Tag Archives: Royal Lichtenstein Circus

The Year from the Rearview Mirror

Mojave Desert Spring 2011

In June I completed the manuscript to Bankrupt Heart a project I’d been working on for some 21 months. This was the first of firsts, the vow to see to the end the finishing of the second novel.

Bankrupt Heart my second novel has a tighter plot, memorable characters, sharp dialogue, and unrelenting pacing. With all that in mind I’ve spent most of the rest of the year searching for an agent. That search continues.

I have been guiding my performing dog through the twilight years. She is 16 years old. She is mostly deaf and blind. She enjoys a good bowl of food. She is stiff in the morning. By the afternoon she enjoys warming her old bones in the sun. She’s a profile in dignity.

Show business was good to me this year. Tempe Festival of the Arts had staged me in the premier venue at their event and had kept me in that location for an unbroken twice a year appearance beginning in December of 2000. The show played to record breaking audiences for most of the rest of the decade, but between the financial crisis, housing bubble bursting, the recession and tepid recovery, and of course the retirement of Lacey in 2009 the show that had worked so well at this venue had somehow through all of those changes no longer suited the space. It was hard to let go.

Lacey flying in Tempe circa 2003

Still the year was full of new opportunities: appearing for five nights at the legendary Olympic Club inSan Francisco for Father-Daughter Night, the Stanislaus County Fair, the many library programs I had an opportunity to play.

This year’s favorite audience award goes to the Chocolate Festival in Berkeley, California where I was able to attract a rather cerebral-liberal-scholarly-sophisticated-urban-international-family oriented-clan of like minded people and be this years best street audience. What does that mean? It is the quality of their being with me, their surrender, their interest, their willingness, their getting it, and wanting it. This was one of those moments when I believe we all walked away from the thing feeling as if we all got what we always wanted from one another.

The Great Ones

I said goodbye to Hokum W Jeebs, Steve Hansen, Vince Bruce and Stuartini the Magnificient. We’ll leave the ghost light on for these great showmen.

The personal and fascinating dinner with the Tony Award winning choreographer Bill T Jones who had just come from rehearsals for a show that he is mounting on Broadway in 2013! Jennifer Bain a great painter and friend for showing continued artistic courage. The reincarnation of Steve Aveson who was a few years ago flat on his back now back on both feet! A daughter who seems to get any grade she wants now in her second year at SeattleUniversity. And the brilliant Uncle Milt Gonsalves who helped make all those last minute edits and bring grammatical elegance to Bankrupt Heart.

What is just ahead? Bankrupt Heart is just now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I’ll be trying encourage some thousands and thousands of you to read while I continue to try and find a literary agency that can help me take my work to the next level. Next week I’ll begin outlining the story to my next novel Hot Spring Honeymoon. With luck I’ll be set to begin drafting the manuscript by March.

And finally I want to express my appreciation for the love my wife Eileen gives to me each and every day. Whether I am alone on the road traveling from town to town presenting shows, or in my office with the door closed writing from early morning until late into the night. Nobody does it alone. Eileen sprinkles that magic fairy dust over my dreams…helping me vanquish doubt and firing up the torch that lights my way.

Sunset on Las Trampas solstice

See you all in the new year…

The Land Yacht… When Dreams were Big and Fuel was Still Cheap

Road Dog Deluxe

I found my Streamliner in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the ultimate. I mean it was the full fantasy. In 1974 I was on the back lot at Circus Vargas. We had jumped over from St. Louisto see the show in Springfield, Missouri. They’d come off a mud lot and the trucks and trailers that arrived had been pulled off the last lot with tractors. Most rigs had buried their axles at the hubs into the mud. The center ring circus stars were the backstage mechanics who had to pull repack the bearings on their trucks and trailers between shows while preparing to jump to the next stop.

The new acts traveled in whatever they could scratch up. The families who had spent their lives in circus, the families that had come from families that had spent their lives in circus traveled in a rather distinctive manner. They pulled Airstream trailers with these massive Cadillac’s. These were the 500 cubic inch motors of this era.

Most circus shows worked east of the Mississippi and for good reason. West of there were mountains. West of there were long distances between towns. West of there were small populations. It was hard to scuff up enough people to make a show worthwhile.

Pulling an Airstream with a Cadillac on flat ground was not too hard on equipment. You don’t break down as often. You don’t fry transmissions. Motors don’t give it up going over a mountain pass.

I had plenty of years to consider how I wanted to do it. Dodge king cab diesel pickup truck with dual rear wheels was off the shelf perfect. Streamliner travel trailer looked good on her bumper. I already owned a proper towing hitch.

Big Bad Dodge Pulling a Classic...take that Shakespeare

She served me well while I owned her. Wasn’t a long affair, but it was a grand and elegant stop along the road called life.

Sold her to a collector out of Austin, Texas, he took ownership in Tucson, Arizona. When I bought the Dodge diesel was still under one dollar and fifty and when I sold her a gallon was running five bucks! Pretty much ended the heavy duty era of my touring life. I tried holding on for a spell, but unless it was a high dollar multiple week contract the trailer couldn’t come, didn’t pencil out.

Still it isn’t like I had to have that setup for the rest of my life. It wasn’t like I was going to need to vow devotion to a trailer. She came, did her little dance in my life, and at the right moment she departed, and a time and place of my choosing. Wasn’t more than six months later that I swapped out my Dodge Cummins Diesel for a Toyota Tacoma. Six diesel turbo powered cylinders for four naturally aspirated combustion chambers.

As a fellow performer reminded me once, “It isn’t what you have, it’s what you can tell someone you had.” So, there you go. If you’ve been thinking about running the highway with a rig and trailer like this I’d be careful. Be sure you know how far and how often you’ll need to pull her somewhere. Rig like this will eat you out of house and home in this day and age…

BANKRUPT HEART                THE SECOND NOVEL

Ry turned down the alley. He walked out onto the pier. There were fishing boats, some worn by work, others painted fresh. There were Purse Seiners and Long Liners mixed together with commercial sports fishermen boats. Across the way near the warehouse, the bigger vessels in the fleet were tied up at the docks. He counted two trollers. The next one looked like a Gillnetter and last, a ship built for fishing far offshore. Ry leaned on the rail. Tied up below was a Monterey Fisherman, a capable sea-going vessel. It was not big. Time had taken its toll. Hard for a one-man show to make a go of fishing.  Ry knew a few who still tried. Hard to make ends meet. Fuel bill, cost of bait, cost of ice, and a slim catch could eat up a man’s profits. A few seasons of that and a fisherman has no choice but to throw in the towel. Ry inhaled. The sea air was ripe with salt, the stink of fish, and a wisp of diesel fumes. Scoma’s, one of the oldest fish joints in the wharf, was set back out here above the bay water on the piers.

The Road that Never Ends

Refurbishment of the Venerable Touring Rig

Pulling off a national tour means you need a reliable
vehicle. Here I am installing my fourth motor into my ’67 Ford. I did all my
own work. The first few rebuilds were not so good, but they got better and
lasted longer with practice. Note the camper shell. This shell was scrapped and
a new shell was purchased in 1985. So, for the first 8 years when I faced a
headwind, and in show business there are many fuel consumption increased and progress
decreased.

Unplanned Small Town Stop...

I was returning from Key West,
Florida in 1988 when I burned up my rear axle
bearings on Interstate 10 some 60 miles east of Houston, Texas.
Was towed into a town called Anahuac where I
got a room. Room came with a bed. Town didn’t have a restaurant. It did have a
convenience store. Next day local welder cut the bearing off the axle and
pressed new bearing into place. I installed the axle and was back on the road.

Stage Coach Stop, Gold Mine, and Hot Spring

Here I am parked in Warm   Springs, Nevada. Had
a good camp alongside a desolate stretch of at the junction of Hwy 6 / Hwy 375,
the roads skirt the edges of the northeastern boundary to the atomic test site.
If you look into the back of my rig you can see on the right side a large aluminum
water cooler. To the left I stored food, Coleman two burner stove, pots, pans,
plates, silverware, had a manual powered coffee grinder. There is a modest
sized ice chest. With care and planning I could eat fresh good food for a week
without coming in from the wilds. I shared the camp with this gentleman biking
across the country.

Gourmet Coffee, Great Views, Terrific Service

Here I am in Hells Canyon on the Idaho
side taking a much needed lunch break along the Snake
River with Sunshine. Main thing to understand that touring
grassroots isn’t just about going from one town to another, one show, one
audience to another, it is also about being good to yourself every mile of the
journey. Emptiness is no longer uncomfortable. It becomes your living room. It
is where you live between shows.

It Must Be Love

If I had a lot of time between dates I would make myself at
home. Here I am parked at a hot spring for a few days while waiting to play a
date in La Grande, Oregon. When I had the time, and when I have the time, I’ll get my tent out and set up camp. Having a hot spring to soak in makes snow camping a treat. This is the Ukiah-Hilgard Hwy.
It is a remote and rugged seldom visited area of Oregon. You have to be comfortable in  your own bones to be here. There were no
telephones, cell phones, computers, any digital devices of any kind. At night I
might try tuning in my AM radio see if I could pick up a skip signal off the atmosphere
and catch the news at the top of the hour.

 

I had the opportunity to hang with some dancers from the
Joffrey Ballet. Audiences are not aware of the rigorous testing that artists
undertake when heading out on tour. In 1967  the company traveled from New
York to San Francisco to play at the Opera House. The entire company arrived by way of a station
wagon that transported them 3000 non stop miles. It is in facts like this that
our imaginations muse upon the life an artist lives off stage as well as on.

BANKRUPT HEART                     THE SECOND NOVEL

He continued to
just thumb through the pages of the book he’d picked from the shelf. He plunged
into the prose, selected at random, where it read, “…The abyss had been furious
with me.  The barometer continued to
sink.  Winds had increased from a full
gale to storm force.  Under bare poles,
sea anchor deployed, hatch sealed, I wedged my body for safe keeping into the
rear quarter berth, faith in my vessel resolute, she was not the weak
link.  If there was a chance something
might fail, that risk resided in character…”

            Ry
was tired. The book fell on his chest. He fell asleep. The book startled him.
He lifted it up. He continued to read. “I had been called— a cruel insistent
demand.  Luck’s allowance fully spent, it
was time to pass through the eye of my worst fears…”

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

Sometimes I Played for Elephants

Page from Milage Log 1978

Touring a show by truck is a different experience from
flying to an airport, renting a car, staying at a hotel, and getting all your
meals in restaurants. I arranged my pickup truck to fit my show equipment and
everything I would need to eat and sleep while traveling.

 

 

To travel in this way requires a whole set of different
muscles. You need to know where you can park and sleep at night and not be
hassled. You need to time cooking with light of day. You need to deal with
wind, rain and cold.

 

Diversity of opinion, wide range of locations, paints a picture of a veteran

Everything on a truck tour is about the show. What time is
the show? Where is it? How do I shower, shave, get my hair looking right and
get into costume so I am ready? If you are in Hammond, Louisiana
for the first time it takes some effort to pull this off on the sly and the
cheap.

If the tour was booked efficiently there wasn’t much down
time. You arrived and set up, did the show, pack up, look at the schedule and then
drive to the next spot. Might be a short drive might take the rest of the day.
Arriving late at night I used all night coffee shops for parking lots where I
could sleep.

Circa Early 90's Windsor, Ontario

There were animals that needed care. I cleaned cages, took
the dog for a walk, tried to get the chicken out and let her peck around on the
ground when I was in camp. Sometimes I would have a friend in the town I was
visiting. Sometimes I made new friends and sometimes I didn’t. I carried my
Smith-Corona typewriter with me and when I could I’d set it up and write. I
also used yellow legal pads when I needed to work on material.  I juggled and did my handbalancing training in
a park. Sometimes I’d crash a college campus and find a hallway that was dry
and warm where I could practice. Not once was I ever asked to leave.

There was solitude in this kind of touring. There was empty
space between one place and the next. Nothing was out there. Just one small
town and then another. You had to be comfortable and take good care of your
rig. Change the oil, keep an eye on things. You didn’t want to break down in
the middle of nowhere. If you did break down you might be stuck out there for a
long time waiting for help.

Where is Lake Havasu? Right next to Nowhere...

But, this is what touring in the small time is all about.
You are closer to your audiences. It is this intimacy between artist and
audience that if you enjoy performing makes the touring worthwhile. The small
time is located in your heart, next to your audience while you perform your
show. It is this warmth, this intimacy, between audience and artist. This is
the purpose of the tour, the reason for the voluntary sacrifice.

Induction at Start of Show ,       Circa 1977

Miracles

Is there such a thing?

Laughter

Is the song you sing

Clowns

Every always flirting

Then look!

Into the wild blue yonder

Bolting

Crashing…the fury of thunder

Swoosh…

The windy dance of the sparrow

Finally

Rain descends

Friends

Huddle about some puddle

Grey

Gives way to a blue day

So here we are

As the curtain goes up

And the show goes on

Like a newborn pup

To the merriest song…

Street Performing as Spoken Word

Sunshine the performing dog, Cookie my chicken, and Leonardo my Cat

 

Dana Smith  Harlequin Street Theater from 1978

 

My approach to street theater has placed particular emphasis
on words. It is the power of the spoken word when combined with visual
elements, and situational moments that can be one of the most effective tools
when building a successful show. In the vernacular of the showman it is called
patter. For comics it is all set up and blow off, premise and punchline.

We paint pictures with our words. We create illusions that
our audience holds in their imagination.

“Everything was going fine until we lost our band in Pocatello, Idaho…”
I’ll sometimes say.

It talks of travel, of touring, of a whole cast, of mishap,
hazard, and the inevitable chaos of touring.

Some acts just want to be funny, at all times. It isn’t the
only way to do things. You can drive a show by playing it straight, you might
rely upon charm, it could be you even do something dramatic.

Al Shakespeare used to do a short piece with a whale being
harpooned by a whaler. The whale’s soliloquy was heartwrenching and audiences
weeped over the puppets death.

The veteran street act generally paints from a pallet of
many colors. The show experience is not so range bound. The experience becomes
more fully human. The audience feels a wider range of emotions.

The single most important part of the act is the finale. How
you get there, and what you might do to wind up the show is a matter of
artistic choice. Laughter is helpful, but a seasoned variety act begins to
trust the multiplicity of possible human variations of emotion.

Here is one of the closing salutations used in my show circa
1977….

Closing time, calling out

Last chance for a dance

To the tune of trumpeting

Elephants wandering

From table to table

The ending of a fable

Is a warm violin

The making of new friends.

Closing time calling out

And the wanderer walks

Peddling to the next town

Some circus tricks, magic

And an acrobatic clown

Who sees in his frolic

The savory embrace

Of your souvenir face

The Great Romance of Street Theater

My Little Girl With Two Buskers with Great Soul....

Developing an efficient way of stopping pedestrians is not
so simple. It is a trial and error process. Eventually each act finds something
that does the trick. Some acts are incredibly skillful at gathering an
audience.

There are all kinds of street shows. People present all
kinds of skills. Some people work silent, others talk. Some work solo, others
work in a group. Many of us work from a set of principles. We establish some
sort of framework. We arrange to practice and train. We develop our skills. We
rehearse new whole routines. We write material. We try it. We toss out what
doesn’t work and we refine what does. Even if we work silent we’ll at the least
outline the idea move by move.

There is content and form. We think about the structure. How
long the show runs. What is first and what comes last. We know we can lose
audiences between routines so we work on our transitions. We know we can kill a
show if we put a weak routine in the show. If the routine is really weak
everything we’ve worked to build up to that point can vanish in an instant.
People will just walk away.

The good acts develop great material, great content, but
they also know that the structure of the show must work hand in glove with the
other elements. The mother’s milk of street is spontaneity. We thrive upon
being seamlessly woven into the present moment, even if its all an act, the
street show has to come off fresh, original, as if happening for the first
time.

Here is where the interactive skills of an act seal the
deal. A versatile act will adjust their material to the situation and an
audience will never notice that what they are watching is actually scripted
out, practiced, and has been performed hundreds and hundreds of times.

A veteran street act can step in and out of character,
winking and letting the audience in on the fact they really are just doing the
old act. But, to pull this off they need to demonstrate their command of the
situation. If the performer can earn an audiences respect, if they trust the performer,
admire the skillfulness, and appreciate the general direction the entertainment
is taking them, then the act is poised for success.

Learning how to street perform is difficult. Most performers
must practice the craft and learn by trial and error. It is time consuming for
most of us. Rarely someone comes along who seems to just make great
adjustments, good decisions, and the right choices so fast as to have a shorter
journey.

It is why street is what it is and why it is suitable for so
few… It is painful, difficult, and failure is waiting for you just ahead at
your next show. Then, on the other hand it can be like no other experience you
have ever had……..

Invocation to Show circa  1976 

You are the chance of a dream

The dream of a dance

We are a song

Sung with a swirl

A carwheeling feeling

Where…

Who shall ever dare

Must weigh with care

The fear and risk

Rising to the chance

To there

Sommersault

Catapault

Vault with us

To there… there…

Dancing… Dancing…

We are the chance of a dream

The dream of a dance…

Father Daughter Life on the Road…

It's only a stage she was going through...

Tonight I begin a Father-Daughter Night series at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Over the next two weekends I’ll do five nights of shows with the irrepressible Bob Sarlatte hosting the stage. Bob’s a Saint Ignatius High School
grad. I went to school at Bellarmine. My wife and I have three daughters. Our youngest, Alana Rose, is in her second year at Seattle University.

I can hear the intro now, “Live, on stage, tonight, for one show only, the only all Jesuit educated entertainment to be found west of St. Mary’s Cathedral!”

Alana was raised backstage. When only seven we landed in Phoenix at 4 in the morning, Alana told me to get the luggage and she’d go get the cab! When late while driving between the smallest towns in Wyoming Alana had the best eye for the perfect spot to pull over and park the truck and trailer. She liked to park and sleep near rivers.

She has developed a keen eye for variety entertainment. She knows what makes Flying Bob so appealing and appreciates the staccato rat-a-tat-tat comic musings of Rhys Thomas. She is also quick to spot a hole in an  entertainers game. And did I mention that her concision of explaining the plot to a movie is preternatural.

She has worked with me at the Oregonand Ohio State Fair’s. She has traveled across Western Canada. She thinks the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival rocks, and that The Country Fair is sacrament.

She’s danced since forever; modern dance. It’s kind of difficult to pick her up and carry her on my hip like I once did. I was away in Yuma performing at a festival (Hillbilly Willy aptly described this gig as part of the Bleak  Tour) and missed her birthday when she was seven years old. That still makes my heart ache. But, the road isn’t just a place to work and travel, it is also a place you go and miss things, like daughters growing up, and birthdays, and  helping her off to school.

Still, she’s a trouper. She understands backstage life. She knows what we go through offstage to put our best efforts out onstage. She has a solid gin game. Likes to play the out of state license plate game, has been introduced to the fine art of the game horse by El Gleno Grande, and has dined on white linen in the dining tent at Carson and Barnes Circus just before being invited to go feed the elephants with the trainer who promised her a ride.

          I love that kid. I love all my daughters. I love the sound of that word, “Dad…” I owe most of my humanity to those women. Oh, and one more girl, she’s old now, and I owe a debt to her too. Thanks Lacey. You’ve been there for me when it has counted.

BANKRUPT HEART                       THE SECOND NOVEL

“Your hair is getting long.” She  brushed it back.

            “Last  time it was this long you were still a little girl?” Ry said.

            “Was  I a little girl?”

            “If  I was carrying you in my arms backstage, then you were still a little, tiny,
baby, girl…”

            “I  don’t remember…”

            “You  were busy growing up, too busy, too grown up, too soon…”

Sophia exercised  care as she brushed her father’s hair. It was soothing, peaceful, ritual, a
father-daughter intimacy. They had a knack for hanging out backstage. “Your
hair is definitely getting thinner up here dad.” She smiled, wasn’t being
sassy, “sorry.”

            “Yeah,  well that’s life. It comes, it goes. If I had stayed in radio, nobody would
have noticed.”

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith