Saturday, March 25, 2017

Ringling's Two Darkest Hours Recalled in New Book

The Last Ringling big top, Pittsburgh, PA, 1956
The sudden closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, its final performance scheduled for May on Long Island, will mark one of the two darkest turning points in Ringling history, both recalled by Showbiz David in his new book, Big Top Typewriter: My Inside Adventures through The World of Circus, due out this spring.

Never could he have imagined, says the author, that there would come a day without the Greatest Show on Earth.

“I expected Ringling to be the last circus standing.  Circus owner Kenneth Feld is a multi-billionaire, and the Feld family, who have a genius for adaptation and change, have long prided themselves on being stewards of the famed Ringling legacy.”  The late Irvin Feld, father of Kenneth, above, bought the circus fifty years ago, this November.

For the most part, public response to the news, noted the author, has been “surprisingly indifferent,” with the loudest voices coming from animal rights activists claiming a major victory.    But audiences have changed.  “Americans once flocked to big tops for guilt-free amusement. Now, their minds are weighed down with conflicting issues about traditional circus staples, from clowns to animals." 

The other traumatic Ringling season, recounted in the early chapters of Showbiz David's  new book, occurred in 1956, when John Ringling North struck the big top for good.  “The public and press went into mourning, reacting as if the circus had died forever. North was reviled as ‘the executioner’ – the man who killed Santa Claus. But he did not send the circus into the history books, only into arenas.”

Then a young boy, David, who had seen the Ringling circus under its big top but only once, the year before,  poured out his grief in a letter to the minority Ringling stockholders, after they launched a national PR campaign to bring back the big top.  One of them, Stuart Lancaster, called him from Sarasota, to float the idea of his being hired to serve as a young
person’s Spokesman.  But nothing came of the offer, or of the Lancaster lawsuit against North.

For a spell, the heart-broken young letter writer thought of himself as David Ringling Lancaster.  “Another short-lived thrill that left me equally distraught.”
Coming to Amazon on World Circus Day, April 15.           

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Big Top Bits: Melha Shrine on Elephants Return ... Montreal Disdain on Animal acts ... Don Stacey on Monte Carlo Highlights ... Paul Binder ’s Silence on New Big Apple Circus Owners ...

 And you thought the elephants were on their way out?

Not so fast.

Come early May up West Springfield, Mass way,  Melha Shriners to bring back the Big Foots, after going only one year without them and suffering a big loss in patronage. Make that over 25% fewer spectators, not to mention those who demanded refunds after learning program had no animals.

Cheering applause, please, for Melah’s fearless circus chairman, Al Zippen, our stand-in Barnum for the moment.  He telling AP that, minus performing pachyderms, the 2016 show suffered its first loss in its 75 year history.   What the public was offered instead, something with a theme called  “circus with a purpose,“ apparently purposed itself into irrelevance.   When will the classroom be once and for all run off the lot?

Six thousand five hundred fewer ticket buyers last year helped bring them to their sawdust senses.  “The first year we lost money,” said Zippne.  “We went in the hole,” to the tune of $65,000.

What gives the story legs is that the Shriners are behind it.  And as one Temple goes, so, too, may others in time.  Know why?  I think it’s adults wanting their children to be exposed to the magical inspiration of how animals can be taught to interact with human kind and with each other.

Montreal mouthing off again: Nothing like being lectured to in times of storm and stress by the poohbahs of the age of big top enlightenment. In this scintillating instance, allow me to quote Cavalia’s founder Normand Latourelle, on the subject that dares not speak its name in the sacred environs of all-human circus land to the North.  Speaking with Craig’s Chicago Business,  claimed Latourelle, “To get elephants and lions and tigers to perform, you have to abuse them ... You have to train them using fear, with whips.  So they are always either chained or caged or scared.”

Compared to which, of course Latourelle’s pampered horses enjoy, it would appear, Waldorf-Astoria stables.  In the words of the reporter taking it all down, they spend only  “half the performance unencumbered by saddles, riders, bits or reins.” Might their employment package also include a daily massage and coiffure?  And, per chance, do they also enjoy the right to put in for time off?  To have final say in contract renewals?  I can’t help but wondering what sort of hidden hypocrisy might lurk behind such precious self-superiority.

Onto the sanity, the courage and the greatness of Monte Carlo’s embracement of World circus: UK’s  Don Stacey, with little patience for a few ho-hum entries on this year’s bill, yet has ample accolades to offer the stand-outs, he sharing his sharply discriminating views on the latest festival from Monaco in Circus Report, in a three-installment, of which the first two have been printed: Among some of his favorites, from part 2:

* From Russia’s Trussin teeterboard troupe, one member turning a quintuple somersault onto a mattress, another, a triple on one stilt!
 * The Quebecois couple of Alexandre and Emilie with a “thrilling aerial cradle number.”
* A Swiss group, The Holmikers, on parallel bars with “superb comedy acrobatics.” In Stacey’s opinion, a Gold should have been theirs.  Only a Bronze would it be.
 * Upside down walker Alex Michale, from Brazil, among a few acts winning standing ovations.
* A Noah's Ark from Circus Charles Knie, presented by Marek Jama contained — how this tickles me to read — Camels, Llamas, a Kangaroo, four zebras, and "five horned beasts of burden comprised of a zebu (what’s that?) Watsui, and a Hungarian cow.”

I envy anybody who can make it over there in the bitter cold of winter.

Paging Paul Binder!  Is he anywhere in the tent?  I’ve been following Paul’s’ blog, to see what he has to say about the sale of the show he founded. About those who bought it in bankruptcy.    Hoping to learn that he and Michael Christensen may play a central role on the artistic end.  So far, only silence on Paul’s blog.  I think the new owners risk a precarious road ahead if try a radical break from well-established Big Apple Circus traditions and the company’s special relationship with New Yorkers.   What does this show really need?  Tight budgetary control of the kind I doubt it has ever had, even if this means giving up the Lincoln Center date.

END RINGERS: Circus Historical Society holding its 2017 convention in July in DC, part of the agenda to take in a Smithsonian circus themed exhibit on the National Mall ... Sarasota Ring of Fame plaques, this year, to Henry Ringling North, Dora Fostser (“Rogana”), Alen Bloom, Reggie Armour, the Pedrolas, and the horse Starless Night ... Sing to me, oh blessed pig!  That would be pot-belied Oink, with Cruzin Grump’s Pork Chop Revue at Carden International ...  Also on the Carden card, Ryan Easley’s tigers ... At the Met Museum of Art in NY through the next year, Seurat’s Circus Sideshow features two paintings and 16 drawings by the famed French artist, augmented by scores of sideshow paintings by other artists ... LATE BREAKING:  Disney World dumps Cirque du Soleil

Friday, March 10, 2017

Shocking Death of the Greatest Show on Earth: The Felds Didn’t Have to Do It ... Did Disney?

The almost incomprehensible collapse of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, under the long-term management of Kenneth Feld, he having announced that both units will shut down for good come May, may take us years to understand.

One of the most intriguing mysteries will be — why did Feld, only two days before making the announcement, roll out a national PR campaign to hype his having hired the first female ringmaster in Ringling history?  I spotted  her being interviewed on at least two major networks.

The incongruity of these events suggest a sudden disruption, either in Feld's business dealings, or in his family.  Feld and his three daughters have all been active in one or another of the company’s various other holdings — ice shows to monster truck jams.

When they pulled the elephants and came out with the icy Out of This World, Feld claimed that its tour was marked by plunging attendance, that without the elephants, far fewer people were drawn to what he had to offer.  A tricky conclusion. In fact, I had predicted, somewhat illogically, that business might rebound, now that people adverse to wild animals acts could comfortably return.  But they could not do that, not with the big cage act of Alexander Lacy (which I loved), still on the bill.

Yes, people still want the animals, as much as I do, reminding myself of the pig I saw in Out of This World, sliding in a standing position down a slide!  My friend Boyi had the same reaction when he and his finance took in the show.  Moments like those are what set circus apart, as much as do the captivating flyers on high.

So, the Out of This World test, presumably conceived to shut down the animal rights activists,  was already handicapped with Lacy's lions and tigers.  Even then, given how Mr. Feld has been able to re-invent over the years, I could see him taking  yet another turn such as, maybe, returning to a more traditional form of circus.  The hasty decision to fold the tents did not make sense.

 He could have easily merged the two units into one, and moved more economically on trucks rather than trains.  This would not be a new or unpleasant experience for  Kenneth Feld.  His  Gold Unit, on the road for about ten years, was a one ringer that traveled overland.  One of its offerings, which I saw under canvas at Coney Island, was one of the very best circuses I have seen in many years.  He proved to me that, without a doubt, he was infinitely adaptable.

So, why not now?

Other possible reasons:

* The family has a fractious history of settling conflicts in courtrooms.  Were the daughters at war with each other?  Did they not look so promising as prospective mangers to fill the father's shoes when his time was up?


* Prohibitive costs, which he has mentioned.  How in the world he could ever turn a profit with those long trains I could never understand. 

* The public stayed away, not just because of wild animals (if they did), but because of:

* High priced concessions.

* Production overkill.  Some have complained of this.  Along with the stunning visual effects the Feld teams produced, there were those overdone moments of self-loving production parades when we were being constantly reminded by a blaring ringmaster of our being at the Greatest Show on Earth.   Under it all, perhaps, an air of desperation?  Let me make one thing clear:  The Felds, true to Ringling traditions, have always given us some of the greatest acts in the world.

We can speculate forever.   I think most of us would agree that it didn’t have to happen. It would be like shutting down the Disney studios or the Broadway theatre district.

Disney may be the key. One very persuasive rumor being floated out there by a Disney follower is that, since the Disney contract with the Felds comes up for renewal next year and that Disney may be wanting to buy Feld Entertainment, Disney does not want the circus being part of a deal.  And so, might this explain for Feld's rushing to rid himself of an unattractive asset in the eyes of his suitor?
But, if that were the case, could Feld not have sold the circus to outsiders, thus preserving a future for arguably the worlds most famous big top?  Perhaps the man's ego is in play here.

According to the rumor, Disney, which sought the help of Irvin Feld in 1980 to promote its foundering ice show, would for many years give the Felds total autonomy over the creation of the icers.  But in recent years,  Disney has taken more control of the artistic end.

The circus without Ringling will live on in many forms, its enduring staples, from animals to aerialists to acrobats, too universally irresistible.

But that the Ringling banner should have been brought down so suddenly, and by a multi-billionaire with more than enough money to  revamp the circus into a more viable format, this shoots down the essence and spirit of what he conveyed so passionately to The New York Times in  November, 2015.  And yes, I love quoting this, for when I first read it, what respect it gave me for the Feld of Felds:

 “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."

So, why didn't you, Mr. Feld?


Photos, from the top:
Barnum & Bailey coined the phrase The Greatest Show on Earth in 1881
The Ringling brothers opened their first circus three years later
The two most famous American circus names were combined in 1919
John Ringling North guided the show's destinies from 1938 through 1967
Irvin Feld, on the elephant, bought the show in November, 1967
Kenneth Feld and daughters, Juliette, Nicole and Alana
One of the two Ringling trains
A Feld concession stand
Kenneth Feld, called  "Ringmaster of the Universe"  only last November by Forbes magazine, assumed complete control after his father, Irvin, died in 1984