Saturday, August 31, 2013

Built to be Ignored? Ringling's Built to Amaze Apparently Did Not Take the Critics


Should we blame it on those fast disappearing newspapers?

Not quite, for many of them are moving over to Website Boulevard, still reporting, still reviewing.  Well, sometimes.

After posting  my review, below, of Ringling's Built To Amaze, a show with plenty to cheer about,  I searched the internet for reviews of the show by regular media across the nation, and found virtually nothing.  In fact, during the year, I've not seen a single review, nor do I recall cyber courier Don Covington sending out any.

Very strange-- if I have this right. I found just one write up, from the New York Post giving the show a good generic 3-star send off on the sunny if short side, ending with "It might not be the greatest show on earth, but it's certainly the biggest show on earth."

Nothing from the New York Times.  From the Los Angeles Times or the San Francisco rags.  Searched a few other cities. Same zero result.

What really surprised me was to find that the Brooklyn Paper apparently ignored the show.  Inexplicable because this was the first year for Ringling to play the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and the feisty Brooklyn Paper does issue real live opinionated reviews.  Perhaps the seaside locals are still fuming over Ringling's short lived but promising stint as a projected annual visitor, under a real big top, to Coney Island -- oh, how wonderful that was!  I wouldn't blame them.

One might consider, among many reasons of contemporary relevance, the increasing skittishness of critics to embrace the defiantly traditional Ringling show, which this year puts the image of a cute little elephant in a cap front and center on its large city billboard ads.

Most tellingly, in his New York Post review, Gregory E. Miller included this: "Unfortunately, their [the elephants'] treatment has long been a widespread point of contention. Protesters stood outside the opening night of the show, handing out fliers that featured a disturbing image of an elephant’s leg in chains. Edie Falco recently released a PETA video taking up the cause. It certainly puts a damper on things."

Perhaps my search for reviews missed something.   I doubt it.  Amazing?  Maybe not.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Is It Time to Early Retire Circus Elephants? ... My Face to Face with PETA

"As with the horses, the elephants don’t need to be oversold with gimmicks.  Just walking into the rings and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough”

            From the book Circus Mania, by Douglas McPherson

After taking in a performance of Built to Amaze at Ringling Bros. last week, on my way out of the arena I had a rare face to face encounter with a PETA person, a woman hoping to snare my attention.  I normally pass them with disdain, tired of their rants, their fliers and signs, wishing they would go away.  Closing down my mind. 

Because I was so charmed by the elephant production number at Built to Amaze, I paused to announce to the woman, “Those elephants were absolutely delightful!” I said it with a tone of affirmative defiance. She looked at me, somewhat startled, speechless, her face a taut white blank sheet.  Brazenly, I repeated my assertion, a mode of communication on my part that I would come to question, even regret.

How crass of me, I thought, to lump all animal rights activists as loonies or extremists.  Yes, some engage in pure fraud.  Others are surely well meaning. One of my best friends shares their views.

In drafting a review of the show, this I wrote, at first:

"A joyful elephant romp, with perky pachyderms sharing spotlights with leaping acrobats, dancers finely integrated, and a marvelous stream of music far from the maddening discotheque So high was I on this pacyhermic high point, that on my way out I shouted to a PETA person, 'Those elephants were absolutely delightful!' She starred back at me in stark silent disbelief.'  I walked on, guilt free, remembering the very large man in street clothes leading the elephants around and about, smiling proudly to the audience.  A nice warm circusy moment. 

The closer I got to posting my notice, the more I questioned the text shown above in bold.

Now,  step back with me by one or three Lane Talburt YouTubes.  I am on his mailing list.and so he sent me a link to his latest, a look at the elephants of Cole Bros. Circus getting pedicures.  Very charming, as warm and slick and adoring as the features you’d see in the movie house in the1950s, each addressing some pleasant aspect of life in America, in color, wrapped up in ribbons and bows.  In the affirmative, Lane is a talented photojournalist.  He gets thousands of hits on his YouTubes.

But ... while watching the video, the name Tim Frisco surfaced.  Frisco, I wondered.  I’ve heard of him.  Carson and Barnes trainer?    The name vaguely suggested something bad in a You Tube, and I wondered if he had changed his ways since way back when.  Because of Tim Frisco being lionized, I did not feel good about posting a link to this particular video, or the others that followed, one in conjunction with the Circus Fans Association of America, in effect treating Frisco as a poster boy for elephant preservation -- there is nothing about any circus  the CFA views that it does no like.  Their motto, "We fight any;ting that fights the circus.

Perhaps they will take on my blog.

I decided to revisit the dreaded Carson & Barnes YouTube, surely the most damning evidence out there of indisputable animal abuse  In fact, I had forgotten how truly awful it is.

In a word, HORRIFYING   After a few minutes, I could not watch  it any longer.  Perhaps somebody can tell me if I was watching a fantasy film produced by a dementedly biased animal rights organization?

Then, I turnedtto another well-known YouTube, the one, from three years ago, in which visual evidence of apparent abuse to the elephants backstage at Ringling has yet to be explained away by Feld Entertainment, claiming it was misleadingly edited.  Or have I perchance missed a press release?  It is no where near as bad as the Carson & Barnes one, but it lends the impression that abuse many continue apace.  There is an ominous thread here that generates an impression of traditional techniques for keeping wild animals in check.

What I have to say will make this too long a posting, so I shall continue in a future post,  asking the circus community if they might answer some serious questions I have.

One of them in advance, cutting to the chase, is this:  We have clear evidence of  barbaric abuse to circus elephants  as they are being broken in and/or trained to perform circus tricks.  Have we, for the other side, equally clear and persuasive evidence of elephants being taught the same tricks in a humane non abusive manner?

Now, there is a YouTube I would like to see.  

To be continued.

Friday, August 23, 2013

This One's for John Ringling North II

Update, 8.7.22, 8:10 AM PST:   When I look back at this, I think that JRN II gave us the best of all possible worlds, perfectly suited to the new blogging atmosphere, for he did not resent it. He was laid back, he had a dry sense of humor, he took in every performance, and the company loved him. And so did we!  We loved  John's wife, Shirley, too. There were more circus bloggers, then, best of all, clown Steve Copeland, who with his partner Ryan Combs, filled the rings with their creativity. Some things hit pay dirt.  Steve's daily posts kept us all tuned in, what might happen next?  Johnny seemed unbothered by the freedom of his company to blog on as they wished. A rare ten years -- with echoes of Ringling royalty guiding the one-ring parade. I truly believe, as John told us, that when the animals had to go, so did he. Thank you, John.  You were a class act, and your father and uncles would have been proud.

               The Poema Family, a recent Kelly Miller highlight 

Yeah, been a long time since I dropped The Name up there. And know what, I think they're lonely for a little attention from yours unruly.

Truth is, and I got evidence, they want me they hate me they want me.  They like this blog when it flatters, can't stand it when it shatters.  Love my dropping their famous name, throw hissy fits when I don't.  Likely miss those first dates we took in the fresh beginning when the impression lent was of a Ringling about to, well, bring a little "Ringling magic" to the operation.  Remember people accusing me of spending too much time on this House of Ringling angle?

John Ringling North II claimed never to have promised any such "magic."  JR (James Royal) admits to maybe having dropped the “m” word (magic, kids).   A reporter right or wrong quoted it.

Haunted, they still are, by the respectable 2-1/3 star review I gave 'em back in 2010.  In fact, their pain has evidently become a crusade.  Now, one of them — Shirley North II, no less — wishing I would just "support circuses" -- characterizing my anonymous patronage that day in 2010 as a "covert visit." Gosh, am I that mysterious a character?  Her conspiracy theory, I will surmise, is based on my failing to make backyard.  To sign in and take the pledge.  Fact is, I, a late blooming purist, no longer venture into compromising territory.

Is Agent X Showbiz David?

But they should be flattered that I did not go that day under the circus critics witness protection program.  Went in wearing my regular clothes, regular face.

Next time I visit Kelly-Miller, if there is a next time, Dear Shirley (we must stop meeting like this), maybe I should step out of a pumpkin carriage, in a cape with flourish, long as you promise a red carpet fanfare, spotlights, and VIP announcement, complete with waving ride round the ring in the Copeland and Combs jalopy.

The high-voltage Shirley North e-mail was waiting for the right moment to respond. Then it came, in the words of another, more discretely controlled Kelly-Miller provocateur reaching my way (are these e-mails part of a grand strategy to regain my shameless hyping of the House of Ringling?).

JR (sounds kind of cool, Jim?) sent me word the other day, "you will be pleased to learn that after weeks of dry lots, we have had a few muddy ones (I believe it would be appropriate to place ‘LOL’ here).”

HA!  Let’s all laugh out loud.  They know how to get themselves back onto this blog, and they are doing it right here. Have they no shame?  But there's a bigger reason restarting my overdrive than mud. 

"Just support circuses," says late-blooming circus fan  Shirley North

What galls Shirley North the most is how I misrepresent her husband’s producing agenda for Kelly Miller.   "I thought to be nice to you," she wrote, playing the guilt card, "but that didn't work!"  So what next? A challenge from Kelly Miller's First Lady to downsize my precocious expectations.  Declared she, "I fail to understand why you think John wanted to out shine his illustrious family?"  In fact, I didn’t exactly.  But please, as did Ernest Albrecht in Spectacle, take a look at North’s name splashed immodestly on the sides of his trucks. 

In fact, wrote Ms. North, John looked to Kelly Miller circus ownership as a "retirement project," and he simply enjoys bringing afordable entertainment to families in smaller towns.

I guess then, that we should discount as spin from the north, what North the Sequel told Lane Talburt during an interview last year, recorded on film: “I want to own the best circus in America.”  Might this excuse my tendency to hold JRN II to higher than average standards?  To rue hula hoop acts and peanut pitches?  Oh, there I went, trying, really trying to be nice.

Continued Ms. North, "After one covert visit to view the show in Brewster NY on an impossible lot [excuse making?], you now just review the show by following the clown's blog." By the way, expecting mud, I was elated to find grass and weed and dry dirt.  In total, a perfectly charming day in Brewster, USA!

Very interesting.  In the land of Kelly-Miller North, anything I say, or perhaps worse yet, don’t say or say about some other show (are we onto something, Dr. Watson?), seems to be seized upon as some form of a veiled "review," as witness the above lament.  Or a coded Kelly-Miller crack.  Gaze upon the teeth below. Were I to attend with my name posted atop my noggin, think I'd get out alive?  I'd best go armed with dental floss for elephants.

Heck, I'd pay just to see those audacious dentures!

Which makes me wonder how they reacted to -- or sought post traumatic counseling for-- the review by Mr. Albrecht last year, possibly less flatting than mine, which was posted, in full, by Steve Copeland on his post. And for that incredible indiscretion (might Stevie have been sending a message to management?), was he sent to his room, bad bad boy!  No play in your clown car for one week! 

"You want to see it grow into an impossible monster," continues Shirley North in her showdown missive, "where the show would have to play in buildings because lots are difficult to find.”  Oh, paleeeeeze. Big Apple Circus puts on a world class show under a relatively small tent.

I’ve never done therapy, but I wonder if all of us – me and them – will end up on a trauma treatment trampoline with two overactive clowns serving as budget head shrinks?

Okay, enough. Now comes the Big Payoff. The Reason for all this verbiage.  Kelly-Miller people: THIS is what really provoked me, this time.   Back to JR:  "You were so disappointed in our website," he e-mailed me recently, turning my attention to the new website, which I had not seen.  I took a look.  I was awed.  I was taken.  Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Hugo anymore. [oh, shucks, can't I ever say something nice without side-swiping something else?]  One small step in cyberspace, one giant leap for Kelly-Miller.

Ryan Holder in command: that tiger's got rhythm

The website design is unique.  Classy.   Suave.  Subtle. The streaming stills are stunning. Costumes bear a distinctive mark.  Remember, I gave North the Sequel credit from the beginning (are you smiling, Ms. Shirley?) for subtle costume design.  Best of all, JR, your PC home is not a warmed over version of its passive predecessor, but a  refreshing new concept shunning corny circus visuals.  Which makes me wonder, House of Ringling, when a brand new show as arrestingly novel as this brand new website of yours?  When, Shirley, When?  (Notice how, in desperation, I am now appealing to the boss's wife?)

Now, as as for my overstating the modest goal of  John Ringling North II (according to Ms. North), then here’s a marketing angle, freely given, for a more apt and accurate pronouncement on the sides of the Kelly- Miller trucks:

THE JOHN RINGLING NORTH II RETIREMENT PROJECT, LTD.                                  

And that’s a Ringling Wrap.

And that's a proud producer -- John Ringling North II

[photos from the new Kelly Miller website] 


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Building to Amaze at Ringling Bros., Crew Change at Intermission Turns Labored Sight Show into Big Top Heaven

From August, 2013

Remember Ringling?  Remember the circus?  Hard to believe, the Big Show has only been off the road hardly over a year.  Yet it feels like it has been gone for ages.  One of the things I miss most about it was how challenging it could be to review, because of its complicated composition.  Here was one of my encounters, five years ago.    

Amaze, they do:  Alex and Irina Emelin

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Built to Amaze
Oracle Arena, Oakland, CA
August 17, 2013
Ticket range: $20 - $100

I had a near-death to born-again experience watching the latest edition from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Built to Amaze, another ambitious offering from the Felds, is by turns dazzling, disjointed, finished, in-the-rough, a work of bold creativity at points nearly buried alive under hyperactive staging heavy on ensemble choreography.  Like all new construction projects, it starts out looking mired in mud and weeds (mediocre pre show antics unfold across a bleak scruffy landscape, suggesting an end-of-the-world Antonioni film), but ends up, after a long workout through the first half, soaring to the heights — a modern day greatest show on earth. Stress greatest. 

When to Arrive

** Indeed, if you want to be thrilled by Ringling in high gear, I’d kindly suggest showing up around one hour and forty minutes after the show begins; in other words, skip the first half and the 25 minute intermission. You are guaranteed thirty five minutes of a true circus spectacle for the ages.

The Danguir Troupe

This is not to completely dismiss the meandering first half hodgepodge, which certainly lays out the nuts and bolts of some decent circus essentials, including a trio of knockout turns: the blitzing opener paced by a grabbing original tune; top-of-the line comedy magic from Alex and Irina Emelin, a genius due who reap hay from a malfunctioning rabbit-in-box gag; and high wire exploits of the first order from the Danguir Troupe, the most entertaining thin-line brigade I’ve seen in many a season.  Zippy, amusing, intrepidly agile, charismatic charmers — they are from Spain!

Jackhammer Production Effects: Hard Hats Advised 

Trouble is, acts are so encased in redundant dancing frames, hard-working special effects, intense spotlighting in a perpetually (and purposely) darkened arena, and a musical score favoring a disco drone, that their impact can feel marginalized at times by the heavy handed delivery system. Not good: when dancers produce more energy than “circus".

Another drawback are mechanics.  Bear with me here:  I’m thinking, in particular, the captivating Danguir Troupe, who tarnish their stature by strapping a lifeline to the top mounter in a climactic three-high formation, act itself performed over thick secure padding below.  Makes no sense.  Might I suggest lowering the wire to, say, two feet above the mattress?

Sound Check, Please
Nor does the boisterous announcing of straight ahead ringmaster Andre McClain have any effect when it simply can’t be understood.  How amazingly ironic that a show so deftly built on high tech visuals can’t seem to afford a decent sound system. Might I suggest a trip to Radio Shack for those Feldlings?  Or perhaps at a Good Will store, a durable old radio-era stand up microphone might be waiting for a grateful taker?  I seem to recall hearing every word that ringmaster Harold Ronk spoke when he spoke into one of those things.

Nearing intermission (hold on, we’re getting to the good stuff, kids), watching the construction crews felt as much a workout for me as I suppose it did for them. Dreary example: When rolling tubs filled with spectators from the one-percent class rumble into the arena, a yawning time-consuming pay off, no doubt, to offer the pampered few close up views of the action.  Sitting there, watching them watching the circus, I asked myself, is something wrong with me for feeling a little listless and worn out?  For wondering when it all might end?  I object.

Masterfully Wrought

But then, yes then, after the prolonged interval, came the second half, and miracle of miracles, it felt as if a heavy handed veil of corporate manipulation had been lifted, the sidewalls lowered, fresh clear air allowed into the arena, and a real circus show (somewhat reminiscent of the cleanly-staged one-ring Boom a Ring at Coney) whistled in, one marvelous world class act after another.  I felt, in battered circus fan mode, born again.  To recap, drum rolls, please!

* Exhilarating gymnastics off a double trampoline from Urkaine-based Trampoline Tower Tumblers    (above).
* A very very funny clown spoof on TV talent shows casting would-be circus stars (the clowns) competing, culminating in a poodle act that blows away the judges, which is really:
Alex and Irina Emelin working statuesque poodles.  Incredible. High-voltage. Hilarious.  One of the greatest acts of any kind I have ever seen in any circus on any planet. 
* Rarely, if ever, have I witnessed an elephant production number whose interlocking elements - pachyderm tricks, musical scoring, and dancing - are so finely integrated as to form so joyful an animation.  Added to which, leaping acrobats lend this perfectly delightful outing a Barbetteian touch.
*  From there, a clever comedy interlude on skis from the true stars of the show, Russians Alex and Irina Emelin.  At the end of their turn, they effect a magical flash to fly audience attention up to:
* The double wheel display by Stars of the Steel Vortex (website gives no names)
* Powerhouse ground acrobatic tumbling from the phenomenal Negrey Troupe.  It doesn't get any better than this.
What next?  Please, I prayed to the Circus Gods, let that be the last act — not another grinding motorbike scream inside The Globe of Death.  Prayer answered.
* Fabulous Finale followed apace, this one even more spectacular than the opener.
Now, that’s half a Ringling in its finest form, evidence indisputable of creative American circus showmanship on its highest level.  I floated out of the oppressively dark-lit Oracle barn, feeling a rare re-connection to authentic three-ring circus, and rarely had there been even a single ring to behold. 

Overall score, entire show (four stars tops): 3 stars

You are always in semi-darkness when Ringling comes to town.

Next stop, assuming I can get there: Circus Vargas

First posted August 22, 2013

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Morning with Showbiz David: Some Recent Visitors

What would life be without friends and kin?  How could we muddle through?  I couldn't.   Here are some pics of some recent valued visitors.

Long-time friend, Vania, and myself, in a Berkley cafe a couple of months back. We are of the class of striving ("struggling" sounds a tad over the top) playwrights.  A native of Queens,Vania was tutored by Lillian Hellman. Recently, she moved from the Hamptons on Long Island, to Arizona, with her friend, whom she calls "family," Tom. When I lived in Los Angeles, Vania was very instrumental in the productions I got of two of my musicals, Those Ringlings ("with proper handling, deserves a shot at a Tony" - Variety), and Welcome to Welfare.

Oh, here's my nephew Jeff, son of sister Kathy, at work on my temperamental roller coaster.  He possesses the exacting skill of an engineer, has made guitars and small boats, hosts honey bee hives (something like that), has taken keen interest in the history of San Francisco's  old Big Dipper roller coaster, and may one day build a scale model of his own.  Here he seems determined to help me remedy troubled trackage, where the cars tend to go silent or derail.  I've kindly warned Jeff to be prepared for some sobering setbacks. Rarely if ever, does a model roller coaster operate with virtual perfection.  I've constructed four rides that do - The Whip, Tilt-A-Whirl, Ferris Wheel, and Swings, not the coaster.  Sometimes it goes perfectly around five or six runs, and what a high it gives me! But soon, I'm back in humble mode.

My friend in many pursuits, Boyi Yuan, the night we first tested our Version 3 of our board game Can't Stop Shopping, pondering a rule change.  It's an easy free-flowing collaboration. Boyi was raised on a farm in China, I, in a park (Golden Gate) in San Francisco (no, not behind a bush, but in the brick house that came with my father's job tending to a section of the park and a windmill).

A little over a week after Boyi was here, niece Lisa, from Luray, VA, was by with her son, Noah, visiting  friends and relatives, and she took a twirl around the board.  Loved it!  (Well, yes, she's my niece.)

My grand nephew, six-year-old Noah {"Mister McFiddle") wanted to play the game, but Version 3 would be too difficult, so we tried to talk him into being the banker, and he went along until discovering what reactions he could get from us with a camera in hand, not favoring the most flattering camera angles. (Oh, to see ourselves as other see us.)  So he had blast video-taping us. 

And then, last Monday, friend Doug, who lives in San Francisco and works as a tech writer for a Silicon Valley type firm in San Leandro, met me at a funky and fun little eatery, Tapioca Express, where the young evidently hang out, in the lovely downtown section.  He became visibly engaged in the game, fearing at first it would be "too complicated," but then, as it progressed, finding it challenging and fun in the final stages. 

Boyi and I might put up a copy or two of the game's prototype on EBay, just to see if somebody bites, just to maybe start a little buzz.  Maybe lure a few souls back to a dining room table,although I understand, that nowadays when that happens, the occupants spend most of their time not facing each other but staring at smart phone screens.  The idea of such conduct is beyond me. But then again, I wasn't born out of a computer.

And that's all the fun for now, Folks!

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Frank McClosky Without Walter Kernan

Frank McClosky has forever remained the most faceless figure in my image bank of big top personalities.  I could never get a sense of any kind of a personality about the man other than a stern indifferent toughness, to the point almost of disinterest.  He was one of the few who kept the Clyde Beatty show on the road after it folded in 1956.  He had been fired off the Ringling show the year before, allegedly for refusing to buckle under to the wishes of John and Henry Ringling North to end corruption in ticket sales and skimming among ushers.  One of his close partners was a guy he'd grown up with working props for Ringling, Walter Kernan.

Several have said over the years that it was Walter Kernan who passionately cared about the performance.  If so, I have him to thank for the Clyde Beatty Circus that I saw in 1961, for it ranks among my top 10 all time favorite circus shows.

And what did McClosky care about?  When I've tried to engage others in this subject, they had little to say, other than lend the impression that he preferred staying away and letting others manage the show as long as they turned a decent profit.  I suppose he could have been as happy selling used cars.  Maybe he did, on the side.

From Don Marck's letter to me when I lived abroad, dated July 30, 1963:

"You know that fellow Kernan, one of the partners on the show died.  He was I gather more interested in the performance while the other two people are interested in the front end of the show.  Well this I guess could account for a lack of interest in the appearance and production of the show.  Also heard that the two men [one of them, no doubt, McClosky] were trying to kick out Mrs. Kernan, so will be interested to see how long she stays with the show."

I've had the privilege of either observing in action (Louis Stern comes to mind) or interviewing up close a number of big top movers and shakers, among them John Ringling North, Art Concello, Noyelles Burkhart, Cliff Vargas, Floyd King, Paul Binder.  Most of them tended to display distinct idiosyncratic personalities.  None could be accused of being bland, although I'd say that Johnny Pugh would be the nice guy of the bunch.

And of those who I've never watched in action or talked to over the phone, usually, in reading about them, I'd get a sense of a real person. 

Not so, Frank McClosky.  It may be unfair on my part.  Perhaps in person, he'd be engaging, but in my talks over the years with Kenny Dodd, who was producing clown on Beatty-Cole, still, I come away with absolutely nothing.

He must have done a damn good job setting up props and keeping a low profile.  I strain to recall a familiar  PR photo of Frank McClosky with a cigar in his mouth - which mangages to make even the cigar look lifeless.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ringling's Venice History Closer to the Dust of a Gilded Memory

Despite the efforts of circus locals and fans, led by former trapeze great Tito Gaona, to raise money and convert the old Ringling Venice arena into yet another circus museum (of some sort), the aging structure fell a little closer to the status of a sainted memory, as witness the above unflattering photo.

Said to be a "partial demolition" in order to make way for proper up-to-current-code reconstruction, this latest setback has an eerie resemblance to Pittsbugh, PA, in 1956, when Ringling gave its last shows under canvas.  Ironically, the Venice arena was built in conjunction with the new all-indoor version of the Greatest Show on Earth, as an annual winter home,  rehearsal and premiere space.

Writes Josh Taylor, whose photo and fine report were hastened my way by cyber courier Don Covington, "Those with the Venice Circus Arts Foundation, who have worked for years to save the property, aren't throwing in the towel"

Keeping a note of optimism alive (who knows, maybe some day the millions needed to make a tenuous dream a reality may come through), the spin now turns as the world mostly turns away:

"This is not the end; it is just the beginning of our trying to save this arena and make it useful to the city."
Executive Director Orlando Bevington says a surgical removal of old rotting wood and the roof of the arena would have been done anyway.

Oh, those lingering feelings of a grand revival. It almost feels like 1956-57 all over again, when for a bitter sweet while some of us held out hope that John Ringling North would change his mind and return the Greatest Show on Earth to its rightful place, under the glorious tented city that moved by night.

Friendly warning to the good-intended dreamers of Venice.

He never did.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Circus Historical Society Names New Bandwagon Editor: Magazine Slips Into Bureaucratic Hands, Post Pfening Era

About the photo above: You'd have to have been there to appreciate the brilliance of these costumes (superior in the Bandwagon image to my scan), or you might have been lucky to see a video of old Ringling show clips containing a few rare seconds of the cast taking bows at the end of Rainbow Around the World. I've never seen anything like it. The entire number itself gave off a quiet other-worldly enchantment, marking a highpoint in producing art for the surreally inclined John Ringling North.

Fred D. Pfening III and Jennifer Posey. Photo by John Wells

Circus Historical Society's bi-monthly magazine Bandwagon will likely never be the same again, not with control of editing, scholarship, and layout now being handed over to a new editor who is entrenched in the bureaucratic morass of the Ringling museum of circus in Sarasota

Good News:  The new editor's name is Jennifer Lemmer Posey, who serves as assistant Ringling circus museum curator.  Among the staff there, she was the person who impressed me the most when I visited Sarasota in 2007, gathering photos for my book, Fall of the Big Top. We talked for only maybe five minutes, but I was struck by the depth and sincerity of Jennifer's interest in the circus and its history and coverage.  So, CHS is off to another good start, at least theoretically.

Not So Good News:  Very unlikely that Ms. Posey will have the control that Fred D. Pfening, Jr, who edited Bandwagon for half a century, likely enjoyed.  Nor will she have the control likely held by Pfening's son, Fred III, who has handled the editor's desk intermittently since the passing of his father.

Ms. Posey is coming in as something of an outsider, certainly not one of the Good Old Boys, but she is also part of the ever-expanding circus juggernaut that no longer merely exists but flourishes brazenly, with or without large crowds, in the shadows of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. (For newcomers to this blog and/or issue, circus king  John Ringling willed his entire estate to be maintained as an art museum and art school complex, not as a circus museum or entertainment annex.)

We may never know whether Pfening III, who all along expressed a preference for researching circus history over editing it for publication, was also discouraged or frustrated by other members who hold power in the ultra-modestly sized Circus Historical Society.  After he resigned as interim editor, to make way for Fred Dahlinger, Jr. who was named permanent new editor of Bandwagon, Pfening III returned a second time. Bandwagon had strangely stumbled to a standstill, with Dahlinger unable or unwilling to turn out a single issue on his own;  so Pfening III stepped in once again, to help bring the magazine up to speed, it was nearly a year behind.  Now it is still over half a year in arrears.  My latest issue received  is dated November-December, 2012.

What can we expect of Ms. Posey?  A greater question may be, who will exert control over what she may wish to do?  At the top of the list, there will be Ringling circus history curator Fred Dahlinger, Jr., who, as heretofore mentioned, failed at the Bandwagon editor's desk, yer remains prolific in his monographic answers to questions posted on the Circus Historical Society's website question board. 

An e-mail from CHS's Bob Cline inviting submissions spells out an intricate review process for new materials sent by writers seeking  bylines in Bandwagon, closer to that of a University Press.  I can't imagine Fred. Pfening Jr. following so complex a course.

University Press review boards can be hellishly frustrating entities to deal with; I should know, my manuscript for Big Top Boss was dragged through the process, being subjected by the University of Illinois Press to four readers reports;  I have them all, and if they tell me anything, they tell me that, yes, errors can be found, but no, errors, some major, can also be either ignored or missed.  And that politics on occasion can play a pivotal role.

Of course, we want as few errors of fact as possible.  "Scholarly" publishers like the trappings of scholarship, names (at least on secret file) of experts who vetted a work under consideration, plenty of end notes, all of which present at a minimum the cosmetic imagery of a well resourced work.

For any given manuscript, it is literally impossible to check every last "fact" (a date, a quote, name of and birthplace of individual) - unless perhaps you can engage a panel of "experts" to comb the manuscript.  Possible, that?  Hardly.

And so, there is a wide line separating the truly egregious errors (Irvin Feld takes over management of Ringling in 1956 and puts it indoors) from all of those smaller, nearly innocuous ones (Takeo Usui is a "wire dancer," so reads a photo caption in the Taschen book, itself ironically combed by three so-called "experts," one alluded to herein).  The comparative brilliance of Wikipedia is that it is not a book on a library shelf whose errors will never be corrected, but a fluid document that can easily be corrected and/or challenged, moment by moment.

This could be a very different magazine.  The Circus Historical Society is clearly striving to establish a structure to upgrade the quality of scholarship, assuming this to be a viable possibility.  So, in this noble regard, I have one Big Wish of Bandwagon's new promising editor:   

Please start reviewing new circus books, focusing on the scholarship of each, if only to set the record straight.  


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Morning With Don Marcks, in 1958: Had the Battered Big Tops a Future?

 Once upon a glorious season, when big tops drew all of America inside.

It was a most traumatic time, if you were a circus fan, especially a very young one, to live through.  Two years before, John Ringling North had declared the tented circus - his own - "a thing of the past."

The nation reacted as if the circus itself had died.

At John Strong's Circus, Circa 1950s

Shows under canvas continued to draw crowds, big crowds in the wake of Big Bertha's sudden shut down in Pittsburg, PA, on July 16.

I remember going to circuses, no matter the size, and purposely finding reasons to like and appreciate them all.

At Kelly Miller Circus, 2010

Here in his letter to me dated Novebmer, 22, Don addresse the issue to a circus fan about 20 years his junior:

"Yep, I took think that the circus will be around for a long time.  In fact I just wonder if there will always be a circus.  For I'm sure they can never kill it completely and we who live in congested areas like this [S,F. Bay Area] might not see only indoors shows playing in our arenas, but I'm sure that for the small out-of-town cities there will still be lots and circuses of some sort to play on them.  I had a long talk with the fellows from Trapeze Bros. and they think that the small tented circus is here to stay alright enough.  They think that the show should give a good show, have as small as possible a price and that they can pull the people.  I'm with them all the way here."

Fifty five years later, due in here next week are Ringling indoors and Vargas under canvas.  Cirque du Soliel will play San Francisco this fall.

The Pickle Family Circus, Circa 1977.

Circus Bella, San Francisco, 2010

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Wall Street Journal Book Review Lends Impression Circus Animal Abuse Continues Apace in Modern Times

 Thomas Edison electrocutes Topsy at Coney Island, 1903.

I was rather struck by the implicit assertion of book reviewer Christopher Corbett, reviewing what sounds like a good read, Michael Daly's Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, that the widespread beating and abuse of circus elephants, alleged to have been a pervasive reality way back when, has not much changed.

In the conclusion to his review, published in last Saturday's edition, writes Corbett:

"Not long ago I espied an op-ed by a flak for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus with the unfortunate last name of [Stephen] Payne.  It assured readers that, despite what they may have been told by PETA, the best thing that ever happened to the pachyderm was the Greatest Show on Earth.  Having read Topsy, I realize that Mr. Payne must still believe that there's a sucker born every minute."

Evidently, the book is rife with graphic accounts of horrendous cruelty to elephants in years gone by, and I'm not disinclined to believe it.  But society and times have changed, at least in many quarters.

Now, I'm not about to swallow Feld press kit spinning without question, but if I am naive in my impression that animal abuse in general has significantly decreased over the years, then, well, I guess I am one of those numerous suckers to whom Mr. Corbett alludes.  I'd rather like to think that some book reviewers still wear their politics on their sleeves.

Most telling here is the book's (or the book review's) apparent agenda to implicate the circus world, in particular P.T. Barnum himself, however nebulously, in Topsy's murder.  In fact, P.T. Barnum died a good ten years before the event took place.

I have a sneaking impression that either author Michael Daly and/or book reviewer Christopher Corbett are avid anti-traditional circus advocates. It is one thing to objectively acknowledge past acts of egregious abuse to animals.  Another, to review a book about them with a reckless broad stroke of the pen, to imply that, well, maybe little has changed.

I refuse to make it easy for Messrs Daly and Corbett to remain smug in their pat positions, because the situation is hardly as black and white as they evidently prefer viewing it.  Yes, along with great progress in the handling of circus animals, there are those distubing episodes, some caught on film, that raise serious questions.  Once again, I wonder: Am I the only voice in the circus community still challenging those callously manipulative Felds to come clean on their claim that the PETA video showing elephant handlers backstage cursing out the elephants and hitting them with bull hooks for no apparent reason was "deceptively" edited?  I am still waiting to be told by somebody how that footage that makes us all cringe a little was tinkered with. And I can almost hear some of you saying, "Oh, chill out David. Get over it. That was yesterday."  Yesterday was only about three years ago.

I've addressed this issue in my book, Inside the Changing Circus, in my chapter, "Animal Attitudes," as I am once again addressing it right here.

However, on the other hand, there is massive evidence that for the most part circus animals are well tended to.  And for this reason, I also believe that the circus community does the circus world an injustice by serving as no-question flacks for big top owners, by not pressing them, "them" being the Felds, to simply explain to us how a video, even if the abuse on display is modest, was "deceptively" edited in such a way as to present a false picture?  They only help prolong lingering doubts and give more amunition to those arguing on the other side.

The animal abusers of today do not deserve a pass any more than book reviewers with an axe to grind.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Ringling Versus Vargas in Los Angeles ... Yes, Once Upon a Season!

 Top of the big tops in a golden age: A rare shot of Johnny Pugh, Kenneth Feld, and Cliff Vargas in the 1980s.

Cliff Vargas, surely on the artistic front, reached his own apex in the mid 1980s with some great shows, and the gala openings in the parking lot of the Hollywood Bowl in the spring were glamorous, very glamorous.

The tent was often near full or full.  One time, coming back from the Bay Area, I hurried over to see if I could take in another performance, circa 1985; the show was "sold out" that night.

Rumors flew from time to time that the Felds wanted to buy out Vargas, that his circus was cutting into their own business.  I don't know how true that was, but during this heyday for Mr. V's big top, he did some fabulous business in his extended spring run through So Cal dates.

On bus kiosks all over the region were large lavish Circus Vargas posters featuring a classic image of a roaring tiger.  

From Don's letter to me, dated April 20, 1983, only six days following my big move, from Oakland down to Hollywood:

"Just received your note and was nice to hear from you and hope you will like L.A. ...

Onto the good Stuff:

"I received a letter today from Eddie Howe and he tells me that the rumor is Ringling will not play California this year.  That they will come in early in 1984 to beat Vargas.  Yet the latest route card from them shows their first date or two as per usual in Calif., so I guess he is wrong.  Seems to me that he gets things mixed up at times."

The Felds DID on occasion fear Circus Vargas enough to blast it in large news ads, as witness this one taken out in a Chicago paper in advance of its own date there:

"Wait for the Big One!
Accept no Imitations!
Save your money for the very best!
Why settle for paying more for less show and trudging
across a dusty/muddy lot to swelter under a canvas tent
in the hot and humid July-August heat sitting on a hard bench??

This ad was taken out -- guess what season?  Yes, 1983.  Eddie Howe I think was onto something.

What exciting times those were!  ... The Golden Age of the1980s ... Vargas offered a viable choice to the Big Show.  At one point, he had a five or six piece band of highly gifted musicians, and, given modern sound system technologies for sending their score through the tent, they made a dazzling impact.  They rode a varied chart, rich in Latin, Broadway, a little old fashioned circus, and big band jazz.   They gave the show a strong compelling pulse.

Thank you, Mr. V.!

 Cliff Vargas and Sandy Dobritch, in the early years.  I think we all miss Mr. V.  Photos Courtesy, Tegge Circus Archives, Baraboo