Wednesday, August 31, 2011

At Last! A Little Respect for the Ringling Museum of ART -- Yes, I Said "Art" ... Also: Circus Wages & Risks; Enter the Chinese Daredevils

How pure it felt to hear the words, "The Ringling Museum of Art" unmolested by the grasping inclusion of "circus." No, I am not an anti-circus fan, but I am a respecter of the lovey grounds and the architectural wonders, however garish, willed to the State of Florida by John Ringling, whose vision it was to build and promote a real art museum.

It's been a long time since the "art" part seems to have gone it alone, which was what, in the beginning, Mr. Ringling intended. Just as his brother, Albert, intended would be the exclusive fate of the marvelous grand opera house he built in Baraboo, known to most of you as the Al Ringling Theatre (Are you there, Doc Bob?).

Pledge Break Society (PBS) cameras recently visited the courtyard of Ringling's horseshoe shaped gallery on a lovely summer evening, there to take in a soft performance by the very young opera star, 10-year-old phenom Jackie Evancho, though perhaps not yet a strong enough voice to sustain an entire evening on Great Performances, so I did not stay fully tuned.

But my spirit floated back to a time when I'd enter through the art museum itself, rather than take the tour, as is now the case, past the Tibbals tents and the Tibbals tributes -- perhaps because that's where a Sarasota bus dropped me off. After an obligatory amble through the Rubens, I'd of course wander across the grounds to my favorite spot, a little round French-looking building so discretely tucked amidst the trees -- a little circus museum of refined ambiance -- as if to say, yes, this too was a part of Mr. Ringling's life, just in case you might want to take a little look while you're here. It contained in the back the inspired backyard scene of old Ringling wagons resting on a lot under a simulated early evening sky, by far the most enchanting circus exhibit I will probably ever experience in my life. Credit, silence please, the great curator Mel Miller and his trusted assistant, Joe McKennon -- the man who fessed up to his own role in the land grabbing campaign when he penned Rape of an Estate.

No longer, of course, is it there, for the bureaucrats whose destiny it is to end up running such monumental gifts of death must forever tinker, gut and rethink and rebuild, expand and glorify in order to keep their jobs and add to their powers.

OK: the fun stuff (I know, I've said all that stuff enough already!!!): People who talk freely about circus pay scales (yes, vaguely) sometimes say things that surprise us. Here is clown Steve Copeland, telling the Aurora Advocate how he enjoys the tenting life, compared to those huge arenas, and the comforts it brings him, and then THIS: "The pay is better here than at RB&BB" Now, should we be impressed? Or just happy that, at Kelly Miller Circus, perhaps Steve is getting a decent pay check as opposed to a starvation stipend from the Felds, those "saviors" of the circus who saved it on the backs of countless young Clown College grads eager, for a few moments in the Ringling sun, to entertain the world for peanuts ...

Danger, Be Gone! I only ask, you only decide.... About peril above the ring, from which circus owners are sheepishly retreating, and why? Seems there's a new generation of "aerialsits" willing to go it cold (sans mechanics) only if the pay is right. To Zoe Gorman, who scripted the insightful account of her days traveling with and interviewing K-M staffers, came this sarcastic snap from her Aussie tutor, the "enthusiastic and brusque" Nikki Ogle when the subject of the safety harness worn by Ogle came up: "They don't pay you enough" for the fanciest risks, explained Nikki. ... That's a new angle. Me wonders what the going rate is for a single trap artist to shuck lifelines aside. READ ON!

UPDATE, 9/2, 12:00 PST: Nikki Ogle responds: According to her comment that I have posted, during her interview with Zoe Gorman, the following statement of hers did not make it into the story: "there is not enough pay in the world for me to take that risk." I have reread the Toledo Blade story; in fact, what I quoted her as stating on the issue is exactly all that was printed.

Enter the daring young Chinse man on the high wire: Some guy I saw on a TV news clip scaling a cable 300 feet above the ground, slipping and sparing his life by grasping the wire, etc. Those acrobats are flexing their muscles and magic in so many new directions, pushing daringly skyward while inside the U.S., the "static trapeze" is tepidly on the rise.

Enter Life. Yes, that's who visited me here recently, not the Big A, but Life, a few chic steps above Sir anonymous, who speaks sparely, "I like your site to see." Hmmmm, not a commercial for some other site. Not a rant. Just Life. In reply to a post back there about the hazzards of illustrating a circus book ... Thank you, Like. Sounds like you enjoy exercising your vision ... Do drop by again, tepidly, if you still please ...

Monday, August 29, 2011

New Big Apple Circus Boss Wears His Power with Grace, Cool Confidence ... Reveals Shows Ahead ... Sawdust-Stealing Rodents to Join the Cast

New Big Apple Circus boss watches the show in Stamford. Photos by Kathleen O'Rourke/Stamford Advocate

At last, we are starting to see his face, hear his voice, get a feel for his vision. Guillaume Dufresnoy, in public interviews, comes across as suavely confident, an authentic leader with a passion to sustain Big Apple Circus standards and keep each year’s show fresh

“I really want each production to be different from the year before,” he told the Stamford Advocate's managing editor John Breunig last month during the circus’s appearance there.

“This year is all about movement and dance. Next year will be all about imagination and dreams ... it will be set in a fantasy land. The year after that will be a period show set in the 19th century (a little Toby Tyler, please!) ... and the one after that will be contemporary.”

Dream Big!, Dufresnoy’s next opus now in rehearsal in Walden, NY and slated to uncork at Dulles Town Center in Dulles, VA, on September 22, is sporting a slightly enlarged menagerie, in which we make take some heart. Per pithy press copy, they've recruited a “capybara and porcupine to perk up the sawdust party!” (Fancy lingo for rodents)

Sounds like the sort of subtle staging imagination I found, to my high delight, at last season's Dance On!, Dufresnoy's first fully produced effort for Big Apple. Indeed, in that luadable outing, I glimpsed ample reassuring evidence that Paul Binder’s protege is fully up to the task of extending the Binder-Christensen legacy well and wisely into the future, assuming, of course, that the organization can restore some of its lost dates once the show leaves Gotham, and re-energize corporate funding.

Born in Bordeaux, France, Dufresnoy caught the circus bug in his boyhood. By the time he was a young adult, no longer was he looking up at aerialists, but now, one himself, down upon audiences looking up at him. By 32, aching shoulders inspired Guillaume to a career make over. He joined the Big Apple Circus in 1990, performed for only a season or two, and then served as performance director. In 1997, he landed the general manager job. Thirteen years were spent as a “wingman” to Paul Binder.

About that strangely ill-defined recent three-part PBS Documentary that left more than a few of us slightly depressed, said Dufresnoy to Breunig, “They did not make it better or worse than it is ... This is a tough life.”

He likes talking to circugoers to get their feedback, and he watches nearly every show, especially near season’s end when younger artists can start to go dull. “They are kids ... We have to battle to keep them from getting ragged.”

Of particular concern to the new boss is the dominant kiddie demographic so integral to American circus promotion. “What we have not been yet able to convince people is you don’t need a kid to come to the circus. I come from Western Europe, where going to circus is something you do on Saturday night with friends the way you to go the movies or go to the theatre. And that is rarely the case here.”

Big Apple’s new artistic director seems to have his priorities perfectly in order. "You cannot rely on production values and themes to satisfy an audience. You must rely on having great acts. And a great act is a great act is a great act.”

Paul Binder should be proud.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Showbiz David Hits Over One Thousand Page Views in a Single Day ...

That was yesterday, a record for this blog, which reached its five-year anniversary the day before, on August 24.

Lots visit. Few comment.

30% of the eyes are from foreign shores.

Almost nobody "follows." There were 3 for a long time. Recently, the number soared to 7. Perhaps if their names and mugs were strung, somehow, on the sidebar, others would join out.

Most missed visitor is the late Henry Edgar.

Most tolerant visitor, putting up with Showbiz David's critical reviews despite not always agreeing, is kid Harry of Kingston.

The Top three viewed posts of all time on this blog

[a possibly highly misleading stat due to the linking back through saved searches] are:

1. Two views of Carson & Barnes Circus (personal reviews by two followers)

2. Circus Review: Loosening Up, Cirque du Soleil (Kooza) Flirts with the Power of True Circus

3. New Circus Rising in China: Star Acrobats Add Aerial Exploits, Novel Twists, Dazzling Direction and Music; Privately Funded-Produced Another Boon.

Of those who leave comments, special honors to:

The most brilliant visitor: Anonymous.

The most stupid visitor: Anonymous.

The most courageous visitor: Anonymous.

The most cowardly visitor: Anonymous.

The most flattering visitor: Anonymous.

The most profane visitor: Anonymous.

The most faithful visitor: Anonymous

Thank you, Anonymous -- whoever you-they are.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday Morning with Showbiz David: We Were All Young Once ...

Photo above: Paul Binder, in 1977, only days away from the first performance of his and Michael Christensen's Big Apple Circus. Photo from Big Apple Circus website.
Next photo down: John Ringling North II and his son, John Ringling North III, in 1967.

To live a long life, be prepared to embrace one newfangled technology after another, to accept an ever-changing world that refuses to stand still. I am now wondering, what will follow the cellphone? This last week, I had my own Mark Twain moment, I think. Mark Twain was one of the first writers to use a radical writing device called a "typewriter." America's greatest storyteller lived and penned in the present. The last time I used a typewriter was about two books back.

Once upon a draft, when you wrote a book, the publisher would edit your manuscript (a stack of typed pages sent by snail mail), return it for your approval or counter corrections, and so on. Two days ago, my edited "manuscript" for Inside the Changing Circus: A Critics Guide, came through e-mail on a Word attachment. This has always been the most fascinating phase of the publishing process for me -- like, I suppose, getting back an essay in college to see how covered in red ink it might be bearing an instructor's impatience.

But I can tell you, after many seasons mulling the issue over, "editing" in the book publishing world can vary from questionably severe to nearly non-existent. How important is it, really? Beyond its success in tracking down misspelled words, correcting basic grammar, and toppling typos, I'm still not sure. I won't reveal here how many misspelled words you will find in my first book, Behind the Big Top. But it should earn me a place in the Guinness Book of Unflattering Records. Possibly the Grand Prize.

Quickly, I scanned my Word document, just edited by my publisher BearManor Media, for evidence of corrections, not knowing how they might appear. Quickly, my fears were calmed. Authoritative streaks of red intersected my prose at fairly spacious intervals. The corrections struck me as sharp and savvy. And then, by accident, I discovered how, if I make any more changes of my own, they will appear in yet another color. OK, World of Now, I think I get the idea.

Here is an example of good useful editing: In my manuscript, referring to PETA I used the phrase "hot-headed activists." Now, those words are covered in yellow, and when I move the cursor over them, a tiny window pops up in which an editor's query appears: "Suggest dropping inflammatory adjectives here." Good point, editor, I agree.

Time changes our manner of communication, oh does it ever, considering the ubiquitously fluid internet. Most poignantly, time changes us. In my final reach for the ideal Paul Binder image, while surfing the Big Apple Circus website, I came upon the show's history and photos of Paul and Michael when they were once young, just starting out in Paris -- at a time when a kid with a bike might still pull up to your front door with that magical -- or feared -- telegram in hand. When the IBM Selectric was all the rage on upscale office desks. When the telephone rang out like a real telephone. How touching it is to gaze back upon the face of a young dreamer, like Paul up there, at the outset of a mission destined for great and honorable success.

Only a day before, my friend Boyi, in the photo here, came by with some home-cooked noodles to be warmed up later, and ready to take a look at some photos I intend to use in my book. I had asked him if he would give me his reaction to a few that I am still undecided about -- which image was better, for example, between two pictures of Barbette, and then between three of Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs. I welcomed Boyi's feedback, and went with it. He is not exactly a circus fan, but he has a good eye for photography. I think his picks helped me settle on the right choices.

Then we went out to lunch, and there, by surprise, Boyi referenced my birthday being so close at hand -- on a day when he had to work. He told me that the long noodles he had brought by were a way of wishing one a "long life." Boyi is still young, but age is relative, right? In not many years, he may start prematurely ruing the "good old times" when he was in his twenties ...

Back at my place, we sat in front of my PC, Boyi worked the mouse, and I was whip lashed into elements of contemporary culture that have so far eluded me, into the hyperbolic worlds of two global icons: Lady Gaga, now I know why the world has gone agog over this outrageously amusing entertainer, ingeniously packaged to advance the Madonna syndrome? Better yet, Russian troubadour Vitas who sings like a well tuned siren. Phenomenal! Fantastic! Earth shattering!

They, too, one day will join the ranks of we who were "young once."

In the meantime, until something newer comes along, here I am at my PC, typing this out, after which, I'll return to my Word document and check out the editorial corrections to my manuscript. It should be fun, though, at least the typing out of my final revisions in my favorite hue -- blue!

I wonder how long Mark Twain stuck with the typewriter?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sunday Morning Looking Back: Art Concello -- Did His Crusty Genius Blind Bill Ballantine to the Facts?

If anybody living — or dead — could shake down this country’s addiction to reckless overspending and set it solvent once again, surely that man would be Arthur M. Concello. He’d clear away the rot, run the lobby lice off the lot, cut cut cut, cut cut cut some more, get back the brightest minds at the cheapest wages, and put the damn thing back on the road, and make it turn out a profit ... Add get a little more than a little respect

Concello, first the great circus flyer and then the great circus manager, was the operational genius behind the conversion of Ringling-Barnum front tent show to arena attraction (Sorry, Feld family). Concello alone engineered, day by day, receipt by receipt, wining stand by losing stand, a gradual rise out of the ashes of Pittsburgh into the eventual glory of indoor salvation, and he did it for John Ringling North. Most of all, for himself.

Not a pretty job. Many early stands, at inglorious ball parks or in front of race track grandstands, were anything but the greatest show on earth. But the steady nuts and bolts man made it happen. He brought off what Irvin Feld would later grab credit for.

AMC -- or "Little Caesar" was so darned colorful, such a crusty Damon Runyon type character, that I suppose it was hard for writer Bill Ballantine not to either believe everything he was told by the Big Show's savior or just too tempting not to gild the story with additional BS.

In this latest (finally arriving) issue of Bandwagon, editor Fred Pfening regales us with our favorite subject, which means anything about Ringling history, pre-Feld. He’s been handed the original manuscript of a yarn penned by Ballantine that, in a shorter version, appeared in the October 1957 issue of Cavalier magazine as “Damndest Showman Since Barnum.” It chronicles Concello’s slow but steady and tenacious guidance of Big Bertha into her new home under the hard tops.

Art Concello gives advice to flyer Faye Alexander, as catcher Yerbe looks on from the trap net.
Top three photos from the Cavalier magazine story.

The article, a copy of which is stapled into one of my boyhood scrapbooks, rolled off the presses soiled with nagging factual errors, so many as to leave me wondering how many more there might be. But never mind, I had the same feeling after reading Fred Bradna's Big Top. In wicked truth, we all make errors; Ballantine’s prose captures so vividly the personality of his subject — I can vouch for this, having interviewed Mr. C. on a number of occasions — that it’s tempting to want to believe everything he tells us. And forget about history or nuance. Even, perhaps, Pfening has been blinded.

Here is what strikes me as the article’s biggest blunder: AMC may well have lusted after a full partnership with JRN when the two eventually agreed, in October, 1956, to work together again, but that he did not get. In spirit, yes. In fact, he achieved absolute dominance in the operational realm, getting North, a shaken and humbled impresario, to stand aside, go away, write more of your songs if you must (Concello was no fan of North originals) and book a few acts, while I get this thing back on its feet, in running gear. Is THAT a deal? What could Johnny say. In one of his most defining moments, John Ringling North, a hands-off showman, walked silently away.

But arguably the story’s principle fantasy is to picture AMC, following North’s return to Sarasota on the ill fated funeral train in 1956, as waiting eagerly in the shadows, ready to pounce upon JRN at the weakest moment and win a way back to the power of “the yes and the no.”

In fact, if anything, in my best view it was the other way around. JRN desperately needed Art to pick up the mess and reassemble it into an indoor-outdoor sans canvas operation. Not only that, but when you delve deeper into the relationship between the two — and this is not to go homoerotic, well, not quite — there is evidence that Johnny adored Art, that he felt a great affection and respect for the man.

After having read a handwritten letter of JRN's to AMC, Circa 1940, found in the Ringling-Barnum Archives at Baraboo (thank you again, Erin Foley) , I felt more drawn to this theory of mine. In the letter, John poured out his affection to Art (signing off with “Love”), taking the little man to task for appearing to side with some strikers while possibly intoxicated. I also know that when JRN would come around the show, according to what AMC himself told me, he, AMC, knew how to duck out of site in order to avoid having to spend time socializing with, technically, his boss. AMC saw in JRN the perfect partner, and it took him a little time to get the partner to stay away form the circus. JRN on the continent “scouting for acts.” AMC on the lot, keeping the forces in check, counting the money and making sure a lot of it landed in his own personal cookie jars. Was this a form of — you fill in the word.

Concello was a wiz at circus logistics, but not a marketing giant. And on his own, not a particularly memorable -- or at least well remembered -- artistic producer. He too experimented with sponsored dates in 1952, which should tell you how well the show was not doing, and when I queried him about this ill-fated episode, in his presence, there by the indoor pool at his house in Sarasota, I drew a complete blank. A blank of denial? Of embarrassment? He refused to acknowledge any such thing. Was everything I read about that season of disappointing sponsorship returns in The Billboard a fantasy? Something concocted by a Bill Ballantine? All I could conclude was that Concello did not want to be associated in history with telephone solicitations. How average that would have made him look. But even giants sometimes look only average. It was not the sort of a Ringling ballyhoo one associated with the greatest show on earth.

In that one telling moment, I felt the pride of “the little man” for his years with the circus that was then envied by the entire world. A pride so deep he could not bring himself down to the level of an average big top boss.

In my forthcoming book, Inside the Changing Circus, this from Bill Ballantine I quote, and I am wondering how true or false it might be. He is talking about elephant handlers:

“The idea that you can’t hurt an elephant because it’s so big and powerful is a popular misconception. Among bull hands, elephants feel even a fly or mosquito on their hides so they feel the hook all right. The trunk is especially sensitive. Any injury to it results in exquisite agony.”

Anybody care to comment on the statement’s accuracy?

Opening night at Madison Square Garden, kicking off the new indoor era: Pat Valdo, left, John Ringling North and Arthur Concello. Photo from Bandwagon.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Big Apple Circus Dreams Big ... 75 Steele Years and Still Flying High ... 75 Cent Tix to Ringling ... "I Love You Honey" Author "Loved" Many ?!?

Soaring Senior: The great Tony Steele. Photo from News Chief.
[Update, 8/15, 1:53 PST. I reported in error that the Flying Caceres will be appearing with Big Apple Circus. I should have said Cortes.] Flying my way in no particular order, off radar: Big Apple Circus touting its next show, Dream Big! Press release promises more muscle in the air than last year, what with the Flying Cortes, from Columbia, making a return visit and Russian aerialist Anna Volodko also on the bill. Among other fresh features, there's magic and manikin cutups from Holland's Scott Nelson and Muriel Brugman. China is lending their Shandong Acrobats, a large ambitious troupe working ensemble risely. Another Russian contributor is juggler Dimitry Chernov. By golly by giggles, Grandma will be back. And Jenna Robinson is cast as singing ringmistress; I'm sorry I did not get to see more of short-lived ringmaster Kevin Venardos. The operative word, "Big" suggests as much comedy as circus theatrics. I'm looking forward, if only I was a New Yorker. The Big Big Apple Show uncorks in Dulles, VA, on September 22. New artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy, visibly in command during a Stamford Advocate interview last month, revealed much about his ideas for upcoming shows, about which, more in serious depth later here ...

She may have loved him -- or them -- until her "season" was over: That's the snickering skinny from an inside source recalling how Duane Thorpe, in a near rage, characterized the backyard antics of author Connie Clausen -- "a little first of may...[not a nice word beginning with s]" -- but what a talented [not a nice word] . Connie penned the terrific tome, I Love You Honey, but the Season's Over. According to my source, Clausen, who got cast as a "ballet broad," did not last the season, but whipped up a great deal of nocturnal action as the circus slithered and screamed up and down the rails -- although, whether for personal pleasure or professional gain, details not disclosed. "She had the gall to write about it," quoting my source. Might he/she have simply been jealous of attention that otherwise might have been directed to him/her? Why such ill will? As I recall, this book is absolutely tops, so what "gall" would the writing of it have constituted? Makes me want to re-read; it's now on my make believe reading list (Oakland Library hasn't a copy, drats), just after The Razor's Edge, my current hold.

75 is BIG ... 75 is the age of legendary Tony Steele, first trap wizard to land the then super duper triple-and-a-half, who now lives down in Haines City Florida and is "soaring" again. Profiled recently in the News Chief, Steel's first job was on the Gil Gray Show as a roustabout, but soon he was flying high. In full commercial bloom, Steel flew in Vegas venues for 20 years. He now guest instructs "across America." And what dramatic audience reactions did Steele steal, such a natural born ham was evidently he. Lillian Letizel, you've got competition! (Letizel would sometimes fake fainting spells at the end of her act, complete with dramatic equestrian director rescues and rushed exits) So, here, from Tony, is his baloney: "I would deliberately miss the triple and bounce out of the net," and, then, in came the medics, onto a stretcher was the felled Steel placed, but not for long. Our battered hero would spring back onto his feet, climb high again and "attempt the trick a second time, and it would bring down the house."

Oh, you shameless hams! Somebody should hand this item to Kelly-Miller's Adrian Poema, Jr., who is on my A watch list. That kid's already a seasoned crowd milker ... Back to Tony, now in his 75th year, the still generally fit leaper recently experienced "the most thrilling thing" when participated, successfully, in the passing leap in upstate NY -- without medic intervention. Way to fly, Tony!

75 cents to see the Greatest Show on Earth! That's what a circus ticket cost when P.T. Barnum was born (let's be nice and believe the Felds for a moment), and that's the cost in Pittsburgh when Ringling-Barnum hits Consol Energy Center this Thursday, yes, in the year 2011. Each performance includes 200 seats for only 75 pennies each. Too good to be true? Add an additional "facility fee" of 25-cents. And was ticketmaster around when P.T. was born? Once the lucky 200 are ticketed, the rest can still secure seats for only $10. That to me still sounds grandly generous.

I suddenly have a new idea for ground-breaking showmanship: Why not the return of Tony Steele to the ring, as a gesture of compassionate inclusion, complete with 75 cent tickets for seniors over 75?

Who owns the Kelly Miller tigers? I've confirmed rumors that Casey McCoy is officially off the show, all I had to do was check his blog ... It's conventionally understood that Casey tigers are owned by his wife, she said to have filed for divorce. I said "said." It's also been rumored that John Ringling North II (his name grows in stature by the minute, no?) may be in the process of purchasing the animals. Meanwhile, Radar is presenting them. This kid is a crack photographer. Let's hope he cracks the whip right inside the Big Cage ... BTW: What outstanding coverage the show enjoyed from the Toledo Blade, thanks to an inquisitive young reporter named Zoe Gorman, all of age 20, doing a summer internship, in from New York with tremendous talent. This kid, who traveled with the show for three days, has a future, I do hereby declare. Rare to read anything about the big top in mainstream media so well researched. Gotham, grab her!

Okay, I'm out of the tent. Nobody knows my cell phone number ... because I don't have one (yeah, I'm kidding, kind of)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Morning, Already Looking Back at the Sonoma County Fair: World's Winningest Jokey Does Not Let Me Down

It's been many many years since my race track days, betting two bucks to show on the horse with the best odds. This year, the jockey you see lured me back.

The betting bug hit me when I read about the winningest jokey of all time, Russell Baze, who regularly rides at Santa Rosa. Last year at this very track, he won his 11,000th victory.

I found a real live cashier -- what a reassuring pleasure. I longed for an authentic experience, thank you, and made my daring return bet: two dollars to show on number 2 in the second race.

Baze kept his horse (I forgot its name) in the third place position across the finish line. I was banking on a return of $2.20, which is what a similar bet in the first race had reaped.

But, Oh Happy Baze! My new favorite jockey paid me $2.40. In today's sinking economy, a 20% return is nothing to scoff at. Makes good horse sense to me.

Cashier guy told me "the casinos are killing us." It shows in the declining attendance.

This year marked the fair's 75th anniversary, and I'm now an official part of its history. In a special book they printed, they included a reminiscence of mine, originally posted here, about Foley & Burk Shows, the railroad carnival.

The Tilt-A-Whirl, a true classic, lives on!

Foley & Burk carried a rare reverse-direction merry-go-round.

I remember the dapper presence of carnival owner L. G. Chapman, especially when the show returned to Santa Rosa in the fall to winter quarter in the flower show building. He was there supervising the rumble of wagons into hibernation. Once when he spotted me standing next to my bike, watching, he said, "So you think you'd like to be a carnival man?" I nodded yes. He smiled.

Here is my contribution to "A History of the Sonoma County Fair" ...

There's an old ice house -- no, there was an old ice house down Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa, on whose raised exterior walkway I once stood on enchanted summer days when a carnival train rattled into town and was spotted there. I watched transfixed as a wide array of multi-colored wagons of Foley & Burk Shows rumbled and clattered from flat car to flat car, muscled hands tugging at their tongues, pulling against ropes to guide them onto the runs, down which they bolted with wild force, hitting the pavement for sure, jerking this way or that, getting hooked to tractors and pulled out to the fairgrounds ... Sometimes on my bicycle, I anxiously followed them.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Monte Carlo: You're Going Home. Showbiz David's Circus Festival Photo Search Dumps Princess Stephanie. Next Pic, You're On! Go for it!

So what do you think, World? Showbiz David's next photo candidate for his upcoming book Inside the Changing Circus, was found on the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain website. Will photographer Christophe Raynaud de Laage, say "Yes"? Or will Showbiz David suffer another humiliating runaround?

Two days ago at 16:36:16 PST Time, I gave the gold clowns at Monte Carlo and their obtuse operatives from Germany to Florida, exactly 48 hours to make up their minds. Just as I expected, these specialists in chic fashion-runway indifference could not be stirred off their precious pedestals.

Fine with me. Absent even an e-mail reply from my letter to Princess Stephanie, I was starting to resent the image of her in the photo that I would like to have used. Starting to feel the absence of a soul behind the face. Perhaps when it comes to a one-on-one (I am the farthest thing from an institution or a committee), Prince Stephanie gets overwhelmed. Her younger years, as I've since learned in googleland, were socially turbulent, to say the least. As they say, money can't buy you everything.

Monte Carlo: Pack your essentials, pick up your courtesy Greyhound Bus through-pass return ticket at the front door, and have a pleasant exit out the tent flap.

OK, let's talk about some of the other circus festivals out there, of which I know virtually nothing. Sorry, but I just don't jump to Academy awards shows of any sort (way too long, boring, and, worse, sacred cows honoring sacred cows). Yes, whoever called them "beauty contests" may have it right. Neither do I feel much for the Rings of Fame, be they in Peru or Sarasota. Not since some very iffy names have been shamelessly enshrined, foremost among them scoundrel Ben Davenport. (Perhaps dear Ben was honored for providing such humane working conditions, even a private car, for his professional con men, thugs, and "red light" pushers.) And certainly not until names like Louis Stern and Irving J. Polack are awarded the respect they well deserve.

Now, as for Monte Carlo: It's been easy for me to default to Monaco. It started out first. It's the Big One. But here is why I am going to take a harder look.

Item: Yes, of course, their astonishing indifference to my letters, e-mails, etc., although I stand on my past assertions that, overall, the hand-outs at Monaco seem to reflect accurately upon the nations that currently produce the best talent. But more important, these little markers:

Item: At the Sonoma County Fair this week, I was handed a free copy of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, in which, on page two, there's a photo of some Chinese "Stackrobats" at a festival underway -- in Havana. Made me wonder if I ever see photos from Monte Carlo in our newspapers? I receive write-ups touting festival winners from Don Covington, but they are, as I recall, press releases from Monaco. This little encounter inspired me to search other circus festival websites for photos; thus, my current candidate at the top.

Item: Potential conflicts of romance in judging festival performers. This from the website, Mad for Monaco: "In 2000 Princess Stephanie began a relationship with the Swiss circus owner and elephant trainer Franco Knie who she met a festival in Monte Carlo when awarding him a prize for Best Animal Tamer (italics, mine). Unfortunately, Monsieur Knie was married and the affair only became known publicly in 2001 when Knie announced that he was leaving his wife for Princess Stephanie. For several months thereafter Princess Stephanie and her children traveled with the circus, living in less than luxurious conditions, and her daughter Pauline became so infatuated with the elephants that Knie included her in the act. However, by the next year that relationship was over as well." End of quote. Princess Stephanie seems to have majored in short-lived liaisons and/or marriages to a number of nefarious characters. I raise this as a credible issue because such a lifestyle has the potential to interfere with act selection and act evaluation.

Item: Judging Animal acts. A couple of months ago while surfing YouTube land, I watched two animal acts at a recent Monte Carlo festival. The 34th, I think. Of high note were Les Elephants, as they were called, three or four pachyderms executing a superlative routine of intimate human-like gestures; as far as I can find, they were presented by Sonni Frankello, and, if this is so, this act earned only a Bronze. But yet, an even more baffling judgment to my eyes was the Gold awarded one of the most do-nothing wild animal acts I've ever suffered, the one hosted by Martin Lacey Jr. Simply inexplicable. However, I did not realize until delving further that lions are a lot harder to train than tigers? Still, what a long boring display, hardly worth a Bronze in my opinion.

Which begs two big questions, who judges this event? And how does an act get included in the first place?
The tiger act I saw at Cole Bros. Circus this year was far superior in shaping, content, fluid presentation, and scoring. The hind leg walking tricks of Casey McCoys tigers that I've seen on You Tube are superior.

So there.

Will the photo above appear in my book? Will there be a photo from ANY festival? Perhaps, if not, I'll ask my friend Boyi to help me stage the first "international" Grand Hula Hoop Hoedown. I already have a picture in my book that will do justice to the event -- a deliciously plain image from Tim Tegge illustrating rambunctious hula hoop overkill. It may give satisfaction both to lovers and haters of the formless form. The whirling exponent seems to have, for a costume, removed her skirt, dress or slacks, and gone with what was left. Not exactly Miles White. More like, Say, Sears.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Will This Photo of Princess Stephanie Appear In My Book "Inside the Changing Circus" ?!?

Good question, even when I ask it of myself. Don't know yet, but should in a day or two.

I am about to deliver a final ultimatum. In fact, I may deliver it right here on this blog. Pardon me for not having a Park Avenue PR firm to do my messy work.

Whenever I get the feeling that I am grovelling (that usually comes after heroic displays of patience), I get nauseous, loose self-respect, tend to reverse direction and walk away. One of those healthy to-hell-with-convention Krishnamurti moments.

Why do I like the photo? Princess Stephanie, it would appear, is doing a lot to bring attention world-wide to circus arts. I like the happiness and pride of people around her. Is there a crime in that?

What do they want of me? Here is a record of why I feel like I have finally reached the promised land and nobody is there. So very Montreal ...

During mid-June, I sent two e-mails to the Monte Carlo Circus Festival press office. No reply.

On June 27, I sent a formal letter to H.S.H. Princess Stephanie, explaining the book, including a resume of my past seven books -- four of them about circus both here and in Russia -- sharing with Stephanie a good feeling about her father, who penned a wonderful endorsement for my book Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus. No reply.

On July 12, I contacted via e-mail the editors of the Festival Newsletter. No reply

On July 26, I e-mailed Rodney Huey, who handles Monte Carlo PR, I believe, for North America. I realize his may be a hard job, given how little respect Circus USA gets from France. My question to Mr. Huey, was, may photos that bear the term "hand out photo" be used in a book? In particular, I expressed my interest in the photo you see above.

On August 9, Mr. Rodney replied, advising me that he had forwarded my request to Laura van der Meer, Executive Director of the Federation.

On the same day, Ms. van der Meer e-mailed me that she had forwarded my request on to "the appropriate person," from whom I should expect a response shortly.

I immediately sent her an e-mail, in which I thanked her, attached the above photo, and wrote, "I believe it reflects well on the significant attention given the international circus scene by Princes Stephanie ..." I also attached a copy of my resume and, to flesh out the reality of my current research, a photo of myself and friend Boyi Yuan sitting in our seats at ERA Intersection of Time in Shanghai last year. And I mentioned the endorsement Prince Rainer had given to my past book about his good friend John Ringling North [North had once served as a judge at the festival]

Surely, I assumed, this would more than suffice. Well, no!

This morning from Germany, I received an e-mail from one Sebastian Huchtebrock, "Assistant to Artistic Director" of the festival competitions, asking me, " ... why you want to publish it. Please also let us know why you want to publish the photo of H.S.H. Princess Stephanie and how this photo will be related to the book."

Well, they haven't -- yet -- asked me to walk on water or send my medical records or prove my worthiness as a Pizza delivery guy or Avon Saleslady. No, for the French, I preciously fear, pausing to emit a trenchant sigh, nothing short of a fluffy Proustian thesis will do.

So here I am, withered, weary and whacked out. Yes, Peggy, that's all there was, and what a relief to be bringing this ridiculous ride to closure [I hate that word, Have avoided using it, but here it suits the landscape].

As I write this, I am also finalizing a very short e-mail they will eventually get from me, in which I will direct them to this post: You, whoever you are, HAVE EXACTLY 48 HOURS TO SAY 'YES' if the ABOVE PHOTO is to be published in my book, Inside the Changing Circus.

Frankly, my dear Monte Carlo, I don't give a damn.

Monday, August 08, 2011

John Ringling North II & Kelly Miller Land Major Coverge in Ohio

Update, 8/18: Contrary to my earlier reporting. the Poema family will not be returning to Kelly-Miller in 2012. From James Royal, "Both the Poemas and John and I look forward to them being in a future edition of Kelly Miller."

The House of Ringling is in the Tent: John Ringling North II watches a performance of his Kelly-Miller Circus. All photos by Block News Alliance/Michael Henninger.

It may not be New York City, but neither is it Hugo. The Toledo Blade, which reaches a metropolitan area numbering well over half a million people, lavished an impressive three-part story on John Ringling North II and his Kelly-Miller Circus, complete with a slate of professionally flattering, albeit ill-lit, photos snapped by Michael Henninger. Blade writer Zoe Gorman obviously did not recycle a press kit to produce this stellar report.

It may well mark the most significant coverage yet accorded North II, now in his fifth season running the show. Kelly Miller clown and blogger Steve Copeland has posted links to all four articles. Steve himself gets engaging attention, along with the Poema family, ringmaster John Moss III, and a few other staffers.

Most revealingly, North II speaks of his youth, of scheming to be free of attending all-male prep schools so he could sit in co-ed classrooms, of his circus dreams, duties on the show, learning basic rolla bolla and juggling. Of special interest to doubting circus fans will be John's recollections of his famed uncle, John Ringling North. On that fateful day in Pittsburgh, PA, back in 1956 when North declared the tented circus "a thing of the past," says nephew John, his uncle "was too upset to watch the show." Traditional fan speak has is that JRN was a callously detached "absentee owner," as they believe him always to have been -- despite his having spent much time on or around the show during its last two years under canvas. And despite all of the radical changes he was implementing at the time (many of which were ahead of their time). In deed, North virtually never attended a performance of his own circus once it finished out rehearsals and made it through opening night. A mystery I am hoping his nephew will one day explain.

After Ringling North I sold the circus, then a thriving indoor operation once again in 1967, as remembered by nephew John he "was kind of lost. He used to write the music for the circus and dream up the production numbers, and he had no more circus. He was always planning how he could get it back, but he never did."

The Poema family rehearses backstage, while ringmaster John Moss III stands by, ready to blow the next whistle.

Today, there is a Ringling most definitely inside the tent. John Ringling North II travels with the show for half its season, and when he's on the lot, he takes in virtually every performance. "They put the show on; the least I can do is watch it."

When Kelly-Miller came up for sale five years ago, a key component in North II's sudden decision to make a purchasing offer was his long-time friendship with seasoned trouper Jim Royal, who was, around that time, serving on Big Apple Circus (a very very high class show) as general manager. The two have apparently worked well together. The show is now, said North to reporter Gorman, "breaking even."

Altogether, the three articles project a high morale among company members to be working for a real Ringling, in fact, the first Ringling to run a circus in 40 years. Remarked John Moss III, "It was a great thrill and honor to be the first ringmaster in decades to be able to say the word Ringling and have an actual Ringling in the audience as an owner of the circus."

John II compares an indoor circus to "spending a day in the supermarket." He never felt much magic inside the arenas.

This hardly looks like the flop house we thought this clown was driving! Steve Copeland puts on today's face. And the laugh's on us.

And he may be bringing smiles to the departed souls of not only his father and uncle, but to the Ringling brothers, who started out in 1884 and wound up the undisputed kings of the circus world, envied around the globe. Surely founding brother Albert, who never liked the three-ring set up, would be pleased.

During each performance when he's with the show, North slips out of his seat at a certain point to make an entrance and demonstrate bull whip cracking while the ring is being rigged for the aerial ballet performed by "the North Starlets," John's continuation of the name given them by his Uncle John. Once there were dozens floating in unison over three rings. Now there are only four. But in today's single ring market, no longer are tent size or number of performers -- and elephants -- the makers by which the public judges a circus.

Next year's show, we learn, will carry a pirate theme, and the Poema family will be back with a Russian swing turn. [not so, see update above] That means the House of Ringling, to its sterling credit, is keeping one of Spangleland's most dazzling showman, young Adrian Poema, Jr. under its little big top. This kid lights up "America's One Ring Wonder" with rare charm and humor. He is circus. So, evidently, is his promisingly engaged boss.

Post update: Zoe Gorman followed the show onto Kelly's Island with extended coverage. Describing high points in the show, wrote Gorman, "The energy reached a peak when Adrian 'Gordo' Poema, Jr., danced to 'Gasolina,' -- flipping backwards in the air off his father's feet in a foot-juggling routine and pointed to the crowd."

Monday, August 01, 2011

Monday Morning Takeouts: "Water for Clowns" at NY's Flea Theatre ... Circus Smirkus Goes to Press in Vermont ...

The recent film fizzle Water for Elephants, a depression-era tale of a young veterinarian student running low on tuition cash and defaulting to a creepy circus, gets attention it may not relish when a depression-era meteorologist, ruing the death of his dog, Biscuit, jumps a train and ends up with Martini Bros Circus. Not a film but a stage show titled Water for Clowns, soon to premiere at the Flea Theatre, the work of New York Goofs, a company consisting of professional clowns and clown teachers. Premise is a doozy. The dog was run over by a car driven by the parents of Water's vet student. Are you laughing? The Martini cut-ups must endure "the harsh reality of show business when a drought prohibits the use of water in their routines." Steve ... Ryan, does that resonate? How to get there if you're a tourist: Your destination is 41 White Street between Broadway and Church. Take subway lines A,C,E,R,N,4,5,6 to Canal. Run is a brief four nights, beginning August 11 ... Show sounds like it could be a comedy riot if they spoof the highly spoofable Water ... Which reminds me to make a note to myself: The next time I do Gotham, since I buy the 7-day subway pass, I'm gonna ride the rattlers all over the town, up and down, getting out here and there for brief look-around peaks, back in for another grinding tear to another Big Apple vista. The Bronx intrigues; never been there.

Speaking of clowns, here's two young jesters whose dedication impresses: Kelly-Miller's Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs have the drive, the passion, and/or the madness that marks the true pro. Not locked into same old same old shtick. No, they turn over their repertoire each season. Already, with hammer, nail, scotch tape and glue in hand, the guys are building next year's props, combing hardware outlets and flea markets, carpentering away to give their big boss, John Ringling North II, new gags and giggles. Way to go, joeys! ... But somebody should tell accident-prone Steve: Please, choose your mud puddles more carefully! It's a medical wonder his unscripted pratfalls have not landed him in reality TV, or on Dr. Oz. Reading Steve's blog, we get the sketchy impression that maybe biz is a little more than, maybe a lot more than decent. ... JRN II traveling with the show in his mobile depression-era version of the Jomar ...

Hold the presses! Extra! Extra! Read all about them! Circus Smirkus, the youth show from Vermont, has hit the summer roads with Front Page Follies: Big Top News. I surfed by serendipity into a charming You Tube of one of their recent shows, almost as much ballet as circus, classically scored, a charmer on its own gentler turf. But they also have a little muscle, yes they do! Heck, they might even possess the "strength" that Anonymous, lurking about this blog, insists is the mark of greatness. Promises press copy (thank you, Courier Covington) you can bank on "soaring flips, graceful leaps and colorful hi-jinks." Big Items include a dueling-typewriters skit (boy does that play to my keyboard addictions), a pair of loony scribes attempting to "out scoop each other." On ice cream? (Laugh, please) ... Premise sounds ingenious. Troupe numbers 29 members, ages 10 through 18. Show is now on New England tour through August, making 70 shows in 14 cities.

Out of towners wanting to see both shows? Check Travelocity for a package deal combining Water for Clowns with Tyepwriters for Tumblers ...