Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Monday, April 30, 2007

Circus Websites Rated – from Victorious to Vague

From Consumer Courts, Showbiz David Division 

Circus Owners, please note: If you believe I have obviously missed something on your website, feel free to e-mail me (click onto the sidebar link "View My Complete Profile" for my e-mail link), and I will be happy to take another look. However, no scores will be readjusted for elements added subsequent to the date of this post. So, please ...
I’ve looked at Websites for shows that regularly tour, season by season and usually tour with the same cast and performance. Therefore, not rated are Shrine circus producers, etc. (The Royal Hanneford site, with good route information, contains a long list of acts that does not apparently describe any particular show.) If a couple of other touring outfits — Moscow State and Walker Bros., both out of Florida — have websites, I could not find them.

I looked at these sites as a consumer, rating each on five key elements: 1 – overall visual impact and appeal; 2 – ease of obtaining route and show schedule information; 3 – visual presentations (and/or descriptions) of the acts offered; 4 — general feedback from customers or critics; and 5 -- ease of purchasing tickets on-line.

Surprisingly, there are missing elements that can sink otherwise good scores. A number of circuses, Ringling included, appear not to share reviews or customer feedback. It might be that these sites do contain such information, but I was unable to locate. Kelly-Miller excludes any references to a route. Good luck tracking them down. Chimera was a no-show at their overly complicated ticket window. Some act photos are static head shots.

With a possible high of "5" in each of the five measured categories, the most any circus website could earn was a perfect score of 25.

Here are the scores from best to worst:

1. Cirque du Soleil (21 points) Although the precious visuals are a little too abstract for my taste, an outstanding presentation overall. Doubly surprisingly for an operation of this magnitude, there are no reviews cited, just apparently fan feedback, which one should view skeptically.
2. Big Apple (20 points, readjusted) Opening page takes way too long to open. Inside, visuals are wonderful, though there is a slightly confusing sprawl to this site. Head shots of the performers are static, nor could I find reviews or feedback. Big Apple responds: Press reviews are, indeed, easier to find than I first reported. Also, in the boxes that contain what I term "static head shots,' there are also icons that will open video clips of the acts, although opening them is on the cumbersome and slow side -- more so than other sites I reviewed which also offer video clips.
3. Universoul Circus (19 points). Generally, another outstanding site. The many news stories featured, however, are virtually impossible to read.

4. a two-way tie:

Carson and Barnes (18 points). Quick and to the point. Routes and a few reviews immediately appear. The basic visuals could be better, and the appealing act photos are somewhat difficult to reach.

Ringling-Barnum (18 points). They do a great job, including video clips, but there is no indication of either audience feedback or press reviews. Ticket purchasing is somewhat limited.

6. a two-way tie:

** Honorable Mention: Circus Vargas (16 points). Fabulous main page design, and super-clean layout of elements for easy linking to show schedules (one month in advance) and brief Vargas history. Outstanding user-friendly on-line ticket sale option features clear diagram of seat locations and prices. No act photos, but good descriptive listing of acts in performance order. No reviews. Still, all circus owners should take a look at this site. Circus Vargas responds: At the same time my posting went up, their webmaster was in the process of posting act photos. A view of the photos since loaded: Very nice, clear and persusive.

New Cole (16 points) Great opening pages featuring fan and employee hype. Otherwise, a staid if clean look overall, with act photos leaving a lot to be desired.

8. Circus Chimera (15 points). The Judkins machine excels on the front end -- visuals are inviting and customer feedback (like that of Cirque) is upbeat and at least fosters an intimate sense of warm community support -- then stumbles at the on-line red wagon. Despite repeated attempts in every which way, I found it infuriatingly impossible to enter a "promo" code, without which, the ticket window remained shut. Otherwise, this site should be a lot higher on the list. Circus Chimera Responds: "We have recently revamped the website. It tells you right there on the ticket page how to get a discount." A recheck of this website reveals the same problem in entering a promo code, for I could not locate. Moreover, the instructions lends the impression that one needs a promo code in order to enter the site, when, in fact, one can ignore this feature. Once you have reached the ticket window, the ordering prompts are quite clear. More from Chimera's Jim Judkins: "I have not received comments or complants from the public. They seem to navigate the site just fine." Okay, good reason, perhaps, when next I do this to engage a panel of three.

9. Circo Vasquez (10 points). Rated because this show plays some U.S. dates. Fairly hopeless, with scare and vague show dates. Little else.

10. Kelly-Miller (7 points) This site opens up very impressively, then takes you nowhere. No routes or on-line ticket sales makes a customer visit virtually useless. In fact, the site seems addressed more to potential sponsors. Nor is any feedback offered. Did I see the same photos last year?

Here are the links:











How Others Rank Them:

Craig Johnson's top three:

1. Carson & Barnes
2. Ringling Bros.
3. Cole Bros.

And Yours???

Have I overlooked something obvious? You are invited to check out the websites and offer your own picks or rebuttals.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Big Top Bits: The White Tops Promises Criticism, Kelly-Miller, More Silence, Cirque, More Fog ...

We begin with my "death" which never happened ... Hamarstrom is not Hallberstam, thank you. Across the years I’ve been confused for the much richer, more famous and prolific writer named David Hallberstam. Tragically, this well-revered author of numerous books on politics and society died in a car crash not far from where I live ... A few people contacted me with guarded concern ... Robert Mitchell's phone message ended, "talk to you later — I hope ..." A mystically inclined e-mail correspondent invited me to "Reply the best way you can." Hmmm. Were I the other Hammarwhatever, an outreach seance back to planet earth might have been in order ...

Talk about being mistaken for someone we are not, seems the new and graphically improved White Tops magazine wants to be mistaken for a serious purveyor of critical reviews. I have in hand a comp copy, sent courtesy of Vern Mendonca (himself on track to be the CFA’s next president-elect). Inside, the usual platitudes embrace all shows big and small ...

Pardon my journalism, but a CFA reality check is in order, folks:. The Circus Fans Association, since is inception in 1927, has been a cheer-leading arm of the circus industry. New editors John and Mardi Wells promise "previews" and "reviews" ---- the latter, actual critiques of "the quality of the overall show " done by "those qualified to do them." And who would those be? Already, me thinks not ...

Raves roll forth apace, nonetheless. Ringling’s 137th opus is heralded as Feld's "best show ever." So, let's see, what if the "review"to follow disagrees? What happens, then, when somebody’s feelings get hurt and somebody (maybe like, say, a performer or owner) cools off on allowing fans coveted "jackpot" privileges in the backyard when the circus comes to town?

... In the same new and improved issue, a letter writer, claiming to have seen 100 circus performances, says this about the semi-new Ringless Bros. Blue, now in its second-year tour: "Let me go on record: this is the best show I have ever seen."

The drumbeat of acclaim never ends. And the fans seem to fall over each other in a mad dash to render their "best ever" reviews. Twas ever thus, I rue ... So many volunteer press agents. So little sobriety ... If only more reviews were thought out the morning after, if you get my drift ...

For the CFA to allow independent criticism goes totally against the organization’s DNA. Many years ago in my bristling adolescence (as opposed to my bristling decline), I managed to sneak past a notice both praiseworthy and critical of Polack Bros, and I have then-White Tops editor Walter H. Hohenadel to thank, thank you. In fact, were it not for the White Tops , believe it or not I might not now be carrying on like I am ... But don’t assume the course I staked out, for a moment codified in CFA ink, was granted many encores. Hardly. More about this remarkable chapter in my mini-career at the typewriter in a future post.

Back to "best ever" sentiments. In promising contrast to the status quo, a gingerly worded — though refreshingly insightful — White Tops review of Traces by Dominique Jando analyzes the show down to the non-circus it is. Operating, however, safely off the sawdust trail, Jando is careful to give the show high marks overall. (To read my own take on Traces, posted last December, type "Traces" in the search box above.) Will Jando and others dare to nitpick away over things they don’t like about "real" circuses? Will the CFA allow an invasion of opinionated fans? Will it dare rile the circus world it revels in celebrating and protecting? "We fight anything that fights the circus," is its still proudly-quoted motto. No, I think not....

Away from CFA hoopla, there are promising signs here and there of free-thinking under the big top, whatever the motives. Over at Circus News.Com, the Zimmers, Al and Beverly of Bradenton, complain that Ringling’s hometown edition at Robards Arena "stunk." Ouch, and don’t submit that to the White Tops. However, I’m sure their red-hot valentine to Sailor Circus in the same piece — "worthy of Madison Square Garden" — would be a front-page candidate.

And pardon my journalism, Jim Royal and John Ringling North II, but I am still waiting for details (titles, themes, make up, anything, boys) on the "three small production numbers" you tell me you are presenting to your Kelly-Miller audiences. ... A non-practicing CFAer, I am fascinated with any clues that may tell us something about JRN II’s aesthetics ... Yes, it’s not fun pressing for details, but let me be the one to do it ... My second e-mail to Royal awaits a royal thaw ...

Future best-evers, brought to us by CircusNews.Com: Cirque Du Soleil, at work on its new tent show Koza, promises a "return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil." I hope this means the simplicity they brought to L.A. in 1987 — before Vegas called ... Moscow hosts the Third Global Circus Festival from June through August. Thirteen countries are expected to compete, and what an exciting bash that should be! .... Cirque’s Koza circuses around "a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world." ... Cirque’s other show getting prepped for Madison Square Garden in November, follows the quest of a boy named Wintuk "to find snow and adventure."... That should keep the ice machines working overtime ... Ah, yes, leave 'em gasping over the substance stuff ...

You can have all the dry ice and soul-searching you want. I’ll take the circus that center rings Matinee, the sensational 9-year old mare who has rewritten the book on dressage. She, in my opinion the best ever, is profiled right here on this blog, and it’s all free ...

And that’s a White Tops Wrap!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Dream Dressage from England ... Pure Circus and Take That, PETA!

The Circus That Once Reigned Supreme

Ride this link to the most amazingly intrepid dancing horse you will likely ever see – Matinee!


The 9-year-old mare, ridden by Andreas Helgstrand, dazzled Brit crowds at the World Equestrian Games in the Musical Freestyle Dressage competition. Here is a link to a video of Matinee's tanbark triumph — a revelation — sent me by my SoCal correspondent, Dame Dither of England. "Poetry in Motion – The Real McCoy," writes the Dame, gushing as rarely she does. Indeed, tally ho, pip pip and a dozen dizzy encores!

There on English soil where the circus was born, behold one sterling example of the mastery that once reigned victorious over pure sawdust — before fog machines, unidentified crawling objects, special effects and naval-gazing ballerinas took over.

Matinee reminded me of circus-going years ago. "She knows where the beat is," says the Dame. Indeed, and so did the big top.

Monday, April 23, 2007

DVD Discovery: The History Boys is Rich and Riveting

>Brilliant in so many ways, The History Boys, written by Alan Bennett (who also wrote the stage play up which it has been adapted) centers its searing drama and comedy on the question of why we learn. Set in England in 1984, eight grammar school lads have scored well enough to apply for Oxford or Cambridge. Their heady headmaster is so madly determined to get them in and enhance his reputation that he hires a young teacher, Irwin, to badger the boys into edgier test-taking attitudes.

Irwin sells out for the chance to land a permanent position at the school by recklessly urging the boys to cease being so factually "bland" and, instead, fabricate their answers to test questions. This sets Irwin in callous contrast to quaintly aging Hector, a professor who revels in the mastering of poetry and philosophy and drama just for the joy of learning.

Essayed by actor Richard Griffiths with well-worn perfection, Hector is a teetering overweight pig of a man with a homely grin and the exquisite ability to impart the value of passing great ideas and prose from one generation to the next.

Hector is also, not to his advantage, a closeted and lonely "married" homosexual who has suffered a thousand unrequited desires at the chalkboard. With little regard for job security, Hector offers motorbike rides to his students and, en route at intersection pauses, gently gropes their genital areas in a a discretly appreciative manner.

Enter one of the eight students, Dakin, played by Dominic Cooper, a charmer who views life amorally. He is not exactly getting what he wants from his current girlfriend, so he eyes the gay options around him like a hungry speculator. He even accepts a motorbike ride from the fat professor, is touched for mere seconds and reports it to the headmaster, who seizes on the incident as a pretext to force Hector out and hand his teaching slot over to the more modern-thinking Irwin.

There is so much more than this. So many riches of thought and irony here to discover. For one, Mrs. Lintott, played by Frances de la Tour (seen here with Dominic Cooper), is a history professor who must tolerate a male dominated world, and she addresses her plight with bitting wit and insight. There are the boys themselves, full of cleverness and ambivalence over Oxford and the future And there is the tragic figure of Hector, about to be early-retired, about to lose the whole reason for his being.

Dakin is the pivotal surprise hero who in the end grows to understand and feel compassion for Hector’s brief indiscretion on him and who takes sly measures to exploit the headmasters’s similar molestations in the straight sphere in order to spare Hector the impending loss of his life in the classroom.

Hector’s redemption is short-lived, for one thing he can’t give up is his love for riding a motorbike with a big helmet on his happy head. His impact on one of his students, though, is not short-lived. "Pass it on!" Hector exhorts the boys their last day of school, alluding to the literary treasures they have confronted, however reluctantly. And one of them does, becoming a professor and passing on Hector’s passion for the chance discovery on the printed page of an idea, a feeling, a story from long ago that can feel so real and relevant today. That can salve painful wounds and offer understanding.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, The History Boys is a major work of art.

Realty check: After writing this review, I looked over some of the reviews it received, and was astonished to find so many snickering dismissals. I also found that the stage play wracked up tons of awards from Ollivers to Tonys (a record six) to Drama Desks to Outer Critics Circles. The entire stage cast played their roles in the film, and to think, when I was in New York last year, I could have got a ticket to see the play!

[orignally posted 4/23/07]

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Spring Big Top Bits: Royal Breaks Silence with Message from North II About Production ... Early Season Reports (or Hype?) Promise Better Big Tops

We take them all with a grain of salt, we must, for too often hype parades as honest criticism ... But ... there is reason to believe that America’s big tops are at least sharpening their acts, adding some novelty, still fighting to bring the public the animals it says it wants, and maybe turning the tanbark excitement up a notch ... So, here — hype or honesty — from the field of dreams ...

Sarasota Central has already checked in on Ringling’s latest — the greatest show on earth, claims SC, is back on track, back from the abyss of that Ringless thing it offered last year that a lot of fans are still carping about ... Over on the New Cole Bros. lot, one circus fan is raving about John Pugh’s latest, complete with winning vocalist, a mini-aerial ballet, and a motorbike cage that breaks open! ... To John Ringling North II Presents Kelly-Miller next we go. Manager Jim Royal is high on what his patrons are telling him " We are getting very favorable feedback from our customers (our most important critics), which pleases us.

Ah, yes, if you can’t please the paying customer, you won’t last no matter what the critics say.

Speaking of mini-production, Royal broke a long ominously mum silence to send me a message from John Ringling North II, a man of few words. Kelly-Miller’s new House-of-Ringling owner has apparently followed or been apprised of my hyperventilating over the question: Did he actually deliver any of the "Ringling magic" he had promised the press. So, let’s press on. 30 — count ‘em, 30 – words from JRN II to Showbiz David:

"We have three small production numbers as promised. To judge the quality of our show, Jim and I cordially invite you to see for yourself. Best wishes, John Ringling North II."
So, there is production after all? The question mark extends my open-ended inquiry into Kelly-Miller’s actual performance. Onto my next attempted fact extraction: Just what are these production numbers? Any details, Jim? A hint? A break down of titles or themes?

When Royal e-mailed me yesterday, he was profusely apologetic about getting North’s message (composed before he flew back to Ireland) out to me in a more timely fashion. Bum weather and computer glitches stood in the way

Red wagon wheels keep on spinning, and so do the reports. Some are true ... some just spin. It’s only April ...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Huell Howser’s California is Television Gold

This first appeared on April 19, 2007

In the age of spin and sleaze — when hip hoppers go criminal to boost record sales and international hookers become cultural icons in their death – what a pleasure to watch Huell Howser’s California’s Gold — that is if you live in the golden state and hunger for a semblance of reflective sanity in the shadows of nature and history.

Howser is a big tall guy from Tennessee who gets awe-shucks excited over sunsets and old abandoned docks, over off-beat museums and restored windmills. He takes the time to savor the unrushed moment, and for this we thank the various PBS stations on which his excursions, as refreshing as a drink of pure spring water, are aired.. Howser deserves a slew of Emmys.

Here he is, talking to park guides and curators ...

... Now, the clouds are breaking a little bit, and we’re looking off at the distance at the blue sky and the reflection in the water, and it goes all the way around here. This is – boy, this really is spectacular!

... Oh, look at that fish jump. Oh, my gosh! One of the big trouts jumped right on cue for us!

... Oh, wow. She’s been sitting here since 1931. Look at this. You almost have to be here to feel what this feels like, but to actually be here this close to it, it’s kind of like giving her the respect that she’s due...

... Well, she’s not looking to good these days but atleast she’s here. That’s what’s important. We touched her, we came up close to her, and we’ve felt her good vibes, thousands of California stories connected with that old boat — people who rode on her in those train cars, being here with her has been an absolutely wonderful experience. Thank you all very much. We found her, the old Solano, a fine example, even though she’s grown up in weeds and trees, and she’s rusting away and falling down into the mud, she’s still a fine example of california’s gold.

Television has too many Jerry Springers. It has only one Huell Howser.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Feld versus North, Part II: Who is more a Ringling -- John or Kenneth?

And the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon ...

Charles Ringling’s son Robert needed something to do. His opera career was washed up, and his mother Edith was now smarting over the show-off ways of Ringling circus producer John Ringling North, just as she had over North’s late uncle John Ringling. Edith saw an opening to ram her son around North and onto the manager’s chair. In 1942, she formed an alliance with another Ringling widow, Audrey. The two women pooled their stock-voting power and were able to kick Johnny North (and his brother Henry, seen in this photo) out. In his place, they planted Robert. The lines of the Ringling wars were re-drawn in the sawdust:

John North versus Robert Ringling

Throughout the turbulent ‘40s, the two feuding cousins were in and out of court, each seeking to gain a controlling interest in the circus and 86 the other. During Robert’s reign in the mid-‘40s, he ordered John North’s middle name "Ringling" removed from the circus program magazine! Jealousy?

By 1947, however, and in the lingering wake of the tragic 1944 Hartford fire which had occurred on Robert’s precariously inept watch, John North won the battle for big top power by securing 51% of the stock.
Irvin Feld versus Himself

Fast forward 10 years. North decides to move the show indoors. In the wings hovered a man with fanatical Ringling ambition of his own named Irvin Ringling Feld. Excuse me, just Irvin Feld. Mr. Feld was hired to serve as a promoter for select Ringling dates. In ten years, Feld mustered the money and connections to persuade North to sell him the circus. And he proceeded to lecture the world on how he actually ran the show in the mid-fifties and was the one -- not Arthur Concello, the actual force -- who struck the tents and decreed an all-indoor future. A few people within the circus community were offended. One might have been North’s nephew, John Ringling North II.

By selling out to Feld, the senior North in affect turned his own back on his nephew, John II, who in earlier years had been lead to believe that he would one day take over. "I was always told that I would run the circus until I got married in 1961."

Instead, Irvin Feld’s son, Kenneth, was now the one being groomed. Pushed to the sidelines, John North II became defacto Robert Ringling.

Kenneth Feld versus John Ringling North II

Advance forty years, and enter belatedly John Ringling North II in a surprise 11-o’clock move to flex his name in public. North suddenly buys the smaller-time Kelly-Miller Circus. Motives? His subsequent actions painting his name across Kelly-Miller trucks seem designed to say --- I am here, World. I am a Ringling and I own a circus. Watch me.

And so, you could say that the ghosts of John Ringling North and Robert Ringling are battling it out once again in the public arena. They are really fighting for bragging rights to the most famous name in circus history. Ask anybody out there if they know the name "Feld." Then ask Kenneth Feld what his real name is.
The star question here is this: Will John North II turn out to be a ruthless John or a kinder-hearted Charles? His uncle or his father?

Ironically, the one who so far can trace a personality link back to John Ringling through John Ringling North is not North II (well, not yet), but Kenneth Feld — son of Irvin, to whom John North sold the show in 1967, stating at the time of the momentous sale that he was impressed by Feld’s "concern and dedication to maintain the concepts, traditions and artistic standards inherent in the world famous title, the Greatest Show on Earth." In going up against Feld, North II is facing arguably the most ruthless and driven operator ever to manage the Ringling show — Kenneth Feld.

Back to the Courts
The younger Feld, an obsessive hands-on power grabber of shrewd marketing instincts (like his dad), is taking the matter to court. By hoping to deprive John Ringling North II of the ability to post his Ringling name on the Kelly-Miller trucks and marque, Feld is saying, you are not John Ringling or John Ringling North. You are only Charles Ringling or Robert Ringling — or Edith, and you are not going anywhere while I am here. In fact, I am more a Ringling than you are.
Do we have here John Ringling versus Charles Ringling? ... or John Ringling versus John Ringling?

Step right up, America! Get out your score cards. They’re back!

Originally posted 4/18/07

Monday, April 16, 2007

Feld versus North Lawsuit Revives Ringling Family Wars of the ‘40s

From the first year posting ...

Rechanneling the Ringlings: Part One of Two

In the beginning, the word was Ringling

And the word multiplied by five to produce the brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin who formed an unwritten pact to start a circus. They argued loudly in private over business matters, took votes, accepted the majority will and reentered the public sphere with placid lockstep. They were the force.

Were there unspoken alliances between any of them? Al and Charles, the two most loved of the brothers, shared an affinity for opera. Intellectual Alf T. was at home with either.

That leaves us with two oddballs: Lackluster Otto, a loner who handled the finances and read books, and unlike the other four never married; and the egotistically flamboyant, deal-making John. It made perfect sense that when the brothers bought Barnum & Bailey in 1908, Al and Charlie ran the Ringling show, Otto and Alf T., Barnum & Bailey. John went ahead as general routing agent, a job in which he excelled.

John versus Charles — A Schism is Born

By the mid 1920s, only two of the founding five remained — John and Charles They shared circus power with a mutual if uneasy working respect.
Mostly, Charles spent a lot of time trying to keep up with his brother John’s epic lifestyle. After Charles died in 1926, John alone ruled the big top, and he ruled it recklessly, even though he only held roughly one-third of the stock.. Any of the other brothers alone would likely have done a better job.

John lost control of the circus in 1932. His nephew, John Ringling North, recaptured family control five years later and set out to revolutionize three-ring showmanship with unstinting talent and splendor.
Self-patterned after his worldly uncle John, North was one of a kind. His better-liked brother, Henry, filled the Charles Ringling mold. And Henry bore a son, John Ringling North II.
John North versus Robert Ringling

Enter a woman of inherited power who would cast a long shadow over the Ringling family wars — indeed, a shadow that reverberates today: Edith Ringling, wife of the late Charles. A robust school teacher by day, Edith resented John Ringling’s dominant ways when only he and Charles remained, and so she pushed her husband to assert his rightful place as a co-owner.
Into the 1940s, with her husband long-gone and her son, Robert, hitting the skids off a mediocre opera career (many of the Ringlings longed not to be circus Ringlings at all), Edith pushed Robert to make a grab for circus power and depose John Ringling North, whose high-flying showmanship did not impress the traditionalist minded Edith. So what if Charles was gone.
Edith had inherited his share of the stock, and she was not about to go gently into the night off a red-light caboose. Her blood now boiled at the sight of John North, who reminded her too much of his late uncle, John. Popcorn or soda pop anyone?

Next: How a Feld Becomes a Ringling

first posted April 16, 2007

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Lookout: Dramatic New Suspense Flick is So Much More than a Bank Robbery

A young man at the wheel of an expensive auto feels the deceptive thrill of youth. He is a star hockey player, has designer looks, a winning smile and the seemingly perfect girlfriend by his side. It’’s all there —— or it was. The young man is Chris Pratt, who stupidly pushes his luck by pushing the pedal to impress, racing his car with its headlights off into a devastating collusion. Chris’’s back seat passenger friends will die, his girlfriend will survive minus one leg, and he will spend his entire life paying the price in the mental damage he now struggles valiantly to overcome. Each day, he makes notes to himself in order to function. Now and then he thinks he sees his estranged girlfriend in the distance, but is unable to reach out. At night, he does janitorial work at a bank, dreaming of becoming a teller. He shares a gloomy flat with a blind man, Lewis.

And he is about to be manipulated by some no-good low-lives from out of his past into a bank robbery. A stroke of perfect casting gave the part of Chris to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose acting muse is obviously early Leonardo DeCaprio —— before DeCaprio settled for overscripted Hollywood popcorn like The Departed. Gordon-Levitt pulls us into his crippled though proud existence. His roommate, Lewis (played by Jeff Daniels) is at first unattractive but earns our sympathy and respect; the two dream of starting their own restaurant. In the dark shadows here, there are relief lights of rare humor.

Written and directed by Scott Frank, The Lookout is unflinching in its bare-bones narrative force, perhaps too downbeat and morose at times for its own good, commercially. Still, this movie left me with a deeper appreciation for the mentally ill and the variously handicapped souls who struggle nobly day in and day out to make the most of their lives. The lookout ends on a promising note both sad and affirmative.

Solid respect from Showbiz David.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Out of the Past, from Tinseltown: My L.A. in 54 Hours

Into Los Angeles, the almost-on-time Amtrak bus drops me off at my cathedral-in-waiting, Union Station. The day is perfect. No city is more inviting under the sun — nor more ominous by night than Hollywood ...

I hop a Dash (little busses that feel like living rooms on wheels) to the town’s newest icon, the Disney Concert Hall. There, I land a ticket for tomorrow morning’s Philharmonic. Onto my motel at Sunset and Vermont. After many sleepovers, they are getting to like me. Surprise, they even know how to smile. "You are one of our regular guests!" A King size bed downstairs for King David, complete with my first live-in cockroach, and I mean the first at this Travellodge. With wash cloth in hand, I stomp it flat and toss the cloth with it to the floor. An hour later, comes another roach — but it is the same one! I know about roach motels. Are there roach ERs? Roach HMOs?

I hop the number 2 for North Vine, and walk south to the Linwood Dunn Theatre. Security guards stand ready to pat me down — just to attend the screening of two silent films by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences! Inside, I am seated with industry pros (the room buzzes with insider talk), and I learn that this is how non-members are treated. Who said things would never be the same after 9/11?

The next morning, I foot it east down Sunset to enjoy the town’s glamorous decay. In an hour I’ll be having breakfast at Phillipes (where the Paul Eagles Luncheon club used to meet) with a copy of the L.A. Times. From there to the concert. Featured keyboard wiz Jean-Yves Thibaudets uses only his left hand to pound through Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The work was composed for a musician returning from world war I minus his right arm. Heroic Ravel.

Conductor wunderkind Essa Peka Salonen also premieres his own compelling Helix, a fast-advancing 9-minute opus full of troubling images intended to commemorate the end of WWII. It makes the morning’s major work, Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, seem rather old hat. Not old-hat is Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall — a surreal masterpiece that is in my exalted opinion the most stunning piece of architecture in the United States. See why tinseltown is a draw?

Onto a bus, we are now heading west on Sunset — lovely ride through Bev Hills. Still sunny and perfect with a light breeze tickling the air and caressing the palms. En route, I love glancing up winding hillside roads, wondering which one delivered William Holden in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard into the clutches of fading film heroine Norma Desmond. Holden was being chased by cops out to repossess his car — and would end up being repossessed by Norma.

Hilgard in Westwood is my stop. There I will transfer to the 261, which ten minutes later deposits me and a young Japanese couple at the Brentwood gates of the magnificent Getty museum. A tram elevates us to the exhilarating plaza on high, where you can view swanky homes in the hills and the smoggy flat lands in the dismal distance.. Sometimes just being at the Getty is the lure. A strange exhibit of Nuevo Japanese "anti art" and "non art" from the early 50s shows how the freshly liberated Japanese set out to shun the past and rush eccentrically into an unknown but free future.

Outside, while waiting for a 261 to reverse my journey, I fall into an easy conversation with two bright ladies in town on business. One is from Philly; the other from Montreal. How could Cirque du Soleil not enter our impromptu chat? They are certain fans of Cirque, but the Canadian (with no cuing on my part) tells me Cirque is not so good as it was in the begriming. They are "diluting the shows," she regrets. Her Philly pal adamantly agrees. Hmmm. I refrain from commenting; on-the-spot feedback like this is pure journalism. Leave it pure, David. The world speaks in L.A.

Saturday, I rail down to Oceanside along creamy blond beaches, there to visit old L.A. friends Alice and Sal, who now reside in a tony Carlsbad "manufactured." In better nights at piano bars, Sal (who by day taught L.A. students driver education) sang like my idol, Frank — I called him Salnatra. Now he barely walks. And I fear the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex has gotten the best of Sal. A head shrink (I am leery of them all) gives Sal so many pills, Sal’s medicine cabinet has reduced his will to a whisper. I could cry. His Brit wife, Alice (who insists her real name is Judy) remains as chock full of chatter and the embracement of life as ever she was. I meet her charming sister Ruth, who insists that Alice is Alice. Ruth (who is Ruth – and a widow) is in from England and in the tempered throes of a new romance. No wonder I call Judy who is Alice or Judy ... Dame Dither.

Taking our cue from Sal, we opt for a sizzling lunch at the 101 CafĂ©, a landmark grill since ‘28. Let there be sodium on this day. Maybe a burger is all Sal needs to pull out. I keep asking him when he will sing "Autumn in New York,"and he keeps putting me off. Once through Pasadena not so long ago, he rebounded from another post-operation depression and was filling the air, punk style, with a catalog of Sinatra hits. And the old Sal magically returned.

And once, only last November on a day that hit 97 degrees (there they are, at the plaza by Olvera Street the previous July) Dame Dither and "Salnatra" came to see me off for Florida on Amtrak’s The Sunset Retarded.

Back by train to L.A., back to another edgy Hollywood by dark. When I lived here during the 80s on North Orange Drive, at least I had my own apartment to which I could run and hide and feel safely tucked in while police helicopters overhead threw spotlights onto the seedy streets chasing down thugs.

The sun has fled and the gig is up. The city now looks like a cheap film noir version of itself in better days when real movie stars walked the streets and graced red carpets. Now the Boulevard seems lost and irrelevant, the tourists just another flock of gawkers passing through.

At 10:50 on a Saturday night, I board a Greyhound for my return north. Nothing noteworthy; no creeps on board, thank God. Not even the faint sound of a cellphony telling somebody the bus is late so expect another call in another five minutes. A congenial cargo of withered humanity remains atypically quiet during the tear up I5 into Oakland --- to another place not so inviting by night.

Leaving town, I marvel at the cockroach who self-revived, and I wonder if Sal can, too. Maybe he will one day dismiss Dr. H. Shrink and sing "Autmn in Carlsbad."

And that’s a Tinseltown wrap!

First published April 6, 2007

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Remarkable Cinema Discovery: First Asian-American Film Directed by Marion Wong, Mother of Arabella who Starred on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’

Documentary film maker Arthur Dong was invited to a house south of San Francisco. A family wondered if some old nitrate film they had might be of interest to Dong and the film community.

Dong discovered and was handed historical gold: two surviving reels of the first Asian-American silent film made in the United States: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1917) Or so speculates, with impressive scholastic authority, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Last Thursday in Hollywood, the Academy screened the digitally restored movie at the Linwood Dunn Theater on North Vine Street, accompanied on the piano by Michael Mortilla. Arthur Dong provided background information on his rare find and gift to the Academy.

Curse opens in a deceptively charming manner, and here we are interpreting without the benefit of subtitles, for not a one of them survived. A young man sets out to court and wed a woman (played by Violet Wong, right) by offering a gift to her mother. He succeeds. Then charm turns ugly in dramatic turns that invite speculation. The most interesting image for me was of the new bride fingering an elaborate necklace which turns into a chain. That alone was considered "high tech" for its time when the film was shot in Oakland. Does the bride feel imprisoned to a man she does not love —— or to an institution she secretly abhors? According to one analysis, because of her deceitful nature she is kicked out of the home by her disapproving mother-in-law, and she wanders off into the mountains. Next, an infant is discovered, and again we can only ponder its relationship to the principals. The husband is moved by the sight of the newborn to search for and reclaim his wife. His wife’’s sister-in-law, who has all along evidenced signs of jealousy, commits suicide.

Four to seven reels were lost. Disintegration of nitrate across time has left most silent films buried in the dust and gone forever.

Remarkably, this engaging movie was directed by 21-year-old Marion Wong (seen here in later years), a third generation American with only a third grade formal education. She was also one of precious few female directors ever to work in American silent cinema. Oft-maligned Oakland also comes in for some credit as the birthplace of Asian American cinema.

Marion Wong was the mother of Arabella Hong-Young, who starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’’s Flower Drum Song on Broadway. Had it not been for Marion’’s support, Arabella’’s father would have banned her from perusing a life in music and she never would have attended Julliard —— or introduced to Broadway "Love Look Away." In fact, without Arabella, Rodgers and Hammerstein might not have been inspired to write the wonderful song.

Hollywood’’s film historians and preservationists are passionate about finding whatever "lost" films are still out there that can be restored. So passionate, indeed, that at the door, unless you are a member of the Academy, you are put through security and patted down before you are allowed to buy a ticket. Now, that was a first movie-going experience for me!