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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Monday Misc: New York Times: “It Never Was the Greatest Show on Earth.” ... And Clowns are Scary, and UniverSoul is Strange

Greatest insult on earth: The Felds must be Feldified: This, the kickoff line to a fairly good New York Times review of Illuscination “Let’s be honest. It never was the Greatest Show on Earth.” Oh, really, guy? Guy would be one Jason Zinoman, who maybe came in to the scene rather late, like say post 2006. Wonder if he’s read any books on American circus history. His daring assertion does address a valid issue: what's in a name?

There was a rare time when thousands packed huge tents to behold spectacular three-ring spectacles -- before the movies, before Star Wars and Madonna, the Beetles and American Idol.

The “Greatest,” so easy to argue, does have a rather strained, even hollow ring to it in modern times, especially since the circus retired its legendary trio of circles. But, oh, how aptly that famous slogan once applied when P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey first threw up three rings and toured under a mammoth big top, when the young Ringling brothers pitched a black tent on the midway in 1897, under which they teased circus addicts with a new invention called “moving pictures.” When the American circus assumed holiday status, thousands from farms railing into big cities for a chance to sample the magic. When long red and silver trains whistled and puffed into towns bearing long parades of gilded wonders on wheels, acres of tents and some of the most incredibly talented mortals on the face of the globe. "Greatest," I suppose, stood more for size, for the sheer logistical magnificence of it all than for anything else. And GREAT it was, Mr. Jason Zinoman!

Feld vs. The New York Times?

Okay, enough of that fun. Ringling’s Coney date drew at least three good notices, one mine, and I’m putting them up side by side here in a few furious days, for mine if nobody else’s entertainment. This is an all-sizes fits me blog.

Flaky big top? I’ve always found the curiously smug UniverSoul Circus a very strange organization, impossible to reach, all to themselves, so secretive outside they’re “it’s a black thing’ mind set. Don’t believe me? Ask their original ringmaster (a true zing master) Calvin “Casual Cal” DuPree, who left partly wanting to acknowledge white audiences, too. Here they are, flaking out tail end of Newark, NJ, date, ditching last four days and messaging to those holding tickets how to get refunded. Ditched days being played in Queens NY. But, they do wander as they wander: UniverSoul earlier pledged some of the Queens dates to East Hartford, June 23 through 27; however, that date is evidently out-inked. This is a very “in the moment” show. I might try trailing them down to L.A., that is if my tarot card reader agrees. And if my ear-drum protectors check out.

On solid sawdust: Big Apple Circus to play PBS: Touted as rare inside peek. “First time in our 32 year history that we granted this level of backstage access to anyone” says new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy. Series to air, come November, in six parts covering creation of the 2008 show, Play On! Given Paul Binder's scholarly grasp of circus history, I’m waiting to see how he may reference the rings beyond BAC. Beyond the strangely oblivious grasp of The New York Times.

Counseling for Clown-aphobs? More tremors down the Don Covington chute: Now being freely offered across the pond by the John Lawson Circus, psychiatric intervention for people scared witless by strange looking characters who wear grotesque makeup in circus shows. Here's a little backdrop: Say the know-it-all experts, horror films like Stephen Kings “It” portray joeys as sinister types, causing some to fear them in any context.

Everything about the circus these days seems cause for the jitters. Thus, aerialists are strapping themselves into lifelines, elephants equivocating down to a few baby steps. Clowns may eventually have to shuck their paint and go facially nude. A fear of painted grins is reported to rank in the “top ten phobias” of the western world. I guess that's the only phobia I don’t suffer — yet. I had better get with the program and arm myself from here on out (a good idea, anyway, after my visit to a place called Brewster), or stay secure in the top tier of seatage. On the other hand, I have a weirdly apt idea: Maybe clowns should live down to their reputations and go berserk in rings of fear? A murder in mirth? Rib-tickling robberies? Spooky weirdos on chains behind bars, let out only into big cages to terrify each other and stage mock escapes into hysterical fans to an ersatz Psycho soundtrack?

Benign escape artist elephant Sabu retired to a zoo. She won’t be splashing freely through ponds and lakes anymore. The 26-year-old Circus Knie trouper has been sent back to winter quarters in Rapperswill, Switzerland. Heck, just when she and the media were enjoying an amusing courtship.

It’s Monday. Blame it on Jade Spring tea. I know, you’re at the office, have e-mail to roll, web sites to troll. I promise not to tell your boss.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Morning From China: In the White Shadows of Forbidden City

World of wonders, am I proud of this photo. Principal credit goes to director Boyi, for setting up the shoot in which he appears, and fate for pushing my finger against a camera trigger perfectly in sync with the jump. We did four or five takes; I'm not sure which one clicked, but click it did!

This one needed more takes. That said, Boyi missed his calling. He might have been one of those crack Chinese acrobats. I guess the talent scouts never made it out to his farming village in Taishan. They might have seen him ride the family cow.

We are on the grounds of the Temple of Imperial Ancestors (now called Working People's Cultural Palace), right next to The Forbidden City, whose architecture it fairly matches.

What struck me were the cool dreamy white textures all around.

This little boy was so cutely, silently compliant. Perhaps proud of his little red flag. I think his parents retreated to the sidelines while I reached down to grasp his shoulders for a photo. He stood there so patiently.

He deserves this closeup, he was so serene.

Back to our one-person acrobatic show, definitely still in rehearsal. Among so many photos and videos I wish I had snapped, there would surely be one of Boyi in a hotel room doing his Boyi flop-bounce-rollover across a bed rather than bothering to go around it.

Cold gray day. Brooding imperial monument carved of magnificent red and silver still holding its own against eternity's fickle dust.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Morning Midway: From Whence, How and Why "Banana Shpeel"?

A story in the New York Times on June 26 attempting to follow the tortured and confusing creative path taken by Cirque du Soleil in crafting the ill-fated Banana Shpeel, unfortunately sheds little light on the saga other than to state, all too obviously to most everyone who has followed this strange episode, that "the production appeared to suffer from competing creative impulses."

Daniel Lamaree, the company's president, is credited, though not directly quoted, as terming the outcome "the first time that Cirque has quickly shuttered a major show."

What is so conspicuously missing are any specifics on how Guy Laliberte contributed at a closed door performance for big guns last fall. "The performance was poorly received," we learn, but that's about all.

Nor was reporter Patrick Healy able to reach director David Shiner, evidently back in Germany, for comment.

Curiously, Healy does not survey the New York reviews. Not all were negative or scathing. Variety issued a highly upbeat notice, finding Shpeel a "boisterously amusing funfest."

What does come through is that, once shucking aside an earlier script, Shiner worked without a replacement libretto for months, spending much time apparently improvising form one idea to another. Which is hardly an adult recipe when endeavoring to mount a viable stage show for Broadway. In this instance, Cirque may have fallen victim to its own hubris.

Did anybody out there see the show? I'm all ears.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Ringling at Coney: Glitzy Seaside Circus Shrewdly Powered by Sex, Fireworks, Clowns, Magic --- and a Few Good Acts

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Illuscination
Coney Island, New York
June 17, 7 PM

After a season of high circus art at Coney Island, back come the Feld fireworks. This gaudy bawdy grab bag suggests that last year’s artistically memorable opus did not sell enough tickets to convince the Feld of Felds to return with more of the same.

So we’re back to Feld 1A. To be sure, it’s on balance a very good variety show, riding high on stunning big box illusions spun by the masterful David DaVinci, much better than those over on Zing Zang Boom; on sly sexual overtones, novelty acts — some, barely off the drawing boards, clever clowning and the usual pyrotechnic boosters shots. Final set piece, wrapped in larger than life ribbons and bows, is a beaut.

Don’t go for perfection, that is, unless you’re willing to take it from a horse or a cat. The horse being, indeed, the star of this edition. This human-like marvel, from the Donnert Family, interacts amusingly with a clown trying to saddle the thing up or merely spoil it with a shawl ; the results are incredibly clever and very funny. Monte Carlo: Send this horse and that clown the gold, no questions asked.

The cats being those presented by the Panfilovs, who also produce a top-of-the-line quick costume change illusion number, lending more magic to the show's theme.

Comedy fairly sails along. They’ve got cool young Steve Caveagna of the Italian trio of comedy musicians. Sans conventional clown face, Steve sports a cool cropped porcupine hairdo and gets in the way at intervals, holding his own in a novel manner. Specially does he connect with a crowd when he rolls his sexy lower body. Audience goes wild.

On the distaff side, the ultra sultry Jamieleigh, wife and partner to DaVinci, wraps herself around his bod, which makes porcupine clown try even harder (no pun intended) to woo her away. That, I guess, is this year’s slim story line while it lasts, folks. We’re essentially back in Kenneth Feld country, where half-baked ideas flash hot one moment, are gone the next. Call it the sight-bite circus.

It’s got the goods more than half the time: That would be beguiling upside-down aerialist Francleib Rodrigues ambling between the loops this way and that, and then between two single traps, one rigged higher than the other, peaking his brief appearance with a nifty exchange between the two, his surprise connection tickling the crowd.

And that would be the Medeiros Troupe of twin iron jaw exponents, who infuse the genre with refreshing twists. And two masterful Kung Fu martial arts showman from China — Qin Gudjing and Sun Junjie, between whom steel rods (that may actually be steel rods) are turned into pretzels — around their necks. Better yet is their climax through a rotating circle of flaming swords.

But there’s still more, when the Caveagnas make a riotous spoof of the entire Chinese number. A double treat. These goof balls are a gas.

This being a Feldarama, you also get bargain basement forgettables. Maybe I came the wrong day, but I’m not making excuses for anybody.. So here goes: Okay, up the old inclined wire goes the motorbike with Medeiros passengers aboard, ready for the cling-on 360 degree turn. A dubious opening night hit, but if that’s all it takes to raise a village in Brooklyn, that’s good news for other second and third rate entries, like the Donnerts trying to juggle on horseback, and managing to show us how not to — I counted at least four errors.

Biggest embarrassment is the somewhat haggard lion trainer Brian McMillan holding high a long thin pole at the end of which rests an enticing edible, this evidently in order to get his charge of the moment to deliver. That, ladies and gentleman, marks a new low in Big Cage showmanship. And these incidents, if you look too closely, tend to give the production a certain mediocre stain.

The elephants don’t make a much better impression. A little too plain and lackluster for my tastes. Presided over by one Ramon Esqueda. Indeed, against the show’s sexier frames, the pachyderms looked almost out of place.

Back to the good: From Cuba with heart, a robust troupe of acrobats, the Salsations, score well on multiple Russia bars, including nifty exchanges. But when they return to cavort off springboards (the program’s finale display), the usual standard tricks they offer, assisted and/or saved by lifelines, means that you may also see, as I did, somebody dangling in mid air, and not gracefully. All of which left this silent witness silent. I prefer the non-marionette version of teeterboard.

It will be interesting to see, to the extent possible, how well Illuscination does at the ticket windows .Opening night was apparently not a sell out, though near full. Last year’s seats were packed. Upon my second visit to the first Big Bertha top in over fifty years, I gotta concede that this very square tent is way too square, so that in some seats, if you gaze straight ahead, you will not see the ring action at all, unlike virtually all other tent shows where the seats generally aim themselves around and at the ring. Which makes the idea of a tent setting not so attractive, and certainly not so intimate, as it might and should be.

Whatever I might say — not an easy show to get a critical handle on, nor did the music sound as satisfying this year as it did last — it has plenty to offer, and in matters of pacing and crisp clean act transitions — one seamlessly merging into the next, the direction is simply sensational. For its deft presentational efficiency alone, it’s worth a visit — that is, if you’re ready to overlook some marked down goods. Remember, when all else fails, Fourth of July is always just around the corner.

Overall rating (out of four stars possible): 3 stars

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Long Windring Road to a Feld Photo Moment ...

My long and winding road to opening night of illuscination

so many flukes carved a contorted trail, delivering me within a feet of the Feld who runs the greatest show on earth (notice how I’ve put the famed slogan in lower case).

First of all, Cole Bros. Circus did not come through. My source, who promised to send specific 2010 dates for coney faded out. I had reserved a train putting me in NY mid July.

Second, through sleuthing in the meantime, I learned that Kelly Miler Circus would be playing some dates close to NY city in June, one being Brewster, on Thursday, June 17. Easily reachable by train, so I canceled the July train and got decent sleeping car rates on one that would put me into NYC on June 14, leaving morning of June 18.

And then I learned, finally, that Ringling would be returning to Coney after all, opening night — June 17, same day as K-M easily reachable in Brewster. Decision made; I had never seen a circus produced by John Ringling North II, so I would skip Illuscination for Kelly Miller..

Third, in checking with Brewster Chamber o Commerce on the upcoming Kelly Miller date just to confirm, miracle of miracles – it was moved ahead ONE DAY, to June 17. Which meant I could see BOTH Kelly Miller and Ringling!

I booked the cheapest seat on line, $10 (nearly 20, thank you, Ticketmaster), just to cover myself, knowing last year was sold out.

Fourth, Terrible view from my seat, nicely close to floor and ring, only second row, but late arriving customers wandering in front, making it hard to see all of the show.

Fifth, empty seats and the usher who said yes: Because there was a slew of empty seats to my right, in the section directly facing the front side, I appealed to two ushers; first said “no,” second said, okay, unless somebody else comes to claim seat.

Finding a spare seat: I hurried up the aisle, and sat myself in a largely vacant row, soon noticing all around there were impressively dressed men, possibly part of the Brooklyn or Feld opening night contingents.

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

During the second half, when my attention was directed to my right, I noticed the Feld of Felds sitting right on the aisle, same row as me, (I sat only one seat from the other side of aisle on same row), and was amused by the proximity. I had up against my knee half the time a flier about safety handy out by sh, upon which i was scribbling notes of his show in progress.

By the way, when I spotted Feld in the seats, he was sitting in his eagerly watching the show.

End of Feldian tale.

Next: Kenneth Feld sightings before the show; memories of my one sighting of his father many seasons ago.

Kelly Miller’s Lean Lineup Offers Pleasing Acts, Good Music and Production Reach, But Suffers Weak Direction and Strained Comedy Antics

Holiday Look Backs, this from 2010

Circus Review: Kelly Miller Circus

Brewster, New York
June 16, 4:30 PM

Because a Ringling produced it, naturally, some of us will wonder, how good might it be? The welcome news here is that in promising evidence from John Ringling North II are some admirable producing inclinations, though for the most part they exceed the less than stellar results brought to bear.

This year’s respectable opus is particularly shy on air power — not so unusual for a circus in the modern era — all except for a gal from Aussie named Nikita who turns in a terrific single trap workout, keeping us well engaged with breathless swings, drops and angular twists that mark her vigorous attack. She has the reckless air that we see too little of these days. Well, she can afford to: you’ve got to overlook a very conspicuous mechanic (it could have been subtler), but then again, most circus crowds today are routinely putting up with these tell tale signs of contemporary cowardice. That said, she’s an asset, and a valid “first time in America” import from North.

Down dishing loads of charm over the sawdust is the very young Adrian Poema, Jr., a kid of true star power who captures the ring instantly and never loses our amused attention. He gives his family’s reasonably good risley display world class pizzaz, which makes him something of a wasted asset; why this perky crowd pleaser was not more comprehensively integrated into the entire program to maximize his and its impact is indicative of an overall laxity in direction.

Other on-the-ground pleasures number a charming camel “silk road” caravan managed by Mike and Carolyn Rice and exotically embellished with dancing gals, all of which casts a certain little spell; and there's Armando Loyal’s gracious handling of three nicely talented elephants, each topped by a North Starlet. Roxie Montana presents a fairly routine dog and pony display, routine until a doggie dude bolts off a pedestal back onto a cantering pony to resume his ride round the ring. Great bit. Trouble is, the act on balance is just too similar to the one hosted earlier by Natalie Cainan, so that we get a feeling of being routed in reverse rather than forward. Been there done that is not the feeling you want at a circus show

In more fundamental matters, act transitions are sloppy; pacing is vague, and the show seems oddly structured. It should be noted that opening and closing segments handled, respectively, by Casey McCoy with tigers and Brian LaPalme with fire, were both no-shows at the Brewster matinee.

Had the missing book ends been there, this review might read slightly differently. Still, it’s a show in need of less redundancy and a more cohesive pulse. North will have to import a sharper directorial hand if he wishes to matriculate beyond Oklahoma ordinary. And he will certainly have to break some nasty Hugo habits that dog the performance, such as allowing a fellow to treat a routine Peterson Peanut pitch as a matter of life and death, staging a mock one minute count down while exhorting the crowd to buy buy buy -- before it's too late!!!! About as subtle as a diesel truck blasting through an afternoon tea picnic, by far the most offensive example of promotional hysteria I’ve yet witnessed.

To the company’s credit, they’ve spared the ring — or did the day I saw the show — a carnival invasion at intermission. Animal rides are kept outside the tent.

A first half production closer themed around fifties culture and music creates a charming context for a series of so-so acts, thanks to on-point scoring favoring rock and roll from the era, and to the number’s zany highpoint, rolla bolla artist Fridman Torales mimicking Elvis Pressley to the hilt. But the hula hoop segment is fairly dreary, and clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs work a strained waiter routine, fighting over a female patron. Their youthfully energetic work, bearing clearly the Feld school of clowning, which places intense acrobatics over character, is so slapstick heavy that it can wear thin fast. Alas, they proved a minor disappointment at this show.

Copeland and Combs apparently possess the brains for comedic invention away from repetitive mug slaps, much more of which would be welcome here. They work a delightfully creative mini clown walkaround, and at least one item across their cafĂ© table shenanigans is laugh-out-loud funny. One guy stuffs the other’s mouth with a wash cloth, and the silenced mouth stoops down to slavishly wipe the table clean. Very funny stuff. They need more of this, less of the other. Nor was their exterminator gag, in theory a fine idea, amply mined

Another moderate pleasure is juggler Rual Olivares, who wins audience affection with a surprisingly diversified repertoire and his naturally warm connection to a crowd. He’s a paunchy fellow who could bolster his charisma by shedding say half his poundage. Then again, the ordinary guy look he sports, intended or not, may work in his favor.

Best of the production enhancements by far is the two person musical department of Captain Lucky Eddie Straeffer and Vickie Straeffer, he on drums, she at the electronic/CD board. They follow the show with effective relevance every act of the way, and they deserve a better sound system delivery. At times they make things sound as if there’s a small live band inside the tent.

Cleanly, classical attired ringmaster John moss has too many duties (sponsor acknowledgments to web sitting) to cut any kind of a consistent persona, and his exchanges with the performers seem more gratuitous than entertaining. Also listed as the director, clearly he does not run a tight ship.

Before a responsive near full house in Brewster, Kelly Miller delivered a good enough show for the friendly ticket prices ($14 general adult admission). However, if the producer bearing the most famous name in American circus history really wishes to prove his Ringling blood, he’s got his work cut out for him. It’s not an easy business. At the moment, having notably lasted four seasons under the big top, the nephew of legendary John Ringling North is maybe half way there. Well out of Baraboo, but far from Sarasota.

Overall rating (out of four stars tops): 2-1/2 stars

[photo from Rick Purdue at www.flickr.com/photos/partridgeroad/4546065484/]


Thursday, June 17, 2010

In the City That Never Sleeps, I Can't Say No to More ...

New York, New York, 1:30 EST: In the cool suave red lobby of the Gershwin Hotel, near some cool looking foreign youth fiddling with their latest electronics, great day for a brief sit down and shout out. This AM, took the 6 Lex up to 110th Street, bottom of Harlem, top of Central Park. And walked all the way down to the south side at 59th street.

My digital camera earned its price. Gorgeous warm sunny morning, breezy people and their leashed dogs out for brisk strolls. Maybe this afternoon, I'll walk back up on the west side. Came down east way.

Why do I keep coming back to this place; Broadway does not always deliver. Neither weather, neither Grandma and Big Apple. But, but, it's simply a great town, and it has those rattletrap subways. I'm subwaying out, spreading my vistas on underground rails where the stubborn cars making big jerking sounds in start up, where no matter how pretty they are made to look, down below they still bear the unmistakable music of Gotham.

And they embrace this wonderfully symmetrical city, with the great park giving it a great big soul it otherwise might die for. All around, the buildings are brighter, more gentler cause of the vast sea of green.

Yesterday, I got acquainted with Lexington when I needed to subway up to Grand Central Station, glorious restoration it is. There, I caught the Metro Northeast train for a little place one hour/one half up the rails called Brewster. Called up my local contact, Omero (I'd called his taxi service in advance from California), who drove he and cab out to the train station to take me on route 22 few miles out of the village, there to get out and hopefully not run through flash floods to see a circus called Kelly Miller.

Thank God it did not rain! At least not until I get under the tent. Me and early comers stood under the marquee while a feel wet twinkles came down, but after the show, no rain, no way. I'd asked Omera to meet me across the street in front of a Burger King. We hooked up, he motored me back, and I was soon on the return train to Grand Central.

In New York, you get lifted sky high, and let way way down, which only reminds you and them that you and them are human, and they can flop as easy, in fact easier, than they can hit gold. On Broadway, critics and others amazed that Memphis landed Best Musical Tony, so I skipped it (even it was offered at steep discounts), resisted Fella, but now wished I hadn't, cause the PC-pandering revival of West Side Story which I saw left me less than thrilled. Too much dialogue and song rendered in Spanish; something about updating an aging work. Other possible tinkering may have not helped either. If only they'd left it alone, like they did the superior South Pacific.

But NY has to hype something, and "Best Musical" only means best of the seasonal crop. Which is why I've lost my zeal for Broadway-going. You can get let down, too.

But, just around the corner, up the block, bell'll ring out, door will knock, and the Big Town wins you back. They don't call this place the Big Apple for nothing. I checked out the fabulous photo exhibit of Henri Cartier Bresson at MOMA. Through a lens like his, I am finally convinced that photography is an art form.

And at the overpriced NBC Studio Tour (really, they should give it out to us), we get so much promo, I really didn't care to know all that about Dr. Oz) and then photos turned into DVDs you can buy for a price (I refused to lend my mug to the cheap exploitation), and YET, there I learned that in the same studio where Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson filmed The Tonight Show, the new guy on the block, Jimmy Fallen does the same. Which made me want to return to this A Number One Top of the Heap place, after swearing it off for a few hours.

Tonight, I'm off to Coney to see Ringling's new under the tent thing. Might post some photos later.

This might go out under spelled, call it first draft fearless. I've got hours before Coney, and those subways are making such sweet and sour music today. They actually squeal like a sick pig at times. And bang bang bang. They know who they are, and they're not gonna go silent under anybody's fey makeover.

Just like the great big metropolis they mix up and toss around, push this way and that, take in and let out, grinding and screeching away from, knowing they'll all be back, back for another ride and another ride and another ...


When the Music's Over, Turn Out the Sixties

Who was Mama Cass Elliot? What were the sixties?

I just fell in like with Cass Elliott, watching a Biography channel documentary on her life. She had the pipes. She was tragically overweight. Tragically all alone, never able to find a love while public adoration came her way. So she got herself pregnant however she managed, gave birth to the love of her life and raised a daughter proudly, all alone. She had somebody. And advanced out the subversive '60s syndrome that I suppose tagged everybody who played with or around a guitar then, finding a welcome audience in TV land. Maybe the country through her grew up a little. Matured from youthful defiance to neighborly acceptance.

Until now, I refused her a legit place in my life, like I've refused other sixties rock icons. Hated Hendrix and Joplin. Spaced out, drugged up howlers in a vacant night. Loved the Doors, When the Music's Over, Yes, Crosby Stills Nash, Santana, too. Black Magic Woman. I lived ambivalently through the sixties, half in, half out. Brought with me Sinatra and old Broadway. Nobody could ever replace Sinatra and old Broadway, even if the Beetles were every bit as good. Even if Yes produced fantastic symphonic hard rock concerts. Well, no, that's not right at all. For me, fifties bubble gum pop music can't begin to compare with what was to follow.

The '60s must have been the richest decade in pop music ever. But so much of it today I can't play; so much I gave away in vinyl stacks left at the library for others to house. I just don't want to go back there. Not to that wild smelly drugged-out hippie place. I was too old or too young. In between. It was the great music that seduced me too. A new album by the Beetles: Magical Mystery Tour, Fool on the Hill -- Heck, as good as a new Broadway cast show album! And then, soon they were singing, Just a song before I go ...

I shutter to estimate the high medical costs so many of them will wrack up from those reckless days getting high, dropping down or shooting up.

They were so talented, so many of them, like the Mamas and the Papas. Composed wonderful songs. Guys wore long hair, gals long flowing home-made dresses. In their smug communes, they used each other sexually. Took food stamps from a government they railed against. Lit a lot of incense. I burned it too. Persian rugs. I had one. And all the drugs I would never drop or shoot up, right there in the middle of it all. Friends going stupid on acid and speed. Me acting stupid cool.

"I'll Be Seeing you" sang Cass at the end of the Bio program. So sweet and clear an un-hippie. At 33, she was dead. So many of them checked out young, too.

After all these years, tonight finally giving her a chance on BIO, I fell in like with the overweight woman with a great big embracing voice.

Oh, the sixties, how I feel a bittersweet satisfaction half-way pushing them out of my mind, wanting them to go away forever. But, the music still isn't over, and it never will be, it was too good, and that's what I love from a troubled time I tolerated my way through, charmed by the weird bohemian tilt of it all ... Black Magic Woman. Summer Breeze. Rider's on the Storm. Light My Fire ...

Just another song, please, before they go ...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

John Ringling on How the Brothers Made Decisions; A Rare Family Democracy ...

From the story John Ringling penned for The American Magazine in 1919, reprinted in Bandwagon, perhaps the most remarkable disclosure is this:

Let's say that one of the brothers had an idea he felt passionately about, but could get not even another brother to support his proposal. He still might, in the remarkable House of Ringling, have a chance:

"One thing which we agreed upon early was that majority rule should not prevail in all cases. We never believe that any three should force their dictates upon two. Often, if only one held out for an idea to which the other four were opposed, we would argue and try to convince that one; but if he insisted, we agree to gy his plan. The verdict usually was "All right. We think you're wrong, but if you insist, we'll try it.:

"If the plan succeeded we gave him the credit, and if it failed we said nothing about it. Not all have succeeded, but some of the biggest improvements and advances we have made have been the result of trying out some idea which, at first, the majority opposed."

They were the wonder boys of the circus world. No wonder they ascended to the top of the big top. No wonder the world would soon sing their praises.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Beat on Broadway: Banana Shpeel Slips Big Time in New York ...

Out the door for Cirque du Soleil's dubious attempt to reinvent vaudeville. Shpeel will be early closing on June 27. Way ahead of the original stop date.

It drew horrid out of town notices in Chicago, got mixed reviews at best in NY; most consumer feedback was wretched.

Millions lost on a highly flawed venture. Now they're nearly giving the show away: tickets at $39 and $49.

Guy Laliberte ventured into the theatre arena, where story and character still do matter.

This will only tarnish the CDS reputation for infallibility, although they have had a couple of losers in past years.

What is so puzzling is why Laliberte would dare bring to town such a troubled show, in a genre he knows so little about, in fact, has never succeeded at producing.

Broadway is a tough heartless place when you haven't the goods. Even, sometime, when you have. Maybe Shpeel is a very good stage show, as Variety says. Maybe New Yorkers decided to gang up on that ridiculously successful monster from Montreal.

From what I know of their acutely variable clowning, however, I am inclined to agree with those who said the whole thing goes on way too long and is woefully unfunny too much of the time, among other theatrical crimes.

A little critical shock treatment may actually help put CDS back on firmer tracks.

John Ringling on Al Ringling:

He was the family's egotist, by far the most reckless of the brothers, who ended up powerless over the affairs of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

He was, of course, John Ringling.

In 1919, he shared his feelings (that is, if they were not written for him by others) with The American Magazine, and some of Mr. Ringling's thoughts strike me as remarkably revealing. Not that a die-hard Ringlingphile would be surprised.

I had already come across this story in another source. It appears in a welcome format in the new Bandwagon, just out.

Ringling, I believe, might be spot-on, more than merely blowing the family horn, when he identifies Al Ringling's genius for assembling a group of acts into a terrifically paced program. Other writers of the time have acknowledged this talent of Al's, and I've come to consider that perhaps it was Al Ringling who gave the American circus its high-energy pulse, that certain something that Al's successor, Fred Bradna, defined as "snap."

Remarked John with obvious affection for his brother's showmanship: "If I may be pardoned for seeming boastful, I should like to say that in my opinion Al was the greatest producing showman the world has ever known. He knew instinctively what the public would like or dislike, and his big success was in his ability to choose good features ... Al clung to the idea of neatness, clean performances and fast movement. In the circus business he had the idea of speed and 'pep' which George M. Cohan brought into the theatres. With a dozen rather mediocre acts, by proper staging, by 'doubling,' and keeping the action fast and continuous, he made the show appear better than some of those which cost twice as much to stage. He invented, brightened up and developed some of the most successful features known to the circus."

How impressive was John in recognizing those critical elements of speed and momentum, which his brother may well have introduced to circuses.

I recall the early indoor years, watching the Ringling show and usually marveling at at how, like a smooth running machine, it moved with such confidence and pace relentlessly forward. In John Ringling's words, praising late brother Al, "...the action fast and continuous."

Amen, Mr. Circus!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Morning Midway: Sabu Trumpets Freely Into Another Pond ... Splashy Biz Fills the Big Top ...

Covington connected, I read that Circus Knie's errant elephant Sabu, developing a sure reputation for running off to her own beat and finding water in which to merrily splash, is at it again. First it was Lake Zurick on June 6 for a mighty mammoth swim. Garnered global headlines. Now the 26-year-old big trunk "staged a second getaway," as reported by no less than Bloomberg News, this time taking a dainty dip into a stream.

So, how did Sabu manage to "escape," or did she? Had she, in fact, been assisted by cunning press agents hungry to grab free media attention and prove their mettle? Swiss newspaper 20 Minutes flaunted a snapshot of the prima pachyderm lumbering back to the show, surrounded by her entourage of wary handlers, probably giggling inside over the incident.

Business? Opening show in Basel was sold out a day before the opening. All eyes are now on one elephant.

If this bull-headed behemoth can make the escape act a permanent part of her repertoire, she could be the toast of Madison Square Garden, assuming the Felds can lure her into a stateside contract. Complete with built-in rest and relaxation at a pond in Central Park.

Perrier for Sabu.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Morning Midway: Original Ringling Showtunes Deserve Retrospective Recognition ...

What's the best damn original song ever written for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey?

I would nominate, hands down, a Henry Sullivan-John Murray Anderson collaboration for the 1951 opus, "Popcorn and Lemonade." As orchestrated by Victor Young for the movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. It shimmers in its glory, though nobody ever heard it that way under the big top.

You're already leaping to the defense of Young's great title song for the movie?

Ah ha, yes, I know, but that was not written for Ringling-Barnum; it was composed for De Mille's film.

Under the aegis of John Ringling North, hands down again, I'd argue the circus moved to the best original ditties composed for its various parades and production numbers.

The Sullivan-Anderson catalog (I've not heard it all, because not all of their work made it onto wire recordings), also gives us the equally glorious, "Picnic in the Park," and the 1951 spec rouser, "Sing a Happy Song."

And there's a remarkably intense number the two created that deserves special status, certainly in melody making: "Jungle Drums." It scored the darkly exotic 1950 finale elephant bash.

I was watching Mike Martin's Ringling-Barnum Vol 1 today, and there it was. You get teasing glimpses of what "Drums" looked and moved like, but you simply can not know what it was like to have sat in the audience when the whole thing unfolded start to finish before your eyes.

Composer North himself, prolifically ambitious, contributed some of the best Ringling show music, believe it or not, and Merle Evans, with his bent for big top fanfare, found ways to pump additional sentiment and excitement into the owner's tuneful melodies. The 1955 show contains North's best set by far, perhaps partly inspired by lyrics from a real Broadway pro, Irving Caesar, from the pulsing "Holidays" to the bouncy "Mamas' in the Park." Also, "Impossible" was tremendously effective in context when introduced during the Pinito Del Oro single trap thriller.

Outside of Victor Young's noteworthy treatments on the GSOE movie album, Big Show songs have never received effective professional studio treatment. Sadly, they likely never will.

A slate of North's tune's came out from RCA in the 1960s as Circus Brass. Only minimally pleasing. Some of his best tunes, like the lovely "Butterfly Lullaby" and the atmospheric "Minnehaha," are missing.

Harold Ronk issued a fine LP, A Day at the Circus With Mr. Singing Ringmaster, but most of the tunes are not drawn from original Ringling scoring. I'm surprised he didn't record Richard Barstow's zippy 1968 opener, "Take a Ride on a Bubble.

I've never heard Igor Stravinsky's "Circus Polka", written under a commission for North's "Ballet of the Elephants" in 1942. And, of course, is there a mortal alive who has ever heard any of the original music composed by the original Ringling brothers for their opera specs?

Nor had I mentioned a number of recent melodically savvy originals composed for the Felds version of the show. Some, upon first hearing, struck me as nearly Broadway worthy, like the recent "Zing Zang Zoom"

North's music composed for the indoor years fell fairly flat to my ears; finally, I realized what might have been missing: Merle Evans. The bandmaster at work then, Izzy Cervone, did not have it in him to fancy up and fanfare North's tunes into effective circus razzmatazz ... What Evans did with "Your birthday," the tag melodic closer to the '55 spec, still moves me as much as any Ringling original. Well, okay, Maestro Evans piles onto it a sky-high climax worthy of a march through the pearly Gates.

Please, somebody, make these songs a project!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Morning Midway: Photos Hot Off the Set of "Water For Elephants."

Looks mighty real to me. Only glaring incongruity I can see so far are box cars supposedly posing as circus stock cars.

A slew of wagon charmers said to be on loan from Circus World Museum. Hope they have a cut of the royalties.

Christoph Waltz as "August." He looks cool.

Star Robert Pattinson, center, on the set. If this guy's a national "heartthrob," I'm the last one to know it. I still wish Sean Penn had made it into the film, somewhere. He seemed so right for a gritty circus flick.

Yet to appear: Betty White.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Big Tops Perennially in Peril -- Cliche or Chronic Destiny???

This first appeared on June 7, 2010

Surviving a train wreck in De Mille's classic film, The Greatest Show on Earth

I am starting to reexamine my skeptical view of one circus movie or drama after another pushing the near bankrupt big top as central theme.

Maybe, out there in the real world, it’s always been this way?

Two sources are driving my new-found doubts: Lane Talburt's well-researched Bandwagon article, "From Deming to Deland," about the behind-the-scenes financial maneuvering that transferred the bankrupt Clyde Beatty Circus in 1956, out of the hands of failed owner Clyde Beatty himself, into the hands of Jerry Collins, Frank McClosky and Walter Kernan.

Exhibit Two: Numerous letters received in my mid teen years from old time circus aficionado Harry “Doc” Chapman, also serving up a steady banquet of doom and gloom predictions about the mighty Ringling show, from which, a sample crack:

“Mike Todd was suppose to have offered $750,000 for the show as it closed at Pittsburgh last season. He wanted everything. North would not sell out to him I heard. You may be able to buy it in a few years at your own price. Then you’ll be D. Ringling Bros. Hammarstrom I hope.”

Very funny, reading it looking back. Chapman, who was born the year before the Ringling Bros. started up their own circus in 1884 (and told me that Barnum & Bailey’s 1914 spec, Wizard Prince of Arabia, was the “best” one he’d seen), seemed to revel in the bleak aftermath of the fall of the final Ringling big top for in 1956, merrily sprinkling raindrops of doom and gloom onto my boyhood fantasies of imminent canvas resurrection in Ringling land.

Hmmm, that sounds an awful lot like the way certain people I know in Sarasota go on, year after year after ...

Even De Mille’s movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, early into the melodramatic footage pushed that old cliche, in a fresh variation, “Will we stay out for only 10 weeks or get a full season?”

Chapman liked to tell me in his lengthy missives about fans who could not wait each week to read in the Billboard of great business under big tops that was not in fact happening. Another laugh, I suppose. I did not like that. I believed in those dramatic Billboard headlines “Straw Houses Greet Hunt Bros. ... Mills Spotty in Tennessee ... ” Chapman often claimed that the Ringling show was rarely pulling in more than 2,500 to maybe 4,000 people (into an eight-thousand seat tent).

When you think about it, how could it not be this way? After all, circus owners every season face the same old problem in luring ticket buyers back into their tops: They have a NEW show, not same old same old. But in the public’s collective mind, certainly truer today than one hundred years ago, circuses are basically the same — unlike a new stage musical, movie or rock concert. And so maybe that’s the bugaboo that makes trouping such a vexing, hazardous, daunting, muddy — oh, heck, you fill in your own words — challenge/ordeal/saga/calling.

Clyde Beatty proved he did not have the right stuff to keep a tent show on the road for very long. Mr. McClosky proved he did have the right stuff.

In fact, troupers disprove Harry “Doc” Chapman every season when, somehow, someway, they still hit the sawdust trails, still high hopping their way from one town to the next.

So let’s bring out Mr. Chapman one more time, just for the fun of it:

“Back in 1954, in the backyard here while taking with Merle Evans, Pat Valdo and others I said the circus was doomed. They almost wanted to run me off the lot but only a year made my prediction come true. It seemed strange that the troupers could not understand this.”

Stranger still that Mr. Chapman could not understand what those redoubtable troupers may have felt down deep in their blood ...

“Hey, Buttons! —- Brad says we play the full season!”

Well, what do you know.


Friday, June 04, 2010

The Morning Midway: The Faceless Frank McClosky Makes a Faceless Cameo in Bandwagon

I have no idea who this man was, and likely never will. Of all the figures who have owned and moved circuses, Mr. M. is a total blank to me. I see a cigar in his mouth, a man perhaps finally being able to get himself snapped into a publicity photo. A man perhaps in his own mind a big player.

Not to be critical, I recall one of the best shows I ever saw, Beatty-Cole in Richmond, VA, 1961, what a crackling straight ahead 3-ring tentbuster. It sparkled that afternoon. Although it was, they will tell you, McClosky's partner, Walter Kernan, whose passion for the art of the performance is said to have informed and helped shape the generally strong shows. That's what Ken Dodd and a few others have advanced.

McClosky? He has always been a dead figure in my mind. Bring him to life, anybody out there who may wish to inject a little blood into his flat veins. Bright pink cool aid would do. All of the other circus tycoons give off personality, be they true impresarios or borderline crooks.

This came to mind, reading part two (did I miss part one?) of a detailed account by Lane Talburt in the latest issue of Bandwagon, covering the ownership conversion of the Clyde Beatty Circus in the mid-50's away from poor Mr. Beatty, who had to accept a buy out from Jerry Collins (he has a personality!), McClosky, et all, and then, once-again, a performer only status, in the wake of the collapse of his circus during the disastrous 1956 season. That's when King Bros. ended up stranded on a highway ditch, when the mighty Ringling-Barnum big top said bye bye, world, at Pittsburgh, PA.

Name any one you want: John Strong, Otto Ringling, Ben Davenport, Louis Stern, Binder or Byrd, Vargas or Feld or Laliberte -- they all have distinctive personas, whether you like what they have or not.

Frank McClosky? Who he?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Morning Midway: Return of the Circus Courier -- Ringling is Coming At You!

Just in my dying mailbox, a gigantic glossy fold-out flyer bearing the imposing words:



I haven't been dazzled by anything this visually circus-captivating in how many years, if ever?

Feld Entertainment is certainly taking an older bolder kind of marketing campaign.

Brilliant design. Outstanding textual clarity, kept to a minimum.


Unfolded, my 12" wide invitation stands 22" tall and just might make a visit to my wall. Colors: Radiant Ringling Red, Baby Barnum Blue, and Florida sunshine yellow.

The concept reminds me of what they were doing, on a much much smaller scale, during the last years of the John Ringling North era.


Oh wait, it's addressed to me with a preferred customer code. Possibly because of a previous on-line ticket purchase. 10 weeks in advance.

Eat your hearts out, all of you non-preferred losers.

Gosh, I feel like funundrumming already!

(p.s. oh, why did I have to read deeper. Circus celebrity seat holders will "perform in the show!" Big gigantic wistful sigh, over and out. Does that mean, if I buy the ten dollar ticket, I can bring my own hula hoop?)