Friday, July 30, 2010

Scenes from the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa: Tradition Against Time

I marvel at how the classic Tilt-A-Whirl lives on! Of old carnival rides I recall from my youth, only the Tilt retains virtually its identical original size and platform configuration, albeit, I read in Wikipedia, with seven rather than nine tubs. It debuted in 1927 at the Minnesota State fair, and has been, it would seem, the longest running un-revised hit on midways ever since. We have modern versions of the Ferris Wheel, the swings and the Octopus, but the tilt-A-Whirl whirls on totally unchanged and unmolested by trendy enlargements. Perfection alone stands the test of time.

I could spend hours gazing at the amazingly varied "facial expressions" of the charming rabbits. No other animal I know of comes close to the rabbit in giving off such a vast catalog of human-like attitudes. Either that, or I have a field day seeing a world of characters in them.

The kids chased this hog/pig/swine back and forth; it had a will of its own.

My favorite exhibit hall contains art work by the younger generations, from very early ages to teen years. So exciting to spot genius that you hope will not be class roomed out of existence. That you hope will inspire and shape an entire life. This by Sydney N. Walter, age 12, of Cotati.

This by Andrew C. Yu, age 14, of Petaluma.

The flower show that locals claim to be, and could be, the best in the country. Some of course are better than others. This year struck me as basic. I am still ruing the exit, 16 years ago, of my favorite of all Sonoma County Fair Flower Show designers, Jacque Giuffre.

They have a new track announcer, an English voiced gentleman who adds such color to the races. In fact, I'd never thought of "exotic" as an English trait; in this rare instance, it applies. He helps restore some of the color that, year by year, seems to be slowly vanishing from the county fair. When we moved up to Santa Rosa in the late 1940s, my mom got me, my sister and brother straw hats and neckerchiefs and took us to our first fair. Such magic; sometimes, just the right whiff of cow manure brings back a rich boyhood memory.

At the racetrack, they say fewer people attend. What I miss the most are the human cashiers who once took your bets. I used to now and then place two dollars on "show." Made a few pennies on better days.

Every summer, it moves farther away from this idyllic image, snapped by my Brownie Hawkeye in the fifties. How I loved just walking under those trees. Some years back, they were all removed, the sheds rebuilt, the old folksy atmosphere rendered sterile. The management seems to favor asphalt over dirt, well-defined order over a countrified ramble. I could scream, let it be! What happened here was very much like what "Governor" Ronald Reagan did in Sacramento, when he sold the old state fairgrounds and built a new world expo type venue, dull, lifeless, cold.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Morning Midway: Big Apple Circus Touts New Show: Not Retired Christensen Still Heads Creative Team; New AD Dufresnoy a Shadow Binder?

Despite the long-lasting ballyhoo in recent years over the retirement of founder and artistic director Paul Binder, simultaneously alluding, if ever so subtly, to significant program changes headed by Binder's replacement, Guillaume Dufresnoy, don't look for ground-breaking new showmanship. Not yet.

At least half of the founding regime, that would be Michael Christensen, still appears at the top of the "creative team" masthead. In fact, Christensen is listed as "co-founder and creative director," topping, next in line, Dufresnoy, who, by the way, assisted Binder for a slew of seasons.

This is an exceedingly conservative organization; if you love Big Apple Circus, I'd say bank on more of the same. If you long for an exciting departure, I'd say put your longing in limbo for another season or five.

No doubt, and here I'm speculating for the fun of it, Binder remains powerfully in the background. No doubt, Dufresnoy, whatever strong urges he may feel, will likely be be contained and slipped mandatory cues from others. It's also possible that Dufresnoy has not yet manifested the creative spine to take charge, and thus the continuation of Christensen's input and overriding status. Or the latter, despite earlier reports that he would follow Binder out the door, had grave second thoughts, or never fully intended in the first place to retire in tandem with his founding partner?

Strangest piece of an ill-fitting puzzle is why the company did not play up Christensen's staying on to retain top authority rather than hail the coming of Dufresnoy as signaling a new chapter in the show's history. The masthead, placing Christensen at the top, suggests that he has the yes and the no.

Acts signed for Dance On! conform to the usual BAC pattern of recent years. Dogs and horses, acrobats and aerialists. Barry Lubin's Grandma remains with the company. Other names include Jenny Vidbel, Rob Torres, Girma Tshehai, African Acrobatics International, Andrey Mantchev, Hebei Wujiao Acrobatic Troupe. BAC website as of this posting lacks photos.

This year's opus is being directed by an outsider, Eric Michael Gillet, with dance patterns devised by Peter Pucci, original scoring by Paul Rolnick. The band will play on under the returning baton of regular chart master Rob Slowik.

The Big Apple Circus paradigm, steeped in traditional respect for "classic circus," allows for subtle variations from year to year, the artistic impact ranging from stunning to, more often, stodgy. But the acts are higher draw, the production values overall sparkling. Not knowing if I will even be back there at the right time, still I'm theoretically looking forward.

The creative mix favoring choreography looks promising, with enough outsiders lured into the tent to create a potentially high-energy outing.

Meanwhile, I wonder just where Paul Binder is and how involved he still may be in the wings, issuing facial expressions and sighs of delight or regret, conversing over a cellphone with long timer collaborator,Michael. Unless, that is, the two have gone their separate ways and are no longer speaking.

[Big Apple Circus photos, from top: Michael Christensen; Guillaume Dufresnoy]

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

UniverSoul Circus By Boston Dumped; Sponsor Skittish About Animal Abuse Charges

Circus's sponsor for last two years, Northeastern Univeristy, shunning the show, severing sawdust ties owing to escalating complaints, the lead spoil sport being -- guess who! -- PETA.

"We researched the issue and were not happy with what we found," said Reneta Nyui, speaking for Northeastern to the Boston Globe, which reported the story.

UniverSoul wrapped up a 13-day performance frame on the campus last Saturday. Tents were pitched over a parking lot

The show lacks a license under the USDA; its animals are leased from other companies cited in past but not recent years for a number of infractions. Particularly newsworthy was the death within a few months of a pair of kangaroos, cast in a slapstick boxing match. Mistreatment of the animals was alleged.

Circus patrons who contacted PETA alleged to have witnessed "tigers in their travel cages and feared for the animals' well-being in the heat."

Speaking for the show, VP Jackie Davis said the company passed all animal regulatory inspections while in Boston. She added, "We take great pride in the way we treat our animals. I have no idea of why someone would make that accusation."

In 2002, PETA produced an undercover video of an elephant handler under contract to UniverSoul "beating his animals with bull hooks and electric prods."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ringling Reopens Clown College -- Or At Least the Name; Auditions Offered ...

This was a surprise, and belatedly I report. The Big Show appears to be re-opening Clown College, or cleverly alluding to it.

Eager apprentices are being offered the chance to apply for funny positions on one of the units. From a promo put out on the Ringling website, candidates who pass muster will attend a performance of the circus, then fill out a "more detailed" application. This could lead to more talk and "an intensive training session."

Both sides will eye each other to see if they've got "a mutual fit."

Upon correctly tickling Feld officials, the lucky will "likely" be offered a one-year contract.

A college? I doubt that. An audition, most certainly, with the learning to take place, I'm speculating, in much shorter doses at a location yet to be made known.

Strange; for a moment, I felt a touch of the old Irvin Feld spirit; whatever it was, he played it to the hilt.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Circus Historical Society Lands Living Legends for Upcoming Aerial-Intense Convention ...

Warning: on this posting, the word "mechanic" may be dropped at intervals. If you are allergic to this word or suffer an adverse reaction, you are advised either to turn back now or proceed at your own caution and seek immediate medical attention if you suffer the usual I-hate-Showbiz David symptoms.

Count this one for the ages. CHS members about to convene in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois on July 21, to be feted by a consortium of legendary trapeze icons, including the greatest of them all, Miguel Vazquez.

Among academic amusements announced, attendees will attend an actual flying trapeze seminar conducted by Vazquez, his famed catcher-brother, Juan, Tony Steele and Richie Gaona. They'll watch the premiere of a film about Steele, Dreaming in Circus, by Darin Basile. Steele, case you didn't know, twirled out the first three-and-a-half, earning him Guinness fame. That was before Miguel trumped them all with the quad.

And they'll view a panel discussion introduced by Steve Gossard, in which another trapeze legend, diva dynamo Terry Caveretta, will participate.

Scholars signed to hit the sawdust flying include two Aussie gals with papers of peril on modern-day aerial revolutions above the rings: Peta Tait will take up “Extreme Athleticism and Aerial acts,” Jane Mullett, “Alternative Aerial Performance: Breaking Tradition.” I'm hoping, awating the monographs that show up in Bandwagon, that they tackle the issue that has tagged me, whenever I dare go near it, as a number of loathsome things in the eyes of the offended, from pompous to spiteful, bitchy to lame to -— well, you insert your own invective. Those tell-tale lifelines (aka: mechanics) deserve a knock down drag out round-the-table discussion. Speaking of which, about another subject even more controversial, noted author Janet Davis slated to speak about her current book in progress concerning animal welfare laws and activities.

Now, if all that is not enough, while the show is on, L.A. documentary film man Philip Weyland, at work gathering fresh footage for a movie about Miguel Vazquez, will be circling the red wagons with his crack camera crew, hosting on-site interviews with people wishing to share and air views, facts, opinions.

You're not a member and feel the urge to be a part? I guess you could express mail a membership application to the CHS.

Three fanfares for Pfenings & Company!

End Ringers: Can American academia ever produce a decent circus act? (Have I already offended another dozen? – Sorry!). Give Coastal Carolina University a hearty laugh and a half for trying. They’re coming out soon with a new degree in “Physical Theatre” (I guess that’s a fancied up term for what we once called "circus"), in which students will spend their senior year in residence at the Circus Center of the San Francisco Clown Conservatory, HaHa. Okay, with unabated breath, I’m waiting. Call me a ring spoiler, but why do I still see so few, sometimes none, non-exotic faces in our U.S. circus shows? ... The Barnum Museum up in Bridgeport, recently bashed by a tornado, getting a $10,000 check from Feld Entertainment to help them stay solvent and sucker the good sucker. In case you didn't know, I didn't either, July 5th marked P.T.'s 200th birthday ...

Fragile Dreaming: Oakland-based Circus Bella kicking off its new season in San Francisco. A cool, playful and overly short free show out in the open air on green grass, brimming modestly with honorable ambitions. Some very fine creative streaks with the cast sometimes sporting roustabout attire and getting amusingly into each others way -- and acts. Prime example: Jan Damm's whimsical variations on the rola-bola. I hope co-directors David Hunt and Abigail Munn can eventually secure proper funding, get themselves a little tent or enclosure, hire a few more bodies and sell tickets ...

Gotta run. Have a free date with legal council about my latest obsession --- how to reveal to you what I saw when I saw Kenneth Feld sitting across from me in his seat opening night of Illuscination. This must go out as pure journalism, no holds barred, but how not to misrepresent the truth of the moment? How to avoid legal fallout from so exacting an image? ... Hey, look to your right! Is that HIM? Yes, yes! There he enters, the great Miguel! ... WATCH HIM!!!!!

[photo at top courtesy of Philip Weyland]

Monday, July 05, 2010

Comparing Three Reviews of Ringling's Illuscination -- Well, Have You Anything Better To Do at the Moment?

For smaller and medium sized circuses to get reviewed at all is extremely unlikely. They can go for years without ever facing the pen of a legitimate media outlet. Even the larger shows, save for Cirque du Soleil, hardly ever receive the sort of objection evaluation routinely dolled out to virtually all other forms of entertainment.

Even Ringling rarely gets covered in the bigger cities anymore. They are more often than not ignored these days by the major New York dailies; the Times, it seems, sometimes skips covering their openings at Madison Square Garden.

Here, for the fun of it (well, I’m having fun), is a comparative rundown of three reviews, and the only three I could find on the internet so far, of Ringling’s Illuscination out at Coney Island. Your three sources are Jason Zinoman of The New York Times (NYT); Thurston Dooley III writing for The Brooklyn Paper (BP) , and myself (SD). I’m focusing on the acts, and then giving my take on the overall verdict of the respective reviewers. Feel free to comment or check in with your own mini-assessments.


BP “a great showman and solid illusionist”

NYT “magicians rip off Houdini more than rappers steal from James Brown”

SD “stunning big box illusions by the masterful David Divinci.”


BP “several extended clown bits ... fall flat.”

NYT “the clowns would never be described as Beckettian”

SD “clever clowning ... comedy fairly sails along”


BP “a rare mix of strength, agility and dare-devilishness”

NYT “steal the show”

SD “masterful”


BP “The lion routine was fairly, well routine.”

NYT “There is something troubling about watching those proud wild animals move robotically in rigid unison.”

SD “Biggest embarrassment ... a new low in big cage showmanship”


BP not mentioned

NYT not mentioned other than characterizing the mere presence of elephants as capturing “the old fashioned hucksterism of the circus”

SD “a little too plain and lackluster”


BP “lives up to its billing”

NYT not mentioned

SD “infuses the genre with novel twists”


BP “make too many mistakes”

NYT not mentioned.

SD “showed us how not to. I counted at least four errors”


BP “less than interesting”

NYT not mentioned

SD among “bargain basement forgettables”


BP horse’s “timing was better than his human partner ... fell flat.”

NYT not mentioned.

SD “the star of this edition ... Monte Carlo: send the horse and that clown the gold.


BP Reviewer found the act “problematic” because of his belief thatthe show did not register well with those in the bleacher seats.

NYT “extraordinary”

SD “don’t go for perfection unless you’re willing to take it from a horse or a cat ... the cats being those presented by the Panifilovs”


BP “quiet acrobatics”

NYT not mentioned

SD They “score well on multiple Russian bars,” but their teeterboard turn featured “standard tricks, assisted and/or saved by lifelines”

FRANCLEIB RODRIGUES, single traps and upside down loop walk

BP not mentioned

BP not mentioned

SD “beguiling ... brief appearance”


No mention from any of us. How very interesting.


BP “solid entertainment ... outstanding wonders of human amazement ... the bad news: a handful of acts were just too small or too subtle to register with the bleacher creatures”

NYT “most notable for harking back to its delightfully grubby past ... a ragged affair.

SD: “a very good variety show ... glitzy ... shrewdly powered by sex, fireworks, clowns, magic — and a few good acts.”

I am more than baffled by Brooklyn Paper’s quibbling over acts being too small to see in this tent. This is not a huge tent.

As for the Times, what to think? Considering Zinoman’s classic opening put-down, “it never was ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’" what else were we to expect?

Why was I so thoroughly amused by a horse and clown act that left the other two critics unimpressed? It puzzles me; the audience too seemed totally into the act.


For the record: last year's Boom-A-Ring earned three virtual raves. One appeared in the The Brooklyn Paper, which published two reviews, the other, by Dooley, being downbeat; another on the Broadway website Theatre Mania, and the third on this blog.

first posted:  7.5.10

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Clowns to Cows; Broadway to Brewster ... Photos, Photos -- Step Right Up!

Out of the past: From July 1, 2010

This I snapped during my walk down the east side of Central Park from top to bottom, 110th to 59th. So comforting a sense of community along the way.

In the afternoon, I was tempted to walk back up on the west side, but a little too hot. Maybe next time.

I was tempted to go for an on-the-spot sketch of myself. Every year, the potential artistic result becomes ever more sobering.

If you like modern art, MOMA is heaven. I went there to see the wonderful work of photographer Henri Cartier Bresson.

I was over this way to take in the NBC Studio Tour. What a rip off. $16 for seniors and kids (guess I qualified for either). Just two studios, too much promo talk about Dr. Oz, and we pay them so they can try getting us to have a mini video made that we can buy on the way out?

Mama Mia, whatever became of the great Broadway songwriters! The "juke box musical" still thrives. Audiences want songs that appeal, and for too many seasons, the school of Sondheim did not deliver. Thus the profitable reliance, a la Mama Mia, on crafting shows around already existing hit songs from the last thirty years. When I went to the ill-directed revival of West Side Story (some of the lyrics and dialogue in Spanish), the music and dance still electrified. This was possibly the most ground-breaking of all musicals, daringly created more than fifty years ago by true New York theatre pros. And yet by the end of the overly ambitious evening, I felt a strange let down; either time or too much tinkering had enlarged second act flaws and rendered the work less real than I recall it to be when it thrilled me in my youth.

I've grown to admire the new Times Square makeover. Once during the 1980s, out from my pocket slipped a one-dollar bill to the ground. Instantly, competing human vultures swooped down to claim it. I hurried on. Such a scary, sleazy place then, I didn't go back for years. Now, New York is one of the safest cities in the U.S., and such a hard place to stay away from. It has so much to offer.

How lost that losing billboard looks. What do New York and China have in common? Neither venue has awarded Cirque du Soleil with the kind of near-automatic crowds it has easily counted on in other places.

Took a train up to Brewster Village an hour and a half out of the Big Apple, boarding it at the gloriously restored Grand Central Station.

I went there to see Kelly- Miller Circus. Since rain had been forecast for the late afternoon, my paranoia, in collaboration Kelly Miller's reputation for frequent encounters with bum weather, convinced me that I was about to trudge through a lot from hell, sinking helplessly into mud, quicksand, slate and snow, cracked peanuts and runaway tigers, scored by the dark sinister laughing sounds of crazed troupers, and end up on the emergency flood control crew. "showgrounds" was littered on the front end with mobile homes. No umbrella in hand. High tailed it to the ticket wagon, then to the front door. Rain drops started to fall, THAT moment had arrived. At least I'd get into the tent dry. Raindrops ceased. Sun returned. Green grass stayed green. All things considered, Norman Rockwell all the way. A lovely lot!

The following evening, out to Coney Island for the opening night of Ringling's Illuscination.

Master illusionist David DaVinci doing a pre-opening night TV interview.

Guess whose backside you're glimpsing? Through a series of incredible flukes (a tale to be told in full sometime down the road), I ended up at Illuscination sitting only one seat from the aisle, directly across from which sat he. I didn't discover this until intermission, and then was not about to ask him for a photo. When he turned around, I could not resist the urge to remove my new compact little Canon SD 780 IS, aim and shoot. My paparazzi target: Kenneth Feld.

Down to Luray, Virginia: My niece Lisa, sister Kathy, and little Noah greet me at the nearby Culpeper train station. What a contrast! Lisa, her husband Bryan and son Noah moved up here just a month or so ago from Ft. Lauderdale Florida. Bryan was away piloting United Airlines passengers here and there; he prefers shorter domestic routes because he likes take-offs and landings the most.

Noah is a fun little kid to hang out with. He even insisted I read him a bed time story -- new experience. I read something I hardly understand, fearing he'd ask me all sorts of questions. I pushed at lot of drama into it, and he never said a word, his eyes all a twinkle as he gazed up at me.

Then we had fun playing "Can't Stop Shopping," a new game which was first played recently in China by its co-inventors Boyi Yuan and myself. Kathy and Lisa made some constructive suggestions at the end of play, which Boyi and I have since discussed, leading to slight design changes and some tweaking of the rules.

From flight attendant to purser, Lisa flew for United for 20 years, and then retired to have her first child, Noah. Surprised us all. What a dramatic life lifestyle change, and she loves it.

Cows are mooing
Crops accruing,
My dear old Swanee!

Au Revoir, Luray!