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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Trip to the San Francisco Zoo -- If Only I Could Talk to the Animals

Gloomy day. Was always on the cool misty side out there. It's been at least forty years since I last visited the zoo of my childhood. So much bigger now. Some of it so beautiful, in places where the animals are barely visible or vacant it looks more botanical than zoological.

Here is my favorite photo, because of the lioness on the right, who is so handsome, proud and wise looking. Around her I would love to place my arm, hoping that we could be friends and converse on the subject of the circus.

"My royal friend," I might say, "I was born under your sign, so I am hoping you will trust me. You seem to enjoy being seen by the people. You must know how admired you are. Is that so? Do you by chance have a fantasy of jumping daringly through a hoop of fire and being cheered by the multitudes?"

The other lion looks worn out and used up from cosmetics, like a jaded Vegas performer.

In the space where Tatiana once lived, this tiger looked maybe a tad bored, like a pampered kept dame half-sleeping the day away. When I see animals like this I think favorably of the circus, for under the big top I see animals closer together and have the impression they must be happier because they have company.

Crowds gaze at the compound (it looked much smaller closeup than I had anticipated) from which Tatiana sprang last Christmas, killing one boy and injuring two others. What seemed incredible is that the deep moat remains devoid of water; outside zoo experts had said it would likely have made it impossible for Tatiana to have brought off such an escape. And yet, a new higher wall includes prison-like wiring at the top -- not a pretty picture. I prefer water.

I felt desolately sad for this creature, it looked is so alone and lost in there. Is that what it really wants? Wouldn't it be happier with others of its kind? Even all those stones have a cold stark barren look -- I'd prefer sawdust and canvas.

This flamboyant bird reminded me of a costumed Disneyland performer commuting from one gig to another.

What majestic creatures! So stately as they ambled freely within their spacious compound. So confident and cool. If I could talk to them, I would ask them, "Would you enjoy being seen in a great circus parade, striding regally around the hippodrome track, bringing smiles to the faces of happy children?"

Sorry to say, I have little desire to return to this zoo. In truth, I've not been to any other zoos either. However, it did make me want to check out other zoos for comparisons. Maybe it's the cold weather. Maybe it's the lonely animals, so many of them alone in their pens. Or maybe it's the way I've seen animals displayed in circuses, giving me the impression that they belong together and not apart.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Techno Evolutionary Downgrades, CDs to Cell Phones: Frank Stays on Vinyl in My House, Thank You

Lured into Virgin Records by 50% OFF signs, there were so few CDs marked down that I cracked to store clerks, “So what’s fifty percent off — Lawrence Welk?”

One of them laughed.

I was looking for DJ Krush and some other what they call electronia dance. $18.99? No way; you get the song that drove you in there but usually in a multiple cd box set stuffed with revenue-enhancing drivel. These stores, I keep reading, are in serious trouble. Evidently, they love being in serious trouble for they’ve not changed a thing.

I did find a Sinatra 3-cd set containing my favorite of his up tempo Capital classics, A Swinging Affair. At home, to compare, I played the CD and my old LP simultaneously, and switched my receiver back and forth. A CD still sounds a little tiny compared to vinyl. A record has more warmth and fullness. I cut short Affair. I’ll return to my 50-year-old (embarrassing confession) LP record. Frank sounds better on wax.

Cell Phones: Sure, how could I not get one what with pay phones vanishing as fast as Wall Street “experts.” I have a friend who calls me and often I end up asking him, “Are you talking to me from across the ocean through a bottle?” Then he does something so it sounds like a better amplified bottle.

Okay, what’s good? My new hi-def TV is Sharp, superb for nature, art and travel shows and the spectacular Olympics we just saw. Still, if my 19-year-old perfectly functioning Mitsubishi was still here, I’d not be complaining. Last Christmas, facing the digital future, I gave it away to some guys with a truck who offered to deliver it to a grateful family; this Christmas I found the exact same model abandoned on a sidewalk nearby, and I felt very sad wondering if this, in fact, is my old television. I even wrote down the serial number (!) but I no longer had the sales papers to compare DNA. I had the most protective feeling, wanting to retrieve it from the elements of indifference. Even a twinge of guilt. Perhaps some of you will, in pity, conclude that I have no children of my own. You are correct.

Like the way many people grow attached to their dogs, I get attached to the gadgets that serve me well and stay with them usually till the bitter end. I kept my PhoneMate around many years after it died.

I’m sticking with the vinyl albums I have. On the cell phone front (considering all the reports about possible radiation, among other dreads), maybe I can rig up my land phone to a shoulder strap-on affair and walk around wearing a dental x-ray bib. If nothing else it might get me into somebody’s budget clown alley. I’ll make a You Tube and send it to Pat Cashin.

Hey, you sound like a voice in a bottle lost in the Atlantic. PLEASE, speak up!!!!!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Infinite Power of Cirque du Soleil: Were There Animals, How Might that Change the Global Big Top?

Showbiz David from out of the past

In the beginning they had a duck. Soon they retired the duck, realizing the marketing advantages of shunning animal acts. However, they stayed wisely clear of the smugly disdainful position taken against performing animals by the Pickle Family Circus in the mid-1980s (“cruel and unusual behavior”).

Yet since Cirque du Soleil's meteoric rise to global fame and fortune in 1987 at Los Angeles, it has on occasion flirted with feathers and more. They tried to train a pair of snakes for Zumanity. In 1992 when they toured 60 towns in Switzerland with Circus Knie, Knie’s animals were kept on the bill. In Wintuk, they lend the aura of favoring performing dogs by including puppet versions of them in the show. They are using real birds in Believe. And, not to be overlooked, a couple of Cirque co-founders on their own have mounted Cirque-like horse shows in past years. What does this all suggest? At the very least, an existential mind-set at the CEO desk. Darwin may be alive in Montreal.

A couple of days ago on this blog during a commentary back and forth between Wade Burck and Logan Jacot (you can check it out, end of the second post down), Burck posed an interesting question to Jacot: “What would you think of the idea of Soleil using animals?”

More than interesting, in fact, because, although I have long wondered if Cirque du Soleil might someday bring animals into the ring, I’ve never pondered how such a move might affect the circus world. And that is just what Jacot took up in his highly insightful answer. Here is what he wrote:

“Overall I think if Soleil added animals it would help the circus industry in general... because people trust Cirque, more people trust something with the name ‘Cirque’ on it than they do if the word ‘Circus’ is there. I think when Cirque has animals, the customers for the most part feel comfortable that the animals are being well taken care of. They know Cirque as reputable company. Cirque in America is regarded on the same level that theatre, opera, and ballet is on. This for some reason causes people to think, ‘It’s cirque, it’s a multimillion performing group of course they are going to take care of the animals.’ Once somebody recognizes that one company does take great care of its animals it leads to a better trust that animals can receive good and proper care on the road. This opens lots of doors."

Indeed, it could have a tremendously positive impact on the animal rights issue. Now you may take offense to Jacot's implication that animals would be better treated in a Cirque show than they are in circuses, but he is onto something: Imagery is everything, and for that reason alone, I find his reasoning to make a lot of sense. Cirque du Soleil enjoys the passionate allegiance of a broad base of upscale fans, many of them young adults who are so passionate that when they are disappointed by second-rate Cirque they are not shy in venting their displeasure (which I think is healthy). Were Cirque to admit animal acts into even one of its shows, what a dazzling affirmation of the menagerie this would mark.

It is all in Guy Laliberte’s hands, and Laliberte, I continue to believe, is by far the most interesting, indeed, the most powerful figure in the circus world. I rank him up there with Phillip Astley, William Coup, Anatoly Lunacharsky and John Ringling North. Each in their own way significantly defined and redefined the art of the circus performance.

If Laliberte is artistically amoral, all the better for the flexibility needed to once again make drastic shifts in the way he stocks and shapes his ring programs. He is still relatively young. What are the chances he might spread a little sawdust and sport an elephant or seal or two? I think they are good if he can be convinced to experiment. Would he be throwing away product identity and branding? Hard to say. Modern times, this very moment, tell us that a majority of Americans, especially adults with children, still prefer animals in circuses. And this lingering affection may not die anytime soon, not as long as circuses continue to maintain healthy conditions and present the animal stars in exemplary fashion.

Cirque du Soleil could surprise us yet another time. After all, is that not what King Laliberte delights in doing the most?

[photos, from above: Ingeborg Rhodin; Stephenson's Dogs; Yuri Kuklachev and cat; Alfred Court's mixed animal act]

[originally posted 12/27/08]

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Season So Far Removed ...

A Holiday Blanding Out to Nothing...

Went to the local card and gift store here on Piedmont Avenue. Saddened to see so few Christmas cards for sale. People don't buy them much anymore, said the sales girl.

And they don't send them, either, not to me. I've got so few this year.

Mass e-mailings leave me cold, and are starting to push my finger on instant delete or "junk mail."

Just as the Internet is a fantastic instrument for communication, so too for alienation.

At the card store, I found this image, a clever alteration of a classic Edward Hopper painting. I only sent a few to certain friends, it seems a tad subversive. I love it.

Back in the older bolder mood, may I say to everyone who now and then visits this blog, From Baraboo to Brazil, L.A. to London, Sarasota to Shanghi, Hugo to Montreal to Moscow and Rome ... even somewhere down there in South Africa ...

Merry Christmas, perhaps?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sunda Morning Looking Back: Biggest Big Top News of 2008 -- In a Season of Exits and Sellouts, a Reborn Ringling Proves the Most Interesting Story

First posted, December 22, 2008

This season just past was more than significant for a number of reasons that have long-term ramifications for the quality and changing nature of the circus in America. In the order of importance, here are the four most pivotal events:

* Paul Binder Exits Big Apple Circus

* Carson & Barnes says goodbye to three rings

* Guy Laliberte sells 20% of Cirque du Soleil to Dubai

* John Ringling North II completes second season as circus owner

Five years ago, could any of these happenings have been predicted? Five years ago seems so far away.

What about the prospects for a brighter future under the tents?

What good may come of the four above listed events?

Big Apple Circus under new direction has a chance to make a greater mark on the public’s imagination and to eventually spread its long-modest touring wings to other parts of the country.

Carson & Barnes, if it does reduce itself to one ring, will be forced to upgrade its overall artistic vision. When the audience's attention is confined to one ring, its focus naturally becomes more discriminating. Every moment is now more important. No looking to another ring for compensation. The one on display must deliver.

Laliberte’s future is gravely in doubt. By selling such a significant stake in the show to outside interests, in effect he lets go of the autonomy he has long demanded and opens the door for an eventual sale. And that’s a pity. A major question looms: how much money does he not now have that he needs in order to fulfill current contracts for new shows around the globe? And in the execution of his commitments, without ample funds will he produce inferior programs? His new Vegas offering, Believe, has left Cirque fans gasping in disbelief and angry.

John Ringling North II is by far the most potentially interesting story because we simply don’t know how far he can go in the producing realm. It takes the average circus owner at least a few seasons to reveal a distinctive artistic vision. North II, from reports, appears emotionally and artistically committed to his ownership of Kelly Miller Circus. Depending on the size of crowds he is able to draw (of greatest concern, he seems the weakest in the critical areas of promotion and publicity), he may be self-emboldened to do great things down the road.


Nothing yet indicates that any of the “major” shows on the road are going off the road, even though business appears to have been spotty for a number of them. On the plus side, gas prices have plummeted, and a new administration in the White House will likely favor the resumption of a more liberal policy on the visas needed to import the willing brown hands from Mexico who move our wagons down the road.

Circus Vargas has a lot going for it, but it, too, must learn how to frame a much more consistently dynamic program capable of generating stronger word of mouth. John Pugh, the way he talks to the press, seems as happy as ever to be touring his New Cole Circus, even in a dramatically scaled down version.

The future, as always, is in the hands of these precious few mortals who have the savvy and crust to keep our battered big tops — somehow — in the air.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Fri. Nite L’Amyx Light: Big Apple Circus to the Opera? ... John Ringling North II Shows His True Blood ... Well, Have You Anything Better?

Dot Dot Dot, cold out there. Dot dot dot, hot leafy flavored water in here. Sure it’s fun, dotting away Friday night under the tea tent, and welcome to the chaos of clashing opinions on parade! ...

Let’s see, here comes a red hot dot: He’s an “elitist snob,” claims solid source Neil Cockerline about outgoing Big Apple Circus founder and director Paul Binder. (Sorry, Mr. Binder, you via me are generating center ring discussion). And, why the charge? Backyard eye-opener: Notes Cockerline, under Binder’s direction a “blatant caste system reminiscent of culture from other corners of the world” flourishes. Ring artists and management wine and dine under luxury canvas. Workers get junk furniture in their own shabby tent. Reminds me of that story in the Wall Street Journal about snooty overpaid power clowns (Barry Lubin among them) that sent Binder nearly over the edge. No free haute cuisine for powerless prop hands. Haute hamburgers across the street .. “Get yourself some potato chips.” Hot hot hot off the grill! ...

There’s a dot hot theme here, even if another visitor, “Mark Felt-Deeper than Deep,” argues that this nasty caste stuff is status quo and it’s what we see when the show rolls that matters. "To some who have toiled there, it was/is a fantastic place to labor." I tend to agree with Deeper Than Deep. After briefly clowning for Wallace Bros Circus, I realized I preferred taking a fantasy view from the seats and keeping the ugly stuff out of my narrow vision, BUT ... dotting away, I must express surprise at the BAC junk tent. Both Binder and Michael Christensen spend so much lofty prose alluding to a touchy feely, ever so humane organization , that all along I just stupidly assumed they treated all mortals down to the popcorn machine technician like did the San Francisco Pickles of ‘yore in their egalitarian tepee tents who shunned capitalism, back before leftover Pickles became an elitist school that turns out virtually none of the artists good enough for “New York’s own circus.” Dot forward for more on this ...

... A theme, I said? Look here, people, no matter how much Paul and Michael want you to believe they are, first and last, “New York’s circus,” says I, not not not ... They are a High Class European imitation operating in the city of NY, period. Binder was is and will be to his dying day in love with old Europe, which is why he has favored the act over everything else. As for his touted elitism, guess I should not be surprised at all ... Perhaps his successor, one Guillaume Dufresnoy, will out-elite Binder... Dot on, all elitists, please ...

To a spate of mostly adoring questions posed in The New York Times (exempting the PETA crowd protesting on point), Dufresnoy of France selected a few to answer. First off, dotting hot, to a female admirer wondering if the guy is single, he answered no. “I am in a relationship, but there are many men with accents, so keep up the good work!” Yeah, lady, dot dot dot on .... Now, down to serious maters, Dufresnoy, addressing what his “artistic vision” might be, expresses a deference to eclectic circus-blind direction, “My dream is to bring our multi generational audience circus acts from a wide variety of cultures, and to attract directors and designers who have no previous experience with circus but have been very successful in theatre, opera, dance, music.” Now about that word OPERA. (That’s the O word I promised to drop.) This deserves small dots ... (a friend once treated me to an opera; I found the audience’s passion more engaging than the marathon song fest with scenery; I think we took sleeping bags)

Binder talks about the “virtuosity” of the artist. No disagreement here. His replacement, I suspect, because the French are now creatively dominant (well, away from France anyway) may by design or catastrophic accident bring off something truly breathtaking in the way of what I humbly (and crassly to some) call presentational pizazz (others need to call it trenchant narrative) ...

Do you feel lost in a vanishing mist of cirque meditation? Okay, we’re dotting back to earth, and to refreshingly basic John Ringling North II, he of Ringling stock and recently challenged by me (rhetorically speaking) to show the world what his blood is made of (I was riding high on Sawdust Kid Logan Jacot hinting away about K-M going three ring). Not only that, North is getting it from other directions, like from John Herriott on the subject of t-shirts versus t-spandex, opining that Kelly Miller does not get its costumes from Brooks Brothers and, further did you know, they are not likely to be spreading “fifty bags of sawdust or shavings on the lot each day.” ...

Dotting back to Show Biz David Via Jim Royal, JRN II’s gutsy reply suggests he will not be looking to the opera for artistic salvation. “Having checked my army dog tags and jockey license my blood type is A.” A for Ringling! ... North the Sequel points to costume pro Carmen Rosales, she obviously removed from the blue jean racks at Sears (where I shop) ... Furthermore, North the Second reveals with a dot of relish, “No, we don’t have a standing order for 50 bags of shavings a day.”.. And Royal promises me “soon” an update on winter quarters activity. Which makes me laugh thinking back on John Herriott’s correct remark about all the Kelly Miller paper I "hang a lot." I’m a hangable sort of guy. Whatever floats my way, I’ll string it out for effect ...

Where are we on this dottery evening? I can’t bring on my fake Big cannon finale without giving another sharp tongue out there its due. Just too dramatic, and I’m a sucker for ballyhoo heat: Barks Alan Cabal about my SF Zoo tiger update, “It’s a damned shamed that Tatiana didn’t manage to kill the scumbag gang-fodder Dhaliwal brothers. Good enough that she got Souza.” ... Tis a heated story, tis it. Here’s the Cabal kicker: “Darwin in action."

I have a question, World, would Darwin in action have foreseen a European style circus on Big Apple asphalt evolving into a Wagnerian spectacle starring Domingo, Spears & Grandma modeling leather in a cage full of tigers on Ridlin?

Oh, heck, I’m all dotted out. Promise to go clean next time. Blame it on winter. Too many troubled big tops in hideaway barns ... SAGE, are you back there in Hugo, yet???

[illustrations from top down: "Power Clown" image by Adel, Wall Street Journal; Powerless clown Showbiz David on Wallace Bros. Circus, post Civil War era; Guillaume Dufresnoy in The New York Times; a Kelly-Miller Circus truck logo; L'Amyx tea tenders Will and Boyi]

First posted December 19, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

S.F. Zoo Tiger Tragedy Haunts a Year Later --- Good or Bad for the Big Top?

Ironically, the do-gooders, who may argue for absolute minimum restraints in order to foster the image of relative freedom for wild animals, may bring about the unintended consequences that occured last December at the San Francisco Zoo. On Christmas day, a trio of boys were in some way making gestures to a 250-pound Siberian tiger, Tatiana, and were the recipient of her anger when she managed to scale a fence lower than national zoo standards and have at them. One died. Two survived with injuries.

In Today’s San Francisco Examiner, by sheer coincidence there it was on the front page gazing up at me from an empty bus seat on a ride back to Showbiz David Central: TIGER SCARS REMAIN.

Despite post-tiger attack shakeups at the SF Zoo (the head honcho left) and upgrades in fencing and safety apparatus, declining ticket sales have helped produce a $2 million budget shortfall. A hiring freeze is on, and vacant positions remain vacant.

Other zoos across the country have made upgrades, too, as they are hounded to remove elephants and re frame exhibits. The world-class San Diego Zoo, just to be on the “safe side,” increased the height of its fencing one foot above the standard.

Still, out there on dismally foggy Ocean Avenue where as a kid I once gawked at the wild animals in their pens, only a few weeks ago a kid climbed over a Rhinoceros fence, endeavoring either to stroke the creature or have his photo taken with it. He was cited for disturbing the animals. The zoo has no plans to further distance the rhino from its curious fans. “If somebody wants to get over the fence, they will, “ said zoo official Bob Jenkins.

Worse to come, maybe, will be courtroom revelations when the parents of Carlos Souza Jr., whom Tatiani mauled to death, have their day in court. Their lawsuit is expected to be filed by the end of December. The two brothers who survived the rampage filed a lawsuit in federal court last month seeking damages. Claims their attorney, “they are permanently scarred by this attack.”

Another lawsuit by a zoo employee, attacked by the same tiger while she was feeding it, remains in mediation. This should quell those bleeding hearts who claimed Tatiani went after the boys only because they were taunting her. Funny, does the act of feeding a tiger also constitute a taunt?

Circuses may benefit from all this. They display the wondrous interaction between humans and animals, and they bring the animals up close, and they do it safely.

Or, of course, they could only incur more heat from the do-gooders equating them with everything that has gone tragically wrong in captivity.

Perhaps the time is again near when we will have to come to grips with a reality: wild animals are wild. We share the same planet with them, and the closer we can get -- humanely, safely -- in our interactions, the better.

[photo: Paul Dhaliwal, right, and his brother Kulbir, far left, who survived Tatian's attack last Christmas at the S.F. Zoo. AP File Photo]

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fri. Nite L’Amyxed: Here's Cheers to No-Tears Spears Over PETA Jeers! ... No T-Shirts for Herriott ... Gorilla Mom Turns on Newborn at S.F. Zoo ...

You’ve heard I suppose of Britney Spears, in and out of jail, pop star, now in and out of the Big Cage for a circus video drawing PETA sneers ... Complains No-Circus-Animals Cemtral, “How quickly America’s sweetheart fell from grace. And it wasn’t pretty. Now, at the bottom of the barrel, she’s sporting elephants dressed in circus attire for her new video titled – what else – Circus.” ... Yes, what else, PETA’s Christine Dore. And while you are lecturing, might you aim your pious jeers at Mother Monifa, gorilla who rejected her very own upon its birhtly arrival at the San Francisco Zoo (that would be “zoo” rather than the city). Weirdly sad tale. I wonder if this is an animal kingdom thing, or maybe just a monster Mom under the spell of Bagdad-by-the-Bay narcissism. Zoo Interventionists put her under sedatives, placed her newborn onto her chest, woke her back up hoping she’d bond with and embrace her own. No luck. She’s “ready to move on without her infant.” Now, there’s a tale fit for an answer from the experts (Mr. Cage Man — are you there?). Here in captivity, I’m waiting.

Hey You and your outrageously HIGH PRICED concessions, and you all know who you are — Give us a bloody break, circus world! Even Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones, high on Ringling’s audience pleaser Over the Top, not high on steep popcorn and lemonade tariffs. At the food counters, snarls he, “evil, up-selling tricks abound.” He mentions cotton candy suited up under "cardboard hats," fluffed up to a shocking $12 charge. Yes, I said TWELVE DOLLARS. And it’s not just the Felds, although nobody works concession rips off better than they ... I hereby propose Dollar Days, like how about once a week, when we the people can either, 1. Obtain a human sized bag of something for a buck or 2. bring our own pre-popped supply. Somebody out on the lot with an air popper could rake in a fortune.

...A Binder of Blank Pages: About all of my Paul Binder hyperventilating (over his imminent departure from power), a few souls offer some insight. Most intriguing was this from Johnny Ekk, “Like the great Wizard of Oz, if that curtain was pulled back you might not like what you find. If you're going to judge him on his own merits the answer may vary greatly if your response comes from a circus fan, circus employee or industry insider. I’d bet you’d be very surprised at what you’d hear, good and bad.” Okay, circus industry insiders, I'm all ears ... Curtain pull, please!

Let's bring back a little glamour, okay? And here comes pro John Herriott, offering his own page on the issue of blue jeans versus spangles. Barbara Byrd gets a Herriott thumbs up (I agree) for her wardrobe upgrades. They dazzled this season. Country and Western stars are keeping alive glitz and glitter, notes Herriott, tossing kudos to Dolly Parton, et all who “still maintain the rich showbiz traditions.” So, guess I’ll have to veer over to twang ... “We are seeing some circus acts in T shirts and it’s awful. It’s like liberty horses without nice harness and plumes because the bottom line is that they [the circus owners] are too cheap.” Most refreshing is Herriott’s concurrence with my own oft-stated misgivings about pre- and after-show audience-artist interactions: “I always felt as a performer and director that that meeting and greeting crap was demeaning and did not show off the performers as someone special” Yes, yes, and yes! Now there’s an honest page for the book from a circus industry insider ...

And that’s a light Friday wrap. Monifa, get back to the Zoo and act like a real mother before PETA adds your name to its circus criminals website.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Out of the Past: L.A. Lands Dudamel --- "Dudamania" Packs the Disney ..."Watch His Left Hand," Says the Lady with Opera Glasses ... And Away We Go! ...

From December 7, 2008 

Crazy town crammed with talent. Full of brilliant moments. Entertainment capitol. They know how. Here's the Disney Concert Hall, oh -- just maybe the most exalting piece of architecture in the United States. Taking over next year is 26-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, already a global legend. He guest conducted last week. Houses sold out. I kept calling and nabbed a seat back of orchestra. They're calling the ticket rush "Dudamania," said lady next to me with opera glasses at the ready "to inspect him." Told me to watch Gustavo's left hand. I did, and it moves like a magic wand. Watch it work, World. For all the sparks charismatic Gustavo causes to fly, what a remarkably humble persona he cuts. Enters the music, becoming one with the musicians as I think Bernstein was known to do. Dudamel's embracement of Strauss's Alpine Symphony was eletriyfying (in truth, bringing tears to my eyes). Even the slower passsges, too, which he turned into mesmerizing whispers. At ovations, musicians turned around to applaud we in the seats. Unprecedented, lady with opera glasses told me. Orchestra seemed to be saying, yes audience, we ARE lucky. And so was I with camera. I could go on snapping Frank Ghery's masterpiece all day long (still don't have a digigal, but finally joined the cellphony crowd). In two snaps was all I needed. Snap on ...

The few moments each day when they are not in their cars, Angelinos long for higher things, such as humanizing Grand Avenue with a parkway. Here's the latest talked-about building. Trust me, minus that freeway, it impresses on the other side. Los Angeles is a region born of many rapes, from land stolen from the Gabrielino natives to water pumped away from Owens Valley farmers. Greatest rape of all, town did to itself: those ugly ugly ugly freeways. I hate hate hate them! ... And now, rape of the L.A. Times by a Chicago real estate mogul, it's latest owner. The demise of this once great newspaper, crumbling into populist-compromised drivel, could break your heart ...

Another new building, the Catholic Cathedral near the Disney. The airy hall inside is wonderfully liberated from austere old-world ambiance.

A photo I've long wanted to take: My great uncle, Hollywood scenario writer Eugene B. Lewis, lived in this Silver Lake house on North Benton at the time of his early death in 1924. He had moved west from New York Biograph in 1916 and was hired by Universal to head up 27 writers as scenario editor; Lewis later scripted silents for John Ford and other big players, including some who ended up in prison or (like Thomas Ince) murdered.

I like walking down this part of Sunset Boulevard along the Silver Lake-Echo Park stretch. Strewn with broken down yesterdays, a thousand lost nights ...

At the central library.

On Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz. Cozy bohemian neighborhood. A thousand would-be screenwriters hang out with laptops in funky cafes. Most if not all remain would-bes. It's fun anyway.

Mako, that's the name of the place -- finally; for years it had no name. Friendly hole in the wall next to the movie house on Vermont. Japanese. Great simple meals -- tempura, Teriyaki shish kabob, Vegies in fried rice, rich and sizzling, filling and priced to keep you gratefully coming back.

A burger-borrito car wash add-on, at Hollywood and Vermont.

The Vista lives on. When I lived in L.A., the perfect old movie house to watch Astaire-Rogers flicks. Now, it's upgrade city inside: Every other row has been removed to give you leg room fit for Astaire and Rogers.

Saw this very engaging -- if sanitized -- new film that tracks Harvey Milk's political career.

On my way to see Wicked, at last. Had the time Friday evening, and they had the tickets -- far from a sellout at the Pantages. (Be sure, just once, to get the cheapest seat up in the Gods -- the ceiling chandeliers and fixtures are out of this world) As for Wicked, I loved most of its first act; what followed intermission went all over the place and took hours to get there. Will somebody please take a pair of scissors to this wickedly undisciplined mess? Wicked witch, turn on your own!

Once a lovely park, they turned Pershing Square into a concrete insult, and they will live to regret it until it gets bombed out of existence.

Union Station, my favorite place, and so hard to photograph.

I'm still a sucker for the tinsel in tinsel town. Show me any palm tree in cement --now if it's L.A. cement, oh, what a glamorous tree!


[all photos by Showbiz David]


Monday, December 01, 2008

The Circus Book Paul Binder Will Never Write, and Why ...

Hard to imagine any circus producer down through the ages as well educated or intellectually inclined as outgoing Big Apple Circus founder, one-time ringmaster and artistic director Paul Binder.

Like Ringling’s late ringmaster Harold Ronk, who was himself a master diplomat who virtually never criticized big top people and the shows they presented (he did note, during a speech, that Ringling in his day was considered “the modern circus,” leaving the rest of the sentence for us to complete), Binder is equally prone to conceal any critical feelings. After all, he has spent thirty years fund raising and holding an organization together.

And yet, since Binder does not hesitate to discuss, class room style, the roots of circus and his producing guidelines, he is fair game for a set of candid questions (my wish list that follows), which he is never likely to take on. Were he to address these questions in book form, we might have something worth reading. So, I soldier on in hopes, waiting for Amazon to bring out Paul’s memoirs ...

Last week, taking to National Polite Radio’s Tom Ashbrook, Binder once again touted his oft-pitched deference to “virtuosity” as the leading criteria for selecting circus acts, along with, and he stressed this greatly, a co-criteria, “you have to be able to make contact with the audience.” Well, okay ..

He returned to this theme during the interview. “We want the audience to identify with the artists. These are not superheroes. They are people just like you. They get up in the morning ... what they show us is what we are really capable of ... that’s how the message gets across, that you identify with that person in the ring. They’re not a big superstar ... Oh, my, she could be a person — that’s a human being.”

So, exploring the idea that artists in spangles are just as likely to show up at the corner laundromat, let that be our Binderesque springboard into my questions for Paul:

* Circuses once brought mystery and magic, other worldly mystique into towns. Irvin Feld broke down the fourth wall when he invited audiences to participate more in his shows (in the specs, in pre-performance interaction with performers, etc). Does this marketing concept not match your own passion for wanting your performers to directly connect with the audience?

* Currently, Circus Vargas has its artists standing at the front door after the show lets out, in effect, a manipulative move to bond its patrons more intimately with its performers. Why have you not done the same, since this would surely advance your desire for artist and audience to connect on a more human level?

* Cirque du Soleil brought back loads of other worldly atmosphere into its tents, and for many years it has had little difficulty filling up virtually all of its seats. Is this mystique not part of what the public hungers for?

* When I attended two of your recent shows, Picturesque and, Celebrate!, certain outstanding performers (among them, Cong Tian and Gui Ming Meng) did not come off as trying to joyfully make contact with me, even though I found them to be tremendously entertaining. Were they exempt from your criteria?

* Were you able to sign arguably the world's greatest juggler, Anthony Gatto, would you require that he revise his act to bring in more of the "joyful" factor?

* When I saw the greatest act in my life, the Wallendas (before they "flew")execute with miraculous perfection and control — and courage — the 7-high pyramid, I don’t’ recall their lending the impression of a certain joy in what they were doing. Rather bravery and skill. Would they have failed under your tent?

* Since you endorse the idea of anybody being able to be a circus star, why are virtually none of your acts ever from the U.S. or from U.S. circus schools? Would this not advance and validate your philosophy?

* In the beginning, your short-lived New York school produced a few exciting acts. Evidently, they did not live up to your criteria, or you gave up on the idea. You maintain we all have it in us to be circus superheros. Then why are there so few United States-born citizens in your shows?

* Do you believe that such elements as bravery and daring do, of risk taking work against your preference for the “joyful” relationship between the audience and the show?

Circus owners, as a rule, shy away from sharing what they really think. Has any big top boss (John Ringling North, Louis Stern, Cliff Vargas) ever turned out a book of any significance? Early-day innovator dynamo William Coup did a pretty decent job in his Sawdust and Spangles: Stores and Secrets of the Circus --- I think. The Ringling Bros (via Alf T.) gave us a lovely little puff piece of a book describing their early years in the business.

And, so too, Paul Binder, I fear, will defer to a feel-good approach if ever a publisher can get pin him down to his memoirs.

Look for high-grade cotton candy and another cozy and safe NPR interview. For all of his talent, Paul is, I am beginning to realize, the ultimate spinmaster.

Friday, November 28, 2008

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: Friday Fragments Flashing at Random: A Bio for Binder? Three Rings for Kelly Miller? ... Cirque Dogs and Favored Elephant Trainers ... Step Right Up!

It’s a smorgasbord out there, and most of it’s as tenuous as a tent show half pitched in a windstorm half matured ... You proceed at your own folly.

Paul Binder, now that’s he’s free of the life he likes the most, might think about penning his own bio. Man’s a scholar, say I, although, interviewed last week on NPR’s "On Point" by Tom Ashbrook, the Big Apple Circus man implied lack of faith in all bull men save for one named Bill Woodcock, whom you know, had his Anna May cavorting in the Big Apple Ring — until Ms. May seemed in the mood for retirement, at which time Bill told Paul, that’s it for me too. Now to NPR (national polite radio) said Binder, “He had a way with them [the bulls] that was wonderfully humane.... We felt there was nobody who was at the same wave with elephants as Bill Woodcock.” Yeah, that’s more than a fragment, and it leaves me feeling naggingly unimpressed ... One more fragment before we fly elsewhere. I can’t understand why BAC’s founder is so intent on proving that circus performers are not “super heroes’ but as average as the ticket holders, and of his desire for the public to see them as virtual next door neighbors. In this axis, we part affinities. I want mystery and mastery. Should a performer connect with the audience? Of course.

That was getting testy. Back to nice. Except that Baraboo is another not-so-nice at the moment, what with the Circus World Museum recently battered by Natzi artwork. Says the town’s default docent, Bob Dwell, who called up the police to give me an official reply, “I don’t think we have skinheads or any such thing here, but who knows, once in a while we are infected by crime fanning out from the cities.” Sleepy Baraboo is not exempt, evidently, from post-McCarthy Wisconsin ... Okay I said it ...

Walking around the midways out there in search of flashing fragments, I learn on Bill Strong’s Yesterdays Towns that Sonny Moore passed away. So did Lola Dobritch. I learn that Logan Jacot (Sawdust Nights) had a productive encounter turning the profane hostility of a circus animal hater into a convert for his side. “She actually apologized to me for being misinformed.” Logan’s patience may have paid off. Logan proposes making November “Change Somebody’s mind about circus animals month.” The kid is out there on the front lines of ignorance answering back with youthful reason ... Kudos, kid! He’s also asking, poll wise (I replied in the affirmative) should Kelly Miller go out as a three ringer? What a terrific question! Which makes me wonder if the “already buzzing” air at winter quarters that Jim Royal alludes to in an e-mail has anything to do with an expansionist minded John Ringling North II? Hey, I only promised you fragments of fact — or fiction ...

Onto other lots. I toured a few. Buckles Blog showing some neat post cards, one of Bring 'em Back Alive Frank Buck ... Wade Burck rolling forth a gorgeous photo panorama of exotics of various stripes and shapes ... Pat Cashin's Clown Alley -- love this guy’s admiration for some of the greats I glimpsed in my lucky boyhood, among them Paul Jung.... Balloon Man Dick Dykes sporting photos of Ford Bros. Circus '82 Alaska tour on his festive midway (my favorite blog for atmosphere) ... Dan the Booker touting Carson and Barnes for winning 19 votes, but for what I’m not sure ... Lots of polls going on. I should take one. Let’s see, should Carson and Barnes rename itself Cirque du Hugo Oklahoma? Cast your votes down at the runs! Well, people, they shucked aside rings, they're flirting with indoor venues. What next, the Byrds in berets?

...Oh, where else? What stunning photos under Buckles tent of Paul Kaye’s upcoming Evansville date. I ask you, does Kaye support himself merely on that one stint? What a dazzling three-ring spread clear up to the aerial heights ... Don’t count multiple rings out. Just when one tradition dies, it has a way of creeping back ... All the way over there in Italy, Raffaele De Ritis has up a great photo of the brothers Charlivels, sons of an act John Ringling North greatly admired but could never sign: Charlie Rivel.

Bits big and small for take out: Those brothers who got mauled by the San Francisco tiger going to court, and not happy about the smears against them by zoo operatives ... Here’s a random revelation: Since Cirque du Soleil is now using puppets to imitate performing dogs, does that not constitute their condoning performing animal by fostering the imagery? Just wondering as the French are known to do ... By way of Covington Connected: BAC landing Big Apple publicity galore: Grandma joining the clowns on Wall Street, trying to break the new depression jinx; Glowing notices in Gotham dailies; Visits to the Binder top by our nation’s most notorious Celebes, included but not limited to: Britney Spears (she’s out of rehab or jail again?) Tom Cruise (good guy, I suppose), David Beckman and wife-of-the-moment Victoria ... Circus-David (no, not me) talking up Carson and Barnes menegerie, and then: “I have caught PETA lying and distorting the truth in an effort to raise money to funnel to the Animal Liberation Front (a terrorist organization)” I take heart in voices like yours and the Sawdudst kid, David. When I walked the C&B lot, I noticed happy looking animals on tour. And I don’t think they were Cirque puppets...

Wrap it up, World, and have another cup of tea. And wrap it out, John Ringling North II, and show the world what your blood is made of!

first posted Nov. 28, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: When Hollywood Came to Santa Rosa, I Made a Movie with Bette Davis

This originally appeared on November 25, 2008

While they cluttered the library grounds with poles and cables, platforms and light fixtures and smoke machines, I felt a rare privilege that magical October evening walking around the premises, eager and ready to be a part of it all. What chaotic excitement! Trucks loaded with costumes and props and tools along the street. People from Hollywood everywhere, walking this way and that with all sorts of things they needed to do their jobs. Ramps being laid out over which cameras would roll ...

They were shooting a film starring Bette Davis, at a time in her life when she was struggling to revive a foundering career. She had accepted a very daring role and threw herself into it full force.

“Santa Rosa library to burn for movie” headlined the Press Democrat. That’s the scene they were getting ready to shoot. About this movie then titled The Librarian, we were told very little. Nobody suspected that right under our innocent eyes the first-ever overtly anti-McCarthyism Hollywood film was being made.

My mom, my sister Kathy and I had each been given slips to appear as “extras” in a crowd scene, for which we were each to receive $3. And when finally it came time to assemble on a grassy area outside the entrance to the town’s Carnegie-endowed library, at last, my great moment was at hand!

So, okay, yes (pardon my shamefully deceptive headline up there), this was not really a film about Bette Davis and me. But hear me out, please; it was a film in which my mug, at least (I assumed), would show up when the movie came to Santa Rosa sometime in the future.

The city had dispatched three fire trucks and 12 fireman to serve as extras in the mock blaze. The towns’ residents had been warned well in advance not to mistake a movie fire for a real one and rush to their telephones in a mass panic.

A man with a bullhorn gave us some directions, none of which I can remember. Nice man, though. Then a hushed silence fell over the outdoor set, and I noticed figures in the near darkness moving about — Bette Davis in a dark brooding coat getting out of a car and walking up to the front steps, and a man, probably the tall gaunt actor Paul Kelly, meeting her and their exchanging a few words. We couldn’t hear what they said. “Cut!” shouted the man with the bullhorn.

He told us to stand by. They wanted to do another take. And then another. And then, all too soon, all of the temporary magic it had taken them so long to assemble melted suddenly away — like a circus vanishing down the tracks into a lonely stealing night.

When Storm Center(the film’s ultimate title) came to town the following year, I don’t know if I even saw it. If I did, it must not have impressed me any more than it had the critics. In hazy (or romantically self-misleading) recall, I can almost see myself with friends at the California Theatre watching the film and anxiously waiting for the library to go up in flames so that we could study the faces in the crowd, hoping to find some of our own.

In my mom’s diary for Thursday, October 6, 1955, she wrote “Kathy, David and I went down to the library where Columbia pictures is working. David got right up in front —should be seen in picture if they show that section.”

So, after all these years — hoping and waiting for Storm Center to be shown somewhere — it has never been released in VHS, is rarely shown in revival houses — Turner Classic Movies, God bless them, is at least showing it. This Friday at 4:30 AM. Okay, TCM, no problem. Not for the chance to see myself in the only movie in which I (maybe) ever appeared.

Storm Center was harshly dismissed by reviewers pounding away at overly simplistic scripting. The Legion of Decency of the Catholic church resisted the film because of what it deemed its "pro-Communist" leanings, although it did not outright condemn the film but established a separate classification for it. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1957, however, Storm Center was awarded the Prix de Chevalier da la Barre, cited as “this year’s film which best helps freedom of expression and tolerance.”

The film dramatizes the rising tension between the city council and librarian Alicia Hull, played by Davis, when she is pressed to withdraw a book titled The Communist Dream from the shelves.

Today glancing at film websites, I am surprised to discover so many positive reviews from film buffs who believe that Storm Center got a terribly unfair rap. On IMBd, the movie is treated like a misunderstood genius. “Masterpiece underestimated by everyone including Bette.” writes one. “This great film compares favorably with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, claims another.

Perhaps Senator Joe McCarthy’s HUAC hearing silenced, as well, a number of film critics who otherwise might have viewed Storm Center in a more appreciative light. Now I will get to see, at last, for myself.

My most vivid memory of those three weeks when Columbia Pictures spread its props and people, its cables and light fixtures across town, was an afternoon when I was walking down Fourth Street in the direction of the library. Quiet afternoon. Up the street passing me very slowly came a black Cadillac inside which I saw Bette Davis sitting in the back seat all to herself, looking regally ahead, as if she could hear and see a cheering Grumman’s Chinese Theatre opening night crowd.

Except that, on that quiet afternoon five hundred miles north of the shadowland of illusions, the entire crowd of gawking spectators consisted of only -- me. I have never forgotten that majestically revealing moment. It helps one stay humble.

[Photos, from top down: A scene from the film; Bette Davis confers with Santa Rosa's actual librarian Ruth Hall; Davis being interviewed by Santa Rosa Press Democrat Women's Editor Roby Gemmell; Davis being handed the first honorary membership card into the Sonoma County Humane Society by Michele Lahtinen]

A review of the movie, which I saw recently on TCM:

Perhaps all that Storm Center lacked was a more openly supportive press. Fifty two years later, I was finally able to watch the movie when TCM aired it early one morning. And what an impressive revelation if is. Although maybe far from the “masterpiece” that some contemporary movie buffs believe it to be, I was struck by Storm Center’s courageous if theatrically rough treatment of its central issue. Bette Davis turns in one of her most controlled and sympathetic performances — ever. This is a far better film than critics gave it credit for, full of intelligence and insight, even if Freddy’s reaction to the librarian he idolizes getting fired for her Red-tainted background is a bit over the top. But what an over-the-top-moment it is when he lashes out angrily at Hull during a children’s wing dedication ceremony, calling her a communist and telling her to get out. An unforgettably powerful scene, and what follows is a harrowing climax through the imagery of shelf after shelf of great books going up in flames. This civic disaster brings the community to its senses. The city fathers rehire the librarian they so shamefully disgraced, and she resolves to rebuild the library.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Flip Flops to New York: “Birdhouse Factory” Sends Critics Flying High; Variety Cools to Return of Wintuk

It’s all about how to cast circus skills in a newer context, that’s what’s up in the Big Apple at the moment, and where New Yorkers can examine two alternate forms — circus theatre and circus ballet.

Chris Lashua’s intricately clever Birdhouse Factory, which premiered in San Francisco in 2005, has grabbed the favor of a few adoring scribes, reaping flat-out raves. “Engrossingly entertaining,” sighs the unequivocal Lawrence Van Gelder in The New York Times, finding this one worthy of a parade of adjectives from “evocative” to “excellent.” Birdhouse performs a limited six-week run at the 499 seat New Victory Theatre in an intermissionless 90 minute package. Like a typical reviewer tossing praise at the nouveau troupes, Van Gelder spends most of his shine on standard circus tricks (what would these break-out shows ever do without them?). I’ve glanced at a couple of other similarly cheering assessments, one in TheatreMania.

Cirque du Soleil’s first bid for the moppet market with rich parents, Wintuk, is in its second season at the theatre at Madison Square Garden, where it opened last year to a chorus of boos from most critics and consumers, although it’s not certain what the kids thought. Here, bottom line, might tell us what the kids thought: Best seats this year sell for a whopping $220 — up from last year’s charitable $99.00. That tells me that either King Laliberte is doing another something very right — or he is out of his marketing mind. Variety’s man, Steven Suskin, about the only reviewer last year to give Wintuk a solid thumbs up (“happily for all, it’s a good one”) is not nearly so confident this time around. In particular, Suskin is bothered the most by a different, less enchanting young boy who is supposed to be about 12-years-old "but appears to be more than twice that" playing the lead. That’s the boy who longs to see snow. Thus, regrets Suskin, "the illusion of a young Alex in Wonderland has vanished." And the frail storyline line is what another ambivalent critic, the Times Jason Zinoman, terms a “rickety narrative.”

Zinoman, curiously, has lots to say in favor of the show, but then shifts suddenly into reverse, making me wonder if he really liked it but just couldn’t bring himself to embrace an extravagantly mounted work ($7 million to produce) from the Montreal monster. “Retains a cold corporate sheen that comes off as oddly downbeat and humorless; there are very few laughs, and none from the belly.”

What to think, believe? I’ve already seen Birdhouse, which I found theoretically brilliant though strangely morose — perhaps they’ve added more levity to the mix. Wintuk does greatly intrigue me, but would I hawk my modest little one-bedroom rental to pay for a ticket? I doubt it. I suspect that the engagingly good circus turns alluded to can be seen at far less pricier venues. And, frankly, the idea of a ducat topping two hundred dollars feels, well, like a cold corporate insult — especially in these bleak times ... Shame on you, Guy Ebenezer Scrooge!

Which brings us back to the beginning. And to a question we may be asking of both these arty alternatives a few years ahead: Whatever happened to the Circus of Soul put on last December at the Apollo theatre, which if I am correct was largely ignored by the critics but seemed to have left a few customers raving? Almost like asking, whatever happened to the Pickles of San Francisco? I don’t see any evidence they are presenting anything this Holiday, nor did they last Holiday. I'd go pay for a ticket.

These fringers certainly have some sort of an affect on the mainstream , but they tend to come and go rather than last and grow. I do think Chris Lashua is a very gifted guy, and I wish CDS would give him a chance to direct one of its future efforts.

Since I’m addressing the higher realms of circus art, I’m reaching back to honor my all-time favorite circus program magazine cover illustrator, a man named Walter Bomar, who designed prolifically for many major magazines, and for, now and then, John Ringling North, turning out my all-time favorite cover, seen here. It’s a fitting tribute, I believe, to Lashua and his younger colleagues seeking new modes of direction for timeless tricks on aerial bars and off springboards, with clubs in hand or partners in motion. Perhaps the guy who conceived Birdhouse, patterning its visuals after the work of Diego Rivera, will enjoy this image, created by, of all mortals, an Ardmore, Oklahoma native.

Bravo, Chris, to your wonderful New York Welcome!