Well, the circus angel must have been whispering in my ear yesterday. It had been a matter of settled law that I’d be checking out Circus Vidbel at Coney Island this summer. I had vaguely planned to do so with my kids at the end of the summer, as the show had been announced through Labor Day. Yet it was a perfect summer day yesterday and the Countess and I had nothing planned so we decided to head out for a few hours and catch a little sea breeze. And it turned out to be Circus Vidbel’s last day!
That I hadn’t heard that the show was about to close is not surprising. I almost hadn’t heard that it was about to open. If Tricia Vita of the excellent Coney Island blog Amusing the Zillion hadn’t tipped me off, I might well never have heard it was there. Some quick Googling this morning confirms my anecdotal experience; publicity on this circus’s Coney Island run was almost nonexistent. Nothing in the Times. More tellingly, nothing in the New York Post. If it’s in Coney Island and the Post’s Rich Calder doesn’t mention it, it ain’t happening. The Post’s sister publication The Brooklyn Papers dutifully had a squib, but that doesn’t reach beyond the borough (and within the borough it reaches only the small minority who will condescend to read it, which is a shame because it’s a great paper). There are a couple of references on some blogs, and that’s about it. By contrast the news that the usual Ringling Bros. show WASN’T coming to Coney Island was covered universally.
The only explanation I can think of is that the Vidbel folks are out-of-towners who don’t know the ropes. Yes, they are a low-budget affair (we’ll get to that) but I and my indie theatre friends routinely make it into the major outlets on less than a shoestring. It’s just a question of knowing whose ear to whisper into. So all I can think is that their releases didn’t reach the right people. That, or for whatever reason, the entire news apparatus of New York City actively wanted the circus to fail, which hardly seems likely. Or, a third possibility — they caught wind of the fact that the show is decidedly fly-by-night and decided to snub it rather than risk their prestige on a plug. It’s been known to happen.
And if so, it’s unfair. When you don’t have the scratch for advertising and posters, press is all you got. That can make or break you, but even that may not be enough. At any rate, in a tent that seats 600 (a quarter the size of the Ringling tent), the Countess and I were among an audience of two or three dozen people at yesterday’s show. The irony is immense. On the beach and boardwalk just outside were tens of thousands of potential audience members who clearly didn’t know an excellent, magical, affordable show was taking place just a few yards from them. Me, I would have dispatched a couple of stilt-walkers armed with signs and handbills to ballyhoo on the boardwalk. But there’s probably some stupid rule against it.
And the understaffed Vidbel folks are probably too tired. They’re already mighty stretched. The performers themselves work the box office and concessions. They do several shows a day. On the day we attended, the last of a two week run, the grounds around the tent were full of garbage. The ring wasn’t swept. It looked like everyone need a rest. Production values were definitely stretched to the limit. A peek at their web site shows much fancier costumes than I saw on view in the tent yesterday. As well as horses. Their press release mentions an equestrian act, but it looks like the riders have ridden off into the sunset since then.
Leaving…well, several very fine acts. That’s the hell of it. I was in full mocking mode at the top of the show, given the down-at-the-heels nature of the surroundings, and the presence of Jimmy Buffet in the pre-show music. (As the Countess joked, “Way to know your audience!” That cracker music may play down in Florida, but it’s hardly calculated to rev up a BK crowd). My mood swiftly turned to one of heartbreak, when the first act came out, “The Fabulous Darnelles, direct from Branson!” A trio of old gals, all on the high side of seventy, sporting matching brown wigs. I almost cried to see them, pushing their heavy props into the middle of this dirty ring in a 100 degree tent. Haven’t they earned the right to be gambling at Foxwoods? But this mood swiftly changed to one of simple admiration and respect. Their’s is a magic act, full of appearing and disappearing doves and poodles. Their moveable props would probably roll smoother on a stage — it seems like the kind of venue this act was designed for. But they were first class performers. I hope they have some dough socked away and don’t NEED to be doing this at their age, however.
Susan Vidbel, owner and proprietess, who inherited the circus from her grandparents, is a wonderful trapeze artist. If she flies lower than the folks at the big circuses, the thrills here are greater because she works without a safety line or a net and she swings out right over our heads. Guimeng Ming is a traditional Chinese vase balancer whose act would go in any major circus. Like all the acts in this show, he would benefit from slicker packaging, but his skills are first rate. Archery team Peggy Mills and Nino Murillo look like they were kidnapped from a Renn Fest (they never would have escaped willingly) but their act is hair-raising, fatality always only a heartbeat away. The only weak note in the bill was a Mummenschanz ripoff act, some guy rolling around in a giant slinky costume whose name I didn’t catch and it’s just as well. (The ringmaster needs elocution lessons).
At any rate, the long and short of it, this was an excellent show for ten dollars. It’s unfortunate that Coney Island didn’t work out for them. And I hope opinion-makers don’t start getting funny ideas that a circus won’t work in Coney Island. The Post reported that Ringling Bros. drew a quarter million people last season. They also report that they’ll be bringing one of their main shows to the new Barclays Center next year. But if they don’t want to bring their tented show back to Coney, I hope either Cole Bros. or Big Apple will bring their’s. To me it’s a no-brainer that Coney needs a circus. Somebody’s got to be able to make this work.