Thursday, April 30, 2009

New York: You’ve Got Circus! ... Steve and Ryan, You've Got My Au Revoir ...

Live in New York and still not circused out? Wait a few days, maybe only a few hours, and another troupe will come spangling into view. Beware of pachyderm poo. Look both ways when crossing Broadway; Thespians now share the street with jugglers. More circuses are on the way whether you like it or not. They are coming because, suddenly, the Big Apple is the Big Prize for big tops.

Guy Laliberte, King of Montreal, just won’t go away, even if (or maybe because) you have yet to show him the love he takes for granted in other cities. Reports in The New York Times are that Cirque du Soleil’s Wintuk at Madison Square Garden theatre over the holidays drew 20 percent less biz than the previous year. And whatever Ringling-Barnum managed to bring off at the Garden, Kenneth Feld is another you’re-not-done-with-me-yet producer. He’ll be back come June. Back at Coney Island under a tent. This is part of a big Bloomberg vision – something about the sawdust ring reviving a broken down seasize boardwalk that once drew millions, including me. Feld Entertainment "hopes" for a three- to five-year run. A circus saving a carnival? Anybody want to bet me a bag of Peterson peanuts?

Back to Mr. Guy. Our globally obsessed mogul just can’t get enough shows up to quench his thirst for ubiquity. Some insiders are wondering if he is not running the risk of overextending his hand. Doesn't matter. This man is burning up inside to make Metropolis a Second Home. Seems that his Dubai visions have stalled. Laliberte tried grabbing a hunk of real estate at Pier 40. Escrow was no go. “Dead,” he told the Times in a remarkable fit of candor. “So instead, you come in by the back door, or even a window.” So, homeless in Manhattan, Mr. Guy is settling for rentals (with that I can identify), to wit, his Grand Interim Plan:

February, 2010: CDS opens a vaudeville show at the Beacon Theatre, to be directed by David Shiner, with a book and score by pros, and slated to run more than a few weeks, assuming the public doesn’t run away.

2011: CDS tumblers and ticklers cavort at Radio City Music Hall over a four-month frame. Another ambitious “annual” outing. Half of each year will see the troupe touring Paris or London, if not Hugo.

Up there interviewing in the Laliberte latitudes, NYT reporter Glen Collins did learn from Cirque’s Genius-in-Chief that sinking biz in Vegas is “a scary crisis.”

Heck, with our two biggest big tops battling it out for Big Apple Bragging Rights, and what with all the lesser lights (Birdhouse Factory, Casual Cal, etc.) vying for a shred of the I'll-Take-Manhattan market, not to mention the well established Big Apple Circus (remember them?), maybe poor old Kelly-Miller can find a vacant clump of mud on a street corner and break some daily bread.

Speaking of which, going end ring here, (yeah, this one’s ending sooner than you might have expected, but you’ve still got popcorn and tea, I trust) ... Other morning on a walk, I was struck by an epiphany. I’d just got my daily Steve Copeland fix and it just struck me, I’ve been there done that a thousand times, and I get the dude’s drift, and so why do I keep returning to the blog? What kicked my hollow habit was Copeland’s rants. He’s a clown who just can’t resist critiquing audience reactions, mainly those that come at he and partner Ryan Combs. But when he ranted on about a convention of cellphone addicts coming between the crowds and the show, that did it for me. I had to leave the tent, and haven't been back since ... One more wonderment and then I’ll hang up this touchy issue for a while: Why would a circus allow one of its performer-bloggers to define (if not sully) any positive advance imagery they are endeavoring to cast? And why do they even allow customers to twitter and twat while the show goes on? I have my own Big Idea: Why not a blog from John Ringling North II? Why not a circus owner telling it like it is from his point of view? Now, would that get me up even earlier!

Where was I before getting twittered into a snit? Oh yes, Mr. Lalaiberte was, while chain smoking, granting the Times a glimpse of his burning ambition to take the Big Apple once and for all. I told Don Convington, who links me to a lot of these news breaks, how I envy him being in the middle of it all. Answering back, said Don, “we are living in interesting times."

[photo above: Artist's rendering of the Ringling Coney Island set up]

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kenneth Feld’s Dubious Coney Gamble Could Dramatically Reverse Ringling History ...

Showbiz David Speculates

Kenneth Feld, finally, has found a tent in which he can feel at home. I am thinking the one on its way from Europe to America, to be pitched over Coney Island when Feld's smaller Gold Unit will appear during the summer at the sagging seaside resort.

Forget Kalaidoscape. As good as this Cirque du Soleil spin-off struck some as being, the man who for a moment wanted to go upscale and grab a part of the CDS market soon lost heart. Mr. Feld, I believe, simply realized how little patience or flair he has for such artfully crafted things, and how far better he is at the art of populist marketing. When recently, talking to a reporter, Feld described his operation, not without a touch of pride, as the Wall Mart of the circus world, I think the statement showed that he has come to terms with both the limitations and advantages of his native commercial instincts. He is a shrewd corporate animal, partly carved from his father’s example. Of late, he has demonstrated an interesting, if not always impressive, ability to shake things up as never he did before, and to tinker with a radical redesign of the Ringling performance format. Part of this is no doubt driven by the changing look of circuses world wide; part by shrinking crowds, arguably driven off by the constant PETA protests. Kenneth Feld's bolder moves may lead to novel excitement.

Now as for the Coney Island gig, I doubt this will work out long term. The location and time of the year strike me as wrong wrong wrong. Yes, Big Apple Circus does well each Holiday season, so perhaps Ringling can find a viable market across the hot summer months, assuming the tent is air-cooled. Somehow, I don’t see it happening. And New York may be saturated out, what with Ringling’s annual Madison Square Garden date preceded by the Big Apple and the Cirque Wintuk multi-month runs over the Holiday season. Come summer time, who is going to be in the mood to take in yet another circus?

What may happen, however, is an eventual move — are you ready? — for Big Bertha (remember her?) back to the big top.

Okay, stand up and cheer; or stay seated and jeer my naivete.

The American return to a single ring has posed problems for the producers who rent huge auditoriums. Pity the arena circus. As crowds thin out (and here I am assuming they are from what I have seen), these shows look lonelier than ever, what with so much space to fill and so little with which to fill it.

Feld’s first ringless circus, the oddball 2006 outing, was fairly pathetic, drawing valid negative notices from big city critics. But the producer listened to his patrons -- one of his reigning traits -- and continues to make audience-appealing changes.

Might Mr. Feld eventually decide that he will have to return to the tents in order to stay viable economically? I’m not sure. But I would not rule out such a dramatic reversal of Ringling circus history.

When John Ringling North, over fifty years ago, declared the tented circus as it then existed, to be “a thing of the past,” what weighted on Mr. North’s mind was being able to maintain the lavish three-ring format that he had elevated to such visual rapture. Under a hard top, he could afford what he could no longer afford under acres of costly canvas.

But that was then. Now, five decades later, we are down to one ring. Now, those huge arenas no longer seem as necessary or nearly as flattering, not when so few of the seats get taken.

Look beyond Coney to a possible new -- or older day -- for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Friday Nite L’Amyx: An Obit Made in Feld Heaven? ... Kelly Miler’s Asphalt-Averse Flyers? ... Cirque’s Insects in Spandex ... By the Byrds Blessed ...

Where do we start after all this time away? Let’s salute Barbara Byrd’s routing inspirations. Last year she pitched the last American three ring tented circus in the city of my dubious birth, San Francisco, out there at the Cow Palace. Now Lady Byrd is bringing her new one-ring Carson and Barnes compact to another of my boyhood settings, fifty miles north in Santa Rosa.. At the fairgrounds come June, and maybe on sacred sawdust: the very spot, I hope, where Clyde Beatty threw up bannerlines when I was oh-so-young. What symmetry!

What is it about John Ringling North II’s lack of an advance sense that gives me pause? Take a look at Kelly-Miller's revamped blog and you’ll see a mishmash of photos both old and new, and a pull down window to check upcoming cities that turn out to be yesterday’s towns. From Steve Copeland’s breezy diary in blog form, seems this show feasts on muddy lots. And that’s the only place where you’ll see the flyers fly, for over asphalt they haven’t the rigging they need. The show can‘t plant stakes into cement, so instead of a flying return, customers get a flat trampoline workout. Now, is this anyway to run a circus that supposedly prides itself on offering a full-course program? I’d say it isn’t ... I’ve expressed high hopes for the return of the house of Ringling, but I am starting to feel like this one may be half empty. Pray for Milwaukee mud ...

UPDATE CLARIFICATION from Kelly-Miller's manager Jim Royal: "Our flying act, the Fernandes Family, can work on asphalt. It is when (perhaps twice a season) when we are on concrete and the owner of said concrete, won't allow us to drive stakes that we have problems." What can I say; evidently, I got the wrong impression from several references that Copeland has made to the issue.

Bad times for circus biz? Not so for Cirque du Soleil or Ringling-Barnum, both claiming to be doing just fine despite a depressionary climate. Cirque's Daniel Lamarre states "Crowds are still coming out to be entertained." As for the financial crisis, "it's certainly not hurting us." Over to Kenneth Feld, who told the Atlanta Business Journal, "it's the biggest year we've ever had." ... These entertainment giants are, to be sure, offering steeply discounted tickets here and there. ... And what to make of the three-month Ringling run under canvas at Coney Island? Says I, there is more to this than meets the midway, so I’m taking it to center ring a town or two up the road ...

Cirque Du Soleil insects, starring in the new OVO, can be seen in video snippets on Sawdust Nights. So perfectly skilled as disguised acrobats, and yet, in their insect spandex, somehow they look strangely sterile and so lifeless as to make it feel like Cirque is disappearing into an abstract void. I hope not, for I admire the show’s courage to take big artistic chances ...

Default to the Feld Press Kit, Continued ...About the unfortunate recent passing of Tim Holst, at only 61, I know little about the man, except that his Mormon background seems to have given him the humanity that was obviously loved by many on the Ringling payrolls. I only know he was an outstanding ringmaster, whose red hat I wished he had never turned in for a desk job. Now, about the obituary in The New York Times, why do I sense the omnipotent hand of the Felds at work pulling strings in the background? We learn through a direct quote attributed to William B. Hall III, who should if anybody know better, that Mr. Holst was the man who first recruited soviet bloc artists into the rings of Ringling. Pardon me for once again bringing out John Ringling North, who in prolific concert with one Trolle Rhodin, began importing acts in 1965. Those gave the show a massive jolt of fresh blood, and the critics from NY to LA were wowed, and the show did great at the box office. This strikes me as a ploy to add another fake feather to the Feld scrapbook of fictions ... Am I the only one who cares?

Touched by a little concern, a little praise: Some e-mailed me, wondering what was going on since I haven’t been posting for weeks. One visitor to this blog reminded me of how I felt when I likewise wrote a while back to the missing-in-action Sawdust Kid (aka Logan Jacot), asking him if he was okay. In fact, I am gratefully, humbly, even, truth be told, fearfully blessed with pill-free health; Got caught up digging out the first draft of a new book. This blog was and will always be a hobby, to which I must now and then practice not being a slave ... Oddly enough, the stats haven’t dropped much. Well, when you’ve got the loyal 7 visitors that I have, what a loyal seven they are, even when I ignore them!

And that’s a late Friday night wrap from the tea tent where Boyi and Will, showering me with friendly attention during an empty house, suddenly were bombarded with teaaholics and swung back into tea tender mode ... Which is a good thing, because the place doesn't stock Peterson Peanuts or Ringling designer snow cones ...

Friday, April 03, 2009

Lonely Ahead of the Big Show: Ticket Seller Bill Taggart is Sent to Sell Advance Tickets for Ringling in 1955; Engaging Bandwagon Account Takes Us Back to Another Time, Another Place

Ringling-Barnum set new records at Madison Square Garden

Marilyn Monroe's famous appearance opening night at the Garden

 Ready for another day in the yellow ticket wagon: Bill Taggart. Bandwagon photo.

He was the ticket seller everybody liked.  Midway in Bill Taggart's 1955 season with Ringling, he  reaches an unexpected detour in the road. He is assigned to go on the advance ticket sales to fill in for another ticket seller on the sick bay.

The circus  employed seven men that season, who each leapfrogged, handling select dates, setting up a booth in a local store, staying there from a few days to sometimes over a week.

Taggart’s first town was an eight-day stint in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where he stayed at the Noble Hotel.  What a far cry from how the advance is worked today.

The Holidays spec, designed by Miles White.  Ted Sato photo.

Only 24-years-old,  the amiable young Ringling representative took the temporary stint in stride, yet he missed the action back on the lot, where he enjoyed the friendship of so many Big Show people, among them, the young Alfred Burton, Deiter Tasso and the Fredonia family. 

On Honolulu Bay featured the incomparable Pinito Del Oro

His account takes us into the cities, into its hotels and cafes, and he recalls the scarce presence of African Americans, who lived in the shadows, in fear.  On Ringling, the canvas went up and down, says Taggart, mainly because of the black men upon whom it critically relied. 

“I was well aware of the fact that I was in the segregated south, and you did not see blacks on the street at night and few in the daytime.  I remember the black porter who worked at the store where the advance sale was.  He was friendly, but shy.  No black ever bought advance sale tickets.”

Once the circus reached up with Bill, the next day he was sent ahead to his next stop, to handle the advance in Barrett’s drug store in Greenwood, Miss.  “I liked eating at the post office cafe ... There were lots of interest in the 1955 edition of the Greatest Show on Earth, and I was proud to be working ahead of the show.  I remember lots of middle aged and older people checking out my big top seating plan and by late in the afternoon I had a good first day ...”

Looking for a camera at the Greenwood Camera store, he made friends with a "sales chap," and at the drug store, with a young medical student it employed.  “Once in a while he joined me at the hotel for dinner and drinks.”                                                                                

At the last moment, the show changed lots -- moving west on Cutting Blvd. to Pt. Richmond. 

I’ve anxiously waited this particular season from  Taggart’s pen just to see how he  would treat the Richmond, CA date.  It was there where I saw Ringling-Barnum under the big top for the one and only time in my life.  His details are regretfully few.  In a season of many so-so days, few marked by great overflowing crowds, Taggart remembers strong customer turnout in Richmond. So do I.

“We had a fair matinee and a good house that night.”  Yes, it was very good at night. That was the performance I attended, and the tent seemed nearly full to me.

Bill's story has a quiet appeal for any good and hopeless Ringlingphile;  Because we are traveling on the Big Show, every little encounter can seem bigger than life. 

After working a few towns, Bill got to return to the show itself and resume his regular duties, some in the yellow ticket wagon.  But he proved to be a very fine goodwill ambassador ahead of the circus.   In one city, he was invited to talk about the circus several evenings on a local radio station.  It “helped to boost my ticket sale at the drug store.  I had dreams of becoming a pres agent like Frank Braden or a radio man like Bev Kelly.”

Off axis from Sweden: Everto, of Evy and Everto, on his Anglo-Cycle

And, then, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Bill was so liked by one Mr. and Mrs. Fincher, who dropped by the store to purchase reserved seat tickets, that a dinner invitation  ensued.  “Wow, I thought to myself, I was actually going to be in a real house.”  He became good friends with the Finchers, and they corresponded for many years.

Another meal in Ft. Lauderdale would prove to have historic meaning.

“No one could have possibly imagined that this was the last Thanksgiving dinner served by the great Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey cookhouse.”

The last full season was soon coming to an end.  Taggart’s graceful account, attractively illustrated in Bandwagon, with some of Severe Braathen’s brilliant color photography,  leaves us all with an up close and personal route book, complied by a young man liked by many who harbored visions of a career under the greatest of big tops. A career that, sadly, came to a sudden end when the big top came down for the last time, the following July, in Pittsburgh, PA.

[the color photography you see here, not ideally reproduced, first appeared in a lavish Life magazine spread "New Shine for the Circus" -- and, who knows, might not appear here for long]

posted circa 2010