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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Killer San Francisco Tiger: Blame the Victim?

In what is being reported as the first death to a U.S. zoo patron at the hands of an animal in decades, local officials are now raising the possibility that the victims may have provoked Titania into escaping the zoo confounds in order to chase them down in an act of violent revenge. One young man is dead, two others injured.

The same tiger, a 4-year-old Siberian, last year caused injury to her keeper and the zoo was faulted and fined by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. This time around, ending up in a zoo eatery, she was shot dead by arriving police officers.

According to the Washington Post, “The San Francisco Zoo's director of animal care and conservation, Robert Jenkins, said he had no idea how the tiger, which weighed more than 300 pounds, escaped. ‘There was no way out through the door,’ he said. ‘The animal appears to have climbed or otherwise leaped out of the enclosure.’”

What a sad tragedy. Carlos Souza, age 17, is dead. Will zoo patrons in the future be warned not to try teasing or provoking the animals? And should those animals, in any event, not be properly contained in cages or compounds that are non-escapable?

Or is it possible that somebody purposely liberated Tatiana from captivity?

Had this happened at a circus, what would they be saying? I wonder this morning.

Monday, December 24, 2007

John Ringling North II to the World: Let There Be More Circus ... New Productions, New Acts & Tigers Promise a New K-M Look in ‘08 ...

Contrary to blogging rumors elsewhere that John Ringling North II is out of the biz after a year helming Kelly-Miller, the nephew of John Ringling North is actively at work crafting a whole new show for the 2008 season.

For the first time in years, Kelly-Miller will tour a cat act.

In an e-mail to Showbiz David, North writes:

“I am still in the circus business, and, yes, we had a good season. We did have a truck burn up, but no one was hurt. We returned safely to Hugo after closing in Ardmore’

North tells me, “We have 3 new production numbers and a lot of new acts.” He plans to be in Hugo come January to discuss staging details with his manager, Jim Royal.

John Moss, whose services North evidently values, returns as ringmaster and performance director.

In another message, Royal detailed for me winterquarter activities underway. The office trailer is being revamped. A big top sleeper is getting an upgrade. Next season’s seating layout incorporates a hippodrome track, “improved sight lines,” and the ring curbs are being refashioned by North’s daughter, Katherine, herself an interior designer. The planned opening production number, says Royal, "is unlike any in previous K-M editions."

Booking is going well, he notes. “We have good feelings about 2008.”

Check back on this midway for more. My at-large correspondent, Sage, is on a bus headed for Hugo for on-location, in-depth reporting

[photo above: John Ringling North II, from a photo in the 1967 Ringling-Barnum program magazine]

Friday, December 14, 2007

This One’s for the Very Much Alive Judy Finelli

She directed the Pickle Family Circus for a few seasons in the late 80s. In 1989, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For many heroic years since, Judy has faced her illness with evident dignity, courage and resolve. And somehow somewhere I gained a sense that she had passed on. Not so. Of the many errors I have made over the years in my books — and I’ve made my fair share — reporting about “the late Judy Finelli” is surely the worst. In fact, she has just witnessed me fall off a very high high wire...

Judy called me yesterday ("David, this is Judy calling you from the grave..."), having heard from a reviewer with an advance copy of my book Fall of the Big Top, officially due out in February, asking Judy if she is still alive. Indeed, the valiant Judy is still very much alive, and very articulately so, I can vouch for that, having spoken with her at length about this issue. I recall her many warm and outgoing invitations to me during the Pickle years to attend annual openings. She served as artistic director during a most difficult time, in the wake of the big top revolution called Cirque Du Soleil, when all American circuses to a degree were struggling to answer the Cirque challenge.

My profound regrets and apologies to you, Judy. May you live many more years!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Barkers Who Lure Us In ... the Stars Who Lure Us Back


Circuses resort to all manner of hype and discount, pr and free tix blitz to lure us into their tents. Never an easy task. What we see, once seduced, may make us want to return ... Were it not for a newspaper discount coupon that gave my mother the will, she might never have taken my sister and me to see King Bros Circus when it came to Santa Rosa, and I would never have seen the great Truzzi — although I must rely on the word of others, for I recall so little about his act, I was so young then and so much more taken with a teeterboard display (new to my eyes) and with a group of acrobats running down a long ramp and somersaulting over a mountain of elephants.

Less than a year later, fresh out of Luther Burbank elementary school one afternoon, I ran down to the fairgrounds where a circus was playing inside the Grace Pavilion. Outside it I stood, excited and anxious and without a ticket. A tall man in a red hat reached down and handed me a free coupon, and, thanks to those wonderful Shriners, I was seconds later inside a strange spangled paradise produced by Polack Bros. And who did I see? Those early years I saw Francis Brunn and the Wallendas, La Norma and Les Geraldos, the cycling Theron Family, Lou Jacobs and so many more like them -- Spangleland's all-stars, most of them lured to the States by John Ringling North (above). They spoiled me.

Coupons and freebies, “mailouts” and “laydowns,” in the words of the Savvy Insider, who elsewhere on this midway, logging a comment, reminds us of the efficacy of such workable promotions —- well, if you’re a kid on the receiving end and your mother is struggling to make ends meet, as was mine. Thank you, Mr. Crass Promoter, who thought up the brilliant idea.

Getting there and wanting to come back. In defense of his trade, our visiting promoter commented thus:

“By any measure traditional circus is a subversive art form, whether the producers know it or not. It teaches children to love live performance in a way that dragging them to the ballet does not. And if you learn to love live performance you’ll find your way to ballet on your own when your older. A mudshow is a bargain because you won’t find live professional performance in any theater for $25 with the kids getting in for free. Shows forever like to boast about the family friendly nature of circus, because by and large we are but we sell ourselves short sometimes in forgetting the artistry of the circus even beneath the most bedraggled of bigtops.”

It cost me in the gut to see Cirque Du Soleil’s latest, and it was worth it. Among the payoffs, the most gripping juggler I’ve seen since I first saw Francis Brunn over 50 years ago when a Shriner handed me a ticket. I’m so excited over the personal discovery of Anthony Gatto, about whom I knew nothing, that I’m revved up for ‘08 ... waiting to see what the other tents have up their rings: Big Apple in the spring, Little Bertha come August, Carson & Barnes if they favor California ...

Gatto made me search my muddy memories, recalling some of the jugglers who have captivated my attention and respect down through time, among them, Wally Eastwood with Carson & Barnes, the Pickle Family ensembles, foot juggler Ugo Garrido on Ringling in 1968. What style and pizazz. And boy, did Merle Evans match Garrido’s nimble rhythm with a cha cha reading of "Ramona." Terrifically on point. Another stylish charmer is Alex Chimal who graced Chimera for a number of seasons.. Not saying they are the best. Seems there are a lot of fine jugglers out and about these days. Sometimes, a mid level performer with the right attack can make you want to return.

I loved the Osmani sisters on Vargas in the mid-80s. Maybe they weren’t the greatest, but oh did they have class and a well-matched charisma ... Delivery is more than half the battle. If you only have stats in labored motion, you miss the mark. Anthony Gatto of Monte Carlo Gold has it all in my eyes. I’m afraid to watch him again for fear he might shatter my mesmerizing image of center-ring perfection.

Circus, I’m ready for another season...

[photos from top: Old side show barker, date unknown; The Osmani sisters, Circus Vargas, circa 1989; Wally Eastwood, Carson & Barnes, 1978, left; Ugo Garrido, Ringling, 1968.  When updating this post back in 2008, I lost a photo I had of Anthony Gatto]

First posted December 12, 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why Can’t L.A. Produce a Hit Broadway Musical?

Los Angeles Theatre Critics Toss Bouquets at Turkeys! That’s One Reason Why. You Want Others?

The New York opening this week at the Public Theatre of Henry David Hwang’s new play Yellow Face to mixed notices --- some scathing and a negative from the New York Times --- is but another example of the great divide between the critics of Los Angeles and those of New York. Yellow Face tried out last spring in L.A. at the Mark Taper Forum to generally glowing reviews, which surprised me because I saw a very flawed work in need of major rethinking and rewriting. Although Yellow Face is not a musical, it’s journey from L.A. acclaim to N.Y. disdain is typical of what happens to new musicals that are born where stars are born and fade away ingloriously under the punishing lights of Forty Second Street.

Interesting that another work by Hwang, his shamelessly self-serving rewrite and virtual obliteration of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song also traveled from Los Angeles kudos to New York bricks, where it flopped.

My essay on the subject in general -- Tinseltown to Times Square, New Musicals Face Vexing Odds -— posted elsewhere on this blog because of its length can be reached by typing “vexing odds” in the search box to your left above, and it will appear directly following this posting.

To read my own review of Yellow Face, type “Yellow Face.”

Friday, December 07, 2007

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, four months following the birth of this blog.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Australia’s Anti-Circus is Right at Home in Berkeley

Holiday Look Backs, this from 2007

Circus Review: Circus Oz at Zellerbach Hall,Berkeley, Saturday, 2 p.m., December 1. $26 to $48

I think it’s time for me and the anti-circus to part company. A no-fault divorce on principle alone. This is hardly a circus. This is a subversive and sometimes very funny stage show referencing circus acts in the act of deconstructing them, same way it takes glee in tearing down sexual norms and old-hat morality. We are not in a ring. We are in a moody underground night club for disgruntled losers somewhere on the outskirts of a world gone half-mad. Could it be that the Aussies behind this operation suffer the guilt of their own Nevil Shute having novelized the end of the world in his nuclear war tale, On The Beach? Chilly. Poignant. Out there ...

Circus Oz lacks the will of its perversity to be a full-force theatrical onslaught. This time out, they reach their comedy highpoint trashing the flying trapeze. While bumbling about in the air, they and their rig come tumbling down. Deliciously amusing. There’s a dramatic end point here worth a play, if only somebody would have the courage to write it.

Circus acts? Mostly amateurs laboring hard to resemble the “death defying daredevils, hilarious humans, astonishing acrobats,” promised on Circus Oz fliers. This is the “Laughing at Gravity Tour” in which only a few performers show real stuff: Rockie Stone impresses on a cloud swing; Showmanly Joel Salom, a three-club juggling charmer, keeps two in motion while attempting to remove his shirt and ends up without his pants. Oh, the inner Aussie longing to go au natural. Not a problem for the show’s star, a horny little very witty robotic dog who cracks, “Yeah, I know why you really came here. You want to check out my balls.”

Rowdy Innuendos and phallic symbols (a central prop being a banana, sans condom) fly high and wide. Gender bending proceeds apace at the anti-circus. I was wondering if the clowns would enact a sex change on a low wire. Or maybe two politicians getting arrested for practicing Risley in a public restroom stall. And to think, this affair was pitched as a family package. Well no, not to think — after all, we are in the San Francisco Bay Area, a land of progressive mortals who would rather commit collective suicide than be seen as intolerantly conventional.

Perhaps it’s now considered hip to subject moppets to the kind of vulgarity (pardon me, sophistication) that will sooner than later stalk them everywhere they look. Such a bleak brittle landscape, though, and from the same country that gave us my favorite contemporary pop composer, Paul Hardcastle. He is not here. Hard rock is.

A scantily clad cabaret singer played like a stripper by Christa Hughes brings things to a close by promising to give us everything we want. Up to her ankle for a taste of skin runs dogie robot, itching to get down. Hoops of fire encircle acrobats.

When is a circus not a circus? When it is mostly something other than a circus. That’s when. And Oz is that, perhaps brilliantly so. Make no mistake, I admire their daffy creativity and dark satiric bombast. I just wish they would come clean on the “circus” angle and go for a performance piece with real dramatic force. I can almost picture a post-apocalyptic nuclear wrap-up party with side show banners burning, cross-dressing elephants rampaging down on the beach, dogie robot and Muscle Lady going at it. Now, that might get them three or four stars from me..

But ... Circus Oz, since you persist in using (and I do mean using – or should I say abusing) the word “circus” so shamelessly to haul in family audiences to your big top boudoir of lonely unrequited sleaze, I’m gonna judge you as a circus. Fair is fair?

I’m out of this tent.

Overall rating: 1- 1/2 stars (out of 4 possible)

12.3.07