Jewish Journal


July 26, 2007

Big fun under the big top


When I heard that the circus was coming to town, I couldn't wait to take my daughter. I'm talking about the Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, appearing in Orange County until Aug. 5.

I know that Cirque du Soleil has its fans -- but I find it too frou-frou, self-consciously artistic and pretentious, which may seem strange given all my own pretensions and affectations, but I can never make heads or tails of the incoherent pseudo-narratives of love and loss they thread through their shows. It may be impolitic to say so, but I go to the circus for the animal acts: the lions, tigers and elephants, even the acrobatic dogs. I still recall with pleasure seeing the famous dancing bears of The Moscow Circus. I remain a sucker for the high-wire acts, the trapeze, the human pyramids and, yes, the human cannonball, which still thrills me. This is what I was eager to share with my daughter.

circus elephantDuring my childhood, Ringling Bros. made regular appearances at the old Madison Square Garden and we went often. My father loved parades and he loved the circus (I think his first girlfriend may have been a circus performer in Poland).

One highlight of my childhood was when I got to go "backstage." My best friend in second grade, Bill Doll, Jr., had a father who was a legendary PR man, whose clients included Ringling Bros. We got to pet the elephants. I haven't seen or heard of Bill Doll in many decades, but I can't go to the circus without thinking of him.

Today, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus makes the "backstage" approach available to everyone in their free "All Access Pre-Show," where ticket holders can come down to the arena floor an hour before the show to meet and greet some of the performers, participate in juggling and face painting and watch the elephants paint their own works of art.

I had read that Ringling Bros. was getting rid of their three rings and adding a narrative to their shows to better compete with Cirque du Soleil as well as more intimate shows such as the Big Apple Circus -- but that was not true of the show I attended at Staples Center.

This was the "Bellobration" show, which pivots around Bello the clown. Bello Nock, whose trademark blond hair stands on end, is part Harold Lloyd, part Pee-Wee Herman and is both acrobat and clown. Early in the show there was some attempt at a story line involving his affections for aerialist Erendira Wallenda, but that faded quickly, as the successive acts took hold in three-ring glory. Thank goodness.

The show itself has been modernized with the addition of a JumboTron, on which Bello appears in humorous prerecorded segments and which shows close-ups of the acts. Ty McFarlan, the ringmaster, has been less successfully updated: no top hat and no whip, and at one point he wore a costume that looked like he just came from a Star Wars convention -- some things should hew to tradition.

Now for the animal acts: Cesar Milan would have no problem with the way Chilean Tabayara Antonio Maluenda de Campos (Taba) dominated his tigers, putting them through their paces in the caged ring. The white tigers on their hind legs were a fearsome sight. The Zotovas from Russia had dancing and prancing dogs, while the Olates from Chile had a fast-paced performance of acrobatic pooches who alternatively impressed and made you laugh; the Schwichtenbergs, Bulgarian natives, lead their Arabian, Fjord and Friesian horses and their zebras through paces that showcased their animals' beauty, grace and elegance. Finally, the elephants made several appearances, including a finale where they stood on their hind legs on platforms, their front legs resting on each other in a conga line of gargantuan proportions.

At this point, I should mention that animal rights activists have for some time targeted the circus -- there were a handful of protesters outside the Staples Center. Ringling Bros. in no way avoided the issue; to the contrary throughout the show, in their programs and in all their public and press materials, they went to great length to discuss their animal care and preservation approach.

And now back to the show: In the air, we watched the flying Poemas, originally from Argentina, doing multiple somersaults; brothers Alberto and Mauricio Aguilar from Mexico performing great tricks on two parallel wires; Erendira on the sway pole, and her husband Nikolas Wallenda (son of the Flying Wallenda family) performing on "The Wheel of Steel," a Thunderdome-type contraption that spins like an amusement park ride, except that Wallenda is powering it by running on its outside.

Back on the ground, the Zunyi Troupe of Chinese contortionists assembled and reassembled themselves in mind-boggling human pyramids while the Ringling Bros. International Dancers -- the circus' version of Rockettes or Lakers Girls -- offered some glitz and eye candy for adults; the clowns performed a succession of routines throughout the program that my daughter enjoyed heartily (although I did miss the classic clown car and ambulance routines). The show's finale included Tina and Brian Miser of Peru, Ind., self-taught human cannonballs flying together out of a cannon Brian had custom made.

About now, you may be wondering, as my readers frequently do: What possible Jewish angle will there be to this column? Good question.

When I called Andy Perez, a Ringling Bros. spokesperson, to ask if there were any current Ringling Bros. performers who were Jewish or who came from Jewish circus families, he referred me to Jennifer Becker of Foundry Ink, his local publicist who was unable to locate any Jewish members of the show.

Perhaps Jewish circus performers have gone the way of Jewish boxers -- a profession that flourished as part of an outsider, immigrant experience but that disappeared as Jews gained increased acceptance into white collar professional class and society in general. This is too bad, as Jews have a long history with the circus. The circus is generally thought to have started in Roman times ("pane et circum"), when Jews were free in Rome -- but Jews avoided performing then whenever possible, as the original lion acts led to a high attrition rate among the human performers. In the Middle Ages, there was no formal circus but rather itinerant troupes of entertainers who often accepted Jews into their ranks. It was not until the 19th century in Europe that circuses as we know them today became popular -- and Jews were often owners and performers. One of the most famous Jewish circus operators was Albert Solomonsky, who founded the Nikulin Moscow Circus in 1880, which exists to this day. In 1888, he built the Riga Circus in Latvia, featuring the weight juggler Mifort Treyem (born Treyfem Meyer).

According to Marline Otte's "Jewish Identities in German Popular Entertainment, 1890-1933" (Cambridge, 2006), circuses provided Jewish performers and businessmen social mobility out of provincial ghettos, and many circuses came to rival leading theaters in their opulence. It was, in two simple words, "show business."

For many Europeans the circus represented a popular art rather than an elitist one. Its performers were regarded as artists, and some of its showmen were legendary.

William Breitbart, a prominent psychiatrist at Sloan-Kettering in New York, speaks proudly of his forebear the Polish circus strongman Siegmund (Zishe) Breitbart, known as "the modern Samson," and has even written an essay in an academic journal about visiting Zishe Breitbart's grave in the former East Berlin.

The Moscow Circus was so impressive that Lenin would come to hail the circus as one of the most important "arts" in revolutionary Russia (along with film).

In this country, carnivals and circuses attracted Jewish performers and entrepreneurs from both immigrant and established families. There was Paul Lewis (born Rosenberg) of the Lewis Bros. Circus in Michigan and Sy Rubens of Rogers Bros. Circus. Among circus performers, Abe Goldstein, who worked for Ringling Bros. and a number of other circuses, was regarded as "the Greatest Irish Cop Clown" in the business.

Finally, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has its own Jewish history. Brothers Irvin and Israel Feld, who were more popularly known in their hometown of Hagerstown, Md., as Irv and Izzy, began their careers opening their Super-Cut Rate Drugstore in 1939. According to a 1954 Time magazine article, putting a record department in their store was such a success that it led them into the record business, and from there into the booking and concert business.

Beginning in 1957, The Felds were the booking agents for Ringling Bros. and in 1967, the Feld brothers purchased "The Greatest Show on Earth." In 1971, they sold it to Mattel, who struggled with the circus and their own financial problems, attempting at one point to sell it to Gulf Oil, before selling it back to the Feld Family in 1982. Since then it has remained in the Feld family, run by Kenneth Feld (Irvin's son), and Ken's daughter, Nicole Feld.

My research did turn up some important current Jewish circus performers of note, including foremost, Paul Binder, co-founder, ringmaster and artistic director of the Big Apple Circus. "Jews in the Circus," a 2003 article by Dan Pine from J. -- the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, profiled the San Francisco Circus Center, mentioning current Jewish performers and owners such as aerialist and coach Jenn Cohen; Peggy Snider, co-founder of the Pickle Family Circus; as well as the Bronett family's Circus Scott in Sweden, once billed as "the most famous in Europe."

The circus delights and engages because it requires a suspension of disbelief -- our normal expectations are confounded in a thousand ways -- in a live show rather than on a flat screen that continues to amaze and delight "children of all ages."

For me then, history aside, it is wonderful to pass along a love for the circus from one generation to another. To that end, here is a report from my special correspondent, Natasha Teicholz, age 9:

I thought that the circus was absolutely the best show on earth. I'd give it a 10 out of 10 scale because it's funny. The sound effects were great and all the animals were amazing, mostly the tigers and the elephants. I can't wait to see the circus again with all of my friends.

Thank you, Daddy, for taking me to the circus!

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

For more information, visit http://www.ringling.com.

Ringling Bros. details their conservation efforts at http://www.elephantcenter.com

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