Wednesday, November 30, 2011

MIDWAY FLASH! MIDWAY FLASH! Ringling's Alleged Animal Abuse Fine Makes CNN Headlines ...

It flashed across CNN this morning -- jolting me out of my chair as I was slaving heroically over the indexing for my book, Inside the Changing Circus -- a tortuously tedious task taunting my sanity -- a task I do not relish. So, let's take a break, David, I said to myself!

I dug further, and this I struck from the Huffington Post:
"Life's no circus for the Ringling Brothers these days.
The USDA announced Monday that an agreement was reached where Feld Entertainment, Inc., doing business as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (Feld), will pay a $270,000 fine for allegedly violating the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).
According to a USDA press release, Feld also agreed to "develop and implement annual AWA compliance training for all employees who work with and handle animals, including trainers, handlers, attendants and veterinarians starting March 31, 2012, and to establish an AWA compliance position on its staff by February 28, 2012."
End of the Huffington.
Am I surprised? In the wake of that horrible PETA undercover YouTube of Ringling elephants being sadistically slapped around by bull hooks and cursed at, no, I'm not.
And certainly not, considering that, as far as I know, the Felds have yet to explain to us how the film footage was, as they claimed when it hit the web, "misleadingly edited."
Mr. Feld? I still await a few peeps from you on the issue. Your explanation, sir?
Why I am so heated over this? Because this kind of news hurts ALL circuses, that's why.
And Ringling Bros. should lead the way, not down into a dark ages ditch, but up onto a higher more enlightened road.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Flying for Gold at Monte Carlo 2012

Thanks to Jack Ryan, I have a list in Italian of some 26 acts slated to compete for Gold Clowns at the next bash Over There ...

I always look for countries, seeking to confirm or revise my general impression of which nations turn out the top acts. I assume that Princess Stephanie and her crowd are generally fair about international inclusion.

Know what? I think they are, for this is reflected in the talent signed by our U.S. circuses, year after year.

This year's Monte Carlo lineup, no surprise, draws heavily from Russia and its old Communist block associate countries, and from Europe, to the tune of 14 of the acts. China checks in with only two, a real surprise -- unless the Chinese are erring on the side of underexposure. The tent will come alive with horses and ponies, contortionists and jugglers and acrobats -- the usual panoply

And, roller skaters! A good old fashioned roller skating act? No, no, this one's from the center of cerebral contortion -- France!

Now, back to Over Here. Remember, the United States of America? Large expansive sigh ... sigh ... sigh, have we here in Occupied U.S.A. not a single American performer on the bill? Technically, NO.

However, notes Jack -- Thank you Jack -- a Japanese juggler named Ty Tojo carries a strong U.S. connection to the festival. "He was born there [in Japan] but has long lived in Las Vegas with his family." Ty's stepfather, and the man who trained him, is juggler Dick Franco.

Memo to American born performers (are there any out there working still?): Change your names to French, Russian, or Chinese. Or Japanese. Apply for dual citizenships. Get thee to a plastic surgeon for an ethnicity overhaul. And do what the Russian circus wannabes had to do long before they staged their revolution back in 1917. Some changed their names to foster outside affiliations. Suddenly, the local rope walker who got no respect in his home rings, now returning to another part of the country as an "Italian import," drew cheers from the crowds.

Ah, Planet Earth is such a callow shallow place.

[I'm still charmed by my memory of the home-made dog act I saw on Carson & Barnes this last season. For them, let's see -- new wave French minimalism from outer Siberia?]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Circus Knie 2011: A YouTube Review ... Has the Old Europe Big Top Changed?

Thank you, Don Convington, for sending me this 8-minute teaser-sampler containing, I take it, the season's highlights from one of the world's most respected circuses.

The show's assets, moderate to outstanding, are pleasantly satisfying. There is, yes, a well honed artistry to much of what you will see, albeit in a rather unimaginative context. Which, once you settle in (as I did, after watching the video a second time), makes for a welcome change from the more overproduced (Ringliing jumps to mind) and over commercialized American shows.

A memorable climax here is supplied by a Chinese group (I assume) demonstrating a terrific ensemble risely. Across the upended feet of five manipulators on their backs, a very young fellow, almost a kid, maintains steady headstand posture as he is bounced from one to the next. It's a wow, but like a few other turns, in slow motion leaves something to be desired.

Three charming guys in striped shirts are mildly amusing. Impressive tricks are delivered by well-drilled horses, acrobats and aerialists.

The variable music, which sounds recorded, is only OK -- once you get used to its not casting any kind of a distinctive atmosphere. But, even given tepid direction, I'll take Knie over Feld. I think. For a while. What do I miss? A certain lack of dramatic momentum. But this is just a sampler; I saw another YouTube of Knie 2011, with the same acts except for the guys in striped shirts missing, in their place two comedians who talk a lot. Hmmmm. Nice laid back evening. Okay, summing up:

It's still old Europe: Respect for the act with little extraneous hoopla gilding the ring.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Showbiz David Gets a Sneak Peak at the Design for His Next Book, "Inside the Changing Circus"

What a high! It came couple nights ago, PDF of the interior design work in "draft" form (I call it page proofs), for my new book, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide, due out next January. Love the strong chapter headings and how the photos, a load of 77, are prominently featured.

Camera masters: I'm happy to have on my side some true shutter stars: Big Apple Circus's Bertrand Guay, who works for Agence France-Presse and photographs circuses all over Europe;" Ted Sato, Big Show photographer during Ringling's' last glory years under canvas; another late great, Sverre Braathen, the attorney-circus fan who snapped wonderful images in Kodachrome of Ringling, and whose work resides at the Milner in ISU. In my book, Braathen's images appear in black and white and yet, sometimes the conversion brings out greater clarity on the faces, which flatters Ben Davenport and daughter Norma, and a very young star who made a one-year cameo on Ringling in 1953 ...

Mister Mistin's day in the sun
: Touted to be only 5-years old when he played the xylophone for Ringling, this perky showman sports a pistol on a float in the Candyland spec. The kid's face is full of attitude.

Among others I'm happy to be giving attention to:

Louis Stern: An atypically happy image of this shamefully overlooked giant, from Tegge Circus Archives, on his feet and warmly smiling, his arms outstretched, with Valerie Antalek. He deserved to feel good about himself.

Under the Big Show big top, 1924, during spec. A great image by Charles Clark, the "white" canvas is so dirty and streaked, I can almost feel a warm damp heat in there, it feels so real. I envy everybody who got to see that show!

Ted Sato: One of his which he gave me is of the big top blossoming, surrounded by towners looking on and elephants grazing (do they graze?). A beaut.

The World of Today: Bertrand Guay's work captures the dazzling innovations that mark many of the acts that land on Big Apple Circus.

And so many more. Estelle Butler riding Roman style at the Garden ... Cliff Vargas looking handsomer than you can probably imagine, cropped out (my doing) from other owners, he getting rare placement with a few other passionate producers ... The Logan elephants under the old Al. G. Kelly and Miller Bros. tent ... wry Russian animal turns -- one a cow and a monkey appearing to be playing, well what, ground soccer? ... Asian wizards from Shanhai to Big Apple ... Leitzel and Agee in the backyard ... a young Mistilav Zapasnhy topping a family pyarmid on a trio of horses, his face aglow with the confidence of a benign god ... Tension between Art and Antoinette Concello in the backyard with Eddie Ward, Jr., staying wisely removed ... Griebling and Karandash ... and, yes, Grandma!

On and on and on, those are just a tease of the photography that reflects the ever-changing circus, going back to Circus Maximus, forward to Cirque du Soliel ... Page proofs are a safe thrill, before the thing rolls off the press and gets looked at by strange impartial eyes. But what an update in publishing. So far, only two things have moved between me and BearManor Media in snail mail: the contract and a flash drive of the images to a guy in New York state, Brian, who is designing the book with exemplary flair.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Barbaric PETA Ringling Elephant Abuse Video Makes Mother Jones Magazine Expose; Feld Claims DC Bill Would "Outlaw Circuses"

If a new bill in congress aimed at banning wild and exotic animals from circuses reaches the White House and gets signed, it would "outlaw circuses," claims a rather hysterical Ringling VP Stephen Payne to POLITICO.

Legislation is being sponsored by Virginia Democrat Rep. Jim Moran. The usual animal-rights groups are gathering around to support. Mother Jones magazine just came out with an article authored by one Deborah Nelson, claiming to detail "harrowing tales of abuse" during a year-long "investigation into Ringling Bros. Circus."

Worst of all, not just for Ringling but for all circuses, the Mother Jones article links to -- guess what? Yes, to that barbaric 2009 You Tube revealing wretchedly cruel treatment of elephants (or the imagery of it) on Ringling . Bull hooks thrash freely back and forth across the bodies of pachyderms assembled backstage and waiting to go on. Mean trainers curse out the elephants. I just watched it again, and I had forgotten how stomach-turning it is.

Memo to the Felds: If this YouTube IS deceptively edited, as you claimed when it hit the internet, WHY NOT, WILL YOU PLEASE, TELL US HOW? I AM MORE THAN READY TO HEAR YOUR SIDE OF THE STORY. Might those lashing sounds, for instance, be sound effects added to the raw footage?

The bill may, of course, bite the sawdust, as congress (whatever legislative skills these whoring hypocrites can muster) tries addressing more pressing national matters. But support in favor of the bill's intent will surely continue to gain traction as long as additional filmed evidence of animal mistreatment gets seen by disbelieving eyes and talked about.

Feld said to have spent $200,000 this year on lobbying efforts in Washington. Heck, that's chump change to Mr. Kenneth. And he, having learned well from his masterfully manipulative dad, is well versed in how to massage the media and slant the story. Whether he can buy his way out of this latest potential PR setback remains to be witnessed.

I await your explanation , Mr. Feld. I know that somebody in your Vienna office reads this blog. Whoever you are, will you kindly pass my request onto the big boss? And please, tell me just how your concern for animal welfare does not apparently have in place a more rigorous monitoring eye on the handlers who direct (polite word, that?) your pachyderms about.

Call me naive. In the end, circuses -- at least yours, sir -- must do better. A LOT better.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Slush Pile Treats & Trash: Out, Damn Items!

I have here before me a stack of papers, cumulative bits and pieces that need to be posted before a proper trip to the waste basket. Who knows, somebody out there may swoon to an item that did not grab me when it first crashed into my tent. So, here we go, in the absolute order in which these trifles appear:

"We have reached the chill winds of autumn, and there are rumors in the air that the circus will not survive many more. Are we to believe them?" That from an early draft of the chapter, "Cry, Clown, Cry" in my book, Behind the Big Top. Amazing, it made it all the way, word by word, into the final draft, and into page proofs. I think I kept it to demonstrate how we continually are predicting the Last Season, the Last Show, the Last Exit and the Last Load out for the Last Barn.

Yes, yes, at last, you are saying, move on! Okay, okay ...

A list before me of honorees at Peru's version of a Circus Ring of Fame, my notes at the top of names NOT on the list, among the insulted: Art Concello, Faye Alexander, Frank Braden (possibly the most gifted of all syntax spinners), Irving J. Polack and Louis Stern (giants who reinstated American respect for the one-ring circus). No further comment on this, Kids. You go figure. (Notice how I refrained from listing iffy honorees, I need to redeem my precariously questionable attitudes.)

What next, here: "Has Cirque lost its soul," asked one Janice Steinberg, penning a story in a periodical I failed to name. She remembering, and oh how I can relate, Cirque du Soleil's historic invastion of L.A. in 1987, of being, at the show's end, "moved to ears." Me, too.

Something about Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco losing its lease at Pier 29, and I have little incentive to dig further. Think they are moving elsewhere in, as the locals call it, "The City." Yes, "The" in CAPS. Precious place over there, that, full of precious people the center of their own precious illusions.

Back of a page on which I wrote out scores I gave in rough notes, years gone by to the Carson & Barnes shows I saw, which won me over, some, that is. Out of 4 stars tops, here goes: 1975: 3-1/2 stars; 1978: 3 stars; 1984: 3 stars. During those years, on the few occasions when I saw Beaty-Cole (which I fondly remember for its operational professionalism, despite ...) I never gave the show more than 2-1/2 stars. Okay, go throw up if you wish. Some of the BEST circus shows I've seen in years past, before the coming of the Grand Carny Intermission Rape, were under Dorry Miller's Cracking Good Big Top, when a real live band, some of them cracking hot, played on ... I would like to sponsor a court order banning intermission over there, and requiring the Byrds, in order to get in deeper touch with their artistic sides, to wear berets and spend the off-season in Paris.

Okeedokee, or something like that: Some scribblings (I can't read my own writing, sorry) about John Ringling North II, about the risk of bringing back too much of the same year after year, but, you know what, I'm making that a Big One on this platform in the future. (Keep this note; get somebody to translate it for me)

"What do they fear" in my hand on another slice of paper. Under that, I wrote Ted Chapin (he of Rodgers and Hammerstein), Patricia Ringling Buck, about whom I will hold my testy tongue other than to say: We collided once at the Ringling Museum via letters over a wish of mine to use photos; this I will have fun detailing in book I intend to someday write about my adventures in and out of circus worlds and publishing houses.

Print outs of the fine stories about Kelly Miller and JRN II by Zoe Gorman for the Toledo Blade; no, not the trash can for these. File them in the stuffed metal draw in that old cabinet in my bedroom.

A piece about retired Russian circus bears living in "cramped, stinking cages" in a bus parked along a highway near St. Petersburg. Reprehensible!

Yeah, it's getting bleak down at the bottom here. But here's a nice handwritten note from Mr. North II, last June, sending me the program and inviting me to the show. Classy guy. He might only have seen me were he, whenever I happened to show up which I didn't, selling tickets at the front end. Unless I could risk a backyard walk up to The Jomar. I've grown so backyard shy over the years, and I don't have backyard get-even-with-that-pretentious-critic insurance.

What else, not much: Oh, this tickler. A print out I made of a comment left by Jeff Swanson (thanks, Jeff, for leaving your name, a class act) in which he said, "David, Oh no David, please do stop blogging."

Uh, well, uh, Jeff, I asked the doctor about that. He said I might need a pill if I stopped blogging.

Helplessly I'd rather not stop. I am a pill free "circus critic" freak. See that photo up to your right? That was of me on a brief break from my local nut house re-bonding with my beloved loyal Royal, circa the year Barbette told me that working on the Ringling show was like "a sex holiday."

End of slush pile. Anybody still there?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Broadwayland, Desperate for Tony Nominees, May Feign Respect for Critically Dismissed " Spiderman" ...New Tuners Fizzling Fast.

The land of blockbusters and blockbuster flops said to be hurting for viable new musicals, needed to bolster upcoming Tony nominations for the Best This and the Best That. They might have to invent a new category -- Best Salvaged Turkey. Best Script Doctor. Best Resuscitation Director.

Experts speculating that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the aerial intense tuner that was endlessly in previews until its book was gutted for a rewrite, its hazardous aerial segments made safer and blander -- yes, THAT musical may actually snag a few Tony nominations.

Show is doing decent business, slipping south a bit in recent frames. Operating costs are so huge, experts earlier predicted it would take until, well, let's say Armageddon, to turn a profit on this turnaround turkey.

Season so far not too hot. New shows slated for Gotham premieres either flopped out or nixed hitting the Big Boards. Money a problem in some quarters, talented materials in others.

So many classic hits lined up on Revival Row, among them, Evita, that producers of a planned return for Funny Girl decided against taking their chances this season.

Another problem is limited stage space, thanks partly to the long-running shows that keep real estate at a premium. Some producers hoping for the demise of new shows struggling to stay alive. When one hits the dust, there's another waiting to open and test the market.

Anonymous: You Are Such a Coward, and So Pathetic, and You Lighten My Yawn

I was going to say "laugh," then I revised down to "giggle," but heck, I did NOT giggle. What did I really really feel? Oh about something closer to a meaningful yawn, trenchantly speaking. (If you like that trenchant word, try reading the novel Death with Interruptions, I think you could really really relate.)

And, despite the absence of your victoriously vindictive, and, oh yes, scintillating presence, my traffic continues to rise.

Sorry to burst your fake balloon.

You'll have to hide out elsewhere to get even with the circus that done you wrong, or with me for not having bestowed a fake glowing review upon your secret squeeze, or, what else? Oh yes, or to trash the cats that do things yours never could do, things that even those who stole away your spotlight still can't do.

But, take some heart. You nudged me a little to shovel this lazy post onto the midway. I'm having a mini-riot of impromptu fun. Call it SELF OCCUPY SHOWBIZ DAVID.

Nice feeling, once and a while in Life, clearing the decks, chasing cobwebs into their well deserved anonymity (haha! Clever, that?) doing a little pithy purging (notice how generous I am in avoiding cliches like "spring cleaning"), opening the windows wet and letting fresh stale air inside the tent.

So, Mr. Big Little A, my suggestion is this: Get a life. Or a better Lie. Or Lay.

And if that doesn't work, perhaps a brain transplant?


Sunday, November 06, 2011

Amtrak, Change My NY-Bound Train to May! There's a "Singing" Rodent at Big Apple Circus I Just Must See!

This could turn into a true John Ringling North moment for new Big Apple Circus artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy,who is standing the menagerie on its head this year. North staged the spectacular, attention-grabbing "Ballet of the Elephants" back in 1942.

Well, the circus has advanced since then onto a more ethereal plane, if you will. Elephants and tigers? Old hay, those. No, bring on the pot-bellied pig from Vietnam, the African Porcupine named Percy (or Porgy, by other accounts), and, last but not least, the grand champion of crooning rodents -- Bob. Yes, Bob.

Described by an enamored New York Times reviewer as a "streamlined woodchuck," the flamboyant South American star, four feet in length, "sings" Taio Cruz's "Dynamite."

These critters are bringing fresh fun into the tent. This new Big Apple Circus outing is titled Dream Big

And it's spicing up the notices with a humor that will, I predict, infect the town. "If you can't offer big cats," noted the Times, "why not go with really big rodents?" Or, to be scientifically accurate, colossal capybaras?

That's what the circus is supposed to be all about. Novelty and surprise, and humor in equal measure. North scored big with his hooky bull ballet; I suspect the PR on Dufresnoy's aberrant barnyard has just begun.

Oh, yes, and several of the regular acts performed by humans sound really boffo, among the treats, comedy illusionists Scott Nelson and Muriel Brugman, called "hilarious" by both the Post and the Daily News. Bring it on, you Big Happy Apple!

Friday, November 04, 2011

Hush, Hush, Anonymous! You Are Now on Sawdust Sabbatical

And I don't know when you may be coming back.

And if I get less comments, so be it.

I have grown increasingly tired or your profanity, personal insults against others, etc., etc. Some of your views may be spot on, so why not identify yourself? What are you afraid of? After all, the subjects discussed here hardly rise to the level of redacted Wiki-leaks.

This is my way of trying to foster a more comfortable place, where people of ALL views may feel welcome to express themselves without fear of being personally attacked or diminished.

Yes, I realize, there is a fine line between taking issue with the opinions of others and issuing the grand insult, intended or not. To be clear: It is is OK here to counter, even challenge other views in civil discourse. It is NOT OK here to engage in sarcastic, derisive, profane, or belittling language. Remain nameless and you don't have a chance.

Let's face it: No two people see any given circus exactly the same way, which is the same as anywhere across the entertainment spectrum, be it theatre, cinema, pop music, yodeling or TV land. We all have our passions. A circus that satisfies you is your truth.

I am also feeling a respect for contributors who do have the guts to put their names next to their to their words. How daring!

Anonymous, enjoy your sabbatical.


Thursday, November 03, 2011

3-Minute Midway: Proposed Bill to Ban Circus Animals Getting Some Traction?

If a proposed legislative ban on lions, tigers, and elephants from circuses, proposed by House Democrat Rep. Jams. P Moran of Virginia, ever becomes law, look for a rush on dogs, horse drills and performing porcupines of the breed currently stealing the show under the Big Apple big top.

“While the 12-person super-committee holds closed-door discussions, the work of the remaining 523 members [of the] U.S. Congress should not grind to a halt,” Mr. Moran told The Washington Times on Tuesday, believing that the "mistreatment of exotic animals in traveling circuses deserves attention."

According to Animal Defncers International (ADI, a new one to me), the use of circus animals is banned in 34 cities in 17 states.

I wonder if this issue will end up either before the Supremes, in another "super-committee," or on Judge Judy?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Anonymous America: All That Freedom, So Little Courage

How ironic that in this insanely liberated, some would claim "exceptional" land of the free, a land whose press kit penned by Mr. Jefferson screams out "freedom of speech!!!", so many practicing Americans are so afraid to attach their names to what they have to say.

There was a time, when my Grandma wrote letters to New York papers, when you had to give your name and telephone number, had to be vetted. When those who had something to say were proud to be identified with what they had to say. When the discourse, as a result, was more civil and less hateful. God bless the internet? Perhaps nothing has influenced my life so much as how my grandmother ended one of her published letters, a copy of which she proudly sent to us in California: "Live and let live," she wrote before signing her name. At the age of around ten, I was mighty impressed with her open and tolerant mind. Impressed that the lady who wrote those words was my grandmother.

Whenever I see Anonymous on any blog, not just one of the circus blogs, I see a sad nameless coward. Perhaps I should be kind and consider the voice that of a nameless victim of free-speech backlash, violent in words or assault. But when I see another Little A spewing forth anger or hate, sarcasm or stupidity, I see just that, a great big Little A.

Oh, of course, I could take into account, given the incestuous little circus world in which this blog operates, that there are the professionals out there hiding behind my tent rather than taking to their own platforms, possibly trying to get even with a show or manager who fired them or refused to hire them. I can almost sometimes feel sparks of animosity flying back and forth between ring rivals. I am not totally naive.

Or they-you, yes you, might be shills flaking for one circus, or dissing another, feebly advancing your hidden agendas. I have inside information from past experience to know that I am not imaging things. Sometimes the slant in the comments is so blatant as to make me laugh.

And now, Anonymous is lining up, calling himself one day, P.T. Barnum, another day Joe Blow, and the next, well I won't name that one. Still unwilling to attach his/her name to his words. Telling me that all anybody has to do is fake a name. Well maybe, but maybe not. Too bad, because sometimes he/she has excellent points to make. But I don't care. I'm going to stand behind those who do attach their names. P.T., back to your grave, please! See if you can send up here, say Al Ringling or William Coup, Irving J. Polack or John Strong. Any of them know far more about circus than you ever did.

Somebody a while back asked me in a terse edgy comment, "Who the hell do you think you are?" Kindly, I did not turn the question on him.

Whoever the hell I am, you have my name. You have my bio. Whatever I am, I am not Anonymous.

Al Ringling, are you there yet ... Al?