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

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Ringling Trumpets New Acts from Around the World in Modern "Immersive" Rebirth on Tap ... Goodbye, Old Circus, Good Bye ...


The circus is coming!
Right under the big top,
Step up, see a pig hop
through a flaming hoop! –
We're one amazing troupe! 
You won't see a pig hop, nor a  big top rise when the circus once known as the Greatest Show on Earth comes calling in a city near you, and there are a whopping 154 of them spread from sea to shining sea.  They are calling this the greatest return in show biz history. Well don't slight them for over kill. From  the Felds:

"Opening night is just a hop, skip and double somersault away. We're crazy excited, and we're heading your way!"

Indeed they are. Chances are, unless you live in the states of Oregon and Washington, that you won't be  too far from one of the cities they've listed. Close enough to make the drive on a single battery charge. Only are San Francisco and Chicago missing.  Not sure what that means.  Some photos from the show's underwhelming photo sampler:

Legit circus.  I'd like to see more of this.

How about Wesley Williams???

Ballet Circus: I could be crazy fine without another snail-paced contortion.

So what to expect?  This I am fairly certain, given the Big One's track record in talent scouting, I have no doubt you will see a few great acts, maybe more.  More may be the key to success or failure, because this resurrected ghost won't be coming to town with the clowns and the animals that could give the show far greater variety and depth.

What to question:  They push the idea of something "immersive" and  interactive, a 360 degree viewing experience to bring you into more intimate contact with the performers.  I ask, where do you find such peripheral apparatus on a Broadway stage?  At a pop concert? At the movies?  On a TV reality show?  

Whatever the outcome, the new Ringling roll out should  be a fascinating experiment to follow.

Swinging ballerinas and dancing elephants,
 Obstreperous hyenas our daring fella hunts!
A show for the rich -- and
A show for the poor
Hey!  Come thrill to our 
Great grand carnival of fun
Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows
 are [were] coming to town!

Monday, January 09, 2023

New Bio of Stormy Circus King Delivers Sawdust, Spangles, and Mayhem

Book Review

The Killing of Lord Sanger, by Karl Shaw

Icon Books -- now available on Amazon Kindle. The book edition is due out March 4

Mourned by the multitudes in the wake of his shocking death, did Britain's Barnum really deserve their adoring accolades?  An enthralling new book by Karl Shaw, set in circus land UK during the Edwardian era, tells two interlocking stories, one of the legendary circus king, the other about the search for the  man who murdered him.The Killing of Lord George opens our eyes on what it was really like  trouping through the British Isles during an age of brawling competition between shows, when the survival of the fittest one season was no guarantee of the same for the next.

As for the morbid murder mystery, told in alternating chapters, this makes for a different kind of read which some may find off-putting -- back and forth between sawdust rings and homicide investigations. Oddly, as I returned to each, I was keener on its side of the narrative moving forward. A rare two for one.

George Sanger carried on the lavish spectacles established by circus founder, Phillip Astley, once the latter was gone.  He started out in his father’s circus as  a magician, and would became UK’s greatest showman, according to a Times of London obit quoted in  this admirably researched bio.  Sanger and his brother, John, at one time had a multitude of circus rings circling Europe.  All of which earned him high praise from The New York Times, calling him "the English Barnum."

 I knew nothing of the man himself other than his prolongation of the Astley legacy, and here his life comes suddenly spilling out, as messy as a clogged up sink faucet not unplugged in over a hundred years.  Which makes this man a difficult character to like. Brace yourself.  Among many devious attributes, Sanger was a chronic liar who may have self-anointed himself a Lord. He possessed a natural — or shrewdly staged — gift for philanthropy, so widespread as to enjoy the status of  “a national treasure, loved and respected by all,” in the words of Shaw.  It’s the darker side of Mr. Sanger that spreads gloom through the pages. 

Away from the spotlights and glitter, let’s start on the home front.  “He never let go of his hatred for his son in law,” writes Shaw, the sin being that his daughter had dared to wed a headline performer with a  “celebrated rival.”  This anger applied to other relatives along the way.

On the animal front, in a court of law today Sanger would likely have been hauled in and easily convicted of willfully ordering the killing of an old animal to serve as a prop in a cynical publicity stunt.

Savage Task Master 

Onto the shows:  The prim, compact circus lord could turn into a quality-control monster against underachieving performers. “He was sadistic if an artist failed during a performance.” reveals Shaw, to whose credit should go honors for such unfaltering attention, for it surely does nothing to gild his otherwise sunny portrait of the man’s boundless humanity and good will to others.   For instance, take Astley’s treatment of a young wire walker who fell from her perch more than once. In stormy reaction, the offended boss “offered her a penknife from his pocket and said ‘here, don’t cut your throat, cut your bloody head off!’ Scores of performers came and went, and only the bravest or most loyal stayed the course. Those who fell short had their contracts terminated with a short: ‘Call yourself an actor? get off my stage!'"

Animal cruelty?  How about human cruelty?  I know how callously heartless circus owners can be, but I can’t think of one quite this sociopathic.

Perhaps The Killing of Lord George could have spent more time prose painting the man’s laudatory posters and programs, and the name dropping could had been  more elaborately fleshed out.  There is not a single image of circus, or the word itself, on the book’s cover.  It’s biggest failure, in my view,  is a glaring lack of full-page illustrations, preferably in color, that scream CIRCUS.  Grainy black and white images of news stories, diagrams and photos serve the story well, but may fail to captivate a wider audience.  

Sleuthing the sawdust shadows for tales of hardship and mayhem, Shaw cunningly compels with gripping accounts of the sudden dangers inherent in tent trouping.  It’s a miracle that none of the Sanger's were burned to death in the cinder box wagons in which they lived.   Thieves and rivals wishing to loot and defile could sneak up from every which direction.  Inglorious weather, bum crowds,  and periodic outbreaks of cholera, shuttered circus folk into shivering, food-deprived retreat.  In the worst of seasons, we read, some literally “starved to death.” Really?

The Lion Queen's Favorite

For Anglophile history buffs in particular, the book is intricately placed in the times of Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria, both circus fans who make impressive contributions.  The Queen "had a weakness for lion taming acts.” In her diary, she wrote "one can never see too often."  She doted with delight over the wild animal displays of  Sanger’s young wife, Nellie, seen above, and this earned the show two command performances before her royal majesty.  

Sanger's obvious envy for his American rivals who competed with him on his own turf, mainly William F. Cody and Barnum & Bailey, produced a torrent of  petty unflattering scorn and ridicule, some published in his memoir. "There is nothing that American showman have ever done that Englishmen have not done first and not done better." Blatantly false.  For one thing, the failed three ring format that Sanger claimed to have first used in 1860 was far better used when Barnum & Bailey took it on the road in 1881 -- if, in fact, they had "stolen" the idea from Sanger, as he claimed. There is insufficient evidence to support the boast.  Another grandiose lie?

Another Man on Another Night

The darker side of our problematic genius comes to a grizzly end when he is murdered by an axe and razor, the most likely suspect being a young man who had shared his bedroom by night, until being ejected.  Shaw covers this in a strangely incomplete manner. Explains he, ever so politely without ever dropping the H word,  the relationship between the two “followed a predictable course.  He (Sanger)  would quickly form a very close attachment with his new favorite, shower him with presents and take him wherever he went.  In Herbert Cooper’s case at least, this intimacy included sharing a bedroom.  Then, just as quickly, George would drop him and replace him with another.”

Such was the fate of the tall and handsome, 29-year old  Cooper  “usurped in Sanger’s affections by Arthur Jackson, just as surely as Herbert himself had been a substitute for someone else. One day he was the old man's special friend,  the next he was effectively ostracized, excommunicated from the Park Farm inner sanctum.”

Notice how much fun our author seems to have over that last line, which only makes it more incredible that he would not have at least raised the subject of a homosexual union or fetish of some kind, if only to raise the issue and put it to rest. I was left fairly dumbfounded.

Shaw defers to the press, plenty interested in Sanger’s relations with Cooper.   Some  newspapers suspected revenge being the motive, had Cooper in fact been the assailant.  In the end, sketchy testimony leaves a muddled impression, although Shaw wishes us to believe otherwise. That is, that the killer was not Cooper.  The Times at the time believed he was.  Others believe it still to be a mystery.

There is much to hold your interest in this offbeat treat.  I have never dug deep enough to realize how the Brits were as drawn to the kink and gore of side shows as we were over here. Another topic that held my fascination was the  intersection between British and American circus owners over both their rivalries and the exchange and/or leasing of each other’s ideas, with vividly described cameos from likes of P.T. Barnum and William Buffalo Bill Cody. After all, we and they were in the same business when “elephants were the perpetual Victorian circus favorites.”  Which makes this book a must-read for serious scholars and lovers of circus history.

I’ll go out with a teaser.  You could  never guess how Cooper’s life came to an end.

Shaw is also the author of The First Showman: The Extraordinary Life of Philip Astley.

Memo to Masterpiece.  If you can’t see the drama in this, you don't deserve to be funded.   Over to you, ITV?