Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sneak Peak Inside the Changing Circus: Music Without Bombast ...

A soundscape of haunting impressions, so far far a cry from Karl King and George Gershwin

Like it or not, with due regards to the windjammers (Yes, I too listen to those wonderful old tapes of Ringling windjammers blowing high across the rings), "circus music" changes, as it forever must. Bagpipes in the band? Perhaps once up in Bonnie Scotland.

Come to think of it, bagpipers once made a grand appearance at Polack Bros Circus. So there.

Here is your test for today: from this following passage in the book (yes, that book, only $19.95 on Amazon, by the way), from what country might such scoring come?

"... delicately seductive charts seem to find their gentle tunefulness in the moods of nature, from a sequence suggesting a tinkling dance of raindrops down a mountainside (for a rolla bolla number) to a lonely spare landscape on a windy night, chorally evoked, that invites patient respect for the slowly shifting positions of a trio of young contortionists bound together in sacred concentration."

The country? The show?

Dig Deeper
Dream Smarter

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Morning With the Once Greatest Show on Earth ...

Photo by and courtesy of Craig Walker

So you think I don't put up enough pretty pictures like the bigger tents on the midway? Well, eat your hearts out, you shutter bugs! This one I found, by sheer serendipity, whilst researching for another (non circus) project. And, boy, does it make Ringling actually look like the Greatest Show, etc., etc. -- unlike how it can sit there in the huge cold arenas where the truncated performance space can sometimes seem swamped within a surrounding concession tsunami.

Maybe John Ringling North II hit it perfect when he said that going to a circus indoors is like "spending a day at the mall."

But out there in the mountains, ain't the Big One a dazzler!

Craig Walker’s description of the photo:

"On Tuesday, July 12th, 2011, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (red unit) train approaches Tunnel 2 in the Tehachapi Mountains as the show relocates from Fresno to San Diego (arrival in San Diego will be in the wee hours of the morning the next day). The train has three BNSF ES44DCs (7315, 7646 and 7216) on the point, and is made up of 59 cars (34 coaches, 18 flats, 4 stock cars, 2 COFC and 1 bi-level auto rack) - 4290 tons and 5235 feet in length (not counting the diesels) - nearly a mile long!"

Thanks, Craig, for your photo fanfare.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In the Shadowland of Early Hollywood ... the Haunting Genius of "Sunset Boulevard"

Out of the past: From January 25, 2012

It's probably my favorite all time film. I'm a sucker, you see, for Hollywood mythology. If "humor" is a form of truth, so too are the epic portrayals of faded film stars abandoned by stale dreams who roam the back lots of shadowland.

Hollywood is hardly aberrational. Hollywood is an all-to-accurate exaggeration of American culture. You think they are not you? Maybe, not, but they are many of us.

Dreams of fame, harbored only on sound stages -- are you kidding? "Arranged" love a human equation exclusive to Mulholland Drive? Shall we kindly leave that one alone?

Norman Desmond stalks her memories up there in that great big ridiculously overstuffed mansion off Sunset Boulevard. And while she watches her old silent films night after night, she is hardly the only soul escaping into past glories. All things are relative. We all have memories, real or contrived, of past glories.

The intersection between Hollywood and American culture has always been a perverse act of mutual collaboration. Some would argue destruction. One side teases the other, and together they multiple the exaggerations, back and forth. I have news for you: Infidelity existed long before the first camera and two-man camera crew from Chicago arrived in the City of Angels, seeking adequate sunshine under which to finish a one-reeler.

Nor did the movies invent the other vices, be they drugs or garden variety betrayal, infidelity or extortion. Greed. Incest. Murder.

What draws me to this fascinating place is its genius to lift these sordid aspects of the human condition (along, too, with happy interludes) into cinematic rapture. Rarely does it happen, but when it does, I marvel at the souls so talented who together make it happen.

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard may be as close to a masterpiece as a film can be, it is so brilliantly and tautly organized, so masterfully wrought in escalating tension, in the impeccable acting and cinematography, all of it forming a weirdly dark comedy -- a bizarre two-faced valentine to the ghosts of a fickle town that treats them like sainted icons -- until the public (and not the studio chiefs) grows bored and turns to the fickle worship of younger icons.

Gloria Swanson delivered the performance of a lifetime. I can't imagine any other actress coming close.

I watched it again last week. And again, I was not let down. So profound is my respect, that I refused myself the risk of going behind the scenes by watching the "Specials features." No, no, not for this one. I wish to preserve my inviolate relationship to a very special movie.

I linked up Rotten Tomatoes to see how the flick fares: 98% positive. By another keystroke, maybe 100%. Sigh and gratitude, and relief. How great the honors from virtually every critic.

The mind is a fantastic instrument of self deception, and the mind is something we all live with. There is a little bit of Norman Desmond in all of us -- whenever we convert an exaggerated memory into total living reality. Beware the dangers that lurk went you can't let go, when you can't quite wake up. Beware your own Sunset Boulevards.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Kelly Miller Circus Pirates Up 2012 Opus for Road Departure Feb. 3; Can Production & Fresh Clowning Trump Repetition?

New wagon art by Robert Rawls: Is that the face of a certain blogger?

John Ringling North II due into Hugo soon, to join the show for another early opening on Texas lots.

New edition now taking shape under the supervision of Kelly Miller's manager James Royal. ""We have had a very productive winterquarters period and things are looking great."

This year's program brings back many familiar faces. And while it's hard to assess how sponsors will take to the sparse turnover in performing personnel, on paper the layout looks like an inviting package. Overall impression may critically ride on new gags being built and rehearsed by clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs, and by production flourishes linking a set of actions to a pirate themed romp closing out first half. Segment involves sword fighting, knife-throwing, Carolyn Rice's mutes arriving aboard the "SS Salty Dog," dancers and mermaid, North Starlets in the air, Friedman Torales working rolla bolla stop a crow's nest.

Here is where JRN II is showing a flair for theatricality. Not a parade, a spec, or a Cirque concoction, it's an ensemble effort not exactly (maybe never) seen on another circus.

Another display for which North had ordered special choreography will be Mike Rice working camels and a zebra while the Starlets kick it up a "Puttin' on the Ritz" routine.

Recurring comedic intrusions from Copeland and Combs may also bolster overall impact; four fresh gags from the young duo are now being giggled-up in the busy Hugo barns: One has them as angry birds, another as surfers, and another in a hillbilly update on the old washer woman gag.

Other returning features include Ryan Easley with tigers, Raul Oliveras on juggling, and elephant presenter Armando Loyal. Sara Greene and Delayna Fusco are crafting a new aerial cradle duo number.

On paper, shrewdest directing move appears to be the spotting of the Fusco Guachos display just before finale, likely to raise the sawdust for emphatic send-off excitement.

New to Kelly Miller comes single trap and iron jaw veteran Becky Ostraff, who cuts smooth classical posturing, notably sans mechanic, but minus a socko payoff.

Music: The score, in the words of Jim Royal, will be assembled and decided upon as follows: "Marshall Eckelman is our new Musical Director and he will be accompanied by Michael Harber on drums. We will be using music on the computer as well . The artists bring music, JRN II requests certain songs, John Moss suggests songs, and they all work together with Marshall."

The road, hopefully mud free, is waiting. Will the ticket buyers buy? In its theoretical favor, there is something about this show -- a mix of tradition, a warm ensemble spirit, the SS Salty Dog, fresh clowning and choreographic flashes that may lend the illusion of a brand new experience. The story of North's gentle rise to the possible status of a major big top producer continues.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Sadness of the Passage of Time ... A Pickle Family Circus Alumni Returns to San Francisco

Lorenzo Pisoni in Humor Abuse at the American Conservatory Theatre, about his days growing up in the Pickle Family Circus. Courtesy photo

Only seems like yesterday (and how many times before have you spoken or heard that phrase?), when I was discovering a delightfully quirky new troupe of acrobats and comedians at Norse Auditorium in San Francisco -- called the Pickle Family Circus, probably the first "circus" ever not to feature a single performing animal.

They went on locally to enjoy maybe a dozen good years, sometimes touring east, never under the tent that founder Larry Pisoni had all along dreamed of having.

In fact, they might have, with less political stridency and more money, turned themselves into the Big Apple Circus of the west.

Might have. So many "might haves" fill up a life. What is left of the Pickle legacy is essentially in glamorous ruins. Nothing in San Francisco, after all, is not glamorous, even the homeless, right? What lingers on is a so-called "circus school" that earns big bucks for the people who run it and teach locals with lots of $ some basic skills and how to become professional performers, which almost never happens. Far away from the city, Gypsy Snyder, daughter of PFC co-founder Peggy, has made something of a name for herself producing take-note fringe shows, such as the critical darling among the theatre set, Traces. (I found it charmingly inventive, if a tad too low key.)

Another dubious residual that lingers on in Bagdad by the Bay is the PC scent of aging Pickles and their acolytes, who, when questioned, rail against animal acts and a grossly distorted history of women in circus rings being confined to sexy prop assistants, much of which gets picked up by media outlets sympathetic to such-ill founded nonsense.

Larry Pisoni himself now teaches drama up in Seattle. His son, Lorenzo, is touring his own stage show, Humor Abuse, about growing up a Pickle, currently playing at the American Conservatory Theatre, where it landed a loving notice from the San Francisco Examiner, calling it "a tender tribute to his irascible, and at times very difficult, father."

Described by reviewer Jean Schiffman as "a wonderful sampling of routines such as juggling and pratfalls, with lots of the latter, each funnier than the last" the piece is also not afraid to slow down in spots "when Pisoni gently, and without rancor, muses upon his unknowable father's idiosyncrasies." Sharing his own lingering sadness with the audience, Pisoni imagines having a talk with his father that never took place, in which he would have asked him, "Why are you always so sad?"

The stage piece is said to have toured "all over the country in recent years," finally arriving in the city that gave birth to the Pickle Family Circus back in 1974. Think of that: Nearly forty years ago! May I shed a tender tear or two?

I kind of remember the kid, dutifully poking about in his dad's shadows, when all the Pickles were hardly more than kids themselves, having fun putting on a show in a humble enclosure marked by a sidewall. A charming afternoon of innocent ambition under sunny Bay Area skies. And even while I was watching the shows, I never imagined a spectacular future. Maybe that was a part of its unique charm and ambiance. For me, it landed my only byline in, of all papers, The Christian Scientist Monitor. In Monitor land, I too had no future.

But, oh, the tender sweet Pickle memories fill me with a sadness for the inevitable passage of time. Circus in slow motion. Laid back jazz scoring. Very funny clowning.

I'm happy for Lorenzo and Gypsy. I'm glad they both made it out of San Francisco. It's a place you need to make it out of, as soon as you can.

And I might have to go back there, just across the bay, just to see the kid on the stage talking about days around a circus that once challenged my own definitions of "circus."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My 0 seconds of fame on New York Public Radio: A Curious Tale of Deceptive Solicitation.

The blog that never was: I was looking forward to appearing on a radio show called Soundcheck that airs on New York public radio affiliate, WYNC, and then blogging about it. I thought they had me slated to participate in a discussion about big top music. The program is set to air this Friday.

Not sure that those of you who listen would have welcomed my presence. I know that for some people, my views can cause heartburn. It seemed to be shaping up to this: the windjammers versus me.

All the excitement started when, from the program’s associate producer, Katie Bishop, came an e-mail: “I just came across your new book [Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide] and your blog, and I’m wondering if you might be up for doing a segment on modern-day circus music with us.”

How flattering. New York Public Radio — nationwide, maybe! Well no, I would soon figure out. But we are talking Big Apple. The closest I ever got to Gotham was a quote about Charlie Bauman from my book, Behind the Big Top, in a New York Times obit about the tiger trainer; and a review of another book of mine, Big Top Boss, in the Village Voice, which faulted me for failing to explain why John Ringling North was attracted to beautiful woman. Please, do NOT go figure.

Putting my NPR ambivalence aside (where there is PR, there is hope, I, a one time circus flack, shamelessly confess) I answered Ms. Bishop in the affirmative, stating that the invitation sounded challenging and fun. And it did. I love doing radio, shun TV.

A day or so later, by phone we talked. Went well. Ms. Bishop tossed a few off-kilter questions my way, which can, to their credit, stimulate the creative mind. The most unexpected: “what do you expect to see at a circus?” Answered I, “I expect to see whatever they have to show me.” I’ve taught myself not to expect anything, but to be open to the artistry that fills a vacant ring. I hope to see a number of things, but hope is not expectation.

The end-off was affirmative. Ms. Bishop said she would have the windjammers on for the first half hour, and then me as a “critic” (she was obviously drawn to that word in the title of my book) for the second half, to address modern trends in circus music. I had given her a few examples of deft modern scoring, one being a lyrical trumpet solo played during a Ringling tiger act. (In hindsight, I wish I had linked it symbolically to post industrial asexual alienation -- doctoral enough, that?)

They planned to do the program fairly soon, she told me, which sounded like a week or two.

So far, so good. But in NPR land, I was destined to observe, conventional rules and ethics as applied in the private sector are evidently skirted or ignored -- or simply forgotten when inconvenient.

A week later, I followed up with another e-mail, asking Ms. Bishop if she might be able to give me an approximate date as I was planning to go down to L.A. for a few days. (Hmm, I wonder if she has issues with the Little Orange?)

Back she replied, four days later, in the most surprising fashion. Here in part is the gist of her sign off: “We’re only going to have time to talk to two guests: the editor of Spectacle Magazine ... and Janet Davis, a professor of American studies who specializes in the history of circus much.”

Followed, of course, by the usual vacuous thanks, etc.

Ooops, they do operate differently. Never has such a thing happened to me in the land of commercial radio and TV, where people make clear up front if they are considering you, careful not to lead you on. This would apply, from direct experience, to both NBC and The Learning Channel.

And I thought of Juan Williams, and of how he was treated by NPR after being fired, and of how after he told his side of the story to the press, an NPR executive stated, in apparent retaliation, that maybe Mr. Williams should see his “psychiatrist.”

I’m not sure if WYNC will, in reaction to this blog, recommend a head shrink for me. In fact I do not have a head shrink, never have and never intend to. I still old fashionably subscribe to such concepts as "objectivty" and a person's word being "good."

Enjoy the show this Friday. Sorry I won’t be there. It doesn’t sound like the windjammers will, either. But the academics will – to properly guide you.

End of the blog that wasn’t.

Maestro Evans! How many fanfares do I deserve for this one?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thank You, New York Times, for Giving Oakland a Little Long Overdue Respect!

Update, Sunday, 1/15: The New York Times today reported on the Great Wall of Oakland, against which, on the first Friday of each month at Art Murmur, videos from around the world are projected. Photo by Sarah Rice for Bay Citizen

Hard to believe. This place where I live, a far cry from the wretched stereotyping it routinely gets (much of it from self-infatuated Bagdad Across the Bay), made Number 5 on The New York Times "The 45 Places to Go in 2012" -- No, not just the U.S. They are talking the world.

Only two other CA places made the list, one, San Diego, the other NOT that city over there where I was berthed, ha ha ha!

To live here is to watch on the morning news the reporting of murders and rapes and pedestrian accidents and assaults -- ALL OVER THE BAY AREA. Yesterday, for examples, two older ladies were beat up, one fighting for her life, in the lovely Sunset District of S.F. Crime in S.F.? Sorry to burst your Bagdad bubble, yes, Dorothy.

Here is what rolled off the Times seven days ago:

"New restaurants and bars beckon amid the grit.
Tensions have cooled since violence erupted at the recent Occupy Oakland protests, but the city’s revitalized night-life scene has continued to smolder.

The historic Fox Theater reopened in 2009 and quickly cemented its status as one of the Bay Area’s top music venues, drawing acts like Wilco and the Decemberists. Meanwhile, the city’s ever more sophisticated restaurants are now being joined by upscale cocktail bars, turning once-gritty Oakland into an increasingly appealing place to be after dark. James Syhabout, the chef who earned Oakland its first (and only) Michelin star two years ago at Commis, followed up in May with the instant-hit Hawker Fare, a casual spot serving Asian street food. Big-name San Francisco chefs are now joining him. Daniel Patterson (of two-Michelin-star Coi) opened the restaurant Plum in late 2010 and an adjacent cocktail bar later, and another restaurant, called Haven, in the recently renovated Jack London Square last month. INGRID K. WILLIAMS"

But, why didn't they mention me? Or my lovely 1-bedroom rental two blocks from one of the best neighborhoods you could find anywhere on the planet, Pidemont Avenue?

So take that, Frisco! And may your little cable cars climb all the way over the stars.

My pic parade continues ...

The Showbiz David world headquarters in Oakland, the town itself termed "so rad and real" by one local artist quoted in the Times Sunday piece.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

5 Days to the Auction of Auctions at Monaco! Will Guy Laliberte Bid $1 Million for "Inside the Changing Circus"?

Author pledges a penny for every thousand dollars from Laliberte

In a letter to Cirque du Soleil founder, guide and intermittent space tourist Guy Laliberte (left, assumed to currently be on planet earth), Showbiz David (aka David Lewis Hammarstrom) challenged the Cirque King to a matching "poor-rich" grant, pledging a penny for every thousand dollars bid by Laliberte for his new book, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide.

In his missive to Montreal, the author "directed" Laliberte's attention to a concept he devised in order to explain the often mysterious alleged story elements embedded in the Cirque du Soleil shows:

"I have devised a unique concept in a speculative mode -- drawing upon logic implicit in Plato's Theory of Forms -- to explain the intricate creative processes underpinning many of your shows which, minus narrative or dramatic elements, nonetheless manage to transport your patrons on an emotional journey of sorts. I call this Cirque way, as I have best tried to understand and describe it, 'Subliminal Structure.'"

The concept is introduced in a chapter, "Some Big Top Broccoli, Ma'am?"

Blogger Showbiz David, the author of eight books on entertainment from big tops to Broadway, received a personal invitation to send along a signed copy of his book from the Federation's executive director Laura van der Meer. The silent auction, from January 19-21, covers a two day bidding war. "What a marvelous place to introduce my book on the world stage, at the most respected circus festival anywhere."

Five days and counting.

Why the disparity among the proposed pledges? "My calculations are based upon a rough sense of what we would each respectively consider to be pocket change. Perhaps I should have suggested a penny for every million dollars from Mr. Laliberte, but I did not want to come off looking cheap. I can afford a hundred dollars. It's for a great cause, the fostering of circus arts around the world, sponsored by Princess Stephanie."

Inside the Changing Circus continues to ride high on Amazon's "Hot New [100] Releases in Performing Arts." It held the number 4 position over night, and has ranked as high as number 3. This morning (Sunday), it's holding Number 6 in new Theatre Books, Number 15 in Performing Arts.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Water for Circus Vargas, the Second Screening Around: Give Me Fake Good and Thrilling Circus Over Fake Big Top Disaster Flick

Circus Owner from hell: Christoph Waltz as August powers Water for Elephants.

I wanted to like the film better than when I first saw it in a theater, where I could not hit a pause button and replay to be sure. Since I could in my living room, I'm glad to know that August did not tell his men to red-light vet student Jacob off the train, but "kick him off" at the next station.

Not that I now see August as a nice guy. I see in him the terrific actor (from Inglorious Basterds -- I must check out that flick) who gives Water its most and only intense spine: cruelty to animals and to people.

In fact, the movie is almost relentlessly pessimistic and cruel, forever on the verge of the next August eruption. And when he finally feels the breeze of his wife's sweet eyes for Jacob, all hell breaks lose, and, to that end, the film takes fire.

OK, so The Greatest Show on Earth plotted impossible things too, but by showing Heston throw off the crooked gamers, it was true to history. So why in the world would a circus owner as brutal and barbaric as August NOT have cons working the lot? His envy of the Ringling Brothers and their ethics goads him on, in like manner, to rid the show of the slippery fingered mob. Totally out of character for this king thug. I would love to have seen a real old Hey, Rube! all over the lot in reaction to a towner getting conned.

Most ugly scene of all: Side show men with iron stakes bonking the heads of young kids trying to sidewall in.

Instead of all the historically viable options, this dreary exploitation gives us something that, to my fragile knowledge, has never occurred in recorded circus history: Circus workers themselves throwing open cage wagon doors in the animal tent to let loose the wild ones, a movie aimed at in retaliation, I take it, for August's cruelty to everyone including his own wife.

So, we go from message movie -- sadistic circus owner who, quoting one of his underlings, "shouldn't have the right to be around animals" -- to Hollywood disaster flick when the menagerie is liberated, throwing a tsunami of jungleland vengeance all over the lot.

Circus? Almost nothing. Just snatches of acts. One ring on a railroad show in the 1930s -- are you kidding? Not a single elephant until Rosie arrives ... Are you kidding me again? Topping them all is the idea that Rosie alone(who does things we usually expect to see only in Disney cartons) is going to save the show and give it the pach power to rival Ringling?


What moved me the most this time, a real surprise, was the final scene, back inside the Circus Vargas ticket wagon, with Hal Halbrook as the older Jacob looking back on his years with Marlena and Rosie, both now gone, and wanting to join up, and not "run away with the circus" but "come home."

Boy, how much $ did Vargas have to pay for that prime product placement in the first scene as the camera panned its glorious posters. No wonder last summer in Hollywood, the Vargas show I took in was nearly packed. I've never seen anything close to that in recent one-ring Vargas years.

Some other bits: I did not know elephants could be taught to execute so many movements merely to voice commands. And I still don't believe it. Best of all, and totally fake in my skeptical view, Rosie whacking August with a tent stake is a howler. Although, I loved the scene.

The movie has a terribly superfluous beginning on the Vargas lot, addressing elder abuse and allowing the older Jacob (Hal Halbrook) to set his story in flashback. But all that exposition could have been handled more effectively later into the story when Jacob levels with August about not having finished college; movie should have opened in the dark of night with the lone figure of a young distraught Jacob walking the tracks in limbo, a circus train in the distance coming into view.

Most exciting scene for me was the unloading along the flats, the wagons coming down the runs! Loved the banner lines waving in the breeze, they looked real. (Circus World Museum sure got shorted in the credits, a tiny line at the very end) Why could they not have given us a real rough sounding circus band of the era, I wondered, rather than something approaching Karl King symphonic? Another quibble: The first images of circus acts, in slow misty motion, look more like Cirque du Soleil prepping under a revival tent to bring class to the masses. Excuse me, where did the Great Depression go?

I've not read the book; don't know if I want to. If the movie is true to the book, I'd guess that the book is not well researched, to put it politely.

Water for Elephants is so grim and vicious, so dark and bleak and hopeless, I have no desire to ever see this thing again. And, no "special features" on the DVD; was the cast and crew left just as bewildered and disillusioned as am I?

Here is my greatest circus cinema wish: A movie about John Ringling in the roaring twenties, and then losing power; subplot, the rivalry between Leitzel and the end ring aerialist leading to the latter pushing herself into an affair with Codona. It really happened, kids. There is so much out there under tents of power, magic, intrigue, shame, charisma and corruption to adapt!

End scene: John Ringling a few years later, out of big top power, passed by, sitting in a wheel chair watching a Coles Bros. Circusparade passing him by, tears down his reminiscent eyes.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

THE Parade is now on!

And they're on! -- Stephanie and Bob.

I'm listening to them on KTLA and watching the parade on my hi-def.

The New Year does not feel NEW until I get my sunny SoCal Stephanie fix.