Battle for the Big Top: When Circuses Ruled




By Les Standiford

Hachette Book Group, 272 pages.


If you are under the age of 40 and have never lived in New York City, you may have never seen the “Greatest Show on Earth,” as the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was dubbed. It folded its tents in 2017, and that’s a misnomer. You’d have to be pushing 70 to have seen it under canvas, a practice that ended in 1956.


These days, the only mammals in most circuses are homo sapiens the likes of the aerial artists, clowns, contortionists, jugglers, musicians, and power track antics associated with Cirque du Soleil. Once, a circus meant most of those things plus lions, tigers, and bears, oh my—and elephants. It simply wasn’t a circus without elephants and hadn’t been since 1816, when Hechaliah Bailey first displayed one in conjunction with horseback riders.


There are many good circus histories, thus Les Standiford fashioned his a bit differently. His approach is encapsulated in the book’s subtitle: “P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus.” Those three rivals whose shows eventually merged made the circus into an iconic part of American popular culture. To sharpen that statement, until the early 20th century, circuses, minstrelsy shows, professional baseball, and vaudeville were among the only forms of popular culture, if we mean spectacles shared in the same way by Americans in all parts of the country.


Circuses took initial inspiration from the admiration of skilled horseback riding, a logical outgrowth of pre-mechanical travel. Trick riding remained a circus staple and was joined by other acts that could be performed in a ring such as clowning, juggling, and tumbling. Standiford observes, “three other elements added color and vitality: the menagerie, the sideshow, and the parade.” (loc. 289 or 4588) Thus, the one-ring circus begat three rings, a dizzying sensory display. Money and a love of showmanship attracted Standiford’s principals. “The Greatest Show on Earth” evolved from cutthroat competition and trial and error. By the 1890s, the seven biggest circuses moved from town to town by rail—it took 65 cars to move Bailey’s show-­­–and were models of logistical efficiency. Overnight, tents arose, and a massed parade lured ticket-buyers to witness everything from caged wild animals and “freak shows” to recreations of Roman chariot races and the Great Chicago Fire. As the cost of such elaborate exhibitions soared, it invariably caused contraction and mergers.


When the ante upped, so too did the dangers. Death wasn’t always defied. Fire was a constant threat, which is why Standiford engages in the unorthodox organization of devoting his opening chapter to the July 6, 1944 big top fire in Hartford, Connecticut, that killed 167 patrons and scores of animals. Add lawsuits and liability insurance to the cost of doing business. Other challenges faced the circus, including competition from movies and later, activists who drew attention to mistreatment of circus animals, not to mention the moral implications involved in trapping and removing them from native habitats. Standiford recounts many such heartbreaking tales.  


Readers may be surprised by the portraits he paints of Bailey, Barnum, and Ringling. Bailey, an orphan adopted by the nephew of Hechaliah Bailey, was akin to a top-hatted version of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick. Nor does he buy completely into the view that Barnum was a huckster. As he notes, chicanery was but a small part of a bag of tricks that in many ways was more educational. (Who, after all, had seen lions or bearded ladies in the hinterlands?) John Ringling outlasted both, but he and his brothers struggled as often as they prospered.


Standiford presents circus figures who admit that the circus was a product of a different age. It’s wrong to say that all good things must come to an end. Often, American circuses were little better than their blood-soaked ancient Roman progenitors. But Stanford also quotes Barnum biographer Robert Wilson who cautions we live in “an ahistorical age, one that is quick to condemn historical figures using the standards of the present.” (loc. 2055) Whatever its faults, Ringling was correct to note that “the circus appealed to children as well as the child in every person. (loc 3977)


There are still several old-style circuses around, but most are desultory affairs that often compare poorly with what might be seen at a county fair. They are a far cry from the days in which performers such as animal trainer Clyde Beatty, clown nonpareil Emmett Kelly, trapeze daredevil Lillian Leitzel, equestrienne Ella Bradna, diminutive Tom Thumb, and the high wire Flying Wallendas were household names. Not to mention elephants such as Babe, Jumbo, Old Bet, Romeo, and Juliette.


Rob Weir



February 2021 Album of the Month : The Rheingans Sisters




bendigedig [sic]


The Rheingans Sisters–Rowan and Anna–have been turning heads in the United Kingdom for a few years now. Receiver, their fourth album, shows why. Give it time before you draw any conclusions. In an age in which way too many musicians opt for artifice-driven theatrics, The Rheingans are the polar opposite. Theirs is the kind of music in which nothing much happens–just everything.


I was shattered by “TheYellow of the Flowers.” It has a drone fiddle, brief adornments from the lead fiddle, and voices. The sisters are from Derbyshire, England, though Anna now lives in Toulouse, where she studied French music. She was struck by the mundanity of things viewed from her city window, but the yellow of the flowers seemed to “shout life and vitality.” This is a song about hope amidst despair and, if you’d like, is also evocative of spring. What is indisputable is that it is eye-moistening beautiful.


The Rheingans feature a pan-European style of folk music. It often sounds minimalist, but that is deceptive. In addition to fiddles, they also play banjo and viola, as well as several unorthodox instruments. “After the Bell Rang” might sound as if there is a Hindi beat to it, but the percussion is actually a Basque txun txun, a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a dulcimer but is plucked or beaten with a mallet. That leaves a hand free to blow a three-holed flute. This song also has a tomorrow-will-be-brighter message. Here and elsewhere on the album you will hear what sounds like vibes. It’s actually a bell tree, a conical stack of chimes played with either a soft or hard mallet.


You’ll also hear Scandinavian music the likes of which one might expect from Norway’s Annbjørg Lien. “Orogen” evokes halling tunes–energetic dances–but the Rheingans give it a gathering pace treatment, adding dollops of background lilting for texture. If you’d prefer something icy and forlorn, try Östbjörka.” Or maybe you’d prefer something French, such as “Moustiques dans les mûres” or “Insomnia,” the latter of which is anything but. It’s actually a set of bourrées, double-time dances that migrated from France to the UK. You can cool down with “Waltz from Lozère” a slow tempo sashay.


At times, The Rheingans drift into experimental territory. “From Up Here” has gorgeous fiddle passages, but its unhurried tempo and droning atmospherics skirt the borders of trance. “Lament for Lost Sleep” uses piercing flute as counterpoint to drone, which serves to lay the composition in the seam between sleepy and melancholy. But make no mistake, whatever The Rheingans Sisters do, they want to hold your hold your attention so that you can focus on subtle and sublime small shifts. “The Photograph” is banjo and voice and “One More Banjo” is good picking, but just as advertised. I am tempted to say that the album’s summative track is the almost-languid “The Bones of the World.” As noted in the lede, it’s seemingly about little–just the spiny structure that holds up the entire planet.


Rob Weir


Postscript: My version of Receiver came as an MP3. You might wish to get–in the jargony parlance of the day–physical product. The CD comes with a 48-page booklet that includes pinhole solargraph photos from Pierre-Olivier Boulant. I’ve seen some of his work online and it’s both enigmatic and impressive.


Rocket Man a Decent but Middling Look at Elton John




Directed by Dexter Fletcher

Paramount, 122 minutes, R (language, sexual situations, disco dancing)



I didn’t see Rocket Man in the theater, so I might as well get my confession out of the way: I’ve never been a fan of Elton John’s music. He hit it big when acid rock gave way to soft rock and then yielded to disco. I hated disco and was not a fan of glam either, a genre think of as musical cosplay. I didn’t even know many of the film’s songs that were apparently big hits. In short, Rocket Man was pretty low on my must-see list.


I recently caught it on video and enjoyed it more than I thought I would, though the film has some issues, which is why I’ve assigned a middling three stars. Those who adore his music will probably overlook these and rate it a star higher. First off, though, credit goes to John for acting as executive producer for a biopic that presents him as a talented performer, but flawed individual. We all are, of course, but John admits he has an addictive personality. The film probes quite a few of them: egoism, booze, pills, cocaine, psychedelics, sex, shopping….


Like most biopics, Rocket Man’s attempt to cram a life into two hours is difficult. But my first beef with the film is that it squanders exposition time with too many big production numbers. At times it’s difficult to know if this is Elton’s story or Fame-Meets-La La Land. It’s one of those films in which instead of outbursts of anger or pain, we get a close-up, a song, and a pull-back to club or concert scenes. I suppose this makes sense for a performer as flamboyant as John, but it seemed overdone.  


Speaking of flamboyance, though, Rocket Man sure has a flashy opening. We see Elton (Tayron Egerton) walking down a hallway. He is backlit and dressed in an orange-sequined devil suit that’s straight of Dante (except for the sequins). There’s a scowl of disgust on his face and we learn why: he’s on his way to day one of group therapy for his various substance addictions. This provides the springboard for telling his story via short montage-style flashbacks.


We meet Elton –born Reginald Dwight­– as a boy in 1950s Middlesex. Postwar England was a dire place, so we can well imagine the appeal of American rock n’ roll, which he discovered through his father’s record collection. That is, when his old man Stanley (Stephen Mackintosh) allowed him to touch them. (Some within the LGBTQ community have taken umbrage with the cliché of distant father = misunderstood gay son. Elton’s step-sons also dispute the film’s depiction of Stanley.) But young Reg was a star pupil at the Royal Academy of Music, where talent is a must for entrance. At age 15 he began playing clubs and the song “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is used to show him catching fire in that scene. Soon, he was backing visiting American acts such as Patti LaBelle and the Isley Brothers. (The name “Elton” was lifted from the nickname given to the saxophone in the Isleys’ band.) He also met lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his longtime musical partner and best friend.


Rocket Man follows familiar arcs. There is the initial signing and recording –with DJM Records in this case– followed by a tour to America that makes Elton too big to keep down on the small record farm. The real devil comes in the guise of studio executive John Reid (Richard Madden), who has sex with Elton, signs him, is his entrée into LA debauchery, and then screws him in non-sexual ways. Hits follow, but Elton descends into bad decision-making, a brief marriage to Renate Blauel, drugs, an LA mansion, male lovers, burning bridges until no one stands on the other side, and then rehab, comeback, and belated happiness. (Yeah, I too have seen this before.)


This is another film in which women barely appear. The actress playing Blauel isn’t even credited and those depicting Elton’s mother and grandmother (Bryce Dallas Howard and Gemma Jones) are reoccurring cameos. On the relationship side of things, the central one is Elton’s friendship with Bernie, and Jamie Bell is endearing in the role. Rocket Man is mainly filled with Elton John’s songs and Egerton is up to the task of singing them. (“I’m Gonna Love Me Again” won the film’s only Oscar.) I suppose that’s what Elton fans would want but, if so, why attempt a total sweep of a life few would care about without the hits? For the record, though (pun intended), my favorite has always been “Your Song,” a melodic and sweet offering that needs no pyrotechnics.


Rob Weir