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

Friday, May 26, 2023

No Strings, and Almost No Lyrics: When Richard Rodgers Went it Alone ...

After the death of his legendary collaborator,  lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, not long after the opening of their final musical, The Sound of Music, Richard Rodgers took on a rather daring interracial work, No Strings, in which the band minus strings played upstage, and one of the two leads was played by an African American, Dihane Carroll. 

Rodgers decided to self-collaborate by turning out the lyrics as well, something he had never before done --- except on occasion with the otherwise brilliant Larry Hart, sometimes having to finish up or revise sloppy verse hastily produced by his erratic and lonely partner.  

Naturally, the New York critics, partly out of respect, it would seem, wanted to like No Strings, and they gave it on balance a set of lukewarm notices.  

I played the cast album last night, many years after reviewing it for the discography in my book, Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History.  I had forgotten the haunting enchantment of the first number, The Sweetest Sounds.  It is so so good --- if only what followed  held to the same standard. Of the show's lyrics, wrote Walter Kerr,   "They do not rise into the shadow of that near-poetry that makes lyrics lyrical." Rodgers was not even half another Cole Porter.

To be sure, there are plenty of fetching  tunes on parade, unfortunately trivialized by the simple minded words, which read  more like an outline --- something akin to the rudimentary first steps of a toddler carried along by the stronger hands of a parent

A sample:  The show's final number makes a bold declaration about a brave new kind of implicit we-don't-need-marriage love, which today's woke crowd might cheer:

Let the little folk who need the help, depend upon vows and such,We are much too tall

But then,  a few flimsy lines later, it caves into a kind of moralistic meltdown.

If marriage comes, we'll let it come as one of those perfect things, with no strings at all.

Sure, I see. Yeah.  No,  I mean no.  I was left wondering, is it really as dumb as it sounds? Or was I missing something deeper?

Our most prodigious contributor  to American musical theater returned to his senses three years later, by teaming up with Stephen Sondheim to create a half wonderful, other half respectable score for Do I Hear a Waltz.  Once again, words and music danced in glorious lockstep.

Friday, May 19, 2023

How Tom Hanks Got Me and My Dream Typewriter Back Together Again

Typewriter -- to an author, practically a body part.  Some  may stay with only one their entire lifetime, as witness the 1946 Smith-Corona (“Ollie”) still used by best selling phenom Danielle Steel, who purchased it in ‘48.  Mine has been a long and winding road across many platens.  My first, a Royal Quiet Deluxe, now stands proudly on the small desk in my bedroom, ready for labels or intimate notes too small for my HP printer not to mangle.

Nearing midnight 2000, I composed a love letter to this dear old friend of mine.  We were no longer meeting regularly.  The modern devices, ever ready to correct my non-existent spelling, were too helpful to resist.

My first encounter with these fascinating objects came at around the age of 8 or 9 down on a visit to a friend of my mother’s in once-great San Francisco. There on a desk sat the most novel object. I was invited to take a chair and see how it worked.  The experience of pushing keys that made clicking sounds against a sheet of paper, and seeing my name appear — what a thrill.   Who knows, maybe that first rare encounter gave me the bug to write.

A few years later, I was seated at a small table in the kitchen of Carmelia Perlie, who lived next door, pounding away on her stern black upright Underwood.  Low and behold, at the age of 14 I had just turned out  my first circus review. The White Tops published it! — and with every last misspelled word and rule-defying misuse of grammar intact.

If the editor in Rochelle, Il, Walter H. Hohenadel, was negligent in having it set into type exactly the way it was upon receipt, so, too, did he allow my critical nit-picking to fly through. Which meant that it was codified into my nature, leaving me with a sure feeling that I could – or should – get away with the same in future submissions.  I can imagine Perlie in the background whispering --- “Go, David, go!”  

Go for it I did, soon too much for The White Tops, so to the Circus Review I went, where John Swan published most of my submissions -- until a few if his readers grew acutely disenchanted over my more egregious put downs of the man who killed the big top, John Ringing North. 

After my wonderful next-door-neighbor moved out, so too did her Underwood.  And so, for a period, I made do with another large Underwood, not nearly as healthy, loaned or given to me by an aunt or friend of the family.  On it, I cut the stencils for my anti-John Ringling North rant, 1957 Sawdust,   Santa Rosa High agreed to let me publish it on its duplicating machine.  A copy of 1957 Sawdust resides in the Billy Rose section at the New York public library.   Yes, believe it or not. How it got there we may never know.

I loved going to Corricks office supplies on Fifth street in Santa Rosa, to ogle over the new typewriters for sale. In particular, a sleek, handsome Olympia, something like this picture. Far too expensive at $400.  But then came a big break, when a member at church, J.R. Nelson, offered to sell me his portable Royal Quiet Deluxe, for $25.  I was elated.  With my brother Dick now away at college, I had our whole bedroom to myself.  While writing a play, I would tear through my Royal and maybe turn out a complete draft in a few hours, and then use that as an excuse to indulge in another nap.  Back and forth.

On it, I typed out my first circus submissions to  Variety — “the Bible of Showbiz.” Three years later, my byline made the big time.  Variety's breezy, razzmatazz style seems to have infected my pen.  It surely did the writing of  my first book, Behind the Big Top.  At kaiser steel where I was then clerking for engineers who devised the means of construction,  our receptionist and secretary, Liz Johnson, who would become a life long friend, devised a way for me to stay after work and type up the manuscript in final form, on an IBM Selectric.

My first electric model was an Olympia with correcting tape – very heavy and clunky, and nothing like the  non-electric Olympias  I had swooned over at Corricks.  Good enough to produce Circus Rings Around Russia.

After moving to L.A., I fell for one of the early so-called “word processing” typewriters, the Brother EM-4ll, on display in a store up in the valley.  Handed the clerk my plastic, and brought it home on the bus. A prized possession.  It allowed for only  limited storage of text, but came with a spell checker. Best of all, it’s heavenly keyboard was, and now again is, by far the most perfectly suited to my finger tips. We melt in each other’s touch.

On it, I composed Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus, and then Roller Skating for Gold.

Back in Oakland, the emerging world of computers would some how find me, and the finding came in a gift from two of my best friends, Sal and Judy Dieli, who handed me their PC when they were on their way out, back down to So Cal where, Judy, keen on the new, would invest in the next newer model.

Perfect timing. In Word Perfect, drawing once again upon the snappier Variety style, I composed Broadway Musicals A Hundred Year History, destined to become my most successful book in terms of generating long term sales, partly credit the publisher, McFarland & Co.  Hinting at troubling patches of purple prose, they first wanted to see it 10 percent leaner. World proceeding gave me the means to revise down to 15 percent without having to type the whole thing over again – or litter it with white-outs and paste-overs.  

Suddenly my Brother EM-411 could no longer compete.  For the last 25 years, it has resided on a shelf in a hall closet. Protected but alone.

The only computer I have a sentimental attachment to is my Dell Vostro XP, upon which I am composing this, as I do everything I write, first in Word Perfect.  I purchased it in 2008, and we stopped going on line when MS stopped sending out fixes and updates.  

And then, something wonderful came to to the rescue of my Brother in the closet.---a recent movie California Typewriter, featuring Tom Hanks and a few other writers, among them David McCullough and Stephen King,  who still or sometimes prefer click clacky type setters  It so inspired me, that, finally, I did what I have long wanted to do.  I purchased a small table on Amazon, and on it now appears  the return of my Brother EM-411!  Were I a celebrity writer like Ms. Steel who could get away with it (LOL), I would insist that a publisher accept my work in paper, after which they would, on their end, either scan it into digital or have it typeset the old fashioned way.

Well, that’s a nice dream. But I will still use my Brother for letters and maybe smaller articles.  And to show it the respect it deserves.  Yes, a typing machine can become another form of a relationship.  This one is more than willing whenever the mood strikes me. Who could ask for anything more?  But my spell checker keeps threatening to file for divorce, the victim, it claims, of repeated collisions with words I make up. And I can barely hear its little ping pinging out anymore. Poor thing.  If only George Bernard Shaw had prevailed in bringing sanity to English spelling.  Or is it “Englisch?” 


Wednesday, May 10, 2023

At the Big Top Oscars: What Defines Monte Carlo Gold? Jaw Dropping Judging at Latest Fest Crowns Mediocrity, Snubs High Achievement

Here I go, treadling on sacred ground, hoping you will go with me.   There are people out there whose opinions I respect who will disagree with me, and I hope you/they will check in.  I was not there.  Maybe you were.
We are talking what makes an act worthy of a Gold Clown.  Is it merely best of show?   No, because often the festival hands out multiple Gold Clowns.  So it’s not a true competition.

Is it an act marked by a legendary trick never before witnessed, such as the quad?  Such as a new high in the number of clubs or hoops kept in motion by the juggler? Or a mode of showmanship so inventive as to in itself please?   If this were so, then it could be argued that the American lad on his wondrous unicycle, Wesley Williams, should have earned a clown of some kind for the unprecedented height of his single wheeler.  But he did not, so it is not always the ground breaking trick.  

Then what is it?  In fact, I haven’t a clue what makes these judges tick, other than a mixture of interests seeming to favor  the most respected names — or countries — in the business.   Some years back, spectators were outraged over an act from Vietnam getting the royal cold shoulder.

So, let’s take a look at this years sole recipient of the Gold Clown, from Germany, horse riders Rene Casselly, sister Marylou and their partner Quincy Azzario, seen above. I watched the complete act on You tube, three times. This is the one that clocks in at 13.08   It starts out  with promise, but gradually runs low on  energy.   Overall, the entire display included time-consuming before and after ground acrobatics that made no sense; in fact ironically, the highly polished acro-dancing may only have set up an unflattering contrast to what followed on horseback. I was left distinctly wanting. May I explain?

1.  PACING.  Slow and plodding, looking more like a labored work in progress not yet quite ready for prime time.  I recalled the gusto and comedy of the Hannefords before my eyes, the thundering Cristianis in photos.  And how the  Russian Cossack riders whirled around their steeds as their steeds whirled around the sawdust.

2.  EXECUTIONS: Some  tricks were flubbed or struggled through, or simply failed. The head-to-head stand on horseback is theoretically stunning , I can’t recall such a feat, if only it had lasted more than half a second. It did not hold, and either a trick holds, even after a heroic wavering to save it, think Colleano on the wire  — or it folds, as this one did. Tantamount to a quad flyer missing connection. Another failing end point: Rene turned a double somersault, only to land as much on his hands as on  his feet.  There is a word that comes to mind — agility.  Sad to concede I saw too little of it here.  Are you still with me?  

Emphatically triumphal executions, I believe, are infinitely satisfying and the single most defining moment of any great  circus trick or act. The artist either succeeds or does not.   In this regard, I was surprised to read in a rich in-depth write up on the festival’s “fairy-tale history” by Raffaele de Ritis, of his giving the three German riders the highest marks for  “a polished anthology of acrobatic rarities, balancing absolute technical brilliance with a smooth, easy going presentation.”  Absolute technical brilliance?  In fact,  I saw the very opposite.

3.  LIFELINES.  Worst of all, Rene’s riders use a mechanic for at least one of their items, which spells the instant death of risk-taking integrity. Please, will somebody at Monte Carlo beg, urge, push, bride the Princess to mandate that, henceforth, no act resorting to lifelines will qualify to be considered for a Gold Clown?  Let them compete for the honor of Silver, the validation of Bronze.  Rene’s ground choreography and the mechanic epitomize that murky intersection between circus and ballet that we are living through, where each lessens and dilutes the impact of the other’s core elements. Which is why, I believe, shows like the gutsy Brit Circus Xtreme are actually more like the legit circus in its pre PETA, pre CDS heydays.  (Read Helen Stoddart, kids)

So ... was it Rene’s inclusion of two tricks alleged by de Ritis  never to have been seen before in any circus – a three-high balance on two horses, and a double somersault on horseback?  Might the content alone have won the judges?  Perhaps.

Back to Wesley Williams, without whom these posts I am doing  on Monte Carlo might never have happened, one thing leading to another.. I have stronger reason to believe  that the showmanly Wesley was incredibly snubbed.  Not enough ballet?  Not from the right family? The right country?   

More reason to rue the absence of outside critics like Lz Arratoon and Ernest Albrecht.  I would love to have read what they might have written about this one.  Their differing summary comments about the 2014 may leave you wishing, too.

From Arratoon, “This year the jury, headed by Princess Stephanie, was spot on with the Gold Clown awards, which went to the wildly popular Desire of Flight and the Sokolov Troupe.”

From Albrecht, judging the festival against others he has attended over 13 years:  "The lineup of acts was not only the slimmest in terms of number of acts, but also the quality."

The princess may be listening to too many insiders.