Saturday, May 30, 2020

Taking my Canon for a Walk on the Street Where I Cautiously Live ...

LATE BREAKING AS I GO TO POST:  Helicopters are rumbling over head.  Last night, CVS here on Piedmont Avenue, which had been boarded tightly up, was broken into and emptied out. Don't tell me these hoodlums and thugs aren't professionals.  Small stores on the Avenue, some seen here,  are also now boarded up.


Here are photos taken by a camera I have fallen back in love with --- my 10-year-old Canon SD780 IS, which I took to China in 2010. Last Saturday morning, I  walked up and down Piedmont Avenue, to snap images of the devastating impact of Corona on a number of small businesses, the "mom and pop" shops that give the Avenue rich personalized color and culture.

The most crushing blow of all, the closing of Issues, owned by two lovely people, Joe, and Noella.   They stocked magazines and books from all over the world.  And the customer base was, surprisingly, predominately younger.

Unable to get any loans to carry on, Noella, seen here, issued a touching farewell on their Facebook page:   "We never wanted to make this announcement. We wanted ISSUES to be a special place in the community forever. We poured our hearts and our souls into ISSUES and Oakland for thirteen years and it was our baby. Again, we are devastated and heartbroken. Thank you for making these years so amazing for us. We never could have done this without all of you. Please take care.With all our hearts, Noella & Joe"

I counted around six to 8  shops on the Avenue that appear to be either closed or on the verge of it

Only a block  down from Issues, Gaylord's now stands empty, too.  It came out of the early 1970s, fostering a funky youthful atmosphere, very laid back.  You'd order at the register, and you could hang out there for hours. Local paintings on the walls, excellent salads and sandwiches. I never thought this place would go dark. 

I went to the Piedmont Grocery over the weekend, the first time in around 10 weeks, just to get fresh Salmon.

At Pete's Coffee. People are very good about honoring each other's six feet.  Virtually everyone wears a mask.

Remember newspapers, and how they once fought for space in the racks?  We are getting closer to  the cold, alienating intersection at MacArthur Boulevard.  

And there it is, the long winding boulevard whose name conjures up the worst images of Oakland.  This is where the wonderful  neighborly look and feel of Piedmont Avenue abruptly ends. Cross the street, and that world is gone.

I hope he's not gone.  My barbershop, with a note on the door stating "temporarily closed". A good sign -- hold that thought, I tell myself.  Recently out of desperation, I raised a pair of scissors to my face in the mirror, and was able to clip away some of the hair around my ears.  I am thinking of asking Van, assuming he returns, to give me a very quick two or three minutes in the chair, just for the essentials, at full price.

Lonely settled morning.  I know that man with the dog, the latter a delight when he wears his little bright red vest and skips on air. And here they are, closeup.

We talked about the closing of Gaylord's.  He said that it seemed to be going downhill the last couple of years, and thinks that we may witness more closings. He is  like many people you pass over the years, to whom you never quite come to introducing yourself.

A picture before and after all viruses

Back to camera talk

Enamored of the sharper detail from my first iPhone, purchased four years ago, I saw no need to carry the Canon with me, hastily letting go of it.

But of  late, four years after I deserted it, I have begun wondering if a camera can be so overloaded with "pixels" as to create impressive images that exceed in detail what the eye actually sees?  That is, if they produce their own dazzling creations, ever more microscopic, rather than honest reproductions? Are the images produced by my Canon more impressionistic?  Or might they also be closer to the truth?  Looking back through the scrapbooks I keep, I marvel at the photos it had produced for me, such as those in China.

Take a close look at the photo, above, of a painting by my grandfather, Carl August Heliodor Hammarstrom, snapped by my Canon.   Notice the faint white streaks above the sun drifting left and upwards? I snapped the same picture on my iPhone SE, which makes the streak more distinctly pronounced, and the sun a little brighter, something I do not see when I stand before the actual painting on the wall. 

And thus, I can say with reason that what I considered might be driven by my sentimental loyalty to things that last and work well, is more than that. And I am left with a re-found respect for this little camera.  How could I disrespect a camera that so accurately captures the subtleties of my grandfather's brush? It feels good to be back with an old friend in my hand.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Lights Out for Ageless Delights? In the Shadows of Death, Two Billionaire Ex-Circus Kings Are Stirring to Reclaim Thrones

Was there ever a season in world history as starved for live entertainment as ours? Corona, the villain whose ultimate destruction is yet to be fully known, has toppled big tops far and wide. Almost daily, down the Covington Chute come links to yet more news of more companies going into limbo.   One of the latest is Oregon-based Wenatchee Youth Circus, founded by Paul Pugh. For the first time in its sixty eight years, the show will not go on.

Even Blondie and Dogwood have finally caught up with the sheltered-in crowd.

From tiny to towering, they are all shut down, and we all know why, for we too have been  shut down.  And now we are venturing back into a risky new world, tired of putting our lives on hold, tired of the conflicting dictates of mixed voices.

A few flickering candles keep a few rings alive in video-land. The Big Kid Circus, run by a Bulgarian couple, gives off a wonderful buzz, the action down to earth, its warm and winning ringmistress, Brit-born Olympia —  she of a circus family going back many generations — shining with simple down-home enthusiasm. Now under lock-down, Big Kid’s  current offering, Cirque de Cuba, is performing online. Some 25 Cubans charmingly dominate a cast of 35, whipping up a snappy pulse with cha-cha dancing and lively spirits. How gracefully they mix with zippy old-fashioned circus fun  Not sure about admission charges. I’d pay a reasonable price to see the show here in my Corona cave.  

Giants can tumble, too.  The plight of Cirque du Sloeil, a victim of vanishing fortunes, offers staggering evidence of incredibly reckless over-expansion.  Many years in the making. Circus du Soleil is so much in debt (nearly a billion) as to make me wonder if they follow the U.S.national debt model for endless borrowing — or printing money on demand.  After repeated bail-outs from beguiled investors in exotic locations, the company now faces possible bankruptcy protection.  95% of nearly 5,000 employees were laid off.  Payments to  “dozens of show creations” were stopped.  Gabriel Dube-Dupuis, a creative director for 23 years, told the New York Times that they owe him “tens of thousands of dollars.

Moody's gave Cirque a credit rating of near junk status.

To their rescue, maybe,  comes the founder himself, Cirque King Guy Lalibterte,  who told Radio Canada that he wants to buy back the show, that he has investors lined up. He spoke of a “relaunch,” without giving specifics.   “We think we’re able to bring back the sacred fire in there.”  The Canadian government is on his side, hoping the company can re-anchor in Quebec.

Can he do it?  His biggest challenge may be a waning customer base suffering from Cirque fatigue. Meaning too much boring nonsense  (lame allusions to theater) and not enough great action (as in great circus)  Critics of the show complained to a New York Times reporter of its ground-breaking novelties having fallen prey to “facile story lines and kitsch spectacle, like acrobats in frog costumes.”  That is an understatement.  I have posted enough on the subject.           

Fate may be setting the stage for an even more spectacular comeback, and one more viable, for billionaire Kenneth Feld, who shut down Ringling  in 2017, is now planning to bring it back, albeit in a new form.  He projected a debut in late 2020, all of this in his own words to Spectacle Magazine on-line.  Are we to believe him?  I have never known of so momentous an announcement meeting with such wide-spread silence.  I can’t find a single other item out there drawing on or matching the Spectacle interview, not even on the CFA website’s running list of news topics.

Kenneth Feld may turn out to have picked the perfect time for a Ringling renaissance. By then, we may have a vaccine.  And by then, Americans will be so starved for live entertainment – and circus is as live as it gets — that they might storm the ticket counters to gratefully re-embrace (stand aside, PETA) circus as as once they did. The Feld of  Felds has a cracking good chance to bring off possibly the greatest comeback coup in circus — heck, in entertainment – history.  Best of all, he does not rely on the Federal Reserve for funding.  He will need to focus on what has given circus its timeless appeal. 

Memo to Montreal, in good faith and high regards, to the Cirque King:  Frog costumes for acrobats? A rest, maybe?  Masks? Lock them up. Better yet, throw them away. You might be forced to discover in yourself yet more creativity — and fire.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Circus Impossible: Summers Go Dark .... Parades Disband ... The Show Does Not Go On .... Death Stalks Vacant Midways .... Elsewhere, Art Concello Stirs Again ...

Once upon a glorious time in America, long long ago

And now ....

Hello Circus Vargas Friends! 
We hope this message finds you safe and above all healthy!
We wish everyone the best of health. Please stay safe. Stay home,  and we look forward to seeing you all happy & healthy under the big top in the very near future!

Welcome to –  for now -- the new normal.  To more of the above.  Welcome to more bad news, as if there was anything more to report. 

Circuses were already, pre-Corona, struggling, nearly gasping for each ticket sold,  each fragile new date gotten through.  Struggling to make “nut” before going nuts.  No doubt, what is a labor of love for people in various other arts who never make a dime (acting in community theater, for one), has already become a new old normal for circus folk.   Even the mighty Cirque du Soleil, a victim of its own insane grow-grow-grow mania, is now skirting the un-pretty edges of bankruptcy protection talk.

If there is to be an exception, it may have to be the Big Apple Circus, whose website contains but  this one meager message:

Big Apple Circus is not currently performing
due to COVID-19 safety and assembly precautions.

Have they already thrown in the towel?  On the surface of things, the show fostered a half-believable success at Lincoln Center  over the winter.  Come the new fall, when Corona may return, and with greater force, how can Big Apple talk enough New Yorkers into dawning masks and spatially crowding themselves, six feet apart, into a small and confining tent?

Salvation in the Great Outdoors?

 Circus Bella in an Oakland park

Over summer grass under a sky of natural blue, the circus will most likely return.  Easier to space patrons safely apart, easier to give them a more healthy-feeling atmosphere.  I have long argued for Big Apple letting go of Lincoln Center, and humbling itself back to the real city parks. Like Prospect.

The circus World Museum, ideally suited to present an outdoor show, yet is not going to be presenting any kind of a show at all, not this June.  Cancelled.  A bit in haste?   No, they are up against what all sporting events are up against: Having to severely limit the number of customers.  But sports teams can simultaneously broadcast on TV, and maybe break even until Corona is conquered. 

If it is true that a circus can actually not go broke by averaging a quarter of a house (Circus Vargas, maybe Carson & Barnes fit this notion), well then, they won't have to change a thing!  And by having to suppress attendance in publicity (Hurry! Hurry! Buy Now! Seats limited to a precious few!),  they might make themselves an in-demand attraction.

Am I dreaming? Will they even come back, ever?  No Baraboo parade.  No circus in June.  No Smirkus, either.  Virtually all the big and little tops are rolled up in canvas that may never be unrolled.

Goodbye and Thank You, Chuck Burnes

Death visits us too,  from Don Covington:  Gone now is long-time Circus Report columnist, one time Ringling clown, Chuck Burnes, who passed away on April 20 at the age of 89.  Chuck was a genuinely nice fellow who spent a lifetime luckily employed in many facets of show business –  co-manager of the Palace Theater, producer of stage shows for Disneyland, Great America, and Knotts’s Berry Farm, among others.  He appeared on television shows, toured around the world with Disney on Parade, and only ever once held a “normal job,” as lovingly recalled  by one of his two sons, Chip, and then for only a year and a half.

Chuck met his wife, Bambi under the big top, when she was a Ringling dancer and aerialist. Many years later, I got to meet them for dinner at a landmark eatery in Hollywood, where we chatted about their years with the Big Show.  They were there when the big tents folded for the last time.  And during work on my book,  Big Top Boss, they had me over to meet with a group of local circus fans and talk about its subject, John Ringling North.  Such good company.   

Reenter Art Concello's Greatest Show on Earth

Another sad passing is that of Mort Gamble, right, on January 29, co-author of a promising book in the works on Arthur Concello. He and co-author Maureen Brunsdale, herself a natural born  mover and shaker who heads up the impressively expanding Illinois State University circus archives and collections, were over half way through their manuscript at the time of Mort’s passing.  Maureen will continue on and see it through to publication. And in so doing, she  will be helping to restore and keep alive one of the most remarkable sagas in American circus management history. Concello, as you in-the-know know, was a virtual king behind the throne of John Ringling North, the two composing a Barnum & Bailey combo.  North, the unstinting showman of lavish and eclectic spectacle and world class acts; Art,  the nuts and bolts genius who made it all work -- and then some.

After the big top fell, in 1956, it was the flyer-turned-manager who single-handedly masterminded a long and tricky transition from big tops to hard tops.   A fact shamefully overlooked in too many so-called history books.  Even from Circus World Museum, in their latest newsletter, in which they pay tribute to Irvin Feld, a major donor, they write, “Feld brought the circus into indoor arenas.” No, he did not. 

Maureen has grown to marvel over the colorful Mr. Concello. “He was brilliant and wily, sagacious and tenacious, loyal and kind – in other words, complex! The cast of characters with whom he worked are an equally curious lot.” Boy, were they ever.

 From center ring to front office, where he became known as "Little Cesar"

Now, on her own, Maureen has typed her way up to and  through Art’s sudden resignation at the end of 1953, when he and North had a falling out over Art’s wanting to cut the show down in size.  He had already been experimenting with indoor dates.  The writing was on the wall.

“In 1950 alone, he was involved with bringing a carnival ride over to the US (the Rotor), buying then building a dog racing track in Havana, Cuba, creating the trailer park near the RBBB winter quarters, and working hard with Paramount men to bring the Greatest Show on Earth to life on the big screen.”

And what a perfect way to end this rather bleak posting. Thank you Art, for the part you played in that great great movie.  The more that things darken in the present. the more I thank God that at least we - and the world that comes after us – have and can find joy in the extraordinary visual evidence of how truly great the American circus was in its heyday.

In the meantime, ring-side seating, sir, for a party of  one ... or two? – and,  would that be with or without masks?