Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Impresario Enters ...

From 2008 ...

Golden find:  Included here are opening night notes from John Ringling North to his creative staff in 1951

Only he can silence a room. Only he can still the ego of others. The abrasive choreographer ... the overbearing set designer ... the prickly composer — they all suddenly turn silent when HE enters ... They all bow to him, for he is the ultimate arbitrator of what they will do. He is the studio mogul, the stage impresario, the big top king. The audience of audiences.

In the riveting brilliance of the British film masterpiece The Red Shoes, He is Boris Lermontov, played by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook. They all talk of him, wait for him to appear, take their cues from his wishes. Walbrook (who, in real life, broke from a circus family to pursue acting) teaches us perhaps everything there is to know about the importance of that one looming figure whose demanding vision lights the path that all of the rest must follow. Many years ago, perhaps that figure was Nate Salsbury, who produced Black America , a spectacular touring exhibition celebrating “Negro life and character,” now profiled in the current issue of Bandwagon. Maybe he was once a young Al Ringling who lured his brothers into a legendary showbiz dynasty unrivaled in its time.

Today, he surely is Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil’s founding force whose creative drive powers an operation of almost unprecedented contemporary splendor and world-wide success ...
Who else in modern times had it? I will surprise you, perhaps, by suggesting — even though he did not exactly dress for the part — that maybe Cliff Vargas had it, however crudely, however fleetingly. Maybe that is the reason why he remains so profoundly respected by, it seems, everyone under the big top

When I was barely 8 years old, I went with some kids to see The Red Shoes at the Roxie movie house in Santa Rosa, and I would remember only a cinematic image of a make-believe world anchored to selfless discipline. Those days, my mother mopped up and dusted the dance studio of one Dinah Selby, so that my sister, Kathy, could take tap lessons. There, I sometimes felt a certain magic in the air... Girls danced on pointe and, in their dedication to a difficult art, I sensed there was something more to life than baseball and Lionel train sets.

Watching The Red Shoes in recent times (the other night on TCM), I marvel at its depiction of the same world, only now I find myself even more mesmerized by the figure of the dashing and demanding Anton Walbrook, who seems so hauntingly real to me in his relentless hunger for artistic exaltation. He is not a merchant. Not a cast-couching lout. He is the producer of great performances. He is the true impresario.

In Lermontov, I can see shades of John Ringling North — the impeccably attired, elusive mogul assuming a position above it all. North must have known what an impresario can do for the circus. If his uncles gave the show the respect of a family operation, North gave it the flamboyance of one man’s superior vision. Like most entrepreneurs, he did not direct or design. More often, they inspire. Badger. Hold out. Expect. Push. Insist. Even dream, sometimes madly ...

Now at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, where at long last the long-guarded Ringling-Barnum Archives have been opened to the public, there are a couple of stunning documents written in North’s own handwriting. These two discoveries open wide a window into the emotions of a man who rarely revealed his innermost thoughts on the subject of producing. In his own handwriting, we can witness him boldly issuing notes on the 1951 show after it had just opened. There is a lot of the bluntness of a Lertmontov in them: “Sammy Grossman, arrange Veronica Martel so it will be perfection. Doug Morris, give her perfect lighting. This is a new star with a magnetic personality.”

And more, of which .. “As of today, I demand that all acts finish their numbers together and any feuds as such will engage themselves for mortal combat outside of the circus arena.” Lermontov? Walbrook?

Here is my favorite picture of the mysterious Mr. North, who strangely almost never attended any of the circuses he produced once they passed through dress rehearsal and onto opening night. So tentative, standing there all alone at the edge of the Paris opening during the European tour. Insecure about his own work? Not quite sold on the result? Holding out still for something he knows he may never achieve? Waiting, still, perhaps, for his own elusive Lermontov masterpiece?

[photos, above: Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes; Guy Laliberte; Cliff Vargas; John Ringling North, in Business Week, October 12, 1963)

First posted February 14, 2008

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Here’s Seven Stars for the USA: That Many Circuses Are Springing Back in Spring with Safe, Doable Fare .... Southern Dates Dominate the Arrows ...

     THEY CAN'T STOP TROUPING, though New England may not know it, not with our seven one ringers favoring dates leaning westward and southward, with Texas, not a surprise, the most valued midway. Culpepper & Merriweather – or waryweather — uncorking in good old reliable Hugo, OK on March 18, then heading down into Longhorn country.  In my unscientific memory, this is the most receptive spot in all of  America for circuses from near and far.

     ALSO HEADED TO TEXAS is Circus Funtastic, coming to us, let’s have fun assuming, from a wing of the Byrd family.  They’re calling this mini sampler  “a superhero adventure.”  Wishing them plenty of super crowds to match the adventure, being sold for a charitable $5 to $15. This just might give the dormant Byrds a more viable hook into how to fly their bigger tents once again.  Add to the Texas guess list, soon to arrive, Circus Venardos, the small time charmer with a breezy mix of circus, magic and various poetic touches.

     OVER MY WAY in the State of Insanity, there is Circus Vargas, the name growing stronger and sturdier by the year, bless its hopeless addiction to the life.  From website photos of the show, I  see a classy spread of refined ground action tinted in hues of Cirque du subtle.  Animal-free all the way.  Okay, yes, I do understand.  “We don’t  have any animals, and haven’t had for about 20 to 25 years,” culture signals one of the company’s own to a media reporter, nibbling around the subject we dare not speak.

     SHOWING OFF YOUR  wokeness is damn near necessary to avoid being run off your own lot by some amateur thug running out of a drug store with legally stolen loot, and pausing to slam the beastly sins that you circus people should still be ashamed of!  No wonder, the Vargas voice, later in the interview, inserted, “We have two rescue dogs” (signal, signal). Okay, who can blame her, considering the open air asylum in which Vargas  gratefully and graciously operates. Seats are going for $28 to $70.  Heck, next time they come my way, I’m gonna go full tilt on my wallet and try the ring-curb view.

     ROYAL HANNEFORD rolling royally down Alabamy way ... While, up in red hot Georgia, the new Big One, (UniverSoul), flexing up its  funky strut and “black owned” creed for a month of soulful jazzing up the sawdust in Duluth, Ga, then settling into a mighty two month stay in Atlanta.   Tickets a friendly $25 to $40 ... But without a live band, I can’t quite call them “the Big One.” Retract that signal.     

     HECK, THERE'S EVEN something for me!  I only need ride an empty BART car to transfer to an empty bus over a bridge to San Rafael, from there to train up on the new  “smart train” (dumb, really)  to Petaluma, once the “egg basket of the year.” Drum roll!   The Zoppe Family Circus will be jumping from Colorado to California, with a first stop in the still old-fashioned egg basket,  August 25 to September 5.  They do get around, and I admire their pluck, first seeded in 1842.  Remember Cucciolo?  

     TWO BIG QUESTION MARKS:   Over at the Big Apple Circus website, this message: “We’ll See You Again Next Season”. Missing are the words “October” and “Lincoln center.” Prominently displayed at top is the word “Wallenda.”   And  I am voiding out here, stuck between Nik’s shredding dream of Gotham glory and a memory of Kenneth Feld talking up the return he keeps talking up.  Maybe by then, there will be mandatory mask implants so that a brave  new faceless world can return to the new abnormal.   It could be worse, or could it?  Keep the exotics in the barn, and tell the clowns to stick one pink nose on their face covering.  Better yet, skip the Golden State like Elon Musk is doing and tent up in Texas.