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From the Human Gasometer to Madam Lula on a Favorite Circus Poster

Some years ago during a visit to Scotland, I visited the West Highland town of Gairloch, and its excellent Heritage Museum, where I saw this great old circus poster on display, promoting a circus that was some years earlier performing in the nearby town of Poolewe. Recently, I came upon my photographic print of the poster and scanned it to publish on this blog, where in years past I’ve published other posts on circus topics, like this one titled “Life is a Carnival.”

I love the way posters like this vary the size, spacing, color, and fonts to bill each act and performer in distinctive way. I’ve typed it out so readers of this post could easily read the colorful copy the promoter wrote back in the day. There was no year on the poster, so I’m left to imagine that the circus might have active sometime in the first third of the twentieth century.

“Life is a Carnival”*

The Bard Graduate Center on West 86th Street is a gem of a small New York museum. On my birthday last Saturday, Kyle asked me what I wanted to do for fun. I suggested we go view Bard’s current exhibit, “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010.”

I’ve loved the circus for years, and have even collected artwork on it, like the print below of high-wire artists on a bike, by Dame Laura Knight. I bought it  in 1987 from my late art dealer friend Robert Henry Adams when I was editing and publishing the splendid circus novel, Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, by Ellen Hunnicutt, who won the Dru Heinz Literature Prize that same year for her short fiction collection, In the Music Library. Ellen’s novel centers around a young female protagonist who’s a runaway from a bizarre custody battle in her family. Holed up in the safe harbor of the Florida winter quarters of a circus troupe, throughout the novel she’s using their calliope to compose a musical work in memory of her late mother. The novel’s theme is how we may turn our mourning and loss to the service of art and creativity. For the record, Ellen passed away in 2005. I hope some day to republish her novel.

Much as I’ve read about circus lore, I had not understood a key aspect of the historical record as documented by the exhibit: the central role that NYC played in the growth and development of the circus throughout North America. Many of the biggest promoters were headquartered in Manhattan, the continent’s entertainment capitol. Once the circus began moving from town to town via train cars, Gotham’s status as a rail hub, as well as its large, diverse population, made it the essential city for promoters and performers alike.

The 20th century was covered on the third floor of the exhibit, with great photographs by Weegee, best known for his lurid crime scene photography, here depicting circus audiences enthralled by performances. There was also a video monitor showing a film of female stunt artist Tiny Kline performing the “Slide for Life,” in which she clamped down on a kind of leather bit she’d placed in her mouth, then slid on a cable for a 1,000 feet hanging above Times Square.

Along with the exhibit, which comprises more than 200 works displayed on three floors of the museum, there will be nine public talks given beginning October 11 and stretching into 2013, ending on January 31, discussing female equestrians; performance photography; the design and typography of circus posters; P.T. Barnum and Ralph Waldo Emerson; Alexander Calder; clowning; and the circus of the future. I hope to be there for one or more of these presentations. Meantime, here is a gallery of images from the exhibit. Please click through to view art and images from the exhibit.

*Thanks to The Band, for use of the title of their song, “Life is a Carnival, written by Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and J.R.R. Robertson, from their 1971 album, “Cahoots.”

A Book Talk about Jim Tully

I was delighted a few weeks ago when Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak, authors of Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, and Hollywood Brawler, my favorite biography of 2011, came to NYU to speak about their book at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. I’d been in touch with Paul and Mark last November after I blogged about the book in a piece called Lost American Writer Found–Jim Tully and so was excited to attend their talk and meet them in person, especially because my artist wife Kyle Gallup and our actor and writer son Ewan, would be coming with me.

Paul and Mark gave a great talk, using photographs and film clips to anatomize the story of Tully’s life. Their book chronicles the life of the hobo writer-turned Hollywood insider who minted the hardboiled style of prose that would become even better known later on in the books of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett. The pictures accompanying this post should give you some flavor of their talk. It was a treat meeting them afterward, and the next day, having Paul over to our apartment for tea and rugelach. He’s been a second-hand book dealer for many years and so it was great to not only talk about Tully, whose early book Circus Parade I’d been reading, but also to show Paul volumes from our library.

Last November I wrote this about their book, which I stand by today as my summing up of the authors’ visit to New York City.

“Biographers Bauer and Dawidziak steep the reader in Tully’s lifelong struggle to make himself into a significant person; glimpsing his continual act of self-creation is what I found thrilling about this book. The authors chronicle how even in relatively prosperous years, he continued striving to create himself and forge his work. . . . What’s great about the Tully bio–and other books like it that achieve this deep level of discourse with their subject’s life–is that the reader has a chance to assemble, in ways the biographer shows one how to do, how a literary career is lived and aspired toward, and achieved. The successful biography spans the decades and folds of a life, making the living subject comprehensible and one whom we understand. That’s what happened for me with Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, and why this book will be on my best list for 2011.”

Lost American Writer Found–Jim Tully

Until recently, I had not read even one of the fourteen books by the early- to mid-twentieth-century American writer Jim Tully (1886-1947) and knew little about him. Given my personal interest in Tully’s subject matter, which included circuses, hoboes, and riding the rails, springing from his twin milieux, rural Ohio and early Hollywood, I’m surprised at myself for having been slow to pick up on him. Now having sampled his work and discovered what an important and successful literary career he made in his life by reading the excellent new biography of him, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, I’m going to do my part here to redress this widespread case of historical amnesia. I believe that now–especially in light of the Occupy movement and the attention it’s drawing to the economic distress afflicting millions in our society–is an ideal time for Jim Tully to be rediscovered. / / more . . .