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

Monday, September 26, 2011

Gavin Berger Reboots Big Apple Circus Big Top: Show's Corporate Funding, Tix Sales, Board Morale Rebound

Update, 9/28: The Washington Post gave Dream Big! a solidly affirmative review.
New Big Apple Boss: Gavin Berger might be the real thing. Photo by Buck Ennis

Show no longer in dread of red, back closer to black. Corporate funding kicking back in, with a matching grant of $1 million met, shrinking a $2.5 million deficit. Ticket sales, down by 20% during the Great Recession, on the rise again. Budget beefed up by $1.5 million. Four recently dropped play dates restored.

Crane Business News credits new exec. director Gavin Berger’s take-charge leadership, eleventh hour corporate funding, and a “re-energized board” for “saving” Big Apple Circus. It’s “back on solid footing.”

Berger was hired on an interim basis only last April. How quickly the board saw in him the perfect mover and shaker to re-boot Big Apple’s world class big top. Four months later, they’ve handed him the “yes and the no.” He apprently brings a welcome bolt of optimism and gutsy in-the trench fund-raising savvy, much needed.

Previously, he directed Lincoln Center concert hall shows, more recently, developmental affairs at Consumer Reports. “We crashed and burned in every direction,” said he to Crane’s Miriam Kreinin Souccar. “But we worked really hard to rebuild.”

It only took Berger a couple of weeks to raise the $1 million needed to match a $1 million grant from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation.

Berger’s believes that the show’s community outreach programs to hospitals need stronger marketing; If more New Yorkers were aware, more ticket buyers might be turned into private donors as well.

Where it all counts, of course, is in the ring itself, and new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy is getting strong support from the Board for his desire to bring in new creative teams each season to keep content and production fresh.

Big Apple's new show, Dream Big!, just now uncorking in DC, offers a promising touch of fresh funny air in the menagerie. Along with the dogs and horses that have become Big Apple staples in the tricky animal-rights era, they've added an African crested porcupine and a Vietnamese potbellied pig.

I’m laughing inside, trying to picture the pig.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Circus by the Slice: Grandma's Last Big Apple Tour ... Felds In a TV Soap? ... PETA Pitching to Seniors ... Bombs Over Bagdad Big Tops? ...

Barry Lubin. Photo by Kelly Shimoda for The New York Times

Swiftly, beware of muddy rhetoric down the Covington chute! Not too unexpectedly, Barry Lubin as Grandma making his last tour with Big Apple Circus, announced a big New York Times story with fine photos. Now 59 and clear of the cancer he was successfully treated for a few years ago, Lubin revealed that the experience had "deepened" his comedy and inspired him to "reassess" his life and career ... It's time for a change, says the clown, who first appeared with Big Apple in 1982 and has been seen in most of their shows since. New Big Apple Boss Guillaume Dufresnoy agrees, telling the Times in his cool-speak, "Grandma gave us a sense of continuity, and Grandma will be missed, but it's an opportunity for everyone. For the evolution of Barry, and for the evolution of the circus."

Show's new edition, Dream Big!, facing the critics tonight at the Dulles Center in DC, is not being promoted as Gradma's farewell tour, even though that's how the Times is treating it. Explains Dufresnoy, "We are presenting it as our 34th edition -- business as usual." Lubin carved out probably the most memorable modern-era American clown, bar none. And now, "Grandma" is off to my grandfather's homeland, Sweden, to take up residence with his partner, Ann Hageus, where he plans to appear in European circus festivals and work with some of the best clowns on a stage tour. Not totally gone, Lubin has signed on to teach a class in physical comedy next year for the University of Virginia's Semester at Sea ... More about this story in a future post ...

How much Feld can a TV soap take? We might get to see next year if an ABC series, now in development, goes the daunting distance. Said to be loosely based on the life of Nichole Feld growing up in a circus family. Now, if they have the nerve to dig deep, there's plenty of high and low drama to mine -- assuming Kenneth Feld does not pry himself and his attorneys into the picture. Still, it's an intriguing iffy. Notes Hollywood actor and documentary film maker Phil Weyland, no stranger to such projects inside and out, "The producers will get some money from ABC, make a presentation with episodic possibilities, budget, etc, and ABC will tell them to keep going (shoot a pilot) or forget it at a certain point. "

From here to to prime time is a long hard journey. Explains Phil, "very few shows make it through this process to even a pilot." Somehow, myself speaking here, I just can't see Kenneth Feld feeling very easy or smug, proud or boastful about a TV show that might crawl, sneak, lurch ever so close to revealing not-nice things about his family's checkered relationships and history.

Of course, PETA is smearing the series already, predicting it will be a "glamorized cog on the Ringling Bros. PR machine" unless, specifies PETA, the producers illustrate "how baby elephants used by Ringling are taken from their loving mothers, repeatedly slammed to the ground, gouged with bull hooks, and shocked with electric prods to teach them 'who's boss." Oh, is that all? Gosh, PETA, could you be a little more explicit

Feeling the pressure in Sacramento, Ringling's elephants for the first time in history did not make the public walk to the Power Balance Arena. Oh, the heat is not just on over here, no no! In Britain, the Lords defied Prime Minister Cameron in pushing to advance legislation that would ban wild animals in circus shows ... Speaking of which, here comes PETA around yet another creepy corner, this time turning its hate brigades onto seniors, seeking their moral support. They're running ads in AARP.Com They've got 85-year-old actress Cloris Leachman on board, she calling for her class to boycott any circus that features elephants. In a video, cracks the Cloris chorus: "And we thought the hoops we have to jump through for Medicare are a nightmare." That's right, Ms. Leachman, to get proper pachyderm coverage, you gotta jump up and down and all around in spangles and stand on your head ...

Little top Bits: Closer to a merger are Circus Sarasota and Sailor Circus ... Ringling-Barnum pitching two-for-one tickets recently during its Bay Area stops ... Bombs over Bagdad big tops? That's what the Associated Press essentially wonders, reporting on the return of the first circus to the battle-crazed country, first since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Optimistically called the Umbrella Circus, and let's hope it's made of steel. A little lean in the lineup, most artists refuse to sign on, but, as of 9/8, a sword swallower and a sneak charmer were costumed up, ready to make opening spec. Lions and tigers awaiting permission by customs inspectors to snarl on cue. But on went the show, it did, as witness the above photo. One fan willing to risk danger in the pursuit of delight was Alawan Ghazi, who showed up with his three children. "Car bombs and weapons find their way easily to Iraq, " said he. "But bringing circus animals is a more difficult task here." Circus is planning a six month tour of duty.

And to Barry Lubin, embracing a wide-open future, goes the last word: "I've finally accepted that I'm a clown," he told the Times. "That's what I do." And please, Barry, do keep doing it!

All My Children: I thought You'd Always Be There. Nothing Lasts Forever, Not Even A TV Soap

Queen of Soaps: Susan Lucci. Will she sign on to a projected continuation of "All My Children" on the internet or cable TV?

What a strange poignant sadness I feel. I haven't watched the show seriously in years, other than looking for Erica a few times a year and then rarely finding her. It was she who hooked me, around 1980, her wickedly subtle sense of humor, I swear. Oh, heck, I'm going to make an embarrassing confession here. I once actually sent her a fan letter, but only because I found her so funny and wanted to tell her so. For a time, they treated me as a fan of their club. I did not respond.

Giving birth so many years ago.

For my money, too many of the show's more interesting characters faded away over the years, leaving us with a lot of rather dull posturing studs and dolls. The clever potting that so once compelled me seemed to slacken off. Two of my favorite characters were Palmer and Opal. Palmer is no longer there, it appears. Opal is.

A great actor: David Canary played both the ruthless tycoon Adam Chandler, above, and his lovably innocent pure-as-sunshine brother, Stuart.

Today I had to watch the whole thing, the Grand Inevitable Finale, and Erica did not let me down. Long-time love, Jack, below, vexed again in his latest offer of marriage to Miss Elusive, finally had the guts to tell her, "Frankly, I don't give a damn!" and head for the door. Erica followed after him, stopped with that plotting gaze in her selfish eyes, and had the last word on the last ABC episode of All My Children: "Watch me!"

Lost in a perennial dating game, Erica forever balking at marriage. Jack has had it.

Just the fact that, after 41 years, it's going off the air feels like the end of an era that I once was a part of, and era that I would still like to feel existed.

It feels like a great big death in a virtual family.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Morning Musings: Remember the "Aerial Ballet"? It's Back, Bringing Fresh Ideas to Stale Air ...

Time to play taps for single traps?

New life in the air: A duo in Shanghai. Photo by Boyi Yuan.

For a spell of maybe 20 to 30 years, the Felds let it go, and for probably good reason. The aerial ballet, brought to its maturity under John Ringling North, had turned stale and redundant.

Lately, this potentially enchanting form is reasserting its value to the show.

Item: Ringling of late is carving out some wonderfully inventive multi-aerial displays, either intended as aerial ballets or, by accident, taking on their form. The more creative they are, the more welcome.

Item: One of the highlights of this season's Cole Bros Circus of the Stars is its aerial ballet. Like what the Felds are giving us. Johnny Pugh, the same, has the space and he is filling it in a number of ways not uniformly fixed. In fact, the more varied the movements of the individual aerialists, the more interesting are they to watch. You could argue, but what is anybody doing up there that amounts to much? I'd answer, altogether, especially with a variety of movements, their combined efforts create a most pleasing kaleidoscope of poetry in motion.

Item: in the confines of one ring, John Ringling North II offers his four North Starlets, and although they can't compete with the wider spread of action offered on Ringling or Cole, they, too, offer audiences something above the ring decidedly more enchanting than perilous, which may be why the aerial ballet, when presented with inventive flair, may come to actually replace the older era "daredevils." Actually, circus daredevils seem to be on the wane, thanks to their secured counterparts hooked to mechanics whose allusions to danger aloft simply don't fly.

This is my guess: Over the past 20-30 years, as a younger generation took to the fabrics (aka: webs, silks), much of their solo work simply did not generate sufficient excitement. Then came the duos, prominently if I am correct, from China, and also coming out of Cirque du Soleil, who combine strong athletic connections with lovely romantic imagery. They fill the air, unlike the nouveau practitioners of the "static trapeze." In this sense, they, working what they call the "sensual silks, have helped us find a viable new flight pattern back into the air by way of adding more bodies to the display. The result: a new day for the airborne ensemble.

It's the creative staging that is making the difference, setting apart what's new from what had become too predictable and passe. In addition, this less-adventurous form gives audiences a far less hazardous vision, which I suspect is that they have grown to desire.

Is it time to blow final taps for the single traps? For those flyers who rely on lifelines, yes. The safety wires render their routines false, theatrically interesting at best. Without risk, why the wide swinging arcs? Why the sudden dives away from the bar?

In 1948, Barbette had the girls performing on a dazzling array of aerial rigs in his Monte Carlo Aerial Ballet.

In 2011, the Felds set a consortium of Asians into the air, flying on straps, and the effect was perfectly pleasing. It was novel. Different, Enchanting.

What more can one ask of the aerial ballet? Heck, it could soon become one of the most awaited-for items on the program.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

More High-Energy Circus Flash from the Felds: Ringling’s "Fully Charged" Catches Creative Fire from China and Russia Down the Final Stretch

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey -- Fully Charged
Oracle Arena, Oakland, September 10.
Tickets: $15.00 - $100.00

Whenever you go to Ringling these days, you can almost always count on being dazzled by one or two, maybe several acts of remarkable novelty, usually from Russia or more likely China. You can also count on sitting through action that may leave you wanting, on even having to endure the occasional clunker. You'll be assaulted at nearly every turn by sensory overload from hyperactive lighting effects and periodic firework blasts to blaring ringmaster hyperbole approaching the pitch of a high school rally. All of which can make it feel as if the ballyhoo followed you into the tent and you are still being pitched a circus that you have already paid to see.

Fully Charged, the latest offering from the Feld family, delivers on all the above. So much so, that at times it nearly trips over itself in its excessive theatrical trappings. Curiously, it has been set into one of Ringling’s most schizophrenic floor layouts ever. Those ancient ring curbs (remember rings?) of late usually ignored, are this time around not only ignored for the most part, but conspicuously stacked in sections at the edges of the action where, by tradition, they would have been fully assembled, fully charged. Like recycled relics, they have a new calling this visit: to serve as mini bleachers for the adults and kids, probably from the VIP class, who are ushered out onto the arena floor midway through the first half to watch the show close up, virtually inside of it!

The absence of a clearly defined setting only adds to the impression of a traffic jam of half-baked staging concepts. Gosh, folks, when the entrances and/or exits are sometimes more interesting to watch than the actual acts themselves who make them, give Feld Entertainment credit for their trumping eye-candy. Costume design, full of brilliance, deserves special mention.

Okay, the year is 2011, not 1950. The competition out there is terrific, and that long long circus train bearing the words "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey" is not being funded by PBS pledge breaks. The Felds must be doing something right, right? They are reaching a viable demographic with both the old and the new.

For my money (a $25.00 ticket), down the initial stretch I found a number of the acts to be rather uninspiring. Include the tigers, hosted by Tabayara; two rings of pleasant liberty horses, and a pair of Russian strong men of moderately toned obesity who manipulate what is claimed to be a telephone pole. They return later in the program to manipulate each other in a rather gauche attempt at team contortion that may leave you wondering whether to gawk or giggle.

Clowning is a mixed bag as well, full of the acrobatic slapstick favored by the Felds over “character.” Outsiders Stanislav Knyazkov and Vasily Trifonov score nicely in their spoofing the strong man turn. Less amusing is clown alley’s efforts to change a huge light bulb, the angle being just trying to reach the bulb, which struck me as a one-note drill with an ill-placed payoff. I kept waiting for them to try unscrewing the damn thing, which they never did, or did I miss something? And then there's the promise of what initially appears to be an old fashioned clown walkaround. But walk it does not. All eight or nine joeys occupy fixed positions around the track, as if frozen in time, each working his bit(s) in morosely lit shadows. Strange.

Of no help to this mediocre first half onslaught is one of the cheesiest musical scores I’ve yet encountered at a Ringling party, which includes a pedestrian title song. New ringmaster Brian Crawford Scott fills a generically directed role with cookie cutter efficiency.

To be fair, before the interval we have been amply engaged by a winning three-act display of juggling; kept more than awake by the high wire exploits of the Danguir Troupe (if only they weren’t placed along the side of the track, depriving decent sight lines to hundreds of patrons); and given a few goose bumps, I charitably suppose, by a double wheel of death essayed by the Fernandez brothers. By the way, when might this strained ritual be sent on a sabbatical?

Cherry pie charisma? I'll bet this guy comes from a prominent circus family. Photo by Showbiz David

Yes, a bad photo, but look at all those stray lonely ring curbs.

Okay, onto the good news. After a 25 minute intermission, the show finally takes off and delivers, brimming with inventive action and gusto that makes what has already passed seem even more passe.

With the entrance of the Yakubou Troupe of strap aerialists, the show bolts off into a bold creative arc, and the band responds effectively with excellent scoring. The ambitious Asians fill the air with captivating flight patterns. Their tricks might be simple, but they’re fresh to the eye and therefore eye-opening. A visual knockout. Heck, the whole thing felt to me like Barbette-meets-Cirque-du-Soleil- on-acid; it felt like Ringling years ago when production and ring artistry were more perfectly merged and balanced. Another last half highlight are the 20 lithe acrobats of the Tianyicheng troupe from China who work on “bounce stilts” leaping over and around each other, and tossing basketballs into hoops with clever collaboration. Yes, like it or not, even under the big top, China seems more and more poised to rule the world. American “circus schools,” and what are you doing these days?

Elephants win the crowds affection behaving charmingly not inside the ignored rings, but around their residual imagery. And, finally, a third powerhouse rush of true circus energy is thrown up by the Negrey ground acrobats from Russia, who worked on Ringling's Boom-A-Ring! — a socko ending to a show whose final frames catch fire. Literally too, for a part of the blaze is fueled by Brian Miser’s melodramatically staged Human Fuse, a nifty upgrade to the old cannon trick.

As I said in the beginning, under the wearying sledgehammer spell of the Felds, there are crowning benefits. As disorienting as this opus can feel, there is much to recommend here, especially for today’s moppet market raised on sound bytes and flashing i-gadgets.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars tops) 3 stars

Showbiz David explores how circuses are scouted, produced, directed, sold to the public, and too often disingenuously "reviewed" in his forthcoming book, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Two TV Land Icons of Rare Indpendence Return: Simon Cowell Next Week, Bill Moyers in January

I've skipped American Idol lately; It's big hook for me was always, "what will Simon say?" Even then, I only tuned in sporadically because the show is so padded with promos and background stories. And when they dumped emotional Paula, the perfect foil for Simon, it felt like an unnecessary death in the family. Then they brought in all those weird replacement judges; there is something about long stringy hair on an aging androgynous rock musician that gives me the creeps.

Simon returns to the air next week, along with his judging pal Paula, to kick off his new show, The X Factor, and I'm watching.

Better yet, Bill Moyers, who retired from his PBS Friday night slot not so long ago, is coming back, but not exactly on PBS, though his program will be available in syndication for local PBS outlets.

Can you imagine: PBS, a veritable non-stop parade of tired old rock and roll tributes aired over and over again, and all manner of self-help gurus, hasn't an hour a week to spare for one of TV's best-ever journalists? Shame on you, Pledge Break Society!

If the local PBS station that I have sent money to does not pick up Bill's show, not one more cent will they ever get from me. Actually, it's high time that the U.S. Treasury Department, what's left of it, pull all funding for PBS, which was founded to serve as an "educational" network." What an embarrassing joke it has become. Just the other night on CNN, I witnessed a marvelously revealing Tea Party debate moderated masterfully by Wolf Blitzer. I still believe in the free market.

Moyers' sobering reports on the most critical issues facing American life, on politics and culture, international affairs and the American war machine, are virtually unmatched. He makes smarmy Charlie Rose look like Ed Sullivan.

As for Simon and his tart lip, he has a rare gift for saying so much in so few words. Bill, more intellectually expansive, keeps alive the probing spirit of Edward R. Murrow.

Now, if somebody (a computer hacker, maybe?) could only reincarnate Jack Paar and David Susskind, I'd be totally happy in TV Land.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What John Strong Teaches Me About Circus Performance Showmanship

I was lucky in my boyhood to see circuses so imaginatively directed, from Polack Bros. to Ringling-Barnum, to -- yes, the tiny John Strong Circus that played the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rose for free. How I looked forward to this diminutive delight!

In my forthcoming book, Inside the Changing Circus, there are two chapters that, now I realize, are related. One, "Directing the Impossible" (about the circus being the most difficult form to direct because of how abstract the acts are) appears early in the book. The other, "High Wire Critic," in which I advocate a certain path for reviewing a circus, is the penultimate chapter (ho, ho, you with your dictionary and thesaurus -- have fun looking up "penultimate"!)

What was I saying and where was I going with this?

I envy the circus fan who can enjoy the acts themselves without being bothered or swayed by all of the elements that can turn a random lineup into a cohesive driving performance. I can't. I go looking for presentational values -- the showcase -- as much as I do for the individual artists who supply the critical content.

And so it is always a new challenge for me, facing each new show.

There's a tension I feel in considering the balance between raw content (the acts) and performance showmanship (how they are linked, costumed, scored, paced, presented as a whole).

And how does John Strong fit in here? Remembering him, I was struck by a late-breaking mini-epiphany laying in bed this morning (sorry, just had to use that "e" word). JOHN himself was the production. HIS sparkling presence. HIS smile. HIS hokey mannerisms. HIS announcements. How he would chirp, "Got a great hand, Dixie!" after a lady performed the most basic trap act ... "Hey, Rainbow, listen to that applause! They loved your shenanigans!"

And if you he saw you sitting there in the audience, what a big deal he would make out of it. He once, discovering my skinny figure in the seats, introduced me as if I were the Secretary of State. I was all of maybe 17 years old.

From the simple to the sublime, ever since English equestrian Philip Astley added acrobats and clowns to his horse riding exhibitions to reverse flagging business, the circus has presented itself to the public as a performance. The Europeans did little other than to run the acts one at a time, with a ringmaster stepping into the ring between each, same old same old, to issue an announcement. Stodgy Old World reliable.

We Americans had performance showmanship in spades, and we still do. The Russians possessed it as well. And now, of course, those infuriatingly brilliant mortals up in Montreal.

Maybe because Barbette was on the scene when I, barely into my teens, fell for the big top, I was conditioned to expect production splash.

Summing up a review with a starred rating: A great exercise, for in struggling to commit, I am forced to re-examine my notes. I always list the acts on a piece of paper, next to each, something indicating my reaction. "*"= tops. "so-so" == well, you know what. Keep going back to the list, it's my anchor. No matter how great or lousy was the production, the acts must take precedence.

Sort of.

Did I say "directing the impossible"? Okay, let me add, "reviewing the impossible."

Hopelessly addicted, I plead guilty. Blame Barbette. Heck, blame John Strong.


Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sunday Morning on the Dying Greens: "We play until we can't play any longer, then we just have to leave."

Their numbers are dwindling down to a precious few. One hundred members twenty years ago, I'm told. Now, only 25. When I first discovered them forty years ago, I was entranced by the spiritual sheen of the game. By its soft silent music. Sunshine and grass. The graceful roll of large bowling balls aimed at a small white ball on the other side.

And now, the greens are mostly vacant of competing passengers. Some days, only one game consisting of six players. Five years ago, I'd see three games in play, side by side -- maybe four.

We're at the Oakland Lawn Bowling Club. Some seasons back they gave up on trying to recruit me, when I kidded about maybe posting a sign on my lone bench that would read "Do Not Disturb. Spectator Only." Perhaps I had come to treasure the quietude of patiently watching this very low key form of competitive exercise. Perhaps it helped carve out a minimalist corridor in my soul.

When bowlers come from other Bay Area cities to compete, the greens come alive. The game looks healthy. Then, they all have to wear traditional white.

The young bowler in blue, Jonathan, is a rarity. His dad is a zealot at the game, a near crack-up in his addiction to winning. Jonathan's two younger brothers now also play. In the picture below, there he is six or seven years ago. He's been known to trump a whole lineup of seasoned players decades older than he!

A pity they've been unable to interest younger players. Even sadder is their apparent inability to replenish their dying ranks with older age candidates. Time and time again, when somebody walks by expressing curiosity, that person is handed an information sheet and shown a friendly face. Time and time again, I do not see any of those souls again.

Two generations joined in a common passion.

They each have a rhythm. In my private mind, some are my pet players. But any bowler who is having a good day will charm my attention and respect.

The refreshingly offbeat bandanna bowler (the title I gave him, known only to myself) came for a season or two, down from Canada, I heard, where he played the livelier Italian game of boccie ball. Some days, his friend(s), who struck me as disco drag queens, would saunter dizzily onto the scene to watch, and what a bizarre challenge that was to normal lawn bowling decorum. But the Bandanna Bowler was a good sport, though once, after taking a call on the green, he aborted his participation, dashing over the fence and off to the club house to fetch his bike and peddle away to another destination. I should ask somebody sometime whatever happened to him.

When last week I told Georgia, the lady bowling off, above, how sad it was to see only one game in progress, she agreed. Just across the street there is a high rise for senior living of some kind, and she can't understand why none of its residents will take up the game. She watches the ranks gradually shrink away, owing mostly to health and aging problems. Her late husband was an avid lawn bowler. "We play until we can't play anymore, then we just have to leave."