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.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday Morning, Looking Way Back: Blandest Big Top on Earth -- I Offer You Cirque du Vegan

Introducing a circus to offend none, where performers wear hard hats, animals stay home, and all concessions are trans fat free ... At a local cafe here in Oakland on Piedmont Avenue where I like to hang out, a good old fashioned chocolate chip cookie has been replaced by a Vegan version — heavy and thick, I’d rather have the real thing and suffer the guilt. .... The upscale set with their iPods and laptops are pretending to adore this tasteless substitute. ... Give them Cirque du Vegan (Jim Judkins, are you listening?), and maybe they will come ... Be sure your big top offers Wireless.

PC stalks the lot: So depressing -- are we all not in this together? -- to contemplate the fallout from a trial evidently to be, in which Ringling will once again be accused of mistreating its elephants. And how sadly ironic: I ask you, World, has there ever been a circus man that has done more than Kenneth Feld to assure the most humane living and work conditions for its animals? Or have I been duped? .... Compare the tragic plight of those vicious fighting dogs and the disgraced football star who enabled such disgusting spectacles ... Mr. Feld can also be on occasion be his own worst enemy. The full page ad he took out in the New York Times following the acquittal of Mark Oliver Gebel on similar charges back in 2001 struck some as being tactlessly brazen. To me, Feld’s remarks made sense ...

Brazenly speaking, all circuses stand to suffer even if Ringling wins. PETA no doubt is banking on the long-term effects of its relentless protesting outside arenas and tents where circus crowds convene. How many more seasons of harassment before too many adults and their kids feel too squeamish and guilty to return? It’s a campaign of coercion.

Michael Moore plays the Al Ringling — his movie Sicko that is, and Bob Dewel, our retired dentist in residence, plans to attend. And what might the good doc’s verdict be, we wonder? Bob, whose nimble keyboard virtuosity powers the "Mighty Barton" theatre organ, has co-authored a classy, just-published book about the house’s history. So few people know that the Al Ringling Theatre only happens to be the first movie palace to go up in the U.S. And that’s not Baraboo boasting; that’s the Theatre Historical Society of America speaking .... Let’s see, in the same small town, you have probably the world’s largest and greatest circus museum; you have America’s first movie palace; you have a genuine carnival relic in the Thimble Theatre — an absolutely charming fun house from the 1920s in storage at Circus World that should be in operation on town square. And nobody in the town has a clue how to ballyhoo Baraboo? For starters, may I suggest an SOS call to the Wisconsin Dells PR center.

Fly, Wallenda, Fly! That’s what Nikolas is kind of doing these days, partnering out with Bello Nock on the new double wheel of steel act at Ringling’s 137th. It just had to happen; for too many years, the public has equated hazardous wire walking, Wallenda style, with flying. I never understood why until reading, recently, why: Seems that, as the public sees it, when the Wallendas fall off the wire, that’s when they fly. And that’s not something I made up, nor is it something you’ll ever witness at Cirque du Vegan ...

And that’s a sicko wrap, trans-fat free, of course.

Raw and real big top birthday bash in San Jose for Ringling-Barnum's Tonka, who turned 24 on August 22.

Originally posed 8/26/07

Friday, August 24, 2007

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... Ringling Elephant Abuse Suit to Proceed

After seven years of legal wrangling, a federal judge in Washington has cleared the way for a consortium of animal rights groups to sue Ringling Bros. for alleged cruel treatment to its elephants.
The show owns 55 pachyderms, of which 34 -- not born in captivity -- were owned by the circus when elephants were added to the Endangered Species Act in 1976.  Says the judge, these animals can not be exempt as are 21 others that were born in captivity.
Once again, a national spotlight will cast potentially unflattering light on the nation's largest and most enduring circus. Sadly, all circuses stand to suffer from the media attention, no matter how wrong the plaintiffs might be.  The AP quotes Tracey Silverman, general counsel of the Animal Welfare Institute, "We look forward to unveiling the curtain at the trial to expose the suffering and death of elephants at the hands of the so-called 'Greatest Show on Earth.'  These magnificent animals will finally have their day in court."
Answers Stephen Payne, a Feld spokesman, "The ruling dramatically narrowed the issues in the suit ... and validates the importance of our breeding program."
More to follow.

Source: Associated Press

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Tale of Two Circus Reviews: Bellobration or Bust?

It’s lonely being a circus critic, for under the big top those two words sound awfully pretentious and irrelevant to a lot of people. When you take on mediocre acts, ill-directed shows and especially sacred cows, you run the risk of resentment and more. I’ve been publicly blasted in print, once likened, many seasons ago, to “vermin” in one of a slew of hate ads taken out against me in the Circus Report. During my tumultuous teens when the Greatest Show On Earth was foundering through its own tumultuous last season under canvas, I sent off a letter to the circus claiming that all of the organizational chaos was making me sick. In return, Henry Ringling North sent me a tactfully tart note suggesting I see a doctor.

Blame it on the late White Tops editor Walter H. Hohenadel, who dared to publish my first review when I was only 14-years old and who let stand my nitpicking away over choreography and costuming and off-pointe dancing showgirls. This act of courage (or blind faith in an article he might not have fully read) sent my precocious ego into orbit. Ever since I have suffered from chronic criticitis.

My favored mode for turning out a review is being able to write it before I have seen any other notices of the same show. This forces me to walk my own high wire, to commit to my own thoughts in a lonely state of raw independence, totally uninfluenced by what others think. A little scary, yes, but an exercise I relish. I like to think it keeps me honest — or honestly stupid.

Such was the case with my review of Bellobration. I had not seen a single write up of the show before posting my reaction to it last Saturday. Then I took a look at a review by Leslie Katz of the San Francisco Examiner, which a friend had sent me. What a surprise to find how amazingly in sync we are on so many of the acts and production elements of the 137th, though we reach markedly different conclusions.

Katz is a staunch New Pickle Circus supporter who once derided the “ tackiness” of Ringling Bros., which she now seems to miss. Well, we are all missing something, aren’t we.

Here is how our reviews compare in most respects

Favorite acts, in order discussed:

She: dogs, tigers

Me: dogs, tigers

Production elements:

She “Costumes seem thinner and less sparkly... the big production numbers don’t quite have the delightfully tacky glitz and glamour of years gone by. Still they work.”

Me “The skimpy parades ... are about as humdrum as they can be.” I did praise the oriental spec which introduced the Chinese equilibrists.


She: Makes no comment other than to note there are fewer of them.

Me: I liked the “Dancing with Clowns” gag, writing. “I would welcome seeing it again.”

The new double Wheel of Steel:

She: “less engaging than it sounds.”

Me: I make no comment; it struck me as inconsequential.

Bello Nock:

She: “Affable and able stunt man, “ [but] his “shtick doesn’t quite sustain the show.”

Me: “More cute and charming than amusing.... they fail to make a case for him as superstar”

Ringmaster Tyron McFarlan

She: “A commanding presence”

Me: “Emphatically efficient... [but] unmemorable.”

The "story line":

She: “less engaging than it sounds.”

Me: I don’t even mention it because it struck me as near non-existent..


She: did not pass comment

Me: “unmemorable.”


She: No comment.

Me. “persuasive and to the point.”

The Aguilar Bros.

She: “gets your heart started.”

Me: “dashing ... [but the act] lacks compelling content.”

Our conclusions.

Here we differ greatly. I was so put off by all of the distracting staging gimmicks from video screen to straight line ring curbs constantly being reconfigured, that it made me feel at times like I was watching the circus “through a freeway collusion zone.” Thus, I handed the 137th two-and-a-half stars rather than three. Katz, a kinder gentler critic (whose review strikes me as rating 3 stars), was apparently able to look through and maybe ignore it all, for she wrote “traditional elements ... are by far its most fascinating parts.” On that, we emphatically agree. Boffo to us both! And I will let Ms. Katz have the last word.

Me: “Not until the superior second half does the show reveal a semblance of the old Ringling magic ... clearly, there could and should be greater impact here.”

She: “...a pleasure to enjoy each astonishing feat as it happens, rather than experience the frustration of trying to look three places at once.”

Lonely up there on the high wire. And each time I come down, sometimes it’s not as bad I fear.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Animal Stars Shine in Ringling’s Tacky Bellobration

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, 137th edition.

Oakland, California, August 18. Tickets: $15 to $95.

After seeing Ringling-Barnum’s latest, I was surprised to discover that the $15.00 program magazine does not contain a show order listing of the acts. That’s another first from the Felds in recent seasons which I have just now noticed. The strange omission only adds to my sense of sadness and uncertainty about the plight of this once great circus.

Perhaps the producers are leaving themselves the freedom to tinker with the program, although it needs more than tinkering to achieve first-rate respect.

It is certainly not a bad show — except for a number of things about it that work against its better ingredients and give it a slightly desperate air. For starters, direction — or lack of. Out of the gate comes a lumbering parade of dancers and performers in semi-disarray. Announcing the show this year is the emphatically efficient Tyron McFarlan — whose generic contributions, however, tend to be as unmemorable as those of the band and of certainly the lights. Or are the lights purposely confusing in order to detract our attention from certain feats booked to fill time and space? Another irritating distraction is the video screen, a holdover from last year’s critically dismissed “breakout” edition. On it are projected images of Bello, the touted star, of various acts in motion and, during the interval, of ads and fun questions.

The setting for a Feld circus grows more schizophrenic with each passing year. Kenneth and Nichole have evidently convinced themselves that the sight of three rings — even one – marks them as hopelessly old hat. This season they have introduced what might be termed straight line ring curbs, and during the performance the crew continuously reconfigures them. This constant shuffling (like moving the deck chairs on a doomed ship), only reinforces the off-putting image of a circus suffering an identity crisis. It makes it feel like the show is being performed through a freeway collision zone. I think I prefer last year’s parking lot over this.

Not until the superior second half -- which includes a pair of flying returns performed by the Poemas and a double cannon shot from the Misers -- does the show reveal a semblance of the old Ringling magic. A taste of that magic clearly comes alive when the bulls and the gals, decked out in fetching oriental garb, enter to introduce a fine display of equilibristics by the Zunyi Troupe, six women from Southern China. Here too, the music for once is outstanding. Everything is of a piece. Unfortunately, a costume splash that promises Chinese gusto only delivers the one rather static display.

This is Bello’s show, we are told, though they fail to make a case for him as super star. And the skimpy parades pushing his status are about as humdrum as they can be. Worse still, they fail to exploit Bello’s appeal or talents during climactic moments. I’ve always found Bello to be a cool dude, more cute and charming than amusing. He has fun working standard tricks on the sway pole. And he delights working a double big wheel novelty with Nikolas Wallenda. Watching him once again, it struck me that he might make a very good -- indeed, perhaps the very first ever -- performing ringmaster.

Ironically, the animals are the true stars of this edition. The Olates and their engaging pooches from Chili are one of the best dog acts I’ve seen in years. Inventive and clean, snappy and infectiously upbeat. In the big cage, Tabayara Maluenda, another Chilean, was another rare refreshment for me. He is a hoot. Loved his frantic manner of talking loudly to his charges while directing them through impressive executions. A great gag has him ordering the last tiger to break from a stand up pose and exit. No luck. So Tab switches to Spanish, and his tiger complies. Very funny. Think Joan Rivers in a cage trying both to talk her way out of misfortune and prove to the world that she is another Mabel Stark.

The elephants were persuasive and to the point: three of them did head stands; all of them did sit ups and mini-long mounts from pedestals. Solid circus. Solid excitement from the audience.

Only did the formless liberty horse routines fail to impress. Among other so-so items, a teeterboard offering by the Palazovi’s is only okay. And the dashing Aguilar Brothers bring youthful energy to a double high wire act that lacks compelling content. Opening aerial displays, likewise, are pretty but uneventful.

The dozen company jesters scored at least once, in a quirky tv satire, "Dancing with the Clowns," which I would welcome seeing again.

Clearly, there could and should be a greater impact here. And less Feld frizzlze. And therein lies the perennial problem. During pre show, the producers have the audacity to work a brainwashing commercial for Campfire Marshmallows by having the clowns coax the kids to repeat the phrase over and over again. (It makes Jim Judkins’ Peterson Peanut pitch seem positively innocent) I found this unseemly.

I wondered what sort of a crowd I would find following last year’s let down. Much bigger might indicate that, commercially speaking, Ringling is on the right track. The crowd I sat with (perhaps a fourth of the seats were occupied, and a number did not return for the second half) if anything suggested at best stagnant interest. My rough house count would be three thousand, maybe a little less than last year’s turnout for the same Saturday morning slot. About a third of the seats are not sold because of the new shrunken set up.

Of course, it might be the animal protesters outside more than the show itself that is the real cause for stagnant or reduced attendance. Oakland, once regarded as a great circus town, is still a part of the most liberal region in the country. Across the bay in San Francisco, Ringling has now been missing in action for two consecutive seasons.

In the program magazine, Nicole Feld is quoted as stating “This year we set out to outdo not only last year’s show, but 136 years of shows. And you know what? We did it with Bellobration."

And you know what? Ah, that old reliable Feld family confidence is something to behold. Dream on, Ms. Co-Producer.

Overall score: ** ½


Comments? Have any of you five out there seen the show? I welcome all opinions, well aware that this evolving saga can be viewed from many different angles.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hold Your Hopes! Here Come the Elephants!?! --- Well, Maybe ...

Holiday Look Backs, this from 2007


1955, the Ringling-Barnum herd.

The herd, 2007

Next year?

8.16.07 12.10

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Quiz (Please Give it a Chance!): Gaze at This Photo and Tell Me ...

...which of these brothers Ringling would you choose to meet if you had a chance to spend an hour with him ... over tea or coffee, and be able to ask him questions about the circus? (Clockwise, from top left: Al, Charles, Alf T., John -- or you can choose Otto, not seen here, if you like.)

And please tell us WHY.

Yes, I risk another flop quizorama if nobody from my visiting multitude of five leaves a comment -- yet a plight to which I have grown humbly accustomed.

And so I soldier on. And you? Are you reading me at work? If so,isn't this more fun than whatever it is you are supposed to be doing? -):

Monday, August 13, 2007

America, the Messed Up

Movie Review -- out on dvd

The compelling fascination of director Todd Fields’ Little Children — a suspense thriller that wants to be too many other things — is its ultimate downfall. It is another of those cinematic examinations of a tattered post-feminist landscape in upscale suburbia. Here, it is once again okay for women to raise children and meet in the park to gossip. Here, too, it is okay for a man who aspires to practice law but has yet to pass a bar exam to do the home stuff while his wife, a documentary film maker, brings home the bread. That woman, by the way, has a strange fetish for letting their younger child sleep between her and her thus-denied spouse. Here, too, it is okay for a bored married woman (whose husband pleasures himself in front of computer porno) to go after the sexually deprived married dad at the park. An affair ensues. Oh, yes, also starring is a kinky single man, recently out of prison for indecent exposure to children (though he has never touched a child), living with his protective mother. The strange loner, who still calls his mother "Mommy," is hounded and harassed 24/7 by a retired cop (retired after accidentally killing a boy in the line of duty). Let’s see, did I get all the plot elements? Well, most. The movie enthralls terrifically as we wonder how these story lines will mature. But in the end, the writers, gasping for an operatic climax, bring the conflicts into one crashing intersection that is a little too simplistically realized. And one that stretches character credibility. I found the Hollywood-styled closure muddled and contrived, and it left me wondering what this movie is really about. Something about the boys in men? About the women in women? Well, no, there is the one woman who carries on more like a predatory teenager. Was life always this complicated, or has modern American society, chronically liberated and still unhappy, rendered itself this pitifully out of order?


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Circus World Museum's Hidden Ancient Treasure: The Ringling-Barnum Circus Archives, Forever a Mystery?

In My Opinion

At the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, a goldmine of Ringling documentation called “The Ringling-Barnum Circus Archives” encompass a formidable space at the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center and is technically off limits to researches and interested parties, although special access is allowed on an individual basis. These papers are still owned by the Feld Organization. A long-stated theory is that the Felds fear the vague possibility of something in the heap embarrassing them. That is highly unlikely.

What on earth might they contain that would be damaging to the Feld family?

Recently reinstated archivist Erin Foley, herself an even-handed professional with a Yale degree, labors in the middle of a petty political mess that has been tolerated far too long, in my opinion, by spineless bureaucrats. She appears to be doing her level best to bring about a clear legal transfer of ownership to CWM. But she does not have the power herself to set policy. That would be up to Circus World’s latest executive director, former Wisconsin state representative and Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Stephen Freese. And how likely is Freese to force the issue? I wouldn’t bet the museum on it. His job is to raise money, and if that means sacrificing the collection to the collection plate, that’s what will likely happen. What is needed is a director with the resolve to deliver an ultimatum to Feld Central.

When I was researching my book Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus back in the late ‘80s (repeat: late ‘80s), I was encouraged by one of the “readers” (engaged by my publisher to critique my manuscript) to hold off on publication until I could view the Ringling-Barnum Archives, the point and promise being that they contained letters and notes by and about North that would enhance my work. Wrote the reader in June, 1990, “Unfortunately, all correspondence to or from the Norths and Concello will be restricted as long as Henry North and Arthur Concello are alive.” Excuse me, museum, but both Norths and Concello are now dead, and have been for some years.

Had I waited, my book might never have been published. And when were these archives placed on loan to the Circus World Museum? In 1971.

Thirty fives years later, they are still officially off limits.

For years, a select circle of the good old boys (the “reader” quoted above, among them) could lick their chops over special off-hours access to the archives for their personal enjoyment. What motivation did any of them have to share the secret nuggets with others? Greg Parkinson, who for a time, managed the museum, appeared to have been more enamored of advancing some sort of a Ringling career than preserving the integrity of the collection and displays. (The otherwise wonderful Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall pushes chronic Feld fictions onto the public — and if you view the Merle Evans exhibit in one of the older buildings, you will get the impression that he is still directing the Ringling Circus band.) Too many fan-directors in Baraboo seem to have valued Feld appointments over a Baraboo desk job. Greg’s father, Robert L., declined to even answer a few general questions I sent him in 1990 – example, do the archives really contain a significant number of letters written by John Ringling North? In reply, tersely he answered, “They remain secured and restricted.”

Here — and let me make this clear to everyone, I am speaking for myself — is what I believe those archives actually mean to Kenneth Feld. He is what we call in California a “control freak.” As long as he owns the Ringling Circus, I doubt he will ever hand over the archives to Baraboo. Not because he has any reason to fear what they contain but because as long as he has something the museum desperately wants, that gives him tremendous leverage in exerting control (both direct and subliminal) over its staff. And he has pushed his weight around on occasion. Let go of the Archives and his control is instantly gone.

Only Circus World itself can force the issue. Were I in the driver’s seat, I would call Kenneth Feld and say, “As of next Monday morning at ten, your collection is open to the public. If you don’t like it, send over your u-hauls to pick it up and haul it away. As long as it is closed, it is of no value to us or anybody. And, furthermore, Mr. Feld, we are NOT your private warehouse. We are NOT your concessions back-stock storage department. We are a MUSEUM that is highly respected around the world, and NOT a press arm of Feld Entertainment.

If Freese & Foley can bring this off, however they approach the Felds, I will be the first to eat my words and offer them Kudos.

Absurd? Ridiculous? That and more. When people in power sell their souls for more power, these things happen. Even in Baraboo. Time for action at Ringlingville. Time to write letters to Freese, and time to thank Foley for what she is trying to bring off. I know of one person, long an avid volunteer at the museum but still denied access, whose frustration calls to mind the phrase “mad as **** and I won’t take it anymore!”.

I am totally in her camp. In wimpspeak, I would rather not either.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Sunday Morning Out of the Past: New Lingo for the “New Circus”

From 2007... This was fun! How I miss names no longer there, a heyday for circus blogging?  I wish I had done something with hula hoops and Shrine clowns. I still may.

Circus Ballet?  Fringe Circus?  Acro Dynamics?  Shakespeare Over Sawdust? Gypsies on Parole?  Whatever you wish to call today's "alternative" big tops, desperately needed are new up-to-date terms to describe and legitimatize  the rapid advances (or self-immolations)  in an entertainment formerly known as "circus."  Here are a few suggestions:

Fabric” is a term the Circus Smirkus kids, a lively bunch, toss around, I guess to describe the act of working what a Sarasota insider calls “ the bed sheets.” I think this precious act evolved from the old web routine.

Here’s how that same Sarasota smarty described the setting for last year’s Ringless Bros. Circus: “A parking lot.”

Following are my own earnest efforts to recast circus terminology in a more modern spotlight, acceptable to fussy spectators of unmessy, blood-free stuff:

Equestrian Foreplay: Today’s nouveau horse trainers (excuse that inelegant expression) at shows like Cavalia make a point to prove a loving, wholly egalitarian relationship to their ring partners.

Menage Adagio: A threesome intricately related in a series of movements denoting esthetic horniness.

Astro Marionettes: Wire walkers (please pardon that crude term) rigged to lifelines work the safest area of the arena or tent.

PETA Pachyderm: The "new circus" elephant that does nothing. At last, the Ringling chorus girls do it all. Next stage: the Bulls present the Broads.

Bozo Break: A time-consuming audience participation gag designed to save management the cost of hiring real circus acts. (aka: A Larible)

Plank Vaulting: what they do at Circus Eloise, adapting the old pole vaulting routine into something much safer and wider, thus allowing for a great number of amateurs to make the delicate cut.

Hyper-Posturing. Typically, these are the sidebar characters at a Cirque du Soleil show who cavort gloriously during high points of an act in progress. They make a point rarely to look directly at the audience.

The list no doubt will grow as “new circus” developments merit precious news euphemisms. Tune back here later. As I walk the FDA-approved sawdust of a safe new circus, I may be struck by additional euphemistic epiphanies.

And yours?

First posted August 5, 2007

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


From Russia with Lust: Not a pretty story, not for the Essex, Vermont Circus Smirkus Academy that was. Smirkus a few seasons back hired an ex-Russian ring star Vladimir Avgoustov, 56, to coach its students, and he did more than that, at least with one 7-years-old girl during a 2006 summer camp. She was a student at the Vermont School of Circus Arts, which succeeded the Smirkus Academy. Our ex-Soviet ring star, pleading guilty to sexual assault, will spend at least five years in prison. He could be deported. It happens not just in confession booths.

It Happened on Wallace Bros. Circus many years ago, soon after I had joined on as an “usher”(ho, ho, little did I know about “cherry pie”) and one of the joeys was discovered under the seats between shows having a good time with a young female. (On another day, he virtually invited me under the seats, too; I declined) After his hasty removal from the Wallace lot, I was asked if I would like to replace him in clown alley, and thus was born my short-lived career in greasepaint.

Beggars in Spangles: Those once revered Russian circus icons, so mysterious behind the iron curtain, are not so other-worldly anymore, not in the States where they are finding steadier work. Here they run pony rides between performing. Some show up on America’s Got Talent. Did you see the sad spectacle of the Popovichs, descendants of a famed Russian artist, with dogs that delighted the judges one week, then, back the next with too much “story,” resulting in the same judges, no longer entranced, telling them to stick to the animals and leave the cerebral froth behind. Off they got booted. Cold tip to circus performers: Do your hardest tricks and keep those inner narratives to yourselves. Outside of a Cirque ring, the public still expects a circus act to be -- well, a circus act.

Beyond the big top, your average circus act rarely gets much respect anyway. Television fails to capture the live nature of the brilliant beast. Sure, you can perform in Vegas while your “audience” slobbers around slot machines. The Felds have tried in vain to set up circus retail shops in malls. Like a Christmas tree laying out there on the street after New Years, circus is a one-day-a-year holiday. Been there yesterday; done that for a year. Now, go away. The public wants it fleeting — just like it advertised itself for centuries.

Jack Hunter reminds some of us of a certain age (I plead guilty) of how lucky we were to have seen Ringling-Barnum under glorious canvas. And we were. And, no, kids (and you know who you are), it’s not likely to happen again — unless Cirque’s billionaire big top mogul Guy Laliberte suddenly has an urge to revive the golden age. Only could he bring it off, so send him your wish lists.

Small Is In. Even first-of-may showman John Ringling North II figured this out when he purchased established one-ringer, Kelly-Miller. Now as for those (well, the one of you out there) who laughed over the thought of a Ringling running so small a trick --- consider this: Ringling circus founding genius Al, who to his dying day loved — some claim favored — the one-ring show, would likely delight in his grand nephew’s late-career achievement.

Animals Should Floss, Too. Baraboo’s man for all seasons, Bob Dewel, who once upon a time practiced dentistry for humans, was approached by one local vet seeking Dewel’s help in putting stainless steel crowns on the teeth of cows. And what for? “To prolong their life and milk production.” Since Bob had just set up his chair, he was afraid to curry an unsavory reputation so he turned away the cattle crowd. Crowns for clowns worked better, I assume. You might have made a fortune, doc!

And that’s a cow wrap from Oakland.

 Big Top Bits, and Astray We Go, from 8/1/07