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

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Morning with Showbiz David: What Value the Critic? A Mere Exercise in Ego?

A review is a very personal expression. Should be, otherwise it is as anonymous and bland as a corporate report, the synthetical product of group-think or a recycled press release. The idea of forming a composite of what a range of experts or consumers believe (similar to holding one’s fickle finger up to the wind) betrays the reality of an individual reaction, and forms an artificial construct.

Film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times once wrote about how he agonized over a negative notice he had composed for the movie Titanic, because a storm of critical acclaim had embraced it. Turan finally realized he had to go with his gut; there was no other way short of selling out to popular sentiment. To be a critic is to tread a lonely path, but it is the only authentic path to take. The moment you betray the truth of your reactive emotions is the moment you have lost your way.

If you are honest with your feelings about any work of art, “objectivity” is the conscious exercise of forcing yourself to focus on the work itself rather than on the producer, the director, the performer, about whom you may harbor ill will or adoration.

Our reactions to any and all elements are subjective. For example, consider the comedy bike rider Justin Case in Boom A Ring: I found his running monologue very amusing and so I gave him the highest marks, judging him worthy of Monte Carlo Gold. Another person, simply unamused, would likely issue a lower mark.

Justin Case also provided a circus through-line for me that actually worked. So did the straight-ahead Boom A Ring score. Both helped give the show a strong structure. Conversely, at the Big Apple Circus, I found the music, itself the star of this year's opus, to be ironically disjointed, and so that impacted on my overall score. Others who relished it from start to finish would naturally have given the show higher marks. Who is right? Nobody. We only have opinions to offer.

Everything in our makeup (desires, fears, affinities and aversions, life experiences, artistic preferences) that we bring to an artistic work is perhaps as defining as what the work brings to us. Which is why a film you might have dismissed at a certain age may, at a later age, engage you in surprising ways. You have changed; the film did not. Antonioni’s The Passenger moves me because, I suppose, it speaks to an existential sense of life deep in my soul. I know people who find it boring. The best we can do is to explain why we are moved -- or left unimpressed.

Is a review useless? Yes, to everyone except to those for whom it entertains or stimulates, amuses or informs or challenges. Indeed, to be engaged by a provocative point of view may cause you to reexamine your own. When a review totally agrees with your own reaction, you will feel happily reassured, but would you wish every review to affect you in this way? You would soon become skeptical. We are each too infinitely different to ever allow for such a curiously predictable outcome.

Can a review be instructive? Rodgers and Hammerstein acknowledged how Boston theatre critic Elliot Norton, when reviewing a new musical of theirs in out-of-town tryouts, would sometimes prove valuable in helping them figure out and solve scripting problems. And all of it from the notice Mr. Norton filed. Sometimes Hammerstein would engage in correspondence with critics.

To be a critic is an act of ego and conviction, and to that I plead guilty. It is to campaign for your values, hoping you will influence someone, same as what a philosopher or author, teacher or poet or preacher or columnist does.

We often trash critics, yet we wait to see what they have to say. Why? I suppose because we are drawn to the idea that an “expert” is better qualified to evaluate something than our friends or relatives, even though, in truth, anybody can write a review. All they need is an opinion and the ability to express it. Oh, yes, and a little working courage.

More about theory on some Sunday up ahead.

[photo by Boyi Yuan]


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bandwagon Tackles Shyster Phonemen and Dying Shrine Circuses; John Ringling North II on Employee Bloggers

Any circus producer out there suffering low or dwindling attendance should get his/her hand on the current issue of Bandwagon. It features a sober account by Shrine Circus author John H. McConnell, detailing why and how Shriners have been committing circus suicide. Statistical information solidly supports a perception held by many of us about drastically declining business and how Shrine programs have bloated up on all the junk and filler against which I have long railed. Among the leading Shrine customer complaints: Long intermissions, concession pitches, poorly produced and overlong programs, Shrine clowns.

Having this year endured much of the same on Carson & Barnes and Circus Vargas, it's obvious the owners aren't listening to me, and are pigheadedly pursuing same old same old. I wonder if they ever look into their near-empty tents? Maybe they will pay more attention to McConnel's excellent research tracking the demise of what was once a vibrant circus organization.

Bandwagon -- what an issue! -- also offers a gritty insider account by Mike Straka of many scam tactics used in the most notorious phone rooms in past years to relieve business owners of yet more money for bogus charity set ups.

I am not at all surprised. I recall, pitching press for Sid Kellner's James Bros Circus in 1969, going into St. Louis and being told to hold off on charming city editors and placing any newspaper adds. The boiler room was boiling over on a lush advance extraction of money, and Kellner actually feared if even a small percentage of the tickets showed up, he could not seat everybody. Kudos to your candor, Bandwagon!

Finally, as of this moment, John Ringling North II, in an e-mail message to Showbiz David, states his policy on employees who blog (his show has three bloggers; most other circuses have none):

“Our constitution guarantees freedom of speech, so Steve and Ryan are entitlted to whatever they like.”

This is a big issue which I intend to address more in depth in the off season

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Adventures of John and Jim: Why Not Your Own Blog, Guys?

(Please note: This post contains an update in the text.)

I nominate John Ringling North II and James Royal, who run the Kelly Miller Circus, to be the first show owners to put out a blog.

John and Jim: your two ultra-conscientious clowns, named Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs, as you may have been told, blog daily about their “adventures” working on your circus. I was enthralled first part of season, wondering what you, John, were up to, and what sort of crowds you were attracting. If you haven’t checked out Steve’s blog, you will find that he appears to be remarkably honest, I think, in stating daily biz. Though I’m not sure what he means by the term “average audience.”

I can see why Steve, a likable and passionate guy, though a tad temperamental, has a huge fan base. For a while, I was entertained as he wrote about malls, shopping, muddy lots, sore throats ( I know about those), visits with co-workers and fans of the show — and especially the business you were doing. And whenever he mentioned you, of course, my ears dilated: A John Ringling North II sighting!

But then, as I read of one bum house or non-attentive audience (cell phone addicts ignoring the show) after another, I started growing weary and depressed, so I decided to leave. In truth, I was never a Steve and Ryan groupie. More a Ringling North groupie, though I have yet to invest in a Texas Stetson.

Recently, since you, John, stated to a reporter that ticket sales are double what they were the past couple of season, I was inspired to check Steve out again, wondering if his daily biz scoops were in sync with your statement. It seems biz is up sum, though maybe not all that much. [Upate correction from John Ringling North II to Showbiz David: "The lady reporter in Massachusetts did quote me as saying sales are double the last 2 seasons. What I said was business to date was ahead of the previous 2 seasons.]

Then, almost by magical accident, I discovered a nasty feud going on between Steve and Ryan and your prop dept. Oooooo, wait a minute — check this out! Is this a new kind of circus reality blog? Heck, for all I know, you have enough mud to deal with without wishing to intervene. You are a laid back guy, from what I have observed. Seems Steve resents the idea of tipping a prop hand. Seems he and others resent a tip being veiled extortion. Hmm, wasn’t this once a regular Ringling ritual?

Lots of sympathetic visitors commented (not sure if any unsympathetic voices were let into the party), among them, John Herriott, who correctly advised the guys, in my view, to go through organizational protocol.

Now, here’s the slant for your bog. I’ve not heard the prop dept point of view, or yours. In fact, the blog leaves a not very flattening impression that you and Jim, how to put this, are missing in action on the matter. Perhaps you, John, are touring the continent for new acts and you, Jim, are absorbed in seat wagon design. Or maybe organizational protocol has not yet reached the Jomar? Your take on this meaty matter — John? Jim? (By the way, do you guys ever check out the malls?)

Your blog would give us the counterpoint. What a story! One day, Steve vents. The next, you smile. One day, you decree. The next, Ryan pratfalls. Almost sounds like a Broadway musical in the making.

It’s a brave new world we are charting. Not sure about all the legal implications ahead. That is, what leverage you may have in controlling these tell all things, which, as you know, once showed up in tell all books after the teller left the show and landed a publishing contract. Today, we don’t have to wait.

Last year, you had Ben Trumble, a philosophical guy questioning routing decisions. This year, the Copeland & Ryan Show. Next year, what – "The Bizarre Big Top Romance of Bearded Lady and X-Ray Man"?

Heck, hire me and I’ll blog. Ten days in the mud, max ...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Wait for the White Tops – or Godot, or My Next Mood

I plead guilty. I am a circus fan, although were I a member of the official club, the Big Top Brethren might kick me out. Lack of gratitude for what’s left on the lots. Lack of backyard courtesies.

“We Pay as we go,” was at one time one of the founding slogans of the CFA, and once, while walking with my late friend Hugo Marquardt, determined to remain ticketless, onto the lot of the Carson and Barnes Circus at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds, there to take in a tight little firecracker of a show, Hugo, mimicking CFA loyalty (pardon my irreverence) clapped his hands together and said, “We clap as we go!”

Like most good circus goers with a big top habit, I prided myself on getting into as many shows as I could for free. So did Hugo. Some of us were dubbed by the shows we crashed “lot lice.” Almost a badge of honor. Even when the Moscow Circus played the Oakland Coliseum Arena in 1967, I managed, though with ticket in hand, to walk right in through the back door. What a coup!

In later, still opportunistic years, when I now and then free lanced for Variety, I would state that fact and usually extract a freebie, though never to my knowledge from the Ringlings. You’d have to shill ahead. Still, I’d wander into the back door of the Cow Palace before the Felds secured it, and then wander, following the example of my late friend Don Marcks, like “one of them” into the arena, and then into a pricey box seat, when biz was not very bizzy. What an affordable deal.

I plead guilty. I’ve walked miles to see what miles up the road may reaffirm my high regard for big top magic, or may uncork my nitpicking side. Last year, I did some extensive secret sleuthing and found that a certain circus I kind of wanted to see would again be playing a certain New Jersey City in June on a Thursday. Okay, then I managed to weave together a day-long itinerary from Greyhound to local bus service, so I could catch the early show and make it back to New York late that night.

But, did I really want to take that much time for so iffy a show? The name Kelly-Miller. The place, Pemberton. I was reading a blog that hangs out dirty laundry and gives you a blow by blow account of audience reaction and size, and is now addressing the issue of whether or not to tip surly prop hands (which some call extortion); it helped dampen my resolve. Then, I learned that Ringling-Barnum would be opening under canvas at Coney a week Later. I could take In Big Apple Circus in the morning, Boom A Ring that evening. What luck! So I moved my travel plans ahead by a week. Good bye, Pemberton. Sorry, Greyhound.

And now, I pride myself on paying as I go. I’ve turned myself into something of an ultra purist. Some people respect me, and so that gives me greater incentive to try being as fair as I can. My uncle kept hammering away, “be objective!” I go out of my way to avoid the subliminal effects of gratuities. How I’ve changed, from guy pushing thin Variety credentials to Mr. Anonymous. Plus, in these tense bloggy times when some people out there, it seems, would love to get their hands on me for unkind circus thoughts, it’s safer. One of them asked me if I knew anything about how circuses are run. Having worked for Sid Kellner, I learned a lot about how boiler rooms are run (no, I never personed a phone, but did the press agent thing), and how they nearly ran the circus into the ground.

I approach every circus like a blank slate, with high hopes. Sometimes you get thrown a thrill: Ringling at Coney, I suspected, would be the indoor Ringling only under a tent. How wrong I was. The best complete circus I’ve seen in years, and now I’m blasted for blasting the Felds. Sure, I never was a great Feld fan, although I’ve always stated how impressed I was with Kenneth Feld’s apparently (notice I said “apparently”) unstinting devotion to the proper care and treatment of his animals. Only trying to practice basic journalism.

Boom A Ring makes you want to return. Renews your faith in Circus 1A. Which is why I have questioned the absence of an important high wire act from the show, noting a certain weakness in the air.

Those who can’t accept the fact that life is always changing, so too the circus, will never understand me. A Feld fan? Who could have ever guessed. Well, of Boom A ring fan, anyway. Having ordered my ticket on line, I’ve since received an email to the “Hammarstrom Family,” thanking me for my patronage, signed b Mr. Feld himself. Better not swoon to soon. Zing Zang Zoom is on its way. A fresh slate.

Some know how critical I can be of the owners. I have many times said how much I respect their skill in keeping their respective shows on the road, but that doesn’t mean I have to like everything they keep on the road. Another matter altogether. Not very circus fanish of me, I know.

Every year is new year for all of the shows, which is why I enter each with renewed faith that this could be the one. And which is why I fight to stay open to all the changes that can either bring out my un-circus fan side, or set me wallowing in my own purple prose. Ugh.

Does my “Arrogance know no boundaries,” asks one rather edgy guy who, it seems, takes very personally anything critical I say about Kelly Miller, even though I have offered his act distinct praise. And I smiled. When I wrote the still-smolderng post below (somebody who called me on the phone said his PC was on fire), I amused myself being mock arrogant. Actually, I held back on my “arrogance,” for instead of issuing optional directives to circus producers, I was tempted to issue full scale mandatory commandments from on high. May I insert here: LOL. By the way, does anybody out there ever laugh? My friends laugh at a lot at the things I say. Must being a circus fan be so deadly serious? One of you said the world could do without this blog. Well, Pal Anonymous, the world does do without this blog, but you can’t seem to, nor can a few others.

I plead guilty. I’m a circus fan who is not a circus fan. Funny that way.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Brooklyn is For Big Tops, People or Not: Boom A Ring Biz Only OK; Cole Bros. Comes Next

Might you need a surgical belt?  Welcome to my grandma's sewing machine in Brooklyn ... 
  My long suffering and good-humored grandmother at work

Below:  Grandma was once young and fashionable, too!  Here she is with my wonderful mom, Mary Byrd Lewis, the belle of Brooklyn, if you ask me.  And, oh look hard, there's Mom's little sister, Virginia (Aunt Ginny), trying to squeeze into the frame.

I’d nearly forgotten how many major circus events this New York burg has hosted, reaching clear back to the premiere in 1871 of the Barnum, Coup and Costello affair that within a couple of years was spreading two rings rather than one, in effect kicking off the great American three ring circus to follow.

Ringling-Barnum played Brooklyn almost every year from 1919, when those two titles were joined, until 1938, when labor problems may have soured the Ringlings to ever again risking the town. Until then, the canvas tour always began after the Garden dates in the Big B.

I saw the Big Apple Circus in this town in 1986, when it played Prospect Park. Neat location; now UniverSoul Circus, claimed by a local Brooklyn Paper reporter to have grown up here, plays the Wollman Rink at the park in April. And other shows and peopled configurations, among them the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, also toss clubs and somersaults over Brooklyn turf — or asphalt.

Did anyone stop to consider, and maybe be thrilled by the advent of Ringling Boom A Ring, which marks the very first U.S. tent show with the name Ringling on top of it since John Ringling North said good bye, big top, back in Pittsburgh in 1956? I’d call this typically historic for Brooklyn, a place where my grandmother once turned out corsets (surgical belts) for women needing to prune their figures. Maybe hoping for a date to some circus about to hit town.

Next comes New Cole, due in on July 27 for a seven day splash.

As for that Boom A Ring thing, which I consider perhaps the best American circus in years, reliable sources in the area report that night shows are near full, not so the poorly attended matinees, drawing maybe half houses. Another source believes that Brooklyn types don’t go for the afternoon programs, which strikes me as odd, considering the tent is on Coney, and isn’t/wasn’t Coney island a daytime thing? But then again, as I’ve stated here, it’s hard to imagine a nearly three month stay as reaping turnaway crowds. Still, I’m hoping, for I want to see this show again. Brooklyn is the new Manhattan — if you are big top mad.

The revived Great Circus Parade, on the move this very Sunday, has already been unrevived the next two season likely, say the officials in Milwaukee, citing economic conditions as the culprit. Kelly-Miller Circus, whatever it is they are offering four times a day, is offering it under a gold and purple tent. Is John Ringling North II showing a more flamboyant side, or is this merely a rent-a-tent?

End Ringers, I have: Big Apple Circus manager Don Covington telling a reporter up in Westerly, Rhode Island, that it takes em a full day (8AM to midnight) just to get all 1,700 seats secured. Remember when they could throw ten times that many up in a couple or three hours? Of course, today we enjoy superior seating, each individual chair clearly more comfortable than those on the old Concello seat wagons, Sorry, Art...

UniverSoul, by the way, landed a downbeat review by The Brooklyn Paper critic, Thurston Dooley III. ... Russia, how lucky we are that your political system fell all to pieces: Of Boom A Ring’s 24 performers, 16 are from Russia, and what they seem to miss the most is "banya" -- the Rusisan bath house. But oh, what a show that produce! ... A Milwaukee Journal Sentinal feature story talking up the great cuisine on the old Ringling cook house tent, and how envious I feel. I ate on Wallace Bros., not with embracing affection. Some of it I ejected in the sleeper into a bucket, while the poor band men in other bunks politely stomached my reaction to the gut foundry's latest offering ..

We mustn’t end on such a sour note. What else is there here? Oh, there is this: In L.A., where they just wound up the Jacko wake, there is a show “not your family circus,” called Cirque Berzek. I thought that odd ball troupe had died and gone to a porno wax museum. But they are back at it, seems. “Sexy, scandalous, and whole unsuitable for children."

ok. But how is their cookhouse? No, no, I won’t go there ...

Grandmother at 186 Irving Avenue; where I visited her in the early 1960s in her "railroad flat."

first posted July 10, 2009

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Big Apple Chopsticky: Fish Eyes in Chinatown to Circus Highs at Coney ...

New York! New York! Yes, it’s a wonderful town, I guess -- when it’s not raining, and if I could only remember the subway to the Gershwin Hotel. The R, David. The R. And if Billy Elliot was only half price. And if those officious Billy Rose reference librarians would only conform to but one set of rules. Olive, come back!

New York, New York: Why did I ever agree to sample a fish eye in Chinatown? Getting ominously closer to an offer that seemed so amusing at first, now I’m bracing for a breakdown. Might need an ambulance standing by downstairs. Oakland friend Boyi invited me to meet his grandparents down there. Fine. But then I kept kidding him about his taste for fish eyes. And he responded in kind. "I'll have my grandmother make you one," promised he. I smiled. Now I'm cringing. People hearing about my date with exotic far eastern edibles make faces and groan. Big easy laugh, sure. What a clown gag this one would make.

But first, my entrance. Amtrak clangs into the Big Apple less than an hour late on Monday evening. The air is balmy fine upon escape out of schizophrenic Penn Station. Workaday people above a mass of streaming humanity. Merging into the crowd is a rare tonic. No place like. Gershwin is better each time. There's a picture of a young Walt Disney in the lobby. In my room, a huge, very heavy painting of Picaso over my bed, held to the wall only by the wire over hook affair, inspires visions of a cracked cranium. Mine. Stay with me here; I come from earthquake country. So I call the front desk and share my silly unease.

“Would you like us to remove the painting?” guy with French accent asks. How nice, I answer. Yes, please.

Tuesday morning, I meet Boyi and his friend Michelle for a “walk” through Central Park that feels more like a photo-snapping festival. We all live, I have concluded, to produce scrapbooks — or fake admiring facebook friends. Here are some shots. This park of parks, a glorious collaboration between nature and high art, unfolds like a Vincente Minnelli panorama. I envy the homeless here ... We walk miles, it seems, then wander into the Natural History museum, where Boyi’s inner director takes over, casting me into some audacious poses ...

Later, I’m touring a Chinatown I’ve never seen, because it does not look like San Francisco’s Grant Avenue version of a China that never existed. Boyi shows me the scrappy old building in which he and his family lived, all five in one bedroom, after arriving from China in 1998. And that evening, yes, THAT evening is upon me, up there at THAT place where IT is about to happen.

With Boyi translating through two languages, I talk to his charming grandfather, Mr. Yuan, who farmed in the Chang Dong province of China where Boyi was raised, and lived through the cultural revolution. “Everybody survived on one half cup of rice each day,” said Mr. Yuan. “And, they would scrape things off the ground like grass,” added Boyi, “to cook into the rice.”

And then, the moment you've been waiting for. Around a table of trepidation — lovely Chinese cuisine, thank you, Boyi’s smiling grandmother, there it is: THE fish and THOSE eyes. Relief. They are SMALL. Boyi chopsticks one of them elegantly out of its socket and plucks it into his mouth. I follow suit, impressing my friend and chopstick teacher. The eyeball lifts off easily onto my sticks. My eyes nearly closed, I drop the thing into my mouth, bite down and -- relief! It tastes like dirt. Now, I can do dirt. I had feared some strange taste that might have sent me flying out the window, a disgraced dragon crouching shamelessly.

But I feel a hard object. “Spit it out,” instructs Boyi.

Challenge completed. (There's the "eye" on my chopsticks. I am sparing you the stagey horrified look on my camera-unready face.)

On the TV, we are watching a CD of the incredible opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. And I turn to Mr. Yuan, via his translating grandson, and say, “It looks as if God himself directed this Chinese spectacular.”

How lame if not insulting, later I think. I should have said “staged and channeled in by Confucius.”

Next morning, I’m at the Billy Rose section of the NY Public library, pouring over the fascinating papers of one Richard Barstow (there he is) who directed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for about thirty years. How passionately attentive was he to detail, and what a master communicator despite his well known ego. The papers reveal the ways of Barstow’s boss, John Ringling North, who came up with many ideas of his own and took an active role at production meetings: “Mr. North wants to use the flash of horses with gold wings that open into rainbows around the track for finish." You like? Here is more: “He once got an idea for a new menage and called me from the Biltmore baths and tracked me down to a drugstore on Lexington Avenue.”

Wednesday late afternoon, I'm gazing at Broadway musicals listed for half price at tkts: Next to Normal, which I had hoped to see, is not even playing tonight. Billy Elliot doesn't need us. Surprise! South Pacific is up there. I'd go again for a better seat than I paid full price for last year. Anything close to the center, I ask the man at window? "No," says he. Okay, say I, ”Toxic Avenger." The man balks. What has he against Avenger? "That's okay," I repeat, "I've already seen South Pacific. If you don't have a good seat, give me one for The Toxix Avenger.” He putters some more on the keyboard. "I have something near the center for South Pacific." Fate intervening? $68.00. That evening, this inspiring revival, with magnificent William Michals standing in for Paulo Szot, and maybe because I hold a superior seat giving me a full view of the acclaimed seashore set, seems in some ways better than last year, all except for an actor named Andrew Samonsky, barely able to play Lt. Cable.

Thursday is circus day on two islands, one called Long, the other Coney, and just in time for torrential rainstorms. Oh, what fun. First challenge, to find the Big Apple one out in a faceless place called East Meadow, into an endlessly deep and empty park called Eisenhower that finally, through an increasing downpour, produces a tent. No signage leading to it. That’s Grandma's circus for you.

After the show, unable to thumb down Noah’s Ark, my pedestrian-bus-LIRR-Subway-pedestrian trek back to midtown leaves me totally soaked. Thank God I brought an extra pair of shoes. Into them I slip before taking the N down to Coney and Boom-A-Ring. THIS is the Big NY payoff. The Big One. Sold out that night. Was I clever, months before, grabbing a ten dollar ticket on line, even if Ticketmaster grabbed $7.50 more from me.

Farewell New York! New York! You can put that painting of Picasso back up, and please tell the great artist, I really do love him, just not over my head. Keep Toxic Avenger on the boards and I might come back sooner. And, oh yes, next time with chopsticks, I’m going for the Nathan’s Dog Eye special over rice, with one pachyderm eyelash on the side ...

Helluva town! — even when it tastes like dirt ...

[last two photos: stopping over in Chicago; Aboard Amtrak's the Southwest Chief on the outskirts of Lotus Land two days later]

Monday, July 06, 2009

Circus in the Classroom: The Unseen Heartbeat of Structure ...

This reply from David Carlyon to my earlier posting, "Recipe for Revival: Tough Love for Troubled Big Tops" is so interesting, that I am reprinting it here in full.

From David Carlyon:

On June 15, in Steps #1 and #8 of “Recipe for Revival,” you put your finger on perhaps the most important element of circus: Structure. Aristotle called it plot, though that means more than the ordinary sense of story. Instead it's the underlying architecture that the audience shouldn't notice but pulls together everything that they DO notice. Another way of putting it is internal rhythm, similar to your point about pacing. With a good structure / plot / internal rhythm, each moment is a surprise and yet somehow seems to flow inevitably from what came before. That's true in good plays, good movies, good dances, and good circuses. (It has interesting parallels to the excitement of sports too.)

That flow doesn't necessarily play on a conscious level. Compare Broadway: People may come out praising a favorite song or great singer or funny comedian but if it's not all tied together well, they're unsatisfied, at a level below thought. It's that flow, based on structure / plot, that excites us, and makes us want to return.

It may also be the most neglected element of circus. I believe Cirque du Soleil made such a smash because it employed structure / plot so well at a time when many circuses ignored it.

It applies to clowning too. I was a Ringling clown out of Clown College, and though some lump us all together (apply the cookie-cutter criticism?) as cookie-cutter clowns, working on the show offered opportunities to learn. And as a clown who became an actor and director, I know that many clown gags fall flat because they simply string together a series of bits, rather than constructing a structure / plot with pacing.

This element is so crucial that a circus could probably overcome concession sales (steps #2 and #3), audience participation (#4), unspectacular acts (#10), or even a story (#12), as long as the structure / plot / internal rhythm is strong enough.

[Carlyon is the author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of]

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Long and Winding Road to a Closeup View of the Big Show Boss

Blogging backwards ...

So many flukes carved a contorted trail, delivering me within a few feet of Kenneth Feld, opening night at Illuscination in Coney Island.

In the beginning, I was resolved to see Cole Bros Circus at Coney in 2010, since I’d not seen the show since the 2005 season, which likely marked a low point (no animals.) in its more than respectable history. I had, I thought, a solid contact ready to supply me with Coney dates once booked.. I even reserved train travel to NY in July so I could secure the lowest sleeping car rates.. My original intent, period.

First detour: Cole Bros. contact did not come through. So, in the meantime, I did some sleuthing, ever intent on somehow, somewhere seeing Kelly Miller. By serendipity almost, I discovered it would be playing in Brewster, New York on Thursday, June 17. Easily reachable by a 1-1/2 hour train ride. Bingo! Kelly-Miller produced by John Ringling North II at last. So I canceled my July train reservation and got decent sleeping car rates on one that would put me into New York city on June 14, leaving for my return the morning of June 18.

A month or so later, I learned that Ringling would be returning to Coney after all, opening night — June 17, same day as Kelly Miller. Drafts! I could not extend another day, because Amtrak’s sleeper rates go from very expensive(which I had erlier nabbed) to outrageous, now the dismal option..

Which show to see? A no brainier. I had never seen a circus produced by North II, so I would have to skip Illuscination..

Second detour: When I called the Brewster Chamber of Commerce to reconfirm the upcoming Kelly Miller date, miracle of miracles, I learned that it had been moved ahead by one day to June 16. That meant I could see both Kelly Miller and Ringling!

I booked the cheapest Illuscination seat on line, $10 (nearly $20, thank you, ticketmaster), just to cover myself; last year I had done the same, a good move because the opening night last year was sold out.

Third detour: Horrible sight lines from my seat. Last year for the same price, I sat high up and had a reasonably good view. Now I was sitting in the second row from ground level, though close to the ring, but many late arriving customers wandering in front of the section made it infuriatingly hard to follow the show. I could and would have, except for ...

Fourth detour: empty seats. I noticed to my right a swath of unoccupied chairs in the section directly facing the front side,

Fifth detour: The usher who said yes. I got up and made an appeal to two ushers, stressing how hard it was to watch the show. First usher said no. Second said okay, unless somebody else comes to claim seat.

I hurried up the aisle, and sat myself in a largely vacant row, second or third seat from the aisle, noticing a number of very impressively dressed and groomed men, possibly part of the Brooklyn or Feld opening night contingents.

During intermission, I discovered Kenneth Feld standing a few feet away from me in the aisle, chatting amiably with his corporate and/or holy entourage. That’s when, after he turned around and I could only see his backside, I could not resist the urge to withdraw my compact camera, lift quickly, snap and put back.

During the second half of the show, I happened to glance to my right and noticed the Feld of Felds sitting on the aisle, same row as me, and was amused by the proximity. I had up against my knee half the time a flier about safety I’d been handed by a policeman, upon which I was scribbling notes of his show in progress.

And what exactly did I observe the moment I spotted him in his seat?

Stay tuned for the next chapter: Kenneth Feld sightings on the Coney lot.

First posted July 4, 2009

Thursday, July 02, 2009

OUT OF THE PAST: Big Top Bits: Free Vargas Shows for the Unemployed; Kelly Miller Lands a Triple; Cirque’s Naughty Parties ... Big Apple Grandma a No Show ...

First posted July 2, 2009

Big Tops have heart, plenty of it. We can be proud. Look here: You can see the Greatest Show on Earth under canvas at Coney — the best damn show it’s put on in years — for only $10. New Cole starts at $12, tops off at $17. UniverSoul is $16.50 low, only $26 high. And Circus Vargas, which ranges from $15 to $50, God bless their big top, is admitting all unemployed California residents free ... Now that’s the soul of the sawdust....

Express Mail From the House of Ringling (John Ringling North II): What’s this, I wondered, signing my name and wondering if I’d been summoned to appear in court for daring to question his line of showmanship and long-term producing resolve. What came, instead, was a copy of the program magazine. Give JRN II credit for self-promoting from “proprietor” to “Producer.” The latter word appears on the cover. To a paper up in MA, North, now nearly a seasoned trouper, observed, "The recession has helped the circus. People don't get to go to Disney World, so they stay local, and we bring the entertainment to them." And how do they bring it? JRN II seemed almost boyishly gleeful promising, “there will be a lot of mud and a lot of fun.” So now we know ...

Interviewee North II, advancing calmly, it would appear, up the red wagon ladder, claimed that ticket sales are double what they were the last two years. Could that be so? I returned after a long self-imposed hiatus (briefly) to the Copeland & Combs blog to do some spot checking, knowing that Steve tends to tell-all on the number of warm or cold bodies in the seats. From what I gather, houses have fluctuated wildly from "packed" to one that totaled but sixty nine souls. And there was Steve complaining about so many things, fretting contract renewal talks and making it appear as if his sink gag is down the sink because prop hands are lousy plumbers.

Back to the Kelly-Miller program magazine, wherein you’ll discover the relatively modest Mr. North II assuming a more confident air – good photo – but he'll heed to replace the cowboy hat with a JRN Homburg. He offers a cool welcome and the classic closing of his uncle, “Thank you and Au Revoir.” I’ll be waiting and watching to see what he comes out with next year. Already this season comes a big flying trapeze break through for flyer Renato Fernandes , who finally turned a perfect triple into waiting hands! ...

I sat there at the amazingly wonderful Boom A Ring, watching the gorgeous white tiger act while all the while preoccupied with this: okay, but can those cats do what the Casey McCoy hind-leg walking cats do in silky smooth tandem? No they did not. And so onto the next cage display I go. Wanta see if I was right in discovering a wonderful bit in cageland that I can’t recall having seen before. Another tiger trainer, I think, ridiculed me over my McCoy toast ...

Cirque’s naughty parties, feted by billionaire big top mogul Guy Laliberte and attended by the likes of Sir Paul M., about which a book of tasty rumors just hit the shelves, reports Henry of Edgar. The rich with an itch are switching in and out and on and off to sample the rented flesh on display and there for the taking, so go the reports. Mr. L, from what we learn, has a penchant for serial affairs. Hmm, wonder if that K-M party of 69 really was meant for the Lalibere Let's-Get-Acquainted tent? Okay, it’s all so smutty, why should we even be bothered? I’m outta there ... Just give me another good circus, Mr. Producer, and you can have another whatever, but not on me....

Big Apple Wormy: This touted organization, so in love with itself, is woefully lacking in some of the basics, about which I am launching an open-ended rant. They still do not offer a warning on their website that the morning shows are truncated, which meant that when I saw them in East Meadow, I did NOT see Grandma sing or dance, with or without a walker, in the rain. This sort of wilful misinformation borders on fraud, and I just might send back my ticket for a full refund. I do not care how established they are. While on the subject of incredible incompetence, the BAC front door remains amateur night at the circus. Two young people who look like student volunteers puttering as slow as snails. Ringling at Coney, with only one more ticket taker, moved the crowd thru with smooth pro dispatch. Ah, the free market place. I’m a quaint believer in what is left of it. BAC: Anybody from Hugo, Oklahoma could whip your constipated front end into shape within hours. (Photo, above, of Christian Atayde Stoinev, a talented kid who deserves more than a chorous boy role in this show)

Covington Connected, send in the end ringers: Ringling-Barnum to enter Staples Center late by a few hours, deferring to the Michael Jackson Memorial. Rumors that elephants and clowns will join the Jacko wake were nixed by a RBBB spokesperson, stating the circus will not be a part ... That vaguely ambitious horse show down in Texas called most recently Artania has shuttered. When will horse show impresarios wake up to the bleak realities of such ventures? ... CDS indoors. Why oh why are they sending Saltimbanco into arenas? Hurting for cash? Tampa Times performing arts critic John Fleming ruing the loss of a certain spark, missing the tent too ... Calling the acts “lackluster.” ... Baraboo’s “Doc” Dewel chirping in, about to hit his natty nineties and still fingering lightly across the mighty organ keyboard at the Al Ringling Theatre ... Circus World Museum, 50 years old this year, reporting a big bounce in biz, nearly 25% percent more people moving through the gates. Go, CWM! ... Coney Island and Ringling: a Hot dog contest pitting the pachyderms with people ... UniverSoul Circus in Tennessee taking in 84 guns in exchange for circus tickets ...

To Copeland or not to Copeland -- that is NOT the question, David ...