Archive for the AMERICANA Category

James Montgomery Flagg: Lived Up To His Name

Posted in AMERICANA, Silent Film, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2017 by travsd

Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) was born on June 18. Flagg’s best known work (above) is especially timely — the Uncle Sam/ “I Want You” poster was created one century ago as part of the World War One recruitment drive. It’s so well known and so frequently parodied I used it as the inspiration for a publicity still around the time I was launching my American Vaudeville Theatre around 20 years ago.

Photo by Joseph Silva

Flagg designed a slue of patriotic pictures during the Great War. I liked his rendering of Columbia encouraging Victory Gardens so much I acquired the fridge magnet version:

My wife (herself an illustrator) and myself took in many of his works during our recent pilgrimage to the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport. RI. 

There are other good connections to this blog. For example, from 1903 through 1907, Flagg drew the comic strip Nervy Nat for Judge magazine. Nervy Nat is a tramp character of the sort that was popular at the time, and paved the way in some sense sense for Chaplin’s screen character a decade later

There is a 1904 comedy short called Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride produced by Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter, and starring Arthur Byron and Evelyn Nesbit, which is clearly inspired by the strip. It is available to watch on Youtube.

Flagg is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I have visited his marker! (I am not obsessed or anything. I was visiting ALL the stars. Have more to go, too).

Flagg was a prodigy. Originally from Pelham Manor, New York, he was already publishing magazine illustrations by age 12. He attended the Art Students League from 1894 through 1898, after which he studied for a couple of years in London and Paris before returning the the States to pursue his professional career. At one point he was the highest paid illustrator in America. One of his favorite models was Mabel Normand! He also painted portraits of prominent people like Ethyl Barrymore and Mark Twain.

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926. Look at that face! It seems strange to exist in a world without him. He and his best known character seem like Benjamin Franklin or something, part of the bedrock of America. While he occasionally played villains (in fact, his best known role, apart from Andy Taylor, was a villain), Griffith seemed to radiate decency, a good heart, and sound judgment — our fantasy of what we’d love a small town sheriff to be. (As opposed to the dude who catches you in his speed trap, glares at you impassively through his sunglasses, chucks you in a cell when you can’t pay his “fine” and then kicks the shit out of you while calling you a “Yankee”).

Griffith defied the Southern stereotype in all sorts of ways. Born and bred in rural Mt Airy, North Carolina (on the Virginia border) he discovered singing, acting and playing musical instruments when in high school and was strongly encouraged by some wise teachers in those pursuits. Later he attended the University of North Carolina. Something clicked into place when I read that he appeared for several years in one of Paul Green’s historical pageants called The Lost Colony. I have yet to blog about Green, an interesting figure whom I learned about through my studies of the Group Theatre. Green’s play The House of Connelly was the Group Theatre’s first production. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I named my play House of Trash. 

In the 50s, Griffith first gained widespread notice as a comedy monologist and storyteller in nightclubs. His 1953 comedy record What It Was, Was Football became a popular seller.

This led to him being cast as the lead in the tv, Broadway and film versions of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants (tv and stage versions were 1955; film was 1958). His character in the story was a cheerful rube and bumpkin, which formed much of the basis for the Andy Griffith spin-off series Gomer Pyle, USMC. 

In 1957, he enjoyed what ought to have been a cinematic breakthrough. He was cast as the lead in Elia Kazan’s amazing film A Face in the Crowd. Written by Budd Schulberg, it’s a political story about a seemingly affable good old boy named Lonesome Rhodes who becomes enormously popular on records, television and in films as a folk singer…but then becomes power mad, not just for success in show business but for political office. He’s a crazy demagogue using the power of television just as Huey Long had used radio a couple of decades earlier. It seems clearly inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who had no such political designs, but might have been a formidable and damaging force if he had. This dystopian vision would see a later incarnation in the 1968 acid nightmare Wild in the Streets. And then, in 2016, the nightmare became true when a ruthless tv reality star became President of the United States, which is why interest in A Face in the Crowd has been increasing over the last several months, just as copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves.

Anyway, Griffith is incredible in it, just an explosion of raw, animal power. People didn’t know what to make of the film at the time; reviews were mixed. In some ways it might have seemed a career killer for Griffith to play a character so similar to himself, and yet so ugly. (For another example, there’s Milton Berle’s 1949 Always Leave Them Laughing, where Berle’s character is a total jerk who seems oddly like…Milton Berle).

Griffith’s electric performance did not lead to a stellar movie career, but Griffith did come to dominate television for three and a half decades. He had a guest shot on Danny Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy in 1960 in which he played a southern sheriff. This led to his own series, (produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard), The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 through 1968 (Griffith left in 1967).

This show (in re-runs) was a major staple in my home when I was growing up. It’s mesmerizing, not just for the terrific writing and acting, but for its level of FANTASY. In a way, it is just as unreal a TV show as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie. It takes place in an idyllic Southern town called Mayberry, North Carolina, clearly based on Griffith’s home town of Mt. Airy. But while it takes place in contemporary times (the 1960s) the town’s quiet, isolated nature feels as though it were happening in much earlier times, decades earlier. People seem to spend all day sitting on porches in rocking chairs, swatting flies, catching fish, having picnics. Most episodes, a stranger will drive into town, stirrin’ up trouble of one kind or another, interrupting the placid stillness of this rural Shangri La.

The only kind of people who DON’T drive up, or live there to begin with, are BLACK people. And this would be exceedingly odd in a North Carolina town, would it not? Furthermore, the entire show aired during the Civil Rights Era, when interracial strife was happening throughout the country. The omission is glaring; it speaks volumes. But the creators of the show were on the horns of a dilemma. More than one actually. This was a time of transition. America was ostensibly past the era of overt, intentional racism in entertainment, the ridiculing of African Americans, the hiring of actors like Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland to be the butt of jokes. And Griffith was a liberal; that wouldn’t have been his style anyway. (He later campaigned for Barack Obama). But, unless you did a period show, there’d be NO WAY to include African Americans without talking about the changes going on in the country (as in later shows like I’ll Fly Away or In The Heat of the Night). And that was far beyond what anyone in tv was ready for at that stage. It wasn’t until the advent of All in the Family (1971) that that line would be crossed. And yet you couldn’t NOT talk about it either! How do you show black people in a Southern town without showing racists? That would be even more of a fantasy! So the solution seemed to be to set the show in an alternate universe where there were NO black people in North Carolina. The unintentional (I think) by-product ends up being just as racist in the long run. The producers didn’t just avoid controversy — they wrote black people out of the story of America. There’s something Orwellian about it.

Griffith said in later years that he was embarrassed about his acting in the first couple of seasons of the show, which hearkened back to the country rube he had played in No Time for Sergeants. But eventually he found his stride, which was, as sheriff, was to be the straight man in a town full of crazies. He kept his cool, and let everyone else in town be the nitwits. In this, he set a template that would be riffed on in many a later show: such as the titular character in Barney Miller, or Alex Reiger in Taxi. The job is to be the sensible guy, who solves everyone else’s problem’s. His genius comedy partner was Don Knotts, whom he’d worked with in No Time for Sergeants. As Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts job was to go overboard, and LOSE his head, and the chemistry and the acting between them was stellar. Other characters included Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), his son Opie (Ron Howard, who became one of Hollywood’s top film directors), Floyd the barber (Hoard McNear), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Goober (George Lindsey), County Clerk, Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), Emmet the handyman (Paul Hartman) and the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and many others. It all adds up to something like Our Town. But we regret that it exists in a parallel universe that only includes Anglo-Saxons. Which I guess means it’s not YOUR town?

Griffith left the show early and very much on purpose so that he could pursue other projects. Other series were tried, and failed. He was in a lot of memorable tv movies, though. He’s in the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice (1973). He played a cop who actually solves crimes in Winter Kill (1974). When he was cast in movies for cinematic release, they tended to cast him as parodies of himself, as in Hearts of the West (1975) and Rustlers Rhapsody (1985). And of course, he became the highly visible pitchman for Ritz Crackers, inspiring the title for this post. We thought that campaign was hilarious when it came out, both for how it played on Griffith’s persona, but also became of the lameness of the slogan. But ya know what? We did imitations of it incessantly — and that is what advertising is all about.

Then, amazingly, his career got another burst of wind when he played a small town southern lawyer in Matlock (1986-1995). This show aired precisely when I was watching very little tv. To this date I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Although, my former brother-in-law, who was a musician in the L.A. area, was hired to play guitar in the background on one episode, and got to chat with the gracious Griffith, who played guitar himself — as if you didn’t know.

Griffith passed away in 2012. His last screen credit was in 2009.

Oklahoma Bob Albright: Cowboy Tenor

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2017 by travsd

That’s him, fairly far down the billing and at Poli’s (the local Connecticut circuit) no less. His act, the ad says, is “characteristic”. Even his hype is unenthusiastic! But that’s unfair, he also played the big time Keith circuit and was well known from record albums and radio

I’ve only managed to gather a few scraps about cowboy singer Oklahoma Bob Albright, who has managed to rise from beyond the grave thanks to his 1929 Vitaphone short Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do Flappers. I find references to him in newspapers from the mid teens through 1952. He is described in old reviews as “magnetic” and “good natured”, with an act that consisted of singing, uke playing and storytelling. Author Timothy E. Wise, in his book Yodeling and Meaning in American Music, postulates that Albright may have influenced Jimmie Rodgers and other country singers by introducing yodeling into Appalachian style music in tunes like “Alpine” Blues” and others.

You see references to him on the Keith Circuit in the teens, but later he seems closely associated with the Pantages Circuit, and later even appears to have managed a Pantages theatre in the Los Angeles area with his father and brother. He was married to Murtle King, daughter of nickelodeon magnate John H. King. When vaudeville died, Albright did lots and lots of radio at least through the 1930s. He appears to have been alive at least through 1952 (I saw a contemporary reference to him that year in Billboard),

I’ve not seen the Vitaphone short, but just about every reference to it I’ve seen uses words like “disturbing”, “uncomfortable” and “un-p.c.”. Now I’m mighty curious!

To learn more about vaudeville and artists like Oklahoma Bob Albrightconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Fuzzy Knight: That Cat’s Alright

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

Probably best remembered today as a western sidekick in B movies, John “Fuzzy” Knight (1901-1976) came to acting through show biz. Surprisingly he started out as  LAW STUDENT (!) at the West Virginia University  and then got waylaid by his love of music. He was a cheerleader at WVU, co-wrote school songs and pep songs (some of which are still in use), and started his own band, in which he played drums. Knight also sang and played several instruments besides the drums, including the bass and the squeezebox. He later played with larger bands and performed in vaudeville, as well. The trail led to Broadway and such shows as Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1927 and Ned Wayburn’s Gambols (1929).

Next came Hollywood starting in 1929. Initially he was in all kinds of pictures at the major studios, but by the mid 1930s they were all almost entirely westerns. The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) and Union Pacific (1939) were major prestige studio pictures and he had good roles in both. In 1940 he was voted one of the top ten western stars as a box office draw. In the 40s and 50 it was mostly B pictures, sometimes as many as a dozen in a single year. Particularly in the earlier films, he sometimes sang in the movies as well. His career lasted until 1967.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Photos from American Vaudeville WWI Tribute/ Metropolitan Playhouse Gala

Posted in American Vaudeville Theatre, AMERICANA, ME, My Shows, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2017 by travsd

April 2017 marks the centennial anniversary of America’s involvement in World War One. April also just so happens to be the time of year when one of our favorite theatres, the Metropolitan Playhouse has their annual fundraising gala. And this year marks their 25th anniversary. On Tuesday April 25 my American Vaudeville Theatre presented their commemorative tribute to 1917…and so doing paid tribute to the Metropolitan besides. Here are some pix of the evening. Few were taken of the actual performance, folks have been sharing a bunch of the before and after.

Yours truly, the M.C., and the post-show ritual

BEN MODEL, one of the nation’s premier silent film accompanists, educators and exhibitors. It was our good fortune to have him at the piano

CHRIS ROZZI and PETER DANIEL STRAUS as Weber and Fields

Parisian chanteuse GAY MARSHALL surrounded by admirers

The cast of Marion Craig Wentworth’s one act play WAR BRIDES (L-R): Morgan Zipf-Meister, Victoria Miller, Amy Overman, Alyssa Simon

victoria

Victoria Miller, whose very NAME signifies Victory for the Allies! 

JONATHAN “HAPPY” SMITH sang English music hall songs

Then we showed Charlie Chaplin’s WWI propaganda film THE BOND, with BEN MODEL at the piano

LORINNE LAMPERT, at the finale of her big George M. Cohan number

Thanks to all who made the night a big success.

Tonight! My Vaudeville Salute to World War One

Posted in AMERICANA, Contemporary Variety, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by travsd

April 2017 is the 100th anniversary of America’s involvement in the First World War. Tonight, April 25 at the Metropolitan Playhouse’s 25th Anniversary Gala  I’m organizing and hosting a vaudeville tribute to the event as the entertainment. We have Peter Daniel Straus and Chris Rozzi as Weber and Fields! Gay Marshall singing Parisian songs of the era! The one and only Lorinne Lampert doing George M. Cohan material! The Two and Only Jonathan M. Smith doing English music hall! A presentation of Nazimova’s famous starring vehicle War Brides directed by Ivana Cullinan and starring Alyssa Simon, Victoria Miller, Morgan Zipf-Meister, and Amy Overman Plowman! and Charlie Chaplin’s The Bond, accompanied by Ben Model! And more! Hosted and interpreted by yours truly Trav SD! It’s going to be a memorable evening — In fact, I remember it already! Tickets, reservations and information all here. 

When Did the Circus Become Un-American? (Keynote Speech, Congress of Curious Peoples)

Posted in AMERICANA, BROOKLYN, Circus, Coney Island, CULTURE & POLITICS, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2017 by travsd

New Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame

This past weekend was the annual Congress of Curious Peoples at Coney Island USA. I was honored to be asked to give the keynote address this year on the topic “When Did the Circus Become un-American?” My speech followed the public unveiling of CIUSA’s new Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame (above). The content of my speech is here. Thanks Norman Blake and Carolyn Raship for photos!

WHEN DID THE CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?

…Before we tackle the main question we should point out, and maybe some of you are way ahead of me, that the modern circus in and of itself per se is NOT by definition American, as much as it pains me to point out.  The modern circus was invented in England by equestrian Philip Astley and later improved upon in America even as it was simultaneously evolving all over Europe. There’s plenty about the American circus that may well not speak to Europeans, and they have the right to their erroneous opinions even as I have the right to my infallible ones. At any, there are plenty of the oldest circuses in the world that have ALWAYS been un-American.

But let’s tweak it a little for clarity – WHEN DID THE AMERICAN CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?

As P.T. Barnum famously said, the American circus hangs on two pegs: clowns and elephants. And all at once, the American public seems to be becoming terrified of clowns, and morally outraged at the presentation of elephants. We’ll get to both directly, but I’m going to broaden it somewhat. As we all know, the American circus is in jeopardy: our largest, oldest and best known circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey is closing in a matter of days. Cole Brothers and Clyde Beatty both seem moribund. Big Apple Circus went bankrupt although some new owners promise to resurrect it this fall. But these recent developments are part of a process, a multi-pronged assault that has been going on for the better part of a century. Different aspects of the American circus have been under attack, sometimes perhaps with justification, but the bottom line is that it hurts the circus. So different aspects became “un-American” at different times, so there will be many different answers.

My first answer (and many of my answers will be contradictory) is that circus became un-American as long ago as a century, when it began to be superseded by new-fangled inventions, better mouse-traps, and lost its age old primacy as often the only entertainment medium for the masses in the hinterlands. It lost an economic competition! What is more un-American than that?  Starting in the 1920s and 3o’s it began losing ground to movies, and radio, then TV, and then to home video, and now to hand held gadgets! Circuses and sideshows died, some survived by merging, and those that survived did so by figuring out that its traditional nature was its very charm. It’s nostalgic, and there’s a market for that, although it’s no longer a universal market. We have niches now. Some people won’t even watch a black and white or silent movie nowadays, while other people are at this very moment rediscovering the joys of old time radio shows over the internet. Once populist, a lot of surviving circus is now elitist, and some could say THAT’S un-American, and I would tend to agree. It’s expensive to attend the big top and a lot of the surviving shows feel a need to be self-consciously artistic in a way that frankly turns my stomach, far more than any amount of popcorn or cotton candy.

Next, the Americana aesthetic has been under attack since the mid-20th century. By that I mean: the tent, the sawdust, the midway, the circus that Toby Tyler ran away to join. My feeling has always been that culture must maintain some tradition even as it evolves. It’s the theme of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: you change, yes, but you don’t throw out the essential parts. To cut the umbilicus that connects us to Barnum, to be tied to nothing emotionally significant, makes the American circus vulnerable to destruction.

My first visit to Ringling was in the mid 1970s. I was about ten years old. And I was enormously disappointed. Not sure what I was expecting. My head was full of circus images from stage, screen, books, old photos, and poster art: Magic and visual poetry. But what I got was something impersonal, corporate, amplified, loud, obnoxious and disconnected from its own history, from any history, and from me. And over the years I felt that whenever I saw their three ring show. So when I read the headline about Ringling’s imminent closure, I wept all morning, but when friends were making plans to see it one last time, I was like, “Nah, I don’t want see that fuckin’ thing.” I cried for the loss of continuity and history and so forth, but the reality was that the things I actually cared about were out of it long before I was born: a steam calliope, a brass band, red white and blue bunting, a tented menagerie, a sideshow. Visually I get more of the circus I’m looking for from the picture on a box of animal crackers than from the Ringling shows.

And not to single out Ringling. You don’t get that stuff much of anywhere. Until recently you got even less of it at Big Apple Circus, whose entire aesthetic scheme: costumes, sets and music seemed really European to me. It had the look or feel of Paris or perhaps dare I say Montreal. It looked insecure to me, as though it were seeking validation from a superior culture. We have no need to do that. CIUSA’s motto: “Defending the Honor of American Popular Culture”.  It is Honorable, it is Valid. As Emerson wrote in “The American Scholar”: “We have listened too long to the Courtly Muses of Europe… We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” But some circus seems to have backslid. So when did a lot of circus become aesthetically un-American? If you equate “American” with Americana, as I tend to: decades and decades and decades ago. 50 years ago.

These decisions I know were made for marketing reasons at a time when the country was changing. These changes were happening everywhere. At around the same time, In the early 1970s, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, all had popular variety programs on CBS, and there were these rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and then some younger executive came in and pulled the plug on them all at once to accommodate fresher, hipper, more topical shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Show. I really love those new shows but there’s something kind of Chairman Mao about feeling a need psychologically to completely eliminate the more traditional programming and wipe it off the face of the earth. That was happening everywhere in music, movies, tv and in the circus. It was like a cultural purge. Is The Beverly Hillbillies the hill I will die on? Actually, yes!

I grant you it’s complicated: 19th century entertainment was not just patriotic, but jingoistic, and even racist and many other things. Maybe trying to separate the patriotic imagery from heinous attitudes at the time, in the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, seemed like trying to separate Siamese Twins. But by burying the traditional visual iconography it lost the connection to its origins. I have zero emotional investment in a circus that lacks those connections. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care if it lives or dies because as far as I’m concerned it’s already dead.

When Cole brothers came here to Coney Island a few years ago, it was quite a shabby show, but it opened with a single lady riding around the ring on a horse, carrying an American flag – I loved the simple, ritualistic, solemnity of it. I decided that shabby as it was it was my favorite circus. That was pretty much what I wanted.

Know that my point isn’t strictly about patriotism; it’s about symbolism. There are plenty of left wing and anarchist circuses I love: Circus Amok, The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the NoFit State Circus. The point is integrity. A large establishment circus that seems to stand for nothing is more like a monster truck rally at the mall than what I am looking for at a circus.

Something else that turned me off during that first visit to the circus, and has never ceased to disappoint me, although I understand it more nowadays – was the existence of safety wires and safety ropes and nets underneath the trapeze and wire walkers. While we’re all smart enough to know there is still a risk in those undertakings even with the safety devices, at some primitive level, I am convinced that these precautions effect the audience psychologically. “So they lack that much confidence, huh? So the guy could do the trick, not do the trick, call in sick and the janitor stands in for him, whatever”. I understand why the measures are in place. Workplace issues, lawsuits, bad publicity or whatever (and some artists still take such risks, the Flying Wallendas recently were hurt rehearsing a trick), but I guarantee at some animal level, to some degree, it effects audience psychology. It’s less impressive, entirely, intrinsically much less thrilling. What is a daredevil with training wheels?! If risk-taking is American, especially risk-taking on OUR behalf, then I leave you to draw your own conclusion about what “safety” is in this context. So whenever they started doing that is another date when the circus became un-American.

That’s aesthetics — So now we come to ethics. And the way Dick has framed the question is interesting: “When did the circus become un-American?”  (note: this talk was prepared at the invitation of CIUSA founder Dick Zigun, who suggested the topic). Because there are actually two conflicting American ethics. One is just as American as the other, and they have been wrestling with each other for centuries, never more so than at the present dire political moment. To put them in circus terms: it’s the Right to Exploit vs. the Right Not to Be Exploited. I have evolved quite a lot on this, and I’ve come to see the light, but God forgive me, purely out of romanticism I used to be 100% pro 19th century circus, which is to say 100% capitalist exploitation in the service of the circus. What is the circus, or what was the circus if not that? The apparatus exists to make its nut. Every single circus movie is about debt and creditors and foreclosures. So much can go wrong: bad weather, townspeople who attack you and chase you out of town, crooked local officials, bad luck: injury, death, sickness, fire. And circus is in the business of presenting living breathing beings as spectacle. Humans and animals are not just your product but also your equipment, your infrastructure. It’s all in the cause of providing amazement to audiences – but it is still a situation where the circus owners own not just canvas, and trucks and trailers but also individuals and creatures. For a time, the circus was the closest thing to a slave plantation there was. Dependent on the circus for food and shelter and far from your point of origin, if you were unpaid or otherwise dissatisfied, it was very difficult to escape. And because everyone agrees that the mission – creating happiness – is Holy, sacrifices are made in its service.

Truth is the first casualty. Entertaining claims of a thousand kinds are made on behalf of the shows and its performers in the form of advertising. And the performers suffer all kinds of privations and discomforts just for a few minutes of glamour and glory each day. And it becomes easy for the impresario to rationalize anything in the name of The Show.

That’s really American. It so American that it might be tempting to call anything else un-American. But the concept of Individual Rights is every bit as American. It’s enshrined in our founding documents, although at first we used to make all sorts of exceptions for African Americans and women and the poor and immigrants and children etc. But progressively we started eliminating the loopholes, and laws were made to protect people and social mores started to change.  And bit by bit these laws came into conflict with things that were uniquely characteristic about the circus. Consumer laws. Truth in advertising! I love food and drug laws but not when they hurt the medicine show! If you can’t claim your tonic is a miracle cure, you might as well pack your sample case and go home! And so it affected the circus in ways big and small, especially the sideshow. If you can’t claim these microcephalic kids from New Jersey are from a missing South American civilization, you are beginning to lose the intrinsic point of the entire enterprise, which is imagination. You need the wiggle room to claim that the seven foot man is a nine foot man!

One of the few cool things RBBB did in the late 20th century was heavily advertise that they were presenting a unicorn. It was a one-horned mountain goat, but it passed muster with lawyers, because well “unicorn” means one horned beast so you can get away with that. And STILL there was controversy and complaint! “Why that’s fraudulent! I thought this was a genuine zoological exhibition presented by scientists!” So some combination of lawyers and the people who use them to sue other people are inimical to the circus arts.

[At this point I produced a glass of water to use as a prop]. Ladies and gentleman, I beg you to direct your attention to this miracle, all the way from the North Pole, this genuine portion of the polar ice cap, exhibited to you in the exact state in which it was found!

And the culture grew so humorless and ill-natured that now you have to advertise in literal language who you are presenting in spite of the obvious fact that everyone knows that Daniel Day-Lewis is not Abraham Lincoln. It’s suddenly quite sinister if you say a 90 year old woman is 200 years old. But it’s very hard to sell tickets to a glass of water!  Puff is extremely American.

But so is muckraking. To flip it, there is the dignity of the performer that needs to be respected and which used to get short shrift as part of that process. The born different and people of color used to get seriously ill-used as part of that process, and by the mid 20th century, the freak show died out. In modern times it’s being reclaimed in a more sensitive way. Is it un-American to respect all people, no matter what they look like? Quite the opposite. But it took a little time to sort out a way to do that in the context of this traditional art form. And now we’ve gone from African Americans being presented as wild men and exhibited as zoological attractions to the Universoul Circus.

Ditched my costume somewhere around here

This eventually led to the expansion of the concept of rights to include animals, and this has proven to be near catastrophic to the art of the circus. To be super obvious, circus is Latin for circle, or ring, that large ring that was devised especially for horses to run around. Eventually this came to include far more exotic creatures from distant climes, such as elephants, apes, lions and tigers, the kinds of beasts people buy tickets especially to see. In a way these became the heart of the circus. Humans had domesticated, trained and exhibited animals for centuries. But starting in the 1970s, the animal rights movement began an unrelenting campaign to end the practice and its manifold forms of documented mistreatment. By recent times the internet and then social media transformed the movement from a fringe cause to one with widespread support, to the extent that sufficient financial pressure could be wielded, finally forcing the major circuses to retire their performing animals or close entirely. (There are still some regional circuses with trained animals, but I would imagine their days are numbered. For example, Kelly Miller Circus and Carson & Barnes Circus, both based in Oklahoma. That’s where they have rodeos and wild west shows, so they might hold out for a while there).

So to return to the opening question: is exploiting animals American? Or is protecting them? I used to work at Big Apple Circus about 20 years ago and I used to become extremely indignant at the hate-mail we would occasionally receive with all of their allegations. (“That’s Mr. Woodcock, he’s not doing what these people are accusing them of!”)  But even without actual torture, you do have to concede that elephants need wide open spaces to be happy, and the minute you realize how unhappy they must be, unless you’re a sadist, all the pleasure goes out of it.

That said, when you take all the animals out of the circus, what are you left with? Much of the thrill and magic is gone. The current touring show Circus 1903 has a wonderful solution, with puppets supplying the missing elephants. I have long thought that circuses could do amazing things with animatronics, and there would be no need to stop at elephants. You could have mastodons. You could have fire breathing dragons. You could have dinosaurs, and there is no need to restrict yourself to the dimensions of actual dinosaurs. Puny things, really. There are ways in which a lack of imagination has been the curse of the circus at least over the past century or so. Presenting the same acts for 200 years!?  That’s one of the things that killed vaudeville! Why shouldn’t it kill the circus? And the application of imagination could be its salvation. Free the animals, enslave the robots. It’s a win/win.

And the subject of imagination brings us to our last topic. A second ago, I asked rhetorically what we’re left with in a circus without animals? (Don’t say Cirque du Soleil. Not a circus, not a circus, not a circus.) But clowns are also under attack! For the past few years there’s been this apparent mass psychosis/ fad involving terror of clowns. When you say this, the clown-phobes are always like, “No, I’ve always been afraid of clowns.” Well, that may be so, but there is a distinct difference between a FIVE year old being irrationally terrified of a children’s birthday clown, and a THIRTY FIVE YEAR OLD needing to be held.

That said, I find the indignation of clowns equally amusing. They always take this tone of, “What do you mean being afraid of clowns, who only bring joy and wonder to the world?” That, too, is a disingenuous self-denial. Anyone who has studied the history of clown, knows that it goes back to the earliest origins of mankind, and it’s always been intrinsically a little scary. That too is part of its function. You don’t put on that grotesque make-up because you want to make people super-comfortable at their familiar surroundings. You’re throwing things off base a little, knocking the globe off its axis. Otherwise there would be no outlandish get-up. You would just be an actor or a stand up comedian! The clown has always been a mix of funny and scary: always. Al Lewis in the Ric Burns Coney Island documentary talks about loving the scary leering face of the Steeplechase Clown over the gates as you walked in.  It’s fun, but it’s also unexpected, otherworldy, abnormal. DESIRABLY so. Otherwise stay home, under the covers.

That said horror and science fiction and even reality started to hit the sinister side a little hard in the 20th century: Batman’s Joker, Stephen King’s It, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and the clown guy Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses. And the music group Insane Clown Posse and their army of Juggalos.  And there’s the fact that serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a children’s clown, and Brian Dennehy played him in that tv movie. But frankly that’s getting to be a cliché. If I see a scary clown, I’m less likely to go, “Oh scary” then “Oh, what a cliché!”

But then a few months ago it was taken up a notch in the “clown sighting phenomenon of September 2016”  When for pranks people started dressing as scary clowns and hanging out in unexpected places like schools and graveyards and scaring people. This account from Wikipedia made me roar with laughter:

“A person in clown attire was spotted in a cemetery in Chicago, Illinois in July 2015. This occurrence involved two residents who spotted the “creepy clown” scaling the gate at the Rosehill Cemetery late at night. After the clown entered the cemetery, he or she turned to face the residents and began waving slowly as they made a video recording. After waving for a few seconds, the clown ran into a dark wooded area and was not seen again. Police investigation of the sighting did not lead to any arrests.”

“Arrests”?! Has no one ever been a teenager? I don’t know how many times I’ve played pranks of that nature. Perhaps a hundred? Like, why do we even know about this? This is a story? That gets reported as news around the world? A kid dressed as a clown was in the graveyard? That is at best a story for your friends at the bar.

And then there was this follow up: “In October 2016, McDonald’s decided that Ronald McDonald would keep a lower profile as a result of the incidents.”

So because of social media, granted there have been hundreds of these incidents, but what’s more intriguing is the widespread panic and terror to the extent that in some places you can’t rent a clown costume and that people who work as clowns have seen a dip in demand for their services.

You don’t have to be some kind of major sociologist to see what’s going on here. One is that this is age of the helicopter parent and the coddled child and now coddled children who grow into infantilized adults. And far more terrifying to me than any losers running around in clown outfits is the idea of all these legal measures empowering police to chase clowns. That is literally a Mack Sennett movie with a tragic ending. And secondly it is an obvious if amusing parallel to living in the age of terrorism, clearly inspired by it and fed by it. “If you see something, say something.” “I saw a clown!” It’s like a parody of the real situation where people are getting really freaked out by people who are different from them in their vicinity and reporting them to police. Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, and that’s not so funny.

I cant help but contrast that spirit with Reverend Billy’s wonderful invocation at the Gala here a few weeks ago, when he sang the praises of Coney Island as the home and haven for freaks, that what the circus teaches us to do is appreciate those who live outside “normal straight society”. Coney Island’s mission again: “defending the honor of American popular culture”. And so my ultimate answer is that in certain ways the circus didn’t become un-American — America has.

 

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