Tuesday, June 13, 2023

John Ringling North and the Prince: How a Great Circus Festival Was (or might have been) Born ... And the Record Setting Unicycle Act It Shockingly Snubbed ... It’s All on the Inside!


Aboard his private car the Jomar, John Ringling North, second from left, and Henry, far right, entertain Bette Davis during a Los Angeles date in the 1940s.

Deep into the January night of '56, before flying out to Hollywood the next morning to announce his engagement to Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier was pumping drums in the kingdom of Sarasota, jamming  with his saxophone-playing friend, John Ringling North at the M’Toto room in the John Ringling Hotel. The world that night may have seemed a perfect place for both.

North, the visionary dreamer in his youth

His brainstorm, Ballet of the Elephants, 1942, was choreographed by George Balanchine, scored by Igor Stravinsky

At the time of their jam session, the young prince was 32 and North's celebrity was at its highest peak.  He had played himself in a cameo in DeMille's 1952 blockbuster The Greatest Show on Earth.  His mug appeared in newspaper and magazine ads, and his legendary talent-scouting travels through Europe each summer were dramatized as a secondary plot in the new film, Trapeze, about to be released on May 30.

Six weeks later, the magical aura of it all came crashing down in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Faced with a  nasty and prolonged labor strike, and the ultimate surrender to the crippling economics of moving so giant an organization over rails, North struck the big top for good, and moved the show into tentless venues. For this, he was reviled by the fans, myself included, as something akin to the man who killed Santa Claus.

Ringling to Rainer


By the time the prince and Princess Grace were raising a family of three children — Caroline, Albert and Stephanie --- John’s new all-indoor version of Ringling was winning back big profitable crowds, partly by his importing the best performers he could get from eastern Soviet-block countries (keep this in mind too). North sold the show to the Felds in 1967.  And seven years later, Prince Rainier created the International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo, which soon became the most respected of all such tournaments.  North, now a nearly forgotten figure, served on the jury now and then, was introduced to audiences and modestly nodded in return.  And that was it.

 Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, in the judges box

Princess Stephanie, the youngest of the three children, grew up under the spell of her father's glamorous festivals, and it seems likely that this is where she became romantically involved, one after another, with two of its competitors. She first fell for married elephant trainer Franco Knie, into whose caravan she and three children from previous relationships moved. Two years later, she married Portuguese acrobat Adans Lopez Peres, then performing in Knie's circus. The marriage was also short-lived, but the circus had claimed Stephanie's wild bohemian spirit.  

After Prince Rainier passed away in 2005,  Stephanie assumed directorship of the festivals. She became not just an honored and steady figure of support for circus everywhere,  but arguably the circus world’s most fearless talent scout. Today, she and her associates comb the globe for the best acts out there, who appear at the festival only by invitation.  And today, politics evidently does not affect their scores, as witness the list below.

My biggest complaint (or regret) with the festival is that it does not enjoy world wide coverage, nor am I aware of any efforts out of Monte Carlo to seek such. Circus art is the only major entertainment not honored, at least annually on a televised awards show here in the states.  The movies and Broadway.  Pop music. Television.  Even ballroom dancing and dog shows are televised. The circus?  The prospects were not helped any by Irvin  Feld taking  out a one-ring tent show featuring acts from Monte Carlo. It did not last a season.

Okay, the following list shows the number of Gold Clowns awarded by country.  I would love to see a list for Silver Clowns.

 * 21. All countries of Europe together

14 former USSR countries all together
14 China
10   Russia
10 North Korea
7 Italy
 5 USA, shared with Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Italy, Algeria
4 USA alone (Bale, Nock, Gatto, Carl)
4 Switzerland
3 France
2 Canada
2 Spain
2 Ukraine
2 England
2 Germany
2  Hungary
1 Portugal
1 Bulgaria   
1 Romania  

Circus Therapy in America.

The U.S., I have long observed, is not a primary source of world-class action.  Don’t look for a dramatic turnaround anytime soon. If anything, the situation will only grow worse, no matter how many new “circus schools” on campuses emerge, given the woke choke that has them in a vice.  Forget about gymnastic power and skill. Look for more slow-moving narrative, including "character arc," equity equilibristics pushing gender-bending contortion and self-annihilation on the static trapeze. Real circus has no time for such gilded nonsense.  Have I lost you yet?  Now, let’s get our hopes high again.

They're Back! 


      Fanfare for the Colossally Snubbed 

Unicyclist wonder Wesley Williams, who competed this past January at Monte Carlo, beyond setting a world record riding the highest bike, must have been left thunderstruck for failing to earn even a bronze clown. I have seen Wesley’s act on You Tube, and was engaged by his feats and winning personality.  Since not awarded by the jury, he became qualified for special recognition by any of the sponsors, and two of them so honored him.  What he accomplished in my view is equal to a quad.   And, yes , I wasn't there to see it myself, so whom am I to?  ...

Let’s see if Kenneth Feld books him for the return of a reformed Ringling.  Of course, Wesley might say no. Or Feld might fear that so perilous an act could upset the snowflakes and ballet larks he may be being hoping to attract to his no-animals circus. 

The festival will endure as long as Stephanie endures.  And however controversial her screening procedures or judging criteria  may be, of this I am sure: Were he alive today, John Ringling North could well understand and appreciate the attention she gives to such far off places as North Korea.   The “ageless delight,” as Ernest Hemingway once called it, lives on in the darkest corners of the world.  And those  daring mortals who excel despite all hardships deserve our warmest accolades and support.


Tom Conley said...

Thank you David for being so succinct and comprehensive. Love your verbal thrusts. Thanks.

Showbiz David said...

And thank you, Tom, for your kind words.

Anonymous said...

Oh God, the world weary nostalgia. The old circus is never coming back. If every new effort fills you with such angst, just pack it in and post 30-100 year old pictures like the other blog does for the amusement of his 4 or 5 80-90 year old, fans. Jeez! It's like a special supper for vaudevillians around here.

Showbiz David said...

"the old circus is never coming back" Would that include horse riders and performing dogs never coming back? Just wondering ... Suggest you take a look at America's Got Talent. It plays to the millions.

Bill Hall said...

Having seen videos of this year's Monte Carlo Festival, we don't believe there was a more deserving solo gold clown winner than the Rene Casselly, Jr., bareback riding display with Merrylu Casselly (his sister) & Quincy Azzario. To best appreciate, one must see the 13-minute versions of the stellar act rather than brief clips. And we coincide with your views about recognitions given (or not) to America's novel unicyclist Wesley (One Wheel Wonder) Williams, now performing with Circus Sarasota, & set for summer performances at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI. Thank you! -- Bill Hall

Showbiz David said...

Hi Bill,

I will try to find that video. Thanks and Best.