Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mired in Sub-prime Talent Sans Direction, Cole Bros Circus of Stars Slides Deeper into Circus-Carnival Land

Circus Review: Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars
North Brunswick
May 20, 4:30 PM

NEW JERSEY - Sad to see, and even sadder to report (I did not want to write this review) that John Pugh’s circus is taking the lower carny-circus road. That’s what, unfortunately, I saw with about maybe 150-200 other people on a rainy day in New Jersey. This year’s effort is starkly inferior to the last Cole show I caught, in 2005, a far more polished presentation, even though that outing, too, had the kids riding ponies in the ring — among other concessions — before and during intermission. This time around, however, the entire program looks more ragged, more haphazardly formed.

Not to linger in the key of regret any more than need be. First, the good news. Believe everything you’ve heard about the tiger act of Germany’s Judit and Juergen Nerger. It’s a beaut and a wonderful departure from the norm, so fluidly crafted, so hauntingly scored. To whomever arranged the music — one of, if not the best scored wild animal acts I have ever seen — Kudos! A rare achievement in big cage art.

In fact, more good news, scoring throughout the entire program is generally excellent, credit musical director Leigh Ketchum for his excitingly up-to-date charts. As for those of you who long for “Entrance Gladiators” and all the other various 75-year-old circus standards, get over it, kids. This is not the year 1933. I suggest moving your clocks ahead by a century.

Staying on our high, another memorable moment is a finely arranged aerial ballet which fills up the rectangular performance area beautifully. So picture perfect. Follow this with the delightful poodles handled by the Abuhadba family (one dressed as Superdog), and there you have the high points.

Now, if you want your idyllic circus memories left unspoiled, I suggest you exit here.

It’s a brawny big top, and not a very toned one at that. So brawny that a huge, not very in-tune forklift serves in lieu of ordinary roustabouts to bring in the tigers in their cages to the edge of the big cage, and later to haul in the rickety globe of death, making it sound like tear down has already begun. Call this the hydraulic edition. Just another time-consuming eyesore that makes this one of the more disjointed and ill-directed circuses you are likely to see in a long long while.

Standard so-so staples may please the average patron: The elephants are as big as ever, and they do almost enough to earn minimum wage. About adequate are both Laura Herriott’s assorted menagerie and a globe of death motorbike act hardly noteworthy by today’s dreary diesel standards. Hardly adequate are the trying Flying Ponces, who do practically nothing, although I enjoyed the jazzy music. Rounding out the lineup, there’s a cannon shot by Jose Bermudez, and the proficient work of Russian equilibrist Lana, both delivering the goods. Another act listed in the program that I can’t recall seeing was Gelson & Company.

Instantly forgettable are the intensely silly clowns who go by the name of Bermudez Family.. They were easily upstaged by a crazy car that breaks apart at the center. Very funny. Comic relief from Detroit.

Show started a half hour late, owing to elephants rides, dull inexplicable dead spots, etc., during which course I spotted two clowns loitering aimlessly about the tent, doing just what, I could never quite figure. And why, may I ask, has Cole joined a number of other shows, including Ringling-Barnum, that preface the performance with the National Anthem? Are they so insecure these days, so desperate for public acceptance that they have to flaunt the flag? Yes, wrap it all up in God and Patriotism, make it look like a sacred holiday, and nobody will dare complain.

Show’s most prominent figure is often in-our-faces ringmaster Chris Connors. Only one act into the program and he is already asking us, “So ... how are you enjoying the show so far?” After the next act, he is back at us, this time pitching glow-in-the-dark sticks.

Not to prolong the pain, wrapping up, here is what I think John Pugh needs to do:

1. Limit Connors to about 100 words max per show.

2. Fire the clowns but keep the funny car.

3. Use the forklift to pitch the rides — and itself — out onto the midway where they belong.

4. Hire a professional director from outside the circus community.

5. Retain music man Ketchum

6. Pray for artistic redemption.

Rapping out, this is exactly what I think John Pugh will not do. After all, he runs a successful circus. I do not.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars tops): 2 stars

Monday, May 30, 2011

Big Top Bits to Go or Toss: ... "Please Do Stop Blogging," Exhorts a Frustrated Follower, Unable to Stay Away ; My Exit Advice ...

GOOD NEWS 8/6/16:  Carson & Barnes is BACK on the road.  So in life, there can be a second spring.  More on this later.

It's a twittery feel, this being back in Oakland, Covington connected, though it was fun sitting in train stations and blogging, even if I didn't thrill everyone or even a few ... Well, I had fun, and that's what this here thing is all about.

What I do for this prolonged passion or addiction of habit of mine, watching circuses and each time hoping for a transcendental experience, having to settle for popcorn at $4 a box, not bad that, at the Big Apple, where getting a concession is such a breeze, they've got you picking up what you want from one wagon and moving to the cash guy and his box in a tent, and, remarkably, it goes fast. Not so on the technologically constipated ticket wagon, about which, oh heck, let me rant about that at a later date. Let's keep the upbeat upbeat, I had such a glorious day at the Big Apple Circus.

I see here that in Atlantic City there's to be a "mostly" Naked Circus at the Resorts Casino Hotel, the strippery taking place in a parking lot tent, come July. Gals to wear pasties and G-strings. The shindig designed to "win back millions" lost under previous ownership ... Down came the Lewis and Clark tent during a storm in or around Pittsburg, and how eerie -- Pittsburgh, where Ringling's tent fell for the last time in '56. Among a crowd of "dozens" unable to get out before the storm attacked, one patron was left seriously injured, other suffering minor cuts.

Kelly-Miller's music man "Lucky" Eddie Straeffer, interviewed in a news story in Sugarcreek, Ohio (love the name), telling how, fifty years ago, he ran away to join the Ringling-Barnum circus; he was good friend's with John Ringling North II. When North II bought Kelly-Miller five years ago, he called up Straeffer and offered him the musical post. In retirement at the time, Straeffer had served as superintendent of a historical museum. He's also a sculptor, and is not above doing cherry pie; on Kelly Miller he also manages the ticket department ...

Felds Fail to Move a Jury. In court over cross allegations about nasty family squabbles (a reality show here?), one being that Kenneth Feld hired security guards to assault his sis Karen during a memorial service for their late aunt. Kenneth's complaint was that his sister made an awful ruckus at a shiva in 2007 by poisoning the atmosphere with "anti-Semitic obscenities." Neither side proved its case, concluded the jury. Kenneth told the media he was "happy with the outcome," but sorry the ugliness advanced this far ... Ho, hum.

UK says yes to circus animals. The right of circuses to feature those four-egged hoofers upheld. "This is a great day for classical circus," said Urs Pilz, president of the European Circus Association (ECA), noting that London is the birthplace of the circus as we know it, or knew it ..

Finally, I get nice comments and not-nice comments, and here's an inbetweener from Jeff Swanson which I did not post, griping about how "wordy" and "verbose" I am (well, that might be; haven't I said I feel like a writer trying to be a writer?), wishing I would fit myself better into proper circus blogging, whatever that might be. Jeff rues all of the looking-back pieces I am posting -- Actually, only one per week, in the Sunday slot once handed over to philosopher Krishnamurti, whose ideas that so intrigue me never once, to my recollection, produced a single comment. Jeff finds that 70% of my blog "has no substantive news or information". Could be. Worse yet, most of what appears here, says he, has already been covered on the other blogs. Gosh, I go at my own pace, hardly expecting ever to generate any ad revenue.

Now, here's what puzzles me, Jeff. You say you've been following me for three years, and I have to wonder, why? When I get bored or irked by a radio talk show host, for example, and it doesn't take three years, I just turn off the radio. In a way, I feel flattered that you have hung around. You say my blog "has a place along with other circus blogs," that it could "be so much better and worthwhile." Yeah, I think I know what I could do to give you what you may think you want, but giving it to you would, sorry to say, bore me to death, and I'd shut this thing down in a few weeks.

OK, a brief primer on why I pitched this little tent in the first place. (Is anybody still there?) I never set out to be the most popular or I would have done a number of things such as posting daily. I go with my own flow, having resolved at the outset never to bind myself into any one particular voice or type of article, etc. The moment I feel imprisoned in a straitjacket, pandering to perceived expectations, is the moment I'm out of here.

What's a little baffling is that, even though traffic has increased, those who leave comments do not amount to even half a percent of the traffic. And I value getting comments, for from some, I learn. I'll say this, Jeff, you did make me laugh, your opening was clever:

What set Jeff off was the ending to a recent post, in which I declared, "I can't stop blogging." Responded Jeff, "David, Oh David, please do stop blogging."

I'm smiling again. Even laughing.

Sorry, Jeff, doing it my way, I have fun. Interesting that, last month, I pulled in the most visits and more importantly, the most page views ever -- for my blog. And I have no illusions that I can match a few of the big ones like Buckles or Pat (I assume they are big). And this month will top last.

You are, of course, free to exit, and I'd be happy to give you your money back, except that, oops, I think you got in for free.

May all your days be less boring than those you spend letting me frustrate you ...

First posed May 30, 2011 
additional comments received 8/6/16

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

From Big Apple Circus: "Dance on!" is One Subtle Sensation ... Dufresnoy Debut Brims with Promise

From May 25, 2011

Circus Review: Big Apple Circus

Cunningham Park, Queens
May 21, 12:30 PM

NEW YORK — Cutting to the chase, (1), Is he, new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy, up to the challenge of extending the Paul Binder legacy, and (2) Can he inject the show with fresh showmanship? The answer to both must be a resounding YES.

In abundant evidence during the greater part of Dance On! is a subtly creative hand neither staid nor radical, Cirque nor Berserk. Think cool compelling flair. Think restraint and renewal. Leading up to his full assumption of power, Dufresnoy, when pressed to define a vision, spoke modestly about making little changes, and how foolish was I was in a rush to translate “little” to “tepid.” Change “tepid” to “terrific.” The day of Dufresnoy has arrived.

Dance On’s dazzle and thrust is impressively organic, although first half seemed stronger than the second, owing largely to act duplication, about which more in a moment. The concept makes perfect sense; after all, dance and circus have forever overlapped as forms of body movement working in abstract realms. Director Eric Michael Gillett and choreographer Peter Pucci have successfully, no qualms here, merged elements of the two into a fluid panorama in which each enhances the other beautifully. I did not sense gratuitous production embellishments as I have at some BAC outings which came across as more cosmetic than structural.

The show is fairly rich in imported talent that comes loaded, and I do mean loaded, with captivating originality. China leads the way, not a great surprise. Working on uni-wheels, The Wuqiao Acrobatic Troupe burns with mind-bending creativity, even if their turns in the ring are not error free. This is one of the most astonishing displays on wheels that I’ve seen in many seasons. Three or four guys from the group (seen in the top photo) return, in the second half, to close out the performance with whirling lassos. They take turns jumping through a line of the circulating ropes, with the last guy whirling a smaller one of his own as he himself whirls through the larger lassos. Takes your breath away. And that’s circus!

Other superior contributors include the The X Bud Roses Troupe (above) — five young female contortionists from Mongolia who blossom in complexity to a mesmerizing finish; and Charismatic Ethiopian juggler and acrobat Girma Tshehai (below), who bounces balls off and between two V shaped objects to winning effect. Subtle. Novel. Perfect.

Jenny Vidbel holds down two delightful spots presenting dogs, “mini horses,” ponies and goats. My favorite item were three goats riding, with varying degrees of amusing compliance, atop three small horses. Comedian and comic juggler Rob Torres is a major find, a genuine character full of surprises who adds more international luster to the show. From Kenya come the Kenyan Boys, pole climbers and tumblers whose brawn and bravado outweigh their technical expertise.

Dance On! is not without missteps. Gillet’s sleek and tight direction slackened off some after intermission during this first performance of the Queens run, there being lags in darkness between a few of the acts. Principal deficit amounts to a virtual duplication of genre, not the first time that BAC has committed such a programing blunder. Statuesque contortionist Andrey Mantchev has a lot to offer, and his closer — a hand-stand walk on two stilts — is a stunner, but in content and mood, his slow turn is too similar to what we’ve already witnessed from the X Bud Roses Troupe, thus a dispiriting sense of redundancy sets in.

Another flaw, major or minor depending on your view towards safety harnesses, arrives at the end of the first half when company member Regina Dobrovitskaya works an ambitiously interesting cloud swing turn which marks the show’s only trip to the clouds. And a wobbly one at that: “She has a string attached to her back,” said a young boy seated behind me to his mother (audiences are never fooled). And the string saved Regina a nasty fall when she missed a trick and was left dangling in mid-air. Biggest, most intriguing question yet to be answered: How will Dufresony address aerial action in the seasons ahead?

Back in positive territory, on balance, Barry Lubin’s Grandma is as charming as ever, although I still believe that her most effective moments are brief cameos when she spoofs so amusingly something we’ve just seen -- without lingering in the ring. Short gags; long laughs. A huge inviting slide, prominent as a set pece, leads up to Grandma’s little storybook house. Down it she slides to make a glorious entrance, but only one time after does she make use of it, when she attempts to climb back up it to answer the telephone. Bit is overworked and payoff is disappointingly weak. In another solo spot, Let’s Dance, Grandma rings a few minor laughs taking up perhaps a little too much space. Her socko moment has her working out on one of those gym tread mills. Deliciously fun.

Secondary company funny man Mark Gindick exudes a giddy energy that makes him the perfect link between circus goods and interlocking dance sequences.

Music is a star asset, credit top-of-the-class Rob Slowik for embracing the challenge with a wide angled reach of refreshing contrast and nuance. Another asset, though a little too missing in action, is new ringmaster Kevin Venardos. Thank the Gods of Discrete Oratory, Venardos does not apparently harbor a need to mike off. Likely, he is perfomring under smart direction. In fact, after a warm welcome, we hardly see him until finale. I would have liked a little more. In sheer restraint, however, this ingratiating young announcer proves that too little is always better than too much.

What a pure unmolested joy to be seated inside this absolutely gorgeous tent before the show and to gaze upon a a still and vacant ring — a ring that epitomizes Big Apple Circus’s rich history and its dedication to the art of circus. A ring refreshingly devoid of carnivals and concessions, of obscenely long intermissions in which they are pitched, of blaring ringmasters who can’t shut up, who can’t stop begging the audience for more applause, of humdrum second-rate filler action, of — well, you name it. Almost certainly, this is American’s finest circus, and a true national treasure. If you value what a world class big top can offer, this show, this Big Apple Circus will give you many reasons to know why and to feel a profound gratitude.

Founders Paul and Michael should rest assured: Their vision is being brilliantly honored and extended.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars) 3-1/2 stars

[all photos from Big Apple Circus website]

Out of the past, May 25, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

New York Impromptu: Gotham Gloats over Arnold and Maria's "Bed News" ... Spiderman Back in Previews as Zarkana Approaches Opening Night

GERSHWIN HOTEL LOBBY, NEW YORK -- A bunch of animated French kids/students (ok, they look French, and this is the French-friendly Gershwin) all around here in the region of red. Lush red. Somber red. Radiant red. Rueful red. And a young keyboard virtuoso at the piano. I can't stay away from this hotel, no small reason being the decently reasonable rates ($169.00 per night), a deal to seal in New York ... Paintings all over the place, up and down the old halls and in the rooms. Cafe 28 around the corner, my one-stop eatery.

This morning, I walked from East 27th up to the top of Central Park where Harlem commences, about 85 or a thousand blocks. A nice ambling stroll, the scenery is camera ready, and I still fail most of it on the frame. I could have walked back down. But I had clowns to see before another step, and clowns to see before I slept.

Nearly 10:30 PM, and I'm blissfully exhausted, having survived another complicated transit haul to seek out another circus, this one Cole Bros, the place -- North Brunswick, somewhere over there in the "garden state." The Brunswicks up close are lovely places with stately old small town atmosphere. Amtrak seems to specialize in touring through junkyards and urban war zones. New Jersey Transit knows where the charm lies.

About Gotham gloating (my tenuous main theme), The NY Daily News had a blast today gleefully treating the sheets evidently shared by two women connected to The Terminator, only on separate occasions, as far as we so far know. And then there's that infamous money man who feasted on a hotel maid and is now paying a step charge for his reckless recharge: "French Big to Stroll on $1M Bail." Big Apple tabloids turn out terrifically clever headlines; wish we had such a beast in the Bay Area. Sorry New York Times, when I walk the streets of Gotham, they just don't feel or jump like your kind of pages. Think about this, all around, somebody among these young may be the next Bernstein or Picasso -- or Liberace.

A little circus is everywhere in this great city. Here in the lobby, a young dude is trying to impress another young dude with fancy footwork tossing a ball between the two. Cirque du solei's Zarkana posters plastered abundantly on buses and in subway dives. This one's got to be not good but great, if CDS is to be spared another Manhattan meltdown, so close to that banana fiasco. The CDS product is thinning out in the public's mind, so they aren't as eager as before to embrace anything bearing those three magic words.

Pianist turned around. He's an Asian. Why did I assume French? Asians steer clear of the vulgarity of American slop pop in favor of, parentaly enforced, the suborn safety of the classics, god bless their violins and horns ... What was I saying back there? In a way, Ringling, one of whose many directors, Phillip William McKinely, has just restaged Spider Man, will, in an intriguing sense, be competing with Cirque's Zarkana, due in at Radio City Musical Hall next month. Both are working stages using degrees of circus craft, rigging. Spiderman II now back in previews. Two dudes back bouncing the ball between there feet, as a background of midnight disco beats wantingly on ... A different pianist, he favoring Ravel, perfect counterpoint. Circus, where did you go? This should be interesting to see if either Zarkana or Spiderman can make it on the Big Boards.

It's getting late. Ravel is gone, so are the kids. Some honky tonky tune is mucking up the ambiance. I'm looking forward to a circus-free trip here next time. Chasing just one circus can consume nearly a day. New Jersey, ya ain't so ugly after all!

Good night, World of woozy wonders.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Break in the Windy City ... A Break for a Board Game

CHICAGO -- Off the Southwest Chief, the walk into Union station has that rare Chicago pulse: Tethered engines blasting out their impatience to be hooked back up to cars and freed to roar up the rails ...

Gray and cool outside. Here typing this out in the Metropolitan Lounge, Wi-Fi on the house. Soon to board the Capital Limited, dinner at 6:30. Good news for Boyi: Played our game Can't Stop Shopping with two engaging folks from South Africa who tour the globe, during which time they play games (their latest fancy, one called "Sequence"), and usually insert a stopover in Dubai. Recently in Vegas, they inserted Cirque du Soelie's Mystere into an evening and loved it.

Sandy and Graham, their names, Brit accents their mystique. Can't Stop Shopping went famously well. "Great fun," declared Sandy, who terms herself a board game addict (or fanatic); plays many far and wide. Last night's roll around the board, with a new rule tested for the first time, was won by the cool deliberative Graham. I played banker and coach. Sugessting that the new rule be revised back to the old one, they wanted to play the game again today, but unfortunately all the tables in the lounge car were taken.

At Chicago, they left for other portals. We've got each other's e-mails. I offered to send Sandy a copy. Recounted for her the long winding road taken by Monopoly, for years played informally among east coasters who liked it enough to pass it around, until Parker Brothers finally said, Yes."

Who knows who may be playing our game and where in the near future. "Boyi and I are international," I told Sandy, referencing the game's connection to China, where it was first played, and now to South Africa, where it may soon be tried out. Added Sandy, "And now, you're going to Dubai." Wouldn't that be something if our invention ended up being played by the Cirque King himself. The people you meet on a train!

Sandy asked me where we got the idea. I answered, from my sister, Kathy, who a couple of years ago suggested a shopping competition in a mall. Sandy smiled. "Ladies like to shop."

And I like sitting in this cool Amtrak lounge, where I can't stop blogging.

He Must Have Ringling in His Blood: Kelly-Miller Circus Owner Cracks a Brisk Whip ...

The Ringlings are back! John Ringling North II makes his first appearance in the ring since marching in the last parade under the big top, in Pittsburgh, PA, 1956. (photo by Valerie Berta Torales from her blog The Mudshow Diaries)

The House of Ringling returns to the trenches: Feeling at home over sawdust, John Ringling North II booked himself onto his own show, Kelly Miller Circus, to fill in for a departing whip spinner. Whether he will claim the gig on a day to day is yet to be known. Here he is participating in this year's western themed spec. A couple of years ago, he was caught by a camera standing among a clatch of tigers in the Big Cage. Hes' jammed with the band. What next? A rendezvous on the high wire? A workout with five clubs? Clog dancing? Hula Hooping?

He's a Work in Progress: This Ringling of Ringlings, new kid on the lot, showed traces of edgy pluck and coolness in his youth when he traveled with Big Bertha. For a time, he trouped under the assumption that he'd be trained to take over one day for his uncle John. Never happened when the Felds came along with an offer Uncle John could not resist. JRN II was told after he married that "the circus life is not for a married man." He's now disproving that lame theory. This marks his fifth season managing Kelly-Miller, and anybody who can keep a big top in the air that long already earns passing marks. Question is: How far will he take it? I don't see as much artistic ambition as I had hoped for. But this more laid-back Dude Showman may need more time get his Ringling rhythm ...

He's his own man, revealing yet another another wry side to an easy-going personality. A stark reversal to the aloof persona worn by his famous uncle, John Ringling North the Original. North II is reportedly liked by all (as was his dad, Henry Ringling North), socializes now and then with members of the company at local eateries, sometimes picking up the tab, and enjoys sitting out in the audience monitoring his show. Father and son keep alive the spirit of the most liked of the original five brothers -- Charles Ringling.

How is Kelly-Miller doing? I'm in a quandary, mainly because, as I see it, the show carries virtually the same set of performers as last season, although some are said to be doing new or different routines. Judging from Steve Copeland's blog, business appears to be generally strong.

So, I'd say, enjoy the moment and wait for next season. This branch of the House of Ringling may have more and bigger surprises in the works. The man at the top seems to be in no particular hurry. And maybe that's the best road to take.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Riding Amtrak, Dreaming Santa Fe ...

Sounds like the title for a book.

Wherever I am, away from the pits of Oakland (not really, Piedmont Avenue is charmingly civilized), I might be gazing out a window, drawing from today's trees yesterdays memories on the Shasta Daylight up through Oregon, across the border at sunset one summer. Soft. Dreamy. Floating. Most beautiful train ride I ever took. On those Southern Pacific rails, I fell in love with the passenger train experience. Now, on whatever "Superliner" I am riding under the witness protection program, I either dream of yesterdays superior cars, or I dream of what tomorrow might bring, if ever high speed breaks ground in the United States of Indecision. That is, if the USofA is still around by that time, and not a Ward of Division or Collective Factory of China, Inc.

Might not be bad thing, for the Chinese would know how (remember when we once knew how?) to spread fresh trackage from the Golden State to the Big Apple, and then I could get there on rocket rails, far faster than it takes Amtrak to say, "Ladies and gentlemen, we've been informed that we will be waiting on a siding up a mile for a few minutes owing to a freight train that is approaching." The LateShore Ltd. through Ohio is the King of Rattletraps, if you dig washboard navigation.

I started this thing out to serve you some random midway rumbles and rumors, and here I am, still waxing hysterical about my favorite from of travel (theoretically, if you please). In China, Boyi and I sampled semi-high speed from Shanghai to Beijing. The train floated around 110 mph, I'd guess. We missed sampling rails between Guangzhou (aka: Canton, nicer oriental sound) and a city north, the line said to be the fastest train in the world, but the Chinese are planing to lay steel streams clear across the Middle Kingdom, across Old Europe and New Russia, across Britain, and, how knows, maybe all the way to Mars ... Now, that would get me back into one of those airplanes that always lust after turbulence whenever I am in them. Flight to China was so precarious, sometimes feeling like a wild carnival ride in the sky, that I turned off the movie I was trying to watch, West Side Story, fearing the jets and the sharks at war might add to the turbulence. I kid you not.

Let the circus stuff wait till tomorrow. John Ringling North II, a cool dude, said it's okay not to whistle him on just at the moment. He's not in a whip-cracking mood, anyway. You may have heard he made a cameo in his own show, Kelly Miller. I read it on Steve's neat blog. "A Ringling in the Ring," worded joey Steve. Cool going, guy ... Oh no, I'm not falling back into my House of Ringling obsession. Help me, somebody! One more thing during this station stop. North the Sequel must enjoy air travel, for seems he goes back and forth between his circus biz and the cows he grows somewhere in Ireland ...

All aboard, like it or not! That's how I feel sometimes boarding Amtrak, but as they say it's the only thing we have. And a big perk is starting out in my personal cathedral in Tinsel Town, Union Station ...

It's now Monday evening. No, I'm not even around the PC. Told it in advance to issue this make-do post when I should be about now in the diner, assuming they deign to open it on time. Last trip, they held us back for an hour, sitting in there and sulking about there being only one cook to work the microwave, even though that's Amtrak policy.

Over old Santa Fe rails, I trust old rust. I'm going to ask the conductor if, in fact, any of these silver threads are original Santa Fe. I rode the Super Chief once, when Ike was aboard in his private car and, during a stop in the arid desert, poked his head out the window to send us an Ike smile and wave.

OK, maybe tomorrow for Mr. North. Now, maybe this ring thing is going to his head, he wants more money, so he has to ask James Royal, whom, I understand, will have to take the matter up with one John Ringling North II for final approval.

Such a small world out there under little tops! Cho, cho! Ding ding! Here comes the Ringling of Ringlings ... First-Time-in-America!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Flashy -- In-the-Air & Too Much in the Audience -- Circus Vargas is a Bombastic Work in Progress

Circus Review: Circus Vargas

HOLLYWOOD, May 15. There is plenty in this new edition to please about everybody, from fussy Cirque du Soleil fans seeking sublime poetry in the air to the common herd easily amused by the spectacle of their friends and neighbors being made the butt of a clown's humor in the ring. And, if you enjoy being part of a TV taping audience during warm ups before the actual taping begins, here you'll get a like experience in heavy doses. Lots of opportunities to shout back to a ringmaster's recurring questions, "I didn't hear you scream!" or "how are you liking our show so far?"

If it all sounds familiar, sorry to report, Circus Vargas continues in its particular coddling of the audience. David Larible lovers will love this show, a good collective half hour or more of an already overly long performance is given over to audience participation. And that's not counting the first fifteen minutes of the program devoted to Jon Weiss putting the kids through some fun tricks, such as balancing feathers atop their foreheads. To be fair, the pre-show stuff is a popular party, and, as for all the time taken to recruit volunteers down to the ring, audience at this show lapped it all up. There are at least four occasions, the longest lasting eleven minutes, when Weiss and the clown go to work on or with the audience. (The website does not yet list names of acts; these I will supply later)

In the take-note category, there are a few memorable acts. Yes, this show also presents acts. Taking away the biggest cheers are a group of comedy tumblers from Kenya; they're standout stars with their sly interactions, building to some terrific human pyramids. Another high is the sight of an aerialist's vertical ascent while twirling three hula hoops around different parts of her body. It's a wonderful example of the hoops being turned into pro props by a pro. Beautiful image.

One of the more inventive aerial turns has a trio of women working the up-and-down cables, connecting with single traps and effecting some nifty flight patterns, all except for absence of a strong finish. A fine source of artistic satisfaction is that of a fellow working double ropes, his circular patterns reminding us of the magic of the ring's shape itself. Show offers a couple of big daredevil turns, too, one delivered by a man recklessly walking the wheel of destiny, the other, by two motor bike riders circling the globe of death while its top and bottom sections separate widely -- a genuine old-fashion thriller.

The Flying Tabares again fail to justify the historic build-up given their act, misleadingly linking them to the earlier branch of the troupe that regularly turned triples and landed Monte Carlo Gold. These current reps don't produce much other than sexy posturing. Not even an attempted triple at this 6:30 show. The main flyer does dazzle with bravado executing basic items.

Opener is a sock example of gifted direction merging the company in a number of items as a teaser, If only this brilliant directorial attack had shaped the entire layout, editing out a good amount of it. But Circus Vargas just can't stop talking to the audience, hauling it into the ring, photographing it in the seats, appealing to it for cheering expressions of its pleasure with the show.

There are dull empty dark pauses between acts. The hot-air Ringmaster spends time, when not over-orating, working drums and cymbals to augment a recorded soundtrack. On balance, musical scoring and lush lighting effects are outstanding. Finale frame, cast taking bows, is a lovely ring picture crowned by falling white confetti. Then the performers, per another labored interactive Vargas policy, report to the front connection, there to smilingly await hoped-for praise and autograph requests from the exiting customers.

Naturally, spirits were high today, for Angelinos jammed the Sunset Boulevard lot to give the show a nearly turnaway crowd. Show was late in starting, likely due to equally good biz at the first performance and all the time-consuming concessions prolonging running time.

Ringmaster has the audacity to pitch photo ops with his snake, $10 a pop, which extends intermission to nearly a half hour. We are made to wait while he hosts every last customer. An obscene exhibition of self-serving retail by a man whose snake bears absolutely no connection to the show or even to the front end.

Circus Vargas does a number of things with exemplary class and creativity. Maybe one season yet they will reach for a bigger league. They have it in them

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

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mexican Family Circus Plan on Film: "Circo" Captures the Spare Beauty of a Profitless Passion

Movie Review: Circo

The Ponce Family in Circo.

It should be no surprise to American circusgoers that Mexicans will perform for practically nothing, just so long as the show goes on, so long as they can continue to live under the tents, in their house trailers, express their art to audiences however small, and sell enough tickets to pay for the gas, the lot fees, the printing of free tickets, and the payments on outstanding loans driving them deeper into debt.

This humble tradition, the Mexican family circus plan, has stocked our bottom feeder big tops with a numbing succession of semi-pro performers whose signature staple is the house hula hoop twirl (you’ll see it here). But it has also given us top stars, among them the world’s greatest trapeze flyers. And here, too, you’ll see this side in the figure of a young man with the potential to command the ring. His name (if I have the credits right) is Cascaras Ponce. We see him practicing on his own, a young self-motivated performer showing promise on the fabrics and the low wire, and also being trained by his father, Tino, to handle wild animals.

As for the other acts, mostly generic (this is not much of a circus performance film), we have seen all of them before, we who patronize smaller shows.

There is a bitter and beautiful truth behind this remarkably honest documentary, Circo, evenhandedly filmed by director Aaron Schock, who realizes completion in 75 taut and grainy minutes.

We follow the Ponce family sinking into uncertainty as a tension between Tino and his disillusioned wife, Ivonne, keeps coming to the fore, threatening to explode at any moment. An outsider to the circus who met Tino when she was 15, Ivonne only sees a bleak future for their four children, believing that they each deserve an education and a home life. We see her pressing Tino to rethink his obsession with the ring, feeling he should be spending more time with his children and wife.

But Tino, whose whole life has been spent under the big top, considers the circus and his family to be one, joined together by a common enterprise in which they all play a critical part. And this forms a challenging irony. There is much here below the surface; some critics see Circo as a metaphor for the problems plaguing Mexican society.

I found myself rooting for Ivonne, at the same time respecting Tino's position. They are both inherently good people, and the film, to its credit, does not attempt to extract a nasty confrontation between the two.

Circo gives off a spare quiet beauty, and I believed every frame. The day-to-day grind only underscores Tino’s hopeless passion for keeping the family together and in spangles. “Through the good and the bad, always the circus,” is his only philosophy. The only thing he knows. In one of the most touching and telling scenes, Ivonne teaches him how to write his own name.

In another scene not so touching , five-year-old Naydelin is badgered to tears by her strict grandfather to keep practicing her back flips. Not a pretty frame. Like the movie, however, it is neither melodramatic nor contrived. I believed it all.

The principal ordeal becomes increasingly intolerable to Ivonne, who finally makes a break which feels not just right but heroic. We watch her and three of the children making an exit, standing at a bus stop, luggage and pillows in hand, on their way to a more stable existence in one place where the kids can go to school. And then, after that maybe, let them each decide if they still wish to resume spreading canvas, setting up seats, dodging mud puddles, juggling clubs and turning somersaults before small back road audiences. If they still feel, as their father does, that “through the good and the bad, always the circus.”

A film that I high recommend.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: When Pete Cristiani Called Me "Snow Cone" ... When His Brothers Soared Over Elephants and Hooked me on Circus

The Cristiani troupe, circa 1935. Front row, seated: Corky on the left, Pete on the right.

Funny how, as the years pass, there are still things to learn or realize. How what should have seemed obvious all along, suddenly knocks at the door of your brain: Hello!

Reading Lane Talburt's profile in The Bandwagon of Pete Cristiani, a piece that spreads out and around the entire Cristiani clan that juiced Ringling and Hagenbeck rings when they came to American in the 1930s, I finally connected the Critstiani dots in my life -- from my second visit to a circus and the first under a tent, King Bros., in 1950, to the only circus -- Wallace Bros. -- in which I would ever "perform," only eleven years later and only for a six-weeks summer fling. How could so much have happened in so short a short span? From kid patron to amateur joey?

They were there at the absolute moment, helping to make it happen in fact, when I was seduced to the magic of a circus show -- not just to the performers who thrilled me with daring-do, but to the fascinating props in and around the rings, and, yes, to the animals, that were as much as part of the magic as were the mortals who brought them alive. In my favorite memory, I see a rambunctious rush of acrobats scampering up a rickety elevated silver ramp, at the tip of it suddenly thrusting their bodies high into the air thorough flips and somersaults over a mountain of elephants, and landing on the ground emphatically erect. Two of those wizards were Cristianis -- Lucio and Belmonte. So in the beginning, it was they who drew me in. Nothing in my King Bros. memory bank compares to that one moment.

Fast forward to 1961. My correspondent friend Bob Mitchell, serving as ringmaster for Wallace Bros. Circus, which Pete Cristiani managed, got me a job "ushering." The impromptu job interview, an informal introduction to "Papa" Ernesto Cristiani lasting long enough for Bob to tell Papa what a good and earnest circus fan and writer I was, made me a member of the staff on the spot at the Cleveland lakefront lot. And what a deal -- room and board and nothing a week. Elated was I.

A few weeks later, thanks to the forced exit of a young clown allegedly caught trying to clown down with a young girl under the seats, I was offered his floppy shoes to fill. My big big top break! Now, I lead the opening parade with baton in hand. There I am, to your right, waiting to go on. Now, I did his bits, one of them requiring me to lead a goat on a rope around the track while holding high a placard which read, "I've got Khrushchev goat."

And here is where Mr. Pete enters the story. He was only 36 years old at the time, but seemed so much older because I was so much younger. All things are relative. He was a fairly strong character yet with a certain air of quiet class. On the lot every morning -- or maybe only when the lot was a hell hole needing his redemptive supervisory skills. Before the first show, he was up front in a wagon settling money matters with the day's sponsor. Once, we waited and waited to start. The blue tent was restless with a near-full crowd. They, we guessed, were haggling up there over how much money the sponsor owed the circus or vice versa (stress "vice") . Tense tenting that day. Finally came the word: Start the show! I took my place head of the parade, the band banged into melodic noise and on we went ...

I loved Norma Cristiani. It was she whom I saw each Friday when up the steps to the ticket wagon I climbed, there to be handed my $25.00

Mr. Cristiani and I only once exchanged words. On the midway one early afternoon after I had slaved away with a sledgehammer driving stakes for the marquee (I still can't believe I ever did such a thing), Pete walked past me, paused briefly in a glib mood, patted me on my rear and cracked, "How's Snow Cone?"

I felt strangely flattered, and at first a little leery -- wondering. Happy to recount, nothing came of his humorous remark.

Snow Cone.

He was always around, a strong relentless presence, a force you could feel.

Those Italian horse riders were full of life. Cosetta's high-strutting kickery atop a cantering horse, my favorite part of the show, had sass and dazzle, spunk and plunk and a sultry rhythm. Corky, I'd been told, lived somewhere in L.A. married to a man of means and/or artistic talent. Once she visited the show. What a refined beauty was she.

The other Cristianis who had stuck to trouping kept the backyard dramatically alive, if not on 24-hour alert, with their hot-headed feuds. They sounded at times like a band of infidels stuck together in close quarters against their will. After a while, their feuds no longer scared me. I found them a little amusing.

So you could say it was they who lured me into the big top, and they who later hired me on for an experience of a lifetime that would open my eyes, momentarily, to the Other Side. What do I miss most at circuses? The spectacle of acrobats running down a ramp to throw themselves through circles and flip flops across a mountain of elephants -- that is what I miss. That special boyhood thrill brought to me by the fiery horse riders and acrobats from across the great ocean.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

From Carson and Barnes, 2011: Vexingly Uneven Opus Mixes World Class Action with Amateurs in Slapdash Package

Circus Review: Carson & Barnes

Antioch, CA
May 2, 2011, 4:30 PM

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this circus is that it is still on the road. Whenever I go, most of the seats are vacant. This time, I estimate that around ten percent were filled, most of them moppets who seemed amply engaged.

The next most amazing thing, certainly this year: Carson and Barnes can throw into the same ingloriously staged mishmash performers of world class status with utterly rank amateurs. Go figure.

The show proves, as I have often argued, that at practically any circus you are likely to find one or two very good acts, if not more. Top of the class on this generously varied bill are the juggling Rinny family, whose star attraction, a young man, sustains a mesmerizing display of juggling expertise and showmanship. Worth the price alone. The four family members work splendidly well together through a variety of routines. They're the real thing.

Equally accomplished is gifted contortionist of a thousand body bends and tucks, pulls and dislocations -- Kevin Barnal Rios from Columbia. He's a standout showman producing complex, sensually executed contortions. How refreshing to find so much more in so much less — less being no partners. He goes solo and brings fresh life to a genre all too often, no matter how impressive, slow moving. Not with this star. Ends up inside a glass cube. Guy could play most venues to kudos.

Also on stellar sawdust are a couple of skilled bide riders, Jonathon and Jasmine Olivero, nicely building their repertoire from simple to surprising. Another winning asset is the “silk artistry” work of a young man, sans (I assume) partner. C&B Website references the De Paula Duo. (Show sells no program magazine) He connects well with the crowd working the usual basics up and down a ribbon.

Rounding out pro offerings are a trio of high wire walkers, the Tandazos, who deliver mid-level staples to wining effect; and, of course, the Carson and Barnes elephants, but not without a shocking deficit: This pachyderm performance was the shortest I have ever witnessed, and I came expecting a Big Show. I could not believe my eyes. (The Flying Cavallini Famly did not appear owing to a recent fall; the flyer is reported in stable condition and is expected to make a full recovery)

As for the rest of the outing, one or two acts manage to please despite meager ingredients: For instance, so fundamentally home-made are Dallas’s Doggies, that they charm, thanks to a skillfully developed program advancing from simple to amusing. Over, around or under four hurdles each move. Last dog simply knocks 'em all down. Funniest moment in the whole show.

Other turns may leave you yawning. The wheel of death is pretty dull stuff. A pony drill is almost ok. Weakest item by far is the unwelcome sight of a fellow nervously trying to bring off a slack rope effort. He's not yet ready, not even for sub-prime time.

Comedy? About as much a drag as a tickle (rarely) is Alex, working mostly the same numbers I remember from two years ago. He scores the best when his bits are brief, when he's mimicking the star performers; not at all when he interacts laboriously with the show’s laborious ringmaster, who gets from me an “O” rating — O for Obnoxious (ok, you can think “overbearing” if that makes you feel better). His tediously overblown oratory cries out for a gag order. He and Alex produce more ear-shattering noise than genuine humor.

Costumes are colorful enough. Aerial ballet is adequate at best. Parades have dazzle and opulence but lack better staging at front and end segments. Some of the music references Cirque du Soleil scoring; other puts us onto a late-night disco meat rack.

To their credit, the Byrds seem sincere in trying to upgrade and diversify the quality of the performance. That's obvious. But they have yet to break some old habits that denigrate the good moves they are making. Peanut and coloring books pitches remain, of course.

Carson & Barnes, with judicious direction and pruning, could be so much more.

Overall Rating (out of four stars tops): 2 stars