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

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fright Night Flashes: Cirque du Soleil Fans Raving Desbelievers; Jumbo, Get Back Into Your Spandex! Big Apple Singing in the Rain...

Update, 11/3 AM: Believe was panned in today's Los Angeles Times -- "unbelievably bad"

They don’t believe in Believe, no they don’t, and they are die-hard Cirque fans with passion and attitude, and how I love that ... So mad are they, they knocked their way up to the top of this week’s flip flop pile. Oh, are they courageously vocal: “SOOOOOOOOO disappointing! Criss Angel is a douche bag and Cirque is ruining their reputation by putting their name on this show!!!” cries Cirque fan “g.” G oh G, I feel your sense of abandonment, recalling when a circus called Ringling gave up its tents many years ago and I spent many days crying all alone in my bedroom ... And here rattles another shocked non-believer, fully named Matt Krogol, who sheds emotion on this here blog: “How can Cirque even put their name on such a worthless show?” Matt’s seen all the Vegas Cirque things and he’s not cheering this one: “4 clowns pre show were very good. I cannot name one good thing about the rest of the show.” Might you have overlooked, Matt, the rumored spectacle of Guy Laliberte himself dropping by and walking out early on his own show in disgust? ... To a protest Matt sent to Montreal came a cordial reply including “My apologies if offense was taken.”

Mine, too. Here’s the skinny, Cirque addicts: I’m thinking more and more that your Genius-in-Chief, Laliberte the Great, is really really hurting for money, having promised too many new shows to too many venues. Perhaps what you beheld in Believe is evidence of a shrinking kitty up in Quebecland. Which is why, go my hunches, Guy took 200 million bucks from Dubai and gave ‘em 20 percent of his (foundering?) empire. Buckle up, kids, the ride ahead could be bumpy, ugly, and very un-Cirque like ... Vegas biz overall tumbling, and that could put fewer believers in the seats. MGM reported a stunning 67% drop over the last year in revenue at the slots and tables ...

Oh, I could go on (I too, believe it or not, am a fan of Cirque at its best). But other tents on the midway deserve a peek: Let’s see, Kenneth Feld in court on possibly bogus animal abuse charges, told by the judge to go home. Seems the other side can’t get all of its animal witnesses together and on point. The saga continues in ‘09 ... Meantime, animals still lighting up rings, so bring them on ...

Here in the shrinking menagerie, a few weeks back I compared circuses no longer on the road (or hurting for patrons) that did not feature animals of any sort with circuses that do and are still somehow muddling about in the mud if not the money. Wade Burck didn’t buy it, pointing to the dearth of big cage acts, among other reasoned reasons — “Don’t you start with the spin now.... Big Apple dogs and horses – not the same thing as cats, elephants and bears.” While you’re at it, Wade, how about some respect for seals and monkeys, too? But here’s two points to keep your whip a crackin’, Mr. Cage Man: Just like the big 3 network audience splintering off into thousands of cable options, so too, why not the circus? Smaller may work for some time, especially with the next Great Depression likely upon us.

Point two: Spirit of circus comes through in a variety of acts and ways; does every show have to contain every staple? Ringling-Barnum for a spell featured tigers and/or lions only at the spring Garden dates. Charles Ringling shunned jungle theatrics. Horses were the modern-era circus's original act, and those ever-delightful doggies remind us of how wonderful can be the interactions between humans and four-legged creatures.

Talk about spirit. Big Apple Circus now uncorking at Lincoln center and drawing rosy salutes from Gotham scribes, their prose pointing to a tip-top musical delight. Play On!, I finally learn, refers to the band, and this opus bounces high and wide on a wide assortment of tunes, including a rendition of "Singing in the Rain" as the clowns splash about. Ah, does that send my Gene Kelly heart into orbit just imagining.

Where was I on this slow Halloween night at L'Amyx? Tea tenders Will and Boyi telling me of a co-worker dressing up as a tea pot. Reminds me of my boyhood in roller rinks, once showing up on Halloween night dressed as a milk carton.
Little big top bits: Carson and Barnes into another tentless arena at Tulsa, as the last three ring fling heads for the last barn. Might the Byrds be flirting with a radical venue shift? Down the Covington chute, news about one-time Cirque performer Chris Lashua taking his theoretically deft Birdhouse Factory onto the Victory Theatre stage in New York, come November 15, for a four-week slate. When I saw it premiere for the New Pickles in San Francisco in 2005 it’s ingeniously crafted brilliance struck me as in need either of Laliberte loot and drive to blow up the circus action, or a fine playwright to give its narrative inclinations true dramatic power. Stranded cerebrally in-between the two prospects, Birdhouse came out stillborn to my eyes ... Gifted director Lashua, though, is a most inventive force to watch. So watch him! ... Farewell, two fine big toppers, passing onto the bigger lot up there: Great Baraboo born trap star who gave Ringling true center ring status, Mark David ; and Bob McDougall, who managed a unit of the Big Show for a number of years. Super nice guy, he once spoke with me after a Ringling matinee in L.A. mid 1980s, sharing the truth: some afternoon performances only drawing hundreds rather than thousands during a down period.

Truth is, 'twas ever thus away from the press kits and the white tops ... When next we meet, more about a season known as 2008. For those among you still suffering the Cirque-let-me-down blues, I'm hoping to get some grief counselors just in case you go off the deep end. Here inside the tea tent on Halloween, nobody's wearing the holiday ...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Rewatahing Francis Brunn: Did My Memory Glorify His Talents? ...

original posting date lost

Reviewing the Past Can Be Hazardous to Your Faith ...

Former Pickle Family Circus juggler and artistic director Judy Finelli, at odds with a photo caption reference I make of Lottie Brunn in my book Fall of the Big Top, mentioned in an e-mail to me sometime back that Lottie never "assisted" her famed brother, Francis, as I wrote. "Both were excellent jugglers," says Judy. I chose the word "assisted" because that's all I could recall of Lottie's presence when I first saw the act in 1951, and in at least one Polack program magazine, that's the word used to identify her in a photo.

Finelli (or somebody else) later forwarded me some links to old videos of the Brunn's in performance, and I have long delayed watching them. Perhaps I feared that the film footage would betray my memory. My thinking was that if Lottie did any juggling at the time, she would have been woefully overshadowed by her brother, for when they appeared with Polack Bros. Circus in 1951, the only person I was watching was Mr. Brunn. His astoundingly nimble acrobatics while juggling balls, hoops and clubs in every which direction left me dumbfounded. He carried on like some wizard from outer space possessing extraordinary powers born of another world ... That's what I have long remembered.

Finally, in deference to Judy, today I took the time to download a couple of the video links she sent me. First, I watched Lottie Brunn doing her own act in 1952 went she went solo. She sure does a lot, and she does it very well. Loaded with content, but with little of the choreography and dazzling showmanship that I recall her brother possessing. Or have I glorified my memory of a time when a juggler's magic sent me nearly sky high off a grandstand seat at the Grace Pavilion in Santa Rosa? Memory can be a careless editor. We do have a way of turning mere mortals into sacred cows ...

Then I watched the other video, admittedly afraid that Brunn might disappoint me. This one was of a 1947 vaudeville stage show, during which both of the Brunns work together. So, now, I would be viewing documentary truth of Francis Brunn only a year before John Ringling North lured him to America to appear with the Greatest Show on Earth -- when it was, without a doubt, just that. A forward to the video states that Brunn was compared to Rastelli; the Big Show went a leap further, billing him "greater than the great Rastelli."

When Brunn came on, although his sister did a little juggling during his act as well as assisting him, not only did he affirm my life-long high admiration for his creative genius, he surpassed it. And I feel triumphantly vindicated. Although not everything he did in Santa Rosa is on the tape, I saw other fantastic movements and manipulations that I have not remembered. Much much more, and I am about ready to declare Francis Brunn the greatest circus act I have ever seen. I am sorry, Judy, and all other jugglers of Planet Earth, FRANCIS BRUNN may have no equal, although I remain committed to my opinion that since Brunn opened my eyes to the miracle of circus, the greatest to follow Brunn that I have seen is the intensely dazzling Anthony Gatto, born and trained in our own shores, and currently appearing with Cirque du Soleil's Kooza.

Judge for yourself, World: Tell me if you think we will ever see the likes of what you are about to witness again.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Momentous Big Top Transfer: Minus Paul Binder, Big Apple Circus Heads Perilously Down Uncharted Trails ...

Over and in the sawdust ring
where wizards fly
and tumblers spring
no need to give them plays to ply
The act is king
The act is the thing

From  October 26, 2008

Paul Binder’s profound respect for first-rate circus performers is the reason why, I believe, the one ring show he and Michael Christensen founded 31 years ago has endured in the country’s most competitive market. Now with Binder (and Christensen to follow, it is rumored) stepping down, as first reported in The New York Times, this company is heading into largely uncharted territory virtually never before traveled by an American circus. There is, to be sure, the ominous if minor example of what became of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco (remember San Francisco?) when a small board of directors that ended up in control of the show self-destructed in the space of a few fitful seasons. Big Apple Circus, on the other hand, has fortified its financial structure into a far more elaborately composed performing arts entity funded and overseen from the top by a board consisting of 35 individuals.

If Binder did not step down on his own accord, who among those thirty five gently nudged him out of the tent -- and why?

Not only is the style of circus Big Apple will produce in the years to come likely to change — for every circus bears the unmistakable imprint of the producer in charge — but the greater question is, will whomever controls its artistic destiny preserve Big Apple as a circus or steer it imitatively in the direction of Cirque du Soleil? That question may have already been answered in the telling appointment of Frenchman Guillaume Dufresnoy — a long time member of the organization and currently its general manager, to replace the outgoing founder.

Paul Binder told me during an interview in 2005, “Cirque has never particularly appealed to me as a circus, as I see circus was meant to be.” Michael Christensen said essentially the same thing in a separate interview. One can only wonder to what extent others in the company differ, and who among them will prevail. I can imagine many figures in the wings (for example, Barry Lubin, one of the clowns who plays Grandma) frothing over the chance to seize the artistic reigns. The word “Grandma’s” may yet get tacked onto the front of the moniker.

Replacing Binder may be far more difficult than anyone can predict, for Binder has demonstrated the rare ability to function within the tricky context of a board and of all the nagging social pressures that must come with it. Indeed, we may never know how much his decision to leave was influenced by the myriad conflicts he doubtlessly had to work his way through all these past years just in order to survive at the top. From what I know of the man, he is a world-class diplomat, tactful to a t, and if he is not leaving for the official reasons he has given (among them, to the Times, “I didn't want to do this until I was on my deathbed”), we may never know the actual cause.

To ABC News a couple of nights later during its "Person of the Week" segment that was honoring him, Binder pulled back from the deathbed to share a rush of passion about his life in the circus that hardly sounded like a man wanting out: "It doesn't matter what happens in the day, you know, what I'm going through. It doesn't matter much. At one moment, and that's the moment the light goes on and I hear the music and suddenly I walk in the ring. All of those woes go away and what replaces is an enormous sense of energy, an enormous sense of pleasure, and enormous sense of wonder. The connection with the audience is the final payoff for that."

Board president Chris Wearing seemed determined to assure Times reporter Glenn Collins that Binder's retirement was not forced, describing it as "not one of those 'move him out and say he'll be doing special projects' things." If Binder will, in fact, be booking acts for the show, then the statement holds some weight. Binder said that his exit had been in the works for several years and that "we wanted to create a cultural institution that would last after me, and now it will."

Now it will? Only time will tell, and here is where the future is up for grabs. Boards of directors have a way, once the originators are gone, of splintering into dangerous disarray as they compete for power. Just ask Larry Pisoni, who walked away from the Pickle Family Circus he and Peggy Snider started up three years before Binder and Christensen raised their first tent over Manhattan. When Pisoni wanted to return only a few years hence, he was treated like an upstart street juggler. Take a number, guy. In a strange fluke of fate, the suicide of William Ball, founder and ex-head of the American Conservatory Theatre who had been booked to direct a Pickle holiday show, resulted in the Pickle board out of last minute desperation offering the gig to Pisoni. And Pisoni proceeded to mount a derivatively compromised circus smarting under the shadows of the then recent meteoric rise of Cirque du Soleil. The result: Pisoni was thereafter booted out and left to feel humiliated and angry. Boards of directors, once in control, can be shockingly insensitive to those founding geniuses.

Now, as for the Big Apple board, without the indisputable artistic authority of a Binder to contain all the schisms within it, it will take a few seasons to see if this group of 35 egos can capably sustain the Binder and Christensen legacy.

Thirty years ago seems like only yesterday. Thirty years ago, the Pickles were charming themselves onto the Bay Area scene, and Big Apple Circus was testing its dreams in Gotham. Circus Flora, too, made a noble though limited try at it in the Midwest. All of the idealistic youngsters behind these shows were eager to reinvent or renew the sawdust ring. Thirty years later, only Big Apple stands as a major force and mostly because of its annual three month visit to Lincoln Center.

The Times report of Binder’s exit at the end of this new season contained implicit indications of mounting concern among the board over direct competition from Cirque du Soleil’s Wintuk, soon to begin its second year as a stage fantasy for kids at the Madison Square Garden Theatre. Concerns also about how the crumbling economy could impact ticket sales and fund raising drives; and about ongoing desires, harbored by some in the company, to add a summer season and take the show on tour abroad. As if addressing goals that Binder may have resisted, said Wearing, "There is so much we want to do. We want to extend the show and the season, and develop an endowment."

We will have a good chance, assuming anybody can get their hands on real box office records, to watch two very different forms of circus go head to head in New York, now that Big Apple, sporting what looks like a strong and varied lineup of high class acts, faces off with the more surreally designed Wintuk, a show for the younger set said to be coming back to town in a "revamped" form with new acts, in an effort to bolster a program that left last year’s critics yawningly unimpressed (although none of those reviewers were kids, were they?)

Will the new BAC power structure chase after the elusive Cirque formula? So tempting and so impractical. One after another would-be appropriators of the Montreal Magic has fumbled and stumbled. The Pickles, post-Pisoni, went bye bye into the abyss, all enamored of trying to prove they could out-Cirque Cirque. Montreal spin offs have gone bye bye, too. Circus Chimera tried to offer the public bargain basement Cirque. There simply did not exist an audience for that; Chimera’s natural audience base veered toward the lower working classes who, unburdened by “issues,” still enjoy watching animals perform.

One thing is certain. However much you are a fan or a non-fan of Paul Binder’s act-centric version of a one ring European circus, prepare to see that vision fade into something else — something yet to be known. He and Christensen gave me, in their Picturesque edition, one of the most memorable circus performances I’ve ever experienced around a ring. Such moments are a rarity under any big top in any land.

Farewell, Sir Ringmaster!

[photos credits: Paul Binder, by Andrew Councill for The New York Times; jugglers Michael Christensen and Paul Binder in the early years, by The Big Apple Circus; the show on a lot in the Bronx, 1992, by Librado Romero/The New York Times; Binder with his wife Katja Schumann and children, Max and Katherine, 1993, by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times; Big Apple Circus midway in New York at 50th Street and 8th Avenue, June 7,1978, by Neal Boenzi/The New York Times; Binder, right, with Guillaume Dufresnoy, 1993, by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times; the Ringmaster waits to go on, by Andrew Councill for The New York Times]


Friday, October 24, 2008

Circus Performers Who Blog from the Inside: Of What Value Are They?

A Showbiz David Essay

(original posting date lost)

One of the most interesting issues of the moment is the potential value to the consumer and researcher of the insider blog. By this I mean, for on-point example, the blog of Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs that gives a day by day account of their activities as clowns on the Kelly Miller Circus.

At the same time, it also raises serious issues involving company information and whether or not show owners have any legal basis for controlling what is issued from the blog of an employee. We are, I suspect, advancing into uncharted territory. I am addressing this issue from the perspective of three parties involved : the researcher, consumer, and the show owner.

Research Tool: When I first came across the Copeland and Ryan blog, I predicted that it might become very popular, for Steve Copeland, a passionate and in many ways likable guy, gives you a fairly predictable run down of his day to day travels: The kind of lots they play on — many of them in the mud; the malls nearby that he shops at; laundry duty, his association with Ryan, socializing with other performers and visitors to the show.

On a professional show-oriented level, Copeland is nothing less than candid in detailing many of his personal ups and downs, most of them the result of audience size (he provides a general overview of the attendance for each show, but we are left to guess, for example as to what his word “average audience” means). He is acutely sensitive to how the audience reacts to his work with Ryan, and, it seems, he is forever tinkering with their gags in an effort to improve their comedic impact. (I wondered if they do not need a strong directorial hand, maybe they have one in John Moss, to firmly help them decide on a final script) About a month ago, the guys butted heads and wills against the prop hands about the set up of their props. It is clear that Copeland believes he is being ill served. We do not hear from the prop hands themselves, nor, so far, from the Kelly Miller management.. This resulted in a high number of comments (as I’ve learned such heated issues will generate), among them from veteran John Herriott, sympathizing with the boys over the ongoing feud. Herriott correctly pointed out an organizational protocol for issuing a grievance, which evidently has not been followed. The impression left is an unflattering portrait, by default, of John Ringling North II and James Royal remaining passive on the sidelines, of a show unable to solve what should be a solvable problem. So we may not be getting the full story. The issue of tipping a prop hand came up; Copeland is adamantly against it, and there was a consensus that tipping as extortion should not be condoned. This is a very old issue; on Ringling, tipping was a routine tradition honored by all.

Recently, he alluded to contract renewal talks with North II, obviously hoping that he can return to Kelly-Miller next season, indicating that Jim Royal would need to get involved in order for negotiations to advance further.

After following this blog for quite a while, because my interest concerned two topics: the actual business the show was doing and how JRN II is involved as show owner (his personality comes through very well), I started tiring of the repetitiousness of it all. The malls, the mud, the indifferent audiences.. And I grew weary and depressed reading of those dead crowds, especially one that Copeland dissed as a bunch of cell phone addicts chattering away while ignoring the show. Not a pretty portrait for the strength of the show. So I stopped following the blog until recently, prompted by a remark that JRN II made to a reporter stating that ticket sales had doubled since the last few season: I wanted do see if this seemed to jibe with Steve’s accounts. Hard to tell; the impression I gained from his accounts is that business could well be up, but not by very much.

For the Consumer: It is doubtful that such a blog can affect business one way or the other, which is why it may not be much of an issue, yet, to show owners. Circus blogs reach a relatively small market. I can’t see many people reading them in a serious effort to decide whether or not to patronize a circus. However, I can cite my own example, since I am a valid circus consumer who spends a lot of money on occasion traveling across the country to see shows. Right or wrong, the choice is mine, and I was put off by Steve’s account of a number of things — lackluster audience reactions, a trapeze act that did not work all dates, among other things. This influenced my decision not to spend an entire day, and costly, from NY to Pemberton, NJ, and back. So for me, the blog was helpful. It may have saved me one very disappointing day.

For the Circus Owner: Here is where conflict and controversy, even eventual legal challenges pitting circus owners against their blogging employees, may yet enter the picture. I am not sure what the legalities are, that is whether circus owners can sign contracts with performers stipulating that certain things can not be blogged. We are getting into all kinds of Constitutional issues, I imagine. Up until now, there has been no viable way for a circus performer to share with the world the gritty inside information of the sort of things about which Steve writes.

But, that having been said, I can’t imagine, for example, a stage star in a Broadway show blogging about inside conflicts; and yet, it might be legal. I would imagine a show owner can rightfully believe it in his or her interest to avoid hiring such artists, fearing all sorts of adverse publicity.

The things about which Copeland writes were, in past years, confined to “tell all” books by ex-circus employees recounting their season with ....

Perhaps JRN II takes this in stride. He strikes me as laid back. Last season, he had Ben Trumble, a less temperamental voice, questioning routing decisions and reporting on business.

I think that North and Royal, as I have already suggested, should put out a blog of their own (The adventures of John and Jim), sharing with us their side of the story. I have to think they don’t feel very good coming across as two managers strangely passive in the background while two unhappy clowns vent their anger with, in their opinion, and underperforming prop crew. Can you imagine Art Concello condoning such a thing?

Interesting new midway.

OUT OF THE PAST: Broadway Hello, Broadway Good Bye

Originally posted on October 24, 2008

It’s a tough town, New York. Best theatre town in the world. Toughest theatre town in the world. Try your luck on the big boards — if you can audition (or buy or sleep) your way in, but don’t expect a pass from the critics. Toughest critics in the world. All except for maybe none of them on the right night. Even Clive Barnes, I’ve heard, only sleeps through selected opening nights.

Don’t expect a pass, either, from the crowds. Might decide to like you. Might decide you’re too retro or old hat, too brainy or silly or obtuse or, well, just too not quite right for the moment.

The recent departure without fanfare of Legally Blonde proves my New York instincts about correct, if you’ll allow me a shameless moment of self-kudoizing. When I saw Blonde try out on the launch pad for New York-bound turkeys known as San Francisco (okay, Wicked being one aberrational exception), and reviewed it right here in full bluster, I could only see this giggly blonde playing to all the teenage girls said to love such girlishly pandering gush and slush. Now, after barely 18 months apandering, I guess all the young dames came and went. Blonde just left town with hardly a giggle a few nights ago. Soon to appear at a bus and truck venue near you.

Nobody, not even hysterically seduced critics, can keep a show open when the public keeps on walking. Spring Awakening, an odd bird with half a great rock score, came to town a couple of years ago, landed rave notices and eight Tonys, and when I caught up with it last May, it failed to land me. Sorry, Broadway, the spectacle of a man simulating in trousers the act of self-pleasuring himself on a Gotham stage, wildly so, struck me as another form of crass commercial pandering, blowing away the show's higher allusions to true musical theatre art. A horny market for that? Sure, while it lasted. Spring (not turning out to be another Rent), is closing down and packing out come January; so too, same day, the much longer running Spamalot.

Seasons inflate into bright promising confetti neon over Times Square, and then gradually deflate into fallen banners and lonely closed theatres waiting for the next eager candidates to give them purpose. Of the seven or eight new tuners that sprang forth with high hopes along 42nd street last season — almost every one of them hailed by this or that critic as “ground breaking,” most of them broke ground, alright, clear down into the orchestra pit and out the back door onto those waiting vans that spell “FLOP.” Of the shows that survived, only the marvelous, and I do mean marvelous In the Heights drew raves and won Tonys, but it's not drawing the packed houses that continue to honor the seemingly box-office proof Jersey Boys. Gosh, why haven't I given that one a chance? When my sister Kathy was out here in July, I suggested it, but she hadn’t much more a clue than I about the group it’s based on. Call us both Jersey deficient non-rockers.

Tough town, tough stakes, and they keep on coming. And going. There’s so many scripts out there (mine included) dying for a chance to be just a one night flop, because then, a flop on Broadway can be hit in any other town. Already, two recently opened musical contenders, A Tale of 2 Cities and 13, both bearing ill reviews and slight crowds, appear headed for maybe the redemptive bus and truck tour to all the other cities that will embrace them, merely because, they were there ...

New York! New York! Tough town. Tough love. Tough talent. Tough on top. Touch out of luck ... Next?

[photos: Spring Awakening; Legally Blonde; In the Heights; The Jersey Boys at the opening night cast party]


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Morning Midway: Rewatching A&E's Circus in America ...

original posting date lost

Most of my old VHS tapes I could easily toss. Funny how most of us, eager with new VCR machines 20 years ago, taped so many shows that we now have little desire to watch. Looking through mine, I came across the 1995 A&E documentary, not recalling how I had reacted to it when it first was shown. And so, back into my VCR it went, in total black and white since my once great Magnavox now turns every hue into black or white -- a new gizmo is on the way. Such wonderful footage came parading across the screen.

Then, I started taking notes, wondering, did it really happen that way? Was there a Sells-Floto Circus in 1900? Did Lilian Leitzel really fall to her death in 1928? (no.) Along the way, I think I spotted a very young Henry Ringling North sporting a snazzy hat, standing with some big shots near a Ringling ticket wagon. And somebody quoted Karl Wallenda as stating, "Life is always on the wire; the rest is waiting." Fabulous quote if he really said it.

And then I learned about Irvin Feld having this great idea to "save" the Ringling circus by taking it indoors, and getting John Ringling North to let him "manage" it in 1957, and moving it into the arenas. And it all came back: this peculiar revision of big top history came from the lips of interviewee LaVahn G. Hoh, who teaches "the country’s only accredited college level course on the circus in America" at the University of Virgina. And with such passion he spoke; perhaps Mr. Hoh was sincerely misinformed, or maybe a Feld operative of sorts. He was one of at least three "historiansinterviewed for the project, the other two being Tom Ogden and Dominique Jando. The mind reels, if you will allow me.

Errors small and great continued apace. Cirque du Soleil did not take American in 1984; it first took Los Angeles in 1987.

When you are matching quick simplistic sound bites with the footage that moves you, you end up fostering leaps in misinformation from one period in time to another, often skipping critical developments in between. Thus, does Jack Perkins tell us about John Ringling "running" the circus when, in fact, he shared authority with his brothers (many troupers regarded "King Otto" as the most powerful partner); And thus does Perkins give John Ringling North credit for a few years of great new ideas and acts in the 1940s, but virtually no credit for the 1950s. We can almost see the stage being set to favor the circus savior that, according to myth, would invariably enter the picture.

Con Colleano alone executed the forward somersault? I once held this error, later learning that others in fact have also turned the forward.

I had to wonder if the three "historians" who contributed to the piece were asked to check the script for errors.

Circus history, let's face it, has little textual meaning or value in these TV things other than to flesh out the seductive moving images on the screen. The average spectator evidently cares little about what really happened or who made it happen, just as long as the exotic world is brought to life.

And that's why the Art Concellos, the Irving J. Polacks and the Louis Sterns of the world, who made such critical contributions, end up as invisible as yesterday's ticket stubs lost among circles in the dirt.

Blame these glossy treatments Why we get so simple-minded, barely superficial overviews of the history of our American circus. And why I find myself once again, despite not being a fan of his at all, wishing that Ken Burns would dig his scholarly chops into the subject and give us the 30 hour treatment. I'd love to see what he and his colleagues see. One thing is certain, there is so much more to see and understand about a very complex and fascinating story than what usually trickles down on TV's occasional flirtation with old film footage of one of the world's greaest entertainment chapters, the old American circus.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... Paul Binder to Exit Big Apple Circus ... End of a Notable Era?

In a stunning development covered in today's New York Times, Big Apple Circus founder and artistic director Paul Binder, 66, is tossing in his ringmaster's whistle and stepping aside.

"Finally, I can get off the road," Binder told reporter Glenn Collins. "I didn't want to do this until I was on my deathbed."

Binder, who founded the circus 31 years ago in New York City, goes against big top history in calling it quits when his show is doing so well. He plans to continue behind the scenes as an "artistic advisor" and world-wide talent scout.

In to replace Binder comes the company's 48-year-old general manger Guillaume Dufresnoy, who has been with the show for 21 years. The French born Guillaume, before joining BAC, performed as an aerialist in France and Switzerland.

The NYT report hints of company concerns about mounting competition form Circue du Soleil, which now operates an annual Madison Square Garden theatre show, Wintuk. Guillaume's telling appointment suggests that the board is preoccupied with what affect Cirque may have on its business and changing audience expectations. But this could put them on a slow suicidal path to a form of circus ballet, not easy to market if you are not run by Cirque du Soleil's Guy Laliberte.

Economics are raised as a pressing issue. According to the Times, the company is "facing uncertainty brought on by the Wall Street crisis, which could suppress ticket sales and fund-raising."

Last year, the show set an attendance record, luring 475,000 customers into its one ring tent.

Did possible internal conflicts between Binder and a 35-person board play a part in this? Board chairman Chris Wearing told the Times that a summer season and international tours are under consideration. I have long wondered why the show has so confined itself to a set route along the north east corridor. Binder, who never struck me as harboring expansionist ambitions for the show, told the Times , however, that his departure has been in the works with the circus board for several years.

And what about co-founder and creative director Michael Christensen? I've heard he will make his own statement shortly.

One thing is certain: Gone will be the distinctive, if conservative, approach that Binder and Christensen took in shaping their shows, which have featured consistently some of the finest ring stars in the world. And that will surely be missed by a great many people, I for one.

I'd say this is a very sad day.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Death of a Salesman -- and/or An Actor?

To watch an actor who has appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company of London practice his craft in a community theatre setting is quite an experience. This was my treat yesterday up in Santa Rosa (pop 157.000) at the admirably striving Sixth Street Playhouse, where Death of a Salesmanan was presented.

I had never heard the name Daniel Benzali, who in the U.S. is known largely for his work in TV, his most touted role being that of Ted Hoffman in ABC’s Murder One. On the West End, he starred as Juan Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, and he also appeared as Max von Mayerling in the world premiere of Webber’s Sunset Boulevard in London.

And now he was in Santa Rosa playing Willy Loman in perhaps only the second production I have ever seen of this play. And proving to me that he possibly delivered as strong and persuasive a performance in the role as has ever been seen in a place where, ironically, he has never been — Broadway.

Sad and strange, from an internet search, Benzali appears never to have reached the elusive Great White Way. Surely this must haunt him as he essays the role of a road salesman whose career is on the skids and whose opportunities to ply his craft are fast vanishing. To the stage Benzali brought, perhaps, the simple power of real-life identification.

We were promised a “once in a lifetime chance to see one of America’s finest actors in America’s greatest dramatic play.” Going in, I wondered if it was hype. Coming out, I believed.

Now as for that second claim about the play itself, I'm not so sure. I recall being mesmerized by the televised version of Death staring Lee J. Cobb in 1966, in a truncated version (down to 100 minutes), to which the scissors had been judiciously put. In Santa Rosa yesterday, minus the scissors, the production’s first gripping act, nearly perfectly mounted, gave this company the look of the regional theatre it hopes to become. Unfortunately, Benzali was ill served by a choppy shouting match approach to the direction that occurred after intermission between the characters, who resembled a family in psychotherapy. Local director Sheri Lee Miller pushed the tension and frequent outbursts up too soon and too high, rendering the dynamics static and redundant. Nor did we get anywhere near a nuanced performance from actor Tim Kniffin overplaying the critical character of Biff. (How it made me long to be watching a musical instead.)

Or was part of the problem Miller’s own second act excesses? His inability to draw back and let a little of the obvious meanings hover in the air? Shortly after Miller died, the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, striking a singularly courageous view in an article titled "The Great Pretender," boldly dismissed the majority of Miller’s prolific output as being overly preachy and polemic. Having seen only one or two other Miller plays which left me numbly unengaged (including a leaden Crucible), perhaps I am rushing to premature agreement with the Journal in stating that I hold in higher regard the work of both Tennessee Williams and Lilian Hellman

But what a sublime pleasure it was to watch Benzali fall apart before our eyes spinning his impeccable craft for the tragic Willy in this respectable if ill-shaped production. His performance was underwritten. Still, I had to wonder what he was doing, a la Willy Loman, so far off the main road.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Flip Flops: Spangles to Spandex; Ringling to Rungeling? And the Elephants Stay On Pointe...

Not a Big Apple thrill to everyone: A visitor to this blog who goes by the name of “Big Apple Got My Money”, not tickled over the new Big Apple Circus lineup, barking: “No elephants! No Exotics! Dogs and horses running to live music is not a circus! It’s men in spandex minus all the class of Soleil” I love that, even though, gotta tell you, let it be spandex or polyester as long as BAC goes high with a trapeze act and all the other goodies promised ...

Calling Red State Steady Eddie: Blue State needs you! You’re talking up packed houses for Carson & Barnes, recently of the 3- ring variety, in a June red date somewhere you promoted into a $50,000 bonanza, and nobody not returning after intermission. "We thought the show was great." Congrats, Mr. Natural Born promoter. How about donning a baby blue suit and helping Circus Vargas out of its blue state blues into red state black? "And listen to this," you say, "over 1,000 people showed up for set up." Heck, makes me feel more retrospectively lonely back there on that C&B lot at the dismally grey Cow Palace. Just me, the canvas guys, a few leisurely inclined animals and a stubborn introverted sun holding out until show time. Eddie the Steady, whom I nominate to replace no-show Joe the plumber -- Big Top the Battered needs you!

Unenlightened me: Janet, an avid pro-animals-back-to-the-wilds advocate, commenting here that “enlightened” people are turning more and more to jungle-free rings. She and others, of course, can say what they wish. So can I, and let me point something out, especially to a mean-spirited “Anonymous” back there harboring a fiction that big tops sans exotics do better than those with: Circus Chimera had no animals — no longer on the road. Circus Vargas, without animals, struggling. The Pickle Family Circus, which hatched, chicken free, the “enlightened” concept, has not toured for years. On the other vexing hand, folks, here are some still touring tents that dare to host the animal stars mostly because the public and its children still want them: Big Apple; UniverSoul, New Cole, Carson & Barnes and Kelly-Miller. And did I mention Ringling?

America Talks Back: It’s a pleasure to see some ladies on the other side of the issue shouting back: “You animal rights nuts are not compassionate people. You compare cows to lynched black men. You’ll sooner let monkeys roam the streets of new York than end a pandemic. You are below any level of rational or logical thinking.” And, may I charitably add, your “circus criminals” website attack is below the belt. You’d do your cause better by staying on point and clear of smear ...

Variations on a Household Name: About that secret Feld lawsuit settlement, here’s Neil Cockerline’s line on why John Ringling North II won the right to post his name (well, in certain places). Opines Neil, untangling Ringling-Feld legal history, Feld lost his hold on banning Ringling heirs from flaunting their names when the show went into and out of the Mattel morass, at which point parts of the original contract got red lighted or Barbie Dolled to death ... Are you with me so far, kids? I’m not going any deeper; I feel swamped at a law stand. Anyway, maybe Neil will tell us why on the cover of the program, it’s John R. North II and not the full family fame. I’m waiting, Neil. Also about K-M, Pat Cashin’s all a giggles over JRN II inviting his tiger man, Casey McCoy to hold the line in ‘09. Pat’s also hinting that he knows (could it be him?) who’ll be clowning it up next year for “America’s One Ring Wonder” (Al Ringling should be smiling in his grave over that charmed slogan)...

Why documents thrill: Nobody seemed much impressed when I reported on finding at the Circus World Museum two emotionally charged notes by John Ringling North the Original in his own unmistakable handwriting, one bluntly issuing his opinions of his 1951 opus after opening night; the other; a letter to Art Concello expressing turbulent affection while questioning Art’s talking behind John’s back and stressing that he (John) was the decision maker, yet ending I think with “Love, John." Obviously John valued Art, to whom he meekly turned in his darkest hour just after striking the tents for good in Pittsburgh. Here’s why I swoon over such discoveries: On PBS, presidential historian Michael B. (how could I ever spell his name this late at night?) sharing joy over a just discovered tape of JFK at the outset of his running for president, at his house talking freely about his feelings on many matters and showing altitudes not known until this tape. A note can trump a thousand pictures ...

End Ringers in red and blue: A You Tube delight: Those ambitious and impressively talented Circus Smirkus kids and their show, reminding me of my day on the Circus Kirk lot years ago. Auditions drew thousands and siphoned out a mere 17 for the final cut ... A living Wallenda named Nik, now on Ringling, wire walking for 235 feet high across the Garden State (how ill a choice of settings), and landing national tv exposure, for which Kenneth Feld, about to face court dates for alleged animal abuse, must be smiling.

Spangles to Spandex: So why not Ringling (in instances banned by the Felds) to Rungeling, which is how the family name was originally spelled? I mean like, John Rungeling North II presents Kully Muller? Blame my dizziness on a strain of Taiwanese tea called Jade Spring for the first time tested here at L’Amyx, as, in the background, something vaguely Parisian plays.

Yours the jaded in green state spandex ...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shame on the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and American Musical Theatre of San Jose

"Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song!" -- claims a shamefully misleading pitch put out by the American Musical Theatre of San Jose. Actually, other than using the original songs, the San Jose group is not presenting the Flower Drum Song created by Rodgers and Hammerstein at all, but the callously deconstructed, rewritten, reduced and reconfigured version by Henry David Hwang, a brazen assault on the original work that got critically blasted in a flop New York revival in 2001.

San Jose and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization demonstrate brazen disrespect for the legacy of two musical theatre giants by misleading the public. This, in fact, constitutes one of the most deceitful marketing campaigns I have yet encountered.

San Jose's Flower Drum Song has nothing to do with the original or the novel by C.Y. Lee upon which the original show was based -- nothing, that is, if we are to regard plot and character as essential elements that distinguish any dramatic work. The original show was a hit on Broadway in 1958 and enjoyed an equally successful, equally long-running national tour. Evidently, they would now rather mount in regional theatre land a flop than a hit. They're funny that way.

When will the apparently expedient R&H Organization ever learn? Have they not a clue why the current revival of South Pacific in NY is such a huge hit? Could it be because this South Pacific is not a rewrite, but exactly what Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote and gave the world?

Shame on both of you, San Jose and Rodgers and Hammerstein!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Getting Short Changed in a Ringling Big Top -- Was it Condoned by North & Concello?

"Truth destroys only that which is untrue."
-- credited to the philosophy of Mary Baker Eddy

The remarkable account, by former Ringling ticket seller William Taggart, of an organized short changing operation on a circus long-acclaimed for shunning such a practice, raises questions that deserve to be addressed, if for no other reason than to substantiate as best we can the historical record. Although Taggart's tale refutes everything I have ever read and heard about Ringling history and ethics, I am prepared to face the facts, wherever they may take us.

In his fine article, just published in Bandwagon, Bill makes two key statements that point to an organized operation, if not run from the top down, then one hosted by ticket department superintendent William P. McGough. Most tellingly, Bill writes that, when he was offered the job of ticket seller in 1954, he was “expected” to participate — now, that’s a pretty strong directive, if you ask me; also, that he was told “not to worry about management,” which might mean a lot of things. To me, foremost, it means that management would take no punitive actions and therefore condoned what Bill was instructed to do.

Bill’s even-handed and well detailed account of the training he received from fellow ticket seller Tommy Reale, instructing him that a payoff for the “privilege” was to be passed along “each night” to McGough, comes off as credible. However, of greater interest to me is to what extent the “management” alluded to was actively and knowingly complicit in this operation. I have tried to seek clarification on the issue in e-mails to Bill. Regretfully, his vague and inherently contradictory replies, alluding to what is generally known about grift on circuses of the era, are not as persuasively detailed as his Bandwagon prose.

He claims the practice was necessary in order to make a decent living. He made about $30 a week. His meals and lodging came free, I assume, although he had to pay many fees, including for his bunk on the train and a seat at the cookhouse, he told me in an e-mail; more sweepingly, and here's the real shocker, Taggart claims in an e-mail to me that virtually all Ringling officials knew of various shortchanging activities on the lot and allowed if not sanctioned them. “What did JRN ever do to alert the public in 55 or any other year, and what tape are you referring to? ... JRN was very aware of what happened on the show, but expected it to be kept under control, and so was his brother Henry who spent more time on the show than JRN.”

The “tape” I refer to was this, played during come-in during the 1955 season:

"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. All reserved seats must be purchased from the ticket booths stationed around the hippodrome track. We ask that you do not purchase or accept reserved seats from the ushers. Anyone occupying a reserved seat must have a ticket stub for that seat. Any person occupying a seat in the reserved section and who does not hold a stub for that seat will be removed from the reserved section. The general admission seats requiring no additional charge are located at each end of the tent. There is positively no extra charge for these general admission seats. Let us also call your attention to the prices clearly printed on the hats of all vendors. Please note the correct price, and pay no more. Thank you very much."

That sounds to me like management warning customers to beware of slippery dealings with ushers and vendors. In fact, it reminds me of what the five Ringling brothers did in their early years when they stationed a man next to the ticket wagon who shouted "Count your change! Beware of pickpockets!"

Curiously, even though Bill maintains that upper management was well aware of what was going, he also asserts, “I never implied there was a short change operation that was condoned...on the show you were not to have constant beefs so you had to cover yourself or a boss like Bill McGough or others would quiet the heat.”

And he also clearly implicates Art Concello when he refers to a statement that, according to him, was once made by Nina Evans to Irvin Feld: "Mr. Feld we all made money when Concello headed the show." I’m not exactly sure how you connect the dots from that comment to a management-mandated short change operation.

Now, if management did not condone what Bill was taught to do, could it be that McGough, minus Concello (who left the show at the end of 1953) found himself on a shaky if not sinking ship and defaulted to (how to put this politely) expedient mode? Or were Frank McClosky and Willis Larson, then in charge, behind the granting of privileges? Here is what I dug up looking through back issues of the Billboard:

The various rackets against the show and the customers became so pervasive that John Ringling North actually fired McClosky and Lawson, along with assistant manager Walter Kernan, in Minneapolis on August 6, 1955. As reported by the Billboard, "North charged that the discharged men had been more interested in privileges than in the show. They denied any connection with the set-ups he described."

Perhaps only Bill knows the answers to such critical questions his statements, intentionally or not, raise. And I hope he will provide them in the same fine detail that distinguishes his Bandwagon article, rather than through vague innuendo and insinuation.

Are we in a black and white world, or one of shadows and hints?

When I sat down with Phillip and Daisy Hall in Sarasota in 1986 while a tape recorder ran, during the nearly two hours we spent discussing a multitude of issues about their years on the show, the subject of grift in general came up. Phil came on Ringling in the forties as an usher, and left at the end of 1953; he had worked on the inside pass exchange booth and in the tax wagon, among other duties; Daisy was a show girl. Both enjoyed a friendship with Art Concello. On many occasions, Phil socialized with both Art and John Ringling North. Here is an exact word-by-word transcription of those parts of our conversation that addressed the topic:

PHIL: Shortchanging is I suppose what a lot of the ticket sellers did.
DAVID: Do you think short changing existed on Ringling, even?
PHIL: A little bit. Not big. Not much.
DAISY: Because they couldn’t get away with it.
PHIL: Of course, there was short-changing. Anyone who sells tickets, now, it might not have been blatant, but there are ways to have people leave their money. And there are, I’ve practiced it myself (laughs). Which is not shortchanging, but I’m sure, but the Ringling show, they were pretty vigilant about that sort of thing, now you couldn’t keep it all out.
DAISY: Yeah, because if you got caught doing it, you got fired.
PHIL: If anything, on the Ringling show, the people made money by rehashing tickets and things like that, which is holding tickets back and reselling them, which the show always paid for, not the public. There would be much more of that on the Ringling show because if you really short changed and they caught up with you, they’d fire you.
DAISY: They’d fire you.
PHIL: They didn’t want to disturb the public.
DAVID: And Concello, I guess, was strict about that, too?
PHIL. Oh ... [a key word; the tone of Phil's voice suggests gravity, not hesitation]
DAVID: He wouldn’t cheat the public, right?
PHIL: Oh, God no. Oh, no. Oh, absolutely. 100 percent. And he didn’t put up with much rehashing if he could catch it.

We are dealing here with a Ringling legacy built on a claim of fair dealing with the public, and I think that most of us can handle whatever truth surfaces — credibly. I have thoroughly enjoyed Bill's intimate inside diary accounts of his years on the Ringling show. So I do hope he will continue in his eye-opening account of his years on the Greatest Show on Earth. If the record needs to be recast, so be it. Until then, I'm still having a hard time reconciling the above-referenced actions that John Ringling North took with the idea that upper management either sanctioned or turned its back on the organized extraction of fees from light fingered ticket sellers for the "privilege" of shorting the customer. Call my inability to embrace such schizophrenia a lingering illusion.

[photos, from the top: William Taggart; Frank F. McClosky, general manager; Willis E. Lawson, manger, of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1954]

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Flip Flops: Brother, Can You Spare a Ring?

Digging for the truth over Dragonwell here at L’Amyx, let’s start out simple, and see where simple goes, okay? Rumorhazit (as Billy Barton would say), that John Ringling North II loses use of the Kelly Miller Circus title end of the season. Not anywhere near, says show manager Jim Royal. “The title came with the corporation, so we have it permanently. Like so many rumors, I have no idea why it started.” So there! Now, as for whatever became of that Feld Entertainment lawsuit against JRN II daring to flaunt his family name on show property, all I could extract from Sir Royal was this: “It was settled to the satisfaction of both parties,” and what's more, both parties agreed not to disclose the details. SO, we are free, for what it’s worth, to rumorize away. I must have been onto something, noticing “John R. North II Presents” on the program magazine cover and surmising it to be the work an intricate treaty ... And yet North’s full name appears in less conspicuous locations here and there, and I’ve heard it still graces the trucks. In tortured legalese, here's my summation: "Counseling lawyers stipulate variable truncations of contested name contingent upon contextual relationships to contractually mandated key words, henceforth pursuant to and as follows" ... All in all, looks like JRN II won some key wiggle room to flaunt away.

More bothersome are the revelations in Bandwagon about a structured short-changing operation on Big Bertha that allegedly flourished in the last canvas days. I earlier wondered what part the great late Art Concello may have played in this lucky boy racket. Turns out he wasn’t around when young William Taggart was tutored inside a bar by a light fingered pro on how to move money along ... Taggart’s commendable confession, you see, was unfortunately laid out in such a way (unintentionally so) as to make it appear that he was indoctrinated in 1953. No, the year was 1954. Mr. C. was gone. Until evidence surfaces to the contrary, I’m standing by what Phillip Hall , who worked the inside pass exchange booth, told me about Concello’s aversion to customers getting the Ben Davenport treatment ... And I’ve got much more about this sad fractured chapter to hyperventilate over up the road. Or would that be “down the road,” or — in the road?

Sure, it’s not always a sunny lot, is it. Ugly Anti-Semitism, for reasons unknown or unreported, strikes the Circus World Museum, and how terrible to see it happening in sleepy Baraboo. Fires lit late nights. Nazi symbols and slogans plastered in spray paint across the barns of history following similar vicious assaults since June, says exec director Stephen Freese to the Baraboo News Republic. “It’s just disgusting.” Not a word in the story about a motive, nor did an apparently under active reporter ask ... Subsequent reports point to white supremacy and anti-immigration movements in the area.

Let’s let some sunshine onto this murky midway. How about Big Apple Circus’s new talent spread, e-mailed to me by p/r staffer Phillip Thurston. On paper, program looks loaded to excite audiences big time. I see a tentbuster going up: Flying trapeze returns along with more gusto in the air, and riders on horseback! Now, all they need is a neat trio of cute and charming elephants. The band comes down around the ring, which sounds bandific. How I envy you who live on the east coast. Why, oh why, Paul and Michael, won’t you ever haul your sterling goods out to the west coast. We are NOT Chicago. Just stay clear of precious San Francisco — or board your star animals at the St. Francis Hotel and parade ‘em around town in special limbos.

Hard times ahead? Sorry it turned dark again so soon out here. As Wall Street jumps out skyraper windows and DC struggles to prolong America’s strange obsession with credit-diseased spending sprees (when will the entitlement madness ever end?), I reflect on the inherent goodness of hard-working circus folk, who troupe on for the love of it. Yes, as Alan Cabal reminds us. “If you’re in the circus to make money, you’re in the wrong line of work.” When did an actor ever help set or strike a set? When did a dancer lift a flat? Or a piano player move chairs around? Circus stars, when need be, will do that and more to keep the show on the road.

End Ringers: Wade Burck referencing the best opening ever for any circus book I ever read, which is how Henry Ringling North, in his great work with Alden Hatch, Circus Kings (just reprinted by the way) calls the circus “a jealous wench,” just for starters. Carson & Barnes playing Will Rogers Arena in Ft Worth for the Shriners, and Logan Jacot blogging ruefully about reports that C&B “closed today for the last time under canvas with a three ring show ... Is this true?” That’s what they say, Logan. October 5, where the 70+-year-old circus pitched its tent for the last time this year at Tucson, Arizona, could mark the end of an epochal American era which began back in 1872, when the crowds for P.T. Barnum’s tent show grew so large, they just had to add another ring. Now, they’re subtracting rings for reverse reasons.

Watching Circus Osario recently, the minimal experience reminded me of a day at John Strong, and it helped humble my future expectations. I’m ready to expect and appreciate less, ready to maybe invest in a lawn chair and prepare to sit around a topless circle marked in the grass by pins on a simple summer day, and watch young upstarts cavort as best they can. Ready to count my change and count my blessings, and wonder where it all went.

Brother, can you spare a ring?

[Big Apple Circus photos, from top: Christine Zerbini, by Maike Schulz; The Flying Cortes, by Bertrand Guay; LaSalle Brothers, by Bertrand Guay]

First posted, October 10, 2008

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Lost in Film Noir: Dark Passage Through a City of Shared Loneliness....

In so many ways, a movie can pull us into its world and hold us captive for irrational reasons. No wonder nobody can agree on top ten lists. What enthralls me may bore you. So much depends on what we bring to the screen. I’ll be the first to admit that the moody late forties nightscape of San Francisco as dramatized in the Bogart-Becall film, Dark Passage, grabs hold of my soul like the city once did in my youth. In it are so many lonely little people living out their lives in quiet little studio apartments inside tall buildings crowded together on tall foggy hills. And when I see a neon sign spelling Fosters Restaurant, I recall busing dishes there — before the city’s subtle sophistication gave way to the in-your-face crowd. Before cable cars hitting the turntable at Market and Powell, when only a few local residents waited to board them, became just another tourist attraction in Disneyland by the Bay.

Dark Passage takes escaped San Quentin prisoner Vincent Parry, played by Humphrey Bogart, into a city of sympathetic loners and opportunists, none of them attached to anybody. Which makes it a searing portrait of shared loneliness: a cabby with a heart played by Tom D’Andrea; a wry plastic surgeon kicked out of the medical profession, brilliantly essayed by Housely Stevenson; Parry’s best and only friend, out-of-work musician George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson), who dreams of playing his trumpet down in South America; and Irene Jansen (Lauren Becall), a woman who knows that Parry is innocent of the charges that sent him to prison and will risk anything to help him escape the nightmare.

Redemption: It arrives in promising degrees: in a bus station where a lonely man bonds with a lonely woman and her kids; and in South America, where the two leads — well, you must go there yourself.

There is so much more here — for one thing, the story unfolds tautly with not a wasted moment — which makes it hard to understand why this film was so ill reviewed when it was first released. Surfing the net sixty years later, I find many contemporary fans. Count me one. Another superb film in this key is Bogart’s In A Lonely Place. Casablanca? I’ll take the other two. But then again, did I not mention the irrational viewing factor — Minor scenes meticulously shaped. Minor characters who create major moments. The utter cinematic perfection of Lauren Becall. A superb Franz Waxman and Max Steiner score that knows when to go silent. Stunning views of a stunning city. All of it so sadly perfect in black and white.

[originally posted 10/8/08]

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

OUT OF THE PAST: Midweek Midway Mix: John Ringling North II Tastes Chicago Success; Cirque Du Soleil Lays Monster Egg in Vegas? ... Big Top Bail Outs?

First published October 1, 2008 

 So you want to be a circus owner? So you think you got the goods? So go try your luck in tough fickle Chicago and then see. It’s a town of straw houses or raw houses. The late Cliff Vargas struggled for respect, mostly in vain. Binder and Christensen, whose Big Apple Circus should have done well there, did not. Left ‘em humbled. No, sir, the windy city can turn on your tents like a sub prime nightmare. Kelly-Miller just enjoyed near-full houses last weekend, and that’s something to Ringling about — or John R. North about. (It’s that Feld Entertainment litigation thing, you know.) Nonetheless, JRN II dared to tell a reporter along the road that it was time to return to the family business. “When you are born in the circus,” said he, “you might go away but you never forget.”

Guy Laliberte may be wondering if he’s losing it, or overextending his global ambitions following the rocky launch of his latest Vegas entry, evidently a flimsy thing called Believe at the Luxor starring tv illusionist Criss Angel. Opening night crowds dozed off ... Down the Don Covington chute comes a story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal noting a dreadful reception. London fans flying over to preen for the premiere were left mumbling unpretty expletives to themselves. “Dude, it’s a train wreck,” groaned one. This I think more than ever: Guy Laliberte sold 20% to Dubai because he’s dug himself into a hole, having promised too many venues too many new shows that he suddenly lacks the money to fund. Believe may bear the tell tale marks of a famished Montreal kitty. Or has the dude lost his billions in high stakes poker “derivatives”? Might Canada have to bail out its famed circus reinventer? CDS’s infallible image could erode fast with bad word-of-mouth getting stuck to any of its teflon tents.

Talk about deception, why I like the Bandwagon: It’s unafraid, as I see it, to disclose historical truths, and now it’s Ringling’s turn to be sullied with the onus of shortchanging rituals. In my gut, I can’t imagine the Ringling family ever tolerating this, although surely John Ringling North sensed its sketchy existence; we know he tried up until the final canvas days to root canal it. Anyway, I applaud the courage of ticket seller Bill Taggart and the straight ahead Pfennigs for telling the story. After all, unfair to point fingers at others and give Ringling a Sunday school pass. Speaking of grift, Lane Talburt takes on more of Ben Davenport, whose notoriously crooked and ultimately self-destructive Daley Bros. Circus has always been a vexing artistic enigma to me. Talburt makes it crystal clear how flagrantly crooked an operation the man ran. And another reason why (Norma, please turn away, I love you forever), Mr. D’s shocking addition to the anybody-can-be-honored Sarasota Ring of Fame has reduced that sideshow circle down to junk bond status. No wonder why, when I took a bus out there a couple of years ago, the driver had never heard of the place.

Big tops may be shrinking, not the books about them. Cheering the epic photo spread of The Circus: 1870-1950, Amazon reviewer Jack Hunter weighs this laptop library in at about 20 pounds. Which makes me wilt and wonder, does the book arrive in sections preceded by a flying squadron table of contents? Next in the parade comes Raffaele De Ritis of Italy, with a new tome in Italian, Storia del Circo. 580 pages, 300 illustrations. Sounds like a pocket book compared to the other giant. I think I’d rather learn Italian than take up weight lifting.

End ringers: Water for the Elephants, the best selling novel set in the depression, set for the big screen by Fox ... Big Apples’ latest, Play On!, uncorking to a warm notice in the Washington Post. Show has returnee Guimming Meng, who works a thirty five pound vase on his nimble noggin. This is one of the best realized acts I’ve ever seen. Perfect in form, development, execution and crowning climax. Another item on the BAC bill, identical twin brother jugglers, Marty and Jake LaSalle, set to go their separate ways at the end of the season, one into med school. Why do I feel strangely uninspired? Nobody walks out on the circus, dudes! ...

Thank you Barbara Byrd, for bringing your Carson and Barnes Circus to San Francisco, city of my birth. You turned a Cow Palace parking lot into sacred asphalt for me, for that’s were I will have likely witnessed my last three ring circus if you stick to your downsizing threats. Rues local fan Adaline, sharing my sadness, "I too, felt as though I was watching a moment in history." In 1948, RBBB played the Palace for the first time and turned ‘em away by the thousands. 1955: I saw Big Bertha there for the first time in an arena, the day after the only day I ever saw Big Bertha under canvas. In fact, it was in SF. where I saw my first circus, at the Civic Auditorium (Shrine produced by Polack and Stern, who loom much higher than many Ring of Fame inductees).

Lastly, under Buckle’s big tent (I should sneak in more often), I discovered some rumoring about JRN II only having the K-M title for two years, and then what, wondered one? Proposed another, why not “John Ringling North presents The Circus.” Not so easy, I fear, in the shadows of the Feld lawsuit, which I have to assume, given what I see, has restricted North’s use of his full name. Might have to be “John R. North, permission granted by K. Feld, presents the circus formerly known as R. Brothers Barnum & Bailey.” And here he is in person, daring to visit the big cage with Kelly Miller cat man Casey McCoy. Note to a matriculating tycoon: Not so sure about your Clyde Beatty impression. I see more of a slack wire walker in you, or maybe a little rolly bolly. But, please, don't go near the hula hoops ...

And that’s a wrap that needs a bailout — by tomorrow, Mr. Paulson, or this tent blows down.