If anyone knows about the circus it is Karen E. Gersch. She has performed, created and directed circus and painted, drawn and illustrated it. Her work is beautiful and captures the whimsical nature of the circus soul. Here are a few choice examples of Karen’s work with her descriptive text.
The ‘Nickel’ in this oil painting, “Nickel Storms the Ring” was my teacher and mentor, Nina Krasavina, a star acrobat, aerialist ad the first woman clown ever to grace the ring of the Moscow Circus. After defecting to NYC in the mid-’70s with her husband, Gregory Fedin, they traveled with 3-ring circuses throughout the US and Canada. Nina and Grefory opened their own school, the Circus Arts Center, in an abandoned department store in Hoboken, which they ran for years, training many acts that had longtime professional careers.
“Gordoon”: acrylic on canvas portrait of Jeff Gordon, whose inventive and acrobatic routines made him a beloved and longtime featured performer with the Big Apple Circus, as well as Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Bros., Walt Disney World, and various NYC theatre productions.
“Kenny Raskin/New York Goofs”. Kenny is a physical comedian whose diverse and charming character work enlightens every stage, be it on Broadway, off-off-Broadway or Cirque du Soleil. He is someone I never tire of sketching; captured here during a New York Goofs engagement.
“Little Tich” and his Big Boots Dance was a headlining act of the English music halls in the early 1900s. Tich (Harry Relph) was only 4’6” tall, but left large footprints with his eccentric and energetic dance routines, combining balancing skills with acrobatics. The slender wooden boots he performed in were 28 inches long! Relph is considered the forerunner of all screen comedy.
Darja is a Latvian-born acrobat whose professional partners happen to be small dogs and a potpourri of cats. The setting for her act is a living room, complete with two dressers, a nightstand, and an oval carpet. The drawers glide open and cats climb gracefully out, then jump in an arc to her shoulders, where they run and balance along with her extended limbs, as she turns walkovers, handstands, cartwheels, and splits. A dog poses perfectly on her top hat while she executes back rolls and contortional poses.
Darja performs primarily in Russia and Europe, in circuses, cabarets, and theaters. Her animals travel with her – in carriers to the stage, but live uncaged in her hotel room, where they all share her bed. I know, because I had the room next door to her in Leipzig, Germany, and was serenaded by her Siamese and Egyptian cats, who sang gustily all night!
“Richard Hayes”, also a British Music Hall performer, was a noted juggler and silent, deadpan comedian, often billed as “The Laziest Juggler in the World”. His oversized head, languid manner, and slow-motion moves distinguished his ball juggling routines.
This is a very early pastel sketch of Hilary Chaplain (1990’s) from the CircuSundays Series I used to run. Hilary is one of the most prolifically funny and hardest working physical comediennes, whose recent work has delved deeply into emotional and historical elements. In particular, her current production “The Last Rat of Theresienstadt” which takes place in the “Ghetto town”/concentration camp of Theresienstadt during the Holocaust. Following a successful run in Europe, where she garnered top awards, the show will be presented at The Wild Project on November 13th and 14th.
“Senor and Friend”. Senor Wences began his career as an unsuccessful bullfighter before becoming a gifted ventriloquist. The Spanish performer was one of the highest-paid and most popular Vaudevillian acts in the world and appeared on the Ed Sullivan show throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Wences died at the age of 103 in Manhattan.
“Slava’s Snow Show”. I first saw Slava Polunin in Cirque du Soleil’s production of Alegria, back in the 80’s, and was delighted by his simplistic and organic clowning (finally oversized clown proboscis and makeup used well by the clowns who wore them!) His signature romantic imagery, the surreal environments and emotional physical work he creates were resurrected in his first “Snow Show” that appeared on Broadway. This drawing was one of many rendered from his second run in NYC at Union Square.
Born in Prague, Tomas Kubinek and his parents fled the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia and settled in Ontario, Canada, when he was only 3. He fell in love with circus and clowns, began performing as a child and has never stopped, regularly traversing the globe with his imaginative and eccentric solo shows.
“Waldo & Woodhead” (Paul Burke and Mark Keppel) were a couple of wild and zany guys, whose character-driven physical comedy and strong partner juggling made them a well known performing sensation around the globe. This painting, exhibited at several IJA Conventions, was sold three years ago.
For more information or to see other artwork, visit:
Apart from a handful of exotic–and almost completely unreliable–tales surrounding his life, Richard Potter is almost unknown today. Two hundred years ago, however, he was the most popular entertainer in America–the first showman, in fact, to win truly nationwide fame. Working as a magician and ventriloquist, he personified for an entire generation what a popular performer was and made an invaluable contribution to establishing popular entertainment as a major part of American life. His story is all the more remarkable in that Richard Potter was also a black man.
This was an era when few African Americans became highly successful, much less famous. As the son of a slave, Potter was fortunate to have opportunities at all. At home in Boston, he was widely recognized as black, but elsewhere in America audiences entertained themselves with romantic speculations about his “Hindu” ancestry (a perception encouraged by his act and costumes).
Richard Potter’s (1783 – 1835) performances were enjoyed by an enormous public, but his life off stage has always remained hidden and unknown. Now, for the first time, John A. Hodgson tells the remarkable, compelling–and ultimately heartbreaking–story of Potter’s life, a tale of professional success and celebrity counterbalanced by a racial vulnerability in an increasingly hostile world. It is a story of race relations, too, and of remarkable, highly influential black gentlemanliness and respectability: as the unsung precursor of Frederick Douglass, Richard Potter demonstrated to an entire generation of Americans that a black man, no less than a white man, could exemplify the best qualities of humanity. The apparently trivial “popular entertainment” status of his work has long blinded historians to his significance and even to his presence. Now, at last, we can recognize him as a seminal figure in American history.
Inscription: In memory of RICHARD POTTER The Celebrated VENTRILOQUIST who died Sept. 20th, 1835, Aged 52 years.
Step right up, folks, and prepare to have your blood run cold as you meet the strangest, most bizarre trio of misfits ever spawned by a carnival of blood: TWEEDLEDEE, an adult man trapped in the body of a three-year-old toddler, whose mask of childlike innocence hides a seething brain plotting hideous revenge against all that is sane and normal! HERCULES, the circus strongman, brutal, bestial, reveling in carnage and murder – yet the submissive slave of a deadly dwarf! ECHO, the expert ventriloquist with the uncanny ability to throw his voice so that lifeless wooden dummies seem to speak even as you or I! Together, they are THE UNHOLY THREE, star attractions of Tod Robbins’ classic novel of hate, murder, and madness on and off the midway. Best known as an author of the story which inspired the still-controversial fear-film FREAKS, Robbins first stunned the public with this intense account of a ruthless war on society waged by a triad of carny castaways.
It seems to have garnered much interest by the director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney as they made a film out of this book.
The film was remade in 1930 as a talkie. In both the 1925 and the 1930 version, the roles of Professor Echo and Tweedledee are played by Chaney and Earles respectively. The films were based on the novel of the same name by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins.
Three performers leave a sideshow after Tweedledee (Harry Earles), the midget, assaults a young heckler and sparks a melee. The three join together in an “unholy” plan to become wealthy. Prof. Echo, the ventriloquist, assumes the role of Mrs. O’Grady, a kindly old grandmother, who runs a pet shop, while Tweedledee plays her grandchild. Hercules (Victor McLaglen), the strongman, works in the shop along with the unsuspecting Hector McDonald (Matt Moore). Echo’s girlfriend, pickpocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch), pretends to be his granddaughter.
Using what they learn from delivering pets, the trio later commits burglaries, with their wealthy buyers as victims. On Christmas Eve, John Arlington (an uncredited Charles Wellesley) telephones to complain that the “talking” parrot (aided by Echo’s ventriloquism) he bought will not speak. When “Granny” O’Grady visits him to coax the bird into performing, “she” takes along grandson “Little Willie”. While there, they learn that a valuable ruby necklace is in the house. They decide to steal it that night. As Echo is too busy, the other two grow impatient and decide to go ahead without him.
The next day, Echo is furious to read in the newspaper that Arlington was killed and his three-year-old daughter badly injured in the robbery. Hercules shows no remorse whatsoever, relating how Arlington pleaded for his life. When a police investigator shows up at the shop, the trio becomes fearful and decide to frame Hector, hiding the jewelry in his room.
Meanwhile, Hector proposes to Rosie. She turns him down, but he overhears her crying after he leaves. To his joy, she confesses she loves him but was ashamed of her shady past. When the police take him away, Rosie tells the trio that she will exonerate him, forcing them to abduct her and flee to a mountain cabin. Echo takes along his large pet ape (who terrifies Hercules).
In the spring, Hector is brought to trial. Rosie pleads with Echo to save Hector, promising to stay with him if he does. After Echo leaves for the city, Tweedledee overhears Hercules asking Rosie to run away with him (and the loot). The midget releases the ape. Hercules kills the midget before the ape gets him.
At the trial, Echo agonizes over what to do, but finally rushes forward and confesses all. Both he and Hector are set free. When Rosie goes to Echo to keep her promise, he lies and says he was only kidding. He tells her to go to Hector. Echo returns to the sideshow, giving his spiel to the customers: “That’s all there is to life, friends, … a little laughter … a little tear.”
The “ape” was actually a three-foot-tall chimpanzee who was made to appear gigantic with camera trickery and perspective shots. When Echo removes the ape from his cage, the shot shows Echo (with his back turned to the camera) unlocking the cage and walking the ape to the truck. The ape appears to be roughly the same size as Echo. This effect was achieved by having midget actor Harry Earles (who played “Tweedledee” in the film) play Echo for these brief shots, and then cutting to Chaney, making it seem as though the ape is gigantic. (In the 1930 remake, the ape was played by Charles Gemora.)
Lon Chaney as Professor Echo in “The Unholy Three”.
Ventriloquism for a new generation… edgy, outrageous, and off the charts! Direct from her run at The Criterion Theatre in London’s West End, NINA CONTI, Britain’s voice-throwing queen, leaves the crowd speechless without even opening her mouth. Using face masks to turn her audience members into live puppets, Nina creates a hilarious new show nightly.
“Nina Conti is a stellar talent!” – UK’s The Mirror
“Devastatingly witty and full of daring flights of fancy!” – London’s The Times
“Pure genius and timeless – the best thing I’ve seen.” – UK’s Arts Award Voice
“This is possibly the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life!” – UK’s BroadwayBaby
“She is a master of comedy. I laughed so much I couldn’t breathe, as did the entire audience. I honestly can’t think of one person who wouldn’t love Nina Conti.” – UK’s BroadwayBaby
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Here is an interview I did with Nina during her last visit to NYC in 2011.
Now that Bill Irwin has joined forces with David Shiner again to present OLD HATS I thought it right to ‘look back’ at Bill’s earlier success. “The Regard of Flight“. The show was performed in many venues before going to Lincoln Center. An earlier version of the show was performed at the Baltimore Theater Festival titled “Murdoch” which I saw.
Bill Irwin was brilliant in choosing Doug Skinner and Michael O’Connor to share the stage with him in this show. They were great! Doug Skinner provided ‘original music’ and Michael O’Connor was hysterical as ‘the critic’ lurching to the stage with comments and questions throughout the show. Wonderful comic timing together made this show a treat for any audience! For those of you that did not see Bill Irwin, Doug Skinner and Michael O’Connor in “The Regard of Flight”…A wonderfully brilliant show!
“It should be said that Mr. Irwin is a contemporary American performance artist whose name belongs alongside those of Buster Keaton and Marcel Marceau.” Mel Gussow NY Times The New York Times Review
Bill Irwin and David Shiner are currently performing their new show “OLD HATS” at the Signature Theater. “one of the funniest shows of the past few years” the New York Post,
Wenceslao Moreno, who started his career as an unsuccessful bullfighter in Spain and then became Senor Wences, a gifted ventriloquist who was able to transform his thumb and forefinger into a convincing dummy that endeared itself to millions of American television viewers in the 1950’s and 60’s, died yesterday, his 103d birthday, at his home in Manhattan.
He and his wife, Natalie, had lived on Manhattan’s West Side for more than 60 years. They also lived in Salamanca, Spain, Senor Wences‘s hometown.
In a career that lasted more than eight decades, Senor Wences repeatedly proved himself a stellar part of the tradition that included Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell and other popular ventriloquists who delighted audiences from the 1920’s well into the television age.
What set Senor Wences apart from everyone else was that his main character was not carved out of wood, as were Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mr. Winchell’s Jerry Mahoney. Johnny, Senor Wences’s dummy, was naturally formed by one hand. He painted lips on his thumb, draped a ridiculous orange wig across his fist, stuck eyes on the side of his hand, just below the wig, and let the hint of a body dangle below. As soon as he began his act, this unlikely creation came to life as Johnny, a lovable, impertinent little boy, not unlike the boy Senor Wences had been.
It was shortly after the turn of the century in Spain that Wenceslao Moreno found that he could imitate others and throw his voice. In school, when one of his classmates was absent, he would answer for him, and the teacher would mark the missing student present. In those days, he had a friend named Paulo, who lived next door. The friend’s mother would appear at an upstairs window and call for her boy to come home.
”No, Mama,” a voice sounding like Paulo would say. ”I refuse to come into the house.” When the mother demanded that her son obey, the voice would continue in defiance: ”Mama, you attend to your own business, and I will attend to mine.”
Poor Paulo got the dickens on several occasions until it was discovered that he had not been the culprit. It was Wenceslao Moreno.
Other times he successfully imitated the voice of the mailman, telling the tenants of his apartment house that the mail was there and ready for distribution. (There were no mailboxes.) All of the tenants would dutifully come down the stairs and assemble at the front door, only to find that no mailman was there. In one instance, an angry resident dumped a pail of water on the real mailman’s head to teach him not to trifle with the residents of that building.
The little sprite of a voice and impish personality emerged to a widespread audience decades later, in the United States in 1948, when Senor Wences made his television debut and introduced Johnny to virtually the nation’s entire television audience, which assembled on Tuesday nights to watch Milton Berle‘s variety hour.
Shortly thereafter he made the first of 48 appearances on Ed Sullivan’s show. Neither Mr. Sullivan nor his audience ever tired of Senor Wences.
Senor Wences’s Johnny was not a rake or a wise guy, like Charlie McCarthy. He was a disembodied insurrectionist whose single-minded purpose was to nettle Senor Wences in little ways, as small boys are wont to do. And so, if Senor Wences announced to his audience that a certain trick was going to be ”very difficult,” Johnny’s little voice would insist that it was ”easy.” If Senor Wences gave Johnny a dirty look, Johnny would add, ”Difficult for you, easy for me.”
In the conversations that ensued, Johnny would seem to be a completely separate being from Senor Wences, quite capable of saying anything. There were no jokes, per se. Just snippets of silly but strangely eloquent conversation. And the exchanges were always polite, gentle; segments ended with kisses between Johnny and Senor Wences.
Johnny was not the only star Senor Wences developed. The other was Pedro, a talking head in a covered box. Pedro was grouchy, imperious, raspy. He almost did not become part of the act. Originally, Pedro had a body that was crushed in a train wreck near Chicago. Senor Wences, salvaging the head, put it in a box. At first, those who booked the act resisted; they did not think people would relate to a head in a box. Senor Wences prevailed, and Pedro proved almost as big a hit as Johnny.
Whatever happened in the act, whatever pandemonium there might be, Senor Wences would always open the box and say to Pedro, ”You all right?” Pedro would always respond, ”S’all right,” to which Senor Wences would say, ”Very good.” If Senor Wences presumed too much and opened the box when Pedro preferred privacy, Pedro would demand, ”Shut the door!”
When Pedro and Johnny were simultaneously in action, it seemed a wonder that Senor Wences could get through his shows in full control. He had a palpable Spanish accent, and there were times when some found it difficult to understand him. The laughs came just the same; his timing and the gentleness of his message were such that he transcended the bounds of language.
Senor Wences, who was also a formidable juggler, started out as a young torero in local bull rings near Salamanca. After several bulls had got the best of him, he turned to ventriloquism and juggling. By the 1920’s his renown in both fields was such that he was in demand in Europe and Latin America. He first came to New York in 1935, performing at the Club Chico in Greenwich Village.
But it was not until he appeared on television that he became truly famous. In addition to his appearances on the Berle and Sullivan shows, Senor Wences also appeared with Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Perry Como and Jack Benny. He was seen in a specialty act in the 1947 movie ”Mother Wore Tights,” starring Betty Grable and Dan Dailey. In 1963, he toured with Danny Kaye’s International Revue.
In 1996, Senor Wences received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Comedy Hall of Fame for his devotion ”to entertaining generations of audiences and bringing countless hours of joy and happiness to millions throughout the world.” He was also honored by New York City, which erected a blue street sign alongside the Ed Sullivan Theater designating a block of West 54th Street from Eighth Avenue to Broadway as Senor Wences Way.
He remained vigorous well past his prime and was still working in 1986 when he toured with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in ”Sugar Babies.” His wife, who is his only survivor, said he got that job because she was able to convince the producers that he was a mere 75 years old, 15 years younger than he was.
(Originally published 1999)
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Senor Wences Way, NYC
In the 1950’s Wences did several attempts to make TV commercials. A few for Parkay Margarine and a few for Prince Spaghetti.
Here are videos from those days.
Ed Sullivan Show –
ED SULLIVAN SHOW – Senor Wences Bio and show appearance Information. Go Here
Having photographed many performers over the last 30+ years I can truly say that ‘Senor Wences’ was one of my all time favorite acts!
I was fortunate to have seen Senor Wences and Francis Brunn share a bill at NY’s “Chateau Madrid” club. It was a delight!
A few Sundays ago I wondered out to Coney Island to visit and watch Scott Baker.
He was working as the ‘outside talker’ that day for Coney Island USA Sideshow and I was able to grab a few minutes of his delightful routine.
To hear more from Scott Baker go to my earlier interview with him here.
See His One-Man show “BANG!!! The Curse of John Wilkes Booth”. Verse, Song, Magic, Sideshow antics and standup comedy!
At the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, NYC: Sat., Aug 11 @ 4PM; Fri., Aug. 17, 7:15PM; Tues., Aug. 21 @ 5:45; Wed., Aug. 22 @ 2PM; Sat., Aug. 25 @ 7PM