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

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

Monday, January 28, 2008

About My Bandwagon Ad: Thank you, Raffaele DeRitis ...

Because they granted me interviews for, or contributed in some significant way to, my new book Fall of the Big Top (and, believe me, many people did not), I took out an ad in the Nov-Dec. issue of Bandwagon to thank them. Unfortunately (I should have requested an advance proof for review), a number of errors were made between final copy sent and what actually appears in the magazine, just out. Worst of all, Raffaele DeRitis,(whose name I am guilty of misspelling in my own book), here in Bandwagon ends up without a last name at all!

What irony: On this occasion I went out of my way to be sure everybody's name was spelled correctly. I examined my ad copy before it was sent to Bandwagon maybe a dozen times. Still, fate seems to vex me. (Spell checkers have been known to crash when I come near a keyboard.) Even as I type this out, I fear making some error somewhere, somehow.

Paul Pugh, whose name was in the ad, does not appear in the Bandwagon text. Neither does David Rawls or Slava Troyan. Also missing, and this was my fault, is the name of Dale Longmire. Dale, sorry about that, and thanks for such a great interview.

The ad lists an "Alex Campbell." There is no such person. My own name gets misspelled; well, it's healthy to know how others feel when my spell checker and I fail them, and spelling my name correctly takes rare perseverance, best executed with an intermission mid-way.

With all due respect to editor Fred Pfening, who does such a marvelous job (this latest issue looks very interesting), I point out these errors because the least I can do is properly thank my interviewees.

Raffaele, e-mailing in from Italy late in the game, reached out to me, offering to share his experiences as director of the critically cheered Barnum's Kaleidoscape (may I never have to spell that one again). And he shared much more information than I was able to include in the book. His full name deserves to be listed.


Here is the final ad copy sent to Bandwagon:

For treasured Fall of the Big Top interviews with ...

Michel Barette, Bunni Bartok, Paul Binder, Barbara Byrd, Alex Chimal, Michael
Christensen, Norma Cristiani, Raffaele DeRitis, Ken Dodd, Calvin DuPre, Hank Ernest, Tito Gaona, Tommy Hanneford, Geoff Hoyle, James Judkins, Sherwood Kaiser, Andrey Kovgar, Chris Lashua, *, Robert Mitchell, Bob Moore, Picasso, Jr., John Pugh, Paul Pugh, Larry Pisoni, David Rawls, James Royal, Svetlana Shamsheeva, William Taggart, Slava Troyan, Vallery, Sylvia Zerbini.

Warmest Thanks, Spangeland!
David Lewis Hammarstrom

*My error; Dale Longmire's name should have been here.

Fred Pfening Responds:

I am nonplused with a very red face. I don't know how your text got goofed up. I will run it, corrected, in the J-F issue if you wish.
I am really sorry.

Thanks much, Fred. You & I should go into vaudeville. I only post this because, having already, for example, misspelled Raffaele's name in my book (MY ERROR), I have to wonder how frustrated and irked he might naturally feel to see only his first name in the ad. I am looking forward to reading your story about circus in the 1870s. I am looking forward never having to spell Barnum's K................ again.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Following Those Ringlings Forever ... and Ever ... Can Become an Addiction ...

Hey, did you see over there on Buckles Blog that photo of the five ticket wagons on the Ringling-Barnum midway in 1955? And, by the way, John Ringling North II is now in Hugo active in production plans for Kelly-Miller’s next season. JRN The Second, I hereby declare, is no longer a first of may. He is now a fully matriculating apprentice tycoon.

Give ‘em Ringling, and they’ll come. Give ‘em Al or John, even Otto, and their ears perk up. Give it to ‘em plain or fancy, fanciful or factual. Fans (and I plead guilty) have an insatiable appetite for all things Ringling ... Read on, you hopeless insatiables ...

Jack Hunter, a card carrying JRN buff, e-mails me “I have started reading your new book for the second time.” That would be Fall of the Big Top, and thanks, Jack, for the compliment (my check is in the mail), and while Ringalinging on, Jack raises a fascinating idea (not raised before to my knowledge), that the life of John Ringling North (the original) might make a fine movie. Jack can see Clint Eastwood's production company tackling the story ... Hollywood writers, on strike, how about it? ... My mind went into Ringling overdrive, and here I am, blogging out another Ringling post: I can see shades of the Great Gatsby in the suave though sedate playboy image that North gave off. Shades of even North himself. He trouped through so much drama: Gets circus back into family hands, ballyhoos Gargantua the Great and creates a three-ring ballet for elephants. . Five fabulous years later, gets kicked out by envious relatives so cousin Robert, his opera career on the skids, can happen .... Hartford happens. Hoffa happens. And Pittsburgh soon happens, bringing on the saddest day in American circus history when, were was the man who struck the big top for the last time? Cooped up in his private car, the Jomar.

...Hold on, Art Concello groupies. Yes, your crusty idol, who was adored (I believe) by Johnny North, who helped him regain control of the circus in '47, who gave us those marvelous seat wagons and who brought sanity to the unpredictably eclectic North vision, will co-star. And what a pair! One, aloof, serenely hands off; the other, cigar-chomping Man of the Midway ...

“JRN was truly a great and complex man,” notes Hunter. Complex, deceptive or actual, I agree. Got me thinking again, as I have pondered before, what made him so mysterious is that since he was not your compulsive hands-on producer, we are left forever to speculate on just how he influenced those who worked for him. We only know what a profound impact he had ... “There will never be another like him,” says Jack. Now that is the true mark, is it not, of a remarkable figure?

Ringlings yesterday, today, and now, tomorrow. John Ringling North II has proved many promising Ringling things his first season out. For one, he is no Richard Ringling, son of Alf T. who went out with a show not tilted Ringling, as did JRN II, but did not last a single season... JRN II toured Kelly-Miller from spring to fall, and he is back in Hugo, still in charge, engaged in production talks for ‘08. Repeat: ‘08. And what sort of a Ringling is he? ALL of the five founding Ringling bothers were so different. In JRN II, I do not see John Ringling. Do not see Alf T., who surely would have had a much more aggressive website up and running by now. Look here, Kids. I see shades of two Ringlings in JRN II, who, according to reports, is now revealing perhaps a more active hand in the creation of the show itself, but who also last season displayed a warm friendly compassion for his staff. So I see a little bit of Otto — careful with the books — and maybe a lot of Charles, loved by everyone and the Ringling who took a keen interest in the creation of the circus itself.

By the way, Bank of Howard Tibbals: Instead of restoring ten more tableaux wagons, how about building just one Concello seat wagon, since not a one of them survives? And Baraboo, please: Instead of a thousand Sells-Floto cookhouse menus, I'll gladly take that one rare handwritten note JRN scribbled out up at his Waldorf Astoria suite shortly after opening night, '51, bluntly expressing his reaction to the show and advocating some changes. Okay, men in white, shackle me up and haul me off to the Ringling nuthouse for Ringlingholics Anonymous. But through the pa system, might you play a tape recording of Merle Evans and band blaring out the 1951 score?

[photos, John Ringling North, above, likely by Ted Sato; Arthur M. Concello and Cecil B. De Mille; John Ringling North II, by Beverly Royal]

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday Morning Smorgasbord --- Srambled to Go ...

Safety Tips for those daring to patronize the San Francisco Zoo. Since the same police, who earlier said the boys did not taunt the late great Tatiana (aka: Siberian Tiger), are now saying, no, they did, be warned: DO NOT TAUNT THE WILD ANIMALS OF S.F. as they (Tatiana and others) have been known to escape confinement. I was about to suggest, if anything, that you throw kisses to the beautiful beasts, but if you are not their type, they might claim sex harassment and still come after you... Keep in mind that Ms. T. also ravaged the arm of her zoo keeper (resulting in another lawsuit), who was not, to my limited knowledge, taunting the tiger. Perhaps throwing a kiss? Or sharing a Yoga moment?

Anybody out there lately killed by a circus animal? I can’t recall. Notes the Savvy Insider, “There are more people killed and injured in accidents involving horses every week in this country than in all of the circus elephant incidents going back a hundred and fifty years." Trust the gods of our battered big tops, you are safer on their PC-despised midways ... Carson & Barnes, Ringling, Kelly-Miller, New Cole — we who have yet to see the light still love you ...

Police Not Welcome, Not Just Yet... About those early reports of the SF police rushing out to the zoo and being refused immediate admittance by zoo officials, now comes this: On a KGO radio talk show, a real policeman stated, yes, zoo people tried holding us back, but we said, “Screw you, we’re going in.” And to that, I say Bravo! ... I’d like that same policeman to tell PETA’s ridiculously irrelevant Ingrid Newkirk about the same thing... Newkirk and her miserable like are now trying to have Catholic priest George “Jerry” Hogan banned from the big top. He is accused of supporting “animal abuse.” A slew of angry comments left on the Boston Herald’s website express disgust with PETA. “My family is having a lobster BOIL tonight” ... “HO HO Ho. Next year all my PETA kids are getting big rats from Santa. HO HO HO>” ... “I’m so sick of all these animals rights activists spewing their crap over every little thing.” ... Even a “Cow” wrote in, “Chill, Peta. I’m just a cow. No one cares. Not even me.” ... Excuse me, World, while I throw up ...

Speaking of crap, I’ve had it with movie monsters, just having suffered the career sadism of two perfectly despicable spoil sports — first, Mr. Sweeney Todd, the Fleet Street barber; now, oil man Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Long long movie pushing the man’s savage anti-human nature over the top, left me wishing I could treat him to a deluxe haircut in Mr. Todd’s Barber Shop ... Never have I so wanted so to see a villain blown to smithereens. But, who am I? The critics are mostly raving ...

Tibbals Trumps Ringling in Sarasota. Howard Tibbals, the circus museum’s sugar daddy whose name is now all over the place, is the star of a recent New York Times travel piece on Circus City, “36 Hours in Sarasota, Fla” Poor old John Ringling, who just wanted to build and share an art museum, might be wanting to hire a hit man out of his grave. Writes the Times’ Paul Schneider, “But the main event is the Howard Bros. Circus, a miniature model of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.” You were asking for paintings? Oh, heck, maybe some other day for those. Just inside the new and improved front gate, you can forget all about art and take in “the Greatest Historical Installation on Earth.” ... which makes me recall, a bit squeamish, a ride through the grounds in the auto of Henry Ringling North, just after my lucky interview with his brother, John. Mr. Henry wanted to take a look at the grounds before he dropped me off at my old and unimproved budget motel. As we slowly cruised past the older and better circus museum (the one that contained the backyard exhibit), HRN said, “that never should have been built.” .... I said not a word, sensing his unease. ... Really, I wanted to scream out, THEY NEVER SHOULD HAVE TORN DOWN THAT FANTASTIC BACKYARD EXHIBIT!

Cry, Clown, Cry ... Those anti-circus Brits are now claiming a new study shows that kids do not like clowns. Haven’t we heard this before? Like, how many — a total of two percent? Some report being scared of them, so why not simply another drug fix for that from our friendly medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex? .... By the way, are these the same kids, may I ask, who watch movies about homicidal hair stylists and hateful oil men? The same kids who listen to gantgsa rap and gun down classmates at school? Just wondering .... Bozo may be another endangered old circus item ... speaking of which ..

In a Pickle. Whatever became of the Pickle Family Circus? It slithered away like an old fading soldier. Not even their annual stint in SF last Holiday. Inside sources tell me their latest executive director kind of lost a certain amount of money ... Is that why this elusive organization (can you spell elitist?) charges their “Clown Conservatory” students eight thousand five hundred dollars for one year of comedic matriculation? ... And who are these people, anyway? While researching my book Fall of the Big Top, I had wanted to visit their premises and conduct some interviews. Was also trying to contact Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, co-founders of the once modestly thriving and very collective-oriented real PFC. All my e-mails and phone messages over there were ignored. By luck, I reached Larry through a Seattle source. Heck, it was far easier to break through into the Soviet Union in1979, where I did research for another book, than to get a peep out of the new or revised or recycled or rebirthed Pickles.

Cry, Clown, Cry. And chill out, pampered San Francisco Zoo tiger.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

San Francisco Once Embraced Real Circus: Can It Again?

San Francisco, once a rough real town with families, factories and beach side roller coasters, once hosted real circuses too. It was there at the Civic Auditorium in the 1940s where I first saw a spangled parade. Name of Polack Bros. This kid was as entranced by cylindrical bags of popcorn, chameleons and funny things dangling from sticks as he was by the action down below. In hazy recall, he can still see a big cage (maybe), a few big elephants, for sure, some acrobats flying over a net, yes. And an amusing surprise — a goofy clown setting off a big cannon making a tiny noise, then lighting a tiny firecracker causing a HUGE explosion.

Circus Circa 1946, a very good year.

San Francisco, when it was a real real town with bustling waterfront ships and pre-Disney cable cars not climbing half way to the stars, thank you. My mom saw Al G. Barnes Circus on the night of April 26, 1930. It’s a scrapbook fact, for a torn reserved seat ticket stub numbered 76 and bearing a partial “C” and "No. 2" from that date, shares a page with trips she made to see stage plays at the Alcazar, Curran and Geary Theatres.

In 1930 at Barnes, mom witnessed "Persia and the Pageant of Pekin: Two Gorgeous Spectacles of Oriental Magnificence." She saw Tusko and Lotus, “the biggest blood sweating hippopotamus in captivity” She saw the Royal Lilliputians. AND the great Mabel Stark working 15 Siberian and Bengal tigers — long before PETA began throwing its toxic hissy fits. Mary Byrd Lewis sat through 28 wondrous displays in the city of my birth, most of them filling three rings and two stages with action turned by the likes of Lorraine Roos and Helen Culley, Bone Hartsell and Hazel Moss, Elmer Goddard and The Matlock Troupe.

Lucky for me that my mother, who grew up in Brooklyn, enjoyed tanbark wizards. She once told me how much she admired Lillian Leitzel. And when King Bros came to Santa Rosa in 1950, she took us to my second circus experience, this one under a real tent. Less than a year later I was sitting in an overflow audience nearly at the edge of one magical ring inside the Grace Pavilion at the Fairgrounds, riveted to Polack Bros.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey last played San Francisco under the big top on September 8, 9, and 10, 1941. When they returned seven years later, into the Cow Palace they were talked by city officials. Half the town showed up, thousands of them turned away. Only seven years later and a humbled Big Bertha was fighting for half houses, losing out to striking teamsters. That’s when I saw my first circus on cold windy Geneva Avenue -- a performance of classy perfection and radiant splendor produced by John Ringling North.

San Francisco became a very different city. Real circuses no longer welcome. Animals Rights do-gooders swarming tents and buildings with fliers and shouts and nasty looks. No wonder that Ringling-Barnum in 2008 will have stayed away for three seasons.

And now comes another fearless circus woman named Barbara Byrd, inviting if not challenging the city’s dwindling families (many of them Hispanic) to embrace a pageant that includes wild animals. Gutsy Carson & Barnes will throw up its big top at the Cow Palace next September 12-14

Maybe there are winds of change favoring what C&B still doggedly tours. Some liberal S.F. writers, rediscovering the daredevilry inherent in Cirque du Soleil's new offering, may be turning away from Cirque ballet and more open to a Carson & Barnes sampler. And this in a city with a zoo that can’t keep its four-legged creatures contained and is facing crippling lawsuits based on incredible incompetence. Parents can at least count on safety under the big top.

And the beat goes on. Onto the parking lot of the Cow Palace come September, might there be throngs of middle and lower class families anxious to experience what Carson & Barnes is about to bring them? Indeed, can our nation’s last under canvas three-ringer deliver through the political minefields of a town very different from the one that flourished when my mother went to Al G. Barnes in 1930? When she might have thrilled with pride over the spectacle of Mabel Stark presenting a cage full of performing Siberian tigers? When it was a given that tigers and their like needed to be safely secured behind wire and steel and mesh?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Movie Musical To End All Movie Musicals

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd’s pervasively wretched view of human existence, now on the big screen, left me in the mood for a hokey high school production of Oklahoma! Or maybe for a grandstand seat at a good old fashioned nuclear war. It left me wondering if I will forever associate Johnny Depp with the demon barber of Fleet Street who in serial revenge for having served a 15 year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit, proceeds to slit the throats of his gentlemen patrons and dispatch them into a basement meat pie processing plant below.

Oh yes, and Broadway’s reigning pessimist, songwriter Stephen Sondheim, has set the story to words and music, although even he seems not quite down to the gory tale he originally scored in 1979 for the Broadway stage. The musical was met with mixed notices, and it went on to enjoy a certain high respect in musical theatre and opera circles.

In the more sweepingly realistic form that a movie can give a story, oddly Sondheim’s darker songs sound a tad tame and old hat against the horrific goings on. Nor did the wicked humor come through. What may have worked on the stage seems lost or vaguely irrelevant here. And some of Sondheim's more brilliant lyrics get slighted; I'm thinking, in particular, of what Helena Bonham Carter fails to do with them. Depp, who can sing well enough, delivers a riveting performance as our diabolical hero. Secondary characters are all very fine.

As directed by Tim Burton, the smug intellectual conceit — indeed, the pretentious cynicism — of Sondheim’s Todd is more glaringly apparent. Burton’s compelling cinematic vision of rotten old London hardly needs these mentally overactive show tunes; in fact, at times they seem to get in the way of a bloody good drama, giving it a somewhat schizophrenic feel. And most of us, I’d bet on it, still harbor a wretchedly naive notion that music should lift rather than damn our spirits. Now, if you are in the mood for wallowing in life’s punishing betrayals and set backs, here is your ticket to a glorious overdose of rage. You might end up, happier maybe, on somebody’s plate. Loved and devoured, at last.

Or do you simply want more gore than you’ll get from Tarantino? If there’s a mass teenage audience out there for the bloody storm of ketchup that sprays crimson fountains into the polluted air and down upon Sweeney’s hapless victims about to be recycled into budget cuisine, the question remains: are the gore mongers willing to endure Sondheim’s sung laments in-between the throat slashings?

As for the adults among us, in the end you may pause to wonder as did I if Mr. Sondheim is really that brilliant and ground breaking — or just as simplistically one-dimensional a creative force as were the tunesmiths of old Forty Second Street who celebrated ideas like the best things in life being free?

Burton’s film will no doubt be acclaimed by the Sondheimaniacs who long for the world to finally embrace their idol’s genius. The film, too, may be heralded by Hollywood deconstructionists who view anything anti-main stream as a breakthrough, no questions asked. I am asking questions, though, and I will continue. At the outset, I wanted to be thrilled and stimulated and taught by this movie. I was left questioning it’s premise, even its intelligence. Maybe that’s because I still prefer — at least in the key of a song — believing in life rather than death, in a beautiful morning over a wretched London barber shop from hell.

Monday, January 07, 2008

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... Carson & Barnes to Play San Francisco Under the Big Top ...

A U.S. circus under canvas in the city by the golden gate?

A few phone calls to the Cow Palace -- Will Ringling return in 2008? Might there be another circus instead? And what about, say, Carson & Barnes (already rumored to be inking California dates for 2008)-- revealed this shocker: Carson & Barnes will appear on the upper parking lot of the Cow Palace, next September 12 through 14 (not October, as I originally reported)

This will mark the first time in perhaps over half a century that a traditional American under-canvas three ring circus had made an appearance in this city. Ringling-Barnum began playing the Cow Palace, as an indoor engagement, in 1948 and is still listed by the Cow Palace as its longest running tenant, even though Ringling has nixed the date the last two years.

Carson & Barnes, in what may be viewed as a gutsy move, will be trouping into the center of left-wing PC anti-circus-animal-acts culture. And worse, in the wake of the S.F. Zoo tiger attack fiasco, which has the town on edge and may make the locals even more critical of circus animals --- if only in a desperate bid to make their troubled "zoo" look superior by comparison. Get out your score cards, kids. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

I called the Cow Palace administration office today, and a woman told me that the date is "pending." Why, I asked. She said the circus has yet to return the contract, although she expects to likely see it in the next few weeks.

Actually, Carson & Barnes will not be playing San Francisco, but Daly City (in San Mateo County), in which the Cow Palace is located. The venue, however, has long been considered a San Francisco venue in the public's mind. This is a startling and exciting move by the last touring tented three-ringer in America.

[static cell phone sounds]

Hey, Showbiz Dave? Are you there?

Yes, is that you, Sage? Where are you?

I'm in transit, guy. Look here, you haven't seen anything yet. I'm on my way to Hugo to check this thing out... Oh, yes, Ginger...

Sage, Sage?

Yeah, Dave...

Who is Ginger?

Oh, ah, my lady friend here loaned me her cell phone. Hey, babe, I won't be on it long... Oh, ah, Dave, Hugo is happening!..

Sage, did you ever get your four-woman aerial ballet act to John Ringling North II for an audition?

Afraid not, dude.

Are you still representing them?

They're back working the bar..

Attention, greyhound passengers! Only ten minutes to your Baton Rouge dinner stop!

[phone connection goes dead]

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Open Letter to Senators Feinstein and Boxer, Representative Barbara Lee: Please Save H-2B

A response from Senator Boxer follows:

Thank you for contacting me regarding proposals to extend the annual cap exemption for returning H-2B temporary guest workers. I appreciate hearing from you on this matter, and I agree with you.

As you may know, the Senate Judiciary Committee is currently considering S.988, the Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Act of 2007. This bipartisan bill would extend the annual cap exemption for returning H-2B visa holders until October 1, 2012.

I am proud to be a co-sponsor of this important legislation. Seasonal workers play a vital part in many American businesses. Without them, many small businesses would be forced to limit services, lay off permanent U.S. workers, or even close their doors.

Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me . Be assured that I will work with my colleagues to pass S.988 and see it signed into law.

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

Here is the letter I sent to Boxer and my other representatives in Congress. I urge you to do the same.

I respectfully urge you to support the extension of H-2B, in order for a number of American circuses, which rely -- legally -- on big top entertainers and roustabouts from around the world, particularly from Mexico and other South American countries, to continue to be able to offer AFFORDABLE FAMILY circus entertainment. Not every family can afford Cirque du Soleil. Many smaller U.S. circuses provide circus magic for middle and lower class families at extremely reasonable ticket prices. Historically, the U.S. does not produce anywhere near the quality or number of circus performers necessary to attract and satisfy audiences. This is a fact of life. Think of your typical visit to a circus and the overwhelming number of artists from Russia, Europe, Asia, and South American nations who fill the rings and the air. So, please, I am asking you to support the immediate extension of this critically important legislation.


Thank you for your attention to this issue.

To contact your congressional representatives, here is a link to make it easy: