Wednesday, December 28, 2022

End of the Year, Randomly on Parade: Big Top Bits, Past, Present, and Maybe Future ...

    IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, such as the stack of notes and e-mails too long ignored on a shelf I lazily glance at now and then. But now for each, it’s gloss it or toss it time.  I’m giving these little snatches of sawdust and spangly things one final chance to be something across my loyal 2008 Del Vostro keyboard, to which I am hopelessly attached, using it only for Word Perfect drafts. 

      LET THE GREAT HAROLD RONK blow the first whistle on this impromptu grab bag laid bare.  And let this be the Ronk fondly revealed by Don Covington in an a-mail to me dated September 9, 2016.  It was too too good ever to let languish. Now, finally, it’s up and ready to roll.   Harold, shared Don, became “a vital part of my perception of circus.”  While working on the Big Apple Circus, Don  enjoyed hosting Harold whenever he came out to take in a performance during the Chicago date (yes, they once toured).

     ENGLAND'S BELOVED RINGMASTER, Norman Barrett was one season Big Apple’s man in red. The retired Harold was Big Apple’s red letter patron in the seats, and after the show he approached  Barrett with pleasure.  “I have always wanted to meet you.” Likewise, too, from the other gratefully in return.  Don added Paul Binder to the circle, and Paul recounted how Harold, under Madison Square Garden spotlights, had “epitomized the ideal ringmaster.”  All of which “overwhelmed” Ronk, as Don remembers, the Ronk who by then  wasn’t sure anyone would still remember him.  He spent  the afternoon with Buckles and Barbara Woodcock.  “It was a magical day,” wrote Don.  Ringling’s iconic ringmaster passed away the following year.

 ... I WILL FOREVER RECALL the stoutly commanding figure cut by Ronk for Ringling, the brief and fleeting time it took him, and his smooth soaring voice against a crashing follow spot or two, as if answering its cue, to officially thunder CHILDREN    OF  A L L L L L  AGES !  Never was a circus more blazingly unfurled ... Al Ringling, when once describing the proper decorum of the man with whistle  — “elusive yet vital” --- was describing  the Harold yet to be.  How lucky was I to have lived through his prime.           

: Next down the stack, from Anonymous (whom I know well),  retelling with relish chapter two of quad mania over Ringling.  Giddy Irvin Feld,  seen here, in 1982 trumpeted the first star to nail the feat, Miguel Vazquez.  Six  seasons later, Feld's son Kenneth added Rueben Caballero, Jr. to the show in a  cynical move to grab more headlines.    Only once did both Miguel and Reuben spin four circles beside each other  — what a spectacle to see! .... The tension between the two and their respective families became so great, that an explosion nearly rocked the Oakland arena, site of a “a massive brawl” backstage, and sent shock waves through the circus grapevine.

     REMEMBERING THE BLOODY OUTCOME,  wrote A,  “Our old friend Marcks hanging around the lot had gotten the juicy details and found it quite humorous that the daughter Veronica (Caballero)  had whacked Miguel in the face, sending him to the hospital.”  A furious Kenneth Feld fired the Caballeros on the spot, but they eventually charmed a flight path back into Feld’s favor ...  Does anybody still do the quad? ...  There was a time when the flying trapeze dominated audience satisfaction.  Fundamental to  fabulous, they were the best way to bring the show to a rousing climax.

      ABOUT MY BEST CIRCUS FRIEND EVER, Don Marcks (until we sadly had a wordless falling out), how I valued his company, we were so damn different, hut CIRCUS kept us viably and vividly connected, the phone calls were long, never boring, my visits to his place a frequent journey into another world more strict and settled.  The New England born Don specialized in outward restraint, but he did let go a tad when up close and off the lots, venting his real thoughts on this or that  act. And, as you can see from the above,  he turned discreetly gleeful over backyard drama circling the rumor mills   He loved to ride a juicy disclosure with a backward lift into an almost apologetic giggle.

    FROM MY CAVE MAN SCRIBBLES on a piece of paper, I can now report, that in the higher halls of academically supported circus-type learning (non binary certified, I assume), it is claimed that in every state in this here union there is now at least one circus school.  And what, may I inelegantly ask, do they have to show for themselves?  They now have the example of Circus Jeventas, signed by Cirque du Soliel to serve as a “talent development center” for the Montreal monster ....  This, if anything, will likely produce more fringe circus converts being taught how to give the public a few good circus acts — without the circus.
most of the best ones flourish in communist countries, maybe the harsher atmosphere is more conducive to the demanding discipline needed to produce something more than a few pleasant rollovers on the fluffy fabrics ... Can you spell Russia?  CHINA?  Even the very democratic UK, land of circus invention, has two major teaching centers --- London’s National Center for Circus Arts, and Circommedia in Bristol.  And they're turning out committed young graduates, 93% of whom are still working in circuses three years after graduation. Now, I’d say this calls for one of ringmaster Ronk’s classic  exhortations:  W A T CH    T H E M ! 


     BUT HOLD YOUR WHISTLE,  Sir Harold! Most of those graduates are unlikely  to end up under the commercial big tops, reported a valued contributor to this blog, Douglas McPherson,  in an in-depth he wrote on the subject for The Stage.  Here, I am belatedly drawing from his story, safely held in my stack:  “British  circus schools emerged from the ‘new circus’ sector''”  And that, of course, means a kinder gentler circus without cherry pie (raising canvas, peddling popcorn, etc.)  Many of the graduates, notes Douglas, will join up with Cirque du Soleil or Seven Fingers, or Circa, or start up their own  companies.  England’s leading circus lords who value audience size and ticket price still comb eastern Europe and South America for the best talent ... I suspect that Russia and China are iffy these days given international politics ...  


     MCPHERSON KEEPS ME IMPRESSIVELY APPRISED  on the sawdust scene his way, such as when he sent me a you tube of the complete performance of a wham bang show, Circus Xtreme --  the surprise highlight of my circus going in 2022, all of which occurred in You Tube land.  Not under a real tent?  How I wanted to take in the ever-lovable Zoppe  Family, but not on the day they played 50 miles north under 90+ degrees inside a tent. I am no longer a kid who walks miles to see a circus while power-snacking on Ding Dongs and Twinkies.  

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST: The passing of a major critical voice in the circus arts was  Ernest Albrecht, who left us this past year, and with him, his thoughtful  magazine Spectacle.  I will miss his voice.  His perspective.  I particularly  enjoyed comparing his reviews against those of the sharp London critic,  Liz Arratoon, when both reviewed  Monte Carlos Circus Festivals.  A double pleasure ... Albrecht’s  last review may have been the one he did of Circus Sarasota, shortly before the outset of Corona, after which he was never heard from again.  He had  many qualms with the show, supposing the producers had drained the bulk of their kitty on two star attractions, with the rest being very ordinary.  Here is one of them:
     “A JUGGLING ACT CALLED GET THE SHOE never really got very interesting.  While the title of the act suggests something creative and comical, the two young men who work the act are, unfortunately, almost totally lacking  in stage presence ... nothing more than sloppy juggling mixed with marital arts."

    HOW ARC IS YOUR CHARACTER?  Beware what you may wish for: Albrecht covered circuses of all ilk, and was an advocate for what he called the New American Circus in his book of the same name.  To its pages flocked the young, eager to get on with the times.   But, the movement Albrecht  helped give voice and printed page to may have gone too far even for his taste.  He suffered a jaw-dropping discovery in the pages of Circus Talk when one of its more sophisticated reviewers complained about the muddled impression of one performer’s “character  arc.” You did not wish for it to go this far, Ernest?  The term is used in theater. Albrecht became nearly unhinged over the audacity of such an expectation.  And by extension, I'd say,  over how far the “new circus” movement had veered into theater land.  


     IN THE GARDEN OF NUCLEAR SNOW CONES:  Perhaps it had to happen, my being reminded of a depressing fact, that out there are shows that hurt rather than help American big tops.  At the top of the list is Garden Bros. Could be Dick or Niles.  It’s still Garden.  Ringmaster and more Tim Tegge, merely chatting about the season with me on the phone, did not exactly intend it that way when marveling over how well their Nuclear Circus is doing. He was awed by the "huge tent, " mighty impressive on the lot, "lit up like a Christmas tree at night." Most enthused about clown Hector Frias.   Music of course recorded. Without a ringmaster,  a rather formless affair with some good-enough acts. "I thought it was OK at best."  

    WHY HAD I NOT HEARD THE WORD Nuclear attached to circus? Perhaps I had, but ran into the word “Garden” and knee-jerk deleted the whole thing ... So ... I checked out reviews on Yelp, dreadfully savage one star slams for the most part. Free kiddie tickets lured parents into “a money pit.” $60 seats, ringside. $12 snow cone jobs, any side.  Pony rides and paint-on faces cheering on the moppets to beg for more. "No ring leader," lamented some.  Dancing dames in thongs sexing up space between acts.  Disgusted parents baling  at intermission.  Some did grant satisfaction with the acts.  Many ranted against animal mistreatment, a horse being whipped.   Okay, let me wrap this here:  This kind of a show does incalculable harm to public perception of the America circus, and it continues to drag down what’s left of it.  And I think the American public at large has been talked into  degrees of indifference or total rejection, possibly unmatched in any other country. Thank you Tim, for the inadvertent reality check. 

      I'M HAVING, OR WAS HAVING so much fun, now I wish there was more.  But there isn’t other than to say — to Don Covington on this side of the pond, Douglas McPherson on the other -- my deepest thanks for the stream of links and news items you send my way.   Thank you, too, Tanbark Titan Tim and  Awesomely Anonymous -- whomever you are, for your insightful comments. I have a new respect for the slush pile, and this next year, I’m letting it grow slushier, fatter, and may do a periodic purge to page, but then, but then ...

    NEXT YEAR SHOULD BE BIG,  at least in the headlines, for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is coming back, in some form or another. Tim sees a train wreck in the making.  I see Cirque du Soleil on steroids.  Neither of us sees The Greatest Show on Earth.  And You?  Kenneth Feld fired all the animal acts, likely to win a gold medal from PETA.  But he may lose a large and loyal audience base out there that has no problem with dogs and horses and may resent the total absence of a menagerie.  How can you return if it's not you returning?

Let me me wish you all a happy New Year!   

WHY I STILL MISS CIRCUS REPORT:  Like a flickering light in the darkening shadows, it gave us the shows and the write-ups, the obits and those wonderful routes that made every fragile thing still very real ... Like a lone red wagon up streets of indifference, it kept on rolling.  Like the single light bulb raised to illuminate Foley & Burke flat cars down by the old ice house, as  late into the night its ride wagons came rumbling down the runs for their trek out to the fairgrounds ...  The lots grew less crowded, the tents smaller, the parade thinner,  but Circus Report kept that one flickering light aglow.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

How to Enjoy The Original Sound of Music -- Like it or Not: West End DVD of Live Broadcat, a Sublime Treat

Would you like your sound of music with a little less sugar, a bit more spice?  With a few songs on the sassier, more sophisticated side?  Could you take it with Julie taking the night off, and another winning face being your Maria? And how about a running time clocking in at a lean two hours rather than three?

I may have the ticket for you!  I've just discovered The Sound of Music Live, 2015, from the UK.    Directed to the point by Coky Giedroyc, this version follows the original script and brings back a couple of great songs that were dropped from the movie.  This one will give you a good idea of what the show was really like at the very beginning ... So let's make that the perfect place to start, okay? 

A LITTLE BACKGROUND: When the musical opened on Broadway in 1959, it was met with glowing first-night notices from first string critics ---“a show of rare enchantment” ... “An utterly captivating work”' .. “The loveliest musical imaginable.”  And derided by sugar-averse anti-sentimentalists.  Complained Walter Kerr on this side of the pond, “it becomes not only too sweet for words, but almost too sweet for music..  And on the other side, Kenneth Tynan declared it  “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Great Leap Backward."

A DARKNESS SUBTLY FELT: Its detractors may have missed or overlooked the darkening shadows of Nazi aggression (circa 1938) that do loom a little in the wings, dramatized by Hitler’s underlings pushing for Captain Von Trapp to get with the program.  They may also have ignored the contrasting bite of two sophisticated songs, "No Way to Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive." 

HOLLYWOOD SUNNY SIDE UP UP UP.  On balance, this overworking charmer when it first hit the boards spread good will in shameless abundance, and it only became more relentlessly sweet when Hollywood turned it into a phenomenal success.  Today, some call it the world’s favorite movie.  Now, in the words of Mr. Tynan, suffering a glucose meltdown, happy talk in the alps was “singing in the syrup.” Incredibly, it left behind those two deliciously worldly songs that  provided cynical relief.         

TURNING R&H TO SAINTHOOD:   This transformation on the silver screen began with the omission of “A Lonely Room” from the 1955 film version of Oklahoma, and continued on in The King & I, whose wittiest song,  “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?, was a blistery rebuke sung by Ana to the domineering King. The number was either banned from the shooting script or left on the cutting room floor.  If Dick and Oscar were bothered by their critics, they only stood to antagonize them more by not pushing to keep these sobering songs in tact.   Damn those two larks still learning to pray!  

RELIEF FROM ACROSS THE POND.  To the rescue of score preservation came the Brits. Trevor Nunn’s inspired 1999 staging, of Oklahoma restored “A Lonely Room” to the lineup. Jimmy Johnston, the gifted  actor who played Jud, gave it a harrowing rendition for the ages. Possibly the most dramatic moment I’ve ever spent at a musical.  My only problem with Nunn’s direction is that he tends to overplay his hand in realism by underlining dialogue and fostering too many reprises of songs and dances.  His staging clocked in at a whopping three hours, exceeding the stage version by a at least a good half hour. I grew restless down the  final stretch. 

 A SOUND OF MUSIC, MORE SMARTLY RESTORED: But another set of West End theater gods favored brevity over bloat in this remarkable 2015 live broadcast production of the team’s last work, The Sound of Music, starring Kara Tointon and Julian Ovenden. And I am now elated to be the holder of my own brand new DVD, having belatedly tracked it down in a google dig.  It clocks in at a tight and terrific one minute less than two hours.

SOPHISTICATION RETURNS:  The two songs left out of the film starring Julie Andrews have not only been restored, they have been blessed with witty choreography that gives each a joyfully satiric edge. The captain’s house servants whoop it up (subtly, of course) in “How Can Love Survive,” slyly self-mocking their fawning over the pampered class in snidely hilarious fashion. So, too, do they make a merry romp out of “No Way to Stop It.”   

 Ballet of the saucy servants: How Can Love to Survive

Warning to fans of the movie: Songs have been re-positioned to their original order, and his may irate you, as it seems to many Andrews fans. 

ONE BIG RESTORATION INSULT:  Oddly, the producers did not reinstate a lovely ballad from the original show, “An Ordinary Couple,” but inexplicably retained a dreadfully inane ditty, “Something Good,” composed for the movie. Richard Rodgers without Oscar concocted his own feeble lyric. He was said not to have liked “An Ordinary Couple.” I have message into the producer, ITV, asking why they kept it  in.  So far, no reply.

Music theater fans should find this Sound of Music a gem to treasure . It is by the far the closest I have seen to the original show, the one Variety in its out of town notice called “a sensational musical.”

HOW TO LIVE FOR A MOMENT WITHOUT JULIE ANDREWS:   So, for all of you fans of the film, here is my suggestion on how to give the stage version a decent chance:  Let go of the movie for a moment, allow yourself to inhabit the character of Maria as defined by Tointon.  You may learn to like her on her own.  The Captain, played splendidly well by Ovendon, is another new face to enjoy. The entire cast is essentially spot on.   Give the revived songs a chance.  You sill have the movie!  And Julie Andrews is still in it! And you now have the stage show, too.    

How luckily for us that Dick and Oscar's first and last musicals have been lovingly restored in the land where a stiff upper lip can sometimes produce a more uplifting experience. 


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Still a Few of Our Favorite Things ... A Sweet Little Show Tune Conquered the World of Jazz ... Now the Holidays Call

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bight copper kettles and warm woolen mittens    

I first heard those words from the voice of Mary Martin on the original cast album of The Sound of Music, broadcast on our radio one Sunday evening in late December, only a few weeks after the show had opened on Broadway to great reviews.    A week or so later, I had in hand my own copy of the snowy white cast album. Decorated in delicate foliage, in colors gold and red and green,  how like a lovely Christmas morning gift it felt.   In a few weeks, it would reach the number one spot on Billboard’s Best Selling Albums and remain there for 16 straight weeks. Sometimes at the skating rink during club practice, they played it.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

In those sunnier days, Rodgers and Hammerstein were the gods of musical theatre, able to capture in song the widely shared sentiments of Americans.  One evening in the early 1950s, a televised toast to their magic was broadcast simultaneously on ALL three major networks.  Point made?

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles   

I could never have known how fate would coddle and guide this musical up a most remark road, gradually cementing its charms into the hearts of Americans.  The movie that followed a few years later achieved a phenomenal success.  Two words may have spelled its everlasting lock on our hearts: Julie Andrews.  Years later, people flock to movie houses to participate in a sing-along of the songs as they appear on the screen. 

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes

In 1961, through the soprano sax of jazz musician John Coltrane, My Favorite Things became an almost instant classic, and would become Coltrane's most requested song ever, and his personal favorite of all his recordings. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988 and certified gold in 2018.

A few magical days ago, while listening to a local FM adult contemporary station that plays non-stop Christmas music every season, came the sweetest young voice singing the song.  And I felt a rare connection between that night long ago, listening to Mary Martin, and now, hearing the song from a new voice on the radio, making it feel like a perfect addition to  the holiday cannon, as if it had always been there.

Silver white winters that melt into springs ...

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Back to the Basics at Big Apple Circus Strikes a Welcome Chord with The New York Times

Here is good news for Nik Wallenda’s vision of circus.  He has the Old Gray Lady on his side – as  usually she seems to be around visiting big tops of all sizes and styles.

I would like to have reprinted the entire review, but dare not risk running afoul of copyright laws.

The Times recurring reviewer, Alexis Soloski, who has a way of massaging average into awesome, once again goes to work on the sunny side.   To her anxious eyes, for example, the sight of a mechanic (lifeline)  protecting single trap aerialist Eli Huber comes as a relief.
As for the scaled back Wallenda display, notes Soloski,  it  “seems to fly with just a bit more care.” And that’s quite okay with her. And quite a  statement, amounting to the most bizarre allusion yet to a wire walking routine performing in a manner it never comes close to. In fact, the Wallendas can barely walk the wire this year, their movements over it are are so tediously slow.

Nor was Solski offended by a  gross side show-esque spectacle of a man swallowing a good dozen razor blades, but merely moved to be a good mother, whispering to her children, “Don’t ever try this.”  

First and foremost, our Times critic loved Alan Silva’s diving roll-overs on the fabrics. And she had but one quibble with the show --- the extensive ring stays of comedy man Johnny Rocket, who takes up “arguably too much space. Three appearances might have been enough.”
All of which marks a “swift return” of wonder. Director Philip Wm McKinely wins basic kudos for the  “brisk, back-to-basics experience ... smaller and less glitzy than Ringling, but brimming with pizzazz.”

“If the show doesn't’ tell a story,” writes Soloski,  the Dream Big theme implies “that anyone might want to grow up and join the circus, particularly those who grew up in it.”

Once again, the show won a Critic's Pick from the Times.  

As I have argued here, it is much healthier  for a circus to get a wide range of reviews, as does the stage and cinema.  Keep in mind, there are, or were, a few You Tubes out there of the complete performance.  Feel free to post your mini reviews right here!  And do check out Douglas McPherson's knowing notice from across the Big Pond, at Circus Mania, a link to it found on the right bar.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Big Apple Circus "Lame Acts" Panned in First Legit Review of the Show

by Toby Zinman,chief theater critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer,
writing for A Dilettante at Large Review - Phindie, November 21

 Where are the great acts I remembered? The trained cats? the galloping horses? the iron men? the Wheel of Death? the gasp-inducing trapeze tricks? the genuinely funny (and not scary) clowns?  

For years I’ve been recommending the Big Apple Circus: rave reviews about the charm, the wholesomeness, the thrills, the old-fashioned fun of this circus  when, each year, it raises its big top at Lincoln Center in New York. But not this year.  Amateurish, with lame acts (and shocking prices), this year’s show was a disappointment. The kids in the audience has a loud and happy good time, and that, I suppose is what counts, but their parents and grandparents were not so delighted.

The theme was “Dream Big” and most of the video projections behind the live acts were clips of interviews with the performers. What they all had in common was that they had no need to dream of running away with the circus; they were all born into the life, with generations of aerialists, or jugglers or clowns behind them.  

Tiny poodles jump over their trainer’s foot. A descendant of the Flying Wallendas and various relatives walk across a tight-rope at glacial speed. Hula hoops are twirled from every body part. A magician swallows many razor blades in a creepy don’t-try-this-at-home demonstration. The clown with a shrill voice and gigantic mohawk encourages the children to cheer him on and boo the villain. And they do. And that’s nice, but nobody wants to go to the circus for an earnest lecture on bullying.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Little Apple Falling: Skimpy Lineup, Frugally Staged, Renders Big Apple Circus a Curously Sad Also-Ran

Revised, 11.20 6:30 PST

Added, 11.22 9:40 AM, END RINGERS, at the end of this post. Free weekly shows now being offered. 

Revised in italics, 11.26 10:36 AM.

Circus Review
Big Apple Circus, Dream Big, at Lincoln Center.

Directed by Philip Wm McKinley

On You Tube, a complete performance, apparently unedited, filmed on November 12. Please note: Removed from the current website are photos of the acts, only a few of their names mentioned. Thus, some are missing from this notice.

 A large red curtain fairly covered the ring as I entered, and my expectations were charged.  What might follow?

What followed once the show began was a ring filled with a dozen performers cast in a picturesque , Old World setting,  practicing their acts together, and so I was hooked and wanted more.

More, sorry to say, was not to come – not what I wanted more to be. The spirit of community that opened the show was no where to be found thereafter, for in one very lonely ring, every one of the acts that followed, except for the very last one, was solo.

And the entrancing opening stage picture  soon vanished into a muddled, talky talky morass of mediocrity. To  be sure and fair, a  few acts deliver mid-level satisfaction, such as the modestly charming little dogs of Jill Rapaport; and the rola-rola workout of a young showmanly fellow who produces the expected dread emotions. But others, like single trap performer Elli Huber, who works from a mechanic (lifeline) do little if anything to serve the wow factor.  In my estimation, the object of such safety renders the act impotent. 

In between, a diminutive ringmaster with a big heart, Alan Silva, and clown Johnny Rocket, sporting a Bella Knock-like hair style, fill up excessive amounts of time in banter and antics, audience involvement too, all very intimate and some of it audible through not the best of sound systems.  At this performance, Rocket established a quick kiddie cult hero status.  I yawned.  The kids giggled in heaps.  Perhaps they, too, sensed welcome comic relief from the inferior parade.   This edition may have some kind of a future Saturday morning on PBS.

And so, I assumed, having yet to spot a stand-out routine on the program, that maybe they were saving the strongest for a big build up in the second half.  How dead wrong was I: Never in a lifetime of sampling circuses of all sizes and manners  have I sat through so do-nothing a second half. 

This humdrum stretch of exceptional mediocrity dragged on through just three segments: hula hoops –– both legit and then clowned up by Mr. Rocket, who thereafter took more leisurely time by refusing to leave the ring.  Following several evictions by the ring director, he was goaded back on by the moppets chanting Johnny!  Johnny!  Johnny Rocket! By now, he seemed to be the only thing they wanted from the show.   If you are under 10, this could be your ticket – I am assuming those kids were not shills.

And finally, to the biggest fizzle of all –  the truncated Wallenda act, so  cautiously and methodically executed as to feel still-born.  Walking pyramid wire acts may have lost the power to thrill,  as audiences find greater excitement aloft in  fast-moving daredevilry and gymnastics. Con Colleano proved this back in the 1920s.  The Wallenda’s turn was cut up into segments, so that  the man born of circus nobility who produced this turkey -- that would be Nik Wallenda – could stop the show to indulge himself in talking to the audience about family history, and to tout his famous outdoor walks over canyon and Gotham and sea, and to talk up his next challenge, the setting of which eludes me. Was it the moon?

Production values?  So many credentialed people at work, and so little to show for it. Worst of all, missing is the band, a major asset in better years gone by..  In its place, this from sketchy feedback, there is a violin and possibly a guitar or two, keyboard and drums, half way buried on the balcony above the performer’s entrance. I’m guessing that most of the score comes off CDs.  Never once has any mention been made of the musicians on the stingy website. Director Philip Wm. McKinley, some of whose work on the Ringling show I have much admired, must have felt stranded in so  underwhelming a talent pool.  There does seem to be one recurring motif, performers taking overly long and drawn out bows at the end of their acts when the audience clearly was not in the mood to be milked.

Have I said enough?  Is the show still on the road?

Is there still even a future?

During the five seasons out of bankruptcy that  Big Apple has managed to survive, its variable direction has shifted from strongly traditional to outlandishly risque.

In its best years, founders Paul Binder and Michael Christensen focused on one thing.  The Act, period.  On finding the best ones out there.  They held their own against two other major shows that did the same: Ringling, and cirque du soleil.  Even John Ringling North’s Kelly Miller imported a number  of valid ring stars.

I hope this edition of BAC gets more reviews (it drew virtually none last year), for mine is only that of one person.  There may be others who will see and feel what I failed to see and feel. Already, there is! From London, author and journalist Douglas McPherson, with many circus reviews to his name, has taken a crack at the show  on his bog, Circus Mania, which you can link to on the right bar.  I would encourage you to read it. Douglas, as it urns out, was reviewing a different video.Thus, he got to see the work of Gena Cristiani,  while she did not appear on the one I watched ... 

My problem is that life has spoiled me with some of the greatest circuses – small to big.  And those big tops did the dreaming for me.

Overall rating (4 stars tops)


2 stars, even maybe 2-1/2, would be fairer to the performers. But this is a review of the entire performance, thus the mark downs. 


 END RINGERS: A tent turning over? Pay day barely met?    Before the photos were removed from the website, I recall two fellows from, was it Ethiopia? ... I was astonished, while googling for reviews, to discover the You Tube film of entire show. They would surely have to have obtained  from BAC a license to show.  If so, the act of giving it away suggests a desperation  to be seen and reviewed ... Speaking of which, they are giving it away -- every Tuesday in December, to locals, the item sent here by ever-attentive Don Covington ... The crowd caught on YouTube, from what I could tell from limited sight lines, was of a healthy size ... About solo acts: I looked through some old and recent program magazines for various circuses, picked at random. This is a rough estimate, first number for multi-person acts, the second, for total displays.   Circus Vargas, 2009: 8 of 13;  Big Apple, 2004:  5 of 14;   Polack Bros. 1960: 10 of  22; Clyde Beatty, 1957:  10 of 23; Ringling, 1929  15 of 19; Chimera, 2001: 10 of  16 ... And finally, back to the McPherson review. How much more interesting would the critical reception for any circus be were it met by many reviews. 

Friday, October 21, 2022

Ringling’s Total Cave to PETA -- SHOCKING ... Wallenda’s Third Big Apple Date -- IGNORED. ... Two New Books on Circus Kings --- PROMISING ... It's All on the Inside! ....

COWARDLY SURRENDER? How could I ever have missed this.  Last year, The Feld family feted the eyes of PETA with a sample of what their new animal-free circus will look like. PETA was so impressed, they “gifted” the circus with virtual control of their own website!  Okay, Mr. Feld, now you hold the keys.  Will you spend space apologizing for the thousands of circus animals over the years, allegedly mistreated?  

The preview was a kickoff for the return of Ringling in 2023. Yes, it really really seems to be happening.   New format designed to "break down the barriers between the performers and attendees."
In the words of show producer Juliette Feld Grossman, they're offering “a 360-degree environment that is going to surround” the audience with sound. So, it’s a sound show?  No, no, much more than that. “Audience-generated comment’ will be in some way included “for the very first time.” And Maybe the last.  Wasn’t this along the lines of  something they tried in their last opus, Out of This World?  I wonder if any cries of “where are the animals” will be auto-deleted before they can be heard.  

Alexander Lacy, with Ringling's last, Out of This World, in 2017, a crowning moment in circus history.

But ... this cool pig brought down the house.  These are the acts we live for.

Kenneth Feld put it this way in a press release, “We are innovating all aspects of the live show and modernizing the franchise,” purpose being to build “for today’s audiences,  and will last another 150 years.”   

I remind myself that the Felds have a genius for taking existing properties (Ringling, mice on ice, dump truck divas) and arguably bringing them into greater prosperity.  In the key of ground-up originality, they have a genius for elaborate overkill.
What to expect?  They may bring off a phenomenal new mode of acrobatic entertainment —  or one of the biggest still bombs in showbiz history.  I fear they have lost themselves in their own theoretical brainstorming sessions.   I detect desperation blinding them to a far better course  that would have salvaged diamond elements of the old show, still readily accepted by the public at large.

So PETA was, it would appear, silenced into a grateful shock. Proclaimed they in a written statement, “Ringling is returning with a bang, transforming the saddest show on Earth into a dazzling display of human ingenuity after 146 years of animal abuse. PETA is cheering the animal-free revamp and will gladly hand over their Circuses. Com to celebrate the spotlights turn toward talented human performers who chose to perform.” 

Reality check:  Circuses.Com does not bring up a website, but it opens Peta.org, and therein, PETA acknowledge its offering Ringling use of circuses.com.  I can't find it.

At Royal Hanneford earlier in the year.  Despite the hateful rhetoric of the do-gooders, there is abundant evidence that Americans still embrace traditional tanbark thrills.

Horse riding?  It's an accepted sport and recreation.  Dogs?  The Felds should take a good long look at episodes of America's Got Talent.    

Kenneth Feld could become the poster child for suicidal big top  self-evisceration. Remember the  vastly diversified Greatest Show on Earth itself?  This new  all human focus risks an overly serious tone – a tone previously lightened by clowns and animal critters running about the ring.   For the nation’s most revered circus to be bending to such sterile purity is disheartening. Dogs and horses are sill in motion on some shows, and will not be easy for any group to hound out of the rings. The Big cats, too.  The crowds still love and look for our furry friends sharing the spotlights.  Feld's gutless dismissal of the entire menagerie suggests Cirque du Soleil on steroids, lost in arena land.  Not the most original thinking.

Looking up in wonder.  The original seven-high pyramid.  Looking down at the current grind, from the Big Apple Circus website.

NIK’S THIRD BIG APPLE DATE:   Down here closer to an authentic circus ring, Big Apple is daring to present a dog act, yes, the dogs rescued from a shelter.  And Nik Wallenda seems bent on turning his family’s wire walks into an annual must see at Lincoln Center, although a photo he is pushing leaves me cold.  I scan cyberland for evidence of BAC releases hitting major news outlets, and find nothing.  High wire antics don’t play so well under little tents.  Website tickets going for $29.95 to $160.95.

WHEN BIG TOP GIANTS RULED: On both sides of the sainted pond next year, two legendary circus kings  to be profiled in new books. Over here, Art Concello (the king behind the throne of John Ringling North), in Maureen Brunsdale's In the Shadows of the Big Top. Over there, the bloody murder of  Lord George Sanger, seen left, considered the greatest showman in  UK history.  Sanger’s wife, Nellie, was so daring a lion “tamer,” that Queen Victoria, who could not get enough of the act, feted the Sanger Circus in not one but two command performances.

I have an advance proof copy of Karl Shaw's The Killing of Lord George,  and am keenly perusing a vivid and gritty journey through unvarnished  Brit big top history. Most surprising thing for me; that the Brits may have been out for more blood in the big cage than we over here, and that Brit circus owners may have endured even bloodier encounters with thieves and con men along the road and around the tents.  

END RINGERS: Die, clown, die: Yet another clown-driven blood bath is bringing more mayhem to movie houses.  Audiences, I read, "are vomiting and fainting amid screenings of the new clown slasher film Terrifier 2." Getting harder to recall when white face joeys with red noses warmed the hearts of Americans. 

Lou, Felix, Otto!  Steve & Ryan! What have they done to you?  Where are you? Can you hear me?  Please,come home!  Can I send out a rescue team?  No, No, please, I'm on your side!  Don't!  Don't  Oh  God! ... Somebody call me a doctor!!!!!  One .... One  ... one  hund ...hund ... hun ... hu  ....h ...

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Hold that Calliope Hearse! Big Apple Circus is Still Alive!

Caught me totally by surprise —  a link down the Covington Chute to a Broadway World story dated Monday announcing the return of the Big Apple Circus to Lincoln Center.  A slew of new names and titles assigned, including CEO, suggested a traffic jam of managing egos. And that Nik Wallenda was history.

But he act is back, and he gets prime attention, though the biggest question of all remains, who really owns this bankrupt big top?  Last year, Nik claimed to be the owner.  He might be smart enough to have learned that he needs somebody else running the operation.  For, the release lists a new CEO named Marty LaSalle, who previously delivered a wham juggling act with his brother on the show.

The show's website is a bare bones affair, lending a  rushed feel of something hastily pulled together following a harried campaign to raise more capital and cling to another season.

And there’s a new producer named Arielle Tepper. With numerous NY credits, among them, chairwoman of the Public Theatre.  She may be the producer, but so, it would appear, is Michael Cohl, formerly of Live Nation and more recently of BAC.  This will mark, technically, the fourth BAC management shakeup.  

Also new to the show is  “award winning animal advocate” Jill Rappaport, with whom BAC will partner to host a doggie rescue adoptions bash under the tent, promised to feature “fabulous dogs from shelters around New York." .                                                                                                                            
And there will be one lone animal act on the bill, a gaggle of "incredibly adorable" dogs presented by a 12-year-old from Florida, Veranica.  Anything to soften the choke of woke, I'm all for. 

The annual Gotham run has been cut by one third, with a Nov. 9 opening for eight weeks. No mention of a road tour of any kind.  Ticket prices seem much friendlier than last year.

It is still out there, and that is good news.  What is not so welcoming to my skeptical eyes is how the show’s history is worded in the release ...  “founded in 1977 by two circus performers.”
The names, Broadway World,  are Paul Binder and Michael Christensen.

Last year’s edition was virtually ignored by the entire New York press.  Can this latest re-configuration of a shaky masthead re-boot local respect -- or will the strange, sad shrinkage continue?  

END RINGERS:  Musical CEO chairs?  Biggest question of all -- who, if anyone, has the final say in this sprawling organization?  Or as Art Concello called it, "the yes the no." The best run circuses are usually run by a single force, be it blood brothers (Ringling) or a strong impresario.   Group Think is usually doomed to  failure.  ... Destined for the Ring of Fame in Sarasota are 2023 Circus Hall of Fame inductees  Peggy Williams, the hand-balancing Alexis Brothers,  Jeanette Williams, and Father Jerry Hogan, famed for his role as national Circus Chaplain.


Saturday, September 24, 2022

Friday Flip Flops: Kelly-Miller Cookhouse, a Sizzler ... Octogenarian Student of Trapeze, a Dazzler ... The Kingdom of Feld, Why a Yawner?

Those days now seem so golden.

Kelly Miller grillmaster, Jeremiah Cook, posts upcoming menus
Cookhouse photos by Carol Guensburg/AFR

Have a seat, no, make that -- get in line at a cookhouse-to-remember,  it being Johnny North II’s designer meals for his Kelly-Miller Circus family.  As reported  a while back when the show was boating up to Kelly's Island, one Jeremiah Cook (perfect name for the job), having been hired to work the big grill in the backyard, was quoted,  “Mr. John Ringling North himself has told me he wants everyone to be fed — pleasantly.” And on this haute cuisine lot, pleasant means delicious — with a touch of nutritious ...

Rebecca Ostroff, with meals for her family, back to the RV

Chef Cook posts upcoming menus, great way to keep the staff happy and on the move, I’d venture ...”It’s my show time,” said he to the news scribe, who witnessed clown Steve Copeland waking off with “a plate of chicken, rice, mixed vegetables and an extra piece of cornbread.” ....

Story touted local edible delights favored by the troupe annually, from Texas tacos to, up Baltimore way, “Berger Cookies,” the beef adorned with a thick chocolate fudge frosting ... Mmmm, yes! .... Might a VIP ticket to the show get me into the cookhouse?   I want more than a bag of peanuts, Mr. North II  ... Cook is a modern guy, too, opting for the healthy stuff, “lean meats and sometimes fish,” produce at every meal.  Always for the taking, watermelon and popsicles ... And there's Stevie boy, accepting another great meal ...mmm, looks yummmy good, I'm jealous! ...

She’s not young and she’s not retired, no where near ... She’s an octogenarian with oomph to go,  now taking classes at Circus Harmony in St. Louis.   Cheers to the ungroundable Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring, who once appeared as a showgirl in Ringling  rings, but never, per her parents release orders, in the air. She rode elephants, high stepped in fancy frills, smiled a lot (I assume), waved and added luster to the 3-ring spectacles ...

You CAN go back:  Years later, make it six back, came Bunny’s 80th Big Day.  She appealed to Circus Harmony’s Jessica Hentoff. “I promised my parents I wouldn’t do aerial, but they are gone now ... do you think it is too late?”  No, of course not, said the Harmony mentor, and up went Bunny, at last, to grasp a trapeze bar and swing out.  ...

She continues honing her skills, learning more --- only problem being a hearing aid that keeps wanting to run away, can’t stand heights. ... Since then, our La Norma-come- lately has taught Shakespeare to men behind bars, penned a bio now on Amazon, Still Swinging In Wonderland, and wears a tattoo, the message in Latin reading: “To be rather than to seem” ... Ah, there, yes there, the true essence of circus! .. Bravo, Bunny,, Bravo! ... 
In the Kingdom of Feld, why am I yawning?  Promise, I respect and am abstractly fascinated by the  man’s genius, he could end up having run Ringling-Barnum a longer time than any of the lords who preceded him onto the lot.  Then why, when I read more about his ever-expanding empire of “shows,” do I feel, how to put this, so underwhelmed? Maybe it's  Monster Jam Truck Show division that fails to excite.

I’m an anti-vehicular nerd, you see, who, ironically, once throttled a Ford Bronco clear across the country and back, flacking for Sid Kellner’s James Bros. Circus.  Those Feldlings are now up to  something called Nuclear Cowboyz, another auto-maniac thrill show.   Now, here's maybe a real thriller for the Circus Division, which these days seems to favor asphalt over sawdust. 

Back down in average ordinary mud, but beautiful mud!  Let’s give John Ringling North II the last word -- assuming he actually spoke the Last Word.   Said he (promise, I am quoting somebody quoting him) “I didn’t really care so much about whether I owned it [Kelly Miller, which he bought in 2006], but I wanted there to be a circus like this — the kind that I remembered as a kid.  And that was pretty much the only way to make sure there was.”   Now, that one line merits an encore, so ...

“In the day and age where everybody watches screens all day long, this is real.”

Real, yes, like Medicare maverick Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring, for whom I have an idea:  Why not apply to Mr. North II for an "honorary"  place in next year's show, rumored to be populated with a number of new faces. You can make "old" "new" again.  Sounds good?  You would surely reaffirm the real magic of what the circus is and, let's hope, always will be.  They could ballyhoo your entrance, "Ladies and gentlemn, children of allllll ages --- A return to the House of Ringling! ..."

Here's a photo, only a week old, of Ms. Herring at her latest lesson with Circus Harmony.  Looks like she's prepping for an audition -- and "just a decent chance, Sir!" -- I can almost hear her saying.

First posted October 18, 2013

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A Football Fairytale Worthy of Shakespeare

I can't believe I am posting this, I almost feel like a traitor to my own blog. But I can't resist.

On Sunday, not having watched any football games, I never do -- I tuned into the news and at sports, they showed coverage of the new SF 49ers QB, Trey Lance, going down, and it was serious.  A season ending ankle injury.  Were the gods kidding? The new promised kid on the field and down so soon.  And I should state here that I feel genuinely sorry for the guy, even though I had been rooting for another player to eventually retake his old QB position with the 49ers.

And then, moments later on the same newscast, same field, there came that player,  that very same player -- Jimmy G., as those of us who love him call him, back in uniform and back with the ball in hand, tossing it and moving as if Superman himself had swooped down to save the day.  Jimmy G delivered a great decisive win for his old team!   Like a stand-in actor during a drama more epic than life, having waited in the wings, just in case. An actor of cool aplomb having been perfectly prepared for such an unexpected moment, to fill in if need be.

At the end, through his head gear, you could see pure joy on Jimmy's face, and the joy of his teammates patting and hugging him -- affection through a tangle of protective metal.

Talk about a wildly impossible tragedy-to-triumph drama unfolding before our very eyes.  Something you would only see in a movie  But no, you saw it here on an unscripted football field.  Maybe that is one of the reasons why this game is so so popular. 

Okay, back to the circus.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Circus Vargas Lands Prime Time NFL Coverage --- Almost ... Get Ready to Be Blown Off the Field

In what has got to be one of the biggest fiascos in big top product placement history,  one of our finest circuses apparently allowed the NFL to feature snippets of its action in an NFL season-kickoff promo —  without even a trace of the show's name appearing anywhere in the  promo. How many old time press agents are there screaming their guts out six feet under over this Name-Game wipe-out:  NFL: 100.  Circus Vargas: 0

Yes, ZERO.   You see those big brawny brain-busters hustling the ball and themselves against each other, and you see some terrific circus action between the body blows that the public can’t get enough of. OK, though I never watch a single game, but I do enjoy the human interest stories on sports talk radio, and I’m rooting for Jimmy G. to make it back into the starring role.

News of this heist arrived in my e-mail on 9.11 at 2:46 AM, from Alex Smith in So Cal, whom I am starting to think of as a symbolic blood brother to myself and Don Marcks, since we both, though generations apart,  enjoyed rich friendships with the very sharing Don.

“Vargas enjoyed a great media PLUG on Fox sports”

Awesome!  I opened the link to be dazzled by first-line football action interspersed with some clean and compelling circus acts – the sort that make you want to go to a circus. Where was the name Circus Vargas in any of this?  Say, a view of its logo over the performers entrance?  Alex?

I e-mailed him my puzzlement.  Had I missed something?    

In return, a corrective from Alex, holder of a giant popped balloon. 

“Circus Vargas got a great plug on NFL ?? SPORTS PRE GAME—— (well maybe it’s not a plug if they don’t mention them by name and use the new dirty word “circus” ) anyway it’s cool, check out after the :30 mark on link below.”

And on a subliminal level, consider this, Alex:  Circus performers were equated with the most athletic and skilled football stars.

Down the Convington chute,  on 7.13, came a more accurate headline:  Circus Vargas Adds Excitement to NFL Football"  

Alex sent in-the-field details on 7.15:

 "As far as I know, FOX SPORTS showed up Saturday, shot footage, and then over night infused it with their PRE-GAME Promo for the Saturday Fox football intro”

Which amounts,  I’d add, to their walking off the lot like a pack of old-time bill-posting bandits, stealing away captivating Vargas posters and tacking their names over them.

Directing your attention to the sign over the banner. top of the performer's entrance:  I see garble. Might it have replaced the words Circus Vargas?

Further  from Alex,

“I hope they were at least paid well because CLIFF VARGAS is turning over in his grave with no mention of them or the VARGAS name or brand.  Still, these days in the Mecca of
“Circus hate” which is Los Angeles, it’s probably as good as it gets.”

Looking good, people!  And what was the name of your show???

And how sadly symbolic of the  American circus, getting both smeared on the front lines of circus day, but used in a more populist ballyhoo to snare a crowd.

 “I only hope that Nelson and Katya made a ton of money out of this, which I doubt.”  

In this day and age, the prominent placement of Circus Vargas in the same context as NFL (what, the nation’s most popular sport?) would have been infinitely more valuable than a cowardly payoff.  Don’t drop the word “circus.”  Just tease the suckers with those amazing performers they can’t stay away from. 

Was that all there was?  Yes, Peggy, that's all there was.  Things have changed a lot  since you last walked a midway.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Queen and I: A Nation Unified in Peace is a Nation to Respect and Believe in

 My thoughts are with the Brits. And as I watch the coverage, I am moved by a quiet and firmly shared  respect among the thousands along the parade route for what, it feels to me, Queen Elizabeth gave the people every day of her life: the comforting spirit  and symbolism of Continuity.  How eloquently she served that one word.  Maybe the monarchy is earning a renewed respect for its soft maturing power to elevate and lift and render as one, all of the people.

It approaches the majestic and the rhapsodic, and you can see and feel it in their eyes. They are in touch with a higher state of being.

And am I lost in my own  sentimental fabrications?  I know of the  family's dark history.  And of the  recent scandals. And of others likely to come in freshly written books.  Imperfection marks the course of all ruling parties.  I once nearly worshiped JFK. It took years of revelations to deconstruct my fantasy.  He surely made us feel good at the time.

For now, I'm feeling a belief  in the new king.  I think he is off to a remarkable start.

God bless them all.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Desperate to be Loved, Talky Talky Circus Vargas both Excites and Irritates

Looking back 14 years, when viewers chimed in ... LOL everybody!

Circus Review: Circus Vargas
San Francisco, August 13, 7:30 p.m.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission.

Watching Circus Vargas is like sitting down at a fine French restaurant, the first entree magnificent, only to be interrupted every 5 or 10 minutes by one distraction after another — a man off the street with a pet alligator offering to let you touch it and to have your photo taken with it between the main course and desert; another fellow running up to your table, shouting “Are you enjoying your meal?” And still another wanting to pull you into the kitchen and teach you how be a star chef. After this going on half the night, you leave exhausted and irked, fighting to remember why you ever went there in the first place.

Oh, yes, to see a circus. Actually, there is enough fine talent with this year’s edition of Circus Vargas, if only somebody — a director, a truant officer, a screaming Richard Barstow back from the dead — would grab the throat of this overstuffed mess and shake it down to length. Like down to a tautly restrained one hour thirty minutes. Out would go audience participation filler, clown routines needing the scissors, and desperate verbal interactions with the audience designed to force applause and fake displays of customer satisfaction.

Circus 1A: It’s a pity and a crime, because on many levels, Vargas excels, from an exemplary front door staff (the classiest I’ve encountered in years) to a string of stellar artists who deserve a far more focused and professional showcase..

The strong turns:

* The opening sequence — no circus I can recall in recent years has opened with such heart-pounding force. A captivating original song, "Circus Vargas,” sung with power by Ted McRae underscores the ensemble performing a variety of routines. Class A all the way.
* Engaging and diversified juggling from Esquedas. Great showmanly act.
* An amply amusing (no shills involved) safari spoof from two clowns out of the Torreblanca Family — in the mode of Lou Jacobs with shooting tears, but they advance the routine with additional touches, including a head of hair that raises high and the emission of white powder from -- oh no, how do I put this? -- from an area of the human body known to cause unpleasant odors. Overall, an absolute delight. This is clowning we need more of.
* Memorable trampoline exploits from the Martinellis.
* A clean classy flying routine, with a solid triple, from the Tabares. They have the flash and the flair, and I only wish they would have stayed up there longer.
* Rolly Bolly from the Espana Duo. Although this is not a gracefully enacted turn, the payoff trick is so amazingly good, I wanted to stand up and shout “Bravo!"
* Franciso Mendoza's mock bullfight. Am I glad they brought him back, for he totally turned my attitude around. Last year, I was left wanting. This time the entire act proved to be one of two comedy highlights of the evening, the other being heretofore mentioned.

Other notable moments: An ambitious female duo working the lyra, with their end items worthy of respect. And there are some winning tricks that just need editing down. For example, during a slow-moving equestrian pas de deux, a shill apprentice dragged from the crowd, dangling off the horse by a mechanic, grabs hold of John Weiss and they become a graceless duo in motion. Very very funny! Weiss, in fact, could have been given sole master of ceremonies and announcing chores. A shrewd director might have woven his mischief into other acts, but with BREVITY.

This show seems to have been produced under a couple of dubious assumptions: One, the longer the performance takes, the more the audience will respect it. Two, audiences need to be talked to a lot, which made me wonder if this show was directed by a group therapist. Actually, the talking begins with an engaging 20-minute “Interactive pre-show party” for the moppets hosted by tv personality John Weiss (left). All good and well except this party begins when the show should, so we the adults are held captive. After that, Weiss then becomes one of three announcing figures. Another is ringmaster Ted McRae, who gets to show off his cobra snake and offer photo ops to the audience during an obscenely protracted intermission. Throughout the show, he repeatedly works the crowd for applause and shout backs. “Are you having fun, San Francisco!” “Are you enjoying the show?” “I can’t hear the other side of the tent!” So annoying, it felt like being part of a studio audience before the taping of a tv show when a guy comes out to pump you up.

And I wanted to shout back, “Shut up, will you!” Polack Bros Circus co-founder Louis Stern, who lasted forty years in the business, once told his last ringmaster Robert Mitchell, who had been asking the audience before each intermission, “Are you enjoying the show?" to knock it off. Said Stern sternly, “One time they booed us.”

Lighting and costumes are generally excellent. The taped music, I must admit, is quite effective for much of the time, relevantly scored to the action at hand, though it does start to wear thin as the evening wears on and out. Following two motorcyclists from the Willy Family circling each other in the big cage, finale comes on with smiling faces. The audience (a very small crowd, maybe a quarter house) seemed moved. Then out go the performers through the front door to congregate around, there to interact with the exiting crowd. Nice touch, I suppose. I have only ever seen this done once before, at a community theatre.

The tent itself remains a work of art, mysterious and enchanting and so inviting. It deserves a superior performance that already exists in the ingredients. Another asset would be at least the handout of a one-sheet program.

Circus Vargas: Go to the back of the tent and repeat a thousand times over: "Every action, every moment, every pause and every word spoken either propels or retards the action." Were your strongest offerings to be placed back to back, and were all the irritating forced audience interactions and pitches routed, what a show you might have. Might that be, per chance, what you really want?

Overall score: * * 1/2

From August 14, 2008

Thursday, September 01, 2022

The Silence of Circus Fans: Why Circus Reviewing Can Get You Banned from the Big Top

 A circus fan's only outlet: Anonymous

From across the big pond, Douglas McPherson responds to a comment I recently made -- “If only circus fans would debate like sports/musical theater fans”

“But why don’t they?” he asks.  “What’s your theory?”

Oh, my, where to begin.  Monograph or sound bite?
“Circus fans” of the CFA kind are a breed unto themselves.  The CFA was organized to “Fight anything that fights the circus.”   That included by implication negative reviews.  And the fans fell in line.

CFAers in the early days were about the only local contact that circuses  had in many communities.  When adversity struck, the owners were damn well grateful to have a tried and true circus fan around to help defend them.  Some held respected professions.   The last thing any circus needed was a bad review. Especially from an iron-clad supporter of big tops.  Defending the circus to the point of holding back on publicly debating its artistic merit  became a kind of religion.

No Stage Door to Crash

In return for their loyalty, circuses opened their backyards to the fans, and even issued passes to some. Come right in, knock directly on our doors, or tug at our tent flaps. We’d love to see you!  In what other realm of show business can a customer walk right through to the backstage area and knock on a star’s dressing room door, in effect, inviting themselves into their privacy?  You usually get as far as a security man at the Stage Door.

Naturally, in the backyards, enduing friendships  formed, and thus the incestuous relationship between performer and full-access fan.  What fan would dare turn out a negative notice on people whom they consider to be their friends? And if they did, it’s doubtful The White Tops would print it.  For myself, a friend is too important a part of my life to risk losing over an honest review, and so I won’t review their work, but support them in private.  Which is why I long ago stopped going into the backyard.  This position became a mantra for me when I read of the great New York Times theater critic, Brooks Atkinson,  revealing how he avoided socializing with people whose work he might be reviewing.  What perfect sense it made.
Douglas: “I’ve noticed a distinct touchiness among circus owners, who will pick up on the slightest criticism, even within an otherwise positive review”

So have I, although not so much with the owners as with performers and fans.  I could issue a strong positive review overall, but dare to criticize one or two of the acts, and I am Judas Iscariot   A rare piece of hate mail gave me pause to ever consider showing my face anywhere on a certain lot.

                                    The Value of Many Voices 

Were there many reviews for a given show to draw from, any individual review would not be as offensive as it alone can be.  A wide range of opinions is the healthiest option, and such is usually the case in other venues.  Think Rotten Tomatoes.  But not in the circus world.  

Circus owners, I believe, are ill-served by the fans issuing non-stop, one way praise.  Smaller shows can tour for years without ever facing an objective notice. And if they do face harsh criticism, it can be a tough experience to deal with. 

Douglas: “I have been banned from reviewing a couple of circuses.”   

Now, that's extreme. And I am rather smiling at the perverse honor!  I do not know of that ever happening over here.  I can recall the efforts of a fan, long ago, to get press passes from the Ringling show, who was refused.  The reason given was negative coverage the show received from the same magazine, though not by the fan. Coverage that I myself was likely responsible for.  

“I also wonder if circus fans are very small in number. By that, I mean maybe most circus goers don’t consider themselves to be ‘circus fans.’

Right.  Beyond the few thousand hard core American fans out there who remain in lockstep, the  public that will argue over a film, a play, a book, a ballet, rarely takes the time to view circuses critically.  I think the kiddie factor is another softener --- just watching one’s  child take such joy and delight over a mediocre act can win the heart away.

When Candor Crashes Through

So, the owners have been able to minimize critical scrutiny by their hold on the fan magazines. But not always.  In his sharper moments, the late Ernest Albrecht turned out hard-hitting notices in his magazine, Spectacle.  In the pages of  Circus Report, I was refreshingly shocked to see Herb Ueckert now and than turning critical on a few artists for under-par work.  One performer’s irate reaction to a Ueckert review was to claim that only a performer of the same skill was qualified to review another, i.e., jugglers reviewing jugglers!

 Beyond all of this, American press agents loved casting circus day as another (sacred by implication) American holiday. They passed out hordes of free tickets to city editors, and the editors largely went along with the feel-good embracement of circus.  And the ageless delight too often gets a pass when it might have been better served by the sting of honesty.  As my friend Boyi Yuan once said, “a bad review is the best review.”

Carry on, Sir Douglas!