Monday, January 16, 2017

Circus taking down the tent

 Bonnie and daughter FL mounted and ready (top), and Lauren with Lou Jacobs and Knucklehead.

'Greatest Show' nearing

end of its 146-year run

Memories of Ringling Bros.: Elephants,
 clowns, and the owner who bought it twice
It will be hard to say goodbye when the "Greatest Show on Earth" strikes its tent for the final time this year -- well, not really a tent, since it has been playing indoors at civic arenas for nearly 60 years. But you get the idea.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is dying. Its owners announced over the weekend that the show will end its 146-year run in May, a result of changing tastes in entertainment and, in large part, the animal rights movement that sent Ringling's elephant herds into retirement last year.

For the better part of two decades, I looked forward to the annual spring arrival of the Ringling show in Baltimore. I covered it as a newspaper reporter beginning around 1971, thanks to an offer by the late Martha Schoeps, then the Baltimore Sun features and food editor, for me to attend opening night and  write about the show.

Oddly, my story got the attention of circus owner Irvin Feld, who invited me and my first wife to see the other Ringling show when it opened at the Washington coliseum a month later -- after dinner in his family's D.C. penthouse. (There were two Ringling circus units then, designated Red and Blue, criss-crossing the nation on two-year circuits.)

Irvin, whose wife took her own life in the late 1950s, was living there with his two children and his brother and sister-in-law, Israel  and Shirley Feld. The brothers grew up in the Hagerstown area, and started their business career together in the Depression era -- selling snake oil-type remedies on the carnival circuit, according to family lore. 

Their ventures evolved into the drugstore business, recordings and record sales and concert promotions that included appearances by the Beatles. And they managed arena bookings for the circus.

In 1967, with wealthy Houston Judge Roy Hofheinz as a partner, they engineered the purchase of Ringling Bros. -- maximizing publicity by staging the signing ceremony in Rome's Colosseum.

After dinner, Israel drove his wife and brother to the D.C. arena, and I tried to keep pace, following in my under-powered Renault as he whizzed around traffic circles and did his best to get ahead of red lights. We watched the show from the owners' front row-center seats. Clowns delivered hotdogs. Irvin pointed out favorite performers, and fretted tongue-in-cheek that the cat trainer was going to "get eaten" some day.

That was the Irvin Feld I knew. Whatever underlying family secrets existed then, and came out later amid ugly legal battles between his heirs and other litigation, were not part of the equation. And I became  more interested in the circus performers, their family stories, and the view from backstage over the ensuing years.

A year after that dinner, accompanied by my first wife, I tried out elephant riding for the first of several such adventures as the Ringling menagerie was paraded  about two miles from the circus train to the downtown Baltimore Civic Center arena -- an experience later enjoyed with varying degrees of nerve and distance by third wife Bonnie and older daughter FL. (Chesapeake Bay Middle School did not consider riding an elephant in the circus parade to be an acceptable excuse for her lateness that day. Meh.) 

I got to meet and write about Lou Jacobs, the great clown who -- in his makeup -- became the face of the circus on a U.S. postage stamp (everyone else pictured on stamps had to die first), and Bonnie photographed our younger daughter Lauren sitting on Jacobs' lap with his dog Knucklehead. (In one of his routines, Jacobs was a hunter and Knucklehead, wearing bunny ears,  the quarry -- falling over "dead" at the pop of the rifle but leaping out the basket on the back of his bicycle as he pedaled out of the center ring.) Jacobs' daughter Dolly became a noted circus aerialist.

There was tiger trainer Charly Baumann -- later the performance director, timing each act from the entranceway to keep each show running like clockwork, overseeing the movement of animal herds, jugglers, acrobats and clowns as apparatus was moved in and out, trapeze nets raised and lowered, and manure swept up by roustabouts, to the beat of the circus band and cues of its conductor.

Another great was Gunther Gebel-Williams,  the blond-haired showman whose entire Circus Williams was purchased by Irvin Feld in 1968 to bring him and his performing family to America. He staged acts with elephants, tigers and horses as the star of the Ringling Red Unit. (He died of brain cancer in 2001.)

And there was Michu, billed as the world's smallest man, whose "marriage" to the purported world's smallest woman played out in every performance as a center-ring spectacle for a two-year run of the show. (I gathered that the bride was not terribly fond of the groom, who, I recall, was fond of drink and cigars.)

We attended shows in Richmond and Norfolk, Va., just before the circus would arrive in Baltimore, Bonnie taking photos that ran in The Evening Sun and accompanied my reviews in the morning newspaper. I would attend opening night in Baltimore, ready to tweak the review already being put on the press for the early edition, in the event anything unexpected happened.

One opening night, in 1979, it did -- a Hungarian aerialist was injured in falling about 20 feet to the floor from a neck loop suspended from her husband's teeth. An emergency alert from the band sent clowns into action in spotlights aimed across two of the performance rings, while paramedics rushed into the darkened center ring to get Ava Takacs to a nearby hospital.

In March, 1985, we bought a bunch of tickets so younger daughter Lauren and some of her first-grade  classmates could celebrate her 5th birthday at the circus. The whole group of children was escorted from their seats to ride in a float in the first-half-ending pageant known as the "spec."

The circus became part of the Mattel toy company in a 1971 merger valued at nearly $50 million, and a little more than a decade later the Feld family bought it back for barely half the price -- along with an entertainment division that included ice shows and the famed Las Vegas magic act of Siegfried & Roy.

"Let's face it," Irvin Feld said at a glitzy announcement of the purchase, "the good Lord never meant for the circus to be owned by a big corporation." He brought showgirls, clowns, a marching band and an elephant to his headquarters on the edge of Washington's Georgetown section for a touch of showmanship that day.

For all his business acumen in building the entertainment empire inherited by his son Kenneth, Irvin seemed to truly love the circus. The day he bought it back from Mattel, he said he wanted to preserve the circus for future generations of his family and America.

Irvin died in 1984 of a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in Venice, Fla., where he had attended a memorial service for longtime Ringling monkey trainer and star performer Mickey Antalek. I remember a beautiful wagon wheel floral tribute at his funeral.

Alas, his dream of a circus tradition enduring for generations is falling a little short. The end of the storied Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was announced by two generations of Irvin Feld's family -- son Kenneth, and one of three granddaughters, Juliette Feld, the chief operating officer.

If I'm lucky, I hope to see some of the surviving Felds in April -- during the show's last stand in Baltimore, maybe in the section where I fondly remember sitting with Irvin... about 20 rows up, facing the center ring, close to eye level with the showgirls who were riding by on the elephants.
They were waving at us, and the crowd, and I always waved back.

And at the end of the show, there was always the ringmaster's farewell: "May all your days be circus days."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

HILLARY: Much to Blame

                                                             Oh America, 1989                        

                                                  © Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite


She coulda, shoulda

won the presidency... 

but the election was rigged!

I get the impression from Facebook friends around the planet that they are shocked and confused at the outcome of America's presidential election -- at how Hillary Clinton could lose to Donald Trump, even while  winning the popular vote.

Indeed, as reported by National Public Radio, Clinton as of the morning after had 59,299,381 votes and Trump 59,135,740 — a margin of 163,641 votes.  And the margin was growing toward half a million as ballots were still being counted days after the election.

 Because of  other choices on the ballot, neither of the main contenders received more than 50 percent of the vote. And speaking of numbers, perhaps more stunning -- nearly half of the eligible voters across America did not participate. Thus, Trump becomes president having garnered the votes of perhaps 25 percent of the potential electorate.

Clinton will be the fifth  presidential candidate in United States history and the second in this still-young century to win the popular vote but lose the election.

Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but lost the election when a split decision by the Supreme Court awarded George W. Bush the 25 electoral votes of Florida after a disputed election in that populous southern state.

By the time the final numbers are in, Clinton's margin over Trump may be similar to that of Gore vs. Bush, which was more than half a million. But Gore's loss in electoral votes was much smaller at 271-266.  In the final state-by-state tally for this presidential election, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the electoral count of 306-232. She was thumped -- or maybe Trumped.

In short, the American presidential election system is crazy. Maybe even, as Trump frequently whined, rigged.

This process of electing a president was established by the nation's "Founding Fathers"  as a compromise between proposals of election by popular vote or election by the Congress -- and, in a sense, incorporates both. It protected the voice of voters and influence of smaller states against the power of numbers of larger and more populous states in choosing a leader.

Each state and, by subsequent amendment, the District of Columbia has at least three electoral votes. For the states, the number is based on its seats in Congress -- each has two senators, and at least one member of the population-based House of Representatives.  Seven states share the distinction of having just three electoral votes; by comparison, California, the most populous state, has 55 electoral votes.

The winner of the popular vote in nearly every state (exceptions are Maine and Nebraska) gets all of its electoral votes. The system prevents states like California (which these days favors Democrats) from dominating a presidential election. That's the real rigging of the system.

But that said, it still fell to Hillary Clinton to win it.

Instead, if you'll pardon my choice of words, she managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
I am not a political pundit. I have never, as a journalist for more than 40 years, covered national politics. But I have been voting in, caring deeply about and closely observing presidential elections since the 1960s. And my conclusion  for 2016 is that Hillary Clinton could have and should have won more than a thin moral victory in the popular vote.

That she did not is at least partly of her own doing.

Clinton should never have lumped together half of Trump's supporters into what she termed  a "basket of deplorables."  It served only to fire up the passions of people who opposed Clinton -- assuring that more of them would vent their anger by voting for Trump, even some who might otherwise have cast ballots for libertarian Gary Johnson.

And it was not just poor and struggling middle class white guys who reacted to her remark. As my wife and I stood in line for nearly an hour in early voting to cast our ballots for Clinton at an upscale neighborhood polling place, a pro-Trump voter behind us sadly lamented that his wife would not allow him to put an "I'm Deplorable" bumper sticker on his Mercedes-Benz automobile.

The next huge problem came two weeks before Election Day, with announcement from the Obama administration that the rates Americans were paying for health-care insurance under the still-controversial Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) would rise sharply for 2017, and choices for providers would be fewer.

For all the good that the government-mandated insurance provided, including guarantees of insurance for people with pre-existing conditions and coverage of parents' children to age 26, it was a key target of Trump and other Republican candidates. Trump vowed to end Obamacare and replace it with "something" much better. And that was music to the ears of Americans looking at monthly insurance premiums increasing by hundreds of dollars.

Finally, there was that e-mail thing. Dumb stuff. Maybe because Clinton was ignorant of how electronic communication functions, how to operate a laptop, how to separate her private life and government business, and possibly caught up in conflict, innocuous or otherwise, between her family's Clinton Foundation and her job.

As secretary of state, she routed much of her electronic communications through a private server installed in the basement of her home. And there were allegations that some of the emails contained classified (as in top-secret) information, and her actions compromised national security.

After years of Clinton being subjected to Republican-pushed congressional inquisitions over the deadly attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, the e-mail hoo-hah became the new Benghazi for Republicans and even brought a time-consuming examination by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which sort-of concluded there was no reason to prosecute her.

But ten days before the election, FBI Director James Comey -- against the wishes of the U.S. attorney general who ostensibly oversees federal criminal justice issues and the FBI -- sent a letter to House Republicans announcing a re-opening of the investigation after the discovery of 650,000 emails on the laptop computer of disgraced  and sexually-compromised former New York congressman  Anthony Weiner. It was a computer Weiner had shared with his now-estranged wife Huma Abedin, top aide to Hilary Clinton.

Three days before the election, Comey sent word that a review of the emails on Weiner's laptop had turned up nothing of consequence regarding Clinton. But the damage had been done, and clearly could not be undone before voters finished casting their ballots in the presidential election.

And the link to the laptop of Anthony Weiner, who is under investigation for alleged sexting with a 15-year-old girl, clearly helped mute the controversies about the sexual behavior of Trump as a purported groper of women and voyeur of naked women and teenage girls competing in the beauty pageants he owned.

Clinton was hammered by Trump, who proved himself a master at "branding" opponents -- and thus labeled Clinton as "crooked Hillary," sneered and then just smiled as his adoring crowds chanted "Lock her up!"

So Americans made their choice of a new leader, rejecting a woman who devoted most of the last 30 years to public service in favor of a self-proclaimed billionaire who has devoted his life to self-service.

Clinton's tax returns and records of the Clinton Foundation are readily available for public scrutiny.
Trump, who has protected himself through repeated bankruptcies and tacitly acknowledged not paying federal income taxes for close to two decades, refused to make public his tax returns -- despite questions of whether his finances were ever buttressed by wealthy Russian interests.

And the U.S. government has pointed to Russian sources behind WikiLeaks distributions of Clinton and Democratic campaign-related emails, raising the question of whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin was behind efforts to disrupt the American election.

Trump has said he would not make public his tax returns until completion of an audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

In little more than two months, Trump will take the oath of office to become president of the United States.

The IRS has a deadline.

(The "Oh America" image appeared in numerous Facebook posts in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory. It is used here by permission of the British artist Gee Vaucher, whose  50-year career is being celebrated with an exhibition at the Firstsite gallery in England that opened on Nov. 12, and running until Feb. 19, 2017. Information:

Saturday, June 27, 2015

An anthem from the Confederacy

Time to chuck out

Maryland's ugly state song

The murders of nine people in a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., brought quick demands across the nation to bring down that state's official flag -- a Confederate banner symbolizing for many its history of slavery and racism.

But surprisingly, there seems to have been no new call in Maryland to bring down its state song, "Maryland, My Maryland" -- an anthem steeped in that same ugly history.

((UPDATE JULY 10: The Frederick News Post reported this week that state Delegate Karen Lewis Young, a Democrat from Frederick County's District 3A, has submitted a bill to at least change the lyrics -- replacing them with a poem by the same title written in 1894 by John T. White, a Frederick County native.

“His poem celebrates the beauty of Maryland. The beautiful shores, the majestic mountains,” Young was quoted by the newspaper. “It is in no way controversial, and I think we want to have a song that endures over time and something that just celebrates the state beauty, is unifying and enduring, and not controversial and divisive.”)

 I took note of the song's history in The Real Muck four years ago, as Baltimore marked the 150th anniversary of its "Pratt Street Riot" when federal troops -- summoned by President Abraham Lincoln to defend Washington in the wake of the fall of Fort Sumter in South Carolina -- were attacked.

No one died in the Confederate conquest of Fort Sumter, but as the troops marched through Baltimore from the end of one rail line at President Street to another, at Camden Station close to a mile away, a southern-sympathizing mob began throwing rocks and bottles. Then came gunfire, and at least 16 deaths... the first casualties of what became a four-year war.

The riot inspired an incendiary poem by James Ryder Randall, "Maryland, My Maryland!," which was subsequently set to music (as in "O Tannenbaum") and became the official state song.

You hear the sanitary, short rendition performed by the U.S. Naval Academy chorus at the annual running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. But there's a lot more of the song that's never sung, such verses as:

The despot's heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Dear Mother! burst the tyrant's chain,
Virginia should not call in vain,
She meets her sisters on the plain-
“Sic semper!” 'tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back again,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!

I hear the distant thunder-hum,
The Old Line’s bugle, fife, and drum,
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! she burns! she'll come! she'll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!

Interestingly, assassin and Maryland-born actor John Wilkes Booth shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis!" after shooting Lincoln on April 14, 1865, five days short of the Pratt Street Riot's fourth anniversary.

There are some nine verses to Randall's poem; the song we hear on Preakness Day is just the third verse, to wit:

Thou wilt not cower in the dust,
Thy gleaming sword shall never rust,
Remember Carroll's sacred trust,
Remember Howard's warlike thrust,-
And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland!

The question is whether Maryland could do better.

I suggest a competition inviting Maryland's many talented songwriters to propose a better anthem, with original music -- one that sings to a brighter future rather than an ugly past.

It's about time.