Friday, August 27, 2010

Baraboo's Bob Dewel Votes for City-Wide Promotion

Whisper the name of this sleepy little town, and await the entrance of its most protective resident, retired Doc Bob Dewel, who once drilled for gold and now drills to restore the original luster to the grand Al Ringling Theatre. Not only he, but the faithful others proud of their backwoods paradise and not too amenable to the intrusive admonitions of characters like me.

Most recently, in response to my latest outburst concerning the Circus World Museum's dogged preoccupation with circus wagon restoration over other things (one being the shamefully neglected old Thimble Theatre Fun House), a new round of hurt feelings lined up to deposit comments here (okay all two or three of them). In same article, I sprinkled provisional praise upon one Steve Freese, latest exec. director of Circus World (as CWM likes to call itself these days) for fund raising exploits and a flair for promoting the museum's vast holdings. A Barnum for Baraboo, I suggested.

Now, returning to the Dewel School of proper provincial promotion, the good Doc, just having returned from a rail journey to Chicago,where he survived Million Dollar Quartet, "a very good but unbearably loud rock musical," responded with civil cheer to my urging that Baraboo itself, rather than Circus World, be The Sell. My premise being that this tiny little town packs a rather impressive array of cultural attractions into its lovely borders. Saith Bob in merry good spirits, "it seemed balanced and fair (unlike Fox News!)"

Onward to his and my in-sync campaign: "It appears we've been thinking the same thing with regard to publicity -- joint local attraction packages, etc. None of us can afford the outrageous prices to distribute brochures in "Thuh Delz" display racks."

Some time back, Bob identified ten local tourist-oriented groups that put out brochures, then designed and built a "prototype" display rack. That rack is still in use, but only at the Historical Society. I did not know there were that many possible tourist teases in the shadows of Ringlingville.

And that's as far as a good idea went. "Nothing happened," says Bob. He reached out to locals well connected; they did not return the reach.

In his opinion, his long-adopted town "is so laid back, so afraid of being cheap like the Dells, that we don't toot our own horn. Such a great place to live ... (population close to 14,000) ... Perhaps we don't want our spot in the World to become a real city."

Or another Orlando, or Sarasota. But, why not an idyllic oasis of old-fashioned amusement delights discretely arranged and ballyhooed? My central point was: the more reasons you can give out-of-towners for driving your way, the more tickets at any given event you will sell.

Meanwhile, at the Al Ringling, where Bob's fingers dance nimbly across the keyboard of a mighty pipe organ, happily he reports, "Ticket-popcorn stand is now gone from magnificently restored lobby. Use of stage is now over 100 days a year including rehearsal time ... Dressing rooms and ladies lounge are restored ... And -- I have two persons in training as guides, to replace this superannuated nonagenarian."

"Baraboo forever!" he trumpets.

I nominate Bob Dewel to take full custody of the charmingly quaint Thimble Theatre. He and It were made for each other. Forever.


Photos from Restoration Bob: The Al Ringling lobby, before and after. Encores for a true Ringling Renaissance man!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Morning Midway: Kelly-Miller Circus Enjoying Big Bounce in Biz?

I am only speculating based upon my sole source, Steve and Ryan's blog.

Now and then, my eyes skate quickly across the text to grab biz talk. Steve usually still sums up each day's human haul, and seems this year there are more full or near full houses, and some packed ones too, than I recall from last year.

So, granting that who really knows what ANY circus is actually doing other than the office staff, I'd guess that Kelly-Miller is up by say 30 percent this season. If so, that's a good omen for John Ringling North II.

[photo of Steve and "animatronic" Steve doll from his blog]

Friday, August 20, 2010

Morning Midway: Ringling Wants to Know what it's Customers Think of Big Apple Circus

This by way of an extensive survey received in my e-mail which I was invited to complete for Feld Entertainment; no doubt it was sent my way because I have booked tickets to their circuses on-line. In answering, I addressed Barnum's Funundrum, it being the last Feld show I attended.

The same set of family-oriented questions asked about customer reaction to the Ringling show were later posed to me about Big Apple. Now, possible caveat here: perhaps because I had purchased a ticket on-line (Ticketmaster) to BAC back in 2005, that may have triggered the survey annex; and yet, when I was asked, "which of the following shows have you ever attended as a parent or grandparent (come to think of it, the question does not technically apply to me, does it), a list of virtually all U.S. circuses appears, one being Big Apple. Either I checked that one only in error and not the others, or a check mark that appears only in the BAC box indicates my past on-line ticket purchase.

The list of some 24 questions, to be answered with "Do Not Agree" to "Agree Completey," range from "It was something for the whole family" to "it is something you don't need to see again."

Another page, and there are many, zeros in on the show itself, the questions including, for examples, "the educational value in the event/it teaches my children something" to "it's an action packed live entertainment experience."

Respondents, instructed to "think about Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey," are asked, "if you were to attend this circus specifically, what would you expect to see. Please be as specific as possible."

So, they are giving you an open window rather than providing a list of different types of acts, allowing you to rate the importance of each. However, I was a little surprised that the animal rights issue did not make an appearance on the questionnaire.

One of the more interesting questions: "How does RBBB differ from other circuses?"

The workout is loaded with many questions -- income, demographics, age, ethnicity, advance discounts, if used, etc.

The question I have, for any out there who wish to answer it, is this: Does such a survey indicate that overall attendance is less than ideal? Would such a survey even be undertaken if business was brisk?

My main quibble is with a question, "Overall, how much did you like or dislike the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey event?"

I did not feel like checking "Liked it a lot," but neither was I comfortable with the next grading option, "liked it a little," for I was somewhere in between.

But still, there is something sad about a circus reaching out with all these questions. Maybe it's a good business practice; after all, the Felds are notoriously successful. But it reminds me of what Kenneth Feld has told the media more than once: whatever the audience wants, that's what he will give them. A very complex position not to be explored or beaten to death here.

Crowds for Barnum's Funundrum on a Thursday night in Oakland.

Monday, August 16, 2010

In a Ringling Vice: Flashy Barnum's Funundrum Does Not Lack for Trying

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Barnum's Funundrum!

Oakland Oracle Arena
August 12, 7:30 PM

Thinking back, only two nights ago, upon my varied reactions to this latest effort from the Felds, I am struck by how it veers and lurches back and forth between brilliance and banality. Consider:

* An aerial ballet so ingeniously original, so utterly enchanting and so sensitively scored, with the central focus given over to Duo Fusion from Argentina (seen in the photo above), that surely it would either bring the late great Barbete to tears of joy or bursts of envious rage.

* Some of the most gorgeously atmospheric lighting effects I’ve come across at a circus.

* By far the most embarrassingly fail-safe “high wire” act of protected marionette “daredevils” I’ve yet seen. The Russians, who present it, are surely the ones best qualified to terminate this pitifully pointless genre (danger up there, oh really?), for it was under their reformatted circus scene of the 1920s that the use of safety wires in performance, not just in practice, was born.

* About the finest original score that Ringling has produced in decades, much of the original music by Michael Picton and Lucian Piane so surprisingly varied for a Feld show, so rich to the ears. A trumpet solo during a cat act? Yes. The spec song, “Step Right Up,” is as toe taping as the best of Broadway’s Cy Coleman.

“ The opening splash of costumes and floats turning into a curiously ineffectual traffic jam without a destination. Well, where do you parade in a parking lot without even a single ring to march around?

* The sobering spectacle of dozens of patrons walking out early, beginning at the end of a flying trapeze act whose star flyer, Ivo Silva, Jr.'s attempt at the elusive quad gets a buildup so horrendous, you’d think Moses had returned to execute it himself. Alas, the Red Sea did not part. Silva came no where near, from what I could see, to caching the trick. Perhaps, by then, midway into the second half, those beating an early exit had simply grown tired of the sledgehammer showmanship, credit the hysterically overzealous ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson, something of a human hurricane. His repeated use of the famed slogan “greatest show on earth” only cheapened its luster and impact. I once believed in his potential. Not at the moment.

* One of the most uneventful big cage turns I’ve seen (blame PETA?), the tigers worked by Daniel Raffo

* The initially impressive overhead grids circling the performance area upon which images both pictorial and abstract are flashed, a la Times Square neon. At first, when circus posters appeared, I was inspired -- looking up form my most excellent seat, which I'd purchased for only $21.00. But near the end, when I had retreated to a higher elevation near the exit doors and was looking down upon trampoline acrobats through flowery images flashing on and off, the effect was distracting and seemed to telegraph producerly insecurity. They just can't let go of those videos.
* The comforting appearance, during intermission, of three actual rings, giving us, at last, a sense of having been placed somewhere. Soon to be no where again, after a mildly charming dog, pony, llama and elephant drill was over.

* The first time in Ringling history when I can recall the ringmaster asking the audience, “How are you enjoying yourselves so far?” And he was addressing possibly the smallest crowd I have yet seen at the Oakland arena. Not a bad crowd, mind you, but there were rows of empty seats here and there, not to mention that up to a third of the seats are not used owing to the truncated performance area. Another of Iverson’s blasts, “we have so much more to do,” came across as a veiled pitch to please stay seated and love us until the end.

“ An audience participation promo at the end of intermission for a Ringling video game. Will Peterson Peanuts yet land product placement with the greatest show on earth?

Now, look, there is actually a lot of fun to this show, most of it supplied by the amusing sight-gag clowns, first spoofing old side show attractions, later satirizing super heroes. I laughed. I giggled. I smiled. I tip my hat to Ringling Clown Alley creativity.

A group of Russians deliver exuberantly captivating workouts on three vaulting poles and, later, on a pair of springboards, with the guy on stilts a real ham. And there's a generous multi-act display of troupes of contortionists from around the globe wowing simultaneously. And the Flying Caceres, working from multiple swings, offer plenty of refreshing action.

The producers, not Kenneth but two of his daughters Nicole and Alana, more or less true to the Feld spirit, have ample fireworks ready to go off, as usual. And they are bent on hyping every item to the hilt, like a herculean build-up given the entrance of baby elephant, Barack. These windy intros by Iverson are like screaming ambulance sirens in the night. Feld & Feld just don’t know when to stop; Indeed, the final stretch is something of a slog, with too many overblown moments (like bringing out Barack), each suggesting a finale, so that the two last acts, a motorbike up the inclined wire followed by a so-so bounce fest on a trio of trampolines, feel strangely anti-climactic. And we start wondering, when will it ever really end? A tighter sleeker two-hour frame would likely demonstrate that less can be more.

It’s overproduced Feld through and through, with direction by Amy Tinkham lacking intelligent control and restraint. I envy those who live near Coney Island, where Ringling, deigning to appear in a single ring under a tent, is being forced to break many of its worst habits of excess. Being forced to produce, by default perhaps, its best shows. Big Bertha: get thee back under the big top!

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

Circus World Musem’s Steve Freese -- the Barnum Baraboo Needs? ... He Leads "Water For Elephants" Research Parade

Call him a late-coming sawdust and spangles convert. While walking the movie set of Water For Elephants, which recently wrapped in Southern California, politician-turned-circus-museum-mogul Steve Freese, seen standing in the photo, felt a certain thrill watching the wagons he had loaned help recreate the look of a Depression era circus.

Indeed, when this promising film is released next year, circus fans who care about detail may marvel at the authenticity on display. If reports are accurate, they can thank Circus World Museum, which provided valuable research assistance not just to author Sarah Gruen, upon whose novel the film is based, but to the film company as well. In fact, Mr. Freese's pro active involvement in getting old circus museum wagons into the film revealed a flair on his part for the sort of promotional savvy that the world-respected institution he heads sorely needs.

After losing to a democrat in the 2006 Wisconsin State Assembly race, Freese, a 16-year State legislator and speaker pro team, got offered the executive desk at Ringlingville, a place forever in search of enough funding to avoid what insiders claim it has narrowly escaped: being sold off by its owner, the Wisconsin Historical Society.

And he went to work. This guy is not shy. This guy can infect you with his enthusiasm. Give him credit for getting the Milwaukee circus parade back in motion, at least for a season. As quoted by Rob Thomas writing in The Capital Times, Freese told of learning in 2008 that Fox 2000 had secured film rights to Water for Elephants, and promptly putting together a pitch package touting the museum as the ideal resource to supply wagons, props and other materials. He even came close to landing location shoots for the film in Wisconsin, but a snag in tax incentive proposals sent the production team back to Southern California.

Nonetheless, CWM followed them out after snaring agreements to supply use of old circus wagons. Of 215 wooden darlings considered by film producers, thirteen of which date back to the 1880s, 15 were loaded onto flatbed trucks and motored out west. There, they were re-lettered Benzini Brothers Circus. Escorting the consist to protect their sacred holdings were Freese himself and the museum’s devoted wagon superintendent Harold “Heavy” Burdkick. (Heavy was the super nice guy who allowed me to see closeup the old Foley & Burke Thimble Theatre fun house wagon, currently fading, or would that be rotting?, away in a back barn not accessible to patrons; repeat, this wagon more than deserves immediate rescue and restoration. This museum must end its ridiculous obsession with taking in and patching up every last circus wagon that stumbles its way.)

Additionally, Freese proactively supplied photographs and archival film footage, thus giving film producers vivid details with which to evoke rich period realism. Let’s hope they do. A single 1927 photo, shot from a Browning Instamatic camera, contained enough information to astonish Freese himself: “Its like, ‘Oh, this is how they stack their crackerjack boxes’ This is the brands of candy bars they had.’”

Prior to the shoot, director Francis Lawrence and associates visited Baraboo during pre-production research. Gruen had also consulted with CWM when preparing to write her best selling book about a depression era circus. Both Gruen and Freese, ever the politician, appeared together at Madison Square Garden in 2007 promoting the book’s paperback release.

Notwithstanding recent staff layoffs, including the highly questionable dismissal of their top-drawer archivist Erin Foley, about which I’ve previously ranted, this Freese may have the right hand-shaking, fun-raising, back-slapping stuff to help turn a critical corner down on Water Street.

New Visions Needed, Not Old Fords ...

Okay, there’s the good news. Now, here’s news that gives me pause to wonder. What Freese seems to lack, and perhaps that which he most needs, is a cohesive vision for the future. A vision that will draw significantly more patronage to the doors and bring more national attention to the museum as a vacation magnet. Freese’s efforts to jack up ticket sales range from suitable (scale model circuses) to downright odd; Come August 21, he’ll have on display for a day Model A Ford vehicles that rumbled off assembly lines between 2927 and 1931. Yes, competing with all those circus wagons for attention will be roadsters, coupes, phaetons, among other curiosities. It smacks of marketing desperation. Go figure.

So, how can the purists who believe the museum’s carnival holdings should remain incognito justify this strange kowtow to Mr. Henry Ford? A couple of seasons back, seems they had on the premises a touring scale-model White House replica. Now, if the Freese team is so ready to diversify its identity by offering such random irrelevancies, then why not delve deeper, at last, into their own backyard and pull out the carney rides and attractions? I still believe they’ve got the makings for something called Outdoor Show World Museum. Ford gets the limelight, but the Thimble Theatre, seen in the photo, above, when it arrived in 1972 from California, must remain shamefully ignored and neglected?

And I also still believe that Baraboo itself, not the museum, should be the sell --- a package holiday destination: Circus World, International Clown Museum, the Al Ringling Theatre, all of it only a few miles up the road from the Dells and all those roller coasters.

Freese has got to give the fickle vacation and leisure crowd more more more reasons to come to Baraboo.

The wagons used in the movie are back in Baraboo, where they can be viewed by summer crowds. And Freese can look forward to his own cameo in Water For Elephants, assuming he does not end up on a Hollywood cutting room floor, and get discouraged and return to the campaign trail.

An impresario for a season, or the real thing? Baraboo needs a Barnum. Even half a Barnum.


Friday, August 13, 2010

All the World's a Circus: Laotian Elephants to China; German Bathtub Acrobats to Edinburgh; U.S. Billposting War Lithos to Shelburne

Covington Connected, here are a few juicy finds around the globe:

Bathtub acrobatics: Edinburgh Festival crowds were left "open mouthed" by the rare spectacle of scantly clad circus type performers cavorting as much in water as out of. Circle of Eleven, a German produced show that just completed a two-year run in Berlin (where else?), sends its sexy stars flipping and flopping, turning somersaults and hand stands over and around bath tubs. Will a shower circus be next? Here, in the photo, is Fernando Dudka, whose splashy exploits are described by The List, "a perfect balance of strength,precision and wet muscles. Show is said to give off "more louche cabaret tone."

Here's a kid in Laos (heck, he looks like he could be from Hugo, Oklahoma) who might become a professional elephant handler, and maybe the next Gunther Gebel Williams. He might go to work for a Chinese circus. He'd reap the whopping sum of $150 a month, more than a hundred bucks he could earn in his own country, "The Land of a Million Elephants.' Not nearly quite that many any more. More pachyderms, considered sacred for thousands of years by the respectful Laotians, being shipped against the will of local preservationist to other ports of entertainment in Asia. So revered are the Big Buys and Gals in Laos, that mothers bring their babies to be blessed by them ... "We are very concerned to see so many elephants, especially young ones and females, being exported to foreign countries," said Sebastian Duffillot, co-founder of ElefantAsia. Rues he, for several years now the best and the healthiest have been "rented" out of the country against existing laws that condemn such extractions. Worse still, once ready for return, the foreign agents often renege on funding their passage back. 19 elephants were dispatched to a Korean circus in 2002, and all of them were not returned but sold locally ...

Old Lithographs Never Die: Thrilled, tickled and historically impressed are they to have accidentally discovered several old 1883 Adam Forepaugh lithographs during a 1991 home restoration in Northern Vermont; better yet, underneath, the lithos of a rival operation named John B. Doris Menagerie and Circus that evidently lost the battle of the billposters that day. During the period, Forepaugh and Doris were embroiled in a nasty slander war, each slinging rat sheets at the other. Among the scurrilous insults, Forepaugh's worst charge was this rival had actually advocated the assassination of President William McKinley. Hmmm. Might McKinley have favored Forepaughs elephants over Doris's? ... Lithos on display in Sheulburne, under "Circus Day in America" until October 24.

Oh, to have lived then! When the circus came to town, all sorts of real-life drama followed it, as rarely it does any more.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Evidence that Animals Think and Feel Grows ...

Most interesting, a scientific chap on the Charlie Rose Show, talking about studies made of behavior among apes, etc., showing more and more the intricate thought and emotional interactions among these and other animals. The element of social "cooperation" is also discussed.

Circuses, I am more and more considering, are the perfect forum in which to teach children, as always they have, about the wondrous interactions between humans and the four-legged set.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Morning Midway: Glimpses and Guesses About Semi- Elusive Cole Bros. Circus of Stars in 2010

Their updated website is fresh, vibrant, dazzling, intimately engaging. The lineup looks fairly promising -- not exactly content heavy, but covering some strong basics and culminating in a power fest down the home stretch.

I wish I'd seen Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars at Brooklyn. Like so many shows, it takes sleuthing or inside connections (sometimes a guessing game) to ferret out these shows well enough in advance to slate rails east. If you live in California, most of them are way east.

Anyway, I spotted a brief nod for Cole at Brooklyn under "things to do" in NY Time Out. Inspired me to revisit their website, and here are some images.

A photo of the tent looks like it's been expanded in size, which, if so, suggests business is up. How novel that would be!

Program items on paper that fancy my yearnings: The Flying Ponces,
a cloud swing aerial ballet and "lofty lyres" moving into a circus parade, closing out the first part. Lots of animals, a funny number called "Mr. and Mrs. Clown's Wacky Taxi Trip." End-stretch acts include a free-style motor show; globe of death and, as always, the Elvin Bale mandated (I assume) cannon blast off.

I've not hunted down a single review of the show, which is not a great surprise.

I hope the season does well and makes Johnny Pugh a happy trouper.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Time Out NY Reviews Ringling's Illuscination

Note: I found this review, which appeared a few weeks ago on the website Time Out NY, to be independent and worth passing along.

The writer is Raven Snook:

Like last summer’s eye-popping Coney Island Boom-a-Ring!, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s latest seaside spectacle fits right in with the colorful neighborhood. Cool (if familiar) feats—juggling, tumbling, swinging and lion taming—inspire ooos and ahhs, but it’s the interactive preshow that really wows kiddos. That’s when wide-eyed kids can step right into the ring to try jump-roping, balancing and tightrope walking (don’t worry, it’s close to the ground!); don rhinestone-studded costumes and gawk at the animals up close. It’s certainly a great family photo op and definitely a circus highlight.

Not to imply that the show itself isn’t good fun. Although there’s no standout star like last year’s French-accented bicycle master, Justin Case, there are many memorable acts—if you’re patient. An energetic opening showcases the mind-boggling illusions of magician-emcee David DaVinci, but he quickly disappears. (Not his best trick.) In his absence, a trio of mildly amusing lowbrow clowns keeps things moving. A quirky cat act (when’s the last time you’ve seen one of those?) and a comical clown-and-horse routine salvage a somewhat slow first act. But don’t leave at intermission: The best bits are yet to come. Trainer Brian McMillan brings out a team of wildcats (including a rare snow-white lion) that nip and roar before turning into obedient pussycats. (The lethargic elephants, by contrast, don’t do much except inspire the ire of animal-rights activists.) The hilarious Kung Fu Kings, a feisty sideshow duo, bend metal rods around their necks like snap bracelets and jump through a spinning ring of fiery blades…while blindfolded. Amazing acrobatic troupe the Salsations end the evening on a high-flying note, prompting onlookers to question everything they’ve ever learned from Sir Isaac Newton.

Perhaps the show’s biggest selling points are its intimacy, location (it’s a special way to end a day at the beach) and relatively inexpensive ticket prices. You can snag seats for as little as ten bucks, and while they won’t be ringside (those are $50), it’s not like watching the circus from the back row at Madison Square Garden. Now all you have to do is perform the greatest trick of all: getting out of the tent without having to buy Junior one of those $20 light-up spinning balls.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Sunday Morning Out of the Past: Rethinking Ringling ‘56: Music Added Strings, Favored Frank Loesser Hits, Rocked and Rolled, Too!

Ringling’s last season under canvas was so fraught with high drama, somebody should turn it into a movie and NOW.

For most Ringlingphiles (I plead guilty), anything about that sad tumultuous tour captures the imagination, stirs the heart, makes one cry out, “Why did it ever have to happen!?!?!?!>!” And you can’t stay away. Some are still in denial.

Now comes, belatedly published in the latest issue of Bandwagon, an account of nearly the last two weeks by Faye O. Braathen, who followed the show with her husband, Sverre, staying in hotels along the way, spending most of their time jack-potting in the backyard and sometimes taking seats, or just standing, to watch the show, part of it not all. They were "with it" almost to the end. And they sensed somehow that the end was near.

This account, informally written, with an emphasis on friendships with circus folk, is what sent me back into ‘56 revisit mode. This time: music.

I pulled out a tape of the production music, made somewhere along the route. The performance that season had a markedly new look and sound. Prior year desertions, among them ringmaster Harold Ronk and bandleader Merle Evans, resulted in replacements, Preston Lambert blowing the whistle, Izzy Cervone, with violins added, directing the band. As well, North had integrated a great many Frank Loesser hit songs into the score.

In the spirit of North's controversial bent to shake up traditions (a bent blamed by many for the show's early closing), director Richard Barstow, himself an advocate of keeping the program fresh and modern, crafted an elephant romp that literally rocked and rolled.

Which brings to the forefront a valid question: Who delivered a better sound from the bandstand, Merle Evans or Izzy Cervone?

Not an easy answer. Despite those who hold Cervone in higher regard, I tend to defer to Evans. While Cervone fostered more orchestral color and perhaps more varied and exciting dynamics, however roughly rendered (a mark of virtually all tent show bands of the era, including the hip Boom Boom Browning) Evans on balance brought in a smoother, more sonorous sound — I think.. But, keep in mind, this comes from listening to tapes made many years ago. Also, both this and the ‘55 score were orchestrated by longtime North favorite Samuel Grossman, so there are similarities, such as the dramatic inclusion of fanfare type exaggerations for dramatic effect that I have ascribed, rightly or wrongly, to the Merle Evans style..

Here is what I hear in the four production numbers from 1956:

Say it With Flowers, spec: Plenty lively, including Evans type fanfares. On the tricky basis of an old tape recording, Cervone seems to have delivered a livelier, more boisterously happy sound, with zippy contrasts.

Mexicanorama, aerial ballet: the music here is a real winner. Introductory refrains draw from sensual Latin rhythms, with Loesser's hit “Like a Woman in Love” getting a variety of tempo treatments throughout, from a tango to a waltz. But Pinito Dl Oro, the featured aerialist, does not get much musical juice from the sentimentally dull “Dolores” and “My Darling.” I wish they’d have given her a big Loesser hit, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” from Guys and Dolls, at a heightened pace..

Preston Lambert, it might be noted, articulated strong clear announcements, but, as a vocalist, he sings in a rather schmaltzy and sluggish manner, not always exactly on key. Both Harold Ronk and Ricky Dawn, from 1955, were superior crooners..

Ringling Rock N' Roll, elephants and girls: Great! Repeat: Great! This one starts off quoting familiar riffs from possibly the finest piece of original music ever composed for a Ringling romp, Henry Sullivan’s darkly primal “Jungle Drums” (from the 1950 closer). Lone drums pound. An "elephant band" of eleven pieces pumps more rock into the rock. Trumpets blare. Even a few in the cast scream wildly. Then comes what was likely composed by stager-director Richard Barstow, a title song addressing the theme with captivating force -- “Rock! Ringling rock and roll!” Looking back, this mod scoring surely gave Ringling-Barnum a very hip with-it look for the times; In 1956, rock and roll was hardly yet a known rage. Only the previous year had Blackboard Jungle, the first movie to feature a rock song, ("Rock Around the Clock") been released. And Elvis Presley did not make his ground-breaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan TV Show until September, six months after Ringling first rocked at Madison Square Garden. How I would love to have seen this production.

Hoop Dee Doo, ensemble finale, featuring (from what little detail I have) girls swinging on ropes between elephants, the entire cast and band marching around the track. The whole thing sounds bright and friendly and zippy fresh, and it clocks in (if all of it made it onto the recording I have) with remarkable brevity, unlike earlier Barstow finales that went on probably too long, rehashing featured tunes over and over. A welcome last frame. During exit, you can hear a man’s voice, “I loved it!” Interesting to note that the Braathens make reference, on at least two occasions in the article, to they’re watching the show and leaving just after "Ringling Rock N' Roll," display 22 on a program of 27 displays.

Three days after they left, Pittsburgh arrived. And that was the last finale.

Next: Costumes by — no, not Miles White; by french artist Vertes

[photos, from top, stagers Edith and Richard Barstow; Frank Loesser; Izzy Cervone; Preston Lambert]


Monday, August 02, 2010

Monday Misc. Leno Shows New Promise; Ringling's Coney Biz a Breeze? Fired Idol Judges, Good Riddance! BTW: Who Really Runs Big Apple Circus Now?

Late Night Needy: Okay, I’m making the rounds of the late night talk shows again, and coming up, ready?, Leno. On two nights this week, what a difference without that innocuously irritating ex-band leader named Kevin Eubanks, who drew away too much of Jay’s eye contact during the opening joke fest, as if Leno were playing more to Kevin than to me, the viewer. New music man Rickey Minor remained majestically silent, and I pray he stays that way. Then, more promising news: After the first break, Jay's desk bit was a howler; he spoofed ill-fated company mergers by holding up dispirit products and the oddball creations they produced. I was LOL. Now, if Mr. Jay will just stop his jay walking bits, he might have a future. Here's the anti-kicker: Leno's ratings in steady free fall since he returned to Tonight, though he still handsomely outdraws Letterman. But both talk shows trail "Nightline," so maybe TV's late nightaholics, down on all these talkies as stale, are onto something.

Crash Moreau Selectively Crashing? Why, me wonders, did our Crash, after taking in the Cole and Kelly-Miller shows, not leave one comment about either but only photos? Very unlike the verbiage he spends dishing out candid opinions of most circuses he crashes. Come on, Sir Moreau, tell us what rendered you a no-crash?

Ringling registers ringing at Coney? Though not up to last year’s artistically sterling opus, still this new show’s got more populist appeal, I’ll grant, and so my crystal ball sees better biz ahead at the seaside gig. Somebody out there, tell me I’m wrong...?

Crashing On: As for late night TV options, via VHS recorder I've now sampled both of the Jimmy’s, Kimmel and Fallen. Really tried. More than a single night. I guess both have potential, but both left me wanting. Leno is looking more like the returning champ. I still find Letterman’s opening the funniest overall, but after that, his desk bits, especially about his dull son, are so labored, rambling and ho-hum. As for restless late night addicts dissing "same old same old," he who can deliver the goods can endure the same old same old way. Yet to rejoin the mix, long shot Conan O'Brien, destined to drain some of Jay's fans and level the Leno-Letterman front.

Idol Judges: Not surprised that the two lady replacements were both dumped. They made, by default, sobbing Paula look oddly sympathetic and theatrically viable. American Idol will never be the same again; Imagine Lucy without Ricky, the Golden Girls without all the Golden Girls? That's what Idol has come down too. It was always about what Simon says, and his sidekicks were perfect compliments. Such chemistry is rarely reproduced.

What else? Paul McCartney, I am finally coming to grips with, has been taking Beatles encores for more than fifty years and counting. Singing the same great songs, which only reminds us that hardly has his post-Beatles work amounted to much, unless I've missed out. Something sad and frayed and time-worn watching him at the White House rousing the President's staff into a protracted and a bit lame "Hey Jude" sing out. That was never that good a
rocker. But Paul's one high point, post Beatles, "Band on the Run" got a terrific acid-rock workout from a singer whose name I now can't locate, making composer Paul sound subversively in sync with '60s hardliner rebels. Now, when you hear Sir Paul croon "Michelle," somehow you forgive the long winding largely lackluster creative read he has traveled alone since, and exult in what glories he gave us. To think, the most successful popular composer ever. And all of it achieved in such a relatively short period of time.

Big Apple Circus Intrigue: Can anybody out there tell me, who is really running this circus now? I suppose ultimately that answer rests with the board, and even they may not know, assuming they are not bored. I do hope they are less fractious than the Ringling-Barnum nut-go-round of directors during the turbulent family wars of the flaming forties. Was more than rumored that BAC co-founder Michael Christensen was to follow Paul Binder out the retirement door, which he evidently has not. Which muddies up waters of transition. The French guy supposedly now in charge, remember -- Mr. Dufresnoy, I think -- may be wondering as much as we are. What’s my point here? I can hear him muttering, “Okay if I now, at last, well, a little, can try maybe my hand at directing, let’s say a few of the acts. okay, anybody? Grandma, what were you asking me to do before Michael handed me his latest notes? Sure, sure, I’m all for it....But wait, where is the director on this? Which director? Oh, ah, ah, Gillet, Gillet ... Eric! You know; yes, Michael, Paul is on the line? Paul? Sure, I'll be right there! ...

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Circusgoing in Santa Rosa, 1869 on Rails from the East ...

(A circus comes to nearby Petaluma, circa 1900)

From Gaye LeBaron's "Insight" column in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, March 14, 1982:

Dan Costello, another clown who had traveled with the great P.T. Barnum, brought to Santa Rosa his Circus and Menagerie "Overland from the Atlantic to the Pacific!" in August,1869 ... bringing together "all under one roof and one price of admission" wild animals including "the first hart-beast ever exhibited," Dan Costello himself and his "educated equines," the acrobatic Victorella Brothers from circus rings of Paris and London, and a Brazilian family of bareback riders.

Reported an editor in the Press Democrat, the show "was an immense sensation to these parts. It seemed as if the people of all the surrounding country -- old and young, big and little -- had turned out en masse. Our town literally swarmed with strangers. Two performances, afternoon and night, were given to vast audiences."


Indeed, that was the first circus to travel out to the west coast by train, the journey beginning only 16 days after the historic joining of rails from east to west in Promontory, Utah. The Golden State tour opened in Truckee on July 17, concluded down in Redwood City on October 21.

Within two years, the pioneering Costello, joined with two other giants, William Coup and P.T. Barnum, launched a blazing new show that would soon turn to two rings, and ten years later, to three. The great American Circus Century had dawned.