Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Life Without the Big One: In a New Post-Ringling Age, Why Ringling Still Matters ... Splintering Circus Arts Seek Salvation in Offbeat Venues

The season about to end began on a date that will live in big top infamy: January 14, 2017.  On that day, Kenneth Feld announced that he was closing down both units of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and sending them permanently to the barn.  So, it took a multi billionaire to run Ringling off the road.   The irony astounds: A big top, and not just any big top, going down with plenty of money still in the till.  Simply incredible.  Someday, the truth behind a lame blame game may come out.  And maybe they will make a movie of it.

Just when the Brits are gearing up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of horse rider Philip Astley’s dashing  entrance into public performing — a move that would soon give rise to the modern circus — Americans are wondering if they are witnessing the death of their own.  Say it ain’t so!

Why Ringling still matters.  The show’s relative size and supremacy, compared to all other shows out there, epitomized a near-indestructible force of American culture.  A still-thriving industry.  Splashy television ads alone symbolized to millions of Americans at least the illusion of endurance. The Greatest Show on Earth  would be with us forever, promised a more passionate Kenneth Fled only a year before to The New York Times.
So disproportionately vital had Ringling-Barnum become to public perceptions of the industry’s well-being that, without it, other circuses are already suffering.

Trickle down publicity

Circus Vargas co-owner Nelson Quiroga told Alex Smith of Circus Report that, when he played in the Bay Area around the same time that Ringling was also in town, he got a good boost in ticket sales from his proximity to the Feld ad campaign.  But no longer.  “It hurts us ... Circus gets into people’s minds, somewhere, they may not even go to Ringling but it’s in their mind when they drive by and see our tent, many times, they come. This year they thought it was over.   All circuses.  So attendance dropped for a while.”

How savvy an observation. Many with a shrug dismiss the demise of  the Big Show as not all that important.  Others will pick up the slack, they assert.  That’s a mighty long and wide slack to pick up.

When I am asked if the circus is dying, my answer is always the same.  If you are asking me,  will there be jugglers and rope walkers, daring acrobats and somersaulting flyers a hundred years from now?  Of course there will.   Individually they will live on –- but in what form, I can not say.

That word “form.”   Now I am feeling corned by my use of it –  cornered into a new mediocre reality of splintering circus arts taking refuge in fragmented forms —   from concert hall to cocktail lounge, stage (Five Fingers - artsy, slow), to television  (Got Talent — good and glamorous) to cinema  (The Greatest Showman – not yet seen) 

So then, ask me, is Circus Circus in Vegas a circus?  No, it is not.  Is a night at the symphony with a few circus acts thrown  in between the woodwinds and the strings,  a circus?  No, it is not.   Neither are many other clever incarnations, however well intended.  They may contribute to whatever some future genius may do to reinstate the form essential: Acrobats on the ground and in the air; performing animals in the rings,clowny characters who are us.    Do you feel a musty antiquity in my definition?    Am I myself a purist morphing into a fossil?

Can a surgeon make it right again?

At the tail end of this painful season, by far the worst in American circus history, Anthony Mason injected a note of unequivocal optimism on CBS Saturday Morning, when he interviewed the cool and affable new Big Apple Circus boss, retired DC spinal surgeon Neil Kahanovitz, above, in the ring.  Some soft CBS reporting pointed  to declining ticket sales as having driven Big Apple Circus into bankruptcy in 2016.  Out of it, a few months later it came, under new ownership.  Big Apple Circus is back!, chirped  Mason with a confidant bounce.  But are the crowds back?   An issue not addressed.  It took the skill of a crack doctor to render it whole again, implied Mason, failing to mention ticket window health or the rather weak critical reception accorded the show when it opened last October at Lincoln Center.    

To be or not to be?

So, where are we at this moment?  There are some out there, more pessimistic than I, who believe that the nail in the coffin has already been driven. “How do you revive square dancing,” asks Anonymous.  In fact, I did not know of square dancing ever having gone  away.

Out-of-work elephant trainers may find a second career as pachyderm puppeteers

We have many new forms and venues in which to view the surviving fragments of our decimated big tops.  Contortionists and fabric aerial duos are way in.  Funny faces and four legged charmers are half way out.  Puppet pachyderms -- might puppet PETAs follow?    Most of these truncated half-circuses will invariably pass..  The stage show Circus 1903, seen above, holding court at the Paris on the Vegas strip —  expecting a very long Vegas Run — after five months is closing. 

On the screen, the new film about P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman, faced with blistering reviews from half the critics, yet  “blew away” my family relatives n Luray VA.  Audience reactions, as rated by CinemaScore, totaled a solid A.  If only its climactic scenes had allowed into the action elephants on parade, so integral to Barnum’s actual fame after he and James Bailey added a third ring in 1881 and called their concoction the Greatest Show on Earth. Instead, the pachyderms in mass are missing, and even then, PETA is back breathing fire at all parties remotely responsible, calling for a boycott of the film, blasting away at the legacy of alleged animal abuser, P.T. Barnum.

If only the film had dared to embrace the thrilling guts of Barnum’s ultimate show biz triumph.  Obviously, the producers were too afraid to face truth of what circus was then: Exotic, messy and muscular, gloriously alive with incredible death defying feats, and tense-to-inspiring  encounters between man and beast.

As we enter 2018, the most famous show biz slogan - GSOE - is now only  the subject of a recent  lawsuit by Kenneth Feld claiming trademark infringement against singer Kid Rock and Live Nation for using it.  I’ve heard others lately refer to their wares as greatest shows on earth. Me wonders with a grin:  In order to validate the value of the title in court, might the Felds have to put it back into legitimate use?  It's okay to laugh.

Bring on 2018 

A new season ahead  under new managements.  2018 will tell us how successful the new BAC owners are.  They open a “national tour,” not down in Atlanta, as Anthony Mason spun it, but in a town some 26 miles north called  Alpharetta    Pop: 63,000+ The run to last four weeks.  Long sigh.  Really?

Jim Judkins, the new owner of Kelly Miller Circus, having picked up the title from the departing House of Ringling (dogged traditionalist John Ringling North II, shot down by Illinois banning exotics), promises some kind of a new day.   We’ve been promised many a new day by others before. And we continue to believe. 

Why not?  Pray for another Astley or Barnum — or for a cool surgeon-turned-showman making it big in a second act career.

And don't give up on Johnny Pugh, who only needs 350K to put Cole Bros. Circus back on the road.  The road he wants to keep traveling may be the most practical of all.  Pray, too, for Johnny, for a well-deserved miracle.

Other than that -- HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!


Travel with Showbiz David through over fifty years of American circus history in his acclaimed new book, Big Top Typewriter: My Inside Adventures through The World of Circus

Now available on Amazon in paper and kindle.


Friday, December 15, 2017

Cicuses Under Seige: Judkins Jumps into Kelly-Miller Circus Ownership, Drops Exotic Animals ... Lane Talburt Interviews Copeland & Combs and John Kennedy Kane ...

So, shall we face the music once more and still try dancing?  That's how I started  the post, two down, that pulled in a staggering 3,358 page views in a single day — stratospheric for me.  Almost twice the previous high for traffic inside this here side show.  The postings that pull in the mostings are those that wallow in — or wallowed in,  thank you so much, Kenneth Feld —  all things Ringling. Maybe now all things Big Apple? 

On that stat-busting  post, "A Little Apple Reception," I took on the generally tepid reviews  that covered the new Big Apple Circus opening at Lincoln Center.  Since then, I don’t know how the show has been doing, but there’s some good news —  two dates on a so-called "national tour," at Alpharetta, GA, and National Harbor, DC, are now being touted with tickets for sale on the show's website. Hardly national, but it's a start!

It's been reported that the Anastiani Brothers, this not being their first time with Big Apple, recently set an all-time record for the number of flips on the risley.

Now, the subject  for today will not wow the mini multitudes who sometimes, by accident or intent,  gawk anonymously upon my banner lines, making me feel like one of the  tenters out there playing to hundreds rather than thousands.  (so now you know).  Let me alliterate:

Jomar to Judkins: The Jomar refers to the mobile home that was occupied by John Ringling North II, while traveling with his Kelly Miller Circus.  Unwilling to continue on without exotic animals -- and possibly having to subsidize the struggling operation, North threw in the towel and sold Kelly Miller to veteran big top boss, James Judkins.   The sale made a big front page interview in Circus Report. This should be interesting.

Judkins, made known  that, for a number of  long-time Kelly Miller staffers — I assume those who have clung to the show like orphans to the last foster home on earth — the time to leave is at hand.   I can think of a few names, but kindly I refrain.  Jim, who managed Carson and Barnes Circus for a number of good years, later spent an awful lot of his own money starting up his ambitiously non-traditional Circus Chimera, a kind of bargain basement Cirque du Soleil for struggling families on lower income levels.  Jim’s impressive  first season’s lineup cast a take-notice impression.  Over its decade-long struggle, Chimera slowly lost appeal with a class of people who still want some animal acts— at least, say, a few gifted dogs. I could never understand why Judkins was so puritanically self-restrained in this area.  Just as the same mindset on Circus Vargas makes no sense to me at all. AT ALL!

Among a handful of outstanding acts that appeared on Circus Chimera over the years, surely the brilliantly creative Alex Chimal is a true star.  The variably talented Chimal Family, a staple for many season, supplied plenty of engaging action.  

Jim told Circus Report of how happy he was when John and Shirley North reached out to him “to reinvigorate and reinvent the circus.”  Ah, yes, yet another reinvention.  I'm not sure he can match the best North II years,  but surely he can and must offer the customer a  better program than what John II allowed into his ring the last few hapless seasons.  Lord knows, there are plenty of top grade circus acts out there no doubt looking for work. 

The new Kelly Miller owner speaks of “developing a more precise image for the show,” of exotic animal acts being too costly to foresee including  in  2018.  Without the exotics, Judkins should find the trouping ahead much easier.

Over Talburt tanbark:   Open-minded video journalist, Lane Talburt, continues to capture on film what is going on on out there in the shaky present tense.   Best of all, he is able, in a few words, to ask big questions and then let his subjects answer without interrupting them or hording the spotlight.  Talburt is amassing a formidable canon of on-the-lot interviews with the trouping wounded , to wit a pair of recent examples:

Clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs talking about the changes they are making in an effort to avoid being fatally associated with another aspect of  our battered big tops — clown alley in greasepaint — that has fallen out of favor with the issues-driven public.  Says Ryan, “It’s an uphill battle when you start out looking like a clown.”  You, Ryan, are one smart, articulate cookie   Steve notes  how the same gags, whether executed behind or without makeup, still draw laughs.  I agree, although I might suggest a few facial marks to subtly convey —  say, a safe degree of acceptable eccentricity? ...

A Kane for all seasons:  Talburt landed a most entertaining interview with John Kennedy Kane, sometimes a ringmaster, overtimes, well, whatever the job was that fate dealt  him down the sawdust trails.   The humbly flexible Kane, who must have left his ego inside the womb before checking out, wanted to start out clowning for Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros, but, instead, was offered the flaming role of fire eater.  Quickly, he learned, and safely he burned.  Along the way, he has pitched concessions one year, blown the whistle the next.  A shame he was not kept on with Big Apple Circus.  That warm heart of his might have warmed up a tent that — recklessly speculating here — might be a little too on the coldly serious side. ...  Which reminds me, what a shame it was that another top ringmaster,  John Moss II, left Kelly Miller a few seasons back.  That was about when the program began to deteriorate ... Next stop down the Lane of Talburt: Circus Smirkus.

End Ringers,  Covington Connected:  Here comes Cirque du Soliel in another corporate contortion, this time joining forces with the NFL to supply sideline acrobatics — or eye candy.  Perhaps CDS will give those “taking the knee” a more artfully mystical execution  ...  The passing of UK circus fan, David Jamieson, who edited King Pole magazine  for many years and was involved in many aspects of the circus scene.  Such a nice fellow, who reviewed my books fairly.  Which means, he gave  one of them only a luke warm notice.  Funny how David’s face, a photo of which came through in Don's link, is so different from an image I have for years hosted in my fuzzy mind. .... The passing, too, of Pinito Del Oro,  the most mesmerizing aerialist I have ever beheld.  Something about the way she moved (like a Beetles song) while standing on a free swinging trapeze bar, especially when she drove it in concentric circles. Luckily, I first saw her under the Ringling big top. She seemed to loose herself in a kind of surreal self-hypnosis ...Those are the moments than burn circus magic in your soul forever ...

Last tickle::  When I stepped up to purchase my ticket to the first edition of Jim Judkins  Circus Chimera, ready to join ten or twelve other souls to watch the show on one very cold San Francisco night, the fellow on the other side of the glass looked awfully familiar .. who is he?  Could it be, Oh, are you  ... Yes, I know!

Herb Ueckert.

Are we still  dancing?

Anybody still there?

Now forming in my posting mind   Trapeze in Our Time.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Back Friday is THREE DOLLAR DAY at Big Top Typewriter, Now in Living Color on Kindle! ...

-- Publishers Weekly

All Color Photos in Gorgeously Gripping Color!


Hurry!  Hurry to the Amazon midway!
 $3 Sale Ends When Black Friday Ends!

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Little Apple Reception for the Big Apple Circus ... Tepid Reviews May Not Be Enough ... Can Nik and Grandma Fill the Seats?

Okay, here goes, I suppose.

Let’s face the music and still try dancing.  This morning in bed at the crack of dawn, I thought empty field in search of a circus, took to my budget tablet in hand and dug back into a current  topic on which, it seems, many of us are banking for the future of American Circus.

Were we over-banking?

I tried finding more reviews of the new for-profit Big Apple Circus.  I found a couple that read more like recycled press releases spun into bogus acclaim.  There is, front and center, the New York Times, which seems to be treating this circus like a patient on life support. But make no mistake, they’ve put out an operationally objective notice, the ambivalent reviewer granting enough hot words to build the fast-moving imagery (in streaming on-line quotes) of solid success. I said imagery, kids.

There are so few real -- or rigged -- reviews to draw from, that the BAC publicists have shrewdly made gold out of the Times review by quoting it in three bytes, the three separated by accolades, alleged or actual, from three other sources — Broadway Blog, one of the is-this-really-a-review? jobs; Time Out New York Kids, and The Wall Street Journal, except that there is no review to be found in  the WSJ, and I have dug deep.  If there were, I am sure that cyber courier Don Covington would have sent it out.

From the Times critic,  Alexis Solosky, came a subtly mixed notice that might be construed as damning them with faint praise.  She can bite, and she can sing.   “Unequivocally thrilling” she writes, of the Wallenda 7 high walk.  Those two words, as quoted on the BAC website, might pack a marketing wallop.  But, in the negative,  she’s not at all thrilled with Grandma, and she wonders if the 7-high does not fit the more intimate BAC style.  Overall, her notice leaves a feeling of something probably good enough but hardly great.    And for this, a Critics Pick from the Times?  Oh that’s right, the Grey Lady has BAC on life support.

It’s Ms. Solosky's summing up that wowed me, NOT

“Might as well take a bite.”

Might as well?

What are you trying to tell us?    You think the show is okay.  You think, if we have nothing better to do, then go?  That, in fact, is one of the meanings attached to those three lazy words.  I embarked on a major goggling blitz in an effort to avoid being accused of misquoting the quote.

In Oxford, the meaning of -- Hear Ye! -- might as well:  “Used to make an unenthusiastic suggestion”

That’s how it felt.  Mind you, I have no idea how this show would affect me.   But there are a few items that feel anti-climactic.  One is the quad, which is being reported in some quarters as if it regularly occurs. In fact, it is only attempted, and only at the night shows. And, far as I know, Ammed Tuniziani hardly ever makes it.  He did at least once.  And how stale the air feels around  this overblown hype.  We’ve already been there.  Done that.  Celebrated a milestone.  Were this to be the first quad ever, YES, do give it a ballyhoo. But it is not.  That legendary feat was accomplished when mid-air marvel Miguel Vazquez spun his way into circus history, and kept the magic spinning for over ten years.   Since then, now and then we hear the news “so and so just did it!” And then, nothing more.

Okay, is there any customer feedback on the internet?  Any Yelps?   I googled consumer reviews, only to find those leaving their hissing comments at the end of the Times review.  An avalanche of anger, just what the circus needs, right?  Either from  animal activists wanting every last dog out of the ring, or from the learned in circus affairs, pissed off at Ms. Solosky for what she dared to write, accusing her of being unqualified to appraise.   Oh, how easy it is to rile a circus fan or professional, they are so not accustomed to this. 

I wondered about Ms. Solosky, and so I dug.  And now I am  wondering if the critics of the critic would also have blasted her when she gave a warmly embracing  review to Big Apple Circus’s Grand Tour, two years back?  The upbeat notice filled me with good feelings, making me wish I had taken the tour.  Solosky’s  take on the new show leaves me unconvinced.

There is, I should fairly add, another review that seems like it could be real.  In an on-line website that nobody seems to know much about called Theatrepizzazz.com: “Fabulous acts.” But it's not quoted  on the BAC website.  Strikes me as much more credible than the one in Broadway blog.

I was finally able to  pull up the advance WSJ coverage, which came out before the show opened.  It considers a difficult road ahead for the new owners if they do go out on tour.  They claim to have  “locked” up dates in Atlanta, Baltimore and ‘DC in 2018.

A big problem, smartly advances Wayne McCary, is that outside of New York, Big Apple Circus is little known. And boy, how little known I could see, when, a few years back, a performance of the show, given before swaths of empty seats, was live-streamed into dozens of movie houses nation wide. In the multiplex where I sat, sat seven others.  In a PA house where he sat, wrote a fan, there was only one other person besides himself.  And in a small Utah town, when my brother and his wife took a chance on the show, at my suggestion, they were the only ones in the house! 
If the good flying doctor and his Sarasota partners-in-faith can bring off this revival and hit the road with gusto, I can think of another, much bigger circus name also deserving of a second act.  Can you name it?   Only a suggestion, you understand.

Might as well dream.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Big Top Batterings: BBC Asks, "Who Killed Ringling?" ... NY Critics Snub Big Apple Circus Opening .... No Animals Allowed Runs Ringling North II Off the Lot ... 350K for Cole Bros. Will Put Still-Dreaming Johnny Pugh Back on the Road ...

Update: 11//7:  The New York Times issued a rather ambivalent review today, forwarded to me by Lane Talburt, and it reads lackluster, but, amazingly, it gives the show a critics pick -- good news for the owners. I'll resume this topic  once enough time has passed for other possible reviews in the works to surface, and then discus them altogether.

Here on one of many empty or semi-empty circus lots, as I soldier on through the popcorn and lemonade pestilence battering our big tops into the trouping wounded, I have more news that’s not the greatest – to share or burden you with.   So, here it is, first draft direct:

About that headline up there, I got an e-mail from one Emily Williams, an indie producer of radio shows for the mighty BBC, asking me if I had time for a “quick chat” about “circus in America.”  Oh, how interesting, I thought, e-mailing back that I was flattered with the attention from across the Big Pond, and that such a quick chat would be fine with me – cracking that there is so little left of the American circus to chat about.

Was fun talking by phone the next day to the cheerfully inquisitive  Emily. Our chat was hardly quick, we skated over many subjects pertaining to the shocking fall of the circus arm of Feld Entertainment, she being particularly interested in its hard-to-believe ending.  When I asked her, mid way through an hour plus chat, what is your focus in this piece? Bluntly came the answer, “Who killed Ringling?” Oh, well of course, I can tell you that, and I gave her a blunt answer in two little words, and can you guess them? ...  Ms. Williams, who had taken in the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey getting lost over ice somewhere out of this world, was stymied by the complicated story line, but loved some of the same acts that I did ...  She has poked thorough the buzz of Sarasota town with tape recorder in hand, asking the same killer question to a number of the famous locals, getting in reply, everything from allusions to better circus stars in days gone by --- to anger with Kenneth Feld, seen in the photo. 

.... Emily was somewhere in France when she rang me up, and shared her delight at seeing so many circuses over there, even the smaller ones, presenting lots of animals.   When I told her — brace yourselves, kids – that any circus owner in the U.S. daring to present a single elephant on the bill is committing box office suicide, she seemed oddly perplexed. Why, she asked?  It’s the current environment over here, I tried to explain.  As for the Feld fold, she’s covered the usual suspects, such as Disney.  Even got a spinning answer from Nicole Feld, when BBC  was granted four Feld minutes for the interview.  Seems the Felds and Disney are doing just fine, and, no, Disney did not ask us to shove the circus shows in the dumpster.  Okay, Nicole.  Enough of that --  other than to say, this story will only get bigger as more people come out from behind their smiling I-love-all-circuses- faces, and start going public on what they really feel about Mr. Feld.

 The new show

Onto the Big Apple Circus saga, minus legit New York acclaim: Okay, I can’t hold back anymore on my total shock at having looked for reviews of the new, now for-profit edition at Lincoln center, and finding NONE in any of the major NY dailies ---Times, Post, or Daily News.  What in the xxx*! is going on back there?  All of the hoopla about New York’s own circus getting revived out of bankruptcy, returning to Lincoln Center, and NOTHING from the NY critics?  There is but one review, very good, in a paper I never heard of,  Theaterpizzazz.com, and so I’m waiting for more reviews before I make anything of it or any other review, if there are any more to come ...

Exotic ensemble action from foreign lands -- a critical Big Apple Circus component?  Seen here is  The Dosov Troupe from Russia,  stars of the show some years back.

So, let’s spin this critical New York snub into some conspiracy options: (1) the critics went out to the opening, last Sunday, did not like what they saw, and their pallid notices were held back by editors in deference to the pestilence that has visited BAC the last two hapless season.  (2) The critics are still waiting for comps from the new PR staff.  (3) There is bad blood between certain powers in the city and the new owners.  (4) The roller skating act.  (5) This is VERY strange.  Paul Binder, seen here, is as mum as the critics, and has been missing from his blog since Sept 1. You may recall how he lavished his passionate support on helping to save the show, raising nearly one million towards a two mil goal.   He showered words of good wishes on the new owners, upon learning of their bid being accepted.    And then, the founder and the heart and soul of BAC  went silent.   Are there unseen forces of fate conspiring to link some of these elements into a subtle campaign to thwart the new big top bosses on the lot?  Have you a clue — are any of you, in fact, still reading me? ...

His Jumbo about to be run off the lots in all of Ohio and New York State,  John Ringling North II is outta here.

No Animals, No Johnny in the seats. Leaving New York for Hugo, in a rare interview, John Ringling North II, ruing big tops without animals, told NewsOK,  "That's not the circus I grew up in and not how I want to carry on."  He put Kelly Miller up for sale, the final straw being the state of Illinois  banning elephants from the ring.  He’s since sold the show to somebody, name not spelled out when I e-mailed him my curiosity.  One lingering thought: When clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs left the show a few years back, a slow to ominous drop in North’s promising showmanship began.  But I still regret this sad end to the House of Ringling, same fateful season as when the  House of Feld gave up.   Anybody still with me deserves some feel-good news. A dream floated for another season that may never come to be.  Here comes a bright shining star of hope ...

John Pugh’s passion resurfaces.  What heart I took in the Cole Bros. Face Book page sent to me by Barry Lipton.  There, John is back on his feet, feeling the faith, hearing the distant blast of brassy trumpet and hammering drum, wanting to, somehow, someway, go back on the road again.  Don’t you just love this guy?  Says he, hoping to raise $350K in donations by the end of this month: "We deeply thank you for your kind consideration, and for helping to keep the 'Magic of the Circus' alive for children of all ages!".... Now, maybe, since Mr. Feld has removed himself from the red wagon, with all his billions to spend, he might kindly dole out a little chump change to those struggling U.S. circuses (of proven merit) fighting to face another season and carry on ...

 Here’s another idea for the nicest showman under the big top:  JOHN, CALL PAUL!   Yes, Paul, as in Binder.  Maybe he can give you some inside tips on raising funds for your goal.  The great ones never stop dreaming, and so, suddenly I tell myself, this is the perfect way to end this end-of-the-line post ... Anybody out there still reading me? Hey, without a lot to stand on (a"lot," as in a field, a path of weeds, an abandoned graveyard, a shopping mall), at least we can -- no no, I better not go there.

And that’s a wobbly wrap on this sinking spot.....Gotta get this one posted before those New York critics come through and put mud on my face.    Isn't this exciting in some odd ball way???

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

At Last, A Face on the New Big Apple Circus Boss: With a Three-Ring Resume, Turns Out He is One of Us!

American Circus on the Brink: Can This Man Make It Right Again? 

When I first heard that a spinal surgeon was among the partners, Sarasota based, who bought Big Apple Circus out of a bankruptcy auction, I took a deep skeptical sigh. Oh, really?  So, a doctor wants to dabble in circus?  Well, I guess, he is going along for the ride.

Mind you, I have a great respect for doctors. I love my doctor at Kaiser, and I am blessed with good health. But I’ve always grown anxious around medical offices, and am spooked out by all those long ugly words spelling out various conditions.

Now, as for Neil Kahanovitz, this particular surgeon --  who, by the way, has operated on three supreme court justices — turns out that he is the  partner who will run the show!  Better yet, turns out that he came up from sawdust dreams, smitten of the spangled world at the precocious of 4, when he was taken to a circus in Baltimore.  There, the clowns “terrified him” enough, that, only a  few years later, he was dreaming of becoming one himself!

In his boyhood, young Neil “devoured” every circus book he could find at the library. He painted his face funny, and, out in the backyard, at the age of 8, strung a couple of ropes to take up trapeze.  “It was absolutely fascinating.  I just found the whole thing magical.”
And how glad we are that you did, Doc.  All of this from a marvelous in-depth story by Tim Teeman in the Daily Beast.

As for the medical school idea (he was the first in the family to reach college), blame this competing ambition on his breaking an elbow, at 13, while playing hockey.  The doctors who treated the break so impressed the patient, that he wanted to become one of them, too.   And how relieved this surely  made the family.  But, no — not so fast — he was not about to jump sawdust for surgery.

The young big top fan, whose father was a bartender, joined on one summer with Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros, I'm guessing the late 1960s, as a candy butcher.  And then, a  trampoline performer was injured, and then he was given the chance to fill in, which he did, quite well, playing the comedy role.  From there he advanced to trapeze flyer. He stayed with Cole Bros. for five years.

No wonder our spinal-surgeon-turned-big-top-boss is featuring, on the same Big Apple Circus program about to premiere this Friday at Lincoln Center, arguably the two most  monumental aerial feats of all time: -- the seven-high pyramid walk on the high wire, and the quad (to be attempted) on the trapeze.

I found this neat little item about him in the Sept. 1 1975 issue of Circus Report:  "Neil Kahanovitz, an intern at Los Angeles General Hospital, spent the past year as a clown on various shows.”

See what I said up front!
And, he has something of a theatrical track record, as well.  Along the way Kahanovitz produced  plays and musicals on Broadway, on the West End, and in Chicago and Los Angeles.  He and partners want to take the circus on tour, acknowledging, however, that it will be up to crowd turnout.  They know what the bottom line is.  And may great success lead to the show, finally, coming out to California.

In his position with Big Apple, Kahanovitz started in marketing, but soon ended up on top, chairman of the board calling the shots.  Aside from my believing that the circus should skip the prohibitively expensive Lincoln Center date and go out under canvas, and under sunshine,  for spring and summer dates,  I have been impressed so far with what I’ve seen, mainly from the website.  And, for certain, with their making the best possible move by bringing back Grandma.

I  was only sorry not to have found the names of Paul and Michael, at least as honorary consultants on the production staff.  I don't know what this might mean, if anything.

How to handicap the show?  What I miss the most, on paper, is a big Chinese acrobatic troupe of the kind that often brought great exuberance to a BAC program.  What I wonder the most about is how the 7-high, born in the three-ring era, will go over in so relatively small a space.  A tad claustrophobic? 

When all is said and done, it is now up to the paying customer.   Will they like what they see enough to spread strong word of mouth?  Can Kahanovitz and partners Richard Perlman, Jim Price, and Barry Salzman revive a national treasure that is the Big Apple Circus, and fill the gaping void left by Ringling with a  big top of world class stature?  This is what the country needs.

New York is the perfect place.  P.T. Barnum opened his first circus in Brooklyn, in 1871. The Greatest Shows on Earth of Barnum & Bailey that would follow in time opened every spring at Madison Square Garden.

It's up to you, New York, New York:  The American circus community will be looking at your every move.  This may be our one last chance.  Please don't blow it. 

To read the full article in which this information appeared, link to::


Photos, from above:

Producer Neil Kahanovitz
Nik Wallenda and Grandma
The Wallendas on the high wire
Juggler Gamal Garcia Tunizian
Ringmaster Ty McFarlan

Thursday, October 19, 2017

October in Oklahoma: Hugo’s Three Big Tops End Shaky Seasons, and I’m Thinking -- Grass Beats Asphalt Any Day

Culpepper and Merriweather Circus

The end dates begin on October 23, in nearby Honey Grove, TX when the sprightly Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, possibly the least shaky of the threesome, rings in its last show of the season, and thence, only a few hours later, pulls into the  Hugo barn. The next day, at the Choctaw County Fairgrounds in Hugo, Carson and Barnes will give its final show of the six-week fall tour.  And let’s hope, in TV parlance, it’s a season end, not a “series” end ... Two days later, in Ardmore, “Bronco Johnny,” as he calls himself, presents what looks to be his last show as Kelly Miller circus owner.  And the spangled curtain will, I fear, fall forever on the House of Ringling. And the future of K-M may be perilously up in the air.  Say it ain’t so, somebody.

Carson and Barnes in the 1960s

I am ruefully moved by the chronology of it all.  (Big Apple Circus opens in New York the day following Johnny’s last stand.)  Taking refuge in my memory of favorite circus days gone by, my mind defers to the rare and difficult ground upon which  I once found Kelly Miller.  And it strikes me that, grass of any kind beats asphalt, any day.  That is, on any day there might still be a circus out there actually looking for lots over which to pitch yawning canvas and giddy banner lines. 

My one and only visit to the Kelly Miller Circus produced by John Ringling North II:  The location, Brewster, NY.   The lot had grass!  And weeds!  And rough clumps of dry mud! The ground wobbled up, and it wobbled down.  And it had half the backyard in the front yard, and over thick black cables I fearlessly trod, to reach the big top

Wonderful day, light rain parting under a sky of dancing sun and clouds, nothing to spoil the show.  A very good show, full of ingratiating spirit.   So much better than a sterile mall.  Best of all, there were PEOPLE in the tent.  A lot of PEOPLE.  These downsized days, I enter circus tents with a silent prayer to the man on high: “Please, let there be at least, say how about 250 people in the seats?  I don’t ask for much, God.”

  A circus fans's dream setting: Kelly Miller in recent years

The shopping malls were once a boon to circuses, as when Cliff Vargas drew lush crows into his tent.  The peak years, the mid 1980s.  But today, there is  nothing sadder than a circus over asphalt when so few people show up.  Add to this the gloom of a dying mall shadowing “circus day,”  of so few cars in football sized parking lots, of the tent standing next to a freeway, and you have a Circus Vargas at the Southland Mall, in Hayward, CA.  About the only place for me to catch the show during its quick sprint  through the Bay Area.    

I’ve not seen a single circus this year, and for me, that’s a first.   That show might have been Vargas, but I just can’t take the experience in that dismal location any more.  Were there a few dogs in the show, something more down to earth, I might have felt a driving emotional connection. I might have gone. 

When I told Jim Royal, once of the team of North II and Royal I,  about my visit to the Brewster lot, he wrote,  "Yes, the date in New York.  When I booked the date, it was going to be on a school practice field....large, level, and plenty of parking.  There was a last minute change and we ended up on the weird lot. That was probably the worst lot of the season for you to visit.  Oh well, even RBBB played many lousy lots when it was under canvas."

Give me grass and weed, mud on the side,if you must, okay, a little bit “lousy.”  Give me a down-to-earth experience where wizards and animals make magic in rings.   Give me the Real Circus, thank you! 

Now, here’s to those lucky enough to be close to the Hugo action:  Get thee down to “your doing fine, Oklahoma” land.   Book a flight.  Jump a Greyhound.  Ride the rails.  And enjoy the next few days.  And pray for the tents to rise once again, when a new spring blooms over old, vacant fields.

Friday, October 13, 2017

John Ringlilng North: 'SHOW IS FOR SALE"

This just received, in response to an email I sent John Ringling North II two days ago:

"Show is for sale. Several interested parties. Best Regards, Bronco Johnny."

That's all he said.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Big Top Blues, and Lane Talburt to the Rescue: Yes, I've heard the rumors about Kelly-Miller closing ...

And I've talked to Brenda Rawls about it at their Hugo headquarters.

And I've e-mailed former general manager, Jim Royal.

And I have an e-mail out to John Ringling North.

And I've taken about as much as I can take, for now, with the continuing collapse of what is left of the American circus scene.  You will maybe understand.

I think we all feel the same confounding pain.

Eventually, I will wrap this into something, I guess.

In the meantime, check out Lane Talbert's heart-warming video of his visit to Bill Martin's Big E Circus Spectacular, complete with forthcoming interviews with Martin, a classy guy, I'd say, with one of my favorite ringmasters, John Kennedy Kane (so good to see him out of the role of BAC story teller), and with Jenny Vidbell and great clown guys, Steve Copeland and  Ryan Combs (I loved the mop across face, guys).

All so accepting of what is happening, all so understanding, non vindictive about it, just doing the best they can to make the most along the shrinking sawdust horizons.

Troupers we can all be proud of.

More sometime later ...

Friday, October 06, 2017

Shell-Shocked Inside a Ken Burns Masterpiece: The Vietnnam War Marks New Highpoint in TV History

If anyone deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for anything, the names Ken Burns and Lynn Novick should be at the top of the list. 

I’ve never been a Burns fan, maybe more out of impatience, finding some of his PBS documentaries so very very long.  Here, I was resolved to give him another chance and stick to it.  And it stuck to me, so staggering is this gripping 10-part account of one of the darkest chapters in American history.  Possibly the.

Walter Cronkite, reporting from the war.

If, as is generally assumed,  Ken Burns works from a liberal bias, my litmus test for him was to see how he might address the murky issue, long debated, of what John F. Kennedy might have done had he lived. He had brought the first military advisors into the war.  How much further would he have gone?   Far from giving JFK a pass, the answer comes through with stark clarity when we see him declaring to a close advisor that the war is unwinnable, but that he is not ready to pull the troupes (which could have saved countless lives), not until after the upcoming elections.   Kennedy feared that such an action would doom his re-election hopes.

This sobering revelation lowered further my once idyllic regard for the young charismatic president from Camelot.   Sadly, I am forced to see him as only another self-serving politician like the rest of them. They all lied through their teeth. 

With this one segment,  Ken Burns gained my trust and had me for the rest of the way.

Still, the rest of the way to many Vietnamese Bay Area locals, former generals among them, felt more like a Ken Burns betrayal, they complained to the media. They feel that their valor and participation was unfairly downplayed.

There are scenes of horrifying brutality, of the heartless, chaotic slaughter of so many innocents in the battle zones, of children and mothers being mass executed by soldiers gone mad.  Of the Vietnamese at war with each other.  Of a succession of corrupt politicians (aka: American presidents) who placed careers and ego above leveling with the American people.  Shame on them all. We are taken into the heart of a particular darkness, of a civil war not our own.  There is no doubt in my mind that we went over there to fight the communists.  The Vietnamese happened to be in the way.

For, once we gave up – another revelation for me — we turned our backs on promises made to the South Vietnamese.  Heartbreaking are scenes of them waiting for American air power to counter the invasion of the Viet Cong, two years later, as they had been promised by Richard Nixon to expect.  It was part of an exit agreement.  To see them waiting patiently in vain for their long-gone protectors to return is painful. One of many moments that brought tears to my eyes.  Surely, this was not American exceptionalism on parade.

Another issue that moved me — actually enraged me as it did at the time  — was the ugly contempt shown returning Vets by young American protestors without a shred of common decency in their stoned-out heads.  How vividly I recall this  disgusting spectacle of unconscionable ingratitude.
When will we ever learn, goes the familiar song in the background – part of an inspired soundtrack of pop songs of the time, and how vividly they capture the atmosphere of those days.

My Enemy, My Friend

Many years pass.  Returning vets go back to the country to visit and reminisce, hoping to find soldiers they once fought alongside, and open, as well, to the forgiving arms of those they once opposed on the battle fields. Friend or foe then, they embrace now.  Tearing eyes radiate humanity’s noblest reach.  The perfect ending.

Such a terrible tragic waste.   Yes, when will we ever learn?

This is a monumental work of documentary art.   A shining moment for PBS, and for the giant at the helm.

Thank you, Ken Burns, and thank you, Lynn Novick.


Henry and Christine, a Chinese couple from Vietnam, lived across the hall for about four years.

How warm a presence they were: She would sometimes gently knock on my door, offering a treat of some sort. And I, likewise, would take them things.

When I learned, a few months ago, that they were moving to an independent living facility, I was crushed.   Henry needs more friends and a safe space in which to walk.  Christine flourishes, as does their son in Southern California, who manages his own computer-related firm.

I called Christine to tell her about the Vietnam War on the night it began.  Not sure if she watched, judging  by her muted reaction, nor if I will bring up the subject.  I have no idea what their lives were like during the war.  I would deem it insensitive to ask.

Their departure felt like a death in the family. It took me weeks to get over.  How I miss their sweet spirit, still.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

What Do Circus and NFL Fans Share in Common?

 Three for the knee in San Francisco: founding dissenter, Colin Kaepernick, center.

We of the big top crowd know what it is to try enjoying a circus --- just a circus --- without being distracted by animal-rights protests we are forced to pass on the midway.

Well look what's happening in another,  far more popular forum. Now,  NFL fans are starting to suffer their own new antagonist, and inside the venue, where multi-millionaire football players are turning their backs on the National Anthem to protest the plight of African Americans.

Taking the knee, as they call it. 

Ruing the current situation, one local sportscaster today remarked that the fans go to the games to enjoy a great American sport, to have a beer and savor the event in the company of friends and fellow fans.

What is not entertaining them is the invasion of these displays of disrespect -- the easy exploitation by the unhappy players,  and on their employer's time and dime, to grab and jerk around a media that lusts after such conflict.

Rush Limbaguh a few days ago: "You can't t watch the NFL anymore and just watch football."

Welcome to the tent, Rush.  Oh, how I smiled.  Oh, how I relished another PC snit-fit visiting another venue.  We of the circus community have lived with it for many trying years.
I am not a football fan, but living in ultra blue Bay Area, I can't escape the constant reporting on both local teams -- the 49ers and the Raiders, neither doing well.  Both lost today.  Can you feel my tears?

Rush reminded me of my own feelings: How I would love to go to a circus, and just watch the circus.

 No, but thanks for the offer!  Could I take a rain check?