The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp

The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp
Currently Reigning Champion at 4-1/2 Stars, Zoppe Family Circus Wins the Crowds with Heart-Warming Tradition

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

MIDWAY FLASH ... MIDWAY FLASH ... latitude laliberte ... latitude laliberte ... cirque du launch ... cirque du launch ...

second umbilical will retract just moments from now. there it goes. main entrance start. we have main entrance start. engines at maximum thrust. lift off. lift off of the Soyuz rocket as jeff williams, max aray and guy laliberte begin their journey to the international space station ...

good pitch program according to flight controllers. heading for a linkup with the international space station two days from now. good first stage performance being reported. the Soyuz delivering one hundred and two tons of thrust from its four boosters and its single engine. first stage measuring sixty eight feet in length, twenty four feet in diameter.

is normal. and everything is nominal on board the soyuz. pitch and roll reported to be nominal by russian flight controllers. one minute ten seconds into the flight. the velocity now eleven hundred miles per hour. passing through maximum dynamic pressure. so we can see you quite well. excellent. about twenty seconds to go until the jettison of the four strap on boosters. all systems reported to be in excellent shape.

one one zero. one two zero. we have separation. two minutes seven seconds into the flight. we have the jettison of the four strap on boosters. the soyuz now traveling thirty three hundred fifty miles an hour. and now it's comfortable. now evident as the boosters fall away. about thirty seconds from now, we should be hearing the confirmation of the escape tower and launch route jettison.

coming up on the three minute mark, into the flight, the soyuz traveling at a speed of forty seven hundred miles an hour ...

now a view of space flight participant guy laliberte in the right seat of the soyuz vehicle. soyuz performing nominal, three minutes fifteen seconds into the flight ...

we can see you are showing us thumbs up. as far as we can judge, it means you are feeling good. he just said, "super." guy said, he's very happy.

the crew reporting back that it is in excellent spirits heading uphill, three minutes fifty seconds into the flight ..


the second stage fifty six feet in length, thirteen and a half feet in diameter ... a single engine providing ninety six tons of thrust.



launch occurred at two fourteen and forty two seconds a.m. central time.

second stage separation. the four liquid fuel engines have fulfilled their role for today, now dropping away.




all of the soyuz systems performing perfectly, five and a half minutes into the flight.

i can see william, and we can see the lion.

... the soyuz now traveling at about ten thousand five hundred miles an hour .

.. ... ............ .... *** ***

* *

we're sharing our impressions ...

almost thirteen thousand miles an hour ... ^ ^ ^

^ *

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Scramble Showdown: Saints to Shysters Converge on Midways of Life ...

Oh, where to begin
, it is so so hot here in Oakland, almost as hot as a James Hargrove phone room ... Almost as hot as Lillian Leitzel (above) thrilling a packed tent on an Iowa afternoon. Almost as hot as all the New York press paper alluding to a mementos Big Apple Circus artistic power transfer that already happened.. Don’t believe the latter. BAC is moving thru a long and slow, more tepid than hot transition, with founding Messrs. Paul Binder and Michael Christensen monitoring the process every step of the way. You thought the French guy (Guillaume Dufresnoy) was now, finally, at last, officially -- in charge? Wait another season or two. He’s in there, with other eyes upon him. Next year might be his first real year, or maybe the next. Or? ... The new opus starring the returning Bello Nock, about to uncork, is being guest directed by Steve Smith, who also staged last year's show. From BAC company manger Don Covington, came these precise clarifications. “As far as I know, e-mails Don, "Guillaume still plans to hire a guest director for show 33." End of quote. But, but, seems that Paul and Michael will serve as "creative consultants." As for Show 34, stay tuned for further glacially slow details. Me thinks Binder, wanting to preserve what he honorably established, is handing the reigns over later than sooner, wanting to be as sure as he can. I’m thinking that Binder's chosen protege will indeed preserve the Binder legacy, as Binder preserved Old Europe. Not hot, but solid warm. Perfect for Grandma’s arthritis ....

As hot as a phone room run by Jim Fletcher, outed in the current issue of that sizzling tell all organ, The Bandwagon. Among his many boiler room shenanigans concocted to plant the fear of police rejection into the hearts of Main Street merchants, Fletcher would play a sound track of dogs barking while he dialed for bogus donations. To the victim, sighed he, “Oh, they are putting another one down. You’ve got to help these animals!” Hot hot hot were the coerced dollars our Fletcher fleecer extracted ... Another Ma Bell shyster posing as Grandma Charity was one M. E. Van Dorstan, who made known to those unresponsive merchants on Fleece Street that a check mark would appear next to their name on a big list, because, only because, well (clearing his throat, no doubt, as Barrymore might have), “The club members wanted a list of everybody who said no.” And guess what THEN happened? Up went the heat. Out came the billfold. Jez, I recall as a kid reading The Billboard and wondering, ad after ad, what “phone man” meant. Working press for Sid Kellner, I soon learned.

Let’s turn down the heat a little and, do, what? Bring out Ms. Leitzel the great. Did you know she was a very accomplished piano player, who also had the smarts to realize she would likely not make it on the concert stage, so she stayed in spangles and threw her fate to the Ringling gods and to their 15,000 seat big tops. Did you know she too feared that which she was paid to do? Here’s Ms. L, being interviewed for a story only hours before she took her fatal fall in Copenhagen, that caused by a rigging malfunction. “You have to continue your act and fight the trick that has teased you until you can master it. It is the only way to fight fear ... I can wake up in the middle of the night sacred to death by the thought of not being able to remember how to do a specific trick. But during the act it comes naturally.” Among Ms. Lillian's close Hollywood friends was silent film comic Harold Lloyd. How I would love to have interviewed this infinitely interesting woman!

Mutual Admiration, belatedly reported here in a hot tea tent: John Ringling North II inking clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs for another season with Kelly-Miller Circus. To me, it flatters both producer and performers. Those two guys put up with a lot of mud to bring their talents to audiences, and they must like the man for whom they labor with such dedication. As for North, heading into his senior year as a tenting tycoon, he shows himself as a showman wishing to take a higher road. I won’t detail the lower roads. I’ve already elsewhere on this midway said my mind ... On the other Ringling hand, reading Crash Moreau's 2009 circus visits (there's a link to his blog, over to your right), in which the Shrine Circus shows come out wearing kudos, as does Cole. Bros. Circus of Stars ("probably the best [Cole] performance in years.") and BAC, not so Kelly-Miller. While Crash utters not a negative word, he says virtually nothing about the K-M performance itself, only listing names of the acts and spending his praise on the exemplary physical operation. Which, to me, sounded like somebody singing the scenery on his way out of the theatre. Hmmm. no, no, David. Don’t go there. Whiplash city. Oh it got so hot in here again. All of a sudden. Cooling off on Zeus iced, courtesy of Boyi. I must take my break before it breaks me ...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

From Homemade Shrine Buffoons to Cheapskate Big Tops, American Clowning Stumbles to New Lows

It was never a charmed path, not for most of those who donned greasepaint, eager to make people laugh under big tops big and small. Many in years gone by were acrobats and horse riders before retiring to take up clowning as a second career. And not on a summer lark. There above are some iconic greats on the Ringling show in 1955. Most of them stayed in makeup for their entire lives, building up household images and taking comfort in painting smiles on children of all ages.

Not so anymore.

Lately, the situation seems particularly bleak, what with some shows treating comedy as if all you need are some red noses and a few pratfalls, and anybody can do that, right? Or worse still, what with the "clowning" on too many Shrine dates being handled by the Shriners themselves, who have helped decimate circus art and drive it to new lows. Shame on you, Shriners! And shame on your enabling producers who refuse to uphold even the most basic artistic standards!

There was a time and a place when a Shriner did not pass himself off as a working joey. He would not dare on the Polack show in the 1950s. Even a time, perhaps, when the circus producer he hired would not have tolerated such selfishly indulgent amateurism. Nearly a quarter of one audience exiting a Shrine circus in 2000, surveyed on the "poorest features" of the show, included Shrine clowns. Brazenly they flop on and flop out. One Shrine temple had not a single Shrine clown act on its 2000 program. By 2007, it had two.

Irvin Feld’s attention-grabbing Clown College, conceived in spin to fill an alleged void, feels to me like a sad distant memory, a sort of make-believe oasis that never really existed because it did not, like other schools, keep its doors open permanently. This will be hard for many to accept. Even Paul Binder, who admires the school, may resist a truth inherent in the Feld operation. It was first and foremost born of ballyhoo, ego and imagery. Would you say the same of Yale or Oxford, Florida State or Texas Tech? — or that humble little community college up the road from where you live? When last I checked, none of these institutions had closed its doors. Real schools tend not to.

Feld may have had his heart in the right place at first, but this consummate master of circus press agentry immediately turned his academy into both a publicity mill and a means for replacing the older clown alley he had inherited when he purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1967. Dismissing most of the old-guard clowns with ageist ingratitude, Feld set out to restock the alley with young energetic pretty faces (stress pretty) who were designed and directed not to be (theoretically) scary.

There is a sad dichotomy within the Feld fun factories. The circus got and still sometimes gets what it needs in the youngsters it hires to perform its sometimes very clever production gags. So the circus treats “clowns” like dime-a-dozen Forty Second Street hoofers. Which is why, I suppose, I have usually been more impressed with the work of some of the show's producing clowns than with the eager young recruits hired to take their direction. Reviewing my notes after taking in past Ringling performances, I am impressed at how much of the original comedy delivered ample amusement.

Indeed, this resourceful circus is a producing machine with or without a subsidiary training wing. Think the inventive duo of Kelly-Miller Circus cut-ups Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs (above), who came off the Ringling show but not through the college, which ceased operations in 1998. Now here is a theoretical question: Had they attended the college, might they have been as good, not as good or better than they turned out? Talent tends to find a way.

Ironically, some of the best clowning produced under the Felds may have come out during the last ten years. And I'm not talking audience participation bore David Larible or cute, charming, all around performer Bello Nock, hardly a memorable laugh maker. For example, in 2000, the mirth makers stole the show working three big gags, one involving a TV riddled with bad reception; another, a robotic cow; and the third, two huge inner tubes.

Beyond a few names like Bary Lubin (Grandma) and Bill Irwin (the latter, a CC graduate whom the Felds did not hire but who then established his brilliance with another great Pickle Family Circus clown, Geoff Hoyle -- aka: Mr. Sniff), what became of all the others? Approximately 1,200 students attended the school. Where are they today? Not with most of the shows I see. Not even, I suspect, with the very circus that nurtured their young dreams. Among the alumni, Greg DeSanto, who clowned on the big show for ten years and spent five winters directing Feld's funsters, proudly estimates that up to one hundred graduates are still working in circuses today. I strain to imagine where all of these one hundred are. Mark Gindick, a Big Apple Circus asset last season, made it through the college. Usually, the clowns I see are from Mexico and Russia and other foreign ports.

Many of the matriculating mischief makers who landed Ringling contracts soon fell out of love with the novelty of trouping and/or the insultingly low wages they received. Some quit mid-season their first year out. No matter, Clown College kept turning out more bodies.

Why did it close? Not for lack of funding. The circus that ran it is today filthy rich. No, I suspect that Kenneth Feld tired of the whole thing and realized he does not need a "college" to attract and audition prospective talent. Which does not exactly honor his father's artistic argument. Let’s not kid ourselves, kids. Irvin Feld’s grandiose vision was never about building up a strong and enduring Ringling clown alley. It was about cheap bodies to fill the floppy shoes and free publicity to sell tickets. It was about a circus with little patience for character, really wishing to white wash clown alley and serve Feld's arching aesthetic: Young and beautiful. . Maybe that is why I feel a deep sadness. Behind a noble idea lurked a cynical game plan whose legacy, I believe, is weak.

The artistic ironies that dominate our big top scene are not flattering: This last summer, at Zing Zang Zoom I watched the most unfunny group of silly make-do clowns I think I have ever seen on a Ringling program. Yet, at another Feld unit, Boom A Ring, I rejoiced in the comedic genius of three glib entertainers from foreign shores, two of whom, Russians Vasily Trifonov and Stanislav Knyazkov, are seen here in this picture.

Clown College taught students at four campuses: in Venice, Florida; at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, at the Opera House in Sarasota, and in Japan. Ringling’s website claims that its legacy lives on through the materials it provides to various schools around the world and to the training the circus itself offers the new recruits who sign on to tour with one of Ringling’s three units. Certainly, some of the comedy still seen on the show is better than average for an American circus. I still see very good production gags now and then, but rarely does a particular face stand out.

Once upon a time, many of the greatest ring buffoons, like Otto Griegling, worked well into their twilight years. That was before Irvin Feld came along to replace an aging group of pros with his exuberantly cheerful young acro-clowns. They still come and go. Some will amuse us. A few may hang around to endure all of the hardships and the low pay. Most will vanish quickly back of a heartless big top.

Ten years following the demise of Clown College, at a reunion held in 2008, 170 grads showed up. I wonder what they felt deep down in their hearts? Some would no doubt tell you what a thrill it was to be taught by Lou Jacobs. Others may share fond memories of life in and around the sawdust rings. That was yesterday, and yesterday is now history. Cry, Clown College, cry.

[photos, from the top: Ringling-Barnum stove gag, 1955, produced by the late Paul Jung, who had been with the show since 1917; Yaarab Shrine Circus and Carnival clowns, 2009; Irvin Feld addresses a new Clown College class, circa 1972; Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs on Kelly-Miller Circus, photo by David Miller/Loveland Magazine; Vasily Trifonov and Stanislav Knyazkov, with Boom A Ring, 2009; Otto Griebling with Ringling-Barnum, circa 1969]

First posted September 23, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Scrambler: Cirque Tackles Vaudeville, NY Firemen Carwash an Elephant in Protest ...

New Yorkers getting blitzed by circuses up and down and all around the Big Town: Cirque du Soleil still determined to grab Gotham winter summer spring and fall. Cometh next, Montreal's entry into stage show stuff. They’re calling it Banana Shpeel: A New Twist on Vaudeville, and its hitting the Beacon Theatre next Feb. 11 after a break-in try in Chicago. David Shiner (of Kooza) directing. Cast of 33. Says Cirque big gun Daniel Lamarre, “It is, as the title says, a vaudeville show with a twist.” But don’t count on Gypsy Rose Lee redox. This one’s “a family show with a simple and compact narrative,” and they’re not talking Mae West East South or North. ... Cirque is also mounting, come 2011, an annual 4-month summer splash on the Radio City Music Hall stage. Acrobodies around the world: Start your warm ups!

Speaking of which, here’s cliff taunting acrobat Eskil Ronningsbakken (is that really a name?) doing arm stands on a rig perched over the edge of cliffs. He sees redemptive art, and feels “honored to be an extension of God’s beautiful nature.” The self-described “educated balancing performer” will be appearing at a cliff near you, if you live in greater Europe ... Brings to mind Beethoven light -- that's when orchestras play while acrobats fly high through anchored musicians ...

Not nice for plastering posters on telephone booths and road signs is the Great British Circus. Culture police also on edge over a video showing one of its elephants being hit by a groom ... There was a time in big top history, some of you might know, when there were not yet pachyderms prancing around rings ... Back to New York, sort of, where James A. Bailey's old home at 19 St. Nicholas Place sold for a cool $1.4 million, considered a bargain. Built in 1886, five years after Bailey and Barnum put out the very first three-ring circus, this palace should, I hereby feebly command, be turned into a NY circus museum. Hey, Big Apple folks: do you see what's been going on under your big toppy hats for many years? ...

New York Forever, cont'd: None of the populace too thrilled with firemen taking circus breaks, and against their professional will, to hose down a Ringling Bros. elephant, cleverly hatched for free press coverage, plenty of which it landed. Firemen first refused, and the circus kept moving up the chain of command, finally getting New York city officials to okay the brazen stunt, forcing the men who man red trucks to demean their stations in life which might have been critically needed ... PETA deliriously in there throwing more fire on the heat ... Cliff Vargas once sent a behemoth through the spray line and landed big publicity and nearly overnight discovered a road out of the phone rooms ... Just thought I'd mention that ...

Cooking up a storm of support for Circus World Museum: In Baraboo, chefs in combat to prove their kitchen charisma, and they raised a boffo $149.000. ... 30 eateries entered the tasty and tastifiic tournament. Silver Tray Awards handed out to the top stove stars, whomever they were ...

Artful Images: Princess Stephanie of Monaco hosting a circus photo contest for the young, it's lofty purpose to show “circus as part of our shared culture.” I love Stephanie for taking her father's torch with such dignity and devotion ... Back in biz is Circus Juventas, re-approved to give performances, its precarious sets apparently brought back up to code.

America’s Got Circus, so why not that as a TV show? This country from sea to polluted sea teems with young talent and old talent hungry for exposure, legit or non. So let ‘em all come on and do their thing. And maybe they’ll get more respect than they do on the other "Got Talent" show. Am I running dry here? Okay, tea tent's down, thank you Don Covington ... Try Starbucks across the midway ... And, oh, yes, Krisnamurti channelling in sends minimal regards to all non-non-non believers ...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Incomparable Power of Gran Torino: Another Eastwood Masterpiece

DVD Discovery: Gran Torino

Produced and Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Nick Schenk
Starring Clint Eastwood, Ben Vang, Abney Her, Christopher Carley

Embittered retired Ford worker and Korean war veteran, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) breathes bigotry and discontent as he observes the neighborhood he shared with his just deceased wife being cut up into ethnic battle lines. He feels contempt for the Catholic church, too, where a funeral service opens the film. His estranged sons, who sell Japanese automobiles, want him to sell his house and vanish nicely into retirement home woodwork. His best friend is his dog, Sally.

When Kowalski glances next door to a fatherless Hmong family that has just moved in, he feels yet more disdain. But when gang violence involving the family’s young son, Thao (Ben Vang), spills onto Kowalski’s front lawn, the Korean vet, well armed, is cast onto a path that will take him into the graces of an extended Asian family. The integration is reluctant and slow and riddled with Kowalski’s crude racial slurs, as gradually he reconnects to humanity. “I have more in common with them,” he comes to admit to himself, comparing a virtual community under one roof to his own scheming relatives, each bent on accelerating his demise while awaiting expected legacies.

Thao’s struggle to remain free of gang life becomes the film’s compelling trajectory. Under gang coercion, the kid makes a bungled attempt to steal Kowalski's Gran Torino. From there, a story of how the two disparate souls are forced together and help each other gives this tough tense movie a genuine heart. It grabs you by the gut and yet, at the same time makes you laugh over and over. I did not know Eastwood possessed so searing a sense of humor, manifest here in wickedly subtle ways.

Having never seen, that I can recall, any of Eastwood's Dirty Harry films, I can't relate to critics finding elements of Harry embedded in Torino. I only know how mighty impressed I am by the richly textured character that Eastwood has crafted. I watched the DVD twice over two nights, and marveled at how the 78-year-old actor manages to shade Kowalski's sarcastic asides and tart racial slurs to others without them ever becoming the sort of a cheap running gag that a Jack Nicholson would make of them. It is that cranky humor, I believe, that ingratiates us so to Walt Kowalski. We are witnesses here to a brilliantly controlled performance and to another major work of art equal to Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby.

The heroic ending is one of those rarities in cinema where so many threads merge majestically into excellent completion. Here, Kowalski, caring more for the kid than for himself, engineers his own murder in order to send a gang of thugs to prison and thus spare his young friend Thao the likelihood of himself ending up in a gang or getting killed in vindictive crossfire.

The extraordinarily affecting Gran Torino is one for the ages.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The New Jay Leno Show: A Tired and Creaky Format Needs Sharper Material, Less Flash and Furniture ...

TV review: The Jay Leno Show

While I watched the inaugural Jay Leno Show, I had a sinking feeling and wanted to leave. But considering the historic occasion, my heart resolved to solider on. It felt like riding a roller coaster in slow motion. Every time it took a sudden drop (some drops raising well earned laughter), I wondered if we’d make it back up to the next peak for the next deft or lame attempt at whatever. And how I wished in the end, that rather than Leno, the host had been Letterman.

First impressions can be terribly hard to break: The overly active set, lush with color and neon, looks like a shopping mall walk through and seems to compete with Leno himself. He has no desk to call his own anymore, so he sits in a single chair, looking a little lost and lonely. Near the end of the program, he sat behind a receptionist-like desk to deliver a closing comedy bit. That bit, like the program itself, was embarrassingly hit and miss.

Leno scored big with a mock interview of President Obama, and his opening monologue, as is usually the case, delivered a few zingers. Jerry Seinfeld made a wryly clever guest appearance, complete with pull down screen of Lady Oprah talking to Jerry while ignoring Jay.

Two other comedy bits fell awkwardly flat: The first had a comedian romancing a lady at a car wash, staged like a budget production number out of a low-end high school musical. The other bit cast Leno and his ultra laid-back sidekick, musician Kevin Eubanks, in what I take it is a recurring satire about the two being fictionally sweet for each other. More labored than amusing.

Another low point was an appearance by rapper Kanye West, who had just made an unconscionably disruptive fool of himself at the MTV Video Music Awards. There he was, contrite and speechless and ever so apologetic, and likely savoring all of the free publicity his stunt was getting him. And then we had to listen to West's group sour up the airwaves. Not a pretty finish to Jay Leno's first program. But, who knows, maybe a big commercial break.

Leno is, what can you say, a nice guy eager to please. And I am, what can I say, an impatient viewer who rarely ventures at these late night parties beyond anybody's opening monologue. So I might not be the right person to wager a bet on the chances of the Jay Leno Show making it against same-time competition that, according to experts, will be hard to beat. I know this: Leno will have to do better if he intends to hold his own.

And yet ... And yet ... Even though I found the whole thing a bit strained and paceless, I’m going back tonight to see if this shaky ship sails any smoother. The potential is there, that's for sure. But I think Leno needs major retooling. For one thing, he might bring back the desk. That alone could ground him. For another, if the dumb stuff I saw was quasi Sat. Night Live, I'd suggest they return it immediately to the Sat. Night Live dumpster. Otherwise, in the not too distant future, the Jay Leno Show risks becoming, sooner than later, a quaint also ran.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jack Paar to Jay Leno: Late Night Grows Younger

"The national broadcasting company and its affiliate stations from coast to coast present the new Tonight Show staring Jack Paar! And it’s all live from New York!”

Thus began, back in July, 1957, a rich legacy of late night comedy and conversation. Actually, the inventive Steve Allen came first, and before Allen, a primitive attempt to attract nocturnal viewers called Broadway Open House.

When Paar took over, I was soon there, too, riveted each night at 11:15 p.m. to our DuMont television set, for Paar was like no one else I had ever seen. Brilliant and witty, raw and restless and unpredictable. Daring to take risks born of his open-minded political views. His guests did not venture onto the set to pitch records or movies. Or more TV shows. They came on to talk because they had the gift of witty gab. Even Richard Nixon (remember him?) revealed a surprisingly humorous side on the Tonight Show when Paar hosted the man who would still be president.

Paar was restlessly himself, unable to be anybody else, and the sparks flew. He once asked Oscar Levant, “what do you do for exercise?“ ”Oh,” answered the semi-inebriated pianist, “I stumble, and then I fall into a coma.” It was like that a lot, trust me. And I could not ever get enough of goofy Dody Goodman.

In Havana shortly following the Cuban revolution, Paar gained an on the spot interview with Fidel Castro. It was a warm and intimate exchange between two human beings sharing the same planet.

When Johnny Carson replaced the departing Paar, who wanted out, I resentfully did not stay tuned, I was such a Paar loyalist. It took me years to appreciate Carson’s gracious and graceful style. And to bond with his remarkably enduring persona. At a party attended by a number of Hollywood insiders at a friend’s house in L.A. in the 80s, a few Tonight Show staffers were there. Super nice people. One of them, just before she left, said to me, “David, if you ever want to see Johnny Carson, just give me a call and I’ll get you tickets."

I will never forgive myself for not taking her up on the offer.

During the years since, I've checked out most of the late night hosts. Merv Griffin was a terrific interviewer. Pat Sajack, yes he too tried late night, had great potential, but his promising show suffered for lack of the right direction. Of late, the only new host that truly impressed me has been Craig Killborn, who walked away from CBS after only a few years. I saw five tappings of his show. He had so much going for him, and then got bored and/or hankered to be a movie star. That he has not achieved, languishing in small roles. Nobody writes about him anymore. Now, as for Conan O'Brien, I am dumbfounded to understand what it is about this guy that causes anybody to laugh. I gave his show several earnest tries -- in vain.

Good news for those among us of a certain age who are not so nocturnal anymore: Beginning tonight on NBC, comes an earlier Jay Leno, and I can’t wait. I can do 10 p.m. I don’t like doing 11:35 p.m. like I once did when I slept in until 11 or noon the next morning. Nor were either Leno or Letterman ever as riveting to me as the one and only Jack Paar. I think that Letterman is possibly the best comedy monologist ever, and so sometimes I stay up to watch his first fifteen minutes. The show’s lingering structural problem, as I see it, has been Letterman’s nerdy musical director sidekick, Paul Schafer, a guy from out of a loud '60s mentality who fails to provide a balancing contrast to the host.

Leno? I’ve always found him likeble and easy going, just not an interesting enough personality, like Letterman, to keep me up late night waiting. Now, I’m really looking forward. 10 p.m. is perfect. Many TV experts, however, are predicting failure in the prime time slot. If the popular Jay Leno can continue to deliver apace, I’m predicting he’ll have an audience.

Fifty two years ago last July, my all-time favorite late night host first appeared in a swim suit seated inside an inflatable raft floating in a swimming pool, peeking away over a typewriter in his lap.

If only he had never gone away. I still miss Jack Paar. He epitomizes for me the best of live television, not just during the relentlessly maligned black and white era that he dominated, but at anytime. TV in the fifties was not all Ozzie and Harriet or Roller Derby or Queen for a Day. It was Allen and Caesar, Bernstein and Serling, Gleason and Omnibus and Playhouse 90 and David Suskind’s Open End. It was live adaptations of great plays, such as Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot. And so many other great and stimulating things. And virtually all of those things appeared not between pledge breaks, but on the big three major networks.

Finally, I am returning to late night --- earlier. The time is right. Go, Leno, Go!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ignored by Big Apple Critics, Ringling’s Long Coney Island Date Proves Promising .... Good "Boom" Biz Points to Likely Return

Updated and revised, 9/12: Regretfully, my original posting possibly lent a misleading impression about the crowds who patronized the show. In particular, I implied that a rough element associated with the gangs who helped "decimate" Coney Island made the tent not always the most pleasant place to visit. My report was largely based upon remarks, some of which I evidently misunderstood, made to me in an e-mail from a Brooklyn-based source. That source has since clarified certain things he said. As for the business, he claims it was not so wildly mixed, but "excellent" overall. That is good, if true. So, wishing to report this as fairly as possible, deferring to his on-the-scene account, I have revised this post essentially to eliminate my negative characterization of some of the crowds and changed my take on the business from "OK" to "good." Am I absolutely certain "good" is the correct word? No. But anybody who has followed circuses will know how hellishly difficult it is to obtain accurate body counts unless you yourself are inside the tent every day. I have also since checked with some other sources.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Boom A Ring, which recently wound up a three-month stay at Coney Island and is reported to be headed for European dates, met with mixed turnouts at the turnstiles. According to sketchy information provided by one anonymous source sympathetic to the circus, the performance schedule was reduced to fewer shows per week in August. Wednesday morning performances were virtual washouts. Ironically, the other two mid-week shows on Wednesday drew the largest crowds. A good number of happy customers asked if Ringling would return next summer. So far, staffers believe that they will be back. Perhaps a shorter run will ensue.

According to my source, "Crowds were noisy and enthusiastic." He observed a great many people at the concession stands haggling over prices, same as they do at indoor and outdoor stands along Canal Street. The show, which played in a neighborhood dominated by the projects, was well monitored by law enforcement officials from the 60th precinct. The summer run was without incident.

Checking with other sources close to the scene, the impression conveyed of actual business is somewhat murkier. Walk up traffic was observed to be very weak. Cool wet weather did not help. Feld's original plan to offer three daily shows during August, counting on brisk summer traffic, was not met with expected patronage, and so the morning shows were cut back.

One unnamed Ringling employee, interviewed by "Thunderbolt Kim" for the blog,, was asked if she enjoyed Coney and would miss it. Yes, she answered, "but 3 months in the same location was a long time."

This, make no doubt, is not the ideal location for any circus, not with all the bleak empty space around it where a thriving amusement park once stood. Will Kenneth Feld give the hardly revitalized Coney Island, minus seedy fenced-in Astroland, which closed last year, a long-term chance? Or will he throw in the towel like he did on his short-lived Barnum's Kaleidoscape? Only time will tell. My guess is that he'll give the date at least another year, assuming the information contained in this post is generally correct.

Strangely, Boom A Ring was generally ignored by Big Apple critics. Even The New York Times, which rarely visits a circus these days that it does not have something good to say about, inexplicably decided not to review the first Ringling under canvas circus on American soil in over fifty years. Among a slender slate of mixed feedback, Boom drew two notices from The Brooklyn Paper, one negative, the other positive. It earned a rave from the theatre-centric on-line website, TheatreMania. Ten dollar tickets apparently hastened many foot steps onto its midway. Here is what one blogger, Travalanche, had to say:

"That’s it. Time to eat my words, and then wash them down with Kool-Aid. A few weeks ago I posted an item here in praise of the Cole Brothers Circus, one that elevated that show at the expense of the vastly bigger, badder Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey outfit. But yesterday, I saw the latter organization’s tented show Boom-a-Ring out at Coney Island, and I have to reverse myself. While still not the circus of my dreams, it sets a new high water mark."

[photo, top, from website: Councilman Domenic Reechia speaking during Coney Island Appreciation Night hosted by the circus, September 2]

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


The name is enough, isn’t it? We all have our rich memories. He is ours for his eccentric aerial ballets and for his wild sense of humor. Theirs, meaning the French, for his gender-bending illusions on a single trapeze that wowed them. When at the end of “her act,” he with a flourish threw his true identity to the crowd, they cheered. And adored. And loved. Among his many friends and admirers, there was legendary Russian ballet impresario serge Diaghilev.

Born Vander Clyde, he never received the book that is due him. His career flew high over Europe, and then he fell, and the fall grounded him for good. He grew up in, of all places, Round Rock Texas, future home of pc giant Dell. Soon he was abroad making a name for himself.

Avant garde artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in 1923 wrote this in a letter to Belgian friend and critic, Paul Collear, “The young American who does this wire and trapeze act is a great actor, an angel, and he has become the friend to all of us. Go and see him ... one of the most beautiful things in theatre. Stravinsky, Auric, poets, painters, and I myself have seen no comparable display of artistry on the stage since Nijinsky... a theatrical masterpiece. An angel, a flower, a bird.”

Barbette's persona would influence a number of other leading artists, as well, among them, Alfred Hitchcock, who based a character in his 1930 film, Murder!, on the flamboyant aerialist from Texas.

I am proud to say that, if for no other reason than Dale Longmire, I composed a chapter on Barbette titled “The Entrepreneur of Enchantment” in my first book, Behind the Big Top. One evening after a performance of Circus Vargas, somehow I had heard that Dale wanted me to sign his copy of the book. Inside his trailer, he told me how much he valued the chapter on his idol, that he had read it many times over. That made my season.

Cocteau, who cast Barbette in his 1930 film Blood of the Poet (placing him as a woman sitting in a theatre box), likened his idol to “a cloud of dust thrown into the eyes of the audience” The two shared a bed during an affair as short lived as a cloud of dust.

Years later, back in America, that "cloud of dust" was more like a slender stalk of aging elegance. Barbette was now "directing" circuses, to the rather limited extent possible at the time. After suffering a fall in the mid-thirties that ended his trapeze career abroad, he returned to the states. John Ringling North hired him to stage aerial production numbers. This led to work on other shows as well, from Cole Bros. to Polack. I've heard about an exciting elephant long mount that allegedly opened a Cole Bros. show when Barbette was directing it.

I am charmed with a feeling that Barbette achieved his finest work creating and staging the Polack Bros. shows which I saw during the mid-1950s when its hands-off owner Louis Stern evidently gave him ample funds and generous latitude. There, he evidently had more power to shape an entire show. Tis a shame that North never gave Barbette such a chance on his own Greatest Show on Earth. Ken Dodd raves about Barbette's Monte Carlo aerial ballet for Ringling in 1948. Significantly, the finale on Ringling-Barnum during its last under canvas season in 1956, “Hoop Do Doo” was at least partially directed by Barbette.

I knew this eccentric wonder close up, first as a kid hardly in his teens when Polack Bros. came to Santa Rosa. How could you not notice him? The way he dressed, high sweaters to conceal unflattering lines. The way he walked — ballet master hovering over every detail. One evening before the show while watching him fuss over the lights,I approached the director and blurted out, “What is it like working on the Ringling circus?”

With a blase world-weary sigh, answered Barbette, “Oh, it’s like a sex holiday.”

Funny, as out of place as the remark might seem, in a sense Barbette was addressing me as a full fledged adult. Our encounter did not go beyond that. Whether it was a trial proposition (there were those rumors), I do not know.

In the late 1960s, I met up with him again when he was back on the now budget-strapped Polack show. Barbette had scarcely the personnel or production effects to sustain his reputation. Either he asked me or I volunteered to drive him to a hardware store. He needed something, and, there, he never found whatever it was he needed. I drove him back to the Oakland auditorium. The show was a pale shadow of its heydays years in the fifties. When I took in a performance over in San Francisco, a cheap looking motor Barbette was using to lift some rigging for one of his productions malfunctioned. Barbette's “Aerialovelies” were grounded. I felt both amused and sad.

A few years later, plagued by ill health, one of Spangleland’s most fantastic personalities self-directed his own final exit.

Old time 24-hour man Bill Strong, I’ve belatedly discovered, gave Barbette a wonderful panorama of photographic attention on his blog, Yesterday’s Towns. On the internet, bit by bit, we are learning more about this colorful big top great. Some of the information for this post was gleaned from the the following website:

To end our little tribute, here is more of what Jean Cocteau wrote about the object of his artistic and personal infatuation:

Barbette “plays a part of a man. He rolls his shoulder, stretches his hands, swells his muscles... And after the fifteenth or sixteenth curtain call, he gives a mischievous wink, shifts from foot to foot, mimes a bit of an apology, and does a shuffling street urchin dance – all of it to erase the fabulous, dying-swan impression left by the act.”

[photos, from top: Barbette; in his single trapeze costume disguise; As circus director in America; Two of his Polack Bros. 1953 productions: the Carnival in Spangleland ballet and This Way to the Side Show opener]

First posted September 9, 2009

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday Scramble, Any Side Up ...

First Draft Reckless ... What hits my sunny brain. Okay, the sunny image of ringmistress Carrie Harvey, more of whose sunny style I would like to have sampled. She’s bound back to her London hearth, there to “finally have a family.” Forget my careless assumption, earlier posted, that she was not invited back to the Big Apple Circus. She was, says she. “It was incredibly difficult for me to turn this offer down, but the big ‘40' is looming,” and thus the family plan. While, I presume, awaiting mother nature to deliver, Carrie will be free lancing on old Europe soil, with, among others, The Nery Brothers, a gala in France, and at the Colosseum in Porto come Christmas. Lucky for us, she’s hoping to make a stateside return soon, “with my family in tow!” Ringmasters of the higher individualistic order are not an easy sort to come by. Please don't forget us, Carrie ...

Not bound for any old place on the planet, but up there into space, come September 30, is, yes, that Montreal mogul who operates his Cirque kingdom. That would be Guy Laliberte, and did you know that Cirque discounts are showing a kinder side? Down there in L.A., you can, if you’re lucky, nab Kooza tickets for as low as $45.00, $35 for the kiddies ... Heck, I’m tempted to L.A. my way again, for I loved Kooza ... But, I have Ovo to look forward to come November. Officially speaking, in Montreal talk, here’s the precious premise: “a headlong rush into a colorful ecosystem teeming with life, where insects work out, eat, crawl, flutter, pay, fight and look for love in a non-stop riot of energy and movement.” Okay, but please, hold the cockroaches ...

The Ring of Anybody Can Be a Circus Legend has announced its latest honorees, and most are the genuine article: In fact, all may be (note to myself; go easy here, David, you might be dissing sacred cows): Tino Wallenda-Zoppe (what a loaded name combo!); Rudi and Sue Lenz (chimps); Manuel “Junior” Ruffin (wild animals), Tony Steele (flyer — go, Tony!); and the multi-talented Dime Wilson Family.

Okay, the following has nothing to do necessarily with the previous. I’ve lost my will to check out the ring when next in Sarasota. A few names in recent years (kindly, David will refrain from naming names) have left me less than enchanted, making the entire Ring affair an equal opportunity recognizer, as long as, as I understand it, you’ve got the money to pay for your ring ... Okay, I’m onto another topic. Sunday sun brings out my kinder side, that and rice tea here at L’Amyx ...

Former Feld (as in Ringling) tout master Jack Ryan essaying a lively and informative piece on circus press agents in the current issue of the sunny and stellar Spectacle. Jack sent me a copy of the story, in which I make a cameo, by way of my sunny interactions with one of the greats, Bev Kelly, who agreed to pen a foreword to my first book (and still my favorite, I think) Behind the Big Top. I’d love to see Jack tackle the egotistically magnificent Irvin Feld, for whom, I only assume, he was happily employed; just don’t know if he could or would tell all sides of such a bigger than life character ... Jack’s article is loaded with titillating tidbits about the Ringling press agents, such as this about Roland Butler: His "flash art, with the gorilla [Gargantua] tossing natives left and right, was a brilliantly subtle manipulation of the millions of nightmares caused by the then-recent movie, King Kong. It’s genius publicity.”

Gosh, I am out of stuff (thanks a midway, Don Covington.} And I’ve stayed my reckless first draft course. Promise. What you’re getting is what the high school teacher who gave me my best grades got: If there’s one thing about my life that’s certain, it’s this: I can type.

[photo: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus]

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Dragon’s Den Fit for Brits; A Shark’s Tank Full of Hollywood

Tickled by those Brit TV judges
TV Reviews: Dragon's Den and Shark Tank
Perhaps it was they who first linked “nasty” to “critic.” Over there, that would be in Big Ben Land, they dispense criticism as spectator sport. Over here, they, or their American act-alikes, do much the same as the common man (or actor portraying such) pitches talents and/or ideas, hoping to reap fame and fortune

“What will Simon say” or “what did Simon say?” — that’s really what American Idol is all about. Oh, sure, pick up your phone and vote. Nice egalitarian exercise. After each singer sings, who really cares about what the Randy pandy guy or poor dear Paula (now history) thinks. We all turn to that sour puss from bonnie England. Strange, his reactions don’t vary much, but now and then he lands a nasty zinger, and everyone acts shocked. Just shocked. How dare he say such a thing! But, please do, get on with the next singer so we can hear what Simon’s has to say. (If only it was that simple, if only there wasn’t so much bloat to wade through, I’d spend more time with Idol; I’ll wait, instead, for the “Best of Simon” on DVD.)

Those snitty Brits do have a way of dismissing ambition fast enough for it to make a quick effortless exit. Fast enough for the pain to go down in a hurry. Judging by our reality shows, either we suffer an inferiority complex, or we lack what they have. And so they come over here to puff us up and knock us down. Sock it to us, you nasty sassy sassinacks!

Comes now yet another Hollywood television spin off of another popular British TV show, Dragon's Den, the premise originally presented on Japanese TV. The American version, renamed Shark Tank, and which launched a couple of Sunday nights ago on ABC, is closely based on the BBC model, which, luckily I ran into a few months ago, finally feeling nailed by something on BBC America. There, across the precious pond, inventors present their ideas to a prickly panel of rich Brit industrialists, and are questioned. Some reap the investment money asked for. Many meet the gloomy spectacle of pouty Brit lips locking up on them, each in turn uttering the official kiss-off, “I’m out.”

The judges' facial expressions, all quite properly understated, of course, amuse me to no end. Their cringes and wary looks of disbelief between each other can be classic; you get five Simons in one. Sometimes you’ll get a warm smile hinting at partial provisional positivity, perhaps, per chance? Sometimes one or two dragons will reveal an unexpected hand at the count of nine, offering true Dickensonian support in their dour den for the inventor’s big idea — an idea just thoroughly discredited by their cooler-headed colleagues.

I’ve given their American counterparts — the Sharks, and, oddly, not a Brit among them — a chance, but their behavior in the tank strikes me as definitely more scripted than real. Such as one ‘inventor,” there along with his son, getting into a very New Yorkish shout-out with a Donald Trump type judge. The Trumpy Shark had made a counter offer, not accepted, and he acted as if he himself had ended up in the tank and was about to be eaten alive. Out he lashed, “You’re dead!” Oh, sure. Oh, never would such an untoward threat be delivered in the Dragons’ Den.

During the last episode of Tank, all of the sharks started tossing insults at one of the inventors, and it seemed a tad too theatrically contrived, and so to my TV screen said I, "I'm out."

Oh, did it feel good. Now, if they could get Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan into the tank, maybe I’d reverse my righteous reservations, and sigh shamelessly, “I’m back.”

(Dragons' Den airs on BBC America, Tuesday night at 9; Shark Tank on ABC, Sunday at 9)