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, March 27, 2009

$5 Big Show Garden Tickets ... 25% Cirque du Soleil Vegas Discounts ... The Year of Ringling? The Year of Cole? The Season is On!

Ringling is now in New York, feted with a welcome notice from the The New York Times, profiled in depth about its recent court appearances and high-profit margins despite the down times. This new edition I find intriguing, what with the big elephant escape act, more magic, and lots of other circusy stuff ... You can, if you’re lucky, grab a five dollar ticket with a special coupon, and, once inside, spend the money you saved on the sky-high concession prices. But good news! According to Big Show boss, Kenneth Feld, the concession charges are the same as last year. Oh, boy, I can still nab a designer snow cone for $12.00. Does this not demonstrate the redemptive power of popcorn and lemonade on even our mightiest midway? ... “We are the Wall Mart of the entertainment business, affordable to everyone,” states Mr. Feld. For everyone, I might add, who brings their own snow cone machine, thank you. ... He’s one shrewd operator, and I’m thinking this might be a good year for Big Bertha ... Even VIP fees for Cirque du Soleil in Vegas, according to the Times, “are, unthinkably, being discounted.” Indeed, the CDS website offers 25% discounts to Mystere, Ka, and Love.

Also, the season underway might be a fine year for John and Brigitte Pugh, whose ever-changing show title still includes the word “Cole.” They’ve revamped their website into a fresh buzz, and they're talking up their 125 year history with pride. And these two sawdust souls hardly look as if they have any intention of walking away soon. What’s best, they’ve got Columbia's Toprasta Troupe performing the 7-high pyramid walk on the high wire, along with a neat assortment of features from camels to cannons ... Pugh waxes high still on monitoring crowd reactions: “In addition to conducting formal surveys, John observes how people react to individual acts, and he listens to comments made by circus goers as they exit the tent following the show’s conclusion.” ...

Out of the past: Once there was an opening night for Barnum & Bailey’s revolutionary first three-ring opus, back at Madison Square Garden in 1881, and it was met with a mixture of awe, disorientation and a sense of inevitability. The Bandwagon’s Fred D. Pfennig III, in the current issue, reprints two reviews, one a virtual puff piece from the New York Clipper, the other a real review from the New York Dramatic News. Began the scribe, “At last Mr. Barnum’s name is attached to the greatest show on earth in reality as well as upon paper.” But this discriminating critic did not shy away from airing acute reservations, such as a broadside against talking joeys. “There was a long line of clowns stretched through Monday evening, and they were the best we ever saw, probably for a reason that we could not hear a solitary word that they said.” He tossed kudos to one of the jesters for having dressed up as a roustabout and “getting into the way of the others when they were spreading and taking up the carpets ... This is the first new thing in clowns that has been introduced since circuses were first invented.”

All things in time wear out and need rethinking. They witnessed it then, and we are witnessing it now. It’s a new season, and Carson & Barnes is headed for California in their new one-ring setup. Who knows what unexpected excitement may right now be coming our way.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: How Sweet the Soviet Sawdust -- Thirty Years Ago

How well I remember the gifted wild animal trainer who now runs what is left of the old Soviet Circus empire and is virtually begging for a government bailout. One frosty October evening thirty years ago after interviewing him following a performance of the New Circus in Moscow, he offered to give me a ride back to my hotel. Sharp frosty night air. Safe darkness over quiet streets. He and his wife. I and my interpreter, Tanya (seen here, above, with her son, Sergei). The four of us inside a luxurious automobile (Russian made, I think). Discretely privileged, careful not to overplay our status. How feted by fortune I felt. If only they knew what my “day job” was back in the States.

My interviewee, who was one of the first to graduate from the Lunacharsky State Theatrical Institute, had spoken in gracious tones about the good life under socialist big tops. A paycheck every week, a nice pension to look forward to. Freedom and time to create new acts, renew old turns. And for some, the opportunity to tour the world and reap international acclaim.

On a research mission for my book, Circus Rings Around Russia, I’d just taken in another imposing circus performance, during which the young man now at the wheel of his car had astonished me with a most endearing and clever novelty: a flirtatious elephant wagging the tail of a tiger with its big trunk. So simple, and yet so wonderful. The kind of a moment we who frequent such amusements live for.

The trainer who after the show had turned himself into my personal chauffeur was none other than Mstislav Zapashny, today's director of the Russian State Circus Company. Our conversation continued as we motored over the streets of Moscow. Clearly, the subtext of Mstislav’s remarks compared the utopian Soviet sawdust scene to all the other places on the map where acrobats and tiger trainers struggled to eck out a living.

“The possibilities of our artists are unlimited,” said Mstislav, relaxed and polite, proud and grateful.

Not so "unlimited" any more. Now, Zapashny, who manages some 40 circuses throughout the country, is fighting for a little of the respect and a lot of the old government money that he and his circus colleagues once took for granted when Soyuzgostsirk operated over sixty permanent arenas. That was before the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years later. Now, Zapashny is telling Izvestia Daily that what remains of that once-thriving phenomenon, unprecedented in size and scope, teeters on the edge of oblivion. Circuses are “counting very much on government support,” he warns.

The gifted animal man argues that the circus deserves as much backing as the opera and ballet companies which play the Bolshoi Theatre, itself currently closed down for a $700 million state-funded renovation. “The Bolshoi is a global brand, nobody disputes that. But isn’t our circus just as strong a brand?”

Yes, Mstislav, at least it once was. No argument there. Cry, comrade, cry.

“The good tradition appears to be fading into the past. For some reason Russia’s presidents are leaving the circus to the side. And this is bad.”

As Zapashny sees it, circus entertainment is good for the soul, especially during times of great economic distress.

“Humanity has yet to invent a better antidepressant.”

When Zapashny drove up to the Ukraine Hotel that far away night to let me out, I thanked him and he drove off. Wonderful ride. Wonderful utopian interlude. Could either of us have guessed what a different road he would be driving thirty years later?

[Photos taken in 1979, from the top: Street scene in Moscow (that's my favorite of all the photos I took during my trip); Sergei and Tanya Matveeva, at the Kremlin Place of Congresses -- they took me that evening to see a ballet; Showbiz David in the circus museum at the Leningrad circus building; In a circus lobby; at the Leningrad Circus museum -- Museum director Alexander Levin, center; circus director Alexei Sonin, far right; Mstislav Zapashny, 2002, from a Buckles Blog/Henry Penndorf 2007 posting]


Friday, March 20, 2009

Saturday Flashes: Ringling Canvas over Coney? ... Kelly-Miller Tigers & Clowns Deliver Socko Payoffs ... Mud Show Apologists Try My Patience ...

2016 Update: If you want to learn a whole lot about how to fairly watch any circus, I urge you to read the late Henry Edgar's comment, posted below.

Here comes talk once more of a big top labeled Ringling, this time linked to fading tattered old Coney Island, where kids can still ride one of the best roller coasters that ever was. In my extreme youth, I loved the monster. Seems that the Feld machine is negotiating, kind of, and the hurdles hit upon concern concession rights. Oh, how Hugo apt! (Thanks a ton, Don Canvas Covington, for keeping me up on this one). ... And where might Big Bertha rise again? Over the recently finally once and for all put out of its glitzy misery Astroland. I hated that title from the get go. I remember as a wee boy being swept up into the sky on the Wonder Wheel and dropping down back to earth on the big parachutes ... My grandma, who made girdles for Brooklyn ladies and dames (charging them per her on-the-spot perceptions of their bank accounts) took me there. Will Kenneth Feld concoct another lame-brain title that nobody but he digs? Here's one: Barnum's Coneyscope.

Kelly-Miller in bits and pieces (Grit my teeth, I tell myself, those mud show apologists are now glued to every word I am about to utter. I sleuthed out two You Tube videos, one of Casey McCoy's classy tiger act, with a set of tenderly integrated tiger maneuvers that hereby crown the man as a minor if not major master. He's the real McCoy. I’d seen his two-tiger hind-leg walk and noted my appreciation (and it wasn’t, thank the Gods, interrupted by a Peterson Peanut Pledge break) ... Here, more of the act is revealed. McCoy's persona is closer to an elegant ice skater than that of the macho cage man. And he has a remarkable way of appearing to be almost whispering to his smoothly compliant charges. Through line: One tiger does a backward hind-leg walk and tucks himself neatly between two seated tigers. Then all three sit up, and the two exterior cats rise up onto their hind legs and hop forward. So seamlessly joined (with “music” leaving a lot to be desired), it gets four stars from me ... Clowns? I saw the shovel gag. Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs have some whimsical interlocking movements AND a payoff that still tickles me picturing it. The ringmaster, traditionalist John Moss, having told them no more shovels and don’t hurt anyone, ends up walking into the ring with a large arrow sticking out of his proper posterior and evidently not even knowing it! (No, no, we won't take that any farther.) These visual gags tickle ... Rest of the show? Have no idea, other than its tour so far sounding messy, what with changing lot conditions and acts coming and going ... I'll continue on the You Tube front ...

"Anonymous," I’m not your “dude”! Or am I? Makes me feel young and edgy when somebody too too courageous to list a name hides behind "anonymous" to call me "dude" and take me on over my agitating views on the coloring book issue. A, consider yourself lucky I let you in. When it comes to anonymity, I’m going to allow myself a kingly capriciousness in deciding whether to publisher or toss. Says A, "Obviously, you've never been on the road.” Well, a few times, maybe in it. And, furthermore, says A, “So GET over yourself, please!” Okay, A, now why don’t you tell that to your friend and idol Steve, for it was he I was quoting, he who cried out through the depths of post-concession pitch desolation, “stupid coloring books!” And, A, I was actually sympathizing with your guy. Now, as for Steve's blog being just for an adoring circle (and my not being welcome there), I did not have to sign up to view it, and I practice journalism with the times, wherever I can find it. You need to calm down and smell the nuances — anonymously. BTW, is John Ringling North II still on the show?

"Mud show" apologists, paaaaleze. I am tired of a certain school of troupers who endlessly drop this pathetic term to justify all manner of show-stopping interruptions. When I hear the term, I think of that boring book about the Hoxie Circus, which did not thrill me the one time I saw it ... Why can't they bear me? Fact is, if there were more mes out there, I would not seem so extreme. Plus, many of these so-called mud shows likely never ever face the harsh lights of a real review; they year after year read the White Tops and Circus Report, and they hear the fans up and down trails telling them how wonderful they are, and I guess they believe it. And, know what? All of this collective gush may blind them to reality. Have a cup of bitter tea ...

End ringers, Tranquility Mao for me: A show around Broadway, Humor Abuse, by one time Pickle Family Circus clown, Lorenzo, son of PFC founder Larry, engaging an impressed New York Times critic. (Not sure what the White Tops will say.) About many things. The kid had a hard time cooping with the collapse of his parents marriage; so did Larry, who told me that’s what he most regrets about his years helming a once charming little San Francisco show. I rue its demise. It was like pure sunshine over pure green grass on a pure summer day ...

Britney (why do I even drop her sleazy name on my pure midway?), okay the gal toured a kids hospital in Miami (good going, gal) and she handed over a big check to Big Apple Circus. What next for Brit? A Peterson lap dance during elephant rides? ... And here’s news of a thriving circus and school up in Minnesota land, Circus Juventas. Now and then, these scholarly acro-gyms float into my skeptical view, and maybe one day they will teach themselves how to turn out first rate ring stars ... Ringling Zing getting its pr due in NY. Director of record Shanda Sawyer, “It’s a very ambitious show with many layers: the acts; the story, the transitional moments, the magic.” But will it have any real payoffs? I'm eager to check out the new Zingmaster guy, who sounds refreshingly off axis ... Yeah, off axis might be Feld's big breakthrough. ... I’m still giggling over the John Moss arrow-recipient-of-the-year walk ...

And that’s a muddy wrap, folks!

[photos: Astroland, New York Times; Casey McCoy and John Ringling North II; Circus Jeventas photo; "Zingmaster" Alex Ramon and Levitytia, in TheatreMania, Feld Entertainment photo]

First posted: March 20, 2009

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Three-Ring Speculator: Has Binder Cloned Himself? Is Feld Telling the Truth? Can Copeland Survive Coloring Book Duty?

Ring Number One: In the latest issue of Spectacle, there is a telling interview conducted by Ernest Albrecht with outgoing Big Apple Circus director Paul Binder and his protege in waiting, Guillaume Dufresnoy. Intentional or not, it produces a rather bland portrait of the new BAC top man. Dufresnoy, in fact, appears so determined not to bust the Binder book that I have to wonder if the power still resides with the founding ringmaster, whose exit never made sense to me. Mr. B. lends a clear impression that he is not going gently into any night. “I will be working directly with the board of directors on special projects and new projects.” Sure, Paul, and keeping your options open for a rescue return — just in case your protege buddie fails to follow your subliminal signals? Says Dufresnoy, temporizing away, “I am not here to create something else, to completely change everything ... But simply because I’m a different person, I’m going to do things slightly differently.” And should we stress “slightingly?” Sounds a tad timid to me, unless Dufresnoy has a hidden agenda to shake up the tent once his footing is firm. Binder’s comments make it sound as if he and Dufresnoy have held the power, not he and one Michael Christensen, curiously absent from this curious exit interview. It’s all about the nuances, and I’m starting to regard the new ringmaster-in-chief as only “slightly” more than a Binder clone. Of course, that could be all for the good. I mean, would you want a Circus Oz clone on the lot? Or a Hugo, Oklahoma clone? Keep it “slightly,” Mr. D.

Ring Number Three: Kenneth Feld’s concession in a court of law that investigations of animal abuse at his circus were not always reported to him left me — here comes that word again — devastated, as devastated as when I learned that John Ringling North II condones clowns pitching concessions. All along, in fantasy land again, whatever I thought about this Feld, who has a dark and devious side, I was convinced he had a firm handle on every detail about animal care. What an illusion! Or has this Feld fudged on the truth so that, if instances of actual abuse are brought to light, he can claim never having been apprised of such? Don’t ever forget that he and his late father Irvin are two of the most savvy media manipulators who ever hit the midway.

Center Ring: Here comes Kelly-Miller clown and blogger Steve Copleand with an arm full of coloring books to peddle during intermission, and a soul devoid of conviction. I have felt a tension over this intrusive issue rising from “not thrilled about" to Copeland's recent complaint, “I can't wait for Raul to get here and take over the stupid coloring books!" Now, as I’ve noted, this circus has a way of attracting tell-all bloggers. So far, Copeland gives us a pretty good account of business (night shows drawing more people than the early ones impress me -- good word of mouth, maybe?), but not one word so far about the other acts, about what he might think of them or how they are going over with the audience. Okay, here's my compromise on the Peterson Peanut front: why not rotate pitch duty among various performers? Why not one intermission the juggler? The next, the tiger man, and so on? Or do clowns not count on the same level as performers? Just wondering, if I might ...

Now, to put this all in petty perspective. Frankly, I’m not a Copeland groupie. I’m a Ringling North II groupie, and so I read on with interest, wondering what the clown-in-residence might say about the owner-in-residence, about any observations of or interactions with the top man. Were it not for a Ringling running Kelly Miller (in and out of the weeds through Texas) I’d likely not be following the adventures of Steve and Ryan, though they do put you right onto the lots. Just the same, I soldier on through the sink gags and the sore throats (with the latter I can identify, Steve), on good days and bad, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, with or without water.

[Photos, from the top: Paul Binder and Guillaume Defresnoy, Spectacle magazine photo by Maike Schulz; a photo from Ringling's Over The Top program magazine; Combs and Copeland, in Roma, Texas, from their blog]

Monday, March 09, 2009

Broadway’s Latest Bid for Golden Age Respectability: Revivals of West Side Story and Guys and Dolls May Fail to Redeem a Bleak Season ...

With the arrival of Guys and Dolls and West Side Story, my story line going in was to have been "Great White Way proves why it ruled the world of musical theatre in the fifties."

Drop that one. Guys and Dolls didn't revive very well, just opening to reviews that, upon quick perusal, do not look good at all.

West Side Story is still safely in previews, dancing towards a March 19 opening night. Best of all — theoretically speaking — Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original libretto, is directing. Hopefully, he will not deconstruct a masterpiece as can be the case when directors, anxious to prove how relevant they still can be at the age of 90, tamper with original materials and render them botched up resurrections. They’re talking a lot about honoring Jerome Robbins’ brilliant choreography in Sunday's New York Times. On one hand, they seem to say, we must do it his way. On the other, but wait a moment, they have their own fresh vision to apply -- just here and there, you know. Sure, I know. And they are tinkering with certain scenes. Sure. Open the door to rethinking and you risk rethinking your way into obscurity. Still, as of this perilous moment, I'm banking on a blockbuster revival for the musical that virtually changed Broadway.

And yet, I have alternate Story Line Number Three, just in case: Will yet another revival of Hair, the '60s hippie songfest slated to make another try for retro respectability, this time resonate with tourists and towners? That's the musical that dares to sing of things I dare not mention. Here's the angle in its sleazy favor: American society, careening over a rigged 401K cliff into economic ruin, finds solace and closure in long-hair tuner celebrating free love in drugged out communes over crass materialism. This was one of the anti-musicals that gutted Old Broadway, following which Stephen Sondheim held court with his fan club until Andrew Lloyd Webber arrived to fill up theatres again.

Don’t count on the Age of Aquarius to save anything. Who really wants to go back to the '60s? I’m advancing to story line numbered 10: I hate being such a picky nuisance in mentioning: the golden age does not always look as golden as it was touted to be. After all, now and then the New York of today delivers terrific new tuners that have it in spades – examples, if you’ll pardon me for daring to affirm a few: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, In the Heights, Light in the Piazza, among some newer musicals that have totally engaged me and, from which in exit mode, I did not rue the past but cheered the present.

Broadway, get back to work on the present tense. No, make that present tune.

Friday, March 06, 2009

From Out of the Past: Fri. Nite L’Amyxery: Kelly-Miller’s 4 Shows-A-Day Blitz ... Feld's Troubling Testimony ... . Peanuts and Clowns, and a Word for Irving J. Polack ...

First published March 6, 2009

Spring is tenting up all over, on grassy lots (sometimes) and weeds, and in ominous courtrooms ... Covington Connected, I’m looking with sad concern at an AP report of Kenneth Feld’s candor in a courtroom, answering charges of alleged bull-hook abuse. Aside from the Big Man’s affectionate deference to those audience-pleasing elephants (he claims they are "the mainstay" of the circus), I was surprised to hear him concede, under cross examination, that, according to the story, “the company has no policy to make sure he’s personally aware of abuse investigations.” He also admitted having reprimanded an employee back in 1994 for using a “hot shot” (electric prod), but keeping the guy on the pachyderm payroll. Men who can control the bulls are hard tome come by, said he under oath. Let’s let this one pass; it’s not the sort of news I would have hoped to hear ...

John Ringling North II wants lots lots lots of shows, and that would be four-a-day for the upcoming great circus parade gig in Milwaukee. Yes, I said, not three, but four. I’ve never heard of such a stretch, have any of you? Who other than Frank Sinatra in his prime did such duty? A certain mysterious source, commenting here under the shingle “Clark Kent Reporting,” rumored that in one of the early K-M dates, performers were modestly tipped for a fourth show and weren’t jumping cartwheels to the bank. How might they feel about the Milwaukee marathon? ...

Pity the Peanut. About my anger-inducing confession of having been devastated by the news that North II condones his Kelly-Miller clowns pushing coloring books and peanuts, what a parade of divided feedback flew my windy way, most of it minus profanity, thank you. Here, just for a sampling, are a few comments that reflect a range of views:

From Casey McCoy Cainan: “Wow!!! A man’s ability as a showman is being judged by having clowns sell color books.” Well, not exactly, Mr. Cage Man. Yeah, I did shamelessly bleed my depression over what seems an affront to Ringling blood, calling it a "clue" (but not a final judgement) to Mr. North’s showmanship. I haven’t yet seen the show, and if I do, perhaps I will attend under the witness protection program, or go, for the first time (there’s always a first, no matter one’s age) in drag. Whew...

From Greg DeSanto: “I am completely against clowns in particular, but really performers in general, having to work pitches as part of their art ... Can it be done in a less invasive way to the performance? I'd like to think so.” How about inserting these pledge breaks into the ever-expanding intermissions?

From Johnny: "If BAC Circus does put on a performance without having to resort to a pitch in a one ring show, why can't KM?"

Now, from Paul H. came the most persuasive sentiment, and perhaps I should adopt Paul’s retro attitudes: “I’ve attended and loved mud shows all my life. The pitches, concert announcements, banners (Remember those? -- yes, Paul) are all part of the ambiance.” I found Paul's unabashed support of a stagnating tradition actually rather charming, and I might try making it my new and improved mantra.

Our resident sawdust scholar, Ben Trumble, promises, re the above topic, to delve into the history of this revnue-enhancing ordeal that Hugo shows seem determined to keep alive until life ends not with a bang -- but with the last peanut pitch. “I fully intend to write about the storied history of the peanut pitch from George Washington Carver to George Washington ‘Popcorn George’ Hall.” A mighty U. of Hugo monograph maybe, Sir Ben?

Yes, Irving Polack, Yes! My tribute reaped a little grateful respect. This from John Herriott recalling one of the most underrated and forgotten circus kings: “I J Polack was a gambler and loved a crap or poker game in the mens dressing room and one time he lost the whole circus on a throw of the dice to Bo Bo Barnett and later Bo Bo lost it back to him on another turn of the dice."

“No greater group of outstanding acts have ever been or ever will be seen in the American one ring circus," says says Herriot, mentioning such icons as Unus, Frances Brunn, Victor Julian. I saw them all, so young and yet not too young to instinctively sense their greatness. And their greatness has haunted my circus going days every since.

End Ringers: Cirque du Soleil now mounting under David Shiner's direction what looks like a nuevo vaudeville show for a New York stage (they are calling it Vaudeville), yet extending its tentacles into other venues. I have to wonder if Cirque ticket sales in Dubai and Vegas aren’t hurting a tad or a ton ... Alberto Zoppe, loved by so many and of that great riding family, onto the Big Lot on March 5 at the age of 87. Zoppe once headlined with Polack, and again, I am reminded of the gifted wizards over sawdust who have inspired me so. Whatever happened, while we’re at it, to Cuccilo? ... A London township lifting an animal circus ban, and perhaps the tide is really turning back in favor of a full-service menagerie ... And blind kids getting the rare chance to touch Ringling’s mighty mammoths ... And Cole Bros Circus, still produced by John and Brigitte Pugh, whistling up its 130th anniversary edition on March 20 in Deland. And the Dalli Lama continuing on, I think, over there in Pat's eccentric Clown Alley. He’s more inspiring than my in-house philosopher, Krishnamurti ... But my man will gladly lecture four or more times a day. He loved an audience. Maybe they made it easier for him to believe in his bewildering befuddlements ...