.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year, Old Circus? U.S. Stays the Sawdust Course, UK Sweeps It Away


We kick off the new year with this atmospheric shot of Water Street in Ringlingville, Baraboo, Wisconsin, circa I suppose 1900 when the American circus ruled the world. The photo is here because I see the lone figure as being that of John Ringling. Can't tell you why, except that somehow his stance and shape conform to my long-held image of the dominating circus king.  Your guess?

It feels like a misty midwinter, when the big rail shows hunkered down in such barns, painted props and wagons, repaired stringers and razorbacks, rehearsed ponies and elephants and jugglers and tumblers.  Sometimes, while watching a movie set at the turn of the previous century, I imagine the Ringling show rumbling into cities at dawn, lions and tigers in a roar, roustabouts in action, tents springing into the air, banners flapping.  I imagine a circus I never saw.  Big bright gilded red wagons, sunburst wheels flaring across Main Street, thousands of towners anxiously lined up, awaiting the parade.  In the misty midwinter, I too dream ...


Old gold, at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall, 1963, the Seven Kukacs from the Hungarian State Circus.  Love the terrific composition.  It fits this retro dreamy post.  It takes us back to a time when circus in its fullness was embraced by the Brits.  No longer.  Elephants over there are virtually all gone, as someday they may be here. But then, in the beginning, there were no pachyderms, were there?



Frosty Brit crackle in the air.  You see Tom Pinder lighting up a cig, there fronting the Pinder Family Circus in the 1930s. (photo from George Pinder's personal collection, courtesy of Douglas McPherson)  I love this image, it is so surly, straight ahead, unmolested by the politics of dissent still seasons away.  They who gave us the circus are now retiring it to museum status.  The Chinese acrobats are said to enjoy high favor among what's left of the circus going public in the UK.

In Mcpherson's reliable account of this radical demise, his book Circus Mania, after spiriting me with his seeming entrancement of the old ways, pages later he makes an abrupt U-Turn and brings me down.  I, too, have considered what he boldly affirms, but reading it from another pen gives it a sudden jolting impact, and I feel a pain.  And, here it is:  Proceed at your own caution, or skip this paragraph.

"I've enjoyed the animal shows I've seen.  I've even enjoyed the raw proximity of the elephants, tigers, camels, and horses.  Yet I've never sat there and fully shaken off the feeling  that it was an odd thing to be sitting there watching - a spectacle closer to the farmyard than the theatre.  There is a place, I now realize, for the liberty horses and elephant pyramid and the big cage act, but perhaps its the place we reserve for museums and Morris dancers and steam railways, a place where we can indulge our nostalgia for the past but a place where only diehard enthusiasts would go to regularly.  The rest of us, while enjoying our visit and and perhaps finding it educational for our children, understand that we can only ever be fleeting visitors because, on the whole, we prefer to live in the present."

The "present' keeps coming closer.  Will it ever completely arrive?  Like it or not, McPherson reflects the changing realities.  I only know this.  I no longer trust Kenneth Feld, as if I ever should have.  Yes, he may be sincere; He may oversee a totally humane animal handling brigade, but that is NOT what YouTube video footage shows, and he refuses, so far as I know, to refute the footage.  I have lost faith in Feld Entertainment.  They've got million dollar lawyers; let's see them invalidate the video that dares to implicate the organization.


Los Angeles versus Jumbo: The Felds, of course, are furious at a move in L.A. to ban performing elephants.  They've issued a boastful press release touting their victory in winning a nifty $9.5 million in damages from the ASPCA for its "manufactured litigation" featuring star witness Tom Ryder.  The court did not buy.  Mr. Ryder was paid $190,000 over an 8-year run serving as an "injured plaintiff" for various animal rights groups. I am glad the Felds prevailed in this instance, although, ultimately, in the court of public opinion, I have my doubts that they will.  That YouTube sticks in my brain.  It tells me too much I had hoped not to know about Mr. Kenneth Feld.

Happy Days are Still Here Again!  Not to go dark on you as a new year dawns, I bring you back to America, to Atlanta, the emerging apex of U.S. circus entertainment.  There next Feburary, during a sweep of overlapping dates, you can take in Ringling-Barnum, Big Apple, and UniverSoul.  And in this reality, may we take a touch of pride in three shows, all of them creatively alive in one way or another. All of them presenting animal acts of some sort.  (I've only seen UniverSoul once, but it struck me as daring to try a different road, and with evidence of first-line showmanship, at least in part.)

Next year, far as I know, all of the known U.S. circuses will be back in the air.  All the seats, I imagine, will be as hard to fill, and rarely near full.  Forget the idea of straw houses. But look for a tiny uptick.  How about a cheer, what say ye? -- to HALF HOUSES!!!!


A tip of the hat to those inventive Brits This image of an English circus, long ago, was sent to me by English showman Gerry Cottle.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

End of an Era at Oakland's L'Amyx Tea Bar ... Remembering a Great Place to Hang Out


Sad news for so wonderful a place.  When friend Boyi Yuan told me that L’Amyx Tea Bar would be closing in about a week, he suggested we meet there on the last Sunday morning.  He had worked there for a number of years, leaving earlier this year on the first of January to become a waiter at another eatery.  We got to know each at L'Amyx, after I got a laptop and started blogging there.  Here are some favored pictures and memories ... And below, my first posting on my laptop at L'Amyx.
 .
From China to Oakland:  Tea tenders Boyi, right, with his friend and favorite co-worker Will, in 2008, a few months before they invited me out over the holidays for dinner in Oakland's Chinatown. 

My favorite spot for three-dot blogging.

Boyi at the register, on a mellow evening.


Tranquil Sunday mornings were my favorite time at L'Amyx.  I started going there a few months after it opened on Piedmont Avenue, only two blocks from where I live, after 9/11, always with a copy of the L.T. Times.  You can't get the Sunday Times anywhere now in the S.F. Bay Area. How I miss it.  In early 2008, I got my first laptop.


Boyi and Will, on Will's last night working at L'Amyx, in August, 2010.


Here, Boyi, who can amuse when a camera is raised, serves as "official witness" to my signing the contract with Bear Manor Media for my book, Inside the Changing Circus, in May, 2011.


With Boyi on the last Sunday at L'Amyx, September 23, 2012.  Five days later, a very special place was history




Thank you, Marcia, for your wonderful tea bar. For its warm gentle atmosphere, the serene Sunday mornings, the evenings of rare tea-scented enchantment.  For the welcoming spirit of tea tenders Boyi and Will, and so many others, who worked the counter over the years.  I am happy you are doing so well with your new Asian Kitchen on Lakeshore Avenue.  Boyi took me there last year.  Wonderful food!




Tea Trumps Circus at L'Amyx
From Showbiz David, February 9, 2008


Join me for a high-tech laugh or two here at L’Amyx Tea Bar on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. What a trendy night. Ring my Dell! I’m feeling cooler than cool, pecking out this post on my very first laptop. Or have I again arrived just when the latest party is letting out? At the moment mine is the only laptop in the room!... Who knows, as of tonight laptops may be a thing of the past, and all because of me ... Has anybody, by the way, heard of something called a cellphone? Think I should check that one out too ..

Our servers tonight are Will and Boyi, two young guys from China with a certain natural flair for sharing favored tea enthusiasms. Will, who hails from Guangxi, champions an ominous jar of thick black leaves called Tribute Pu-Er, something that looks like it should be served out of an ash tray or wrapped in a cigar. He has tried before to sell me on his pet brew. So far I have resisted, preferring the serene contemplative sanity of Dragonwell or Japanese Rice tea to a late-night emergency room visit ...

Boyi likes Dragonwell, too, and he especially likes Tranquility Mao Feng, which has a nice lingering lilt to it. Says Boyi, raised somewhere in the Chinese countryside, “No matter how long you steep it, it’s still not bitter.”

Ah, still not bitter. That’s too easy a road for Will, who took on Tribute Pu-Er like an athlete scaling a pregnant volcano. “I don’t like it at first.” he admits, laughing over his masochistic attraction to the stuff. “Too earthy.” But Will took the challenge like a man. “Now I like it.” The ashen looking compound rewards courage with residual pleasure. “After feeling it in your mouth, feels an hour later, your mouth still feels sweet”

In fact, Pu-Er is so strong, it has a way of moving permanently into a pot and being the scent that keeps on scenting: After a time, says Will, “You don’t need to put tea leaf in pot anymore.”

All the while, I am wondering, have these guys seen any circuses in China? When I ask Will, he gives off a blank stare. "Circus, Will, you know, ah — circus?" Blank stare bordering on laughter. I try describing circus acts. I motion with my hands. Will thinks. “Not really. I see them on TV.” I remind Will that China is famous for its acrobats. “You never saw any acrobats in China?” He thinks a little more, and I wonder if that ashen tea he drinks has rebooted his memory. “Some small circus,” he answers, “only few people. They like come from small village, three or four people ... riding the one-wheel bike.” He finds it funny.

So much for a Chinese big top audience base. Strange that we know more about them over here than they do about themselves over there. Clearly, Will and Boyi both missed being turned against their will into hoop divers, so here they are in America serving hot water over imported tea leaves to people like me ...

About to leave the place after first-of-May laptop frustrations -- getting adjusted to a new keyboard and to a new spell checker that has already collapsed under the weight of my ignorance -- ah, as the song might have said, "I’ll spell my way by myself." Looking around — horror of horrors — I am still the ONLY one with a portable PC. Now, the others are reading books, pouring over notes, talking to each other face to face ... What next, checkers? Once again, I am trailing a party that closed hours ago. Just once, I vow to get the first next whatever new gizmo, just once to be first in line to the next Steve Jobs premiere ... In the meantime, let’s see, should I take a crack at Will’s favorite, or settle for the lingering sweetness of Tranquility Mao Feng? Or practice shouting out loud in public the most intimate details of my life and prepare to enter the cellphony Olympics?... Nobody wants to ring my Dell...

2.9.08

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Don't Tell Atlanta the Circus is Dying: America's Top Three Big Tops to Share Town Space Next Year


First big top to take the town: Big Apple Circus, on February 1

This is a story that impresses.  That makes me feel good about our own U.S. circus scene.

Especially do I take heart, considering the dismal plight of the "traditional" circus in, of all places, the place were it was invented -- Great Brittan.  Over there, big tops enlivened with animal acts have virtually all vanished into oblivion. Into the history books.  The Brit scene from afar feels strangely impotent. 

This awesome Atlanta action happened a few season ago, and it's gonna happen again, when Ringling-Barnum, Big Apple, and UniverSoul hit the town on overlapping dates. Last time they converged, they were joined by a fourth, the upstart outsider from Montreal named Cirque du Soleil. 


 UniverSoul Circus hip hops in on February 9.

Call it The Atlanta Professional Circus Festival, or, if better, The American Professional Circus Festival, herein named and offered for immediate use by yours truly.   So nice to be able to drop the word "professional" with pride, confidence, and not a little smug satisfaction. I've had my fill of the academics lecturing me on the "circus arts."  Telling me, for example, how today as opposed to the terrible past, women -- yes women --  actually perform in the rings and are no longer -- Surprise! -- relegated to the demeaning status of scantly clad prop assistants for male stars.

We have so many "amateur" or "youth" or "international" circus festivals around the world.  We have so many obscure new experimental troupes, many of them barely ever reported.  Here, in the Bay Area, every other year, I learn that the "center" of a new circus movement is happening right here under my own eyes, in Oakland, of all places (competing for bragging rights, it would appear, with San Francisco) watched, I suppose, by a few dozen souls, friends of the fledgling troupes. Down in some warehouse along a seedy stretch of town. 


Ringling-Barnum goes to work on February 13

So, how refreshing it is that three viably commercial circus companies, all of them actively creative in one way or another, are still Out There.  Still -- now isn't this interesting -- all of 'em, thank you, daring to present live performing animal acts.  Of some sort.

Go figure?

No, go to Atlanta and see for yourself.

Show Schedules for the Atlanta Professional Circus Festival:

Big Apple Circus (celebrating its 35th anniversary), Legendarium:  February 1-18

Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, Dragons: Feb. 13-18

UniverSoul Circus (celebrating its 20th anniversary), US: February 9-26

12.13.12

Friday, December 07, 2012

A Gift for All Seasons: Take Them Inside the Changing Circus!


"Step right up for a visit to the American Circus!  There could be no finer guide than David Lewis Hammarstrom ... His passion for sawdust and spangles bubbles from every line but - a rarity among circus writers - he's as quick to point out the rubbish and rip-offs as the wonderful"
          -- THE STAGE, London

 "Fascinating! ... Something we need in these changing times more than anything else."
          -- PLANET CIRCUS, Germany
                   
 "Bold and ambitious ... Timely and provocative! ... It is difficult to disagree with most of his views."
          -- CIRCUS REPORT, USA

"Once in the audience, how can viewers evaluate what they see? ... A concise guide ... Hammarstrom's memories are vivid, and his enthusiasm is infectious"
          -- CHOICE
             AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION

"I eagerly read this book - as a circus arts performer and instructor I found it entertaining, and as an academic educator I found it very useful ... strikes a fun balance between history and gossip, critical guide and personal insights into the diversity that is the world of the modern circus show."
          -- ELSIE SMITH
             ARTISTIC DIRECTOR,
             NEW ENGLAND CENTER FOR CIRCUS ARTS

"A thought-provoking book... how circus, particularly American circus, has changed and developed over the past 50 to 60 years, this book is packed with information and opinion."
          -- KING POLE, UK

“Penetrating ... Informative ... Takes us out of our comfort zones.”
          – THE WHITE TOPS

"Roll up, while you still can, to the greatest show on earth! 'fresh, alive, magical and compelling.'  Along with the author of this fine volume, I urge you to buy tickets for the world of sawdust and spangles before it's too late and circuses go the way of steam trains."
          -- THE DAILY MAIL, London

"Pay Attention! ... A good show!... This engaging study functions as a sort of everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-the-circus-business-today-but-were-too-mildly-nostalgic- to-ask."
          -- SPECTACLE, USA

"His appraisals of changing circus trends under American big top apply to the world circus scene absolutely."
           -- CIRCUS ARCHIVE,  Germany

$19.95 - available on most websites

Direct from the publisher:
 http://www.bearmanormedia.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=459

On Amazon: 
 http://www.amazon.com/dp/1593936796/?tag=googhydr-20&hvadid=13417284687&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=19167945012041290418&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=e&ref=pd_sl_9tg59sknmb_e

 On Amazon/UK:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1/279-5507947-9322518?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=inside+the+changing+circus

From Barnes & Noble:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/inside-the-changing-circus-david-lewis-hammarstrom/1110948238

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Showbiz David, Many Seasons Ago, in the UK

Update, urgent question from Angie in UK, see comments below:  Has somebody an answer?


Well, there I am -- yes, Showbiz David when he dug suits and ties, at Chipperfields Circus, near Glasgow, in the 1960s.  The picture widens next week.

I could not resist posting this, roused by Douglas McPherson's sobering account, in his book Circus Mania, of the rapidly shrinking Brit  "circus" scene. This picture, to those savvy enough to guess the context, reveals a whole chunk of my early life.   A life long gone by. But that life took me to Scotland, where I also took in Roberts Bros., and -- my favorite show of the three -- the one at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow at Christmas time.

So circus fanish of me -- posing as if I owned the show.  I, too, was young once.


Inside the tent, during set up.  Perhaps somebody across the Big Pond will recognized this man.



A land of graceful beauty.  A land that fog makes love to.

12.2.2002

Friday, November 30, 2012

L.A. to U.K. -- Circus Elephants Facing Eviction ... Is THE END at Hand? Well, Might I Offer You a Pair of "Performing Chickens" -- Bull Hooks Not Required


Pink Slips for Pachyderms?

Latest to the attack against elephants in circuses is the L.A. City council, considering, among bans on porn stars without condoms, and the mere purchase of pets in pet stores,  the end to elephants in circuses.  This, of course, brings Feld Entertainment furiously to the fore, begging for public support, pleading with the fans, hauling out the experts in its defense. Contact your congressman or woman! Call up a TV station! It can't happen!

Oh, yes it can! Sorry, Feld Family, I feel not one shred of sympathy for your corporate salvation, based on your refusal to have ever told us just how the PETA YouTube of elephant abuse under your care, posted about two or three years ago, was, as you initially claimed, "misleadingly edited?"  I WOULD STILL LIKE TO KNOW.  Somebody there is now reading this, for I know you follow this blog. Whomever you are, the Feld of Felds or the night doorman, please pass my request up to the front office.

How, tell me how, and I will listen.  Until I am satisfied that you have made good on your claim, I don't give a wit what happens to your traveling fell-good menagerie. Why?  You owe it to the circus industry to come clean.  You draw the most of the attention.  You earn millions while others settle for pennies, but your cynically spun example affects them all. You claim to treat your animals with exemplary respect, and yet YouTube paints a different picture:  Elephants being slapped by bull hooks for no apparent reason (or, might it be, to keep them in a state of fear?).  Elephants being callously cursed at for no apparent reason at all.  Is this what you stand for?  

Short of explaining your evident misdeeds, you place yourself down among the bottom feeder big tops. Among the Gardens and the Davenports.  You can only spin so far before public opinion turns. And it seems surely to be turning slowly, not to your ring -- but away.

To repeat, to whomever you are at Feld Entertainment reading this blog:  Your or your employer's actions invariably effect the plight of all circuses around the world.

L.A. TO U.K

Now, over across the Atlantic to what's left of the circus that the Brits invented. From journalist and author  Douglas McPherson (Circus Mania) comes word that circus owner Bobby Roberts was convicted last week for "keeping Britain's last circus elephant chained to the ground and allowing a [Romanian] groom to beat her while unsupervised at winter quarters."  So sad, the evidence of misbehavior (how polite of me) piles up like rotting dung.

BBC aired a documentary last week in prime time in the east of England, "The Last Circus Elephants." According to McPherson, who himself appeared on the program, "all in all, I'd say the circus came off pretty well."

Roberts came out okay.  Despite a vicious front page press campaign against the circus, partly propagated by Animal Defenders International (ADI), "the vet said, 'Hats off to Bobby - to get an elephant to that age (58) in such good condition he had to be doing something right'."

Oh, what it was once like over there.  Heck, what once it was like over here.  Reports Douglas, "There was some excellent archival footage from the glory days of the British big top in the 1950s and 60s - vast tents packed to the rafters and rings heaving with polar bears, elephants, lions and chimps."

A different people, a different circus:  Chipperfields in the sixties

Roberts' sentence was a conditional discharge.  No fine.  No court fees.  Said the Judge, the beleaguered circus owner had "suffered enough from the adverse press publicity," and had displayed during most of his 70 years an "exemplary" record of taking care of his animals.  On the BBC doc, Roberts' wife was "in tears" describing e-mail threats to "shoot Bobby and kidnap their children." 

Long heavy sigh.  I have a  sliver of cheer with which to counter the mounting gloom.  We're going minimal here.  Lower your expectations.   We're not at Monte Carlo. We're under a cozy little tent full of nice people eager to put on a show.
  
Big Top Goes Chicken!

Circus Report, of course, never sees a circus it doesn't like, but sometimes something pops out, to the good or not, that grabs my fancy.  In reviewing the Zoppe Family Circus, a show Herb Ueckert seems to adore as much as Ernest Albrecht adores Big Apple Circus, this did it:

During the dog act, "Then two chickens -- yes, real chickens-- delighted the audience by walking on a revolving apparatus."

Okay, so it's not the long mount.  Or Gunther Gebel Williams shouting out mystical commands. Or Cirque du Soleil  on steroids.  "  But ... something about that barnyard image charmed the kid in me, and I'm reaching for a kind of naive satisfaction.  Getting set, am I?, to find magic in more humble rings.  If I could only erase from my stubborn brain images of Brunn, and Gold, the Wallendas (when they were the Wallendas), Klauser's Bears, Peggy and Mac MacDonalds wondrous performing elephants, starring Baby Opal.

Memo to the Brits:  Please tell your elephants for me -- good night, good luck, and sweet sawdust dreams.

The one and only Opal with Polack Bros. Circus, 1955 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Spectalce Magazine Showers Stars Over Big Apple Circus ... L.A. Showers Eviciton Threats Over Circus Elephants; Felds Fume


John Kennedy Kane:  A ringmaster  for all season?

Ernest Albrecht,  reviewing in the current issue of Spectacle Magazine,  waxes lyrical over the new offering from Gotham's treasured big top, this one callled Legendarium.  New edition, now at Lincoln Center under the tent, reminded him of why we fall in love with the circus.  Perhaps that should read past tense; why we fell in love with the circus; bit by bit, it seems to be shriveling away.  Quoting his kick off paragraph:

"The Big Apple Circus has at last come up with a show that has charm and a personality that makes it all but irresistible.  Thanks for much of that must go to the young director West Taylor who comes to the show with Broadway credits, choreographer Matt Williams whose work we have admired for several seasons past with Circus Smirkus, the renowned Broadway set designer John Lee Beatty and the costumes of Mirena Rada who returns to the Big Apple with Broadway credits of her own.  But it is not just the Broadway theater element that has turned this outing titled Legendarium into such a delight.  For that enormous credit must be pinned on John Kennedy Kane who serves as both our guide through circus history and the show’s ringmaster"

This only adds to a chorus of high favor, meted out by opening night NY critics, cheering the acts, the clear uncluttered production reach, and the music.  We are talking familiar tunes, not an original score.  How wonderful novel.  When can you recall a circus band playing a standard song, popular or classical, that you knew and loved?  How I wish I'd be seeing this show, but I won't.

Enter, at last, a charming ringmaster?  Says Albrecht of Kane, no stranger to a sawdust ring ... "In him the Big Apple Circus may very well have found the replacement for its previous icon Grandma the clown."

Good news, if true, for BAC die hard Grandma fans, for I think in Grandma what they loved was the character more than the clown.  Grandma's warm wonderful presence.

Memorable acts of high merit, according to Albrecht, roll on, one after another. "This is a very big and powerful show packed with one wonderfully entertaining and gasp-inducing act after another. "

Drats, why will in be in Gotham at the wrong time!!!!

Let's leave it there, other than to note that Albrecht is not happy with the "actual" clowns; I've noted that they draw wildly mixed reactions, some critics finding acute amusement, others not.

Personally, I am happy to learn of a ringmaster getting so much what seems genuine praise.  I am so worn out subjected to the blowhards under too many of our tents who pass for tent show orators, that last year, yes, call me a snob if you wish, I purposely did not watch Ringling's Dragons because I needed to take a year off from Mr. Iverson.  In the beginning, I thought Mr. Iverson was terrific, and so wrote.  In the beginning, Mr. Iverson was subtly restrained. Each year, more of Mr. Iverson's  inner revival blast takes over.  So far,  well at least he hasn't passed the plate.  And yes, when he gets really carried away, he himself can be a blast.  I don't know why our American ringmasters carry on as if, only because they tell us so, what we are seeing is great, and that we will believe them, like programmed robots.  Please, somebody shut me down, my battery is low. 

Oops. I have a movie to watch tonight.  Fatal Attraction.  Back at you tomorrow or the next day, with the
other part about L.A. wanting to ban the bulls.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Welcome to the Holidays


I'm feeling more connected to the holidays than the souls in this great Edward Hopper 1942 painting, Nighthawks, appear to be.  And yet, I too, can relate to the air of feeling in limbo.  Not all Holidays are alike.  I could be sitting there myself, and so I respect and  commiserate. My late friend Mike, who often rued the toll that the holidays can take on people already depressed, himself brought a long slow self-induced fade out to an end shortly after Thanksgiving six or seven sad seasons ago.

However, for all we know, those four singular figures in the cafe are doing just ducky, thank you.

Presently, my fridge is stuffed with lavish leftovers offered me after the meal served, yesterday, at my nephew Jeff and his wife Gannimed's house in Lathrop, east of here by about forty miles.  Chef Jeff calls a traditional turkey spread  "true America soul food."  Right, he is, and so little of it do I otherwise partake once the tinsel and red tin bells fade away.  Back to broccoli, wild salmon (yes, at outrageous prices), and true dark chocolate. 

Jeff, who builds all kinds of things from model airplanes to cabinets and small boats, is presently enthralled with trying to find out every thing he can about the actual design and construction details of San Francisco's old Big Dipper Roller coaster, once a landmark on the edge of the city's Ocean Beach.  I grew up to its sweet thunder, directly across the street in the house where I was raised in Golden Gate Park -- my grandfather and then father worked for the city tending to the grounds and the  Dutch "North" windmill.  The Big Dipper was managed by my Uncle Smitty.  Here it is, circa 1921, under construction.


 While Jeff helps me with my own model roller coaster, producing track sections far superior to my original ones, he also digs deeper, on line, into Dipper photos, hoping to locate the actual detail drawings used during construction!   I secured for Jeff a copy of a fine book on roller coasters, through the kind generosity of Paul Horsman.

Jeff also showed me how to Skype on my PC.  The musical I am working on will get an informal "reading" at the house of the composer in the village in New York, come January.  So I will be able to see it.  Already committed to one of the leads, for the reading, is an actress with Broadway credits.  Now, pardon my provincialism, but that's exciting! 

Last night, turkey from Lathrop.  This morning, turkey from San Leandro, thanks to my good friend, Boyi, whose father is a very clever Chinese cook.  (The family just moved there from Oakland.) He has a way of creating what I call  "candy turkey."  Even deep into the dark meat, I reach a remarkably sweet tone.  How produced? Boyi said his father sometimes soaks the turkey first in soy sauce.

So, for three days hence, I can look forward to a full course meal of "America's soul food" at lunch. And, for desert at intervals throughout the day, thin slices of candy turkey.  What a deal.

Soon, I'll be watching my favorite holiday movie -- Holiday Inn.  Its charm, great songs, fast paced story, everything about it, never tires. Thank you Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, and all the others. 
 .
And there are the lights of Christmas to savor, just up the street at Mountain View Cemetery.

Store up as many good and cherished memories as you can. Somebody, you may need them. Some day, you may be sitting in a cafe.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday In-Box: Herriott to Wirth, on the Affinity of Trainer to Horse; Feld to Florida; Circus Fans to San Diego; Chinese Acrobats to New Creative Highs

If we could talk to the animals, like a few do:  John Herriott,  in the current issue of Bandwagon, on horse training:  "I think that when you can actually communicate with an animal, you get inside their brain, and I can understand an elementary school teacher taking a bunch of little children and elevating their intelligence.  It’s a wonderful thing.”  Ah, now there’s a romantic ring rouser. ... And so, too,  was the great equestrienne May Wirth, also profiled in Bandwagon. Her written voice comes through as vividly as I recall her human voice, when I interviewed her a year or two before she died,  her most memorable expression:  “Oh, I loved Joe.” Joe was her favorite horse ...
   
Ringling goes home to Florida.   Soon rising just north of Manatee River, The Feld Family’s new headquarters, to include eventually all their activities, best of all – with their eyes on tourist trade —  The History Hall.  (Not the Howard Tibbals History Hall?)  Inside, you’ll be feted with big top lore, such as the signed contract between John Ringling North and Irvin Feld transferring ownership of the circus to the latter in 1967.  His last talent find, one might argue, among his greatest discoveries, North effectively placed the Big show into Big Hands of business brilliance. This move will only deepen fan enthusiasm for Mr. Kenneth. 


 The new Feld Entertainment headquarters

Here, only a few miles north of Sarasota (what a disgrace that Sarasota resisted the move) new Ringling shows will be crafted and rehearsed, as will the mice on ice units. Here, as well, Feld's Monster Truck shows will get annual tuneups between tours.  Over this new line of outdoor amusement, Feld is said to merrily obsess, he having tossed circus producing onto his daughters to concentrate on gas, gears, and gusto.  Not bad?  Perhaps one day,  they will roar around the hippodrome track to replace outlawed elephants.  Dancing dump trucks?  I'm already laughing.  Tickets yet on sale? 

Circus Fans to San Diego, next Feb. 20-24, and while in session. they will be favored with a parade of films about and around circus rings, lineup to include  “an award winning examination of one of the nation's premiere youth circuses.”  Also lensing, a look at circus acts rehearsing to compete at Monte Carlo, and a film about a  "legendary trapeze flyer."  Guess who?  No, not me!  But a story, just the same, of my fleeting days in the air  ...

Once, in a three or four foot space between our house and the garage of the house next door, I’d stretch a rope tight, cling to the thing while making some clumsy body movements and imagine myself to be a great aerialist. To score myself, I made shrill sounds with my lips – mind you, not just a whistle, but strange other sounds to supply crude orchestrations.  Is this getting too weird? Okay, onto the next display...

China Rising:  The newly installed Big Boss, Xi Jingpeng, is married to a bonna fide singing diva, Peng Liyuan, so expect the boss to generate a new kind of buzz.  And while on the subject, here's a link,down the Covington chute, to some visionary Chinese acrobats flexing their new-found creative musicles on the double wheel and through those every exhilarating hoops,  at the Wuhan International Circus Festival 2012.  Avidly recommended:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_8kd8bAYVc&list=LLczEbz_MzxU5-MQz9E3sZ6g&feature=mh_lolz

Walkaround Giggles:   Russia’s Putin taking the sparkle out of Germany's Markel in 2007, when he seated her (known to harbor a fear of dogs) near his Labrador.  They remain prickly — a reality show, perchance?  Da! ... Self-Acclaim Sweeps America:  Now, it's "in" to gild your resume and shamelessly strut your ego, as witness Paula Broadwell (so aptly named) describing herself  “Author; national security adviser; Analyst; Army Vet; Women’s Rights Activist; Runner/Skier/Surfer; Wife; Mom!” She left out "full service charmer to four-star fools."  I could sum her up in one word, but I'd get thrown off the lot.  What a cesspool of grasping power-hungry egomaniacs populate DC; no wonder the town leaves me feeling so stone cold, so detached and alienated from humanity ...  Free speech, of all places, on a campus?  Are you kidding? Nyet! ... Colleges clamping down on loose lips who tend to offend:  Yale bans T-Shirts quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The quote?  “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.”  Hmm, the ban seems to confirm ... Mental Minneapolis: did you know your are considered the most intelligent city in the U.S., from a recent poll? ...

That’s enough. Got to get back to my aerial practice, and I don’t even use a mechanic!  



The horse she loved:  May Wirth and Joe on the Ringling-Barnum lot, date unknown. [Photos of Herriott, at the Great Circus Parade in 1993, and of Wirth, from Bandwagon].

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Brits, Inventors of the "Circus," Now Watch it Vanish Before Their Eyes ... A New Breed of De-Inventors Take to the Ring – or Stage, Barn or Street Corner, or Whatever

 Young author meets up with old circus: Douglas McPherson

Reading Douglas McPherson’s book, Circus Mania!, I gradually came to realize that the circus of the future as I have ruefully imagined it  — circus acts, some at least, still in evidence, but the delivery form radially reduced, or should I say, shrunk, to a random landscape of residual bits and pieces – is here. May I repeat: Is here.   At least it is here in the British Isles, where it might be argued that “circus’ has taken the greatest toll. By McPherson’s cleanly straightforward account, “circus” now competes, and not too well, with “cirque” – the latter used by many newer troupes trading, of course, on the fame of Cirque du Soleil. 

The formidable UK animal rights crowd will be smiling, if not cheering.  They, who launched their campaign during the days of P.T. Barnum, have come close to getting most of what I think they all along wanted.  By 2015, wild animals acts face a "probable ban" in the UK, McPherson  informs me by e-mail.  But the functionally non-sentimental Brits are perhaps the best equipped to accept the inevitable  Even the flamboyant showman Gerry Cottle saw the writing on the wall.  He retired his animals some years back, and now runs a circus school.   Strange, old circus performers never die, they just start up circus schools.  Quite apt: We are finding ourselves vaguely aware of a spreading sprawl of younger artists who go in for “circus skills” more than they do for regularly touring circuses.

Can you see, as I do, a devolution back to pre-Astley days, when circus skills and animal acts long flourished out in the open, in randomly arranged, if arranged at all, presentations.  They were seen on street corners, at festivals and fairs. That older era is making a comeback.  Today, their default menu would be "performance art."

As McPherson reports it, and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of his wide-ranging survey, “animal circuses” as they are now called, draw small crowds, to put it politely.   The newer experimental shows, “all human,” do much better. Some draw healthy crowds. 

And to my eye, they come off as looking far less interesting.  U.S. circus fans enjoyed a spoiled status during the great age, past tense, kids, when tent shows of dazzling variety and many rings swung into towns, threw up acres of canvas and captivated crowds with fast moving programs, sans the corrupting intermissions that today have turned what is left of them into noisy and formless (may I insert "obnoxious"?) carny circuses.

Now, let me defend Cirque du Soleil — McPherson ironically is not nearly as responsive to its production reach as am I — for Cirque presents, at its best, tightly integrated, terrifically paced performances.  See why they have my respect?  And, yes, they come without animals. But CDS has found brilliant ways to approximate old time imagery; Are those exotic crawling human creatures who slither into the ring at the start of another show not an allusion to jungle land? And do not the intensely concentrated sound effects, music and lights not endeavor to approximate a three ring extravaganza? 

McPherson seems to have taken in, so far, only one Cirque show, Varakei, and to its best acts he gives highest kudos.  He leaves, however,  not much at all moved by all of the production values, which he finds off-puttingly excessive.  The Brits were never high on extraneous showmanship that has long flourished across the Big Pond.  Cirque was not well received when it first played London, nor was the business promising. 

The young author, who did not grow up around circus rings,  is struck, early in the book, by an epiphany when he and his partner (she rather reluctant to check it out) take in a “circus,” which means with animals: Martin Lacey’s Great British Circus.  The turnout, he reports, is poor. The show has been struggling to stay solvent in a hostile environment. 

“Entrance of the Gladiators,” played to begin the show, has an “extraordinary” impact on our scribe. 

“But within the big top, with the trampled mud, the sawdust and the whiff of horses, it hits me harder than any piece of music I have ever heard.  Two hundred and fifty years of tradition, the circus magic, call it what you will — it hits me like a train.”               

But, as of a few days ago, The Great British Circus is no more.  It is history. 

Next time: Douglas McPherson’s emotions take a dive, and a tale honestly reported turns depressing. Cry, Jumbo, cry.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Most Ignored "Greatest Show on Earth" Ever? ... Awating Agent X For an Answer


Only a fool would sit in a two bit coffee dive by tracks no longer trained over in the bitter of a dark fall morning, waiting on Agent X without a promise in advance he’d even show up. Waiting on a thread of hope, to toss a Big Question his way: Why almost no reviews for Ringling’s Dragons?

It’s freezing out there. Once upon a summer, Foley and Burk rattled into to town, its flats screeching onto a siding along the old ice house, long gone. Once, I’d wait to watch ‘em pull and jerk, coax and wiggle old carny wagons from flat to flat, up onto the runs and down banging against street cement, there to be tractored off to the fairgrounds for set up at the county fair.

This current puzzlement over Dragons began after getting from cyber courier Don Covington (I’m on his "media’ list) a boffo boost for the show from the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones.  Made me rue not having seen Dragons when it fired through Oakland a while back. Needed a year off from one loud ringmaster, truth be known. Sorry; I know, I should clean up my act and go Circus Report. Or White Tops.  And learn how to compose valentines. I can't.

No sight of a limbo flying past out there.  Just the blackness of a chilly dawn.  Two other souls inside the place, kind of forlorn, leaning over coffee, one staring hopelessly into a cheap-looking cell phone which I assume is not staring back.. I brought some Genmaicha tea leaves (Japan grown), just in case. A tab of Lipton black tea leaves me seriously wanting. Picked up a donut, tipped the weary waiter good for a pot of hot water, to which I’ve added the leaves. Quality on that count.

Big Apple Circus got a slew of glowing reviews from New York critics in late October. Ringling once rang the attention of virtually all the first line theater scribes. Seven of them. Once, legendary Brooks Atkinson actually took in the show (1942), and filed a notice in the Sunday section, giving John Ringling North, his elephant ballet and other assorted acts, two adoring reviews.

So why not Dragons?  In fact, bigger reach, why so little critical coverage anymore of Ringling-Barnum?  I e-mailed Jones at the Chicago Tribune, asking him if he had any reasons why.  In return, he wrote, "I don’t know why they don’t get covered. You SHOULD blog about it."

So blogging I am, doing some ground work up here north of Frisco.  I’ll nail Agent X if I can (who has contacts all over every lot out there ) on the issue.

On the window to Tiny’s coffee shop is an old photo of Tiny (a fat man, when "fat" was okay to say) and a clown. Clyde Beatty’s train bolted through here when I was a kid, but before I could bike out to the tracks to watch it unload, they'd lured me into the punk gang  down at the Fairgrounds.

Whose tire power was that out there just now? I’m straining through the window.  A white long auto streaked slowly down. Not a sound.  Maybe Agent X just pulled up. Keep your fingers crossed. I did something daring this time, sent a message to him, that I’d be seated in Tiny’s — he’d have to get out of his damn car, walk through the door were he to meet me. Think he will?

I’m holding my position, not gonna budge. He owes ME a little respect. I’ve stood out there in the damn blackness while he roared past, stopping long enough to take a question, shout back his wise guy answers, and blast off up the street, leaving me to ponder the smoke strands from his haughty cigars.
Not today. Only a fool would get up so early on the chance that ...Door just opened. Oh, there he is, I think. Still wearing those Hollywood shades


He and two characters, walking in now.  Not looking my way.  No respect.  They're going to a table other side the dinky little sit-down, Agent X and two cronies, ordering from the waiter who bounced to their patronage.  I'm getting up, going over there.

"Agent X?"  I say in a whisper.
He looks up. Smiles.  Stays mum.
‘A question or two? I called your line, somebody took a message."
"Shoot," he says, smiling frugally at his crusty cohorts. Who are they, I wonder.  They're sipping coffee and blowing cigarette smoke as if competing to out-cool each other.
"So you're the one all torn up over Ringling getting ignored?" says Agent X, grinning.
The other two smile at me stupidly.  .
"Any ideas why?"  I ask.
"You haven't figure it out?"
"I did online research."
"The computer?" he says.
"Yes. could not locate anything from New York or L.A., or this area, San Francisco"
He yawns indifferently.
"Look, Agent X ..."
He laughs.  "Where did you get that Agent X business"
"You won’t give me your name. You're like those anonymous characters who leave comments on my blog, some of  them profane."
Agent X looks at the others. "Profanity on a circus blog!"
"Isn't that how you kill the time," says one of the others to the other.
"Ringling, no reviews anymore," says Agent X.
"Did you see Dragons?" I ask.
"Hey, Shiff ... Clutch" he addresses them:  "See Dragons?"
The both nod no.
"How many rings have they got?" asks Agent X
"Sometimes, one," I answer
"Hell, is it that bad over there?" he cracks.
"What about the audience size," one of his cronies asks.
"Out in Oakland, I don’t know, maybe a third of the seats are full.
Agent X sips from his coffee, thinks. 
"Times have changed, guy" he says. "All those newspapers are shrinking themselves down to a few pages, staffs being laid off."
"Big Apple got several reviews in New York," I point out.
"That’s New York’s darling little prize. But Ringling needs the Garden, and the Garden’s closed. Under repair. New Jersey? Oh, hell, who wants to review a circus in Jersey?  Shiff?  Clutch, would you?
"I ain't no circus reviewer," answers Shiff.
The other laughs.
"Here’s your answer," says Agent X.  "That Cirque outfit up in Canada."
He turns to his gang. "They get reviewed?"
I took the initiative.  "Yes, they do."
"That's for the gourmet crowd with money.  Ringling's for kiddies.  Who do you think the newspapers want to reach, guy?"
"Yeah, I get your drift," I say, wondering why I didn't figure it out.
"Hey Clutch," says Agent X,on a roll.  "Didn’t you tell me you got writers to review that nice little high class one ringer you worked on?"
Clutch opens up:  "Some of them hacks came out, took a press book from us, snapped a few pictures, and ditched the lot before first fanfare."
"Easy money," says Agent X. sitting there, letting the others go on. "Makes for a nice notice."
"That's it," agrees Shiff..  "Newspapers would send out dupes from fashion or ballet who don’t know a tiger from a lion.  They take your press release and turn it into their review."
Agent X giggled. "Nobody reviews circuses anymore. They end up reviewing a protest.  Those high brow critics have issues with animals."
"You mentioned Cirque du Soleil, why?" I press.
"They practically own the world. I’d hate to have to compete against them!"
"They’re not a real circus," says  Shiff.
"Hell, they aren’t," says Agent X.  "That’s what they call themselves, and people are buying it"
Agent X gets up, turns his attention to some old circus photos on the wall and gazes with a grey glow. "Johnny North did something like that Cirque thing when he came on the scene, made a lot of enemies. Some said he wasn’t putting out a real circus, but a night club show. Even old Roland wasn’t too pleased."
"And what did Robert Ringling do"asks Shiff.
"Hell," said Agent X, "he tried to out-do Johnny!"
He looks at another photo 
"Good old on the wagon Harry Dann. We once had to sober him up for a full house. In attendance was the president’s daughter, what was her name, Beth?"
And another: "Pat Valdo.  Look at him!  He hated retirement"
"How the hell do you know," says Clutch.  "You drinking cool aid again?  That man died decades ago!"
"I know a lot of things, Clutch," says Agent X.
"He's been channeling again," cracks Shiff.
"Pat wanted to go out on the road in a wheel chair. Just to sit on a mess of weeds, dodge the rain, as long as he could hear the band playing --- on the other side, he'd say. "Other side of canvas, band gets toned down a bit, sounds softer.  Old Pat."
Clutch's cell phone goes off. He takes it in hand and listens. "Sure, we’re on our way."
He turns to Agent X. "The Colonel is ready."
"Shoot," says Agent X. With that, his entourage bolts up like a gust of naughty wind under a table, and hustles out the door.
Agent X glances back my way.  "Have fun with it, guy!"
He's gone.
.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Circus Mania -- and Mini-A -- In the Land that Invented Big Top Entertainment ... New Book Brings Brit Big Top Scene Vividly into Focus


 A toast to British big tops under siege: Showman Gerry Cottle, left, with author Douglas McPherson and Circus of Horrors ringmaster, Dr. Haze.

Looking for another glorious rehash of Ringling Bros. history? For a blistering account of animal abuse under the big top? For a "study" of  nasty sexist bias against female performers in the ring?  Go somewhere else, and have at it.  Now, if you'd like to know just what the hell has been going on over there, across the pond, where the modern day circus show was invented, here is a wonderful book to check out.

Traditions under attack:  You might say the trouble began when pushy pushy Brit animal activists got the government to virtually ban elephants from big tops, the ban lasting for about ten years, until the Lords were forced to repeal their ban based upon evidence to the contrary.  Among the losers, the great English circus producer Gerry Cottle, who tried putting on an all-human circus, could not make box office on the "all human" angle.  lately, he has partnered up with the founders of Circus of Horrors, which rings in big houses night after night.

The book, Circus Mania, was written with illuminating detail by Douglas McPherson, a literate journalist (think Robert Lewis Taylor’s superb Center Ring), and, while it might not be a page turner, it is for certain a chapter turner.  Circus Mania will likely take a place of honor on the highest shelf with Antony Hippisley Coxe’s classic  A seat at the circus ---- but for very different reasons. While Circus Mania, perhaps like Coxe, excels in accurately describing various acts, it also advances beyond Coxe’s arguably narrow focus (he was not a lover of production  effects or infusions at all) to examine competing  definitional claims by a newer generation  (and they seem to grow more numerous -- and ominous -- by the hour) of what  “circus’ can be, spread across a sprawling UK spectrum. The landscape may be alive with creative ferment, but the crowds, overall, still seem sparse.  More about this in a future post. I am taking notes.

We, in the USA, seem to have somehow escaped the same fate.  On this side of the pond, circuses that send their animals to the barn themselves end up in the same place, on permanent hiatus. Think Circus Chimera. Think Pickle Family Circus. The vexingly  mediocre "all-human" Circus Vargas, still out there playing to a tent far closer to empty than to full whenever I show up, could use at least the redeeming joy of a good dog act, even an amateur dog act.

McPherson’s devilishly detailed chapter about modern freak shows (and I mean the bloodiest, most kinkiest you can imagine ) is so graphic, I, a career wimp, was forced to shun sentences now and then.  It also comes with a cool Brit sense of humor.  We are not, kids, in the land of the Ringling Bros. We are not sinking into some hyperventilated academic treatise or cultural declaration of war against  how women, up until say 10 years ago, were never allowed in a circus tent to do anything other than stand half nude, posing as sexy assistants for male stars (a dreary feminist fantasy).  This is a book about the Brit circus scene that puts you right there. And because a lot of "experimentation" leads to humdrum showmanship, you will giggle and you will yawn.    I am only sorry for the author that the publisher hatched a rather gloomy and oddly uninviting cover design.                           

The UK only gave us, in theatre, Shakespeare, in film, Alfred Hitcock, in pop music – have you heard of the Beetles?   And in the sawdust ring, heck, they practically invented the damn thing as we know it.  So, how ironic it should be that the UK has perhaps been the hardest hit by the activists, who have succeeded in tarring "traditional" shows as "animal circuses."   McPherson comes into the tent without any baggage whatsoever (other than fond memories of watching some elephants parade through his town in his toddler years), so you are getting a trustworthy account of what is going on over there.  Half way through this excellent read, I can say that he seems to have developed an appreciation for traditional circus, and at the same time is youthfully able to cover the fringe shows, of which there are many.
                                   
And here I shall, for now, take a brief break.  I will have fun ahead sprinkling bits from Circus Mania in future three-dot efforts. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Big Apple DEEEEEElicious:NY Critics High On Legendarium from Big Apple Circus .. And More, Maybe, if you step on in! ...



"INSPIRED"
"BEST PRODUCTION IN YEARS"
"BEST TIME I EVER HAD AT A BIG APPLE CIRCUS" 
so go the first reviews for Legendarium

Whenever the Gotham reviews come out for a new Big Apple Circus show, you've got to look for nuances -- small words or inflections that separate a New York valentine to a cherished institution (BAC) from a genuinely positive notice.  This time around, kids, I'd say, they are genuinely positive, not just nice-to-have-you-back-in-town salutations parading as reviews.  And if these aren't raves I'm reading, they strike me as near grade A status.

New York Times:  "This company ... has been consistently inspired, at least since I first saw it 20 years ago. And its newest offering ... isn't about to break that long, superb streak."

Ken Jaworowski, the reviewer, takes keen pleasure in the acts, themselves cast in a setting he describes as"lower-tech, more old-fashioned feel."  He misses Grandma, as do all the others, but gives new clowns Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone high marks for filling the void with "new comedic relief."

"I can't say it's impossible that one day in the future the nonprofifit Big Apple Ciracus will let down its guard and settle for a humdrum program. But I can say that Legendarium is not that show."


 America's gift to inventively amusing animal acts:  Jenny Vidbel.  Photos by Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus 

From the New York Daily News:  Particular praise for Jenny Vedbel's doggie star named Charlie, who "slyly pilfers snacks on cue ... he wins your heart and steals the show."  But the critic, another Grandma fan, was not amused by the new clowns. "Not every moment gleams" said he of them.

New York Post: Let's cut to the core:  Declares Elisabeth Vincentelli, "the troupe’s best production in years."

Also, a former BAC staffer, who worked in the "back office" since 1994, and saw about 8 shows over the years, rings up a rave for Legendarium, essentially asserting  he/she was never a great fan of the show at all, but this one does the trick."the best time I’ve ever had at Big Apple Circus."

Hidden agenda hype?  There is always the chance that, let's speculate, less than warm feelings about management left the staffer soured and far from objective.  Here is a link:

http://travsd.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/big-apple-circus-legendarium/

END RINGERS:  Are they going broke?   Moguls Guy Laliberte and Kenneth Feld have both, at one time or another, showed up on those Forbes "richest" lists.  I looked at the latest, one merely for millionaires, the other for the billionaires.  I couldn't fine their names on either ... Perhaps Forbes should issue a special "poorest circus owners" list.  I could name names, but I won't ... Bound for prime time?  A circus series set in the depression called "SAWDUST" and starring a name known to a few of us -- "cinema icon," so goes the PR, Mamie Van Doren.  Indeed, she was big in some or another category, back when Milton Berle and Mr. Ed were big.  Casting continues apace. Show to be shot in 3D (oh, can't you just wait?), said to be a first for TV.  This may be one of those dozens of fledgling pilots that gets off the ground and never reaches a launch pad. I hope it does,I really do, but, but, but I hope it's a few degrees better than the miserably miserable film, Poison for Elephants ... Walt Disney looking for talent heavy on physical comedy and "improv skills" for its Storybook Circus section slated for the new expansion of Fantasyland ... Which reminds me, randomly, I ran into some young daring skate board addicts  competing on major TV doing some great tricks in San Fransisco -- another reason to know that, even if the big top gives up on its daredevils, they and their populist audience will convene in other venues ... And to those who live within easy commute of Big Apple Circus dates, I envy you, over and over.... Out here, we get -- well, no, let me not go into that ...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Morning Midway: Ringling Venice Arena Off the Demolition Block -- for Now

Tito Gaona must be flying high today, well, in his mind. His great dream of turning the Venice arena into some kind of a circus museum got a lifeline from the Venice City Council, which this week, as reported in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, "took a big step toward allowing preservation of the former circus arena north of the Circus Bridge when it pulled $250,000 in demolition costs out of the budget."

This grants Gaona's restoration group "some breathing room."

Mayor Ed Martin sounded still skeptical of the cause. The Circus Foundation has failed to fund its admirable if highly impractical goals. To former Ringling pros, the site holds great sentimental value. To others, what exactly? And why another spangled walk-through when they've got the extravagantly funded Ringling juggernaut up the road? Gaona has been at it for seven years. Only $30,000 has been raised to date; much much more is needed.

"They are giving us a chance," said Gaona. First priority is to repair a roof that leaks.

The tasks ahead are daunting. As required by Federal law, the operation, whatever it might turn out to be, would have to be a revenue producer for the airport fund because it sits on airport property.

Mayor Martin was impressed by the 200 people who appeared on a hot day, ready and willing to pull weeds. "It deserves as much latitude as we can give."

Beyond that, Tito's dream remains, if I understand the situation, a fragile fantasy. How many circus museums can this country sustain? And pardon me for asking, but is Venice, Florida a destination?

Sorry to sound so skeptical.

original posting date lost

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Anonymous World Out There, and What to Do with It ...

About a year ago, I gave serious thought to not posing comments by Anonymous. A few considerations held me back:

The internet is rife with anonymous remarks. Without them on some websites, there might be very few, and the dialogue might not be nearly as interesting.

In the circus, in particular, the community is so adverse on the surface to issuing criticism of circus shows (other than, perhaps, Ringling), that the only route for some who do have opinions worth considering but for whatever the reason can't or won't reveal their names, is to conceal them under the Big A. I well understand the social culture in the circus community and the limited outlets it offers for vigorous debate.

However, I do not post all comments by the Big A. No profanity. No personal attacks on others; taking issue with what somebody has said does not constitute a personal attack in my opinion.

Believe it or not, the second most visited posting on this blog, if my blogger stats are to be believed, is "Two Views of Carson and Barnes," which came out two years ago. I posted two very different points of view, neither mine, one positive and one negative.

I just got a comment from the Big A that I did not post, even though it contained a lot of stimulating juice and heat, because the contributor callously dismissed the idea of African Americans being able to perform in circuses. Not just insulting but rather ignorant. Yes, yes, yes, there are very few blacks in our circuses, and I have long pondered why. But how can you discount evidence in the affirmative, such as the Ayak Bros, whom Cliff Vargas brought over. One of the few modern day ringmasters who really impressed me, although I have only see him work once, is Calvin "Casual Cal Dupree," originally from UniverSoul. I have seen a few comedy ground acrobatic acts (one on UniverSoul) there were sensational. I saw a decent high wire troupe from South Africa on the same show, too. I think John Ringling North II presented a lively African troupe of tumblers two or three years ago. Some said it was the show's highlight.

Why there are so few black performers in the circus fairly mystifies me -- as it may the African American owner of UniverSoul Circus, who pulls his cast from many nations. I have given up trying to figure out why.

I will continue monitoring my space on the midway.

Circus World Museum Hires, Finally, a Librarian ... Atwell Photos Coming to a Computer Near You ...

Date first posted is lost.  A guess:  2012

Baraboo is back in its own spotlight, touting the installation of Peter Shrake, previously with the Sauk County Historical Society, to head up the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center. He's got a two-for-one title, archivist and librarian.

It's about time, Circus World!

The news issued by Seve Freese, also revealing a second appointment, that of Baraboo business man and "circus enthusiast" Ralph D. Pierce , brought on board to undertake digitizing 1,377 glass plate negatives snapped by famed Harry Atwell, whose images were used by circus press agents of the era. Time line ranges from 1905-1930. An anonymous donation from a private donor is said to have funded these appointments.

Best of all, we will very soon be able to access Atwell's work on-line, as soon as "a month or so."

The goings on at this non-accredited museum can be puzzling, if not mystifying. Me wonders if Circus World fears being left in the dust as the Ringling Museum of Circus in Sarasota continues its empire building, and as the aggressively emerging Milner Libary at ISU in Bloomington makes a bigger mark on the world with its own formidable photo collection starring the superlative color work of Sverre Braathen. Plus, they've got a huge collection of books, more, says librarian Maureen Brunsdale, than her Sarasota rivals ...

Big Top Bits: How to return danger, or its illusion, to the big top: Cirque du Soleil hiring Canvasland Levin of New Zealand to produce a large cushion for emergency landings by aerialists during Japanese earthquakes. These modern pads, made of nylon, said to allow a performer to fall on front or back side, "in any position without risking injury." ... A Cirque high wire act had been grounded owing to high probability of afterwhocks. The advanced cushions were rushed out to Tokyo so the act could continue ... There is new promise here, that perhaps one day a circus will perform over a surface underpinned by such padding technology, thus allowing for the elimination of the unsightly and demeaning mechanics. Or maybe by then, some other inventor will have devised an invisible mechanic. OK with me. Just don't tell me when it's being used. I'll take a good illusion over a bad reality ... Water for Elephants, if I read the box office figures correctly, fading fast ... Circus Historical Society's Virtual Library adding scans by Robert Spivey, Hal Guyon, Jr., Judy Griffin, and Bob Cline ... The group's annual convention to spread sawdust over For Mitchell, Kentucky, June 6-11, during The Amazing American Circus Poster Exhibit in session at the Cincinnati Art Museum ... Here's a spiffy little top that gives off a breezy old canvas smile: Culpepper & Merriweather Circus's brand new blue and white beauty ... Carson and Barnes Circus this year celebrating its 75th anniversary on the road, John Ringling North II, his fifth ... That means, in Ringling time, he has three more years to get Kelly-Miller circus onto the rails ...

How geographically clever am I? At the moment of this posting I am on Am tracks, not that far from from Baraboo. Guess exactly where? See you up the rails, slow-speed fans ...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday Flashes (if there are any) ... Come In and SEEEEEEE!


Randomly served, if you will ...


Count 'em -- not ONE but TWO Grandma clown clones:  Mark Gindick, right, at the Big Apple Circus, Circa 2010, and Matthew Pauli.

Grandma lurks in other rings, yes she does -- in this instance, Mark Gindck handling the role originated by elsewhere occupied Barry Lubin, who, as you know, "retired" from Big Apple Circus last season. Grandma recently seen by Dan McGinnis, Sr., reviewing Big E Super Circus for Circus Report.  Not sure about Gindick, but I've seen (best guess) the work of Matthew Pauli, who turns in a dandy grandma. And I'm told there were others! I guess the character is licensed by Lubin, and does that not mark a first in world circus history?  Here we have a specific character being cloned on down the line. (There have, believe it or not, been others.) Sure, you could say that Emmett Kelly had spin-off imitators.  I wonder what would happen if a non-licenesed funster decided to appropriate Grandma? ... With any luck, we will eventually see ...

Triple somersaults on high were flown by Terry Cavaretta, to the tune of 17,445, which she claims are the most ever executed by any flyer.  Terry, who still works trapeze, now teaches it, too, in Las Vegas, where the Flying Cavarettas  appeared at Ciircus Circus for 23 years. Sorry for spoiling this thread by stating that, having once walked through Circus Circus, what a dreary place I found it to be.  There she is, age 5, at the outset of a legendary career in the air! ...

Are you still with me? ... Bill Taggart back at work on his Bandwagon series about touring with Ringling-Barnum during their last years under canvas, selling tickets -- when, the Big Show, if we are to believe Bill, did not operate as etthically as for years it claimed to. Bill was taken aside and told how to short change the public at the ticket window. Bandwagon shows grit in opposing the legendary (myth?) of Ringling's dogged honesty in dealing with the public.  I still stubbornly subscribe to that claim (or myth), and there is plenty of evidence that John and Hnery Ringling North, up to the fall of the big top, were trying to weed out corruption against the public. But we await what Billy Boy has to say on the matter.  His previous account is persuasive; Art Concello was no longer around, but some will call me incredibly naive for believing that Art would have operated any differently.

A New York Shame! ... They are touting what looks like a fine exhibit, "Circus and the City," but why so short a run?  Or, might I say, why only during the winter?  Display is up only through Feb. 3 ... Can another book about the Ringlings, much of it murky fiction, grab a market?  Herb Ueckert in CR, apparently having enjoyed his read of Ringling: The Last Laugh, seriously rues the book's weakness on solid  research.  This tome, written by  Michael Lancaster,  dishes up the epic life of John Ringling, a life that in my quarters screams out for a great movie, which I have argued too many times already. But, please, still stay with me. The routinely tactful Ueckert notes, "the work is an entertaining read and definitely receives a 'thumbs up'." ...  On Amazon, the book gets three 5-star reviews, two of them from first-time reviewers to Amazon.  And while I find that suspect, it is also possible that here is the basis for a movie, BUT, I am only speculating, folks.  When it comes to a library near me, I will be all over it.

 Zhang Fan.  Big Apple Circus photo.

Big Apple Circus opens today in Gotham.  DC date seems not to have been reviewed.  Hold on!  I'm going to right now goggle up reviews, and here will be my tally:  NONE (that I can find, other than suspect bloggers on the shill, some pitching tickets). But website photos, setpiece and a jolly looking ringmaster all look terrific ... Early buzz might be that show favores the kiddies, but did it not do the same last year, and did not artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy go on record as wishing they could attrack more adults, such as circuses in Europe do? What goes here?  Lineup, however, above all such quibbles, looks boffo.... Inside sources discretely convey to me that show is still struggling to stay financially afloat.

But the photos look fabulous.  On this promising note, let's cut and run ... Let this one go out rough, photos due in on the Second Section. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Enter the Classroom Circus Amateurs ... Their Numbers Are Rising -- When Will They Rise Above Recital Status?

End of Summer Wrap Up, which is never really a wrap up.  "Same old same old" is not a nice thing to say, so I must I must try saying something like "same new same new."  These days, I've been feeling as if I'm sinking into historic quicksand,  and it's because I am more and more getting a sense that the "commercial circus' (is that an oxymoron?) may be sinking itself -- under an emerging world-wide academic circus, from school to school to school. 

There are, I've heard (pardon my lazy awareness) hundreds if not thousands of class rooms round the world in which youngsters dabble in juggling, take a crack at trampoline with spangles, join up for test shows and experimental shows and youth summer shows and what not  -- most of them never going beyond the summer of their big top dreams.  Or they end up, please be assured, the academics tell us, on cruise ships or in Vegas vaudeville, or abroad.  Not under Kelly Miller Canvas.  Rarely, if ever, inside Big Apple's world class rings.

Don't say "circus for self-esteem," because a legion of veterans now at the chalkboard are finding new careers spreading the joy of acrobatics and aerial arts.  And out of this new paradigm, perhaps, may evolve the next big circus epoch, if there is to be one.  You can be certain it will be far less visceral, more cerebral.  

Here's my apologia, or pragmatic perspective:  I buy tickets to see touring professional shows (just a word to carve out a broad category), and so I have lived out of the radar of the academics.  Let me draw an unflattering analogy between what we will call (not a word I drop smugly, but with respect)  "amateur circus" and "amateur theatre."  The latter, more often called "community" or "regional" I am well aware of, because there are hundreds of booming local playhouses in which fine actors deliver plays and musicals in high style; many thespians, with the right nudge or roll of dice, might have made it on big boards -- there just aren't enough big boards for them all.

Segue to "amateur circus.  Here's the deal, or I should say the big gap.  I practically never derive the same top-drawer satisfaction from a student circus show as I do from a local amateur stage company. For one big reason, circus soars on great tricks. Theatre comes with dialogue and songs, pre-composed, the materials proven time and time again.  Easier, I declare, for an amateur singer belting "That's Entertainment" to get a rise from me than for a fledgling juggler to take me to the clouds.

Take the Sixth Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. There I saw, for the first time, the stage version of Cabaret.  A wonderful show, expertly directed, well acted.  There I've seen rousing stagings of chestnuts like Annie and Oliver, so well done, as to approximate a professional theatre-going experience.   Of course, the actors come with those powerful  time-tested materials.

Around amateur circus rings, it just ain't so. Sorry.  There are the notable exceptions. Even though Traces, which long ago opened in San Francisco, impressed me, even though it had some good acts, it was the exception, Id' guess, not the rule.  Even Circus Oz, when I was putting up with it, did not always have what one might call professional acts. It compensated with a subversive hip on its shoulder. 

Where am I going here?  Are you still with me?  Let's continue this thread tomorrow or the next day or the next ...

* My recent intersecting with some very nice accademics out there.

* The schools that do produce, big time.

* Ooops, I started out alluding to standard shows forever on the edge of insolvency. That, too, will be addressed in due time, I think.