Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Brit Big Tops Draw Long Lines ... Shrine Circuses Stay True ... Big Apple Circus Wins Another Tmes’ Valentine Review .... Ringling’s Spectacular Roll- Out Spectacularly Ignored ... Fake Animal Acts on the Rise ...

Let me whistle this one in by raising a few heart-warming photos on my midway, sent our way by my UK connection, Sir Douglas of McPherson, in reply to my asking him about the scene over there in 2023.  Take a look.  

Big Kid Circus, at their last stop for the season, last month in Glasgow

Zippos circus last summer

     HOW DO YOU FEEL seeing long lines at a circus? It always excites me, especially when I am in one,  to the point of a mild panic: Will I get in before the tent sells out?? Only once did this trauma test my well being, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood where Circus Vargas had wisely raised its tent. I did get in, and enjoyed the pristine novelty of watching the show with a full house.

     AND ONLY TWICE was I actually turned away at the ticket counters, by the Moscow Circus in Oakland in 1967, and Vargas, circa 1986, then tenting over the parking lot of the Hollywood Bowl. About 10 minutes before showtime,  I  hurled myself off a greyhound bus on Highland, returning from the Bay Area, and raced across the street, up a ticket vacant window. “Sorry, sold out”

    BIG APPLE CIRCUS'S STRUGGLE to go beyond Lincoln Center continues, and suggests the show is not making sufficient profits anymore to hit the road. Current opus features Germany’s Circus Theater Roncalli, some of its acts in video teases quite impressive. Long lines do not seem to be forming.  They threw out 50% off tickets over the black Friday weekend and are pushing other discounts.  Inexplicably, they have failed to draw major reviews outside of their number one fan, The New York Times, which has become The White Tops of Gotham circus reviewing. 

     ANOTHER VALENTINE CRITIC'S PICK from the Times’ Alexis Soloski. She  had nice things to say about everybody. She did miss Big Apple’s dogs and cat acts, and raised a slight quibble over the second act beginning “with a puzzling routine” of four fake polar bears (costumed performers). Left discretely uncharmed was she.  Add the Roncalli  bears to new Ringling’s robotic dog, and do we have a trend smacking of spineless showmanship?  This merits an academic study. PETA PhDs could have a field day.  

     GREATEST COMEBACK FIZZLE ON EARTH? Never did I imagine: The most spectacular thing about the return of the circus that dare not speak its name, is how spectacularly ignored it has been by big media and newspapers. On national TV, have YOU ever seen even a mention of it: They may be doing boffo biz, for all I know.. Today I thought I spotted a review in the Chicago Tribune, only to find a feature story that felt like a hand out, talking up the show’s return, with Kenneth Feld being quoted. Where is Chris Jones, who regularly reviews circus for the Tribune? I would love to read his take on the show.. 

     SHRINE CIRCUS RENAISSANCE?   The temples that still produce real circus shows are forcing the public to re-think its ambivalence about real circus, forcing them to make their feedings known, to wit this, from one of only three Yelp reviews, all negative,  dated Nov. 16, from Cindy I. in Co, Co:

  "All we saw was acrobats swinging back and forth, the worst CLOWN show ever, and a fake robot dog. I wish I had my money back. The tickets were not worth the price we paid and the show was a pathetic two ring mess. Our Shriners circus is way better!"

     YES, YOU STILL DO have the Shrine Circus, those of you lucky enough to be near one.  I tip my hat to the fearless men in red  who have stayed the course.  In their favor, they have strong ties to the community and enjoy the respect of all for their children’s hospitals.  If anybody knows what can delight a child, surely it would be a Shriner.

I have more of that thread in mind.  But for now, I am turning off my Intel brain implant to take a fake break.

Big pig after my heart, at Hamid Shrine Circus.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: They Dream Of Venice ... I Dream Of An Old Ice House ...

We all, each armed with memories, walk down old rail tracks, looking for an ice house, a silo, a barn, where once gilded circus trains unloaded, hoping to bring back those magical days, hoping to recapture exactly how we felt then ...

For Wade Burck, it's a place in Florida south of Sarasota: "You had to have walked into the building in Venice, with GGW in rehearsal, and Charlie and Axel in tents in the back lot, reserved parking in front for Irvin Feld, Kenneth Feld, Allen Bloom, etc., some of the greatest stars of their era eating in the restaurant, to really appreciate the wonder of that old building and facilities."

Burck, like another veteran Ringling pro, Jack Ryan, shares Tito Gaona's precarious dream of turning the place into a circus museum. And I am reminded of my own favored places that wither away as time moves on.

There's an old ice house -- no, there was an old ice house down Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa, on whose raised exterior walkway I once stood on enchanted summer days when a carnival train rattled into town and was spotted there. I watched transfixed as a wide array of multi-colored wagons of Foley & Burk Shows rumbled and clattered from flat car to flat car, muscled hands tugging at their tongues, pulling against ropes to guide them onto the runs, down which they bolted with wild force, hitting the pavement for sure, jerking this way or that, getting hooked to tractors and pulled out to the fairgrounds ... Sometimes on my bicycle, I anxiously followed them.

And there's a spot out in Point Richmond; a few years ago, I walked it, finding an old shack still standing, and still seeing vividly in my reaching mind the side show tent that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had pitched in front of it over fifty years ago when it threw up a glorious one day date under the big top in late August. Most magical day of my life. Now, that sacred place is covered in smooth sterile asphalt and loading ramps for container trucks.

So many old ice houses gone. So many old tracks and fences and buildings rusted and ignored, waiting maybe for new trains to find them ... On visits over the years to the railroad crossing where the carnival unloaded, I've watched a special setting, bit by bit wither away. First, the ice dispensing machine. Then the elevated walkway along the building. Then the building, down to a shell, and finally -- gone. Now only the railroad tracks remain. Abandoned.

So I can understand Wade Burck's poignant memories, can understand how a building in Venice that I found rather plain, even ugly, can mean so much to somebody else ...

"Not only the greats from the true 'golden era', but the whole city of Venice was electric with pride and anticipation," shares Burck, "waiting for the opening night dress rehearsal, and the animal walk to the train, as the Greatest Show on Earth, 'their' Greatest Show on Earth, left for another tour ... The permanent chain link arena, with the sloped concrete floor, which sat behind the octagon ring stock training barn, in which the likes of Bottcher, Chipperfield, Bauman, Williams practiced, in which I had the honor of practicing ..."

How I wish I still owned that Schwin bike and could ride it out Sebastopol Road to watch the colorful Foley & Burk train pull in alongside the ice house ...

first posted 4.27,2010

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

The "Lamest Show on Earth"? Yelp Pans New Ringling ... Major Media Ignores ... Shriners Come Out Shinning ...

 UPDATE, 11.17.23Where are the media or newspaper reviews?   I comb cyberspace and still find nothing.  What I find are advance press releases about the show, routinely printed in the papers.  They have now played in some major cities, and nothing. I would have thought that Chad Jones of the Chicago Tribune, who routinely covers circus, would have done a deep dive on this one.  Might it be a somewhat traditional reluctance of newspapers in the U.S. to knock circus?  If you don't have anything good to say ...

Okay, I told myself this am, I  had better google "Greatest Show on Earth" and "reviews," for I like  to keep this blog true to the minute.

I could find no reviews in newspapers or major media.

What I did find so far is best reflected here in customer feedback, a mixture that leans toward acute discontent with the circus that dares not speak its name anymore.  And for the moment that is what I shall post:

More digging in and down later.


So far there are just three:

Melba P.
Chicago, IL
Nov 7, 2023

BORING!! Bring back the animals!

This was a subpar Disney performance at best.

I did enjoy the acrobats and highwire performances, though.

Photo of Go R.
Go R.
Brookfield, IL

Nov 4, 2023

This was such a waste of money. What happened?! This was more of a musical starring fake Tina Turner! Show was boring, light up toy, $36. A soda in a ringling cup. $15!!! Highway robbery!!!
Save your money, kids hated it. No animals! Can I get a refund?

Photo of Cindy I.
Cindy I.

Nov 5, 2023

Lamest show on earth!! No clowns and no animals made no fun for the kids! The "new approach to the circus" was not good enough to have the Ringling Brothers legacy! Don't waste your money on this, but go to a rodeo instead for great entertainment with animals and clowns and authentic danger!



2.0 star rating Anonymous from Houston, Texas


I was thinking Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was the circus of all circuses. I was wrong. Arabia Shrine Circus was much bigger, had more and just seemed overall better, and it's a quarter of the price. I won't go to another Ringling Bros again.

1.0 star rating Merlotsmom from Bossier city La


All we saw was acrobats swinging back and forth, the worst CLOWN show ever, and a fake robot dog. I wish I had my money back. The tickets were not worth the price we paid and the show was a pathetic two ring mess. Our Shriners circus is way better!

Of course, this is a random sampling of what I could find.  Among the comments made at the end of  the Washington Post story, which I posted for a few days, there was more balance between good and bad. One thing is sure, the strange Ringling facelift may unintentionally spur a national debate favoring the return of sanity to the makeup of a circus program.

Given my trek recently to Zoppe Family Circus, I am not surprised when I observe  support for the domestic circus animal acts among even blue state adults.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Creatively Rich Zoppe Family Circus Trumpets Tradition, Touches the Soul


Legit Circus Review
Zoppe Italian Family Circus

Redwood City, CA
Seen October 14, performances run  through November  27
tickets $15 to $25.00

Note: the Zoppe website does not list the names of performers, nor has a message I sent them requesting such yet been answered.

How do you review a circus so different, one that comes at you eccentrically poised, surprises you in small subtle ways and leaves you not missing tired old cliches it has wisely left behind.

On paper, the lineup is inarguably slim.  Yet in action, a number of winning assets — classic clowning,  novel programing surprises, and a few popping good acts wrapped in a warm family spirit —  combine to make this a delightful confection greater than the sum of its parts.    

Zoppe shuns strobe lights and motor bikes and droning musical soundtracks. It leaves behind three humdrum bargain basement yawners (aka: filler), seen too often on too many shows these tepid days, items I could forever go without: Clunky roller skating on pedestals, sleep-inducing rollovers on “bed sheets” (Kenny Dodd’s nickname for the fabrics); and hula hoops ad nauseam. Here is a show with no patience (or space) for motorcycles in a cage — blame my indifference to this thriller on the Chinese having spoiled me in Shanghai with eight bikes in motion.  Eight.

Under their 500-seat tent, Zoppe unfolds over a simpler, older fashioned ring, which gives it an other-worldly mystique of its own. You are not in any old arena. Nor in a chic designer tent.  Best of all, you are patronizing a company that favors domestic animals, doubly impressive to the point of unthinkable, here in the State of Insanity. Here where the nearby San Jose Mercury News (in an unrelated news item) smugly culture signals its support for “animal free circuses.” The same Silicon Valley social media giants who are inflaming the world with live streaming of murder and rape and mayhem -- and wreaking unconscionable havoc on countless young lives.

Show owner Giovanni Zoppe, above, who plays Nino the clown, embraces you upon entering his festive village. From atop a small stage, he regales early comers with his family’s history through time up and down old sawdust trails.  

And on the midway, you may feel his warm heart, too, when you are ready to lay down four or five for a bottle of water, and are changed only a buck.  You might also be doubly impressed by his far above average restroom accommodations on wheels. Best I’ve ever seen.

Inside the  tent,  I’m glad I went for a front row chair, for it put me close to the  ring curb, itself so high and sturdy, so worn, I could almost feel an old-world gaggle of daring-dos waiting back of the tent to bring it alive. Yes, Zoppe, take me back.  They call this opus Carnival de Venezia.  It opens in the old commedia del‘arte manner, the cast filing the ring in a carefree Felliniesque spirit that is infectious.  The cheerful music is inviting.  Indeed, most of it stays bright and relevant during the entire  show.  Among the highlights:
* Clowning takes off with a hat that has a will of its own, sometimes sitting on Nino’s  head, other times on the tip of his hat stick, or down on the ground playing hide and seek. A little kid (or plant from the front row) is lifted into a hug and carried off to help Nino find his hat. It’s perfectly charming.

* Kiddie star for the kiddies:  A little boy, likely a Zoppe, turning into a rag doll to play Pinocchio,  ending up in a round ball of arms and legs tightly wound, rolling over and over.  Priceless.    

* This being a real circus which also shuns robotic animals, here you’ll get a team of very real, very talented dogs, under the deft direction of their trainer. Their big moment is truly big: a walking four-high mount behind a fifth member in the lead  — a pony rearing up on its hind legs.  There you go again, animal kingdom — stealing the show!

       Quirky abstract images tickle the imagination. 

* Nino tickles the crowd after getting hoisted by the seat of his pants up to a high bar, from which he executes hand stands.   A work up to: How can I get back down?   His only exit is to jump. Down below, a small pad is being inflated into a big billowing pillow while Nino is shivering aloft in fear, the audience egging him on. Finally , he  takes the plunge, instantly flattening the pillow (first gag) out of which (second gag) explodes a sea of paper confetti, showering the audience.  I was knocked over by the fun of it all, my trousers white-flecked. Might this be what Juliet Feld calls an “immersive” moment (my iPhone failed to record).
* A fiercely accomplished  ball bouncing juggler.   And not a single flub.

A tip of the hat  from their kindly and silent ringmaster, who holds gentle court spreading cheer on the sidelines.  He's a keeper.

* After a  brief intermission during which photo ops with a pony are sold, the slow-motion poetry of today’s ballet circus  makes a cameo in the figure of a young contortionist, above, bending and posturing with elegant grace.  Purist fans of this  genre should find him fulfilling.

* Another amusing trick. Three acrobats banging away on drums while erecting an obstacle gate of  bars  — how low can one of them go under the lowest bar without his body touching it?  The smallest among them shimmies horizontally through, and I shimmed out a giggle.  Cracking good.

            Refreshing prop in search of a payoff

A few of Zoppe’s variable offerings fail to click: Among them, labored Chinese pole climbing never really takes off – show is woefully weak on acrobatics. A bicycle rider, above,  has no challenges to meet.  Most disappointing of all, solo horse riding all too basic and brief. And yet, and yet – out of this last entry before finale, in symbolism alone, my soul was deeply touched by the surreal image of the lone horse and rider with flaring American flag,  circling the ring and keeping it as true now as it was back when Astley began circling it for the circus he gave us. So very fitting for today.    

Paul Binder often spoke of wanting to foster a joyful connection between artist an audience. And now I feel what he means.  You’ll find it under this tent. I was left wanting to see this remarkable troupe again, if only they weren’t so far away.  How long has it been since I have felt that urge?  

We are living through an age of competing delivery systems for circus acts, legit big tops offering all the three staples, to slices of circus during symphony hall concerts, on cruise ships and stages. In performance art.  Summer parks.  Strip clubs. TV.  Zoppe has 80 performances slated for Redwood City, in the library parking lot where it has shown for 16 seasons in a row.  Last year they ended up adding another week.  How I would love to see this show before a full house.  These performers poured their hearts out to us, as if the tent was packed.

Au Revoir, Zoppe Family Circus.


Sunday, October 08, 2023


"That's not the circus I grew up in and not how I want to carry on" 

 -- John Ringling North II, to The Oklahoman in 2017, referring to circuses without animals on his decision to leave Kelly Miller.   

***updated 10.9 

Two major big tops recently passed each other going in opposite directions.  One was holding its own, honoring the roots of circus. The other, having given up on itself, was following instead a road to Montreal in a final act of self-annihilation.      

First, to Baraboo.  I recently read of Circus World retiring its two elephants for good, no surprise.  A little sad, yes. But sad turned to glad when I read this from its pied piper-in-chief, Scott O’Donnell,  above, that: “Circus World will continue to have equine acts, as it did this past season. Future animal act options include cows, pigs, dogs, cats, zebras, camels and other animal stars awaiting their turn in the center ring.”

YES! You warmed my heart, Scott.  In my book, what you are doing defines a reasonable road to preserving one of the key elements of true circus, and why some shows, like UinverSoul and Royal Henneford, still daringly feature them — PETA haters and media morons be damned.

Another gift from Baraboo, by way of Greg DeSAnto at his International Circus Hall of Fame and Research Center, itself now back in full giggle mode, is the return of the late Pat Cashin’s Clown Alley blog. Best of all,  they’ve handed the steering of it to board member Steve Copeland.  Great News.  I have missed Steve’s blogging when he clowned on John Ringling North II’s Kelly Miller Circus. His was a big part of what is now seeming to feel like our newest good old times — the last days of Ringling and Cole and Binder’s Big Apple, of Carson and Barnes and Kelly Miller. And of so many blogs then on parade.

Steve’s blogging was full of emotion and revealing, and his boss had no problem allowing the day to day details of trouping, as he reported them.  I am hoping that Steve will re-charge, re-boot, and revive the best of himself to regale us once more.  Surely, he should have much to say about the state of clowning today.  

Okay, onto the state of circus in America today.  To the new “Greatest Show on Earth,” which no longer calls itself a circus — give them credit for honesty in advertising. No clowns. No Animals.  No Ringmaster. Breathtaking.  Covington Connected, I linked onto a 27 minute sampler of action, put out by Ringling. Here are my first raw impressions, based on those 27 minutes and 27 minutes only. Taking in the full spread may be a totally different affair. Nor do I have any idea how this stream may have been edited. And, of course, I may have missed what others give higher marks to.

It’s visually stunning, with set pieces changing colors, brilliant costume design and lighting effects. Overhead LED screens strike me as lamely superfluous  I did not feel the “immersive” experience  promised by Juliet Feld.  Sometimes there is more than one act in motion, conjuring up the old 3-ring mystique. The action is well paced (or well edited in this video), solid and sufficiently pleasing, without for the most part and to my great surprise, being remarkable.  I could usually count on Ringling for a few world class acts. I can see at least two here --- One in a photo on the show’s website of an ensemble Mongolian  three-high jump roping act that looks sensational.  Another to follow shortly.

 *** And since posting this, a few others not wishing to be identified have sent me videos I did not see.  There is too little of a high wire act to comment on.  Another is  the Flying Caceres cross-trapeze act:  Notwithstanding the excellent work of the individual flyers,  on balance the concept itself comes off as something of a long drawn out fizzle, and I can see why it was not included on the 27-minute sampler. 

This mostly ground-bound edition sells gusto over substance.  Casting and springboard send offs destined to land on large pads yield the strongest response.   Contortion in various forms are all on the slow side and quite respectable.  Juggling with fire is basic, there’s flashy foot stomping gaucho dancing.  Youthful extreme bike riders up and down ramps struck me as not very daring for the sport — complexity is in short supply here, especially given Feld’s touting having scouted the world over and over again for the very best. (Maybe the very best did not want to sign.)  Second big moment: Hands down, the big star was our own Wesley Williams on his sky high unicycle. The kid is finally getting a big national audience he has long deserved.  I overheard a smitten young girl chanting “Wesley! Wesley! Wesley!"over and over.

A moody musical score, some of it sung,  is vaguely unmemorable. And no wonder, turns out it was taped!  Good grief, no band, too?  This ringmaster-less, carefully controlled production, smooth as a Swiss watch, could use a little more humanity. Overall, there is a slightly cold and impersonal feel to the long-awaited rollout, all of which, in the abstract, can have the effect of dwarfing the performers.

In a supreme act of irony, the most down-to-earth, older fashioned circus moment comes in the famished figure of a scroungy little dog, down to the bones, as if having side-walled it into the show, lonely to be a part of it again and desperate to show what smart little doggies can really do. But our mutt is not a real mutt. Our mutt is a robot.  As poignant as it is hypocritical, the "dog" it is said to be stirring a controversy, and it may only remind audiences of what is not there and make them ask, why?  Yes, Mr. Feld, why?

Cutting through all the mumbo jumbo talk about intense creative deliberations (if only they could have channeled in Aristotle), I think what Kenneth Feld was all about was producing the perfect fit for his existing Disney mice-on-ice audience base, and here he may strike gold —  now without the antagonists mucking up  the midway.  He might have taken other less profitable routes to preserve the circus.  He might have led the way.



 John II's Kelly Miller in 2015

Returning to the words of John Ringling North II quoted above, I think of being taken delightufly aback by that  robotic dog stirring up such a fuss, and remember the last Ringling “circus” I saw, back in 2017. Four of its acts perpetually live on in my memory:  The magnificent lion and tiger act of Alexander Lacey, possibly the greatest display of its kind that I have ever seen;  the flying Tunizianis completing two perfect triples simultaneously; thundering horse riders from Mongolia; and a barnyard pig — another Lacey offering –  sliding down a slide and bringing down the house.       

Now, that was a circus.  That was  the Greatest Show on Earth.  Goodbye, Big Bertha, goodbye. 


Just wondering,  Visits to this blog have skyrocketed, sometimes into the thousands, over the last few months, making me wonder more than ever who you are. Circus?  Musical theater? Still, virtually nobody leaves a comment.  Has no one out there a pulse strong enough to post a peep?

Or ...  are my sky high stats a fluke of AI?  

Just wondering. 

Have a nice anonymous day!

Friday, September 29, 2023

Boob Tube to You Tube ... Lost in a Billion Bytes, the Circus from Astley to Zippos ...

Blame this post on Comcast offering me a better price if I would only upgrade.  New cable box and modem (do they still make those?) and I fell into a dizzy smorgasbord of infinite video footage fit for big screen TV. And am still falling. So Easy (and tempting) to get lost, looking for this but caught by  that over there that shamelessly plays to my non-circus interests (what else do they know about me?).

But out of nowhere, too, can pop surprising delights, like Big Top Circus from 1954, a weekly “kiddie” circus, cheerfully ring-mastered by Jack Sterling. It  looks more like a circus for all ages, free of the pretentious ballet- and narrative-driven drivel that’s draining the life out of our big tops.  Take Mel Hall's three Cycling Wiz Kids, from around 5 to 10 in ages, who score big and breezy on unicycles.  The littleest one, a boy,  falls and gets back up and tries and tries again, four times, and achieves the trick before our astonished eyes. And, are you kidding me, world? – a man dancing with a bear, smooth as two aging adults over a waxy floor? 

Sunday School Barnum?   In You Tube land you learn the damndest things, such as this whopper: Not only did Barnum & Bailey invent the three ring circus, which they kind of did, but they cleaned out all grifting on their midway, thus earning themselves she honorable put down among competitors of  “Sunday school boys.” Are you laughing?  Ringling brothers: SUE.  Historical fictions leak through even on loftier PBS-certified documentaries, such as The Circus, in which it is claimed that TV killed it in the 1950s.  So, have I been been hallucinating for the last fifty years?

A sharper image through fewer pixels: Looking back at the bear and  man dancing together, and the little ones riding their one wheelers,  you can feel what it was like to be fully and perfectly pleased by a circus act plain and simple, before the invasion of Cirque du Precious.

Countdown to Ringling Redo, beginning TODAY. And how might production embellishments  be used —  or abused —  by the Felds when they launch their sanitized version of the new Greatest Show on Earth?.  This is finally happening within hours, down in Boissier City, LA. Juliet Feld in a promo, chirps up how the audience will be more intimately involved by being seated closer to the action and connected digitally to closeups of performers.  Yawn. Didn’t they already try this in their last edition, the one that went out of this world and ended up in the graveyard? The year 2017.   Have they learned nothing?  Like really,  who wants to see a Broadway show from premium seating in the wings?   I am reminded of Al Ringling’s definition of ringmaster decorum, which might as well count for circus itself -- “elusive yet vital.”  In my book, a million less pixels will do.

So, back to earth and across the big pond, let us go zip zip zipping up and over to Zippos Circus.

Revered ringmaster and incomparable bird trainer, Norman Barrett

Hilariously original from diminutive dynamo Paulo Dos Santos of Brazia : How a balloon can be contorted into so many amusing sizes and connections to the human body.this one nearly brought down the tent. ZIPPOTASTIC.

There’s a clean effervescent flow and glow to this straight ahead big top. For my taste, the three most memorable moments are: (1) a most engagingly clever juggler who keeps tennis rackets and luggage in motion (2) that HUGE  balloon you see being ingeniously worked by Paulo Dos Santos, and   (3) The Temujin Troupe from the Mongolian Steppes.  At their best, these eight agile acrobats execute voltige and casting in a continuous stream, lending the feel of a novelized flying return act, which I could have watched  over and over again, But NO, Wait, Hold on —  STOP, correction!  Blame it on You Tubery!  Why did I say so little about them on my notes and yet now give them the center ring status here? Why? Here’s the reason why.

How you Tube scrambles reality into billions of bits, some getting mixed up with others, leaving us with fractured impressions of what really happened . Turns out, the Zippos performance I watched on You Tube contained a version of their act very different from another one I subsequently watched, from off the show's website.  Apparently, on their way to Zippos the multi-gifted Tumujins were re-programed down to a more static series of human pyramids, each followed by a drawn out reach for more applause. Gone were the streaming acrobatics.

Something I haven’t seen before: These five words usually come to mind when discovering that rare novelty at the circus that I live for, and I think of the man who first spoke them to me when I asked him what he looked for in scouting acts: John Ringling North.   Another discovery I made was scrambled my way by You Tube, ever ready to sustain my primary focus at the moment  —  a clip of ringmaster Norman Barrett, who has previously blown the whistle for Zippos,  performing the most astonishing bird act. Now, I am in awe of the man’s talents. In his youth, I am told by Douglas McPherson, he rode horses roman style.  “He stood on two galloping horses while a third ran in the opposite direction between his legs!”

"When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling ... the whole world smiles with you,” sings Sir Norman while gingerly coaching a dozen or so trained birds who fly back and forth between two little turning carousels.  How did he ever get them to .. How?. These are the moments when circus proves its true genius.        

You Tube excels when rolling out footage unmolested by expert voices telling us what we should think.  You don’t go to a circus to think as much as to feel — to gasp and awe and laugh and thrill and scream with joy.  Or to smile over  the simple yet wondrous charm of a bear dancing with a man.


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Sledgehammer Showmanship on Parade: The Ringmaster Screams, The Music Drones On, and Circus Vargas Sinks to a New Mediocre

Circus Vargas -- Bonjour Paris
Seen at Corte Madera, CA, August 12, 1 pm
Tickets: $19 - $75 

Note: Website photos of the acts do not give names or bios.

What a difference a few critical seasons can make.   The Circus Vargas you first spot this year, with a state of the art tent, can hold its own in design with the best of them. From a distance it’s a wow.  Up close, you might be  charmed by the sight of comfy couch chairs on the midway. The prelude air sparkles.  


But all things in life do not always unfold to favor first impressions, right?  This will be a doubly challenging review to write. So those who prefer their reviews sunny side up are encouraged to go sunny side down and out of here,  while you have the chance.  I do not bow to sacred cows.  

I have never, in trying to form a notice, been so compelled to weigh talent against “production values” (announcing, music, set, costumes and props, direction and pacing, etc) First, to talent. On balance overall, I’d place it in a respectable  B- range.  Good enough for an average audience, certainly for crowds newer to the circus, and especially the young  too young to have much to compare it with.  .

For my eyes, the most gripping moment came on the rolla-bolla, our maniac for the afternoon stacking seven blocks on a roller and then proceeding to place himself at the top. The crowd went wild.  We agree, crowd.  The performer’s hyper jittery nerves, real or not, intensified audience fears.  

I also liked the breezy, ingratiating fellow who works with an upright ladder, and balances large objects. Maybe on the basic side, but refreshing in its delivery.  It’s an act I would welcome seeing again.

Circus Vargas, which has long excluded animals, now seems to be moving out of the aerial sphere as well.  There is virtually little of memorable consequence in the air (only two strap acts, one in each half, well rendered), and practically no clowns.  Yes, there are two guys who make funny faces and funny sounds.  

 Safety first in the modern tent

On the ground, there’s an ambitious teeterboard troupe, a bit of a work in progress.Biggest item is a  woman in harness who is catapulted to form only a three-high. Usually, it’s a four stack that gets wired.  But now, the lifelines, it seems, are becoming more and more an accepted element in the “new circus.” In fact, our protected diva advances the acceptance of them by being lowered to the ground twice with the aid of her safety wire, thus giving it the respect of a co-participant.  She did execute a nifty feat, landing between two under-standers in a splits position.  

What else?  A young juggler offered a wide variety of manipulations, if only so many of them had not turned messy.     

There is plenty of dancing, purpose being, I took it, to flesh out a flimsy theme about the show going to Paris. An accordion player serenades us, and the cast whoops  it up line kicking in a winning can-can.

Second half packs a little more power, what with the standard double wheel and then the cage of three spinning motorcycles.  A more exciting turn had the bikers out of the cage and rip-rolling up and over a ramp to the other side.

Okay, ready or not, here I go.  Production values: They should enhance and elevate the action.  Here they nearly smother it.  This show looked and sounded very different from those I have seen several seasons before, and so I  wondered if there had been a regime change at the top.  Turns out, no, Katya Arata Quiroga and Nelson Quiroga,still own it.  How strange that they, in their heyday top-flight trapeze artists, should now give us a largely empty shell above.

But like it or not, there is a regime change of sorts, an overbearing regime named Jonathan Lee Iverson.  You will know him as a Ringling ringmaster. Here he also serves as performance director.  At the start of his career on the Ringling show, Iverson cut an appealing figure, and I saw great promise and gave him high marks.  But then he was restrained. Repeat: Restrained. Over the years, he has only grown more annoying, especially inside a small tent compared the huge arenas he played.  During set up for the motorcycle cage, I wondered whether a long buzzing noise I heard was part of the operation — or Iverson himself going for a new record in vowel extension.    

This advanced version of  Iverson conveys a belligerent undertone of egocentric control.  Indeed, he has a way of sucking the oxygen out of the tent with his proloooooooooooooooooooonged introductions, which he can't seem to get enough of.   To be fair, the man’s verbal blasts are not without precedent, however questionable.  I can think of at least another blowhard —  the abundantly large one who bellowed away for Carson & Barnes, as if believing that the louder and longer he screamed, the greater would be his  impact. Iverson did excel surprisingly and  magnificently in going operatic in a baritone outburst — a second career in the making?  Or mere lip syncing?

Enough. As for the vaguely dreary recorded music, how best to describe it? In a word, MO-NOT-O- NOUS  Together, ringmaster and score form an oppressive barrier  between  artist and audience.

But ... the crowds the day I attended – I’d guess they filled about half the seats —  were wildly alive, and lapped up most of everything.  Circus Vargas has had 15 shows to do in the small upscale town of Corte Madera, in rich Marin County.  They must be doing something right -- although, and I could be wrong, there seemed to be noticeably fewer people in the seats after intermission.
I know I won’t be returning until there is yet another regime change.   

 Early exit?

 END RINGERS Trooping in Turmoil?  Website does not name the photos.  A total of 3 ringmasters appear in two images, one seen above  Did I miss him? I only saw Iverson in the show.   There's a foot juggling act I would love to have seen  -- woman works large lotus leaf objects. She did not appear. What goes over there? ....  Music that Sounds Like Music: There is music out there that can have strong multi-generational appeal, and the '80s stand out. I bring this up because, while on the way, my Lyft driver, a young guy from Brazil who is training to be an airline pilot like his father and uncle,  had some ‘80s sounds coming from out of his system. We had fun talking up the era.  Beware the Vargas Discount Coupon.I came across a large Vargas ad in the East Bay Times, which read: Save 15% on your tickets!  Use code 15AD23"  I tried using it at the ticket window, only to be curtly rebuffed: “We don’t do those here.” Oh, really? How unlike the previous regime ... They are next headed to Petaluma up the road. I wanted to post more photos, but the website disallows saving copies. 

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Sunday Morning from Out of the Past: And You Wonder, What Are They Thinking? ...

Rumblings down at the runs, waiting on a circus train from nowhere... Once upon a season they were all in the barn by now -- red wagons in need of fresh red paint, ring curbs for new stars, jacks and stringers for repair ... Now the elephants wait for cues that may never come ... To be or not to be? To perform or not to perform?

Down at the runs, you wonder what Barbara Byrd is thinking. Strange how it should all come down to this -- from a man to a woman, from William Coup adding rings in 1872 to Barbara Byrd being the last to keep three of them in motion under the same canvas. Is she too thinking a single circle, or does she hear the ghost of her dad Dory telling her to stay the American course? ... Down in Florida, what is on Johnny Pugh’s mind? Time to retire? Or time to go for broke in a daring blaze, to reinvest and bring back the band?

A thousand miles down a spur track to a humble dream, a new circus is being formed in somebody’s ambitious mind, and maybe that circus has a crusty old midway to offer the jaded patron in search of the past ... Strange gaudy banner lines in flagrant violation of PC standards ...

... What might Paul Binder be thinking when he notes how long it’s been since he presented either a pachyderm or a flyer? Big Apple opens in the fall when circuses once closed, and closes come summer ... Once upon a season, the white tops slept during winter, awoke in time for early spring and were out in the sunshine chasing after the money that harvests put into farmer’s pockets....

Down by the old ice house where the train once arrived, you can almost hear the sound of a faint whistle up the rails and remember when they clanged into town under the cover of a damp morning mist. When the world was barely born and then suddenly appeared before your eyes under pennants galloping in the wind. And you wonder what Renee Storey is plotting when she considers how PETA gives her employer, Cole Bros. Circus, more publicity and might not be such a bad thing after all? What Kenneth Feld is thinking when he continues pitching the Big Cage act to customers who who evidently still want their circus on the wild side ...

And out in San Francisco, where patrons prefer Perrier over lemonade, ballet over big top, even the nuovo rich are growing restless for a taste of reality. They are taking in a very different version of Cirque du Soleil at the moment, a version called Kooza, and some of them are realizing what they have been missing for more than a season.

“This production feels like a heart-pumping cocaine binge for thrill addicts,” proclaims Nathaniel Eaton in the ultra-liberal S.F. Weekly, coming honest on how “ho hum” he found the three Cirque shows that came before.

Animals? Weren’t they supposed to all be gone by now, asks the Savvy Insider, elsewhere at work on routing and promotions, taking time out to answer his own question. No, says he, animals acts did not go away as planned. In Europe, they “have instead been reinvented” ... And you think how wonderfully ironic, that those uppity Brit Lords, sure of their agenda, paid for a study to prove that elephants are really mistreated at the circus —- a study they proved the very opposite! And down at the runs waiting for a train to pull in, you wonder what the public is thinking now...

Over road maps and sponsor contracts, watching videos of acrobats and jugglers and plotting another season, you wonder what John Ringling North II is thinking ...Bigger and better —- or the same?

Even more fun to ponder is what S.F. Cow Palace big shots, without a circus for two years, may be thinking? ... And you can almost hear a distant train whistle somewhere out there on real rails or in the back of your mind, racing forward with a world of spangled wonders to capture a waffling public restlessly ready to be thrilled by something either very new or very old ... And optimistically, you enjoy remember being told over and over again that history repeats itself ...

Down at the runs, Byrd and Pugh, Feld and Binder and Ringling North and Judkins, and yes, Laliberte the Great reinventing himself, are watching and waiting, too. Maybe wondering what we are thinking

First posted December 7, 2007.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sunday Morning Out of the Past: Rare Kenneth Feld Sightings: Big Show Boss Spotted in Action on Coney Lot

Through a bizarre chain of flukes as preciously disclosed, fate delivered me onto the Coney Island lot of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, opening night of their summer long show under a tent, Illuscination.

Sunny evening. Early arriving, I wandered into the outdoor food and rest area, past a special VIP tent. Little did I know how close I was to the Feld of Felds. When I discovered him hobnobbing with a gaggle of upscales around a stand–up fast food table, shamelessly I fell into the reluctant mode of a virtual peeping paparazzi, albeit with camera in pocket. I moved this way and that, stealing weaselly glances from afar in an effort to view the goings of a true big top tycoon.

Mr Feld was primly attired in a rather drab suit. Conservatively groomed. We are not talking metro sexual. He struck me as stout-hearted, strong on his feet and vigorously engaged. His animated manner that of a carnie pitchman, similar, as I recall, to my one fleeting Irvin Feld sighting years ago. Bear with me here, World, if I seem to be “obsessing,” but my only aim is to journalistically bear witness. Now, at this point, there was not much I could do, so I circled the power zone like an invading mosquito of slim prospects, keeping my stalking wings as under control as possible. I wondered what my subject might say that could be discretely overheard. But I failed miserably to zoom in, as they say; That sort of observational space crashing — “Well, there he is, the man himself! A fun question, Mr. Feld? Any exciting new productions planned with ex-CIA operatives?” — does not suit my shy nature. Camera stayed in pocket.

But then something substantial happened; He turned about and walked away, alone, without lackey or Pinkerton, toward the concession tent. I was struck by how remarkably short he is. I’d only seen him once before, back in the 1970s standing quietly at the edge of the performance area at a Florida venue monitoring the spec as it circled the track. The show was then, New York bound, still a work in progress. He struck me that evening as the essence of calm.

Compared to my distant mental snapshot, I had not imagined Kenneth Feld being so short, nor so animated either. Actually, one might say that this lack of height adds an overcompensating flair to his persona. The youthfully invigorated circus king ambled with the slightly swaggering air of an innocent kid maximizing an overstepped gait to project power and confidence. His glib saunter brought to mind Charlie Chaplin's Everyman character.

Through the maze of patrons and circusy things for sale I followed sheepishly after, seeking additional insights that did not rise above the level of vapid. (I report; you deride.). He slipped into the tent, and I lost contact.

He resurfaced to lead a pre-show appearance by the Family Feld, scripted and staged for the entire house. Out strode, with a statuesque air of authority and privilege, Mr. Feld and stately daughters -- counting three if I am correct, each as I recall looming taller than her dad, a rather charming irony, and neither wearing drab. Feld's appreciative address to the crowd, great to be back at Coney, etc., was strong and steady, clear and to the point. And with that, I concluded that I was done with him.

But, as fate would have it, I was not. The Gods of petty power worshiping rituals had invaded my chronic indifference, at last.

As previously sworn to my faithful four followers, in seeking relief from my crummy $10 seat only one row off the floor (too many late arrivers blocking my view), and with the sympathetic reluctance of one young usher, I stole into a better section of empties. At intermission, I discovered Mr. Feld once more (his now familiar backside, that is), standing right there in the aisle on my row conversing with an entourage of corporate and/or religious associates. Then, once more on his own, he made his way down the steps in a carefree manner. Moments later, I noticed him sauntering happily around the ring on his way out, and holding hands with a woman whom I assumed to be his wife. Together, they lent the impression of young marital bliss.

Now, we are close to the target moment. The piece de resistance! The second half is about to begin. I notice that our subject under surveillance has returned and is now sitting on the aisle directly across from the person in the chair next to mine. (For those logistically challenged, I am sitting two seats off the aisle.)

Alright, journalism is about to ascend the heights of its sacred calling. Comes now, at last, my most revealing sighting. Are you ready for the revelation of revelations? Count this your right of passage, this bright shining insight your day and your night. Your holy grail, your wind, your sail, your morning coffee and snail. Drum rolls! Trumpets! A full hallelujah fanfare, Maestro Evans, if you please!...

I happened to glance once (and only once) to my right: Exactly this I observed: Kenneth Feld was seated, well composed in his chair, eagerly watching the show.

(photos, from the top: my original seating area; the section I crashed]

First published July 28, 2010

Thursday, July 27, 2023

How Hollywood Wreaks Havoc on Broadway Musicals --- Flies Higher Creating Its Own


LATEST EXAMPLE of how Hollywood can turn a Broadway smash into a 5-star bomb is Cats, based on the Broadway phenomenon, and declared by one of its hissing critics (20% Rotten Tomatoes) , “catastrophic.”  I saw the bloated stage show once, and once was more than enough.  And, no I am not a knee-jerk Andrew Lloyd Weber hater – I saw Phantom of the Opera five times. 

FROM THE WOBBLY  get-go, musicals are like rambunctious children refusing to grow up. And even when they manage to bust Broadway and grab a few Tony's on the run, chances are, most of them that make it back to revival row will be subjected to “rethinking” and “re-imagining,” by self-appointed experts, who are just as likely to convert  good-enough material into ground breaking drivel.   And then there is Tinseltown – beware!  All that money, all those lavish sets!  All those interfering stars and marketing hustlers behind the scenes pushing a stage darling into an overwrought embarrassment  — everything that a musical does not need.  The producers of Cats promised "astonishing new technology." Can you spell   o v e r  - p r o d u c e d? 

 It's About the Songs, Stupid!

WHENEVER I GO near a movie adaptation, I best try forgetting that I ever saw the original stage show. But with The  King & I,  how can I not be shocked by the criminal absence of three Rodgers and Hammerstein gems -- I Have Dreamed, My Lord and Master, and  the comic masterpiece,  Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?  High Treason! Worse yet,  we are made to  suffer through a tediously long middle section, devoid of song, about Anna and the King  getting ready to host their English visitors, which feels more like a period piece in  minuet-land, all of which leads to a tiresomely repetitious 14-minute-long ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas.             
The Shocking Truth About Maria

I AM NOW going to movie musicals, or they to me, with but one default expectation: Just entertain me and keep all the talking down to a bare a minimum. This new attitude was hastened by disclosures in recent years of how the The sound of Music is almost a total fairy tale.  Did you know that the real Maria could not play a guitar? That the real Maria did not teach those Trapp darlings how to sing Do-Re-Mi? That the real Maria did no fall in love with the Captain, and that the real Maria  was hated by the Captain’s real-life oldest daughter?  

  Climb Every Mountain – At Your Own Risk
OH AND YES, among other shameless fabrications, had the family actually  followed the dictates of Climb Every Mountain and escaped over those singing hills,  they would have ended warbling out their favorite things in the backyard of one Adolf Hitler.       

IN FACT,  by one account, the Trapp boarded a street car for Italy; by another, they walked out of town.  I will give Oscar Hammerstein II a pass on this almost fraudulent  glorification.  He  did not write the libretto, but composed more great lyrics under the cloud of a cancer diagnosis.  One of Broadway’s true giants would be gone, only nine months after his last musical reached Breakaway. 

AND THEN CAME the movie, which only made the musical sweeter and longer.  And the critics  even nastier.  They tossed out the score’s two most sophisticated songs, numbers that had given the original work a little dramatic relief — How Can Live Survive? and No Way to Stop It.  With Oscar gone, Dick composed two ditties of his own, one, the atrociously awful Something Good.  By then, the critics were onto this flimsy con job,  Pauline Kael calling it a “sugar coated lie,“ Bosley Crowther,  “romantic nonsense and sentiment.” Judith Crist deemed the film suitable  for  "the five to seven set and all their mommies.”

                          Cary Grant's Cole Porter Charade

ALL OF THESE revelations have given me a reformed disposition to enjoy, guilt-free, whatever Hollywood may have to offer, however flagrantly untrue.  Creating from scratch, Tinseltown  would whip up a string of captivating originals through the 1949s-1950s.  

SO LET US advance to another fairy tale (pun not intended) masquerading as a true-to-life bio, the movie Night and Day, allegedly about the life of Cole Porter. Back in 1946, had the producers even wanted to, a Hollywood code would have disallowed them from depicting any element of Porter’s well-known homosexuality.  And so the film focuses on Porter’s platonic relationship to wife Linda, with whom he spent much time abroad traveling museums and sites, oddly not shown here.

WHAT DOES Night and Day do right?  Plenty.  First and foremost, this bright winning treatment in rich technicolor from Warner Bros. keeps those fabulous Porter songs rolling steadily along, the haunting title tune, a recurring motif that I never tire of hearing.  Glib supporting players include Monte Wolly, Eve Arden,  and Mary Martin.  Cary Grant’s charm is a pleasure unto itself.  

ALL OF WHICH makes this treat so much easier to love than De-Lovely, the 2004 film about Porter that in its own way may be  just as much fairy tale, working overtime to build up a great heterosexual love between Cole and Linda.  Director Irwin Winkler's  straining overreach can't help itself -- speculatively, Porter experts would argue  --  from having Cole impregnate Linda, who soon after miscarries.  In fact, the real Linda did suffer a miscarriage.  But she was a social climber and lesbian who latched onto Porter's rising star, and pursued her own affairs with women while Cole pursued his, relentlessly -- not a one of them significantly fleshed out here.  No wonder the film split the critics (48% Rotten), Rex Reed libeling it  "phony .... wooden, artificial, contrived." 
Another white wash? Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd as Cole and Linda
"De-Lousy" -- Los Angeles Times
BACK TO Cary Grant. To its credit, Night and  Day effectively dramatizes Cole’s tragic fall from a horse, and this scene  brought tears to my eyes, knowing that, through dozens of operations  on his right leg to merely save it,  he would yet turn out more marvelous  songs.  Kiss Me Kate gave us, in my view, his greatest ballad ever, So In Love.  (I have never known a piece of music and a circus aerialist to connect so thrillingly as when Ringling star Gerard Soules flew to the  pounding pulse of this mesmerizing number.)  A noteworthy Cole  Porter 1950 flop, Out of This World, supplied an abundance of the man’s magic, including a song dropped on the road to opening night, From This Moment On, which Frank Sinatra and others would later immortalize: Two more Broadway  hits, in Can Can, and Silk Stockings, kept Cole Porter’s name alive in the l950s.                                              

Frank Sinatra’s Nearly Perfect Joey 

FRANK SINATRA'S  Pal Joey on screen is so good, I have bought the DVD.  Purists complain of its botching up the original, in which, in the end, Joey walks off alone; this, they rightly argue, marked a realism that distinguished Pal Joey from others of the day.  In the movie, Joey walks off arm in arm  with Linda English (Kim Novak in perfect form). And, all the years, later, I say – so what.  I have grown to like the sunnier ending, and, besides, how could anyone dump Kim Novak?  The witty, worldly screenplay does not flinch from  making clear the kept nature of Joey’s relationship to Vera Simpson (Rita Hayward)  All players are superb.  And what a sublime treat  are the songs of Rodgers and Heart, especially those crooned by Sinatra, then at his vocalizing prime.

Through the heather on the hill ... 
Never was a movie musical more enchanting
WITH THE exception of Pal Joey and Brigadoon, none of my other other favorite movie musicals are Broadway adaptions, which usually run well over two hours — Sound of Music at 174 minutes  may be longer on film than on stage. South Pacific at 166, My Fair Lady at 172.  One thing my favorites have in common is that they all clock in under two hours, thank you: The Band Wagon, Gigi, Singin' in the Rain, Holiday Inn. Joey wraps up in 114 minutes, Brigadoon in 108, Singin’ at 103. 

HOLLYWOOD MAY have learned that telling the truth won’t get you a crowd.  A recent big screen hit was Hugh Jackman’s historically empty The Greatest Showman, another high-flying fairy tale makeover with a winning modern score,  that at least in one respect meets my criteria: Only 105 minutes long.

And that’s entertainment!