Monday, July 27, 2015

...And I dance

"I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still."

I wrote in my journal several years ago that art is the most pure and sincere form of communication that exists. I had a dream once. In the dream, I would open my mouth to sing, but the words made no sound. I sat at my piano and the keys would not budge. I laced up my pointe shoes, but my legs would buckle so that I could not stand. I picked up a paint brush and the colors muddied the canvas- an indistinguishable mess. Frustrated, I tried to wield a pen, but the bones in my hands shattered- I pushed through, determined, but the ink ran dry- I tore into the page, shredding lines and paper until there was nothing left but pulp.

I feel hopeless sometimes. I fracture when I see a beautiful painting, or a graceful dancer. Something grips, hard, inside my chest, when I hear an incredible piece of music. I think it may be most unbearable when I read Rimbaud. The first time I poured over Le Coeur Supplicié (The Tortured Heart) I needed to know everything about it. It is speculated that Rimbaud authored this piece in response to being raped by a group of soldiers in an alley in Paris.

"O waves, abracadabrantesque
Take my heart, let it be saved
There will be drinking songs
When they've exhausted their quids
My stomach will heave
If my sad heart is gobbled down
When they've exhausted their quids
How shall we act, o stolen heart?"

He was 16. To feel something so deeply and be able to purge the experience with this incredible piece of literature is...impossible to me. He is unreal- it's like looking at some of Nikola Tesla's ideas, and how effortlessly he made magic, practical.

I wondered, before, if anyone would ever truly know me. But in my frustration, I realized I barely knew myself. I think the most artistic struggle is creation that is incomplete. Feeling like there is always something more you could have done, should have done, to make the thing- "just so". To make it perfect, and a concise conveyance of what it was always meant to be.

I decided to revisit Rimbaud. I had been tirelessly searching the bouquinistes (book stalls) in Paris along the Seine for an ancient copy of his writing, but the weather was miserable and wet, and most of them remained closed. I found this detail about Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), which he authored after the tumultuous end to his relationship with Verlaine. He locked himself in his loft and cursed, and spat, and wrote, and everything that was his vast array of emotion and reaction is in that piece. He gave the manuscript to his mother to be published. When she read through it, she was entirely perplexed- it was incomprehensible nonsense. So she asked him "What did you mean to say?" and he answered: "I wanted to say what it said, literally and in all the senses".

This anarchic mess of vines creeping over ruins and storms raging at sea- tumultuous clashing of night and day without dusk or dawn to ease into either- it is perfectly imperfect. Art, struggle, connection, communication- a figurative Babel- our punishment for existing and it's the flaws that make it "just so".

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Brief History of America's Most Influential Pleasure Wheel

February 14th is a date which has become synonymous with sentiment soaked in commercialism and awkward obligation. Though the holiday seems content to reside in the aisles of gaudy gift shops and mall jewelry stores, it is important to remember that this date also witnessed the birth of a dreamer; A man who served as a testament to the human spirit and an architect of passion.

Born this day in 1859, by 1891, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was no stranger to passion. At 32 years old, he was already an accomplished engineer, entrepreneur, and owner of two successful construction businesses in both Chicago and New York. Having married his sweetheart, Margaret Ann Beatty, several years prior, George Ferris appeared an unstoppable success. He seemed an irrepressible tour de force in the world of invention- a fact which became even more apparent when he attended an engineers' banquet in Chicago, a city which had just recently won the bid to host the World's Fair. The Fair's directors issued a challenge to the crowd to produce a centerpiece for the fair which was unrivaled, even by imagination. Ferris, who had previously toyed with the idea of creating a movable structure inspired by a river water wheel, immediately began sketching ideas and blueprints on a nearby food-stained napkin. The crude drawings from that evening remained the basis of his design which he later presented to the fair's directors for approval.

After investing $25,000 of his own capital and receiving multiple rejections from the Fair's orchestrators on his proposal, his design was finally approved on November 29, 1892, provided Ferris could finance the construction himself. Despite facing intense criticism from his peers, he accepted their offer and began feverishly working to complete the massive undertaking before the inauguration of the expo on May 1st, 1893. Though his predecessor in World's Fair architecture, Gustave Eiffel, had received 2 years to complete his famous tower and a large subsidy from the French government in order to do so, Ferris had neither time nor money on his side. Determined to see the project through to its successful completion, Ferris utilized his personal credit and money from various investors to forge the 266 foot tall, 4,100 ton steel structure, complete with 36 cars which could hold up to 2,160 passengers at a time. Upon completion on June 21, 1893, the wheel's construction had set Ferris back over $350,000. Though the wheel was finished 7 weeks after the fair's opening, it immediately proved the most popular exhibit with fair-goers for the duration of the Expo. Over the course of 19 weeks, the wheel entertained almost 1.5 million riders, and at 50cents a ride, the wheel was able to net $726,500- double the capital that it took to create the structure.

Despite the wheel's success, when the fair closed, its directors laid claim to its profits, stating that Ferris was not entitled to the revenue that was generated at the Expo. Ferris spent the next 5 years attempting to tear himself from the grips of debt, tied up in litigation with the Fair's administrators, while simultaneously fending off patent lawsuits from other endeavoring engineers, claiming that Ferris had infringed upon their inventions to create his great wheel. Soon the financial strain became too overwhelming, and after having to close down all of his prior businesses, Ferris was finally forced to declared bankruptcy. The inherent stress caused by the loss of his wealth and status also led to the failure of his marriage; his wife left the childless union, and, soon-after, Ferris died of typhoid fever at the age of 37, penniless and alone, his ashes unclaimed.

Ferris's creation sat, gathering debt, for several years after the fair until it was unceremoniously dismantled and sold for $1,800 to a Chicago amusement company. In 1904, after being removed to St Louis and considered a purposeless eye sore by the town's inhabitants, it was set upon by 300 pounds of dynamite to what the Chicago tribune referred to as an "ignominious end," ultimately destroying what was left of the tangible legacy of George Ferris.

While Ferris sought to carry out his dream of constructing the great wheel, he was labeled "utterly mad" and came to be known as "the man with wheels in his head." It is nothing short of poetic that he should then share the celebration of his life and accomplishments with such a sordid holiday. Though his original creation lie in ruins, his contribution to the world and this day is a small reminder that taking a risk to follow your heart is the most crucial element of human existence.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Parlari (Installment One)

Parlari is the official spoken language of the Circus. It is derived from the Gypsy language, Romani, and has grown to be utilized among circuses all over the world.

Originally a trade language of sailors, it was adopted and primarily used within the British Circus, becoming the essential unifying method of communication for performers and crew alike- many of whom stem from diverse territories and across many nations.

Although it's mainstream usage is fairly obsolete, it can still be overheard within modern day circus tents, open air carnivals and sideshows of today. Below is my first installment of colloquialisms within the lexicon.

Brodie: Coined for the famous "bridge jumper" Steve Brodie, (who distinguished himself by purportedly surviving a 14 story fall from the East River Bridge in 1886), the term is defined as an accidental plunge, marked with an element of rashness or folly, and lacking in tragic consequence.

This famous "Brodie" (below) is courtesy of The Althoff Circus- July, 1950. Intended as a promotional stunt, the group loaded their 3 year old elephant on the Wuppertal Schwebebahn (a floating tram) to make the trip into the city. The elephant- apparently not a fan of suspended mass transit- broke through the glass doors and plummeted 39 feet into the Wupper river below. Having survived the fall with only minor injuries, she earned the moniker "Tuffie" which is Italian for "one who dives"

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reanimating Dreamland

For those that know me well, you'll recall that I am an avid fan of pre-Disney animation. The Google doodle for today pays homage to one of my absolute favorites, Winsor McCay.

A friend to sideshow, Winsor began his animation career hosting "chalk-talks" and drawing caricatures of patrons at Sackett & Wiggins' Wonderland, a small dime museum just outside of Detroit. After moving to Cincinnati in 1891, he continued his support of the weird and wonderful, designing posters for traveling freak shows and circuses in the US.

Mere months before the Dreamland fire in 1911, McCay had captured a panoramic view of Coney Island, the scenery of which is heavily featured in Little Nemo.

While Émile Cohl's "Fantasmagorie" predates Winsor's animation attempt below by several years, McCay's technique and attention to detail remains beyond comparison, even today.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Electrocuting an Elephant

The turn of the century brought with it a deluge of scientific and industrial achievements. At the forefront of this renaissance were inventor Thomas Edison, and physicist (and former Edison understudy) Nikola Tesla. Both men, extremely controversial in their own right, were in the middle of a tense battle to promote distribution of their preferred current. Edison held a patent on direct current (DC), which was the standard at the time within American households and businesses. Tesla, on the other hand, advocated the use of rotary magnetic fields to generate and transmit alternating current (AC). This method used far less energy and could be utilized to channel electricity far greater distances than direct current was capable of. Threatened by his lack of understanding of the mathematical aspects of AC and fearing damage to his reputation, Edison launched a personal campaign to promote the application of direct current while simultaneously disparaging Tesla and his inventions.

While the war of currents raged within industry, the use of steam power was becoming obsolete. A transit company by the name of Brooklyn Rapid decided to apply the use of electricity to power their railways. The electrification of the railroad, which connected Brooklyn to Manhattan, helped to bring commerce and tourism into the southernmost part of Brooklyn, home to the famous Coney Island. Known for their amusement parks and sideshow attractions, Coney Island was a popular destination for families, couples and curious persons alike. Within the peninsula, constructed alongside Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland sat the magnificent Luna Park. Thousands flocked daily through the elaborate gates to take a "Trip to the Moon" ride the "Witching Waves", or even sit atop an elephant and take a tour of the grounds.

At the time, elephants were a rare commodity, even within the entertainment industry. Coney Island's Luna park, however, was lucky enough to posses several, including "Topsy", the Asian elephant. Topsy had been domesticated within Adam Forepaugh's menagerie. The Forepaugh circus, although defunct prior to the creation of Luna Park, had been PT Barnum's top competition from the 1870's to the 1880's. While Barnum billed his circus as an honest act and prided himself on his showmanship, Adam Forepaugh was a con-man and a cheat. Not only did he swindle his customers out of their cash and belongings, he also treated his animals with similar contempt and disregard. At points, he not only overlooked, but encouraged mistreatment of the animals in his care in favor of better ticket sales. As a result, many of his menagerie were hardened and aggressive specimens, and a danger to the general public.

Topsy was unfortunately no exception. In her brief stint within Luna Park, she continued to be abused by her trainer, who would mercilessly beat her with a bull-hook and feed her lit cigarettes. After three years of similar treatment, Topsy had become extremely bellicose and had killed three men, the last of which was her intolerably cruel trainer. The owners of Luna Park, Thompson and Dundy, made the decision to put the creature down. Like typical showmen, they publicly announced the execution of the "killer elephant" and planned a public hanging to dispose of the animal.

Still incredibly active in his pursuit to defame Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison saw an opportunity within this tragedy. He offered to utilize alternating current to slaughter the elephant, in a final attempt at demonizing his competitor. In 1903, Topsy was 28 years old. She was led to a platform in the center of the park, her feet staked in place. Handlers fed her carrots laced with copious amounts of cyanide before over six thousand volts of alternating current coursed through her body. She fell to the ground in a magnificent heap, dead within 15 seconds.

Edison, in all his entrepreneurial glory, did not even attend the execution. Instead, he sent a team to the park to carry out the deed and document the entire incident on film. He soon lost the battle for direct current, having been beaten in the marketplace by his competitor through straightforward and scientific means. Luna Park burned to the ground not long after, and despite several attempts to rebuild, was claimed by a third and final fire in 1946.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Le Cirque de la Cendre

For most people, the orchestral masterpiece "Stars and Stripes Forever" evokes patriotic rigor or conjures images of stoic soldiers on the march. For the citizens of Hartford, Connecticut, however, the powerful hymn has a far different connotation.

Late into the afternoon of July 5th, 1944, members of the traveling Barnum and Bailey circus scrambled to set up in time for their next show. After their trains were delayed arriving in Hartford, they were down one performance, and precious revenue for the fair. It had been a rough few years for the circus following the Great Depression, with most of the country now focused on the war effort. Financial constraints were proving more evident as acts continued to be cut and handlers became inundated with the responsibility to care for twice the number of animals than were previously in their charge. Despite having managed to pull off the second event just in time, the entertainers slept uneasily that night- to the superstitious, missing even one appearance was incredibly bad luck.

On July 6th, Ringling Brothers employees awoke to a deceptively calm summer day. With plenty of time before their afternoon show, the performers took their leisure feeding the animals, practicing acrobatics and securing the big top. Barnum and Bailey were the first circus to utilize large scale tents to house their acts, making them ostentatious pioneers and stand outs among other traveling sideshows. The tents were constructed of canvas and treated with paraffin and kerosene to ensure they would preclude the possibility of show cancellations due to inclement weather. The structures were also required to be treated with a liquid form of asbestos for further protection from fire based sources. John Ringling North, who managed the circus at the time, had applied to the Army for this solvent, as they held a priority surplus of the material. The Army denied the release of the solution to Ringling, however, because the war effort held a greater demand.

With the dwindling income of the institution at the forefront of everyone's minds, the sight of throngs of patrons pouring in to the Big Top that day was a welcome one. As the crowd of over eight thousand took their seats, the Ring Master, Fred Bradna, prepared them for the thrilling, awe inspiring and death defying acts they were about to witness. One of these such acts were the Great Wallendas- a family of acrobats specializing in uninhibited high wire stunts. Halfway through the performance, the band struck up a sudden and hurried rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever". Panic set in with the performers, who knew the presence of the tune signaled that something was terribly wrong. Merle Evans, the circus' bandmaster had spotted flames and immediately assembled his orchestra to warn the other performers without alarming the crowd. By this time, however, members of the audience had also taken notice of the emerging disaster and begun to panic. Emmett Kelly, the hobo clown, attempted to douse the rising flames with a pail of water, to no avail. Ironically, the material intended to protect the tent from one type of damage, was the same which exacerbated the exothermic reaction of the enclosure.

Master Bradna pleaded with the crowd to remain calm, but it was impossible- the nineteen ton tent was completely engulfed, and collapsing on itself, raining fire and heavy debris on the people inside. May Kovar, the tiger handler, rushed his cat out of the side tunnel, escaping with minor burns. Two additional animal carts, however, blocked the main entrances where men and women clamored to escape. Several of the staff attempted to throw smaller children over the barricades to safety, while other patrons fell under the bleachers and caught fire in the hay below. Hysterical, people ran in circles in the flaming tent searching for loved ones. Spectators trampled over one another, trying to flee the heat, and many asphyxiated, trapped under others who had fallen on top of them. Some even remained seated, immobile and in shock, waiting for the show to continue.

Over 165 people lost their lives that day, the majority of which were children, under the age of 15,and many of whom have never been identified. Another 500 attendees suffered severe burns, smoke inhalation, and broken bones, sustained as a result of crashing steel beams, or after being trampled by their neighbors. The individuals who survived the ordeal, however, were hardly considered lucky, walking away in anguish, and haunted by the scene which unfolded that day.

Although they had previously tried to obtain the chemicals necessary to prevent damage from fire, the lack of safety protocol and poor handling of the emergency resulted in Ringling Brothers being held liable for all injuries and loss of life. Several high ranking members of the circus' management even served jail time for the incident, although none of this was any consolation to the families who lost loved ones in the disaster. For the next ten years of their tour, Ringling set aside all profits to compensate those affected. Performers stayed on board with a sense of duty to bring happiness where they could in the hopes of leaving the tragedy behind. Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown who attempted to put out the fire that fateful afternoon, was never quite able. While his usual act prior to the incident pandered to the sympathies of the audience, fellow employees recounted that he helplessly watched the catastrophe unfold that day, and for the first time since they knew him, he wept.

Thursday, April 22, 2010