The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp

The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp
Currently Reigning Champion at 4-1/2 Stars, Zoppe Family Circus Wins the Crowds with Heart-Warming Tradition

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Circus in the Year 1, AR (after Ringling): Wild Animal Acts Banned in New Jersey ... Big Apple Circus Panned for Lacking "Heart and Story Telling" ... What Next — House Arrest for Hazardous Hula Hopping? Check Your Sanity at the Marquee ..

Were I sill penning articles on circus for Variety’s annual anniversary issue – a long-gone tradition –  what a ball I would have on this one, though in a form much different from what follows.

Canine charisma at the Big Apple Circus.
    FEELING LITTLE DESIRE to post an end-of-the-year looking back piece —  what is there to look back upon over a landscape as baron as Germany after the war?  Without Ringling and without Cole,  that’s how it feels to me.  And so, I came close to  not posting at all, but then by luck, I stumbled onto a remarkably contrary review by April Stamm in Broadway Blog of the new  Big Apple Circus. I had a hook in.  Ms. Stamm stakes out her position thus:

   “IN THE MIDST OF ALL the trapeze, acrobatic, and clowning fever [in Manhattan] you’d think that an actual circus in its 41st performing year would at the pinnacle of the trend.”  She found this not to be the case, describing the Big Apple acts as executing cleanly but lacking  “an apparent degree of difficulty ... The juggling came out without a hitch but wasn’t gasp worthy.”  Most of all, what she found missing was “heart and storytelling.” She talks up acts in the more experimental troupes that  “craft not only a well-told story, but also explore emotions and relationships."
   OH, GOOD GRIEF!  They are now in our faces -- fringe circus advocates no longer hoping for but now nearly demanding equal time for theatre. That word equal. I have seen plenty of legit critics disparaging artsy allusions to narrative by Cirque du Soleil and others of its ilk.  Virtually none of them took story telling to task other than to wish it wasn’t there.

 Solid thrills from the returning Tunizianis.

    HOWEVER, WHEN STAMM points to groups like 7 Fingers as examples of pushing boundaries,  I can and have to appreciate her point of reference —  a little.  In fact, at the last visit I paid to 7 Fingers, I was swept away by at least two absolutely terrific acts on the bill, one from Alexandra Royer on pole vaulting (I’d never seen anything like it); the other, Ugo Dario and Maxim Laurin deftly working off  a single teeterboard.  Both flat out thrilling.  If only there had been more of this, and a lot less of the humanizing angle.  Really, I don’t care to know what a juggler has for breakfast.

    HOLDING THE VERY opposite view of the Big Apple Circus is Michale Sommers of The New York Stage, writing, “This seasons’ theme-free program wastes no time on presenting extraneous fiddle-faddle and simply gets on with the show ...keenly talented artists.”

   WITH A SHARP EYE for nuance, Alexis Soloski of The New York Times clearly enjoyed this year’s show more than she did last year’s.  Even then, her notice leaks  telling qualms that give some credence to Ms. Shamm’s own regrets.  The show, wrote smith, is  “high flying, but also more low key ..... The marquee acts are fewer.” The horizontal juggling: “visually ravishing  --- but unastounding.” Upright ladders: “astounding discipline, but isn’t much to look at until he adds a soccer ball.”  Curiously, Ms. Soloski believes  that the public expects flying trapeze acts to perform without safety nets, which they never do.  She writes,  " I’ve always found the alternative too stressful."  Indeed!

Failing to impress:  New ringmaster Stephanie Monseu

    OVERALL, THE IMPRESSION  I glean from various reviews is that Jenny Vidbel’s potbellied pig is the star, clowning is weak, new ringmaster Stephanie Monseu, with little to do, is rendered ineffectual, and most of the acts are moderately entertaining, with a few thrills on the side. And Grandma is still missed.
    COCKTAILS AND COTTON CANDY: The revamped Big Apple Circus website, in gorgeous yellow, opens, not with a tease of those acts, but  with snazzy videos of customers meeting the cast in a cool-looking VIP Tent, and dining at cozy tables.  Booze is now on the bill.. Streaming excerpts from reviews draw on last year’s as well as, shamefully, still including bogus excerpts from a Wall Street Journal review that never was. The ruthless fabrication quotes from a pre-opening Journal story last year quoting BAC describing its own show!   Astonishing. 
Above, the Journal story on October 26, 2017, interviewing Big Apple Circus on its new show, three days ahead of the opening.   Notice "Big Apple Circus says ..."

Below, the quotes as turned into a bogus Journal review of the show, on its website.

    HOW CORRUPT to the core might this new Apple be? Another matter emboldening my question is a lawsuit alleging breech of contract against new Big Apple Circus owners, Compass Partners, filed by Larry and Rita Solheim.  As reported October 15 in the New York Law Journal, the Solheim’s claim they were instrumental in persuading the old Big Circus board to sell to Compass.  The new group promised the Solheim’s key executive positions on the show (Solehim had been VP and general manager of BAC since 2015), but they were gradually pushed aside, and then fired.   I’ll have more on this ahead.

A RESPECTED NEWSPAPER allowing its reporting to be so corrupted?  Kids, let me lay it out plain as A B C:   Look up there ---The Big Apple Circus is conning the public into believing that the Wall Street Journal filed a rave review of the show.  Not just last year, but this year, too.  I have never witnessed such fraudulent advertising.  I doubt that even P.T. Barnum would have stooped this low.  But as for the Journal apparently condoning itThat's the bigger story. 

    END RINGERS: The other significant milestone in 2018 is New Jersey being the first state to ban all wild animal acts, and were any of us not ready for that? ...  Paul Binder, now hanging out on Facebook, but going circusless, seems to be banning himself from posting anything about the circus he founded – or any others --and I can only wonder why Paul is so mum, and stay mum myself ... Another inactive impresario,  Guy Laliberte, maybe angling for a way way back into artistic control of  the Cirque du Soleil he co-founded and brilliantly developed, telling  The Canadian Press he is always always involved in "creative thinking" within the company ... And yet another retired big top tycoon, Kenneth Feld, riding high on his new Monster Jam roller coaster, pitching it to theme parks.

   BINDER, FELD, LALIBERTE: What if, just what if, all three of them were to suddenly spring back into action?    Can      you     imagine?


Thursday, December 13, 2018

In Other Rings: Channeling Bette Davis in Song and Dance

 A narrow face in the crowd: My fifteen minutes in the movies

I'm writing a musical inspired by the making of the Bette Davis movie, Storm Center.

Opening scene finds the cast at Union Station, L.A. about to board a train for Santa Rosa, where the film will be shot.

Bette Davis, high on getting another role during a difficult time in career, is talking it up to Hedda Hopper, and Hopper asks her to share her philosophy of acting.

To answer the question for Bette in a lyric,  I googled up many of her quotes.  One of them in particular shows marked enthusiasm, and I worked it into a line.  Guess which line?

This much is clear:
They're gonna get me
I go for broke in every role
Goddess or tramp,
I'm bigger than life --
That's my goal

I think it's pretty obvious.  In Santa Rosa, when they shot scenes at and around the library, I was lucky to be there one night as an extra in an exterior crowd scene. So was my Mom.  I could not remember ever seeing the film when it came out -- critically dismissed, it suffered a quiet and short-lived  fate.  When I finally got a copy of  Storm Center off  TCM I slow-forwarded through the scene many times, and finally found my mug in the crowd!

My most memorable moment observing Bette Davis was one quiet afternoon along Fourth Street.   I noticed a black Cadillac purring slowly up the street, towards the library.  In the back seat sat the aging diva, perfectly composed, eyes straight ahead, as if  on her way to an opening at Grauman's Chinese theatre in Hollywood amidst idolizing crowds.

Except, on that  afternoon, the only person looking at the figure in the back seat was me.

Bigger than life!

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Morning Midway: Circus Bella Looks Teeerrrific in You Tube Tease ...

Just when I thought life support for big tops does not inspire, I discovered A CAPTIVATING You Tube sampler of action under Circus Bella's first little, very classy big top on Treasure Island. Heck, if it was not so damn difficult to get over there --- a bus from Oakland to San Francisco,  another bus  back in reverse to the enchanted Island -- I might go.  I know I'd sooner go to Bella than to Cirque's Volta.

This floating island (that's how it feels to me) hosted the San Francisco World's Fair of 1939, many seasons later, Circus Vargas.  Some non-circus friends and I went over there and saw a good Vargas show.  And during intermission, the three of us (all, technically speaking, adults) took the elephant ride!  (OK, there was a romantic element to it.)

The Bella sampler (2:25 min), colossal caveat here, is of course selective, but I did not expect to see them expand and blossom into something so much more than what they were.  And it pulled me into its fast-moving magic much more than did Big Apple Circus's video tease last year.

The snappy Bella band is a friendly charmer. LIVE music.

The small though bright tent bears the stately shapes of modern styling.  And, inside, I saw a good crowd of people in the seats.

My only ominous wonderment:  How they can pull in crowds on such steep prices --- $39.00 to  150.00

Go, Bella, go!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Travel Back From the Beginning ...

Fanfare from The House of Ringling

"A book I enjoyed to no end.
What memories it brings back."
-- John Ringling North II 


Television was first covered in 1928, 20 years before it became a national reality.

"A treasure trove of early day TV programing"
Watching the magic box in its inaugural 1948 season.

Lucy and Ethel on top of the TV world in I Love Lucy.

"Rare, hitherto-unseen images"
Outrageous charmer: Liberace dazzles Americans with keyboard virtuosity.

Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on The Honeymooners.

 Elvis Presley shakes up the Ed Sullivan Show. 


 Jack Paar, cutting it up with Judy Garland, kept the nation wide awake, late night

Rodgers and Hammerstein created Cinderella for television, seen by 107 million viewers.

 "A celebration of 1950s TV"

Westerns dominated TV screens through the late1950s.  The cast of Gunsmoke.

Eddie, left, and John Glen, on Name That Tune, discuss the Russian launch of Sputnik into space only three hours after it happened, in 1958.

"Captures the flavor of the times"

The "Kitchen Debate" in Moscow, 1959, between Richard Nixon, right, and Nikita Khrushchev, seen on Face the Nation.
Rod Serling's Twilight Zone:  The Eye of the Beholder.

"Travel through time ... 
The special attraction of Prime Time Rising lies in its ability to retain and maintain a vividly engrossing atmosphere throughout"
 --- Midwest Book Review

All of the great moments are there!
Read about and and see about them in
Prime Time Rising: Growing Up at the Dawn of Television

Can you name key events in Ringling history in the years
1907, 1937, 1947, 1957, 1967, 2007, 2017?


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Morning Midway: Kelly Miller Plots 2019; Bella Blossoms into Tent Status; Big Apple Sued, Website Turns Yellow ...

Ominous: Big Apple Circus in the yellow, or is it my computer?

   THIS IS NOT A HAPPY DAY.   I'm cooped up on a tragic California afternoon, when so much is on fire, up north and down south, splashes of sunshine against my large window gracing me from the unhealthy air out there.  I’ll skip the afternoon walk, and let this one roll, and turn the TV back on.  I marvel over the heroism of the fire fighters, by the thousands displaced, taking it on the chin, so many and maybe all being extra good to each other, knowing what means the most in life, the old and the young bringing tears to my eyes. A whole town, gone. Others in the balance, forever, I fear. 

    WHAT MOVED ME to this keyboard was a You Tube I chanced upon featuring clips  from the Big Apple Circus’s Grand Tour of 2015.  What a feast of tent-filling action.  This is what I live for.  Inventive all over. Lots of movement.  No wonder the New York Times raved. I offer it to you below. 
   NOW, SIGH,  to the present tense. I shall strive for positivity.  When I think of circus in bits and pieces today, I think back on the little John Strong Circus tent.  It would fit in quite dandy now, as the tops grow smaller, the ballyhoos more eager than egotistic.   Our local community ring, the free-to-see Circus Bella, advancing up and over to Treasure Island for a month-long holiday run, and under  their first little big top.  And they’re not giving this one away (more, maybe stronger acts touted), tickets going from $39 to $150.  What a daring leap from free.  Out of the diaper stage, at last. I'm feeling a rare Bella bounce, relearning to be John Strong grateful.

   NO LONGER RINGLING or Beatty-Cole.  Now UniverSoul, the  new Big Show?  Or would that be Big apple?  They, the latter, are hiding their wares behind a screen full of lovely yellow, or that’s what I keep pulling up when trying to reach inside their website.   It’s happened before.  What is going on, or coming off, over there? Too much unwanted drama, perhaps.  I know, for one thing, that a lawsuit has been launched against Big Apple Circus by two of those who helped sell the Big Apple Circus Board on selling to the Sarasota partners.  The two, in the beginning promised prominent operational roles, were gradually sidelined and then fired. Not a pretty picture.

   OF REVIEWS FOR Big Apple’s latest, I could only find two legit notices, one from New York Stage Review, the other out of the Philly’s Inquirer.  Both were pleased, though not steeped in awesome adjectives.   “Colorful and fun,” the kindly kudos.   One critic laughed a lot at the clowns, or his kids did; the other did not laugh at all.  Grandma still missed, and how sad I feel over what happened, wondering, if you will allow, if it had to happen?  

   ALL GOOD NEWS feels more terrific in these tentative times, like feeling good about Kelly Miller advertising in Circus Report for marketing people to front the 2019 tour.

When I see Asian faces on the bill (The Mongolian Troupe with Kelly Miller), I anticipate inventive, cerebral-free excitement, and I want to go.

   BIG JOHN STRONG WOULD fit in, peachy well, under the small tent he pitched (or thumb tacked up)  at country fairs, offering for free the fundamental magic in a charming showcase, he being the talky star.  “Got a big hand, Cindy!“   I just loved hearing him say that, when a young juggler kept three sticks in motion, a clown, the kiddies in tickles   When once Big John spotted me on the planks (how I wished he hadn't), the way he announced me, I felt like a potentate from foreign shores. I was somebody then.

   CIRQUE DU SOLEIL, still posturing  and preening in heavy-handed narrative, putting up its Volta tent over in San Francisco, for a long three-month haul.   I might pass.  Sounds like some very good acts, but even the Canadian critics were down on this show when it opened, fed up with another dull story line mucking up and retarding the program. The Globe and Mail declared the "thrilling Volta is crippled by its story."  You won’t see any of the acting stuff on TV ads. You'll see CIRCUS. So I have little will to drag my self over to SF, and there be dragged through another schizoid Cirque combo.

   SO WHAT WILL I have seen this year?  I sat on rough dry grass over hard clumpy dirt in a gritty  Oakland Park to watch Circus Bella put on a cute little show -- The Cutest Little Show on Earth? -- I'm trying.  At least they are high on Joy.  In these darkened days of diminishing glories, Joy is a comforting element.  The John Strong factor.  Got a great hand, Bella!

   I'LL ADMIT TO BEING envious over the circus fan (CFA-er) who has built into his/her DNA, the capacity to enjoy almost anything that comes their way titled circus.  I’m thinking how Plato’s theory of forms may explain for this phenomenon.. But more on that trenchant topic some other time. 

   IT IS STILL sunny bright outside, lending local peace, in a land perpetually on fire.   Somebody needs to cut down half the trees and all the dry brush, mandate stone or steel houses, restrict population, order power lines under ground. Mother nature may once have set off the sparks; now humans are doing what appears a far worse job.

Let me send you off on  a  joyful three-minute sampler of Big Apple Circus's Grand Tour, from 2015:

Got a great big hand, Big Apple!

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Why So Few Reviews for PBS The Circus? ... Fans and Pros Sounding Off in Circus Report Supply Some Possible Answers

I’m pretty surprised that the show was ignored or watched and then ignored by most main stream media.   At the top of the list, The New York Times. Defaulting to the ever-reliable Rotten Tomatoes, there are a grand total of 3 reviews, all colored in red, though two of them bear serious discoloring smudges.  Compare this to 45 reviews for Ken Burns The Vietnam war.

The write ups come from  The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and The Wall Street Journal.  I could not access the Journal, because you must subscribe to read. I can only trust it was a real notice, not the kind of bogus con job put over by Big Apple Circus last year, quoting back its own quotes from a feature story the Journal did on the show prior to its opening — and framing those quotes in the form of an excerpt from an actual Wall Street Journal review!  Yes, we/they live in desperate times.

One of many circuses snubbed by American Experience.
Well, of course, Barnum's name does not appear

Tellingly, perhaps, here are some acute reservations that leak through the generally positive write ups:

From Robert Lloyd in The Los Angeles Times:    “The Circus” is at times difficult to watch, because the circus, though in most respects a wonderful enterprise, has also been an awful one, particularly in its use or misuse of wild animals – many of which, more than once in this history, will perish in fires -- but sometimes in its treatment of people as well. (People, too, will perish in fires.)”   

That word “awful”... feels awful.

From Verne Gay in Newsday (3 out of 4 stars, really?): "MY SAY Just to hazard a wild guess here, 'The Circus' must be the most exhaustive documentary on the circus that the TV medium has ever known, and — just to hazard another one — that's about five times too exhaustive for the average viewer.

“Do you need to watch all four hours? Not really. For an average viewers' guide, the second hour Monday (at 10) and the first hour Tuesday are the best. Meanwhile, Leitzel aficionados will want to savor the full four”     
To be sure and fair, all of the reviews have much to sing about.  The film footage alone is a wow, and opening segments captivate with tents going up, locals off farms roused to the riveting spectacle of circus day once upon a glorious time. Just thought I'd get that out of the way.

Okay, onto the program's unfortunate missteps.

Circus Reporting from the trenches

Latest issue of The Circus Report has done a bang up job in printing a wide array of feedback from circus fans and pros, 10 in all.  Here are some of the comments:

Thanks to Bill Schreiber, who allayed my shock over the gruesome image of a huge elephant entrenched in chains coming out of a box car, which to the average TV viewer surely screams ANIMAL ABUSE!  How glad  and relieved was I to learn  from Bill, recounting in Circus Report something that Slim Lewis had told him:  "Most of the chain was for show and truly unnecessary for controlling him, but it made Tusko seem more formidable  than he actually was."   Very troubling (or spiteful ) that this context was not mentioned.  Given the typical sight of elephants coming out of the cars fairly freely, did someday even ask?

Don Covington:  "It also incorrectly suggested that the Ringling enterprise was the only significant circus of the day, ignoring almost all the competition.”

Maxine House: “All those wonderful tented (and Shrine) circuses were left out!” 

And then comes Pittsburgh

One thing everybody seems to agree on is that the show’s abrupt ending is beyond comprehension. This will surely leave an impression with younger generations that the circus died right there.

My favorite quote, from Gary Payne: “Born in 1955, I can attest to having seen about 1,000 circus performances that apparently didn’t exist.” 

                                    Why, oh why?

Wayne McCary: “Only the producers know why they chose to end the show with the closing of the Greatest Show on Earth in Pittsburgh in 1956.  That finality in the program undoubtedly gave the impression to the general public that the circus industry came to an abrupt end at that time.”

John Ringling North's first season opener, 1938

Okay, let me guess.  While working on my review, I  developed a profile in my mind of producer-writer-director Sharon Grimberg.  I could see her coming  from the New England area, where she would more likely have been exposed to the Barnum lobby, and I wondered if she might be an animal rights activist  or sympathizer.  After posting my review, below, I went a-goggling. I found that American Experience is based in Boston, but I could find nothing about Ms. Grimberg's personal life or politics.

I have two theories:

1.  She started out intending to produce a biography of the Prince of Humbug. The one through-line through this jumbled enterprise is the name Barnum.  The other showman covered were all significantly involved with him -- Forepaugh as principle rival (I'm surprised they missed the Sacred White Elephant war between the two), Coup, Costello and Bailey as partners, and the Ringlings, who kept his name famously alive.  Somewhere along the way, the story got extended beyond its original focus.  By then,  Grimberg ran out of funding or interest, and rushed to wrap in Pittsburgh.  21 minutes for John Ringling North.  Actually, deduct the minutes taken covering the Hartford fire --- North was not running the show then -- and North gets maybe a total of 16 minutes.   I rest my case.   A bit too far fetched?  Okay, how about this:

2.  Harboring a private disdain for various alleged forms of abuse under the big top, Grimberg  wanted to end on a down note, sending viewers off subliminally conditioned to feel guilty about ever again patronizing a circus with animals.  

Am I off the cliff? Then, the laugh’s on me.

Thank god for the DeMille film. No, they can't take that away from me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

PBS Under the Big Top: Circus Kings Shine, Barnum Dominates and Darkens Half-Baked, Error-Prone Three-Ring Charmer

Television Review:  The Circus
PBS/American Experience
4-hour anthology in 2 parts
Twice seen for this review, October, 2018

When I learned that the formidable American Experience was coming out with a documentary on American circus history,  1793 to 1956,  naturally I had high expectations, wondering how they would treat the period through three epochs -- from the one ring show of English horse rider John Rickets, bringing to America the modern circus invented by  Philip Astley, to the three ring spectacles of Barnum and Bailey, and then onto how they were artfully transformed and refined by John Ringling North in 1938.
Although, in real life,  P.T. Barnum did not enter the picture until 1871, here he enters it from the get-go, fairly dominating the first two hours of The Circus with his bombastic,  perversely amusing ballyhoos, his freaks and fakes, clever humbugs and various exotic animals.   The talking heads who wax lyrical about circus artistry -- the consensus seeming to rise on the word “transcendence” -- do not wax lyrical about anything that Mr. Barnum brought to the tent.  In fact, he was obviously more a sideshow huckster than ever a circus king

 Barnum on Broadway, at the Museum: Frank Lentini,  above; Jo-Jo, the Dog Faced Boy, below

When producer-writer-director Sharon Grimberg finally  gets around to the starting point at Philadelphia in 1793, incredibly, no mention is made of Philip Astley -– an unconscionable insult to the British, who this year are celebrating the 250th anniversary of Astley’s one-ring gift to the world.

Instead, one of the talking heads (name not shown), rhapsodizes over the launch in Philadelphia of a “distinctly American”circus.  Nice try.  Distinctly American lay decades ahead.   The exceptionalism on display at Ricket’s Circus was very British.

Beyond Barnum, whom Grimberg can’t seem to get enough of, she turns her most passionate attention upon a select few big top movers and shakers, telling their compelling stories with a rich array of visual materials at hand.  Among the many nuggets, film footage inside the big top during the 1944 Hartford fire is stunning; a clip of Con Colleano dancing on the low wire is pure gold.

The good news is that Adam Forepaugh receives outstanding coverage.  So do William Coup and Dan Costello, who talked the retired Prince of Humbug into joining them to take out a  new circus, which opened in Brooklyn in 1871, and within a  year, was on rails and appearing under a large tent in two rings.  Not noted is how Barnum simultaneously rented out the use of his magnetic name, two summers in a row, to a  rogue showman, Peggy O’Brien, which gave rivals ad copy ammunition: “Barnum’s Show is Divided!  One Half Here, and The Other There.    Which Are You Going to See?”  The  treachery so disgusted Coup and Costello, that the short-lived partnership was soon history.  Barnum’s New England lobby may wish to skip this one.

Most impressive of all is James A. Bailey, who joined up with Barnum in 1881 to form — distinctly American —  the first three-ring circus.  His genius for big top logistics shines through, especially when. in 1897, Barnum having died six years before, he manages to ship the entire show, tents and all, to Europe,  where he tours it triumphantly for five years to “almost” constantly packed houses. I question that.  Back in the states, now facing a five-brother juggernaut, Bailey’s invincible grip on public favor wanes.  Like a man yet to come bearing the initials JRN, he suffers seasons of declining patronage.  They all do.
Around about here, we are pulled down into gloom and guilt by the intrusive allusion to animal abuse, which feels like a PETA pop up ad appearing on the screen.   In this instance, of  how only less than 20% of the animals Barnum and Bailey purchased from other lands allegedly survived the cruel shipping conditions to America.  Pretty shocking.   There’s also the account of how P.T. wrested away Jumbo (it feels more like a theft) from the British Zoological Society, leaving countless children in tears.  I’m siding with the moppets.

Other issues raised concern a display of “uncivilized peoples” in the menagerie and, of course, the freaks.  Is the imposition of learned commentary even appropriate?  I say no, for these reasons:  Imposing modern sensibilities on the circus as it impacted the public over a hundred years ago throws everything out of wack, out of a reality far removed from today’s. Being pulled into the classroom, so to speak, detracts from the experience of watching circus in context of the times. I want the closest thing to what my forebears experienced.

It is worth noting that the recent Ken Burns film on Vietnam, a staggering masterpiece, left a panel of academic historians miffed overs its “deliberate exclusion of professional historians from their 80 talking heads”  “We weren’t trying to make arguments.” explained Burns.  “ We didn’t have a political agenda..”

Like a bright new sunny day dawning, come the Ringling brothers, who were  young and gleamingly  handsome on bill poster art, open to new ideas (giving some customers their first look at a movie, inside a special black tent).  They paid female performers the same as they paid the men, and they supported the suffrage movement among like-minded women on show  They became famous for being by far the most honest-dealing of the lot, although as to the hiring of Pinkerton detectives to monitor the midway for all manner of pick pocketing and card sharkery, curiously, that credit goes here  not to the Ringlings, but to  Barnum & Bailey!  A baffling revelation.  

By the time that The Circus reaches the year 1938, John Ringling North barely makes it onto the lot in this lopsided 4-hour anthology – long enough (21 minutes) to come off looking like a talented but inept manager in a final segment that feels fragmentary and rushed.  He gets credit for his whimsical elephant ballet and for some rave reviews his upscale brand of circus received, but no mention of  the great crowds his eclectic showmanship drew in the best of seasons.  He is implicitly  linked to gross mismanagement partly blamed for the 1944 Hartford fire that killed 168 people, mostly women and children.  The fire, which dominates this section, did not not occur on North’s watch, but on that of his cousin, Robert Ringling.  Left unrevealed is the long-simmering enmity between the houses of John and Charles Ringling, and how it erupted into the Ringling family wars of the 1940s, with North eventually prevailing.

Not until I watched the film a second time was I hit like a bolt of lightening by the most shocking and shameful omission of all, which raises all sorts of questions concerning Grimberg’s true intent.  (I will not look into her background until after posting this}.  Comes the season of 1956, plagued by a long-festering Teamster’s strike.  One talking head: “The circus was writing its own ending.”   Then comes Pittsburgh, where the show gives  “one final performance.”  Another troubling error.  The circus gave two shows that day —   the first, to a half house at 6:30; the last starting two hours before midnight, when all 9,856 seats were packed and another thousand or so were strawed.    

North issues a press release announcing that he is closing the show and sending it back to the barn.   Alright, yes, he did.  And so then ...?  I am on the edge of my seat, wondering if, during my first viewing, I missed the part when North announces his plans to open the circus the following spring at Madison Square Garden, as usual, and then take it out on the road playing indoor arenas. No, I did not.  Incredibly this key part of the release – so integral to understanding the truth of that last stand under canvas -- is left out.  Whatever  Grimberg was trying to achieve, it seems clear that evidence was willfully excluded to advance a false reality. One can only speculate what her agenda might be, but certainty it was not to affirm any future for the circus.

Twenty one minutes for John Ringling North, one of the towering creative forces in world circus history.  Twenty one minutes for him to look like a loser and vanish.  So much for the captivating parade of circus stars from far and wide that he unstintingly offered Americans; for the ingenious seat wagons of Art Concello;  the arguably unprecedented costume design brilliance of Miles White;  the dazzling midway makeovers of Norman Bel Geddes and then Bill Ballantine;  the academy award winning movie by Cecil B. DeMille that captured it all so gloriously.  None of that is  here.  What is here, instead, is the end.

Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde in The Greatest Show on Earth

Why the abrupt fade out in Pittsburgh?  Why so misleadingly bleak an ending?   The documentary is pitched as  “the rise and fall of the American railroad tent circus.”  Okay, technically, this may give them cover for bringing down so ruthlessly premature a curtain on Pittsburgh, but it hardly gives them cover for the 80 or so years they spend on Barnum’s pre-circus antics and early American circus history — eighty years before , repeat, before that great American circus train they ballyhoo even began to roll. Not their stated focus.  Makes no sense.

All of which amounts to a wholesale evisceration of all that came after Pittsburgh, and I need not go into detail here, other than to make clear, The Greatest Show on Earth continued on for sixty more years.  North put it indoors and back in the black, and, ten years later, sold it to the Irvin Feld family.

I can’t help but wondering why so many major contributors to American circus were missing in action during the film’s time frame. To name but a few:  Arthur Concello, Antoinette Concello, the Bloomington circus community, then the prime source of leading trapeze acts world-wide,  Dan Rice,  Miles White, Barbette, Irving J. Polack, Louis Stern (Polack Bros), Gargantua, American Circus Corporation shows, Cole Bros, Sells Bros, Alfred Court, Francis Brunn, Lou Jacobs.

Given the vast terrain of circus history either ignored, short-shrifted or bungled  by Grimberg and colleagues, I  am left, still, dreaming of the ultimate documentary from Ken burns.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Shocking, Simply Shocking! British Museum Rebuts Feminist Myth About Women in Circus

It may come as a blow to traditional circus-hating feminists, New York to San Francisco, that women actually did perform in our earliest American circuses.  And we are not talking ornamental sex props placed in the shadows while male stars hoarded the rings.  As you may have observed, that’s the knee-jerk line they’ve been dishing out for years.  Fake news has been around long before the current occupant of the White house moved in and took it on.

This belated bow to historical truth comes from across the Big Pond. Circus! Show of Shows, a new exhibit at the Western Park Museum in Sheffield, England, sets the record right.  As covered in the Smithsonian Magazine, the display focuses on women and black performers said to have found “an unusual degree of independence and professional success in circus.”

Oh, really? 

I am shocked! And lying through my teeth.  Actually, relieved to know that all the wonderful female performers who thrilled me in my boyhood were not figments of my imagination.  Ask me to name the greatest names of circus long before I was born:  I will probably recite more women than men.  You want a list?  Go look for yourself, or Ask Fred.   

Of course, anybody with half a brain who has read a circus history book or two (not written by an academic peddling the party line) would already have known this.  The rant is re-issued periodically, and those who print it don’t take the time to fact check.

 Edgar Degas, Miss La La, at Cirque Fernando, 1879

Patty Astley, wife of Philip, founder of the modern circus, performed in the show, and not as a king pole dancer.  She rode a galloping horse while swarming bees buzzed lyrically around her hands.  How charming.

As quoted in the Smithsonian, says  the exhibition's curator, Vanessa Toulmin, “Women were granted freedoms that would have been unthinkable in broader Victorian society.”

And over here, one particular woman who  rode horses, charmed snakes, sewed costumes and dragged canvas across muddy lots, among a host of daily thrills -- was helping five young brothers  become circus kings of America: Louise Ringling. Truly troubling is how little recognition the brothers gave her.  Those were times when women in spangles were equated with women in garters.

What’s more, because those doing dames were seen as “athletes” —  they got away with performing in brief costumes, thus exposing arms and legs.  

“In a culture that emphasized women’s domesticity, female circus performers were hard at work.”

Are you reading this, San Francisco Circus Center?  Are you reading this, Sarah East Johnson,  New York’s go-to  expert on such issues who, writing in the The Wall Street Jouirnal in 2011, declared how “nice it was to see women “ in the ring,  and made clear that “rigid gender roles under the big top [were] really traditional.”: And that’s the best  the Journal can give us on the subject?  Ms. Johnson may have been ill-informed while under the spell of the San Francisco Circus Center, where she spent (or served) time years earlier.  Oh, those PC-addled feminists across the bay just can’t let go. A sad and regrettable legacy of the old Pickle Family Circus.

And more from Toulmin:  “Women could be circus proprietors, they could have their own business.“     

Among museum artifacts on display, there’s a 1940 photo of Lulu Adams, below, one of the first female clowns in Britain.  Lulu incorporated bagpipe playing in her act.

Nice job — British Museum of Sheffield!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Circus on PBS: Big Tents - Big Dreams - Big Betrayal

I found the anthology gifted with much to enjoy and admire, but shockingly irresponsible in its narrow coverage, its eviscerations and aborted ending.

More about this in the future

Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Morning Midway: PBS Big Tent - Big Dreams Delivers Big in You Tube Ballyhoo. Show Hits Town Monday

I was so taken by the two 9-minute You Tube previews I saw, that I have very high hopes for this documentary from American Experience,  a long-time leader in such fare for PBS.

The overwhelming imagery throughout  is of IMMENSITY.  Immensity of tents, of parades, of surging crowds, here and in Europe when James A. Bailey took Barnum & Bailey abroad.  That he stayed there five years suggests a towering reception at the ticket wagons he could not resist.  Of course, when he returned to America, he had five brothers named Ringling, now a formidable force, facing him.

Debbie Walk eloquently gives Al Ringling due credit for the primary role he played, with his brothers, in making their mark as circus kings.  P.T. Barnum seems properly placed  here as sideshow king and ballyhoo genius. 

You see the trains clanging in.  You see the mass of humanity spreading the canvas, raising it high, and the locals on the sidelines, captured and enthralled by it all, believers without issues or hesitations in this once great and magical and very American spectacle.  I almost cried, so moved by vivid scenes of what the American circus was in its heyday.  No wonder, the program is said to end with the fall of the last Ringling big top in Pittsburgh, 1956. 

How will the rest hold up?  I am guessing very well, as long as they don't get side tracked filtering an emphatically populist form of entertainment through PC-obsessive analysis.  This is not a story best told by self-serving academics.

The Big Show comes your way Monday night!

Monday, October 01, 2018

But Only a Few Remained: Circus in a World Without Ringling

Pardon me, but I've got the shrinking big top blues.  For walking wounded fans, you enter here at your own risk.                                    

At Rngling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, circa 1920s
When Americans embraced circus without question, without issues, without iPhones.

How do you frame it now?  Dead?   On life support?  In-between engagements?  Gender equity reassignments pending?

Spin it any way you wish.  Facts are — if facts count, undeniable truth.  Remember when fans counted tent poles, wagon wheels, elephants?  What are they counting now? Hula hoops?  Peanut pitches and pony rides? ... Empty seats?

                             Drum Rolls for Less is More!

Fewer Tents: Remember Ringling? Remember Clyde Beatty Cole Bros?  The last two American railroad shows both fell in 1956 -- the circus, they said, was dead!, but regrouped and kept on going.  Quite well, or well enough for a long time. “Well enough” was wonderful enough in a business perpetually on the brink. Both Ringling and Cole are now over the brink.  On the watch list: Kelly-Miller, maybe Carson and Barnes.  Big Apple?  I’d say promising so far, but far from certain. 

Fewer rings: A no brainer.  Who can count three?  Okay deduct two, and you have one. Deduct another (think stage, cruise ship, concert hall, Vegas, hat on cement), and you have none.

Do I sound like Mr. Rodgers in the hood? .

Fewer acts:  The “new” Big Apple Circus is touting six acts, not counting horses and dogs and clowns.  Not so radical given a trend in the Cirque era for less is (maybe)  more.  But what less can also mean is less variety – the biggest draw under booming  big tops in better times.  SO much to see.  SO much to be surprised and amazed by!  SO much to remember!  

Fewer smiles:  The lean BAC lineup, when I study it, tells me why I  miss a Chinese troupe on the menu, which was nearly a staple during the last Paul Binder and  Kenneth Feld  years.  Those exhilarating acrobats from a land not high on psycho-babble brought lots of bodies into a single ring and therefore a degree of spectacle — plates spinning, hats flying, rushing runners through hoops diving, bikes in motion, energy and gusto -- and without a shred of big top broccoli.  They give us unadulterated joy. 

Oh, Joy, where did you go?  Now we have the show being directed by Bergman or Freud, the modern act choreographed so internally, that we are pushed even further way from the artist, as if allowed, oh how lucky to be allowed, to admire  his or her self-possession. To behold the artist working out his/her/its issues on the tissues (fabrics, kids).   Pardon me for failing the post-performance exam. I did not go expecting to observe the damaged soul in therapy on a static trapeze.

                            Now: At Melha Shrine Circus, 2018

Fewer seats: Can you kindergarten count along with me?  The Felds deducted thousands of arena chairs, blocking out maybe a third of them, not to achieve greater intimacy but to shut down damning evidence of paltry patronage — until, they would claim, PETA ran every last customer, in public shame, off the lot. Sure.  And who managed  The Greatest Show on Earth  into oblivion? Not a Ringling.  A billionaire named Kenneth Feld, whose late father Irvin, god bless his look-at-me-ballyhoo, must be screaming for a way back.
Kelly Miller fired the animals to beat down PETA,  shrunk the  tent size, threw out VIP chairs and settled for planking it.  Circus Vargas, striving to be Cirque for families on a budget, is also going smaller.  And hopefully not under.   Carson & Barnes, another down sizer, now skips summer stops — a season once, I thought, lush with crowds.

How much more of this shrinkage before the patient shrinks away like a deflating  balloon before a couple dozen souls out there on the planks, half of them in free and already bored,  the other half on their cell phones? 

So here we are, on the edge of another deserted lot where once, great tented cities that traveled by  by night — thank you, Bev Kelly —  pitched their glories for a day, and great crowds of curiosity came to be astonished and thrilled — and not to be  lectured to, or badgered by angry leaflets from PC purists, or dragged through another dreary allusion to some obtuse self-help drama -- troubled soul seeking The Way and The Light under what’s left of The Big Top.

Ooops. Hope I didn’t depress you too much.   Are you amply amused, Anon?  Truth is, I giggled part way through this; my tears, you see, are all used up. There’s nothing left but. what? ...  Laugh, clown, laugh, I guess.


P.S.  What a lovely postscript  came my way after drafting the above.  A link from Don Covington to a captivating promo tease of Big Tent, Big Dreams, the PBS American Experience documentary coming to the  screen on October 8 and 9.  The  one-minute promo conveys what it was like when circus-loving Americans flocked to the big tops  A phenomenal clip of Pinito Del Oro in motion is just fabulous -- it stops my heart every time I watch  it -- unlike anything of her work I have ever seen on video, which only reminds me of why I was so mesmerized by her act when I first saw this aerial goddess perform under the Ringling-Barnum big top in 1955.

Bring it on, PBS. I can't wait!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Morning Midway: Gay Cinema Without Bars, Hustlers & Suicide

Imagine this:  A young college student comes home with stars in his eyes, and is happily surrounded by his loving mother and sister, sensing he has just met someone special. So you can imagine them asking him, "Who is she?!"  No,  in this film they ask him "Who is he?!"

Movies about gay men have advanced by leaps and bounds away from the freak show that was Boys in the Band -- yes, an admirable ground breaker in its time to be respected.

How apt that one of the better examples of a new gay cinema without traumatic "coming out" segments, should be found in Akron  -- an intelligent, sensitive and very moving film that deserved far more attention that it has received.

I took a chance on Akron, a  2015 film containing the above scene -- the dad was also pleased over the news.  Surprisingly, it was ignored by virtually all film critics, save for two, the two issuing a split verdict.

From Film Inquiry,  "The film explores the complex emotions that come with any relationship, gay or straight. What it means to forgive, even for something minuscule, is questioned here – daring us to define what it is that makes us carry on. It is in this way that Akron succeeds: its ability to get at human experiences without coming across as cloying.

From OUT,   "Akron is a nice try at normalizing gay romance, but the film making needs the erotic and spiritual masculine energy of great gay cinema.

Excuse me, OUT, but why does a "gay" film need to be loaded with erotica and  masculine energy? 

Akron is one of a growing number of non-stereotypical movies that avoid the bar scene -- loners over pin ball machines,  hustlers working the room, riff raff casing it, couples in for a drink or for a  late night take-out to share.  I could list many other such films that are casting gay relationships in Normal Town, USA. 

I watched in the Specials section of the DVD, the writer and co-director Brian O'Donnell discussing the reception they got while filming in Akron, his own hometown.  The people, he said, who knew what they were up to, could not have been nicer.

And isn't that itself a great advance?

A few other fine films on Netflix I can recommend:

Call Me By Your Name
Holding the Man
In Bloom

Can you believe this: I am writing this during the latest Smut & Smear Circus in DC, too sick of the whole disgusting mess to have the TV on.  Silent it will stay.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Falling Faster than Big Tops: The Circus Blogs

One of the fallen: Steve Copeland and Ryan  Combs

 How lonely it feels, surfing the remains of once-active circus blogs.  Too many of them are now but abandoned graveyards for yesteryear’s postings.

In fact, most of them have died.  Some due to the bloggers passing away, but where is a new generation of big top bloggers to fill the gap? 

* Most disappointing  no-shows, not heard from since last August, the blog of Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs. We know they are still out there entertaining, currently at the Circus World Museum.  They were my favorite blog during their heyday blogging  years when they toured with Kelly-Miller. Steve's daily postings put us on the lot in real time. His candor could cause sparks to fly.  In recent years, he would periodically put out very long catch-up postings.   They were way too long for me to get hooked on.

His last posting, last August, ended thus:

"I think that is about it for now.  I'll see you next week when our summer season is finished and I have my first chance to sleep since may!  Peace!"

I wonder what happened on his way to next week?

* Wade Burcks Circus no Spin zone. gone since March 2016.

Doc’s Midway Cookhouse, gone

* Last updated,  December 27: Paul Binder’s blog. A sad puzzling mystery to me why he had not posted anything about what the new Big Apple Circus offered New Yorkers last October.   He worked so hard to keep it going to the bitter end.  The silence suggests — well, no, I had better not go there  either.  There is enough conjecture out there parading shamelessly as fact..

Circus Anonymous, last posting -  December 24

Remember Pat Cashin?  Dick Dykes?  Jack Ryan and others?  Many long-gone blogs are still listed on Ken Young’s Circus Links .  It, too, appears to have ceased updating.

I can’t bring myself to remove those blogs from the right sidebar.  The void would be too  painful a reflection of our drastically shrinking American circus scene.(May we once more collectively boo  Kenneth Feld?)

Still open for business:

Jim’s My Days Are Circus Days, bright and colorful

Circus and Fairground Art, rich in art work

Circus blog, a charmer

Circuses and Sideshows, kind of

Buckles blog – He was been counted down and maybe out two times in recent years.  But returns with the help of others.

John Towsen’s All Fall Down 

I am starting to wonder what I am still doing out here on this decimated midway.  Will I be the last one out of the tent?  That would be too chilling for me to handle.

Bottom line: I continue to believe, that without a culture of open discussion  and debate within the circus community as freely exists among other entertainment fan bases and media coverage, there will never be the drive to nurture and embrace  circus blogging.

All those wonderful pictures of past glories can only go so far.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Morning Midway: Next up From Big Apple Circus -- Lean Lineup Has Russian Artistry, Tuniziani Double Trap, Vidbel Animals, New Clowns and Ringmaster

Returning to Big Apple Circus: Desire of Flight.

So, how do they look on paper?  Make that on You Tube, where I’ve watched clips of all  the acts in previous performances.

Six acts are listed on Broadway.Com — not counting animals and clowns -- suggesting a Cirque du Apple in the making.  This leaves me a bit skeptical, the reason concerning heavy-handed ballet interludes and operatic music that can soften if not emasculate the potential impact of strong tanbark action. The six:

Desire of Flight, with Melfina Abakarova and Valery Sychev on straps, is justly revered.  They first appeared on Big Apple Circus in 2012, and won a Gold Clown at Monte Carlo in 2014.   The team offer a killer payoff when they connect only by their ankles.  No mechanics here. This is the real thing, and is sure to wow the crowd.

Duo Fusion by Virginia Tuells and husband Ihosvanys Perez, an overly muscular contortion workout, to my jaded eyes (if I never see another contortion act in my life, I won't feel deprived).  Which does not mean it won't impress the crowd.  American audiences really lap this stuff up. Slow slow slow.

Horizontal juggling by Victor Moiseev, all very mystically staged, with large balls floating through space,  away from and back to Victor so smoothy and perfectly as to feel more cinematic than human.  The essentially one-theme act turns a tad repetitious.  However, depending on how it's staged, this could be another big wow.
Away from the cerebral, other three acts promise more old fashion action:  At the top of the list, a double trapeze by the Tunizianis, which I hope means two simultaneous triples up there, like they did for Ringling on its way out of this world.  Now, that's a major thrill.  Ammed will still  be turning or attempting the quad.  Promo claims the feat has been "only successfully landed by ten people in the world." This would be like claiming the Unus' one finger stand to have been accomplished by only  ten others.   Duh?  Who is in charge of ballyhoo on this show??? 

Free-standing ladder balancing by the Emil Faltyny.  It’s a good enough act, but I'd far rather see the kid Wesley Williams, who offers more and with such youthful gusto -- an element I don't feel much of in this program.  Remember GUSTO?

What does promise to humor the house are the Spicy Circus gals, who cavort playfully from a trampoline, bouncing up and onto and off walls.  It's ladies day this year at Big Apple, with the distaff side being played up in press releases.

Of course,  offerings from the clowns -- Mark Gindick and Adam Kuchler -- and from the Vidbel dogs may bring sufficient levity to the intensely introspective moments. Returning to direct is  Mark Lonergan; to lead the music,  Rob Slowick.  New to the ringmaster's whistle will be  Stephanie Monseu.

Yes, I am, you realize I trust, speculating.

On balance or off, I'd venture to guess they have a potentially more entertaining program ambitiously in the works. But they need to hold back on the artsy asides and operatic music that may come with these brooding Russians. How I'd love hearing Ravel's Bolero* during The Desire of Flight. Last time I heard that at a circus, Clyde Beatty was pacing the big cats through their routines over sawdust -- not exactly on pointe.

* I have an even better number, just heard on our jazz station here:  the moody Poinsettia.  Anything to give the weeping violins a rest.