Tuesday, December 31, 2019

OUT OF THE PAST: The Most Unlikely Friendship, Formed in the Church of Sawdust and Spangles

 First posted March 22, 2012

Down there from the window of the train, that old broken down two-story white house looks as stranded and unwanted as ever. The tree in front is crowding out the rickety stairs I once climbed to visit him, up there where he’d appear behind the screen door, half a minute maybe after I'd press the bell.

He’d stand there, austerely, ushering me quietly inside, I’d take a seat in the spare living room, and he’d sit down across from me. A few paintings on the walls. We both waited for the conversation to begin. Always something about circus got us reconnected.

Never, that I recall, was I offered anything to eat. Maybe an apple. Maybe a glass of water, brought to me by his kindly mother, who rarely issued a word.

She stayed back in the kitchen or somewhere else.

Gradually, he’d soften down and let go with his latest scoops — “Hey, did you hear about the big blowup over on Beatty?...” He’d check the expression on my face, waiting, I assumed for me to egg him on. “A prop hand was caught with the wife of the guy who, oh, what is his name? — he runs the concession stand.” He laughed a little, his austerity melting away. “Boy, what a mess over on Ringling. A big beef over the Hannefords. I think they're gone."


"That's what I hear," he said, discretely amused.

After maybe fifteen or twenty minutes of these pre-show intrigues, he’d say, “I got some new stuff downstairs I can show you, if you want.” That was the cue. Onto my feet I sprang, following him through the kitchen, out the back and down another set of stairs for the Big Show. Downstairs in his stolid house felt like a dank bare basement, even though it was on the ground level. In a small room through the usual clutter one finds in basements, there stood a bed to the left as you entered, a large work desk against the far wall to the right. On the desk were the model wagons he was building. He was always working on something. He liked to show me his latest. That's how we had met, when I saw some of his wagon on display in a department store window in Santa Rosa, and a few years later wrote to him.

After examining his wagons in progress, he’d tell me to follow him, out through the clutter into another room, this one filled with boxes of circus magazines.

He’d show me the latest copy of Bandwagon, thumbing dismissively through its pages. “Look, what is there to this? Not much.” I don’t know why he was so negative; maybe he had submitted articles that they had rejected. In his hands, the White Tops got a little more respect; well, they printed his very compact write-ups of circuses that came through, which amounted to a mere listing of the acts. Which in some ways sums up how repressed in other areas of life he may have been.

And then, some years later, he became a publisher himself. We’d spend hours on the phone talking about his desire to start up some kind of a circus magazine or paper. He finally purchased a small printing machine and went to work at it. He’d call me up regularly, or I’d call him. It was fun going back and forth — all the circus stuff on the side, and then we’d sometimes take up current events away from the tents. Surprisingly, he was a pleasure to talk to about politics, because he seemed not to be pinned to any party. As Puritan as he struck me, yet he mind was flexibly open.

He took all sorts of pills. He was plagued with many illnesses; a few times when he was hospitalized, once in ICU, I took the bus out to visit him. He became very emotional, revealing how much his publication meant to him.

He worked tirelessly to build up circulation. I think the highest he went was around 2,400 subscribers — which would have probably topped all the other circus publications at the time. But I don’t think he stayed there for very long. He sent out free copies every week to bring in new subscribers. He fought to sustain his subscription base. He lived in fear of emerging potential competitors.

This became his life. His undying passion. He loved the cycles of publication, loved getting new equipment. During one of my visits, he showed me something I’d never seen – the PC mouse. He had purchased an Apple computer on which to compose pages his Circus Report. Yes, Don Marcks, who lived at 525 Oak Street, El Cerrito, CA.

For maybe a dozen years before his death, we had fallen into a wordless estrangement. No details from me, for he can’t answer back. Maybe we both contributed.

Don and I were about as opposite as you could get. He once told me, as if wanting to validate something I had done, "that book of yours, Behind the Big Top, they never wrote books like that before." I was not sure how correct Don was. But, coming from him, I took it as a great compliment.

Another time, at the end of one of our visits, he pointed to a small blank space on the back page of his Circus Report, large enough for a concise weekly column. “That could be yours,” he said.

I was genuinely touched. But I knew it would not work. Invariably I would say something that would set off a storm of protest (it had already happened once in his pages), making life not any easier for Don. In a thank you note I wrote to him, I expressed both my appreciation and apprehension.

Some years later, I let my subscription lapse, with a short friendly note.

And now, I am returning. Fate is something that has always intrigued me, for I believe in it. Last week, I had made up my mind after a lot of going back and forth -- having seen a copy of Circus Report that Ken Dodd had sent me -- to resubscribe.

And then, a few days later, last Saturday came an envelope in the mail from Ken. In it was a copy of the first review for my new book, Inside the Changing Circus. It had been published in Circus Report.

The next time I ride BART out to El Cerrito to catch the bus up to Santa Rosa, I will be looking out the window as the train passes by that old dilapidated house down there, as I always do, wondering when if ever it will show signs of life. Lately, it appears that somebody is at work trying to do something with it, either to knock part of it down or conduct major repairs. There are piles of lumber here and there. But whomever they are, I don't see evidence of hospitality for anybody anytime soon.

The tree branches crowding out the front steps are only growing more dominant.


With the end of line for Don's Circus Report, this December, I may be posting a few pieces about my times at his home, on the phone, and at circuses.


Friday, December 27, 2019

Circus Staggering Into 2020: Say Goodbye to One Dreary Decade, But Don’t Put Your Dreams Away - Not Yet

Sequence 8 from 7 Fingers 
New Circus companies combines diverse forms, 
including aerial  and acrobatic arts 
FACING 2020 feels more to me facing a  new century.  Blame it on my having lived through too much disappearing circus history in the last ten years —  or did I inherit this feeling the moment Kenneth Feld announced that he was shutting down Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey for good?

SO MANY CLOSINGS give me pause, and you, too?, to wonder if there is to be a future for what is now more frequently being called  “traditional circus.” I merely call it, pardon me, circus.  Is South Pacific a traditional musical?  Gone with The Wind, a traditional movie?

THOSE TWO WORDS  may mark a condescending dismissal by a class of culture vultures who inwardly despise what circus has meant to the masses.  And so they hold a patronizing stance, while waiting for the last dog to leave the tent, the last scary clown to renounce his greasepaint and join Old Clowns Anonymous.  Waiting and ready, honing their skills in classrooms and lofts, parks  and on small stages, to make their case in larger venues as the only option left, and therefore, theoretically more marketable to the public at large. Indeed, their day may be upon us.  Read the reviews in CircusTalk, and behold. 

THE TRAUMATIC FOLD fold, two years ago,  of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey opened the gates for “new circus” advocates to assume a greater,  more believable force.  In fact, I think it is far more honest  of them to call themselves “New Circus”  and let “circus” alone stand.  Drop the “traditional.” Some New Circus enthusiasts proclaim to be witnessing a “renaissance” of what they call “circus arts.” This may be so, but it is  not a renaissance  of circus, period.  Need I even try explaining why?

7 FINGERS, a collective among early-day innovators, with roots in the old Pickle Family Circus,  set out to humanize the face of performers, as if driven to prove themselves well educated, intellectually engaged, and normal.  To make clear that they are not related in any way shape or form to that vulgar  old world of Barnum & Bailey.  The exotic other worldly mystique of circus was purged, clowns and animals removed.  The luckiest of these troupes  are finding some success, albeit with funding, before audiences who patronize theater and ballet.   To its credit, 7 Fingers does not hang “circus” on its moniker, but, to be sure and safe, they talk it up aplenty, obviously to draw in the kind of ticket buyers who want some circus acts but not the circus.  

THE TEST OF WHAT SELLS:  When did you  last see a TV promo from Cirque du Soleil or any other new circus promising any of the following:



CURRENTLY FOR ME, the most interesting thing to observe is how all this will all play out. To wonder if, out there somewhere lurks a showman yet to surface who can make circus thrive again.  More likely, the ageless delight may yet rebound, come a day imagined, long in the future,  when cultural shifts favor the public’s re-embracement of circus’s  defining staples.  Americans may then again accept circus based on a new, more trusting pact between themselves and the owner-producers — a pact more open and transparent where animals may once again be welcome in the tent.

IMPOSSIBLE TO IMAGINE so magical, instructive,  and inspiring an enterprise as animal training being outlawed forever. 

IN RECENT TIMES,  a segment of the young clamor to hear new pop recordings on vinyl, as in LP.   Down at Issues on Piedmont Avenue, near where I live, a surprising show of younger people flock to the shelves, to consider a dazzling array of books and magazines from far and wide. Can you spell p a p e r?

So, too, the circus? 

Circus may be down, but don’t count ten yet.  

To quote Douglas McPherson from London: “Let’s hope these twenties roar like the previous one!”