Archive for the Circus Category

Yes, the Big Apple Circus Can Be Saved

Posted in Circus, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , on June 7, 2016 by travsd

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“Can the Big Apple Circus be saved?” asks the New York Times in this piece from the other day. Uh, yeah, if you’re not completely obtuse. They lost a few million in annual revenue in corporate block bookings etc and it seems to be a permanent market change (given that this has been going on for eight years.). The market will not support the size of the organization, so they need to adjust the size of their operation. They’ve already downsized the back office. Now they need to downsize the show. Sell the tent, get a smaller one, and pitch someplace other than Damrosch Park, and I know just where.

In fact, I have too many suggestions to list them all but here a few: 1) Coney Island: as BAC, Ringling, Cole Brothers,et al have all done before. Coney needs a circus out there every summer season, and the natural one ought to be BAC. 2) Brooklyn Bridge Park. The Welsh outfit NoFit State Circus just pitched their tent there and filled the tent the night I was there. 3) Launch a capital campaign to buy a circus building like the ones they have in Europe so you can perform year-round, without labor costs to take a tent up and down and move it. These are just a few  alternatives. I’ve always hated the BAC being at Lincoln Center anyway — it gives off an elitist vibe. I always felt surrounded by millionaires and their “I want a pony just like that one!” children — that’s hardly in the best populist tradition of the American circus.

Is downsizing and moving unthinkable? Uh, no, folding the entire circus just because you’re lame and entrenched and unable to think outside the way you’ve always done things is what’s unthinkable. Crowdfunding to replace corporate sales seems both distasteful (are you really using this democratic medium to replace the mad money once thrown at you by banks?) and a short-term solution at best (what are you going to do next season?) Just downsize and keep going like troupers!

R.I.P. Katherine Dunn

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Circus, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), ME, OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , on May 13, 2016 by travsd
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The rare beauty who identified with those born different

In the sideshow world there are two kinds of human anomaly: the born freaks (your little people, your giants, your conjoined twins, etc) and the made freaks (your bearded ladies, your tattooed people, etc). Katherine Dunn’s imagination brought us something NEW; the made born freak….synthesized through radiation and chemistry. The concept isn’t worlds away from the X Men, only  the superpowers aren’t accidental. And then she mixed it with a good power-jockeying family soap opera, say, Dallas AND a sympathetic touch that helped us find common ground with “the other”. Long about 1989 that made for mighty riveting reading. I had the good fortune to read Dunn’s Geek Love at around the same time I discovered the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, and P.T. Barnum’s memoir Struggles and Triumphs and much else, and it created a perfect storm of carny mania. Pretty much changed my life! The edition I had looked like this:

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So we are saddened to hear that this brilliant and visionary author, who SO plugged in with the zeitgeist has now passed away at the age of 70, another benchmark of the passing era. She sure left this world way better than how she found it.

For a much more thorough appreciation of Katherine Dunn and her impact read my old pal Sheila O’Malley here. 

Stars of Vaudeville #944: Berta Beeson

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Drag and/or LGBT, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Berta Beeson (Herbert “Slats” Beeson, 1899-1969). Billed as the Julian Eltinge of the Wire, Beeson was a cross-dressing tightrope walker. It is not known whether Beeson was gay, straight, trans, or what — it is only known that he dressed up like a woman to do a highwire act.

Originally from Summitville, Indiana, Beeson started out working at his local vaudeville house. He debuted with the Sells-Floto circus in 1917 as “Mademoiselle Beeson, Marvelous High Wire Venus.” When Bird Millman retired from Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey in 1925, Beeson was her replacement. He retired from performing 11 years later, but continued to work for the circus as an advance man. Check it out: there’s an entire blog devoted to Berta Beeson. Read it here. 

To learn more about  old school show biz especially vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Goodybe, Circus Elephants!

Posted in ACTS, Animal Acts, Circus, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on January 17, 2016 by travsd

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Got a press release in my e-mail box a couple of days ago from Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus announcing that they have moved up the retirement of all their elephants from 2018 to May of this year.

I am of two minds about this.  One is this: I am above all about tradition, especially where the American circus is concerned. Circuses are about animals. The ring was especially designed for equestrianism. Back in the day, audiences got their first glimpses of exotic creatures in a circus. Most of my favorite circus memories involve animals. When I got to see the Moscow Circus at MSG about 20 years ago, I formed two lasting memories: horseback riding Cossacks…and bicycle riding bears. And look at the picture above — that’s been the signature finale of RBBB Circus for decade after decade  — I first saw that trick at the Providence Civic Center in 1976. It means something to people. What got P.T. Barnum interested in show business when he was a kid? Old Bet the elephant came to town! What did Toby Tyler do when he joined the circus? Watered the elephants!  A circus without animals is Cirque du Soleil, and I’m sorry — that’s no circus at all.

Add to this the fact that the animal rights people are wackos. Are you one? Sorry! Then they’re all wackos but you. When I worked at Big Apple Circus we used to get these letters, scrawled in crayon, with words underlined and seventeen exclamation points in a single sentence, accusing the organization of the worst, most slanderous and untrue calumnies. People dare to tar an entire, centuries-old field of human endeavor with a single brush, and to sling around the VERY loaded word “abuse”, applying it left and right to an entire industry without any familiarity to who or what they’re talking about. I just saw this headline on PETA’s web site: “Three Rings of Abuse”. Eat me. You’re full of elephant shit. Are there cruel animal trainers? Yes. But if you dare to call Big Apple’s loving and caring Woodcock family abusers of animals, you and I are going to have to step outside. Ima stomp you, and I’ll trumpet loudly while I do it.

Now, I first mouthed off on this subject after Big Apple retired their elephants. (Read that post here). But I’ve also done some other blogging about circus elephants. There’s Jumbo, killed by a train while at work. And there’s Topsy, electrocuted for the public’s enjoyment. And there’s that poor creature I saw at the National Zoo, pacing back and forth neurotically, non-stop, in a space about the size of a New York apartment (New York apartments are small). And you realize that, even if owners and trainers are kind and caring like the Woodcocks, and never hit or poke their animals…well these highly intelligent, very large animals need lots of space, and lots of elephant friends and relatives around in order to be happy. I don’t want them to be miserable for my happiness. I can’t enjoy that. If you put it to me like that…it’s all over, isn’t it? Seems to me a lot of the most heinous human behavior was perpetuated out of this idea of tradition and the “natural order of things”. Slavery, the subjection of women, the class system, etc etc. It’s really a lame justification. The lamest possible actually. So, yeah. The retirement of the pachyderms is a positive development.

The Ringling organization is sending their elephants to their big preserve in Florida, and the very idea of them having some space in which to roam makes me happy. If they would put bleachers all around the park and sell tickets so we could watch it would make me even happier.

In Which I am Related to the Real Grizzly Adams

Posted in AMERICANA, Animal Acts, BUNKUM, Circus, Dime Museum and Side Show, Impresarios, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by travsd

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E’ vero!

I came across this delightful information yesterday when writing up my eulogy of Dan Haggerty of tv’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.  As I wrote yesterday, the character was based on a real gent, whose given name was John Adams (1812-1860). Surprisingly, he turns out to be one of those Adamses, i.e. the same family that gave us Presidents John and John Quincy, maltster and revolutionary Samuel, ambassador Charles Francis, historian/writer/ philosophers Henry and Brooks, and U.S. Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis (III). This is one way I am related to him. The common connection among us all is the ancestor Henry Adams (1583-1646). I am also related to Grizzly Adams on his mother’s side. Her maiden name was Capen. I am descended from that family as well.

Originally from Medway, Massachusetts, Adams began his working life as a shoemaker, learning skills like sewing and leather working that would later be of much use when he became a mountain man. In 1833 he began working as an animal trapper and trainer for a group of menagerie showmen, catching live bears and other creatures in the Northern New England states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Sometime before 1836 he was mauled by a tiger, and retired for a time to raise a family, returning to the trade of shoemaker.

In 1849 he went west for the California Gold Rush. When nothing panned out he became a mountain man, hunting and trapping for a living. In 1853, he captured his first grizzly, named her Lady Washington and trained her to earn her keep as a pack animal. He trapped and trained several more bears and other animals over the next few years, and performed shows as he traveled from place to place throughout the western wilderness.  (One of my most prized possessions is an autographed copy of a novel by none other than Lionel Barrymore. The novel is called Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale, and it is almost certainly inspired by this phase of Adams’ career.) In 1856, he opened the Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco, containing a menagerie of live specimens, as well as taxidermically preserved beasts and other curios. With backing from others he expanded the enterprise under the name the Pacific Museum, while performing with various circuses during the same period.. One of his partners, James H. Hittell, took down notes from Adams’ stories and published it under the title, The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California. Mysteriously, Adams had given Hittel his brother’s name, James Capen Adams, as his own. He had also styled himself William Adams for a time. Like many such frontier characters, Adams was given to a certain amount of flim-flam and hucksterism — something of a far cry from how he was depicted in the tv show. (John Huston’s interpretation in The life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was probably closer to the mark).

In 1860, Adams went into partnership with P.T. Barnum and brought his whole operation to New York City. He exhibited under canvas on Broadway for several weeks, and then traveled in New England with a circus. He died in late 1860, apparently from illness related to injuries he had received years earlier… from grizzlies.

Big Apple Circus: Grand Tour

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, AMUSEMENTS, Animal Acts, Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by travsd

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I’ve been attending the Big Apple Circus nearly every season for 20 years now…and lately every time I go I feel like the show I’ve just seen was the best ever. I’ve wondered aloud whether current artistic director Guilliaume Dufresnoy is one of the reasons I love it so much more now than I did in the ’90s. Now that I’ve seen several editions generated under his watch by various creators and directors I think I can say with some confidence that, yes, Guilliame has something to do with it. I simply prefer the aesthetics of the BAC as it is today….every artistic choice, from the music, to the script, to the costume design, to the scenery and lighting, all speak to me a great deal more than it used to. The show is rendered with more discretion, taste, and (ironically) more tradition. (The acts themselves have always been great of course. Their scouts go to Monte Carlo and other showcases and bring back some of the best circus acts in the world. I’ve never had any complaints about the jewels at BAC; I just never dug the settings).

We were proud to see our homeboys from Parallel Exit sign on to create this show (with Mark Lonergan as director, and Joel Jeske as writer/creator, and director of the clown bits). Downtown representin’! (Except they’ve also performed at the New Victory; they’ve enjoyed legit success for a while now). If you doubt my objectivity, you needn’t. If anything, as someone who also presents vaudeville, I have incentive NOT to be complimentary, and for that matter I have certainly written downright savage reviews of shows containing friends. So you’ll get fair dealing here.

And you can believe me when I say the show is flipping awesome, and I’ll probably go back to see it a second time (maybe on New Year’s Eve; it’s our favorite way to ring in the new year). This year’s show is lean and mean and moves along briskly — so efficiently and economically that perhaps for the first time at a circus I never looked at my watch. As I’ve written here many times, circus isn’t at the top of my list for theatrical forms. My orientation is vaudeville, and ya know what an acrobat is in vaudeville? The opening act. In the circus, acrobats comprise the bulk of the show — even more so now that larger animals are being pushed out. (I have very politically incorrect opinions on that subject, btw). The current show is not only well-curated and full of fast-paced acts, but (as should surprise no one who’s familiar with Parallel Exit’s work) chock full of fast and funny clowning by the duo of Joel Jeske (“Mr. Joel”) and Brent McBeth, (also of Parallel Exit, here billed as “Skip”). The theme of the show is a Grand Tour in the great age of travel (early twentieth century), so the pair are frequently cast as waiters, flight attendants, baggage handlers and so forth. Jeske’s precision, focus and bag of tricks are to die for. As with many great comedians (Oliver Hardy is my favorite example), you love him more for doing what’s expected, rather than surprises. The man is steeped in the ritual of comedy. Favorite moments included a slop act through a porthole, in which Mr. Joel gets doused with bucket after bucket of water — no matter how he tries to avoid it. And then there was a great game of musical chairs. Mr. Joel has rigged it to win, and he still loses. Also he and McBeth do a musical number, the old song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” — this might be the very first time I’ve witnessed singing in the Big Apple Circus, and it was highly welcome.

As was the dancing — the whole cast performed a Charleston in the charivari and in a closing number. As for the acts: Italy’s Chiara Anastasini performed a beautifully lit hula hoop act — the metal hoops acquiring a slinky-like visual effect the more and more she added. Alexander Koblikov juggled in a sailor suit, at one point keeping the impressive number of ten balls (by my count) in the air. International atmosphere was brought by China’s Energy Trio, an acrobalance outfit who looked very young; and the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats. The Belarussian Dosov Troupe did a fairly standard teeterboard act. Muscovite Sergey Akimov did a graceful, beautiful flight on aerial straps (with no safety wire or net from what I could tell).

Jenny Vidbel brought her critters back; dogs for the first act and horses for the second. The dogs fared better (my favorite gag was when they did a restaurant routine, the clown-waiters brought over some wine, and the dog covered his eyes with his paws when he didn’t like the vintage.) Dogs are smart and funny and you get the sense that they are actually performing. Horses are tougher. Originally the entire raison d’etre for the American circus, horses are not very bright and can only learn the simplest of tricks. Their presence under the big top (I feel) is best justified when it’s about the riders. So in this respect, I miss Katja Schumman’s outfit (and even so — the only time I have REALLY been excited watching equestrians has been at the Moscow Circus or at a western rodeo.) But for very small children, for whom the presence of horses is enough — they have horses. I would be more excited by giraffes (Barnum used to have ’em) but at least they have horses.

Lastly — the show closes the first half (as always) with their most exciting act, in this case, the Dominquez Brothers on The Wheel of Wonder (as opposed to the Wonder Wheel) . This act all by itself is worth the price of admission — and I made a lot of noises (yelps, cries, nervous laughter) as these two guys did their death-defying thing on this cray-cray apparatus. Can’t describe it , looks like this:

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As I say, a great show and it flew by. We hope to catch it again before they blow town for their annual tour. Tickets and info here. 

Spotlight on The Last Great Circus Flyer doc & interview with director Philip Weyland

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , on October 23, 2015 by travsd

A new circus doc —

There’s something so inherently fascinating and magnetic the first time I heard the name The Last Great Circus Flyer. It’s one of the seven documentaries playing at TCFF I look forward to the most. The film focuses on Miguel Vazguez, who performed ‘the greatest feat in all of circus history’ during a Ringling performance in 1982. Vazquez’s “Quad’ was a premiere attraction at Ringling Bros., and the largest circuses in Europe until 1994, when, at the apex of his career, Vazquez unexpectedly quit flying.

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Check out the trailer:


TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/23/2015  (10:30 AM)  |  10/25/2015  (7:00 PM)


I had the privilege of chatting with director Philip Weyland about the genesis of the project, approacing Miguel about making it, his opinion about circus as a form of entertainment, and more!

THANK YOU Mr. Weyland for taking the time to share these wonderful and fascinating insights about your film.

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Q: What motivated…

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