Thursday, February 21, 2013

Circus in the Classroom with Professor Janet Davis and Her Alleged S.E. Asia Freak Show: Solid Scholarship -- or Historical Hallucination?

The Naitto sisters on the Ringling lot
Sverre Braathen photo / Used with permission of Illinois State University, Milner Library, Special Collections.

She is quoted extensively through serious circles. She is, it seems, surely the go-to authority for scholarly circus meets at which probing papers by probing minds are presented.  She is  touted as a modern-day expert on circus history and its reflection of changing American culture.

She holds a Ph.D in history.  Most tellingly, she teaches Womens Gender Studies at the formidable University of Texas.   Keep this in mind as we proceed through a minefield of mental gyrations (in less polite quarters, a more apt term consists of two words each beginning with "M").  Do I have your attention?  Are you still with me?  Today's feminists, I have observed if you will grant, operate as if called on high to root out every last trace of sexism behind every door, under every bed sheet — even in the rings of  “misogynist” (their accusation)  circus history.  A seductively attired female serving as prop assistant  for a male star — look, over there, see, while the man juggles!  What does she do?  Nothing!  Gotcha! 

Never mind abundant evidence to the contrary, a few examples herein illustrated.  But feminism, not the primary concern here, is but the starting point into a search for other forms of discrimination, ethnic minorities being the leading contender. 

She, our visiting professor for the day, is of course none other than the critically hailed Janet Davis.  I have wanted to read her book, The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top.  The only library copy  to be found locally resides at UC-Berkeley; even then, I would be confined to reading it on library premises.

Asian Artists Imported to Make Americans Feel Superior?

Luckily, thanks to Bandwagon, in its recent issue therein appears a sampling of Ms. Davis’s approach to the subject of circus, in a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Visual Anthropology, titled “Spectacles of South Asia at the American Circus, 1890-1940.  In it, I came upon a few bold assertions that nearly knocked me over.  Here, for your consideration, are two examples, in her own words:.
!.  “The circus itself functioned as a popular discourse that reinforced the superiority of  white 'native' American (i.e., Angle-American) culture and promoted American exceptionalism on the world stage."

Really?  I would have come to an adverse conclusion.  In fact, if anything, the circus in America, that is, in the United States, by virtue of its traditional importation of the finest artistry to be secured from around the world, cast flattering attention onto the superiority at least of circus skills from outside the United States.


The Asia Boys, 1948

Playing professor’s advocate, to grant Ms. Davis the benefit of her ostensibly strained position, let us ask, then: How might we contort the magical imagery of the higher circus skills being performed by Asian outsiders  – to serve this curious Davis thesis?  Might we consider that the mere presence of those other-looking foreigners juggling, tumbling, flying tent high itself renders the demonstrated achievements somehow inferior to what American performers can offer?  I have no satisfying answer for this hypotheses; perhaps you do. Comments, of course, are more than welcome here.

Blame the Sideshow (Maybe), Not the Circus

She may have found the intellectual validation she was seeking by stranding herself inside the circus sideshow, a world then of freaks and curiosities, not all of them, if I am correct, imported from other shores.  In the sideshow, indeed, many of us may take solace in not having been born one of them. In, through twisted logic, feeling “exceptional”.  As I recall, I did not think of “them” as being anywhere near exclusively foreign.  Ms. Davis may have confused the museums of P.T. Barnum for the rings of Ringling.

Scholarship that fails to acknowledge the fullest  picture researchable invites skepticism. There was a well-received book about the history of guns in the U.S, later coming in for rebuke when the author was found to have excluded evidence that, in fact, in the earliest of times, guns proliferated the landscape. That to anybody should have been a no-brainer.

"Human Animals" Under American Big Tops

2.  ".... to this day, the radical discourse of the circus still continues to inform images of South Asia, transforming human beings into human animals.”

Now, that's really pushing it, Ms. Professor.  What were you thinking?  I tried to remember when, if ever, I have witnessed a human being in a circus transformed into a human animal. Sure, in some clown acts, perhaps.  And maybe in fanciful parades.  The Chinese dragon may have made a cameo.
In college, you are taught to dig for sub text, to find connections, and so you learn how to compose syntactical realities in order to prove your analytical skills.  Academics tend to circle each other in incestuous embrace, competing to produce increasingly more artificial constructs.  Along the way, they risk losing contact with observable realities. Or, worse still, they simply refuse to acknowledge those realities that do not suit their preconceptions.

America's Love Affair with Talent From Anywhere 

The Naitto sisters on Ringling-Barnum, circa 1940s.

Back to earth I bring you, knowing the prose that follows, compared to that of our visiting processor, may strike you as commonplace, ordinary, lacking in the cache of a Ph.D thesis.  Here is long-time Ringling-Barnum equestrian director,  Fred Bradna, in his book The Big Top, ranking his favorite all time acts in the various genres — and he had seen practically all of them in his forty years with the Big Show. His “best woman wire artist” went to Ala Naitto (she looks very Asian to me), a performer of incredibly diverse skills, from turning a forward somersault on the low wire, as did Con Colleano, to juggling 16 hoops “while dancing lightly on one foot... this Oriental was in the greatest tradition.” She surely was not American.

When Japanese Performers Wowed America

In the most recent issue of Bandwagon, just received, I found a most interesting assertion in a preface, possibly penned by editor Pfening,  to excerpts he is sharing from a new book just out, Professor Risley, and the Imperial Japanese Troupe:  "...we can see how how these intrepid entertainers of the mid nineteenth century were in the vanguard of globalization and early popular cultural exchanges."  I look forward to reading this most promising article in Bandwagon, silence in the room, eyes fully focused, pen at hand.  Just skimming, I can tell you, these performers appear to have wilted Americans into gushing admiration.  Stay tuned.

And here is the prose of a Ringling-Barnum press agent, writing in the program magazine of 1931: "Thousands are daily astounded by the immensity and scope of this marvel circus which brings the most unusual, the most spectacular, the costliest, and easily the most magnificent of all earth's entertainment" [italics, mine]

Breaking Stereotypes:  The Circus versus Hollywood

Such has always been the fate of the circus.  While Hollywood was routinely casting Caucasian actors to play Asian roles (behind layers of distorting makeup), American big tops were casting Asian circus artists to play themselves, sans makeup, as bona fide stars of the show.  How difficult is this to comprehend?
When the Moscow Circus toured America in 1963, when the Chinese acrobats came 10 years later, both entities packed arenas to glowing notices.  If anything, the dazzling displays they offered only enhanced America’s perception of those outsiders.  No?   Perhaps it was the circus more than any other entertainment form, by virtue of its truly international cast, that helped spread democracy around the globe.  John Ringling North was blasted by the acts he had once signed from Europe when he began signing “communist” acts from behind the iron curtain.  Truly, the American circus has, from its inception, been international.

How About Global Exceptionalism?

Which is not to imply that Professor Davis has not turned out a book that in many other respects may make it an educational read.  But, I must confess that my interest in taking it on has already been tried a tad.  Any scholar who wishes to cite evidence of how “American exceptionalism” has been deceptively sold the public (we will not take that up here), can find numerous far more valid examples elsewhere.  Under the big top?  Bypassing MM, suffice it to say: I think not.

There will be no test on this. Class dismissed

 Juggling from Japan: Yuka Tsusaka and Otomi Nakanosan perform in South Bend, Indiana, 1908
Used with permission of Illinois State University, Milner Library, Special Collections.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Big Top Bits: Feld, the Circus Ambassador! ... Goodbye, House of Ringling ... Monte Carlo: Have You Heard of "Television"

Google the Great and Disney the Greater: They’re now a digital duo, yes they are, producing an “interactive circus” to ballyhoo the soon-to-be-released Oz the Great and Powerful.  The promo said to harbinger in “the future of web marketing to come.”  I just can’t wait, now that I shut down my computer half the day,  and now that I’m surfing far fewer channels on TV.  What a relief it is, not to be a prisoner to a PC hum tempting me to check e-mail that isn't there.  Out, damn chips!
Ah, he’s just a warm and fuzzy Feld after all!  Twould be Kenneth Feld, who for years was unfavorably compared to his dad, Irvin, touted by Irvinite acolytes as being more just plain hopelessly (read: correctly) in love with the circus.  Maybe it’s something about Sarasota soil, where Mr. Feld now hangs out, since moving his CEO desk down there.  This Feld of Felds – phasing into his Bill Gates period? —  was just named “circus ambassador”  by the royal Rainer crowd in Monaco. 

Good Bye, House of Ringling.  Season Seven was a season to look for — 7 in Ringling lore usually spells historic, if not hysteric changes.  But for John Ringling North II, now facing season seven as owner of Kelly Miller Circus, it looks like a no-show.  Or a garage sale. Or maybe just another same-old same-old Kelly Miller line up from the Hugo cast of cherry pie** regulars. Sure, if the new stunts they are up to spell refreshing novelty, then good for them.  I sorta doubt that ...I’m closing the door on the ‘House of Ringling,” saying a reluctant "Hello" to the Cherry Pie Circus Repertory Company of JRN II. [oh, drats, I may have ruined the annual package from Ireland that Johnny Come Lately sends me — those peanuts sure did taste good] At heart, am I just a no-good-for-nothing tent wrecker? [it’s okay to laugh]

JRN II, Part II:  Even clowns Copeland and Ryan are now wearing cherry pie on their faces, during intermissions, seated at a colorful table, selling and signing coloring books.  They, too, who earlier hated such demeaning duties, as well they should (sorry, CFAers)  have apparently signed on — part of their pay package, I  daringly assume before your eyes. Anybody still there?. 
The Anonymous Monte Carlo Circus Festival.  Not only does this annual Academy Awards of the circus world not get any U.S. TV respect (not even a PBS nod), it gets no respect from the stolid BBC! Notes Brit author Douglas McPherson, addressing two topics in one, “Interesting to see what's going on with Cirque du Soleil. I suppose nothing can stay the must-see thing forever. Tragic, too, that Monaco has never been broadcast by the BBC, either.” And that's a shocker.  Or it should be to the land that invented circus.  I have some feelers out to those who might venture savvy guesses why. 

And that’s an anonymous wrap from the Federation de Oakland, Prince David -I reporting..

[** "cherry pie" in circus parlance refers to a performer doing any number of jobs in addition to his or her actual performance during the show, such as, but not limited to, driving a truck, helping to raise the tent, setting props, selling tickets, selling concessions, selling and signing coloring books during intermission.  This is a long accepted (or tolerated) tradition under American big tops, for which the compliant party is usually, though not always, additionally compensated.]

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Take This Book and Smell It, Mr. Reviewer! You Want the True Scents of Circus? Here They Are!

Overly sensitive to a  few negative notices I received for my first book, Behind the Big Top, one in particular really got my goat.  A Santa Cruz (CA) scribed complained, "The problem with Hammarstrom's anecdotes is that ... we can't feel the circus; we can't smell it"

Okay.  You can't smell it. So let me see what I can do about that. I got onto it in a hurry, reaching out to a number of circuses, hoping to secure fresh elephant dung.  Into a box, I gift wrapped the pachyderm poo and other ground-found items associated with circusy aromas. Then I sent the "Smell Edition" to reviewer Allen Grasso at the Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel, with an inscription expressing my "sincere hopes" that it would "bring to mind a sense of the circus which you felt was sorely lacking."

I sent the above photo, along with a press release, to about 300 newspapers.  Oh, how foolishly ambitious I once was. You've heard, have you, that "no publicity is bad publicity"?  By reading this blog, you are living proof of that maxim.

 Smell Edition Tickles Columnists, Shocks Publisher

Jokes about the Smell Edition scented a few feature columns, three that I know of in California dailies.  As for the rest of the country, the publisher refused ever to grant me an accounting, because, you, see, they had not been advised beforehand of my stunt.  I knew they would nix it at the pass.  Now, my publicity contact at A.S. Barnes, Patrician Davis, was so appalled, that she reverted to addressing me in correspondence, not as "Dear David," but  "Dear Mr ..."  Publishers can be such timid creatures, afraid of their own anonymous shadow.

The world today:  designer dung, anybody?

Leftovers from Lydia 

Reps at two circuses, Kelly Miller and Ringling-Barnum  answered my request for smelly samples with variable dispatch.  Each was required to complete a form, "ELEPHANT DUNG CERTIFICATION," which included, among required information, this: "Has elephant ever been arrested?" From Ted Bowman, director of publicity at Carson and Barnes Circus, I was honored by an offering of anal art from "Mr. Obert," the work certified on the Paducah, KY lot.  The event was witnessed by "most of the town," and  Phil Chandler witnessed  the document signing.  To round out the atmospheric attack, from Hugo, OK came yet another sampler, this one featuring some Lydia leftovers, along with a dash of "sweet grain feed."  (An herbal industry yet to be tapped into here?) Richard Army Maguire witnessed Lydia's sacrifice. Jesse A. Jessen signed the form, witnessed by Loraine C. Jessen.

 The Greatest Shit on Earth 

From Robert MacDougall, who managed Ringling's Blue Unit, came a dour deposit from "John," a Thai born mammoth who had never been arrested.  MacDougall also helped season my package with Mile High "building dirt," sawdust and cinders fresh from the indoor Denver engagement.  McDougall's signature was witnessed by Bobby Cline, the critical deposit itself by one Robert Waimann

Dung Donors Promised Exemption from All Lawsuits

The form released the respective parties from any future liability  arising out of claims for "malice with intent to nauseate."

As for requested "job performance" ratings by their respective keepers, John was rated "hazardous," Mr. Obert "stupendous," Lydia "humorous."   John held out for a month before finally giving it up, while Lydia, 30 years with the circus, "cooperated quickly and agreeably."  Ah, a trouper clear up to her trunk.

The year was 1980.

Aroma Bomb Stuns Newspaper Office

And here is how it all went down. Book reviewer Allen Grasso never received the gift package. It got only as far as the desk of the librarian at the Sentinel.  She, according to a juicy conversion I slyly extracted from the receptionist answering my call, apparently ran through the newsroom exclaiming "Can you believe this!  Can you believe this!!?"

Nor was she at all charmed by a small packet of a brown substance labeled "from Lydia, with love."  "Horrified" was more like it.

Is There a Moral to This?  Some Gifts You Just Don't return 

The Sentinel's switchboard was, or may have been, jammed with inquires from press rooms all over the country.  My publisher refused to share any action on their own lines, no doubt lividly determined not to embolden my ego.  So I was kept in the dark.  But the offended newspaper shot off a letter my publisher, accusing me of  "harassment," of acting in a "childishly indigent" manner.  Okay, if you wish.  But the Sentinel refrained -- what a classy crowd  -- from answering in kind by deciding not to return the unwanted offering.  Taking a higher road, they reasoned that the Smell Edition "would more than likely clear out your offices."

Was the effort worth it?  Hard to say.  The book, with some smashingly good reviews as well, sold outs its first printing in less than two years; by then, Oak Tree Publications in San Diego, which had purchased  New Jersey-based A.S. Barnes, was close to going under, so no second printing. 

Those were the days, my friend.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Copeland and Combs Give Kelly Miller Creative Sizzle

Getting to know you, little car! Copeland and Combs test driving their latest prop 

 Doing PR on Univision TV

They are one of two redeeming creative forces in the other wise endlessly recycled Kelly-Miller Circus.

And here they are in their brand new clown auto, Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs.  In a test run the other day, detailed by Steve on his  blog (you can link to it to your right, and read the full hilarious account), oh, what a hair-raising ride they endured, owing to a breaking problem (evidently, the auto did not come with instructions). In part, recounted Steve:   

"When we came hurtling into the ring for the first time, Ryan nearly crashed into the ring curb. He had to keep turning sharply to avoid a collision, and then when it came time to stop, he couldn't pull the proper lever because my leg was in the way (as you can see in the above picture, the fit in the truck is snug). Since he had so little time to react due to the speed we were going, Ryan didn't think to tell me to move my leg. He just tried to move the lever anyway.  Meanwhile we were out of the ring and heading straight for the bandstand .."


[I tried to make the photo larger up there, but for some reason, Blogger would not cooperate. Maybe it thinks the image is funnier in the smaller size]

For these two marvelously inventive guys alone, even if not all of their gags hit pay dirt, were the Hugo-based show an annual camel ride away from where I live, I'd look forward to seeing it every season, just to see what a couple of dedicated young joeys are up to.

Maybe that is what John Ringling North II banks on, for lately, he hasn't show much resolve in turning over the performing personnel.  As for this year's opus,  familiar names like Rosales and Friedman remain intact.  New Names?  They are yet to surface anywhere.  But, I will wait, and so might you, if you wish ...

As for the second of the two "creative forces"  to which I teasingly alluded above, that would be North's one manifestation of being a creative producer, at least in his conceptual reach:  the end of the first half  production number. Perhaps this year it will feature the little clown car that could -- once its loony drivers got their own act together.

[photos from  the Copeland and Combs blog]

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Joy of Circus, The Rising Value of Monaco -- Why Doesn't PBS Pick This Up?

Gold to the Duo Shcherba-Popov from Princess Stephanie, right, and Prince Albert, left. 

They are hip. They are cool.  They are dancerly.  They are very personal, wearing their own faces, not masks.  In total, the kind of an act that makes you a believe all over again in the sheer joy of circus art.

They landed the Gold Clown at the recent Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, along with one other winner -- the Bejing Acrobatic Troupe.

They are two Ukrainian fellows, the Duo Shcherba-Popov, who brought off a remarkably fluid and choreographed  routine [I'd call it acrobatic equilibristics]  to a tune from the Great American Songbook, "Singin' in the Rain," from the soundtrack of the movie starring Gene Kelly.  The resulting impression is a glorious, quite personalized display.   Here is Liz Arratoon, reviewing the event in London's The Stage, describing  the act in detail:

"It [the display of juggler Alexander Koblikov] may be a hard act to follow but hand-to-hand duo Shcherbak and Popov are more than up to the task. Again they have characterized their act beautifully, while keeping the skill level sky high. Set to Singin’ in the Rain, they perform as Depression-era sparring workmen and create the most staggering display of holds and balances, including head-in-hand, head-to-head and spread-eagle planches. To finish, Nikolay does a one-arm handstand on the back of Sergey’s neck, while he is balanced on his hands. This high-standard act is the sort you long for and the jury awards it one of two Gold Clowns."

Monte Carlo: Best Kept Secret in the Entertainment World?

They are also a reason why I have such profound respect for the Monte Carlo Circus Festival.  I realize, of course, the festival may not be a perfect selector of talent. What is perfect?  On balance, it certainly seems to honor the highest achievements, no matter where they come from. Naturally, opinions are going to differ. For instance, juggler Alexander Koblikov, who works with ten balls successfully, and is working on 14 (not so lucky) landed a Silver Clown, was deemed the "best act" at the festival by Arratoon.

A true global reach -- as far away as North Korea

Talent from the far corners of the world as well!  I did not know, until learning that a North Korean act had been awarded a Gold or Silver Clown a year or so ago, that North Korea was even into circus at all.

The entire Festival generates competitive inspiration world wide, and thus gives many nations (China, certainly at the forefront, seen her receiving yet another Gold Clown) the additional incentive to strive to be the greatest. When I was in Beijing and interviewed Chinese acrobatics scholar Tain Run Min, he told me that much.

Where is PBS? 

Good grief, Pledge Break Society hauls out, over and over again, every last over-the-hill rock and roll act known to man.  They give a platform and a shill audience to all manner of self-help gurus. They televise  competition ballroom dancing, no less. The televised a rather dreary behind-the-scenes look at Big Apple Circus.  They've stitched together footage of Cirque du Soliel acts from Vegas.  So, why not a few hours from the annual Monte Carlo Circus Festival?  Who's to blame -- PBS, or a tone-deaf PR department in the land where Princess Stephanie holds court?  This best-of-the-world circus showcase cries out, screams out for PBS coverage.    Is anybody there?  Is anybody listening? Does anybody but me even care?

You can watch Duo Shcherba-Popov at:


My thanks to Jack Ryan for sending me the link, also the photo of the duo.

Princess Stephanie, center, with daughter Pauline, left, and son-in-law Louis Ducret. The circus world is lucky to have such generous, such glamorous, and such devoted attention and support. 

first posted 2.3.13

Friday, February 01, 2013

From Russia with Hate: Bloody Bolshoi Acid Toss May Blind Ballet Chief for Life

In Russia, ballet is "a blood sport," according to Scott Pelly on the CBS Evening New, covering the vicious acid attack on the face of Bolshoi Ballet artistic director, Sergei Filin.  

The assailant, so far unidentified, is assumed to be a Bolshoi dancer enraged over the selection, made by Felin shortly after assuming directorship of the company in 2011, of a U.S. dancer to fill a principal role.

Do you still want to be a dancer?  You might first consider checking some safer ways to express yourself physically, such as say, bull fighting or monster jams.

"Doctors are fighting to save the sight of the artistic director of Russia's illustrious Bolshoi Ballet after a masked assailant threw acid in his face on a Moscow street," reported CNN.

The CBS new reports told a tale  "of poisonous rivalries and cutthroat competition among Russia's top dancers, all for the thrill of thrilling "a ballet-mad city where people are as devoted as die-hard sports fans."

Heck, that's where I should move.  Here in the U.S., a certain national pastime, about to be watched this weekend on TV by over a third of the population, leaves me stupidly bored, disengaged.

Back at the Bolshoi, where "art" is something we associate with the higher values and manners of life, dancers do dastardly harm, one to another.  It's been goiing on for over a century.  Needles are slipped into costumes, glass into ballet shoes. Much luck, and may you enjoy your shrieking pain, my hated rival!

Still, "there's never been anything this," claims the CBS newsman. Preceding the acid attack, for pre-show warm ups, Filin's tires were slashed. His e-mail account hacked, into which flowed those lovely death threats -- the new and improved substitute for the old showbiz good luck adage, "break a leg."    

And out in the seats sit the Russians, riveted to the shimmering perfection of bodies gracefully in motion.

The investigation goes on. Dancers take lie detector tests.  The Crowds, I assume, pack the ticket windows with greater force than ever, and therein may lie yet another tale of hateful sabotage -- knocking to the ground the person who stands in line just ahead of you -- for a ticket to the bloody Bolshoi ballet.