Monday, November 30, 2020

BRIT BIG TOP REPORT CARD: Corona Transmission Count: 0. Autumn Biz: Healthy. Boris’s Funding Heart: Generous. Next Season’s Prospects: Good


 Zippos Circus owner and producer, Martin Burton

     OVER THERE and Over Here, I go back and forth, cheered to see Brit big tops getting ready for next season, less optimistic as I stare at dormant U.S. circus websites, and walk a bleak landscape looking like forgotten playgrounds.  Have we about lost it all? (or have I?) Are we still in the running? Yes, UniverSoul is playing a Texas date, good news, and  a vaccine is on the way. And then, let’s see. And then, who will have the will and the wallet to reboot and reroute?   

      CULLPEPPER & MERRIWETHER, the smallest show, shines the brightest on my PC screen.  Big Apple Circus, arguably the biggest U.S. name, shines the grayist – as barren as one flickering light bulb on a rusting neon sign over a boarded up store.  Bankruptcy to go -- or for pick up, anyone?   Paul, where on earth are you! Please come out and say something.

Corona is Not a Circus Fan

      SO BACK TO the sunny side of the pond: The best news is that not a single transmission of Covid at any circus has been reported.  Writes my Atlantic correspondent Douglas McPherson, in helpful reply to my asking him for a general update,  “Socially distanced big tops proved to be a safe environment.”

     THE FIFTEEN OR SO circuses of the UK evidently did okay through the autumn.  In early November, they were all locked down through at least until December 2.  A few of the bigger ones produce pantomimes filling out December.

“I think all the circuses will be back in 2021,” writes Douglas.

Big Top Boris  

     FUNDING TO THE RESCUE: Boris (as in prime minster) opened his pocketbook with grants to a number of shows. That would be a cool 1 million (pounds) to Gandey’s, 600,000 to Zippos, and 466,000 to the National Center for Circus Arts.              

     BREXIT HAS mucked up the flow lanes between the UK and other countries, making it not nearly as easy or affordable now to import artists from abroad.  And those are the ones who supply, it would appear, an increasingly critical component of  the kind of shows the public wants to see.

Circus Art is Not a Hobby, Kids

     MARTIN BURTON, Chairman of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain, and owner of Zippos Circus, told The Stage, “There are a lot of people in the UK who say they are circus artists.  But for the quality that I want, I don’t need somebody who decided to train in a building-based circus school in their mid-20s because they thought it sounded more exciting than working in a factory.  I need somebody who trained in a 42-foot ring almost from birth and has the skill of an Olympic athlete, which is why is why we employ so many overseas people."

     BURTON OFFERED a nine-month tour to some “excellent artists” from an English circus school.  They yawned, “Oh, that’s too long. We don’t mind doing July and August.” With British born artists dwindling in number,  Burton and other owners are relying more on Eastern European performers and, of course, the redoubtable Chinese acrobats

But for my fear of flying, how I would relish crossing the pond, come summer, to take a look for myself, railing from one lot to another on those cozy British compartment trains.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


Here comes the  musical that wowed  L.A. critics.  The musical that Variety declared  “... deserves a shot at a Tony.”  Follow the  remarkable  rise of five Wisconsin brothers who take on shyster big tops with honest dealing and win the hearts of Americans.  Relive the greatest period in American circus history.  Those Ringlings are coming again!

They called us a “mud show”
Now, look who's on rails
in top hats and tails
talking by the press
“You’re chasing Barnum?”

to be published by BearManor Media

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Dark Side of Model Building: How I Made Laffing Sal live in My Playland-at-the-Beach Fun House

Daring to disclose, yet feeling the apprehension of Frankenstein in his laboratory fearing the fury of society and the gallows, I post this rare, possibly soon-to-be deposted video on You Tube, either by outrage in miniature land, or by my own guilt-wrenched soul.

Be there for the inside story on how I really created the half-mad Laffing Sal. Be there to witness my fall into the depths of despotic scratch-builder madness.  Oh, the acts of inhumanity I have committed in quarter inch scale!  On, the temptations to play God with Exacto blade in hand!

And be there to behold a gruesome foretelling of what modern society, in its quest for infallible beauty and surgical-ordered perfection, may one day fall victim to.

Here's how:

google "The dark side of model building," or go to:

Hurry!  Hurry!  Limited engagement!

Friday, November 13, 2020

New Bette Davis Musical Fearlessly Tackles Freedom of Speech


From Red Cameras Roll
the longest running under-consideration musical on Broadway!
Now in its 18th month at York Theatre

While shooting Storm Center in a small Northern California town, Bette Davis is invited to march in a rose festival parade, amidst growing community opposition to the film.  To her cohorts, she expresses her true feelings:

 My parade is unafraid to sing a song,
    dark as death, red as rage
    for my colleagues who were censored, one by one,
    out of words, off the stage.
    I salute them all who stood up to injustice
    and answered, "No, I will not share your shame.”
    I parade for friends imprisoned    
    who refused to name my name!

    When free souls aren’t free to speak their minds,
    is this America?
    Do we light the world by burning books,
    or have we lost our way?

Based on the making of the movie Storm Center in Santa Rosa, CA, 1955, during the red scare/communist witch hunt era, the story depicts the plight of the town's librarian when she refuses to remove from her shelves a book titled The Communist Dream.

Music by Max Dancer
Book and Lyrics by David Lewis

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Italian International Circus Festival, Confined to the Host Country’s Talent, Delivers Top of the Big Top Thrills ...

They are a family.  A nation.  A circus world unto themselves.           

What moved me the most while watching their recent International Circus Circus Festival of Italy on You Tube, was how much they mean to each other, and how much the circus means to them.   They have suffered and lost and grieved and cried, and hung on through a devastating pandemic. 

Streamed live from Latina on October 19, given the current situation, only they could  perform. But perform they did, serving up a heart-warming array of world class acts. Acts that gave me pause to consider Italy’s key role in world circus history.  And to recall some of its greatest stars who have entertained me down through the years, such as slyly chilling Josephine  Berosini on the high wire,  the Zoppe riders with Cucciolo,  zany big cage satirist Tarzan Zerbini, suave foot juggler Ugo Garrido, slap stick hurricane Fumagalli, and the marvelous Canestrellis on the trampoline with that dynamite little spinning firecracker of a kid.  He once nearly brought Ed Sullivan to tears of joy. And how can I not thank Edmondo Zacchini, for his human cannon invention  -- a great big wow to a child's eyes.

 Italian Showmanship Foreshadowed the Russian Circus Empire

To also recall, while researching for my book Circus Rings Around Russia, writing about circus impresario from Milan, Gaetano Ciniselli.  In the 1870s he won favor with the Russian Czars to present shows in St. Petersburg.  His eclectic showmanship earned him European fame and would inspire a new school of Russia artists when they took over, following the 1917 revolution.

But back to Now: I have already covered the first two hours of the festival.  Here are some highlights from the last two.

Dashing wire dancing:  Shannon Orfei, whose unusually intricate foot work and flair won me over, called to mind the flashing creativity of Con Colleano of yore.  And I wish she had taken this even further, following the example of Mark Piazza.  Instead, she slowed down into a pair of ballet shoes, crossing the silver strand in lovely perfection. This diva has many tricks up her sleeve.

Simply Sensational

Mark Piazza took my breath way on the webs, powerfully twisting and twirling in ways I have never before witnessed.  Like fireworks going off in every which direction, each diving thrust -- up or down or sideways -- a thrill.  And then he flung himself through a series of one arm rollovers, but, with a vertical twisting, as to seemingly invent virtually a new act.  His driving force alone is riveting.  Pure gold.  Monte Carlo, send it to him now!   This is circus.  Not theater.  Not ballet. Not Self Esteem Workshop for the Jaded Rich, 101.  No, Circus – get it?  By the way, most of the music throughout was relevant and strong.  The dramatic scoring for Piazza's act is a pounding work of art. Bravo, maestro!

One-man juggling jamboree: Vastly diversified Darwin Pelegrinni came close to looking more like a group jugging act, he had that much going on.  How does he stack up against his competition? I only  know that he won me over with his tremendous control.

Other notables (I should note that I missed a few of the acts): The young Gabriel Dell’Acova-Canestrelli, hand walking with upside down contortions revealed remarkable mastery and poise for so young an age.   Nicholas Errani executing head stands on a single trap that went not just back and forth, but in a circular direction.

We all, don’t we, go to the circus looking for such things as what I have just described?  Looking for what John Ringling North once told me he looked for: “Something I haven’t seen before.”

Tearful Encores

The last half hour was not quite like anything I had seen before.  Awards were handed out,   I wanted to leave, but could not. Wanted to call it a show, but could not.  Had to stay, wanted to stay out of respect for what these wonderful performers had lived through during one of Corona’s most brutal attacks, having to watch family and friends die, one after the other. To watch them now, kissing and hugging each other at the end — you could feel their love — and for the passion they so brilliantly serve.  Indeed, they are a family. 

 Let the show go on!  They did, and they will.


END RINGERS: My one personal connection to the Cristianis: One hot summer day in Cleveland Ohio, when Wallace Bros. Circus ringmaster Bob Mitchell took me into the house trailer to meet  “Papa” Cristiani for a work interview.  Papa looked me over with a smile, we exchanged a few harmless words, and I was hired! – to work as an usher for zero compensation but free room and board.   In a few weeks, they made me to clown, at $25 per week.  

Every morning I awoke to usually find Pete Cristiani (think Robert Mitchum) , out in the middle of a big top yet to rise, its canvas sections being laid out and Pete pushing the crews to lace them up and get the thing back in the air.   During the show, I always tried to catch Cosetta Cristini’s snappy, sassy high kicking strut on the back of a cantering horse.  In their prime, the Critianis might have been the best group riding act ever.

Thanks to Don Covington for bringing the festival to my attention, and for his valuable input.  I've tried to freeze and snap action photos off You Tube, but it just doesn't work.

The Cristianis

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Sunday Morning with Gabriel Heatter: "Give Me the Circus" ...

Preface: this wonderful article written by the late American radio commentator Gabriel Heatter, revered for his morale-boosting rhetoric during some of the nation's darkest hours in the depths of Word War II. This article appeared in (and was likely written for) the 1943 Ringling-Barnum program magazine -- SD.

"We have heard a good deal about that word MORALE and its importance to us all. Put me down for the circus as the greatest morale tonic of all. Give me the circus to make me feel young again in spirit. Give me the circus and the laughter of children and the whole parade of wonders to make me realize life is good to live and worth living too

Give me the greatest show on earth — Lord how we need it now as never before. Give me a few hours to invite my soul in this wonder world and fine blessed forgetfulness for a few hours away from all the wear and tear and care of a world outside.

Give me a seat near the circus and let me hear stirring fanfare and let the great parade of wonders begin — and I am young again in heart and spirit. Give me a boy and girl close enough to share it with and to hear all the exclamations of wonder, bewilderment, surprise, and let the laughter ring out.

For the circus is a part of everything we mean by morale – a part of everything we mean by America. As much as Yellowstone or Pikes Peak or Yankee Doodle. Let me walk by the side shows and gaze in wonder on all the sights which remain unforgettably in one’s heart and memory. Give me all this and I’ll come out refreshed, happy, keen in spirit, and keen to come back again and again.

Why you could no more speak of America without a circus than America without baseball or football. Let me hear that circus band and feel the tingle and the warmth racing into my heart as it always does — and let me see all the eager, happy faces around me. Lord, how we need it now – as never before.

Yes, and give me the clowns and all their falls and tumbles and let me drink in all their generous and wholesome fun. That’s the word — fun — for man, woman, boy or girl for we need our share of it now. And the place to find it is in the circus — the greatest show in all the world. And here I’ll let myself go, and here I’ll shake off my cares for a few blessed hours, and here I’ll find all the reminders.

Life is good to live when there is a circus in town. So — on with the show. The circus has come and I and tens of millions will know there is a priceless bit of heaven-sent joy waiting for us all."

Thank you, Gabriel Heatter, and Thank you, Circus Vargas.


Sunday, November 01, 2020

Sunday Pause: Italian Circus Festival Inspires in the Face of Advesity ...

A four hour You tube of the event just came through from Don Covington, and I sat myself down to watch it. Four hours?  I took in the first two tonight, and will hit the last two tomorrow.


 Circus Festivals, which I have never taken in, I can see can delight you and also leave you wanting.  This one, truth be told (look the other way) contained a wild animal act with a few good items, but by far the most tediously drawn out display of mostly nothing that I have ever seen in a big cage. Presented by Prince Andre who spent most of his time moving furniture.  Next time, I'd suggest Ikea light.

There were at least three big highlights that satisfied my been-at-the-circus-too long handicap.  (Apologies to the solo contortion acts, which I skipped. Their slowness tries my patience)

This kid, Darix Bianchi, is a young star -- if only he had not foisted on us, at the end, a routine too too complex to bring off. He only proceeded, through three attempts, to do it, and failed each time. But there were parts of his deftly accomplished  repertoire that gave me perfect satisfaction. Dazzling in the way the red balls, up to 11 by my count, moved in lateral as well as vertical fountains. Marvelous!

Another neat juggling work out, this one on diablos, was turned in by ever-active Michael Zoran.  He, too, went for a big big payoff that fell apart three times in a row.  Never should have tried. Well, give the guy credit for not using a mechanic. (it's okay to laugh).

Most inspiring act I have so far seen: The Canestrelli-Togni mixed liberty horses.  Regal, quiet, majestic, its unified formations a gentle work of art.  The elderly presenter had such gifted control. I assume he is a legend. Bravo! 

Given what Italy has been through with Coroona, I was especially moved to see the Italian audience in masks.  And I liked the ringmaster's crisp non-bombastic introductions.

There is still life Over There in the world where this magic all began. Meanwhile, back here at the ranch in the states, still nobody home at Big Apple Circus website, which is taking on the aura of a shimmering tombstone.

Have a good day, and wait for the Big Show when a vaccine finally comes to town! 

And thanks, Don, for this pick-me-up.