Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Beat of the Big Tops, 2013: Looking Backward, Half Dreaming Forward ...

Warning: Many of my blogging tools have vanished or are on hiatus. Perhaps Fate is sending me a Stop message. If you suffer severe reactions to twrling typos and mischievous misspellings, I urge you to skip this post immediately. It may rattle your psyche.

Oh, why not? I had nothing formally brewing in mind, so here goes, in random order, events and trends that intrigue or cheer or depress me:

Feld Forever: If you are a fan of the family’s impact on Ringling-Barnum legacy, you should be pleased. Give the Feld of Felds credit for honing his daughters to eventually take over once he is no longer around. At the top, Nicole Feld appears to be proving that she has what it takes.

Ringling light: John Ringling North II, apparently content to put out a middle-of-the-road tent show drawing on tradition, it being called Kelly Miller Circus, seems unlikely to push his modest creative envelope.

Johnny Pugh’s Happy Big Top: The man continues to helm his Cole Bros. Circus of Stars. In convincing contrast to long-argued rumors by one Sarasota insider that he has forever been trying to sell out, Pugh follows the course of most circus owners: They stay with it and for it until the end of their time on earth. John Ringling (the First), out of power and still striving to regain it, wept in a wheel chair, seated on the edge of a street as Cole Bros Circus paraded by.

Paul Binder’s shadow: Graciously, blogging, he talked up this year’s fine performance and strong critical reception. I hope to get a copy of his book, but I doubt I will learn much. Somehow, I can’t see Paul revealing his innermost feeling about other circuses and trends, even though, among big top lords, he is likely the most educated and articulate.

Big Apple Circus to thank: It’s still in my book a national treasure and arguably, overall, the best show out on the road. It gives me another spring New York trip to look forward to. I can almost find my way on a bus to Queens, blindfolded. New artistic director Guilluame Dufresnoy seems to be the perfect person to extend the Binder-Christiensen mode.

Carson & Barnes dreaming: Okay, you Byrds, take a provisional encore! So rich are my long ago memories of your five ring tents, your crusty canvas, your quirky seat wagons (sooo much fun) that I still long for a great performance from you.

Best Circus Website of 2013: Carson & Barnes. If only they could translate its captivating spirit, texture, imagery and control into a great show. (Maybe they have, okay, but the peanut pitch was missing from the website, hint hint!)

Museums Affirm Resolve, Expansion:We’re talking both Baraboo, now under fresh direction from the youngish Scott O’Donnell with an ample portfolio of circus credits to his name. And of course, we are talking the Sarasota juggernaut, squatters with millions to spend in the land of John Ringling’s estate, originally pledged for art --- before circus conquered a spot and kept on growing. An interesting story. Money and bureaucrats form the perfect storm to trump something so inconvenient as the will of a dead circus king.

Stage & Sawdust: They’re out there, the experimental troupes determined to mold ballet, circus and theatre into one --- and who knows, somebody may one day bring it off brilliantly. Not so brilliant are the ghosts of recent fluffy fiascos from Cirque du Soleil: Banana Shpeel on Broadway, Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, Iris in Hollywood, and others. Think Spider Man. You say I should think Pippin? The big creative breakthrough? It’s an established musical to begin with (pretty lame when it first came out), this time out, in robust revival, substituting circus acts for magic acts.

Symphony and Sawdust: This idea any better? On paper, it sounds good. Somehow, I can’t see it clicking beyond a few novel overtures.

Montreal Magic fading: For the first time since they hit the states in 1987, I no longer plan to, for sure, see the next touring show from Cirque du Soleil that comes to San Francisco. The last two strained bargain-basement offerings, Totem and Amaluna (sounds like a medical condition, no?), left me Luke warm, and from a circus, I want more than luke warm, thank you. Hard to believe, but, the next time, I will first check out the reviews, since Bagdad By the Bay seems fully capable of reviewing a circus like any other show.

Biggest Big Top Wish: To see bodies in the seats when I go to these shows. Yes, it happens at Big Apple Circus and CDS, and, yes, Ringling manages at least (in Oakland) to pull in a few thousand souls, though hardly what one would call an impressive crowd.

What does the public really want? Recalling the late great Henry Edgar once posing a question: So let’s say somebody puts out a perfect circus, and the people still don’t come?

Yes, Henry, just suppose. Which is why I am not a big top boss, which is why those rare circus owners out there somehow know how to stay on the road year after year after year.

Cheers to them, I suppose…

By the way, does anybody out there know if Cason and Barnes is coming to California next year?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Morning with Washington Irving: On a Christmas Night Long Ago

How the times and our view of them never change.  Here, from "The Christmas Dinner," in The Sketch Book, 1819-1820 by Washington Irving:

From my part, I was in continual excitement from the varied scenes of whim and innocent gaiety passing before me. It was inspiring to see wild-eyed frolic and warmhearted hospitality breaking out from among the chills and gloom of winter, and old age throwing off his apathy and catching once more the freshness of youthful enjoyment ...

I also felt an interest in the scene from the consideration that these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion. 

But enough of Christmas and its gambols; it is time for me to pause in this garrulity. Methinks I hear the questions asked by my graver readers: "To what purpose is all this — how is the world to be made wiser by this talk?"

If, however, I can by any luck of chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate though the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humor with his fellow being and himself, surely, surely, I shall not have written entirely in vain

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rodgers & Hammerstein on Film; Their Sound of Music Goes Deeper in Treatments Favoring Original Stage Scripts

Update, 5.28.2020:  My lending the impression that the 1999 Brit version by Trevor Nunn of Oklahoma followed the original script with fidelity was totally wrong.  This deception comes through in an "extras" on the DVD with Mary Rogers raving about the show as the best version she ever saw and stating that what we see see was all there in the beginning.  NO, it was not. Turns out, according to an in-depth review of the Trevor Nunn  production by John Heilperm, in  the New York Observer,  that Nunn  "added dialogue" from the original source, Green Grow the Lilacs, upon which Oscar Hammerstein II had adapted his libretto.  I wondered why the film of the show is so long -- a good half hour longer than the 1943 production. So I followed the script in book form as I listened to the movie.  There are revsions here and there; most of all Nunn works overtime to build up the character and menace of Jud Fry by adding scenes.

Recent new film versions of Rodgers & Hammerstein shows introduce the public to darker songs and scenes excluded from movie adaptations; NBC wisely respected the stage script.

This weekend, I see that ABC will be airing -- what I think is an annual event -- the movie version of The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews.  Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein hits that made it onto film -- and they all did --this one is by far the best known to the public at large.  Indeed, the only one of their shows to reach true populist appeal in the cinema.

The other R & H musicals have not endured nearly as well.  Many have been re-staged or re-conceived for Broadway and television, to mediocre results.  The track record is strewn with oddball adaptations. In movie form, like Music, they favor sweetness and sentiment over the more realistic elements that assumed a more prominent role in the stage productions.

Cinderella in PC Overdrive

ABC's 1997 adaptation of  the team's 1957 made-for-TV Cinderella played the PC Card in overdrive, added songs form other shows, gave the stepsisters a strange obnoxious edge -- and hasn't been seen from since.

Cinematically famous for the last musical they took to Broadway

So loved has The Sound of Music become, that audiences convene inside movie houses for sing-along-versions of the movie.  And if Julie Andrews is  primarily responsible for the film's enduring success, she must share co-credit with a glorious set of winning Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.  "Climb Every Mountain" is surely better known today than the arguably superior "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel.  When I first heard it off the original cast album, I knew what they were up to -- let's write another You'll Never.  It sounded a bit forced and labored, and yet, with the right voice in a theatre, it raises the roof.  An ersatz spiritual showstopper.

How will the movie version, due back this Sunday on ABC, compare in ratings to the recent surprise hit from NBC, a live televised version much closer to the original stage show?   Will be interesting.

Sought Pacific Sinking

In a word: Tacky.  Glenn Close, yes Glenn Close as Nellie Forbush in the crude 1999 TV version of South Pacific which she -- surprise! -- co-produced.  We've not seen the return of this dog.  But don't count that out.  Think CABLE. Well, there's always  the Pledge Break Society (PBS), ever on the lookout for yesterday's icons desperate to give it away -- anything for attention.

I remain acutely disappointed that the admirably ambitious NBC Live version of The Sound of Music was so ill-served by Carrie Underwood's woefully amateur acting.. But I was cheered that audiences got to hear two great songs that were left out of the movie, both atypically unsentimental -- "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way To Stop It," the latter a provocative take on early acquiescence to the growing threat of Nazism that looms in the background.  It was composed to be played on a guitar.

My nephew was surprised when I told him that "Edelweiss" was not the ancient folk song he believed it to be, but an original ditty crafted by R&H.

I am hoping  that NBC will return next year with a slightly altered cast, minus, yes, Underwood (would take guts on their part).  I am waiting for Netflix to bring out NBC's live staging so I can watch the last half, which I skipped -- too late.
 Happy talk ruled 1950 film adaptations

The Rodgers and Hammerstein shows on film tended to leave the darker songs and scenes in the wings -- "A Lonely Room" from Oklahoma; "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You" from The King and I; and the two numbers mentioned above from The Sound of Music.  Hollywood helped reinforce a misleading impression that R&H were merchants of happy talk.

Dead on arrival: The cloyingly hip film version of Flower Drum Song was the only R&H property to flop in moiveland  and generate scathing notices.  A refreshing if delicate delight on the stage, it deserves a true Broadway revival -- or an NBC Live treatment.  Here, we behold -gasp! --  the lovely soft shoe song "Sunday" being contorted into an ersatz fashion show dream wreaking of 1950s housewife suburbia consumerism.  An attempted "Broadway revival" in 2002  with a drastically new book by David Henry Hwang was an abysmal flop. Not only did Hwang's libretto have virtually nothing to do with the original 1958 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (a critical and commercial hit); it had nothing at all to do with the book upon which it was based.  

So it's refreshing to consider other R&H tuners going live before NBC cameras.  For starters, an almost fail-proof candidate would be South Pacific, which proved itself in the most successful Broadway revival ever for a Rodgers & Hammerstein work when it returned to New York in 2008.  The show ran for over two years.  The original script was closely followed.
Rediscovering Oklahoma in London; Brilliant West End revival  honors the script.
The Royal National Theater's inspired 1999 staging of Oklahoma,  starring Hugh Jackman as Curly, mined the original script for the darker truths about love and loneliness (and the cunning power of money with regards to) that were always there.  This production did not cavort and caper cutely around them; it took them seriously.  The enormously successful show was then filmed during performance in a manner that captured the stage show as a stage show.  I am watching it again.  I can't imagine any production ever being better than this one, and most would not hold up. My only quibble is the show's excessive length, drawn out by the overly long ballet.  Total running time is three hours; judicious cuts would hardly harm this finely wrought work.

Oscar Hammerstein would oddly like to say, "It's really only about a girl trying to make up her mind -- who will she go with to a box lunch social."  He should have known better, for he wrote every line; it is about two men in a conflict over the girl, Laure, that turns into a nightmare.The conflict rises throughout. 

Director Trevor Nunn's  penetrating hand crafted a harrowing portrait of abject loneliness in the figure of Jude Fry, played to the bone by Georgia born and raised actor and singer Shuler Paul Hensley. His aching rendition of  "A Lonely Room" brought the house down.  And his tragic death made the show as much about him as about Curly.  The two sobering scenes, among others, marked a few of the most powerful moments in American musical theatre history.  Hensley landed an Olivier award for his role.

There may be a new day for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and for other great musicals as well -- if only directors can stick to the scripts and leave their monstrous I-Know-Better-What-To-Do egos at the stage door. This was what impressed me the most about the NBC treatment of S of M -- the network's willingness to go against the movie and defer (generally) to the original 1959 Broadway libretto by Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsay.  It is not all sweetness and bounce.  In the background hovers the looming threat of Adolph Hitler, which darkens the otherwise charming story with a certain gravitas. 

I  would love to see NBC take on Flower Drum Song in the same manner -- sticking to the stage script and staging it live. Yes, a tricky proposition.  Perhaps the show will have to prove itself in a true revival first.  Such a venture stands a decent change to dismiss the hissing critics of the wretchedly insulting movie, itself an atrocious assault on a wonderfully charming situation comedy stage musical. 

This is where the major TV networks can play a significant role.  NBC may have just turned it into one of the major players along the Great White Way's feeder lanes.  Television's embracement of the more authentically complete Rodgers and Hammerstein, has, thank God, paid off.  Keep in mind that when Cinderella was first aired on live TV in 1957, over one hundred million people watched it.  Dick and Oscar must be smiling in their graves.

A South Pacific to Die For

Staged on the vast Vivian Beaumont Theater thrust stage by Bartlett Sher, South Pacific was later aired on PBS in a "Live from Lincoln Center" telecast.  

Notwithstanding all of the above, can NBC, rumored to have more projects in the works, go very far with this complex and expensive underttaking?  Somehow, I don't think so.  Maybe one or two more, until the novelty soon wears off.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday Wake Ups! ...Fleas to Elephants... Ringmaster for God to Zippos for Brits ... New Board Game for the Bored ... It's All On the Inside!

Hundred years ago, Flea circuses roamed the land, maybe skipped old mattresses -- better luck in sawdust and spangles, and one of the star miniatures, Flossy, who flossed about for Barron's Flea Circus, at Olympia, fled the show for where?   A mystery fit for Agatha C.  Posters flung into action promised "liberal award" for the safe return of the errant one, said to be of the "piebald" tribe. Did she run away or, as some opined, take refuge in a "thick head of hair." Maybe she found a man-flea and the two eloped ... That fleafull poster (yes a word I fleefully gleefully hatched for this rousing opener -- are you still with me?), lost in the archives of North Ireland's Public Record Office, recently discovered.  Now on display in Proni's headquarters in Belfast's Titanic Quarter -- just in case you were planning a little weekend in Ireland and needed a cultural diversion away from the pubs..

Baraboo rising!  New museum monarch Scott O'Donnell talking up the return of the living big top, fanfaring about canvas being  "the pre-eminent way to experience the circus..." Ah, Sir Harry of Kingston will take heart in hearing such words. He, like many, prefers to watch a circus under a tent.  Into the Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall  will go something interactive called "Caught in the Act: Legends, Myths and Mysteries of the Circus."  Legends -- also the word heading up the new Feld-Ringling opus about to hit the sawdust -- or asphalt -- down there in the re-birthed land of Ringling.  To be called simply Legends.   And, already, it seems to be bringing out a softer warmer persona from the Feld of Felds.  Sir Kenneth chirping to the local press over his undying love of elephants.  Does it so well, hard to reconcile with evidence to the contrary of Ringling pachyderms getting mistreated, cursed at and slapped by bull hooks..  

Can you feel his joyful connection?  Wonder if it's real ...

"The first time the elephants come out, there is an audible gasp and cheer," exudes KF.   "It's a sight.  It's a feeling and it ultimately gives you an emotional connection.  There's nothing like it."

Thus Cometh the Holiest Ringmaster on Earth?  That mighteth be Ringling toutmaster Jonathan Lee Iversion, of the Christian flock.  While his boss, Mr. Feld, goes all gushy over the elephants, Mr. Iverson is more and more going all gushy coming out to reporters (or Feld press agents) about Christ guiding his everyday footsteps.  He's a ring barker who "prays unceasingly during the day and has won the respect of the circus' large and diverse faith population by his tolerance for the faith of others." Well, okay. That's nice.  A lot of people are religious, I think I already knew.  Maybe the Big Show is aiming for Born Agains.   How about a rabbi ringmaster to balance out this bible ballyhoo?

About Feld's critics, among them Bob Barker, who allege he's got the elephant compound in high gear and generating lots of publicity merely as a front for insuring "a reliable supply of animals for his circus."  Grants Mr. Feld to a reporter daring to ask, the breeding of pachyderms was "part of the motivation,' adding "but the center has turned out to be so much more," including research his company is undertaking "out in the world." In fact, says he, all of this scientific stuff could prove to be a more enduring legacy than Feld Entertainment itself.  Well, for sure, it might trump the Monster Truck follies division.

Zippos zips zippily on across the Pond.  From  London town, Douglas McPherson checks in, informing me that "Martin Burton says they're playing up to 8 shows a day in Hyde Park, and getting 9,000 people under canvas each Saturday."  That's hot.  But eight shows? Must be an extreme John Robinson (truncated show) or one of those new-age flea circuses. Flossy, come back -- you could rock the tent!

We can't stop trying!   My friend and co-inventor Boyi Yuan (left) and I are now, confidently poised with Version 3 of our board game invention, trying out our  Can't Stop Shopping on the eBay road, auction form.  Just sold another copy last evening, auction having ended at 7 PM pst.  It's fun and promising. This is digital democracy (did I by chance just invent that term? probably not) in action.

....Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  Maybe that's what Flossy thought when she snuck out from under Mr. Barron's thumb.  Heck, maybe she's put herself up for a performing contract to the highest bidder on eBay. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Testy Tigers Terrify Rattled Handlers Around the Globe -- Spain, Germany, Australia, to Oklahoma

Just a family misunderstanding?  Aussie zoo senior tiger handler David Styles, in a happier frame, seen here with, possibly, the tiger who became overly affectionate.

Seeing as how the currentl post, about of all things lawn bowling, might not merit a long shelf life, this evening while half listening to the news, I punched in the word "circus" on google, and this is what most caught my eye:  Out of the NY Daily News:

SEE IT: Circus tiger tamer attacked during performance

"Danny Gottani of the Gottani Circus was in the middle of a performance when the tiger leapt at him, wrapping its arms around the trainer and swiping at the tamer."   Hundreds of spectators gasped at the horrifying scene, in a Madrid neighborhood.

Big Cage helpers turned thrashing sticks onto the attacking beast, dissuading it from deepening its vicious agenda.

Gottani hurried to hospital, with non life-threatening injuries. His mother suffered a panic attack over the ghastly spectacle.

The YouTube posting references several other tiger tantrums around the globe, to wit:

Oklahoma zoo worker, her hand bitten by a tiger, blamed for reaching into the cage and "violating his space."

Siberian tiger kills zoo keeper in German   And ...

Aussie zoo tiger handler mauled.  Senior tiger handler, David Styles,  recovering following surgery at local hospital.  During a Sumatran tiger demo, he was mauled by an "overly feisty feline," taking a bite from his neck.  

See what I came up with by punching in "circus' on the google line?  Consider it a token break from the yawn of lawn bowling, where the only attacks are shockingly indiscreet verbal outbursts. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sunday Morning Looking Back: Shocking Incivility on Lawn Bowling Green; Oakland Club Fades Away

Perhaps the apprehensions raised in my post below, from 2007, can help explain this preface to it

How I miss the lawn bowlers. Once, the greens blossomed with figures in white, many games in play at once. Now, if I'm lucky, there might be six players, three to a team -- one game in motion. Sad. I don't go much anymore. 

Here's a picutre of some players chatting it up after a tournament around 2010.  The young player, Jonathan, in front of his younger brother,is talking to Jerry, a great sport who brought humor to the greens and should have been the club's leader all along.  You'll read more about Jonathan in my post below. 

What follows below is an item I drafted but held back, around 2007.   The "challenger" referred to, at one time or maybe still the president, may have not been the right leader for the club. The player he challenged, yes, known for being bit of a crank, a year or so later allegedly got into another tense tiff (possibly with the same man), and retried from the club.   I missed his crusty appearance. Sitting on the sidelines, I gathered impressions, and, to be lawn-bowling discrete, wondered if leadership was a tad alienating. Of course, players die or or no longer can play, or move away.

To its credit, the Oakland club has roused a younger crop of players who show up at later times, due to work restraints.  But under the sunlight on Tuesdays and Thursdays, those lovely greens stand fairly still. The  aging holdouts who cobble together a game soldier on, faint reverberations of a once-thriving scene.

From 2007, my unpublished post:

Shocking Incivility on the Green: One lawn bowler to another: “If you don’t like it, go home!”

We don’t expect such rudeness under a soothing late-winter California sun. We don’t associate the gentile sport of lawn bowling, where once they all wore white, with indelicate outbursts.

One player was standing in the sight lines of the bowler, and that according to the rules is a no-no that can lead to sudden forfeiture.  The distracting player moved a little, but not enough.

Shouted the challenger, “Stand in the center, six feet behind the jack.  It’s in the rule book.”


Tension charged the air.

“If you don’t like it, go home!”

Ouch.  And all along I thought these folk were so relentlessly polite.

I have watched the game for many years.  There is a certain poetry to it.   (When in Sarasota recently, with my niece and her new son, we spent some time watching the Floridians play — they were that day noticeably less expressive than their crusty counterparts in Oakland)   Now and then, a player will wander over in my direction, hoping to lure me into the club.  Politely I refrain.  I should post a placard next to me that reads “Do Not Disturb.  Spectator Only.”  In fact, I am  the Jack Nicholson of Lawn Bowling.

The game can be fascinating when the players are hot after the jack and take turns claiming it.  It’s all about  nuances.  Look at young  Jonathan (there he is in some photos I took of him a few years ago), who holds his own against players easily seventy years his senior.  His father is a fanatic — they come from another Bay Area club for league tournaments — I view him as the John McEnroe of the game.

A few of the others, clearly embarrassed by his hot-temper (I have seen him throw tantrums over botched bowls), have told me that he has been warned.

Maybe, too, should the man who shouted “If you don’t like it, go home!”

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Sound of Music Live on TV: Music Soars; Stilted Acting Does Not. Rodgers and Hammerstein Struggle Once Again in Labored TV Adaptation.

The Sound of a Saving Power: Audra McDonald

Quick take here, starting at the very beginning, ending up midway through.

How I wanted to like it.  Wanted to be swept away, for I am a Rodgers & Hammerstein fan to the living end, knowing that, with each passing year, their brand of music threatre, so rooted in older values gradually vanishing as society reinvents itself into a thousand -you-pick-the-one-that-suits-you-at-the-moment-relationship, is becoming more and more passe.

The Sound of Music was performed live on national TV.  Not since decades have they done this. I remember actually watching Cinderella being performed live.  A thrill.

First frames of this SofM, mostly following the stage show rather than the gooy film, were thus riveting, just to know they were winging it before live cameras.

The Mother Abyss, essayed with consummate power by Audra McDonald, took stage from the first frame, then came preciously sweet Maria, played by a singer I've never hardly heard of, Carrie Underwood, who can sing, but, sorry to say, can't act very well.  She came across as more the modern Disney woman, both feminine BUT very strong and take-chargy.    Into the Trapp mansion, the female housekeeper was a hoot, so real -- an older actress (still searching for her name) who grabbed my attention and kept me amused with her every move.  Best actor in the show, I'd say!   Stephen Moyer, playing Von Trapp had an edge, I liked. Together, he and Maria seemed miles apart. She, from Pixar; he, from Bergman.  But, I did not stay tuned all the way through.

Nice try, if only she could act: Underwood with Moyer

My bedtime is around 10 at the latest.  I wanted to have reason to defy my pillows and sheets, stay up like a kid, late.   Around 9:30, this SofM was wearing thin on me.  I'd gotten to hear one of my very favorites, "How Can Love Survive," well done and cheers!  This great gem had not survived into the sanitized movie, so for some of you, its haunting notes and worldly words, were, I hope, freshly exciting.  I found some of the choreography to be by the numbers, delivered drill team style.  In fact, overall direction seemed maybe too overplayed, making everybody look under the Captain's whistle.

Overall, TV's take, musically speaking, captured the greatness of possibly Broadway's greatest song writing them ever.  It had a lot going for it, but I asked myself -- bottom line acting test -- did in the Maria actor I see a character or an actor at work?

I saw a not very good actor trying her best to fit in.

When it's up on Netflix, surely I will get it.

For Maria, they really need, believe it or not, as much a character as a looker. Mary Martin was not just sweet; beyond that sunny face were intriguing idiosyncrasies that made her so damn interesting to watch.. 

Would love to have heard Audra McDonald sing climb every mountain. She probably brought down the set.

Still, hats off  to the directors, cast and crew for taking on so audacious an undertaking and bringing it off with class and polish.  

Maybe they can do it again, live.  All they need is a different Maria.

Not a  problem?


TV Ratings and reception:

The show, described a strong ratings winner, was seen by 18.5 million viewers.  Ratings share, 5.0 at its peak around midway through, sank a little in the second half down to 4.2.  Not a surprise to me.  My brother and his wife, both avid musical theatre fans, gave up on the show around 8:30, half way through, same as did I. But then again, none of us are Carrie Underwood fans.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's made for TV original, Cinderella, telecast live in 1957, was seen by -- ready for this? -- 107 million viewers, about twice as many people as tuned into Ed Sullivan around that time to watch Elvis Presley's hips go wild and free on national TV..

Reviews: I've only casually scanned a few. Some were good. Some, like USA Today, were quite bad.  Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, the reviews were "largely unfavorable."   That's not a surprise, either. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

From London: Douglas McPherson on the Great Biz at Zippos Circus

Par for the tent:  Zippos Circus plays to a full house in Sunny Hove, England.  

Considering how hostile, in general, the Brits have turned on traditional circus, namely those including animals, it is good to learn of a possilbe trend in the UK favoring  a new look at the circus, even, in some quarters, at animal acts.  Some of the shows, like Zippos, are featuring a few animals.  Even those they don't may find a reviving market for just plain old fashion circus -- minus the modern baggage from the so-called new circus movement, be it thematic overplay, narrative action and asides, ballet, etc.

I asked Douglas McPherson, London-based journalist and critic, and author of Circus Mania - an excellent book that surveys the contemporary big top scene in the UK, if he might give me his take on how things are going, in particular, with Zippos, which has been cleaning up, plenty of packed houses, from Scotland to London Town.  I am always happy to hear of a tent circus anywhere drawing consistently long lines.  I thought some of you would enjoy McPherson's reply.

From Douglas McPherson:

I think Zippos did well this year because they played to the strengths of traditional circus - no new-circus pretensions or storylines, just good old fashioned family entertainment. The Roman riding was probably a big draw because there hasn't been an act like that in the UK for a while. They also had a good strongman who got a lot of local publicity with free stunts such as pulling buses with his teeth. They had a good route, with city centre parks in cities like Glasgow, but also went to some more remote places in Scotland like Banff and Forfar (both sell-outs) which were maybe a bit starved of big circuses. A big part of their success probably comes from Zippo himself, Martin Burton - he's very good at working with the media, has good publicity stunts and knows his audience. Zippos didn't have the Chipperfield cats, by the way - that's Jolly's Circus. Sadly, they're not allowed to have the horses in their Christmas residency in London's Hyde Park from now till January 5 (the city council doesn't allow animal acts) but in a way that's another example of Burton's business sense - his ability to adapt - because the Hyde Park gig is prime location for a circus at this time of year; they're part of Winter Wonderland, an event that mixes a fairground, skating rink, Christmas shops etc, so there's a ready-made audience. Zippos are presenting a family show in the daytime and a more adult show called Cirque Berserk in the evenings, so they've got all bases covered. Hopefully Nicky and the horses will be back in 2014 - I'm putting an interview with her on my blog later today

You can link to McPherson's blog, a visual delight, by the way -  listed to your right as Circus Mania..

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Tanbark Tremors: Baraboo Jumps to Fresh Blood from O'Donnell... Zippos Packs the Tent, Scotland to England ... Come on In and Let the Spider-Spin Begin! ...

The Thimble Theatre, when it arrived at Circus World Museum over forty years ago, has remained shamefully neglected, virtually never put on public display.

Dateline: Circus World, Baraboo.  At last, Ringlingville seems to be breaking free of the Chappie Fox wagon restoration obsession project, and so lets tip our hats to new CWM exec director, Scott O’Donnell, making wonderful waves of change already.  Call it an attack of common sense, long needed. It marks a dazzling retreat from musty infatuation with anything that resembles the spoke off a circus wagon mired in ancient mud.  They’re talking about letting go of the carnival wagons, which means that the wonderful Thimble Theatre Fun House may yet unfold back into full splendor, down there in Gibsonton, Florida.  A thunderbolt of smart thinking is shadowing spot-on Scott on.  He’s putting the summer show back under a big top, along with some exciting new innovations ... Library guy Peter Shrake revealing plans to let go of excess duplicate collections, of house cleaning. Items might be put up for auction or offered to other institutions.  And they are, yes, dropping the name  "Gibsonton" with respect.

Here to quote their thinking, from a news report:  "If the plan to cull the collection goes through, a funhouse wagon and a group of carnival prizes would be donated to a carnival museum in Florida,.  Because they came from carnivals, rather than circuses, Circus World considers them inconsistent with the collection's mission."   Common sense, at last, decades in the making.  Finally, an adult at the CEO desk.

The old Ringling 600-foot long train shed, a fascinating walk-through, now under renovation.  Scott O'Donnell, photo above, hoping to open its doors for visitors - "Once you step in there, you're instantly transported to the early 1900s."   Oh, how right he is.  I've walked that shed.   Yes, open the windows wide and let the sun in!, to quote from a line in a song ditty composed by John Ringling North for his first indoor edition of the Greatest Show on Earth.  He, too, was forced to make big changes. Scott is hot on this lot.

High Wire artists, you’ve got work in the public utilities sector! Light bulbs at Heathrow, announced a British Airways e-mail sent to staff, needing to be changed by “high wire-artists.”  Terminal 5 was designed such as to “allow no safe way of changing the bulbs,” reported the Daily Mail.  If you by chance have a flight out of that portal, I’d suggest bringing a flash light just in case — unless your name is Wallenda. 

Sellouts in Sunny Hove, England for Zippos Circus. Long lines ringing lots everywhere in the UK

And while over across the Pond, Zippos Circus, I am happily apprised by Douglas McPherson,  has been packing the tent, from Scotland down into England.  Photos do warm the heart.  Have you any pictures of long lines in stateside lots waiting to pack tents our way? Pictures from 2013 forward?   Send ‘em my way, and I’ll throw them up here, maybe all the way to the top ...

Let the Spider-Spin begin ... Yeah, I’m back, for the fun, on that big Broadway blowout, finally crashing to earth come January. Already, the director called in to “save” a troubled property, Philip William McKinley, spinning a flop into a hit.  Quad City Times touting how he converted the show's "disastrous previews" into a "major success."  Let's think this out.  So a show that loses $60 million over a two and a half year run is a major success?  It may have brought in a million people faster than any other Broadway show in history, as alleged by McKinley, but feat was done on the back of massive life-support funding.

Truth behind the stats:  To bring off this cosmetic victory, Spider-Man, if I recall correctly, sold tons of discount tickets, and it performed in a large theatre containing many more seats than other old-Gotham playhouses. Another strange claim:  McKinley, according to the story, is reported being the director who staged  “the most editions” of  Ringling-Barnum.  Paaaaallleeeeze!  I can think of Richard Barstow, who coaxed and badgered the cast into form for  maybe 25-30 shows; before him, Al Ringling was the lead director from the first show he and his brothers put out, in 1884, until the time of Al’s death in 1916. Adds up to 30-plus seasons.   Not to slight Mr.McKinley’s great work; his Boom-a-Ring was about the best Feld-Ringling show I’ve seen in decades.  He also evidently picked up a lot about working PR from the Feld of Felds.

Salvation in Sin City?  Says Spiderman’s to-the-rescue director, talking up a transfer to Las Vegas,  “we’re rewriting the whole thing.” Now, is that not a concession to a failed script?   “We get to go in there now and do it from the beginning."

Broadway bound revival of Sideshow, which tried out in San Diego, headed next to DC, recently checked out by Don Covington, who sends along a snapshot impression:  "It’s still a work in progress. ... The novelty of seeing the co-stars maneuver on stage as co-joined twins wears thin after a while and the show plods along without a great deal of momentum. It could use some of the razzle dazzle that the Hilton twins brought to their shows in vaudeville where they were, at one time, the highest paid act on the circuit.”  These revival things are so hellishly tricky to make fly, once having crashed landed the first time out. 

Spider-Man may crash again.  The twins may suffer another flat ballyhoo on  the Great White Way..  But down in Gibsonton town, I’m banking on the Thimble Theatre from Foley & Burk rocking the midway in revival.  I can almost hear  its shuffle boards grinding this way and that, its air blasts aimed at loose skirts across a grid, the moo of the mechanical cow's head moving back and forth.  Back and forth.  This fun house, trust me, kids, has soul ...

Once a hit, always a hit. 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Christmas Cards

Remember Christmas cards?

Here is Don, writing to me December 12, 1958, sharing his plans for a card.

"Have been thinking of having some Christmas cards made sometime.  I would like to have maybe a Sunburst wagon wheel laying against a fence in the snow, or else have a barn in the background and then have all sorts of old wagons just outside with the snow quite deep and covering most everything. Would be a lot of work and all but would be interesting.  By gollys, just thought since I have the barn and wagons I guess that I could take a picture of my own stuff and use cotton to create the snow????"

I  love his imagined images.

Oh, such simpler times they were, and I suppose each generation ends up saying essentially the same thing.  I'd almost be happy to give up my PC and the lush research-communication benefits to get back some of the things we've lost, like a telegram guy knocking on your door, one telephone in only one room in the house.  The afternoon paper landing out there on the grass, its headlines bearing an urgency.  Three TV channels, so much easier.  Playing with kids outside on summer evenings.  I guess now, they face book in the dark.  How pitifully remote.

One of the best things back then was waiting each day in December for the postman to arrive with another stack of cards for our mail box. Sometimes, he'd make two deliveries!  The word "Christmas" was not yet fraught with political hysteria. 
How I miss getting lots of cards in the mail, most of them back then addressed to our family.  The envelopes.  The colors inside.  Snowy scenes of sleighs and brick houses, their windows aglow with sparking lights around tinseled trees. The warm greetings. The valued handwriting of friends and family.

I still like to send them, but only to those from whom, the previous season, I'd received one as well.  Otherwise, I feel part of an irrelevant tradition nearly as quaint as vaudeville.   I keep a list; it has been narrowing down over the years.

When I get an e-card from somebody, I am just as apt to delete it.  So cold. So anonymous. So mass produced; how easy to add my name to your list. 

A handwritten card connects one soul to another.  Shows the effort taken to reach out.

I don't know how Don's card turned out that year.  Here is a card of myself, which I sent out several years before.  Taken of me at the Redwood Empire Roller Palace in Santa Rosa.   What perfect penmanship, I am so proud looking back!   I think I peaked in my 12th year, and then I go so lost, tangled up in scribbling out words, sentences, revisions upon revisions,  that I lost my hand.

Many years later, as we faced the last year of the old millennium, I sent out a photo of my amusement park in the works, to the most people who would ever receive a card from me, about 60.  The name of my park is what inspired me to send it.

A Century of Thrills ... May '99 Be Your Best Yet

The card came with the above greeting.  The sepia photo shows my model midway so young then, with only the Big Dipper roller coaster, Thimble Theatre fun house (based on the one rotting away in a back shed at Baraboo), and The Whip.  In seasons to come, I would add the Tilt-A-Whirl, Ferris Wheel, Swings and, now in the works, Laugh in the Dark.

12.1.13/revised-expanded 2014

Friday, November 29, 2013

Broadway's Troubled Spider-Man to "Turn Off the Dark" for Good on January 6 ... $60 Million in the RED. Vegas-for-Rehab, Next Stop.

Musical May Set Record for Greatest Investment Loss in Gotham History 

For those of us who follow the epic ups and downs of Broadway,  the heroic desperation of producers in the face of scathing reviews to save a troubled tuner can be quite compelling. Big history about this points to near-inevitable flop outcomes.

Previews for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, as some of you will recall,  were panned by a few critics breaking ranks with a tradition of not issuing opinions until opening night. They just could not help themselves, I suppose, from gloating over an epic turnkey in the making.

Such pre-opening trauma does make for fun, unless it's a show you are in.

Circus Director Called in to Save Reckless Aerial Show

This lead to the preview version being closed down for major reworking.   Direcotr Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame, was fired, and, to the rescue, came former Ringling Bros. Circus stager, and a very good one, Philip William McKinley to implement fresh direction, working with a rewritten book by a virtual unknown hack with hardly a track record to speak of.  The latter, to me, spelled trouble.

The revised version officially "opened" on June 14, 2011, to a groaning mixture of grudgingly so-so reviews.   The moppet market, opined the critics, might mop it up and make it click, well, for a few years maybe. On that count, they were spot on.   But the money pros guessed that the odds for turning a profit on so expensive a production were virtually impossible.

For an impressive streak, the retooled Spider-Man, with less-hazardous aerial exploits, seemed to be proving its harshest critics wrong.  Business looked good, in the 80% and above range, but then a slippage at the box office began to settle in, ominously.  When a show, ball park guess here, hovers around the 70% mark, and some weeks falls below,  you've got trouble on your hands.  Too many weeks below 70% tells me it ain't gonna last very long.  (Cinderella, stuck in this sub-par category, should not be around for long either.)

Spider-Man held on longer than I estimated, given a mediocre box office. They kept pouring more money into the losing venture.

Julie Taymor: Now the Kiss of Death?

Came the reckoning in late August, this year, when ticket sales slumped too far south.  Around that time, they tacked back onto the marque the  name of the show's original director, Ms. I-Am-Director-Hear-Me-Roar Taymor.  Possibly their last act of desperation was to bank on Taymor's name rebooting ticket sales.  Didn't happen.  Show will close on January 4, then head for Sin City, hoping to turn around its fate in a scaled-down staging with smaller nut, recoup the loss and eventually make hay..

So far, they are $60 million in the hole, estimates The New York Times, as reported by Forbes magazine.  Even then, they've hauled in around $200 million in ticket sales..

Vegas likes flash and motion -- think Liberace and Cirque du Soleil.  Perhaps the show will find a more eager audience in Sin City, where other such aerial-intense offerings from the Montreal monster are still, I assume, reaping big bucks.  Insiders don't sound too confident.

A road tour?  Ooooo, so expensive to mount.  And who will come?   But a flop on Broadway can so easily be a "hit" anywhere outside of New York City.  Funny how Americans love Broadway, no matter what it sends 'em on tour.  Just one opening night (how I'd love one myself, truth be told), no matter what happens the next day, can make you a legend.  You were there. And "there" marks you as a player.

Tell-All Book Promises More Excitement

Broadway's giddy post-mortem celebrants are lapping it all up.  Seems. that Ms. Taymor has an ego equal to a thousand Spider-Women.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times by David Ng, ""Song of Spider-Man" is a tell-all memoir about the contentious behind-the-scenes drama that dominated the most expensive show in Broadway history. Written by Glen Berger, who co-wrote the script for the $75-million spectacle, the book provides a juicy insider account of artistic egos run amok."

Did I tell you about what fun it can be watching Big Egos along the Great White Way Rising and Falling?

Spider-Man could never turn back the odious onus of a doomed date on Broadway.  As for the theatre-circus angle, talked about in the beginning.  Rarely works out.  The harder they try, the harder they die..

Some of us who've never been there are laughing a little.   Nothing quite like the smug darkness of a flop over the Great White Way. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Morning Memories: I Still See the Magic, Still Hear the Music ...

Sunday Morning Looking Back: First published November 22, 2009 

Cool cool day here in Oakland. Looking over bits and pieces getting ready to brighten up (or dull down) this post, past and present march side by side in my many-crowded brain. Beatty may crack his whip. OVO from Cirque du Soleil, yet to be seen in SF, may charm -- or fool ...

On the lots and on the blogs, images of yesterday and today parade in crazy juxtapositions keeping alive a dialogue inside my dithering brain: What is circus? A photo of Otto Griebling on Margaret's Circus Anonymous blog brings me to a late breaking realization: Most lovably amusing come-in clown I’ve ever seen. So lucky to have been there. Talk about characters, which is what the best clowns are. Otto was so close to real I’m still not sure he wasn’t just a harmless bum allowed to stick around the show ....

On Balloon Man Dick Dykes midway, bright-as-sun photos of lusciously gaudy side show banner lines bring back memories of standing inside 10-in-1 tents under hot and heavy canvas over real grass. Maybe Cirque du Soleil will default to a retro side show if they fall off the stage; that's where they’re headed after trying out their latest in Chicago, something called Banana Shpeel that sounds like Kenneth Feld thought up the title. Tense present tense: Early unhappy audience reactions during Shpeel previews sound ominously similar to what Cirque’s Vegas illusion show Believe suffered when it first opened. Now, if they flop the proscenium test at the Beacon Theatre this February, what next. Rodeo? — World Wrestling? Here’s what next may be, something featuring this Indian hoop dancer, Nakota LaRance, from Flagstaff, Arizona, recently hired by CDS to appear on one of its units.

What makes a ring star? I still feel the magic, thank you Anthony Gatto, reading about your dedication to your juggling. Interviewed last March by BaltimoreGayLife.Com, revealed the hoop and club wiz, his daily training includes two plus hours of practice, a 3 mile jog, weight lifting and pre-show stretching. “I’m not saying every juggler has to go through that. There are a lot of different styles of juggling. My style is very high technical with a lot of numbers in the air. In order to keep those items aloft for so long, it does take some power [and boy do YOU have it] so I do have to do some other things besides the actual activity of juggling.” Of particular pride to this Brooklyn born dynamo? “My greatest accomplishment was winning a gold medal in 2000" [at Monte Carlo].

Upside down at Zing Zang Zoom: Yes, that's how the picture was meant to hang.

Pleasant present tense, continued, down the Covington chute: Nice critical nod for Ringling’s Zing Zang Zoom from the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones, who enjoyed himself. All, that is, except for a few spot-on caveats with which I cheerfully concur: Jones found the disappearing tiger act, while OK, not as fulfilling as “seeing the video screen that dominated too many prior editions disappear.” He was thoroughly irked, yes irked!, by the illuminated “blackout-killing concession booth,” which he wished they would also make go away. “This seductive grotto of high-priced plastic is tolerable at intermission [agreed!]; making kids drool and parents hang on to their billfold for the entire show goes way, way to far.

Wheel of Death, take a break! ... That’s the other Ringling thing our Chicago critic said he could live without. Seen it a million too many times, and so have I come to think about it. It's grown a little too standard, except for the rare daredevil who can turn it truly breathtaking (Go see Kooza).

Last Man on the Lot: Wistfully nostalgic Bill Taggart, having recently attended the Show folks of Sarasota memorial service for Ben Williams, feeling a pang over all those with-it and for-it souls no longer with us. Bill’s penning for the Bandwagon about his days on Ringling as it stumbled towards big top oblivion in Pittsburgh. We just got ‘54. Now I anxiously await ‘55, for that’s the first and only time I ever saw Big Bertha under the big top, up the road in Richmond, CA. Now, if Bill’s diary has anything on the Richmond date (the day before they faced an ugly line of Teamsters' pickets at the Cow Palace in SF), he’s not letting on. My one day of old Ringling magic. Okay, Bill, if you have to, make something up! ... For the guy who then sold tickets in the yellow wagon, all the people he so fondly remembers working with are now gone. “I now realize that I am the last living person from the front end of the Greatest Show on Earth. Rudy Bundy, Edna Antes, Nena Evans, Theor Forrestol, Noyelles and Hilda Burkhardt, Bobby Hasson, Bob Reyholds, Walter Rairden, Bobby DeLochte all those wonderful circus veterans all gone...”

On summer days, sometimes still I imagine myself standing outside that beautiful blue spread of designer Ringling canvas on a hot August afternoon and listening to the band play on while butchers ran in and out to restock their coca cola trays inside a small side top ... That evening, I would be inside taking in the circus of a lifetime. The next year, it was gone. But in this mind of mine, it still lives vividly on ... To OVO or not to OVO? Okay, I still fall for the hype. I’m coming, with apologies for unfair expectations. I come from out of the past ...


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Minus the "Wow" Factor from Cirque du Soleil: Obtuse, Humorless Amaluna Continues the Company's Ominous Decline

Circus Review:
Cirque du Soleil - Amaluna
San Francisco, November 17
Tickets: $70 to $270

All photos by Yannick Dery (accent / Over E), from the San Francisco Chronicle 

Midway through the second half of Cirque du Soleil’s latest effort (stress effort), I felt as if I were sitting around, half bored, at a party already over. Sure, the laser lights still flashed on and on. Hip young revelers flexed sexy limbs in glitter gear. Some flew back and forth on swings, having fun showing off with little to show. A band of hard grunge rockers kept the room noisily (if not obnoxiously) alive.  And a couple of quibbling fools seeming to believe they were funny — they weren’t — would not shut up. 

A few of the honored still hung around, long enough to offer a little artistic relief: An ambitious and winning group of diablo and risley performers from the Middle Kingdom.  A woman who works hula hoops as a gifted juggler, sans the belly dance part.  Party of dudes spinning terrifically off springboards in novel maneuvers that truly captivate.  And a  mean machine of a man who juggles balls with cool dexterity, if only he could let a little emotion slip through.

Why did he leave me feeling so detached?  Hour later, it struck me: He, like too much of the blasting rock music (such rock never works very well on Broadway, either), came off as totally joyless -- which, in my book, borders on the inhuman.  But then again, that may have been the role assigned him.  Keep in mind, there is a story underway here, something about a woman undergoing a "passage to womanhood" that is said, per program notes, to pay tribute to Shakespeare's The Tempest "along with Mozart's The Magic Flute."  And that director Diane Pulus references the venue in which she is directing to be  "theater." As rendered, our two young star-crossed lovers compose something inanely superficial.

The high points in circus on display here tend to be diminished inside a theatrically overwrought tent. Altogether, everything else between and around which they have to perform gets oppressively in the way, that is — unless you prefer special effects over the accomplished artist.  Unless you swoon to the magical lights of Cirque, to its exotic costumes, its moody abstract interludes, and its obsessively silly clowning (executed to death here by two annoying characters) that can stop the show, but not in the flattering sense of the term.  Of all Cirque's touring shows that I have seen, and I've seen them all, to my eyes and ears this was by far the weakest.

It's an operation that wants to be too many things all at once: (1) visual feast — (2) body movement ballet theatre in no particular hurry  — (3) rock concert, if only they could have signed Mick — and (4) , yes, a little circus. Stress little.  Am I exaggerating a certain lack of the wow factor in Amaluna's path?  The program magazine I have in hand illustrates at least  two acts no longer on the bill, nor could I find any names in the insert containing mug shots of the artists linking any of them to the two missing acts -- low wire and unicycles.  One is left to ponder what may have happened between Montreal and San Francisco.  .

My most memorable moment is not a flattering one. While watching a woman working a stack of bamboo poles by getting them into the air and balanced in a floating formation, the execution of which took forever and ever, I felt strapped to a school desk being lectured to for an hour by a science teacher on the movement of molecules through space.  Never have I felt so imprisoned by boredom at the circus -- excuse me, Ms. Pulus, at the theater.

Watching the disjointed Amaluna, it is not too difficult to understand why this company has suffered a series of monumental flops in recent years, and we are talking high profile shows slated for 10-year runs from New York to Los Angles, China to Vegas.  

Cirque du Soleil made a name for  itself  “reinventing” circus, and that it did brilliantly, thirty years ago come the New Year.  They may still be able to turn profits from a wide spectrum of takers -- newcomers to the tent dazzled by the visuals; snobs who hate “circus;” the "new circus" aficionados anxious to believe they are seeing a much higher art form; circus fans willing to endure narrative  nonsense in order to enjoy gold class artists -- but those acts aren't nearly as evident these days under the high-tech "Grand Chapiteau."  

My last great Cirque experience was the gloriousl OVO, four years ago. What a joy it was, and what great circus.

Cirque King Guy Laliberte may need to give up poker for a season or too and revisit his roots. His next great challenge might be to de-invent his company back by a decade or so.  From everything I have read and seen, my best hunch is that Cirque's recent string of fiascoes may all share one thing in common:

Over produced
Under talented

Overall rating (out of four stops tops):  2 stars 


Monday, November 18, 2013

Out of the Past: Copeland & Combs Leave Kelly-Miller: Steve Talks About Their Days on the Show, From Pay Scales to Coloring Books.

Showbiz David Interviews Steve Copeland

When two young clowns named Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs,  who teamed up while working on the Ringling show, were hired by John Ringling North II in 2009 to produce the laughs for his Kelly-Miller Circus, they joined on with a degree of skepticism,  not knowing exactly what to expect.  But Steve was reminded by a Ringling clown of having once cracked, “I’d never work on a mud show!”

He’s not sure he ever said that, but he and Ryan faced a whole different set of circumstances in the great outdoors, much of it in the mud -- a totally different experience from appearing  in city arenas with the Big Show  The boys, you might say, had fallen from the Fields of Feld to the House of Ringling/JRN II version.

Who pays the most?

The bargain offered a tempting pay off: “We were making substantially more on Kelly-Miller than we were on Ringling.”

It helped them adapt to under-canvas life, playing to hundreds rather than thousands.  “A month into our fist year,” recalls Steve, “we had already decided that we enjoyed being on the show, and we definitely wanted to stay for a second year.”

He began blogging about the day-to-day details of trouping, and quickly drew an appreciative group of followers. He did not hold back on unflattering matters, such as bored or snotty audiences (cell phonies came in for put downs, from funny to scathing), or depressing days when the customers didn't come. But, when he told us about surging crowds, about straw houses and rousing tent-wide laughter that  greeted  their work, we, too, could savor the happy moment. Could feel his joy.  It was not spin.  It was real.  This gave Steve’s blog a raw vitality. Came a second year, and a third, and then a fourth and fifth, and they were still with Kelly-Miller. The blog evolved away from realism, from its early tell-it-all grit to a more upbeat  focus on their work in the ring and their personal lives.  House size estimates vanished. Management feared its bottom feeder rivals taking note of lush little markets.   Management conveyed these concerns to Steve and Ryan.

Precarious beginning

“If I can be honest, I thought the show was very weak our fist year,”says Steve, in reply to one of the questions I sent him, all of which he answered.  “I definitely think the quality of the show has improved since 2009.  Ryan and I tried our best to add to that quality over the years with our material, props, costumes, and talent.”

If the boss seemed to favor a static turnover in talent, bringing back the same faces year after year, this did not bother the more artistically ambitious Steve, a soul driven to innovate, albeit it, one might advance, sometimes mired in a surfeit of knockabout slapstick.  Some of their brutal attacks on each other, Three Stooges style, can be gloriously indulgent, bringing to mind the Fumagalli brothers. Others, like their big teeth gag, can seem mechanically executed, more clever than amusing, failing to deliver the big payoff one might expect from these inventive funmakers.   But, back to North's arguably static showmanship;  says Steve:

 “I don’t think that’s particularly strange in the circus business.  I can think of other shows that have almost the exact same program year after year, save for maybe a different clown.”

Color me unhappy

In the beginning when Steve’s blog let it all hang out, there were stressful moments that he did not shy away from recounting . For my money, the worst of all were those nagging coloring books that the guys were expected to sell.  It was clear that Steve did not relish the task, and when relived of it a season or so later, you could feel his elation.  

So why, last year, did the boys take back the concession they had so despised?  “Going into our fifth year, Mr. North and Jim Royal asked us to sell coloring books during intermission.  I didn’t feel like a negative answer would have dampened our chances of renewing our contract, but after how good K-M has been to us, we felt it would have been rude to say no.”

Insulting Intermissions
The funny fellows were all along, it would appear, coming to grips with  the realities of American circus trouping –  away from the few exceptions, be they Ringling or Big Apple. In fact, it was Big Apple Circus’s  current ringmaster, John Kennedy Kane, who helped persuade Copeland and Combs to embrace the advantages of pitching the crayon-ready books.  Kane, says Steve, is “one of the biggest advocates for clowns selling coloring books, and he actually sold us on doing the job while he was  filling in for John Moss as ringmaster.”

The task could be fun, and it could be “the pits,” concedes Steve. From his encounter with fans, he did harvest  “tons of funny quotes for my blog.”  What he didn’t relish was having to deal with  “rude or angry” customers.

Enter accidental agent John Ringling North II

Came Circo Vazquez “with an offer we couldn’t refuse.”  It might not have happened at all without the curiously unorthodox assistance of their own employer -- yes, John Ringling North II.  Earlier in the season, North told the fellows that Vazquez was interested in them. The gesture marked, in Steve’s words, “an excellent example of what a stand up gentleman he is ...one of, if not the nicest men I have ever worked for.”

There were awkward laughs to share when Mr. North approached them after learning that they had signed with the Mexican show.  ‘Now, I’m not trying to get rid of you guys!  You can stay on Kelly Miller as long as you want!”

Maybe one day they will return.

Circo Varques will compensate them with “a substantial raise,” and they will do a post-show photo concession, a gig they themselves solicited.   “We had seen other clowns doing the same thing after the show.”

“We had a good run on K-M, but after 5 years we felt it was time to make the next stop in our career.”

“The creative freedom that Mr. North and Jim Royal gave us can not be overlooked.”

Triumphal Texas premiere

His warmest memory?

“I fondly look back on our first two shows with Kelly Miller in Brownsville, Texas.  We had two packed houses full of cheering people, and we absolutely brought the house down with our sink repair gag. That was when we knew that we had a shot at making it in the business”

His digital diary has marked a new kind of living circus history, to be sure,  more-so in its early years.

Will he continue blogging over at Vazquez?

“Indeed, I will!”

Long term dreams?  “my ultimate goals are Big Apple Circus, and major circuses in Europe.”

“My greatest dream in circus .. is for me and Ryan to continue making people laugh using physical comedy.  I’d like to go farther in my career than I ever imagined when I left Ringling and I want to keep the forward momentum going.  Onward and upward!”


[The following does not apply to this posting of 7/5/15] On Wednesday or Thursday, I will be posting a print-out of the complete e-mail interview. It will  not be placed at the top of the blog, so you may have to scroll down a little to find it.  I will post a note to this effect, however, at the top of the blog

First posted November 18, 2013