Archive for the Circus Category

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.

Yes, the Big Apple Circus Can Be Saved

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


“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

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:


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


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.


Goodybe, Circus Elephants!

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


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.

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