Monday, September 24, 2012

The Bandwagon Rolls Again ... A Fanfare for Pfening's Rebounding Return

Just when I had about given up on ever seeing another issue of the Circus Historical Society's Bandwagon, today in the mail, there it came -- the January-February 2012 issue, the masthead restoring, as rightfully it should, the name Pfening to the post of publisher-editor.

 It's arrives with a dazzling, slightly altered look; in fact, a significantly altered look, what with a more varied spread of photos, many larger on the page, but not such that they crowd out and minimize text -- a phenomenon that can obliterate the prose  of lager picture books, such as Circus: Garden of Eden to Pittsburgh.

Fanfares for the Pfening of Pfenings for taking on the task of bringing out every issue errantly overdue, and may he find inspiration in his pledge to forge beyond that season..  After his father died, he did not want to take over permanently, did so as "interim." Perhaps this time out, he will reconsider. Whatever went on when Fred Dahlinger, Jr. was theoretically in charge as the new editor, did not amount to a single issue. Not a good omen.

 My favorite picture in my book, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide:  You see Gracie Genders on the far left, and directly in front of her, Bob Fisher.  Her giddy abandon epitomizes to me  the pure free joy of youth.  They are performing at the annual YMCA circus in Bloomington. Milner Library/ISU photo..

Now, the grand old Bandwagon is back on the road, and already I am immersed in Tuffy Genders' day-by-day diary account of his days with the Big Show during the 1937 season. He even sometimes records, realistically it appears, bad as well as boffo biz. CHS members should be overjoyed.

The circus magazine of circus magazines is off the flats, down the runs, rumbling full force ahead onto another, we hope, thousand lots. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Power -- and Hazards -- of Illustrating a Circus Book: How Many Photos Are Too Many? Even Belong?

Once again, I have visited this highly subjective task in the search for photos to illustrate my latest effort, Inside the Changing Circus.

Strange empty feeling. In a few days I will not be trekking to the post office with a package addressed to my publisher, but sending off the entire manuscript, with captions slotted at photo placement points, via e-mail attachments.

Luckily, you can go photo fishing in the digital age without booking travel. Still, the challenge can be a daunting one when institutions with the goods you seek either don’t respond or place bureaucratic hurdles in your path; when circus companies display equal indifference. Which makes the rare generosity of a primary source particularly gratifying. In this instance, three people came through with flying colors for me, and a perfect storm of access and publisher latitude tempted me to illustrate, illustrate, illustrate!

To start with, my publisher, BearManor Media, placed no limit on the number of photos allowable. Add to this the most agreeable terms offered me by two major sources — the Milner Library at Illinois State University, in particular its Special Collections librarian Maureen Brunsdale and her crack photo fisher wiz, Mark Schmitt; and, secondly, Tim Tegge and his Baraboo-based Tegge Archives. And what a colossal temptation visited me! Free of normal restraints, I, a self-confessed Ringlingphile, have forced myself to err on the side of self-control. Of relevance, not redundancy. In total, there are 74 photographs. Easily, there could have been twice that many. What pleases me the most is that they are fairly spread throughout the entire work.

There is a point of no return, I believe, between a book meant to be read, really read, and one that is so photographically indulgent as to render itself virtually unreadable. Such would be the case with The Circus: 1870-1950 (one of its many titles). Its prose may be fine, for all I know. But under the sheer weight of its museumesque pretensions, and given how tiny the type font is, I haven’t the will to find out.

Some if not most of my favorite big top tomes are hardly illustrated at all: This Way to the Big Show; I Love You Honey, But the Season's Over; Bradna’s Big Top; Taylor's Center Ring; North's Circus Kings.

My personal favorite American circus history book is Earl Chapin May’s The Circus From Rome to Ringling. I think of it as being profusely illustrated in the older black and white mode, but, in fact, it bears not many more than 50-60 images. Numerous pages pass by without visuals. Somehow, its illustrations enliven it in a manner than lends the illusion of a well illustrated tome.

Jerry App’s excellent study of the Ringling brothers, Ringlingville, might have benefited by a third less photos; Some of his choices are so vague as to be barely engaging.

On the other hand, for any die-hard Ringling fan who can't ever get enough quality black and whites, perhaps no other book can touch Chappie Fox's A Ticket to the Circus: A Pictorial History of the Incredible Ringlings. Containing over 300 illustrations, yet thanks to a judicious layout respecting the printed word, the chapters, each addressing a specific topic, do not feel crowded out by photographs. It's compact size, less than 200 pages, makes it a most welcome visitor.

As for my latest, I am excited to announce that most of the Milner’s will be “first time in print” offerings. So, too, for Tanbark Tim’s. And thanks to the gracious cooperation of Phillip Thurstan at the Big Apple Circus; of documentary filmmaker Phil Weyland; and of Kelly Miller's James Royal, the contemporary scene gets fair coverage in some excellent photography.

But I don’t have Cirque King Guy Laliberte. OK, maybe he's not that much to look at, but what a power to behold. You can’t always get everything you want. Not, I suppose, unless you are willing to pay the prohibitively high reprint fees routinely charged by newspapers, magazines and various media. It’s a new world, and therein lies another example of how old media is failing to adapt. “Fair usage,” a legal concept allowing the unsanctioned fee-free publication of a small sampling of a given work, is finally flexing its populist muscles in the age of the internet and against egregiously unfair new copyright extension laws. You will see, if you scroll down through this blog, dozens of photos I’ve taken off newspapers and other media, crediting each. Not once has a news organization contacted me to cease and desist. In Cyber space, fair usage is no longer being silenced by intimidating shake-down lawyers.

Thinking back over my experience illustrating four previous circus books, I gratefully recall a few compassionate souls who made my efforts such a pleasure, who were so generous in the terms of sharing; they no doubt sensed I was not going to get rich, and I did not get rich: the charming John Hurdle at the Ringling Museum; The Russians in Moscow; Tim Tegge; The late Ringling photographer Ted Sato; Erin Foley, formerly with Circus World Museum. Add, now, Maureen Brunsdale.

My favorite photo in this, my eighth book, is a Milner, not before seen, of some young flyers on the platform at the YMCA circus in Bloomington, among them, the lean imperial figure of Bob Fisher and a giddy Gracie Genders, full of the breezy confidence of youth. Perfect find.

Ah, the thrill of the Big Catch when you go photo fishing under the big top!

originally published August 21, 2011

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Two Sides of John Ringling North II: One Fosters Originality, the Other Follows a Tired Hugo Script

John Ringling North II

Jim Royal recently sent me a copy of the DVD of their current edition, much appreciated, more as a research tool. I do not intend to “review” the show. That would be inappropriate given the gesture, and because I think you need to see a circus live in order to feel its full impact.

There are, however, two interesting works in progress that bear meritorious attention. The creative side of JRN II, and the creative reach of clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs; interesting how their fates are linked, at least for the time being, by a CFA tent being named after them together.

The face of JRN that I will not linger on, for I have in detail critiqued it several times before on this blog, is the Hugo syndrome to which he has, it would appear, increasingly subscribed: Pitching the audience and breaking up the show for concessions.

The other face, the one that genuinely impresses and intrigues me, I could have never predicted: the rather original, perhaps unprecedented shape that North’s so-called “production number,” directly preceding intermission, has taken. And in this, I take heart. The 2012 production marks an advance, although it also follows, in concept, the one I saw in 2010. And although the materials (talent) range from meager-pedestrian to noteworthy, it’s in the execution (musical scoring and flow of action) where North and his staff make a memorable mark.

I must stress concept. Keep in mind, I am watching a DVD. This year’s Pirate theme offering, on the whole, achieves a beguiling sense of shifting contrasts — the individual actions merging almost seamlessly. So effectively is this esthetic carried through to the final frame, that the North Starlets (three gals on webs) achieve a more surreal effect over the audience than otherwise might have been possible. Actually, they perform a series of fairy rudimentary web tricks. Also, a skeleton chase by Copeland and Combs is funnier given the context. Another word to keep in mind.

The flow of action casts a choreographed imprint not unlike a sequence out of an MGM movie musical. I’ve never quite seen anything exactly like this sort of a number in a circus. That the acts are unannounced is one big reason for the air of something different.

The pirate production’s obvious high point are the "Puppies of Penzance," a winning dog act presided over with charm and grace by Carolyn Rice. The mutts enter aboard a little sailing ship, Ye Old Salty Dog, and they fill the ring with joyful energy and ample dexterity. They practically bubble. The act in whirl-dirly motion represents a triumph in staging, bearing shades of something the Russians might have done with such a turn.

The other Kelly Miller component meriting note: Clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs bring an infectious zeal in their obvious desire to please – if only they could learn that there are other ways to get laughs than by endlessly whacking each other. My favorite bit was a laundry gag, with a fairly good payoff, and I liked some of their pre-show antics in the audience. Another item, Angry Clowns, felt still born -- and ground to a fizzle. Ringmaster John Moss, who serves perfectly as a straight man, could have been made greater use of. When Steve and Ryan return as surfers, more of the same only begs the question, what makes them think they must stick almost relentlessly to slapstick?

Their creativity is a delight, as evidenced above in "Surfboard Slapstick." But they seem too often insecurely preoccupied with a Three Stooge's campaign. On the soundtrack, you'll hear kiddies in the audience laugh; a good clown, I propose, must reach adults as well. At the end of Angry Clowns, I heard a guy booing

An earlier gag has them trying to deliver a huge cartoon to the ringmaster. It's fun too watch because, considering the size of the carton, it promises a big visual payoff, not to be. They go for sound effects -- glass splintering apart inside -- they rely heavily on sound effects. I was hoping for some kind of an explosion– something very visual.

In all fairness, lest we collectively rue bygone "greats" like Lou Jacobs, I remember his classic little car routine producing one huge laugh -- the spray of water out of the top of his head; I also remember wishing the routine had more items as funny as that one gag.

All of the above having been said, there is no reason, based on this DVD, to believe that John Ringling North II will significantly depart the Hugo script. Which is a pity, given his stated desire to produce “the best circus in America,” For that, he will need both resolve and perhaps the resources ($$$) he does not have. That's sad, because I have a hunch he possesses the instincts of a more creative producer. That he may possess true Ringling blood.

How many more intermissions before the Big Show really arrives?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Showbiz David Inks Contract for His Next Book as Expert Witness Boyi Makes it Official

From June 28, 2012 -- when I could only hope it might do well.

Sunday morning in the tea tent (L’Amyx), my friend Boyi Yuan joined me for an official contract signing, staged on the spur of the blurry moment, but it’s the occasion that matters, right?

What a rousing crowd was Boyi! Amusingly, he turns into an actor whenever a camera is near, which makes taking photos with and around him such a joy. So true in China last year. Whatever the atmosphere or event, this Boyi will find yet another face on his face to match it.

Here, he’s pushing us all (me, he, and a reluctant camera guy behind the counter) to give the victorious moment a little more fun and fizz. If only we could have rehearsed! (The camera guy Chris, whose day job is tea tending, is not union; in fact, he may never have shuttered a digital until this impromptu event. But he gave it his all.)

The contract had arrived just the day before from BearManor Media, who will publish my next book, Inside the Changing Circus.

Handing the contract to Boyi, I thought he'd want to look it over. “I’ll look it over,” said he, “but I won’t read it.”

More about my new book later. It was a rewarding challenge to work on. Even a breeze. Now I’m in contact with some wonderful sources for photos I hope to obtain. This is the fun part. I will tell myself that over and over again when the worst part — preparing an index — stalks me later in the production process.

Perfect sunny morning along Piedmont Avenue. Hojicha rice tea from Japan in my cup. Ella, her voice missing from the soundtrack for many months, has magically returned, singing classics like “Let’s face the music and dance.”

Thank you, Boyi, for sharing my excitement with your usual class. Soon enough, I will once again be singing to myself, “Let’s face the presses and pray.”*


*Boy--i have been lucky on this one.

Monday, September 10, 2012

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: Monday Morning In-Box ... Might I Entertain You at Your Boring Job?

John Ringling North and Lou Jacobs

You might be reading me at your desk at work? Or maybe passing the time over coffee at your favorite sit down. In a mobile home on some dusty lot? At a desk of power ... It's okay, wherever you are; I won't tell your supervisor ...

Peanuts yet to crack: The bag sent to me by John Ringling North II a while back, unopened, now takes on new urgency as I anticipate a possible DVD of the recent show landing in my mail-box. If the anticipation holds, then --- it just struck, no cracked me, I might finally break the plastic container open and sample peanuts pitched at America's One Ring Wonder ...

Speaking of which -- oh, will we ever be free of the old Ringling spell? -- gotta tell you that last night I watched the movie again. Any die-hard circus fans will instantly know what movie. It's a ritual kept alive by certain scenes. When, for instance, the main spec, Circus Serenade, rolls by, especially when we see it coming around the corner from a high seat in the reserves, I sometimes superimpose over the floats images of the Holiday spec floats from the 1955 show, just to reach back in a vain, rather sad effort to relive that day so long ago when I saw the only Ringling show I would ever see under big top. I still feel tingles ... In the dark, still?

Think Greatest Show on Earth. Sometimes when I watch it, the experience feels more like a drill than a pleasure; Sometimes, something new comes through I had forgotten about or had never noticed. And it happened right here, in my one bedroom rental, last night. Are you ready? Hint, hint -- a finely directed and acted scene, making it feel like we are in a another movie, one more intimately dramatic than spectacularly overwhelming. Two characters are interacting in a rather private place, somewhere on the lot. One, trying to get closer to the other, the other rather confusingly flattered and amused. Can you guess? Read on ...

India's Olympic Indifference: I read in The Wall Street Journal that India couldn't care less about collecting Gold Medals, or even Copper or Wood medals, at the games, which are becoming, as I see it, a showcase for the comparative merits of various drugs designed to turn athletes into freaky superhuman robots. HaHa! Says the story's writer, Theodore Dalrymple, "It's not that India tried and failed. It did not try. The country does not believe in this nonsense." Love it! Stand up and laugh, you who refuse to fall for all the phoney steroid-enhanced spectacles of fakes and frauds on parade. All of which points to a future when drugs themselves might become an event, with Big Pharma firms competing for the gold. You heard it right here.

Boring Big Show Buffoons: With this years Ringling effort, Dragons, writes a not impressed Chuck Burnes in Circus Report, the funny faces amount to the "Only act in the entire show that doesn't come up to Ringling's historic quality. " Chuck's not too pleased with a minimum of makeup; that doesn't bother me -- I've more and more started to wonder if the old-era overly made up faces are simply, somehow too quaintly grotesque. Maybe it has to do with new generations of clowns seeming out of sync with these masks. Continues Chuck, "I wish I knew just how clowning on this show has seemingly zoomed down to zero ... Most of them just look like the young chorus dancers, they actually are wearing show costumes with clown shoes .... H-E-L-P!" How I'd welcome an unruly invasion of the old-guard Ringling fun makers in their thick greasepaint (yes, on their faces, somehow it worked), each a quirky character. Stress "character."

So getting back to last night, when I tried digging in to enjoy De Mille's great big top flick (I really should lock it up for two years -- it requires patience between the draggy high points -- only 41% on rotten tomatoes -- sorry to pop your balloon), I was struck by the one scene which shows textured direction and acting: Up into the boss's wagon steps Angel (Gloria Grahame), determined to show a more sweet face and win over Brad (Charlton Heston) . She wants to serve him coffee, to pack his pipe -- something, he protests (inside joke?), the boys usually do. Their extended exchange brings out the best acting that Heston probably ever had to offer. You see it in his subtle facial expressions. Grahame, anyway, was a great actress (see In a Lonely Place, among others fine films she made).

That one oh-so-sophisticated scene gives me something definite in the way of drama to look forward to the next time I face the film. Of course, among other fun things -- there is always Klaus (Lyle Bettger), his brooding presence, his pitiful infatuation with Angel; his kindergarten vocabulary utterances --- "Angel!!!" .... "Shut up!" ... "What you say, I do it." I love it the most when Heston kicks him off the lot, that look of disgraced embarrassment on his face as he exits the ring ... Hey, when you've seen this movie as many times as I have, you take inflated pleasure in the tiniest discovery, however momentary ... "Shut up!"

Last night was like that. Maybe, last night, I should have cracked a Peterson Peanut.


Saturday, September 08, 2012

Rare London Acclaim for Showbiz David's "Inside the Changing Circus"

by Douglas McPherson
The Stage
September 6

Step right up for a visit to the
American circus – there could be
no finer guide than David Lewis
Hammarstrom. A fan for 50 years,
Hammarstrom’s passion for sawdust
and spangles bubbles from every line
but – a rarity among circus writers –
he’s as quick to point out the rubbish
and rip-offs as the wonderful.

His aim is to make you “a more
discriminating circus fan”. And his
forensic examination of performance
and production includes much that
insiders could learn from: “Speed,
pep and pace are three words
any director should memorise,”
he writes.

The American circus is changing
rapidly. Dwindling audiences have
consigned the three-ring circus
to history. The Ringling Brothers
became the “Ring-less Brothers”,
when they moved out of big tops
“that you could almost feel breathing
in and out” and into indoor arenas
“as exciting to behold as an abandoned
airstrip in the Nevada desert”
Cirque du Soleil, meanwhile, has
prospered by selling traditional
tricks as high art.

He admits being a circus fan can
be frustrating. But the thrill of the
big trick keeps us coming back for
more. Wire-walking king Karl
Wallenda summed up the appeal
as, “Look what a man can do.”

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Sunday Morning with Agent X: Spinnng Happy Infects Kelly Miller Blogging

A most interesting subject, I pondered outside the ice house in pre-dawn darkness earlier this morning, awaiting the promised drive by of Agent X across Sebastapol Avenue by the crossing signals.

Has the show clamped down on blogging about crowd size? Perhaps, more telling, is that John Ringling North II and James Royal ever allowed such in the first place. Gradually, I have noticed, checking his blog out now and then, a shift in Steve Copeland's daily accounts, and so I am losing interest. From realism, telling it like it is, to feel good everything-is-great of the sort that marks the ever-stolid, ever-loyal White Tops.

Gone for good? And, if so, why?

"Piccadilly cleaned their clock in Ohio!" shouted Agent X, hosting me through a crack in the window of his black limbo, suddenly pulling up to my vigil near the ice house. I rushed up to meet him at the window. What had he to reveal on the matter.

"Okay, from the inside, my contacts say that North the sequal, as you put it, doesn't like attendance estimates leaking out, figures rivals will get wind of lush markets and go after 'em the next year."

Are they paranoid? I shouted.

"Northfield! Show usually hits pay dirt for Kiwanis! Garden ran around 'em in a five day blowout, book ending Kelly Miller's one day! Damn near across the lot! Biz down by maybe a half!"

Do you think the show banned blogging about house size, I asked.

About to roll his window back up, with a blast of Concello smoke Agent X shouted back, "No, no, kid! Not that stupid. They do it nice like, tell the bloggers they got a serious problem, and why. That's all, now if those clowns want to get hired back, well, you figure."

Trying to snare one more quote from Agent X, I flailed my hands in the air, and shouted, "What do you think about that Garden character?"

"He's no Garden! He's a weed patch!"

Window up, shut. Limo skidding off into darkness.

Agent X was gone.