Monday, July 18, 2016

Kudos Flying High for Gaona Family Film -- 100% High in Rotten Tomatoes

Among modern day trapeze flyers, Tito Gaona was arguably, easily, the greatest showman who flew through the air.

His sly surprising last trick — after the act was over and into the net he fell, but bouncing back up high enough to land sitting upright on the fly bar — now that wowed the crowd.  And into their hearts flew Tito Tito, sealing his legendary status.

The Gaona family brought a personalized zest to the air that may have inspired others, like the flamboyant Ramon Espana who brought stardust to Circus Vargas.

Suddenly rising under the media sun,  and countering an earlier negative notice in the Hollywood Reporter, the Gaona documentary by director Tom Moore is drawing warm critical marks from Los Angeles to New York.  This may spur commercial distribution, and then I could see the film, too. 

Latest to endorse is Los Angeles Times lead film critic, Kenneth Turan:  “Made without computer-generated imagery or elaborate special effects, The Flight Fantastic will nevertheless have you doubting your eyes as you watch its action unfold ... never fails to elevate and enthrall.”

From The New York Times, writes Neil Genzlinger, “The film, propelled by archival footage and vivid recollections from the Gaonas and their admirers, moves engagingly from the early days to the spotlight years. Tito Gaona’s quest to become the first aerialist to execute a quadruple somersault in performance makes an especially compelling segment.”

Another good review appeared in The Village Voice.

Quibbles?  Turan shares a few, one being, "the film’s extended sequences showing us what the Gaonas are doing today, much of which involves teaching and passing on their knowledge to the next generations. This stuff is sweet and good-natured but it seems to come from another film entirely ... But its core of balletic trapeze footage is always gripping.”

Concedes  Genzlinger:  "Is the film a bit self-promotional? Sure, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless."

These major reviews are good news for the Moore project.  And for potential distribution.  I'm waiting to take the ride.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

60 Years After Pittsburgh

July 16, 1956: John Ringling North strikes the big top for the final time in Pittsburgh, PA, citing crippling expenses as the main reason for moving the show into arenas.

July 14, 2016: The Big Apple Circus suspends performances for lack of sufficient non-profit funding to continue.  Maybe, with luck and pluck, Paul Binder and Co. will  give up on the prohibitively expensive 3-month Lincoln Center run, and institute drastic changes leading to a far more cost-effective operation -- and still under a tent.  This is a circus of consistent striving, fair dealing with the public, and high artistic standards.

Did you witness the last performance of Ringling-Barnum under canvas? In fact, were you in this very crowd?

I feel a certain respect for the people sitting there -- the people who believed in the great American circus -- especially the boy looking almost directly at us. (enlarge the photo; he's on the right, three heads above the railing.) He could be me; he could be you. What is he feeling?

Did you watch the big top fall for the last time that sad unforgettable night? Were you a performer in the show? I keep hoping that somebody will come forward. None so far has ...

And if you weren't in Pittsburgh, where were you when you heard the news? I was at home in Santa Rosa, when it flashed across our Dumont TV screen. Perhaps the saddest day in my life....

All memories near and far are welcome on this lot ...

 A newspaper editorial cartoon, 1956

This was first posted a number of years ago. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Big Apple Circus to End Performances

I CAN'T take any more bad news after this.

From Big Apple Circus, via Don Covington:

"To every person who donated, who shared our campaign on social media, who posted their personal stories about BIG APPLE CIRCUS in blogs and on websites, and who sent us their best wishes as we managed the campaign: THANKS!
We did not reach our total goal of $2 million, and cannot commit to producing a new show in 2016-2017. But your support is being invested in delivery of Clown Care®, which will bring joy and laughter to 250,000+ hospitalized children in the year immediately ahead.
"This is an opportunity for Big Apple Circus to refocus its energy and talent on our programs that uplift the spirits and enhance the lives of children in hospitals, senior citizens in nursing homes, and others who can benefit from our unique services. Clown Care® works with 16 leading pediatric facilities across the United States and with your support can serve 250,000+ children in 2016-2017. These programs are an essential part of our mission. We believe we can keep the spirit of the Big Apple Circus alive through our Community Programs."
- Executive Director Will Maitland Weiss"

Yes, there is mud on my face for the post below, and I will have to take it.  I only hope that
Paul Binder and Big Apple can downsize and find a more economically viable way of keeping the show on the road.  They don't have to go to Lincoln Center.  There are many places where they can go.  

A sad sad day for circus in America. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Cirque's Paramour Sinking on Broadway? ... Big Apple's Do-or-Die Deadline is --- Surprise! -- Extended Yet Again ... Ringling Over Ice Lifts off in LA Tomorrow ...

And how would you like your circus, Sir?  On sawdust?  Asphalt?  Over ice?  In a night club?  With or without animals? GMO popcorn?

Photos from The New York Times 

Space Ship SS Ringling lifting off for other worlds tomorrow in Los Angeles, complete with enough assorted animals to stock an Ark. Among them, lions, tigers, dogs, pigs, a kangaroo and a donkey. Just thinking about the setting, though, I feel cold and alien, Who thinks cold when they think circus?

One thing the Felds should go after are three performing hippos — Zlat, Yana, and Aida —  getting great press out of  Russia, a land where PETA dare not go.  They really do perform!    I can imagine them having a ball sliding over Feldified ice, doing their rollovers and slippery long mounts.  Trainer Tofik Akhnudov gets little help from a hard and spiritless  soundtrack; Happier music would give this act some levity. 

Covington Connected, continued: From Don came a link to the hippo rink, above.  And from Don, too, came a drum roll for a German circus with soul.  On stage at the Wintergarten in Berlin, All Night Long is not a  half way this or that mishmash.  All of the acts,  umbrella juggling to rolla bolla and aerials exploits, executed with clean smooth precision.  Such a perfect pleasure.  All of them serenaded by crooners swaying to  R&B ballads.  "I'm a soul man,"croons one, softly in the shadows.   A nice mix for the club crowd..  We have circus and symphony.   Now, they have circus at the cabaret.

How quickly times passes by!  North and Royal, circa 2006

Royally removed from the House of Ringling?  That’s what an inside source would have me believe, reporting that the departure from Kelly Miller of James Royal was hastened by John Ringling North II, for whatever the reason (bum business?) making the call.  James and Johnny were good fiends, and paired up when North gambled some retirement years and money on his acquisition of the Kelly Miller title, nearly ten years ago.  James called himself John’s Art Concello.  True to life, Royal would split from North, as Concello would split from his own North.  The Rawls appear to be handling the front end in Hugo. Jim is now working for Cullpepper and Merriweather.

Big Apple Circus calls its own beggar's bluff:   First, they cried: Unless you, the people, give us $2 million by the end of June, the show will not go on, period. End of story.  End of Big Apple.  Oh, sure, Paul! And I even got pulled into the act when The Observer interviewed me on the matter and used only my quotes about all circuses having a hell of a time.  Then, that do-or-die deadline got extended by a week.  Now, another extension, with allusions to various “other” funding sources in the works.  It’s all a charade that Paul Binder has played well over the years, with a little help from the New York press.  At past points of peril, the company got bailed out by — if I have this right — Kenneth Feld, Cirque du Soleil, and even, are you ready, Donald Trump.  Remember the Trump Tent?  BTW: I think Sir Trump could be another Barnum if he got the circus bug -- or gets bored in the White House.

Why Paul Binder should unfreeze his insane addiction to playing Lincoln Center:  Rental alone costs him half a million.  This bloated non-profit should  be forced to truly downsize, forced into a budget favoring saner options, like, say, a normal spring and summer season on more affordable lots.  Is Prospect Park still there?

Haven't I seen these Cirque amphibians in every other Cirque show?

Another Cirque bomb on Broadway?  The show’s curiously under-scripted Paramour, which opened to scathing reviews at the Broadway Theatre, took the biggest one week box office drop among shows that suffered declining patronage last week:  Down by 17% to an average house of 60.5%.  Under normal, non funded big tops, a show that averages half houses can stay at least solvent. On Broadway, under 70% too long, and your fate is likely sealed.

When Ringling lifts off  tomorrow in LA — it will be only two days short of 70 years since July 16, 1956, when Ringling gave up the big top for good.  Will this latest turn (sans elephants) revive the bigger crowds?  It certainly sounds like an attractive novelty that may reboot box office.  If you go, take a blanket and snow cap.  And think of those three Russian hippos — were they out there on the ice making the whole thing seem positively arctic primal.

About King Cole:  I'll say this, thank God that Dick Garden did not get his hands on the name Cole Bros. Circus of Stars.  There are, from what I have learned, many sad personal stories behind this latest episode, of trusting and faithful long-time Cole employees being left in the lurch and losing out big, one filing for bankruptcy.  I can only hope, as I know many others will, that yet another day will come for Cole Bros. Circus.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

The Morning-After-the-Interview Blues: Why Did I Talk to That Reporter from the New York Observer about the Big Apple Circus Facing Final Curtain?

Update, 7/5/16  10:30 am PST:
Concerning my quote, a rough estimate, on declining attendance at American circuses, I sent a copy of this post to Josh Keefe, and he graciously responded: "Our thinking was that such a large range makes it pretty clear the number is not a hard fact, but instead an estimate."  Nonetheless, he agreed to add the word "estimated."
Thanks, Josh, and kudos for pressing Big Apple Circus on their own attendance figures.


I have a bitter morning after taste in my mouth.

Call it Interviewee's Remorse.

I am talking about the New York Observer's Josh Keefe having e-mailed me a few days ago, hoping to speak with me about a story he was working on concerning the Big Apple Circus and its desperate bid for sufficient donations to save the upcoming season. 

I sent him my number, he called me and we had a wonderful, far-from-rushed  conversation about Big Apple, about circus in general and about how the animal rights movements and Cirque du Soliel have impacted on public taste.  I followed his lead, and let his questions direct the dialogue.

On Big Apple, I pushed the notion that a key question reporters seem not to have been raising is actual attendance.  Can the people running BAC still actually bring in a decent sized crowd?

Botching a Nationwide Screen Test

For a stunning piece of anecdotal evidence, I recounted for  Keefe the show’s live streaming  of a performance (one of its weakest editions in years) into dozens of movie houses back in November, 2014.  The performance that day, in fact, appeared to have been shockingly ill-attended, with swaths of empty chairs.  It so bothered my brother Dick, who enjoyed the streaming in a Utah movie house with one other person -- his wife, that he told me: “You’re watching a loser.” I addressed this with Keefe, wondering why somebody at BAC could not have been able to round up a full tent, even if they had to give it away?  

He sounded surprised to learn of this ill-fated affair.

In Keefe's Observer piece, published yesterday, he does appear to have pressed BAC for an answer on attendance, for he reports that current executive director Will Maitland Weiss “insists that Big Apple Circus attendance has stayed steady at about 1,000 guests a show ... in recent years.”   What Keefe does not inform the reader is that the Big Apple tent seats 1,700.

Even the “1,000 guests” figure is questioned by a highly reliable inside source, well familiar with BAC operations, who wrote me, “that may be optimistic.”
Excuse Maker to the Unforeseen Rescue

So out of the interview, what did I end up getting quoted as saying about Big Apple Circus itself?   NOTHING.   And I am left with a feeling  of having been (misleadingly?) used to set up a sympathetic context for what Binder and Co are up against:   Here are my two quotes, both concerning the American circus in general:

There’s a declining appetite for the circus on the part of the American people.”
Ok, I said that.  That’s how it seems to me.

 “Circus attendance is down 30 to 50 percent from where it was 20 years."

The sounds awfully factual to me.  In fact, I went out of my way to begin my answer with, “It is my sense, my best guess, that circus attendance is down 30 to 50 percent.”

What Nobody Knows About Any Circus

I had spent much time explaining to Keefe the difficulty in addressing the subject of ticket sale trends at the red wagon over the years.  There is no tracking systems for circus attendance as there is for TV and the movies, pop record sales and Broadway, etc. And so we are left to speculate in the dark, forever.

Why did the reporter not correctly characterize my answer as, “in his estimation.”?

Perhaps negligence on his part.  Perhaps not.

Was I used?  I feel like I was used – merely to supply the sympathetic context.  And that’s the New York media working overtime for Big Apple.

Twelfth Hour Donor Hiding  in the Wings?

Paul Binder, master New York city fund raiser (who probably already has a default savior up his sleeve -- just in case), may bring it off again.  And then what?  They are talking of touring the show indoors, and does that warm the imagination.  The entire BAC experience would be destroyed over night.

Whatever happens, this feels like a very slow, very drawn out funeral.  All of the lavish corporate sugar daddy funding may be drying up.

Of course, Paul and Michael could go back to square one, buy themselves a smaller tent and put on a show right there in their own back yard -- at Prospect Park!

Friday, July 01, 2016

Look at All The People in Those Kelly Miller Seats! Let's Talk Happy Rings. Let's Talk Anything but Big Apple Circus -- or the Circus Previously Known as Cole Bros.

Good Morning, Friday!  

What a cheerful discovery -- a photo of a tent show with most of the seats apparently occupied by real live customers!  We're at Kelly Miller.

This I found while searching their website.  This, the seats full, I almost never see -- not under a tent, nor in a  building.

There has been so much depressing news lately, King Cole to Big Apple, that I feel such affection for those folks in the seats.

Another cheerful Kelly Miller discovery, and possibly a reason for the two full houses that day in West Millford, is a somewhat expanded lineup.  The website  now lists a more engagingly organized program than the one it showed not that long ago.

Some elements that please -- on paper at least:

Instead of opening with a solo for clown Fajolino, now the entire company comes on in ensemble action.   Always the ideal opener for a one ring campaign

Like the idea of the next act lifting off into the air -- Fridman Torales & partner on a bike up an inclined wire.

Program looks a little more airborne, what with, besides Torales, the returning Mongolian aerial duo of Mendee & Zaya; a single trap turn from Kimberly Souren,  and the North Starlets.

As good a surprise as the chivari opener is another equally impressive insertion: the return of "Human Volcano" Lamount. This remarkable fire manipulating showman ends the show.

Some items put smile on my faces:  "The Mule Whisperer," "Barnyard Belle and her Comical Critters," "World's Smallest Zebra,"as well as comedy entries from Faljolinio

Ace juggler Nicolas Souren is on his third tour with KM.  Too many returnees?   There's not a face in the company new to Kelly Miller.  And that  might be the biggest drawback.   

Production number is Happy HoedownJohn Ringling North II has often worked a few acts into a quite charming stream of action, usually his most artful imprint on the program.

Best of all, North has brought back about the most astonishing solo elephant act I've ever seen -- Anna Louise, whose animated dancing is so near-human as to feel like an act of magic. 

I'm guessing the program may give off a warm whimsical edge, what with its quirky four-legged charmers and its clown Fajolinio, who looks like he was born with a funny face.  But am I spinning, good grief? These impressions are based upon my studying the lineup.  I feel envious of those who will get to see the show. 


And hopeful that there will be more photos like these showing the seats filled.

Something to feel good about!  

END RINGERS:  To my great surprise, gone from the company is founding manager, James Royal.  I'm told he now works for another Hugo-based show, Culpepper & Merriweather.  Wonder whatever brought this separation about?  Johnny II said to still be spending much time on the show.  I'm guessing that maybe the Rawls are handling the front end.  What is fairly certain is that business last year was ominously down.  Pray for more photos showing more bodies in the seats.