Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Waiting for a poster to appear on the side of a building. Reaching for rumors. Wondering if the show might already be somewhere in the area ... Might already be, horror of horrors, gone! ...

A sunny pleasure it is, these summer days, sitting out on my balcony on Saturday afternoon, wandering through the many letters I have from Don Marcks.  Looking for something meaty (rare), or just a few words or images that fire a feeling, a memory, a thought.

From June 13, 1965:

“Had hoped that on your trip to Santa Rosa, you’d run across some information on Carson & Barnes - Haven’t heard or learned a thing myself.  Wish that I knew where they are and just hope that I haven’t missed them completely.  Boy that would sort of be tragic to say the least.”

Ah, yes, Don, it would!   The mystery of where they where that moment in June.  Before the internet, and all these modern gadgets, you waited  for big gaudy lithographs to blossom on the sides of buildings, and was that a thrill.

No posters in Santa Rosa was a sure sign that C & B hadn’t been there, yet, if, indeed, they planned to play the town at all.  For, when this show did come to town, well in advance it threw up lithographs wherever it could.

Newspaper ads, if there were any as I recall, did not tend to appear until right near show day.

Once, I came upon a dazzling, indeed, rather brazen sea of Carson and Barnes lithographs covering, it seemed, the entire temporary (construction)  wood wall that surrounded the Courthouse in the middle of  town.  It felt like an invasion of sorts.  Carson and Barnes posters screamed CIRCUS!  Screamed,WE ARE COMING! 

Carson and Barnes Circus midway, around this period

The mystery for Don and me.  Yes, were they at that moment somewhere close?  They tended to pitch their tents in smaller towns, so they could sneak through without our ever knowing.

Routes in the Billboard would often arrive too late.

My most vivid memory of coming upon a circus litho was one, medium size, posted on a wall around Fourth Street, of a man who appeared, miraculously, to be standing on one finger!  I couldn’t believe what I was watching.  Did this really happen?  The words Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey were prominently displayed across the sheet. But the image of the man was stunning.

It would forever epitomize for me the startling and superior magic of circus.

The year was 1953.  Ringling had staked out prime visual notice of its coming to San Francisco, some fifty miles south of Santa Rosa.

I was too young to take a bus ride down and see the circus.

I can’t remember if Carson and Barnes played any Bay Area dates in 1965 close to either Don or me.

Ah, the mystery of wondering, waiting, hoping, dreaming ...

And of fearing, in Don’s words, “something tragic.”

I can tell you this, had I gone all the way to Richmond, in 1955, only to find that the great Ringling Bros. Circus under the big top had skipped the date, now, that would have been tragic.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Big Top Bluster: Zerbini Dares Canada with Animals ... Baraboo Flares High with Million Dollar Parade ... Big Apple Hits Big Screens in November ...

Zerbini Family Circus, in collusion with go-for-it Shriners,  to invade the land of no-animals Cirque du Soleil in a few perilous weeks, daring to dazzle – or nauseate -- the locals with genuine old fashioned big top fare, not with circus ballet but with circus bravado of the older sort.

Reporting on MTL, blogger Michael D’Alimonte writes of the Zerbinis  “bringing clowns, acrobats, and elephants (oh my!) to Parc Jean-Drapeau this September.”

Did I detect a touch of breathless ambivalence?   Reigning question, will anybody go?  That partly depends on another, not so delicate question:  Will the show be any good?

What’s even more brazen  is the location itself.  Where is Parc Jean-Drapeau, you ask, as did, I, myself?   I googled it out, and, Oh my!  Right there, “situated to the east of downtown Montreal, Quebec, Canada.”

Which makes me wonder if the Zerbini operation may come off looking like a flea-market and flea circus combined to the Quebec snobs, this indiscretion inspired by D’Alimonte’s post being answered by a rush of angry traditional circus haters, not a one of them daring to defend the performing menagerie about to spread sawdust, shame, and pachyderm poo, to wit, a few examples:

Horrible, this makes me want to fly out of town and never read the mtl blog ever again.”

“this is fucking bull shit and must be stopped!!!!! big tents are NOT fun especially for the tortured animals!!!”

“time to start writing to the mayor's office in protest. these are your tax dollars going to promote animal cruelty.”

Oh my!  Oh my again!  Is free speech up there so uniformly predicable as that?  All of which makes  Canadaland look a tad too in the pocket of the Cirque King.  Might half the population be, one way or another, above or under board, on his payroll?   For one, the drama critic on the Montreal Gazette never seems to take in a new Cirque show that she does not like.  Then again, down here, she'd be called a good and trustworthy circus fan, she would.  Oh my, where am I going with this?

Back in the States,  let's go basic and savor a min-victory in the land of Ringlingville, where the locals are “feeling like a million bucks” over the rousing success of their Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration Days, which filled and thrilled the great little town last month.

From a news flash, dispatched my way by cyber courier Don Covington, “Organizers reported this week that the Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration Days drew double the crowds of last year’s parade and generated more than $1 million in spending.”

The Aniskin Troupe return to the Big Apple Circus

Big Apple Circus  comes to the Big Screen, maybe at a movie house near you. From Crane’s New York Business News, the show's new edition, uncorking in Gotham in late October, to be broadcast nation-wide in some 400 to 500 movies houses, same as how the Met Opera spreads is grand operas across big screens.  Says  Julie Borchard-Young, of Brooklyn-based  BY Experience, the circus will be streamed live from Manhattan ... And that's great news for me, oh my, yes it is!  Can't  imagine it not being picked up in some S.F. Bay Area theatre, and I'll be there ... A genius idea from BAC and/or BY Experience.  Tickets slated to sell for from $12.50 to $15.    Now there's the best damn big top bargain on the planet.

Memo to Montreal:  If Zerbini turns out to be not your cup of poison, well then, wait for Big Apple Circus on the big screen, due out in November.  Horses and dogs, that maybe a little okay?

Off the lost, across the street:  Wait!  Somebody waved at me over there.  Could that be?   Can't believe it.  See you later!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks, Thirty Years Ago, Today: Trying to Crash Ringling, Don Gets the Boot from Famous Performer

Ringling was in town, and Don was happily engaged, or so for a while,  going out to visit the show, until he practicably got run off the lot.

From his letter to me dated August 24, 1984

“I went down to the Ringling show on opening night which was Tuesday.  They had a good crowd as usual.  I spent most of the time in the backyard to be available to anyone who was interested in CR [Circus Report].  I did pass out a fair number of samples, etc.  Also peaked at a part of the show.”

He wasn’t to impressed, but he rarely was.  I would know this, although he would never publish such feedings in his paper, but he often felt a let down, perhaps comparing the present to a past he much preferred.  I got a kick out of Don, sometimes seeing him approach me in the higher side seats at the Oakland Auditorium (that I had bought, if not getting through the back door myself), to take a seat himself for a while and carp about the performance.

“The big spec just didn’t seem to make any sense to me.  It was dancing girls and guys more than anything else.”

Nonetheless, he returned the following night, only to be met by a rebuff in the backyard by one of the most preeminent wild animal trainers of the era.

“Talked to the backdoor guy for a time then walked down the ramp to the backyard, hoping I’d have some success with getting money, new subscriptions,.”

                               Bad Boy Don is bounced!

“Guess what.  Charley Bauman told me to get out I didn’t belong there. So I went back up the ramp.”

Circus Report's rebuffed publisher chatted for a little with the backdoor guy, got tired, got chilly, and went home.  I doubt he ever saw the show itself.

“I’ve often heard from others that Bauman is a very difficult man to get along with and he has been rough on others who come to visit. Even to the point of going up in the seats and telling them they have to leave and can’t have a free seat at the circus."

Well, here I’m on the show's side.  It may be bad form to remove unwanted “lot lice” from the seats, unless, of course, they are asked to show their ticket stubs.  We don't know all the details.  But it is very bad form to steal into the arena or tent, especially when the gate crashers are not starving kids off the farm, but adults, likely well employed and the very fans who belive in suppoting circuses.

Yes, I once then, too, loved the challenge of walking right through for free.  Ir was almost a badge of honor among fans.  And what a perverse thrill. Once in, you were in!

“However, this is the first time he has ever done anything like that to me.”

I think the Felds were getting tired of indulging fans one of their most selfish fantasies, built on a wish to feel "with it and for it," for if that was, indeed, their status, why should they have to pay?

Don loved to stand at the performers door, for that made him one of them.  I knew the feeling, but I wanted to be seated with a good view of the show.  I guess I was funny that way.

“I’ve been  thinking I might go down to the train this weekend and take a photo of each car for the files

“Not much doing otherwise.  I have been thinking that it would be nice to have like an Open House each Friday evening for fans and model builders.  They could come and just talk,work on models, exchange ideas, even see a movie.  No politics, no minutes or anything like that.”

One of many of Don’s inklings that never flew

“That Little Theatre group in Point Richmond opens their show George M this evening.”

I doubt, if he went to see George M, that he got in free.

Thirty years ago today.  And may all your days be free circus days!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ringling's Latest, Legends, Delivers Terrific Action, per Feld Formula. Lacey, Chinese Acrobats, Cossack Riders, Pigs and Kangaroos Star ...

  Alexander Lacey

Circus Review
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Oakland, CA, August 26, 2014

What is the most interesting thing to ponder about this year’s edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey?

Around some outstanding action, there are perhaps more Feld fireworks than ever, more flash and thunder, dazzling special effects and oratorical hyperbole, more Jonathon Lee Iverson in our face, and more redundant “spectacle,” some of it pointless, all of which, in total, suggests to me that either one of two realities is responsible for this extravagantly overactive attack:  Either the Felds know that this is exactly what their patrons want, and that this is what will likely keep a diminishing customer base returning -- or they are desperate.

Hard to know. At the Oakland arena, where I took in a Saturday morning show, 20 minutes before showtime, at one point there was but a single soul standing at one of five or seven open ticket windows.  I recall recent years when all the windows were jammed.

Inside, however, the crowd added up to — a guess —  not quite what it’s been the last many years, maybe a thousand or 500  less.   A good decent crowd, anyway, by today’s standards, considering that perhaps one third if not more than the arena seats are darkened and shut out of view by the backdrop. My guess: 3,900 and counting ... Maybe 4,500 tops

It’s a big crowd pleaser, in the Feld smorgasbord style.  And it tells me that, like father, like daughter, producer Nicole Feld seems geared to perpetuate the formula.

 I floated out of last year's opus (credit a brilliant second half), feeling quite fine. This time, I left feeling more than a little used, worked over, assaulted with all the flash and ringmaster bombast  — something like, how to put this, the night after a marathon of hot you-know-what, when you end up feeling a little led on and then abandoned, a little empty. 

I’m not going to file a full review, for if I did, it would feel like writing a review I have already written too many times.  And you might turn away in disgust, or take out a class action law suit against me for hazardous prose.

So, cutting to essentials, from the good to the bad, here goes.

The Review

* The opening number is absolutely, flat out, the most visually stunning and bizarre piece of circus stagecraft I have ever seen, and during it, I felt like I was truly at the Greatest Show on Earth.  There is something supernatural about it, something truly otherworldly, as if a circus from a far galaxy had entered the house.  Here is where the Felds never let you down. 

* From Vicki Zsilak and Hans and Maria Close,  a mixed animal display, some of it stagnant, but with wonderfully trained dogs and pigs, and — are you ready? — two kangaroos jumping into the ring and over obstacles!   What an exhilarating surprise!   Now, that’s circus in the ascendant.

* Great Chinese hoop divers, about as great as they come -- one of four offerings from the China National Acrobatic Troupe.

*  Chinese female bike riders forming captivating pasterns in their ensemble,  complete with a human pyramid built on two bicycles. Loved it.  They also work a big group diablo display, some of it a little shaky, lifted to a solid climax by two nifty solo turns.

* Kanat and Tatiana Tchalabaev, and their horse riders, Roman to Cossack style, pound and pulse with raw primal power, made even more rewarding by the robust inclusion of women riders.  If only there was some sawdust to raise.  The Ringling set continues to be about as glamorous as a K-Mart parking lot.

*  Animal trainer Alexander Lacey, one of the reasons I went to see the show --  knowing little about him, but what a revelation.  A true star, offering the most fully satisfying  cage act I think I have ever seen, certainly in modern times, and why?  Finely wrought executions, marvelous moments when the tigers and lions appear to be acting out certain attitudes and behaviors; novelty and a tender rapport through a little Russianesque narrative, with the trainer talking to his charges and giving each, in turn, permission to  “go home.”  One,  a lion, wishes first to spend a little quality time with the other lion.  A little intimacy begins to surface.  “Okay,” says Lacey,  “that’s for later.”  Only drawback is a tiger who angrily gets into the trainer's face, smacking of a staged crisis.   But altogether, Lacy’s warm persona, his easy relationship with the tigers and lions, and the act’s developing shape, mark it as a high point in circus history, I would venture.   Monte Carlo Gold.

Okay, onto the other stuff, so-so to forgettable:

 * Clowns score well in their first outing, satirizing the Chinese bike-riding number. but their subsequent contributions are ho-hum, never very funny, and lamely lacking payoffs.

* Too much filler, such as:  Self-loving, self-acclaiming Jonathan Lee Iverson’s frequent shout outs to the audience for shout backs to the veiled question, are you at the Greatest Show on Earth?  He, a first class pain in the posterior, works the show like a political rally, and maybe people love being worked over this way.   Is there such a thing as being verbally groped?  His fine singing voice is clear and powerful, and he holds his end notes so eternally long, I could see myself booking passage on one of them for another trip to, say, China.

* A big mammoth meant to astonish turns out to be a costumed, rather threadbare illusion, worked by concealed understanders. It fizzles.  And always never far away is a repetitive slow moving spectacle that seems to keep returning, each time in a slightly altered format and content.  In one instance, it comes off as a little pointless, and just before intermission,  it feels more like a finale.  This show was not smartly directed.

* Like the show, the loud, far-from-subtle music is a mixed bag, from artful to awful.

* Some stuff is humdrum, or just flops out, like the flying act, during which a back-to-back triple was promised, but only attempted once, the flyer missing, but not trying again. That made me suspicious of his success rate.

Thus, my quick overview, not wishing to linger.

Back to my “evolving” theme, bottom line: This circus almost certainly on average pulls more people around its ring(s) than any other circus in the world.  Forget about yesterday.  We live in today.

3.900 (just throwing it out -- the actual number of people who witnessed the Providence aerial collapse) may not seem big.  But compared to the others, 3,900 IS big.

The Felds may have figured it all out, that is, speculating here, that the average city simply does not contain as many people as it once did who are eager and ready to patronize a circus.

Overall rating for Legends (four stars max): Three Stars

Next on: Can a circus be as bad as a certain circus out there  is, and as good — at the same time?  Guess which one?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Circus and Musical Theatre Writings, Papers and Interview Tapes to Reside at San Francisco's Museum of Performance & Design

I am pleased to announce that my papers and tapes, amassed in connection with the eight books I have written, have been accepted for permanent inclusion at the Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco (MPD), formerly known as the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum.

Thanks to the gratifying interest and support of the museum's head librarian and archivist, Kirsten Tanaka, in counsel with her colleagues, this will be the home for my archives.

The setting has particular meaning to me, for I was born in San Francisco, raised in a house in the shadows of the North Windmill at the west end of Golden Gate Park, directly across the street from the Big Dipper roller coaster, which was managed by my Uncle Smitty, at Playland-at-the-Beach.  My grandfather was a locally respected painter whose work was well reviewed.  I graduated from San Francisco State University, where I produced, directed and co-wrote the annual student revue, Kampus Kapers.

After first getting published in Variety, Dora Williams, a San Francisco agent representing artists and writers, sent me, despite my reservations, to the offices at Troubadour Press of children's book publisher Malcolm Whyte. Although it did not seem that I was right for a kid's book, and Mr. Whyte correctly sensed my ambivalence, he took the time to spirit me in the direction of a book, out of the ordinary, that might "evoke" the world of circus in a way that it might not have been evoked before.  This meeting resulted in my writing Behind the Big Top, my first book.

Among many reasons that make MPD the location ideal,  it covers the performing arts in general, and one of my books -- Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals -- draws upon interviews I conducted with many of the Asian-American actors who appeared in one or both of the Broadway versions, either the original of 1958, and/or the revival of 2002.  The significance of Chinatown in San Francisco gives my collection, I believe, additional  relevance to the city's history.

And of course, there is San Francisco itself, one of the most popular travel destinations in the world!

Presently, in the words of Ms. Tanaka, MPD is "deinstalling" itself from the War Memorial Veterans Building, itsself due for retrofitting, and into temporary quarters.  In 2015, MPD will occupy a permanent new home at another location in the city.  That is when my collection will become available.

The archives I will be handing over include tapes of interviews that amount to approximately 130 hours, the majority of them with circus personalities from here to Russia and China; dozens of color transparencies along with black and white images handed to me while I was in the Soviet Union in 1979, working on research for my book Circus Rings Around Russia.

The collection is also enhanced by the wonderful black and white photography of Ted Sato, official photographer for Ringling-Barnum during its last years under canvas.

There are notes on my press work for James Bros. Circus, and other activities related to entertainment reporting and criticism in which I have been engaged, extending back to boyhood publications and to my earliest correspondence with Walter H. Hohenadel, editor of The White Tops, who was the first to publish me.

A large folder is stuffed (I need to add a second) with unsolicited post-publication research, letters and documents from interested parties adding to or questioning certain assertions made in my book Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus; even a taped interview with a woman who wished to share her recollections, for the record, of the friendly association she claimed to have enjoyed with JRN.

Anyway, I could go on and on.  But it's nice to know that my collection and archives will enjoy ideal safe keeping, and be available soon for others to view, listen to, and draw from.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: The Glory that Was Vargas

In the 1980s, perhaps the most glamorous circus opening anywhere was that of Circus Vargas, when it pitched its blue and yellow big top over a parking lot across the street from the Hollywood Bowl.

Fans came to mingle on the midway, hoping to catch a glimpse of "Mr. V," hoping, better yet, to cut up jackpots with the fiery circus owner.  This man of humble origins stared out a phoneman, and ended up a showman.

The crowds were healthy, sometimes the tent was packed, a rarity for me one night, returning from the Bay Area, after jumping off my bus, hurring over to the lot, only to be told, "it's a sell out."  The show had just begun.  I felt a let down, of course, but also a great joy for the show -- and for the American circus scene.

Here. from Don's letter to me, dated February 8, 1985

"Not much else happening.   I heard that this year Vargas has his best show yet."


"Also, that he is excited about the fact the CFA will use his show as their convention circus this year."

It was, in my book, the best of all Vargas years, a peformance that topped all the others.  He had a five piece band in the tent, riding the charts of pulsing jazz and Latin, interweaving songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook, with a few old fashiony circus tunes tossed in.  He had a well dressed show, a good balance of acts, a formidable elephant herd.

I probably saw the show three times.  I used to do that, when I liked a show, I would go back.  Did it with Ringling, not recently, though sometimes during Feld years as well as during the John Ringling North era.

Three rings still resonate in my mind.  

Within only a few years, Circus Vargas would begin a gradual slide in performance values, as Mr. V. chased after other markets, and then started appearing in arenas, in direct contradiction to the press campaign upon which he had built his name:  "A return to the circus under the big top, as it once was in America!" 

He cast a spell over the entire circus community.  In my lifetime, I can't think of an owner who was so admired, respected, and appreciated as much as Cliff Vargas.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Here Comes, No — There Goes. the Drive by Circus. They Call it Piccadilly ... Buy Your Advance Tickets and Pray ... Giggles Guaranteed!

Dilly of a drive by, now circuses can blow towns on-line, so easy.  So clean.  They can even snub sponsors, which Piccadilly Circus seems to be making an art of these dizzy days.  This flaky outfit stood up and indoor gig in Greenfield, Mass,  not even calling ahead of show time to inform sponsors  there would be no show time.  So, the carnival left town before it ever came, Peggy ...

“We didn’t know until about an hour-and-a half before the first show that they didn’t show up,” said Fred Steiner, of the Franklin County Agricultural Society in Greenfield, Mass.  So that put the town in a pickle. Oh, excuse me, I could go a pickling on.   A circus rep said the show had posted notice of the cancelled date on its website, for those who had purchased advance tickets.  A look at the website shows no  dates after mid-June. 

Circus said to have  “blamed the city” and other local municipalities for contentious issues with permits over health and safety. 

“They just blew right past us to another town.” said Steiner to the Greenfield Recorder. .  “...we heard through the grapevine.”

Another town they blew on-line was Hampton, NY, to have been played two days following the Greenfield snub.  A message under the date reads “Please choose a city below. If you bought tickets for Hampton they will be honored at any city any show time.”  How considerate; no refunds, I assume, but, yes, by all means, do show your face in one of our other arenas, and you can still pay us more  money to ride an elephant and have your sulking face painted into a clowny smile, and, yes, not to worry, we accept all credit cards!
Sample Ticketmaster review: "The performance would be ok for a carnival side show. It was way too expensive for what you got. Souvenirs and snacks were outrageously priced. Having intermission as an opportunity to make more money was tacky."  

Oh, how I LOVE that last sentence.

Now, I’m wondering who among the bottom feeder big tops might have blown this town, but, no, I’m not going there.  Only to glance a bit: Website shows a  Sarasota address.  There you go again, Circus City.  Once, home to big top kings; now a hide-out point for fly-by-night shills.

I’m pickling off for something more legit.

END RINGERS: Meet the newly matriculated Christian Stoinev, clever equilibrist and dog trainer, having landed, last year, a  degree at ISU in Broadcast Journalism, by golly!   And already, the guy is broadcasting like a journalist:  “When people hear circus,” Christian told NBC, “they think about carnival ...’Circus’ doesn’t have a well-respected image but circus made me who I am today, took me in college and put me in a national spotlight.”  And, might I inquire, Christian, along the way did you lift moppets onto and off revenue ponies? ... There’s your answer. 

... Christian is on a campaign to “raise the respect level for circus performers and to show the world how talented they are.”  As for the latter part, I think the world knows.  As for the former, well, Christian, there ARE shows out there that do foster first line respect for tanbark talent like yours, and I don’t have to name them.  They tend to separate artist from huckster...

BEAR WITH ME...  Did you know — yes, YOU, now reading me, that a bear can, if it has to, walk like a human under its own volition?  So take that, PETA!  Evidence on a TV news novelty shows a bear ambling on all twos through the mild wilds, the reason being that it had hurt or injured its front paws and evolved itself over night from horizontal to vertical.  I was tickled pink at the spectacle.  ... Lot-combing Lane Talburt You-tubing a video essay on fire eater Lamount, the “Human Volcano” with Kelly Miller.  Lamount, evidently oblivious to PR imagery,  reveals that, of a slate of chores on his job description,  “the smallest chore is performing.” Here is where a crack publicist might have suggested  something a little less  less ordinary.  ... Now let’s follow a thread: Christian talking about disrespect for the artist, a nice thematic tie in to Lamunt’s embarrassing disclosure.  Another thread, my dread of photos that show a sea of empty seats, thickens in the Talbert You Tube: He filmed the Human Volcano exhaling fire into a  virtually empty tent, during an actual performance.  No comment.

OFF THE LOT, ACROSS THE STREET: Well, not a bad show back there. A few people in the seats.  Some good acts ... I’m riding high, fearing I’ll crash soon on the Oakland A’s (a baseball team), inevitably tanking after premature triumph.  Those long seasons can be so punishing ... Did you thrill to Phil last Sunday, number one on the greens for a moment, ball to ball down the finish with Rory — what a player!  You don’t think he’s, what?  Ooops, my bus!  Early this time!  Okay, yeah!  Give me a call! .....

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: The Birth of Don ...The Return of Billy Barton

Combing through  the letters, nothing spectacular, but it's Sunday morning, and had you anything better planned?  You're here, so I guess not.

Don once contemplated writing his life story.  Of course, he never got very far, other than two opening paragraphs, from what I know

From his letter to me of August 13, 1994, he begins:

“Came up with a title to my book - how does this sound?  ‘All Things I Wanted to do but never did.”

On a separate sheet, came this:


                                          by Don Marcks

It had been one of those harsh winter nights in New England.   It was cold, the sky was overcast and snow fell continuously.  This winter storm continued through the next day until at 11:55 a.m. on March 12, the clouds parted and the sun shone.  It was as if some power greater than that on earth had paused to say, "Welcome to the world."

Thus on March 12, Donald Marcks, was born to Alice and Isaac Marcks, at Pittsfield, Mass.  Unlike nowadays, where births almost always take place in the hospital, this one took place at a small house on Lexington Street, which was to be his home for the next few years.

End of momentous quote.

Hmm. So, I guess, upon delivery, Don was spared a muddy lot.

Pittsfield resonants with me, don’t know exactly why.  It’s a neat sounding name, a little offbeat, exclusive, entrenched in tradition.

Now, to the rebirth in Circus Report of Billy Baron (yes, I know, you were waiting for this), who, I always thought, gave Don’s folksy, very fan-ish weekly a little sex appeal, or jazz, something that it needed to give it a pulse.  Even though, on balance, most of Barton’s columns were compactly composed, straight ahead conveyors of facts – names, dates, acts coming going, imported, cities played, marriages and divorces, with a few harmless zingers tossed in now and then.  But, yes, once in a while he did express himself on serious issues, and I found that refreshing.

Getting off my own soapbox, let’s hand the pen over to Don, from his letter to me dated October 12, 1984:

“Guess I probably told you that Barton had said he would like to write again and that he won’t get on the soapbox again. So, since then I have heard from him and he wants to do a column about every other week - which isn’t too bad.  Have to see how it goes, no doubt once folks start telling him how good he is, he will want to get back to the weekly schedule and the soapbox - we’ll see.”

The trouble was, for Don, almost any opinion spelled trouble.  He was too easily rattled by anxious or intimidating phone calls from circus owners.

I do know there was friction between Don and Billy on one or two tense occasions.  I think Billy had written some things that put Don out, and he took it upon himself to edit the unwelcome prose.  Billy flew into a rage, on or off his cloud sing.   Don forced himself to communicate to Billy certain things that bothered him. This was not easy. I think there was a falling out for a time. 

I would have been pleased with Billy Barton returning.  I mean, who did not, every week, look forward to what Billy had to say, even if he rarely said it?

You need a pulse in any venture.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Big Apple Bid on eBay Sends sends CAN'T STOP SHOPPING into New York

Co-inventors Boyi Yuan and David Lewis, pitching their board game, Can't Stop Shopping ("in progress," they say) recently started offering copies of their working prototypes for auciton on eBay, one auction at a time.

"It's like advance promotion, practically giving it away," says David.  "But we're getting it out there.  Heck some new products are handed out for free.  We have avoided that route -- so far."

First buyer came from Baltimore.  Other bids hail from the eastern section of the country.  "No surprise to me," said David.  "I've come to view east coasters as more amenable to board games.  S.F. Bay Area gamers came be outright snotty to the idea of rolling dice."

Now, Cant Stop Shopping may face its biggest test so far, when and if it is played by an eBayer who purchased the most recently copy put up for bid.    

David and Boyi are aiming to further fine-tune the game.  "We have no idea how far it may go," says David.  "You've got to subject a new game to different players."

A significant advance to how the game is played came after Alex Yaeger, of Mayfair games, who
responded favorably to the e-mail pitch he allows  inventors without agents to make.   He, too, expressed a concern over "the level of randomness" he sensed in the game, merely based upon a simple pitch.

"He was encouraging," says David.  "He shared his qualms, though did not offer any speidific ideas for revsions."

Yuan and Lewis dug in and came up with a game-changing componenet, whic they call ACT-ON Coupons.  This gives the player an option at each turn.  He can either roll the dice or play a coupon.

"More action to the brain," says Boyi.

The ACT-ONs  preiscribe many actions that give players numerous options at each turn for not just advancing their gorals but visiting others with harsh set backs.

They also encourage players to hamm it u-p. 

The two inventors realize that, ultimately, mobile versions of even board games are whether the future lies.

But first, they want to make the game as engaging as they can.

"We may re-approach Mr. Yaeger," said David.  "He encouraged us, and indicated an openness."

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: When Big Tops Put People in the Seats

There may have been a day.  Certainly, long ago when I took in circus shows, I recall seeing many people in the seats, usually at least more than half of the seats filled.

Here, from his letter to me dated September 19, 1965.   We’re under canvas.

“I spent this weekend with Carson and Barnes Circus and enjoyed it.   Was in Santa Cruz and Soledad, where it was rather warm in the daytime but cool at night.  Show did pretty fair business, but they still seemed to be unhappy, thinking that they should pull more, but gollys they can’t have an overflow crowd all the time.”

Looking way back, not sure if I ever saw an overflow crowd at C&B, but I do know I saw lots of people under the tent, not just a few hundred across a sea of empty chairs and planks, as I do in modern times. 

  Nice little full house (500) at the Zoppe Family Circus.

“Seems to me that they have to set up the show to break even on a half house or so and go from there.”

A half house.  If only, when I go to Vargas or Carson & Barnes today, even to Ringling at the Oakland Coliseum arena, I could see a half house, how exciting that would be.  I know it happens, I guess just not when I am around.  Maybe I bring bad vibes to the midway.  The only shows where I have always seen a three-quarter to near full tent are Big Apple and, of course, Cirque du Soleil.

3,900.  Does the number ring a bell?  Think hard.  A recent seat count for a very tragic event. Three thousand nine hundred.  Need a clue?  The number present at a performance which went very wrong.

Still not there?  Think a major circus up in a New England town, earlier this year.

Yes, Ringling, at Providence, when the aerialists fell to the floor after their rigging malfunctioned.

3,900, it was said too many times by too many different sources (maybe not by Circus Report or White Tops) not to believe. And believe it I do, for it resonates with my own recent experience of seeing Ringling-Barnum out here in the 15,00 seat plus Oakland Coliseum arena. I'd guess from three to five thousand spectators max.

And what is the point of all this? Well, what is the point.  The letter reminded me of how the times have changed, I think.

“But gollys they can’t have an overflow crowd all the time."

Right, Don. If only, they could overflow the tent just some of the time.

That’s what seems to be happening across the pond for Peter Jolly’s Circus. Today.  Not yesterday.  He’s been packing them in at some stands, possibly, opines Brit blogger Douglas McPherson,  because of anti-circus animal legislation in the winds, this inspiring the public to take in a real circus while there still is a real circus to take in.  By golly, were he still around, would Don and I have fun talking about that!

Johnny Pugh's Cole Bros. Circus packing them in at a recent date (as reported in Circus Report) was,by golly, Don, something to crow about.

Promise not to question that, the feeling is too good.