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

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Real Risk: Coin of the Authentic Circus

From the first year of posting ...

A Golden Dragon Equilibrist Versus a Coreto High Wire Walker.

At the Golden Dragon Acrobats, who appeared last week on the stage of Berkeley’s Zellerbach, a very showmanly young hand balancer working the old chair-stacking routine gave us reason to feel fear, respect, hope and admiration. As he added, first one, then another and yet another chair to up his eerie elevation, we were treated to something we once took for granted under our now-emasculated big tops. (Who is he? The producer, whom I e-mailed, refused to provide a name.)

Just when you thought he had gone as high as he could go, there came that look on his playfully taunting face —— should I add just one more chair? Increase the danger and prolong your state of suspense and dread? From his perch on high, this slyly humorous entertainer smiled down upon our mounting sense of unease. We were on edge; not he. A circus owner somewhere should grab him fast by a contract.

What charges our emotions during such a performance is a feeling that only though skill, careful calculation, courage and resolve, can the performer stay on course and avoid the unthinkable. Every moment is in the balance as the stakes grow higher. A metaphor for life?

Now ask yourself: would you feel the same drama were the young man strapped to a mechanic? With a mechanic, it is impossible for the artist to succeed purely on skill. In fact, the artist does not have to succeed at all, because a lifeline will be there to save any tragic errors.

In contrast, at Cirque du Soleil’s latest under-canvas opus Corteo -- a fantasy sampler of many things that may you leave you with a new-found appreciation for the artistic brevity of the Three Stooges -- you can glance up at a young ballerina walking a "high wire," tethered, every antiseptic step of the way, to a thick white rope. You might wonder if Cirque intended to mock the dangers inherent in real circus as old hat. If, indeed, they are determined to deconstruct your appetite for the real thing by coercing you into buying the image without the reality?

Gradually, these insipid interludes will self-destruct. Audiences will tire of synthetic courage and go elsewhere for the real thing in other forums. Have you heard of extreme sports? Once at the circus, that's what you got.

Once at the circus, on her own, the extremely real Josephine Berosini, Circa 1955. Photo by Ted Sato.

First posted May 24, 2007

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Baraboo Revisited — So Many Ringling Secrets Still to Uncover

This first appeared on May 19, 2007

A deceptively small town
off the beaten path, Baraboo is where the five Ringling brothers launched a showbiz dream that took them to the top of the big top. This is where they raised their first tent. Where they developed a rare working chemistry (no contracts ever signed) that made them the envy of the show world. Make no mistake, my friend, this is the place. Give it a little of your time — it seems to float in limbo like Brigadoon — and you can get answers to questions you never asked but should have ... Talk to a towner and chances are, she knows someone who knew somebody who was there when the red wagons rumbled and the elephants roared. And did you realize that ...

The combined genius of the brothers crowds the barns and the files, the train yards and the halls of Circus World (they’ve dropped "Museum" from the title). Among the attractive displays at the fabulously upscale Irvin Feld Center, my absolute favorite is a revelation: the most emotionally engaging photo I have ever seen of the brothers (Otto was away at the time -- you can view it right here, down below.) They appear serenely linked by a shared sense of divine destiny. From whence the mindset? From Al? From all four in blessed unspoken camaraderie?

Altogether, a magnificent collection which likely dwarfs any other such facility on the planet, luckily Circus World was recently given a reprieve under the new direction of Stephen Freese ... Here in its spangled shadows, you’ll glimpse the tarnished trappings of a once-superior amusement giant that ruled sawdust lots from coast to coast — long before the decline of so many great American icons. Before Santa Fe’s Super Chief faded into Damtrak mediocrity ... before Ford lost out to Toyota, circus to cirque ... Here, I walk the streets listening for clues, reaching for fresh insights at ground zero... hoping to make contact ... Can you hear me, Charles? Alf T.? Al? What did you guys really think?

On a Thursday evening, into the Al Ringling Theatre I venture.
Did you know that, according to the theatre Historical Society of America, this was the country’s first "movie palace"? A man near a popcorn machine waiting for an audience to appear tells me with a shrug that if somebody does show up, he will run the film ... How poignant ... I have just come from the dineresque Little Village Cafe down the street, where a perfect Caesar salad with chicken was served me while Ella on cd sang from the great American songbook. (Try their blackened salmon, another treat.) Now, the movie guy is encouraging me to take a look-see in the empty theatre, and I am awed by its grand tattered opulence.

My digs are another civic landmark — the Gollmar House, a bed and breakfast in a stately old Victorian on Third Street now run by John and Sharon, who display a certain delight in hosting strangers from afar. They have assigned me the Queen Ann upstairs. Other than being chased by an invading bat while John and Sharon are out taking a "walk," the furnishings are old world fine. The late Don Marcks would have felt perfectly at home here. And I am fairly shocked to learn that the Gollmar Brothers put out the fourth largest rail show in 1916. Please sign me up, somebody, for circus 1A. Blame it on those Ringling press agents.

Baraboo, rife with Ringling lore, is also culturally "with it." At Annie’s Village Booksmith each Friday evening, poets from nearby gather to share verse (from young love lost to post-hippie anger) with like-mined souls. Encouraged by Sharon of Gollmar, I have come here to sample the soft cozy ambiance after taking in the film "Blades of Glory’ at the Al Ringling — Nine teenagers and I showed up to give the guy at the popcorn machine a reason to turn the projector on. (Note to the avid restorationists known as Al Ringling Theatre Friends: the gas lamps, smelling too much like unlit pilot lights, are a tad unsettling.)

Earlier that day in the depths of Circus World’s vast archival regions, reinstated archivist-in-chief Erin Foley invites me to dig for some truth through the imposing Ringling-Barnum archives. Boxes upon boxes. I select a couple, and in them discover stunningly rare handwritten notes by John Ringling North that put far more emotion into a man too often viewed as distant and unengaged. And for a bonus, CW's "Heavy," who restores wagons and oversees the grounds, drives me back to an off-site shed that shelters carnival wagons, among them Foley & Burk's Thimble Theatre fun house. The thing fascinated me at the Sonoma County Fair in my boyhood ... Next dream: to see the Thimble Theatre up and open for business again ... Heavy also takes me on an impromptu tour of the imposing train barns nearby , which someday may be opened to the public. What bold industrialists the brothers were!

At lunch, Erin and I find a table at the Opera cafe upstairs on Oak Street in one of the town’s older buildings. The place is a buzz with the chatter of ladies who lunch... Gracious is the atmosphere ... In the evening, I sit on a bench at town square, observing the passing scene. Boys on bikes. Girls making an impression. Men walking dogs.

The next morning at the Gollmar
, a kindly retired dentist who hardly looks or acts his nearly 88 years named Bob Dewel arrives to share breakfast with me and two other Golmar guests. We are dazzled by a succession of irresistible plates, a feast fit for Ringling royalty prepared by Sharon and served by her waiter-bus boy husband John. And of course, we talk circus. Did you know, for instance, that there was an eighth Ringling boy named George? He died in infancy. And here I must tell you, with great regrets, that an entire roll of film I shot containing pictures of this time-period's events was completely lost.

.... A few hours later, Bob offers to give us his Al Ringling Theatre tour, and what an eye opener it is. More Ringling facts and mythology — they haunt this sacred palace, and Dr. Bob is determined not to let the world forget. Not to let a landmark fall into tragically irreversible disrepair as so many have. What a lucky town: the good doctor who once drilled for gold is now drilling through paint and fabric for color authenticity to help restore a theatre to the way it actually was in the beginning, and he is drilling for funding from people of means. The town only has two in the millionaire class, he shares, and one of them (name not given) is connected to the circus. Bob is also a self-effacing organist of superb keyboard skills who thrills us with a few tunes. The music is sent gloriously through 600 pipes. Movie palace, yes. "We’re not good at promoting ourselves," Bob will state more than once during the tour.

We are invited backstage
to examine the old gears and pulleys, and then up to the balcony to view the very seat at which, it has been carefully surmised, Al Ringling himself sat on opening night, November 17, 1915 when a touring production from New York of Lady Luxury brought the curtain up on the virgin stage. Louise Ringling sat next to the now virtually blind Al, painting for him pictures of the event. To reach their private box, the two had crossed the street and entered through the stage door, then up a private staircase so that Al could avoid lobby talk. Within six weeks, the mightiest of all the Ringling brothers (sorry, John) was dead ...

From circus to rails. Returning to California on the Coast Starlate, what a treat to discover on our consist a parlor car from Santa Fe, circa 1956, named the Pacific. Shades of rail travel USA when trains competed for customers as today’s pc makers do. Remember the free market? Remember the California Zephyr, the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha [above, left], Rodgers & Hammerstein on Broadway, and the Greatest Show on Earth under the greatest big top on earth?

Remember, too, when Al Ringling built a palace with a hundred thousand dollars of his own money and in only seven months. And if this town’s kindly dentist turned scholar has his way, Baraboo residents and visitors alike will forever be reminded of what a triumphant and very tangible legacy Al Ringling left the town in which his dream became a reality – and of what a great showman he really was. Oh, those five amazing brothers ... By the way, did you hear about the time when Otto made a bold move to ...

[Except for photos of the Al Ringling Theatre, all other shots are from the camera of Showbiz David]


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Showbiz Snaps: Legally Blonde, the musical, Didn’t Fool Me — or the New York Critics

Bubbles Over Broadway

When it tried out in San Francisco earlier this year to hometown acclaim, I refused to grant this hokey contrivance high marks, noting, nonetheless, that it does have a natural audience base in all the teen girls who are said to flood Broadway ticket counters.

Legally Blonde, which just failed to nab a nomination for Best Musical from the Tony people, got little respect from Big Apple critics when it opened on April 30, and I’m feeling (okay, smugly) vindicated. Read Clive Barnes: "amorphous, synthetic and manically empty-headed music." Even the often easy-to-please USA Today added sneer to the jeers: "Whatever pleasures Blonde provides ... are as fleeting and superficial as the highlights." Of course, you’re wondering, but what about the New York Times? Here’s what: "...approximates the experience of eating a jumbo box of Gummi Bears in one sitting." You heard it here first from Showbiz David. You can check out my review by typing "Legally Blonde" in the search box above... Or you can smugly ignore me.

Why do I watch Survivor? Without saying much, well, it’s kind of because if I find somebody whose looks and charm appeal to me, it’s a fun event. Okay, so it’s a flesh show, alright?

Hilarious satire makes a mess of figure skating during the early scenes of Blades of Glory, starring Will Ferrell and Jon Heder, who will end up competing together as the first male-male "pairs" duo. I loved watching the phony baloney world of millionaire fluff bunnies and cutthroat bladsters spoofed (maybe because my sport of roller skating has always been pushed cleverly aside by theirs)--- complete with pip squeak cheerleader-analyst Scott Hamilton (playing himself) taking it over the top. Even the ice-on-mice shows are mercilessly trashed for laughs galore. How I wished this film could have continued apace. But no, it fairly melts away when Heder, who enters as a flaming queen, must learn how to love a real woman. Duh? And what a fairy tale that turns out to be. Get out the ice machine, guys, and sweep this ridiculous hetero farce off the rink...

Late Night watch: I watched Craig Ferguson and found him a bore, then tried him another night and found him a delight. Back again, he started to wear thin. Too much oddball body gyrations bring a stale penchant for Bit drag in. Methinks this Craig needs sharper writing and packaging. Me doubts he's going very far this side of the Atlantic. Super nice guy, and that's probably the problem.

Old flick discovery on tv: Rainbow On the River (1936). With Bobby Breen and May Robson fleshing out the touching tale of a young white kid raised by an ex-slave in post-Civil war South. He gets pulled away to live with his rich snobby in-laws in the big city. Happy ending, and that’s how it should be in this lilting musical fantasy that yet has a real soul. Relationships between people jump ethnic barriers all the time.

Next on the Big Lot: Baraboo Revisited.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Big Top Bits: Kelly-Miller Shines North ... Don Stacey Doesn't ...

From the first year posting ...

"It’s Showtime!" — and away we go at the new Kelly-Miller Circus produced by first-of-May showman John Ringling North II. "It’s Showtime" is the title of the opening production number, a chivari of sorts, or so I am told by manager Jim Royal who has been sending me, in glacially slow doses, program details bit by bit. A would-be archaeologist I have become, digging patiently away --- one pick at a time ... Bit by bit, into focus here we go:

From Mexico to Asia hail Kelly-Miller’s artists in the 18-act layout. Other production flourishes: A return of the North Starlets, down to an affordable foursome who glide around the cloud swing work of Jennifer Nichole. And a red, white and blue climax that fills the tent with flaring flags and confetti drops. Manager Jim stands by smiling "It does my heart good to go into the tent at finale and hear the reaction of our audiences. They are very pleased with the performance."

Has the show a star? Royal tells me that North, who booked all the new acts himself, was "particularly impressed" with contortionist Sai Zhang. "He was right. She gets a great response from the audiences." Bit by bit ...

The first act ever signed by North? The Rosales Family. More to follow from the trenches of Hugo ... Next to come: a complete rundown of the entire performance! I have it, kids...

Sunshine & Shadows: The Big Apple’s Maria Parra, who works dogs for Johnny Peer, is one of 30 Under 30's Picks for 2006. Says, Maria at 28, "I’m learning that you don’t have to go to every party. You don’t have to meet every single person" .... Big Apple Circus, by the way, is hauling in some adoring notices after opening to a New York Times rave last November ... Death stalks the sawdust — a Leitzel replay? Tragically, 35-year-young aerialist Roberto Valenzuela fell to his end while performing on Circo Hermanos Vazques in L.A., and maybe through no fault of his own artistry. Investigations point to rigging failure, and how often that, sadly, is the case ... Circus News.Com is following this story ... Stay out of Connecticut, circus with animals! That’s the intent of one chilly bill (HB 7019) moving through an unfriendly legislature. And if it passes, let the public suffer ... About my circus website ratings, Joan Hart of Circus Vargas e-mailed me: "We were thrilled with your favorable comments." One of the tidy little things about the Vargas site that I like is their concise listing of acts, specially from where they come. Thank God for places like Italy and Chile and Holland and Spain – well you get the picture. Keep spoiling us, World, please ... See the photo, on the sidebar, of North II and Royal I, taken in a revealing flash by Beverly Royal? Now that’s what the theatre calls "character delineation... The ever-resilient Zoppes, led by Alberto, are out with their first newsletter, and it oozes warm Italian charm, complete with Mama’s Recipe ... Go there and be embraced by one of Spangeland’s Great Circus Families ...


And here comes Englishman Don Stacey, raising high once more the Irvin Feld banner ... Go, Don, I feel your Piccadilly pain! Stacey continues to rant against the truth of what really happened. And I’m back on Stacey’s stage, and, gosh, I feel perversely flattered. A reference to me kicks off Stacey’s article about Circus World for the latest issue of King Pole ... As usual, I come off as the guy who loves John North (the original) and hates Irvin Feld, whereas Stacey loves Feld and doesn’t love North.

... I know there are many sincere Irvin Feld fans out there (and I respect them all) who may believe that Feld was actually the better showman. Feld as savior? There, I draw a line. Stacey — going near ballistic this time out — writes, "I am inclined to agree with those who feel that Feld and his family were indeed, the people who saved the oldest and biggest traveling circuses from annihilation" Bombs over the big top, Don? How about turning your radar onto how the Felds have tried to annihilate John Ringling North and Arthur Concello out of circus history?

The nuances, England, the nuances. Here, Don, is what you will find on page 299 of my book, Big Top Boss, concerning my take at one point on Feld's showmanship: "In the mid-1970s the greatest show on earth was as aggressively promoted as it had ever been, with Gunther Gebel Williams at the dazzling forefront of a glamorous and modern Ringling ballyhoo that captured the American public’s fancy." ... To a corner please, go, there to recite that sentence a thousand times over ... The two of us in vaudeville, Don? I could hoof a tad ...

Stacey, who handled publicity for North’s 1963-64 European tour and loathed every performance he was by contract obligated to promote, concedes that he never saw a Ringling circus in America produced by JRN. Hmm, how interesting ...

I’m back at Kelly-Miller digging for the truth, bit by bit ... And that’s a Royal wrap ...

First posted May 5, 2007