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, February 12, 2017

Big Apple Circus's New Owners Promising Return to Show's "Original" Mission ... Rave Review for Ringling In This World ... Ramos Packs 'Em in at Opening ... An Auction for You, too, Johnny? .. Come In and Smile a Little ... Peanuts on Me ...

And a happier Sunday Morning  to you! 

At last, a ray of sunshine over our winter of discontent!  Big Apple Circus sold at auction to Sarasota- based Compass Partners.  They are said to have made a "compelling case to revive the circus performances consistent with the original Big Apple Circus mission and values (italics mine) serving family audiences in NYC and on tour, sensitive to accessibility and to differently abled audiences."

That word "original" gives me hope that they will  follow a more practical, fiscally disciplined course. And if they do, here is what to look for:  What you don't want to hear is "We saved the Lincoln Center date!"  Far too costly.  What you do want to hear is something more like:  "We saved the circus!  And we're going to open in the spring, under the big top, and spend more time in New York's city parks."

My pushy prescription for the best chance at a viable comeback: (1) The new owners should take complete control of the management end, and impose a tight control on sane affordable budgeting;   (2) they should bring back Paul Binder and Michael Christensen and hand them complete artistic control,  subject to budgetary restraints;  And (3)  what better, more celebratory way to herald the return of New York's own circus than by bringing back its most enduring symbol --- Grandma? Loved by New Yorker's,  her reinstatement would score great good will, guaranteed to boost ticket sales.  This assumes that Barry Lubin may have to accept a humbler compensation package. The days of bureaucrat bloat must come to an endBig Apple Circus has been something of a national treasure. There are many good reasons favoring its return.

Now, onto Cole Bros. Circus:  Maybe Johnny Pugh needs to put his show up for auction, too ---  at the flea market now holding court on his winter quarters. Only kidding!  I know this: If  Johnny does go back on the road and persists in presenting wild animals acts, he hasn't got a  chance in hell of making nut -- before he drives himself nuts.  Sorry, but that's a reality of trouping along the the very blue eastern seaboard.


Will the public return while there are still circuses to see?  A good omen on the Ramos Bros. lot in  Yucca Valley east of L.A, where, now down to dog acts: They opened to socko biz, customers lined up clear around the block.   Might this be a sign that reasonable, free-thinking Americans, saddened by the shocking collapse of our nation's most revered big top, will show  up in higher numbers to make a statement of support for those that remain?   That they understand the circus to be too special a tradition to lose?  Or, am I talking myself into a fit of cockeyed optimism?   

Circus Vargas's  Katya Quiroga telling the Los Angeles Times that business over the past few seasons has moved upward by between 3 and 6 percent. That about jives with what I saw when I took in the show last year.  Not a big crowd, but a bigger crowd.  I do think they make a big mistake by having no animals at all.

Remember Ringling?  Out of This World -- or I should say In This Word -- drew a qualified rave from Theoden Jane in the Charlotte Observer, full of praise for the acts, left yawning over its narrative excursions into space.  "The filler, meanwhile, I can do without. For instance, there’s a new story line pitting ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson and 'Intergalactic Queen Tatiana' against each other in a battle for circus stars and some sort of magic telescope, but while they play their parts with relish, I just couldn’t get excited about it and I saw lots of kids fidgeting during plot-heavy sections that served as breaks in the action."

A timeless magic universally shared: And then Jane wrote something so wonderfully true about the circus, let's end this happy (or happier) post on it:

"There’s one other unexpected thing I’ll miss about the circus, one other thing I noticed as I waited in line to get in, as I settled into my seat, and again as I headed to the exits after the lights came up at the end: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is  a remarkably unifying spectacle.

"Yes, on Wednesday night at uptown’s Spectrum Center, I saw something that I don’t see nearly as often as I’d like to in Charlotte: a rich mix of races, colors, religions, creeds, sexes, sexual orientations and ages — all being entertained under one roof at the same time.

"In what’s become a shockingly divisive time in our country’s history, losing a piece of popular culture that promotes so much wonder and awe among such a diverse crowd is a loss for America indeed"

Truer words were never spoken.  God save the circus!

Thursday, February 09, 2017

MIDWAY FLASH! ... MIDWAY FLASH! ... Big Apple Circus Sold at Auction to Sarasota Investment Firm

This just in from Anonymous A, directing us to the Big Apple Circus website:

The Big Apple Circus has selected a bidder – Compass Partners, L.L.C., a Sarasota, Florida based investment firm, with a bid of $1.3M – subject to the approval of the bankruptcy court, before whom we will make our case on February 14. Our choice was based on Compass Partners offering the highest bid and making a compelling case to revive the circus performances consistent with the original Big Apple Circus mission and values: serving family audiences in NYC and on tour, sensitive to accessibility and to differently abled audiences.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

It Didn't Have to Happen: The Second Rise and Final Fall of Ringling -- from John Ringling North to Kenneth Feld

First in a Series on the sudden death of the Greatest Show on Earth.

The last Ringling stand under the big top: Pittsburgh, PA, July 17, 1956

When John Ringling North struck the big top for good fifty years ago, he was, overnight, reviled as the man who killed Santa Claus -- the Executioner.  An aggrieved nation reacted as if Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had suffered a sudden death.  As if all circuses were doomed.

Nothing of the sort.  In fact, North made known that he was moving the show indoors. But to America, how could Ringling be Ringling without the big top?  It already could, each spring when it opened at Madison Square Garden, which is what it did the following spring.

Pat Valdo, left, John Ringling North and Art Concello, facing an uncertain future without the big top,  opening night a Madison Square Garden, 1957

North did not send Ringling into the history books, as has, it would appear, Kenneth Feld.  North hired back Arthur Concello to oversee a transition into arenas and other tent-less venues, such as ball parks.  But soon, other arenas sprang up in cities all over the country.  Within a few years, the Big Show had fully rebounded, by 1965 drawing rave reviews and surging crowds.

When North sold the circus to the Irvin and Israel Feld in 1967, I would come to see Irvin as one of North's best talent-scouting finds. A genius at ballyhoo who exuded a more heart felt connection to the circus and its fans, Feld's shows may have been mixed bags, but they gave us major stars, too,  like Gunther Gebel Williams and trapeze king Miguel Vazquez.  He groomed his son, Kenneth, to take over in time, and when Feld died in the mid 1980s, Kenneth proved himself, in my view, to be a more inventive and adaptable showman.  Others saw him as more ruthless and lacking the true passion for circus of his father.

Kenneth gave us some great three-rings shows in his first years, in particular the Chinese edition.   He gave us his answer to Cirque du Soleil in the ill-fated one-ring show, Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, hailed by many critics and fans as a superior option to CDS.  Declared theatre critic Clive Barnes, "This is the kind of show for which God invented the circus."  Still, Feld's showmanship, overall, could be extremely uneven, like that of his father's, from the brilliant to the banal appearing side by side. And yet, he always gave the customer some of the greatest circus acts in the world.  And he fostered spectacle of incredibly captivating special effects.   Unforgettable, for example, was the 1996 finale, Ariana, with its epic, near operatic score, complete with recorded chanting chorus, and arena-filling pageantry.  Feld's exemplary one-ring show under canvas at Coney Island, Boom a Ring, was one of the most focused and satisfying performances I have ever seen.  A versatile showman? Very.

Along the way, it seemed that Kenneth Feld became more emotionally connected to the circus.   I came to think of the Felds as steady and adaptable producers who would see the circus through the most difficult times.  Proudly, they referred to themselves as stewards of the rich Ringling legacy and traditions.  And I believed them.  The Greatest Show on Earth would always be around, how easily I believed. Even given my occasional misgivings over how some of the shows were put together or over-produced, I admired greatly the man's creative stamina.

Fast forward to 2015. Multi-billionaire Kenneth Feld retires the elephants.   The next show will be planned to compensate for their absence.  He and his three daughters put theirs head together and brainstorm through many sessions, put the circus over ice and call it Out of This World.  
But Feld made one strategic blunder by not removing the big cage act. Activists still had plenty to protest.   What was he thinking?  The new show did not do well, but I had no fear.  After all, these were the Felds.  They will try something different, that’s how they operate.  They had gone from three rings to one, and one of the units, the Gold, had traveled not by train but by truck.

But they didn’t pivot as I had expected.  As if, suddenly, everything  around them was unraveling into doubt, dismay, and defeat, only two days after rolling out a PR campaign for the first female ringmaster in the show’s history, On January 12,  Feld delivered a shocker: Blaming plunging attendance on the absence of the elephants, he announced that he was closing both units of the circus in May.  The end of the sawdust trail for Ringling-Barnum was at hand.  I was stunned.  So many things about what we were told did not make sense.  The Felds were effectively removing themselves completely from the big top scene.  I could not believe what I was witnessing -- the sudden death of the Greatest Show on Earth.   All of which brings us to this.

Back in December, 2015, Kenneth Feld told the New York Times:

“The circus has changed over the years.  There’s no entertainment that’s been around for this long that you could name.  We’re older than baseball.  We’re older than Coca Cola.  I don’t know how many times it’s been re-imagined, reinvented, but I know we’ve probably done it six, eight times.  We’re going to do it again without the elephants in a whole different way.  Then we’re going to do it again and we’re going to do it again and we’re going to do it again."

Do you feel a bit betrayed?

I do.

Next:  The Disney Factor