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

Friday, July 29, 2011

Coney Baloney: KLS Drops "Comp" Word on Vidbel Fizzle; Scream Zone a Riot; Pugh & Bale's Heaviest Show on Earth!

The Steeplechase at Coney Island's Scream Zone. Coney photos by Librado Romero/The New York Times
A little disoriented with
that dizzy headline up there? Coney Island is spinning wildly between turkeys and thrillers these troubled days. First the circus that wasn't. KLS Dad, our NY stringer, sends unvarnished feedback on his trip to the Vidbel Circus. Once he secured his $10 ticket and got up to the front door, via a parched patch of "dry hell," aka: "piles of debris," he settled into the tent, high on watching the advertised riding act with the name "Zoppe." He enjoyed the lyra turn executed by the woman who sold him his ticket in the "guard house," her name Susan Vidbel. In fact, he rather enjoyed a lot of the show, including a spirited singing ringmaster in Mr. Aston -- if only the equestrians he went to see had showed up. Sharing his let down with Sir Ashton, KLS was told there was "no business," (surprise?) . Here comes the kicker, introducing a sobering new question to our on-going wonderment about how circuses fill up the seats ...

When even free tickets will no longer work ... Well, KLS noted, in conversation with Mr. Ashton, that 200 people in the audience was not so bad. No, not at all. That's what I've seen usually at Carson and Barnes and Vargas. "Most of them were comp!" replied Ashton. "WOW. So sad," e-sighs KLS; Yes, I feel your pain, KLS-TV. Our crushed New Yorker reports the show was ill-advertised. But, out at Coney, he came away with a captivating stream of footage making a strong case for the new Scream Zone, about which I knew nothing, having a terrifically perilous pulse, an almost surreal style, a wacky thriller rhythm. "Hey ... I love it all!" says he. And I can see why, says I. Just watching the deviously off-kilter rides makes me want to go out there sometimes and play spooked-out spectator ...

The Soarin' Eagle. Maybe Coney has a new future afterall.

Cole Bros. Pitching Sheer Weight. On a cheerful video put out by Lane Talburt, agreeably narrated by his wife, Martha (great team, they should go out on the advance for a circus!), John Pugh gets a thoroughly postive pass, no uneasy questions asked, on his skill as a survivor. What's so interesting is how he and Elvin Bale seem convinced of their showmanship. Acts that over in Europe take "a half hour" (oh, really?) are trimmed down to a few minutes under the Cole tent, in order to make for a faster show. Or, if I may inelegantly ask, would that be to allow for more time pushing elephant rides and concessions? When I caught the show this year, a crowd of maybe 200 waited for half an hour for the program to begin. We watched a barely patronized elephant ride in Pugh's oddly amorphous non-ring setting. Sorry to pop feel-good balloons, but I long for the older Cole Bros. tent, Jonny -- it had symmetry; it had rings, it had those wonderful, yes, smaller wooden chairs. I'll grant this, that the newer chairs are better, but the seating configuration, almost identical to Ringling's under canvas at Coney, does not encircle the amorphous performance area. Nor do the fork lift operations add any desired atmosphere to the chopped up program. Do these guy share hard hats? ... I just don't get it.

Waiting for the Heaviest Show on Earth to begin: Cole Bros., the first half hour. (Pardon the blurry photo; My camera didn't want to be there.)

John and Elvin seem proud of how heavy their show is. How much "weight" it carries. They evidently love moving a ton of equipment. They claim to have the largest tent of any circus out there. Somebody might inform them that weight does equate with "great," not in the new century. Americans, yes, once counted the number of elephants, of tent poles and wagons. They don't anymore.

I'm sorry the Talburts could not have dug a little deeper. Perhaps Pugh is so protected by the fans from any honest feedback, and never gets objectively reviewed, such that he has little reason to doubt his arguably, how do I say this -- questionable decisions. Even I can be collegial.

Scream Zone is feeling more exciting the more I think about it. Don't know how heavy it weighs in, but it looks like a riot -- oops, not that kind of a riot...

And that's a reckless wrap. Blame it on KLS Dad.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Coney Island, The Ghost, Lingers Sadly On ... and On ...PBS Sheds A Few More Tears ...

Luna Park

Amazing that any of it is still there. As a wee kid once, when my Mom took us to Brooklyn and we lived with my grandmother on Hart Street for a couple of months, we got to run through the sand, get lifted high over Coney inside the giant Wonder Wheel, feel the sudden heart-pounding drop strapped into a Parachute Jump chair. Thousands of people all around. A real amusement park of major rides, each distinctively different. Production rides. Not the smaller carny ones that came to the county fair.

Years later at Steeplechase Park (1897-1964), I rode a steel horse and tried pretending it was a wild race. The aging apparatus needed more than oil. The park came down in a season or two. Today, minor league baseball games are played in the same space.

On a poignant PBS documentary taking a look at the Coney Island's dim prospects for survival, somebody noted the "diversity" of those old attractions, of the inherent architectural values. Amen to that. Perhaps more than any other amusement park, Coney was a wondrously atmospheric place. Indeed, its architectural charms were as much a draw as were its individual amusements. I grew up on the other coast entranced by glorified images of it on post cards, by the mere sounds of Luna ... Steeplechase ... Dreamland.

But now, irony of ironies, people both older and younger than myself are ruing the recent demise of, yes, the oddly jumbled, hardly memorable Astroland. Atmosphere? Totally not. Perhaps its only redeeming virtue was that it stood in the shadows of the famed Cyclone roller coaster, arguably one of the best ever built. New Yorkers had the savvy and resolve to save this classic wooden thriller. But the claustrophobic carnival package of generic midway rides offered by Astroland, itself ultimately fenced in for security reasons, was no match for today's modern version of an amusement park. Walt Disney changed all that, Brooklyn. At the end of 2008, your Tilt-a-Whirl made its final run.

What had unfortunately followed the faceless Astroland into Coney were years of seedy gang warfare. So eerie was the place, that on visits to the Big City, I would ride out there on the subway, hoping to find what had only even half-way remained when I was a kid, take a brief walk across the street, look around at creepy teenage figures, maybe grab a Nathan's Hot Dog, hurry back across the street for the return to civilization over the mighty Brooklyn Bridge.


Not all seaside midways last. San Francisco's Playland-at-the-Beach, across the street from where I was raised, slowly fizzled away, the Big Dipper coaster condemned in 1956, an inferior set of carnival rides inserted as a last-ditch drive to keep death alive. Playland's own version of Astroland, indeed. Now, where in better days sailors and their momentary girlfriends screamed through the fog down rickety Big Dipper drops into a forest of white lumber, there stands a bland two story condominium complex. Even up the street at the new and "improved" Cliff House, the old commercial museum of Playland-era piano players and slot-machine games, which occupied a space under the old Cliff House, has been 86d. There's not a trace left of the beach side glitter in which I grew up. The Boardwalk at Santa Cruz has been intelligently preserved. The boardwalk at Santa Monica has been "saved," but only a merry-g0-round and a few of the old eatery shacks. The rest is a modern spread of newer rides.

And Coney? Even the Felds could not revive old glories. A two year all-summer stint of Ringling under canvas was a long shot. Circuses don't do well hanging around too long. Ringling has ditched Coney for a new arena under construction near the Atlantic yards.

I feel for those New Yorkers who cry for Coney. But the free market, both beautiful and bitter, ultimately decides. Certainly in the Big Apple. Unless they can get Disney to install its magic, the best they might hope for is a consortium of high rise condos cradling a compact little fun zone featuring the Cyclone and a few other upscale amusements. I can already envision the Museum of Nathans. In it, please, a vast panorama of life-sized photographs of old Coney. That fantastically colorful world was already on the wane when I first experienced a precious few of its residual delights. Oh, what an exciting place it was, and it ain't never coming back.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Encore for Winnie Colleano! ...

Winnie Colleano, sister of Con (perhaps the reason why she never received the press and fame she deserves) will get an encore from me.

Goaded on by the comment left on my earlier post by "Anonymous," whom I can only guess may be a trapeze performer him/herself, I re-watched the video. Aside from affirming Colleano's heal catches as "fantastic," Anonymous calls the routine "basic trap tricks" the style "pretty much Circus Smirkus." Am I living on the wrong planet?

The essence of great art is simplicity, such that we do not see the actor or the circus artist's technique, but with them we take the journey. In the actor we see only the character. In the trapeze artist, only the gracefully soaring bird, No, not easy, but the greats flirt with this paradigm, and some master it.

Rarely if ever have I witnessed a single trap act so fluidly presented, such that the technical skills. "tricks," if you will, do not project as such, but are transformed by the artist's mastery into a greater impression of continuous motion.

Anonymous: Not only do you, in my opinion, insult Winnie Colleano, you also insult a charming student show, Circus Smirks. Might you be of the San Francisco school?

Perhaps you are of the newer class who fairly shun "tricks" as old circus, favoring excessively detailed choreography, often on a single trap or fabric that does not swing very far in either direction. There is now even a new term for this genre, "static trapeze." I wish those who pursue it more success than I have yet observed; perhaps they will invent something as exhilarating as what a few gifted duos (usually male-female, sometimes same sex) are doing with the "sensual fabrics" over more actively inspired rings, combining romantic imagery with terrific maneuvers aloft. All of which, as I see it, takes them out of the "bed sheets" category. Static they are not. Static, the circus was never.

The evidence on YouTube is irrefutable. There is none of the obvious muscle, of the strained interlocking movements too often the mark of a compartmentalized routine, of the stops and the starts ... Here is a gifted artist continually and gracefully in motion, flowing with a kind of a serene joyful abandon, and finishing her flight with a perfectly climactic jump from bar to vertical pole, down which she slides.

I was about to support my view by posting here similar accolades of others, from Fred Bradna to some comments on the You Tube posting, but it matters not. What matters to me is what I see and feel while watching this magnificent artist at work, who makes it feel not like work at all.

That's the essence, around my ring, of greatness.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Coney Island Big Top Blues: Ringling is Gone, Vidbel Barely Arrived

Coney Island, a hard sell for big tops: Feld came and went in two seasons, fully charged now to take the new arena under construction. A great two-season era for Ringling under canvas is history. I for a moment fell in love with Ringling-Barnum all over again, 'twas so much better in just one ring, where the Felds, I humbly assume, were forced to contain and curtail, defrock and derail their fireworks showmanship. Out of there, they've got space booked into the new arena going up near the Atlantic yards.

Don't take Coney for granted. Heck, don't take Gotham for granted. A long ambivalent story and review in the blog Travelanche, penned by "Trav SD," rues the super shortened run of Circus Vidbel, originally slated to play through Labor Day. But summer came and went, almost before summer even came. Vidbel is history too. The story offers both praise for the acts and hints at a certain lack of production values, all of it lending the impression that a middle-of-the-road "family circus" hasn't a ghost of a reach by the beach ...

Self-billed as "the original olde tyme circus under the big top," one might wonder, and where was the olde tyme ballyhoo? Seems the media dolled out more attention on Ringling not returning to Coney than on Vidbel being there. But you gotta put the word out, and these free tix tops have gotten lazy on front end hype, settling for peanuts. The show drew out the booster in Trav SD, mystified over the absence of PR, but finding some nice things to say ("several very fine acts"), except for lots lacking, such as: "The ringmaster needs elocution lessons ... Like all the acts in this show, he [vase balancer Guimeng Ming] would benefit from slicker packaging ...." And so on.

About the show's anonymous appearance, might it be that, "the entire news apparatus of New York City actively wanted the circus to fail, which hardly seems likely." No, Trav, not likely. Either that, or they took a look inside the tent and decided to keep their critical chops off. And let kindness tell the story, kindly. The idea of a small family show thinking it could fill a giant gap left by Ringling is mind-boggling. But then again, one thing the American circus has never been short or shy on is optimism.

Okay, here's the not-so-kind from non-circus fan booster Trav: "the grounds around the tent were full of garbage. The ring wasn't swept. It looked like everyone needed a rest. Production values were definitely stretched to the limit. A peek at their website shows much fancier costumes than I saw on view in the tent yesterday. As well as the horses. Their press release mentions an equestrian act, but it looks like the riders have ridden off into the sunset since then."

The tent seated 600. The audience numbered "two or three dozen people."

The show opened on July 4.

The show closed on July 17, one day short of a two week run. Kindly.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Winnie Colleano, I Can't Believe What an Aerial Goddess You Were ...

Just now, ending up on You Tube -- don't know how, don't know why, that's the way with a computer, most of you will know. But first came Con Colleano, and then there was Winnie from 1939.

Set to lush music, even with the sound off, I was utterly thunderstruck to discover her free flowing single trap, serenely sensational with full swinging reverse heal catches. Not ruthlessly of the daredevil class, but of the class of great circus gods floating through space, complete with a terrific finish, jumping free of the bar to catch a pole and slide back down to earth.

I book marked Miss Winnie. I'm in love with her style, her poetic abandon, yet so finely controlled and formed. I can't believe, I just discovered another MAJOR big top icon.

Circus 1939. Tim Tegge and I were talking about form (talking via e-mail), about Bradna referring to Leitzel's planges as "ugly." Tim noting that she did not tend to point her toes, that perhaps the era was lacking in such polish as it might be today. Then I told Tim about my having seen a You Tube of Tiny Kline and, we'd both marveled at Codona's form and style clear to see on snatches of grainy footage. I remember Tito Gaona telling me about the "elegance" of the 1920s, and Tito Tito was not even a seed, but he found the elegance on his own and how well he knows and respects it.

I got to thinking how, when we see ballet in circus today, we credit Cirque du Soleil or look to the old Soviet Union circus scene. But the performers who came before and during were not dumb or unschooled, or merely athletic. There was always the transit between stage and sawdust, ballet and big top. Don't let the snobs convince you otherwise.

Sometimes the evidence you look for may let you down. Sometimes there isn't as much as you'd like there to be.

Con Colleano to the wrong music looked a bit repetitive in his dancing on the low wire. I recall being mesmerized by his style and dash on the Clyde Beatty show when the band played, I think, a very torrid Latin refrain, if not Ravel's Bolero. His buildup, as now, to the forward somersault was tensely dramatic.

Sometime back, I came across a You Tube of Francis Brunn in his prime, and was afraid to watch it, afraid what I remembered as a kid would not be there now. Surprise. Brunn was even better on You Tube, validating my memory of his incredibly choreographed routine.

Winnie this evening was circus perfect. Check her out for yourself. She has the skill, the interior guts, the exterior poetry. What a star she was. And we -- well I, hardly knew her.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Quad God Miguel Remains Alone in His Greatness; Other Would-Bes Fly Short; Latest Candidate Ivo Silva, Jr., Has 5, Vows to Soar for More ...

29 years ago today in Tucson, Arizona at 8:44 PM -- Miguel Vazquez accomplished his first quadruple somersault in performance!

Miguel Vazquez returns to flight, Las Vegas, Nevada, October 2010, assisted by David Vazquez. Photo from "The Last Great Flyer," courtesy of Philip Weyland.

They and we waited and wondered, could another trap star achieve those near-impossible four revolutions en route from fly bar to catcher's hands? Seems not to have happened. This was to have been the season of Ivo Silva, Jr. of the Flying Caceres. He flew for the Big Show, landing the quad during the season-opening engagement in Florida land, landing another four across the season, but mostly flirted with an elusive dream. I saw him give it a try when Ringling-Barnum hit Oakland last summer. He did not fly impressively close to hitting the intended target, a firm pair of waiting hands, which left me with a distinct impression of an artist likely chasing an impossible dream. Fate can be cruel. Or maybe it's a matter of "luck," when it strikes, being just as cruel, fooling the recipient into a hopeless addiction, like a slot machine Johnny down to his last penny.

It's not all bleak. Trapeze is being reinvented in China and other lands. Even the Caceres, to their credit, delivered a terrifically rich and varied routine, as I recall. Ivo, who did not enjoy the emotional support and continuity of a family, as do most other great flyers, is Ringling history. He has left the troupe to appear with Cirque du Soleil at Orlando, and he has not given up on his quad quest. Read his comments left here, in his own words!

Phil Weyland, at work on his documentary, The Last Great Flyer, about legendary quad god Miguel Vazquez, need not fret his title being trumped and bumped by the Next Great Flyer, wherever he/she may be.

Maybe it's a matter of context. Aerial art, I fearfully assume, has lost much of its luster here in the U.S. as Americans in general seem to prefer glancing away from hazardous airborne acrobatics. Lots of reasons: mechanics strangling the lifeblood out of daredevilry; a new class of anti-daring circus trick snob; the rise of the sensual silks lending welcome complexity and elevated sparkle to the new school of circus ballet -- nothing potentially messy, please! (We won't discuss how hazardous the bed sheets, too, can be.)

The quad is a "trick" just like the triple. And even three somersaults seem a less sure thing than they were 20 years ago. As often as not, they are dramatically announced, giving the circus who touts them the muscle it may not possess. Which is why, I suppose, rare it is these days to witness a flyer, having failed the first attempt, going for a second. I remember when they ALWAYS went back.

On Circus Vargas, across four visits in recent years, I vaguely recall watching the act it links, in rimgmaster verbiage, to Monte Carlo gold turning a triple just once; every other time, they did not even try to, nor did they try much else. But, oh, can they posture!

Meanwhile, the Weyland interviews continue apace, with more film shoots set for Vegas. Phil estimates a wrap up around this time next year. I'm hoping he can turn his Big Theme into TV documentary gold; and maybe, then, he'll turn his lenses onto other aspects of Spangleland. We got the depressing PBS take on Big Apple Circus realities; we got Arsenic for Elephants. Let's hope here comes something better.


Sunday, July 03, 2011

Sunday Morning with Fred Bradna: No Deadbeats in His Greatest Show on Earth

"He must be at once a showman, a stage director, a martinet, a diplomat, a family counselor, a musician, a psychologist, an animal keeper and a weather prophet. Since horses are the keystone of circus entertainment, he must be an accomplished equestrian. He must know sufficient about all circus techniques [tumbling to tight wire] to discern at a glance whether specialists in these areas are shirking and, in the case of animal acts, whether the sin of commission or omission is the fault of the human or the animal star.

"This is not just theoretical. A carton by Mr. H.T. Webster, originator of 'The Timid Soul.' was pasted on mirrors in Ringling dressing tents for years. It depicted two aerialists standing on a high platform in the big top. One says to the other: 'If I thought Fred Bradna wasn't looking, I'd skip the next trick.'"

From his book The Big Top. Bradna served as equestrian director for Barnum & Bailey and then Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, retiring at the end of the 1946 season.