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

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?