Monday, August 31, 2020

Rebounding Brit Big Tops Brace Boffo Bizz: Sell-Out Crowds Cheer Covid-Cautious Circuses of All Manner -- from Drive-Ins to Dine-Ins

Circus Mondao

Once again, back across the Big Pond we go -- for relief and rejuvenation.  Back over there because something is happening over there. Can you count 15?  There may be that many circuses now playing UK dates   More than half of their seats are off limits to customers, but the other third or so are getting filled up fast.  This by way of my Atlantic correspondent, journalist and author Douglas McPherson (Circus Mania), writing me that all of the show owners he has spoken with “reported good business and regular sell outs.”

For example, take the charming little Giffords Circus, an annual staple in the enchanting Cotswolds region of England.  Early in the year, they were forced to cut short their tour of The Feast, a circus and dining experience under the big top. (What a novel twist on restaurants featuring circus acts.)  When Number 10 Downing Street lifted restrictions by granting tent circuses (without sidewalls) outdoor event status , Giffords regrouped to salvage the rest of its season by offering The Feast at its winter quarters in Stroud.  They are now doing three shows a day — virtually sold out for the rest of the run.

Ingenuity rules circus lots in the land of Philip Astley.  Currently celebrating it’s 25th year, the apparently booming Circus of Horrors — I’d be inclined to designate it a fringe circus —  yet has my respect in at least one regard: Clearly, it is not another Cirque du Soleil wannabe.   In fact, in spirit defiantly anything but, I would argue, Circus of Horrors comes closer to capturing the gritty old American circus show complete with kinky midway attractions: As described by McPherson, “They’re kind of the heavy metal circus, with a lot of rock music and freak show-style performers.”   So freaky, indeed, that last year they featured a daring young legless man on the flying trapeze.

And what have we to show for our efforts over here?  Exhibit A: Author and critic Ernest Albrecht was forced last April to suspend indefinitely his online Spectacle Magazine.  Reason? No circuses here to review and pratically nothing to report on, not to mention the hazards of traveling to get to any events.  An e-mail from Don Covington explained, “He considered publishing a discussion of the state of circus during the pandemic, but his research provided results so scattered, it confirmed his suspicion that no one rally knows what the future may bring.” Sadly so.

Which gives me added respect for UK circus owners, a doggedly determined band ready to adapt and innovate and fight their way from one stand to the next. “Against all odds,” wrote McPherson to me in an earlier e-mail, “big tops are on the move all over England — everyone is pulling out the stops to open for August, the busiest month of the year.”

What might we learn or surmise from of all this?  The critical component of course is management.  Here in the U.S. I can think of three major forces in very recent times who presided over our three largest circuses, neither of whom was active when Corona hit: Kenneth Feld (Ringling), Paul Binder (Big Apple)  and John Pugh (Cole). Their loss, I believe, may have  marked the most crippling blow ever to our American circus scene.

Tricky new terrain ahead?  On opening night in mid-August at the Big Kid Circus, one family left halfway through the show, the father complaining to The Daily Star about the lack of social distancing and face masks being optional. In fact, the show's seating capacity had been reduced from 1,000 to 300.  Big Kid's Facebook page clearly spells out Covid guidelines. An audience photo above.

The future is far from a settled matter.  Who really knows when a vaccine will come, and what unexpected misfortunes Corona  may yet throw at us?  In the meantime, Over There the spirit of survival is heartening.  “Circus is as popular as ever,” said John Lawson of his John Larson Circus. “Everyone is saying we’re heading into a recession, but normally we do quite well in a recession.  You very rarely hear of a circus closing in this country.  You hear of circuses starting.  The circus has been around for a long time and I’m confident it will be around for a lot longer.”

I believe him.

Thanks to Douglas McPherson and Don Covington for their contributions to this post.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

Minimal Abstracts Over Earth & Cement

Perhaps a tad pretentious?  Too little? There is more here than you will currently come across on our abandoned circus lots.  Sorry, but I could not find a cracked peanut anywhere.

This image makes me feel like I am in a movie by one of the great Italian directors.

Pardon me for declaring this one perfect.  Which one?  You be the judge.

I find solace in the white dot.

This one surprised me. I was taken by the brown tones and pleased with the result.

That figure look like a stalker.  Well, we do have a few around here.

I think it's the blazing green that makes this one for me.

A country barely holding on.

Yes, this is ugly.

Even uglier.  So ... Let me find something livelier to go out on ....


Big news next week. Back to Gaudy and Glorious. We're going back across the big pond!

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Morning Midway: Showbiz David Casts His Votes for Sarasota 2021 Circus Ring of Fame Inductees

Down the Covington Chute came something different: Not the announced, but those nominated for the 2021 honors.

Voting will take place beginning August 17 and end September 15, 2020. Four final inductees will be announced in early October of 2020.

These categories are a bit confusing.  Not certain if all the "Advance Professionals" are being honored, or if they compete with the performers for one of the four finalists.  So I am drawing my picks from both groups.


    Nik Wallenda - King of the High Wire
    Charlie Rivel - Famous European clown Artist whose iconic image was honored and adopted by the Monte Carlo Circus Festival
    S.H. Princess St├ęphanie of Monaco - Head of the Monte Carlo Circus Festival
    Galaxy Girl Tina Winn- Aerial and thrill superstar
    Kanat Riders - Equestrian artist troupe
    Richter Family - Multiple generation European animal presenters and acrobats
    Marco Canestrelli and family- Trampoline artists and Guinness World Record holder
    Marco and Philip Peters - Skywheel and animal superstars
    Willie Edelston- Trapeze artist and multiple decade educator/trainer for the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Florida

    Under the group category, an honor to all the behind-the- scenes creative marketing and tour planning professionals who conduct the business of the show
    Bernard Paul- Co-creator and producer of famed Circus Roncalli in Germany
    Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe- Under the group category, world renowned acrobatic troupe from China with heritage dating back to the Han dynasty
    Bouglione Family of France - Multi-generation European circus owners who manage the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, France
    George Carden- Multiple decade American circus producer headquartered in Springfield, Missouri



Nobody has done more to bring class, glamour, and high annual respect to the greatest circus artists in the world.  Princess Stephanie's annual International Circus Festival at Monte Carlo gives well-earned acclaim and honor to those who toil in a  beleaguered form of entertainment struggling merely to stay alive.  Just to be there, which I never have (hate flying, especially in the rain) must be a rare thrill.


They and other troupes throughout China have my profound respect for their ever-inventive routines, pulsed with do-or-die gusto. These troupes light up American circus rings, having dazzled those of Ringling, Big Apple, and UniverSoul in past years.  Luckily, I saw one of the Shanghai troupes on their own soil -- at the ERA Intersection of Time in Shanghai, 2010


I am including him merely on the basis of the high praise he earned from John Ringling North, when interviewed by an American magazine in 1956, asking North to the name his favorite circus performers. North, who had been unable to sign Rivel, described him "a highly gifted trapeze acrobat who shaded his daring in laughter.  The greatest clown turn I ever saw."


My fourth pick is drawn from a search through the land of You Tube for evidence. Although old videos of the Cancestrellis on trampoline greatly impressed me, hands down, how could I not give this one to the Richters for something-I-have-never-seen-before, an astonishing display of liberty horses in massed formations, two groups in different colors.  The patterns changing.  The uniformity stellar. You've got to see it to believe it.  And this is only one of their many acts.  Big Top Bravos!

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Morning Midway: When Animals Learn to Talk Back – How Science May One Day Defeat PETA’s Grip Against Prancing Poodles and Pole-Vaulting Pigs

The Cristianis, c. 1940s

Times move on and change, people’s attitudes, too.  We learn more about life and adjust forward — or backward. Sometimes, yesterday turns out to be better than we thought it was, then or since.

Now, people around the world are talking to their animals, as they always have, but the animals are starting to talk back.  Thanks for, among a growing number of communication gadgets, buttons placed on a pad.  Buttons there for a paw to push. Buttons that say things like “Go out” “Hungry” Even, yes, “I love you.”

Merle Evans leading the band, as dogs enter for their cue

“Tired of talking with people in your family? Try the dog,” writes Cordilia James in The Wall Street Journal.  A fascinating report of this emerging phenomena.  The button titles can be tailor made.  One Alex Devine of Tacoma, Wash, went public on TikTok, telling about her dog Bunny putting paw to the point.  Her favorite button poke from Bunny.   “Love you, Mom.”  She now has 2.7 million followers.  And, yes, I know of the many wonderful animal trainers out there who know so much more about communicating with animals and have had to endure relentless attacks on their good work.                     

A speech pathologist, Christina Hunger, talking up the validity of this.   She’s been adapting some of her methods used with patients to give animals more options in communicating, and testing them on her dog, Stella.

They May be Monitoring Your Conduct

Kendra Baker’s possessive cat. Billi pushes “mad” when she feels affection-deprived. Once, when she witnessed her matron kissing a boyfriend, she hightailed it to the button mat and pressed “Later!  Mad!  Pets!” 

Not just dogs and cats.  Across the barnyard, other critters are beginning to wake up and mouth off.  Karlijn in the Netherlands has her dog Silke talking, and is now bestowing the same skills on her guinea pigs.

Oh gosh, and I don’t even own a pet.  I am so so behind. But I would love to own my own button mat, a discrete option to offer shy guests. Heck, perhaps one day they will be sold to estranged spouses.

A show stopper at Big Apple Circus, 2004.
photo by Bertrand Guay

Should we be at all surprised? After all, if you have ever spoken to a circus trainer, chances are they likened the early stages of teaching to the same thing a parent goes through with a toddler.  I have it on good authority: Russia cat trainer Svetlana Shamsheeva, above, quoted in my book Fall of the Big Top. That dog in your care who keeps you in the dark may have been deprived of a proper dogyhood.

When Home Pets Seem Less Unlike Circus Stars

They may be able to ban the animal from the circus – for a time – but they can’t ban the circus from the animal. To degrees universal, it still flourishes around the world.  This bodes well for a future return of animal acts under whatever then might be left of our bartered big tops.  If the public can be offered transparent evidence of animals being trained in decently respectful manners, that combined with their own expanding knowledge of human to animal communication in the home may give them pause to reconsider.  Pause to appreciate what marvelous things animals can be taught to do.

Baby Opal, trained by Peggy and Mac McDonald, Polack Bros. Circus, 1955

Of course, there is still a large public out there waiting to be entertained at least by dogs and the cats, as witness the latter lighting up the stages of America’s Got Talent. Those judges are clearly on the side of real circus. 

So, how did that make you feel?  Okay, then go ask your dog what he thinks.  And hope he does not push the “bored, do not disturb” button.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Sunday Morning Around the Streets Where I Live ...

Endless are the subjects to snap.  Taking walks on these streets is also nice and easy because few people share them. Welcome to Piedmont, CA --- but half a block from where I live.


During the roaring twenties, Pdedmont  had more millionaires per square mile than any city in the United States. It was once a part of Oakland, until incorporating in 1908.

Actually, the Oakland-Piedmont border technically cuts through my apartment building, as it does other nearby homes (something to do with, in haste, using sewer lines for boundaries), so it would seem that I sleep in Oakland, and do my laundry up the hall -- in Piedmont. 

And we are only passing through what some have called the "lower slobovia" of Piedmont. Or, by another person's telling,  hamburger gulch. Farther up the hills, higher into the city, there are more spectacular dwellings. But my favorite of all the houses I have seen in the higher or lower sections is this one, in the lower:

Photos can't do it justice.  Once on walk, I came upon its owner of decades, and we chated about his home, and I could not believe that in all the years, nobody had ever stopped to inquire about its remarkable architecture or history.  

I think of these as weeping horns.

The city has a populating of around only 10,000.  Among luminaries who once lived here, George Schultz, Al Davis, Clint Eastwood.

Jack London, then part of a bohemian arts community,  lived on Scenic Avenue in what would become Piedmont when he wrote, The Call of the Wild. That may be his best book.

She seemed willing to pose while I snapped, but once I moved up half a step, she flashed off. They are such snobs!


A typical house on the Oakland street where I live.

The front yard of my apartment building down the block, credit the property management company  hired by a new owner who bought the place last year.  They loved to self-acclaim their many interior cosmetic makeovers, and then tore up the lush shrubbery out front.  Last Year. Here you see Rose Laura, which I've named after Laura, who planted  the bush and  who was resident manager for the previous owners, for many years, but was not kept on.  In fact, this new company of robotic airheads who carry on like on an occupying force off a space ship, refuse to hire a resident manager, in violation of CA laws.  Laura  remains my and many others (underground) personal manager. 

I enjoyed, from another green chair, listening to the lady talking to her dog, as if they had been a devoted couple for many years. I hadn't the nerve to snap a photo of the two when intimately close, and then asked, and she said, yes, and of course the whole picture fell apart and soon they were on their way.

Next: My abstract minimals. Going for tiny and obscure. A friend of the weed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Taking a Pulse of American Circus Websites, and Ranking Them, Most Relevant to Least Alive ...

I went out this morning to our vacant midways, just to see if I could detect any changes, hoping for brighter signs of life.  There were a few, with the smallest show coming out on top.

I was surprised by how two circuses have at least connected to Corona by putting the mask at the forefront of costume design and marketing.

Having nothing better to do while waiting for a big top to rise somewhere (I  am not really looking for funded ballet circuses on the fringe, all of them likely in limbo) --- here are my rankings of five circus websites, from the most ingenuity displayed in a tie-in to our sheltering-in, locked-out culture, down to the least evidence of life.

In order to do this rigorous assignment justice, I am playing fashion critic here, a new gig for me. So ... drum roll from within your glass cube, Maestro, if you please! My rankings: 


Cullpepper& Merriweather

Gives me a good feeling, knowing they are making an effort to make some valid concession money.  What about offering it with a free Peterson Peanuts package, Jim? Which just gave me an idea, CFA and all U.S. circus fans: Get out your plastic, pull up the C&W website, and buy yourself a sporty C&W circus mask!  (You might check on if it will be allowed at competing shows.)   Humble little C&W, how you warm my sheltered out heart!  Reminds me of when I sold cool aid ice cubes out on the front lawn.


UniverSoul Circus

Yes, UniverSoul, you ARE cool and here is an example why.  I'd suggest you mass market that entire mask set. Might start a rage. 

And know what?  This may give great hope to Cirque du Soliel's makeup and costume department, not to mention its legions of writers and dramaturgs hatching out all those riveting story lines we suffer through to get to  the candy,  I mean,  can you imagine how over the moon they could fly with this one?  


Carson and Barnes, and Circus Varges

 I can feel their dedication and desire to return. 


Big Apple Circus

I can only wonder what Big Apple is currently doing behind the scenes.  If, in fact, there is anything there.   Ominously missing is a message from the high-spirited Gregg Walker, the second CEO under the new regime who has a talent for talking up huge attendance increases under his management and lending the triumphal aura of well-being ahead.
So, folks, as of this moment here in the great USA, that's the way it is!

Saturday, August 01, 2020

A Tale of Circus in Two Countries: UK - 12, US - 0

 “You may be stranded out in the cold, still you wouldn’t trade it for a pack of gold. Let’s go on with the show. Let’s go on with the show!”   –  Irving Berlin

They took their cause to Number 10 Downing Street.   Newspapers took note.

 You say the circus is dead, America?  May I direct your attention across the Big Pond.

Marching up to Number 10 Downing Street on July 9, with posters and bright hopeful faces, were a merry band of circus performers hoping to make a case for the right to get on with their shows.  Their placards and spirits were  well covered in all the papers.

Two days later, they won the approval they had long sought when the government opened outdoor events, in which tent circuses are placed.  Suddenly, a couple dozen or more big tops were back in operation, scrapping and innovating, adapting and re-configuring to satisfy the dictates of local city councils throughout the UK and other various oversight agencies.                         

The story of their campaign has been reported by Douglas McPherson in London’s The Stage.  Among ingenious actions taken, Paulos Circus turned itself into a Drive-In Circus, with stage and screens, and is pushing a score laden  with pop music from the 80's (for more on this, scroll down 3 posts.)   The formidable Gandey Circus piloted an air-moving system, monitored by the government, in order to keep its sidewalls down.  Minus similar measures, other shows  must keep their sidewalls up to qualify as outdoor events.  Seating capacities have been sliced in half.  One show will be seen by a mere hundred. So much easier to pack the house and claim SOLD OUT.

UK tents tend to be in the 300-1,500 capacity range, about the same as in the U.S.

Circus companies wasted no time in posting dates and pitching tickets — Planet Circus, Circus Wonderland, and Uncle Sam’s Great American Circus among the first to announce August re-openings.

“It’s the 24th of July 2020, and Gandey’s circus is open!” proclaims one of its staff outside the tent, amidst cheering co-workers and fans.

“Russell International Circus is back this year with a brand new show!  The breath-taking performance is jam-packed with with mesmerizing aerial displays, jaw-dropping stunts, world class. comedy and much more!”

James Richard Circus hands out to its customers safety rules. Bagged cotton candy comes with a complimentary anti-bacterial wipe.  And at the Richards show, patrons are asked to hold back on laughter and cheers but to confine themselves  to clapping and stomping.  “A very difficult situation for a clown.” says white face joey Paul Carpenter (Mr. Popol) of Circus Wonderland. Even the popcorn in sealed boxes may give off less pop. But the show must go on, right!

Zippos Circus was locked out of Scotland, and is now scrambling to nail down replacement dates, with Blackheath slated for  August 14-19.  Its  posters illustrate action from France, Kenya, and the Czech republic.  Precious traces of Cirque du Soleil ballet are missing from all the graphics I have come across – a good smart sign.

There may be other shows out there of which I am  unaware. One lonely exception to all the good news would be the charming Giffords Circus, still  "on hold."

Animals, anyone?   Circus Mondao, above, celebrating 250 years of circus, ballyhoos itself,  “Only one of a handful of true traditional family circuses touring towns and village of Great Britain today.” They’ve got a “large family of animals and human performers” in the ring. Sounds like a merry Chipperfield’s party.

Should we be surprised by this dazzling evidence that circus is still alive and kicking in the UK?  After all,  England is the birth place of circus. The land of equestrian Philip Astley, who invented the whole thing. Indeed, the Brits have a right – I’d say a moral duty – to take just pride in Astley’s great legacy by helping to keep it alive.

Why Not Here”?

Comparing circus action in the UK to the US, the differences are stunning.  Life versus Death.   What might spell the difference?  Regulatory resistance may be stiffer.  However, in a guessing frame of mind, I would start by pointing to a spirit of pluck over there that we may be missing here. And I’d suggest a possibly more sympathetic public and media.  Goggle up circuses in America.  Nothing but indifference.  New York papers ignoring the plight of Big Apple Circus. America, it appears, had already talked itself into falling out of love with a form of entertainment too fraught with PC-repugnant elements -- wild animal acts at the forefront, followed by clowns who no longer seem funny or crazy but creepy and evil.  Even true aerial daredevils may rattle a new generation of snowflakes.

On this side of the big pond, we were already down to a precious few experienced  circus owners.  Kenneth Feld retired Ringling in 2017, although he has made serious waves about revving it next year.  Just in time for possibly the most spectacular comeback in circus history.  Venerable showman Johnny Pugh is out of the picture.   Really, only three or four shows are being run by long timers with track records for survival. Big Apple Circus, which has gone through at least two CEO’s since coming our of bankruptcy three seasons ago, is a precarious work maybe still in progress. Its bleak website delivers but one brief terse message about Covid restraints.  Nothing like the emotional outpourings of Carson & Barnes or Circus Vargas on their websites.

Over there were big tops are blossoming like late spring flowers, the big question they now face is,  will the customers come?  Philip Gandey, who usually has multiple units touring the UK and abroad — making him technically second only to Cirque du Soleil —  is not banking on a rush.  “It’s like restaurants.  They’re not getting that huge crowd they expected.  People have got used to staying home.  Hopefully, business will come back, but I don’t think it will be instant by any means.”

James Richards’ circus proprietor James Tom is cautious, too. “You can’t just give up.  We have a saying in the circus, ‘If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.’  I think that applies now more than ever.”

What a pleasure to be able to write about real circuses hitting real roads for real dates before real audiences.  May the public reward them with life-saving, show-saving patronage.

Here is a link to Douglas McPherson's story in The Stage: