Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Tree Glows in Oakland

Every year, seems that Christmas is less obvious, less illuminated, less sung about.

I've heard that forces out there are trying to destroy it. For what?

I love the culture of it -- the music, the lights, the good cheer, Christmas tree memories ...  And yes, the heart-warming reach of faith. 

Around here on my daily walks up and down the streets of Oakland and Piedmont, some blocks at most have but one tree in a lone window.

Some are as drab as this:

So, in compensation, I offer you these wonderful images from another time, another shared season -- another country?

To those wishing to remove it from the calendar, Humbug!

And to the rest of you, MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Big Tops Falling ... Mild Animal Circuses Rising ... Cirque du Soleil in Arena Mode .... Welsh Troupe Books Brooklyn Stage ... Church May Swap Worship for Wire Walking ... Chicago Trib Critic Welcomes Elephant Exit .... Well, That’s What I'm Reading (sorry if I’m depressing you) ...

Pippin, the Sequel? Now comes  Cirque du Soleil with acts for a Broadway revival of  The Wiz.    They can't get the Great White Way off their minds.  Neither China, both markets failing to fall for Cirque when it first came to call. Trying to take Broadway, they slipped on their own Banana Shpeel, as they called the turkey they dared to let cluck in a New York playhouse despite scanting out of town notices. Hubris knows no caution.  But they’re not down yet.  The crusade resumes, this time wrapped in the luster of a proven hit musical.  And this time may be a charm.  The Wiz, looking good on the recent NBC Live, pleased more of the critics than none.  Cirque may bank on sneaking inside the musical more than being it.  Even it must play second banana.

Another Cirque concoction, something called TORUK, described “a live immersive multimedia spectacle" and claiming inspiration from James Camaron’s AVATAR, will hold court on a stage (their word) as wide and hard as an arena floor.   Opening in Montreal, they are eyeing China, hoping to strike gold the second time around.  Toruk is the first show from Cirque with a  "narrator."  I recall Cirque recycling its tent shows into flimsy arena adaptations.  At the Cow Palace in SF, they were nearly hissed out of town by miffed critics and customers.  Now, as for what appears above, my expectations explode.  

Let me go soft for a moment and honor their chronic courage -- or creative desperation.  Hey, Mister Cirque King up there, can you hear me down here?  When will you make a daring turn and bring in a few animals?  I'm waiting. Sometimes, less is better.

American circus schools forever almost rising, the saga continues.  Every once in a while from cyber courier Don Covington comes a link to another circus arts academy going up, sometimes in a church begging for anybody out there to fill up the chairs (as opposed to a circus in a tent begging for seat warmers).  Latest is talk around Chicago about eager jugglers and tumblers wanting to acquire Logan Square Church for a training center. Locals hailing the Windy City as the center of contemporary circus, which it may be.  They have just the right critic to cover it.  Read on...

And then there are those ambitious plans up New England way for a Circus Conservatory school. Another setback:  Fall classes cancelled.  Portland facility vacated.  Lease terminated.  Focus has turned to “developing the school as a degree granting program for people pursuing careers in the circus arts.”  A mandatory class should  teach students how to get cheap workshop space on public funding.

He’s about the best damn circus critic among the national newspaper theater critics, and his name is Chris Jones, of the Chicago Tribune.  Digs yesterday and today.  Is fair.  Is a fan of the form but won't give anybody a pass.    Looking at Ringling’s latest, Circus Xtreme,  Jones was entertained enough to overlook or note tactfully some sections not up to par.  A few:

“Circus Xtreme — which is not especially extreme, of course, but fun —  lacks a traditional trapeze act in the rafters.” ....  Even then, Jones was wowed by the “fabulously talented” high wire walking Danguir Troupe.   He goes back and forth, up in the air.  “Some of the other acts,” says he, “are old favorites I’ve seen done better.”  A few captured him.  “The Mongolian Marvels (strongmen) are quite something.”

About the elephants preparing to retire, Chris Jones may speak for many people out there by welcoming the news with calm resignation.  “The time has come.” He would also not be bothered in anyway were the Big Cage removed, too..  “I doubt the big cats are long for the circus either, and I won’t miss them.”   When I read that, I had this sinking (out of body?) feeling of watching a whole institution (American circus) being given its walking papers, packing up and heading down lonely ignored roads to no where.

But, not America’s favorite house pets!  Jones adores Alex and Irina’s  “Dogs of the City,” he did, Bow! Wow!  And he found a reliable thrill in the human blast off.  “A total sucker for the good old human cannonball.”   I enjoy and trust his reviews, such a rarity is he.


Back to the boards, once again in New York city.  From London, Douglas McPherson sends me linkage to a Welsh troupe called  NoFit State Circus,  government funded and about to leap the Big Pond for a stage gig in Brooklyn.  Touted, by whom I’m not sure, to be “the UK’s leading large-scale contemporary circus company, the NoFitters have toured 15 countries, played to a quarter million people, landed  big awards.

And I still feel a little like I’m watching the pull-out vans driving up.  Hey, guy!  Could I have that lone ring curb over there?

Think it’s time to watch Ring of Fear.  Nobody watched a circus then in a state of guilt.

Next The Ambivalent American Audience.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Relief from Boob Tube Banalities: TV's Many Other Windows I Am Now Just Opening: Thriving Vietnam Today Stirs Painful Memories of War; Old TV Shows Recall Simpler-Saner Times, Pre-Mass Shootings

And it's about time!

By accident, I discovered a number of channels I have with Comcast that I have overlooked  How rich and refreshing it is to look into the past, or across into Asia. Here are some captured photos from both disparate realms: 

Can you name the country where this game show takes place?  Read on ...

Theeeeres Johnny!  Before Tonight, Johnny Carson showed up on a great game show, To Tell the Truth.  Three people each introduce themselves by the same name.  The panelists, taking turns, ask them questions, trying to figure out who is the actual person.  So intriguing.  I'm surprised this show has never been revived in some format.

The country is Vietnam. The channel, Vietoday.  The game show is called Mot Phut De Chien Thang. This dancing MC is flashy good fun.  Contestants balance and manipulate objects in semi-juggling fashion.  A gas.

They try stacking objects into intricate formations.  They try blowing balls into  -- I don't know where there were intended to go..  And when they succeed, they victory-dance around the stage with the MC.

What a surprise!  I know all about TV Land, but I would  never have expected to find any early program from 1952 anywhere but, if lucky, at the Museum of TV and Radio in Beverly Hills or New York.  Okay, bash the fifties if you must.  What among many things did that despised decade lack?   Teenage infidelity as a spectator sport, for one.  Frighteningly frequent coverage of bloody mass shootings, for another.  Here, you see Miss Brooks and Mr Boynton, the eternal object of her pining for romance, played by Robert Rockwell, whose son, Jeffrey, played Al Ringling in my musical Those Ringlings when first presented in Los Angeles.

Advance by 65 years to our ambitious young Asians.

On a Vietnamese talent show, this kid made the four chairs turn for him, and brought one judge to his feet.

At least American influences are being put to non-violent means these days.

But not a single chair turned to face  this girl.  Two kind judges ran out to console her.  Touching moment.

These talent show are easy to watch, even without my understanding a word of the language.  On the other programs, I do my best trying to read body language. 

Superman!   Another rare discovery, from  1952 on MeTV. 

The fifties also gave us Lois Lane, fearless reporter, and a female no less, for the Daily Planet, day job employer of Clark Kent when he wasn't flying about in his famous cape.

And ... Lois revives this miner, near death in a collapsed mine shaft.   Just in time for Superman to swoop down to the rescue.

Asian kiddies:  I've seen many young tots, some hardly out of diapers, blasting out American pop and banging away on guitars for a shot at local stardom. I think this was off a major channel that broadcasts shows from Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Upside down goes the little girl!

Back to the fifties when we had live drama, when I first saw Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot on mainstream TV.  Both were outstanding.  Yes, bash the fifties for not bringing us more sophisticated programming, such as that offered today by Jerry Springer and  Maury Povich, among other icons of enlightenment.

Here's a scene from Studio One, 1958, presented LIVE.  I remember watching these dramatic  adaptations, more famously remembered from Playhouse 90,and sometimes glimpsing a camera at the edge of the screen.  Can you name the man at the center? Answer below.

Such a beautiful country.  And such real people. 

I discovered a series, nearing its end, set in a small Vietnamese village along the river, focusing on the everyday lives of families, work to recreation.  Humorous moments were whimsically scored by squeaky toots from a brass instrument.  Even their sense of humor is more subtle than ours.

In one episode, this boy went to a swimming competition with his village friends, and I think he won.  The bus ride to and from was charming.  Here, he has spotted an approaching tiger.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Blundering Big Tops: Ringling Ditches Portland-Seattle ... Big Apple Pitches Pony Rides .... Fly-Shy Circus Vargas Dishes Half a Show ... And the Elephants Apply for Assisted Living ... Who Said the Circus Was Alive and Well?

Something happened at the Big Apple Circus that nearly took my breath away.  No, not an act of art, but an act of commerce. Commerce of the kind you normally do not associate with “New York’s own.”

Well, now, New York’s own sells pony rides!  Yes, they are that flat out desperate, it appears, this being another of their recent Make-or-Break Seasons.   Another round of bailout money from Wall Street Greed may yet come to another rescue.

I once wrote a book called Fall of the Big Top and one fan of good intent, likely speaking for many others, was Don Covington, himself then company manager for the Big Apple Circus.  Don e-mailed me his pleasure over many memories my book brought back. But he also wanted to make clear being understandably at odds with my misleading subtitle: The Vanishing American Circus.  Wrote Don, “American circus has not vanished, it is vital and evolving.”

Don may have been right, then. Now, the word devolving seems apt. In fact, the subtitle should have read The Vanishing Great American Three Ring Circus.   That’s what I was really thinking.  And so the blame lies with me for ticking off anybody else out there who felt the blunt edge of overstatement.  And still ... Now, if you will pardon my incredible disrespect, I am wondering if in fact the American circus is in any form, old, new, in rehab or on parole, not slowly vanishing?

In peak Big Apple years.  Marty and Jake LaSalle, 2008, just plain terrific.

The stomach-turning news of the pony ride felt like the last nail in a coffin.  Pray it ain’t so.  Reaching beyond White Tops and Circus Report for a sliver of reality, I found but one review on Trip Adviser.  Be warned, the following content may not be suitable for circus fans of any age:

 “Its expensive, the acts are dated and boring, both me and our 10 year old fell asleep. Everything is overpriced and the stupid pony rides a big ripoff. Ok if you're 5 and never seen a circus before.”

Fair, balanced, and boring: I must say, from the photos I’ve seen of the new show, it looks quite promising.  Reviews?  Count on the New York papers to usually give New York's own circus a valentine pass.  
What next under the Big Apple tent?   Mass audience participation?   They could sell seats in the ring itself, making it easier for audience members (or shills) to already be in place when a clown comes calling.   A one hour Shrine-like intermission for peanut peddling?  (Hey, I might go for some cashews.)  The passing of a ringmaster’s hat?

The audience getting into the act is what's packing our tents these days, right?  Hey, you won't see that at Monte Carlo!

Around other beleaguered rings, more reason to rue the same.  Take Ringling, dumping Pacific Northwest dates, Seattle and Portland not deemed profitable enough to justify rail bills into the region. Locals up there none to thrilled.  Where instead will the trains now be routed:     Berkeley?  The Bermuda Triangle?

Feldishly fading: The Gold unit is history. So, of course, soon the pachyderms, destined for medicare and Assisted Living. 

Meet forced Floria retiree Mabel, being fitted for glasses under JumboCare.

Half a Vargas:   If you go, be prepared for a great first half (to be kind, I am overlooking a lame story line too cliche to credit): a sure hand in the gifted direction to cheer; excellent taped music; inventive staging around two jugglers working simultaneously; a clown, Alex Acero, who is very funny when he is being a clown (see my write-up about him a few posts down).  There is the commanding Patrick Marinelli, an illusionist and fabrics flyer of swaggering star power; terrific trampoline and wall bouncing exploits.   There's a lovely (rather than mandatory) aerial ballet featuring the winning Cathy Poema on a compelling lyra workout, and without wires.  So, into the break, the artfully exciting first half delivers big.  And this even without a double wheel and Marinelli on straps -- two turns advertised but not seen the day in Hayward when I went.  I felt so good, that I prayed the feeling would carry over into the last half.   A solid 3-star show, minimum, in the making.

Now, if you go and feel as elated as I did at the half way mark and wish to hold that feeling on your way out, then on your way out should be at intermission. Stop there.  Run, do not walk, but LEAVE.   What will you be missing?  Other than the classy Poema family on risely, whose once cute little boy now struggles to redefine his persona (a diet would help) nothing else is notable. Nothing.   Never have I seen so many “flyers” doing so little on the flying trapeze.  With only one hundred plus in the tent the day I went, guess they weren’t in the mood.  Never are when I’m there.  Maybe if they performed no matter the house size, more people would show up.  I counted two motorcycles in the big globe. Whoopee.   Dull.  Empty.  Done.

Vargas feels like a circus not wanting to be a circus.  Lots of Cirque du Soleil posturing this year. End point offers vacuously irrelevant ensemble dancing.   Such a let down after the stellar first half.   Good golly, Molly,  would it break payroll or cause PETA to riot if a dog act was allowed into the ring.  Just a dog act?

All these depressing developments are pushing my pen into Big Think mode.  Gotta warm up another cup of Gen Mai Chi tea.  There’s a thread I’m threading through all of this — a reason why, no matter what they do, the public may still stay away in large numbers.  And here it is:

Enter the ambivalent circus audience

Come back someday, and I might run with it.


First posted November 10, 2015

Friday, October 30, 2015

Hollywood Inflatable, Audition City on Demand. So, Who's Auditioning -- Them or Me?

We start on the 704 down Sunset Boulevard.  You tell me, please, was it a joke on me?  If not, circus owners under siege, beware! Prepare!  A new phobia may be in the air!

To your growing list of iffy things not to offer the public, here's yet another.  Bright young student-type fellow brimming with charisma, chatting merrily away with female pals on a crowded bus down Sunset Blvd, all of them standing before seated me, the fellow glibly confessing, “I’m scared of balloons!” ...  I stifled  a bus-rattling laugh. Balloons??? Fellow’s two friends, amused by the audience in me, pointed scaredy-cat in my direction, and he proceeded to entertain me with more of the same: Remember, we’re  are in Audition City:

“Yes, when I see a balloon, I get anxious!”

“You’re kidding” That’s me egging him on.  “You’re afraid of the popping sound?”

“Oh, no, everything – even if a person just holds one up to their lips, or if I see some balloons in a store, it’s scary!”

My turn. I told him I get creeped out in small elevators.

He ran with it:  “Oh, inside elevators, I love jumping up and down!”

Actors imrpov in transit?    I should have raised my camera.  Perfect opening for my three-day sprint through the city of angels and angles.

That evening, over a boffo burger at Fred 62 on Vermont in Los Feliz, I found fresh whimsy in kids around a table reveling in group selfies. When they noticed my camera rising to snatch a snap, they went into full performance mode. “Do you want us to look at you?” shouted one of them   “No, don’t look at me!”  And there they are.  Such giddy delights.  Wonder how many of them want to be in pictures.

Where the sun once met the grill:  Next morning, I had planned to share the sunshine with a stool at my favorite outdoor grill, somewhere on Vine a little south of Hollywood Blvd, a place that’s been there since 1929.  A place that felt half-constructed, like a carny joint on the midway. How I loved –  Well, here, quoting shamelessly from my book, is the set up:

“You sit there on a tall sidewalk stool in the warm easy calm with other dreamers.  And you might feel, once more, like you have just arrived.”

I wanted to just arrive again, but my stool did not.  I ran into high rise construction, or had I got the location wrong?  I approached a member of the building crew, hoping he could speak English.  Was this not where a stand had been?  Bingo!  He spoke fluently, answering “Yes,” ready to commiserate with my shock. “I went there many times. The owner did not want to sell.”

Okay, so how else can you stand me, up, LA?    I pushed on through withering heat to my next scheduled enchantment, to check out The Broad, the city’s new contemporary art museum, just across the street from America’s greatest piece of architecture, the Disney Concert Hall. Built by philanthropists Eli and Edyth Broad, so, what do you see — Sees Candy Paris?  I see an Andy Warhol stack of white wafers inflating.  Tell that scared student up there to avoid Grand Avenue.

What I respect the most about Eli Broad — the town’s art-loving sugar daddy — is that he is not trying here to compete with Disney, which he also helped fund.  The Disney floats like steel clouds.  The Broad hunkers down low in cool virginal white.

But no room in its galleries for me.  People in a long line with tickets, waiting, and I learn it’s best to book in advance.  Always free, just like the Getty out in Brentwood. Who said this town hasn’t a heart?

Some pics while killing time under too much sun, walking here, there, no where.

The Disney, of course

 Amoebas on Sunset, where vinyl lives again!

When my dumb phone dies, maybe Apple

At La Brea and Santa Monica

To Raleigh Studios for the private screening of  ... Drum rolls!

Came my Big Moment: Documentary film maker Phil Weyland had invited me down to attend a private screening of his The Last Great Circus Flyer.  In it, I am one of the interviewed.  The screening to occur at Raleigh Studios, just across the street from Paramount.   Before the audience arrived, I would get to meet quad legend Miguel Vazquez, who spun quadruple somersaults on the flying trapeze.

To get there, I’m walking down Melrose, hoping to see Norma Desmond drive by in her big old overdone auto.  Approaching Raleigh, I thread my way through an audition-happy stream of costumed characters, above, just out of a tapping of Let’s Make a Deal — a show that began 48 seasons ago and was revived in 2009.

Security checks my name, tells me where to go — no, not back to where I came from.  Inside at the far end in one of many buildings, I meet up with Phil, and, in time, he leads me up sets of stairs to a small reception room of sorts.  I wonder what it will be like seeing Miguel Vazquez in person for the first time. And there he is, calmly seated. He looks up at me, rises to his feet with a warm smile and offers an elevating hug. So naturally perfect.  A hand shake from the prince of mid-air miracles would have felt so stiff, so grounded.

Catcher Juan, Miguel's brother, is there, too.  Heck of a nice guy.  It’s good to see them both together.  Lights are popping off.  News of the World (oops! Make that TMZ) filming our meeting?  Never so much flash bulb attention.  Hey LA, nobody does it like you do!

Between Miguel, left, and Juan

Visit goes great.  Film goes great.  Since I am in it, it would be wrong to formally review, and I wuold never do that.  Can say this, there are loads of goodies in it to enjoy.  But that’s for another time, once the film is released in January, out in Vegas.   In the meantime, Phil is lining up film festivals, biggest so far being one in the Twin Cities, where Miguel is slated to give a master class to top students at the city’s major trapeze school.

Comes and goes so fast.  Next morning, before catching Amtrak for my return, I’m at Philippes restaurant mourning the death of the Los Angeles Times, a sad and embarrassing skeleton of its Pulitzer-rich glory days.  Book reviews?  Only five or six.  Can’t believe it.  I used to read it every Sunday morning, big event, until it was no longer sold in the Bay Area.

Eli Broad is said to be trying to buy it away from its parent, Chicago-based Tribune Publishing; that itself, windy city ownership, marking one of the most humiliating episodes  in L.A. history.   If Sir Eli has his way, let them nickname it the LA Broad Sheet.  Wrap the old Times building in white chiffon wafers.  But hold the balloons.

Bye for now, L.A.   Phil and Miguel – and the student suffering from inflate-a-phobia – thanks for the memories!

There it is, Molly's Burgers, last day in business.  I like the feeling this photo gives off.

BTW: A bus ride in LA can be one of the friendliest places on earth.  This town has a sense of humor.