Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Sunday, December 31, 2023

And the Parade Still Goes On ... Some Year-End Mussings ...

 "We await your views, " he wrote, earlier this year about a somewhat controversial subject concerning Monte Carlo. He wanted to remain in the background.  I only share this because it was one of the nicest things ever said to me -- and by a man whose background in the circus I admire and respect.  He and I might differ on things, and both could be right. A review is only one person's opinion. Yes, I felt flattered, but also maybe appreciated for what I have tried to do, ever since first getting published in the white Tops in my fourteenth year -- a review not without a little nit picking, its mere publication perhaps codifying my critical nature and giving me sanction to proceed. 

Yes, for some, I am too negative. Maybe a fair shot. Trouble is, I have a hard time spinning, that is in turning out circus notcies. Were I employed by the same show to work press and ballyhoo,I would switch roles and try doing my best to play up the positives, as I did for Sid Kellner's James Bros. Circus and, a few years later, for his George Matthew's Great London.  "Peerless performers from Piccadilly!" I shamelessly promised.

Circus remains to many an idyllic subject, in the league with Easter and the Fourth of July -- a  holiday for children, beyond the serious scrutiny imposed on the other arts.  After all, a child is seeing for the first time what we have come to expect for generations. We love to be ballyhooed, as we love to be courted.  Yes, favor and flatter us with grandiose visions --- we know what comes to town will probably not live up to them all, but oh how glorious those posters! How thrilling the sights!

Reviewing circus has, believe it or not, never been more challenging or fun or interesting for me. I like facing another test -- how to approach another likely variation on the "ageless delight"in the age of human-only spectacles.  

I only wish there were more people in the circus community willing to put out reviews.  It would be healthier for everyone.  


Thursday, December 28, 2023

Circus of a Hodgepodge: Roncalli At Big Apple Sparkles in Spots, Stumbles through Weak Direction and Focus

Uupdate: 12.29  See End Ringers ***

You Tube Review
Journey to the Rainbow
Roncali Theater-Circus and Big Apple Circus
At Lincoln Center through mid-January

Tickets: $19.95 – $89.95 ringside, plus $4.95 fee. VIP packages available, from $130, plus $7.95 fee

     BE FOREWARNED: I could not clearly see a couple of acts behind a tent tower, blame it on the guy taking the film illegally, who put himself and thus me, too, behind it.  So, this must be considered a rough first draft of what might have been a more valid review, had I been there in person to see it for myself. Nor do I find the names of the acts on the website, thus the few missing here. And any of my comments are subject to revision upon discovery of lifelines being used. Okay, so here we go —  on with another stab at another kind of variation on circus!

    REVIEWING THE COMPLETE two hour program, excluding intermission, what struck me the most, given all the gush about it from fans and the adoring  New York Times critic  is how ineptly staged and paced it is. Then again, how do you direct such a scattered hodgepodge?  In its favor, the lineup now and then sparkles with some noteworthy turns, then slogs along through sluggish prop changes, fashion show walkarounds, prolonged bows and milked encores, and extensive dancing sequences in-between, as to make it feel as if the circus is sharing the ring with an out-of-work dance troupe. Nor will the moderately amusing old-school European clowning, too much of it staged in the seats, thrill everybody straining to see it. Terrible sight lines!

            Not any old hoofers.  They're the "Broadway Dancers"                                         

    SHOW HAS A LIVELY BAND (even Ringling no longer has one) hearkening back in style to older fashioned, and  rises on occasion to ride the drama inherent in certain of the acts — reminding us of the primal force of unencumbered circus.

     CHASING BUBBLES: At the outset, the program proposes to take us on a journey to the rainbow, which, I assume, means the dazzling multitude of colorful lighting effects that splash in and out --- not all the other extraneous fluff, together consuming  a good half hour more than need be. 


     THE CIRCUS  IN THIS MORASS  impressively offers a number of winning entries that manage to break through the fru fru and give us what we came for.  They include ---- envelopes, please! — Geoffrey Berhault a fellow working on two cris crossing low wires, executing both backward and forward somersaults and showing a flair I would like to have seen more of  — after spending almost as much time before the act, setting it up himself; vaulting acrobatics; a captivating juggler named Geoffrey Berhault who wows the crowd; and, top of the heap, a single trap flyer who ranks an A  rating on my sheet.  Here, the band gives him the kind of dramatic scoring that such an act deserves. The show’s high point, and smartly placed near the end. Curiously, I can't find a photo of this singular performer.

     FOR NOVELTY the enormous floating "basket”, as they are calling this newer number, with a bike rider inside it circling above, again tickled  my fancy, as it did at Zoppe. This particular  basket seemed to tip a little more ominously  from side to side, hinting at a tension payoff that I did not get from Zoppe. And such an utterly pleasant prop.   Watch it rise in the extremes and take off in circus rings around the word.

    RONCALLI'S STATED MISSION in Journey, "to embody a new kind of circus that is less death-defying and more artistic," is perfectly in sync with menagerie-free trends.  Then why oh why, the most unexpected feature in the form of three polar  bears on all fours lumbering into the ring, to dabble on and around teeter-boards?  Talk about in-your-face bizarre. HELLO000? Sorry, those animals are no longer allowed in here!  No, they are not real animals, but costumed performers, which, what, makes them perfectly acceptable to a woke world that sickened to the point of knee jerk intolerance over the slightest media reports of alleged circus animal cruelty?  Such a fitting insertion to a jumbled parade that can’t make up its mind what it really wants to be  I’d say old time variety stage revue.

    GO FOR THE BEST MOMENTS and be patient. It’s the most we can hope for in  these war torn days under our rattled  big tops.   In my book, Big Apple Circus won’t fully rebound until it can put on a show successful enough at the ticket windows to spread its wares like all commercial circuses do. Since when did a successful property that opened in New York not, in making it there, make it anywhere --- as the song goes?  BAC once did, all the way up to  Boston.  I remember seeing them in May at Cunningham Park, the idyllic setting. They have become slaves to the allure of Lincoln Center and Broadway.     

    END RINGERS: Who directs what?  There are so many CEOs and director titles between the two companies, is ANYBODY really in charge?  There’s Marty LaSalle, former BAC juggler, listed as BAC CEO. There's Patrick Philadelphia, Roncalli Company Group CEO, given credit for directing.  But  then  there’s Geoffrey Berhault, who also gets directing credit in another write up.  No wonder the fractured result ... Any circus is far better seen  in person than on video, which is why I am holding back and watching the complete Ringling show on You Tube, but will wait for it to come this way ... I suppose we can thank these interlopers with cameras making the movies, and consider that You Tube allows them through some sort of consent by the circuses themselves ... So .... what next, You Tube?  Oh, I know what next.  I saw a complete Russian Circus from 2018, at the Old Circus arena in Moscow. Talk about a stunning rebuke to the prevailing makeup of U.S. and UK shows.  You wouldn't  believe.  Oh,you already saw it!?  Hot tip: Speak "Russian circus 2018 on You Tube" into your Comcast mike

*** If you watch the Russian video, beware:  Show starts off with a ponderous and overly long cage act and early on, wire walking performers strapped to life lines galore.  But from there on out, it takes of.

Step Right Up and Keep That Day Job!

Due out later next year, Showbiz David's next book

 Keep That Day Job!
How to Enjoy Chasing Show Business  in Vain

From the fifty (yes, fifty) jobs  he held down to keep the pay checks coming in, author and playwright David Lewis regales readers with a fast-moving panorama of workplace America.

Driven by his all-American dream of a Broadway opening night,  Keep That Day Job  takes you on a wild ride back and forth, between cleaning out rental cars in Oakland and dining high on Park Avenue with New York literary agent Bertha Klausner and Clare Booth Luce. Between being chauffeured around Moscow while researching for a book on Russian Circus and, back in Oakland, chauffeuring Kaiser Steel clients from and to the airport.  Between walking a rail yard one night recording box car numbers, and the next, meeting with French mime Marcel Marceau to discuss a Mother Goose screenplay. Between typing out letters for a chemical company in Hollywood and being handed a rave review in Variety for his new musical Those Ringlings.

From prune picking to circus clowning, press agent to roller skating instructor to bank teller, night-shift doorman, house painter — and, finally, to  “accidental librarian” for Oakland’s largest law firm, the amusing twists and turns keep coming.

Stay tuned for more ahead.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Surprise! Animal Rights Activist Learns to “Like ” New Non-Circus Ringling --- All Except for a Ghostly Robotic Nightmare ...

"I never thought I would say this, but I like the circus."

Thus proclaims our guide to the proper attitudes suitable for  taking in a new kind of Greatest Show on Earth.  She  is Ashley Webster Babcock of Maine, known for her work that focuses on the relationship between humans, animals, and environments. Her credentials make her the ideal reviewer for what  the Felds are now up to.

But the heavenly relief I imagine  her feeling in an animal-free show was jolted by a totally unexpected invader from the older, more vulgar world now under lock down —  when a robotic dog invaded the tent, causing our charmed  critic to cringe like a petrified senior snow flake. 

"Children and adults of all ages definitely will have nightmares tonight about Bailey the robot dog, who dons a pink mohawk and matching pom-pom poodle tail and a face that resembles that of the Teletubbies’ vacuum cleaner. Bailey and slapsticker Nick Nack hold a dance-off, the winner of which is unclear”

Perhaps a little pre-performance counseling for those entering  with residual anxieties from past encounters in real circus lands?  

She was there in a crowd of 4,000 on opening day down in Louisiana, and now reviews the show in the latest issue of Esquire.

 A sampling of her notice: "A ten-person dance troupe performs a fusion folk dance, and three people stacked atop one another skip rope. There are lots of interesting haircuts."

Her long essay, which covers Ringling history in modern times, feels like a straining intellectual struggle to justify a new kind of acrobatic show that dares not speak its previous name. (The C word)  In a nation called America, were far-left revolutionaries are redefining realities as deeply rooted in science as gender, to the point of practically outlawing pronouns, will “ circus.” too, become such a scorned  word?

Babcock looks back with collegial ambivalence, and now is relieved to look forward to what she and her kind are ready to accept.  Happy to quote PETA attorney Brittany Peet, who granted: “I think I’m going to take my nephews to the circus. I never would have thought that would be something I was saying.”

Will this new GSOE flood the gates with members of the above clique?  I wouldn't bet on it.   But the  Felds already have their audience base of Disney on Ice patrons to play to. Could be an easy win-win for both.

This is, yes, one hell of a chapter in American circus history — if you happen to believe that “circus” has a distinctive meaning all its own.  Trust me: children still LOVE performing animals.  And trust me, children still LOVE the clowns. And so do adults.  

When John Ringling North sold the show to the Felds in 1967, he made known his belief in “their concern and dedication to maintain the concept, traditions and artistic standards inherent in the world-famous title The Greatest Show on Earth."
The word inherent, as defined: Existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute.

What would Irvin Feld think of all this?   I remember him in old program magazines gong  on about the family feeling a pride in being “stewards of the circus.”

For me, the issue is not how good the show is or how well it may fare.  A far greater issue is with the Ringling name and legacy, and how the Felds are reducing it in scope to a vapid shadow of what it once was, when under other less rattled or regulated  big tops around the world,  grateful family crowds are still waiting to take in what we call CIRCUS.

 Kenneth Feld's conscience?

Saturday, December 09, 2023

Enter Ballet. Exit Daring-Do. Shunned in Some Countries, Celebrated in Others ... Real Circus Is Not Going Away ...

     CIRCUS, WHATEVER you may wish to believe it means, to some it means the bloody gore of Circus Maximus, where Christians were fed to the lions and chariot races stormed around the hippodrome track.

     TO OTHERS, CIRCUS IS, as so described in my Merriam Webster's dictionary, a show combining   “feats of physical skill, wild animal acts, and performances by clowns” — the form invented by English horse rider Philip Astley over 250 years ago.  

     TO THAT, P.T. BARNUM, teaming up with James. A. Bailey, added his name and rings to call it the Greatest Show on Earth.  One ring or three, it was clearly defined by the three essential elements, listed above.

     SINCE THEN, ANIMAL PROTECTION societies and the creepy clown novels of Stephen King have driven animals and clowns from most of the rings in the U.S. and the UK.  Russia would not bend, and China did not have to, rarely if ever presenting animals or clowns in its acrobatic shows.  Let this put your fears to rest.  

     THUS WERE THE TENT FLAPS thrown wide open to people from ballet and theater, eager to save the old circus from itself – from its vulgar clowning and abused animals, as they would have you believe. To show circus artists how to bow with an overplayed  humility that is false, like ballet gods at the start and end points of their acts.  And on the highest level, to convey “character arcs” as in a play.  Con Colleano of old knew how to dash in, twirl his cape and quickly take to the wire.  How might his passion have been revised into stilted and pretentious through the cirque mills of Montreal?  He and the best of his ilk knew how to shade their acts with choreography, and how not to become a slave to the shading  They we re proud to be circus artists.    

     WHAT THIS LED TO is more ballet (or dance) on the ground, and in the air, more protection with safety wires.  In-between the two intrusions, the edge of circus is being softened to the impotent elegance of a classroom practice session.  How would you feel over the embarrassing spectacle of a group of pole climbing acrobats from China, all wired up?  I saw this on one of the Monte Carlo You Tubes. Yes, Monte Carlo.  Suddenly, mechanics are becoming a widely accepted part of the act.  

    SO ... IS THE CIRCUS ASTLEY  created  approaching its demise? I doubt this, there are too many reasons to enjoy the funny faces and the dancing dogs, etc.  And the evidence out there of this is too overwhelming to believe otherwise.  I am not pipe dreaming in a bubble.  I have You Tube’s insatiable appetite for circus shows on my side.

     RINGLING NO LONGER calls itself a circus, a shocking yet honest deletion.  They are no longer a circus anymore than the Chinese Acrobats are alone a circus They are a show, like Five Fingers is a show.  This is a story whose impact on the still standing real circuses will take time to play out. One thing is certain.  Funny faces are not going away, and neither will performing dogs and seals and horses. They thrive in Russia and parts of Europe, and dare to soldier on over here, as witness the Zoppee Family Circus, which recently played a 80-show stand in Redwood City, CA. Life at its core has a way of going on. 


Friday, December 08, 2023


by skill and strength only ... by skill and strength only

Sunday, December 03, 2023

SUNDAY MORNING NOW: Minus Media Reviews for New Ringling, UK Critic Takes a Deep Dive into You Tubes, and Finds It "The Greatest Circus on Earth"

A friend to this blog, London-based entertainment reporter and critic Douglas McPherson covers circus among other topics for a number of publications, including The Stage and The Daily Mail. He is as perplexed as I by the lack of media reviews for the new Greatest Show on Earth, so he took it upon himself to watch a number of You Tubes out there of the complete performance of the show, and he loves what he sees, with minor reservations.  Here is a link to the notice he posted on his blog:



In a followup e-mail I sent to Douglas, asking him what he thought of the music,  he responded, and added a few more thoughts on the show:

'The music, I thought, was well suited to the mood of each act. Apart from the theme song, I didn't notice it too much, but that probably only means that it was not distracting from the action. An act I didn't mention in the review by the way but I maybe ought to add in was a springboard act, which went very high. On the subject of Wesley (Williams), I've just reviewed a UK show on the blog called Planet Circus and I was talking about how only a very few circus performers seem to put their personalities into an act and connect with the audience as individuals. But I noticed that Wesley really does do that. Especially in the ensemble numbers or where he's giving background support to another act, he really makes an effort to engage the audience and put his enthusiasm across. He definitely has charisma."
This is most interesting.  It suggests that Wesley may be giving the performance a more intimately human quality.


I have resisted watching You Tubes of the full show because I would rather see it ideally in person, when it gets out here next year, if it does.  Which is why I am glad I made the effort recently to take in a live performance of Zoppe Family Circus, reviewed a few posts down.  I am sure I felt a more emotional connection to the show, being there, than I would have felt in front of a flat screen.

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.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

You Tube Impromptu: From Classic Pfening to Classic Old Circus Ringling ... You Never Know What Next May Come Your Way ...

 Since I now have You Tube on my flat screen, it so much more enjoyable to watch movies, but the incessant ads kept me away.  I wanted to see if they had Oklahoma, they do, and many other first rate movie musicals or adaptations from Broadway. So I was elated to start shelling out  $13.00 a month in order to watch EVERYTHING without ads. Which means there are a great many films I can watch that I will no longer be able to either from my local video store, about to close, or from the already closed Netflix. How I miss its red envelopes coming through the mail.

Last night I ran into a video of Fred Pfening giving a presentation on the history of Sells Bros Circus to a group of people in what I thought was a CHS convention but, I think was a local group.  Very enjoyable learning more about the Sells Bros.  They had what must have been one of the longest big tops ever raised -- even longer than old classic early Vargas under a February rain in Northern California (LOL)

And then the words: THE BEST CIRCUS appeared.  Which might that be?  Came a You Tube showing a group of highly trained, highly accomplished elephants executing an impressively smooth series of various maneuvers to the most fantastic score, more like a soundscape.  A quiet score, sounding like what one of my favorite musicians, Paul Hardcastle, could have composed.  The entry says six years ago, which would mark the last "circus" edition of Ringling, but I do not recall hearing anything like that music when I saw the show the year before. ??? You Tube editing?

Tonight I am going to watch Oklahoma with my new flick friend, You Tube 

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 31, 2023

The New Ringling: What the Public May be Saying

Following are a string of comments left on a Washington Post story about the new Ringling show. Since they reflect a fairly wide range of views, I am posting them here.

 The animals were mostly a cross between clowns and elephants. They were busy avoiding a shutdown. Their circus never left town, while their ringmaster is being sued all over the place.
The best circus act I ever saw was trained house cats.

Can it still be a circus without animals, clowns, or a ringmaster?

It's better without the animals. Like the 'robotic'dog!!

The horses were fun, I don’t see why they were eliminated and what about the original “dog and pony shows.” ?

So dumb. Woke circus is going to fail.

Cirque du Soleil has no animals, and they have been thriving for 30 years.

 HUMAN PROGRESS!! This is huge! Now if only Sea world would shut down...

How would humans like it if animals locked humans up and made them do dangerous tricks for their supper???

With the efforts to remove animals from venues like circuses and zoos, there's the worry about children losing any caring or relationship with the animals and the environment. Strong support the ethical treatment of animals is a must but too many activists don't understand or undervalue the role of a child actually seeing, touching, smelling an elephant, a bison, or a bear. There is the fear that disconnecting children and nature is that they will stop caring about it. Zoos and these other venues serve a critical role in exposure, education and connection for the people and survival and propagation for critical species that no longer have natural habitat or have been killed to the point of extinction. There needs to be a balance and acknowledgment of the benefit.

As a child in NYC, I attended the circus yearly from the front row with my grandparents. I loved the elephants and the clowns, especially Emmet Kelly. I will always remember it that way, with cotton candy and awe.
Good news about the circus freeing the animals. They belong in their natural habitats - not as performers for our amusement.

Their natural habitats have disappeared — why they live in zoos and nature preserves.

Do people still go to stuff like this?

Of course. I just went to Paranormal Cirque a few weeks ago. Entertaining.

A circus without clowns? Without Ring Masters? I can see losing the elephants, even though is there a more iconic symbol for a circus than an elephant? Maybe a clown?
E O lives!

Change is inevitable, and it's good to see people who can change with it and still put on a good show.

Having seen the circus behind the scenes.... I think the animals had it better than the humans.

Good, I always thought their excuse of No Elephants = No Shows was a "F.You" to the animal rights people. Of course you can have a profitable circus without animals, Big Apple Circus and Cirque manage fine *** without monkeys and elephants"  .

No more animals. Very good.

Evolution! So good to hear this.

“The circus is back in town — but the animals aren’t”
Thank God.

can't the modern circus have horses? Horses are transported without animal rights problems (that I know of) to races, shows and such. The ladies riding them and standing up would bet a cool thing to see as acceptable throw past to the traditional circus. Think kids would love it too.

n 2023, it's sickening and indefensible that any circus is still hauling animals around in fetid, sweltering tractor trailers, beating them into submission, and forcing them to perform. Just last week, UniverSoul gave up the animal acts - about time! Here's the few left still exploiting animals - including the Shriners!

Sanity prevails. On behalf of all animals, thank you. 

***debatable. Is Big Apple circus doing "fine" when the best it can do is manage an annual run at Lincoln Center of only two months?  It once played a full season.

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.