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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Creative Currents Under a Great War ... South Pacific to Victory At Sea

I am so enthralled, in love really, with the Broadway revival of South Pacific (it's brilliantly inspired score remains my favorite), that I've seen it twice in NY and will again if I'm back there before it closes. And I've been moved to finally get a library copy of the book upon which the show is based, James A. Michener's novel Tales of the South Pacific. What a rich and rewarding work, the prose and realistic detail close in purity to Hemingway. I am waiting to reach the two or three stories used by Oscar Hammerstein II and Josh Logan in their Pulitzer prize winning adaptation of the book. Already, however, Nellie Forbush has entered (to me, I forever see Mary Martin), but in a story about an affair she has with an officer -- ill fated (she finally forces the issue, and yes, he is married) -- before she meets up with the Frenchman. What a great writer was Michener. I wonder how much courage it took him to mercilessly blast PT boats as being hopelessly useless? That is a new notion to me. He also narrates safe boring pockets of military life that can drive a soldier to beg for a transfer into real action. To me, this gives his account that much more depth and believability.

Victory at Sea is the other compelling source through which I have on many occasions connected with a war that commenced when I was in a crib hearing the sounds of the Big Dipper roller coaster across the street, the pacific ocean just to the west. This TV documentary, interestingly, it comes to mind, as I write this, also bears the music of Richard Rodgers. And what a tour-de-force that is. It's the blunt black and white footage, the terse narrator's voice, and the simple short-sentence prose combined with music to die for that makes Victory such an astounding achievement, in my opinion trumping all other TV Documentaries that have since come our way.

Thank you, James Michener. And Thank you, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Logan.

Next stop: I am going to read John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday. Drawn to a fresh challenge, Rodgers and Hammerstein, striking a more daring though all-too-tempered frame, based their 1955 flop Pipe Dream on the book's characters and themes. Critics complained of a Sunday school approach to hinting at rather than depicting a house of ill repute, and of the central character's participation in it insufficiently defined. So I want to see how this story element is handled in the novel. The show contains a marvelous score, and the characters at least seem to convey Steinbeck's sympathetic and humorous view of that particular world as reflected in another of his remarkable works which I have read, Tortilla Flat.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Slapdash Sunday: Showbizery Leftovers, I think ... Well, They're Free! ...

Where do we start. How about Ella in the background, under the L'Amyx tea tent in Oaktown, as the locals call the place.

Country & Western, like opera, it never got me. But oh, what a soft lyrical high: A sweet Japanese singer crooning "Country Road," as to infuse this classic with Great American songbook cache. So perfect on a mellow morning. And where should I be going, if anywhere. I was thinking, why not a Best of TV Commercials DVD? Or is there already one. That Geico character, the Pizza Whisperer, the gosh-oh-my! Progressive Insurance gal. AND, did you see the spaghetti lady getting whipped in her face by a thin noodle on the tip of her proper fork lashing out against it?!!!!!HaHaHa!!! I'd love seeing all of these amusing characters together in the same shoot, kind of a trade-talk chat, stars in their own right. BTW: Can TV get any creepier than the way those drugs ads are followed by nerve-wracking warnings: CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR IF, UPON INJECTION, YOU FEEL DEATH KNOCKING ON YOUR DOOR.

Here's to Betty White, about to appear in yet a new sitcom. I love this lady. Remember her in the 1950s. She reached sit-com heaven in The Golden Girls. All five of those women held their own, so did, in a similar way, all four of the I Love Lucy principals. I know Lucy was central, but all three others were absolutely spot-on before "spot on" meant anything to anybody, tweet tweet!

Showbiz David Sounds Off -- That's ME in a big headline at the top of page A3 in the Baraboo News Republic, sent to me by Baraboo's dapper man for all seasons, Bob Dewel, in this instance twirling his columnist's pen over my Circus World Museum posting. The size of my name in print makes it a rare first for me. Maybe there's something to be said for big fish/small pond. I always preferred the other option, and have yet to conquer either. Tickles me, it does ... And while we're in Ringlingville, Sir Bob reports that two retired profs are handling the library archives. Nice to know somebody's minding the stacks ...

So what's all the 3D fuss about? May I tell you, World, Been There Done That, back in the early fifties, when upon entering the movie house, you'd be handed a flimsy cardboard thing to wear in front of your eyeballs, sit back for the special effects -- monsters and weapons shooting off the screen right into your face! ... Short lived then, and I'm predicting short lived now. Gimmicks. Give me a break, Obsolete Electronics On Demand; Didn't they just foist Blue Ray onto the consumer, Hi-Def before that, and already Blue Ray is looking older and quainter by the minute as talk turns to 3D. Does anybody still own old black and white Zenith? ...

Missing Jay at 10 PM. Was nice to have his opening jokes, sometimes boffo. Have switched back and forth in record mode between Jay and David, and have said farewell to both. Neither show ever made me a regular convert, nor will 3D get me back. Paul Shaffer in 3D?

Back to Baraboo, for a moment of bijou envy: The thought of the epic silent film Metropolis lensing at the Al Ringling Theatre, with a live orchestra no less, nearly gives me goosebumps. Does this little town know how lucky it is? They can thank one of the Ringling Brothers. Those guys were so far reaching in their day. Even pitched a "black tent" on the midway around 1897 to show a fascinating new entertainment invention called "motion pictures" ... If there is to be another Barnum, might that be, say, Donald Trump? Gotta say, watching him recently on Letterman, he does impress ...

Here we are, and you're still waiting for a main course. So am I. Bits and Pieces. That kind of a day. Have a cup of Genmaicha (promise, it doesn't produce side effects). And may you find better amusement inside the other tents. However, should you experience strange flashes or sudden bouts of dizzy spells, including but not limited to diarrhea, vomiting, headaches and stomach pains, gout or arthritis or nausea, do consult your doctor at once ...


Thursday, March 25, 2010

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: A Big Top Giant Who Might Have Been ...

Circus owners, remarkable considering all of the struggles they face, are remarkably enduring. Most of them.

Here was one who showed such great promise -- Sid Kellner, seen here in this 1969 newspaper photo with his son George, 15, when the Kellner name spelled the promise of a great success ahead. Today, while purging my "archives" (I hate clutter), I came across this picture. Such a radiant reminder of how a dream can seem so real in the beginning.

At the time, I had just finished handling "national press representative " duties for the show on its 10-week summer tour, driving a Ford Bronco (oh, what I did when I was young) from west to left coasts and back. Only job I ever had that got me one of those little business cards. I stayed in the cheapest hotels, never giving out cheap hotel phone numbers to city and feature editors at newspapers along the route.

Near the end of the tour, I pushed Sid on the idea of going out on rails in 1970. This fantasy made it into the pages of Amusement Business, and tickled Sid, though I doubt he ever gave my grand idea much attention.

By then, Kellner had been out on the road for thirteen years, most of them mediocre at best. I remember him playing the Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa and, after the show, with Don Marcks being friendly and supportive. Distinctly I recall Sid taking down a popcorn machine off a table to load it into a truck. Such youthful magic animated his smile and gait that night.

By 1968, he produce a cracking good show, rousingly scored, under the old Mills Bros. top which he'd just acquired. The performance rocked. Tom Parkinson loved it. I loved it. I think everybody loved it.

The next year, after I wrote a celebratory article about this up and coming Sid Kellner for The White Tops, Mr. Kellner warmed up to me, and I got the press agent's job that Eddie Howe had handled during the high-water 1968 tour. The compensation I was offered felt almost flatting: $250.00 a week plus use of Kellner's Bronco; I would pay for gas, hotel and food.

Now, James Bros. was back in buildings. Show was at least fair, but the magic of that sparkling 1968 performance was gone. Blame it in part the absence of the tent.

My best publicity coup, looking back over my notes, was getting major exposure in Philadelphia. ABC outlet WFIL-TV, on a Wed. at 8:00 AM. My memo sent ahead to company manager Chester Cable specified "One Baby Sue, the Woodcocks and Harry Ross or another clown." I played this one up: "This show has the highest ratings in this time period. All kids in Philly watch it. It tops Captain Kangaroo! [well, that's what somebody told me.] Miss Bresset wants a baby elephant, so let's get her one -- Baby Sue, the star!" Truth be told, I can't remember Baby Sue. I only remember my favorite, Baby Opal.

Kellner Kellnered on, a man of dynamic charm who could turn sour and vulgar on a coin, casting profanity from one end of the tent to the other. And in the presence of sponsors.

What did him in? The boiler rooms he operated so ruthlessly well. I am not even sure if he is still with us. His sons George and Matt went on to disgrace themselves in phone rooms practicing skills learned from their father.

Still, I have such fond memories of sitting across Kellner's exciting desk when he was considering me for the job, and of feeling his impressive entrepreneurial power. Both he and I merged personal dreams that would go no where.

First posted 3.25.10 The Morning Midway

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Morning Midway: Even Sarasota's Ringling Museum Faces Big Funding Cutbacks, Uncertain Future ...

It's not all peaches, Picasso and popcorn at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the upscale Sarasota venue which also hosts, like it or not, the ever-expanding Ringling Museum of the Circus.

Fiscal woes are adding up, despite the place attracting a rather impressive 300,000 people a year. That breaks down to an average of over 800 patrons per day. I wonder how many of those ticket buyers went there to see the Ringlings rather than the Rubens? The museum has 10,000 members, and it has grown in stature among art circles.

State of Florida, said to provide roughly half the museum's $13.5 million budget, making waves about pulling out. The estate, willed to Florida by circus king John Ringling, has been run since 2000 by Florida State University and funded by the state. Big money has flowed its way. In 2002 through the University, $49 million for expansion alone. But now cutbacks are being considered. How to spend less and draw more people? FSU is facing its own 25% budget cut. In August, Museum director John Weternhall resigned, said to have grown "weary of the political wrangling."

Pardon me for giggling in retrospect. Sounds like the ghosts of old Ringling family circus wars still haunt the place. They could be dramatically revived were any of the art work acquired by Mr. Circus put up for sale, or was a single square foot of the grounds sold off. Were this to happen, as stipulated in Mr. Ringling's will, everything would revert to his heirs. Now, wouldn't that make for some extraordinary Kelly-Miller Circus funding?

All of this from a lengthy fact-packed story in The New York Times by Geraldine Fabrikant, which only once in passing, and in only four words, mentions the circus museum.

So far, even with a 20% budget cut, nobody's been laid off.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Doc Film Giant Michael Moore Deserves Profound Thanks for "Sicko" -- Helped Legitimize Health Care Debate ...

"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..."

"The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health" -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, State of the Union Address, January 11, 1944.

Because I believe in many of the fundamental goals of the health care bill that is on the verge of passing tonight (I am well covered myself), and without turning this into a speech, I reflect on the searing movie put out by documentary showman Michael Moore, Sicko and consider with deep appreciation its critical impact on the debate among Americans in recent years concerning universal health care coverage. Moore's riveting film opened my eyes, as I am sure it did many others, to a different view of the countries with free health care for all that are regularly belittled by Americans too selfish to care about the well being of their uninsured fellow citizens.

I have a friend who just incurred, courtesy of a government program called medicare, a $23,000 bill for two nights in the hospital. Why not health care for all, I asked her? "Because I am against a government run program," she answered. Anyway, she said, everybody can get health care. Where, I wondered? "They can go to the county hospital."

Michael Moore deserves the highest humanitarian award (why not a Nobel?) for his challenging films, for his singular genius both as entertainer and muckraker unafraid to take on corrupt American ways and institutions. Sure, he does not always cover the other side, and you know what? I don't care like I used to. Sometimes the evidence for the prosecution is just too overwhelmingly great. Critic Moore casts attention with the flair of a great showman on the underbelly of a culture that is sinking into the quicksand of an utter economic collapse born of predatory greed.

Last night I watched Capitalism: A Love Story, and was surprised to find it up to Moore's probing standards. Seems that it came and went with little acclaim or attention.

Moore should take lasting satisfaction in his travels with a camera around the world interviewing people in civilized countries generally content with the health care coverage they could expect for free. It certainly helped explode and elevate a simplistic pro-America status quo argument into a more constructive and all-embracing direction.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Fireworks: Tigers, Tigers Burning Bright ... Olympics Versus Circus ...”Baraboo Revisited” Revisited ..

Snarling circus, come back! Clyde Beatty, can you hear us up here? Or, excuse me, down there? ... Mable Stark, come out of the dark. Alfred Court, to center ring report! Big Top Johnnies bringing back the Big Cage, right and left, evidently sensing a certain hunger from the crowds for old fashioned sawdust grit ...

One Johnny who never left the lot, Johnny Pugh, is pulling out the jungle stops, bringing back tigers into the show. Might the free market be speaking? Pugh's Cole Bros. Circus, about to hit the mud in DeLand, also to offer something called a daredevils ATV show. Also, a Thunder Dome, and of course, the cannon. I smell gusto over the Cole tent. Down on the ground, the one finger stand makes a return. Been gone long enough to maybe amaze a new generation ... To Lana I say, do the Big Stunt at the end not the start of the act. That was a structural flaw about the Unus showcase I refuse to overlook. Figure out a way to kill time while installing the hand gimmick, so you can reach climax on your pinkie ...

There’s a tie-in here to the Olympics, so let’s recall the dread thrill (pardon me for seeming insensitive ) over that ridiculously suicidal event called the luge. It tragically threw one of the riders into the hereafter, and that was by TV narrated over and over. So, when those same viewers turn to big tops, how are they gonna feel about a circus show retreating into lifeline (mechanics) security? Circuses taking this new safer route risk looking even more passe against Olympic skiers turning somersaults over snowy peaks, in essence rekindling the public’s appetite for risk taking ...

Compare the following two photos, and ask yourself, which image best illustrates the true spirit of circus. Study the images carefully. This one ...

Or this one?

Now with Carson and Barnes touring Dallas and Ft. Worth, it looks like most of the perennials are all out there once again, going if not for gold, for bankable copper.

Did ‘ya know about radical circus deconstructor named Pierrot Bidon, who just passed away at 56. Produced some take-note perverse variations on big top action, according to a London Times obit. They are remembered as “mesmerizing, pyrotechnic spectaculars “ that “popularized an outmoded form with a new audience.” A big draw in places like the fringe Edinburgh Festivals. One of Bidon's later darling deviants was called “Circus of Horrors.” There's a show like this in L.A. I'm hoping to check out. Now, reading that all of this modern mayhem cleared the way for today’s fresh troupes like Cirque du Soleil (right), I beg to differ, World. CDS is not and was never “anarchical.” It was clearly, despite numerous co-founders claiming genuine French ancestry, rooted in the Russian school of circus. Anybody who wants can make comedy hay out of trashing circus, but don’t think that’ll chill the public’s yen for great acrobats, flyers, and animal trainers. Anymore than somebody can trash Olympic achievers ... Just had to get that out on this meandering post ..

Baraboo, we hear you, do you hear us? Flattered that Doc Bob Dewel, devoted to restoration of the Al Ringling Theatre, on whose exalted organ keyboard his fingers still dance, turned out a piece for the Baraboo Republic News on my recent posting about, as I see it, things about Circus World Museum that perplex. They obviously do not see themselves as we/I see them. Here’s another comment, relayed to me by a Baraboo resident who for many years volunteered, and was inspired by Harry Kingston’s recalling trying to push a good idea onto Greg Parkinson and getting no where. This guy, who asked for anonymity, remembers so many volunteers who came and went with so many active ideas, none of them ever getting adopted. And feeling futile. Same old imperial indifference par for the course, says my trusted source, ruefully remembering a management block that blocked all volunteer offers even to help get good suggestions into working order, which is one reason why a lot of ex-enthusiasts who gave freely of their time are ex ... Meanwhile, the great classic Thimble Theatre fun house rots away in out-of-sight exile while, no doubt, yet more old circus wagons await doting front-of-the-line restoration. THAT fun house could by now have been on magnificent permanent protected display in one of the modern buildings.

I feel like restating one of my Baraboo convictions: About the vastly rich Ringling-Barnum Archives that were kept away from all but a few privileged insiders for decades, during work on my book Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus, I was told, oh, just wait a few more months and maybe they’ll open up, and I nearly begged Bob Parkinson, "Might you tell me, are there many letters by John Ringling North that might impact my research significantly?" Parkinson refused any answer of any sort. Had I waited, my book would never have been published. Parkinson of course was one of the good old boys who could play with the toys; I could not. Now who got Kenneth Feld to grant ownership of the archives to Circus World Museum? If Robert Parkinson even tried, he did not. If Fred Dahlinger even tried, he did not. Here is who made it happen, not one of the good old boys but a thorough professional from outside, archivist Erin Foley, who was recently let go in more cut backs. And even if all it took was picking up a telephone and calling Vienna, Virgina, it was Erin Foley who picked up a telephone and called Vienna, Virgina.

Please don't forget that, Circus World Museum.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I'm Feeling Blue: Broadway Without "South Pacific"; PBS Without Bill Moyers ...

The record-breaking run of South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (the longest run ever for a Rodgers & Hammerstein revival) comes to an end on August 25, and I feel a deep sadness. A die-hard R&H fan, I've seen the show twice, and will likely a third time if I'm back there this summer. It is simply a bright and brilliant, radiantly professional revival, so true to the original script. A glorious evening. I suppose I fancied it staying around forever.

Bill Moyers: What a treasure to be losing. Only after returning to PBS three years ago, again he is exiting. I can't think of a better news and serious opinion-sharing show on TV. Recently, addressing the health care debate, Moyers had on two guests, both in favor of a health care bill, but one very much not of the current legislation. I listened to each, one arguing why he would vote yes, the other why she would vote no. A most exquisitely rich presentation of two diametric points of view. Not like the News Hour, where often each side seems to merely cancel out the other. Here I left with two formidable voices.

Moyers, though tagged as a hopeless liberal, has had on very un-liberal voices making persuasive cases for their sides. Moyers patiently listened, and we benefited. Even next to the sometimes slick Charlie Rose, I think he towers.

Good bye South Pacific. Good bye, Bill Moyers. You both stand as hallmarks of achievement in your respective spheres.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Morning In-Box: Big Top Bits in a Whisper

Good Morning, Monday...
Promise to go gentle here, seeing as how some of you may be reading me at work. I remember day-job days, surfing on the sly. I know, you're maybe feeling flat and stale at the foot of another five day climb, another week facing you, and the last thing you need is me in critical mode, so let's take this one gentle step at a time ...

Maestro, if you please, ease the orchestra into a soft refrain and let the flyer float. There's your lead-in photo, aerialist sky high over Baltimore's Cirque de la Symphonie. Soothing enough? ... And let's take a look at Cavalia's surreal tent, under which "horses" prance lyrically about, caressed by loving trainers, all of it carefully calibrated to lend the proper and humane imagery befitting a show directed by one of Cirque du Soleil's many "co-founders," this one Norman Latourelle. Designed and birthed (my word, that) to neuter PETA's claws. Trouble is, if you'll allow me one impolite indiscretion off course, this horse show (oops, equestrian opera -- better?) can become a little too rather regretfully surreal. I'd like to see it trimmed down to a one act banquet. It's still on the road, which marks it an accomplishment, as such enterprises, you no doubt realize, face hardships in repeat markets.

London, come in ... Here's Jack Ryan on the West End line, e-mailing me his sharp pleasure over another modern horse exhibition, one using "life-size equine puppetry which must be seen to be believed." Says Ryan, the National Theatre's "War Horse," is a "remarkable theatrical experience." Slated to appear at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont theatre, whose large thrust stage is ideal, after the recording break revival of South Pacific leaves town in August.

Queries to go: Wonders Sir Harry of Kingston, how to obtain one of those $20.00 Barnes and Noble versions of the Circus: Adam and Eve to Pittsburgh (aka: Circus: 1870s - 1950s). Harry, I'd suggest calling local Barnes and Noble stores. I don't see it on their website. And keep in mind, folks, this is a truncated edition numbering a little over half the pages of the monster original. Up in Santa Rosa, CA, there were a good 20 copies on display. I assume the same applies elsewhere ...

Cirque's Toyota Moment? New York opening of Banana Shpeel's set back yet again, by a month -- into late April; does the Cirque king really want to risk a major flop in a major market so eyed by the world? How to say this gently, better to slip out of sight in Chicago than spill blood on a New York stage. The critics are waiting, and they can be -- critical. On the other hand, maybe this delay indicates that Guy Laliberte sees a salvage job in the works, and thinks he has a 50-50 crack at a populist crowd pleaser. He does have a way of turning tragic to magic. AND, he's just possibly pulled off another Vegas staple with that Elvis Presley thing, getting mixed though promising reviews, I think. But what has that show have? It has the SONGS.

Hugo is Happening: Mid-America Arts Alliance selecting Circus City Museum and Park of Hugo as one of 15 Oklahoma venues for funding assistance. Chirps Hugo happy Marilyn Custer, president of the museum, “We are very pleased to have been chosen for this project.” And up goes another big top museum. What next, the Hugo Philharmonic? Hey, they've got the talent to give it that precious contemporary touch. Risley over Ravel? Hula hoops to Bach? ...

Okay, hope you have a good day wherever you are; hope the free coffee is warm, the donuts are fresh, and the boss isn't looking ...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Morning Midway: Jugglers & Bear Trainers, Rising and Falling ... And More ...

Covington Connected, we learn many things: Good news and bad, triumphs and tragedies, the beat of the big top without stop. Still has a pulse. Small community maybe, but to its fans, still a dynamic charmer that refuses not to keep getting back up each spring (okay, insert your month here) see only sunshine across mud, and hit the roads ...

World Champ Anthony Gatto, only juggler ever to land Monte Carlo Gold and recently a star of Cirque du Soleil's Kooza, shifting locations to the show's La Nouba unit at Disney World, and happy to keep working. Did ya know he likes to chat with the audience while keeping his stats in motion and intact? (11 world records, among them seven clubs forming a fluid fountain for 4 minutes and 20 seconds.)... Most of all, the Brooklyn born marvel expresses enduring pride over his Big Night at Monte Carlo: "For an act, it's the Academy Awards, in our little circus world." Yes, Anthony, you too see its littleness. But, don't ever forget, rings stars like you make it a GIANT world.

Smaller is better these days, and that's what the public wants, are you reading this, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey? Reading about the old largely unbooked Kaiser auditorium in Oakland facing uncertain times, I was warmed thinking about how Ringling crammed its three active rings inside the 8,000 arena (I doubt that claim, more like 6,500) during its early indoor years. Why not THAT the proper venue for the new and reduced Ringling-Barnum? And over in San Francisco, there's the more modestly intimate if squarish (literally) Civic Auditorium where Polack Bros. once held circus court. Why not IT, Feld, Feld & Feld? ... I'd rather share the show with a full house than sit in that cold Oakland Coliseum Arena ...

The death of German bear trainer Ursula Botcher came with such handsome photos, here posted for your eyes one of my favorites. the four foot eleven inch Ursula and her eleven foot-six inch polar bears essayed for Big Bertha a few seasons in the early-mid '70s ... Remember when circuses had bears and monkeys, seals and lots of other fun creatures cavorting about? ...

UPDATE: Sad to report, correcting my original posting on this matter, in fact Tito Montoya died last Friday, March 5. From Don Covington, "Tito was an amazing artist, regularly performing the triple somersault while flying with the Seguras on the Ringling show. He reportedly completed the quad several times when he was part of the Flying Vazquez." Tito had fallen 25 feet doing an aerial trick with Walker Bros. that he'd done thousands of times during his life. With the risks they take, sometimes come the heart-breaking falls. Leitzel, the Wallendas, among others. My heart goes out to the Montoya family ...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Remembering the Strange Tragic Tale of Gerard Soules: When Single Trap Stars Swung High and Wide ...

"The star of stars on the high trapeze!" they billed him on Ringling-Barnum, and rightly so. I can not think of a more exciting aerial act that I have ever seen. He flew almost alone in his greatness.

It seems so long ago. There are so few of them now -- those mortals on the single trap who take it and us on high flying rides. Once they carved daringly wide arcs in the sky. Now they are prone to perform on stationary swings that have nearly gone silent.

Kelly Miller Circus imported Nikita from Australia, and she conjures up some of the old fashioned drama and excitement, albeit conspicuously strapped to a mechanic.

I was watching old video footage I have of some single trap greats, beginning with possibly the greatest of all -- *Canadian born Gerard Soules, who hit his peak I suppose on the Ringling show (1960-1963), working a fabulously fluid, generously endowed act constantly in motion, climaxed with his casting ahead of the bar and catching his breathtaking thrust by his heels.

Music director Izzy Cervone gave Soules terrific scoring, ringmaster Harold Ronk the perfect build up. This was one of those rare acts you waited to see and were held spellbound throughout. Yes, Elvin Bale and Mark David duplicated the routine, though none could quite match the unique Soule's charisma and fluid delivery, so effectively intensified by Cervone's perfect song selections (one of them, Cole Porter's "So In Love") and his expert orchestrations.

The same video footage contained tantalizing excerpts from some other center ring thrillers -- Elly Ardelty, Don Dorsey, La Toria, and Pinito Del Oro performing in the lavishly atmospheric 1955 aerial spec, "On Honolulu Bay."

Del Oro was a self-possessed minimalist, producing an almost hypnotic effect with her standing-up swings back and forth, side to side and in circular arcs. For these reasons, I also place her alone in her particular greatness. No wonder John Ringling North kept her on the show for seven consecutive seasons. He too fell for the spell.

What those true risk-takers did took guts. And poetry. And life-saving skill. They did not secure themselves to lifelines. Okay, yes, I know and I can see half of you throwing your arms up in exasperation over my quaintly outdated attitudes. Is it time to drop this messy subject once and for all? There is a growing segment of the circusgoing public out there who apparently have learned to embrace the spectacle of job protection for circus "daredevils" as an expected component of the new, more enlightened big top experience. May I ask you of a certain quaint vintage, who were there and can remember, this one thing:

Can you imagine what it would have been like back then watching Soules perform attached to a mechanic?

He lived, it has been authoritatively written, in constant fear of accidents, so much so that he engaged in bizarre religious rituals before each performance. He was said to have become so spooked by a couple of traumatizing near misses, that he finally came down for good, and, oh, what a tragic career change. He put together a dog act, ended up in Las Vegas, needed an assistant and picked up a male stranger on the street, stranger's good looks assumed to have sealed an impromptu job offer. Bad bad impromptuette. When the Vegas venue in which Soules was appearing became skittish about his new hired hand and undertook a background check, the forced termination that followed brought a bloody abrupt end to Mr. Soules working there as well. He was cut up into pieces, the final act of his "personal assistant."

Ah, the perils of a life lived dangerously in the upper reaches of the big top. If only the "star of stars on the high trapeze" could have stayed there.

*Others claim he was born in Detroit.

First posted circa March 10, 2010

Wednesday Wacky: Wallendas, Stop Trying to "Fly"! Copeland & Combs, Chill Out ....

Why the "Flying Wallendas"? Seems now that even THEY honor this ridiculously misleading act descriptor. From Jack Ryan, who penned a piece (that I, sorry Jack, misplaced) on the famed wire-walking family for the recent Circus Sarasota, even Tino Wallenda has given in by using the phrase repeatedly on his website, lending family credence to this shoddy misconception. No wonder it lingers on; incredibly the family endorses it! Here's our Big Question: Why were they ever called The Flying Wallendas in the first place? Best answer I could get years ago was this: "flying" referred to their tragic fall in Detroit in the sixties, the perverse notion being that they "flew" off the wire, into the air, and down onto the ground. How utterly stupid and counterproductive for the family to go along with this insensitive characterization. If the troupe itself refuses to correct the record, well, let them fly, if that's what they want. The only member of this troupe I can see truly "flying" would be Karl Wallenda -- from his grave.

Easier to understand are the testy moods of Kelly-Miller Circus clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs, who, from what I've learned touring their blog now and then, do not suffer gratefully indifferent looking customers while striving to raise laughs ... Recently, indifference struck again, from a VIP seat, I think. As reported on the Copeland-Combs blog, a man was "stoically watching" the table act, and he made the fatal error of keeping his arms crossed during the entire bit. At the number's end during bows, the chap haplessly refused to clap, further enraging our young joeys who may yet have to learn to take it on the chin. Now, refusing the reception the K-M joeys believe is due them is a big NO No on this show, kids; So keep this in mind if you plan a visit to the circus of John Ringling North II. Here come's my customer alert: How was the dour fellow answered back? Ryan "jumped into the seating section and pulled a Peter Pitofskay, ravaging the poor man senseless."

What is a Peter Pitofsky? Let me google this and be right back.

Okay, I'm back. One site calls him "famous Comedy Clown from New York." Humm (I'm sitting on the edge of my seat, my arms flailing about), are there also non-comedy clowns? He, they say, combines elements of Abbott and Costello, the 3 Stooges and the Marx Brothers. Let's focus in on that word "ravaging." I'm taking a look to be sure, back in a jiff. Here's the definition: "Plunder with excessive damage and destruction." Good grief!

Ooooooookay. So, let's see, at least I've been warned. And so have you: If and when I do step into the Kelly Miller tent, I will remember to laugh my head off whenever Steve and Ryan are trying to entertain me. I will NOT cross my arms, NOT look stoic, NOT act aloof or uppity or ungrateful or brain dead, and NOT under any circumstances give off any hint of being one of those creepy snide vile sinister opinionated arrogant self-delusional critics. NO note taking. NO pencil or pen. NO searing looks. Hot dog happy. Cotton candy charmed. Snow cone contented. Peterson Peanut proud.

Gotta get back into my inner child.

Heck, if I can survive Copeland and Combs, I can handle the "flying Wallendas" any day.

A gag -- ad for Dental Floss? -- from a Copeland-Combs Kelly-Miller clown walkaround. Cheers to reviving what I have long missed! Promise, guys, I'm laughing out loud.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sunday Scramble: Another Circus Museum, Anybody? So Long, Sandra Bezic Watchers ...

Lots of talk about circus museums, some lost to history, some in trouble, some about to open and others maybe about to close ... Let’s start with the greatest flop of them all: Here’s comment guy Jeff Swanson remembering not favorably Irvin Feld’s grandiose Circus World, a spectacular vision born of ego only partly realized that left Jeff feeling stood up: “What I couldn’t dismiss was what wasn’t there. I paid my money and within an hour I was pulling out of the parking lot having seen all there was — not the day I had hoped for. I remember spending a good deal of time reading the display showing what Irvin was planning and wanted the pace to be.” In sync with Ben Trumble’s take on the subject, agreed patron Jeff, “too little too soon.”

Over to Baraboo, still a precarious operation, its fate seeming to be, from year to year, kind of sorta up in the air. Proud as fresh popped popcorn, circus aficionado Harry Kingston recalling long ago floating a revenue-making idea to former CWM exec director Greg Parkinson: copy valued film footage onto DVDs and sell them “Just think of all the money you would make for the museum,” remarked Harry to Greg, only to live through subsequent silence. “Greg said we will see and nothing has ever been done and there they sit, all those donated films that we will never get to see. I told him that would be a gold mine.” Proposed payload left untapped. No, No, Baraboo, keep on getting more old beat up wagons onto the grounds and into rehab for ersatz restoration no matter how many, no matter how lost ... Excuse me, Wisconsin, for venting. I recall the late Don Marcks telling me about tons of donated documents that ended up in corner stacks. You got an extra rare early Ringling Brothers circus magazine, Circus World? Id pay premium bucks.

A more real gold mine Disney might mine when it opens its new three ring under the big top "interactive" circus, now under active construction in the Florida park’s Fantasyland. The Walt Disney empire has the money, it has the marketing know-how, and its has the built-in customer base, which is what our publicly funded museums tend to lack, save for the Sarasota adventure on the grounds of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. They’ve got an interloper's nerve, and they’ve got Mr. Tibbals (oh, why do I keep dropping his name? I guess on behalf of all of us who are jealous of his bank account not being spread around other rings in need ...)

Venice, anybody? If Tito Gaona has his way, and we’re talking fast-fading long shot, he’d turn Venice into some sort of another kind of circus museum. Yes, you read what I just wrote. But the city wants to tear down the old post-tent era Ringling buildings. What’s a “land mark” to Tito is valuable real estate waiting to be developed for profit by unsentimental city officials. Tito envisions a circus bridge spanning the Intracoastal, a mural along the Tamiami Trial (no, make that Trail, though to the pedestrian me, it seemed more like the former), and the great loved flyer Tito Tito can see streets renamed for circus icons ... Why can’t I feel any magic about this minor venue? I recall the building Art Concello built for rehearsals and premiere performances, so Concello clinical. Worse still, the one spooky night I spent in a cheap skate hotel, me the only customer, and how it kept me on the edge of my bed awake through creeping sounds, not a seasoned cockroach host.

I like Harry’s idea. I’d be up for ordering some film footage if I don’t already have. Sorry, Tito, Venice just doesn’t move my imagination.

Now, Disney, that sounds interesting ... Dumbo to the rescue? Heck, maybe I’ll start my own museum, ... And I had so much more down the Convington chute to blog. There’s that kid out there still wanting a shot at the big time, thinking I’m a talent agency, ha! Gotta bring him out here soon before producers who walk this way. And, oh yea, I gotta Kelly Miller Circus customer alert concerning how to properly watch a clown act without it becoming interactive in your face. Genuine kelly-miller thriller ... All on the inside ... Wait for Showbiz David’s Museum of Madness in Mudness! (Sorry, Sandra Bezic lovers or haters, it was a lot of fun having you all in here during the Olympics. What say we meet again? Maybe at worlds?)

That’s a wacky wrap, I know, but wait for my next pratfall ...

Sunday Morning with Igor Stravinsky: The Architecture of Music ...

"Construction once completed ... there is nothing more to be said ... it is precisely ... this achieved order, which produces in us a unique emotion having nothing in common with our ordinary sensations ... One could not better define the sensation produced by music than by saying that it is identical with that evoked by contemplation of the interplay of architectural forms."

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Disney Florida to Offer "Interactive" Three Ring Tent Circus; Also Mulling Dumbo for Broadway

Touted the "largest expansion" in Magic Kingdom Theme Park history, Disney breaking ground on four new neighborhoods in Fantasyland. One will invite patrons to participate in a "series of interactive experiences" under an air-conditioned three-ring circus tent. Three rings, how interesting; maybe they never really went away? Looking at this photo of a scale model of the expansion underway, note how it combines circus and carnival. Dumbo (you may know him/her as the flying elephant) will have a starring presence.

Not sure what "interactive" means here, but the idea of a full circle movie dazzling our senses with three rings of action sounds terrific. I was thinking along these lines when I made my suggestions for a new kind of Circus World Museum show. Indeed, techno-cinematography may someday revive a glorious 1920s big top experience. Perhaps I will live to see it from a wall-mounted Hi-Def TV in a nursing home.

Over to you, Broadway: Disney also rumored to be mulling stage musical adaptation of its animation classic Dumbo. Michael Riedel reporting in the New York Post that Mickey Mouse big shots approached Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry about staging the project; no interest, so the Magic Kingdom search continues. But nobody's promising anything definite at this point. Somehow, Dumbo on stage sounds like a singing bomb to me. Peter Pan on steroids, anybody?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Circus World Museum Board Member Responds to My Post, "New Visions Needed"

Please Note: My posting about Circus World Museum evidently hurt some feelings in Baraboo. I received a thoughtful e-mail from Jonathan Lipp, a CWM board member, although he made clear that he was not writing me in his capacity as a member of the board but as an individual. I asked him for permission to reprint his message in its entirety, allowing for no editing. He granted permission, so here it follows:


Please take my comments as a fellow who loves circus and is doing all I can to support a place I love. I only wish there were more of us who could show support, My position is to find solutions and support those who care enough to keep an important part of our history alive.

My name is Jonathan Lipp, I serve on the Board of Circus World, but am writing as an individual, not speaking for the board. I love Circus World and have spent a lot of my own volunteer time and cash to support the museum, my wife and I hold an annual fundraiser to support the museum.

That said, in my view, the real problem the museum has, is support. In its heyday the museum had a staff of over 30 full time people. Most of the funding came from private individuals with a love for circus. I am sure that when they were collecting, their intention was to restore and display everything they could, they refused no contributions of artifacts. Many of those supporters are now gone, their children do not have the attachment to the circus and have found other interests and there are less donations.

The museum is owned by the State of Wisconsin Historical Society, but is run by our independent foundation. Donations over the years have dwindled and blaming a succession of current and previous staff is pointless. I work with numerous non-profit foundations and they are all having fund raising problems, Circus World is no exception. The focus on wagons goes back to the founders and is nothing new, it is a Circus Museum and not a carnival museum. Most of the restorations in recent years have been funded by individual contributors who have directed their funds to specific projects. If anyone out there wants to pay for other specific restorations, please do. I am sure that if there is someone who has the means to restore carnival equipment and to properly display it, the museum would be glad to discuss projects like that. Point is, that there is very little money and maintaining current equipment and exhibits is the most that can be done now. Priorities include keeping the Parkinson Library open, which we are doing. Criticizing the current staff is more than cruel, these people work 60 to 80 hour weeks and are doing the best they can with very limited resources.

The accreditation you talk about was discussed a number of years ago, we just did not have the money to do it. The current staff has the most diverse collection of experience to keep the museum operational, cuts are hard to do, but when there is only enough money for a few people, difficult decisions must be made. I would prefer to keep the museum open when people want to visit it. If we had to close it, it would revert to the owners, the State of Wisconsin, which has cut funding to their own Historical Society, so it is questionable if the Society would be able to keep it open at all, since the cost of State employees are higher than the foundations.

One of the great debates in the museum business is whether to display artifacts as found or to use them in an active way that shows them in a more realistic context, like a parade. I understand the debate and both sides have merit. For my preference, I would rather see a museum not as a mausoleum of the past but as a vibrant and active engaging place that is the essence of the word "museum". The essence is "muse" as in inspiring thought and understanding, parades and performances do just that, without those I am sure that the thousands who visit the museum would be hundreds. We don't have the millions that the State of Florida has invested in their museums, I wish we did.

If it were not for Steve Freese's experience in government and fund-raising I know that we may have had to shutter Circus World 2 years ago. The Circus Parade last year not only provided funding for last years operations but paid for maintenance on many wagons to make them parade-able. As to the authenticity of the wagons, yes some have more new wood than old. The condition that many of them were in when rescued was abysmal, many had less than 20% of the original wood left. Photographs and research allowed the workers to restore the wagons to a semblance of what they were at one point in time. As you know, the wagons went though many owners and many different paint jobs, some point in time had to be picked. Back to the point, do we want the "muse" to be what the circus was or what remains, which is more educational? Collectors almost never restore or even clean artifacts, museums (not collections) try to show what was, in context, it is just a choice, neither good or bad. The museum needs volunteers and money, carping accomplishes nothing.


Monday, March 01, 2010

The Morning Midway: The Taschen Photo Book: $19.98 at Barnes & Noble ...

[The above photo from Life magazine would have given this book a much needed dramatic end point: The finale "Hoop Dee Doo" at the last performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus under the big top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 16, 1956]

When I read on Steve Copeland's blog that he had picked up a copy of The Circus: 1870-1950 for only $20.00 at a Barnes and Noble in Texas, in Santa Rosa today visiting a friend, out of curiosity I stepped into the B&N outlet there;; they had at least 20 copies on display, price: $19.98. I couldn't believe it. Too good a deal, so I fell for it. However, this turns out to be a junior edition of the monster museum-in-your-lap original.

It has a new title: The Circus: 1870s-1950s.

It has lost a lot of weight since my visiting it at the S.F. Public library last year when it hit the scale at 15.5 pounds. Now, about half that, I'd guess. This truncated edition was put out by Barnes and Noble last August, and no longer totes text in two other languages, French and German. It numbers a manageable 383 pages compared to the original edition's 670, so some photos have also been discarded. So beware. After all, isn't that what you are after? I'm happy to settle for a book that, when I change positions in my chair, won't attack me. If you want the full museum, it's on Amazon, down to $125.00 from its $200.00 list price.

This has got to be about the most ill-defined and disorganized circus book I have ever come across. Why that title? We are given rich illustrations of circus skills in Egypt and China going back thousands of years. We briefly tour the Astley era. The book ends up, visually, with American thrill acts from the turn of the last century. We have been deprived a journey of any consequence, but lured through a jumbled landscape that jerks back and forth in time. Although many if not most of the photographs may be familiar to the seasoned reader, the reproductions are without parallel.

Might they not, however, have arranged them to depict some sort of a narrative arch, say from the garden of Eden until Pittsburgh, which is where they decided to stop? They might have, for example given us a set of images from the last day under the big top at Pittsburgh in 1956. And then images of the first tentless years following -- not so beautiful but spectacular and vividly revealing. What is glaringly absent, given this publisher's brainless fetish for high-level photography, are images from Life magazine, both of the last shows in Pittsburgh as well as of the gorgeously costumed John Ringling North-produced shows of the era. (To sample a couple, scroll down to the bottom of this page and try imagining them reproduced to Taschen standards.) There is a grainy black and white of a vague high wire figure over the rings of at Madison Square Garden at 1955.

And then there is the text itself, so dismissively small in size as to discourage us from a serious attempt to try reading it. About its factual component, anyway, I have grave reservations from having, while cruising some of the essays and captions, stumbled over such obvious blunders as these:

Karl Wallenda died at the age of 61 in 1970.

Lottie Brunn was just as talented and accomplished as her brother Francis.

Takeo Usui was an "acrobat" (in one photo) a "high wire walker" and "dancer" (in another).

And since when would a circus allow a fan to walk right up to an elephant and pet its trunk? A photo so captioned is actually looking straight at, if I'm not wrong, Betty Hutton during the De Mille shoot of his film The Greatest Show on Earth.

Three experts on this project, among them Fred Dahlinger, Jr. who should know better, and they can't even get the fundamentals correct? Three experts and this?

Aside from the abundance of glorious photography and illustrations, especially those validating the brilliance of costume designer Miles White, I remain senselessly overwhelmed, disoriented and unimpressed.

Is that all there is?