Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Checking Back in with Cirque du Soleil: The Long and Complicating Road from L.A., 1987 to Amaluna, 2019


Above, 1987 --  below, today 

Circus Review
San Francisco, November 15, 2019
Cirque du Soleil
$285 tops / $495 backstage package

It has been five years since I last looked into a Cirque tent.  I had missed the last two or three editions, so I forced myself into the urban freak show of San Francesco, soldiering valiantly under a soft gender-neutral rain to reach the promised land over asphalt. The blue and white top is a knockout.  
In its simpler beginnings, the shunning genius of Cirque du Soleil was to intensify the dramatic impact of a basic circus act — not a totally new concept, think Russia — through original scoring, exotic costume design,  every precious gesture  meticulously choreographed, entrance to exit, and framed in a touching little story. When  I first saw the show in Los Angeles, 1987, I rose to my feet to join the audience in a five minute standing ovation (I have all five minutes recorded) I sent off a rave review to Variety in New York, for whom I then free lanced.  No response.  I sent another rave. Both ignored.
Thirty two seasons later, I am seated and witnessing, with high hopes, a degree of that same genius at work in Amaluna. Early in the program, a pair of nimble gals doing inventive things on unicycles, their routine effectively scored by heavy metal music, excite my ultimate validation —  tremendous!  Another T moment strikes in the figure of a woman hanging upside down from the end of a rope and spinning at the speed of light. Tremendous, you too!  

Half exhilarating , half enervating

If only there had been more of the T factor in this lean lineup.  The fairly predictable circus action here is, to be fair, strong, cleanly and powerfully athletic  (house acts, I suppose), executing solid  B grade skills, though some of it a bit repetitive.  These muscular mortals twist and twirl, thrust and bust off a single springboard, over and under horizontal bamboo beams (maybe another  T), and from soaring straps. If only there had been less of all the in-between stuffings — narrative nonsense, pretentious  body movement formations, blitzing costumes, lasers, flash and flesh, riven with loud silly clowning.

Speaking of which, worst of all, sucking up too much air out of this lopsided balloon, are two Brazilian buffoons who seem never to go away –  a giggly woman, enormous and enormously obnoxious, and her new suitor in progress. These overworking irritants enact a series of getting- to- know-you/getting-to-grope you dates.  Most of it happens out in the audience.

Another flimsy romantic item are two young lovers in angelic white, at intervals  gazing into each others eyes, sometimes from opposite sides of he stage. Why not at least a ballad?

Remember when Cirque du Soleil was quiet and  mystical, lost in its own realm?  At Amaluna, the eye candy is on steroids, and it all seems  designed to knock iAddicts with short attention spans into brainless submission.   It felt as if the whole thing had been engineered as a form of old-circus aversion therapy. As if a sensory overload machine was shouting in my ear: “We’re going to jack hammer you into conversion, no matter what!  You’re gonna sit there and take it all and be cured of your sick old circus attachments!   And you’re gonna stay in our tent for the rest of you life!  Yes, okay, I believe, now, may I leave?

The last truly great Cirque show I saw was Ovo in 2011 -– I gave it 3-1/2 stars out of 4.  Would love to see it again. The last Cirque I saw before this one was Kurious (3 stars). although its first half left me vaguely detached, its second half sent me floating out of the tent. 

 1987 to 2019
Freed from my stay with Amaluna, I stumbled out of the tent, back onto crummy asphalt in high relief.  I had purposely purchased a program magazine, for I doubt I may ever visit Cirque du Soleil again, certainly not across the bay. And I could now better understand, finally, why friends who have gone with me to Cirque shows in past years, though impressed, never expressed a desire to go again, and why, in fact, an amazing number of people have never seen a Cirque show at all.

One day in universities where Cirque du Soleil studies are offered, students may be assigned to read the program notes for Amaluna, and write a thesis  explaining it all.   And then, finally, what it all meant may be exposed.  And the ghost of P. T. Barnum may be laughing.
Rating: 2 stars

Okay, here’s a personal shocker.  That word Amaluna,  did it not ring a bell?. After drafting this review, while looking through some old CDS programs, yes Amaluna  was first presented in San Francisco in 2013 , and I reviewed it here on this blog and gave it the same rating! 

Good for me.

END RINGERS:  Show clocks in at a tad over two hours, of which 25 minutes are consumed in intermission ...  Bloodthirsty:  Long ago, they gave free water at dispensing machines.  Now you are offered an empty designer bottle for $6, which you can fill yourself by placing it under a thin stream in a dispensing machine. ... $495 for a backstage package?  In hilarious contrast to which, they’re now pitching $10 seat upgrades as you enter the tent.  Tent was around three-quarters full.  This audience gave them a rousing ovation ...  I do believe there are people who enjoy the random mixture of elements, circus to eye candy bringing them back. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Popcorn, Peanuts, & Porn: On the Crotch Watch at Big Apple Circus. Night Club Swagger Rattles the Critics

 photos by Matthew Murphy
Don’t blame the latest “new” Big Apple Circus for not daring to shake things up.  Judging from the two reviews I have so far found,  this latest effort offers up its treats in a dubious context, darkened by heavy metal on the side, sexy vocalizing, and erotic airborne action.   All of which evidently makes reviewing it a new kind of challenge.  But the best New York critics never shy away from facing whatever may come their way, and letting their pens flow accordingly.
Early in her upbeat notice, The New York Times beat critic,  Alexis Soloski, noted:

“I wondered if I had come to the right place.” She was taken aback by an aerial strap act that opens the show, performed by a pair of look-alike platinum blonds, set to heavy metal music.  “They spun, swirled and hair-tossed, pressing one crotch atop the other as each did the splits, a visual palindrome that skewed lewd.” 

Straps and fabrics are becoming a kind of erogenous zone for new circus revolutionaries.

Another jarring image for Solsoky came in the form of clown Amy Gordon, while roller skating in a corset and top hat and singing “Uptown Funk” –  “If you sexy then flaunt it/if you freaky then own it.”   Added Soloski, “Perhaps the merch stand could sell me some light-up pearls to clutch.”

But this Times scribe stayed the affirmative, arguing that such sleazy goings-on  “couldn’t spoil the annual thrill of seeing a troupe so effortlessly diverse, international and adept.” She loved, among the show’s best turns,  the  “magnificent fluff balls” of the Savitsy cats; the high wire exploits of the Lopez family, and the thrilling Wheel of Death – ‘many of us screamed.”  And the Times, a long time friend of Big Apple,  handed out another Critics Pick.

Question is: Will the attractive talent pool be ill-served by such raucous overtones?  Production is apparently weak on thematic overlay.  Long-time band leader Rob Slowik is out.  Another trumpeter, Wages Argot, is in, his band blasting out brassy originals by Jamine Delwarte and Ada Westfall.  From Circus Flora, co-directors Cecil MacKinnon and Jack Marsh staged the program. Evidently, they left their dramaturg in St. Louis.

All of which or none of which,  left Michael Sommers, reviewing for The Stage, filing what feels like a soft pan.  “Let’s note that the current attraction is not among its finest editions."

Calling it a strictly “no frills endeavor,"  Sommers gives due credit to a few “admirable” acts, but has little patience for the “Las Vegas” antics and imagery, for “acts on the duller side,” such as juggler Kyle Driggs, and for the lack of a visual showcase of the kind that Paul Binder gave the circus. “There is a strange perfunctory quality to the show.”  He cites ringmaster Storm Marrero for frequently working the crowd to clap along, a pandering for applause that “gets tiresome.”  Nor did the random-looking wardrobe of up-and-coming designer Emilio Sosa win over Sommers vision, coming off as if  “most artists brought their own outfits with them.”  Ouch.

It sounds like a challenging mixed bag to me.  I’d love to see it for myself.  I can see touches of Circus Oz there.  UniverSoul, for sure. Obviously, they are trying to make it a more hip show.  Will the racier edge pull in a younger, more responsive crowd? Might it turn parents away from bringing their kids?    I am waiting to see how CircusTallk reviews this one.
 Here on earth, in summation, Sommers  gives it 3 out of 5 stars -- “pleasantly entertaining but scarcely memorable.’

Alexis Soloski  wraps, “The aim of Big Apple felt shakier this year, and its sense of audience more wobbly, but it’s still a pleasure and a thrill, and the sexy stuff flies over most children’s heads.”

Can the risque atmosphere fill the seats? Make nut?  Or ...  is this tent closer to last call?


Many thanks to Don Covington for including the complete New York Times review in his e-mail send outs. If you try finding it on the Times website, you may be blocked, as was I,  at their members-only border.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: Into the 1980s, Thriving and Diving Through the Last Great Circus Decade

Fifth in a series on my friend  Don Marcks and his The Circus Report

October 25, 1984:  “I wish I could offer you a job with CR should you return to the Bay Area.  Am not sure I could pay what you might need and deserve."

In the paper’s peak years, Don now and then employed a part timer, usually a student “just out of school,” but he found them to be undependable. His dependable mom was always there to help out with folding, stapling and stamping fresh sheets  off the press for assembly and a trip to the local post office.  One of the postal clerks showed Don support and compassion, and he would eventually marry her.

His greatest challenge were the never ending struggles to sustain circulation.  He sent out free copies to new members of the various circus clubs, hit the lots with samples.  His circulation high, this number sticks in my brain, may have been around 2,400.  I doubt that any of the circus magazines ever matched that.

Fickle Subscribers 

October, 5 1984: “Oh, I forgot to tell you. I’ve lost almost 300 subscribers,  so I guess I have to figure out something to improve and make CR a bit more appealing.  That’s a pretty big loss over the last few month.  Wouldn't think it was due to my having been laid up, but never can tell."
As a news source, how good a job did Circus Report do?  On the plus side, the routes  were outstanding, the reporting equally so when he picked up from AP stories about mishaps under the big top (such as the Toby Tyler seating collapse), and the animal rights movement. He did not shield readers from any of these controversies or misfortunes. From corrupt phone room operations in the 1970s. He did not hide from the world.  I admired that about him.

But How Many People Were in the Tent?

On the debit side, what  Don’s weekly most sorely lacked were attendance figures under our big tops. Of course, this was not primarily Don’s fault, for the American circus has never had its own Nielsen's — and I am dead sure never wanted  them.  Not then.  And certainly not now.  The old Billboard, edited by Tom Parkinson,  did a far better job of a least estimating crowd size on the lots.  Nothing was more compelling to my young eyes than the headlines on the first page of its Circuses section.  Example, those in the August 6, 1955 number:

Chicago Attendance Poor For Ringling; Plan to Cut Prices ... Beatty Score Well at Vancouver Stand ... Truck Delays Hit King; Crowds Fair ... Polack's Strong Spots Make Up for Decreases ... Kelly-Miller Going Strong on Extensive Wisconsin Tour .. 

July 31, 1954: Cincinnati Gives R-B Strong Two-Day Biz.  As reported,  "Show registered one-third filled houses for the two matinees but racked up capacity business for both night shows."

To Review or Not to Review?

Sorry to say,  rosy Circus Report reviews could be numbingly predictable. And predictability does not make for must-read news.  Don fell in line with other fan publications, afraid to alienate his core subscriber base.  He once complained to me about all of the glowing write-ups he was getting of Circus Vargas.  He did not want to print them all, but he probably did.  Another time, he told me of having received a review of Vargas.  “It wasn’t very good, so I didn’t print it.”

Feb. 27, 1966: “I know that you feel things should be iron clad in review with positive like or dislike.  I’m inclined to present the facts and let the reader decide what he thinks.  Guess that I might not make a reviewer for I just like the shows too much.”

He wanted “better reports on shows and such.”   He addressed a subject that would regularly dog him,  that he could never fully resolve, writing to me that it was “also too bad, like the one review when the fellow says the bad was bad that so much uproar results.  It would seem that if it were true you ought to be able to say so.”

He did share with me his unease over rah-rah notices, and stories that went on and on, but he was beholden to a loyal base of contributors, who supplied the necessary content.  He was skittish about asking  writers to cut back on excess.  

Another force that kept him playing it safe were the circus owners themselves,  who took out the ads and were not accustomed to what we might call objective reporting.

Next: The Invisible Red Pen of Circus Oowners ... The Heartbeat of Billy Barton  ...  The  Invasion of Cirque du Soleil  ....

first posted 12.19.19

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: Anger in the In Box ... The Invasion of Cirque du Soleil ... The Heartbeat of Billy Barton ...

Sixth in a series of seven

Prime contributors to the last great circus decade:
John Pugh, Kenneth Feld,  and Cliff Vargas in the excellent 80's

Into the mid-1980s,  Circus Report was riding as high as ever it would go. Came December and Don was facing a surprising parade of incoming ads for the upcoming Christmas issue.   “It has been growing, and right now we are looking at 56 pages, so it will easily grow a bit more.”

Rival upstarts  had come and gone.  November 2, 1985:  “So far I have outlasted all of the other attempts to put out a paper, including the magazine in England called ‘Performer.’ It closed after 4 issues.  One thing in my favor I think is that I can keep things cheap since it is only me and everything is done right here – if someone has to pay help and a printer, etc. then it certainly does get to be costly.”
Big Top Bullies
Growth, of course,  meant more ads, and with it, more pressure to please the advertisers. In deed, anything less than the expected feel-good coverage might drive a show owner over the cliff.  How dare he!   And they called him.  And they rattled him.   Some  even practically demanded that a review or item be retracted.  While he usually did not accede to their childish wants, their rattling kept him closer to playing it nice. Don't believe me?

July 7, 1986: “I had a call from the Gatti show saying they were really upset over the article that I had about their show in the recent issue - the item was titled ‘circus on the move’ I thought it was a nice article and said good things about the show.  Now they want me to run a bit that the show is much better than was described, etc.”

“So, like I said there is no way to please everyone and at times I’m too thin skinned for some of the backlash on things. Try to do a good job and what do they do, they kick you anyway.”

Another caller the same week, wrote Don,  “says I’m losing some credibility of the show folks because I print such glowing remarks about Toby Tyler by and then don’t print any bad things.”

Precariously Yours

Between 1973 and 1984, I turned out about a dozen pieces for Circus Report,  some feature stories, some reviews-- none of which, by the way, he ever made any moves on editing. The story I am proudest of was a profile of Dory Miller, drawn from a generous interview  he granted me. My favorite quote: “Nobody is disappointed in the AM.”

Nothing I ever wrote  – in fact nothing ever published in the Circus Report, to my knowledge ---drew such vitriol  as did my looking back piece on the passing of Irvin Feld,  The Uncertain Legacy. Virtually all the raging letters came from those employed by the Feld organization.  Star witness for the professionally offended took out a full page ad:

Did it hurt? Of course, it did. Deeply. Was I really that  wretched a soul?  Perhaps the most hazardous thing about writing is trying to  tell the truth.

“What is interesting," wrote the ever-calm Don to me on December 3, “is that I have had several calls from folks saying they thought the article was right on an all.  However, they didn’t want me to to use their name or to put their comments into print.”

In fact, there were a few readers unafraid to go on the record, J. Scott Pyles calling it “the finest analysis of the man I’ve ever read.”

Have Typewriter - Will Fly

If there was a “star” contributor to the Circus Report, that would certainly be the flamboyant cloud swing aerialist  Billy Barton – dubbed "Mr. Sensation" by his long time friend Mae West. He might have become the Rex Reid of the big tops had he not been so deeply entangled in the circus community.  Billy penned a weekly column of light gossip delivered with a sense of urgency, and he  made you want to read him.  He did me.  He gave the paper a buzz, a touch of flair, a soul if you will, a  reason to read.  And sometimes he took bold stands, intelligently advanced.  Some samples:

Animal Rights Activists: “The real horror story is from England.  Animal acts are no longer permitted in metro London, where Austin Bros. circus was victimized when animal rights activists literally set fire to a horse tent and destroyed the horses, justifying their barbaric behavior with the remark that they were better off dead than with circuses!”

Cliff Vargas:  On his passing away in 1988, "He not only rekindled public interest in the nations big tops, but single-handedly resurrected a fading industry and instilled it with a glamour and excitement heretofore lacking.”

Cirque du Soleil: Addressing the show's top guns for snidely disparaging the American circus, especially the Ringling show: “It’s easy to be disdainful of the North American circus when you don’t have to fight or struggle for existence, when you have government support and private funds as a nice cushion ...  No one resents their presentation.  What we resent is their attitude, and their rude unwarranted remarks.  They are guests in our country, and Quebec, after all, is a short trip north across the border.  Let’s face it. We have the Big Apple Circus and Circus Flora, both of which are theme circuses and real circus, and animals! ... I say, Cirque du Soleil, go home. We don’t need you.”

Don covered the remarkable rise of Cirque du Soleil fairly and fully. 

The Last Great Decade:  On July 10, 1982 in Tucson, Arizona, 
Miguel Vazquez became the first flyer to turn a quad.

Several years prior, Barton and Marcks had had a falling out, over exactly what, I can not recall.  I think Don may have passed on one of Barton’s submissions.   A few months passed . September 26, 1983: “Had a letter from Billy Barton who said he would like to come back...Promised he wouldn’t get on the soap box and his column would be gossip just like when he started.”

I wished Barton and stayed on it more.  For, to be fair, many of his columns were fairly humdrum accounts of this and that person signing on to this or that show. Nonetheless, yet another parting of the ways occurred five years later. Billy may simply have been too busy  with his circus performing dates. 

February 22, 1988: “What to you think about Barton coming back?  Boy do wonders never cease.  He was was getting back to writing because of pressure from folks who missed his column — but that pressure must have come from others, it didn’t come from me ... One thing, it adds more names and info to the paper than I manage to get in otherwise.”

Billy came back.  And he always signed off, “see you down the road, luv’s.”  However long he lasted this time, I would not be around to know.

Next:  Don's last letter to me, and mine to him.  

first possted 12.24.19

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: The First Issue Out

In his own words, from a voice message to me, 1982:  “In case you forgot, now you know: Tonight's the Ringling circus on channel something or other at eight o’clock.  You  can check that out now.  Also, I wanted to tell you, I got a copy of your book [Behind the Big Top]  in the mail today.”

The phone rang.  I picked up.  Hello?
Hey, got a moment?
Listen to this  ....
His voice, low, secretive, discreetly  amused by juicy gossip
Big flare up at Ringling. Concello is out
You’re kidding?  I said that a lot.  Best way to extract more.
North blew a fit over in Paris
Tell me what happened!

And we talked. And talked.  Was there ever a more interesting subject than circus during the creatively and organizationally turbulent years of John Ringling North?

In some ways, thank you Ma Bell, it was more fun talking to Don by phone  than face to face.   Maybe the one-on-one secrecy of a Ma Bell connection made everything feel more confidential. We lived close enough to avoid long distance bills. And so we talked.

And I got to respect the way his mind worked.   Remarkably, when it came to politics and current affairs, Don was placidly calm, as if he had been born naturally objective, as if  nothing out there could ruffle him. Well, maybe except me, once.  And how refreshing were his calm observations during those volatile years in American politics,  I never knew what poetical party he might belong to. This bent of nature would serve him well when he turned the love of his life into a little weekly paper.

In covering this chapter in his life, incredibly  ALL of his letters to me from the 1970s are missing.  The fact that I have not a single one tells me they are all together somewhere in a folder, if still in my midst.  So, some the following details may be inaccurately recalled.

Sometime in 1971, the White Tops offered Don the job of editor, and he was mulling it over, frequently with me on the phone.  I was surprised that he did not not jump.  At the time, however, as I now hazily recall, Don had been batting around the idea of putting out a weekly paper.  The White Tops offer knocked him off course for a bit, and we hashed it over at length.  He wondered how he could handle editorships of two publications.  Possibly the CFA got wind of his other idea, for, to Don’s acute consternation, they withdrew their offer — or worse, simply dropped communications and he found out from a third  party. Whatever had happened, the about face did not go down well with Don, and that’s putting it mildly. He felt betrayed.  At the same time, it stiffened his resolve to move ahead with some kind of a weekly.

The first issue of The Circus Report came out on January 10, 1972.  Its humble graphics barely passable, it consisted of three 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper, stapled on the top left hand corner.  Top of page one, .Vol. 1, No. 1:

On page 3, NEW LAW: “One frequently hears the question ‘how come all the shows are going out to the Cow Palace?’” The story was about a new San Francisco city law to keep hippies and hippie caravans off the streets.  Circus caravans that  parked outside the civic auditorium got lumped in with long hair squatters.  The Cow Palace, in Daily City, did not have a hippie problem.

Reported Don, “Polack Bros. Circus was was the first show to feel the wrath of the city fathers.  They were forced to commute from out of town trailer courts for each performance during their brief run here in May.”

On page 5, WE START This is the first issue of “The Circus Report” which will be published on a weekly basis.  We hope that you will enjoy the paper and find each issue of value.  Send $1.00 for a month’s subscription and don’t miss a single copy. 

There was but one lone  advertiser in that first issue:

Tape music from the Ringling Barnum Circus while under canvas.
Send details to

Guess who? Clue. The advertiser lived in Oakland.

Just getting the weekly printed, stapled and addressed gave Don choice satisfaction. A weekly roll to ride.  A weekly challenge. To his advantage, he would quickly manifest a trait that  many other would-be publishers did not  possess: He delivered on time.  He never went to third class mail, mainly to avoid having to annually disclose circulation figures.

Subscribers gradually trickled in. Within weeks, Don was listing circus routes, perhaps the paper’s most valuable feature for both show owners and fans  But the ads did not roll in that year nor the next.  In fact, they were a long time in coming.  Circus Report endured a long slow crawl to prosperity.

During the second year, on July 2,  Don made a format change that would, for me, define my favorite Circus Report size.  He printed off legal sized paper, and made a fold, producing a  7" wide by, 8-1/2 “ high size.. 

In time, Don had ample advertisers, and he would note a  disparity between pro and amateur.  The fans wrote all articles and reviews.  The circus owners took out all the ads..   And those advertisers would come with pushy expectations, believing  that their shows would not be knocked or even slighted by reporting or reviews.  These owners and their loyal acolytes  lived in a world insulated by fan worship. A world that even The Billboard shied away from objective reviewing.  Don’s advertisers were accustomed to being loved and rarely if ever questioned.  They were, kids, a spoiled lot. 

On occasion, when Don dared to depart  script, the phones rang and all hell broke lose. Never as loud as when an earthquake of vitriol slammed something I had written for Don, throwing us both for a loop.  Blame it on White Tops Editor Walter H Hohenadel, who first published me at age 14, and let my nit picky cracks stand. 

NEXT: To review or not to review?  Never-ending circulation struggles ... Covering animal rights and Cirque du Soleil.  Half staffing  the office, and Billy Barton.

first posted 12.19.19

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: How We Met

As the Circus Report nears its finaly iasue in December,  I will be posting a series about the Don I knew for many years. They are now laid out here one after the other, in the order in which they were first posted

No single image anytime in my life that I can recall, captivated me so instantly and fully as did what I saw in the window of the Western Auto store down Fourth Street in Santa Rosa.  I might have been ten-years-old at the moment of conversion into the world of sawdust and spangles. 

There, behind the glass, my spirit was captured by the spectacle of model circus wagons standing atop flatcars.  The shapes.  The bright gaudy colors.  The look  of a wondrous world coming into town! I’d never seen anything like this in my life. 

I went back to Western Auto, everyday, to stand and stare at the magic. To study the  wagons. To marvel at the festive decorations . And then, Marcks Circus was gone.

Not long after, I learned what balsa wood was at the Toy and Model Shop of Fifth Street. I learned how to use exacto blades and tester’s glue.  I taught myself how to  cut pieces of wood and fit them together to form my own crude circus wagons.  Both Playland-at-the-Beach, across the street from where I was raised in San Francisco,  and the Marcks Circus would compete for role-model attention and space when a  4x8 slice  of plywood was installed by the family in our garage.  My own private workshop!

In a year or so, I was riding a bus from San Francisco, across the bay, to a town called El Cerrito.  Once it reached San Pablo Avenue, I had been told to look for Mechanics bank. Ask the bus driver!   He let me off on the corner, and I walked up to Oak Street,  turned right, and looked for 525.

Don Marcks, maybe 15-20 years my senior,  was a rather solemn soul, yet ready to share samples from his collection, if at a slight remove.  He walked me out to a large shed across the backyard grass, invited me in, and proceeded to open drawers, and remove sample wagons.  I got to hold a few in my hands.  I could have gone through the whole lot, but he made this first visit more of a sampler.  Maybe he wanted not to soil the mystique.

We became friends, thanks to his friendly letters and sharing spirit..  In some, his unfiltered opinions about circus shows leaked through, which assures us that circus fans did hold sharp views, however privately held.

October 19, 1955: “Yes I saw the Ringling show this year several times for I was in Seattle, Richmond, San Francisco and Los Angeles on the show .... As for the specs, they could drop them without anybody noticing it. [I did not agree!] ... I felt they had some very good acts and thought the show was good except that it was too slow and too long.  Without a doubt it could have been speeded up and cut at least an hour off the time. Boy to sit and watch a circus for three hours for the public is a long time and I don’t care what anyone says, those seats of theirs are the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever sat on”

I think it was closer to  2-1/2 hours, but without an intermission, the complaint was valid.  For myself, I could have watched it many more times.  It gave off a certain subtle enchantment. 

As for the frugal seats of one Arthur M.  Concello, for sure they were not designed to pamper. Even I, at age 14, felt a bit cramped.  Which makes me wonder, for the first time,  if some patrons remembered the confined seating and were thus less inclined to return in following seasons? I actually have fond memories of the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. chairs. Grand!

“Will probably see you when my show is displayed in Antioch next month”

 On another of his display dates, I went with him to help set the whole thing up.

A couple of my early wagons, on display at the Toy and Model Shop, in Santa Rosa

Don often offered me excess or superseded parts of his own model.  Jan 28, 1956: “Just got to thinking and I do have a few ½ inch scale ring horses that you could have if you wanted.  They are in various positions and are brown. ... There will be a small indoor circus at the high school in Petaluma.  I plan to attend and if you should perhaps be there I’d bring along the horses along the horses for your then — Let me know for sure about this?"

My scale was closer to 1/4", and so I found his figures rather heavy, and somehow they didn’t fit my layout.  He did give me some (very heavy) wheels that did fit my wagons. He was then switching over to plastic.

Oct. 13, 1958:  “Show [Ringling] definitely lacks something ... Perhaps it is the poor band .... and the fact they don’t announce much stuff... However, one must admit that they still have more and bigger than any show on the road.”

We grumbled for many years over the demise of Ringling-Barnum under canvas, and were thus, I believe, prone to be more critical of the indoor shows that followed.

Wagons I made in my mid to late teens. What a difference Don's donated wheels made.
His letters were typed out, single spaced, and most of them needed another two or more pages . And in some, I can’t spot a single typo! I have dozens of them, and they all will eventually reside in my archives at Illinois State University, under the aegis of the Milner Library's Maureen  Brunsdale.  Don Marcks will never be forgotten there.

Next: Going to the Circus with Don

first posted 11.8.19

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: Chasing Big Tops Together

“I always have mixed feelings about the Ringling show and am sometimes not too interested in seeing it.  Mainly I guess because it seems there isn’t anyone there I know and I much prefer to visit than just sit in the seats and watch the full show,”  
                      --  in his letter to me from October 22, 1989

He often offered to drive or to meet me at circuses playing in the area, though never once did I actually watch a circus performance with Don.  Usually — and this was fun, I will admit — we would nonchalantly wander into the backyard, as if being “with” the show, merge with the actual staff and continue right  on in through the back door.   Victory!  Free seats!  Oh, the thrill of the illicit walk in!

Sidewall Champs

We all did it. Another circus friend and fellow Santa Rosan, Hugo Marquardt, was with me at the fairgrounds, where Carson & Barnes was playing.  We were sauntering along the edge of the tent, heading  towards the back yard.  Hugo raised his hands in applause mode, and giddily sighed -- lampooning a CFA mantra about paying your way in  --  “We clap as we go!”

The Carson and Barnes show I saw in 1966-67 holds a special place in my memory bank of great circus performances.  The vibrant program bubbled and bounced as if on air, the rings rich in talent,  the band a rollicking treat to the ears.  

Perhaps Don had taught me well.  In my youth, I relished being able to slip through anonymously.  I practically walked into the Oakland arena when the Russians were playing there.  Talk about class crash.  Well,  my bank account held a near zero balance. That was my excuse then. What was yours?

My most disillusioning experience with Don was the time he offered  me a ride to Carson & Barnes, which was playing in an East Bay location that would have required my taking  two or three bus rides to get there.  Relief!   As it turned out, he went the day before — he often planned to spend several days around a circus lot — but evidently was not  nearly as well received as he might have expected.  So he called up to tell me that he would not be going. That felt cold.

Or maybe he had encountered insulting indifference to a Circus Report pitch.  He was forever struggling to sell new subscriptions, in order to replace a continuous stream of non-renewals.

 One to Hob Nob, One to Nit Pick

When we did go together, he escaped our company the moment we entered, and vanished – somewhere  into that special space where show people lived and worked.  I would sit out and watch the show, and meet up with  him afterwards.  He lived for the validation of circus peple.

May 18, 1983: "Was in Wally Naughtin's trailer  when there was a knock on the door and in walked Vargas. He acted like he was happy to see me.  Another time he was going through the backyard and came over to tell me that he had been selling tickets and said, do you know the people who buy those tickets are crazy."

There I am at Graham Bros. Circus, 1966.  Maybe Don was somewhere in the backyard.

I recall his once actually finding me in the mezzanine seats — we both happened to be at  Ringling in the old Oakland Auditorium.  Plenty of spare chairs that day. He sat down next to me and grumbled a little, something about the show.  He must have been not very welcome that day.

Getting the Bauman Bounce 

The Felds were none to thrilled by invading circus fans.  In a particularly revealing letter, dated August 24, 1984, Don  wrote of how unwelcome he was suddenly made to feel when, while walking up a ramp at the Cow Palace between the backyard and the arena, he was confronted by a former center ring star, now the performance director:
    “Guess what.  Charlie Bauman told me to get out and I didn’t belong there.”

    “I’ve often heard from others that Bauman is a very difficult man to get along with and he has been rough on others who come to visit.  Even to the point of going up in the seats and telling them they have to leave and can’t have a free seat at the circus.”

    “He never does look anything other than grouchy.  He must have a miserable life”.

    Or maybe the Felds had been hounding Mr. Bauman to do the job?

 Sometimes, when having gone to a circus on my own, from my seat in the audience I would spot him down by the performers entrance, standing there with his arms folded, lost, I supposed, in a dream of being One of Them — maybe the big boss himself.  Of being with it and for it.


Next: Don at his day job, and on the road with his local Variety show.

first posted 11.18.19

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: Journalist to Variety Show M.C.

Hey there!
Hi, there!
Time to sing
time to raise the roof!
Show time
Go time
This is no time to be aloof!
       California Varieties           
That’s our show, and we’re on
So, welcome and cheers ...
Here’s Don!

The above was composed in one take by yours truly, on the backside of an Econo-Car Rental System Inspection slip – my day job at the time.  It might have been the opener for the amateur revue that Don produced and booked into various community venues throughout  Northern California.  He had local singers and dancers, maybe a comedian, a good little local home grown dog act.  And did a little plate-spinning.

“I was thinking about your recent show at the college and wondering why you don’t write something for me to use in the shows we do?     2/27/66

Well Don, how about that?

No, not about that, David. Without hardly a comment, he stayed aloof to the shameless rouse I had offered his stage entrance. 

In tone an temper, Donald Marcks, born in Pittsfield, Mass, was closer to a bookkeeper — or pastor —  than ringmaster.  Think somber.  Is there a soul dead who ever left behind as few photos of themselves as did Don?  I know of only one.  But then, while digging up info for this post, I found a second photo, right down there!  Looking back, I wonder if he lived on a low-laugh diet.

The old Key System terminal in San Francisco.

By day when I met him,  he worked as managing editor of the one-man office of The Guide, a daily shipping newspaper based in San Francisco, its history dating back a hundred years. To get to The Guide from the Key System bus and train terminal in the city, Don took long strides at the breakneck speed of a race track trotter. I should know, for I once met him at the terminal, and trailed him, panting all the way to his workplace.  He answered phones, took down news items and wrote them up, and set them in type on a Linotype machine. Then to a small press, and into the mail and to distribution points around the city.  .   

In many ways, he supported my writing ambitions. He later encouraged me to consider penning a column for the paper. We called it Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.  In tone, perhaps deferring to my no-pay employer, I turned out my most restful prose ever.  This venture  lasted through about three months.  I don’t know why it ended.

Don Marcks now and then dabbled in writing himself.  I can only guess that he never took any ideas very far because he was too bottled up inside.  Too afraid to disclose.  He did disclose quite  a lot to me in his numerous letters, impeccably typed out, some going on for three pages, many without a single typo! .I have a note from him in which he announced how his marriage (the first one) did not work out and was thus annulled.  He seemed accepting of fate, without any show of emotion one way or the other.
I always felt a certain holding back, a puritan restraint? Or maybe it was something about me.  Once, he blew up at me on the Kelly-Miller lot in Petaluma, over something I was being critical over.  And I did go on, and so I rather understood his explosive ire that day. I had to respect him for putting up with me.  We remained friends.

On the social side,  Don’s California Varieties, a showcase for eager young amateurs,  gave him a break from circus obsessions. He did a little plate spinning and was the show’s straight-faced MC.   He also would change coats several times through the program, a rare show of flair for Don.   

Sometimes I rode with him to one of the dates.   Many were at rest homes, some on military bases or at  small county fair fairs.  Nice good people.  One of his best friends was the woman who trained the dogs.  She also lived in El Cerrito, and spoke freely and openly.  A city adult.  After the shows, my favorite part, the company would adjourn to a nearby restaurant. Since I had grown up in a church where the performing arts where encouraged, I could appreciate spending time with these kind of people 

 Don wanted his variety show to become  bigger and more professional.  While I was on the road, in 1969, ahead of James Bros. Circus as press agent, in a letter to me, he excitedly raised the subject of my helping him promote California Varieties as a fund-raising venture for local groups.    “I think [there ] could be a field here for us which would give everyone some money ... (but no phone crews).”

I made a big effort out of it, talking to many local churches, following up, calling back, reminding.  Gradually, I had to let go of our not-very-strategic game plan. 

Don should have hired a phone man.


Next: Rise of The Circus Report

first posted 12.2.19

Remembering Circus Report Founder Don Marcks: End of the Road

Seventh and last in a series 

Don in the 1970s

The day was Sunday. Don Marcks did not know that I spent my 50th birthday with him, at his house.  I did not play up my birthdays.  I had more intimate friends, and there was always that reserve about  Don, but we shared circus, the reason for my having invited myself over, as I had many times before. 

Now, that is how I intended to open this post, but that is not exactly true. I discovered, when returning to my weekly At-A-Glance booklet for the year, a more  specific reason for my seeking  Don’s company: This I wrote: “Why Marcks?  Because I’ve known him longer than any of my other friends, and we share circus”

I point this out because, memory alone can be a careless editor, which is to say that some things in these posts may be inaccurate constructions of what actually happened.  Oh, how a  single document can be such a beautiful thing!
Our personal lives were rarely if ever discussed other than Don now and then talking about a woman he was trying to date, or more likely, hoping to.  His romantic pursuits felt to me a bit more like a pattern more than a passion.

Aches and Pains -- and More

The most intimate encounter I ever had with  Don was in the ICU at Doctor’s Hospital in Richmond, only a few miles from where he lived. He had survived some medical crisis — he would suffer many — and was hopefully on the mend. I could tell it had shaken him to the core.  He looked into my eyes almost with tears, and practically reached out to hold my hand, and, as if making a sacred vow, promised to continue on and make Circus Report even bigger and better than ever. I knew it was the great love of his life.

He almost never took a vacation. And rarely, to my knowledge, exercised.  The only time that Circus Report subscribers missed copies was when Don was hospitalized, usually announcing in advance of having to take so many weeks off. He suffered many medical problems through the years.

    Resisting Rivals

Don did have an ego. He coveted his position in the CFA, as a prominent and maybe senior member of the  Joseph Andrew Rowe tent. So prominent, that when another local fan, new I think to the CFA, made waves about wanting to reboot the dormant group, Don spoke harshly of the fellow – as if a move was afoot to topple his position. 

Don  grew suspicious of people offering to help out with Circus Report.  Two locals from Berkeley wrote him with such an offer, the implication being that there would be someone to carry on when his time had passed..

Nov. 6, 1983:  “She says I ought to relax the strings a bit and not work so hard, but I’m not in favor of their helping out ... I keep getting the feeling they just want to see how things are done and go get a chance to see what money comes, in. etc.”

The next time I visited Don  he brought up the matter, pulling out the letter.  I encouraged him to consider that their motives might be genuine.  And there before my eyes, he tore it up almost in a peevish fit, and threw it into a waste basket. 

The Gift of Praise

The greatest compliment he ever gave me was to bring up the subject of my book, Behind the Big Top, and to tell me how books like mine had never been written before.  More than that, how it seemed to me like he had made a conscious effort to force himself out of his comfort zone in order to make his recognition known.  I regarded this as a supreme compliment, coming from Don.  Touched by the adulation, yet there had been other books, by Dexter Fellows and by William Coup, that candidly covered some of the darker aspects of circus life, such as grift and animal abuse.  Another time, Don offered me my own regular space in the paper for a weekly column. I wrote to him of my gratitude, telling him of my fears that I would write something that got us both in hot water. I had not contributed a single piece since my Irvin Feld story.

 A Long and Long-Forgotten-Why Silence
There came an impasse between us, a wordless falling out if you will.  There had been no arguments, nothing dramatic, just perhaps, on both sides, a growing number of  irks and perceived slights forming a mass of vague, lingering resentment.  Either of us could easily have lifted the phone and dialed the other’s number, and likely, the conversation would have flowed on.

In his last letter to me, dated Dec. 3, 1995, Don ended by talking about a showboat model he had been working on, having discarded one and now considering a second try at another: “Only recently found some folks who have knowledge of the thing, because of their study or River Boats  - who knows, it might arise from the ashes, as they say.”

We never arose from our own ashes.  I have no letters from him during all of 1996, not a single one.  Which even intrigues me to try recalling what might have silenced our dialogue

My subscription came up that year for renewal in October. $40 a year.  I had grown, frankly, a little  disengaged by the papers particular style  — unless there was something he had done that set me off and hastened the cancellation.  In the last issue I have, Oct. 28, 1996, Billy Barton’s column is missing. Perhaps he had been gone for some time.

And so I decided to spend my money, instead, on the Bandwagon, and in a brief note, dated 10/22/96, made this known to Don, singing off  “Good luck on CR’s future ...”

Yes, I know, the sound of betrayal.

Seven years later, Don Marcks passed away.  He left behind his widow, Martha.  I believe she was the woman at the post office who had through the years been of great support to Don in his weekly send outs. 

                      A Circus Auctioned to the Wind

Truly saddest of all, Don left his model circus to Richard Tuck’s then-in-the-planning Playland Not at the Beach on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerritos, where it would be displayed in separate cases. And when the museum closed in 2018, the circus, like every thing else, was auctioned off in sections.  A terrible pity that it could not have been offered to a single entity, such as one of the circus museums.

The house at 525 Oak Street  is no longer recognizable as the one I knew when I visited Don.  The large side yard of grass upon which stood the old shed where his model circus was kept, is now a faded pink, one-story motel-like apartment house. In that long-gone shed, a  twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy had once stood in rapt awe while  the builder of the wagons opened large trunks to take out one, and then another, for the boy to see and to hold.  To his eyes, they were the most magical objects he had ever seen.  And from that same house on Oak Street, for thirty four years there had gone out a weekly circus paper to subscribers near and far.

Bill and Jan Biggerstaff bought Circus Report after Don died, and did a fine job of keeping it in circulation, twice a month, for the next nineteen years.  Now it, too, is history.

And thus, the story of my friendship with fellow circus fan Don Marcks comes to a close.  One day maybe, I will be on a bus going up  San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, and get off to walk up to Mechanics Bank on the corner of Fairmount --- where I got off a bus one day long ago, to walk five blocks up and make a left on Oak.

P.S. today at 4:35 PM, I just went down to my mail box to find the last last issue of Circus Report. It feels so bleak and sad, like a defining death that I can't put into words. I don't want to put into words. As if, trying, some kind of a reigning light above the whole of what we had has gone out. Thank you, Bill and Jan,  for keeping it going as long as you did.  Goodbye, Circus Report, good bye.


All of Don’s letters will eventually join my archives at Illinois State University’s Milnar Library, under the direction of Maureen Brunsdale.

first posted 12.31.19