Editor’s Fanfare Vol. I, no. 7

Random Thoughts of Then and Now.

 

Troy Wunderle

Of all the jobs in the circus world the one I would most like to have is Troy Wunderle’s.  He gets to be creative,  making a new circus each year with his associate Jesse Dryden, and then he also gets to perform and enjoy contact with the audience, getting immediate feedback for his work, not only as a performer but as a creator as well.  This is not a matter of ego.  It is a policy established 25 years ago, when founder Rob Mermin filled both roles.  In addition ot providing an anchor to the performance, Rob, and now Troy also make it a point to mingle with the audiences at intermission.  The kids in the audience love to come up, a bit awe-struck and meet him and tell what they like best about the show.  That’s really having it both ways.  What luck!

 

My library shelves have been bulging lately with over-sized circus books.  Looking at them stacked up lying on their side it has occurred to me that circus books don’t seem to be designed to be read.  Instead they seem intended to be flipped through casually, looking at the photographs and occasionally dipping into a passage or two of text here and there.   A lot is lost when the  text gets so little attention, but  unfortunately the size and shape of so many circus books  seem calculated to help reader’s ignore the text and focus on the photos.

Recent examples have been the new Smirkus book (reviewed on the Book Review page) , the giant ten-pound Taschen book, the history of the circus in Australia, and the Strobridge poster book.    It is difficult to imagine any of these books being read on an airplane, train or subway, or, for that matter, in bed.  Too unwieldy.  You have  to sit down with one of these books lying before you on a table.  How often do we assume that posture when reading?  It is especially difficult to imagine  how the publishers of the Taschen book intended it being used.

These new books are hardly unique.  My library shelves are filled with over-sized circus books going back many years and coming from various sources.  Many of these books are commemorative issues, celebrating anniversaries and past achievements.  What are we to make of this tradition of bigger and bigger books?    Do publishers and circuses themselves assume circus fans are not readers?

 

While traveling this summer I have been listening to the audio tape of the 1955 production of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  Just by listening to the changes in tempos and the  style of the musical accompaniment for each act, it is not too difficult to envision what the performance was like and how it progressed.  From this exercise the thing that struck me most strongly is the differences in pacing and tempos  between a circus performance more than half a century ago and the circus performances of today.  This was most especially noticeable in the music accompany used for Unus’ center ring performance.  Unus’ act ran about seven minutes, with nearly three minutes of his time in the ring  devoted to his opening trick, the one finger stand.  No single trick takes that long to execute.  A good deal of those three mnutes were devoted to selling the trick: displaying the gloved hand, the single digit and finally removing the glove and slapping it against his other hand so suggest there was no hidden support in his glove.

I have seen several other people do this trick in the years since Unus astounded the world.  Somehow it never seemed all that astounding anymore, and its wasn’t just because we had seen it before, it was because none of the latter artists took the time to sell the trick (and trick it surely was) as carefully and slowly as Unus did. In their desire for speed and constant change circus directors of today have forgotten or ignored the power of deliberate, unrushed pacing.

About the only acts today that are allowed to establish and maintain a slow, deliberate pace are the statue acts, which  works to their benefit by allowing audiences the time to digest what they are seeing and fully appreciate it.

One of my favorite sections from this audio performance is the music used for the elephant manège “Mama’s in the Park.”   This act runs nearly twelve minutes, but once again, judging by the musical accompaniment, which is filled with changes in tempo, musical styles and various tunes related to babies and the park, we can tell that there were many changes in the kind and style of action involved in the number.  It even has several musical jokes.    It is a delight just to listen to.  Imagine it with Miles White amusing costumes, the herd of fifty elephants, many of whom were babies being pushed around in carriages, and it is easy to conclude that it must have been among director Richard Barstow’s finest pieces of work.

And  speaking of changes in the circus,  of all the change progress has wrought upon the circus, I lament most the loss of the sawdust.  Rubber mats may be practical, but they have no magic.

Although it has been many years since I last saw an entire arena covered with colored sawdust, I am still haunted by a particular vision I hold dear from my childhood’s circus.   It is, of course, an image from my annual visit to The Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, in New York City’s old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. And it was the single most exciting moment of the entire experience, my first glimpse of the arena.

Since I always attended a matinee, I made sure I arrived at the Garden well before the one o’clock opening of the front doors, at which time I would be swept along by the first surge of the eager crowd through the rotunda and down the basement stairs to the menagerie.  After feeding peanuts to the elephants and checking out the othere animals, I made my way up to my seat.  Then, as I rounded a corner ramp that lead to the mezzanine level, there it was.  Bang! Wonderland!   That moment, that sight was about as close to a heart stopping experience as anything I have ever known.

My strongest sensory memory of the circus is, of course, olfactory.  I would barely have turned the corner to descend that long flight of wide stairs into the Garden basement where the animals were quartered when I was stunned by the odor.  Contrary to what most people felt about what they described as “the smell” to me it was an exotic perfume to be savored.

But if the menagerie assaulted one’s nostrils, the arena, with its expectant, almost reverential hush at this time, a half  hour before the show got under way, teased the imagination and enchanted one’s vision. Anything was possible in such a setting.   I sat there drinking in its heady atmosphere in great gulps.  Studying the patterns of the rigging, the colors of the sawdust and the decor, my nostrils still filled with the heady smells of the menagerie I had just left, I was transported.  And it was mainly the sawdust that did it.

The circus’ sawdust, although it resembled that which was produced by my father’s wood-working lathe, was different in one very important way.  The circus sawdust was colored.  The sawdust that covered the rings was tinted golden yellow and the track a cherry red on one visit.  Turquoise and indigo blue on another.  The combination of colors was always a surprise and a source of delight.  Burnt orange and magenta.  Raspberry and hyacinth blue.

The ring curbs were decorated, usually in a geometric motif that was duplicated and enlarged upon around the arena’s perimeter and in the bunting that hung from the mezzanine and balcony railings, so that the eye was completely captivated no matter where it  might wander as one waited for the silent entrance of Emmett Kelly and his broom.  An errant spotlight always found him the moment he stepped foot onto the track, and as it did, the sawdust suddenly leapt into vivid life, and a magic circle was created, much as it was for me once again at Circus Smirkus as I note in the opening of my review of their new show Topsy Turvy Time Travel, which appears on the “Passing Spectacle” page.

 

The Olympics have grabbed our attention the past few weeks.  Ever wonder what happens to these exquisitely trained athletes after their competitive careers come to a close?  Many of the gymnasts, swimmers and divers, end up working for Cirque du Soleil.  More information on that phenomenon can be found on the FYI page.