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.