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

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Morning Midway: Why I Listened to The Sound of Music Instead of Watching the Debate

I turned the TV off.  Why? To explain would be to run the risk of slipping into a dangerous minefield out there of thought police at every turn, ready to pounce over the least trace of residual insensitivity, to shame and shout you  down. And more.   Have you noticed how we have become a nation of judgmental fanatics constantly rendering critiques against other? Render the wrong word, suggest a contrary point of view, yawn too long, and  all hell make break loose.

I skipped the debate, suffice it to say, for I did not wish to witness the spectacle of one man losing his mind, another man mocking him.  I have no idea at this point how it came out.

So, I played the original cast album of The Sound of Music, in my view the best version, for it includes the complete original score, including a lovely ballad, An Ordinary Couple.  The composer, it has been said, never liked the song, and 86d it from the movie in favor of his own ditty with his own tortured lyric that defies logic, something about the two leads fessing up to possible wickedness in their childhoods.  Maria, ex bad girl?

I am watching less and less television news, having some years back junked cable news. It is one thing to be informed. Another to be hectored by the same news and the same competing views over and over all day long.  While going down to get the mail, I noticed a young woman out on the street walking her dog. So I guess I was not the only one ignoring the media's latest orgy.

Update, 11:30am. I read that TV ratings were down 36% from the first debate in 2016.  "Widely panned by most observers," reported the Hollywood Reporter.  I slept well last night.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: Bach Be Damned! ... Woke Folk Invade Frisco Concert Hall Scene, Hip Hop From the Top?

UPDATE, 2/21/24. Yesterday, needing to visit the S.F. library near civic center -- I had not been in the downtown area for several years ---I hurried nervously through a day of the living scum, darting past a man smashing items in a sidewalk concession, going around a career bum defiantly laid  out more than half way across the sidewalk,  he of the protected class. No wonder, Macy's is leaving.  No wonder so many others are leaving or want to.  What I encountered over there yesterday was hell on earth.

UPDATE:  Like so many things planning to leave San Francisco, Macy's on Union Square the most recent, add now San Francisco Symphony director Esa-Pekka Salone, who arrived five years ago and is not renewing his contract.  "I have decided not to continue as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, because I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does."  For a quick recap, advance to the last sentence.

Music Review: Throughline: San Francisco Symphony, From Hall to Home, November 14, PBS. Esa-Pekka Salone now rules the baton.

Oh my! And it couldn't happen to a worthier city than San Francisco -- ground zero for the subversion of Western culture.  Over there across the bay, where I was born, I now avoid it like its own plague.  Now, the streets are ghostly, shops boarded up, tourists gone, bums better off than ever before, living it up and shooting up in empty upscale hotels, businesses fleeing, bus rides fraught with freaky nut balls keeping you constantly on edge. How unexpected can unforeseen events change cities overnight. "Baghdad by the Bay" risks being zoomed into an empty metropolis begging for renters on fixed incomes.

And how sorry I feel for Esa-Pekka Salone, the new San Francisco symphony director, a man of world class stature from Finland, who will have to face this urban wasteland.  I marveled at many of the great and wonderful concerts he lead in front of the L.A. Philharmonic. 

Facing a season without a hall to play to during lock-down, PBS broadcast a  weirdly ominous and unsatisfying one-hour preview of what Salone wishes  to accomplish during his tenure.  New sounds.  New voices.  New ideas.  Good enough. All incoming conductors these days say the same thing.  But Salone will need far greater works than those on display during the preview.  

His chosen composer-musicians specialized in a form of straining minimalism, heavy on dissonance, woefully weak on music. And hardly all that new.  Terry Riley was already fostering this counter-culture form over fifty years ago. I still have one of his records. 

A more unusual segment took place out in the open air, where a hip-hop artist and a dancing woman wearing a sweatshirt lettered BLM cavorted.  Yes, really.  But concert hall audiences still favor larger, more melodically expansive works. Surely Esa-Pekka must know this. Only a few years ago as guest conductor with the symphony, he piloted the orchestra through a thrilling performance of  Stravinsky's The Fire Bird and nearly brought the house down.

Inexplicably missing were more Asian faces.  They don't exactly excel in Da Hood, but they do in symphony halls around the world.  And in symphonic composition. Asian culture passionately embraces classical music.  Why not market to them? Knock knock!  They are a big part of your future. 

When, finally, Esa-Peka Salone takes the podium with a full audience behind him, will he be wearing a sweatshirt  prominently lettered BLM? 

Early retirement already in the works, Maestro?

First posted 9.2020  (circa)

Ringling Forever: Revisiting the Last Great Big Top Through the Pen of a Master

John Ringling North

How bitter-sweet it is, reading Center Ring, the richly endowed book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert  Lewis Taylor, published in 1956 — the year of Ringling’s last big top.  Between its covers are a compilation of pieces Taylor turned out over the prior seven seasons for the New Yorker magazine.  These were based on his talking to the show’s leading stars and support staff on the ground.  If you have never read Center Ring, you have deprived yourself.  This one goes near the top of my list.

Bitter-sweet especially because of what we are living through — by far the worst season in American circus history. In fact, no season at all.  Among Corona’s long-term blows to American life, the circus may come out high on the list.  Pray it won’t.  As you know, it was already on life support.

Taylor’s literary treasure trove captures the golden years of John Ringling North.  Never, it might be argued, was the American circus more lavishly costumed, more profusely talented or daringly inventive.  That was the time of Cecil DeMille’s award winning movie, The Greatest Show on Earth.  The time when Europe's top acts counted a ring in the show – any ring – as a summit in their careers.

Is Taylor’s narrative all true? I can’t say it is. There are errors I have spotted. For example, I was surprised to learn that North was “usually accompanied by his brother Henry” on his talent scouting abroad. I thought that a female supplied companionship.  Nor did North discover Pinito del Oro in a “gypsy Cave.” 

Perhaps the show's vocally captivating publicist, Roland Butler, put some tale tales over on Taylor, who described him, “unquestionably the world’s  most skilled composer of embroidered news,"and rewarded him with the longest page count of all his profiles. 

As for the input of all the others quoted, their words ring true to me  And I fact checked a few of Taylor’s accounts to find them valid.

The author’s witty and clever prose makes for not only a damn good read, but a very instructive one.  There is so much here to learn from and be well entertained by. Among the depth of research, I was impressed by the information revealed on animal trainers and their insights.   And by, best of all ---  credit Art Concello, the ways of trapeze flyers.

Some excerpts:

Merle Evans on making song selections and how he arranged segments of them in an order “to sound like one natural composition.”

English circus owner Bertram Mills, in a desperate wire to John Ringling “I want that band leader of yours, and I want him bad.”

A “hardened circus hand” on the music for Wedding of the Winds:  “the minute I hear those first three notes of that god-damned waltz, I want to sit down and bawl.”

John Ringling in reply to Roland Butler about a piece fraught with lies, cooked up on Tom Mix by a young Ringling publicist: “Heat it up! Heat it up!  What do we care where it came from.”

 “For Pat Valdo, variety is the essence of circus” Amen.

Pat Valdo; “Most circus people perform for each other — the real critics – rather than for the crowds.”  I  believe this.

24-year-old Flyer Fay Alexander to Art Concello, at the start of spring training in Sarasota: “Art, I won’t put on another Mother Hubbard [for spec] ...  It’s professional suicide.”  Nonetheless, the sulking Fay could not get out of spec, but put on  something.  They hated it then as much as they do — did — up to the present time.

This is a remarkable achievement in circus literature, a great enduring read about the ways of circus people. how they do their work and how they feel about each other.  And now it offers us a radiant reminder of what we once had on these shores.  

By    the    way:  Where are all these hordes of people crowing around my midway coming from?   Have none of you the courage to make a non-anonymous peep -- in the heroically self-sacrificial act of daring to put your own name to it?  In fact, have you a name? You're not all robots, are you?  Pardon me for  just wondering.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Stravinsky Over Sawdust: How Wonderful or Weird was His Music for Ringling's Ballet of the Elephants? ... We Ask, We Answer ... Finally, a Review ... and a Mystery: Whose Music Was Ripped Off?

Although I regard Igor Stravinsky as the greatest composer of the twentieth century, he was closer to a hack with a headache when he concocted his oddball Circus Polka.  The work was commissioned by  John Ringling North in a whimsically Barnumesque from of mind, for a three ring ballet of elephants.  JRN talked another one of those infuriatingly talented Russians, dancer George Balanchine, into choreographing the work -- in consultation with head elephant man, Walter McClain.

I have never been able to track down a recording of the music, until now, by merely You Tubing it.  So, finally, 78 years after the number's inception, I listened last night with baited breath, only to be left irked by how  aggressively unmusical it is.  Just to be sure, I played it again,  for sometimes, the second time around will grab you. But Stravinsky's frenetic, heavy handed composition only shrieked and sputtered there in the sawdust like a dying dog gasping for breath.

And then I played a U.S. Marine Band's rendition in 1998, more interesting because orchestrated -- but who said that lipstick on a pig will do much good?  I played yet another pianist's rendition, this one the worst.

Killer notes

This novelty is close to awful -- a mess of unruly, refusing-to-be-melodic notes jumping all over each other in fits and starts. Heavy handed all the way through, it opens with an infectious melody that goes nowhere fast, and closes with the composer shamefully quoting a few bars of familiar music superior to what is otherwise on display here.  In fact, when the Great One's ditty first hit Sarasota ears during spring rehearsals, rumors of plagiarism quickly spread through town.

Judged by Variety, "so weird, that it does not belong in a circus," Merle Evans told me in an interview for my book Behind the Big Top,  "It was the hardest music I ever played. One bar was three-four, and the next bars four-four ... The boys didn't like that Stravinsky thing, and I don't think the elephants liked it either."   After all these years, how his words resonate.

Stravinsky was not exactly a song and dance man at the piano, even though North's idea made for brilliant publicity.  Had he instead recruited someone like Richard Rodgers,  a classic circus tune might have come out of it.

Perilous Pachyderm Premiere 
The three and a half minute work  premiered at Madison Square Garden in 1942, where the circus opened one of its most memorably staged and costumed shows -- the sawdust rings tinted in various hues -- drawing raves and winning even the favor of  esteemed theater critic Brooks Atkinson.  The elephant ballet itself garnered split reactions.  And if it did not close down the show that season, it may be a big reason why the musicians went out on strike.  The show made-do by playing phonograph records, but what for the then unrecorded Circus Polka?

Jane Johnson, secretary to North, recalled excitedly hearing a song on the radio that sounded a lot like the music.  She called the radio station, to be told the piece was by Chopin.  When I interviewed her about this, she could not recall the title.  They found a copy in a nearby record store and played it for the rest of the tour.

Can you name that tune?

But by another account, Stravinsky's alleged plagiarism drew from Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli, composed for his 1876 opera La Guiconda and featured in Walt Disney's 1940 film, Fantasia.  I have played this work, too, but find no connections. There is that distinct melody in my mind that I will one day hear on the radio, or hum for someone who will recognize it and tell me the name.  Maybe you know?  I'll let Anonymous through on this one.

Given the work's daunting complexity (did Igor have in mind driving the musicians mad?), it is a stretch, no, make that fun trying to imagine how it sounded from the Ringling bandstand.  Perhaps,  Merle and windjammers were able, at least, to make it gloriously bad by exaggerating its rowdy spirit with true bombastic force.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Belated Happy 250th Birthday, UK Circus of Philip Astley!

9.10.20: While I have been spending virtually all of my virtual blogging time at the moment Over There, reason being there is a there over there, I dug this one up, which brings back many fond memories of my days in the enchanting Scotland.

Posted 3.2.19:

Why did it take me so long?  All through last year, the Brits were celebrating  the 250th anniversary of the founding of our modern circus --- created by English horseman  and showman Philip Astley.
A gift to the world. 

Why was I a no-show in the parade?   Blame it on the fall of Ringling.  Blame it on my funk, caused by the Feld of Felds turning into the Flake of Flakes.  Going through some old drafts on my blog, I was surprised to discover that I had started a post, quite a while back, to honor UK circus history. I had meant to share my own brief experience under British big tops.
Here are notes on three circuses I was lucky to see, in and around gritty, entertainment-rich Glasgow in the mid-1960s.  I scribbled down raw first impressions in the programs as the shows were proceeding.  These program magazine pages bearing them would not be on display here if they had veered too much toward the negative. Trumpets, please ...  They do not!  I am very impressed with what I saw, based now upon what I noted.

Remembering back ...

I had forgotten the staggering array of animals acts that were featured on  Chipperfield's Circus. And to think that Martin Lacy, Jr. who just won a Gold Clown at Monte Carlo,  can't perform in his own country.  At Monte Carlo, he represented Germany's Circus Krone

This gentleman, who worked on props, took me on a tour of the lot.

Up goes the tent -- Roberts Bros, I think.  What a setting.

My favorite circus was the one at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, over the holidays.  Fine acts, and great music by the "Circus Grand Orchestra" led by Billy Rose.

Me on wheels.  The warm gentle countryside can feel like  life is floating.   You have to be there to experience Scotland's subtle beauty.

Belated Happy Circus Birthday, Great Britain!

Saturday, September 05, 2020

The Morning Midway: What Did Bill and Jan Biggerstaff Know, and When Did They Know It?

Stranded here on our bleak American midways, the weirdest thoughts of paranoia stalk my mind. One being about the Biggerstaffs shutting down their bi-weekly Circus Report ahead of a circus season not to be.

In fact, had they keep it in ink, they would have soon run dry of stories to ink. In fact, by early spring, when our remaining circuses usually hit the road, there would be no roads to hit. And nothing to report on other than what was not going on.

Most federal, state or local agencies would soon effectively-- many would say capriciously --  close down most of life outside the home.  Broadway would go totally dark.  I am waiting on how this will be reported one day when all of those meddlesome droplets have settled down or collectively died in a billion discarded masks.

Still, I miss Circus Report, even a shell version of it.  It's most winning feature --- the one thing our fan friends on the other side might envy, was the formidable routes  page -- a page full page of circus routes of not just our own big tops commercial to community, but of visiting troupes from foreign lands.   

What the UK circus scene needs the most, I propose, now that I am de-facto an avid follower,  is such a regular listing of upcoming circus dates.  But given the dogged secrecy of circus lords over there not wishing for their whereabouts to be made known in advance and stolen by rivals wanting to beat them in first, I can't see this happening anytime soon.

What would Circus Report's route page look like had the paper not caved?  It could and should stay stark blank-- until the sun came out once again over grassy green lots topped with billowing canvas tents and giddy pennants galloping gaily in the breeze.

Or it might turn its attention across the ocean and replace the blank page with The Great British Circus Routes Prognosticator.  And cause an uproar from the tenting tycoons.  Know what? I think the Biggerstaffs could find a way of telling us where this one was and where that one might be headed ...