Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Gunther Gebel Williams Comes to Ringling ... New Clowns Rile the Old

Five years later: compare this Gunther to the one above - a feat of American showmanship?

When he first appeared before American audiences, the young German animal trainer dazzled as much as impressed. In a word, Gunther Gebel Williams had glamor.  How much of it was produced by the Ringling organization? 

I had seen him somewhere outside Rome, only five years earlier, on Circo Americano's  3-ring "American Circus Show" of 1965.  Whatever his impression or impact on the program, I had not remembered it.  In deed, the so-called "three ring" program was mostly one-ring, the tent long and lumbering.

Looking back at the Ringling-Barnum program magazine of 1969, at the image of Gunther, above, I am struck by how costume designer Max Weldy glorified the cool contemporary persona of their new star. A persona that Weldy and director Richard Barstow may have helped create and shape.   I'd always imagined new owner Irvin Feld, later revealed to have been gay,  being  responsible for the seductive Gebel Williams packaging.   Maybe not completely.  The John Ringling North regime was still firmly in place.  North himself  received "produced by" credit that season, though it's doubtful that he had played a significant role in the staging of the show.  We know that he had been after Gunther for some time, wanting to bring him over.  But it was Irvin who landed the young showman.

Gebel Williams appeared multiple times during the show, setting him apart as a true modern day circus star -- filling a recurring role possibly unprecedented in big top history.  Strangely, his image does not appear in a program magazine cover collage, an artist's rendering, of some Ringling figures.

The presenting and selling of GGW was brilliant. His natural laid-back coolness proved a perfect circus metaphor for the age of Aquarius - flower children and beads, hippies and incense and long hair (notice his longish locks).  Everything anti-establishment.  This was a totally new kind of ring hero.  To a degree, he electrified the show. 

Here is Don Marcks, writing to me on August 26, 1969 -- while I was on the road working advance press for James Bros Circus:

"The new feature act (Williams) is very good and makes a nice appearance.  He looks quite young, but is reportedly 36 or 37.  He does tigers, works a single tiger with two elephants, works elephants and is out there with his wife who works horses - so that is four acts easily." 

Onto Marcks and the new young clown recruits:

"The new clowns are much in evidence and the older ones who are left are grumbling about them. They almost don't use the clowns - except for workarounds.  I'd say they have one with character on the show (of the new group) and another one who looks just the way a clown should - but he doesn't do much. In general the new clowns don't seem to be white face but rather are mostly characters.  They get $150 a week, and the show provides, costumes, etc. which is what makes the older clowns grumble."

A new era was dawning in Ringling showmanship. But the old was magnificently still in evidence. Remember when three rings overflowed with action?  Okay, yes, I'll go ahead and say it, my friends -- those were the days!

Now ... did that feel good?

I think Don would smile looking back.

MIDWAY FLASH! ... MIDWAY FLASH! ... CIRCUS DU SOLEIL VEGAS AERIALIST FALLS TO DEATH -- Show’s First Fatality Blamed on Snapped Cable ... Another Artist Falls on Jackson ONE, Same Week

UPDATED 7/1/13 **

Just reported on ABC TV, a 31-year old veteran and original member of KA, Sarah Guillot-Guyard, fell 50 feet last night during an acrobatic act, her fall witnessed by the audience, initially confused, not even sure if it was a part of the show.  But screams and deep groans could be heard coming from the stage, as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

She was pronounced dead at 11:43 p.m. Saturday at University Medical Center.

** As originally reported, this marked the first fatality in the show's 29 year history.  But, as since reported by the Los Angeles Times, in 2009 a Cirque performer from the Ukraine named Oleksandr Zhurov died in Montreal "after sustaining head injuries from falling off a trampoline during training".

It seems, and this is fuzzy, that a harness the Parisian-born Guillot-Guyard was wearing (as do all other members in the number), may have snapped - or she slipped out of it. According to the report, "Each performer wears a harness equipped with hand controls to help steer their guide wires."

Said Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberte, "I am heartbroken. I wish to extend my sincerest sympathies to the family. We are all completely devastated with this news.”

He added, “We are reminded, with great humility and respect, how extraordinary our artists are each and every night. Our focus now is to support each other as a family.”

In the same week, more misfortune visited CDS when, during the June 26th preview of the Michael Jackson installation, ONE, a performer suffered a mild concussion after "slipping from a rope and falling onto a safety pad."

Performances of KA have been cancelled until further notice.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Showbiz David Does the Kelly Miller Coloring Book!

This is my first page colored in.

I thank John Ringling North II, who recently sent me a copy of the coloring book -- which has, as you can see, stirred me back to my crayon craze -- along with the program magazine, a DVD of this year's show, AND a package of those ever-scintillating Peterson Peanuts.  I feel reconnected to my inner Dali, by golly!

Likely more coloring book pages to follow, so, be warned ...

As those in the know know, when the House of Ringling knocks, I must answer!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Y-E-S !!!! Nik Does It, Running Free to Climax 23 Minute Skywire Journey Over Canyon... Bravo, the GREAT Wallenda!

Among the twittering masses (I, an outsider), this, just captured:

Nik Wallenda’s Skywire Act: Celebs React On Twitter

The Big Bang Theory star could not believe that Nik actually ran the last bit of the wire act. “Did he just ‘jog it in’?!?!” she tweeted. Meanwhile, Phillip was just happy to see him make it to the finish line: “Wow! Absolutely amazing!!! Congrats @NikWallenda ! #skywire #toldyounottolookdown,” he wrote.
Ciara Bravo of Big Time Rush tweeted, “That dude is a champ.” Well put, Ciara.

Ciara Bravo of Big Time Rush tweeted, “That dude is a champ.” Well put, Ciara.

And Suze Orman said, “Now that was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.”

CNN’s Don Lemon tweeted, “Congrats @NikWallenda on the #skywire walk. Your cray cray but with skills!”

Nik also got some love from the sports world. Eric LeGrand, the football player who was paralyzed during a college game but has inspirationally worked regain movement in his shoulders, actually found inspiration in Nik: “Wow he did it. Live your dreams but only once don’t try that mess again lol congrats Nick. I’m good crossing in a plane #skywire,” Eric tweeted.

And baseball player Bryce Harper wrote, “Good for him! So happy for him! To God be the glory! #SKYWIRE.”

Those 23 minutes when Nik was on the tightrope, high above the Grand Canyon were insane — so tense, so exciting, and an amazing adventure to behold. We couldn’t be happier that Nik completed the walk and made his dreams come true. What did you think, HollywoodLifers? Let us know below!

Here on Earth, I did not see, could not get on my PC.  Was rather relieved, to be free of  having to look away ...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

And the Word Was Wallenda: And Now, Across the Grand Canyon Goes the Word.

Reuters photo.

You are about to witness the real thing. Circus 101.  A thriller chiller in the making.  All vendors, cease!  Band men, at rest!   Fred Bradna, your whistle!  Ringmaster Ronk, your finest hour!

This weekend, Nik Wallenda, without safety device, net or mechanic, is set to walk across the Grand Canyon.

I tip my hat to the guy, and I pray God's speed - steady and careful, please.  We do not long for the strains of a harp.

Don't underestimate the quiet intelligence of TV viewers to know the critical difference between this walk and that other one last year over Viagra Falls, when not a few rather polite commentators pointed out that, "Oh, he is using safety wires attached to his feet".  No matter what our more skittish circus owners may tell you, audiences are not followed by lifelines. Audiences feel the difference, and no matter what they may say, the difference is a let down.

I'm impressed with this Wallenda's guts.  This will take guts.  Had he asked me, I would likely have tried to discourage Nik.  But oh,  look at the thrilling stakes.  A triumph over the great American Canyon will lift the already  revered Wallenda name into a higher stratosphere of cosmic acclaim. They are a brood without boundaries. 

Says Don Covington, "Karl Wallenda would be proud!"

Add to Karl, the entire family, the American circus community and its affiliates at large around the world, those still connected, however tenuously, to the roots of circus art, which is all about, to quote English scholar Helen Stoddart, "risk taking."  Repeat after me, RISK TAKING.

Greatness crowned the Wallendas, with family roots dating back to 1780,  when they opened to a prolonged (5-15 minute) standing ovation at Madison Garden in 1929.  Equestrian director Bradna had never witnessed anything like it.. Tragedy stalked them three decades later in Detroit, when a fall left two dead, others seriously injured.

After that, once again, when Karl Wallenda, age 73, while treading a wire strung between hotel towers 10-floors-high over San Juan, Puerto Rico, fell to his death.  He surrendered to mortality doing that which he loved the most.

The ever-present dangers in a life of heroic striving are what great circus aerialists force us to confront when they go high. When they symbolize (but actually risk) the peril inherent in great daring adventures, from mountain climbs to space flights into the unknown regions of infinity. 

The Wallenda walk, to be seen on TV this Sunday at 8 p.m.  will proceed over, it is reported, a distance "four football fields long."  The walk will hover above earth, as high as the Empire State building at its peak.  The walk will skate the sky that shepherds land owned by Navajo Nation.  The walk will transcend Little Colorado River. The walk will rivet the nation.

Discovery Channel executive producer Howard Schwartz told Michael Starr of the New York Post that his team has "a lot of safety precautions in place."  Circus star Nik hasn't. Attached to his body, however, will be two cameras. This guy is a true showman, and overnight I feel an instant respect, especially contrasting this to his cosmetic Viagra Falls stunt. Which makes me wonder, was that purposely wired to safety in order, by brutal contrast, to make this one feel even more ominous?

The walk, without unthinkable interruption, is expected to take around a half hour.

To this day, I can still say that my most riveting moment around a sawdust ring hit me at about the age of 10, when, in the Grace Pavilion at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, there on high during a performance of Polack Bros Circus, appeared  "The Great Wallendas."  When they proceeded to astound my young being by forming a seven-high moving pyramid across the high wire -- stillness everywhere, the band and barkers still, the house still, even the rafters still, I sat there spellbound by the power of a force that seduced me for life -- The Circus.

Let the fearless peerless Nik Wallenda wow the world, and let the world be reminded, however abstractly, what circus art is all about when it throws caution to the Gods, somersaults off axis, reaches the unthinkable, and causes jaded eyes to open wide.  When it excites us to think, as Karl Wallenda once told me, "Look what a man can do!"

We'll be looking again this Sunday.

(Some of this information was gleaned from the New York Post story, forwarded to me, courtesy of cyber courier Covington).

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks and Toni Williams: African American Circus Performers - Still a Concept?

It is still a question I have never been totally able to answer to my satisfaction: Why so few of them under our big tops?  Given their indisputable achievements in sports and dance, I am fairly astonished at the continuing dearth of black acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists.

When I fronted James Bros Circus in 1969 working press, we had the all-black Flying Souls making their "debut" on the show; their act was average, but I found it ethnically a refreshing novelty, not to mention a racial breakthrough.  In a press release I prepared, I wrote, "They are living proof that the circus's only requirement for stardom is talent."

I interviewed the act's founder,Toni Williams, for the story. She had made Ringling history starting out on the John Ringling North produced show three years earlier as a "ballet girl." My obvious question to her was, why were there so few African American performers under U.S. big tops. 

"It takes a first always to open the door." answered.Toni.    The scene was changing, and when the band strikes up and the ringmaster works the crowd, she said.  "Here we are now, ready."

The door was apparently opened, and it apparently has stayed open, but since then, few candidates have entered.

Fast forward 16 years.

Here, in his letter to me dated August 17, 1985, is Don reacting to the highly ballyhooed act of Satin on the Ringling show that year, in particular to the efforts of Eddie Howe in promoting the widespread coverage it received, assuming that to have been true:

"I had another thing from Eddie Howe which is all glowing reports on the Ringling show and the aerial team of Satin.  I don't understand what he is doing or trying to do.  That aerial act is OK but it is not the greatest thing that there ever was and they do have just as good or better cradle acts on most shows.  Might be because they are black, but I can't help think he is trying to get them built up in hopes of landing some sort of work from them or some such thing."

Regrettably, I can't recall the Flying Souls -- Toni Williams, two gymnasts Labar Irwin and Danny Crisp, and a former pro athlete, J. "Skippy" Dyer -- lasting beyond a few seasons, if that.  Perhaps they all went their separate ways, to pursue sports careers or the Olympic trials.

[End ringer foot note: Toni Williams, really? I remembered a black Ringling showgirl making the same history but not with that name, so I checked my own book, Big Top Boss, to read that an apprentice aerialist named  Priscilla Williams was, in 1966, spotted at Del Graham's School for Flyers in Los Angeles, and signed to a Big Show contract.]

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Zippos Sans Hippos Revives Roman Riding Bombast in Bonny Scotland ... Customers In Kilts Welcome

Nicky de Neumann

Zippos, just the name, sounds so zippy flippy snappy happy.  I’m in a Zippos mood telling you about this Brit big top daring to – brace yourself – include animals in the show!  Yes, can you believe it, in the land  that gave us the circus we knew, until Cirque du Soleil covered everybody in masks, fired its under-performing menagerie amounting to a single duck, and dry-iced the tent to death -- in that once circus-happy land, those rousing roman riders are on the rise again. Well, count that one — her name being Nicky de Neumann and here she is, taking the tanbark like once daily it was taken.

I’m thinking years ago at Al. G. Kelly and Miller Bros, semi-thrilling to riders straddling a foursome of horse-power flipping dust round the old weedy hippodrome track.   Ah, the reality of life that once was the circus.

The Havana Troupe: Cuba rocks!

Show named after its owner, Zippos the Clown, he being Martin Burton.

They Call themselves “Scotland’s favorite circus.”  Cheers to the cheery Scots and their crusty good taste!

This breezy breakthrough – might the Brits in a few dozen years shake off their anti-animal circus blues and allow delightful dogs, campy camels, tender tigers and lazy lions made to look dangerous, back into the ring? — this breathless news arrived here from journalist-author Douglas McPherson (Circus Mania).

Chenoa: Dive, diva, dive!

How I’d love to visit Scotland again, and become a Zippos fan.  I’d be nice for the day, even if, horror of horrosr, they try selling me Zippos nuts or somebody whirls a Zippos hoop (oh please, don't ruin my life)

Trouble is, my fear of flying was not talked away when I took the trip to China in 2010, air ride suffering scary turbulence both ways.  So racked was I, that trying to watch the movie West Side Story on the thumbnail sized screen in front of me, during the jets and sharks choreographed fight, I actually had to turn the thing off, afraid it might add to the turbulence!  Yes, it’s okay to have a good Zippos laugh on me.

Ride, Nicky,  ride!  You are woman.  We hear you soar!

The Delbosq Clowns: I'm already giggling

Hercules: cool

Famed ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE - ah, what a classy host!

And what might "MBE" stand for?  Let's take a guess - Magnificent barker extraordinaire? 

[Shhhhh!  Don’t look too hard at the photos — oh, how can I break this gently to you: You might not see too many bodies in the seats, blame it on the Roman Gladiators, yet to arrive]

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Photo versus Text: Size versus Salvation: Bandwagon's Precarious Future

Will the Circus Historical Society's fine magazine Bandwagon ever reach the parade on time?

When current publisher and editor Fred Pfening III resumed editorship, after having earlier edited for over a year only to walk away, I reported his return as very good news.  It seemed inevitable that the young Pfening had been groomed to take over for his dad, but that was a surface observation of mine.  Actually, he had himself expressed a preference for research over editing.

As it turns out, Pfening was not coming back to accept editing the Bandwagon permanently, only to help get back issues expeditiously off the press and into the mails.

A well placed inside source told me a while back -- insisting the information was known to quite a few among CHS officials, that Pfening, in fact, still plans or wishes to give up the editing reigns once again, presumably when he has managed to publish overdue back issues. We are now up to the September-October 2012 number and counting.  The Pfening III presses seem to be slowing down a bit.

If the inside source is correct, that's too bad.  But there are, possibly, equally pressing issues the CHS will be faced with for many years into the future as the print world changes, as more and more, people go to their computers for information that is in some instances easier to obtain, surely less costly to have at hand.

At $60.00 a year, that amounts to a whopping ten dollars per issue.  It's, I suppose, a price tag that hard line fans and big top historians are evidently willing to pay.    I'd say it is arguably too expensive a tab.

The size of Bandwagon, as I think that of the White Tops, has increased over the years.  Perhaps both publications are now designed under the spell of the grandiose Feld style Ringling program magazines replete with lavish color photography.

On a circus blog thread that I came across several years ago, some were arguing in favor of the White Tops and Bandwagon merging.   While it does seem like a strange maarriage, it might be a viable solution to increasing costs and shrinking subscription lists.

Bandwagon has enlisted the design talents of White Top editors John and Mardi Wells to revamp its visual layout, and the effort is brilliantly obvious in a visually spectacular array of photos.  Needed?  Necessary?  Too expensive?

I don't know.  I know that ten dollars an issue strikes me as over the top.  I'd re-subscribed to the magazine upon learning the Pfeing was coming back, following the ill-fated tenure of Fred Dahlinger, Jr.,  who never gained traction at the desk, assuming he actually spent time at it.

But now, soon the magazine's fate will again rest in the hands of yet another candidate, and that person may still be out there, not yet found and/or signed to a contract.

It's a fine fine magazine.  Do I value it more than what the elder Pfening delivered?  Not necessarily.  I am certainly struck by the photography, but I never really subscribed for visuals beyond their historical input.  I subscribed to learn about circus history, especially for the research value to the last two big top tomes I've written.  There comes a point at which, arguably, too many photos can degrade the importance and integrity of text. Consider the book The Circus: Garden of Eden to Pittsburgh (you know the real title, published by Taschen).  That is not a Bandwagon problem, not yet, but we must be talking inflated printing bills for all the large photo spreads and the total number of pages.

Spectacle is now on-line, no longer in print. All of the circus rags have lost customers over the past 20-plus seasons.  Circus Report's subscription pool is likely half what it was years ago, if that.  It is simply a matter that the world is changing.  At some point, the gloriously gilded new Bandwagon may have to face the barn, unless it can lose a lot of weight, slim down on the visuals, perhaps cut itself in half, and charge a lot less.

That is, assuming it will eventually reach the time period in which we live.

Cry, clown, cry?  Maybe not.  Half a bandwagon may be perfectly fine for those who value (or, make that can accept) their sawdust history straight.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: When The Greatest Show on Earth Became a Weekly TV Series

In 1963, the John Ringling North regime signed a contract with the Desilu production company for the use of its name, act footage and color background for a weekly one-hour dramatic series based around circus life.

I was out of the country at the time. The event was sure to have excited circus fans. Each week, a storyline centered on some backstage conflict.  Show starred the formidable Jack Palance as a tough boss.  Passing shots of the actual circus in action were used to pace action and imagery.

The show aired on Tuesday night at 9 PM on ABC. Don was left distinctly disappointed. On September 20, 1963, he wrote to me:

"This program was made in Venice, Florida and at a few dates in the East when the Ringling show was operating ... The first show this past week wasn't good at all.  It was about a lion trainer, who had lost a leg to a cat years ago.  He came back and wanted a job.  Since he and the boss were friends, he got the job.  Then he started to ruin the show's present trainer and finally worked himself into the position and from there went on to attempt to get the friend (Palance) killed by a cat."

That, I must say, at least sounds dramatic ...

"It didn't work of course. The story was pretty thin.  The action couldn't have happened in a circus, they just don't operate that way."

Yes, Don, if only you'd  have been around to stomach the ridiculously over the top Water for Elephants.

"Well, to make things short, the critics really panned it.  One said that if this is an indication of what the show will be, then by Thanksgiving it will have been taken off the network. Another cried out in anguish against it, while one in the city [San Francisco] said that if you want to see a circus program, he recommended 'Internationnla Showtime' on Friday nights."

Perhaps the closest this curious enterprise came to Ringling authenticity was to name one of its characters Otto King.

It seems that, either abroad or upon my return to the states, I caught one or two of the episodes, and that they moved rather passively across the screen.

"The Greatest Show on Earth," TV version, did last through Thanksgiving, but before the next Turkey day came around, it too was a turkey.

Fascinating historical footnote:  An original theme song for the series, "March of the Clowns," was composed by the great Richard Rodgers - unless the tune had come out of his Jumbo, which I find no record for in my reference books, or out of one of Mr.  Rodgers trunks.   Jumbo, as some of you will know, contained the wonderful "Circus on Parade."

[Photo above: Lucille Ball and Jack Palance in the episode Lady in Limbo].