Friday, June 29, 2012

Big Top Bits: Routes, Raves and Rants ... Bella to Barnum to Bandwagon -- a Magazine Missing in Action

Carson & Barnes elephants in performance near Westfield Franklin Park, Toledo, Ohio. Lori King/Toledo Blade

Circus Report's
full page
of circus routes enthralls me! I look for "CA" to see what shows, big or small, great or infamous (Garden variety charmers) may be parking in my own backyard. Down there in San Diego, I see something called the San Diego Circus Luncheon Club, which meets on the second Monday of each month. Reminds me of the Old Paul Eagles Luncheon Club down at Fillippes (probably a misspelling, sorry), near Union Station in Los Angeles that once was a weekly destination on Monday morning. No longer. Whatever happened to the L.A. circus community? ... CA, CA, CA, anywhere else on the listings? Circus Vargas will be tenting up in San Luis Obispo, making me wonder if they are headed to the Bay Area ... Ringling's Blue Unit headed into the Golden Stage, and I've vowed to give myself a season off from the littler version of the Big One. I loved John Ringling North II's remark to a reporter last year, which I am going to paraphrase here, that going to the indoor version of Ringling is like spending a day at the mall. [See Jim Royal's comment, end of this post]

Another circus in CA: Russell Brothers -- I'm surprised that Russell Bros. is still out there. Show installs itself at Costa Mesa for a month-run. Then, of course, there is Cirque du Soleil's Iris in Los Angeles, which I hope to grab a discount ticket for. More out of obligation. I'm not high on stage show circuses, which tend to remind me of the Chinese acrobatic troupes in similar flat colorless venues -- and if I offended somebody, please do chill out, meditate, go in for re-birthing or just, well, call it a season ...

Bay Area Privileged. I read in the current issue of the East Bay Express, a weekly alternative rag not without moments of good reporting, that San Francisco, "has long been the epicenter for circus arts in the United States." That Ringling in the 1970s fostered a sense of circus being "tortured elephants and cheap magic tricks." Okay, if that's what some randomly informed reporter wishes to put out. They are are still pointing to the old Pickle Family Circus, which has been off the road for nearly 25 years now. From this story, I can tell you that some of the greatest circus teachers in the world labor here. That some of the best acts are toned, formed and sent out into the world to perform. Here are some of the more dazzling assertions: "Even beginners ... work with true giants in the industry ... innovations in the bay area ripple out across the country." Could be, to a degree. Story's focus is not on S.F. but on, are you ready? --

, yes, my own back yard, for its thriving training centers at places like Dog Shit Park at the Vulcan Lofts, Kinetic Arts Center, Trapeze Arts (offering "world class instruction."), and the Physical Comedy Troupe. Here's one very rude omission: Story does not even mention Circus Bella, which was founded in Oakland a few years ago, is vetted by the pros and teachers from the San Francisco Circus Center, and sports a charming creative spirit, presenting free outdoor shows in S.F., Oakland, and elsewhere during the summer. Is Bella not new-circus enough for reporter Corey Hill? Another local upstart, good for a subversive giggle, is named Paper Doll Militia. It's an aerial troupe. "Circus is such a good social tool," says its leader Rain Anya. "Boundaries in real life are crossed. Actually, touching each other creates a lot of different kinds of bends. And the Bay Area is really receptive to that kind of thing." Now that's a perfect illustration of the "social integration" aspect of the typical new U.S. circus school to which Don Covington alludes.

The Wallendas Revive the American Circus. I read this in a Sarasota Herald Tribune story headlined "Circus Industry Thriving After Wallenda Walk." Oh, really? Nik's well hyped walk over the Falls did land big coverage. "Folks in the circus industry expect it to payoff big time," writes Linda Carson. "This renewed interest in circus that had lost some of is glitter in recent years is expected to pay off big time in Sarasota." Carson cites increased ticket sales for Circus Sarasota's summer show at the Asolo Theatre. Sailor Circus also said to be getting a boost from Nik's walk. Now, were Nik's Wallendas booked onto, say, Ringling, might his name benefit the box office? If he truly established a heroic image (debatable given the sidebar flak over his tethered execution), he might, he might.

Flattered by a grad student's interest: A while back, a DC student working on his master's paper at American University asked to interview me, over the phone. His name, Guy Palace (great name), his focus -- circus marketing. He sought three people for interviews -- besides myself, Kenneth Feld, and Paul Binder. Not bad company to be chirping about! I feel honored (or egotistically inflated), I do.

Bandwagon, the magazine: Half a year has gone by, and still no issue. Last one I received was the November-December number. I'm told it's taking time because of a new editor, (Fred Dahlinger), and a new printer. Something seems not right here. A pity that recent interim editor Rick Pfening III did not stay on permanently to help sustain the stable 50-year legacy of his late father, Fred Pfening, Jr.

Making Me Not Feel So Bad: One book reviewer, favorably critiquing my Inside the Changing Circus in Choice magazine, called my enthusiasm "infections." Would the same apply to my notoriously frequent misspellings and typos? A mass e-mail from Lane Talburt addressed a video he had sent me a link to: "Several typos sneaked into my latest video offering on the International Clown Hall of Fame, so I've made corrections and reposted it to YouTube." Now, I had to wonder, was that in jest? Or have my 86d typos invaded somebody else's space? Or... have I become the new self-appointed inspiration for rigorous proofreading? Another comfort, this from a theatre critic at a major North American newspaper, who had requested a review copy as a result of the Choice review: "But I wouldn't worry about that. Typos aren't blamed on the author." Now, wasn't that nice? ... Finally, from BearManor Media production manager, Sandy Grabman, having just read the press release: "'Gluiness' was spelled that way intentionally, wasn’t it?" Well, no, nor had I any idea that my misspelling even amounted to a word at all! I had meant to type "Guinness." I think. Blame it on the typo-itis from which I chronically suffer.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Don Covington's Take on American Circus Schools' Productivity -- or Lack of

Recently, upon receiving an e-mail from Don with specific information about the careers of a number of performers who had studied at the Fern Street Circus center in San Diego, I asked Don, in essence, if he could explain to me why I see so few major circus acts trained at the various U.S. Schools. He generously replied in full. I find his paragraph two of particular relevance, especially to the scene today. I asked him for permission to post his complete reply, intact, for the benefit of my visitors. Thank you, Don.

By Don Covington:

There are several reasons that the US has not developed world class circus schools. Number one, it is an enormously expensive undertaking. Instruction at the highest levels involves one-on-one coaching over a period of years. Without major sponsorship or government subsidies, it is near impossible to build a program in this country that can train at the international level. The closest thing on this continent is the Canadian National Circus School in Montreal. European schools such as those in France are heavily subsidized by the government. China's circus training program is similar to the old Soviet circus training system where youngsters are selected at an early age, are educated and trained as circus artists and then guaranteed employment with a troupe.
During that entire period, the government supports them with housing, food and basic education.
Number two, America lacks the cultural motivation that influences top athletes to consider circus as a possible career. The vast majority of American circus schools survive by training for self esteem, fitness and social integration. They do not expect that their students will be motivated to work toward the standard required for world class performance.

Third, the American circus does not provide a competitive work environment for circus artists. Living conditions, travel requirements and salaries are not comparable to those provided in other locations. Therefore, if your goal is to perform at Cirque du Soleil, it makes sense to train at the Canadian circus school.

Circus training in general is in a state of transition at the moment. Cirque du Soleil, the largest circus on the planet, will tell you that it prefers to hire raw talent over a completed act. Soleil has its own training program designed to mold artists into exactly what they need for their productions. National circus schools continue to produce finished acts that are designed to showcase their skill at international festivals, but they are now also supplying artists directly to Cirque where they become part of "house troupes".

A final factor that must be taken into consideration is that trained circus artists can now choose to work in a wide variety of environments. Traditional circus is only one of the options that they have available to them. You will find some of the world's top performers working exclusively in theaters, on cruise ships and in festivals rather than with touring shows.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Twirling Typos, Mirthful Misspellings Send New Circus Book Back to the Printer

For author David Lewis Hammarstrom, the experience of drawing critical approval for a new book — and at the same time being taken to task for misspelling too many words — is hardly new.

“Perhaps there should be a place for me in the Guinness Book of World Records.”

His latest effort, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic’s Guide (BearManor Media), which is reaping rosy notices, is no exception to the rule. But, luckily, it is already headed back to the printers, thanks in part to new print-on-demand technology, which frees publishers from having to produce a backlog of books and sell them before any corrections can even be contemplated.

Even then, Inside contains far fewer errors than Hammarstrom’s first tome, Behind the Big Top (“a wonderful circus history”-- Booklist). “Behind went out virtually unedited,” noted the entertainment journalist and critic with a rueful smile. “It hosts dozens, yes, dozens of misspelled words.” In arguably his best copyedited work, Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus, published by no less than a respected University Press (Illinois), a late friend spotted 20 misspelled words, and guessed there might be even more. Among the offenders -- “impressario,” “scrupples,” and “examplary”

Hammarstrom combs his manuscripts many times over. Contractually, he agreed to do the proofing for Inside himself. “I have worked with publishers who routinely promise proofing but do not always deliver very well on the promise.” During the page proof stages, Hammarstrom made nearly 250 corrections, many of them misspellings or typos. Only one reviewer, Herbert Ueckert writing in Circus Report, complained of the misspelled words, adamantly enough, though, for Hammarstrom to take note. And when his sister, Kathy, became enthralled with the book and mentioned having spotted some errors, the author encouraged her to write them all down. He sent the list to BearManor’s production manager, who in turn forwarded it on to the publisher himself, Ben Ohmart, for his consideration. “That Ben so nicely agreed to make the corrections is good news for the book,” says Hammarstrom.

So how many words in need for reform does the book contain? Roughly about the same number as Big Top Boss, although the latter is twice the length Even a spell checker does not always serve its intended purpose, not in Hammarstrom’s hands “It must have questioned my spelling of the phrase ‘national anthem,’ such that I hastily clicked onto a proposed alternate spelling, and out came, without my noticing, “National Anaheim.” His sister got a good laugh.

The book was recently endorsed by Choice, published under the aegis of the American the American Library Association, recommending it for general readers. The unequivocal review did not mention any errors, which is not unusual. “Some reviewers are either very forgiving — or, perhaps, I am not the only mortal guaranteed to come in dead last at any spelling be anywhere.” [Correction: Change “be” to “bee”]

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why Can’t American Circus Schools Produce Outstanding Acts?

Once again, this time from Don Covington, I am challenged to rethink my skeptical position on the productivity of our American circus schools, such as they are.

Their number, to be sure and optimistic, is gradually increasing, though in total, they fall woefully short of the overwhelming number of drama departments to be found in most high schools and at virtually all colleges and universities.

When you go to a Broadway show, chances are that the actors you admire spent some time on a high school stage singing the songs from Oklahoma! or Evita, or playing dramatic roles created by world dramatists.

When you go to an American circus — be it Ringling, Big Apple, Vargas or Kelly Miller, for examples — chances are you will not see a performer who learned juggling, tumbling, or flying trapeze in any U.S. classroom.

This is a fact, not a fiction created by myself to advance any sort of a personal agenda. It concedes a reality that even Paul Binder would ruefully recognize. When he and Michael Christensen created the Big Apple Circus, part of their dream was to establish a viable circus school in New York City. That dream lasted but a few seasons.

Yes, great circus acts do come out of America, including some of the best animal trainers — individuals who either taught themselves or were luckily taken under the wings of established pros — likely the performers imported from abroad by the Ringlings. Why is true-blue third generation American born animal trainer Jenny Vidbel now flourishing in her second season with Big Apple Circus? And why, before that, did she appear with Ringling? Because she is one phenomenal trainer, that’s why. And why did the self-taught LaSalle brothers, believed to be the only jugglers among Columbia University's alumni, get booked by Big Apple Circus? Not because Columbia offered a circus curriculum. No, because they were a terrific juggling duo, independently coached along the way by Benji Hill, who could have held their own at Monte Carlo. That’s why.

The closest this country ever came to operating a world class circus school was when the community of Bloomington, Illinois, during the first half of the last century, turned out some of the best aerialists in the world, and most of the trapeze acts. Among dozens of youngsters who learned at the local YMCA, or were taught by circus pros off the road wintering in the town, there is Art Concello.

So, again a question that will not be welcome by a few who seem to believe I am down on American circus schools. Why so meager their output ? Nobody has ever been able to answer the question persuasively.

There are some good performers, and quite a few working clowns out there, who began in a schoolroom of some sort. Don Covington sent me a respectable list of some of the alumni from Fern Street Circus in San Diego. The point is not that there are school-taught artists landing jobs, be it under a tent, on a cruise ship or, rarely, in a Cirque du Soleil show. The point is, why do I rarely if ever see these individuals when I buy tickets to watch a regularly touring circus? And why is this country so glaringly missing under the klieg lights of Monte Carlo? This is the reality that underpins my central position. Might the reason have nothing to do with talent? Might the typical graduate, harboring more theatre-like sensibilities, simply refuse to tolerate traditional trouping conditions over American sawdust? Might it be that they want too much money, or because they lack a second act that many circus owners look for?

Take the relatively new Oakland-based Circus Bella, a charming little student-plus show with a welcome creative flair and a cracking good little band. It enjoys only a handful of dates in the Bay Area. Some of its artists show solid promise. Some may have studied at the nearby well-known San Francisco Circus Center, which may well be more famous for being well known than for producing talent that can land contracts with our mainstay circuses and enjoy productive careers.

In his review of Circus Vargas in the current issue of Circus Report, Chuck Burnes gave prime attention to a take-note juggler: “Keep your teenage daughter by your side as she swoons over young juggling sensation, Michale Ferreri, whose making his American debut.”

American debut. Oh, yes. Once again, somebody from some other country showing us how it’s done.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Morning Looking Back, with Agent A: Why the "Flying" Wallendas? ...

UPDATE, June 24, 2012:

"Daredevil celebrates after death-defying high-wire stunt," heralds the media.

Not everyone bought into the recent sham display of mock heroics aloft when Nik Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls on a wire. The circus has digressed a long way from its authentic risk-taking days. And nothing better exemplifies this reality than the curious downward trajectory of the so-called "Flying Wallendas."

Karl Wallenda, who led the original pack with a fearless commitment to the art of risk-taking, died walking a high wire down in Puerto Rico. He did not "fly." He walked. Nor did he attach himself to protective lifelines of any kind. During an interview he once granted me, the Wallenda of Wallendas openly disdained the "marionette" aerialists who performed with mechanics.

I missed Nik Wallenda's highly hyped walk across Niagara falls, although I doubt I missed much. Perhaps more talked about than the walk itself was a tell-tale "tether," a cable rigged to his feet securing him to the wire, upon which he was supposedly demonstrating great courage and resolve. However, watching a clip of his performance following the fact, the tether makes him look, strangely and impotently, like a rather timid participant engaged in some sort of post-operation physical therapy.

Seems to me that in recent times, as I vaguely recall, when a branch of the fractious Wallenda family hoisted itself into a revival of the famed seven-high, it did so with the use of mechanics.

No, for your snickering apologists, I am not out for blood. Never was. I do rather respect and appreciate, even sometimes thrill to, the spectacle of great aerial art in which risk makes greater demands on the artists life-saving skill. Think about it.

So, the "Flying Wallendas," it appears, are helping to further decimate the circus of its once-famed image for true daring do. Did Nik Wallenda really have to use that thick industrial-looking tether, as was alleged, causing millions to suffer a withering skepticism? Or was he himself, in fact, in on the decision? Whichever, to my eyes, this flying Wallenda neither flies nor truly walks a wire. He is one very effective attention grabber. And, at least on this sterile occasion, a gutless one at that.

So, here, a posting from November 28, 2010.

A most vexing issue that has long vexed me is the apparent willingness of the Wallenda family to tolerate this egregious misnomer of what their act on the high wire is about. Karl Wallenda must be worn out six feet under from spinning in frustration. Nothing better exemplifies this shameless injustice to the legacy of one of Spangeland's greatest circus families than a cheap sit-com crack: "I don't give a flying Wallenda!" Horror of horrors that the survivors of the tragic Detroit fall should have to be subjected to such colossally crude insensitivity. But blame, yes blame a fractured family in part for the crack having been uttered.

The best answer I've so far got was that "flying" attached itself to the image of their Detroit fall back in 1962. And still, the Wallendas themselves have made no effort, to my knowledge, nor for that matter has the circus community itself, to set the media straight.

Finally, I have an answer if not the answer, thanks to a brief encounter by the ice house near the railroad tracks as Agent A drove by in an unmarked black limousine, ostensibly on his way to another encounter with colleagues, the subject of which I was not informed. Down rolled a window, forming a split through which Agent A delivered the essentials, smoothly and to the point:

There are two divisions or factions of the family -- one arm ruled by Ricky Wallenda, the other by Tino. Each is vying to establish itself as the true heir to the legendary act formed and supervised by the late Karl Wallenda.

Ricky calls his group "The Great Wallendas," a name he may have registered for exclusive usage under trade mark protection.

Tino uses the offensive descriptor for 2 reasons. In a conversation with Agent A, Tino once disclosed that, Reason One, he actually adopted "The Flying Wallendas" because of the public's familiarity with the term. Which I find callously expedient and more than monstrously misleading.

Reasons Two, said Tino to Agent A, he was apparently impressed (to me, it sounds amused) by how a reporter, framing a story about his troupe, made it sound as if, indeed, they were flying. Which strikes me as the lamest of rationales from a family member who should know better, that is, unless his wire walkers are so inept aloft as to resemble baby birds testing their tiny wings in trial flight patterns close to the nest, their balance poles flailing about like so many steel feathers.

But when I queried Agent A on this point, up went the window, and off sped his limousine into the murky darkness of a dawn that would neither deliver a circus train or a bright sunny morning.

In the abrupt parting, Agent A did shout back the word "Zerbini!" Leading me to ponder that perhaps he has something to disclose about another famed circus family.

The High Wire Zerbinis?


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Slide Bys: Sex in the Seats? ... Kinky Big Top Over Times Square... Circus from Hell Tours Banned TB Elephant

First Draft Feckless ...

Have a little frivol on me:
Frivol, a word that caught the eye of a certain Dame from the UK, Dame Dither to be correct, who scanters about in Santa Rosa, having reached her natty nineties, and cavorts thither and hither like a capricious 10-year-old school girl. She called me up to ask if there is such a word as "frivol." There is now, I answered, from "frivolous," I made it up.* Which means she poked her nosy Parker nose into my blog, and now, by poking around myself, I could tell how far she actually read. So ... where did I use that word? Perhaps in my review of Big Apple Circus. So, pardon me, while I look a little frivolously about: (just back): Heck, I can't find it, and I'm too lazy on this Sat. morning to try. The frivol is on you ...

Rising over San Diego, somewhere soon, will be another American circus school, to be founded if not grounded, I think, by one of the new upscale director artists -- drats, I frivolously deleted a story about this latest big top teachery (yes, another word I just invented) couriered my way by Don Covington, who lives in the area and, who knows, if he is lucky may land a tony post advising the staff and/or student body. Amazing how many so-called circus schools I bump into whilst scrolling the cyber lanes out there ... Sometimes a lazy cruise can get you into lush findings ... Other S.Diego big top training centers: Fern Street Circus; The Sophia Isadora Academy of Circus Arts -- a Fern spin off; and perhaps even others. And why do I give such passing attention to? I almost never see any acts at the shows I go to from these matriculating yawns. Ouch! Yes, I know to some that hurt. To be fair to myself, I've given some wordage to our own Circus Bella, INCLUDING in my book Inside the Changing Circus (oh, totally unplanned shameless plug) ... shall we race apace?

Cirque du Sleaze: This I found on my own, and can you blame me? Seems that down in San Diego (the next circus city?), a pair of Border Patrol agents got into a mutual grope-down while watching a performance of Totem (previously reviewed on this blog). Witnesses reported watching, although they did not grade the performance with a star rating, "inappropriate touching", featuring the head of Kallie Helwig, 24, perched in the lap of his partner, Gerald Torello Jr., 35. Helwig was arrested on suspicion of battery against a female audience member. Should we blame it on the underachieving Totem, a show that may leave more than a few listlessly unengaged? Or perhaps they were auditioning for Cirque's Vegas porn unit ... Helwig & Torello, sounds like maybe a clown act with legs ... Easier now to sympathize with people who complain about those nefarious airport pat downs. If I were to go through again, I'd like to be able at least to select whom I wish to be touched by. For an extra charge? ...

A little circus, a little burlesque: And all of it under a real tent over Times Square. Called Empire!, show offers what sounds a delicious mix, including Chinese acrobats, Polka Dot Woman, Rubbish Bag Lady, and Carrot Man, all vetted, I trust, by Mayor Mike, who these days has turned himself into a one-man nanny state. Now all you old timers, don't despair. Yes, they've got real circus too! They've got dozens of hula hoops in motion! And I'm already bored ... Here's a big elephant who tested TB positive and has been barred from Maine. This yarn does not deserve much space, since in the first line of the story, I read that the pachyderm is traveling with an outfit whose name brings to mind everything that is wrong with the American sawdust scene: Piccadilly Circus. Anyone out there heard of that one? How dare its disreputable owner, whose name I dare not dignify, disgrace such a cherished English word! My brother saw the show early this year, and was so put off by it (very unlike him), he rang me up and proclaimed, "I just saw an awful circus!" Coming from Dick, that sounds like minus four stars ...

A little Byrd chirping, please! I'm going out on a higher note of eternal optimism, noting how wonderful a new look has Carson & Barnes Circus tycooness Barbara Byrd given to her website, and what a good interview she seems to be. She's out there pitching sawdust and spangles, talking up a life she obviously sees herself never living without. "Circus is in my blood," she told the Columbus, Nebraska Telegram. To another source, chirped she, "This is a business you have to love to do." Gosh, if she swings her rings this way again, I might feel too guilty not taking a thousand buses to check out the show. Maybe by then, Helwig & Torello will be doing their thing down there in the ring, ho ho! ... And that's a "frivol wrap." Are you still there, Dame Dither?

*Correction, 3.24.24: No I frivolously thought I did.

first posted 6.23.12

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Circus Performers Who Blog From the Inside -- Of What Value Are They? What Risks Do They Take?

Update, 6/17/12: Having been following Kelly Miller Circus clown Steve Copeland's blog, mostly because for a long time he gave daily rough accounts of the size of the audiences, which was a choice rarity for we who are particularly interested in big top biz, I have noted recently that he seems no longer to be issuing such reports. Perhaps business has not been so good, and it depresses him to reflect that on his blog -- only a guess on my part. However, show manager James Royal e-mailed me that business this season has been "very good." Nonetheless, I believe the issue of a blogger putting out estimates of crowd sizes merits a look back at this post from 2009.

A most interesting issue of the moment that is unlikely to go away anytime soon is the potential value to the consumer and researcher of the insider blog. As Kelly-Miller Circus manager James Royal views this new medium for instant expression with an unlimited reach, “In the past, circus people have tended not to be reticent in expressing their opinions. The only change in the present is that these opinions are made public on blogs.”

And, boy, what a difference that makes.

Renee Storey Checks In:

While at present big top blogging is unlikely to influence, one way or the other, the masses who but tickets to circuses (traffic on the sites appears confined to the insular circus community), it does have critical long-term ramifications for the owners. According to Renee L. Storey, vice president of marketing for Cole Bros. Circus, who took some e-mail time during the summer to share with me her feelings on the subject, already one circus to her knowledge has “incorporated company sanctioned/sponsored blogging in its marketing campaign. This affords the company opportunity not only to edit but exercise creative control over info published. It’s a good marketing tactic that produces glowing but less than inspired reports.”

Which turns upside down the negative side of blogging. But what about the worker-performer not amenable to puffing for producers, or the soul who may puff under pressure but who might also, upon leaving the payroll with a grudge, spread malicious rumors because, well, who is there to stop them out there in the vast wide-open cyberspaces?

"Frightening potential"

“Employee blogs hold frightening potential for exposing employers to liability, damaging their public image and internal morale, and causing other economic harm,” writes Jeremy R. Sayre on LocalTechWire.Com. Sayre is a labor attorney with the firm of Ward & Smith. “With no warning to the employer, even well meaning employees can post information on their blog that might ruin a business deal, violate the trust of a valued client or customer, or even put the employer in violation of securities regulations. While many employees' personal blogs feature legitimate, innocuous, and sometimes hilarious musings, the knowledge that vindication is only one damaging comment away also makes blogging an attractive medium for a disgruntled employee who wants to lash out against the employer.”

Renee Storey focuses in on a major problem fueling an ongoing debate among media watchdogs: “The .www makes it possible for anyone to easily publish anything, minus the ethics that are supposed to apply to professional journalists.”

This means that readers turning away from newspapers in favor of the free information available to them on internet websites and blogs can be ill-served through the minefields of half-truths and rumorous attacks that flourish on a great many postings.

Two Clowns Dish the Dirt:

Earlier this past season, I found much to like in the blog of Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs (The Adventures of Steve and Ryan), who clown on the Kelly-Miller show, primarily because it gave me a good sense of the overall daily attendance, and, more interestingly, it shed light on the personality and modus operandi of new circus owner John Ringling North II. For example, midway through the season, Steve shared news of his informal discussions with Mr. North about new ideas for 2010, obviously hoping to get asked back. But in other less flattering postings, Steve dissed bum audiences (no advertisement for this circus), and I was surprised when he chose to vent a conflict with the prop hands who, as he saw it, were anything but professional in assisting him and Ryan.

Added to the grievance of Copeland and Combs was the issue of expected tipping to the prop men. This provoked a lively round of comments, one from a veteran performer correctly pointing out an organizational protocol for issuing a grievance, which evidently was not followed. The post and follow-up comments left an unflattering impression of Kelly-Miller management remaining passive on the sidelines, of a show unable to solve what should have been a solvable problem. Now, had this item been reported by a reputable newspaper, the other side of the story would probably have been researched. What might the roustabouts have said in their defense? Jim Royal would certainly have been offered a chance to respond. As it was, we only got one point of view. Fair?

Says John Ringling North II:

Kelly-Miller owner and producer North shared his view on blogging in an e-mail message to me: “Our constitution guarantees freedom of speech, so Steve and Ryan are entitled to whatever they like.”

Indeed, North’s position is compatible with a general consensus within law offices that employers have little legal basis for controlling what their employees may wish to blog about, short of disclosing trade secrets or committing other grave indiscretions. Copeland and Combs were offered and signed a contract to return to Kelly Miller in 2010.

What Circus Owners Can Do:

Circus owners must navigate a tricky line between, on one hand, honoring the constitutional rights of their employees, and, on the other, protecting their corporate interests and reputations against such things as defamation, harassment and breech of confidentiality. Summing up, Sayre writes, “A few keystrokes and a click of the mouse are all it takes for a blogging employee to harass or intimidate coworkers, make defamatory statements, disseminate proprietary information, or divulge trade secrets. If an employer wishes to limit its exposure, it should carefully consider taking steps to communicate its expectations to its employees unequivocally and to enforce its policies consistently and lawfully.”

Bloggers Benefit History and Reporting:

Such blogging is of great value to researchers, consumers and fans. Ultimately, it is the blogger who may assume the greater risk, for not every show owner is likely to share John Ringling North’s easy-going acceptance of carte blanche free speech. A reputation for honest tell-all blogging or agenda-driven rants may not be welcome at shows overly protective of their image, and this could short circuit career opportunities up the road.

Renee Storey offers cautionary advice for active bloggers within her profession: “Most circus employees work season to season at the will of the circus owner who may chose not to contract a disgruntled employee for the next season. Understanding that biting the hand that feeds you does not promote job security may encourage some bloggers to engage in self-censorship.”

They may have the law on their side. But not all of the big tops.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Dreaming Season 7 for Oft "Misquoted" John Ringling North II: Will Ringling Numerology Deliver a Really Big Show Next Year?

Updated: 6/12/12 5:30 PST *

Perpetually misquoted,
it seems, is he -- John Ringling North II, now in his sixth season at the helm of Kelly Miller Circus. Just received a letter from John II, thanking me for a copy of my book inscribed to him and James Royal, and taking the time to correct me on my misquoting him in my book. "I never said I was bringing Ringling magic [to the show]," something many of us thought he said upon taking over. "A reporter, Shalivia Ramirez used it in an article in 2007. "

Okay, so he never said it, In a greater sense, he has lived it, at least half way, reviving a mini-portion semblance of the North Starlets (in aerial ballets), crafting a multi-act production number just before intermission, even using a song or two composed by his uncle, John Ringling North, when the latter produced high and gloriously some true Greatest Shows on Earth ...

* Here is what bothers me, and it took a while to puzzle it out of my mind: If JRN II really did not promise anything like "a little Ringling magic," and moreover, if he wants it to be clear that he did not, is he basically revealing a kind of indifference to the challenges that most circus producers feel if not address? Is he merely covering himself for what might be called static showmanship? Or, is there yet another possibility, Dr. Watson, the possibility of discomfort he may feel in seeing his own words repeated back in print? Read on! ...

Other quotes, other qualms: Now wait a minute, I thought, wasn't there another time when Mr. North took me to task for passing along, if not creating, things he never said? There was. Back around 2009, I quoted a reporter quoting John II, stating, it appeared, that business had been double what it was the previous two season. Not so! Came a correction from the House of Ringling, granting that, yes he had in fact been quoted making such a remark, but that it was a misquote. "What I said was business to date was ahead of the previous 2 seasons."

And ... Misquote number three! In the same corrective e-mail, John II pointed yet another something he had never said, something I did not pass along, for it struck me as fairly bogus. And here it is: "I also did not say I had spent many years clowning." I never believed it, in fact, I was rather puzzled by what seemed to be a lot of dubious assertions composing a background in the circus for John II, including his having been the side show's assistant manager. At the age of around 15 years old??? I don't know how a reporter got hold of such ... Okay, enough of that. Here on out, I am NOT quoting anything he said. If you will grant, let me quote myself:

Enter the number 7, due to come into play next year. In Ringling mythology, no number holds more power than SEVEN. Here's why -- 1937: John Ringling North (the original) returns management of Ringling-Barnum back into the family hands, setting off an ugly family battle for ultimate control of the show; 1947: JRN captures a controlling 51% interest in the circus, realizing a life-long dream of entitlement; 1957: JRN moves the show indoors; 1967: JRN sells out to Irvin and Israel Feld and to the Texas Judge (whose name I will not dare try spelling here); 2007, John Ringling North II enters the tent show field, belatedly, by purchasing Kelly Miller Circus from David Rawls. Boy, did that take time to reach my Big Theme ...

Next year will be Season Seven for John II. Might we expect momentous things? Might John II be able to let go of favored performers brought back year after year, hire a fresh new cast and break away from same old-same old? I suppose it depends on the bottom line. Are they making any money? Skimming across the bloggery of Steve Copeland, the closest thing we have to a sense of how things are going, business does not seem to have been anything much to blog about this tour. Rarely do I see "full house" or "near full." My impression, and yes, this will cause some to become unhinged, is of a show on the passive side, albeit it with lots of high energy clowning from Copeland and Combs. Even if North wishes to stay a more conservative course, can he get sponsors to sign on year after year, the crowds in regular towns to return, if they harbor nagging reasons to anticipate a show simply not new and exciting enough to lure them away from everything else Out There?

Oh, come on now, Mr. John the Sequel, you owe it to Ringling mythology, to make Season 7 your Best Show to date, most of all, a totally New show -- like the one your famed Uncle John produced in -- oh here we go again! -- 1947. Do it even if you have to take some kind of a second mortgage on your cows (or is it cattle?), if you have to petition the Fed for a modest bailout. Tell them you are too small to fail! ... I'm placing my two dollars on Season Seven in the seventh --- to show.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Big Apple Circus "Dream Big" is Half a Yawner; Soaring Stars, Crooning Rodent Leave Limp Story Threads in the Dust

Circus Review: Big Apple Circus - Dream Big
Queens, NY, May 26, 12:30 PM

Never under the big top is the disconnect between circus and theatre more apparent than when world class performers share the sawdust with trivial story telling, even more problematical when the storyline is aimed at moppets. This year’s Big Apple bash begins in the spirit of a kindergarten style orientation for children on how, if only they dream big — surprise! — their big dreams of course will all come true.

Call this curiously ill-assembled, aimlessly paced opus a learning experience. There is sufficient evidence on display here to argue that prolonged interactive diversions risk stealing the pulse out from under a potentially gripping campaign. Given the rather small number of artists on the bill, it is easy to imagine artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy and colleagues pushing for an extended scenario to fill up two hours.

Big Apple Circus commences in a manner reminiscent of a Feld Broadway-ized opening. Cheerfully embracing head mistress of ceremonies Jenna Robinson, (think Dame Edna lite), introduces a huge Dream Big machine, an imposing prop that will not be put to much use. She and comic co-hort Andrey Mantchev brightly create the impression of comedy in the making, some of it funny, and help advance a weak set of narrative threads. The story angle, unfortunately, never really coheres into a solid theatrical force, but is confined mostly to talky talky segments and prankish excursions into the audience that can feel semi-stranded between the acts proper. The acts proper, you see, represent towering achievements. The narrative interludes that faintly bridge those acts do not.

Customers get plenty of chances to participate. And if you’re really lucky, you can share the spotlight with Grandma in a rendition of “Unforgettable,” song inserted to salute the retiring Barry Lubin. Grandma is something of a local icon to generations of New Yorkers. Her clever antics, pushing herself into the stream of action, are quintessential Grandma, some of them quite amusing, others warmly charming. Wherever Lubin goes next, the character he has created is destined to live on in the annals of legendary clowning.

On the plus side, BAC’s continued resolve to try new forms is a good and healthy sign.

First to shove the show into high gear and blow away all the frivol are the adventurous Shangdong Acrobats from China , who deliver by far the most deftly constructed group jump-roping exhibition I have ever witnessed; in fact, one of the best circus acts, period, that I have ever witnessed. Trick by trick, each growing more complex than the last, advance by advance to a powerhouse payoff, they are simply a marvel to watch .

Oddly, Shangdong’s second offering, an ambitious risley effort that arrives directly before intermission, is marred by sloppy connections and landings, same as what I observed on a YouTube video of the troupe when I first heard that BAC had signed them. The Chinese these days are not nearly as flawlessly consistent as once they once were, mainly, I believe, because they are pushing themselves to break free of staid old tricks and reinvent a fresh repertoire, a prime reason why they excel, if not dominate, international circus festivals.

Other stellar standout in a lean lineup include juggler Dimitry Chernov, contortionist Melanie Chy — for whom, a rarity in this show, the music lends just the right atmospheric support; and comedy illusionists Scott and Muriel, who make a strong impact initially, but proceed to wear out their welcome mat by over-working the audience for silly laughs. Indeed, when they return in the second half, you might not feel so eager for more (I sensed a few weary sighs from the crowd), and yet they bring off one of the most astounding big box escape acts that I have ever witnessed. Houdini would likely pay attention.

An absolute joy of the sort we live for around the rings is an oddball collection of mixed animals presented by the extraordinarily gifted Jenny Vidbel. She, who last year had goats riding horses, this time around has a dog, a pig, an African porcupine, and a Capybara named "Bob," the world's largest rodent, each in turn completing its specific little task precisely well and to the point. What in other hands might have been blown up and bellowed out verbally for protracted hoopla is here unfolded in brisk order. Ingeniously staged. Not a wasted moment. I’d say Monte Carlo Gold for the victorious Vidbel and her whimsically offbeat barnyard.

Vidbel’s earlier stint with a trio of Arabian horses is mostly ho-hum — the emphasis seeming to be on a lovely touchy-feeling (read, humane) outing with the animals in order to impress you-know-who rather than on setting the sawdust awhirl.

The show reaches for the heights at the end, and makes it — all the way. Bring on the generously talented Flying Cortes. They’ve got novel twists and turns, multiple traps, dashingly confident 10-year-old Ysabella Wallenda-Cortes, who bonds well with the kids, and a heroic figure in the form of Alexander Cortes. He brings a true thrill to the air, even more thrilling because, after missing the triple, he climbed back up the rope ladder, as I remember flyers in years gone by doing, tried again and ... made it! Another factor that enhances Robinson’s showmanship is the atypically husky physique for a flyer which he bears, which would seem to make hand-to-hand contact a more difficult venture. In one breathtaking connection, flyer to catcher, Big Apple wrapped up before a three-quarter plus house on a high and glorious note. So ...

Despite a rather harshly overactive, rather remote original score composed by Mathias Ruegg that left me wanting for less, and despite the meandering narrative shortcomings, there can be no denying the creative power of what is here. At intermission, I could not see myself giving this show any more than two-and-a-half stars. After intermission, more moments of sheer brilliance and a stronger second half raised my pulse-o-meter.

Overall rating (out of four stars tops) 3 stars

[Big Apple Circus photos by Bertrand Guay]

Monday, June 04, 2012

New York! New York!

My sister Kathy, right, had never been to the Big Apple. Now that she lives relatively near, down in Luray, Virginia, close to her daughter, Lisa, they drove up on Memorial Day to spend a day with me in the city and take in a few of the sights. Here they are, outside the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th. Free parking jackpot -- directly across the street! They had driven for 5-1/2 hours and there it was, a vacant spot. That spunky little kid, as you shall see, is Lisa's firstborn, Noah, whom I sometimes call Mister McFiddle. Lisa retired from United Airlines as a flight attendant to raise Noah, her one and only child. The family's dad, Captain Brian, was somewhere high in the sky that day piloting a big United bird.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, Noah, who just turned six, is something of a self-produced circus himself, forever doing things. Seemed like he was constantly teasing my camera to look his way. Although he harbors a wish to be a pilot like his did, I don't exactly see this acro-clown in any cockpit.

My three guests in the lobby of the Gershwin Hotel. I like to sit there in the late evenings and listen to the moody background music, suggesting the gradual fadeout of a subtly scored discotheque.

First stop: Near Times Square on Broadway and 33rd, we played Can't Stop Shopping, the game I created with my friend Boyi Yuan.

The Wonder Wheel lives again! It's the centerpiece, if I am correct, of a glitzy new carny zone at Coney Island with some fantastic looking rides. Coney seems to have rebuilt itself to a decent degree. Not Disney or Great America. But a few steps above the seedy gang infested place that it was for too many years.

Mother and son on their first Wonder Wheel ride. Kathy and I rode it many years ago when I was Noah's age!

Noah was not tall enough to ride alone ... so, his slightly taller great uncle was recruited. Other than some near head-on collisions -- No, Noah, No! -- Great fun!

You have to be of a certain age to appreciate the remarkable endurance of this classic ride. Kathy and I qualified.

Subway showoff, on our way back to Manhattan. Going out, we took the wrong train, one that goes under the river. So on our return, we kept waiting to see light and the Brooklyn Bridge appear. Finally, it did, and we got our rattles worth.

When I asked Kathy what she might like to see in NY, she said "Saks Fifth Avenue." She was also keen on seeing the bright lights of Broadway by night. So, after returning to the hotel, we boarded Lisa's SUV, and she drove fearlessly through Times Square, through a sea of rushing taxis, occasionally getting honked at, feeling like aliens surrounded by little yellow blobs. It took a while to find a way onto Fifth Avenue. Amidst all the brilliantly illuminated fashion shops, we could hardly see Saks as we passed by. There it stood in the shadows, an older building without the lights that adorned other shops, remarkably distinguished in restraint, so sure of its legacy, apparently, as to shun all such flashy illumination. Saks Fifth Avenue you've got class.

And finally, just in time for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Ooops -- you say it's in London? Not in Central Park? Oh, golly! ...

A night to remember: I have always been entranced by the spectacle of these horse drawn carriages ambling around and through Central Park. Finally, the moment to climb aboard was mine and theirs! The end of a great last day in New York city. Whenever I see the carriages now, I will think back upon that magical evening, and of how I imagined the bounce of the carriage being similar to what the horse feels over its hoofs in graceful motion.

We lucked out with the perfect driver -- suave charming Mario from Italy ...

Au Revoir, New York, au revoir!