Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Rough and Tumble Genius of Merle Evans, Maestro of the Big Tops

Merle Evans at the helm of the Ringling-Barnum band in the 1950s

On my most memorable day ever spent at a circus, part of it took place on a hot and humid afternoon under Pt. Richmond California sunshine, standing outside the big top of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, listening through canvas to the band play the 1955 score. I strained to hear melodies that might be linked to action in progress, such as the grand spec, Holidays. I stood there, feeling I'd finally reached the edge of a spangled paradise, entranced while candy butchers hustled back and forth with trays of soda pop, empty on their way out, stacked afresh on their way back in.

And the incessant heat beat down. And the band blasted incessantly on.

The big top was fairly packed that afternoon, Big Bertha a huge draw still in her gilded glory.

That evening, I would be on the inside, sitting in my own reserved chair and watching my first and last performance of the Greatest Show on Earth under canvas -- only a season away from the fall of the big top in Pittsburgh.

The music challenged my ears to consider a very different kind of sound, sprawling in its varied rhythms, deep in texture, rough, too, on the edges. If I could return to see one circus show again, it would be that one. Not because it was necessarily the most brilliant I have ever seen, or the most amusing or the fastest paced -- or the most so many things one can lean on in judging circus performance art. No, but because I would say that, overall, it was perhaps the most inherently rich in content -- from the artistry of the individual performers to the sheer brilliance of spectacle in the form of the four stupendously costumed and staged production numbers. Credit Miles White and Richard Barstow.

The music supplied by Maestro Evans was distinctively "circus" in its forceful reflection of the rough and tumble world of big tops.

And so, in this current issue of Spectacle, I was captured by Ernest Albrecht looking back at the 1955 show through his having recently listened to a tape recording of the score. Some of us have the recording in our collections.

Albrecht notes moments that were slowed down: "In their desire for speed and constant change circus directors of today have forgotten or ignored the power of deliberate, un-rushed pacing ... About the only acts today that are allowed to establish and maintain a slow, deliberate pace are the statue acts, which works to their benefit by allowing audiences the time to digest what they are seeing and fully appreciate it."

And right there, he rings an argument I have long tried to make with a few friends concerning the slower music, Karl King's "On A Summer Evening," which Evans played for the Alfred Burton & Son block stacking act atop an upright ladder. My friends have argued, plausibly, that the act was too slow to be spotted near the end of the show. And yet, in vivid recall, for some reason the act was one of my favorites. I remember sitting in my chair attentively. I believe that Merle Evans had a lot to do with this; he had the courage to slow down the score, in effect inviting us to slow down ourselves and pay attention.

This was a part of the Evans genius. He may have known that, although slower numbers might not thrill everyone, it was necessary for the contrast produced. Without a contrast in tempo and rhythm, any kind of a number in succession soon sounds redundant. I vividly recall watching Gene Lipkowska dance in the center of a party of liberty horses to "A Stranger in Paradise," and, on a late 1940s recording I have, I marvel at how Evans, all of a sudden, sinks the band pensively into one of my favorite tunes, "Speak Low." He could surprise you like that -- same as a circus show.

There were essentially three Merle Evans sounds: under the big top, rough and rousing; in the recording studio, perfection (Listen to A Circus Spectacular, and believe); and, finally, indoors, where, in larger cities, he recruited top local musicians and produced a superior sound.

And there was Evans himself, a problematic contributor when he joined the band; I must say what no good card-carrying circus fan would ever say: Sometimes, not infrequently, his own cornet playing was just plain awful.

His fanfares? Nobody in my book can begin to compare. This may be why John Ringling North's original tunes sounded so much better when played by Evans than when Izzy Cervone, perhaps a finer musician, came on board.

Albrecht on 1955's 55 elephant bash: “'Mama’s in the Park.' This act runs nearly twelve minutes, but once again, judging by the musical accompaniment, which is filled with changes in tempo, musical styles and various tunes related to babies and the park, we can tell that there were many changes in the kind and style of action involved in the number. It even has several musical jokes. It is a delight just to listen to."

Yes, indeed. I probably play the 1955 score at least once a year. And sometimes when I listen, I am still standing outside that magnificent blue big top on a hot humid afternoon many seasons ago,trying to picture the exact action inside ...

First posted August 25, 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Zabriskie Pointless: Artful Nothingness from the Great Antonioni

At the Movies with Showbiz David: Zabriskie Point

A major disappointment, and from one of my favorite directors, I have so much respect for other of his films, like The Passenger. He starts out promisingly, his cameras scanning with cunning clarity the superficial landscape of American consumer culture.

So why not juxtapose those gleaming pictures of ad art and real estate pitches with gritty scenes of ghetto life, and also of the great parks that protect nature in all its exalted glory? They, too, are a part of the American experience. Michelangelo Antonioni's promising grasp too soon turns simplistic and down right stupid. Now, if you like frilly silly psychedelic images, do sit through to the end.

When the young couple, innocuously hot for each other, reach Zabriskie Point and end up making out in a series of passionless rollovers through the sandy mountains that seem to go on and on forever (Viagra might have helped), you might have a feeling that nothing at all is happening. Perhaps that is what the director wishes us to feel. But he has failed to earn our attention or respect for a premise that is amazingly under-developed.

I remember the listless reviews when it came out in 1970, so I avoided. Maybe they were wrong; finally, I took a look, only to be sorely reminded that the greatest of directors can make great mistakes, too.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saturday Slide-Bys: Cavalia's Enduring Horses and Acrobats ... Big Apple's Latest ...Contact Lenses for Jumbo, and More!

Soft and gentle -- don't rock the ring: Cavalia

Typing away without notes, Dot Dot Dot, it's a random stack, and here we go! ...

Did ya know that the Ringling Bros., of the state of forward thinking Wisconsin (no, this is not being composed by a Super Pac), once offered 25 elephants to the war effort in Cuba, back around 1898? Bob Cline, who puts out, now and then, News & Views, for the Circus Historical Society, knows, and, now, so do you ...

Stupid Me! Right here, back around, what, 2005-2006,I predicted that a lovely through cerebral horse show named Cavalia would likely, like other equine efforts, fade away after a season or two. Well, it hasn't. Exciting me recently about it was just the right TV promo linking the words "acrobats" to "horses." Ah, yes, Little Kids with Big Memories, that WAS how our modern day circus, what's left of it, began, back there in London Town, on the back of a steed ridden by Philip Astley. When his dazzling ring displays lost novelty and the crowds waned, Asltey imported, yes, tumblers and jugglers, and other assorted acts of agility to lure back the fickle public. And it worked. Cavalia, created by one of Cirque du Soleil's thousands of co-founders, may have a future, still. Yes, I'm still acting stupid, but I think the show needs to be edited way down (too long when I saw it years ago, and others say the same thing), too cerebral, or so it was. If only they'd bring it to a vacant lot near me ...

Ringling-Barnum 2050?
(count me out)

Olympic cutting edge, new circus, on the dull side: I watched a total of maybe an hour of the Olympics, long enough to spot some lovely ladies merging ballet with a little acro and waving intrepidly controlled ribbons. Rather fetching -- might this be a new maturing of what seems to want to be circus ballet, and would you, would I go? Not so sure. Thrilling still looms high on my list, and I'm not talking pedestrian self-promoter Nik Wallenda and his laborious long sky walks on the wire. Not much at all to watch after you observe the first few steps. The Great Wallendas once had seven of them up there, nicely uniform and walking the steel thread to music, a warm up to the Big Tricks that astonished and thrilled. Let's look somewhere else ...

Big Apple Circus to uncork their latest, a thing called (sounds like a strained title thought up by the Feld of Felds)-- Legendarium. Not bad, not good. On paper, lineup looks strong and vibrant, dynamic and diversified. What grabed my respect was news that the band will be playing "history's iconic songs." YES to that; how long since we've had a great songbook of popular favorites at the circus? More to sing about: costumes by the gifted Mirena Radna, who bathed the show's brilliant Picturesque (2004-2005) in radiant hues. Acts from places named China and Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary, Canada, Argentina. From France and the Netherlands. And oh how I love dropping those names because of my respect for their Great Global Gifts to these shores. From the U.S., too, that would be The Acrobuffos, a husband and wife clown duo, and, returning with animals, the marvelous Jenny Vidbel ... Pitches a BAC press release, "You will experience the nostalgic thrills of historic Big Tops and get a first hand view of Beauties, Daredevils and Clowns from another era!" ... How I envy those within an easy commute to this rare and wonderful operation, YOU are lucky whether you know it or not. Go repeat a thousand times ..

Olympian Gold-Medal Goof Off: Usain Bolt

What a showman this show of is: He's Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, a gold medal cut-up at the London Games who, at 30 meters to go, stopped to make phone calls and order a macchiato, whatever that is. Next sprint for this character: I see Dancing With the Stars. And then, and then, I might watch.

Sayz Chuck Burnes, in the pages of Circus Report, some tent-bits: In Amsterdam, an elephant was fitted with contact lenses -- oh that pachyderm vanity! ... Ancient Romans, reports Chuck, had the big brutes walking tightropes. Don't believe such a thing? Check out a You Tube, shot in the Thailand of today, by clicking onto "Elephant walking tightrope" And I wondered what I'd be doing tonight ...

Exit twirling typos and mirthful misspellings. Happy to report that my book, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide, has been exorcised of these annoying little distractions. Future copies will roll cleanly off the press.

And that's a Saturday wrap at 6:15 PST.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Most Difficult Truths, Far From Heaven

The second time around, I feel even more respect for this 2002 flick, Far From Heaven, starring Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, and Dennis Quaid as her husband, Frank. Both turn in remarkably sensitive performances, each Oscar worthy, as are a host of elements attached to this rare cinematic achievement.

What is marriage -- as much deception as truth? In the 1950s, countless wives suffered, mostly in silence, the strange indifference of husbands who were closeted homosexuals, largely trapped in a society that would not allow them the freedom to be who they were. These men frequented subordinate gay bars, subject to raids, themselves risking social and career suicide.

Frank Whitaker's early homosexuality resurfaces into his marriage. The wife, of course, is thunderstruck, but supportive. And despite the honest counsel of a psychiatrist advising Whitaker that his chances to change his nature are very slim, Whitaker resolves to "cure" himself, and he doesn't.

In the meantime, stranded in the shadows of her husband's alienating ambivalence, and his failure to reignite true sexual intimacy (he nearly breaks down on one occasion, resorts to spousal abuse at other points), Cathy, the doting housewife, breaks stereotype by revealing a courageous liberal streak. She forms a promising friendship with their African American gardener, Raymond Deagen, played with impeccable restraint by Dennis Haysbert. This meeting of two lost and alienated souls gives rise to an implicit sexual dimension. And, step by step, Cathy Whitaker reaches deeper into the local African American community. To the film's credit, director-writer Todd Haynes generally avoids cliches; here, too, there is bigotry from African Americans against the mere sight of a black man dancing with a white woman. All hell breaks loose on both sides of the racial divide.

I won't say where it goes -- it's worth your watching. What makes the journey particularly memorable, and why I appreciate this film even more, is the rich score by Elmer Bernstein, a soft lyrical symphony which follows the story, frame by frame, with pensive fidelity. So, too, is the lush, finely framed cinematography of Edward Lachman

The ending is neither maudlin nor triumphal. It is, at best, poignantly hopeful, which adds so much to the film's intellectual integrity.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Saturday Slide Bys: King Bros. Returns! Cirque Du Soleil's Zarkana a Zar-can’t-a? ... Ringling's Dragons Snub Frisco's Huge Asian Market ...

Reliving yesterday ... 
The Zoppe tent: a temple of simpler times

Okay, and a Dot Dot Dot! ... (put your spell checkers asleep, or you might be beeped to death during what follows) ... To New York, once again, went Cirque du Soleil, wanting still to carve out a permanent Broadway presence, this time at Radio City Music Hall. Earlier it was Banana Shpeel, and, before that, the luckier Wintuk at MSG. Then came to Radio City Zarkana, which opened to mixed, though I’d say encouraging reviews, and which seemed to attract some decent houses (all very fuzzy on this, but it even gets less fuzzier.... ) Only two seasons into a CDS-projected “permanent” summer run, Zarkana, having reached its “finally year,” is being dispatched to Las Vegas, writes Chuck Burnes in Circus Report, there to reopen at the Aria Resort, site of the recently felled Viva Elvis. Wonders Chuck, will Zarkana hold court in the Elvis space or in perhaps another venue in the “huge hotel.”

King Bros. Circus Returns! This, gleefully sent me by Sir Harry Kingston of Texas, reporting that the show is fronted by the not-so-lucky Ned Toth, (seen here, who brought you, ever so briefly, a like-minded effort to revive the Clyde Beatty tittle). Didn’t work, kids. The return of King will uncork at the only date so far listed, Greenwood, MS, in Sept. Wonders Harry, might Johnny Pugh, who “owns” the King title, resist the Toth cloth? Show has its website up and gleaming, casting prime focus onto Toth, nephew of Frank McClosky (which has never struck me as much to talk about). And there he claims to have bought the King title from Jerry Collins back in 1980. If not, and if Pugh pushes court action, perhaps they could call it Kingston Bros. Circus? Plenty of VIP seats set aside for Sir Harry ... "King" marks, to be sure, a great-sounding circus name.

Kudos to Copeland and Combs. Ex Ringling joey Chuck Burnes thinks “it would be great if the Felds hired those great clowns,” seeming to feel that a return to solid sawdust comedy is in order “after too many so-so years and even some years with nothing funny happening at all!” Yeah, about the latter, I can vouch. The two Kelly Miller Circus buffoons joke about being fired every so often by John Ringling North II (actually, a fan of the two), only to crawl back humbly and get rehired. But, still -- I’m going out on a limb here; I can’t imagine them not wanting, big picture talk, to spread their funny wings and test other markets, eventually. Trouble is, there are so few viable markets. Would they really want to share the fallen spotlights with a bunch of hack Shrine amateurs? I’d go back to peanut vending before facing such a dreary future. Out west my way, hint hint, there is Circus Vargas, which I hope to see in the near future.

Inscrutable Chinese Irony: Not coming to San Francisco any time soon. Ringling's Dragons edition will apparently not be parading at the Cow Palace. Show is playing in my town right now, then down to San Jose. The dragon theme seems a natural for pitching to a city thick with Asians. SF has 'em. Feld returned to the Cow Palace for maybe a pair of seasons. Likely the patronage was tepid.

.... Enough. Lovely photo above from the Zoppe Circus website. A family show of modest impact, warn and cuddly, and I’m glad the family carries on.

Wrap this one up in Luv, Billy, and send it to Don Marcks, wherever he is ...

First posted August 11, 2012

Thursday, August 09, 2012

No, THIS is Why They’re Called "The Flying Wallendas"

Just in from watching a tepid game of lawn bowling on a humid Oakland green, on Fox News, the moment my screen appeared, Shep Smith revealed why:

During the 1940s, in Akron, Ohio, the entire troupe fell from the wire, but none were killed.

A reporter, at the time, said they fell so gracefully, that he called them the “flying wallendas”

Any truth to that?. And if so, why heretofore have none of those in-the-know out there come forward with this? I’ve heard a few reasons, but this one is new to me.

And to you?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Broadway's Two-Hit Wonder, Marvin Hamlisch, Dies; After Early Success, Struggled through Many Fruitless Collaborations

Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers: six Broadway hits over 16 seasons

His short-lived success on Broadway as a leading composer (A Chorus Line, They're Playing Our Song) says more about the changing nature of how new musicals are assembled than about his considerable talents. No longer does Broadway host successful song writers over a lifetime, as it did when the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin reigned.

No longer, in fact, does a composer's name hold much sway over the marketplace. Can you tell me who wrote the songs for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? For The Book of Mormon?
For In the Heights? All those shows bear top-flights scores.

Marvin Hamlisch, who died this week at the age of 68, is most remembered and celebrated for arguably one of the most affecting pop songs ever written (with words by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), "The Way We Were."

So, why was he unable to produce more successful musicals? He was never able to settle down with a regular collaborator. After the man who supplied the words to his music for A Chorus Line, Ed Kleban, died (of AIDS), Hamlisch turned to Carol Bayer Sager; they not only came up with the winning songs for They're Playing Our Song, but they enjoyed a short-lived affair which, when it ended, also spelled the end to their creative partnership. From there, Hamlisch wandered from one collaborator to another. He would never again produce a Broadway hit. Which is a shame, but hardly unusual for somebody today who enjoys opening night acclaim on the Great White Way, only never to experience it again.

During the so-called "golden age" of Broadway musicals, the most prolific of all composers, Richard Rodgers, valued consistency in collaboration to such a degree, and wisely so, that he suffered untold frustration working with lyricist Larry Hart. When Hart became virtually impossible to work with, Rodgers transferred to Oscar Hammerstein II, and when Hammerstein died, Rodgers tried other collaborators, including Stephen Sondheim (Do I Hear A Waltz? -- a fine score), but with none did he achieve anything approaching success.

Here is a true end point: There is the story of Jerome Kern being introduced, at a social function, to one of the guests, who exclaimed, "Oh, you are the man who wrote 'Old Man River!'" "No," corrected Dorothy Hammerstein, wife of Oscar, "Mr. Berlin wrote [the notes] da - da - da - da ... my husband wrote 'old man river.'"

Friday, August 03, 2012

About the 'M" Word ... This from Juliana Martinez

The Nine Ward-Bell Flyers at Polack Bros Circus, circa 1954

This came in as a comment to an older post, "What Ever Became of the Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. I believe it bears front ring attention:

From Juliana Marinez:

"As someone who is related to nearly all of the original Ward-Bell flyers, I would first like to say that my grandmother, Mayme Ward always told me that my grandfather, Eddie Ward, invented the mechanic. If I had told her that one day it would become part of the act, she would be appalled. Does anyone besides me remember the term "aerial ballet"? You wouldn't dance a ballet in your practice garb, it would detract from the elegance and symmetry. My Grandparents, and parents had pride and dignity. They were flyers, but most importantly, they were trapeze "artists", and were proud of their daring, and also of doing it with style. If I had a lot of money, I would throw away all the strobes and laser lights and produce an old-fashioned circus with the kind of aerial acts I remember. If you don't think a sway poll can still scare the pants off of people, you are wrong, it still scares me! Real acts with real risk and pride in artistry, wardrobe, and details. Put that together, and you might actually have a real circus. I just don't know if it could be done."

Thank you, Juliana. I have my doubts, too. I believe that nothing more vividly symbolizes the circus going gutless and risking the loss of its reality-based soul than the rise of mechanics in performance. They render the act impotent, no matter how interesting it may be. Ironically, select members of the U.S. circus community, have come forward to defend their use. The most ridiculous of all imagery is a so-called "high wire" act rigged to lifelines. Vertically Pointless. Why so high? Sterile. At best, "interesting," hardly the word to stir a trip back to the big top. Nik Wallenda crossing Niagra falls, tethered every step of the way to the cable. I need say nothing more.

Increasingly, true risk takers will surface in other venues, for there will always be a crowd, and a circus show will by default look increasingly languid, passe, academic -- excusing its prior courage, stamina, skill, and, yes art, under the guise of "new circus" or theatre-circus or circus-ballet.

Rich and rousing are my memories of the great Nine Ward-Bell Flyers when they came to Santa Rosa in my boyhood with Polack Bros.Circus!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Fred Dahlinger, Jr. Out -- Before He Begins -- as Bandwagon Editor; Pfening III Returns: CHS Promises Up-To-Date Publishing Schedule By 2013

It's been a long puzzling silence: why has the Circus Historical Society not published a single issue of its centerpiece, Bandwagon magazine, since last Nov-Dec issue?

In a statement issued today on the CHS website by CHS president, Judy Griffith, forwarded to me by Don Covington, Fred Dahlinger, Jr., who was appointed editor following the early departure last year of Fred. D. Pfening III, "withdrew" from his editing post on July 23. Griffith sited a "number of issues" leading up to the decision, but did not specify further.

Members have been wondering what ever happened to the magazine, which was enquiringly edited for fifty years by the late Fred D. Pfening, Jr.

Pfening III is said to be on board to put out this year's six issues, all of which apparently remain works in progress; It is worth speculating that Pfening III's early exit last year may not have been welcomed -- he seemed the natural candidate to assume the reigns held by his dad. Perhaps he has had second thoughts, or possibly Dahlinger, known for his fastidious attention to detail and his encyclopedic knowledge of circus history, found the challenge of editing the work of others too overwhelming.

CHS seems to be angling for a more contemporary slant in future coverage. "We are seeking insightful contributions that provide a new understanding and appreciation of the circus," writes Griffith. "The challenge is the shortage of publishable, high quality material, which has been the hallmark of Bandwagon in years past."

The next two issues (Jan-Feb and March-April) are projected to hit the mail lanes come September and October, respectively.