Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Friday, March 27, 2020

Cirque du Soleil Near Bankruptcy ... World Circus Day Nixed ... Caballero Stranded in Parking Lot ..

This just in from Don Covington

(Reuters) - Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group is exploring debt restructuring options that include a potential bankruptcy filing, after it was forced to cancel shows because of the coronavirus outbreak, people familiar with the matter said. 

The famed Montreal-based circus company, largely known for its regular shows in Las Vegas venues, had to temporarily lay off most of its staff after social distancing measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus nixed its performances. 

Cirque du Soleil is working with restructuring advisers to address a cash crunch and its roughly $900 million in debt, the sources said on Thursday. 

Creditors are also in talks with advisers as they prepare for possible negotiations with the company, the sources said. 

Cirque du Soleil has not yet decided how to address its strained finances, the sources cautioned, requesting anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations. The company declined to comment. 

 Cirque du Soleil’s current woes have been exacerbated by debt taken on to fund a $1.5 billion deal in 2015 that resulted in private equity firm TPG acquiring a majority stake in the company. TPG has enlisted its own restructuring advisers to work through the company’s deteriorating finances, the sources said. The private equity firm declined to comment.

Moody’s Investors Service earlier this month cut Cirque du Soleil’s credit rating deep into junk territory and said there was a “high risk” the company would default on its debt. Canceled shows this year are expected to result in steep financial losses for the company “with limited prospects for a tenable capital structure thereafter,” the ratings firm said in a March 18 note.

In other news down the Covington chute: World Circus Day Cancelled, Circo Caballero Stranded in  a Parking Lot.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Walking the Streets of a Shut-Down Town ... Waiting for the Silence to Lift ....

As quiet out there as an iceberg. So like a Twilight Zone.

    “HAVE A GOOD SIX FEET!” I say to strangers amiably (spatially) passing by, and we exchange fast smiles. Mustn’t linger. It might jump the six feet with malice.  It has a mind of its own, and it can multiple in unexpected ways, we are told — something not so unlike an electronics startup turning itself into a giant of nightmare side affects.  Or the new property managers of the recently-sold apartment building in which I live,  who carry on like programed pre-robotic operatives off a space ship.  

   Have a good six feet – the new have a good day – in case you were taking it to mean something else!

    CONTRARY TO THE DRAMA of enforced isolation, we are not confined  24-7 to in-home prisons.  In fact, any of us are free tp go out for  walks, long as we keep our distance.   Though soon, this respite may be revoked.

    STRANGE: ON THE NEARBY streets of Piedmont, such as above,  which I walked yesterday  — love the contrasting architecture — there are never more than a few people whom I might pass, and it’s hardly any different now.  Maybe the sheltered in are working out between home theaters and drone ports.
    MOST OF LIFE has been ordered to a standstill, church services silenced, even roller coasters hushed   The opposite of when I was a wee thing during WWII, hearing sirens in the night (San Francisco’s fear of Japanese invasions that never arrived). By day, the Big Dipper roller coaster at Playland-at-the-Beach, just across the street, bolted with reckless force, clattering and screeching and  roaring on through the war years, sailors on leave or about to be sent off, and their make-do girlfriends, screaming their heads off in vague fearful abandon, not knowing what lay ahead – if anything.

    MY UNCLE SMITTY  managed the Dipper. My dad, seen here, right, and my uncles by night manned the grips.  In the surging distance across the Great Highway, blew the soft eternal moan of the Pacific Ocean, its incoming waves a never ending reminder of things eternal.  The war years were a boon to Whitney’s great sea side amusement spread.  Laughing Sal at the fun house laughed her woozy  head off, as if stuck in a marathon party.

    PEOPLE STILL WENT about their work, nothing stopped.  My Mom bought some of our groceries at a different store, where the wood shelves were plainer, and she handed the man coupons from a little book.  And after the war was over, I remember standing on a street curb downtown, where a great parade was passing by, and watching my father in his Coast Guard uniform marching proudly in it.  There was a great feeling of victory and relief in the air.

    HAVE A GOOD NETFLIX. Today, we have been ordered inside, and immersed more than ever in the electronics of bogus friendship and video game addiction., movies on demand, almost anything on demand.  Within moments, at your front door.  The United States of Amazon.

Besides which, we may also be spending more time facing each other in the flesh, how novel — driven to restart stalled relations — rekindling a natural caring for each other.  Real friends and real family come through, this I can vouch for.  So many best friends have passed on over time. And yet still, I am lucky.    

    SAID A LITTLE BOY to his mother, a New York psychoanalyst, “Mommy, I like coronavirus because I get to spend time with you.”

Might this kid be so starved for non-analytical affection, that he may one day himself seek the comfort of a paid-friend (psychoanalyst)? Perhaps his own mother, at special family rates?

    MIDWAYS IN MELTDOWN: The circus, remember it?, took yet another blow.  Ringling — planning to reenter sawdust land — “let go” 900 of its 1,200 workforce. Circus du Soleil laid off  95% of its  4000+ employees. This global giant was anyway facing serious set- backs — shows in rehearsal aborted, shows on the road failing to click.  How long before the public tires of what may come to  feel old and dated — the predictable ratio of increasingly fewer great circus acts to the ever more numbing Other Stuff?

    CARSON & BARNES, Circus Vargas, UniverSoul, all folding their tents for an indefinite stand still. Vargas hung in there till the end “Attendance at each performance will be capped at 250 which will allow spectator to maintain ample seating distance, limiting close proximity and contact between members of the audience.” You gotta admire their spirits.

    THE MOST HELLISH thing about this new virus, they tell us, is how devilishly contagions it is. And  when I shop, I have my scarf  over my mouth and nose. And I, though in the older age group at particular risk, yet have not one underlying medical condition. I am blessed with excellent health, and still vaguely afraid like everybody else.

    AND DOWN ON the beaches, here to Miami, carefree younger people who were romping it up in gleeful defiance, now being told the party is over.  They too, are, as it is turning out, at far greater risk than was originally projected.

Have a good new six feet, kids!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Ringling Rebounds: The Headline Thrills, But Details of "New" Greatest Show on Earth Confound ... Kenneth Feld Back Producing

The most famous circus name in the world, off the road now for three seasons, is gearing  to go back on the road, projected  to open as early as late 2021.

“We were so successful with the Monster Jam franchise,” said Kenneth Feld to Ernest Albrecht, “ that we have taken that model and will use it in designing what the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Greatest show on Earth will be.”

Albrecht’s exclusive interview with Feld can be read  in full, in the current on-line issue of Spectacle. Kudos to Albrecht!

This sudden turn of events upends widespread popular belief that the circus was done and gone for good. Many of its animal-rights critics cheered the news, and so did many of those in major media.  As well, a growing consensus was reported on that circus itself is now a thing of the past.  Were Ringling to roar back, the “ageless delight” might surprise and astound the world. Lord knows, it is in dire need of a saving showman.

Turns out the Feld of Felds has not been idle these past years, but regularly  engaged in  talks with many creative people from far and wide,  over  how to reshape the circus for today — whatever can be defined as “today,” it changes so fast.

Why did Feld close the show in 2017?  He places  much of the blame on economic and logistic  hurdles — a claim that sounds a lot like what John Ringling Norh bemoaned  when he shut down the tents back in 1956 and moved the whole thing indoor.   The principle culprit: Trains.  Rail rates became  prohibitively expansive, and a late train into the next town could cost the show missed performances. 

What is so puzzling is that Feld kept his two 60-car monster trains on the tracks as long as he did. It never made sense to me.   He could have easily taken to the road. Perhaps this Feld, contrary to a cynical view of him  held by a certain sector of the circus world – heartless – fell under his own circus fan spell, enamored of sheer size, emotionally unable to let go?

"It is everything we do and always has been.  It was the foundational cornerstone that allowed us to do these other things."

Feld spoke of how the circus, once a vast variety show in three rings, today faces entertainments more focused on  particular items. I thought of our circus-theatre troupes, having reduced the lineup to acrobatics and story telling on a stage.  “Everyone has become a specialist instead of part of a bigger whole like the circus once was.”

“At one time, Ringling Bros. was all things to all people.  That has changed and consequently the way we look at things, and what we see now is that everything is more narrowly focused. “

Yes, and that was the dazzling essence of circus.

So, then, might the new Big Show become mostly an aerial thrill show?  Ground bound acrobatic display?  Modern-day petting zoo?   Since the monster trucks deliver big thrills and profits, all of which seems to have given Feld a new confidence in himself,  I’d vote for something closer to extreme sports than acro ballet behind masks.

But the idea of a franchise is what gives me the gravest pause over a comeback.  The Felds have tried twice to sell bits of circus  along these lines. And failed. They opened circus stores, patterned after Disney, marketing various circus souvenirs.  The public has always regarded circus as that thing that comes around maybe once a year. And two of the circus’s once-enduring, indeed defining  staples — clowns and animals – might be problematical store window displays.

Can Kenneth Feld reinvent  the circus sufficient to lure back a waning populist fan base back?

Had I the chance to ask him but one question,  this it would be:

“How, Mr. Feld, do you define circus?”

The 2017 closing gave him a chance  “to see where it stands in people’s minds. There is still, we feel, a demand for it, and we think we can make it into a larger franchise”.

I hope he is right.   These Felds, commercially speaking one of John Ringling North’s last great finds, had kept the great circus on the road for half a century.  They have millions if not billions to play with.  Most of all, I believe in the positive, that Kenny Fled is still possibly the smartest showman  over sawdust.  “It will emerge as the new Greatest show on Earth, in a very unique manner and fashion.”

Kenneth Feld has been circusing for most of his life.  He can be bold and brilliant. Can invent and make changes. And yes, can do screwy things too. And repeat them.  Truth is, however,  the Felds have never been great as innovators; their genius has resided in making hay and building up the already established properties of others s (Disney, Ringling, Marvel).

Perhaps this time it is a matter of finding a viable blueprint by others (no wonder, he has spoken to so  many people – good for him)  and ballyhooing it into glory.

This marks a tremendous potential turnaround in American circus history, and one hell of a subject to blog about.

Yes, American’s greatest circus is coming to town again!

Friday, March 13, 2020

Circus in Times of Quarantine: Ringling & Barnum Tents Closed Early, 1918 ... Not Going Dark Yet: Circus Vargas, Carson & Barnes, and UniverSoul ...

Update 3/18: Virtually all big stops appear shut down.  This includes UniverSoul, Vargas, Carson & Barnes, Circo Hermanos Vazquez.  Not sure about Cirque du Soliel's many shows.
All Vegas shows go dark, leaving hundreds of circus artists out of work.

Update 3/14, from Don Covington: UniverSoul has postponed its visits to Birmingham and New Orleans. Molla Shrine Circus Cancelled (Hanneford)

These are dark scary times, possibly over-reported  by hyper media coverage.  Even darker for our circuses still straggling to stay solvent, one season to the next.  Broadway has gone dark.  Sports arenas and stadiums are going dark. Schools are going on line, the classrooms dark. Everywhere you go, there is nobody.  Everywhere you look, you look more carefully.  I think I will buy a pair of gloves.

Yet to go dark are our big tops.  As of this moment, among the still trouping: Circus Vargas, promising customers a tent of 250 people max. Carson & Barnes is apparently still making Texas dates through March 29 in San Leon. $18 tops.  UniverSoul is still selling advance tickets.  Of course, things are changing by the minute. 

Back in 1918 during the Spanish influenza that claimed 20 million world wide, and over half a million in the states, Ringling was able to play most of the season, and then was forced to close early, although not that early, on October 8.  Likewise, their separate  Barnum & Bailey title.

By that time, I read in Jerry Apps excellent Ringlingville USA, “cities were canceling events, including parades, sporting events, and church services.  On a single day in October, 851 persons died in New York City.”  

By way of Don Covington, Circus Vargas posted this on its website:
"The health and safety of the public is of the utmost importance and priority. Circus Vargas is stringently complying with all State of California guidelines and recommendations concerning the health and well-being of our audience, artists and employees.

Attendance at each performance will be capped at 250 which will allow spectators to maintain ample seating distance, limiting close proximity and contact between members of the audience.
Extra sanitation stations will be provided and thorough cleaning and disinfecting of seats, railings and surfaces will be completed before and after every performance."

God bless them all.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

In Other Rings: My Broadway Continues to Sell

Royalty statements from publishers  are at their most compelling when issued nearest to publication, when sales, if there are to be many, surge.  Gradually, they turn to token accounts as the years go by and sales naturally wane. 

But sometimes, sales can surprise you delightfully,  as when yesterday I received my semi-annual royalty report from McFarland & Company for Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History, which came out nearly 20 years ago. The book has continued to sell over the years, though the last half of last year gave me a big lift: Nearly 50 copies sold an no returns.  And they aren’t giving it away: $49.00 for both the paper and e-reader editions.  Used copies from other vendors are selling for from $35 to $146.

I have come to believe that if people really want a book, they will pay almost any price.  But you can’t give away a book that nobody much cares about. I have lived through both ends of the spectrum.

The creation of Broadway Musicals followed a decades long journey, begun the early 1990s, when I was collecting, listening to and grading original cast albums.  Since the year 2000 was conveniently up ahead, I began to see a possible book, focusing on cast albums through the century.  My working title became Broadway Scores: A Century of Musicals in Review.  McFarland would revise.

Landing a contract from McFarland marked a big turning point in my life. For now I had embarked on another subject away from the big tops.  This was when landing a contract — from a traditional publisher — was tantamount to landing in a Broadway show. You had a feeling of being discovered, of your work being validated by the pros back east --- that's where most of them were. What a thrill it was, seasons earlier,  to open a parcel from A.S. Barnes & Co. and discover, inside, my first book contract -- for Behind the Big Top!

Today, anybody can publish a book, which I think is a good thing, but no longer do I dare ask “and who is your publisher?”,  not wanting to broach a sensitive subject.  Oh, how more vital and tremendously exciting it was when an author had to find a real publisher. 

Broadway Musicals drew very good notices, though none from major media.  And not a single consumer review.

In one of my early royalty reports, came a stipend for some kind of a subsidiary sale.  It turned out, when I dug deeper, that one of my chapters, The Roads He Didn’t Take, about Stephen Sondheim, was reprinted in full in Gale’s annual Drama Criticism, an academic book that each year profiles the work of four or five major writers.  This I proudly regard as high validation.

Broadway Musicals comes third for me in sales, behind Behind the Big Top, and Big  Top Boss; John Ringling North and the Circus, which share a virtual tie. However, if you factor in discounted paperback copies, Big Top Boss is king, with nearly 4,000 copies sold.

So, once again, after maybe 10 years now, I will read my own Broadway Musicals. Of course, when you know others are reading you, it does make your own read more enjoyable.  I plead human.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Step Right Down to Half-a-Midway! ... Savor Circus History in Fantasy Fragments! ...Anonymous -- Don't Even Try

NINE CARS off the old Ringling train standing idle, nearly forgotten, in a place called Spring Hope (how apt) somewhere in the green of North Carolina, reports the Carolina Journal, revealing a fairly well kept secret. “Few people seemed to know it existed.”

BARABOO, ARE YOU reading? I am still seething (well, not exactly) over John Ringling North’s  not having willed at least one of the great Concello seats wagons to a museum of his choice.  How I would love to sit on one of those small chairs, and recall how not so comfortable it was while I basked in the enchantment of watching the Greatest Show on Earth in 1955.

SPRING HOPE'S Mayor Buddy Gwaltney, joking “We haven’t’ seen any elephants or giraffes running around ... monkeys swinging in the trees, but we’ve got our eyes open!”

HOLD THAT FEELING!   Me has an idea: Half a Midway hosting lost circus icons?  Stray dogs and monkeys, suspiciously talented?  Running around.  Swinging from trees.  The Ringling ghost train, parked imperially along its edge?  Admission free.  Donations on demand.  Odds and ends, props and ring curbs in poetic disarray.  Banners half raised, some full tilt. 

SCRATCHY OLD RECORDS blowing out hot Merle Evans music, like on hot summer days when Americans jammed the tents, laughed at looney clowns, thrilled to spangled daredevils, delighted over amazing animals ... Half a ring somewhere in the midst, now and then half an act in motion before half a dozen spectators. ... Harold Ronk’s thundering voice crisply crashing the air, then half-way fading away ...

AM I OVERLOOKING it by half?  I’d hoist half a tent, and in it host all of Billy Rose’s wonderful movie,  Jumbo. I just saw it the other night — can’t recall seeing it when it came out in 1962 –  I was out of the country then. What a fractured gem. A little too long and unable to end when it should   But so much to love, most of all, seeing agile circus performers flying and jumping, through the air, onto horses, in perfect freedom.

REMEMBER WHEN circus performers were just that, and not “actors” unencumbered, as they increasingly are, by heavy-handed role-playing direction, but wearing their own God-given faces?. Maybe this is what Paul Binder was referring to in affirming the joyful connection between circus performer and spectator..  And why Paul took off the masks that a visiting Cirque du Soleil director had put onto his performers..  The ring action in Jumbo harkens back to an era before the  ballet-theatre crowd began imprisoning acrobats into  PC-refined straight jackets of body movement purity and  “character arc” Before they were called “actors.”

IN JUMBO, came a showmanly young man who swooped through the air on a cloud swing, and took breathless dives with charismatic flair. And there was the reason, I remembered, why I had wanted to see this movie:  Billy Barton!  Among other free-spirited performers on the bill, the Poodles Hannefords rode furiously free, Barbette’s Aerialovelies fluttered their big wings overthe rings.  Pat Anthony and Victor Julian made cameos. The songs of Rodgers and Hart added melodic gold to the mix.. Jimmy Durante was Jimmy Durante.  This from a soft voice  in the beginning:

There was a circus in days of yore
There’ll be a circus forever more..

OKAY, PERFECT segue over or down to you, Feld of Felds: So are you the resurrection and the light?  The “forever more”?  What about that press release issued by one of your own  — check for the name Steve Yarios on your payroll---promising a return of Ringling?  A prank?  Half a trial balloon?  Are you yourself turning into half-a-showman?  I sense an irrational brain behind this, and I am reminded of another irrational brain at work when you blitzed the media over the first female ringmaster signed to blow your whistle, only, a few days later, to then announce the circus was closing for good, half a season in, the following May.

Rent the Tent, but not in Westbury

 SOMETIMES, too, on our vanishing midway, you’ll see half-thriving survivors, still putting out circus shows, such as the Big Apple Circus, promising a return to Lincoln Center in the fall of 2020.
Its strangely barren website lacks a listing of any company names. With an off season now lasting 8 months, the show offers piece-meal options: the big top for rent, “perfect for parties, concerts, photo shoots, and anything else you can dream up.”  And private show buyouts.  So far, they’ve landed a four-day, four-performance date on the stage-in-the-round of Westbury Theatre with what looks like half a show. In half a ring?  Actually, this looks like an ideal indoor venue -- while they're renting out their tent.

In these times, half a show may be more than good enough -- and something, maybe, of a smash hit on Half a Midway.



Comes the time to unwelcome you

Sure, you can be quite smart and knowing, but also profane and more.  One of you – or are all of you the same? —  despises Lilian Leitzel and revels in trashing her figure in the most vile manner.  You blast show owners whom, I assume, did you wrong.  Sour grapes is your middle name.  Some of you are barely veiled animal rights activists. I can spot you a mile away.  Some of you show a savvy grasp of things.  Altogether, I must say, you are a fairly cowardly lot. Collectively afraid of your own shadows?  And why?

Anonymous out there feels ghostly.  The Big A could be me. I am sure it is often the bloggers themselves, but I have never resorted to this pitiful exercise. Some of you have good things to say. Okay, show your face.  Cowardly is no longer an option, and if this midway must stand alone, so be it.  There is something about my decision to do this, and the meaning of social life itself, that feels  strangely philosophical. 

At the bottom feeder end of incoming "commentary," I have grown tired of your smirky put downs and your sneering digs at American circus companies.  And, yes, at me.  I would like to face my critics as they face me.  Then will you deserve the respect of my response.  Whomever you are, none of you will anymore be welcome here  – and don’t favor yourself by feeling smug and satisfied knowing that at least I will even read you. NO, I won’t even read you anymore.  In other words, I will not take the time to “review” what you have sent me before deciding whether to publish or send you to the dumpster.

How ironic, in a land that screams FREEDOM OF SPEECH morning noon and night, so many people hide behind the Big A   Even here, far from a political blog – a CIRCUS blog.  What in the world are you afraid of?   Put your name to your pen and I’ll more likely print you. I can take most of it.

You say you can only get in as Anonymous?  Then do this: STATE YOUR NAME at the beginning of your comment, such as  “from Joe Doe.” Even then, I will probably have to recognize your name in order to admit you through to my speakeasy.

Now, to face the silence. How much longer?   This I know:  Sometimes,  as has been said by others (and to think I once thought I said it first!) Nothing is better than something. Anyway, for those of you who do post comments behind your names, you will continue to be much appreciated.

Farewell, Anonymous.  Better luck ghosting elsewhere.  How about the Santa Anita race track?