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The Wheel House is a delightful diversion from today’s rainy start to the Memorial Day weekend. UK-based circus theater Acrojou’s rolling house is powered by actors who call to mind the folksong “I’m away with the raggle taggle gypsy-o!” Architizer calls it “A Wheel-Shaped Mobile Home For Acrobats.” The troupe has performed The Wheel House in Ireland, Holland, France, Belgium, Spain and Israel, and in the Piccadilly Circus Circus at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

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January 28, 2013: Rare & Vintage: 1906 “La Boule Mysterieuse” Circus Toy

December 22, 2012: ATZ Review: Legendarium at The Big Apple Circus

December 8, 2012: Sunday Matinee: Princess Rajah’s Chair Dance (1904)

July 13, 2011: Circus Portraits: Photography by Kevin C Downs

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Tin Toy

La Boule Mysterieuse Tin Toy, 1906. Potter and Potter Auctions

Legend has it that circus contortionist Leon LeRoche took his inspiration for “La Boule Mysterieuse” from a popular gambling game that set up outside the show’s tent in Romania. After gamblers placed bets on one of several numbers, the showman let a ball roll from the top of a foot-high spiral, shouting as the ball made its way to the winning number. LaRoche’s legendary act, which was celebrated by this 1906 tin litho toy, had him scaling a 12-foot high spiral while inside a metal ball that rolled slowly and mysteriously upwards.

Boule Mysterieuse

La Boule Mysterieuse Tin Toy, 1906. Potter and Potter Auctions

“If it had not been evident that the idea of the trick had come to him from seeing the spiral of the Turkish showman, one would positively have believed the whole thing to be a miracle,” according to LaRoche’s story in the 1928 book Star Turns. The trick was regarded as “an unfathomable mystery, a sudden stroke of genius. Everywhere the agents arranged performances of the Man of Wonder with his troupe.” LaRoche doubled the height of the spiral to 24 feet and by the time he began touring with Barnum and Bailey in 1896, the track was 30 feet tall.

“Pull the string on the toy and it duplicates his feat,” says the catalogue description for the antique toy, which was made in Paris by Fernand Martin. On February 2nd “La Boule Mysterieuse” will be on the auction block at Potter & Potter in Chicago. The pre-sale estimate is $800-$1,000 and the online sale already has bids.

Serendipitously, Tin Mania in the U.K. also has one of these rarities for sale and made the delightful video below to publicize it. The price is 1,119 GBP (1,889 US Dollars)

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December 22, 2012: ATZ Review: Legendarium at The Big Apple Circus

February 22, 2012: Rare & Vintage: 1930s Tin Litho Bumper Car Wind-Up Toy

July 13, 2011: Circus Portraits: Photography by Kevin C Downs

December 19, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Original Coney Island Motordrome Bike

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Big Apple Circus Legendarium

Big Apple Circus Legendarium. December 15, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita

Going to the Big Apple Circus in Lincoln Center has been a New York holiday tradition since the 1980s. We especially like to go on New Year’s Eve when the show ends with a champagne toast and dancing in the ring, but this year we caught the show early. At last Saturday’s performance of Legendarium, scenery in the style of an antique handbill set the mood for a journey back in time even before the show started: “Presenting the unprecedented attractions of THE FIRST BIG TOP and exhibiting celebrated American jesters and natural born fools The AcroBuffos…”

Jenny Vidbel and her Liberty Horses

Jenny Vidbel and her Liberty Horses. Big Apple Circus Legendarium. December 15, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita

Acrobats, trapeze artists, jugglers, a contortionist, an equilibrist, Liberty horses and former shelter dogs are also on the bill. The jovial ringmaster John Kennedy Kane shares entertaining anecdotes about circus history relating to the Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway. We learn that the first-ever circus ring measured 42 feet in diameter, which is the size needed for a horse to reach a full gallop, and that is precisely the size of the Big Apple’s ring.

Jenny Vidbel's Ponies

Jenny Vidbel’s Ponies. Big Apple Circus Legendarium. December 15, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita

Over the years, Katja Schumann’s Liberty horses and Barry Lubin aka Grandma the Clown have been among our favorite performers. Lubin retired after last year’s show and we miss him. The highlight of the show was Jenny Vidbel’s Liberty horse act featuring Arabian horses and ponies. When the ponies trotted out, the audience let out a collective gasp of delight. Other standout acts were slack wire maestro Zhang Fan, Daniel Cyr and his mesmerizing Cyr Wheel, the Dalian Bicycle Troupe, Desire of Flight aerialists Malvina and Valeriy, and Emily and Menno van Dyke, who passionately dance the tango at the same time that they juggle.

The Big Apple Circus, Lincoln Center, New York City, through January 13, 2013; Alpharetta, GA, February 1-18; Bridgewater, NJ, February 18-March 17; Boston, MA, March 26- May 12.

Zhang Fan and Jenny Vidbel

Zhang Fan and Jenny Vidbel. Big Apple Circus Legendarium. December 15, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita

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December 8, 2012: Sunday Matinee: Princess Rajah’s Chair Dance (1904)

March 7, 2012: ATZ Review: Love Never Dies in a Phantasmal Coney Island

July 13, 2011: Circus Portraits: Photography by Kevin C Downs

August 31, 2010: Snapshots of the Coney Island Illuscination

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In this newly released video of the Zamperla-Zoppe Bareback Riders performing with Ringling’s Gold Unit last spring, the brothers Olissio, Gino and Ermes leap on and off the backs of cantering horses, turning somersaults and back flips with ease. Ringling skipped Coney Island in 2011, but we met Olissio Zoppe when he was here for a few days last July with Circus Vidbel.

At the Coney Island History Project, Olissio vaulted onto the Steeplechase horse’s back in a split second when asked to pose for the photo shown below. Circus people never cease to amaze. Olissio and his brothers have been acrobatic equestrians since boyhood and their skill goes back six generations to two illustrious Italian circus families. If the ceiling had been taller, we bet he would have done a somersault on the horse’s back and landed on his feet–even in flip flops!

Olissio Zoppe Rides the Steeplechase Horse. July 9, 2011. Photo © Coney Island History Project. All Rights Reserved

Are the Zamperla Zoppe troupe, who are distantly related to the Zamperla family of Luna Park, returning for an encore performance? Will there be a circus in Coney Island in 2012? It’s unlikely since the lot where Ringling’s Coney Island Boom-A-Ring and Illuscination played in 2009 and 2010 has become the temporary home of the Seaside Summer Concert Series. The City-owned lot where Circus Vidbel played is the site of the new Speed Zone amusement park set to open this season.

Thor Equities brought in Cole Brothers Circus in 2007 and Reithoffer Shows and other attractions in 2008, but that’s ancient history. Since Joe Sitt got his rezoning for 30-story hotels and retail, we haven’t noticed any press releases saying “Thor is fully committed to the amusement industry.” In 2012, there are still a few empty lots in Coney Island big enough for a big top, but they’re held by real estate speculators. The saying “May All of Your Days Be Circus Days!” is one we don’t expect to hear in Coney Island this season.

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July 13, 2011: Circus Portraits: Photography by Kevin C Downs

June 21, 2011: Zamperla-Zoppe Riders Coming to Zamperla’s Coney Island

August 31, 2010: Snapshots of the Coney Island Illuscination

August 20, 2009: Q & A with Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus Star Justin Case

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The Charmer

The Charmer by Mark Heyer. Oil on panel, framed. Lohin Geduld Gallery

Mark Heyer’s faux-naive snake charmer conjures up memories of cabinet cards of sideshow stars from the late 19th century. Set like a jewel in a gilded frame created by the artist, the painting is one of several circus and carnival-themed works in Heyer’s exhibition at Lohin Geduld Gallery. There’s also a sideshow talker, a circus tent being raised, an unruly circus act and daredevil motorcyclists.

“I have been painting from these types of subjects for quite some time,” Heyer told ATZ. The artist grew up going to the carnival at his hometown fair in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Coney Island’s sideshow and games were a source of fascination during the two decades he lived in Brooklyn. Heyer, who received an MFA from Parsons School of Design, moved to Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, six years ago. “I am particularly interested in slowing down things, so that cool things don’t just get swept into a dumpster. Circuses and Carnivals seem to be some of the first things that go away and don’t come back. They are something that predates us and as the corporate world grows it seems bent on getting rid of these simple, amazing pleasures.”

Mark Heyer

Hey Pretty, Don't You Want to Take a Ride Through My World by Mark Heyer. Oil on panel, framed. Lohin Geduld Gallery

Both Heyer’s paintings and vintage photographs have an enigmatic quality and evoke a sense of wonder. ATZ asked the artist to talk about how vintage photos inform his work and the process by which he selects and translates a photo into a painting

One thing with vintage photographs that I always make an attempt to do is acquire the photo. There is something about me being able to hold it in my hands. Like the blind searching for a different point of view. That’s not always possible, so a print out has to do. Vintage photographs are fascinating, things were slower paced, or they seem so. Often, objects in these weren’t meant to be disposable.

Usually I start my search for either circus photos or sideshow photos. Those words are what I type in. Not to be silly or anything, but I do my best to go inside that photo, as a viewer of what is happening. I come out and bring what I found to my painting. I always intend to put just enough down, so that the viewer of my work has room to add to the story. The story is never wrong, because, most times there is only a date that goes with the picture. I love it if someone adds to the story and the story continues.

Mark Heyer

All in a Day's Work by Mark Heyer. Oil on panel, framed. Lohin Geduld Gallery

The circus tent being raised. To me, it’s the preparation for what is to come. The excitement, whirlwind of imagination will all be in there. This one came from an actual photo too. I thought it was amazing because you don’t usually see this in process. To quote a painting teacher I had. “Surprise and Clarity” This picture has that I think, because it is a surprise to see what they are working on and it’s very clear what they are doing.

The Unruly by Mark Heyer. Oil on panel, framed. Lohin Geduld Gallery

The Unruly is the last of what you ask about. This one in particular I invite the viewer to add to the story, because who is the unruly one? The mule? The clown on the left? Or even someone in the background could have done something to start this event. In the actual photo there is a wagon also, but it wasn’t needed for what I wanted to show. I imagine this photo was staged as part of an act, I don’t really know though. It was a great image from my favorite subject matter and also allows for many different endings to the story. When I first found this photograph, I intended this one to be the image on the card. It was also the first painting that I painted for this show.

Mark Heyer, Recent Work, through December 17, 2011. Lohin Geduld Gallery, 531 West 25 Street, New York, NY, 212-675-2656

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September 28, 2011: Rare & Vintage: Auction of French Fairground Art

January 19, 2011: Opens Jan 27: Nickel Empire: Coney Island Photographs 1898-1948

December 19, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Original Coney Island Motordrome Bike

November 16, 2009: Rare & Vintage: Coney Island Sideshow Banner by Dan Casola

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Ringling Poster

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Side Show Poster. Printed by Erie Litho & Printing Co. Estimate $800- $1,200. Mosby & Co Auction. November 12, 2011

This rare and delightful poster from the 1930s advertising Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Sideshow is up for bid in Mosby & Company’s Fall Auction. Strange People from the Remote Corners of the Earth? The performers are not ID’d but we think the musicians are Margaret and Mary Gibb, from Holyoke, Massachusetts, who were celebrated as “The Only American-Born Siamese Twins” and the Texas giant is Jack Earle. Both were with Ringling in the 1930s.

Looking into the Gibb girls bio, we discovered that they made their show biz debut at the age of 13 in Dave Rosen’s side show and museum, then located at Bowery and West 15th in Coney Island. The date was April 11, 1926. After a couple of days, the Coney showman was arrested for exhibiting minors and the twins were given into the custody of the Children’s Society over the objections of their father, who said he was with them all the time.

The incident gets a mention in the book “Sodom by the Sea: an affectionate history of Coney Island” (1941):

The side-show successors of Chang and Eng were continually getting into legal hot water at Coney Island. Around the time of the First World War, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children objected to the appearance of eleven-year-old Godino and Lucio Simplicio, Filipino double monsters, and proved them to be without proper guardianship. The SPCC followed up its success in the Simplicio case by raiding David Rosen’s side show on the Coney Island Bowery because of the exhibition of thirteen-year-old Marjorie and Mary Gibb, Siamese twins from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Rosen had studied the law during the previous Coney Island controversy and wriggled out of the trouble by arguing that the girls were still in the custody of their father, by contract, and moreover were not violating the statute by dancing or singing.

However, the Gibb girls returned home for a while, announcing that they had been so shamed by the publicity that they were consulting medical experts as to the possibility of being cut apart. That in turn created more publicity, which made their parents so nervous that the operation was postponed. Several years later the Gibb girls proved to be still on exhibition at Coney Island, when their attorney, Abraham Reiss, raised the roof over the unfair competition furnished by a Cuban pair of Siamese twins who he declared were not genuinely married in gristle.

According to the Gibb Sisters obit in 1967, they went on to become vaudeville and circus stars with an act that featured dancing and piano playing. From 1934 through 1937, and again in 1939, they toured with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The twins were joined at the base of the spine and despite sensational articles from the 1920’s about proposed operations to separate them, the only direct quote that we could find states they did not wish to be separated: “We are perfectly happy as we are,” said the Gibb Sisters on their 50th birthday. “We never wanted to be separated.”

Mosby’s live auction is on November 11 and 12 in Frederick, Maryland, but the catalogue is online and you can bid now or in real time during the auction.

 

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March 22, 2011: Rare & Vintage: Souvenir of Frank Bostock’s Coney Island

January 24, 2011: Artifact of the Day: Souvenir of Henderson’s Restaurant

December 19, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Original Coney Island Motordrome Bike

November 16, 2009: Rare & Vintage: Coney Island Sideshow Banner by Dan Casola

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Ambra Zerbini, Zamperla-Zoppe Riders, Coney Island July 12, 2011. Photo © Kevin C Downs

After a first look at Circus Vidbel on Saturday, photographer Kevin Downs returned over the next few days and took these beautiful portraits of the performers against the backdrop of the Big Top. The photographs have a timeless quality that evokes the classic portraiture of the Golden Age of the Circus. You can see the complete set, including a few candids, on flickr.

Zamperla-Zoppe Riders with Guido, Coney Island. July 12, 2011. Photo © Kevin C Downs

The Altier Archers, Peggy Mills and Nino Murillo. Coney Island, July 11, 2011. Photo © Kevin C Downs

Nino Murillo, Archer. Circus Vidbel, Coney Island. July 10, 2011. Photo © Kevin C Downs

Susan Vidbel-Ashton, Aerialist and Owner, Circus Vidbel. Coney Island, July 12, 2011. Photo © Kevin C Downs

Circus Vidbel’s Big Top is set up at 3100 Stillwell Avenue, just off the Boardwalk in Coney Island. Shows are Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $10.00 and are on sale at the ticketbooth one hour before showtime. For more info visit the Coney Island Fun Guide.

Update, July 17…

Catch the show this weekend! The circus will be here only through Sunday, July 17th and then will be hitting the road again. Discounted tickets are now available online
http://coneyisland.eventbrite.com/

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July 10, 2011: Photo Album: Vidbel Old Tyme Circus Opens in Coney Island

June 21, 2011: Zamperla-Zoppe Riders Coming to Zamperla’s Coney Island

May 11, 2011: Coney Island 2011: Summer Photography Workshop

September 2, 2009: Coney Island Baby: Cyclone, the Mini Donkey at the Ringling Circus

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