Archive for the ME Category

The 15 Most Impactful Movie Experiences of My Early Childhood

Posted in Hollywood (History), ME, Movies with tags , , , on July 13, 2017 by travsd

Apropos of very little aside from the fact that it’s kind of an interesting exercise, I thought I’d search my memories and create this little list of some of the first movies, and first major movies, I saw as a child. I remember most of the encounters quite vividly; young children are highly open to new experiences, so theoretically these movies shaped me in important ways. It’s pretty safe to say they have. It’s fun to try to identify what that is. There is a certain randomness in what one encounters, an element of chance as to what comes your way and is going to become part of your make-up. But I will also observe that, looking over the list, it’s instructive to note how strong a role the taste and judgment of my parents played; about a third of the movies were ones that they endorsed, recommended, praised, approved of, gushed over, and I came to echo their judgment, never wavering in my feelings afterward. Movies hit you on an emotional level. Nothing is more powerful than emotion. My parents also kept a fairly eagle eye on our viewing habits, meaning they exerted on influence on even the things they weren’t endorsing, i.e., they permitted them. Nowadays, kids watch every heinous thing that’s out there. My viewing diet was strictly films that were rated G or, occasionally (and this was pushing it), PG. There’s only one example of a crucial film I saw that was of dubious appropriateness, and that was fairly accidental.

You may be surprised at the relative lack of “comedy classics” on the list. One of the reasons I ended up becoming obsessed with the comedies of the 1920s-40s was that, though I had often heard about them during my childhood and they assumed a kind of legendary status, I didn’t actually have access until them until much later in my teenage years. (As an example of what it was like back then: when I was about 14, one day I saw in the TV Guide that Duck Soup was being played by Channel 56 in Boston, which was a hard channel for me to pull in from my home at the Rhode Island shore. So I first experienced Duck Soup in fragmentary bursts, alternating with snow, receiving mostly the audio portion, and lots of static as I constantly adjusted the rabbit ears. But I’ll always remember which two scenes managed to reach my brain from that experience: Harpo sticking his feet in Edgar Kennedy’s lemonade tank; and Harpo leaving Groucho behind in the motorcycle sidecar). At any rate, I will never lose that feeling of constantly playing catch-up in this department, despite my having seen more of these kinds of films than about 98% of the general public, and many times.  Similarly I didn’t encounter most of the horror classics of the ’30s and ’40s until much later although I certainly read about them in books as a kid.

The films are presented in no particular order, they’re just all movies I saw before I was about ten and made a big impact on me. They’re pretty much a grab bag of all genres. Greater even than my love of comedy comes an even earlier love, a love of movies.

  1. Dr. Zhivago (1965): This was the first contemporary movie I was ever taken to. I was an infant; my parents went to see it at the drive-in. I obviously have no recollection of the experience, but I’ll always feel a special connection to the movie for the reason that it was my first. My parents always spoke highly of the film. It is pretty great. I’ve watched it maybe three times in my adulthood, and once or twice as a kid. I’ll acknowledge that David Lean’s sprawl requires patience, but I’m willing to sit still for this movie periodically. As you’ll note, at least three of the films on this list are of epic length, and I’ve watched them since childhood. Consequently, I was conditioned quite young to tolerate long movie experiences, where the length was called for. At festivals, I’m glad to sit and watch movies for 12, 14 hours at a pop.
  2. The Wizard of Oz (1939): I’ve written about this film so many times there seems little new to say here, but I’ll say it again anyway. It was an annual viewing experience on commercial television from about the age of four. The first time I saw it, I burst it into tears when it was over and could not stop crying, it hit me that hard. I cried for such a long time my parents began to become alarmed. When I got a little older, I dreamed of marrying Judy Garland; she was my Platonic ideal of a “true love”. When I learned she was dead, I dreamed of putting roses on her grave. And while, as I say, there are few classic comedy films on this list, The Wizard of Oz contains MUCH comedy of the classic variety. As we’ve written, nearly every cast member and much of the creative team had been in vaudeville. That, and the character of Professor Marvel, influenced where I was to take the rest of my life, culminating in this.
  3. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) This was my first conscious experience of seeing a movie in a movie theatre, and it’s also the film of dubious appropriateness I spoke of earlier. My babysitter brought my sister and I to see it; she must have known my parents would not have approved, but she obviously just wanted to see the hit movie of the day. So you can not IMAGINE the impact this film had on me, who had never seen a movie in a cinema before: a tidal wave, a capsizing ship, people being burned, scalded, drowned, broken to bits. The copious use of profanity (still new at the time). I still think of it as my second favorite movie (behind The Wizard of Oz). I even named my first dog “Manny” after the character played by Jack Albertson. I blogged about the film a bit more at this post.  My childhood coincided with the great heyday of disaster movies and I became an aficionado of the genre. I would also include Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Airport 1975 and Hurricane on this list, but I don’t want to bog down the entire list with disaster movies. And my post about disaster impresario Irwin Allen is here.
  4. Day of the Dolphin (1973) The second movie in a cinema I saw was also not really for kids. (After a while my parents got wise, hence some of the children’s movies you’ll see below) This movie also made a huge impression. First the emotional impact, when the dolphins are to be set free at the end (I was seven at the time, I didn’t understand why it was happening, and the plot is so preposterous that as an adult one is still unsure), but also, on a purely visceral level, the colors and the textures. The color blue! The sky and the ocean. The sunlight. The undulation of waves in tanks and in the sea. These images etched themselves into my memory in a way I’ll never forget. I’ve blogged about this movie too, it’s here.
  5. The War of the Worlds (1953) This sci fi classic was probably the closest I got to old time horror as a kid. As I blogged here, it was close to the top of my list of favorites. It was shown periodically on TV as a kid, and it was so devastating, so apocalyptic. (That’s a theme through a great many of my favorite childhood films!) As with The Wizard of Oz, I loved the movie so much it pointed me to the original book, which I’ve read many times.
  6. The Ten Commandments (1956), I probably watched this Biblical epic annually every year of my childhood. I was a religious kid. It’s certainly my favorite religious movie. It doesn’t hurt any that it’s saturated with Cecil B. DeMille’s no-holds-barred spectacle and showmanship. I’m planning a full blogpost on this movie for next Easter/Passover season; meantime there’s my Chuck Heston post which talks a bit about it. Those images! Thousands of slaves building pyramids! The Plagues! The Parting of the Red Sea! The Burning Bush! The giving of the Tablets! To me, no other movie remotely captures the story of Moses as effectively as this one, in spite of some flash elements like having the smoldering Anne Baxter as Moses’ love interest! No regrets there! And, as with Wizard of Oz and War of the Worlds, my love of the movie drove me to the source literature. As a kid, I re-read the book of Exodus many times (I read the rest of the Bible too but not as much as Exodus). I was fortunate also in having my dad’s old Classic Comics Illustrated version of the story of Moses, which was very much akin to experiencing the film version.
  7. Gone with the Wind (1939) My experience of this classic film came slightly later than the others on this list, but it had the same kind of impact. It was shown for the first time on television with great fanfare in 1976, when I was ten years old. It aired over two evenings, and had been so hyped by my parents that my sister and I watched with enormous avidity. My father was from the South; we were steeped in the lore of the Lost Cause. And my mother was in it for the romance, obviously. My parents were both too young to have seen the film on its original release. The movie was such a blockbuster, it had been re-released to cinemas to 1942, 1947 and 1952, and they had obviously caught it during one of those tours. We’ve written about the problematic racial aspects of the film on other occasions, and will again. But, again, as in many of other favorite films, as a child we loved the spectacle: the burning of Atlanta, for example, and the image of the great pile of moaning, wounded me will always be haunting.
  8. Shane (1953) This was my dad’s favorite movie, and I got to see it once or twice as a kid when they played it on tv. I’m sure I’ve been asked a few times what my favorite western is (I’m been working on a long-term western project) and I’m sure I fumbled for an answer. But it hit me the other day — duh! This is it. In fact, it was that realization that led to me drawing up this list. This movie packs a heavy emotional impact at the end when Shane, whom everyone idolizes, says goodbye for good, and Joey keeps calling his name but he won’t turn back. That’s nightmarishly powerful to a kid. And that stark, empty wilderness on all sides of the farmhouse — the imagery is dreamlike. I know I’ll write more on this at some point.
  9. The Gold Rush (1925) This Chaplin masterpiece is the only classic comedy film I saw early enough in my life to have had the same kind of seismic impact as most of these other movies I’ve listed. I saw it at my school, and I’ll assume they screened it around the 50th anniversary when I was about ten? Although it feels like I was younger than that. I wrote about in my introduction to my book Chain of Fools, and in this blogpost here.
  10. Rumplestiltskin (1955) After getting wind of The Poseidon Adventure and Day of the Dolphin, my parents insisted we only attend rated G children’s matinees. So I vividly recall this one, as one of the earliest we saw. I’m pretty sure this was the version, which is in German, with dubbed dialogue. I can still remember the little person in the title role, and even the tune to the magical jingle he sang, and vividly recall his angry tantrum at the end.
  11. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) This, too, from our children’s cinema phase — and a first run movie, no less! With visual effects by Ray Harryhausen, there were MANY memorable visual takeaways from this. The most vivid impression on me was made by the Six Armed Goddess Kali, and a one-eyed Centaur. And, as with Day of the Dolphin, the blue, blue ocean.
  12. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) Though I’m old enough to have seen this classic when it was first run at the cinema, I’m certain my first experience was a couple of years later on television. I became a devotee of Roald Dahl’s book as well. God, how I would love to play this character (in this version — Tim Burton’s remake isn’t worth talking about).
  13. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) — blogged about this powerful kid’s movie here.
  14. Haunts of the Very Rich (1972) — a tv movie of the week I guess I just happened to see, one that I found very powerful at my young age. It anticipates the arc of Lost three decades earlier, and was very excellent tv actors in key roles. I blogged about the film here. 
  15. The War of the Gargantuas (1966) Yes! The War of the Gargantuas! For some reason now lost to me, this Japanese monster movie was shown with great fanfare on prime time tv when I was in 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade (circa 1973 or 74). I seem to remember all the kids talking about it. The climax had these two giant monsters, the Green Gargantua and the Brown Gargantua, in mortal combat amongst the skyscrapers of Tokyo. I can conjure the image of their faces at a moment’s notice. Naturally many Godzilla, Mothra and Gamera movies would follow on weekend afternoons, but this was my first engagement with this type of movie.

I cut it off here artificially, of course. I’m already thinking of others. Must. Stop. I’m going away now! Thanks for reading!


My New Cultural Tourism Blog

Posted in ME with tags , , , , , , , on May 30, 2017 by travsd

As promised I’m making big changes at Travalanche — close to 3,000 posts have been removed. Most were disposable and have been/will be trashed. Others are being moved on to other blogs. So here’s the first of the new ones. The Trav-a-log ( is where I’m putting all of my posts related to cultural tourism. Most of it has a historical bent, but not all. For the time being, some stuff with a show biz angle (e.g. the Houdini Museum) is remaining on Travalanche. The Trav-a-log is for our trips to other cities and countries, historical museums, monuments, re-enactment culture, ceremonies, parades and festivals, and notable restaurants with a historical angle. I wish I’d had this idea before, there would have been a lot more posts! As it is I start with 57 — there will be many more.  There may well be tons of overlap in the readership of these blogs but it won’t be total — I get the sense that some people only want the show biz content, but this sort of material means just as much to me, and I imagine some friends might be interested. There’ll be some dead links and other confusion in the transitional period, but this already seems to make more sense than the old concept of a monster-blog that does everything.

Celebrating 50 Years of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2017 by travsd

Nick Viselli and Everett Quinton During Our Recent Interview at the Tick Tock Diner

This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Our most avid readers know this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I have blogged previously about the company’s founder Charles Ludlam; about frequent Ridiculous collaborator Ethyl Eichelberger; about the company that Ludlam’s broke with, John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous; about performance artist Penny Arcade, who got her start in Ridiculous productions; and about Charles Busch, who had an early affiliation with the company. The Ridiculous cast a long shadow; major artists who acknowledge the company’s influence include Bette Midler (who is also not incidentally a vocal fan of my book No Applause); John Waters, and his core cast members, such as Mink Stole; as well as Jennifer Miller’s Circus Amok; and Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA.

And yes, your humble correspondent. Most of my plays owe something to Ludlam and the Ridiculous and I usually give a shout-out where its due. (I confess I even got involved with a woman once, seduced largely by her former ties to the legendary company). It was the thrill of a lifetime when Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s successor as company artistic director and long time company member, appeared in my play Horse Play, or The Fickle Mistress at La Mama two years ago. Everett was generous enough to join me recently, along with Nick Viselli of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, to discuss their 50th anniversary celebrations and revival of Ludlam’s last play The Artificial Jungle for Chelsea Now. Read my article here.

We’ll likely be blogging lots more about this auspicious occasion, so stay tuned!

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


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 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.

When is a Dead End Not a Dead End?

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2017 by travsd

Riddle me this: when is a Dead End not a Dead End? Answer: when it’s Sidney Kingsley’s seminal 1935 play, being given an invigorating new revival by the Axis Company. I wrote about the original phenomenon of the play and its 25 year aftermath in this piece about the Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids.  My feature about the new production at Axis is here at Chelsea Now. 

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!


…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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