Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Giving Circus Critics Around the World Their Due...

In a recent post about my brief flirtation with a casting agent from NBC’s Celebrity Circus who told me that I am about the only real circus critic out there, I took gleeful flight in flaunting my agreement with the guy, Ashton Ramsey. If I lent the impression that I was dismissing serious circus scholars and critics around the world, that would not be the first time I’ve been boastful or stupid — or both.

I must say, I do not see critical circus reviews in this country — that is, outside of the occasional big city newspaper based movie, theatre or dance critic now and then filing a real review of a circus. When I looked in one issue of The White Tops, I did not see it other than, to be fair, a review by Dominique Jando of the New Pickles Traces. His was a tactfully worded critique of the show, surely as valid as the more sledgehammer approach which I have sometimes taken (ouch! My tea cup just attacked my finger...)

Raffaele De Ritis sent a fine comment explaining a very different situation in Europe where many “critics” labor to keep alive the conversation about circus art. As for the U.S., Raffaele points justly to author Ernest Albrecht. Now, notwithstanding his quarterly Spectacle (which I’ve not seen), I have tended to regard Mr. Albrecht as a very articulate advocate for what he calls “the new American circus” rather than a critic, per se. And I could be off base here. Albrecht’s book, The New American Circus, chronicles with passion and support the intricate artistic developments behind many of the changes we have lived through in the most turbulent chapter in circus history. I quote from three of its insightful interviews in my recently published Fall of the Big Top: The Vanishing American Circus. Of particular value, Albrecht’s passing along Guy Caron’s reaction to the Moscow Circus (“this is it!”) absolutely nailed my long-held perception that Cirque du Soleil sprang from Russian sawdust.

I just don’t quite agree with Albrecht’s embracement of a form of circus that, in my skeptical view, is drawing ominously closer to what I call circus ballet. Moreover, I think Mr. Albrecht nearly welcomes the demise of animals in circus. But, of course, this alternative form in which Albrecht seems to find promising value could well end up being what “circus” becomes in a future devoid of animals and human daredevils. Indeed, he addresses a sphere of evolution under big tops that is full (it would appear) of new ideas and deeper direction. And I am all for innovation.

I also quote the English scholar, Helen Stoddart, from her intellectually penetrating book, Rings of Desire, which luckily I chanced upon at the local library. Ms. Stoddart and I evidently see the essence of circus in very similar ways. That is, a very real enterprise that rides high on risk taking.

Were I a rich bon vivant and/or not so chronically adverse to air travel (blame it on a bad flight back from the Soviet Union in 1979), how I would love to hang out in Europe for a few months, taking in as many circuses as possible. What a book that might make. Does Greyhound go over there?

Anyway, here is Raffaels's mini-essay in full, well worth bringing to the forefront, for he pays tribute to many people who, as he proudly points out, do look at circus art critically. And I am all for that!

few notes about living circus critics. I think that, according your experience, your knowledge of history and present, your honesty and your writings, you are surely a very important reference circus critic in the true sense of term. It is also true that, fortunately, others deserves the same status so you are not alone in your hard role.
For example, Mr. Ernest Albrecht is a very competent critic, with a solid theatre background too, editing the only real circus critic magazine in the Usa, and constantly travelling personally Europe in the major festivals and circuses.
And, even if not born in America, you have in the country Dominique Jando. By his long and unique experience, I consider him the greatest living critic and historian in the world, for circus past and present. I don't think that in America there are today circus scholar with his knowledge of the subject. Crossing the ocean, there are many other circus critics. Pascal Jacob, in France, is known worldwide in the business and is the most prolific circus writer today, having signed dozens of book for prestigious publishers in his country. Christian Hamel, in France president of Club du Cirque, is a very competent critic, widely recognized in the continent. Don Stacey in Great Britain is the world veteran of the circus critic, and David Jamieson (King Pole editor) is not les competent in his country. Artur Hofmeester in Holland signed in decades hundreds of honest critics about the most important circuses in the world.
Frederic Bollman in Switzerland is by 30 years one of the most respected circus critics in the world. Jordi Jane, in Spain, is at my knowledge the only circus critic in the world having a weekly circus column on a national daily newspaper. In Italy, Alessandro Serena teaches circus at the university of Milano and regularly debates and reviews about circus in many papers. And I permit to add myself, having signed hundreds of articles for all the majors circus magazines in the world, and of specific books . The same can be said for Julio Revolledo Cardenas in Mexico, or Mark St.Leon in Australia.

If you ever was at the Monte Carlo Circus Festival, the press office hosts yearly at least 50 circus writing specialist from all over the world.
And I think is a good thing for the circus.

Thank you, Raffaele

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Never Date a Movie Just Once

This first appeared on April 27, 2008

You haven’t lived until you’ve read The Great Gatsby, they told me. In junior college, I lived. It was captivating. Many years later, the thrill was gone.

Many years later, too, listening to tapes of old Jack Benny radio programs makes me wonder why we laughed our heads off on Sunday afternoons. That funny?

Our reaction to a show depends a lot on our attitudes and life experiences at the time. When I first saw "I Love Lucy" at a neighbor’s house in the early ‘50s, THAT was the event of the week. THE funniest show anywhere. Today? Usually I strain to feel amply amused. It’s the going back that sort of charms me.

Comedy may be the hardest thing to create; harder still to stand up through time. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd are as funny now as they were then. So is Gale Gordon of "Our Miss Brooks." He could make it on any planet with the windy blast of his umbrage alone.

Never date a movie just once. Go back and you might belatedly fall in love — or curse whatever it was that took you for a ride in the first place.

There’s something about the dreadfully mediocre Ring of Fear that is finally getting to me. Yes, me, who recently called it Ring of Drek. Now, I’m settling into its oddball story and atmosphere. A little of Clyde Beatty’s natural charm, those okay circus acts, the pensive background music and that mad spurned man bent on wrecking the marriage of the women he lusts after and tearing down the show. And the big riotous laugh it gives us when we hear a tiger going after him for dinner in a box car.

For years, I carped about Wuthering Heights as being insufferably dull. I saw it recently, and was totally absorbed. How stupid was I? Once I gushed over Jimmy Stewart in Harvey. Saw the film a few years later and found it so cloyingly cute, I had to turn it off and escape into a reality show. Blame it on my mood?

A few rare movies never let me down, like my favorite movie musical, Bandwagon, or Hitchcock’s The Birds — an utterly brilliant evocation of the natural world turning upside down against the human race and leaving a huge Question Mark on a scorched horizon. Niagara Falls is a moody film in which Marilyn Monroe turns in a terrific performance that makes me believe she can actually act. How novel.

My estimation goes up and down. Only luke warm for Dinner at Eight one sit; red hot for the same flick a couple of years later.

And I’m so high on two recent discoveries — 1934's Midnight and 1939's Murder in the Private Car, I wonder what I’d think if ever I go back.

So, it’s about time I make another date with the Great Gatsby. I long for the infatuation I felt when first I encountered F. Scot Fitzgerald. And I need to make a personal pledge, when next it appears, to commit four or five hours of my life in front of Gone With the Wind. Many years ago, I waded through the bloated thing in a movie house. Blame it on downtown Oakland. Blame it on something in the wind I drank that day.

[photos, from above: Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights; Gale Gordon; Ring of Fear; Midnight.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mid Week Scramble. We toss, you catch ...

Okay, in no particular order, I’m taking one piece of paper at a time, off the top and working down, and if you sense a roll of wagons off a train oddly loaded last night, trust me, we’ll get the tents up somehow...

A one-word note “Logan” reminds me to wax rustic about Logan Jacot's new rabbit act in training, which has me enthrall. At county fairs, I’ve often spent quality time gazing into little cages housing mature bunnies of all facial expressions, and read into every one a whole different attitude. So much fury fun. I’d reach a finger in to touch the little darlings, feeling as brave as Clyde Beatty in the Big Cage.

The World is never far away from this humbly rising blog. At any given point, as many as a quarter of my stampeding patronage (oh, maybe about two or three) are checking out my stand, and not all of them goggled in here by mistake. From France (I feel smug) and the big UK, Israel and the Ukraine, Tokyo to Finland, Athens to Mexico, Quebec to Colombia, they come. Search words that get ‘em here? “Circus” often does the trick. Random reaches spell out “Alex Chimal 2008," "David Joy in NC” (who he?); “circus pay,” and “circus barkers,”“Bellobration” (big) and “zoo tragedy.” However you got here, World, welcome inside and, by the way, what are you thinking? Cotton candy or imported Chinese tea for your comments ...

We know what a few are thinking. Wade Burck recently commented with working authority, stating what seems rational: “Although I know better than to give an animal human emotions....” And yet Me the romantic is a sucker for the John Pugh school of being able to sense an animal’s emotions. You have company, John — Here’s a found item from the Seattle Times in 2005 suggesting that “a growing number of scientists agree that animals are conscious and capable of experiencing basic emotions.” Nailed! Having interviewed a number of trainers, I’ve gotten a feeling that they can understand the moods of their charges. And there is something mystical about how they do communicate, or is it all in the edible payoffs?

Don Covington, amused at my tenuous connection to the NBC Celebrity Circus (so tenuous, I feel like one of hundreds of names on a Hollywood Rolodex), sends me news about the sudden death of the other version that was in the works at ABC. No surprise to me, but rather uninspiring to learn of actors spending so little time trying to resemble circus performers. Idol delivers virtual pop stars. A circus show? If they can avoid the hula hoop, I offer advance accolades ...

All of which randomly reminds me, the stars of vaudeville might have lost vaudeville, but they kept it alive first on the radio then on early day television. Those who argue that big tops are going the same road fail to account for the primal power of true circus talent; this I know, it will live on in some form — if not inside a plastic tent, maybe in a renovated chicken coup. But oh, how the crowds have shrunk. In days gone by when our circuses came to town, the whole world was there. Now, only the angry animal crowd who belong, in my opinion, behind bars.

Smaller is better? What a day this would be for John Strong, the master of the little little one ring show. So many one-ringers might now be competing for his rare ringmastering charms.

One visitor, chancing belatedly upon my posting about the Jim Judkins Chimera tour cancellation due to the visa glitch, states anonymously, “I find it hard to believe that, in a country of 260 million people, he can’t find any US citizens for his unskilled labor positions (roustabouts). There are many young men in our cities who would love a chance to work and travel with circuses. Did he advertise?” Well, if he did, he’d have to offer a lot more money than what, I suspect, most shows get away with paying. He’d have to compete against more lucrative welfare dept. payouts.

Lastly, feeling a desire to send you out in a gallery frame of mine (Buckle’s big top and Bill’s Yesterday’s Towns, you know), here’s my best shot for the moment. And what, you ask? No, that’s not a Ringling float from a Western spec. But gaze upon the hallowed ground. On that very spot, I once stepped of a Greyhound bus going south from Santa Rosa, and beheld the muscular drive of men and wagons thrashing across weed and grass and mud, dispatching Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros. tents into the air with gusto. And might the old codger that I fondly recall riding about on a small rig have been one Obert Miller? Great day under a long narrow push pull canvas top. How wonderful it once was to be guilt-free in one’s unequivocal admiration for animals and the wondrous things they did in star-laden rings. Long live Logan’s performing rabbits!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Into the Last Sawdust Night ... With a Fanfare or a USDA Escort?

(correction, 4/19: I erroneously reported animal problems with Circus Vargas; The show is Circus Vazquez)

Update 4/21: Read Ben Trumble's comment at the end of this post, stressing that local Los Angeles County officials, not the USDA, banned the animals.

“Not with a bang, but a whimper,” this is how the world ends, wrote poet T.S. Elliot. And the circus? With a Merle Evans Crescendo? --- or the last episode of the last reality show making fools of actors pretending to be ring stars?

Some say it will vanish like vaudeville. Others, like barely 20-something Logan Jacot, say not at all. Read on: “I have great respect for the circus industry,” writes he on his new blog, Sawdust Nights. “They have conquered all odds and somehow the circus is still alive and well in the twenty first century though it was pronounced dead over fifty years ago.” Sawdust Nights. Love those two words rhapsodically linked, Logan ...

So let us of the aging class take hope and raise our Dragonwell tea — or, well, whatever it is you raise — to a thousand more sawdust nights. Link in a blink to Logan’s log — you’ll find it right here to your right. It merits serious attention.

Logan tells us he is now training a complete rabbit act! He speaks promisingly for the younger generation, defending big tops against their PETA-centric foes. This smart kid smartly advocates more websites and blogs pushing to get out the circus side of the story: “We need to really start focusing our efforts to stop the propaganda and lies about the circus industry and I really believe everybody that supports the circus needs to start focusing more on the internet.” Amen and a crashing fanfare to that, Logan!

Specifics? Urges, he, “Upload more pro animals videos to YouTube and other video hosting sites.” Okay, you’ve got your marching orders, people. Know what? It’s about time I see how and if I can load videos onto this here midway....

And how our battered big tops need more vocal and visual on-line defense. Simply awful is the news out of L.A. (by way of media watchdog Don Covington) about the eviction from Circus Vazquez of five tigers who nearly decapitated, earlier this spring, a female tiger when all shared the same cage overnight. Tiger died. And that’s not all: Banned, too, are three Vazquez elephants from Panorama City, whose keeper, Will Davenport, was cited for “having recently violated federal animal welfare laws,” according the L.A. Daily News. I don’t know how much in violation of the rules Vazquez actually was (the show did not return phone calls for comment from ABC news), but it doesn’t look good. And for it to happen in a town where three is a news camera on nearly every corner. My heart grieves for all circus owners who do everything they can to right the wrongs of the past and present animals under ideal conditions.

Not with a bang but a USDA eviction. Let’s go somewhere else, okay? Here’s chirpy Marilyn Hardy, fondly recalling the high she got back at Madison Square Garden in 1957 when ringmaster Harold Ronk sang “Open the window wide and let the sun in!” In her own words: "High hat and arms raising a cape like great black wings, he captivated my young spirit with the dynamic energy of that song." The tune was composed by John Ringling North projecting a new day sans big top. Ms. Hardy is doing a film about songs of the sun, and she wants to include North's contribution. I hated to tell her it wasn't a favorite of mine. And it struck me a few days ago, so much of the North music that I loved from the under canvas years was played by Merle Evans. All of the songs for the indoor years were conducted by the very different Izzy Cervone. Could that be why? I know, Cervone has his fans who make solid arguments in his favor. But, somehow either he or North failed in the asphalt mode.

Not with a bang but a reality show blowout? Noting the premature demise of ABC's Circus of the Stars, Don Covington asks me, “David, your new career may be in jeopardy? Do you think NBC will follow suit?" Not quite yet, Don. Ashton Ramsey just called. So my tenuous hold on tanbark celebrity is still tenuously holding. Maybe not with a bang, but half a whimper from a full wimp.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Circus Vazquez Matter --- Another View from L.A.

Note: I am reprinting in its entirety the following comment from Alex Smith, which appeared on Topix, to give another view of the situation and how it may have developed. Text highlighting is my own.

"This is sensationalizes nonsense. CIRCUS VAZQUEZ was already in LA playing Huntington Park for 3 weeks. All permits and inspections by LA City, Fish and Game, and USDA were cleared DAILY. It wasn't until the animal rights PETA people showed up in Panorama City to protest that this occurred.

They inspected the elephants and equipment head to toe and even followed the trainer and the elephants during the show with a camera to make sure there was no abuse and THERE WAS NONE.

A rule enacted only 6 weeks ago that claims any trainer with a negative cite from USDA (the agency responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act) in the last 5 years can't perform in the city limits. The violation this trainer made was several years ago and had to do with fence size in the enclosure. It was not abuse! That's like giving a you a moving violation on your driving record for a parking ticket.

CIRCUS VAZQUEZ has been in LA for 3 weeks and inspected every day and passed. There is no proof of abuse and the trainers were very diplomatic in agreeing with the LA City permits a process which began over 8 weeks ago.

This is an example of PETA and other groups influencing the right people. This circus is an excellent show and a favorite for local audiences who were disappointed that there would be no elephants.

You people that think this is such a great decision might ask ED BOKS why it took him three weeks to get the elephants out of the city? My hypothesis is that there was no abuse and PETA influenced him. The same PETA that's on the FBI terrorist list."

To read all 21 comments posted, go to:

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NBC to Me: Do You Want to Judge “Celebrity Circus?”

Out of the past: From April 16, 2008
Showbiz David hit the rails today to follow some arrows

Monte Carlo is one thing. A bunch of Hollywood actors trying to look like circus artists, quite another. (BTW: whatever became of David Nelson on the flying trapeze?)

Still, ego is ego, and so when somebody calls me (as they do every two or three years), my own inflated sense of superiority goes for a wild ride. Usually, to nowhere.

This time, it was an e-mail from one Ashton Ramsey, his name right above “NBC’s Celebrity Circus.” He wanted to talk to me “about maybe being a judge” (Yes, I know, that headline above that got you in here was a shameless tease.). I called back.

“So, you’re the only real circus critic there is,” he began. Immediately impressed, and hardly feeling vain, I told him, yes you are correct. After all, who else is there out there? White Tops? One of the blogs that selectively picks on Ringless Bros? ***

Ashton had been background checking me, digging around in this here blog, and he seemed somewhat intrigued to have discovered my murky existence. We talked about that critic thing for a while. “Yeah, I’m your Simon Cowell of the big top.” I told him I’ve been mouthing off since I was 14-years old, when I was first published (of all places, in the White Tops).

We talked about who the other judges might be. He ran some names past me. One is a retired and much loved aerialist. Another is a well paid star with a very large U.S. show, whose work I recently reviewed not exactly falling for all the show-generated hype. (I’m purposely not mentioning names because, believe it or not, I still have a shred of ethics and I don’t wish to derail the prospects for any potential non-circus judge.)

But as for me, the next thing they needed — and fast — was a mock “interview.” Said Ashton, they would call me up in the next few days and while I answered the questions, I would record it and then send the recording to them to review.

There was a problem. I don’t own a video recorder.

“You must know somebody who has one,” said Ashton, expecting me to administer a screen test to myself!

So much for that thing about my being the only true living circus critic. In the eyes of Hollywood (aka: Ramsey Casting), I guess I’m ranked somewhere between Pretentious Novelty from the lost big top to Game Show Contestant .

“And be sure it’s a DV, not a DVD”

Oh, I see.

Every three or four years, something like this happens. PBS has called a couple of times — independent film maker wanting me as talking head for some project on spec. Please send resume. Resume sent. Silence thereafter from the other end.

I was about to be mock interviewed on camera for The Learning Channel — until I learned that Feld Entertainment was partly funding a circus documentary that would be sold on its midways. No thanks, Jose, said I to Jose. I don’t flack for veiled Feld promos. I was sorry to reject because I liked Jose.

Back to NBC. To the savvy Ashton, whom I enjoyed talking to, I e-mailed my ambivalence. Such as not feeling to good about sitting next to a performer whose work I have refused to acclaim as do some of the fans. Such as wondering if Celebrity Circus might be scripted — as I’ve heard some so called reality shows are. I offered to do an audition interview up here if they could send somebody. (That’s what TLC would have done)

In hasty reply, he wrote — “ Yeah, let’s just work on the camera and not get ahead of yourself. No, we are not going to script you. No, xxxx [star] isn’t signed on. And yes this show would help you sell a lot of copies of your books! So baby steps.”

So goo goo and da da. I have yet to see or hear of a camera at my door. Know what I think? When an Ashton calls, most people chase the chance to get their mugs on a TV show.

But I leaped ahead and took a few daring adult steps. And reigned in my ego and mellowed out to refit myself into a bigger saner picture. And I had an idea. Since I would be coming to Los Angeles in three weeks to board a train, I e-mailed Ashton an offer to meet him Union Station for a test interview. And I waited for his reply. Which never came. Not another world.

I started out many years ago with a big ego. Believe it or not, over time, it’s gotten a lot smaller. If Ashton calls you, remember, baby steps first....and have your personal film crew standing by.

*** Update, 5/21/12: Belated apologies for unintentionally slighting Ernest Albrecht and his Spectacle magazine. He puts out thoughtful circus reviews; blame my omission on temporary megalomania. Celebrity Circus, a hopelessly humdrum drag, was a short-lived six week flop. End of story.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Fairgrounds of Memories ...

Beyond the creamy bark of Eucalyptus under a cool April sun, I glance down upon a grassy open field where once upon a spring I helped set up the Clyde Beatty Circus. Upon it now are a trio of tots chasing after a ball while a father figure looks on. I like this setting most of all when I have it all to myself, for then my boyhood memories are pure, unmolested by the passage of time...

I am sitting with laptop at a picnic table where people never come except for when the Sonoma County Fair is here in late July. In my boyhood, the field at my feet was an open lot across the street, later annexed to the fair. Up here once stood an old shed filled with abandoned metal strips that I collected for model building.

Once upon another day when Carson & Barnes played the same space, late friend Hugo Marquardt and I hit the fairgrounds mutually intent on crashing a circus. Hugo made laughing reference to an old CFA slogan that went “We pay as we go.” Said Hugo, his hands mimicking applause, “We clap as we go!” And he laughed. Sure enough, we did what young boys once did ...

The fairgrounds is so much better when the fair is not here. Before an ugly elevated freeway appeared at the front side, there was a median of dirt and weeds, and on it one July evening stood a carnival wagon of quaint intrigue. What was it for, I wondered? It had just been tractored out from the railroad crossing at Sebastopol Avenue where Foley & Burke were running wagons across flats, down the runs and onto the streets. That wagon, waiting to be spotted, would the next morning be unfolded out and up into the Thimble Theatre Fun House — I fell in love with its spooky walkthrough upstairs, its grinding old shuffle boards below. Now sadly it rests in semi-neglect under a back shed at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

So many summers ago, when the first two races were the trotters all harnessed up, my favorite dirt derby, so much more dramatic at the start as sulky drivers whipped and gripped and sped into positions behind the extended bars off an accelerating white Cadillac, which whizzed suddenly away ... “And they’re off!”

And big burly lovable John Strong entertained as a free attraction in his little tent, managing to make a shoestring show seem like the most important event of the day ... "Hi, ya folks! Gosh, look who I see out there in my audience! David, stand up!"

In outline, the fairgrounds has changed little over the years. A pair of old hog barns recharge my memories with unmistakable smells, with thick splintery boards bearing white chalky paint and rusty hinges. Strange how the slightest whiff can revive a vivid feeling you can never put into words. Inside the Grace Pavilion, where gadget vendors still hawk in late July, the circus many years ago stole my heart away when Polack Bros. came to town. Francis Brunn and La Norma and the great Wallendas were there. The Shriners were there in their tall red hats, free passes in hand, looking for kids like me to make happy. Through a door suddenly opened to me, a world of spangled wonder and magic came alive...

Trot, please, trot your horse...

Across the way now in the Lyttle Cow Palace, an Arabian Horse meet is on, and they are as lost in time as I feel. And up beyond the cow barns, there is the old farm machinery building, called that initially until it soon became the flower show building. During the winters when I lived only a few blocks away on Brown Street, I loved bicycling out, hoping the doors to the building would be open, which they never were, and peeking through the cracks to study the colors and shapes of Foley & Burk wagons, all tucked away in off-season hibernation. The one I most wanted to see was the Thimble Theatre, my pet.

The grassy field is now vacant ..

Walk around the track at the normal trot...

Once upon a boyhood, I’d gaze out upon the race track surrounded with Monterrey Cypress in the still of a muted blue January day and try imaging what Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey would look like were it to pitch its beautiful blue big top right out there in the middle. What a spectacle!

We will take a lunch break at the end of this class...

So many quiet memories on a perfect day at the fairgrounds. If only I had the place completely to myself ... If only time could be turned ...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Do Circuses Face Another 1938?

This first appeared on April 12, 2008

Seventy years after arguably the worst season in American circus history, today’s smaller shows are already foundering, and it’s only April. Cry, clown, cry?

Seventy years later, at least two U.S. circuses that I know of (Cole and Vargas) do not offer the public program magazines or handbills. At least two (Cole and Kelly-Miller) have web sites that feature act photos from previous editions with no reference to current offerings. Virtually all U.S. tenters are ominously short handed, desperately awaiting temporary Mexican workers held back because of the Visa issue. All face the ugly realities of skyrocketing gas prices. What else? Despite a recessionary economy dumping more Americans into unemployment lines, our circuses can’t seem to find U.S. citizens to move their tents. Why?

By the brutal end of ‘38, eight shows were out of business. Only two of those eight returned the next year. To bring the point home, here are eight of the shows now on the road:

Big Apple
Carson & Barnes
Circus Vargas
Walker Bros.

Okay, take your pick. Remove six of those eight from the list, and you have 1938 all over again. Of course, this is not going to happen — not yet. The tenting world today is a far different animal, drastically reduced in size and equipment from what it offered a public addicted to three rings during the 1930s. Only Ringling still tours by rail.

But there are two major issues that do not bode well for 2008: bank-draining visits to the gas pump and a dearth of worker bees to pitch the tents.

What can the owners do to stave off the unthinkable? The one day standers can reduce their gas bills by playing fewer towns for longer stays. This favors those shows (like Cole and Vargas) with such a policy already in place, and it minimizes stress on overworked personnel — performers expected to help lug props and poles and ring curbs into place. In order to sustain a multiple day run, however, a show needs a certain showmanship that will generate word of mouth. I still believe that discount ducats for the moppets can only get you so far.

The one day pattern of survival rides on the free kid’s ticket angle — give two shows (marginal contents) in a city and get out fast. Which is not to say that some of the one-day tricks are guilty of inferior offerings. My guess does explain to me why Circus Chimera failed; the Judkins bare bones approach sans animals might have worked in a one day format. I rarely saw the Chimera canvas even half full. But then again, neither was the Vargas tent even half full when I took in a show last summer.

On the other hand, the smaller shows have an advantagee as the economy tanks: Highly affordable ticket prices and a public ready, I suspect, to gratefully embrace adequate entertainment for their children. I printed out a C&B ticket and discovered a smart (new?) approach I have never encountered before: Any person can enter with the coupon for free as long as he or she is accompanied by a paying patron. How flexible. I could take an adult friend.

Now let’s cut to the ugly chase and discuss wages. Up until 1933, circuses could pay whatever they could get away with paying. Some of them put up a good cookhouse, and the workingman had a place to sleep. When federal minimum wage laws were enacted in 1933, setting the scale at 25 cents an hour, combined with the rise of labor unions those laws complicated the picture. The U.S. Supreme Court repealed the act in 1935 as unconstitutional, but it was reenacted in October, 1938 —25 cents per hour, slated to rise to 30 cents the following year and remain that way for six years. The Ringling show in 1939 signed a pact with the AFA stipulating a $45monthly minimum for its working men. By my calculator, that allows for 45 hours of labor per week at the 25 cent minimum. Likely the men turned in more time. But given free food and shelter, perhaps the show ethically met its agreement. Now to the murky present tense, clouded by all the unspoken compromises that are made when Mexicans cross the border to supply the willing hands, often at the expense of subverting the so-called "free marketplace" of U.S. capitalism by driving down actual wages.

The missing element here is what circuses today actually pay a person to drive a truck or swing a hammer and lay out canvas. I’m told that the visa program mandates legal wages; what those wages are I would like to know — and maybe somebody will volunteer the answer. But the greater problem I fear is that, no matter the official answer, circus owners survive as do expedient farmers, relying on cheap labor that might be cheaper than legal. The realities change, and the shrewdest showman will find ways to adapt.

In 1956, John Ringling North, mired in a crippling labor strike after years of disputes with the unions, came to his senses about the impracticability of a huge traveling three ring circus. And he opted to go indoors. Other shows over the years have chosen to scale down in size and retain those romantic tents. Well, now they are all quite small. What next?

Whatever is next, I suggest less hula hoops and protracted pony ride intermissions; more dazzling artistry.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Big Tops in Bits & Pieces ... We Report, You Assemble

The new circus Easter arrow hunt is a challenge for our Jack Hunter, stationed somewhere I think in the Carolinas. E-mails he, a guy desperately seeking Cole Bros Circus in or around a precinct known as Murrells Inlet, “I knew there was a problem when I didn’t spot any route markers.” Turns out, not to turn this into an engineering enigma, that MI was put back or ahead or under or over ... First, now comes Wilmington, then MI. “I would assume they are on the way to NC but who knows !!!!!” My non-paid east coast stringer then chatted with some carnies in the know, who raise the Big Visa issue as the Big Question Mark. (Wanting to do my park, Jack, here is a map that I hope will help you find your way.)

To Live and Die in Deland? A few arrows later, Jack e-ushered me into Buckle’s big blog under a majestic big top, where I came upon New Cole photos, proof positive that at least the show staged an opening run at its home base. My, what a tiny tent! And my, a real ring. John Pugh has repented of his ringless ways. Let us not forget, ‘twas Sir John and not Sir Kenneth who first rendered the tent a ringless thing. So, Jack, continue being nimble and quick, one missing and/or broken arrow at a time ...

While inside Buckles Hippodrome (what lush images), I scrolled down to admire some Miles White originals for JRN’s 1947 opus. White surely designed like an exotic visionary from some distant planet. Then, there are two photos placed in embarrassing proximity by B.W., shrewdly offering the jarring juxtaposition as Exhibit One, like a courtroom lawyer accusing Ringling-Barnum of artistic malpractice. The first shows a vast three ring plus Shrine Evansville layout, the next, the charming-as-asphalt setting for the Ringless Bros. 2006 breakout — or breakdown — edition. Mr. Feld did grant the suckers half a ring, but what a perfectly ugly thing. Asks Buckles, if you were given a free ticket, to which show would you go? I might have taken in Ringless just to hiss for free.

Let’s get out of there. Bad vides are spoiling my Tranquility Mao Feng tea high here on a floating Wednesday evening at L’Amyx...

Onto Youth and hope and — brace yourself, jockey rabbits who ride doggies! Credit young trainer and contortionist Logan Jacot , swiftly recovering from a nasty auto accident suffered a few months back, who has joined the one with the other in some kind of magical motion. I am perfectly charmed, Logan. I’ve never seen performing rabbits, which may mark me as an underachieving fan of the half-ring era. YOU, in my fury opinion, must have incredible patience — or an inside track on bunny seduction. I love these types of turns around the sawdust .... E-mails the very young, 20-something Logan, “I am recovering quicker than I expected. I did my first back bend yesterday since my wreck” (which left him with a collapsed lung and multiple breaks in one leg). That back bend put Logan on a high, all except for the low that followed. “I could not get back up again myself.” I can see a horde of grateful rabbits coming to his rescue with eggs and arrows and jockey gusto to go. While he’s been putting himself back together, he’s done a friend a favor. “I trained four rabbits to ride dogs for her show.” Something about that sentence sounds so effortless, like whipping up a little picnic spread or building a model roller coaster over the weekend. YOU, kid, must have a gift.

In their own young words: I love hearing the younger set tell me what inspires them. When I learned that one of Logan's heroes is GGW, I asked him why. Now comes his reply: “I have a great deal of respect for Gunther Gebel Williams mostly due to his showmanship. I loved how he could have everybody in the arena looking at him but I do believe there were more talented animal trainers out there.” Showmanship in CAPS, glamour in NEON.

Another youthful revelation: While interviewing the ultra gentlemanly Alex Chimal at Circus Chimera just before the show (he was house manager, but stayed put next to me in the seats, wanting to answer all my questions), this he revealed about an icon who inspired him: “When I was a kid, I saw a video of Ringling, and I saw this guy who was doing wire act, I think his name was Con Colleano. I liked the style.” Jackpot! What a mutual admiration we shared, he off a video, me from a boyhood memory at the Clyde Beatty Circus when the actual Colleano thrilled me in person ...

Dell battery down to only 79%, credit my light weigh syntax. Hey, Jack the Hunter: May you reach the smaller New Cole, and give John Pugh my regards. I’ll try to send along some spare arrows. But I don’t do eggs.

And that’s a bunny wrap.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Eye on the Big Top: Mired in Cherry Pie, New Cole’s Renee Storey Could be Spinning Cotton Candy Soon...

From out of the past ...

The Circus previously known as Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros is finally up and at it, valiantly mired in shorthandedness but moving ahead with long suffering spirits — stars pitching in to drive stakes and lay out canvas. Said Renee Storey to Rosa Ramirez of the Daytona Beach News, the show is still short by about 30 workers, the brown hands waiting for green lights from U.S. immigration officials.

The article, shot my way by Jack Hunter, makes clear what most of us have observed over the years: Performers tossing aside egos between acts to dig in and rig up. “We help them so they can help us, too,” said teeterboarder Oscar Julia Preciado. Bravo, Mr. Circus Everyman!

Joked VP Renee Storey — a lady who, from what I gather, has sawdust in her spine, or spine in her sawdust — she might have to make the cotton candy. Reminds me of the song from A Chorus Line, “What I Did For Love.”

What they do for the big top. I imagine Johnny Pugh up there somewhere on the nerve-wracking advance, facing down iffy city council members hounded by two or three PETA screamers, all for the humiliating cost of a lot license. A trouper to his bones is Sir Pugh of the world-class “with it and for it" class.

Covington Connected: Don sent me a fine New York Times endorsement (I guess) of Ringling’s latest, making it sound like a fast moving spread of this and that. My only wonderment is if it’s another random Feld smorgasbord, although those sprawling samplers sometimes do the trick. This edition sounds like a fast blast.

When liberals embrace animal acts, watch out, World! During a conversation with two ex-New Yorkers here in Brooklyn West (a.k.a.: Oakland), the woman, a self described atheist from Queens, shocked me by sharing what a joy she considers circus animal acts to be for young kids. The Brooklyn man, at his wits end over some law that prohibits him from having or harboring a house cat up in the Oakland Hills, is also seeing the light. But boy, did those two dash my stereotype. They, not I, raised the issue. She, not I, went on and on about the “wonderment” of the circus world to a child. And this from the most liberal region in the country? I only listened, grinning inside. Speaking of delightful four-legged show stoppers, there’s this...

A photo not for your eyes, PETA: We know you can’t tolerate watching an elephant dash your stereotype of what it, according to you, should be up to in the wilds. Well, here’s a Michael Jordanesqe pachyderm in Thailand, 2006, going for the hoop. World travelers Angelina and Noel Andreoni, playing basketball basketball in the lovely country previously known as Siam, watched with delight as Orachi the elephant “dunked their ball,”so reported by the paper still known as the New York Times.

Johnny Pugh: The more I think about your telling me of the time when your big bulls were yelping it up to be back on a lot they hadn’t played for years, well ... well ... the more I think you were not pulling my trunk.

And that’s a Cherry Pie Wrap.

First posted April 7, 2008

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Showbiz Scramble on the Oakland-Brooklyn Line

Here at L’Amyx in Oakland — and I stress Oakland (known locally as the armpit of the Bay Area), I am feeling a new coolness, for in the New York Times last Sunday, I read that Oakland and Brooklyn (as in NY) are considered kindred spirits in new wave art & stuff, stress stuff ... That is, they both exist in the shadows of the larger cities that hog all the attention. A bit of Brooklyn in my bones? My Mom, a dreamer, grew up there, worked on the Brooklyn Eagle. Her mother, Florence Simpson, made “surgical belts,” eccentrically sizing each lady up and offering her a charge based upon perceived economic status ... One of the letters she had published in a New York paper ended with “Live and Let Live.” A lesson on my young ears never forgotten.

Homesick and tired of living in a house in Gothic Golden Gate Park across the street from a roller coaster managed by my uncle that rattled on around the clock, my mom took me, my sis and bro back to Brooklyn in 1946, when my grandma lived at 493 Hart Street.

They enrolled me in what seemed a one-room school called PS 154 (if not merely 54) for a month or two... My nervous dad railed out from San Francisco, afraid, so my aunt would years later inform me, that we’d never come back. And we might not have. How close I came to seeing Ringling Bros Circus that spring, when my father one Saturday morning went out to get tickets but came back empty handed. Sold out.

Anybody Can Be A Sarasota Icon: The Ring of Fame seems to be turning itself into a haven for scoundrels and underachievers well connected to decision makers. This I reluctantly surmise with the greatest of social discomfort. Norma Cristiani, wherever you are, I love and adore you like everybody else, so please, if you are reading this, look away or skip to the next paragraph. Your Dad, BEN DAVENPORT, inducted in the Ring of Fame? Incredible! Here over Dragonwell tea in Brooklyn West, I hereby declare the launch of my own Showbiz David Ring of Shame. Names to be named later. Like who, you ask? Like a few notorious phone room operators, and like the first person ever to perform the hula hoop in a ring.

How cool was Irvin Felds’s Circus World? My honored guests of commentary (all three of them) seem to agree with me that the circus aspect of Feld’s Great Dream would have never been enough. .. Speaking of the Feld phenomenon (even their failures are epic, you gotta admire ‘em for half-way trying), Kenneth’s Kaleidoscape, named after Barnum, might have been a decadent blast had the show's official director Raffaele De Ritis had his way, and how apt it would have been — evoking the gusty old one-ring tent show ambiance. The only real director Kenneth Feld listens to is Kenneth Feld. As usual, they went for a little Disney over a little Ringling, all of it enslaved in Montreal mist.

Early blooming blogger Wade Burck likens the circus to a poor old dog on its last legs that “can’t hunt anymore.” Says I of the trendy Brooklyn-Oakland axis, despite the talk I hear about this poor old dog going the way of vaudeville, it’s still out there, thank you, Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil, among others. I also am hearing of packed houses greeting Kelly Miller. Some mutts never die.

How cool was Merle Evans? Yes, I know, this lands me in the uncool category of the died-in-the-wool codger lamenting the Good Old Days. Getting ready for my hip entrance at L’Amyx, noticed only by the counter person, I replayed the ‘51Ringling score. Oh, what a way Saint Evans had of matching the action and moving it ahead with zest and zip. Then there are his awesome juxtapositions: A gigantic crescendo nearly wilts — like an Evans sigh — into the most lyrical reading of “Speak Low.” Trouble is, younger set, your Dylan or Depache Mode, your DJ Shadow or Gangsta Looney Goon have never recorded ”Speak Low,”so we’re again in two different worlds ... And I’m losing my trendy touch lost in the great American songbook ...

Speaking of modern, the Big Apple Circus band raises the tent with dazzling gusto, and they’re not playing “Entrance of the Gladiators,” chum. I hope, when I see the show next month, the music is as exciting as it was for Picturesque in 2005. I’ve had it with juke box scores randomly assembled off of a stack of CDs supplied by the acts. First inductee into my Ring of Shame: James C. Petrillo, the great union organizer who organized live circus music into oblivion. His trophy: The figure of a musician on strike.

Blame my edgy outbursts on PS 154. I was there, and I missed Ringling Bros. Circus ten years before Irvin Feld rescued it from itself.

[photos: my Grandma at her shop, 186 Irving Avenue, Brooklyn; My brother, Dick, left, sister Kathy ane me, spring residents at 493 Hart Street; Merle Evans, non stop, as the show goes on]