Archive for the Circus Category

Some More Circus and Variety News

Posted in Circus, Contemporary Variety with tags , , , , on February 15, 2017 by travsd

So much circus and variety news lately, this may have to become a regular feature!


Much Circus News This Week!

Posted in Circus, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd


Just a few oddments of circus news I’ve gotten in recent days, so it made sense to loop ’em together.

  • As we wrote here, the Big Apple Circus went under earlier this year. As reported by the Wall Street Journal yesterday the good news is that Compass Partners LLC has purchased the BAC’s assets at auction earlier this week and the circus will live on in some new form, perhaps even under the same name. Read the full article here. 
  • Good news for lovers of circus history. Illinois State University’s Milner Library is digitizing 300 circus route books from its Circus and Allied Arts Collection and making them available online. Read the full article in Smithsonian Magazine here.
  • Five members of the Flying Wallendas were badly injured Wednesday when they fell off a high wire while rehearsing their eight person pyramid with the Sarasota Circus. Say a prayer for the swift recovery of these brave performers! The story is here. 
  • The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will be coming to Brooklyn for the last time in just two weeks. They open at the Barkleys Center on February 23. Tickets for their two week farewell engagement will undoubtedly go quickly. You can get them here.
  • Some news from Coney Island USA. Their annual gala, a “Coral Jubilee” celebrating the 35th year of the Mermaid Parade, will be on March 25. I’ll be the keynote speaker at their annual Congress of Curious People, April 21. My topic: “When Did the Circus Become Un-American?”
  • Lastly, as those in the know know, the theme of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival is Circus Arts. Our good friends at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus have been invited to participate. But they need your help! The unplanned trip to bring their show down to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is by definition un-budgeted for. You should help support them in any case (with the ancient art of circus in precarious danger everywhere you turn), but now’s a particularly good time to send some coin to the Bindlestiffs. Do so here.

R.I.P. Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus

Posted in Circus, OBITS with tags , , , , on January 15, 2017 by travsd
Hartford Circus Fire, 1944

Hartford Circus Fire, 1944


That’s what you yell when the circus is in trouble, when it’s all hands on deck, when it’s time to start a bucket brigade, or pull up stakes, or generally come to the aid of your family, which means everyone else who works at the circus. The news this morning, that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will be folding up for good in May hit me like a ton of bricks — as I just tweeted it feels like I’m on an elevator plunging 50 floors. While I may frequently knock the contemporary incarnation of the RBBB, I hope I’ve always made one thing clear…the Greatest Show on Earth is THE tent pole of American show business and even its theatre. It has been around that long. This is like a long line of grandfathers all dying at the same time. The organization itself is 146 years old, but the producers whose names are in the title were operating long before that. P.T. Barnum’s name has been above a title in show business somewhere for 181 years! The fact that this is happening at the same time as America’s Constitutional government is being dismantled feels symbolic, a mirror image. Everything we have ever known seems to be flying out the window. But as RBBB did so many times before, after the 1944 fire, and in the 1970s when the Feld Family re-invented it for the modern age, I think it is up to us to keep the show going. The show must go on. It is up to us, in whatever way we can do it. We MUST keep the best of our cultural traditions alive for our children.

I’ll be writing a much, much longer tribute to this important American institution and put it up when they go away for good in May. Mean time, you can refer individual posts I’ve written on P.T. Barnum, the Ringling Brothers, James A. Bailey, and various aspects of the show itself. Today I feel immense sadness, a bit of fear (untethered, in a way, in freefall), but also resolved to address this somehow.

Barry Lubin Becomes the First Clown to Clown on Seven Continents

Posted in Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd


In the midst of so many horrible precedents, and history being made in so many undesirable ways, something truly amazing happened. The great Barry Lubin, best known as the Big Apple Circus’s “Grandma”, became the first clown in history to have performed on all 7 continents. I want to be able to claim that he was also the first professional clown to perform in Antarctica but I’m not certain if that’s true (hundreds of people go down there annually to work now, and thousands of tourists visit annually on cruises). But I’m certain Lubin’s the first clown of such major stature to do so. The word “wonder” gets thrown around too much in the circus game, but this for once is a novelty that will put a spring in my step for some time. Thanks, Barry! This is in the great Houdini tradition, just going out in the world and doing something plum amazing to give the public a boost — just when we needed it the most.

Klinkhart’s Troupe of Midgets

Posted in Circus, German, Little People with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd


I stumbled across this image the other day and got curious. I could only find a few facts: this troupe of little people was managed by German born Oscar Klinkhart (ca.1897-1975). They were with with the Al G. Barnes show between 1926 and 1931. According to some sources, they were later with Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and got stranded near Riverside, California ca. 1936, where they founded one of the many legendary “Midgetville” communities. Later Klinkhart retired to Logsden, Orgeon.

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

Circus Amok 2016!

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Bearded Ladies, Circus, Comedy, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dime Museum and Side Show, Jugglers, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on September 12, 2016 by travsd


We were fortunate to catch opening day of Circus Amok’s 2016 touring season yesterday at the Abrons Arts Center. It’s a more stripped down, lean and mean show this year, with a smaller cast and fewer sets, elaborate masks, or costumes (and, I believe, a shorter show).

I hope I won’t get in trouble by saying I liked it BETTER. This kind of cut-to-the-chase brevity, simplicity, and economy is a vaudeville VIRTUE, and that’s what I saw yesterday. One act in particular, mixing opera and two performers playing the same accordion, was a BOFFO vaudeville turn. Another act — the sight of artistic director, star, m.c. and woman-with-a-beard Jennifer Miller escaping from a straightjacket to the tune of the old disco hit “I Will Survive” — made me weep at the sheer beauty of it, even though I’d seen it many times before! And weeping is vaudeville (it certainly isn’t burlesque, sideshow or circus). And yesterday WAS September 11 — I imagine I was subconsciously mining every particle of pleasure out of the show I possibly could. I enjoyed it that much. And that’s vaudeville, too. It was either vaudeville or sunstroke. (The concrete outdoor amphitheater at Abrons is like sitting at the focal point of a solar panel.)

But cooler weather is upon us! And Circus Amok will be playing (for free!) at a public park near you (if you live in New York City) through September 18. The full schedule is here.

And now some more pictures!

This very funny ringer did walkaround. It says something about New York that it took me a second to make her as a clown. I've seen crazy people on the street with this much powder or white cream on their face at least 3 dozen times

This very funny ringer did walkaround. It says something about New York that it took me a second to make her for a clown. I’ve seen crazy people on the street with this much powder or white cream on their face at least 3 dozen times. Anyway, she got the whole crowd to yell and scream, which is very fun, because you couldn’t help picturing what people on the sidewalk must have thought as they were walking by

Balancing the ladder on her chin was plenty impressive, but I couldn't resist wishing a little person would appear and clamber up the ladder and jump onto that nearby balcony

Balancing the ladder on her chin was plenty impressive, but I couldn’t resist wishing a little person would appear and clamber up that ladder and jump onto that nearby balcony

No lions were harmed during the production of this circus

No lions were harmed during the production of this circus

R.I.P. Big Apple Circus

Posted in Circus, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, OBITS with tags , on September 8, 2016 by travsd


I will take it as a sure sign of the un-momentousness of the news in our headline when (as they inevitably will) people respond to this when I post it with remarks like “What-? When did this happen? That’s terrible!”

Because it is not breaking news. The New York Times reported its closing in July, about six weeks ago, and reported that it was seriously in danger of closing in early June — three months ago. If it truly mattered to New York, or the nation, or the world, as it ought to have done, the public outcry would have been tremendous — unstoppable. Instead it drew its last breath like a vagrant in a flophouse, ignominiously and obscure: “Where’s Old Pete? I haven’t seen him around lately.” “Oh, didn’t you hear? He died — about six years ago. They say he was drunk and fell asleep on the railroad tracks.”

This pops into my head this morning for a couple of reasons. One is that I heard the other day, from someone who should know, that it’s not just the big top that’s been put to bed, but also their community programs (like the hospital clowns and so forth), which they had promised to keep alive. File this under “unsubstantiated rumor” for the nonce (since the Circus hasn’t made any announcement on the subject) but it comes from the most creditable sources. (But either way, though those programs are wonderful, I’m not sure what a circus is without a big top). And also…here we are post-Labor Day, long about the time I usually start getting press releases and such about the fall season, which normally opens at Lincoln Center in October. And this year, for the first time in my professional life, I didn’t.

They really ought to fix their web site, which blithely gives the impression that everything is hunky-dory. But sadly, it’s a sort of echo, a ghost page.

I’ve made no secret of my ambivalence about the BAC over the years, both artistically and administratively. It’s why I’m not as sad about this turn of events as I ought to be. Objectively, I owe everything — or at least much — to the Big Apple Circus.  I worked in the development department there roughly from 1994 through 1996, first as a free-lance grant writer, then as a receptionist, then as a membership assistant, and then the membership manager. My friend Trisha Smith was their corporate fundraiser, she gave me the opportunity there (and other places, too. To her, too, I owe much). I worked under Eva Brune, a wonderful mentor, who remains a good friend. She taught me much about fundraising, but I also worked closely with the staff of every single other department and found myself studying every aspect of the organization: the marketing, public relations, ticket sales, the finance department, and of course the show itself. That’s what inspired and enabled me to start Mountebanks and the American Vaudeville Theatre, which eventually led to things like my book No Applause. And I made dozens of lasting friends there, including both my colleagues in the back office, and those performers — all those clowns and magicians and sideshow artists, my oldest friends from among that set were people I met through Big Apple Circus.

Still, I find myself dry-eyed and unsentimental. As I’ve written a few times, I was never crazy about the show itself. While I’ve absolutely LOVED the last couple of editions (ironically), for most of its life, when it was guided by its founding artistic directors it felt to me precious and frou-frou and “European”.  Everything about its aesthetics offended me: the costumes, the music, the graphic design. It always seemed calculated to impress somebody else, somebody somewhere else. Mostly, it struck me as a circus for rich little girls, the daughters of its millionaire board members, all unicorns and rainbows and magic chimes. It was a circus for Eloise, not Toby Tyler.  Yes, they toured the outer boroughs but still, I thought the fact that their annual Manhattan run was ensconced at Lincoln Center, wedged between the opera house and the ballet theatre, spoke volumes. This isn’t a true populist organization; this is a plaything of the elites. And yes, they had their community programs and so forth, but they only ever had one foot in that. What does it mean to be about THE PUBLIC? Are you down here with us? Or do we have to walk down a shining corridor to visit you on your throne? If they had truly become indispensable to the public, they wouldn’t have needed those millionaire board members.

When I was there twenty years ago, as inexperienced as I was, I could tell that they were administratively bloated — overstaffed, overly generous, overly profligate. There seemed to be an office party every week. I got something like a month of PATERNITY leave when my son was born. Was I glad to get it? Hey, of course! All I’m saying is that I am not shocked that an organization run that way has money problems.

Yet, it was a New York institution. We all thought of it that way. Its legacy is enormous. Acorns (apples) off its tree? There must be tens of thousands…if we’re counting every person who was inspired by it, invigorated by it, whose life was changed by it. My anger (the anger that seems to be standing in the way of any sorrow or nostalgia) stems chiefly from that. It’s a betrayal, a let-down, that amount of fuck-uppery. And then, in the end, having shot themselves in the head, the apparent indifference of management: to CLOSE it, rather than reinvent it in some more modest form so that it will continue to survive, or keep it on life support. It’s closing clearly because its founders are long gone, so no one there has the necessary degree of emotional investment in it. If it had been done right, the PUBLIC would have had that degree of investment. What a waste.

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