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

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tragedy or Renaissance? What Media Voices are Making of the Fall of Ringling -- Fake News to Fake Views ...

The last days of Ringling on earth were treated by major news outlets as almost a given, the underlying text seeming to be, well, the animals were a big problem and now the animal rights groups are celebrating a victory.  And the circus, maybe it’s outlived its universal appeal.  Ho-hum.

I wondered how this devastating chapter in American circus history would be more fully analyzed and covered in the days to come.  And as time has passed, the reactions have become either more critical of Kenneth Feld or of traditional big top entertainment as out of touch with modern culture.

And then came the so-called “experts,” some with academic credentials, the latter, a group known for befuddling the gullible with overwrought views.

Let’s start with USA Today, and with a voice from the corporate sector, calling the death of the Greatest Show on Earth “an American tragedy.”

The writer, Brad Deutser,  is a former Ringling staffer who advises companies on “how to achieve clarity, especially in times of transition, growth or crisis.”   In expressing sympathy for the Ringling shut down, Mr. Deutser advanced a number of novel claims, one being that “Ringling Bros. was the entry point for so many to begin their careers in show business.”

To begin? Really?  Surely, he did not mean their performing careers, unless he was thinking of the impressive number of young clowns tutored under Feld watch.   In fact, Ringling was the end point, the mark of having arrived for the most accomplished artists.  They would put up with having to appear simultaneously alongside other acts – just to be seen on the Big Show.  Watch the film Trapeze.

Asks Mr. Deutser,  "What will happen to the children who no longer have the Greatest Show on Earth."  Oh, paleeeze!  There are plenty of circuses out there providing the same experience.

And now comes the learned class, via a story in the Washington Times about the upcoming Smithsonian FolkLife Festival.  Whenever I see a quote, an article or book by an academic, I tend to cringe a little,  and to brace myself for runaway analysis.  Well, in college, you are taught to dig and think deep, which can lead to tortured reasoning bordering on the hallucinatory.  So, on the sunnier side of the lot, we find professor Janet Davis, at the University of Texas/Austin telling us that at this critical moment, “We're in a kind of circus renaissance in America.”

Give    me    a     break.   Upon what does she base her feel-good scenario?   Implicitly on the growing number of smaller, one-ring shows that have been springing up, most of them in and around campuses where circus arts are now being taught.

I am pleased to see these youthful manifestations of the ageless delight, but to confuse them for world class achievement — for, pardon my crude choice of words, commercial circus — is an epic reach into never never land. Sorry for my impudence,  prof, but no, I won’t be bothering to take the mid-term exam on this one.

Let’s    get     real:   The most telling reality by which we judge the appeal of any ticketed amusement is the crowd size it can attract.  And not just to a periodic season of shows lasting but a month or two a year.   Even in recent times, Ringling drew three or four thousand people per show. How many other circuses anywhere in the world can make such a claim?

Playing to  People Who Want Circus Acts, But Not the Circus

Today’s defenders of a bright new tomorrow argue that the public now wants to feel a more intimate connection to the artist. As in audience interaction.   Pyrotechnics (can you think Feld fireworks?) to them mean that your acts do not receive proper attention and respect from the audience.  Try telling this to the legions of Ringling circusgoers who have thrilled to many of  the best acts on the globe.

We have just lived through the traumatic  fall of  three major American circuses -- Ringling, Cole Bros., and Big Apple, the latter returning under new ownership.  To believe that student-oriented programs, all well meaning, can be a renaissance to the rescue is a pipe dream.

I hope the media goes a lot deeper than it has so far.  My eyes are wide open to what next some expert might have to say about the meaning of the demise of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

photos, from the top:  Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Out of This World
Wenatche Youth Circus
Big Apple Circus, 2014

Monday, June 19, 2017

America's Community Circuses to Have Their Day in the Nation’s Capital

Thank you, Smithsonian for your upcoming Folklife Festival.  In particular, the impressive calendar of  circus shows to be given by various student-oriented troupes.

Finally, I have gotten my arms around a movement that has been in the works for many years, a movement I have only paid passing attention to  — a burgeoning number of smaller circuses based in local communities, often connected to a high school or college, that provide an outlet for the young wishing to experiment with circus arts

Most of these groups will be giving shows at the Festival, from June 29 through July 9.

Although most of them are student-oriented, not all fit this category.  Some include adults and some, the occasional guest professional act.  I would not be inclined to call them fringe, or experimental, or alternative, or even youth. All somewhat constricting. Here is my own new classification, which I am adding to the list of label categories on the sidebar:  Community Circus

How does that sound?  All-inclusive?  They are not commercial circuses.  They do not go out on annual extended tours.  They feature the talents of younger performers, most of whom, far as I know, will never go on to pursue professional circus, and may have never harbored such dreams in the first place.

I am thinking of how they operate like community theatre, although most community theatres sustain longer seasons, and present productions that come close to regional.  I have seen talents in community theatre that I could see playing the parts on Broadway.  But acting, I would argue, is far easier to master than the dexterity of fine jugging, acrobatics or aerial work.  

I am thinking of the Gainesville Community Circus, that, according to the Texas State Historical Association, “began as a project of the Gainesville Little Theatre in May 1930. Bingo!  Its name makes perfect sense.

Here are the shows appearing at the festival, all presenting performances, and some demonstrations a well

Sailor Circus
Wenatchee Youth Circus
Circus Bella (from my own neighborhood -- Go, Bella!)
Circus Juventas
Circus Smirkus
Happenstance Theater Theatrical Circus
Circus Harmony
Make A Circus
Bindlestiff Family Circus
Cirque des Voixx

UniverSoul Circus


What does not make sense is the inclusion of UniverSoul Circus on the bill.  This is  clearly a commercial circus, even with any funding it may raise on the side.   Big Apple Circus technically is – or was — a non-profit, as is Circus Vargas.  But who would argue for any of these three shows belong in the  “community” class?

Is there a future for community circus?  Why not?  They rely on local funding, and have strong support from the communities they serve.   I imagine that most of the performers serve on a volunteer basis, that audiences are naturally tolerant and forgiving, given the student factor in play.

But even they have been known to face hard times.   Word is out that Circus Flora, is reportedly hurting for money, its future in doubt.

This Smithsonian Festival marks a milestone for our community circuses.

Long may they prosper!

Photos, from the top

Circus Harmony
Wenatchee Youth Circus 
Circus Jeventas
Circus Smirkus
Bindlestiff Family Circus
Sailor Circus
   Circus Bella     

Monday, June 12, 2017

Ringling Drama that Never Makes it to the Screen: Can Barnum or Lillian Leitzel Make it Happen?

P. T. Barnum, the subject of a new movie, The Greatest Showman, about his life and showmanship, due out in December,  said to be raising a “buzz” in Hollywood, some hoping it will be another La La Land.   It's a musical!  The Broadway musical,  Barnum!, gave us at least a great score from Cy Coleman.  This new treatment will put the popular Australian actor Hugh Jackman in P.T.’s scheming shoes.  Jackman made a huge name for himself when he played the role of Curly in the brilliant Brit staging of Oklahoma.  If you like Rodgers & Hammerstein, it’s a must see. 

Coleman's Barnum! had little patience with historical accuracy, turning P. T. into a skilled low wire walker in order to symbolize the many gambles he took -- reaping acclaim from Tom Thumb to Jenny Lind, and then, in concert with James A. Bailey, the first three-ring circus, brought out by the partners in 1881. They called it The Greatest Show on Earth.  You may have heard, it recently bit the dust.

And so the idea of another Barnum musical disappoints me to a degree.  Such amusements  tend to place comedy over drama. I am still waiting for a great American circus film -- that is, a tautly dramatic one.

Now comes, also, another big top flick currently in production at Warner,  Queen of the Air, this one based upon the 2013 novel of the same name, about the lives of  1920s Ringling stars Lillian Leitzel and Alfredo Codona.  Margot Robbie, above, to play the tempestuous aerialist.  Here, the producers and writers have a chance to dig deep into tragedy, and as deep into circus atmosphere and conflict serving as a compelling context.  Can you think of a famous circus showman of the period whose life in the end was just as tragic?  Hint: think brothers.

Here is my Big Question:  How does a film maker, in dealing with that circus and that time period, recreate this:

In its favor, Warner is behind it.  Another promising sign is the film's producer,  Andrew Lazaar, who handled Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.   This gives me hope for high drama.  There was plenty of that in and around the Ringling big top when Leitzel and Codona flew.  I'm hoping for the kind of  movie that can capture the epic atmosphere of the circus then, while daring to plumb the depths of Letizel and Codona story.

And so I wonder: Will either of these movies evoke the American circus in, let's say, Masterpiece Theatre fashion?

From other entertainment forms have come classic films. Ballet gave us, for example.The Red Shoes; movie making, Day of the Locust and Sunset Boulevard, to name a few.  So has  television (think Good Night and Good Luck, think Quiz Show).

Will the circus ever deliver, dramatically?  Other than the great flick, Trapeze, in my estimation a genuinely fine movie  --and, you might argue, Disney's long-ago Toby Tyler -- what has Hollywood given us?   Recently, it gave us the wretchedly sadistic, historically dubious, Water for Elephants (60% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Once again, I’m waiting for the Big One on screen.  And this time, please, hold the songs.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

America's Got Circus, Too! ... Rooster at Xylophone Rocks First Frame of Simon Cowell's Talent Show

Barnyard Showstopper Sends America's Got Talent into Early Orbit

Back opening another season of America's Got Talent, first act to hit the stage, Jokgu the Chicken, peeked out an impeccably precise God Bless America (I think that was the song codified on the farm).  And God bless the egg crops, too!

Never have I seen so accomplished a critter at a keyboard.

Simon and co-Judges were brought to their giddy feet. "This is historic!" proclaimed Simon.  And what Simon says is what Simon goes.  

The quirky act made me wonder if Jenny Vidbel had a hand --- or paw --- in it.

First show on the new season came out of the gate like a Big Apple Charivari  with series of CIRCUS ACTS flashing across the screen.  Oh, how I love these fearless judges, all returning from last season. They have a keen taste for the down-and-real sawdust scene.  And aren't afraid to show it.