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

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Showbiz David’s 2020 American Circus Evidence of Life Awards

   At UniverSoul last month

What is there to write about a season that wasn’t ?  That it will stand out in American circus history as, yes, the season that wasn’t?  And what’s to look forward to in 2021? As Nellie Hanneford so simply stated, when I reached her by telephone, “It’s out of our hands.”

And the sooner it’s back in, the better.  But even then, I wonder.  There should be plenty of Americans hungry for the kind of down-to-earth live entertainment that circus can offer.  And if the Feld of Felds does make good on his promise to bring back The Greatest Show on Earth, that will be, by far, the best thing that could happen to the big top scene here. For, Ringling-Barnum symbolizes American circus. When it died, so in the minds of many did circus die.  A successful return could work wonders for an institution that is closer than ever to the abyss.

How does 2021 look to the trouping wounded?  I dialed their numbers, sent out e-mails seeking their thoughts on what lies ahead. My rankings here are partly based on the responses received; also on my knowledge of each show’s history; and a gut feeling.

2020 American Circus Evidence of Life Awards         

1.  UniverSoul

No need to call them.  The sight of an actual tent in the air anywhere over the U.S. marks a milestone. They pitched theirs for a perilous period last month down in Texas.  Whether the crowds pitched back is another matter. Photos I have seen show only a few strays in the seats. But something is better than nothing, right?  My hat's off to you, Cedric Walker.

2.  Cullpepper Meriweather

Why so high on this list?  They are small enough to have, I assume, the smallest nut, and they’re run by pros, and have been around for a long time.  

From Cullpepper’s Jim Royal:  “Show owner/manager Trey Key is monitoring the situation daily.  We are in touch with our local sponsors and ready to set the route.  Everything hinges on the pandemic. I know, no surprise there.” 

  3.  Royal Hanneford           

I’d never spoken with Nellie Hanneford before, such a sweet soul.  She tells me they are working on dates, and she nearly mentions one in particular, but I do not press. These days, “in particular” could mean a whole season.  

4. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

They should be at the top, and soon, they might be again – if Kenneth Feld follows through on his announced plans, through brainstorming sessions with many people, to create the return of Ringling, originally projected to happen in late 2021.

From VIP Stephen C. Yaros, in reply:  “Thanks for reaching out to Feld Entertainment. Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, our plans to relaunch The Greatest Show On Earth have been delayed.  As soon as we have more information to share, we plan to do so.  I hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas.  Cheers.”

Money is no problem for the Felds.  Only key issue, as I see it, is when best to strike.  I’d say, when Americans feel safe enough to sit next to each other at a circus.  Feld has good reason to maximize the potential for a groundswell of grateful yes-give-us-the-real-circus patronage.  Was the stage ever better set for a circus named Ringling to roar back in triumph?

5.  Big Apple Circus

It’s presence remains, I’d venture, even more  murky, as witness what you hear when you dial their number.  At the other end, a recorded message from a cool sounding guy: “Hey there, thank you for calling. Please leave us a message and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.” No name of voice or circus. Us Circus?

The guy, answering my e-mail on the upbeat,  turns out to be Jack Marsh from Circus Flora — the Flora that played a hand in the last Lincoln Center date show before Covid came calling.

“Yes, life is here, indeed!!"pipes Jack.  “Obviously hard to have a crystal ball right now, but all plans are for BAC to re-launch once the world will allow. Plan A right now is to target Lincoln Center in October, our usual time frame.... Fun plans are underway.  Fingers crossed for the industry we both love.”

His name stands above the imposing title, Executive Producer.  So I e-mail back, and toss Jack be nimble some questions:

 Is Gregg Walker still in charge?
      “Gregg is moving on to greener pastures.”
Is Walker’s company still involved in any way?
      “I don’t have precise details on the arraignment but Remarkable has some ownership of the           company, as do other investors.”
Who is your CEO?
      “That’s not a position we have right now”.  
New Owners?
      “No, no ownership changes to report.  Be careful about assumptions!”

Jacks seems to be a splendid fellow. See how much space he got here?  He even offered to set up a chat, which might have been very interesting, but I did not wish to take it that far.  Given Jack’s fluidity, I might have ended up with so much inside stuff, that I would feel guilty not writing a book about it.  So politely, I declined.

Since they can’t seem to live without Lincoln Center (their Achilles heal),  they might not be too welcome back come October. Broadway is still looking uncertain about 2021. 

6.  Carson & Barnes

Both circus Vargas and Carson & Barnes are about equally inaccessible by either e-mail or phone. I am graciously awarding an edge to  C&B because they answered my e-mail of yesterday with this lovely reply.  "Hello David, Thank you for contacting us! Someone will respond to you very soon about your inquiry."  Well, I am still waiting.  

Whereas, however...

7. Circus Vargas

Didn't get back to me at all.  When I dialed there number, I was sent into a loop-the-loop extension chase down into a hole.  No reply to my two e-mails.  So I must relegate them to this bottom slot.  You have come to the end of the rankings.  You may now take your mask off, kids.

END RINGERS: This is the year when we lost Circus Report for good, when Spectacle suspended publication due to lack of subject matter to cover ... When the Brits showed us how to could keep a dozen or more circuses on the road for a few months.  From the land that gave us circus, I would hope for that.  Kudos to them!...  A year when Italy, which had suffered devastating covid deaths, warmed my heart by staging a great circus festival, in which star Italians inspired before masked-in audiences. ... The year when Cirque du Soliel went into and out of bankruptcy, as if anybody cares.  I have grown weary of the Cirque style.  And I believe many Americans have, too. I mean, really,  does "character arc"do that much for any of you? ... Feld Family: You are our last great hope, so don’t let us down this time!... And I almost forgot, when cyber courier Don Covington stuck in there, continuing to find all sorts of stories related to circus and sending them out and keeping me on the list. Thank you, Don!


Thursday, December 24, 2020

And a ... a ... a, ah ... Merry Masky Christmas!

How vividly this classic suits the moment.  Poor Santa, having to sit alone, off limits to children.  Banned from chimneys

The next one can only get better, brighter, happier, and more all-together, right?   

In the meantime, my warmest wishes for all!  Especially for those normally hard working families struggling in long lines,  patiently waiting for meals, hoping for a job to return, praying for the solace and security of a way-of-life ripped from them by fear-mongering opportunists in places of ill-held, ill-deserved power.  May God bless you all.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sunday Pause: Teaching Myself to Enjoy Visiting as Much as Watching DeMile's The Greatest Show on Earth ...

How many times can you see a movie before getting burnout?  Some people watch favorite films countless times, and never stop watching.

I have come to think of this wonderful circus movie as a familiar place, a world of people and things I may always find new surprises among.  And I have found a renewal of desire to watch it by knowing that I will watch it in two sittings.  Last night I watched the first hour and a half, stopping just as they were going into the song on the trampoline, Be a Jumping Jack.  Now, after I write this, I will take my seat and watch the last part of the movie.


I'll admit I am a hopeless John Ringling North fan. Why? When I was barely in my teens, I learned of a movie being made, this one,  in which he appeared as the big boss, a movie that swept me away.  Soon, I subscribed to The White Tops and was reading The Billboard every week, following his exciting and controversial creative moves in designing and staging the shows, and the whole look of the circus on the lot.  

Even though I once was lucky to meet and interview him, there is still about him that mystical quality, mainly I think because he was a hand's off showman, giving others from various creative realms the freedom to create. On came, via Art Concello, the seat wagons, and other dazzling innovations.  There was talk of putting up a tent for dancing on the midway, with one of the Dorsey brothers leading the band.  There was talk of a Ringling theme park. Of a pole-less  big top designed by Norman Bell Geddes.

Back to the movie: The train wreck has, increasingly over the years, struck me as excessive, as it did a few otherwise impressed critics.  But since it comes around two hours into the film, this works good for my viewing, for it arrives after my taking a break, returning to the film the next day.

Last night, during Sebastian's build up to his reckless trick resulting in a fall, I sat back and gave more attention to  the lean flyer who makes those big reckless arcs, moving from one trap bar to another, rather than to a catcher. He is really good!

There he is, John Ringling North in the hat, with brother Henry to his left, and could that be Art Concello, to his right, in the other hat?

We are lucky to have this wonderful film, rich in so many ways.  And, yes, maybe only a circus fan can feel this way.  On rotten tomatoes, it hits a high of around 45%. But when it opened in 1952, Variety and a few other big shots gave it full out raves.  Know what?  I think they were right.  And so were those Hollywood insiders who gave it the Oscar for Best Picture of the year.

Looking for photos, I landed a great treasure trove of images in rich black and white, largely featuring John Ringling North, because they were posted in a story about him in New York Social Diary.  Great discovery!  A few brought on here.

Saxing it up in the M'Toto Room at the old John Ringling Hotel.  I see his good musician friend Rudy Bundy, lower right.

There's Bette Davis with John, to her right, and Henry, lower right.  

A juggler of sorts.


North and press agent Frank Braden at Madison Square Garden, 1950.  I was in awe of Braden's writing style in the roue books.

You can view all the photos at:


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Those Five Ringlngs: The Jobs, Gates & Bezos of Their Day

Hit the road with five young brothers from Wisconsin, who take on shyster big tops with honest dealing, loudly refusing to condone grift on their midway.  Who declare themselves,  “Flounders of the new American School of Showman.” Their exploits soon incur the wrath and skulduggery of the entrenched status quo.  

“ Kudos for everybody! The next best thing to a circus is a rousing good musical comedy about wondrous circus ways and the meanies who try to corrupt nice guys like those five Ringling brothers.  The lilt of David Baron’s always lively, never blatant score carries sounds developed from the big tent ... David Lewis’s are entertaining and as relevant as his book and dialogue.”
                              – HOLLYWOOD DRAMA-LOGUE

Be there to watch their brazen ballyhoo rattle James Bailey, sending him into a vindictive snit and setting into motion a deadly string of counter attacks. When bloody bill posting wars and all manor of competitive sabotage spread chaos and death across the midway.  

“They found the circus in the hands of vagabonds,” wrote William Lyon  Phelps, “and put it into the hands of gentlemen.”

Be there too, for comedy and hoopla, adventure and romance —  from trusty to lusty –  set rousingly to song, dance, and circus spectacle.

“Baron and Lewis hit upon an inventive idea.   It has style, spirit, appleaing characters, good songs ... filled with rousing choruses and lyrical ballads.”
                         — LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

Under the big top, the brothers became  the Silicon Valley tycoons of their day — the first to show movies under a black tent on the midway, the first to drop the canvas sidewalls to let in more air, giving customers relief while suffering a drop in soda pop sales.  The first to hire Pinkerton detectives to comb the grounds for pickpockets and card sharks, at first, stationing a man at the ticket wagon warning patrons, “count your change!”

Here, finally, is the musical that tells their story in two fast-paced acts, replete with circusy show tunes and darker refrains born of adversity and misfortune.    “Life is a circus, starring us all,” sings Al Ringling.  

"Better than Barnum ... with proper handling,  this show deserves a shot at the Tony."                  

                     -- VARIETY


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Sunday, December 06, 2020

Sunday Morning Pause: Quiet, Still and Inbeween While Corona Shadows the Land ... Fred and Ginger Visit ...

Sitting here on my couch, staring at the TV.   Corona overkill does not invite me to go out walking, and anyway,  out there it looks cold and sullen, some timid streaks of sun hovering behind weak clouds.  In about 15 minutes, they are showing on the movie channel a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers flick, Flying Down to Rio.  I may never have seen it.  However silly like all the other sillies it will likely be, there is sure to be the songs and the dances, and a lazy way to kill time.

More and more, those hypocrite politicians who order us to behave in a way they do not, are trying  out, some say, more mind control on society. Some believe it's an orchestrated  agenda to sweep conventional values away, and bring us closer to some new radically  reconfigured way of life.  I tie them into the ultra left San Francisco socialists. A Shocker:  Rents over there have dropped by 25 per cent, with the average one bedroom priced at less than $2,000!  Id say that's cheaper now than Oakland! That  social cesspool pandering to fringe groups is driving people away. Nobody wants to live in Baghdad by The Bay anymore. 

Now the sun is piercing right into my face, maybe heard me calling it "timid."

What was I starting out with?  Astaire and Rogers. Here comes a song, I think:  Music Makes Me, Never heard it.  Love the salty rhythms.  These snappy refrains never fail.  The beat is old fashioned, and I like to picture my mom and dad dancing to it when they were whirlwind courting.

Are you still there?  Fred is playing an accordion!  A film so trite and disjointed, hard to get through.

Back at u later.

Now it is after six, and some 3 stooges shorts are on.  They always deliver.

The sun I told you about stayed only briefly, a big yellow tease, then flaked back out.

Okay, it's only tonight and I'm  back before I planned.  Fred and Ginger in The Gay Divorcee, which easily beats out Rio, and they just did Nite and Day, one of those heaven-sent moments when music and choreography and dancers merge in miraculous perfection.  He is trying to lure her into a dance (translated, romance), she holds out but finally lets him take her into the song, as if the first time they ever danced together, and the results are matchless. The only other Astaire number I would equal it to would be Dancing in the Dark from my favorite movie musical of all time, The Bandwagon. 

Catch you tomorrow morning, when I decide whether I have the nerve to post this.  Of course, now I must.   At least, Martin Burton's great quote will still be up there -- the most powerful thing I have heard a circus owner say in many years.