Saturday, August 08, 2009

Show Business: The Greatest Showman on Earth

Monday, May. 04, 1970

The Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus is:

1) Just a three-ring circus

2) Owned by a brother named Ringling or North or Barnum or Bailey

3) Dying

4) All of these

5) None of these

THE right answer is No. 5. In this, the 100th year of the road show originated by Phineas T. Barnum, the Ringling Brothers extravaganza is so healthy that it is actually a six-ring circus—two separate, full-scale circuses traveling two different itineraries. Last week the "Blue company" was playing Madison Square Garden while the "Red company" was packing them in in Birmingham. Each, naturally, was billed as "The Greatest Show on Earth."

The double superlative may not be as illogical as it sounds. The Blue company features Mexico's "Flying Gaonas, the first family of the air"; Tito Gaona, who performs the triple somersault, is regarded as the greatest "flyer" in circus history. "Death-Defying Jose Guzman" rides a motorcycle up a wire to the roof of the auditorium, carrying with him a trapeze on which his wife Monique does acrobatic maneuvers. For a finale, Ringling's "human missiles," the Zacchinis, are fired from a cannon almost simultaneously. In the South, the Red company's program includes Sweden's "Unbelievable Lindstroms," who ride the high wire, all three of them balancing from a single unicycle; Bulgaria's Silagis, generally acknowledged as the world's most dazzling teeterboard act; and Gunther Gebel-Williams, a wild-animal tamer so impressive that Irvin Feld spent $2,000,000 to buy out an entire circus (belonging to Gunther's then mother-in-law) just to land him.

Folded Tent. Irvin Feld? The man behind that little-known name is the reason that the circus has lived to 100.

Feld got into the act in 1956, when John Ringling North, nephew of the founding brothers, was so beset by debt and besieged by TV that he announced the folding of his tents. The next morning Feld was on the phone, telling North, "Your methods are antiquated, and I have the solution." The solution was to get out of the big top and into the new arenas that were being built and that Feld, as a jazz and rock-'n'-roll promoter, knew how to book.

That idea alone saved the circus the salaries of 1,000 roustabouts. Feld, hired as a consultant, soon reduced the payroll even further, from 1,542 to 300.

"We cut out the freaks and the sideshow," he says, "because it was making fun of people and sickening to me."

He started a clown college to train replacements for Ringling's creaky old comic crew (average age: 66). And he changed what he calls "the Las Vegas look" of the circus—a polite way of saying that he hired showgirls who did not look quite so shopworn.

Traveling to Europe, where great acts are still born and bred, Feld at one point scouted 46 Continental circuses in 35 days. He still crosses the Atlantic six times a year to beat Ed Sullivan to the talent. "Once in a while," says Feld, "after a couple of weeks on dusty lots in the midst of a blazing Italian summer, you get the feeling you've seen everything. Then, out of the blue comes an act so spectacular that you get shivers up your spine." Feld quickly signs it up. The Blue show this year alone added 27 acts never seen in the U.S. before, while the Red boasts 21.

By 1967, the circus was worth $8,000,000, and Feld bought it, with financing from his brother Israel and Houston Astrodome Builder Roy Hofheinz. The deal, in a publicity stunt worthy of Barnum, was ceremoniously sealed in the center of the Roman Colosseum.

Payola Pioneer. Says Feld, 52 next week, "I began dreaming of owning 'the big one' when I was a kid. I'd just been bar mitzvahed when I went off with my brother to pitch snake oil on the Pennsylvania carnival circuit." At 13, Irv and Older Brother Izzie were pulling in $500 a week all summer. That led eventually to ownership of a drugstore in the black ghetto of Washington, D.C., where he took on a line of phonograph records and soon began to produce them. He helped to develop the now illegal "payola" system of bribing radio stations to plug his records, and in the 1950s, he launched concert tours with artists like Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole and Fats Domino. "I was the first one to say," he claims, that "the big bands were going to die and be replaced by rhythm and blues." Feld's talent discoveries included Errol Garner and Paul Anka. But, in what may be the monumental show-biz goof of all times, he decided not to sign on the Beatles when he saw them in 1963.

Today, as president and producer of the circus, Feld keeps on talent hunting despite cataracts that force him to wear glasses as thick as Coke-bottle bottoms; an aide usually walks with him lest he trip over rigging hidden in the circus sawdust. Feld's major concerns today include quickening the pace of his Red and Blue shows; both are already trimmed to about two hours and 55 minutes. He is also moving into the merchandising of some 200 Ringling Bros.-labeled products from bed sheets to vitamins—an operation that will add at least $1,000,000 to the circus' $16 million gross this year. And as he puffs on a Dino cigar and pops a Gelusil tablet for heartburn, he plots his next expansion of the circus itself. By 1973, he counts on fielding a third three-ring unit in the States and another to tour Europe. "In this day of sex, violence and X-rated movies," figures Irvin Feld, "what else can you take the entire family to?",9171,943813,00.html


Margaret said...

....In 1970 they had two units and "6 Rings" and was "Healthy"..Now they have three units and No Rings.??.