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.