Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Nazi Film Like No Other Grabs You With it's Searing Realism

Movie Review: The Counterfeiters

I have never felt so painfully close to the horrifying brutality suffered by the Jews in Nazi concentration camps, nor so profoundly moved by their will to survive in the face of one of mankind’s most hideous assaults on the dignity of human life. The Counterfeiters, an Austrian-German film directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, depicts the plight of a group of printers, bankers and artists by trade, given special treatment by a Nazi leader driven to marshal their talents and produce billions of fake pounds with which to flood and decimate the British economy, and then billions of American dollars to fund the crippling Nazi war machine. The Jewish prisoners are cast into a terrible conflict pitting their hunger to survive against the grim reality that, in effect, they are aiding their own oppressor and thus likely funding the death of their own people. We are dragged into a moral quagmire that has been rarely plumbed with such searing realism, the sort of a quagmire that Melville explores in his tale Billy Budd.

At the center of this extraordinary drama is Sally Sorowitsch, played by the actor Karl Markovics, who enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most accomplished counterfeiters. This liberates him from the deathly showers of Auschwitz and into Operation Bernard, a special counterfeit printing unit. The moral decisions he faces in conflict with Adolf Burger (played by August Diehl), who rails against aiding the enemy even if it means certain death, have no easy answers — not if you are the one upon whom they are visited. Sorowitsch does show tender mercy to a young art student stricken with TB by using his privileged status to extract drugs for the young man, in effect, however, tipping the Nazis off to an ill prisoner in their midst and thus sealing the young man’s fate. The slightest sign of frailty repulses the German eye on its horrific ascent to Aryan purity. Sorowitsch also retards his counterfeiting efforts in order to prolong the result demanded of him by the Nazis.

To describe and do justice to this gripping masterpiece would require the essays that no doubt others will write in years to come. It chilled my blood. And it moved me in ways I have never before been moved. For example, when it becomes clear that the Germans are close to their own end, Hitler to his suicidal exit, overheard we hear the faint comforting murmur of arriving allied aircraft. Never has the sure distant sound of an airplane engine given me such faith in humanity’s goodness nor such gratitude for the heroism and sacrifice of the allied forces during World War II. This is an unflinchingly realistic work of cinematic art that does not attempt to bring thematic closure to the troubling moral issues it raises. It does not have to. Everything we can possible know about the terrible truths that faced these helpless Jewish victims and how they struggled to save their lives in the face of a great moral dilemma is here. And that is all that needs to be here. In the end, I wept unequivocally like I have rarely wept in a movie house. This movie earned my tears.

[photos, from top: Karl Markovics, August Diehl]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Eye on the Big Top: The Ways of John Ringling North II

Showbiz David Reports and Speculates

A year age, he was a blank slate with a famous name. We knew virtually nothing about him save for his family association to the world’s once reigning circus.

He had just purchased the Kelly Miller show, and I recall a good friend of mine in Sarasota letting out a chuckle on the phone, comparing the Ringling name to that small one ringer out of Hugo, Oklahoma.

So, you think’s it’s easy to run a small circus? Think again about any size, Sarasota. Let’s see, there’s Pugh and Binder, Byrd and Hanneford and a few others who’ve been at it for many years. New owners of tent shows that tour complete seasons spring to fall? Name them. I’m waiting ... and waiting ... Jim Judkins, who launched Circus Chimera ten years ago (after managing Carson & Barnes) remains stranded in Hugo for economic reasons. Truth is, it is not easy running a circus of any size. Never was. Even harder today, and North the Sequel has proved he may have the stuff for a long run. Keep in mind that no Ringling save for the original North (opting out of family feuds) ever walked away from the midway at any age

So, chuckling aside, here is what he has shown that we did not know a year ago:

JRN II, like his much loved father, Henry, has a friendly way of dealing with his staff. From what I have heard, people like Mr. North a lot. Number Two, and even more promising: He is taking an active hand in the show itself. Says North’s general manager and friend, Jim Royal, “John attends nearly every performance all the way through and makes mental notes.” This Ringling cares, it would appear, about showmanship. He may feel the legacy of his famous five grand uncles glancing down upon his every move. “Friday morning, John, John Moss III (our performance director) and I had an extensive production meeting and are considering changing the running order of the performance. This will tighten it up.”

Another good sign is North's ability to turn over his performing personnel, an absolute must in these tougher competitive times. Circuses simply can not afford to risk the image of artistic stagnation by having too many of the same acts back year after year. If audiences know they can expect novelty and surprise, new faces and fresh production touches, they are more likely to return.

Perhaps Mr. North is discovering a passion inherited from his legendary uncle, John Ringling North, with whom he enjoyed a close association.

John the nephew enters the big top with formidable family assets: That name ... that mystique ... They can’t take that away from him. The idea of watching a Kelly Miller truck bearing the letters “John Ringling North II Presents” rumbling onto an early morning lot sends tingles down my spine. North II also bears the fleeting evidence of his uncle’s one-time endorsement in the puzzling 1967 program magazine photo (above), turning attention onto a new generation and hinting that its time had arrived to direct The Greatest Show on Earth.

Of course, that time never came about, and North II, when I interviewed him circa 1990, remained mum on the subject other than to state that after he got married, he was informed by his father and uncle that a circus was no place for a married man. What really happened was that the married Feld brothers bought the show.

North II can accomplish some notable milestones of his own. First, he can prove that perhaps his uncle’s faith (real or the work of a press agent) was well placed. That he is not James Ringling or Richard Ringling or Stuart Lancaster, or any number of Ringling heirs who floundered on the sidelines. Second, he can bring luster to the Ringling family name. Which is not to diminish what the Felds have done, but their marketing obsessions have tended to place top level showmanship on a lower rung. Lately, the results have sometimes been downright embarrassing.

The downside for this Ringling under review? There is that Feld lawsuit attempting to prevent him from pushing his name on Kelly Miller logo and advertising. But beyond the courage to flaunt his name, North II has so far shown little evidence of a flair for promotion and advertising. If he manifests a little of Al’s leadership, Otto’s fiscal savvy, and the sensitive artistic nature of Charles, missing in his makeup so far is ad man Alf T. Ringling, who surely would have had a more aggressive and up-to-date website running by now. Goggle “Kelly-Miller Circus” and you’ll be delivered onto a dry wasteland of yesterday’s links, with little evidence of where the show is now playing or how it wishes to engage your patronage. Displayed photos on the actual K-M website seem not to have changed in a few years. Jim Royal earlier promised a revamped website over the winter. It does not appear on my pc. Kelly-Miller’s new owner seems oddly passive in this all-important department. Of course, we can speculate he may be hiding out to avoid undue attention from the animal rights radar.

North’s attention to employee satisfaction and performance appeal should both serve him well if he is to survive today’s horrendously difficult market — gas pump blues, PETA assaults, a more picky public emboldened by the force of that Cirque thing up north. Performers can negotiate at will, can say yes to whomever. If North can build up his reputation, on that cache alone he may be able to attract a higher grade of talent at affordable rates. Perhaps he already has. Can he reach the world-class artistry of the Big Apple Circus which I saw in 2005? There’s a challenge.

How good is the show itself? I have no idea, nor have I read any reviews so far. The fans, who supply good will and support, are unlikely to provide honest accounts. A lineup of the new season acts theoretically excites me, because:

Here is a one ring circus hosting an actual bareback riding act, and that raises exhilarating imagery. The program has Fridman Torales, a young showman of rare class whose upside down loop walk I enjoyed on Circus Chimera. (He did not perform his rola bola routine that day.) There are Eskimo dogs, juggling, African acrobats working hoop diving and ropes. The Wheel of Destiny is there, Elephants and tigers, clowning by Pat Cashin. As with any circus, so much of the impact depends upon how these elements are arranged, scored, costumed and paced. The mix to my eyes looks promising, even if the presence of a hula hoop turn suggests padding. And the “Ringling magic” promised by North when he took ownership of K-M appears to be in evidence in a climactic 9 foot high Oklahoma oil well rig sending forth a gusher of confetti. I can see novelty, amusement and color.

Despite rumors to the contrary, John Ringling North II is still on the road, and that in itself is the best of all signs. In 2009 at Milwaukee, his circus will play the city prior to the resumption of the Great Circus Parade. What magical symbolism —a Ringling returning to the home state where it all began back in 1884. It seems so right with the universe.

E-mailing me today, Jim Royal closed off with this: “JRN II told me today of an idea for next year’s web display. It sounds like a winner.”

Let’s see, that would mark season number three for the grand nephew of the famous five. If you ask me, he has Ringling in his blood.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Horrific Storms and Blood-Sucking Gas Pumps, Make-Do Roustabouts From Homeless America -- Desperate Big Tops Face a Season of Discontent ...

Looking back ...

"Labor," answered John Ringling North to the question I once asked him, "what was the greatest challenge you ever faced?" How the word resonates this very moment as our tenters stumble out of the barn minus the labor they desperately need to stop stumbling. Already, Cole Bros. has nixed Carolina stops pending the arrival of brown hands from Mexico bearing those coveted Visas.. Already, Ben Trumble, who in better times handles upscale matters, is this season swinging a sledgehammer and taking it like a trouper ...

“The number of workers (on Visa) was effectively cut in half this year when Congress failed to authorize an exemption for previous Visa holders.” That spells trouble for the nation’s big tops who rely on — how to kindly word this — reasonably priced help to toss canvas over weed and dirt and mud, lace it up, swing poles into place, and hoist it sky high, link ring curb to ring curb, frame to flat to chair to rail, one plank at a time ... “EVERY show is in trouble," says another source, the Savvy Insider. "I’ve heard rumors that Carson & Barnes has missed dates too.”

John Ringling North’s three ring Greatest Show on Earth bit the sawdust in Pittsburgh more than fifty still-mourned years ago. Pray nobody meets the same fate this time ... Which intersects with an issue hotly debated here by the Edgar & Burck sideshow along the commentary annexes ... They were chatting about just and fair “compensation” for performers. I am chatting about dollars for tent servers, thank them, and how grateful I feel in retrospect for all of the humble hands who down through time brought circus day to my town ...I can imagine Byrd and Pugh and Royal rejoicing in the arrival of real willing prop movers from south of the border. Those guys are now the stars of redemption. Saviors of the Sawdust. Without them, no, you don’t want to go there ...

... This season, roustabouts could be a gang of homeless lured out of cardboard shelters to help set up a limping tent show for a handout, after which, per inside sources, they opt back for shelter life over chasing after spangles. Want the truth, Wade? Here’s your latest Showbiz David exclusive Eye on the Midway: “All winter I kept reminding people what it was like when we had to round up bums from missions, the daily turnover,” says Trumble, right now laboring on Culpepper. “We’ve used mission crews for three weeks, and it’s been a monumental pain in the *###, and the guys blew every night — but we’ve successfully moved the show and now we have enough Visa workers to get the tent up.” Go, Culpepper! I cheer your Trumbling triumphs ...

Ben might be, with hammer in hand, considering life in a shelter. “Labor,” said JRN, not skipping a beat. Carson & Barnes surely faces the biggest challenge, with a sprawling three ring smorgasbord about to be trucked from coast to coast. Discount gas from a sympathetic mid-eastern despot? Into Florida, perhaps for the first time, troupes C&B, so notes Paul H. Later, near fall, they’ll be out in San Francisco testing the city’s prissy impatience with real circus, and I can’t wait.. I’ll have a pocket full of dollars, and I’m gonna tip maybe every prop hand I see. Gosh, you gotta love Mexico ...

I swung a sledgehammer on the old Wallace Bros. Circus, not then realizing the full significance of a tradition of cherry pie I was serving. Now, I feel what my real role was there. Bottom line, you might be a joey, David, but you ARE a skinny canvas kid like it or not, so go to it and help us make the date ...

End ringing it for sunny day relief: Also from Paul H. (whom I kind of think I know) John Ringling North II, feeling his tanbark power, will be pitching his Kelly-Miller top for the Great Circus Parade, slated to roll again in Milwaukee in 2009 ... Chirps Paul, “JRN II is going to show his stuff.” He will, I assume, if he’s got the person power to make it happen ... Baraboo Barb continues apace on Ringling’s Gold Unit, floating on her golden holiday working concession for the Felds, and countering “blog comments” alluding to a paltry performance. No no no, says Barb, “the public absolutely LOVES this show. The reviewers agree. Town after town, more praise. ‘Ringling gets it right!;” Well, might I suggest, it’s about time, ho-ho (I’ve yet to take in the Gold edition)... Circus World Museum’s new prince to the rescue, Stephen Freese, is high on having a scale replica of the White House play his grounds during the winter. Duh? Okay, I suppose, but, hey, ah, you’ve got stuff that is more deserving, like that hidden charm of an old fun house tucked away in one of your back sheds called the Thimble Theatre. Maybe Truman and Kennedy never walked there to sample its spooky upstairs, the shuffle boards below. Lot's more fun than gawking over a dead model where dead presidents once lived ...

Pray for Visas ...Chant for the agile hands that move the restless canvas ... Chant for fearless Barbara Byrd to get the wingpower she needs to deliver her redoubtable three-ring manifesto to all points routed. ... John Ringling North II evidently has the nice-guy way in spades. Says Alan, out of the show with an ankle injury, “I have to say Mr. North is the nicest man I ever met and great to work for” ... Which prompts this memo to all beleaguered big top tycoons with sledgehammers in hand: Be super nice to those worker bees, dispense gratitude by the bail and pray they won’t desert back to the mission. Trouper Trumble, breaking away for active duty, knows that which separates the dreamer from the showman: “Gotta pound some steaks.” Yes, I’m tipping the first two or ten roustabouts I see.

[above photo: the last unfolding at dawn: Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey offloads at the runs in Pittsburgh, PA, July 16, 1956, for the last shows it would give under the big top]

First posted March 21, 2008

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hitchcock’s Genius for Restraint Epitomizes the Essence of Great Art ...

Art gives form to expression, and getting the balance right is the greatest challenge facing the creator in any medium. Messy undisciplined expressions fall as short of the mark as do those that are a slave to an overly abstract form. A song, a play, a circus act, a painting — all manifest degrees of my offered axiom.

The other night watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, I was reminded of the director’s subtle genius for understatement and for shaping feelings and actions into tautly controlled stage pictures -- so unlike what I encounter in many of today’s horror flicks or serious “adult dramas” weighted down with pervasive violence. Of late, our movie houses on darker days are virtual blood bath sit-throughs.

Hitchcock holds his hand so skillfully and tight, we are made to feel many of the hidden emotions and speculations that swim through our subconscious — what did that gesture mean, why did she say what she said? Most of life is intrigue — most of it fear and desire rarely consummated. To watch a thriller today, you are likely assaulted by an unrealistic onslaught of high tech gore and low tech “quality drama” mayhem, gratuitously planted to placate a nation’s insatiable thirst for gore and revenge. If you want the monster unleashed (all expression, dubiously little form) go watch Sweeney Todd or There Will Be Blood. I can tell you this, there will not be Hitchcock there.

Expression and form. Let it all hang out, a mantra unleashed by sixties rock and roll culture, has left in its wake a scrapheap of half-baked songs. Artistically, can anybody out there make a case for the Grateful Dead? Of course, the same troubling decade also gave us lasting art in rock music, from the Beetles to the Doors. In a lesser league, I did not rue the demise of either Janis Joplin or Jimmy Hendricks, too singers who wailed on like distempered dogs abandoned to an endless night in a junkyard from hell.

Be it a juggler in motion, a dancer in tandem with others, an actor facing a soliloquy — all come close every time to breaking recklessly free of restraint and losing it. To watch Burt Lancaster in the 1981 film masterpiece Atlantic City (directed with intrepid restraint by French director, Louis Malle, who is said to have argued and prevailed against the actor's hyper theatrics) is to see Lancaster at his prime, magnificently contained and constrained in a role, rather than his jumping it, as was often his pattern, to indulge himself in his signature cliche oratory. Over the top screen icons like Lancaster and Bette Davis could get away with it, their fans allowed them, almost goaded them on.

Not so the juggler or the tumbler, the equestrian or wire walker. Over the top and they’re out of the ring, out of the tent, soon out of the show. Restraint and control are the well-honed attributes by which they live or die. But then again, they are not pretending to be someone they are not. Each time they enter the ring, they potentially create a living work of art. No second takes. No back to the drawing board. Now or never.

In the shadows of Hitchcock’s greatness, today’s film makers look a little inept. Although I was glad to see the enthralling No Country for Old Men win many Academy Awards, its inconclusive ending left me unconvinced. Left it a flawed work — unless, which is more than possible, I simply missed something. A director opting for a messy exit (arguing in his defense, well, that’s life) settled on formless expression. So, too, the over-the-top ending to Blood, like a runaway dump truck spilling garbage out for shock effect.

I can watch many of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies (like Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho) and marvel at his subtle flair for escalating suspense and the quick sudden payoff. True art knows what to put in and what to leave out. Of course, true art, I suppose, is not what most ticket buyers pay to see. We live in the age of rampant unchecked free expression. Society could use a little more restraint.

[photos: May Whitty and Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes; Burt Lancaster, Hubert Castle.]

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Big Cage Showdown: Clyde Beatty versus Gunther Gebel Williams

This first appeared March 18, 2008

In a post that keeps on posting about Circus Compensation (I am waiting for the bible to appear on it), Henry Edger logged his “book” on this evidently lively blogging issue. He makes some informative points in favor of Clyde Beatty as being the superstar of all time. Not for me to argue for or against right now, but Edgar’s facts and positions did get me thinking, as in...

What makes you remember the greats who present the big cats? I saw Beatty when I was young enough to be riveted to his every move in the cage. I don’t remember having ever sat as still and fixated during an entire act as I did during that one. Every single moment, the audience was wondering will he get out alive? ... Clyde Beatty created dramatic tension. That was the premise to his greatness. A legendary showman he was ...

Scanning my memory, who are the trainers I recall? They can grab us in so many ways. Some of us look for stats — how may tricks turned; some for drama, some for looks and showmanship. Pat Anthony jumps to mind. So does Professor George J. Keller, possibly because the way this college art director-turned-trainer was sold and because of his relaxed nice-guy persona in the arena. So does Tarzan Zerbini for his amusing self-satirizing bravado. So does Pablo Noel (seen here), such a great humorous showman! Some of these trainers seemed to be laughing inside.. Another individual who amply entertained me was Josip Marcan. And so did the rambunctious Tabayara Maluenda, whom I saw with Ringling last year, carrying on like a befuddled Joan Rivers suddenly thrust up against the jungle challenge without preparation. Fine content, though I do go for entertainment. Nice to see trainers breaking free of the GGW mold which they tried cloning for so many seasons.

Mostly, wild animals acts blur past my eyes while I await aspects of a performance that usually hold greater appeal — to me. Some of us saw Trevor Bale as a furniture mover, which may be very unfair. There are those no doubt who have all the stats on what each trainer did. How many rollovers, sit ups, fire hoop jumps etc. I don’t.

Another trainer who caught my passing fancy was a somewhat pivotal figure bridging the more furious past with a gentlemanly future: Charlie Bauman. Beautiful act. Gracious trainer. Wonderful climactic ring picture when a tiger stood up on a rotating pedestal under a shower of globe lights while Merle Evans played Shangri-la. In that one magical moment, Ringling ruled the universe.

Gunther? I gotta tell you, what I most liked about Gunther in retrospect was his agile way with elephants. I realize there have been better trainers. I just liked his easy elegance and those voice commands, even if they were illusory. There are a number of cage trainers that I would place above GGW, mainly because I suppose Gunther was a bit to fey to generate the sort of drama I enjoy from a wild animal act. Too elegant. Which is the very reason why he was so perfect for a new era dominated by audiences wanting ultra-humane imagery. He connected perfectly with his time, and the Ringling productions and pr teams did a brilliant job of packaging and ballyhooing him to the public. Irvin Feld’s finest hour.

But for Big Cage theatrics, I would pick Clyde Beatty any day. The movie Ring of Fear gives us only a variety of camera angles and disconnected bits — nothing like sitting in one seat having a set relationship to the real Clyde Beatty in the cage, in real time, and watching his act from start to finish. In regard to which, I absolutely agree with Henry Edgar that circus art does not come through well in recorded media. When we are there, we watch performers survive by their skills in the present tense, in the flesh. It is not illusion (even if some of the theatrics are just that), for we sense that anything can happen.

So, my "circus compensation" post
provoked a mini-stampede of commentators. Big Cage Theatrics — or PETA pandering love-ins? What say ye, anybody out there not already bored to death by this topic... Hey, it’s new on my midway...

[photos: The greats bring a distinctive personality to the ring. Clyde Beatty brought drama, Pablo Noel, comedy. And Gunther -- Mr. Cool?]


SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: Laugh Those Rumors Away ... Beat of the Big Tops Goes On ...

Here's looking back on a happier time ...

From Vargas to Kelly-Miller
, New Cole to Nicole, Big Apple to Big Carson & Barnes, they’re all out there pitching tents or getting ready to hit the sawdust trails with optimism ... “Hello, Showbiz David, “ e-mails upbeat Vargas VP Katya Quiroga. “Thanks for your honest opinions and good and bad reviews of the show.” Now that takes a touch of class. I’m reading on. “We here at Circus Vargas strive to create the best show and experience for our customers possible, and we take all customer comments serious.” Glad to know a new season faces you, Katya. Promises she with the sort of optimism I respect, “We have completely redone the 2008 edition of Circus Vargas, and we have created it to be more exciting and fun for the entire family.” Now, why do I believe that? Guess I’m an optimist, too. Gotta give ‘em credit for taking on the chin the grudging 2-star review I gave em last year. May God bless your big top, Katya & Company, and may it be spared my fussiness. But, oh, your tent itself was such a pleasure to enter. Please don’t bring it too close. Just being inside it inspired enchanting memories of a Ringling big top from long long ago ...

Another believer is John Ringling North II, returning to whistle in his second season producing the Kelly-Miller program. Opening date is March 15. The real Ringling was tinkering with a storyline for a certain production number. Guess the theory is, give the audience at least the illusion of modernity, so they can, once having swallowed their broccoli, indulge, guilt-free, in cotton candy and all of the other circus essentials... .About which, end ringing it around the subject, to narrate or not to narrate seems to be turning Nicole Feld's press interviews into mushy yes but no but yes sessions. To the Knoxville News, talking up her Boom A Ring on the Gold Unit, she said that audiences didn’t much like “the narrative driven, one ring circus” idea, that it was “abandoned.” But wait, in another fuzzy disclosure, we are told that “a story line links the traditional circus acts” of Boom A Ring. And that makes for a Boom A Headache. PLEASE, circus world, make up your minds. ... Okay, I kind of feel your marketing vacillations, Ms. Feld. They remind me of your dad’s — all over the sawdust...

.... More basic, I think is New Cole or Old Cole or Beatty-Cole or Cole Bros. basically out there again, about to open in Deland on April 1 and move up the coast through the Carolinas. And that means that John Pugh, long rumored to be wanting to sell, is still not selling. Good news. A head shrink once domestic partnered to a late friend of mine said, “People do what they want to do.” And so I say, if Johnny really wanted to sell, he would have sold by now.

Not selling but going for three-ring endurance gold is Barbara Byrd, whose Carson & Barnes big top will not be shrinking down like the others any season soon. ... The grand lady of grand American tradition just flouted all those one-ring rumors by ordering another huge spread of plastic, a 160 by 300 top assumed to be ready for the 2009 season, and ready for the show’s 75th anniversary run in 2011 ... Memo to Ms. Byrd: Please, bring back some live musicians. Byrd v. Petrillo?... Hey, there’s a spirited bunch of Sottish amateurs who call themselves the Really Terrible Orchestra. Why not they during, say, the clown turns and the hula hoop fillers? Bring back the windjammers, and I’ll nominate you our first true American Circus Queen. ...

Baraboo, time to wake up! Are you there, Bob Dewel? I can see you getting ready for another season of Al Ringling Theatre tours. More than once during the winter, I’ve imagined you, good Doc, tip toeing across snowy streets through the village of Ringling, tapping gently on windows, a la Winkle, calling out “Are the children in their beds?” ... Time now, Wee Willy Dewel, to wake them up. The Circus is coming!

First posted Mach 8, 2008

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Circus Compensation Blues, A Tough Tea to Swallow

This first appeared on March 5, 2008

In order to face the task at hand, I’ve finally taken a crack at Tribute Pu-Er here at L’Amyx, which Will has been needling me to try. It’s strong enough to give me extra muscle, assuming I don’t end up in ER.

Oh, yes, the main topic at hand: Those mysterious wages dolled out to circus performers by the owners who are said to carry on like cheap low down capitalists.

Showbiz, 1A: Very few people with a few cells in their noggin expect to become rich and famous in the spotlights. Most of us sooner or later wake up to the realities. We can do it “for free” in local community groups. We can go out on the road and make a decent living, maybe, doing what we believe we were born to do because, to quote the ballet impresario from The Red Shoes, “we must.”

At the top of the perilous pile are the lucky few — screen idols, pop stars and certain wild animal trainers. THEY are, Wade of Burck, the rare MINORITY. And they always will be.

Down here with the majority and below, there is me. Where do I fit in? The author of seven books, all ‘em put out by royalty publishers who fund all the costs and pay me a standard royalty of 10 percent of the retail price, I have made a little money. Had I ever tried to survive solely on my royalties, I might have done it living in a tree house, shopping with food stamps, and mugging on the side. I have no regrets. I know I am not Norman of Mailer or Ernest of H.

Some interesting points were raised in a hearty barrage of comments left by the practicing three or four of you (for which my thanks) on the post preceding this one. Like the idea of establishing rates for various circus skills. I only thank God that James. C. Petrillo, who unionized musicians into the world’s second oldest profession, kept his greedy hands off of the ring stars who have thrilled me since my boyhood. Why? Because, for many reasons, they have a way of now and then showing up under smaller tents, which makes circus going an adventure in discovery.

You, Wade, show fearless courage in revealing your pay scale. Why not others? Most of them, like me, might not like flaunting what we don’t make. Get my drift? I feel your zeal over this topic, but I can’t see it ever much changing. Perhaps everything we can know (and already kind of know) comes through in these penetrating comments by you and your pro cohorts. And I don’t think it is that much a mystery. If you want to try uncorking a greater number of confessions from your peers, you’d likely do better under Buckles Big Big Top. I am just a concession stand, although lately it’s been a little crowded around here. I await my 15-minute stampede. Maybe I’ll have to hire a kid assistant for a percentage of my non-profits. Remember Hubert Castle once stating that he made more money performing than producing. Fake humility?

Hey, let’s take a look at the comments: Business Side is a real person known to me. Comparing sports players: They work in an industry for which putting a circus out would be mere pocket change. I thank our circus owners who, working on shoestrings and against herculean obstacles (PETA for example) somehow manage to bring affordable entertainment to American audiences, even if they often let critical me down. Sure, they are going to pay as little as they can, which is the way of the business world.

I’m just a guy who buys a ticket (and I really do) and sits down, hoping to be entertained, hoping not to see another hula hoop act or another painfully protracted audience participation filler. In the positive, if I am correct that performers can and do negotiate directly with producers, that might be why I am on record many times pointing out that, at ANY circus, there is a good chance you will see at least one or two very fine acts. Maybe they were desperate to tie down a season. Maybe they got the pay they wanted for a string of dates they fancied, or maybe they like the big top boss or are in love with an ex-con turned prop hand on the show. Whatever works.

Lauren Fairchild said what I absolutely believe, returning to my deference to the Red Shoes impresario: “I do think that most performers want and need to work SO bad, that they are willing to work for ANY salary, just to be able to do what they do.” I myself started out, and what luck, landing a testy review of Polack Bros. when I was but 14 years of age in the White Tops. No pay for that. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten published by houses that put up all the costs, market as best they can and pay me royalties. Far from rich. I guess I fall midway on the midway. Trust me, I am not being dramatic when I say that the first three of my four circus books each came agonizingly close to not finding a publisher at all. Each may have found the one house in the world interested.

Now, as for those disillusioned Cirque du Soleil artists exiting Kooza. They have every right to realize it might not be for them, especially if they value a humane working environment, and to try something else like the rodeo circuit.. As in the free job market, so to the big top. And if they want to revert to a counter career starting at McDonalds, that’s their right. In life, I believe there are no absolutes, only options. When I got a job with Wallace Bros Circus, I was thrilled at the age of 20 to be an “usher” for only room and diarrhea (excuse me, food). A few weeks later, they offered me a certain amount of money to replace a clown arrested for getting to cozy under the seats with a female patron. The pay? I’m having a hard time coming clean ... (Okay, a cheap teaser to get you to read on..)

For being just a clown? I think they needed common labor, art being secondary. Besides being a “performer,” I helped pitch the dressing top and marquee, if anybody can believe that (Pete Cristiani, watching me work a sledgehammer, called me "Snow Cone"). Ah, youth! And I helped lug the seats onto and off the trucks (reprising a boyhood gig when Clyde Beatty came to town and I got a pass for helping toss jacks and stringers off a red wagon). And I never felt disrespected. I loved Norman Cristiani, such a smiling face when I climbed the stairs to the office wagon each week to proudly collect my — no, not YET. (Business Side: It did bear income tax info) .

On the up scale, in 1969 Sid Kellner paid me $250.00 a week and the use of his Ford Bronco to be press agent for his James Bros. Circus. What seemed a huge amount of money to me did not suit Eddie Howe from the previous season, whose refusal to return was my opening), even if I paid for all my expenses including gas and YMCA hotel rooms. Thus, no newspaper I called ever was given an incriminating return phone number to call.

So, kids, ugh, this tea is turning as dark and forbidding as a muddy lot at midnight. Will took pity on my facial hints and offered me Flowery White Pekoe. Ah, back from under the earth, into the air. Maestro, if you please...I could fly. Okay, for free.(Just don’t tell anybody, contract negotiations with the Felds, you know....)

That’s about it. Maybe Wade Burck’s daring one person confessional will turn into a crowd scene of shared revelations.

Okay, what did I earn on Wallace Bros. per week back in my youth? $25.00 Can anybody out there bottom that?

[Photos of my part-time career on various midways: Skirt-raising air blast operator and relief ticket seller on the Foley & Burk lot in Santa Rosa during the Sonoma County Fair; clowning with Wallace Bros. one summer; National Press Representative for Sid Kellner's James Bros. Circus -- the only job I ever had that came with a business card. Thanks, Sid]


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Cirque du Desertion: Why and What to Make of It?

About those performers on the Kooza unit who are rumored/reported to have walked off, the reasons range from low wages to callously disrespectful treatment at the hands of their bosses. I for one was quite surprised at the sudden exits, although when I think about what I know of this phenomenally successful enterprise, there is no reason at all to be shocked.

Ample are the examples, some bordering on the sadistic, of a ruthless operation that treats its employees like discardable electronic components. For one, the Bravo tv special on the creation of Varekai was an eye-opener.

Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil’s brilliant founder and impresario, can, I suppose, continue to treat his secondary acts as chattel. Something like how Broadway chorus hoofers get pushed around, so they say. I doubt that he can get away with it for long in his dealings with the real ring stars he will increasingly need as the public tires of too much same-old same-old special effects, choreography and senseless narrative allusions. Noted the Savvy Insider in an e-mail to me, “Let’s face it, a large part of every Cirque show requires basic circus skills prettied up with choreography, staging and music.” And as he also points out, whatever little money they make is fairly typical around most circus lots. It was always thus.

On the positive side, if you spend some time at a Cirque fan website, you will understand that through the eyes of the young bristling with talent and ambition, here is a form of circus to feel good about. It is, as Ringling once was (recalling the words of the late Harold Ronk) the “modern circus.” Its production values are nearly without compare. It has billions to afford. And it may need to start spending more on first rate talent.

But with all its money, might the darker quirks of Guy Laliberte — who might, for example, suffer a serious greed problem — at some point self-destruct artistically? I think not, and I will tell you why.

Kooza tells us many things. It show us what excitement true stars like Anthony Gatto bring to a show that was beginning to look a bit too fey, too precious. It tells us that Guy Laliberte is able to let go of one aesthetic and charge ahead after another. After all, at the very beginning, he and his cohorts set out to “reinvent” the circus. At his relatively young age, he may still have a few more reinventions left inside of him.

Kooza also tells us that you can’t expect to treat your staff like dirt without consequences. Perhaps the most telling element of this new edition is the program magazine itself. Unlike every other show that has preceded Kooza, the magazine for this edition comes with a separate insert listing the acts. Does this not suggest that management has already suffered or expects turnover? And what does that say, may I ask you, Mr. Laliberte?

The young and the hip have a very new age circus to aspire to. But they will not stick around forever. “The glow is gone,” guesses the Savvy Insider. And if that’s the case, some of the same kids — among them, our possible ring stars of tomorrow — will begin to look elsewhere, and they might change their attitudes about traditional circus. If they can’t increase their pay scale, at least they can look around in search of friendlier circumstances. There are a number of shows out there, I have to believe, that treat people like human beings. John Ringling North II, for one, has shown real compassion in managing his Kelly-Miller staff.

Circus performers with rare exception have never been unionized in this country. They are known for accepting low wages, for going well beyond the call of duty (“cherry pie”) when needed, to help move the show. At times, they have nearly spilled their blood in the love of the big top. The least they deserve is respect.

[Anthony Gatto]