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

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sunday Between Pages: Circus Books that Never Die, and You Don't Need a Mask to Read Them ...

Update 1.31.21 Lately, for those who read my blog, you will know I have been immersed in my favorite books in researching Ringling history. The subject is infinitely complex, deep, never ending, as witness this list.  There were so many brothers and so many stories and so much drama. Two of them, one newly added to this last, I have reread.  

To put their dominance in another perspective concerning American big top history: How many major books are there out there on Barnum & Bailey?  On Adam Forepaugh?  The Sells Bros?  On the American Circus Corporation shows? On Polack Bros.?  Circus Vargas?  Even, to be inclusive, given there principle source of income in the USofA, Cirque du Soleil? How many?

The following post came out  five years ago.


Circus books.  What makes for a good read?   Prose or scholarship?  Please be aware, there are many books I have never read.  I rarely buy books, but read them from the library, if they are available.  These personal favorites are here primarily because they entertain me and I find them generally trustworthy.  All doubtlessly contain errors.  It's the bigger picture that counts.

Books that fail to make my list strike me as agenda-driven, giving undue or disproportionate attention to favored figures or to fringe groups or social and cultural "studies."  Others come off as irresponsibly incomplete, such as Linda Simon's vividly-written The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus, so exciting at the outset, so limp and empty at the end.  Example?  She completely ignores the entire Russian-Soviet circus scene -- a colossal blunder.  And it suggests, the best reason I can come up with, a political bias against Communist countries (she also, as I recall, ignores China).

Yes, books about the Ringling juggernaut tend to dominate anybody's list, as they do mine, because that's the circus in this country that everybody wants to write -- or read -- about. 

Be warned:  "scholarship," no matter how many footnotes or end notes, is only as good as is the objectivity and honesty of the author in bringing it all to the table.  Even then,  any quoted "source" -- an interview, a passage from another book, press releases and program magazine materials  --  may itself propound misinformation.  Most troubling is the compromising writer who excludes knowledge in order to serve a preset narrative. 

New to the list, an overlooked gem.  In my recent Ringling research tear, I took it out and am re-reading it. Published in 1950, Harlow is absolutely wonderful in how he narrates the boys' circus dreams from the first kid show onto the Big Show.  And it gives me renewed respect for how they learned to work together so well. I feel in greater awe of them than ever, how they merged so intelligently, allowing each other autonomy.  Al was first and foremost the leader, but others, too, lead.  Of course, Harlow must have drawn most of their early years from Alf. T. Ringling's 1900 tome, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers. I want to give it another read, full or selective.

My top of the list.  I discovered Earl Chapin May's classic at a very young age.  Loved the way it is written, the fast-moving parade of actors on the stage of circus history.  I still refer back to the book, time and time again.   May coined the phrase  "the ever changing, never changing circus."  Too bad the book came out in 1932, just before a war among Ringling heirs for control of the circus was about to be waged.

Barely in my teens, I found This Way to the Big Show (1936) high on a library shelf in Santa Rosa, took it down, checked it out, and was fascinated.  Dexter Fellows, one of the most colorful circus press agents ever, flaked mostly for Buffalo Bill and later for Barnum & Bailey under the Ringlings, when Otto was at the helm. He paints a richly detailed account of how circuses operated, including a juicy chapter, The Customer is Always Wrong, on how con men worked suckers in so many clever ways.  First rate coverage.

 *Update 12.29.20  I have re-read parts of it again.  This time, I was struck  by Fellows' vivid account of his tense dealings with Otto Ringling, who rode press agents hard for all the free passes they fought for and gave out.  It is eye-opening, for I had always thought of Otto as a dull bland sort of book-keeping genius. Here, he comes across as anything but, fully in command.  And this ads to my respect and regard  for the collective strength and power of those five remarkable bothers. Here, we see  Otto up close, in a way no scholar looking back through secondary research could ever hope to capture.  High recommended for Ringlingphiles.

Possibly the most entertaining circus page turner of all time.   Its author, Connie Clausen, joined the Big Show as a "ballet broad," during the boom years of  John Ringling North, who himself, so it is written, discovered Clausen on a Sarasota street in 1942, and talked her into joining the show.   And what a tale she tells!   

Famed Ringling equestrian director Fred Bradna,  sharing memories and inside information with writer Hartzel Spence, offers a vibrant account of his life with the circus.  The man who blew the whistle to keep three rings and four stages in constant motion, Bradna offers incisive critiques of the greatest ring stars.

Henry Ringling North, adoring brother of John, fashioned, with Alden Hatch, a warm and wonderful history of his Ringling family story.   Like most books, not error free. Still, a major and generally trustworthy valentine to North's famed uncles.

Gene Plowden's cheerfully informative  chronicle of the Ringling Bros. story contains a compelling subplot on John Ringling, most famous of the five brothers, who outlived them all, only in the end to rule recklessly and lose all of his power.  A haunting tale of the arrogance of success in a world of  dazzling risk takers forever on the brink of disaster   How I wished that Plowden had made the life of John Ringling his central premise, for this is clearly where his heart was centered.

Reader beware:  Like too many circus books, and that surely would include some put out by the academics (Linda Simon, mentioned above, is a college professor), Robert Lewis Taylor's captivating Center Ring, one of the most literate books ever penned about circus, is perhaps as much fiction as fact.  Example: The song  "Lovely Luawana Lady," as featured in the movie The Greatest Show on Earth,  never became, as claimed in these well-paced pages, "nationally popular."  Nonetheless, Center Ring's profiles of major Ringling players during the heady days of the John Ringling North era, which originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine, make for a deliciously good read.

Let us now cross the Big Pond to the land were circus was invented.  Antony Hippisley Coxe's A Seat at the Circus is a must-read for fans of tradition-rooted artistry.  The author, a proper English gentleman, shares with us in elegant fashion, his fastidious knowledge of the various ring acts, of what to look for and how to judge measurable achievement.  He has little patience for the embellishing spectacle that marked American three ring big tops, and, before that, early British circus shows, too.

Continuing, away from the states, and with a bright new book cover --- this one hits the jackpot --  UK Journalist and critic Douglas McPherson (The Stage, Daily Mail, Guardian) takes a refreshing, in-depth look at the contemporary circus scene in the land were circus was invented. And he serves its history well.   Right Now. Today.  Remarkably, McPherson became something of a circus fan, not as a boy, but well into his adulthood, and so he brings a fresh perspective to current issues shadowing the big tops.  Example:

"As with horses, the elephants don't need to be oversold with gimmicks.   Just walking into the ring and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough."  Given recent Ringling plans to retire its performing elephants, how brilliantly McPherson's suggestion resonates, now more than ever. Heck, I can  actually, yes, see myself thrilling merely to a parade of pachyderms!

  Ringmaster, by Kristopher Antekeier and Greg Aunapu is a bold rarity among circus books, offering a candid look behind the scenes during the Irvin and Kenneth Feld era – doubly amazing considering how shrewdly effective are the Felds in manipulating the media to buy their grandiose press kit fictions — from fans to willing authors.   In these stark pages, fraught with depressing work conditions and low morale, the staring antagonist is Gunther Gebel Williams, who reveals a nasty controlling nature.  For Antekeier, his first season goes from euphoria to disillusionment, and so, rather than re-sign for another tour, he walks away. And writes a remarkable book. 

For all true Ringling fans, Jerry Apps offers a meticulously researched study of how the five brothers worked so well together to build arguably the most famous circus in the world.  We follow them season by season.  The book is particularly rich in correspondence between the brothers, illustrating how they planned new shows and scouted acts.  Lushly illustrated, too.  A serious center ring treat.

Fast, breezy, as light as a souffle out of the oven. Maybe I'm on the fence a bit, but this delightful sampler of Big Apple Circus history and lore comes from its founder and ringmaster, Paul Binder, who puts aside his scholarly bent to charm us with effervescent memories of life in and around New York's "own circus."   It's a hit and miss affair, leaving out things I wished he had discussed, like his short-lived circus school.  Maybe he will follow up with another book, let's hope.    The Binder parade bounces and shines with brevity.  And what a nice little one-ring charmer to end this post on.

first posted 4.15.15 World Circus Day is Coming, So Let's Talk Books

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sunday Pause: Dexter Fellows on James Bailey’s Merritt Young Leads to Something Profound ...

     EVER SINCE first reading the enthralling This Way to the Big Show by famed circus press agent, Dexter Fellows, the name Merritt Young has stuck in the circus lobe of my  brain.  I long thought of Young as a secretary, which is the role I gave him in my musical Those Ringlings, when, in reality,  he was much more.

FELLOWS WROTE: “Bailey preferred bachelors in his service.  It has been said that his high esteem for Merritt Young, who was treasurer of the Barnum & Bailey Circus for many years due to the fact that Young never married and gave practically his entire time to his work.”  

         NOW, YES, from those words sprung a little seed in my mind of something special between the two men.   And so I revised a late second Act II  scene between Bailey and Merritt over Bailey’s dictating a letter to the Ringings, offering to split territories and thus avoid costly bill posting battles. (It really happened).  For Bailey, I figured, this act must have been a little humbling.  The sensitively dedicated Merritt offers his boss rare, even primary praise for his direction of the circus, over the sideshow man whose fame sucked all the attention and credit away. And Young offers it in a little song,  “Thank Mr. Bailey.” This touches the boss so, that he opens a  heart of appreciation  to Young.  

      THE WORDS felt natural.  And only yesterday, by a spectacular act of serendipity in google land, I came upon an article about Young by showman Louis Cooke in the Newark Evening Standard, NJ, dated  October 14, 1915, reprinted on the Circus Historical Society's old message board:

     COOKE DESCRIBED Young “the most intimate and business companion of James A. Bailey ... The great showman was attracted to Merritt because of his industrious habits, gentlemanly manners and ambition to make himself useful.

     “WHEN MR. BAILEY retired from the business for two years, on account of ill health, Merritt went with him. When he returned to the calling, 'Merritt' also came back.  They remained inseparable companions until he was called to his last great reward in the great unknown.”  And with those words, I feel that the few lines of dialog which I have added to the scene are true to spirit.  
     BEYOND THE BANNER lines, they were all very real people. Here is Cooke, who had been telegramed by Bailey on the morning of June 15, 1897, to meet the ailing Merritt, suffering typhoid fever, at the railway station in Chicago and take him to the Auditorium Hotel with “a good physician.”

     “WHEN WE SAW him alight from the train, it was very evident that the grim reaper had already set his seal upon the brow of the victim ... That night he died with his mother and myself at his bedside ... I remember nothing more sad than the recollection of having followed one of my nearest and dearest friends to his last resting place and it was one of the most sorrowful moments that ever crept into the sunshine of many years of travel.” Young was gone at the age of 46.  The show would head out to London come December.  Had Merritt still been at James’s side, would the show have stayed away from the states for an astounding five years? 

NOW IF I could only get more such stuff on Al and Louise — before my musical reaches Broadway.  Yeah, I know, I still have another century to go, LOL


END RINGERS: A circus giant across the Big Pond falls.  Brit’s own Barnum, Gerry Cottle (above, center), whose name lit up circus marquess through the ‘70s and ‘80s has died, of Covid.  In the words of author and journalist Douglas McPherson, "probably the most widely known name in the UK circus industry for the past 40 years." Back in 2011, Mr. Cottle, whom I  would loved to have met, sent me a copy of his book, Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus.” With inscription:  “David, I much prefer your books, but please enjoy my one off. Sincerely”  Heck, damn!  Why did his publisher bring out a paperback in print the size about as big as what you might get on a food wrapper listing of iffy ingredients they don’t want you to see? I don’t do magnifying glass, but I do hope to get the book in big people size print, someday ... Another English circus man, whom we lured over here long ago, Johnny Pugh, may or may not have finally sold his Cole Bros. Circus Florida winter quarters, or that’s how it looks to Slate Raymond, slating in from down there. The listing, writes Slate, "finally disappeared from the real estate market this past October. They had been out there since April 2016, with the asking price going down - down - down as the years dragged on (at the end, $850,000).  No idea whether they sold." ... How I miss the Circus Historical Society History Message board, dormant since 2016.  A pity... So much of American circus is slipping away ... I propose a Circus Ring of Fame Wheel for Fred Pfening ...

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Sunday Pause: Digitally Yours, At Last ... From Hectograph Machine to Kindle --- Now I know what an e-reader looks like!

Newer worlds forever rushing in and out,  and I always a year or more behind the last one, or the one before that one.  Are they still putting out iPhones?  

Of course, I know about Kindle and the various e-readers, especially in the last two years, when royalty statements for two books I have written --- Big Top Typewriter and Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History, show ebook sales at least equaling or slightly topping paper editions. Suddenly, I am taking note. 

Before that, e-sales were nothing compared to paper. So something has changed, and even me getting with it.

BearManor Media, who published my Inside the Changing Circus, offered me a contract to bring out Those Ringings: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Musical, in Kindle.  And I jumped.

How many of you will jump? Only time will tell. So, may I sing to you --- be my jumping Jacks!  Simply type in quotation marks "Broadway Musicals" and Amazon will rush in to meet you.

For those of you still typing it out on your loyal royals: You do NOT have to buy one of those e-readers. Amazon takes care of you very easily. They will send you as they sent me up to a cloud.   You will be surprised! Maybe even floating. 

Well ...at least until the next techno trauma hits.