Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday out of the Past: Big Tops in Trouble or Transition: The Three Most Interesting Circuses to Watch in 2011

This first appeared on October 20, 2010

The destiny of all circuses resides in the hands of the owners, not the performers. The decisions they make ultimately dictate success or failure. Here are three shows, each either in trouble or transition, that intrigue me the most. For a number of widely varied reasons, their ongoing sagas will be interesting to watch in 2011.


John Ringling North II: Content to run Kelly-Miller as an average mid-sized show, or burning with the artistic ambitions of a true Ringling?
Key Question: The story here is John Ringling North II — how far does he wish to advance as a producer? Is he a work in progress, or have we seen already what he may be content to stand for? Nearing the end of his fourth season, North is not straddled by a cumbersome performing arts structure, such as that which could be the ultimate undoing of the Big Apple Circus. North enjoys autonomy as sole owner, and there is no reason to believe that his show is in trouble. The respectably pleasing program he turned out in 2010 was hardly a world class circus, but he may be building up good will attached to his world-famous name. On the down side, his inexplicable willingness to condone by far the most offensive show-disrupting peanut pitch I have ever seen must count as a negative reflection on his showmanship.

What to look for in 2011: Operating on a narrow profit margin, don’t look for big changes in the Kelly Miller tent. At best North can make subtle but important improvements to the performance and foster a more seriously legitimate artistic impression. He can easily rid his performance of all obnoxious commercials without risking foreclosure. He can possibly add another act or two to enlarge the lineup and create the illusion of greater depth and breadth. He can impose sharper direction — this need not cost much money but does require will and discipline. If you do not see such changes in 2011, count on JRN II to have probably defined himself as an about-average circus man. Even then, he can take pride in his accomplishment and join a rare gallery of big top producers still on the road after many arduous years. But if “average” to be is his easy pleasure, don’t count on the “Ringling magic” he promised at the outset; it’s not coming.

For these reasons, I believe Kelly-Miller is the show to watch (sorry to those who take offense to my “obsessing" over it). So get out your score cards. And if the laugh is on me, I do hope you enjoy-enjoyed yourself.


Michael Christensen: Did he decide not to retire in order to preserve a way back into power for himself and retiring founder Paul Binder?

Key Question: Who will end up in charge? That’s the big story here, and on it may pin the future of this circus, rumored to be fast running out of money and close to some sort of an abyss. The “retirement” as earlier reported of Paul Binder may not, in essence, have completely happened. He is still prominently listed on the masthead, as is his co-founder Michael Christensen, holding active title as “creative director.” My questions relative to these realities and what they mean, sent to the BAC press department, remain unanswered.

The show is reeling from declining ticket sales and a loss of important corporate sponsorships, blamed on the Great Recission. A bloated administrative staff has been trimmed some, but not, as I see it, nearly enough. Incredibly, its board of directors numbers 33. Difficult to understand why it takes so many people to turn out essentially a moderately sized one ring circus, albeit of high quality.

Default ace in the hole? By virtue of not retiring as was earlier rumored, Christensen may have plotted to preserve a viable return route back to full power for himself and Binder, whose history together may be thicker than water.

What to look for in 2011: Despite new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy finally getting to direct, don’t look for remarkable changes to a solid if staid format. If the show does well, this should strengthen his position, however precarious it may be given all of the other personalities in play (among them, “consultant” Barry Lubin, Paul and Michael), with whom he must work. But if Dufresnoy's first opus fails to register strongly with the press and public, look either for the return in some form of Binder and Christensen, or to executive director Gary Dunning cleaning house and making radical shakeups.


Can a proud circus family yet adapt to 21st century standards? Seen here: Geary and Barbara-Miller-Byrd, their daughters Traci Cavallini and Kristin Parra along with their husbands, Julio and Gustavo. Photo by Hillsboro, TX, Chamber of Commerce

Key Question: Will they still be on the road in 2011? From fairly reliable accounts, business this year has been very weak; some wondered if the show would head back to the barn mid-season. Owners Barbara and Geary Byrd seem the least willing or able to shuck aside the old hard-scrabble carnie-circus policies they doggedly pursue — policies that increasingly mark them as out of touch and over-the-hill

When C&B threw in three rings for one two years ago, a few seasoned troupers optimistically envisioned, finally, a first class show from Hugo, Oklahoma. The thinking was that a single ring would force a superior artistic focus onto the Byrds, like it or not. This does not appear to have happened, certainly not when I saw what they were up to in 2009. To be fair, they enlivened the performance a little by engaging the clown Alex, whose presence has caused a favorable buzz among some. But overall artistic standards (talent selection, sound system, announcements, music, and lights, etc.)remained generally inferior, and this only makes C&B a harder sell in the era of Cirque du Soleil.

What to Look for in 2011: How long can C&B survive on strategically-placed concession sales (cutting into the show and during the intermission) if they can’t lure enough bodies, via free tickets, into the tent? Look for a somewhat smaller operation returning to one day stands. Don’t look for much more.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Circus Dames Rise to Top of the Big Top

Sunday Morning, Looking Back ...

One of the first female circus press agents: Shirley Carroll

They have often played critical roles behind the scenes if not out front. And in the beginning, when women who performed over sawdust were lumped together with women who served men across the tracks, one of the most fearless and arguably important of all was Al Ringling's wife, Louise. She charmed snakes, rode horses, sewed sequins onto costumes, and helped Al be an on-the-road father to the four younger brothers he talked in to joining him, first on winter-time vaudeville stages, then in the ring.

First lady of the Circus When Female Troupers were Scorned: Louise Ringling, circa 1890

The recent passing, at 93, of long-time Hollywood publicist Shirley Carroll, who back in the 1950s with her husband Norman, founded an L.A-based advertising firm that promoted the early Ringling-Barnum indoor days in the City of Angels, reminds us of how far our distaff dynamos have advanced -- from scorned figures in spangles to the powers of today who produce the shows.

Before landing the Ringling gig, Shirley handled press agentry for the Clyde Beatty Circus. She met her husband, Norman, whom she married in 1945, when he was a ringmaster. The two set up their own Carrolls Agency in 1953, turning out press copy and landing photo coverage for the likes of H. Warner Buck's Sporstman Show at the old Pan Pacific Auditorium (where, I by the, way, dance skated in a regional roller skating meet -- and tore my white pants while moving around the floor, earning scores that eliminated me and my partner from the first round). The Carrolls tub-thumped for Ringling-Barnum, for Jungeland In Thousand Oaks, and for the Pacific Ocean Park at Santa Monica. After Norman passed away in 1967, Shirley kept the business going, taking on Broadway shows playing L.A. houses.

In her memoir, Life is a Circus, Shirley recounted sharing an automobile ride on her honeymoon with an uncaged leopard -- oh, what they do for free publicity! She also managed to lose eight elephants on Hollywood Boulevard. 1969 marked her last season with the circus. Ever adaptable, by 1974, Shirley was crafting a pr campaign for the American premiere on Sunset Boulevard at the Roxy Theatre of the Rockey Horror Picture Show. Somebody dubbed her "the oldest counter-culture publicist."

But hold onto your history, big top buffs! As it turns out, Shirley was not the first woman to sing the praises of Big Bertha, as reported in the Hollywood Reporter, from which my above tribute was adapted. Former Feld flack master Jack Ryan informs us (thank you Jack), that Estelle M. Butler, wife of famed Ringling PR director Roland, took on press assignments from her husband to visit city newspapers and work the rooms. And it's all there in black route book ink (from the 1948 edition through Roland's last tour for John Ringling North in 1953) -- Estelle's name sharing credit with the likes of Frank Braden and William Fields, among others. Writes Jack, "In addition to driving him coast to coast, year after year (he didn't drive), she visited many city rooms on her own, delivering the year's photos and stories." And handing out, we trust, thousands of free press passes.

For a few seasons through the mid-1960s, Mae Lyons enjoyed executive staff masthead status as the Big Show's "Publicity Director."

Feld Producers: Juliette, Alana, Nicole and Kenneth

Onward and upward! Now, the Big Show show is being produced by Kenneth Feld's three daughters, Nicole, Alana, and Juliette. So, asked a reporter, "Is it now Alana and Nicole's circus?" Answered the Feld of Felds, "It's their show, but it's our circus." Kenneth is quite obviously doing with his daughters what his dad, Irvin, did so fabulously well with him (corporately speaking). Might Mr. Feld, in fact, be drifting towards the egress? "I'm not going anywhere because this is not a job ... I don't have an endgame yet." And so, for those avid Feld fans out there, be of good cheer. These Felds are not going away any time soon, if ever. Irvin Feld died at the young age of only 66; perhaps Kenneth believes it imperative to have a viable line of family succession in place.

Back to the House or Ringling: There is yet another Ringling North extension out there. Although we have yet too see or hear from John Ringling North III (yes, there is a JRN III), don't underestimate the recently surfacing daughter of John Ringling North II, Sorcha. She made her first appearance in the ring at her dad's circus -- Kelly-Miller -- on the last day of the season, in Ardmore, OK, appropriately on the top of an elephant. I see grit and glamor ridinng that pachyderm.

Louise Ringling would be proud. Louise Ringling, I fear (blame the Ringling brothers partly) will never get the credit she deserves. Without her, I wonder, would the brothers have risen to the ranks of America's undisputed circus kings?

Another Ringling Rises? Sorcha Ringling North [photo by Katherine Ringling North]

Originally posted January 28, 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

At Monte Carlo, Gold & Silver to Bello's Antics, Flavio's Elephants, Chinese and Russian Acrobats & Aerialists ...

Gold Clown champs at Monte Carlo: Flavio Togni and Bello Nock

The information that trickles out of Monte Carlo can be so infuriatingly fragmented and randomly arranged. Even a look at their official Monte Carlo website appears not to offer a simple list of the artists by category (Gold, Silver, Bronze) and country. Might this misty vagueness be a "French thing"?

Gold Clowns:

Clown and general acrobat Bello Nock (U.S.)
Italian animal man Flavio Togni (Italy)

Silver Clowns:

"Pagoda Light" performed by a Chinese Troupe taking the Silver Clown

Dalian Acrobatic Troupe (Chinese)
Flag Circus Acrobatic Troupe (likely from China)
Valerie Inertie (Canada)
White Birds aerial ballet (Russia)

Silver for the lady in silver: Canadian Valerie Inertie

I continue to believe that Monte Carlo Central should hire a simple soul to focus in on handing out basic information. I had to scramble all over the place to piece together this post.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Back to Three Rings? Bucking the Big Top Blues, Rebounding Cole Bros. Circus May Add Canvas and Circles

Rumors upon rumors, some better grounded than others. I'm reporting on a most tantalizing tidbit I've just come across.

Get out your whistles, true blue circus fans! At least one tenter filled up lots of its seats during the season just past. We're talking Johnny Pugh's Cole Bros Circus of Stars.

Johnny brought the animals back, as you know, and the crowds are coming back, too. Stay with me on this, we need a good-feeling moment, right? Something to chirp about, there's been so much dreary news lately.

Cole's tour of New England said to have been boffo -- "boffo" these days perhaps meaning well above half houses. I am only guessing here.

One high-placed Cole Big Gun termed business very good. According to this source, removed from yours truly by one or two private cell phone numbers, they're adding canvas to the poles come the season upon us. "Back to the larger size, maybe three rings."

Did you hear that? Maybe three rings.

I gotta ride the sunny waves too. How good was last year's show? I have little idea. Something must be clicking over on Cole. Here's a little American sawdust and spangles de juvu: When P.T. Barnum, Coup and Costello took out theirs 5,000 seat trick in 1871, tenting triumphantly up, by the way, in Brooklyn, crowds soon grew so great, some rushing the single ring, P.T. is remembered for asking his partners during the second tour, "What are we gonna do about the unruly patrons, gentlemen?" To which came a true American reply, from Costello or Coup, the latter credited with the spectacular epoch in world circus that would follow "We'll have to add a ring."

Heaven in '11? More as the rumors mature, kids.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Morning with Agent A: Dunning's Disastrous Rock & Roll Circus Dirties Big Apple Tent

Our eyes are upon Gary Dunning, executive director of the Big Apple Circus, thought by many to have assumed full power now that founder Paul Binder has "retired" from the picture.

A Board of Directors numbering, astonishingly, 35 individuals (how many know-it-alls does it take to dismantle a legacy?), ultimately controls the destiny, shaky as it now appears, of this circus, whose well-built reputation possibly exceeds to a dangerous degree its actual ability on the ground to "make nut."

All of which is a precarious prelude, here outside the ice house on a bleak early-winter chill, to a late night fly-by rendezvous with Agent A, whose travels intersect the myriad avenues of the show world. My hunches are that he locates somewhere in or around Gotham, although he remains mum on the subject. He presents himself as a figure who penetrates deep into what is left of the American circus scene -- or village, or flea market ... or garage sale.

About that short-lived Rock & Roll Circus co-produced by Dunning and Big Apple under Big Apple's tent in NY: In the wake of anxious or stoned or sexually crazed groupies just out of the pen storming the stage, setting off a mini-riot to which Mayor Bloomy's crime busters swiftly responded, show has suffered acute perverse publicity. Agent A calls it (and here, per an oath I am sworn to, I am paraphrasing his every utterance) a debacle. Lincoln Center left aghast. Rape rap at Lincoln Center?

Seems clear, Agent A confirming, that Dunning, at least since Binder's escape, has held "the yes and the no," the holding of which may be gravely in peril. And then, what? A midnight call to Paul -- please come back and blow the whistle! To Grandma -- you can direct the whole damn thing yourself! The Board, furiously beside itself, is blaming the rock and roll fiasco on their man Dunning and are, possibly for the first time, daring to face him down on his recent moves.

A wry (sad?) side note: The dumped LaSalle juggling partner (not the one who callously betrayed a nearly bankrupt big top for a career in the medical-dental-pharmaceutical industrial complex -- Ssssssss!), the good juggler named Marty helped engineer the doomed Dunning concert. Keep in mind, kids, this is the same family-pandering circus that wrapped its arms and legs around America's sweetheart of marital contortions and intriguing infidelities, rehab diva Britney Spears.

I asked Agent A as he restlessly allowed me a few questions through the dark --- taking them from a half-open window in his burgundy limousine, "Was Grandma involved in the concert, too?" He issued a gruff half-laugh on the run. Jackpot!

"Hey, Hey, Agent A!" I shouted: "the business last year, circuses, remember? You promised!" The exiting limo skidded to a Chicago pause. Shouted my liaison with the brevity of a midway man striking his junk for a quick run off the lot, Feld's Coney off from last year! Doubtful he's coming back unless New York coddles him with better terms on a shorter run! Other tenters did so-so to no-so! Big top biz? Still sliding south!

And that's the way it is. OK, forget everything I said. A new season is soon upon us, right?

P.S., Only the facts in black and white: Back home, wondering why the tent was not on tour instead of hosting the rock concert, I confess to feeling a little shocked, having just pulled up BAC's website. Evidently, the show is currently off the road for 2-1/2 months. Next date, not until April 2, in Boston, then to Queens and Stamford, CT, through July 4, possibly the last stand of the Dance On! tour. How dry and dire this shrunken route looks. Yes, Peggy, that's all there is -- or was.

First posted January 16, 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shocking Vegas Murder Links Stripper to Cirque du Soleil 'Love'Artist ... On PBS, Roman Coliseum Fails Circus History, Great Circus Parade Charms ...

Last revised: 1/15, 8:10 AM pst
Trading a Stetson for an Astaire: John Ringling North II with wife Shirley at the Great Circus Parade of 2009

Circus Maximus, where are you in the Roman ruins? PBS lensing an hour spread that caught my fancy, all about the famed Roman Coliseum, but not including a trace of the clowns, acrobats and jugglers said to have once embellished those bloody athletic contests between big brawny he-man "gladiators," and chariot drivers. The program does allude to humans as fast food for hungry lions, but these humans were strictly of the criminal class, not out of any Sunday school. And, as dramatically depicted here, the doomed figures, pushed out into the arena, were spared even the tiniest scratch, credit a chorus of big cats wandering around them looking bored. Or, might it be, the candidates were just not their type? To their trainer, instead, went a spear --- straight down into and through his back, he onto the sawdust of shame. The arena exploded in cheers ...

From this, sprang the circus? I have a Big Question for Anybody out there: Does there exist anywhere out there a book, a movie, a TV show or documentary dramatizing Circus Maximus? If there's none, why has nobody ever taken on the gory that was Rome? ... (Earl Chapin May, an author I love, admire, envy, covered the Roman spectacles in passing in his tome, Circus From Rome to Ringling, so, all during the PBS program, I compared it to what May had written; May's details found to be generally in sync.)

To Vegas for blood we shall go: According to pro reports, a Cirque du Soleil performer with Love (don't you just love the tie-in?) alleged to have murdered his ex-girlfriend, a stripper (excuse me, make that "burlesque" entertainer) ... Just as I write this, trust me, a flash of a burning sensation rattled the dark side of my tickle bone: it was also in Vegas where another circus-related murder took place, that of the gifted trapeze artists turned dog trainer, Gerard Soules, knifed to death, cut up into take-out pieces (I must shake off this City Confidential syndrome in which I take respite from other more strenuous workouts at the keyboard) by a man on a street corner he hired to assist him (a full service menu, I take it) --- until the man, blame a background check made on him by skittish venue officials, was fired and took revenge into his own hands OK, Big Top Brethren, kick me off the lot ...

The Glory that once dazzled American Main streets

Baraboo Brilliantly on Parade: This has been the season of circus on PBS, and how! First, those spoiled Big Apples from New York spreading sadness; next, a huge chunk of Cirque du Soleil Vegas footage perhaps overstaying its precious welcome; then the somewhat leaden Roman Coliseum without the circus; finally, and perhaps best of all (kitty up there, a big long Puuuuur, please!) The Great Circus Parade of 2009. By sheer serendipity, thank my fickle finger on the remote, first I failed to link a pleasant-looking parade with marching bands to Milwaukee, and kept on surfing. Nothing out there, so back I wandered: Bingo! That's a circus wagon rumbling down a street! And there's the voice of somebody who knows a lot about old circus wagons. Voice turns out to be amiably informative, a guy named Fred Pfennig. Little later comes a cameo by P.T. (Steve) Freese being interviewed on the sides. Both figures I'd stay, building up positive national exposure for the parade and for themselves as color commentators. I'd never seen or heard Pfening. Think he does a bang up job, sharing his enthusiasm and scholarship for the wagons that once ruled the streets of America on Circus Day.

Agreeable parade hosts Jim Peck, left, and Fred Pfening III.

Hate to break away for this reality check, though, you circus wagon restoration obsessives: Many times, members in the crowd were asked, "what do you like the best." Answers ranged from clowns to animals to the bands and back. Not a one (I kid you not) said "the wonderful wagons." I LOVED the wagons above all else, but I gotta say, as I've already said (can you hear me praying for you, Thimble Theatre? We shall yet prevail), WHEN will you, Circus World Museum, ever deign to spend a little of your let's-save-another-wagon (or practically build one from scratch) money on other projects, such as museum restoration and library staffing? Your Chappie Fox-infatuations have produced a class of wagons so gorgeous, it's hard for me to imagine such a rolling rainbow having rumbled out of any circus barn way back when -- I felt like I were ogling superficially over the spanking fresh, out of a toy box Tibbals tents down there in Sarasota Land ...

Baraboo Boss: Steve Freese, selling Circus World to the World

Still, such a lovely tribute was the grand procession to the long-gone 3-Ring American Century. I marveled at those big box charmers sporting their big showy sunburst wheels. Pfening's informal commentary, not stuffy but just about concisely right, charmed, too. Baraboo: don't go near the Roman Coliseum. Spotted among the floats: one carrying John Ringling North II and his wife. A fanfare, please, for Mr. Freese! ...

Hugo, Wake Up! It's time to brush off the stringers and jacks, order more peanuts, splash on some paint and hit the road ...

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Big Top Bits: Brit Critix Toast Cirque's Totem, Rue Thrill-Neutering Life Lines ... Circus of Horrors Goes for the Gut, Perilously Penile! ...

First Draft Digs: Cirque du Soliel's Native-American informed Totem at Albert Hall (whatever happened to the sainted tent?) tickling London critics, here a rave, there a loved you a lot --but. The "Overarching plot," reportedly a parable about Darwinian evolution barely understood by the circus-entranced, thought by the thinking to trace "man's journey from the very beginnings of life on Earth to our ultimate desire to fly" (how novel). Wall Street Journal, handing kudos to famed Canadian director Robert Lepage, this his second outing for the Montreal monster, declaring the riveting result "almost beyond praise ... certainly defies description." Hoop dancing, roller skating, Chinese juggling atop unicycles, and Russian bars, among other strong staples, landing persuasive praise ...

But, away from the buzz-happy Cirque seduced, empty seats noted on opening night, and critical equivocations accompany the acclaim. WSJ issuing a not surprising reservation, labeling the clowns "unfunny." Another review, this one in The Londonist, though rousingly affirmative ("amazing"), ruing the conspicuous sight of safety wires, and, correctly so, assessing their dampening effect on potential excitement: "The obvious ropes diminish the stunt's impact, especially as the trapeze performers go without." (I say either a net under everyone or giant full body condoms that self-inflate upon unscripted falls.) ... Totem totes steamy lust over the sawdust, sayz, The Londonist, noting, "Two yellow-colored gymnasts (canaries?) make the most sexually charged use of a high trapeze we've seen in some time."

Okay, safety wires leave you restless, unsatisifed? Then try another tent currently tricking its way across Britland, one perilous penile stretch at a time. This would be Circus of Horrors, the show that has a woman standing on one hand firing off a bow and arrow with her feet while puffing away on a cigarette . Shocking insensitivity to modern etiquette and self-control? Now, stay with me on this kinky corner for a moment. You see, there lurks a payoff; the pushy ringmaster, who has been warning customers not to smoke, gets himself blown up by those vindictive little perverted puffers. "Smoking kills" Ah, yes, a Big Message! So let's all calm down, but not those uppity townships resisting the bit, requiring Circus of Horrors to file a "risk assessment for performers smoking on stage." ... Oh, how far our Darwinian brains have advanced ... "We don't have safety harnesses," says ringmaster John Haze. "What you see is what you get." How refreshingly retro ...

Compared to more notorious horror pics, this photo offers hope for salvation

Now, onto the dwarf who drags a vacuum cleaner attached to his -- yes, little midget thing, across the stage. Yuck! Why am I even writing about such sordid nonsense? Blame it on cyber courier Don of Covington. Ok, give me the rap; I don't have to wallow in it, do I? But I must, true to my ersatz journalistic/Hedda Hopper calling, fearlessly tabloid ahead. Something about super glue needed to repair the Hoover gadget (hoover as in dust sucker). What follows is not for the faint of heart: Midget misreading the instructions, thinking the repaired surface needing to be left to dry for only 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes, then compromising at two minutes before "trying it out and inserting his" you know what. "We had to carry him into the A&E" said Haze. I can't go on! This makes Circus Oz look like a kid-friendly division of Feld Entertainment. Maybe I'm now ready to face Cirque Berzerk down there in L.A. when I taste the town in a few sunnier weeks.

Just a good old average riot: Big Apple Circus, forever entranced with questionable tie-ins to low life singers and twangers that do not, may I suggest, suit its Grandma branding, lending use of its tent in Damrosch Park to NY city punk-rock concert called "Rock N' Roll Circus," which it co- produced. Iffy move. A thousand fans on Monday night, only three song grunges into the program, rushed the stage, surfing over each other to reach I imagine gangsta skin. That was it. They raided Rock N' Roll Cicus, proud put-upon punks being sent home, or back to their drug-dealing gigs ...

Speaking of Grandma, let's speak of Russia's great Oleg Popov, the clown holding Monte Carlo gold still clowning around at the age of 80, and believing he will draw laughter up until his last dying breath, that "God will call him from his dressing room or the ring," says Willem Smitt, director of the Great Russian State Circus, with whom Popov is currently performing. He still logs about 200 performances a year, mostly in Germany, where he lives with his 49-year-old wife, Gabriela. Every birthday, he gets a phone call from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. May one of our great clowns get his wish, following in the footsteps of another wonderful Russian jester, Karandash, living out his last days bringing joy, giggles and guffaws to the better child inside us all.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

World's Greatest Circus Acts: What Nations Produce Them? By Monte Carlo Gold Standards, It's No Surprise ...

No surprise at all.

Of the total number of Gold Clown awards handed out to circus acts throughout the famous festival's history, I am impressed. Confirms my respect for the judges of Monte Carlo -- not to say all of their verdicts over the years have been correct; that I would not know, having not followed the events closely.

But, look here, French-speaking Monte Carlo is a ward of Monaco, itself surrounded on three sides by France, right? And French acts have not fared nearly as well as those from the leading nations. In this regard alone, I have no reason to suspect undue favoritism. In fact, European nations only did fairly well.

The reigning champions? Top honors, equally shared, go to CHINA and RUSSIA, each having won 11 Gold Clowns. Very impressive. Why? Because of the outstanding artists I see at our circuses today, a dominating number of them hail from the two nations that have the most advanced institutionalized training programs. China's acrobatic troupe traditions are well known; the old Soviet Union circus empire, its residual effectiveness still a power, was legendary.

Does this mean that all of the Golds were well earned? Not necessarily. Given any act, there can be intelligent disagreement on whether it should have been handed the Silver instead of the Gold, or vice versa.

The country in third place, with 10 Golds, might well surprise you; it sure did me: North Korea. A great surprise because I do not recall seeing any acts from the country. Evidently, they are allowed to compete. Next comes Italy, with 6 Gold Clowns, followed by 4 for the United States (one of them being for juggler Anthony Gatto, the only juggler ever so honored). France and Switzerland each hold 3, Spain, Canada, and the Ukraine, 2. Lastly, a single Gold Clown resides somewhere in each of the following: Mexico, Bulgaria, Portugal, Romania, Argentina, England, and Hungary.

By discipline, 44 of the Gold Clowns were awarded to acrobatics, 12 of those for flying trapeze troupes. Animal acts won 13, Clowning, 4: Charlie Rivel, Georges Carl, Oleg Popov, and David Larible.

136 Silver Clowns have been handed out. Bronze Clowns, first awarded in 2002, number 32.

Here come some staggering numbers: Throughout the 34 festivals, a total number of 1,040 acts participated, comprising "more than 5,400" artists, according to a press release issued from the Monte Carlo press office.

The 34 festivals are said to have drawn, in total, more than 900,000 spectators.

How I wish I'd been one of them.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A Free Visual Feast from Magnificent Monte Carlo

Want to sample world-class cutting edge circus action? I've just added the Monte Carlo Festival's website under my circus blogs listing to your right. It's in French, but so what -- the visuals are universal. (See Jack Ryan's comment -- how to bring it up in English.)

Deeeeeeeelicious! If only I flew more. This looks to me like big top heaven. I envy those who attend the annual event. Maybe the greatest show on earth has moved across the great ocean.

Thank you, Princess Stephanie! You remind me of why I am a life-long circus fan.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sunday Out of the Past : Forbes Top Ten Circus Rankings — Fantasy, Farce, Fraud or Flakery?

This first appeared on October 2, 2009
When Forbes puts out a list, the media and public tend to sit up. So when I came across their recently issued “Tops of the big tops: America’s Best Circuses,” I was naturally interested.

I might have dismissed the whole thing out of hand, but when I saw “Best Clowning” going to Ringling’s Zing Zang Zoom, placing the show itself Number 1 on the list, I was rather thunderstruck, to put it mildly. Then again, we all have our own opinions, so I thought, perhaps the Forbes judge was genuinely amused. That is, if the judge did not also work for Feld Entertainment. I was close to tossing the list out.

But then. But then. Wait a minute, they are calling Big Apple Circus's Bello Comes Back “Best Family Show”? Has it even opened yet? I did a little digging. This was getting more odious by the minute.

The list was published on September 10. Bello had not yet come back. That edition of BAC was still, at best, in rehearsals, not slated to premiere until September 24, two weeks later.

I studied the list a little more. “Best Music” to UniverSoul. Sounds like UniverSoul has reinstated their band. But, no, they have not. I checked with an inside source. UniverSoul plays a tape recorded score from CDs.

All three editions of Ringling made the list. Five units of Cirque du Soleil earned citations. Some of their Vegas shows, (like Love), although I have seen none of them, have always struck me as more theatrical than circus. So, really, only three American circuses made a list that supposedly focuses on American circuses.

“Best Clowning” still stuck in my gut. Zing Zang Zoom funnier than Big Apple, or Boom A Ring?

Something about this list started to smell. Something seemed contrived. Or assembled on the fly. Parts of it may have come out of press kits. The story that came with it, written by one Meredith Hansen, quotes only co-producer Nichole Feld, of the Ringling organization, who is evidently learning how to work the media as effectively as did her legendary grandfather, Irvin Feld. Keep your eyes on this Nicole.

Such a smell to this list, I wondered what sort of PR gratuities may have been passed out hand to hand, or slipped under a table at a fancy eatery? And we’re not talking Burger King, kids

So I wrote to Forbes Traveler.Com and Meredith Hansen in the comment box at the end of the story, since it is near impossible to contact them in any other way. I sought clarification, in effect, asking them if they might explain their evaluation process. Who in fact decided on the best shows?

I asked how it was possible to issue a judgment on Bello is Back before the show had opened? And had they, by chance, seen any of the following tent shows: Cole Bros. Circus of Stars? Kelly-Miller? Carson and Barnes? Circus Vargas?

For example, I can see a good case being made for Cole; from what I have heard, they generate a lot of excitement in the air. They’ve got the seven-high wire walk. They’ve got the cannon and the gyro wheel. And they’ve got Elvin Bale’s unique motorbike Globe of Death that splits apart at the center. Cole might qualify for “Best Aerial Acts” Forbes does not address such a category.

They did not reply to my request for information. So I posted a second e-mail in the comment box.

Still no reply. Still, I am waiting.

Should I be surprised? Shocked? After all these years, no. When it comes to reporting on big tops, anything goes. Even in Variety, the so-called "bible of showbiz," which shamelessly allowed Irvin Feld to rewrite circus history in his favor, apparently ad revenue can or once did move mountains. I recall being stunned-shocked-flabbergasted when I read a Variety review of Big Apple Circus, circa 1986, in which Alfred Codona turned a triple. Or when the Variety guy who reviewed Circus Vargas in 1988 found the chimp act “captivating.” In fact, one or more of those chimps had passed away a few weeks before, and the act was no longer in the show. Is that what he found “captivating”?

Forbes and Ms. Hansen, I am waiting for you to come clean and tell us just how you reached your puzzling verdicts.

Perhaps you have another list here that deserves your impeccable attention: “Most Effective Circus Press Kits”

I can think of a few contenders. No, make that just one.


Saturday, January 01, 2011

Circus in 2010: Same Old Same Old, Maybe ... Modest Highs, Weird Lows. You Figure

Biz up? Biz down? Kelly-Miller Circus in Brewster, NY

7:31 AM PST: First Draft Rush: High and Low Points, if Any, of 2010:

Waiting for the great Rose Parade to begin, I wonder if the year deserves a looking back?

First of all, to make the hurdle clear, we do NOT know, as we rarely have ever known, exactly what business the tents did. So I am writing blindfolded, perhaps already sinking in the quicksand of speculation. I recall something Kenneth Feld recently said to a Florida newspaper reporter, summing up his own recent ticket sales: Business was "Up a little," he said, but the take was down owing to the Great Recession. I take this to mean the Ringling-Barnum shows did not pull in as many people this year. You may add up the slippery spin of Mr. Feld a different way. Be my guest.

The others? Some where mid way in the season, something I heard or may have felt in an imagined mystic wind suggested that the Cole Bros Show, the one operated by John Pugh, was doing good biz. Something else not so mystic, unless Ben Trumble is a mystic, more than suggested that Carson & Barnes was not doing good biz, to put it politely.

Kelly Miller, shepherded in 2010 by John Ringling North reaching his senior season (Congrats, Mr. Circus Graduate!) as the new young tent tycoon on the lot? When I opined, yes, blindfolded, that from reading Steve Copeland's blog, the show appeared to be pulling in more bodies this season, Steve posted a comment to the effect that, as he saw it, the show did not seem to be luring as many bodies into the tent as it did in '09.

Did I say we are groping in a mist of speculation? How I wish there was a neutral reporting agency for circus business as exists in virtually all the other venues of entertainment, from cinema to music to, for all I know, country accordion concerts featuring Lawrence Welk alumni.

Big Apple Circus, by all accounts -- some showing up in major NY dailies --- has suffered declining ticket sales, worse yet, the absence of checks in the mail from corporate sugar daddies. Big Apple is also struggling through a transition period, with Paul Binder wandering, a free agent somewhere in the backyard in back of the backyards, while new artistic director GD is not, my best impression here, exactly savoring the frosting on top of the frosting. His first would-be opus down the track, Dance On!, appears not to have enthralled the masses; rumors alleged that drastic makeovers may be in the works. Show dropped a number of dates. It has never had a breezy time of it taking its act very far on the road beyond Gotham. A show facing a very uncertain future, given the colossal organization that Binder built up over the years, to both sustain the image of a major performing arts entity and rely more on corporate funding. A dangerous path to take

Cirque du Soleil, not an American firm but its presence a given through the US, likely suffered a semi-significant loss of ticket sales. Evidence? Some steep discounts. More evidence? Show is reaching out for more outside investors. Spreading itself too thin? I think gravely so. What happens when the public starts equating just another variation on the trampoline act with a pancake-making franchise?

Ringling-Barnum: The Felds, for those who love them, are never going away, not for a very long time if that. Papa Feld's three little daughter Felds are now all working for Papa Feld. And Papa Feld, at least during press interviews, reveals his happiness with how the girls are doing. He now presents himself as the Big Picture Man, wowed by all of his diverse properties, ice shows to sawdust spectaculars, staged vehicular collisions (did I get that wrong? cars and trucks bore me) to, if I get this right, high tech low down indoor rodeo shows. Feld Entertainment may be recession proof. They are, above or below all else, geniuses at the bottom line.

Oh, yes, and there is Circus Vargas, a splendid group of nice people wanting to please, who put out a decent show that could be oh so much better with only a little tinkering. I hope to see them in 2011, maybe down there in So Cal where that great parade is right now lining up to march off, into if not the sun, a wet haze of hope. I'd love being down there on the sidelines, watching it go by. In person, the big floats are more awesome; the small floats, littler than life.

And here, heck, I forgot to lead off with the year's most "significant' story -- how Pledge Break Society TV (PBS) captured both Cirque du Soleil and Big Apple, in two huge specials. CDS came out by far a better box office lure, though, as above, whether they will suffer a loss of interest through over-exposure (turning their acrobats into human pancakes) remains an open question.

As for Big Apple bearing its fleeting magic and prolonged sadness on public television, let me quote here from Sarasota Central: "Big Apple Circus should be ashamed. Sarasota in general (circus) really put the telecast DOWN. It was bad. Don't think I would go to Big Apple -- don't want to get CRAB'S"

I know, I would not go near those filthy backyard employee restrooms. Amazed the management or a division of it did not clean 'em up before the cameras arrived. Is BAC in that much disarray?

Maybe there is still hope for Carson and Barnes.

Live from Pasadena, California. Brought to you in high definition!

Here comes the parade! ...

I'm watching it on KTLA. Stephanie Edwards, sporting a hoarse throat, is there to announce. I LOVE YOU STEPHANIE! YOU ARE THE PARADE! The World is whole again.

Know what? I'm predicting all our circuses will be out on or slightly off the road, in one form or another, next year. They just keep slogging along.

Happy P.S. The sun rose. The sky played blue. God loves the parade.