Friday, August 28, 2009

Whatever Became of the Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze?

Moody intermission at Circus Vargas. Not even two hundred people in the seats. Darkened moody tent, jazz riff through the sound system. Moody, too. Feels like sitting on the edge of spangled oblivion. This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but the last pony ride under the last big top during the last intermission.

But there over the ring is the net and the promise of artistic redemption, and all of us no doubt are banking on the flying trapeze, once the show resumes, to give us the thrill we expect at a circus.

What suckers we were that downbeat day. Don’t look over too many rings these days with much hope; the thrill may be gone.

The Vargas Flyers, they are really the Tabares, but not really the real Tabares whom the overactive ringmaster touts as having won Monte Carlo Gold in 2004 — these flyers are full of flash and style, and so woefully short at this show on substance. And this is not a morning show. This is a late afternoon show. Up there they posture and preen and send their flashy gestures down to us in the seats, and then, all too soon, they are floating downward into the net. Not even a passing exchange!

Item: At Carson & Barnes Circus, both during 2008 and 2009 shows, a flyer tried for a triple, failed and did not try again.

Item: Of the last three Circus Vargas performances I have attended, at only one did the Tabares try for the triple – they nailed it.

Item: This year at Big Apple Circus, a flyer tried for the triple, failed and did not try again.

Item: At this year’s Ringling Zing Zang Zoom, a Mexican high wire troupe ended by executing a not very thrilling three-person pyramid, not with the top mounter, a woman, attached to a mechanic.

Items without end: mechanics without end.

To be historically correct, you’d have to return to the Russian revolution of 1917. Shortly thereafter, Lenin asked his friend, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was minister of education, to step into the circus and upgrade it, and make it more proudly Russian. One of the eventual moves was a policy mandating that all aerialists wear life lines.

Advance forty years: John Ringling North, wanting to give American audiences a sample of the Soviet magic, began importing acts from behind the Iron Curtain. A few came with mechanics. Among the more prominent names were the outstanding Dobritsch Duo perch act.

When Irvin Feld took over, a trickle of tepid tricksters turned into an embarrassing parade of unfinished amateurs. Some horse riders even worked with mechanics. I recall a “high wire” act that should have been performed atop wheel chairs, so securely were all the members rigged to lifelines.

Now, in lieu of the single trap, we more often have the “fabric,” or, as Ken Dodd would say, “the bed sheets.” Which means that we are getting more choreography in the sky, and less big swing daredevilry. Whatever happened to the trick? In its place, we have women working out issues on the tissues.

When quad king Miguel Vazquez retired in the late 90s, perhaps that signaled the beginning of the end of a very daring era. The flying trapeze, invented in 1859 by a Frenchman named Leotard, over the years advanced in complexity (did you not know that the first flyer to land the triple was a woman?), culminating in the Vazquez quad breakthrough before Ringling Barnum audiences in 1982.

Why am I against mechanics? Sure, audiences may feel more secure; they also instinctively sense an advantage that brings into grave question the skill of the artist. And they whisper among themselves, “what are those wires for,” and they know. And they feel less. At the same time, it's possible that contemporary audiences no longer relish what passed for "circus" thirty or fifty years ago. Perhaps, sad to concede, the shows that take the safer road (i.e., Big Apple and Cirque du Soleil) are the ones that are prospering.

Trouble is, those wires encourage kids from other arenas — theatre and ballet — to show the circus world what a new form of aerial art should be -- in their opinions. Sometimes it works. More often, we are getting something nearly stillborn. Either you are circus or you are ballet. One must die for the other to live. Must assume shadow status for the other to shine.

Those wires, too, may be shrinking the talent pool of younger artists willing to take on the flying trapeze and other more authentic and far more difficult aerial maneuvers.

Down here, I’ll take a crack Chinese hoop diving troupe, or those sensational Russian acrobats I saw at Boom A Ring, any day, over the self-absorbed ballerinas lost in their flowing fabrics. Or those flash Vargas flyers who get paid (if they get paid) for doing next to nothing on too many dull days.

La Norma and the Ward Bell Flyers, Rose Gold and the Ayak Brothers and the Great (non flying) Wallendas. Tito and Miguel: you all seem so far far away ...

[photos, from the top: The Ward-Bell Flyers with Polack Bros. Circus in the '50s; Rose Gold; Les Geraldos; Miguel Vazquez]

First published on August 28, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Morning with Showbiz David: Critical Conflicts of Interest

How is a critic to function given conflicting personal and business associations? Ideally, a critic should have no previous or current associations with any of the artists he is setting out to review. Rather impossible, isn’t it. However, the farther away you can stay from all those individuals whose work you might eventually review, the better off you are to render fair verdicts. So many hidden agendas can color reviewing. New York drama critic Brooks Atkinson was known and respected for shunning social contact with theatre people. Need we even explore why?

Now, ask yourself, should a “critic” review the work of his spouse, close friend, brother, sister, uncle? I hope the answer is obvious to you. You should be a friend to your friends and family, not a critic. Why are circus fans so unable to render anything other than upbeat notices? Because they feel a genuine or hopeful friendship to the performers they are writing about, and to be critical would be to betray the spirit of a friendship. I can't blame them for how they feel, but at the same time I see little value in a review having been written by a virtual or quasi friend.

What about reviewing the work of a former or possible future boss or colleague? Now we are getting onto ice, thin or thick. You may hold a grudge against an ex-employer, which could slant your notice in the negative; you may be campaigning to land work with the very person you are now critiquing, which will slant your notice in the affirmative. Either path you take may reveal itself and backfire on you. Avoiding such a review altogether is the honorable thing to do.

Now, there is another possible conflict that arrives when you face new work from an artist/producer/director whom you have tended to champion or dismiss in the past. Can you approach new work of theirs with an open mind? If you, indeed, can teach yourself to concentrate on the work itself rather than on your personal feelings about the creators and performers, you are on the road to success.

All too numerous, I have to assume, are the incestuous relationships between critics of all ilk and the umbrella corporate entities who pay their salaries. The cozier the life, the bigger the pay check, the harder it is to maintain one's high minded principles.

The circus community (and its various schools and institutions), so small and insulated, employees a number of knowledgeable experts who are ideally situated to critique circuses; trouble is, for a staff member of circus A to go out and file a review of Circus B is like having an executive from the Shubert Organization in New York review a new show produced by the Nederlander Organization. Does that make any sense to you? I hope not.

The point is to separate those with whom you have ongoing relationships from those whom you do not know or know only casually through minimal professional association. It is up to YOU to make the critical separations, to recuse yourself from the critical task when you know you are going to be compromised. And you will know, whether you will ever admit it to anyone other than yourself and to possibly those who might be slipping you gratuities under the table. I would urge you to slip them right back. That is, if you are critically serious.

[photo by Boyi Yuan]

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Fliparounds ... Bearish Root Canals ... Unsafe Juventas Seats ... Big Biz for Cole ... No Reviews for Zing? ... Enter Laughing, If You Will ...

First off, about that Cirque du Soleil book alleging late night adult fun hosted by Guy Laliberte, a book that Henry Edgar just had to gets his hands and eyes on. Says Henry after a dry read, it’s about “a lot of nothing, written kind of like a gossip column with all the substance of a pit show illusion. There may be a book out there but it hasn’t been written.” Perhaps, Henry, the naughty deeds alleged never quite rose to the level of a sheet turner. While we are on the subject, Charlie Rose (how did he ever get in here???) interviewing author Jim Collins about his book, How the Mighty Fall, in particular how they fail to foresee their own downfalls stalking them in the wings. In 5 easy stages. Hubris is number 1, followed by, Number 2, “undisciplined pursuit” of more more more. Which calls to mind a certain cirque king who can’t seem to stop syndicating his famous name. Stage 3 is denial, followed by stage 4, “Grasping for salvation,” digging oneself into a desperate pit of dangerous loans, etc. I hope the performing insects on their way to San Francisco do not represent stage 5, “capitulation.”

Here’s a wonderment: Is Zing Zang Zoom the most unreviewed Ringling circus of recent years? I’ve scanned cyber skies and found nearly nothing. The New York Times gave it a rosy nod, but, hey, seems that the Times, like the White Tops , never meets a circus it does not like. Am I onto something, World? One Times critic, Lawrence Van Gelder, over the past several years has, from what I can tell, never not enjoyed the shows he reviewed, from Ringling to post-Pickle. He deserves an honorary membership in the CFA.

Speaking of a Times favorite, Big Apple Circus, they’ve released the names of the family for the next opus, Bello is Back!, and judging by the mix, it looks like Paul Binder is back, too. Show to be directed again by Steve Smith, a family favorite, minus the bright ringmistress Carrie Harvey, evidently not a family favorite who, in my opinion, deserves a major gig in which she is more effectively placed ... Some high points to my eyes: the return of Picaso Jr, Roman style riding by Zerbini and Kumisbayev, and the Long Brothers from China, offering a “comedy contortion” act. Comedy from the Middle Kingdom? Oh, BAC, stop teasing me like that. I am still in a snit over your misleading website that fails to announce your shortened morning shows. I am NOT going back on principal. Not yet.

Root canal fit for a bear, if not a human. It happened down there in the Long Horn state, where a circus bruin with a horrible tooth ache ended up in a bear chair and was root canaled back to relief by Texas A&M vets. We learn from Dr. Johnathan Dodd that often wild animals die in the wilds at a young age from “the systemic effects of dental disease.” I’m glad this bear did not dial 1-800 dentist. I once did and ended up in the chair, where an impromptu root canal in lieu of a crown (about which I was not pre-consulted) did not root out, but resulted in a missing tooth. Had I only gone to Texas A&M first ...

Not nice to report, that Circus Juvenatas, up there In Minnesota, evidently was not too careful in seat maintenance, resulting in the collapse of a section, and with it 400 people. Seven sent to hospital with injuries, the circus closed down for not having bleachers inspected. City officials “working with the circus school to meet city standards in the future.

Heck, I’m tempted to fill out the form I got at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey which might win me an "original elephant art masterpiece." I was so charmed by the sight of Asia, the elephant, stroking a paint brush across a canvas and crafting such a lovely abstract. Now, here’s director David's new angle for a PETA-proof elephant act: Asia's artwork classroom. The pachyderms gather to crochet and stitch, do needle point, and, very modern, splash paint onto large sheets and stomp out their most expressive urges. I can see the clowns taking part, too, and maybe even earning a few big old fashioned laughs. Remember when clowns made you laugh?

Johnny Pugh should be smiling: Recent biz way up, confirmed by New Cole Circus's Renee Storey, answering an e-mail of mine seeking verification on a report of “packed houses” in Atlantic City. She would not exactly confirm the word "packed," but did grant that “business proved excellent during the three-day engagement.” Moreover, casting a smile over the entire tent show field, says Ms. Storey, “If good business enjoyed so far this season evidences an upward trend, all circuses would rejoice. But, it will take more than the experience of the past few months to feel confident that what we wish to believe proves a fact.”

Now Renee Storey is one big top executive with her feet planted firmly on the sawdust and not even near Stage 1 of How the Mighty Fall. Henry of Edgar, who wrote me that he was “doing about as well as the American circus these days,” might take heart. You see, Henry, the American circus, whatever may be said about it, somehow manages to stay on the road year after year after ... So, enjoy new days up the rails!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Greatest Mystery About PETA's Ringling Elephant Video: Why Was It Not Shot by Kenneth Feld Instead?

Comment offered, 8/19: see update at end of story, below.

Just when the American public was beginning to give American circuses the benefit of the doubt, here comes perhaps the most troubling exposure of alleged animal mistreatment so far: the highly hyped PETA video showing Ringling elephants being beaten and cursed at while awaiting their performance time in the wings. It is, on face value, ugly. And, on face value, it may set back growing public support for animal acts by many seasons. Back at least to the wretchedly awful Carson & Barnes video.

Here is the greatest mystery of all, in my opinion: Why on earth was the “undercover” employee who filmed Ringling elephants apparently being mistreated not on Kenneth Feld's payroll? Feld is well known for paying ex-CIA operatives big money to infiltrate the lives of journalists and animal rights organizations. How utterly astonishing that he would not have his own undercover agents monitoring his circuses so that he can take corrective action when evidence of abuse surfaces.

Ringling gets most of the attention. Ringling is the story because it is the Big One. And so other shows that may be doing everything right, if that is possible, are bound to suffer.

The video has been all over the internet. It is causing moderate voices, who wanted to believe that circus animals are well take care of, to consider more seriously the opposition’s side.

The elephants in question, along with all of the animals on the Red Unit (Zing Zang Zoom), are, according to prominent attention given him in the program magazine, under the care and control of Alejandro “Alex” Vargas. His title is Animal Care Superintendent and Head Trainer. I’d like to hear what Mr. Vargas has to say for himself. He owes it to the circus world. So does Kenneth Feld.

If the video is “deceptively edited,” as Feld Entertainment claims (I question the clicking sounds), then Feld Entertainment should immediately explain to the world how the video has been deceptively edited. This is called, Mr. Feld, damage control.

I have often argued that in today’s hyper electronic landscape where anybody can secretly film backyard activities, no circus owner can dare risk condoning the kind of mistreatment that appears to be happening in this video. And I am also wondering if my own inside contacts over the years, asserting that circuses have cleaned up their act, have in fact mislead me. Even I feel uncomfortable over the thought of asking friends to go with me to a Ringling show. Most of all, I feel a great sadness.

Given Kenneth Feld’s concession in a courtroom of law that he is not regularly apprised of possible animal abuse within his own organization, we should not be surprised, I suppose, at his utterly inexplicable disengagement. Perhaps it is a conscious legal maneuver to protect himself. Whatever the case may be, there is evidently a dangerous disconnect between Vienna, Virginia and the circuses that Mr. Feld operates.

I have long defended and even praised Feld's apparent dedication to the best possible conditions and the most humane treatment for his animals. I now have grave doubts. The video reveals such a blatantly sinister contrast to all of the rosy media and customer materials issued by the Feld organization to sway public opinion in its favor.

It matters not if circus animals in general are actually better treated than their counterparts in other avenues of captivity, or if what appears to be a "beating" is barely felt by the pachyderms (I do not know). What matters are the increasing number of people for whom such imagery is understandably abhorrent.

This is a sad day for circus entertainment. Pray the Felds can shoot down this video's credibility with a persuasive corrective of their own. All animals are now banned in Bolivia. Other countries and local governments are continuously revisiting this most contentions of circus issues. Just when you may have thought it was safe to go back into the menagerie, this story is far from settled.

Say it isn't so, Jumbo.

The Besalou Baby Elephants -- Opal, far right, trained by Mac and Peggy MacDonald. Polack Bros. Circus 1955.

Update, 8/19: I knew there would be comments sent my way by Anonymous, whomever he/she/they are. Anonymous, I will not print your comments, whatever their possible accuracy, without your name — the issue is too contentious, and you implicate a number of people — but to show you how unafraid I am to represent your side, I will quote from Henry Ringling North’s 1960 book Circus Kings (page 248), more accurately than you do, and then place Mr. North’s comments in context, which you did not. North said, as you wish us to know, “they [the big cats] are all chained to their pedestals, and ropes are put around their necks to choke them down and make them obey. All sorts of brutalities are used to force them to respect the trainer and learn the tricks. They work from fear.” In context, North was offering high praise for Alfred Court, comparing his approach to other trainers. According to North, Court generally circumvented such cruel tactics, even though he employed some of those tactics to a degree: “He did start off with the animals collared and chained to their pedestals, but he began by making friends with them.”

Lastly, after citing examples of animal abuse over the years, you smugly conclude, “no one performing today would EVER do such things.” I don’t know. Although I did not relish the PETA video, it certainly did not contain the sort of action described by HRN above. I too, in years, past, noticed, for example, a very exasperated trainer whipping-spanking and jerking around his monkeys during a Polack Bros. circus performance; I think I know the famous name, but I can’t be sure, so I won’t implicate. The act struck me as pathetic. I’ve not seen that sort of act with any circus in many many years. The story is an open one.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ringless Bros. in Overdrive: Zing Zang Zoom Makes Magic in the Rough ...

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey / Zing Zang Zoom
Oakland, August 13, 7:30 p.m.
$15.75 to $108.00
2 hours, 10 minutes

Ringling’s illusional Zing Zang Zoom tries hard to turn a reasonably good slate of acts into a wildly creative sight and special effects show. If only there was a little more focused artistry — and a little less overblown zing.

The Felds, who have long used the lure of pyrotechnics to seduce audiences, are back at it in a big way with this one — no match for the sleeker, decidedly more disciplined and talented Boom A Ring, currently playing at Coney Island.

Nonetheless, whatever Zing is, it keeps on giving: Costumes offer bright eye candy diversions. Exotic ensemble opener is Cirque du Soleil on steroids, leading into one of the biggest ballyhoo busts in big top history — the touted “escape” of an elephant. It’s not hard to figure out how “zingmaster” Alex Ramon made this happen.

Not exactly a take-note beginning for the young handsome magician, who has been handed prime focus as master of ceremonies and bolts through the evening like a raspy-voiced cheer leader, bordering on shrill overkill. His moderately pleasing big box illusions are interwoven through a somewhat schizophrenic program, directed by Shanda Sawyer, which is mostly another (literally) Ringless Bros. affair. Ramon’s best trick by far is making a tiger appear, and that’s a tie in to big cage act of Tabayara “Taba” Maluenda.

This show really aims to be a more splashy in-your-face production than a circus, and it’s hyperactivity can wear on your eyes and ears. That is, if you are a certified adult. Obsessively focused lighting, as usual, casts narrow illumination onto the action at hand. Not always helpful. For example, a possibly charming upside down routine high in the arena performed by Clara Ruizi and Fabio Melo Da Silva is nearly impossible to follow through distracting spot lights.

But the producing Felds, it appears painfully obvious, would rather keep some of us in the dark some of the time than shed any embarrassing light onto thousands of vacant chairs that do not spell the greatest draw on earth. At least in Oakland or San Francisco, where I have followed the show over the years, this is certainly the case.

Acts range from so-so to very good. Olate’s returning dogs are a reliable delight. The elephants in long mount formations strike a genuine chord of old authentic circus nearly lost in the scattershot setting, with odd-shaped platforms and rubber tubes that inflate into temporary rings coming and going. We are never placed anywhere. Two Russian swing troupes, Skokov and Romashaov, deliver nifty and novel maneuvers. Less accomplished though no less ambitious are the Qi Qi Har Acrobatic Troupe from China, executing leaps and somersaults between each other on two swinging planks. Blame a certain lack of Asian perfection on the use of safety wires.

Another mixed result born of the mechanic diminishes the Lopez Family high wire troupe, not profiled in the program. One of the Lopez brothers who gets things going, using a standard balancing pole, has real star power, which promises major entertainment aloft. Not to be. Despite website notes to the contrary promising "no safety lines or net," a slim payoff has a woman rigged to a mechanic doing a head stand in a three-person pyramid. And you can feel the air going out of another inflated illusion.

A double cannon, two wheels of death, and liberty horses add conventional strength to the standard ingredients.

Possibly the show’s two finest artists — a Chinese aerial duo, names not listed in the program magazine — are ill-served by ineffective showcasing; their act is difficult to fully appraise, for it is oddly split into sections and presented piecemeal between and around other less primary happenings. This is just plan weird. Worse yet, the pair are spotted near the back door. They really deserve the center space, which is unconvincingly held by a woman getting all tangled up in another hopelessly vague fabric roll around.

The one glaring deficit to Zing are eight or nine silly acrobatic house clowns who mark perhaps a new low in Ringling comedy.

Music ranges from ersatz Broadway with a strong pulse to a variety of other sounds that somehow end up all sounding the same, and not very memorable. Maybe it’s the amplification. No matter, this is a calculated program of mirrors and incidental antics (audience shilling, and I think, through a muffled sound system, I detected a slight story line?) all designed to keep the audience occupied. It conveys more than a touch of directorial insecurity, but, then again, viewed from a populist angle, Zing Zang Zoom looks like a big crowd pleaser — that is, for audiences who ask not much of circus art but prefer the quick immediate rush of fresh fireworks along with some of the old fashioned stuff and a little novelty thrown in. Call it the Feld formula. Boy, does it sell concessions. To everyone but me.

Overall Rating (out of 4 stars): 2-1/2 stars

End ringers: Attendance figures: I purposely chose to take in the show in the evening, thinking it might be better attended. I saw about the same number of people I’ve seen the last two years at 11:00 am Saturday shows. I checked with two house ushers. Usher A guessed there were closer to three than four thousand customers in the arena, which seats 19,200. Usher B more or less concurred, adding that the crowd on the previous (opening) night was larger and speculating that, because there was an Oakland Raiders game in the stadium next door, that was partly a reason for the light turnout. The audience that did turn out was really into the show, and many of them binged throughout on concessions and treats ... All Access Pre-Show: Only the second time I've taken a walk through this event. Considering there is no money changing going on, I must admit it is an agreeable feature, though I still question just another act of breaking down the fourth wall. The highlight for me was watching the elephant Asia at work on a painting! ... Why no S.F. reviews? Zing's zingmaster, Alex Ramon, is a local east bay boy who received prominent feature coverage in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, but neither paper reviewed the circus. How odd. That ringless setting: The way it is forever being rearranged, it made me fell like I was watching a circus on a certain doomed ocean liner ... Program Magazine: For $15.00, this decreasinglgy significant item is hardly worth the money considering its sketchy historical value and the absence of a program lineup.

[all photos from the program magazine]

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Nite L’Amyxery: Cirque Insects S.F. Bound; Bolivia Circus Animals Banned; Barnum Headed for Silver Screen; Museum Glory, for Hugo ...

I can’t wait, I think. Cirque du Soleil’s newest darling named OVO, the one about insects, is San Francisco bound. This latest Montreal offering sounds and looks, in snippets, suspiciously cerebral, but who knows? I'm game; I'll take out another mortgage on my one bedroom rental to pay for a plank in the Gods ... Did 'ya know, by the way, that Bolivia, per an AP report I have right here from a certain Don Covington, is the first country to ban all circus animal acts? .. I say send over the Pizza Whisper guy to intervene. Yes, I’d buy a best-of DVD of this character’s inanely hilarious tender conversations with pizzas about to be served ...

Okay, you didn’t like that. How about this: Broadway actor Hugh Jackman to play P.T. Barnum in a movie in the planning stages, The Greatest Showman on Earth. I can hear Irvin Feld, six or sixteen feet under or over, crying out loud: why not ME? .... Sorry, Mr. Feld, You were perhaps the world’s greatest circus press agent, but you failed to convert your name into iconic status. There will only ever be only one P.T. And I'm hoping they get this script right. They'd do better skipping music and lyrics, and playing it as straight drama with songs. Please, Hollywood, stay away from the contrived Broadway musical.

... Closer to littler, Carson & Barnes landing national publicity on Good Morning America, which went to Columbus, Wisconsin to film a segment themed "the traditional American Circus." Well, okay, I suppose. Footage to air sometime this October ... Hugo, as in Hugo, Oklahoma, finally ramping up its cultural credentials. City fathers and various circus-connected devotees having purchased a two story house across East Jackson Street from the Choctaw County Public Library, to establish Circus City Museum. At one time or another, 22 circuses have winter quartered in Hugo. Okay, will I get to meet Mr. Peterson Peanut himself? Yes, yes, not a nice dig. I’m all for a toast to Dory Miller, who in his heart of hearts strove to keep alive the 20s multi-ring big top. Some of his shows were mini epics, especially when he had a bundle of cracking good windjammers blowing across the sawdust ... Even a Ringling now walks the town! ...

That on again, off again, Russian horse show named Artania, it seems, has found a kind of angel to keep it on life support. Down there somewhere in Texas. God bless the poor liberated Soviets, who once counted on a lush government treasury to keep them in circus rings the year around, pensions promised too ...

Enough tea pot refills. Call it a bad day in Bolivia wrap.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

My Day in the L.A. Sun: Talking About the Rise and Fall of Trapeze

I’m on the frosting on top of the frosting. Monrovia. Next door to Pasadena. Big house with a mansionesque feel perched on hills that look mountainous. Maybe it's all an L.A. illusion set up for the day’s shoot.

This is where I’ll be making my return to the screen — first cameo since co-starring many years ago with Bette Davis (okay, co-starring with the extras in a Bette Davis film, but my mug did make it in) when she came to Santa Rosa to shoot Storm Center. That’s me up there, being prepped with the props for an interview about a legendary circus flyer. To my left, assistant Bryant Williams; to my right, documentary producer-director Philip Weyland.

It feels so L.A. Heck, everything down here feels so L.A. Show me a gutter on Sunset Boulevard, and I’ll find you a trace of lost glamour. When I lived on North Orange Drive near Fountain in Hollywood, down a few blocks was a cement making yard that still keeps cement trucks in motion. Around the corner up La Brea were the old Charlie Chaplin studios. Next door to me for a time lived the mother of the Carradine boys. Across the way was a guy who made IBM commercials.

Los Angeles is a dreamland of sets and the people who can’t resist wanting to be in them. My half-hour rail commute from Union Station on the Gold Line to reach boss man Weyland feels more like a Universal back lot tour. Settings changing from moment to moment, as if the city fathers laid out Los Angeles to attract movie makers. That was then. Nothing in L.A. ever feels nailed down. You just float and hope ... And now, some of it is sadly floating away, like the huge prop shop in North Hollywood. Tinseltown, like the circus, is vanishing.

Weyland is making a film called The Last Great Flyer — about the last great flyer, Miguel Vazquez. In case you didn’t know, before Ringling Bros. audiences ever got to see Miguel turn his first angelic quadruple somersault, in private Miguel turned his very first practice quad on my birthday. (No, I wasn’t there; he didn’t invite me.) And he caught those four miraculous revolutions down in Long Beach, the city where trapeze great Alfredo Codona died. Another soooooo L.A.

Now, anybody who can pin down this elusive circus icon (I tried for years), let alone get him to talk while a camera is rolling -- and talk while seated next to another iconic flyer named Tito Gaona -- has gotta have his L.A. cards in order. And that anybody is TV and movie actor Philip Weyland.

For 15 years, Weyland had assumed, by having read an erroneous news item, that young Miguel was dead. And he grieved. When he learned that Miguel was very much not dead, he resolved to make this film.

Weyland’s easy going crew consists of camera operator Jake Gorst (left); camera assistant Lubo Barnet (right), a Swede who speaks with a slight Asian accent -- how novel-sounding, from having married a Chinese woman; and still photographer and assistant Bryant Williams. When I arrive, these guys are puttering over cables and connections, getting all set up in sync with sound checks and sun rays to shoot yours truly answering questions tossed his way by interviewer Phil. “It’s going to be more like a conversation between us,” he told me, adjusting my mind set from apprehensive down to relaxed. Anything half-way spontaneous beats a Meet the Press inquisition.

We do the interview, actually more Q&A than back and forth, out on a deck overlooking the serene skyline while a few lazy clouds drop in and out, a little curious. And in the afternoon, after a catered-in lunch (how very you-know-what), we go inside. A change of shirts for me, on the production company.

While Phil and I continue the dialogue, camera man Jake Gorst monitors the surroundings like a Geiger counter, ever sensitive to a disruptive buzz in the air, an emerging crease in my shirt. We stop and start. Do that over. I had told them up front, “Don’t ever let me say ‘you know.’” They never intervened, so I assume, you know, that I didn’t, ah, you know, go lazy or whatever.

Darting about at will, Bryant snaps still photos in a cinematically mysterious manner, looking like a figure out of a Hitchcock thriller. He also serves as Weyland’s assistant, ever ready to bring that over here, or here over there. Or to discover, with professional displeasure, a tiny something in my hair and to remove it discretely.

Phil and I talk about the quad, about trapeze history, about a form of circus much favored by Phil that seems to be fading away, if not already gone. Philip Weyland is not a Cirque du Soleil guy, and he wants to know how the history of trapeze may fit into the bigger big top picture.

So much so, that Phil filmed Miguel returning to the air after a five year absence. He showed me a stretch of the footage, and I saw the God of Human Flight reach out and connect with the hands of his brother, Juan. Artists back together in a supernatural realm they ruled nearly alone for over a decade.

What a great time I have. My fifteen minutes in perfect dreamland sunshine. Now, was I really in a place called Monrovia, or just inside a Culver City sound stage? And how near might I be to the cutting room floor? And is there a net down there just in case?

Don’t tell me, L.A. Sometimes it’s perfect not knowing.

{photos courtesy of Philip Weyland]

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Little Big Top Bits: Bello Back to Big Apple ... Wandering Tortoise Berta Back to Zerbini .... A Boon to Boom A Ring!

He's a super cool-looking guy, who kinda still looks young and kinda looks funny and kinda entertains in his own quirky way. I Hear the kids are high on him. Maybe that's circus today. Anyway, Bello Nock, who ran away from the Big Apple Circus in 2000 to join Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, is running back to rejoin New York's treasure tent. Bello is promising "high falls, bungee-ing and trampolining." ...

Circus Vargas offering a fine and well illustrated "40th Anniversary edition" program magazine, and for the not outrageous price of $7 ... Not quite accurate, Guys and Gals. Cliff Vargas switched over from Miller-Johnson to Circus Vargas in 1974. Anyway, I'm not sure he would be very thrilled with the current edition -- one of those skimpy programs containing both class and crass in the same ignoble package ...

Another horse show biting the dust, down in Dallas. You knew it by the name Artania. And a "cold war" brewing between a Houston promoter, the city of Dallas and a landowner over the still standing though very abandoned tent. Beer bottles and other leftovers strewn about inside. "It's just an ugly tent," says says Joann Crenshaw, a customer of Fuel City, on whose parking lot the show rose and fell for the last time. Local officials unhappy, giving property owner 30 days to strike the stricken canvas ...

At least a tortoise has a tent to return to: Zerbini Family Circus's 114-pound Berta, who quit the show in mid-July for independent gigs around Madison, Wisconsin, got about two miles up the road where, appearing on a golf course, he was spotted. Berta, "part of the family for 10 years," according to Alain Zerbini, is back in his own backyard ...

Boom Boom Boom A Ring, My Love: Nice to see a legit critic agreeing with my high regards for Kenneth Feld's perfectly refreshing circus gem, now parked at Coney Island, but with few reviews to show for it. From TheatreMania's Ellis Nassour: "It's Ringling's first tent show in 50 years and it ranks as one of their best ever, in large part due to the direction of Broadway veteran Philip Wm. McKinley (best known for The Boy from Oz)." Please stay the retro-revolutionary course, Mr. McKinely, and get Mr. Feld to let you do more of the magical same ...

Cirque du Soleil's hosting venue in Hollywood, the Kodak Theatre, is getting a $30 million loan in federal money from the Los Angeles City Council, for retrofitting. CDS expected to pull profitable crowds for a decade. Let's hope the world is still around ...