original.

And you can go back to San Francisco the original on the Powell or California Street lines. Tis a pity the town lost its subtle sophistication to the in-your-face crowd. Now to live there, you have to have a lot of money or none at all. So much of the mystery is long gone. The town of my birth deserved better than the slobbish 60s.

On my reverse journey back to Market, the grinding gears and levers remind me of the old Big Dipper Roller Coaster at Playland-at-the Beach across the very street from where I was raised ... of days walking home from Lafayette Elementary with my sister Kathy when we spotted our father inside the maze of wood, hammering boards back into place and waving at us .... Of other times when my Uncle Smitty, who managed the Dipper, walked me through its forest-like structure to show me how flat strips of thick metal were curved into fresh rails. How the pull chain came up at the right point to meet the rush of oncoming cars from out of the dark tunnel, grabbing hold and pulling them sky high before letting a load of crazies scream their guts out on the first big plunge down down down ...

From a cable car the city feels perfectly realized. And I can understand why those who hawk their fortunes on rent and mortgages to live here feel a tad smugish. They have claimed a piece of Herb Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay.

The closest I can get is a good outdoor seat up a rumbling hill to the other side ...

Tourists take a ride where mighty ships of commerce once docked. Photo by Showbiz David.


[other photo, above, of my father, right, working the grips of the Big Dipper roller coaster]

Monday, October 29, 2007

Fall of Circus Ginnett Blamed on "Stupidest Regulations" Dooming Brit Big Tops

In a Covington Flash comes news that Britain's Circus Ginnett, run by the Austin Family, with a performing history in European rings reaching back over two hundred years, has folded its tent for good.
The reason: Costly and time-consuming new licensing government regulations as well as pending bans on "some animals in circuses." Said Liza Austin, co operator with her husband Mike, to The London Daily Telegraph, "It just isn't worth it anymore. We're going to France and Italy to find work. They are more appreciative of circuses there."
And how ironic is that? The circus as we know it was founded in London! Tis also true, kids, that for well over a century, a Brit version of PETA has been at work, out to liberate the menagerie back to the jungle. They may prevail yet...
A pair of Ginnett brothers (originally spelled Jinnett) were giving shows in France in the 1750s.
Sounds like the big top blues extends well across the Atlantic ... Following the Second World War, 50 tenters toured the British aisles. Now the number is around 20 and shrinking.
"We work under the stupidest regulations that have ever come about," said Ginnett's ringmaster, Martin Lacey.
Amen to that.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Wild Elephants and Cursed Eateries: Chaos and Calamity from India to Barabooooooo....

Your showbiz scrambler features foundering tycoons, a 4-star Canadian Fiasco, Wild elephants on a tear, Cursed Kitchens and Creepy Organ Music ... And Away We Goooooooooooo! ...

Disney Fights To Save More Disappearing Magic: ... Down there in the Magic Kingdom, the also-ran next-door California Adventure was a fizzle from the get-go. Burbank big shots plan to sink another 1.1 billion into the paltry park to make it more, well, more Disney. Adventure cost a billion to build; another million for post-opening extras that still failed to lure the Mickey Mouse masses ...Bad first impressions are hellishly hard to overcome ....

Canadian Circus Bites the Sawdust: First reported by, up at Niagara Falls, Ontario, the collapse of another new-wave big top humbles fallible producers. Cirque X, parent of Cirque Niagara which staged a show named Avaia, now in bankruptcy and nearly 7 million in debt. Ouch du Soleil! Opened in may last year in a 60,000 square-foot tent in Rapidsview Park. First year tix sales boffo at 5 million; not so this year, down to 2.7 mil. Producers claim relentless raves all the way greeted the parade of imported Cossack riders, acrobats and the like from Mr. Putin’s ominously reascending Russia. Anybody out there ever heard of Avaia? They’re blaming the flop on plunging tourist trade. Reasons, we always need them ...

Wild Elephants Terrify Towners: 100 --- count 'em, 100 --- Indian bulls in a party mood swam to a river island in northeast India and rampaged about, knocking down homes like toothpick huts, feasting on sugar cane and terrifying helpless villagers. Clyde Beatty, a world whirling out of control needs you, your whip and chair!

"Retrieved" Animals Tossed Off Bridge; Here's another act you won't see at any circus, anytime soon: Cats and dogs seized by “animal control workers” (what a moronic oxymoron) and hurled off a bridge into a watery abyss below. This from Barceloneta in sunny Puerto Rico. City hired an outfit named Animal Control Solution to rid housing projects of mutes and puffers barred from the premises. Each retrieved animal earned its killer a nifty $60, another $100 for a drop off at a shelter that evidently remains animal free. “Irresponsible, inhuman and shameful,” says the mayor. And what say ye, PETA? Oh, that’s right, just as long as they aren’t spared for spangles and spotlights, death in any form is a noble end. Did anybody ever show PETA what the world is like under the ocean?

Creepy Eateries Cry Out for
Brit Make Overs:
Restaurants from Hell supply the laughing and laughable angle for yet another reality tv tease called Kitchen Nightmares. Chef Gordon Ramsey takes charge of inept cooks and servers, teaching them how to replace warmed over garbage with haute cuisine. The episode I saw at the Old Stone Mill around PA (surely, no restaurant could be this bad?) showcased owner Dean’s fear of failure, taken on by our interventionist chef, who proceeded to convert the hapless cookhouse from spooky purveyor of kinky dishes to standard steak house. Fun, farcical and fake all the way.

Baraboooooo oooo oooo! At the force-darkened Al Ringing Theatre tomorrow night, keyboard virtuoso Bob Dewel will pump terrifying tones (“crashing organ music”) into the theatre where adults can stumble around in the dark through a spooky Halloween walk. Also on the thrill bill: Al Ringling’s will to be read aloud by somebody from one of the boxes on high. How Gothic ... How creaky. Doc Dewel concedes, “Pretty amateur stuff.” Heck and oooooo, so are a lot of the best Halloween movies. The Al Ringling almost looks haunted without special effects. Ooops, sorry, Doc ... No, please, don't curse me with root canal nightmares for saying that!...

And that’s a Baraboo ooo ooo wrap ... ooo oooooo ...

Friday, October 12, 2007

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: Friday Night Flip Flops: Trivia (or Trauma) on Parade! ...

Steroids in Spangles? You may have heard of a certain baseball player named Bonds, a big deal across the bay in ironically provincial San Francisco. His final at-bats at the ballpark were mourned like nothing I can recall since Big Bertha herself (aka: Ringling-Barnum – are you with us, Craig?) gave up the canvas ghost in Pittsburgh, PA back in 1956 ... Never mind that Mr. Bonds is likely a steroid cheat, which is a long run-in to my wondering aloud: Do Great Circus Stars juice up too? .... Let’s see, the majestic marvel in motion Miguel Vazquez, a rail thin flyer. Juggler Alex Chimal, quite compact ... Sylvia Zerbini, lithe and taut. I’d rue the day when we see hideously bulked up ring stars. Not Codona. Not Bello. Not the hoop divers from Asia aplenty ... Circus, stay fit!

Tricks, that’s what we pay to see, Mr. Big Top Boss.. Having been stood up at Circus Vargas by its headliner owners -- the Tabares Flyers who landed Monte Carlo gold and hype it to the heavens (they delivered a few modest tricks and then headed for the net in haste) I can suddenly appreciate the tyrannical demands of circus owners like John Ringling and Cliff Vargas, both variously known for throwing fits when their imperial darlings failed to deliver the goods... Heck, they will tell you that Mr V. hid out under the seats to secretly monitor the performance and fumed in the aftermath when facing lazy leapers and errant elephants ... As for Mr. John, he is said to have thrown cigar ashes in anger over the deletion of a single trick –- and we are talking circus tricks, thank you.... Which gives me grateful respect for both Ringling and Vargas. Crispy creme breaks may be okay for lawyers and dish washers on parole. NOT okay for acclaimed aerialists ...

The animals, juiced up? What an unkind and insulting thought. My apologies, dogie kingdom and kitty green room. These days, the mutes and the puffers (and disappearing lions and pachyderms) are pouring their hearts out to entertain us as once the entire show did. Hint, hint, Tabares — take a look at your own menagerie and recall when you might have dedicated each and every program to wowing the crowds, however small. ... The animal stars remind us of circus essential. They hold their own without makeup, mist or video replay.

Meanwhile, while a nation of pit bulls keeps the populace in a state of terror and bloody sadistic dog fights continue apace, well-cared-for circus animals continue to drive the animals rights crowd nuts. Up in Minneapolis, where the council came close to outlawing animal acts, Ned Kronberg (CFA’s Minnesota State Chairman) recounts how one overbearing PETA fanatic, in this case a lone city councilman, can steal the debate, in effect shutting down the other side. Listen here! “He dominated most of the discussions and when any one tried to present an opposite side, tried to end their discussion with lots of questions but would not let them really answer, but tried answering for them.” ..... That is exactly what John Pugh often faces, he told me during an interview. All it takes is one noisy apple; and your whole crate is near damned....

Big Apple Basics: What Washington Post critic Celia Wren most liked about this year’s new Big Apple Circus, on its way soon to Gotham, was a certain lack of mystic pretense. “What makes Celebrate! particularly refreshing is that the artists routines have not been tethered to some smart-alecky concept.” Go, Apple, go! Will “concepts” run their course. If audiences see more of them and less real circus action, I’d say YES.

And from Baraboo Barb, gliding down a golden trail on Ringling’s Gold unit, comes a shared regret. Scanning my grudging review of Circus Vargas left her a tad down: ”I feel sad as well that the Tabares weren’t up to their usual spectacular selves. They can be magnificent. Sigh.” Insider Barb references show-disrupting Stork calls. Yasmin, who works the roman rings, is due to have a baby “any time soon.” So is, if I understand Barb correctly, Yasmin’s fill-in on the rings, Katya. Barb offers a softer matronly perspective: “Try it again next season ... babies will be born, mom’s will be back in shape hopefully.” And, hopefully, not juiced up, as in Bonds.

By the way, Barb is enshrined in the Baraboo Hall of Circus Fame, notes Bob Dewel, the town's all-purpose docent. Back there at Ringlingville, things are not yet as Brigadoon-sleepy as I've previously hinted. “We haven’t rolled up the sidewalks yet,” says Bob.

And we trust that Doc Bob is not, in his ever-active retirement, hawking steroids to wire walkers or bow-wow acrobats. Stick to crowns for clowns, okay, Doc?

first posted October 12, 2007

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Whirlwind Tumblers, Jugglers, Cats and Dogs Power a Padded and Slim Circus Vargas

Circus Review

Culver City, California, Fox Hills Mall, October 6 at 2 p.m. $40.00 top.

Entering the new Circus Vargas tent, I was struck by an enchantment I can’t recall feeling since I entered the Ringling-Barnum big top in 1955: a stunning image of blue canvas reaching skyward into a sublime darkness, silver cables in symmetrical arrangement, a quietness all around promising something magical and great.

They have the setting. They have an inviting midway. Good reasonable ticket prices. They have a classy staff, a winning web site design, and they express a sincere intention to revive a circus whose heyday came and went over twenty years ago. All they need now is the show. They are, with regrets I have to report, not all the way there yet, and the road ahead should be no less difficult than it was for founding dynamo, Cliff Vargas.

At its classiest, the new edition of Circus Vargas, produced by the Tabares flyers — now in their second season as owners — rides high on whirlwind tumbling, whether off a casting net, across a trampoline or around horizontal bars. Juggling, a secondary asset, opens the show on a high-voltage note. First, Jonathan dazzles in class a mode spinning and manipulating variously shaped silver cubes; then, in quick succession, a juggler, working fairly standard stuff, keeps the pace alive with speed and gusto. Two acts in a row — could it be, are we about to see a program totally unencumbered by concession pitches, overhead video distractions, or inanely half-baked story lines that go nowhere?

No, it can’t. What follows are nagging slowdowns when ringmaster Ted McRae pitches intermission photo ops or the clowns wear out a welcome mat. Filler. One centers around McRae’s live Python snake, introduced out of a black sack along the aisle. Other commercials push flashlights and more photo ops. Then there is the hyperactive approach taken by McRae, who takes old line oratory over the top. A good singer, he does a fine job selling an original number during the opening parade, but his labored efforts throughout the program only reinforce the impression of a skimpy enterprise being padded for time.

More momentary highlights: Marinelli’s trampoline workouts are exhilarating. So are the Yeromenkos from the Ukraine whirling around a trio of horizontal bars.

Vargas gives the Euro-centric clowns (including a funny band) plenty of time to please, and their antics seem to keep the moppets giggling. How good? I found myself giggling too — now and then — at some fairly amusing stuff a bit musty and tired at the edges. One of the comedy turns is a mock bullfighter, Mendoza, working with a dog standing in for the bull. This serves also as a set up for another intermission photo op. Performers wear multiple hats. The Argentine clown Pocho, a come-in charmer with illusion, turns into a balloon salesman at interval time.

The real ring stealers, though, are a prima cat and dog courtesy of another of those Russians, this one Vladimir, who have a miraculous way with getting furry pets to carry on like eccentric humans. The cat is a wonder, evidently in control of its own tail for posturing purposes, and able to roll about this way and that on cue. The dog waves his front paws for an extended period of time to the music. A pair of incredible delights. Loved ‘em! Let’s see, world, are the animals going out of their way these days to tell us, “Let us back in, American circus, for we can save the show!”

Other pace-retarding elements: hula hoops that do not impress and sluggish prop changes between acts. Nor does a taped soundtrack consisting mostly of intense disco-styled drone distinguish the program much. Only two acts, Jonathan’s cube juggling and the terrifically impressive Yeromenkos, work against the humdrum musical grain with music that feels contemporary yet not of the outside world.

Missing in action: Not just any wild animal acts or horses, but nothing in the air. (The Osmani Sisters, who work silk webs, did not appear. Neither did Roman Ring artist Yasmin or Juan’s circus ballet.) Are we merely at the end of a losing season marked by early exits? I’d hate to think so. How odd that a circus owned by flyers should offer nothing over sawdust. Ah, but you ask, how about the champion Tabares? They open the second half, commanding a ringmaster’s just bombast, “Winners of the Gold Clown at the Monte Carlo Circus Festival in 2004!”

This, I knew, was a moment worth traveling hundreds of miles to see. I sat right under the end net and what a thrill to watch them swooping through the air while they worked routine warm-up stuff and inserted flash and flair. I think I saw a single somersault, unlikely a double. And now — can you believe this ---- they are heading for the net! I was left utterly dumbfounded. Never have I seen so pitifully little accomplished on the flying return, and this from Monte Carlo Gold? When I cornered McRae on my way out, he told me “they definitely cut some stuff this morning.” This morning? Pardon me, the show began at 2 p.m.

Heck, they cut the entire act. An unpardonable sin these flyers would dare not commit were they not also their own bosses. What might have been a moment of redeeming glory was thrown to the nets. The next time the Tabares decide to crack a whip at under performing employees, the first to hear it should be themselves.

Want to see the Tabares in top flight form? Watch a video of them impress the Monte Carlo judges on the Vargas website, or call ahead to see if they might be in the mood to try impressing you.

The new Circus Vargas is in many ways like the old (or in limbo) Circus Chimera. Maybe, at most, a quarter of the seats were filled. No program magazine or sheet for sale, and several acts a no-show. Unlike Chimera, not a trace of advertising. A couple sitting behind me with their daughter said that had they not noticed the tent in the Fox Hills Mall parking lot, they would not have known there was a circus in their town.

And unlike Chimera, Vargas gives one a magnificent big top setting to remember. Sadly, under it during a heavily padded couple of meandering hours, simply too little happened.

Overall grade: **

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Showbiz Showdown in Gotham — Little Tops Go to War ... Broadway’s Big Guns Test Troubled Tuners on Rocky Road ...Will South Pacific Soar Again?

What a lip-smacking good season looms ahead for surly sideliners like me ... A neat preview in the New York Times spills beans on two mega musicals failing to turn gush from out-of-town critics, both Broadway-bound shows flashing powerhouse names: Mel Brooks (The Producers) is back — or hacking back with his latest home-made tuner (in which he concocts his own tunes) — Young Frankenstein, now polishing his cakewalk out of town. The singing monster failed to ring every critic’s rattle in Seattle. Hmmmm. I wonder if Brooks, an amateurish tunesmith, is a one-score kind of guy? Brooks revived musical comedy. Question might be, can he revive vaudeville?

Disney’s Drowning Mermaid? Trouble in kiddie land began when Tarzan flew to Broadway and got all tangled up in a lot of scenery and — more scenery. Public not charmed. First Disney flop, that. ... Here comes the next?... Mermaid’s first dip under water in Denver nearly capsized, hardly rescued by a scathing pan from Variety’s man on-the-spot. Local critics, kinder, although some harboring same mouth-dropping reservations. Lifeguard, please! ... What shocks me is to read of a dozen new songs composed by Alan Menken, who also scored the movie with his late great partner Howard Ashman. They delivered a wondrous set of songs, so why all these add-ons? A glut of melody suggests an over-wrought script signifying too big a pool, or just plain professional desperation.

Nobody stands tall forever on the Great White Way. Forty-Second Street minus another Disney blockbuster could spell the return of the garden variety porno that thrived where George M. Cohan once sang before Beauty and the Beast arrived .... Beauty, by the way, is gone — as all of you trend-setters who read this blog (well, all five of you out there) will smugly know.

Circus! Didn’t mean to slight the war of the big tops. Big Apple uncorks its latest, a 30th anni bash at Lincoln Center, and not too far down Broadway comes about the same time that monster Genius from north of the border. Cirque du Soliel’s latest, Wintuk something about a young man in search of something, moves into the theatre at Madison Square Garden for a long run largely overlapping Big Apple’s. And the same show is slated to run for 10 weeks each winter the next five years! ... Garden big shots, unenchanted of late with Ringless brothers in free fall, had been angling for a slice of the Montreal magic. ... Anybody care to remember when the Big One sometimes packed ‘em in during five- and six - week seasons at the old bold Garden?

Post Update Flash: That's not all, folks! Here comes the gifted ringmaster (formerly of Universoul Circus) -- Casual Cal onto the stage of the Apollo in Harlem, beginning November 23, with his brand new Get Your Circus On! Promises a wild mix of acrobats and illusionists, and a 75-year-old "rapping Granny." Proclaims Cal, "Soul is not a color. It's a collection of experiences to start the heart, speak to emotions, and move on." New Yorkers, take note and move on: You have options.

South Pacific to be revived , finally, for the first time since it wowed ‘em back in ‘49. That does it. I’ve got Damtrak reservations. How could I miss all this drama, even if half of it folds by the time I ge there. That is, if Damtrak arrives at all ... New York! New York! Whether I get there are not, you’re a helluva town!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Three Rings of This & That ...

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: First posted September 29, 2007
. A cool Baraboo air over Oakland, and in New York that spells the beginning of a new circus season. Come November, three shows compete -- Big Apple, Cirque's Wintuk, and the new Get Your Circus On! at the Apollo Theatre. New Yorkers, you have choices! ... Back in Baraboo where the town nearly slips into a Brigadoon-like trance, late-blooming Ringlingphile Bob Dewel, who monitors my every word concerning the town’s most famous family, checks in with this about notoriously self-serving John Ringling, mentioned here in unflattering terms a while back: “Only John failed to show for the Al Ringling Theatre opening in 1915, with Al dying.” True to form, and how sad; I’ve sometimes wondered, was John the Yoko Ono of the group? (Beatles fans will understand.) And am I getting carried away? Bob, see you a little later for more dissing ... Okay, how about somewhere else, like oh, say Sarasota ....

Down there in circus city, Joan Griffith, a close personal friend of the late John Ringling North, whom she dated for a number of years, pens a column for the magazine Attitudes, and ruefully she reports on the recent passing of Allan Hill, who once briefly dated Joan’s daughter. Joan's preparing a tribute for Hill (past owner of the Great American Circus), who back in the late '80s, she amusingly reminds us, "had Tiny Tim starring in the show!" Hill also helped raise money for the American Cancer Society. “An above average Good Samaritan,” writes Joan, “quietly helping others.” And only 58.

Only whatever age we are.Only whatever circuses we are lucky to see. Run before cities like Minneapolis try 86-ing the wild animals
off the lot. Yep, almost happened up there. City Council, smarting with PETA ire, nearly toppled Jumbo’s tent ... Big Apple Circus(here's Cong Tian), premiering its latest opus in DC to a sunny notice in the Washington Post, heads for New York in late October with cats and horses ... I don’t expect a big cage in the Apple ring, but why not a flying act? They’ve featured the greatest in seasons past — Vazquez and Gaona, to drop golden names ...

Who had more artistic discretion, John or Charles Ringling? Bob Dewel returns to favor Charles, believing that Charles showed better taste in both his home and yacht. Gosh, I find myself in provisional agreement, having never quite known what to make of the fascinatingly outlandish Ca’d’Zan. A grand clash of styles. Charles, by the way, would be my choice of the brothers to meet and interview. In one of the early group photos, he shows a more open heart, and I think he would be more expressive of what really went on ... He was the soul of the enterprise...

Soulfully we rank the circus web sites, and soon! My sister, “Honorable Judge Kathy” in Omaha, as she calls herself, has sent me her scores. Mine are set, and we await the numbers from "Sazzie" Jon Pult, who lives way down Dixie in New Orleans, a grad student in creative writing. He’s putting the polish to his prose. Once I’ve got everybody’s ordinals, I add ‘em up and we list in order, best to ....

Anybody ever see The Dark Tower, an English film made in 1943, with the help of one Reco Bros circus? Neat flick. Held my interest. Central character is a demented hypnotist who uses his powers to remove a romantic rival from his path. A few good acts, a suspenseful story.

You who may be heading east to the upcoming Gotham circus festival, here’s a travel tip from Showbiz David. A great economy hotel (you can get a decent room with very good bed, clean if tiny bathroom -- okay, I spotted only one lone cockroach -- for around $130.00 a night) is the bohemian Gershwin near the Empire State. Superb round-the-clock deli around the corner, CafĂ© 29, a park only blocks away, and easy access to those ever rattling subways that give the big town a pulse all its own. Ah, I can almost smell the ancient grease down there in the holes. New York, New York!

And that’s a cool sunny Autumn wrap here in Oakland Oakland.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Circus Out of the Tent ... Buddha or a Snow Job?

Cirque du Yoga: Enter citizen Jamie Corydon, who reached her new inner self on a lyra at the Sandou Theatrical Circus School in Las Vegas, founded by two former Moscow Circus performers -- the brothers Sergei and Konstantin. Corydon fell in with some former Cirque performers who are associated with the school. They got her into a trapeze frame of mind and she felt reborn at a festival in Austria, “Is this the secret of the Cirque du Soleil artists —they are Yogi???” asks our dithering dame, Judy Dieli, who sent me the story. Claims Corydon, who teaches the art that gave her wings, “No way could I have done it without Yoga.”

Ringling, a little Yoga for you, too? Or perhaps a few weeks off at the Church of Scientology?. Anything, I’d say, to get in touch with your inner spirit, what’s left of it, so that you can win back the bottled water crowd in picky places like San Francesco -- a city you have, by the way, shunned for two Yoga-less seasons. There by the Golden Gate, aerialists and clowns do okay in bohemian settings that are ringless. Geoff Hoyle (alias Mr. Sniff off the old Pickle Family Circus) is now clowning around the tables at Teatro Zinzanni. Even waiters and waitresses, as pictured in Teatro’s fetching ads, fly over patrons. Maybe all the thirsty patron need do there is shout sky high, “More booze please!!!”

...This being once the city of acid, NO, leave that alone, David. ... We can, however be quite proper at a fund-raising fashion show hosted by Macy’s, where a Cirque character appears, standing alone on a table with a baton in one hand, a partial mask over her anonymous face ... No, Dame, she is not practicing Yoga. She is posturing "in the moment" ...

Down the coast about four hundred miles at the Hollywood Bowl, where mutes are still allowed to cavort with wild abandon, the Peking Acrobats will be working the same bill with Moore’s Amazing Mongrels , themselves beyond meditation, and “the Ditty Bops” — whomever they are. Dogs have a way of bringing us back to circus central. Of rendering mute all abstract allusions to some cosmic revelation lurking behind a fog machine....

Get down, circus, get down! That’s the message from Casual Cal, who will be throwing up his latest big top-type bash at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Get Your Circus On is out to prove that “soul is not a color.” Cal, who ringmastered with rare flair for UniverSoul, grew uneasy about the company’s preoccupation with intensely black markets. So good luck, Cal, and may your company succeed without group therapy ...

Global warming this winter? Not, I suspect, while Cirque plays the Big Apple with a story, Wintuk, about a little boy searching for snow. I can imagine a big payoff at the theatre at Madison Square Garden where the Montreal monster begins an annual ten-week holiday gig. Andrew Lloyd Webber gave us the falling chandelier. I predict Cirque will smother the house in dry ice. They just can’t break the special effects habit. It could suffocate them yet.

A habit for tanbark tradition around a real ring, pre-Perrier, still afflicts, thankfully, the Lords of the Big Apple Circus. At least when last we checked. ... And then, a few months later, comes the reductive Ringling-Barnum in its littler, less greatest mode. But the animals acts they defiantly refuse to retire give them an increasingly attractive edge. Oh, sorry, I gotta go. My Yoga instructor is at the door... You might soon see me flying high — precocious senior finds non invasive lipo suction on a lyra.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Saturday Night Showbiz Take-Outs: Fighting Over the Fat Lady; A Dog and His Man; A Funeral for Laughs; A Backyard Lady Tells All ...

While we hover on the edge of ringless lots hoping not to see more tents tumble, let’s recall those five fabulous brothers from Baraboo who started out so united, and as time went on, splintered off into a million fractions that somehow miraculously held together. Here, for example, is a curve that could have felled weaker partners: The incredible nerve of John Ringling voiding a fat lady contract signed by Al for her to appear with Ringling, which Al and Charles ran —— so that greedy John could ink the same dame for Barnum & Bailey, which he and Otto ran. This juicy disclosure amazed me in Jerry Apps’ excellent tome, Ringlingville. The author, though, makes little dramatic uproar over such disturbing incidents, preferring I guess to hold up the glossy image of the Big Five forever in collegial lockstep. As we have long known, it turned uglier by the year as one by one the boys passed onto the Big Lot, leaving only John and Charles to battle it out in a sad escalating rivalry. And what a farce that turned into. A must read for all Ringlingphiles

Imperfectly in tandem, a man and his sweet dog. You’ve heard it said how a mute can resemble the man who feeds it. Here is one for the books, made in tinsel town. Seated outdoors At Fred 62 on Vermont, a man dining across from me had a cute little dog, sitting up nervously at his feet in a limping manner “He really is devoted to you,” I commented. “No, he wants some food,”said the man. Sure thing, once favored, the mute turned his gaze upon me. And a little later when the man got up to walk away, the little dog limped off. So, too, in a more pronounced manner, did his keeper. So utterly touching. A sight I will never forget. Only in L.A.

Rating the Circus Web sites: This time around and to my great delight, I’ll be joined on a three-judge panel by my own sister, Kathy, who will bring an outsider’s point of view. Then there is Ron “Sazzie,” like I, a long-running circus nut. Each of the sites will be graded in six categories: first impression; routing information; visuals of the show; ticketing; press or customer feedback; and last impression. The three of us will score individually (without consulting or comparing notes), and the sites will be ranked in order by simple adding up of our numbers. The most points any circus can receive, if they get a perfect “5" in each of the six categories, is a victorious 30. Three critics times 30 equals 90 points max. A few peeks reveal to me that some shows have made changes, warranting a second look by Showbiz David, Consumer Courts Division.

Death at a Funeral: A fabulous new flick ... Is this the funniest-cleverest movie I have ever seen? Call it a comedy gusher full of brilliant surprises from those witty Brits. It has quirky suspense, revealing insights into the precarious social customs that sometimes keep fragile human beings together long enough — maybe, almost – to honor the passing of one of their own. It is nearly perfect in script development, I can’t say enough. Unless you are put off by the ever-changing sexual landscape, Go see it!

Let’s end this with a cozy little visit to Baraboo Barb, who reports having struck occupational gold working a day & nite job at concessions on Ringling’s homey Gold unit; That’s how contented Barb makes it sound, in her own words: “I actually truly love what I do. The public is a hoot, when it’s crazy (2500 people trying to buy in just one hour) I have fun. The downside is a show’s tour ending and a new one being reborn ... people scattering isn’t something I’ve ever been comfortable with...I enjoy the ease of knocking on a trailer door to see what someone’s cooking. I’m flattered when a kid comes knocking on my door.”

Ah, the simple joys of trouperhood. I’m envious, Barb!

And that's a wrap, this one for Billy. Hey, luv, can you hear us up there? What are you cooking up just now?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

... Page Proofs Coming ... Presses Humming ...

Could be today. Could be tomorrow. UPS will deliver page proofs for my book Fall of the Big Top; The Vanishing American Circus, and I will see it finally in print. That’s always a thrill — photo images on pages, type style selection, chapter headings. Here comes my LAST CHANCE to make any changes. Few will be made at this last-see point. A real regret is that since I won’t see Circus Vargas until after I examine, pass on and return the proofs to McFarland, there won’t be the chance I had hoped for to add a line or two about their current edition ... And what if it’s wonderful? Another spangled sliver from the ever changing big top waiting for somebody’s next book to capture it forever ...

I try to root out redundant word usage (I can hear some of you laughing). I look for this and that. But at this point, this and that will have to remain fairly pat. McFarland has given me plenty of opportunities to revise and hone, and still, I will likely live to regret certain things — a sentence can be written a thousand different ways. Once off the press, it’s up to reviewers and readers to decide. Since I can dish it out, I should be able to take it, right? ... Dame Dither, where are you out there in Cyberspace? ‘Twas the Dame (a.k.a.: Judy Dieli) and her now ailing hubby, Salnatra (he sings like Frank), who first handed me down a pc they were ditching for a newer model. And here I am, blogging a few years later ...

Once bound, a book is a book is a book. You can’t go back ... The only work of mine that I would never change a single word of is my first, Behind the Big Top. It is to me so rough and raw, so much like the old tent circuses I have fondly experienced ... Not for one reviewer was it a pleasure, though. He termed my brand of big top prose “junk journalism.” Carped he, I failed to evoke the sights and smells of the circus, so I sent him a special Smell Edition, complete with sawdust and pachyderm poo off the Ringling and Carson & Barnes lots. The photo down below was sent out to 300 news outlets. My publisher (A.S Barnes), belatedly learning of the stunt, was aghast. The book sold out its first printing in around a year, but did not return to the presses. Brashness can backfire.

... My Barnes editor had handed my manuscript for copy editing over to a somebody who, maybe bored, changed only a few phrases, caught not nearly enough misspelled words (it contains dozens), and let the messy thing live. And I thank that whomever. In the wrong hands, the life might have been drained out of my personal favorite literary effort, Behind the Big Top ... Miraculously, 26 years later, Fall of the Big Top lucked out with a similarly light editing treatment — all except for grammatical errors corrected and my spelling which has been tamed. It feels almost transcendental --- as if fate itself intervened to let Fall live as Behind did. I take that as a good omen. Today, at least.

On a royal typewriter I once hammered happily away. Now, after long handing the first draft on yellow lined pads, I report to a Brother electronic from my L.A. days, then it’s show time on the computer. What a ritual. Maybe I’m each time following an evolutionary path traveled by writers who first used hand-held instruments and then advanced from one mechanical device to the next...

UPS could ring my bell any moment now. And after the initial read-through a couple of times, then comes the one task in this business which I will admit to hating: the INDEX. Even with the enormous assistance of WordPerfect, I hold my nose, buckle down into a marathon mode, and keep on going till I get to the bitter end.

Proud of my junk journalism, I’m ready for the presses to roll ... Still a thrill ...

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Sat. Nite Showbiz Take-Outs: Porno Puppets a Vegas Flop; "Paid" Plaintiff a Ringling Suit; Dame Dither a You Tubie -- Have You Something Better?

Punch, Meet Punch. Risque puppet musical Avenue Q took Broadway for some Tony’s, went to Vegas and did not take the strip. Too few voyeurs over a losing one-year run. “Exclusive North American tour,” shot. Now, it’s on the real road, not exactly turning them away at San Francisco where I caught a Wed. matinee, with plenty of seats to spare ... It's bold, fresh, inventive -- a winning little subversive charmer starring hand-held puppets worked by actors walking about the stage. A pair of offbeat romances (one straight, the other gay and very funny) get down and dirty at times, like big people going at it like jackhammers on a kitchen table after having just met at the super market. I didn’t see one kiddie in the house. This is very New York. I'm told it spoofs Sesame Street -- about which I know nearly nothing.

No wonder it failed the Vegas test, where family audiences are now the norm. Avenue Q is not for kids, and maybe too smugly sophisticated for mid-America audiences. Too insistently pc-hip. To its credit, the show is remarkably human and touching despite its raunchiness ... Quibbles? When you sit close to the stage as I did, while the actors move and turn about, the puppets in their arms are not always visible. Nor were all the lyrics easy to understand. Remember, before built-in mikes, when singers had to project? I could have done without the Gary Coleman character (one of a few non-puppets in the cast), pushing a loud-mouthed stereotype. Still, on balance, I would like to take a second look at this party, but only in a much smaller theatre where it belongs.

“Turner Classic Movies”? A lot not, some well worth watching: How did it take me so long to discover the genius of Spencer Tracy (Bad Day at Black Rock, Father of the Bride)? And why does it take so long to get through Boredom on the Orient Express, which I have never gotten through since first surviving it in a movie house? Other night, I enjoyed Roy Rogers and his gang in a fun-bundled Rainbow Over Texas, songs and action, hokey romance with Dale Evans (a year away from being the real Mrs. Rogers), Roy’s good nature, and the curiously charming old Gabby Hayes that I fondly recall from my boyhood. A rare “western.” ... Not so good, but glad I stayed awake through a slow so-so silent from Buster Keaton called College, for what a terrific pay off! He’s trying to win the girl of his dreams by proving himself an athlete; finally he does, by rescuing her from the grips of a jealous suitor, suddenly showing super Olympic skills in one of the most fantastically exciting action sequences I have ever seen. In real life, Keaton was an athlete of sorts who refused to have stunt men stand-ins.

Ringling Fights Back: Feld Entertainment files a lawsuit against various animal rights groups, claiming they’ve violated numerous no-no's of the RICO anti-racketeering statute. Thanks to Don Covington, who e-mailed me the details. In particular, one Tom Rider, ex-Feld employee, is accused of taking “regular payments” as alleged payoff for serving as a “paid plaintiff.” Rider and others said to have engaged in “various illegal acts, including bribery, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and mail fraud." The war of words continues ...

Let’s leave the troubled big top for a moment, okay? Here's Dame Dither, my So Cal connection, linking us to a dazzling collage in You Tube motion of Hollywood’s femme icons ... Mesmerising & dreamy ... This way to Women in Film ... Here is the link; copy and paste it to your address window above ...

And did you want paper or plastic? And, oh yes, here's a free ticket to test your brains on TV's latest reality romp — “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” If you haven’t seen Avenue Q, you'd better not risk it. Punch! Get out of that men's room before Judy calls the cops and big puppet Lucy spills the beans on you!

[photo above: "Lucy the Slut," from Avenue Q website]

Monday, August 27, 2007

Remembering White Tops editor Walter H. Hohenadel: He Let Me Forge My Own Path ...

Shortly after April 12, 1955 — after my having twice seen Polack Bros. Circus from a reserved seat in Santa Rosa at the Fairground’s Grace Pavilion, I had in hand a rough draft of a review. I crossed the driveway of our neighbor, Carmella Perlie, climbed a short staircase to her kitchen door, knocked on it and was greeted with a smile and maybe a few Perlie giggles. A bumptious, cheerfully pretty woman who had never married, Miss Perlie loved to giggle, and she seemed to enjoy my visits. Usually, towards the end of each, she would offer me a root beer float..

Inside, I was invited to take a seat at a small wood table in the middle of the kitchen, upon which stood, ever so invitingly, a strong sturdy upright Underwood typewriter. Rare excitement faced me as I proceeded to type out the first circus review I would ever write.

"The lights dimmed, exposing the caged arena," it began. "And after an introduction by the ringmaster, Professor George J. Keller slipped into the arena ..."

I was high on the show, lauding it for "tremendous thrills,"finding plenty of things to say nice things about. And, yet, so full of nagging qualms: "... there are many obstacles that stand in the way of the show." Gone, I noted ruefully, were the Ward-Bell Flyers and "the big thrillers" like La Norma. Not only that, I complained that "The clowning has fallen through somewhat."
Whoa ...

My biggest problem were the Dagenham Girl Pipers from Britain. I wrote that while they "hurt the circus, it is not all the act itself. It is the fact that the act appears last on the program. While this is a let down from the famous flyers, it especially hurts the circus impression left on the customer. The fact that there is little relationship between the act and the circus proceeds to change the circus atmosphere entirely."

I argued for placing the act earlier in the program and ending on a more traditional punch.

Other nitpicking: "Some choreography is good, while other isn’t. Some costuming is good, while other isn’t, and right down on the line. In parts of the show a few of the girls appear to be more amateur than pro... a few of the girls can not compete with the dance steps given them."

This in the White Tops? Looking back, I am gratefully astonished that what I wrote — well, read on ...

Proud as punch with the long Manila sheets now bearing my opinionated prose, I sent them off to the editor of the White Tops, a man named Walter H Hohenadel. I knew almost nothing about the man then, and I know still almost nothing about the man now. Recent queries to the CFA bring forth very little. And those who might have known him well are not talking. He was, I am informed by Steve Gossard passing along the recollections of Richard Reynolds, a solid circus fan away from his print shop profession. He was, in fact, there at the very beginning when the Circus Fans Association of America was formed in 1927 — there to be given member number 42. Eight years later, he took over editorship of the White Tops, working out of his already established W. H., Hohenadel Printing Company in Rochelle, Illinois. He would perform this duty through the July-August 1962 issue, when a younger Hohenadel, Walter B, carried on.

I still wonder exactly what Mr. Hohenadel thought when he received my manuscript. Did he sense my age? Take the time to actually read through the notice? Show it to any CFA officials for approval? Was he in a hurry to wrap up the issue, and here was a perfect one-page filler? Maybe he handed the piece to a typesetter without comment. Whatever he thought, he did not write back, nor did he return my submission. I was kept dreamily in the dark.

In a letter to circus fan Don Francis, who lived fifty miles south in San Francisco, I told him what I had done, and he wrote back on April 20, "I doubt if Walt Hohenadel will be able to use the writeup of the Polack show, for it will have been covered in on the mid-western dates."

Indeed, it was, in the January-February issued, which must have arrived in our mail boxes very late that year. (They always showed up around a month late.) There on Page 13 was a thoroughly positive review of Polack Bros. by Carl Huassman. The reviewer’s kick-off reservation was redeemed by generous praise thereafter — "While to me it lacked the one-two punch of Harold Alzana and the Ward-Bell flyers, the producers have come up with a package that is a delight to behold ... from beginning to end." The Dagenham Girl Pipers, in his opinion, "were very effective in the finale."

Polack already reviewed. What were my chances of getting published with a notice so contrary to what others were saying? I could only wait for the May-June issue, and hope ...

Sometimes in mid to late July, there in our mail box at 609 Brown street was the familiar envelope containing the next issue of White Tops. I rushed into the house, ripped open the envelop, and thumbed through the pages, hoping against hope for a miracle. Page after page. Nothing after nothing. Not me. Not me. "Hunt Bros. Circus Has Thrilling Opening‘ headlined a review by Bill Montague. Mills Bros, also covered, was described as "the greatest opening in their history." Were these writers press agents, I wondered. Not quite so Earl M Allen, whose critique of Kelly-Miller, calling it "not strong,"then offered a list of nice things about the show. What was "not strong" was never explained.

And THEN, there on page 19, at the inside back cover, this:


What a thrill! That one exhilarating moment of acknowledgment sent a 14-year-old kid into critical orbit. And my own first byline in CAPS. Half way into my 14th year, I had arrived in some sort of a monumental way. I was emboldened, recognized, allowed to be myself — and, miracle of miracles, sent through the presses.

Looking back, I wonder where and why I ever got the nerve to go against the standard White Tops circus review grain. Reviews in the Billboard which I had been reading for over a year were also uniformly affirmative. Nor had I yet discovered Variety, which looked at circuses sometimes as critically as it did stage shows and movies.

Was it Tom Parkinson in his earlier Polack review, tactfully predicting in an otherwise flattering piece that the pipers might provoke discussion and debate? Unlike my contrary view about the Pipers, TP asserted, "They have what it takes for a circus."

Was it something in my DNA? Or maybe the crusty Miss Perlie getting a kick out of me typing out a review and egging me onto "give ‘em hell"? Not that she uttered those words, but she had a certain free wheeling manner that could have produced them.

Even more mystifying to me is why I even wrote the piece. I can't recall harboring any such desires before that time, and it was the first review I ever attempted.

Here is my own best guess:. By 1955 when Polack Bros. came to town, I was a spoiled circus fan. Spoiled rotten. Anybody heard of the movie the Greatest Show on Earth? Anybody ever see Francis Brunn or the Wallendas 7-high, Lou Jacobs or the Zoppes or Rose Gould or La Norma? I did. I saw them and more. These tanbark stars may have infected me with punishingly high expectations.

Whatever it was, Mr Hohenadel accepting my article and printing it the way it was written seems in retrospect an act of courage — or kindness. And in the act, the world said, okay, you might have some ideas worth publishing. It’s okay to look at a circus more critically. Go ahead, kid. Keep it up.

And so, to the memory of Mr. Hohenadel, who surely cast a long-lasting spell over my entire life by allowing me, at the age of only 14, to be myself, with profound gratitude I dedicate my latest book.

"Excellent ... Recommended. All readers, all levels."
-- Choice, July 2008
American Library Association

About the photos:

* About the time, in 1955, when my review was published in The White Tops.
* Proud contributor to John Swann's Circus Review, circa 1959.
* With my sister, Kathy, in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco on May 21, 1977 to see Lena Horne at midnight. By mere coincidence, that morning a contract from A.S. Barnes arrived for my first and personal favorite book, Behind the Big Top.
* At the circus museum in the Leningrad circus building, 1979, researching for my book Circus Rings Around Russia.
* At the circus in Leningrad during intermission, with director Alexei Sonin. He granted me an on-the-spot interview; we rounded up a prop guy to crudely translate. Here, while a camera snaps away, Sonin is directing me -- "Look up, David! Look down, David!"
* After the show during a special rehearsal. There I am surrounded by some of the crew and the director.
* After a performance of the Moscow Circus at the Los Angeles Forum, 1988, presenting a copy of my book Circus Rings Around Russia to Tamerlan Nugzarov, whom I had interviewed for the book in Moscow at the New Circus building in October, 1979.