Monday, April 30, 2012

Rants Unlimited, Continued: Circus on Film, You Have More to (Dread) or Look Forward To

My impossible circus movie dream: A director in the mold of Orson Welles crafts an adult movie about John Ringling’s last years — the circus king arrogantly losing power; the setting: Ringling-Barnum in the 1920s-early depression years; sub characters: Starved for love, and close to the brink, trapeze god Alfredo Codona and elusive Lillian Leitzel, both doomed to an early exit in separate spheres. Wrap up: John Ringling, pitifully out of power, in a wheel chair on a street corner watching Cole Bros. Circus parade by, tears down his face; Stupidly stubborn out-of-his-mind Codona, taking gun to his head after aiming it at his third wife, Vera Bruce, a beauty who had never loved him, had refused his advances, finally giving in despite declaring romantic indifference, which only drove Alfredo insane, led to an early divorce and a tragic murder-suicide down in Long Beach, California.

Another circus movie dream: Let whomever directed The Social Network or a recent film of that excellent ilk take on the remarkable story of the five Ringling brothers, who rose to world circus power. Preferably not Woody Allen or Quintin Tarantino, nor Pee Wee Goes to the Circus nor a Disney gee-whiz-we-can-put-on-a-circus, kids! This dream, I fear, has already been smashed. You see, the five Ringlings may be headed for the silver screen if a movie in the works at Paramount reaches the shooting stage. It’s being scripted by the same people who brought you the Smurfs (23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) Shrek 2 (89%) and Dady Day Camp (1%). Really? Yes, really. Pray tell, at least not another Water for Elephants. And this is only a tease ...

Will we EVER get a REALLY good adult movie seriously dramatizing the circus like Hollywood gets dramatized (i.e., Day of the Locust), like TV gets dramatized (Goodnight and Good luck)? Ever? How long since they gave us Trapeze? Which is not really about the American circus at all, except that, significantly looming in the background, is America itself in the figure of John Ringling North (how apt), checking up on the progress of Tony’s quest to land the triple on the flying trapeze — at which juncture Tony will be signed to open with the Greatest Show on Earth in New York at Madison Square Garden. So very true to the relationship then between great European talent and savvy American three-ring showmanship.

Other night, PBS took another look, charming through and through, at Circus Smirkus; they call it Circus Dreams, and evidently in Smirkusland that’s all they are, kids passing through school and spending some time dabbling in sawdust and spangles. I liked the approach, a feel-good take on young people, some promisingly talented for sure, dreaming. End credits revealed that, of those performers we saw, four years later only one landed a real job in a real circus; a young female clown got signed by Ringling. [see Josh's comment end of this post, taking issue with my take]

Lastly, those redoubtable Wallendas, all three fractious branches of the family who seem better at getting publicity than securing regular touring gigs. Do they ever actually perform? A documentary about them recently premiered in Sarasota. This one featuring members of the “flying” branch of the family; such a shamefully deceptive and irrelevant marketing ploy. May I say that I find the Wallendas these days rather a bore.

Next up in this ramble: Circus Historical Society's Bandwagon has yet another change in editors. Departing editor Fred Pfening III's last fanfare brings us the gritty dark stupidly stubborn story of Alfredo Codona's insane infatuation with Vera Bruce. An eye-opening account, if true, of the incredible madness of a circus star hounded by having been grounded, burned by being spurned by the spouse who refused to play house (in total opposition to the account of Bruce by Fred Bradna in his book Big Top) ... All on the inside! Free tickets now on sale!

To be continued, right here! ...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rants Unlimited, Continued from Yesterday: My Brother Stumbles Into a Circus From a Dumpster

My brother Dick, never a big circus fan, has rarely checked out the scene in many years. We never saw a show together, and I never sent him any of my books. He called me up a while back with circus on his mind, surprisingly not musical theatre, which is what we can spend hours talking about (he reads my books on that subject with avid interest). "I saw a circus in Salt Lake a few weeks ago," he announced. "It was awful!!" Immediately, I was impressed on two colossal counts: (1) that he could be so critical of a circus; and (2) that he had not called to talk about musicals. So let's tread this thread to the scoundrel responsible for turning my brother further away from the big tops.

Dick (I should say "Richard," which he now prefers) is not one to issue such acute dissatisfaction. He could not remember the name of the circus which turned him off so, but by our discussing some of its details, the names of two odiously nefarious so-called "circus owners" buzzed into my sphere of existence like a pair of uninvited mosquitoes invading my cozy little one bedroom rental in lovely metropolitan Oakland. You of the tent-crashing class may already have prime suspects in mind.

After the shocking call (I'm just kidding) -- I can't recall our discussing circus in several years or more -- I googled "Salt Lake" and "circus" and entered the exact date of the offense against circus art committed in public . This popped up: Piccadilly Circus. Hardly ever heard of that one. Tracked it down to a certain Canadian hack promoter not exactly loved in the states, scandalously known for foisting deplorably sub-par garden variety exploitainment onto the public and raking in tons of fast money. I thanked my brother, impressed that he was able to call a spade a spade.

... Better get a move on here, or make that a movie on: We endure so many mediocre to lousy circus films; will we ever get a great one? I think I stumbled into the worst circus flick ever made the other night, so awful I fast forwarded through much of it (Is Dick Garden, per chance, a movie producer too?) It's called Circus World. Avoid it at all cost. John Wayne acts as if he had just been thrown the script and is practicing line memorization. Only in scenes with Rita Hayworth does he shows sign of life ... Redemption arrives late in the ordeal when a clown turns in a very funny bit, working plates he is challenged not to break. A perfect pleasure ... Overal Score: Minus four stars. Go get yourself some fresh hot popcorn in the lobby, gaze upon the coming attractions, hope for a better flick soon, and, while you're at it, please throw up for me ... Circus at the movies to be continued.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Slices to Go: Circus Fans as Free Loaders Exposed; My Brother the Accidental Circus Critic; Ringling Bros. to Hit Silver Screen

Where to begin, there is so much and so little, bits and pieces back of the tent. Hey you circus fans who love walking in for free, you of the lot lice class. I know is not a nice term to drop, and I fully disclose my own shameful lot licey behavior in seasons past when I prided myself on sneaking in, tutored on how-to by one of the best -- Don Marcks. There was also friend Hugo Marquardt, with whom I hit the Carson & Barnes lot one warm spring evening in Santa Rosa at the fairgrounds, striding brazenly past the tent towards that coveted area where we'd try to merge with troupers and carry ourselves across the freeloader's threshold into the tent. "We clap as we go!" cracked a laughing Hugo, making hay of a long-held CFA slogan, "We pay as we go." .... Which takes us up the merry lanes of Talburt, as in interviewer and film maker Lane Talburt, who caught fire eater and ringmaster Brian LaPalme, now working a season with Walker Bros., venting not so subtly his, how shall I put this, dismay over fans wanting to get in without paying, no matter how. Even asking for free passes. Congrats to Brian for firing out his knowledge of the CFA slogan, which is time and time again trampled upon.

... I became a retro pay-as-I-go prude in recent years, doggedly sticking to my own slogan, "I will buy my own ticket, no matter how nice they are to me in offering a free pass." It's not just trying to be impartial when reviewing; it's also -- how hard is this to grasp -- a way of SUPPORTING the circus. Did you know that most shows survive on ticket sales? Enough there. Are you still with me? ... Next: My brother stumbles upon a circus from a dumpster.

... to be continued.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Oh, To Read Myself As Others Read Me

It's always energizing, when it happens, to receive high marks from fans and writers for my work. My latest effort, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide, is generating promising early reviews and feedback, which gives me measured hope that the book has a future. Now comes actor, director, former Ringling clown and author of the well-regarded book on Dan Rice, Dave Carlyon, e-mailing me his welcome satisfaction -- "I enjoyed your element-by-element approach, especially the rarely discussed elements of producing and criticism." David holds views that differ from my own on topics such as Dan Rice and Circus Maximus (was it really in any way a circus? No no no, insists he). Surprisingly, Carlyon seems almost relieved and/or surprised with my pro-stance on circus animal acts, as was Herbert Ueckert in the latter's boffo review of my book in Circus Report. All of which leads me to wonder if a growing number of writers and even fans are beginning to question the viability and future of performing animals ...

My one quibble with Ueckert's review, if I may, is the notion that I seem to be writing down to "the typical poor hapless circusgoer." That surely wasn't my intent, although, while penning away, I wondered if the serious and savvy buff might find much of what I have to say all too obvious. I imagined myself addressing a wider audience. Thus, to my delight, my sister Kathy, a non circus fan who is combing the text for spelling errors, expressed pleasure over the approach. For her, one of my primary goals seems to be working ... Particularly on-target, I feel, is this from Mort Gamble's notice in Spectacle: "... everything you want to know about the circus business today but are too timidly nostalgic to ask." How amusingly apt a summation of my coverage; perfect jacket copy.

... As others see us. As other reads us. Thanks to everyone who in one way or anther has affirmed the book's value to them. It means a lot, trust me.

Me and Mister Mistin, Jr.. I was intrigued to discover, in the latest issue of Circus Report, perennial SoCal columnist and one-time Ringling clown Chuck Burnes writing about the kid prodigy xylophonist, whom John Ringling North lured to America in 1953 and lavished a huge ballyhoo upon. Reading Burnes, I wondered, was he reading me? I came upon some vaguely familiar words: "he was merely a very good, very young xylophonist." Yes, directly from my book Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus.

Okay, I might not have said a thing, except that Chuck, in quoting me (without attribution), actually misquotes me, and thus, feeling a duty to history, I am inclined to offer a correction. Mistin was evidently quite a showman. The reviews were mixed, but a tape recording I have of his performance reveals a skilled manipulator milking a crowd and the crowd milking back. In fact, the crowd's reaction was not "only so-so," as Chuck recalls. The term "so-so" was actually used by the Billboard in its reaction to the act itself .... A photo of Mr. Mistin riding a spec float as a pistol-toting cowboy, which appears in my new new book Inside, shows a plucky little showman with plenty of attitude ... I have no evidence that his impact on the crowd was only so-so. What I hear is what I wrote: "He pulled strong sustaining applause sprinkled with cheers."

By the way, Chuck was one of those who, with his wife Bambi, graciously granted me an interview for Big Top Boss; we met for dinner over a rolling tape recorder at an old Hollywood dining room just north of Hollywood Boulevard on Cuhuenga. Our chat took place exactly 25 years ago this June 24. Great Circus Vargas days, the Paul Eagles Luncheon Club for fans and pros a weekly destination at Phillippe's restaurant -- itself, the true soul of L.A.

And that's me reading you reading me ...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Today is World Circus Day

Did you know?

I'll be watching the media to see if anything is said.

Thanks to the Europeans, particularly to the powers of Monaco, World Circus Day is at least a theory.

So, let us briefly reflect.

What form of entertainment has no televised annual awards?

What form of entertainment has no name stars nationally covered in popular media?

In what form of entertainment are the vast majority of shows produced rarely -- and more likely never -- reviewed by popular media?

What form of entertainment, unlike all others, has no objective system for tracking and reporting on the number of tickets it sells to its performances?

What form of entertainment gives out so many free kids tickets to promote patronage?

What form of entertainment somehow fearlessly soldiers on despite relentless public pressure, threat of legislation, and sporadic protests, to eliminate one of its central components, performing animals?

Happy World Circus Day!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Funnies: Perfection Versus Having Fun, From Jeremy Irons to Johnny Pugh ...

All roads lead to sawdust circles: Maybe Paul Binder has it right, that the "circle" existed in ancient times, around which the earliest entertainments were staged. Opera, I think, being one. Thence came, ions later, horse riders, acrobats, clowns, Peterson peanuts ... Film actor Jeremy Irons, talking up a movie, The Borgias, he's made for HBO, revealing that he set out, first to try circus and carnival work, but was put off by the "small" (read cramped and crummy) quarters. He thought, "I'm too middle class for that." So he took up theatre then film ... You'd be surprised how many theatrical figures either started out under big or little tops, or are related to others. One was Burt Lancaster ...

So, what's funny, anyway? Irons, who as I recall had one huge hit in Reversal of Fortune and then perhaps suffered an early reversal of early fortune, talks about striving for actorly perfection in his first flicks. He grew out of that impossible dream, and now grants that having fun is perhaps equally as important, which places us back inside the sawdust circle, watching on grainy video the Fredonias (sent to me in the DVD goodies from Ken Dodd). As I watched this likable family of risley artists from long ago, I viewed their less than perfect landings with reformed respect, credit a minor Epiphany: Drum roll! Lurking in the background of my nagging mind were contrasting images of abstract perfection at Cirque du Soleil, images of robotically perfect practitioners behind thick masks. Because the Fredonias seemed a little more believably human, I found myself enjoying what they had to offer a little more. "Perfection," says Irons, "you can't seek it because it doesn't exist." He came to embrace a more practical and less consuming goal: "Try and make it fun for everyone."

Ronald Reagan's everlasting press agent, egghead columnist George Will, having fun dissing "celebrity economist" John Kenneth Galbrath on the latter's assertion that all it takes is corporate money and the public will buy whatever the money points to: As, for example, cites Will, "In 1958, Ford put all its marketing muscle behind the Edsel." HaHa! I remember that weirdly stillborn curiosity. I saw very few on the streets of Santa Rosa. The thing looked like the 1920s trying to be the 1930s.

Did you know that the majority of Americans, as recently as forty years ago, did not fly in airplanes? News to me. I, a long ago-er, still fret even the mere idea of going up there in space. Back and forth to China came, at no extra charge, with nail-biting turbulence. Believe me here: While I was trying to watch West Side Story on the tiny screen to escape my fears, during the jets and the sharks rumble, I was so afraid they might make the shaking even worse, that I turned off the damn movie! " ... If Kodak is on the ropes," asks columnist Jane Glenn Haas, "What's left?" Well, let's see -- how about ketchup bottles, pit bulls, PBS rock and roll breaks ... ?

Marriage may be on the ropes, too: It's getting closer to a sad selfish irrelevance: Here's news from wacked-out London making fun of modern reasons pushing for no-fault-divorce laws, which the Brits do not enjoy. There's the wife refusing to dress in a Klingon costume and speak to her spouse in Klingon. [what is a Klington? Sounds funny] Another couple hissing it out in divorce court over the husband accusing his wife of "spitefully tampering with the TV antenna and throwing away his cold cuts." Well, at least, she didn't threaten to buy a second-hand Edsel and force hubby to ride inside it with her ...

A man and his circus: Here's a no-fault guy still having fun fronting his own show, Cole Bros. Circus of Stars, Johnny Pugh. Another spring, another season. The thriving octogenarian looks high on life, ready to tackle another tour, whatever comes his way. "It's like running a dream," he told the Willmington Star News, who reported his age at 73. Congrats, Johnny, you deserve your own grand reversal of fortune!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Old Circus, Gold Circus on Grainy Film Footage, Thank You, Ken Dodd!

To Ken Dodd -- many of you know him as former producing clown for Beatty-Cole, as once it was called -- is my latest book dedicated.

Since Ken's days down sawdust trails, he's kept more than active in Circus City (aka: Sarasota) preserving and prolonging American circus history on video and tape. From Ken over the years, I've been the lucky recipient of numerous golden olden delights.

While a copy of Inside the Changing Circus for Ken was in the mail to Florida late last December, amazingly a package of DVD goodies from Ken was simultaneously en route to me here in California. Mere coincidence? Yes, I wondered if somebody with an early copy had called up Mr. Sarasota to tip him off; he swears, not so! OK, the cross exchange of gifts could not better reflect the reason why my dedication page reads ...

To Ken Dodd
My sharing Sarasota friend

In a host of CDs and DVDs from Ken, there came footage to die for, if, that is, you happen to be a Barbette fan and were, better yet, around when Barbette's wonderfully cutting edge little ballet, "Carnival in Spangeland," was presented at Polack Bros. Circus (western unit) in 1953. I saw it, my pre-teen eyes wide open, my attentions riveted.

I don't recall thinking "oh, that is really so cutting edge," but only being utterly enchanted by the entire little ethereal episode, as beguiling to the ear as to the eye -- with perfect scoring by Morton Gould's hauntingly yearning "Pavan."

And now comes, yet more! Yesterday from Kenny, additional Polack footage that only reaffirms my high regard for the mid-fifties showmanship of one Louis Stern and Barbette. A few highlights:

The showmanship of Professor George J. Keller, the art instructor turned big cage man, tallking to his charges, charming them through their tricks. The impeccable ballet of low wire artist Lola Dobritch, whose execution on the ground of classical bellet moves before going aloft only lend greater authority to her wire walking exploits. The engaging Ward Bell Flyers (the first time I've seen their act since seeing it at the circus) -- three troupes swooping casually through the air side by side by side (fit for the Sondheim tune, Kenny?).

Melita & Wicons -- perch pole performers sans mechanics. What can I say other than, without a lifeline, the integrity of aerial art is totally restored. I find myself watching them with respect, rather than turning away in dismay.

Not everything is as good as we may remember. Some sloppy executions from the Fredonias. But, on balance, and here I may be losing it -- it seemed so damn much more interesting a show to watch, what with a more diverse array of animals, those subversive clowns, perhaps more comedy in some of the ground acts.

A year or so ago, coming across a You Tube of Francis Brunn, I was a little afraid to watch it; might not be what I remembered, 10-years-old then and new to the spangled parade. Sometimes the past is not as great as we recall. I watched it anyway, and Brunn was even better. Yes, better. He did so many more things that I had forgotten.

Perhaps the circus, fifty years later, has simply devolved into something less interesting? A thought for the day ...

For this latest gift -- evidence, perhaps, of why most of the seats in those old movies are filled -- thanks, Ken, my sharing Sarasota friend.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Beat of the Big Top: Sarasota Blows Return of Ringling; Kelly-Miller Trumps Mother Nature's Wrath; Circus Report Restores a Nice Friendly Feeling

Sacred dirt: The Sarasota fairgrounds, where the Big Show once winterquarted.

First Draft Reckless, and on with the show!

Here comes Ringling, heading back close to its old winter digs -- could have been Sarasota town, but, no, politics they say derailed a fragile courtship. Show will winter, instead, in nearby Ellenton to the North. And where was sawdust and spangles sugar daddy Howard Tibbals when he and his millions might have intervened? Dogonnit! The Sarasota Herald Tribune story, forwarded to me by Cyber courier Don Covington, is so dense in detail, let me just paste up here its first line: "A sour relationship between Sarasota County officials, particularly former Administrator Jim Ley, and the community's Fair Board ultimately doomed Sarasota's chances of physically reclaiming its circus heritage." My heart screams for justice -- the Big Show back in its own once-celebrated backyard! ... Feld and company will relocate instead onto a former industrial site, and to Florida's new circus town will come the Feld production offices, along with hundreds of employees.

... Three more circus wagons, from somewhere, to Baraboo, and I am too indifferent to dig deeper, other than to note how obsessed the CWM crowd continues to carry on, placing anything that may pass for an old circus wagon over the great, very real and authentic Thimble Theatre fun house, a genuine rarity, that I imagine is rotting away apace and in disgrace in an open shed off limits to patrons. Yes, it belongs to CWM, but it's not a circus wagon, and shame on the poor little carny orphan! ... "We just knew we needed to have these [circus] wagons," said Exec Director Steve Freese, who has, I take it, been properly equipped to channel the spirit of Chappie Fox. Regarding Circus World's insatiable appetite for more wagons, one insider called them "the largest full scale model circus wagon collection in the world," meaning that in some cases, precious few pieces of original wood remain, one of many reasons why Ringlingville got kicked out of the American Association of Museums. OK, out of here, somebody please kick me! ... (Doc Bob Dewel, I expect to hear from you shortly)

At least, over on the fearless Kelly Miller Circus lot, the canvas and the mud are real articles, not synthetic re-constructions, and I had promised to let up on the mudville angle until general manger Jim Royal, these days hiding out in Hugo around desk and PC, noted how mud-free were a few early days in the beginning. Gosh, what troupers they are! [take a look at Steve's blog for a counter to this misreported scenario] And now, weeks later, Sir Royal could not help from sharing (would that be to provoke me, Jim?) the following letter received from a peanut-smitten fan, to wit, in part "I would like to get a bag from your peterson peanuts for the memory book I am doing for my daughter." Oh, what can I guy say to that? ... Maybe some season yet, under ominous skies, I will take up John Ringling North II on his wry invitation for us to crack peanuts together.

Circus Report, I await your next visit! ... My first issue came. I like the way publisher and editor Bill Biggerstaff honors the legacy of CR founder Don Marcks, by using Don's old masthead and sharing name space with Don. I LOVE the routes, Don would be amply impressed, he struggled relentlessly to include as many routes as possible, and I like the quality of the writing. Nice to go home to an old friendship I once enjoyed with Don. And so, 55 minutes later, let's aptly wrap this one up in the pithy prose of the late great CR columnist Billy Barton, who ended his weekly three dot jackpots with ... "See you down the road, luvs...."