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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year, Old Circus? U.S. Stays the Sawdust Course, UK Sweeps It Away

We kick off the new year with this atmospheric shot of Water Street in Ringlingville, Baraboo, Wisconsin, circa I suppose 1900 when the American circus ruled the world. The photo is here because I see the lone figure as being that of John Ringling. Can't tell you why, except that somehow his stance and shape conform to my long-held image of the dominating circus king.  Your guess?

It feels like a misty midwinter, when the big rail shows hunkered down in such barns, painted props and wagons, repaired stringers and razorbacks, rehearsed ponies and elephants and jugglers and tumblers.  Sometimes, while watching a movie set at the turn of the previous century, I imagine the Ringling show rumbling into cities at dawn, lions and tigers in a roar, roustabouts in action, tents springing into the air, banners flapping.  I imagine a circus I never saw.  Big bright gilded red wagons, sunburst wheels flaring across Main Street, thousands of towners anxiously lined up, awaiting the parade.  In the misty midwinter, I too dream ...

Old gold, at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall, 1963, the Seven Kukacs from the Hungarian State Circus.  Love the terrific composition.  It fits this retro dreamy post.  It takes us back to a time when circus in its fullness was embraced by the Brits.  No longer.  Elephants over there are virtually all gone, as someday they may be here. But then, in the beginning, there were no pachyderms, were there?

Frosty Brit crackle in the air.  You see Tom Pinder lighting up a cig, there fronting the Pinder Family Circus in the 1930s. (photo from George Pinder's personal collection, courtesy of Douglas McPherson)  I love this image, it is so surly, straight ahead, unmolested by the politics of dissent still seasons away.  They who gave us the circus are now retiring it to museum status.  The Chinese acrobats are said to enjoy high favor among what's left of the circus going public in the UK.

In Mcpherson's reliable account of this radical demise, his book Circus Mania, after spiriting me with his seeming entrancement of the old ways, pages later he makes an abrupt U-Turn and brings me down.  I, too, have considered what he boldly affirms, but reading it from another pen gives it a sudden jolting impact, and I feel a pain.  And, here it is:  Proceed at your own caution, or skip this paragraph.

"I've enjoyed the animal shows I've seen.  I've even enjoyed the raw proximity of the elephants, tigers, camels, and horses.  Yet I've never sat there and fully shaken off the feeling  that it was an odd thing to be sitting there watching - a spectacle closer to the farmyard than the theatre.  There is a place, I now realize, for the liberty horses and elephant pyramid and the big cage act, but perhaps its the place we reserve for museums and Morris dancers and steam railways, a place where we can indulge our nostalgia for the past but a place where only diehard enthusiasts would go to regularly.  The rest of us, while enjoying our visit and and perhaps finding it educational for our children, understand that we can only ever be fleeting visitors because, on the whole, we prefer to live in the present."

The "present' keeps coming closer.  Will it ever completely arrive?  Like it or not, McPherson reflects the changing realities.  I only know this.  I no longer trust Kenneth Feld, as if I ever should have.  Yes, he may be sincere; He may oversee a totally humane animal handling brigade, but that is NOT what YouTube video footage shows, and he refuses, so far as I know, to refute the footage.  I have lost faith in Feld Entertainment.  They've got million dollar lawyers; let's see them invalidate the video that dares to implicate the organization.

Los Angeles versus Jumbo: The Felds, of course, are furious at a move in L.A. to ban performing elephants.  They've issued a boastful press release touting their victory in winning a nifty $9.5 million in damages from the ASPCA for its "manufactured litigation" featuring star witness Tom Ryder.  The court did not buy.  Mr. Ryder was paid $190,000 over an 8-year run serving as an "injured plaintiff" for various animal rights groups. I am glad the Felds prevailed in this instance, although, ultimately, in the court of public opinion, I have my doubts that they will.  That YouTube sticks in my brain.  It tells me too much I had hoped not to know about Mr. Kenneth Feld.

Happy Days are Still Here Again!  Not to go dark on you as a new year dawns, I bring you back to America, to Atlanta, the emerging apex of U.S. circus entertainment.  There next Feburary, during a sweep of overlapping dates, you can take in Ringling-Barnum, Big Apple, and UniverSoul.  And in this reality, may we take a touch of pride in three shows, all of them creatively alive in one way or another. All of them presenting animal acts of some sort.  (I've only seen UniverSoul once, but it struck me as daring to try a different road, and with evidence of first-line showmanship, at least in part.)

Next year, far as I know, all of the known U.S. circuses will be back in the air.  All the seats, I imagine, will be as hard to fill, and rarely near full.  Forget the idea of straw houses. But look for a tiny uptick.  How about a cheer, what say ye? -- to HALF HOUSES!!!!

A tip of the hat to those inventive Brits This image of an English circus, long ago, was sent to me by English showman Gerry Cottle.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

End of an Era at Oakland's L'Amyx Tea Bar ... Remembering a Great Place to Hang Out

Sad news for so wonderful a place.  When friend Boyi Yuan told me that L’Amyx Tea Bar would be closing in about a week, he suggested we meet there on the last Sunday morning.  He had worked there for a number of years, leaving earlier this year on the first of January to become a waiter at another eatery.  We got to know each at L'Amyx, after I got a laptop and started blogging there.  Here are some favored pictures and memories ... And below, my first posting on my laptop at L'Amyx.
From China to Oakland:  Tea tenders Boyi, right, with his friend and favorite co-worker Will, in 2008, a few months before they invited me out over the holidays for dinner in Oakland's Chinatown. 

My favorite spot for three-dot blogging.

Boyi at the register, on a mellow evening.

Tranquil Sunday mornings were my favorite time at L'Amyx.  I started going there a few months after it opened on Piedmont Avenue, only two blocks from where I live, after 9/11, always with a copy of the L.T. Times.  You can't get the Sunday Times anywhere now in the S.F. Bay Area. How I miss it.  In early 2008, I got my first laptop.

Boyi and Will, on Will's last night working at L'Amyx, in August, 2010.

Here, Boyi, who can amuse when a camera is raised, serves as "official witness" to my signing the contract with Bear Manor Media for my book, Inside the Changing Circus, in May, 2011.

With Boyi on the last Sunday at L'Amyx, September 23, 2012.  Five days later, a very special place was history

Thank you, Marcia, for your wonderful tea bar. For its warm gentle atmosphere, the serene Sunday mornings, the evenings of rare tea-scented enchantment.  For the welcoming spirit of tea tenders Boyi and Will, and so many others, who worked the counter over the years.  I am happy you are doing so well with your new Asian Kitchen on Lakeshore Avenue.  Boyi took me there last year.  Wonderful food!

Tea Trumps Circus at L'Amyx
From Showbiz David, February 9, 2008

Join me for a high-tech laugh or two here at L’Amyx Tea Bar on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. What a trendy night. Ring my Dell! I’m feeling cooler than cool, pecking out this post on my very first laptop. Or have I again arrived just when the latest party is letting out? At the moment mine is the only laptop in the room!... Who knows, as of tonight laptops may be a thing of the past, and all because of me ... Has anybody, by the way, heard of something called a cellphone? Think I should check that one out too ..

Our servers tonight are Will and Boyi, two young guys from China with a certain natural flair for sharing favored tea enthusiasms. Will, who hails from Guangxi, champions an ominous jar of thick black leaves called Tribute Pu-Er, something that looks like it should be served out of an ash tray or wrapped in a cigar. He has tried before to sell me on his pet brew. So far I have resisted, preferring the serene contemplative sanity of Dragonwell or Japanese Rice tea to a late-night emergency room visit ...

Boyi likes Dragonwell, too, and he especially likes Tranquility Mao Feng, which has a nice lingering lilt to it. Says Boyi, raised somewhere in the Chinese countryside, “No matter how long you steep it, it’s still not bitter.”

Ah, still not bitter. That’s too easy a road for Will, who took on Tribute Pu-Er like an athlete scaling a pregnant volcano. “I don’t like it at first.” he admits, laughing over his masochistic attraction to the stuff. “Too earthy.” But Will took the challenge like a man. “Now I like it.” The ashen looking compound rewards courage with residual pleasure. “After feeling it in your mouth, feels an hour later, your mouth still feels sweet”

In fact, Pu-Er is so strong, it has a way of moving permanently into a pot and being the scent that keeps on scenting: After a time, says Will, “You don’t need to put tea leaf in pot anymore.”

All the while, I am wondering, have these guys seen any circuses in China? When I ask Will, he gives off a blank stare. "Circus, Will, you know, ah — circus?" Blank stare bordering on laughter. I try describing circus acts. I motion with my hands. Will thinks. “Not really. I see them on TV.” I remind Will that China is famous for its acrobats. “You never saw any acrobats in China?” He thinks a little more, and I wonder if that ashen tea he drinks has rebooted his memory. “Some small circus,” he answers, “only few people. They like come from small village, three or four people ... riding the one-wheel bike.” He finds it funny.

So much for a Chinese big top audience base. Strange that we know more about them over here than they do about themselves over there. Clearly, Will and Boyi both missed being turned against their will into hoop divers, so here they are in America serving hot water over imported tea leaves to people like me ...

About to leave the place after first-of-May laptop frustrations -- getting adjusted to a new keyboard and to a new spell checker that has already collapsed under the weight of my ignorance -- ah, as the song might have said, "I’ll spell my way by myself." Looking around — horror of horrors — I am still the ONLY one with a portable PC. Now, the others are reading books, pouring over notes, talking to each other face to face ... What next, checkers? Once again, I am trailing a party that closed hours ago. Just once, I vow to get the first next whatever new gizmo, just once to be first in line to the next Steve Jobs premiere ... In the meantime, let’s see, should I take a crack at Will’s favorite, or settle for the lingering sweetness of Tranquility Mao Feng? Or practice shouting out loud in public the most intimate details of my life and prepare to enter the cellphony Olympics?... Nobody wants to ring my Dell...


Saturday, December 08, 2012

Don't Tell Atlanta the Circus is Dying: America's Top Three Big Tops to Share Town Space Next Year

First big top to take the town: Big Apple Circus, on February 1

This is a story that impresses.  That makes me feel good about our own U.S. circus scene.

Especially do I take heart, considering the dismal plight of the "traditional" circus in, of all places, the place were it was invented -- Great Brittan.  Over there, big tops enlivened with animal acts have virtually all vanished into oblivion. Into the history books.  The Brit scene from afar feels strangely impotent. 

This awesome Atlanta action happened a few season ago, and it's gonna happen again, when Ringling-Barnum, Big Apple, and UniverSoul hit the town on overlapping dates. Last time they converged, they were joined by a fourth, the upstart outsider from Montreal named Cirque du Soleil. 

 UniverSoul Circus hip hops in on February 9.

Call it The Atlanta Professional Circus Festival, or, if better, The American Professional Circus Festival, herein named and offered for immediate use by yours truly.   So nice to be able to drop the word "professional" with pride, confidence, and not a little smug satisfaction. I've had my fill of the academics lecturing me on the "circus arts."  Telling me, for example, how today as opposed to the terrible past, women -- yes women --  actually perform in the rings and are no longer -- Surprise! -- relegated to the demeaning status of scantly clad prop assistants for male stars.

We have so many "amateur" or "youth" or "international" circus festivals around the world.  We have so many obscure new experimental troupes, many of them barely ever reported.  Here, in the Bay Area, every other year, I learn that the "center" of a new circus movement is happening right here under my own eyes, in Oakland, of all places (competing for bragging rights, it would appear, with San Francisco) watched, I suppose, by a few dozen souls, friends of the fledgling troupes. Down in some warehouse along a seedy stretch of town. 

Ringling-Barnum goes to work on February 13

So, how refreshing it is that three viably commercial circus companies, all of them actively creative in one way or another, are still Out There.  Still -- now isn't this interesting -- all of 'em, thank you, daring to present live performing animal acts.  Of some sort.

Go figure?

No, go to Atlanta and see for yourself.

Show Schedules for the Atlanta Professional Circus Festival:

Big Apple Circus (celebrating its 35th anniversary), Legendarium:  February 1-18

Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, Dragons: Feb. 13-18

UniverSoul Circus (celebrating its 20th anniversary), US: February 9-26


Friday, December 07, 2012

A Gift for All Seasons: Take Them Inside the Changing Circus!

"Step right up for a visit to the American Circus!  There could be no finer guide than David Lewis Hammarstrom ... His 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"
          -- THE STAGE, London

 "Fascinating! ... Something we need in these changing times more than anything else."
          -- PLANET CIRCUS, Germany
 "Bold and ambitious ... Timely and provocative! ... It is difficult to disagree with most of his views."
          -- CIRCUS REPORT, USA

"Once in the audience, how can viewers evaluate what they see? ... A concise guide ... Hammarstrom's memories are vivid, and his enthusiasm is infectious"
          -- CHOICE

"I eagerly read this book - as a circus arts performer and instructor I found it entertaining, and as an academic educator I found it very useful ... strikes a fun balance between history and gossip, critical guide and personal insights into the diversity that is the world of the modern circus show."
          -- ELSIE SMITH

"A thought-provoking book... how circus, particularly American circus, has changed and developed over the past 50 to 60 years, this book is packed with information and opinion."
          -- KING POLE, UK

“Penetrating ... Informative ... Takes us out of our comfort zones.”
          – THE WHITE TOPS

"Roll up, while you still can, to the greatest show on earth! 'fresh, alive, magical and compelling.'  Along with the author of this fine volume, I urge you to buy tickets for the world of sawdust and spangles before it's too late and circuses go the way of steam trains."
          -- THE DAILY MAIL, London

"Pay Attention! ... A good show!... This engaging study functions as a sort of everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-the-circus-business-today-but-were-too-mildly-nostalgic- to-ask."
          -- SPECTACLE, USA

"His appraisals of changing circus trends under American big top apply to the world circus scene absolutely."
           -- CIRCUS ARCHIVE,  Germany

$19.95 - available on most websites

Direct from the publisher:

On Amazon: 

 On Amazon/UK:

From Barnes & Noble:

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Showbiz David, Many Seasons Ago, in the UK

Update, urgent question from Angie in UK, see comments below:  Has somebody an answer?

Well, there I am -- yes, Showbiz David when he dug suits and ties, at Chipperfields Circus, near Glasgow, in the 1960s.  The picture widens next week.

I could not resist posting this, roused by Douglas McPherson's sobering account, in his book Circus Mania, of the rapidly shrinking Brit  "circus" scene. This picture, to those savvy enough to guess the context, reveals a whole chunk of my early life.   A life long gone by. But that life took me to Scotland, where I also took in Roberts Bros., and -- my favorite show of the three -- the one at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow at Christmas time.

So circus fanish of me -- posing as if I owned the show.  I, too, was young once.

Inside the tent, during set up.  Perhaps somebody across the Big Pond will recognized this man.

A land of graceful beauty.  A land that fog makes love to.