The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp

The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp
Currently Reigning Champion at 4-1/2 Stars, Zoppe Family Circus Wins the Crowds with Heart-Warming Tradition

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Wide Awake Tonight Watching Johnny Carson in Replay: The Laughs, The Let Downs -- Time for a Review Update?

Watching replays of the old Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson at 8 pm (instead of 11:30) is something akin to examining in the full light of day an experience originally viewed in semi-darkness.  I can stay focused, no longer falling asleep. 

Wide awake, here is what I see:

The opening monologues: These are just as wildly uneven as I remember.  Only now, they seem shorter. And sometimes so short as to leave you wondering if Carson lost faith half way through and walked away from cue cards yet to be read.  The jokes can be terrific.  They can be awful.  And it took how many high paid writers to come up with that?   And still, I find myself coming back: Can he bring it off tonight?  When he does, it’s magic. 

Were the Letterman or Leno monologues funnier?  Probably.  But Carson had another trick in his bag of charm that endeared him to the audience: Making fun of himself when the laughs didn’t come.  Even better, taking pot shots at the audience itself –- or the previous night’s crowd.

At the desk with laughing Ed:  I am finding  the comedy bits with Ed, as well as Johnny's satiric impersonations of famous figures and stock characters, to be more consistently amusing.  A big disappointment, however, is something that I had forgotten: Carson would often skip this segment and go directly into his first guest. I want more Johnny and Ed!

Conversations with the guests:  Now wide awake, I am finding Carson to be a far more engaging host than before, possibly because, before, I likely tuned out after the first half hour, favoring the bed.  Even now, I can see myself skipping the rest of the show unless there is somebody waiting in the green room that I wish to see, like Orson Welles or Bill Buckley.

The Jack Paar in Johnny Carson:  Carson drew from many sources when he developed his own Tonight Show format and persona.  First and foremost, clearly he was influenced by watching the man he replaced, Jack Paar.  Paar, regarded by many of us as the true king of late night, was dangerously unpredictable and prone to interviewing a wide range of guests.  Paar favored real characters who made us laugh, bringing them back sometimes week after week.  I waited for Dodi Goodman whenever she was on.  So, too, for Alexander King, among other regulars, rarely there to pitch their movies or NBC TV premieres.
Pure Paar: The closest that Carson comes to a typically whimsical Jack Paar interview is when he has on Buck Henry.  I had never heard of Buck Henry, below, until now, and I will definitely wade through any future Tonight Show replays in which Henry appears.  His wry Pintereque  humor is the work of genius.  Carson plays brilliantly to it, allowing Henry the long pregnant pauses that seem to produce hilariously off the wall remarks.  And together — it’s hard to believe their interactions were not scripted — the two mine comedy gold.  What a team!  Here is Carson at his greatest.

All the others, ordinary folk to odd-acting animals:  Some of the non-celebrity guests are quite entertaining. Most of the animals and Carson's labored antics around them I could happily do without. 

The man himself: I now wish I knew less about Johnny Carson’s reprehensibly nasty life off camera, starring his monster mother, co-starring all the women he bedded and all the people he used and abused.  Certainly do I feel this way after reading the ruthlessly (though truthfully, it would appear) revealing bio of Carson by his long time attorney and virtual paid friend, Henry Bushkin.   The evidence seems too formidable. No more books on Carson for me.  I prefer the Johnny Carson I see on my television screen.  Oh, those good old Midwestern values he brought to the fans!  It is almost painful contemplating the illusions we were sold by Johnny Carson, Inc.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Sudddenly Unsettling Downton Abbey: They are Leaving me, They are Leaving me

I did not expect for it to happen this way, even though rumors had it, well, more than rumors, that this was to be the final season

So many wonderful characters.  Lord Robert Crawly, Earl of Grantham, above, center, is the essence of dignity, grace and compassion in an ever changing society.   

I could swear that I spotted Isobel Crawly, above, far left (far right on the larger image at the top) on Amtrak's Coast Starlight a few years ago.  I politely asked her.  In quick reply she shrugged as if to say, no, it's not me.  Had I only come dressed as a footman.  She might have deigned. 

It is almost painful watching the show, knowing that in a couple of months, they will all be gone.

They charmed their way into my life and to that of millions of Americans. When I came upon an episode in season three or four, I was so enthralled, I rented all of the videos up to that point.

And now all of the house servants are afraid they may be let go, some already out trying to find new jobs.  Shame on the producers for allowing this fate to befall my Downton Abbey friends!

The butler, Mr. Carson, has been my favorite character. So staunch and stern, proudly anchored to the discipline of his position.  He is seen here with lovely Lady Mary Crawly, whose one great love died in the war.  I fear she may end up alone.  

In so many ways, Masterpiece Theatre has finally hooked me. Another new series of superb scripting and acting is Home Fires.

What is it about Downton?   The characters.  The iron clad community where each person has a well defined job to do, a space to inhabit.  And there is the searing realism in human relationships crossing forbidden social barriers.

I want them to stay!

 People rave about Maggie Smith, she is a hoot.

I love the plump little cook, Mrs. Patmore, left.  How I wish she cooked for me -- that is, where I a Lord in such an elaborate set up.

Why was that picture posted?  On my side of the pond, they're not married yet!

Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, above, engaged to be married, are facing a precarious first night together, for Mrs. Hughes fears that, in the natural, she may not stir natural desires in her husband.  He has told her he will love here whatever may confront him (no, not in those words), I have an idea how this is all going to end up.  Difficult but doable.  Not telling.

Even though he can be ruthlessly conniving, I still feel sorry for Thomas Barrow,  a homosexual having to repress himself in order to save his job and his status in society. I'm surprised they did not make more of his story.  Once, out of in indiscretion based on a genuine misunderstanding, he came close to losing his job, saved the last minute by Lord Crawling.   Barrow is now trying to find a new employer, fearing that the Lord, facing up to the obsolescence of the Abbey's operation, will be forced to eliminate most of the staff. 

It has all been so wonderful. I don't want them to go!  They can't go!  But, now it feels almost  like they are folding up the furniture, circling each other in depressing disarray, having to hope for an income and a place to live in a strange new society. 

If there is a recurring theme  in Downton Abbey, to me it is the pride of a job, however great or small, well done.  I could almost cry thinking about may what become of them all. 

Maybe one day they will return.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Early Retirement of Ringling Elephants Comes Two Years Early

The end of the line for circus elephants at the Greatest Show on Earth, stripped yet of another of its defining attributes in sheer magnitude and  spectacle, has been moved up by two years.

This from Feld Entertainment:

"The circus will continue to feature other extraordinary animal performers, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels."

That's good news.

The Felds had originally planned for the last retirees to exit in 2018.

Doubtlessly, they have good reason to make the move as soon as possible.

Ringling fans are being encouraged, good PR slant, to catch the circus one more time between now and May if they wish to give the performing pachyderms one last farewell.

Thanks to Don Covington for the link. 

COMING SOON: Circuses in the Age of Virtual Reality

Saturday, January 09, 2016

A Memo to Them All: Ethics and Showmanship Upgrade Directives to Circus Owners, Effective Immediately

From Showbiz David, Shock Therapy Division

Our field compliance monitors, led by Sage and Sarah, will be out on the lots to monitor voluntary adherence to these directives, addressed but not limited to the following producers:

Barbara Byrd (Carson & Barnes): About that greying midway of yours that has a kind of Twilight Zone Craft Shows look to it (update clarification, to be fair: I am not referring to the trucks but to the various rides and fencing apparatus), it needs paint and it needs paint now. As for your under canvas carnival addictions, OK, I accept. I give. Your way not mine. And as a new Carney convert to the C&B let’s-take-a-ride! intermission, please expand the spread to include the following rides: The Whip, Tilt A Whirl, Giggle In, Fun on The Farm fun house (aka.Thimble Theatre on the old Foley & Burk lot). Give me the quaint classics and I will jump for joy. Heck, skip the last half of the show so I can have plenty of time to ride and reride them, and maybe feel born again. I’ll bet for a small donation (or say, a million free kids tickets) you could borrow the Thimble Theatre from the Circus World Museum, where it rots away in a back barn. What a coup. Get those shuffle boards rolling again and I’ll shuffle off to wherever you are, and kneel down and kiss your Hugo hush puppies, and nominate you for the Carnival Restoration Hall of Fame. Give me The Whip, please, Ms. Byrd!

Gary Dunning (Big Apple Circus): You have work do. A lot of work. Get notepad and paper.

1. Your front door is a constipated streetcar named frustration. Do you have an amateur show complex or something?. I dread having to wait in line (a la Disneyland) and then having to sludge through while two young amateurs fiddle with wands that do not make magic. I look at your bloated masthead, dozens of names for this and that — how many brains does it take to hatch a production? You have already spilled blood purging employees for murky reasons. Time to get real, slice half the staff, and offer your booted bureaucrats positions on the front door, which desperately needs bodies to move the crowds. Or hire anyone out of Hugo, Oklahoma. I still recommend Jim Judkins for the job. Crack your whip!

2. Cease and desist your blatantly misleading performance information. Since you cut 15 minutes out of the morning shows, common ethics dictate that you so indicate on your website. I searched and searched and found nothing and assumed like a sucker that you had repented since my last visit. I am sending my ticket back for a refund, false advertising the reason. Shall we meet on Judge Judy? Either my money back, or a video of Grandma singing in the rain, with or without walker or portable ventilator. How dare you omit such a talked-up item from any performance! Has BAC becomes such a sacred cow that it can moo us on and around however it pleases? Your callous disregard for properly informing prospective customers rivals that of Kenneth Feld (see below). Shame on you!

3. The Barry Lubin matter: Since you pander to Mr. Lubin’s need for rest and time off, a policy unprecedented in the circus world, I urge you to insert a slip in the program, Broadway style, whenever he is out, stating “In this morning's kiddie program, the role of Grandma, sometimes played by Barry Lubin, will be played by....”) Taking a cue from the late great David Merrick, why not hire guest celebrities to do Grandma? Madonna? Dr. Phil? Ophra? Simon Cowell? ShowBiz David? You could extend Grandma’s box office cache for another half century and make Paul Binder a very happy man, either above or below the ground.

Kenneth Feld (Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey). Your blase attitude towards ad ethics is galling, simply galling! No, I am not surprised. Let’s see, you produce a really great show, first time under the big top on American soil in over fifty years, you pitch it over Coney Island, you call it Boom A Ring. Good going, so far. So far seems to be your operating mantra. Now as to my complaint: You short circuit your impression on the public by refusing to replace the high wire act (seen here) that left in April. An act, by the way, still illustrated in your program magazine, still featured on your website video teaser. Reminds me of how you shamelessly misrepresented your Ringless Bros. 2006 outing to the public by using a video tease containing acts it did not present. Why do I complain? Your show needs more in the air to seal the deal.

Mr. Feld, Paragraph Two: This willful negligence is inexcusable, especially for a circus that treats a million bucks like chump change and had spent years building up an honored and TRUSTED reputation. Don’t fool yourself into believing the customer will not notice. What were you thinking on opening night at Coney Island, standing there next to Mayor Bloomberg and expressing faith in return summer visits? I fear this highly notable venture will come up a bust like your Kaleidoscape did, and you will pack up your toys and pull out in a pout, never having gone the distance to make it work, defaulting back to demographics and flash. Your blatant lack of ethics, I am afraid, extends the darker side of the Feld legacy.

Guy Laliberte (Cirque du Soleil): take a year off from whatever it is you are up to away from your Cirque throne (okay, I'll grant you that space ride, but get back here to earth on the next return flight), and spend a little more time watching your shows — remember the shows? You are the King, so ACT LIKE A KING. Are you out of your mind (or broke?) forsaking your signature tent show style by reducing to indoor arena drivel your earlier editions? (Note my fearful restraint in not bringing up the explosive book about you alleging a penchant for costly pleasures.) Now if those extra curricular activities are blowing your kitty up in Montreal, I'd suggest turning to Craigslist. Happy anniversary!

John Ringling North II (Kelly-Miller): At the risk of inspiring a rash (okay, a tiny trickle) of edgy e-mail smears from your loyal staff (compliments on charming them so well), I exhort you to return to your earlier, more global reach in act selection. Your seasons 1 and 2, on paper, looked more interesting, what with an Asian contortionist whom you were said to have favored, to those exciting (or so I read) African tumblers last year. Looks to me like Hugo got the best of you and you defaulted this season to the Mexican Family Plan, not, I hope, because your Master Card has maxed out. So how about making like your Uncle John and scouting foreign lands (via public transit, if that’s all you can afford) to sign exciting new “first time in Oklahoma” imports? BTW, congrats on your promotion from proprietor to producer.

John Pugh (New Cole or Old Cole or Modified Cole): My only complaint at this point is the elusive contact information on your website. No phone number? The e-mail address given has for years gone nowhere. Why not more than a Deland post office box? I am sending you a letter with self-addressed stamped return envelope, hoping you will return to Coney Island next year, and hoping you will share with me the dates, which I promise not to reveal, so that I can see both yours and Mr. Feld's shows, and have myself a Brooklyn big top bonanza.

Cedric Walker (UniverSoul) I'd like to see your circus more often, and here's why I shun it. Please take that childish “It’s a black thing” chip off your shoulder and bring your show into a better Oakland. That would be Jack London Square, not that desolate mound of dirt, weeds, and freeway off ramps out by the Raider Nation Stadium in the land of nocturnal drugging and hooking. I also suggest, in advance, shelving your lame need to preach. Your plodding morality messages reached a crowd of young single women with kids in toe the morning I attended a couple of years ago, who promptly got up and ditched the tent, snubbing your accusatory sermons. Responsible dating? To the wrong crowd, already dated into hopelessness, your message fell flat. Get over it, or start touring gospel halls.

And one more thing, Mr. Walker, please ban those idiotically insulting, ear-destructive boom box speakers over the ring side seats. I fled to the upper reaches of the tent in order to spare my hearing and life. Oh, heck, it’s too good an idea to withhold, so here’s free advice: You could make a Kenneth Feld killing in your shabby concession tent pitching hearing aids to newly deaf customers on their way out. Either that, or sonic-boom proof ear plugs on their way in

Now, all of you, go take the day.

[Showbiz David, in his 2009 Circus Critic Protection Program makeover, big cage ready. Direction and photo by Boyi Yuan]

First posted July 14, 2009

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Magic of Johnny Carson Endures in Nightly Replays of The Tonight Show

Nobody who is a Johnny Carson fan will be surprised by my saying that the first half of the old Tonight Show was what pulled me in, night after night.  Like so many others, I wanted to see Johnny succeed with his latest string of jokes, knowing some would fall flat.  Knowing also that he might turn those unfunny fizzles into jokes.   He might turn his own insecurities into one-liners.  He might aim his discontent on the audience:

"When the show is over, we have an 800 number for telephone operators standing by to explain the jokes to you."

"Please don't leave during the monologue, for the seats are made of Velcro and I will hear you leaving."  Priceless self-effacing humor.

As then, still now: Each night is like a new campaign in which Johnny strives to prove his talents once more.  

I am thrilled to be watching full episodes of the Tonight Show from 1972 through Johnny's  retirement in 1992.  Best of all, at a time, 8 PM PST, when I can comfortably watch.  I could not be happier with TV these days. 

The first half hour -- Johnny and Ed

We get the monologue, a mix of jokes, some of them a reflection of American life and politics in passing.  After a break,  we usually get Johnny at the desk chatting a little with his Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon, the perfect contrast -- guffawing patronage to Carson's cool.  This exchange often leads into a comedy sketch.  I am disappointed when it does not, for they are usually quite funny.   Carson's satiric impersonations of famous figures and stock characters can border on the brilliant.

The guests arrive 

He gave us some of the best stand up comedians anywhere.  And there are many I am only now just discovering. Blame it on the one or two times I tried to watch Saturday Night Live and was left clueless to its fame for making people laugh.  Last night on Tonight, I discovered Dana Carvey, so good he should have come before the dull Christopher Reeve.  Another night, I discovered  A. Whitney Brown making hilarious fodder of American Exceptionalism.   And on Johnny's show. Carson was a  politically tolerant host.  Make 'em laugh, and they could pretty much say what they wanted.

I expected little of the guest, above, a stranger to me.  How wrong I was. Very engaging. Very funny.  With a little help perhaps from Johnny.

But the guests, indeed,were a mixed bag.  Too many were there to push a book or a movie, with little to add.  Carson will sometimes compensate with clever alibiing.  But he could not spare us the thoroughly annoying Charles Nelson Riley, nor was Bob Hope the night I saw him anything but an utter bore, and an irritating one at that with a pencil in hand, tapping it against the desk as if only he mattered. Richard Prior, preoccupied with his medical condition. was almost impossible to endure. 

The grace of it all

Beyond the humor, what is it about the man that resonates still?  They talk about Johnny's class.  Yes, of course, but for me, the word grace comes to mind. An embracing grace that pulled us in.  What surprises me, a longtime Jack Paar fan who did not fully appreciate Caron until near the end of his reign, is how damn entertaining this show is. Have I changed, for I am finding it more enjoyable than before?  Maybe because of all the other late night hosts I've wanted to like, never fully satisfied. I gave Conan O’Brien an earnest try, what was so funny about him???  Letterman and Leno may both have produced better stocked monologues.  Letterman had that mean spirit, not countered by his equally nerdy sidekick, Paul Shaffer, too much like the host.  Nice guy Leno seemed to sleep talk through his interviews.
How lucky we are to have these full Tonight Show replays.  They are showing the one-hours weeknights, the older one-and-a-half-hour programs on weekends.

Johnny Carson may have been one of the loneliest men in the world. But when the lights went down, the band struck up and Ed bellowed into his opening spiel, that gleeful man through the curtain became one of the most ingratiating TV personalities of all time.

I'm already waiting for 8 o'clock tonight.  I may skip a new episode of Big Bang Theory to see how the monologue goes. I still want him to succeed.  He did get to us, didn't he.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Monte Carlo 40th Anniversary Encores Recent Stars: Puts Gold on Gold ... Want to be Wowed by TRUE CIRCUS? Check out this Video Tease

Here's a short film packed with Gold-Medal Action.  Recent winners being featured this year.

Does Amtrak go there?  Greyhound?  I envy anybody out in the seats at this mid-January Festival, designed to put the frosting on top of the frosting. 

Not sure if they are completely bypassing a  competition.  Heck, and I had spent all year perfecting my hula hoops.

Here some pics off the Monte Carlo website of past winners. I think they will all be there.


Why David H. Lewis? The True Story Behind My Name Change

UPDATE 1.6.22  I am riposting this because of a wonderful  new comment left

The following is from the opening of one of two chapters I dropped before my book Big Top Typewriter went to press.  I came to believe that the subject of skating wandered too far off course.


Enter David Lewis

How ironic that the very first publication to accept my circus writing — The White Tops — would be the last to reject it.
            Believing the 1980s to have been an outstanding decade in big top history, I wrote an essay about its memorable attributes, “Circus in America: The New Golden Age,” and sent copies out to national magazines.  None jumped, and so I jumped back to my alma matter, sending the piece to The White Tops’ editor. He telephoned me about it, believing he might need to cut it by a third, were he to go with it, and how would I feel about that?   I replied that I was open to the idea.  
            A few weeks later, the story was returned without a cover letter.  How naked it looked inside a lonely envelope.  As cold as the editor’s cavalier rejection felt, it also felt liberating.  Suddenly I felt the freedom necessary to treat other subjects as fully as I had treated the circus.   Maybe in this way, I might now be able to achieve some success in other fields.  So I made a promise to myself, and wrote it down, that not until I realized success in writing on other subjects would I ever again write about the circus.
            So, what next? 
            Roller skating.  Why not?  If you have a problem with that, please lighten up for a few pages, for that’s where we’re going next.   Organ music, Maestro, if you please!
            I had enjoyed test and competitive roller dance from my boyhood up.  For a few years, I had taught dance and figure skating. In fact, when I received the first invitation from Able Green at Variety to write a piece for the next anniversary issue, I took his letter to Roll-O-Torium, the skating rink in San Pablo where I was then employed.  I had to show it to my boss, rink operator Betty Bendit.  She was working behind the refreshment counter when I met up with her.  She read the letter with delight, happy for my good news.  And then I skated back to the record-player booth, to announce — Couples Only!

How to Avoid Getting Stereotyped

To continue quoting from the deleted chapter: 

            Here is where my story took a sharp turn. After suffering numerous rejections of my roller skating manuscript by a multitude of book publishers, I began to wonder if they  were stereotyping me.  David Lewis Hammarstrom.  Isn't that the guy who writes circus books? Covers the subject for  Variety.                                       
             Desperation by default:  I needed a new identity, a new name, maybe shorter, yes shorter, that would make it not so easy for acquiring editors in a hasty rush to turn me down before even giving my sample chapters a decent peek.  Where have I seen that name before?  Oh yes, he writes circus books?  Oh yes, dear stereotyping editor, it’s me, and does that mean that I can’t write anything else?   
            I decided to scale back and go with my first two names.  But when discovering how many “David Lewis” authors there were out there, I added H for a middle initial.  That narrowed my name competition down to one doctor.  
            Under my  new name, I sent Roller Skating for Gold out to a small house in New Jersey, Scarecrow, that I had somehow overlooked or maybe deemed unsuitable.
            Never trust an assumption.
            From the very first publisher to receive samples chapters of Roller Skating for Gold by David H. Lewis — Drum rolls and trumpets!  — came …
            A phone call of interest ... A few months later, a contract!

I could thank veteran Macmillan sports editor David Biesel for that.  A true gentleman, and one of the best editors I would ever work with.  Dave was then turning out a series, American Sports History, for Scarecrow.   Did somebody say that timing is everything.  Or that most things happen by  accident?  I call it fate.


By the way, I still regard the 1980s as the last great decade in American circus. 
First published, circa 2016 (I think)