RIP Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey

People sometimes ask me, since I write about a noir circus underworld, whether my parents took me to the circus a lot. Actually, they didn’t. The main excuse was that all the hay and animals made my mother allergic, though it might also be that doing things with the kids never struck my father as a particularly good use of time.

I don’t remember ever going to the circus, though I might have. My appreciation of it only grew when I began to research circus lore and practices for the “Rex Koko, Private Clown” books. One of the top perks of this research was taking my own kids and nephews to see live circuses, like the Big Apple Circus (on its one and only tour of the Midwest), the UniverSoul Circus, Cirque de Soleil, and of course, the old reliable, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.

Like the seasons, Ringling came to Chicago with regularity, always at the end of November, forcing the Bulls and the Blackhawks to play on the road for two weeks. Tickets were pretty affordable. The crowds were always nice, though the arena was never more than half full. Many big Mexican families would attend, probably because circus still has a big legacy south of the border. I liked smaller circuses better, but Ringling brought that particular American value of “make it big, make it splashy.” I liked how they always tried to squeeze another buck out of us, as tradition requires. I liked it in much the same way I like opera: It’s people at the top of their profession, doing something strange and thrilling.

The news that Ringling Brothers would no longer tour hit me like a gut-punch last Saturday night. “Big Bertha” couldn’t end, could it? It had been going since 1870, since before Germany and Italy were nations. Since before professional baseball. Since before the Great Chicago Fire. For 146 years. And now, nothing.

I like circuses for the same reason I like parades: To reflect on how people are entertained. Beneath the high tech gimcracks of video and lights, the circus still exists because people want to see something extraordinary. A girl who can twist her body into shapes. Daredevils who like to walk on wires. Human cannonballs (how great is a human cannonball! Also something that premiered after Barnum & Bailey, in 1871).

And the animal acts. Protests against animal acts were what forced Ringling to shut down. When they “retired” their elephants from performing, their shrinking audience lost even more interest in attending. PETA can crow about it, and has been, of course. They’re zealots, in my mind, as unbending as abortion opponents. No middle ground, no grey areas. In much of the world, an elephant is a working animal, and only an idiot would harm a valuable animal that helps them make a living. Not denying there are lots of idiots in the world, of course.

I think the circus loses its appeal as its audience gets further away from the land, and further away from working with their hands. Only someone who climbs to fix a roof can grasp what it’s like to walk on a high wire. Only someone who knows horses can appreciate a really fine equestrian act. This is another part of the circus that tickles my imagination: What it must have been liked when it arrived in small, isolated towns. When locals saw an elephant for the first time, or a pretty acrobat in spandex. (Many young men also found other ways to enjoy women at the circus, though Ringling never had anything like that.) It was a venue of amazement, the Greatest Show on Earth. As someone said of Ringling, not admiringly, “The Biggest. The Grandest. The Goddamnedest.”

Now it’s gone. And no 3-D movie or virtual reality headset will ever replace the thrill.

Harry Lichtenbaum is an 86-year-old survivor of the Ringling Bros. Great Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. You can read an interview with him here.

Nice Amazon Review of “Honk Honk, My Darling”

honk-frontWas just putzing around on Amazon last night and came across the following recent review of Rex Koko’s first caper. As you might imagine, it made my night. This is one of the cool things about being a writer, that someone actually “gets” what I’m striving for, that there’s a kindred spirit out there somewhere who wants desperately to visit Top Town someday. (Of course, my lonely black-hole of an ego will certainly pay too much attention to these kind of reviews.)

“The writing is detailed and the dialogue is witty, and the setting itself is really fun and original. I’ve been recommending the book to everyone I know, so I figured a review encouraging others to check it out was in order. The author definitely deserves a pat on the back, for coming up with such an entertaining concept and carrying out the delivery so well.”

So take her point. Make sure to review the books you enjoy online at places like Amazon and Goodreads, or write tweets and blogs about them. It’s how we can continue to entertain you mooks.



Rex Koko fan art!

One of the best parts of my author chat at the Beverly Arts Center on October 19 was meeting my host, Penny Bigelow Golden, and her 8-year-old daughter, Flannery. A stylish scamp, sporting a fedora and a tartan skirt that day, she has told her mother time and again that she will grow up to be a famous French artist. Judging by her depiction of Rex Koko below, she may just make that prediction come true.

And she signed her note that came with the art “Your friend”. That’s cool by me, Flannery.

Book Release Party for WET NOSE OF DANGER!

After a spring and summer of scrivening in the salt mines — how’s that for alliteration? — it was more than high time for a book release event. What good is writing a couple of books of clown noir if I can’t bring a little bit of circus excitement to my fans and readers? Is the writing life all practice and no spectacle? Emphatically NO!

Last July, I had just published Double Indignity and was busy working to finish The Wet Nose of Danger. I went to talk with Suzy Takacz, who owns my neighborhood store, the Book Cellar, about doing an event in the fall. She was interested.

“What do you think about having a couple of fire-eaters in the store?” I asked, just trying to get her attention.

Suzy thought about it. And thought and thought and thought, with the usual sparkle in her eye. (I think she had seen one too many boring, unattended signings where the writer droned on and on about his/her process.) Finally, she had to say no. Not because she was worried about torching her store, or filling it with chemical smells, or disrupting business. She said no because there are tenants living above the store, and she wouldn’t want to displace them if anything happened.

Lucky for me, The Book Cellar is across a quiet street from a city plaza, big enough to be useful for whatever I was thinking. I went through the city and the alderman’s office, as well as the chamber of commerce, to make sure everything would be ducky. The only warning I got came from the alderman’s office. “I’m going to have some music and circus acts,” I said. “Terrific,” spokesperson pol said, “just don’t do anything like fire-eaters or something.” “No worries,” I assured him.

With gypsy music from the fabulous Paprikash Brothers!

It was a beautiful night, and a good-sized crowd gathered for the ballyhoo.

Then we all marched across Lincoln Avenue, into the store for the reading. After being introduced by Suzy T, I read a passage from Double Indignity, the teeny car chase scene from Chapter 22.

Next it was time for a little vocabulary quiz, to see who was up on their circus “parlari”. I was frankly surprised that no one got the first question (a woman with an unnatural lust for clowns is, of course, a “joey jumper”), but most of the audience was fairly literate. I tossed out popcorn balls for prizes to the winners.

Then the audience asked me some questions about my writing process. A friend asked, “Where do you think these insane characters come from?” I gave her some long-winded answer — that some come to mind from a story of circus lore, some are inspired by an old photo, some are born of plot necessity — when really the only true response is, “If I knew, don’t you think I’d have taken care of it by now?”

Next, I read a rather lurid section from The Wet Nose of Danger, involving a “joey jumper” and Rex at a high-society fundraiser. “She had more arms than a spider-woman, and the sex drive of a hippo after Happy Hour.” Then, it was time for the signing, and the crowd didn’t disappoint. I also gave away a lot of free posters.

One of the best surprises of the evening was an old geezer sitting in the front row. During the signing, he came up balanced on his cane and introduced himself. He could’ve been 60 and he could’ve been 80, but he told me that since the age of 18, he had worked backstage with the big cats for the Cole Brothers Circus! He had retired about 10 years ago, but he said he had all the scars he needed to prove he’d been with the show.

“It was all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “The cats were just like housecats, with their routines and their need for attention, and their litter box. I’d never train monkeys. Monkeys were vicious, unpredictable. Big cats were always marvelous.”

I’m pretty certain he lives in my neighborhood, because he was pulling around a shopping cart from the local sausage shop. I apologized to him in advance for anything I might have gotten wrong in my story, but said all I was going for was entertainment. I’ve met a few other kinkers like this before. Circus people and veterans are out there among us. You never know when you’re going to meet one!

All in all, it was a spectacular night! One for the record books! A fitting launch for the latest and strangest “Rex Koko, Private Clown” caper!

(For more pictures of the evening, please check out the photo album I’ve created on Facebook.)

It’s Christmas Again in Top Town

Hello, dear friends. With the Yuletide season upon us once again, I’d like to give you all a little stocking stuffer for your ears. I know it’s also last year’s present, but it’s the thought that counts.

“Have Yourself a Monkey Little Christmas” is a heartwarming Top Town tale, starring Rex Koko, private clown. When Rex is doing his stint ringing a bell on the corner for charity, someone manages to cloat his little red kettle. But who? The answer to that question sends Rex on an adventure involving a sick friend, 20 or so uncontrollable monkeys, and a miserly landlord who needs a lesson in Christmas charity. Brought to you by Ludwig Coal Company, “the kind Mother used to burn.”

I’ve also reposted the special edition e-book of the story at Amazon. It’s only 99c, and ALL the proceeds will go to the American Red Cross. You KNOW you want it, just to complete your whole Rex Koko set.

For the electronic story from Amazon, click here.

New Podcast Episode!

Thanks for being patient out there, all you kinkers and kinkettes. I’ve finally finished recording and mixing the latest chapter in the Honk Honk, My Darling podcast. This is Chapter 17, “Betting Against the House”, which involves a dangerous, high-stakes poker game that our hero foolheartedly decides to bust into. (Fight scenes take a long time to mix, you know, and I had seven different characters to record. Not that I want to make excuses, but I’m also busy writing a real, all-new Rex book right now.)

So in your travels this holiday, skip the light classical or Michael Bolton tunes on your iPod. They won’t calm you down anyway. Curl up with some Top Town adventures with Rex Koko! Subscribe to the whole she-bang at iTunes if you haven’t already. Just six more episodes to go!

This episode is brought to you by SINK BOMB! Blasting kitchen germs and odor to KINGDOM COME!

Latest Podcast for Clowns and Exotic Dancers

After a too-long absence, here is the latest podcast of Honk Honk, My Darling. Chapter 16, “The Wild Widow”, is brought to you by Triple Crown Gelatin, “the thoroughbred of desserts”.

You’ll notice many different characters in this episode, all female. While I did try to handle ALL the voices in this book, here I got some help from the fabulous Mary Dixon of WXRT-FM in Chicago. She plays Boots Carlozo in the series, as well as “Big Jill” and “Stripper #2”.

You can listen to this episode below or download it directly from the LibSyn Page right cheer.

A New “Rex Koko” Story to Help the Red Cross

Well, really, it’s not exactly new, because I unleashed it on the world LAST Christmas, with a podcast and everything.

But this is NEW in the sense that it has a NEW cover, a NEW name for a character within it, and a NEW reason for you to actually click over to Amazon and buy a copy.

“Have Yourself a Monkey Little Christmas” is a heart-warming, poop-flinging tale about how Rex Koko uses a horde of misfit monkeys from Top Town’s infamous Monkey Hostel to help a sick friend out and give a come-uppance to a tight-fisted landlord who needs a little lesson in Christmas charity. It’s like “The Dirty Dozen”, only without the Nazis and the explosions and Jim Brown. Okay, it’s not very much like “The Dirty Dozen” but it IS entertaining.

And when you buy a copy of the story from Amazon, you’ll be helping out a good cause. I’ll take the proceeds and match them, then give the whole wad to the American Red Cross to help with Hurricane Sandy recovery and whatever else is headed this way in 2013.

Now, some of you might already have the story, but this time it’s for a good cause, and it’s only 99c, fer criminy pete’s sake. You can afford that, if only for the cover art. So clickety-click right here and buy it for yourselves and everyone you know:

Thanks for your support with this. I’m sorry the podcasts for “Honk Honk, My Darling” have gotten off-track, but they will begin again sometime in January.

UPDATE: To everyone who downloaded this story, thank you very much. I’m putting a check in the mail today, and taking down this story for the time being. No one should want to read Christmas stories except at Christmas, I think. If you’re good, it might come back next year. As Fats Waller once said, “One never knows, do one?”

New “HHMD” Podcast Now Broadcasting!

Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America (as well as Mr. and Ms. America, Mr. America and Ms. Caldwell-America, and Mr. and Mr. America in 7 states and the District of Columbia), and all ships at sea:

The new podcast for “HONK HONK, MY DARLING: A REX KOKO, PRIVATE CLOWN MYSTERY” is now uploaded. This episode is brought to you by Shakespeare Lard, the Bard’s Lard. You can listen to it below, or download it from this LibSyn webpage.

“Honk Honk, My Darling!” New Podcast for You Pod People!

At last! Will wonders never cease!? The time has come! I’ve finally gotten my act together, and recorded and mixed the latest audio installment of Honk Honk, My Darling!

This chapter was daunting because it had a lot of fisticuffs in it, and all those little sound effects and timing gave me a little hesitation. Also, as I get a little more proficient at this, the time each one takes grows and grows. I don’t think of myself as an insane perfectionist, but I do want to do things right the first time. This was another reason for the delay: I was becoming more dissatisfied with the sound of the narration. It felt too boxed in, stifling. So I talked to a friend of mine in the audio field, and of course he knew the problem and solution right away. It pays to ask a person who knows.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this chapter. It introduces a new character who will have a big role to play later in the book. Ooops, that’s too much info. Just sit back and enjoy.

New Podcast for Rex Koko!

Hello there, fans of old-time radio. It feels like forever since I recorded and mixed a podcast for “Honk Honk, My Darling”, and I’m very sorry for it. After I had my hard drive replaced in April, the raw recordings I was making in Audacity kept coming out a little funny, like I was speaking through a paper tube. I tried to fix it with the program settings, and got a little advice from a producer friend of mine (“Try it again”), but still it kept happening.

“How bad could it be?” I asked myself, as I valiantly tried to mix the subpar recordings. “I’ll just tweak the brightness or horizontal hold, use the Noise Remover on every single track, and fake my way through everything. A lot of extra work, but the show must go on. No one would notice the difference anyway, right?”

And then I played the mixes for earlier podcasts, and realized I couldn’t continue until the problem was solved. After a little forum browsing, I tried one recommendation, to turn off the interior microphone driver in Windows. My laptop has no built-in mike anyway, but this setting was messing things up. So, deleted that driver, and woooolah!, problem solved.

So here, after one of the longer cliffhangers in recent memory,is Chapter 13. Brought to you by our friends at Schtuppenfuss Beer, the Deer Camp Beer. It’s Pilsenized!

And to get all the rest of them, go to the podcast page at the Rex Koko website.

We’re halfway there! More thrills and spills to come!

“Honk Honk, My Darling” — Podcast for Chapter 12 Now Up!

For everyone who couldn’t sleep wondering what was going to happen to Rex in the blacksmith shop, now you’ll have the answers. Are the Redd Brothers dumb enough to take on a policeman, even if he is a midget? What does Pinky know about the murders? And what does Rex turn up when he goes digging around in Berndt Bork’s workbench?

All brought to you by Genghis Khan Hair Tonic, the Barbarian’s Choice!

(Sorry this was so late. April flew by, what with spring break, computer meltdowns and other problems. If you enjoy this, please tell your friends and neighbors.)

“Honk Honk, My Darling” — New Podcast Just Podded!

Wow, it has been WAY too long since I put up a new chapter podcast for the book. Big apologies are in order, for those of you who are on the edge of your seat to see what new voices and accents I can mangle while trying to hide my mediocre acting chops.

But if you knew how many hours it took me to mix the last podcast (“Have Yourself a Monkey Little Christmas”, which is now taken down until next December), you’d certainly cut me some slack. By a rough estimation, aside from the actual recording of the episode, it takes at least 1 hour to mix 1 minute of narrative. Add into that my searching the web for just the perfect sound effect, and the time goes up further. Don’t get me wrong, I still love doing this — it’s just a scheduling commitment that I sometimes put off for other things, like paying bills or writing.

So here you go, Chapter 11. I hope you like it. And tell your friends and neighbors about it.

New Year, New Plans, New Paperback

Hello, all you bips and kinkers. Hope your New Year is still smooth and shiny, still sporting that New Year smell. Things are finally quiet here on the Mezzanine Level, as both my Ever-Lovin’ Wife, Number One Son and The Urchin have all returned to their respective schools. Me? I just return to the four corners of my battered yet resilient psyche.

(I sure hope the WordPress Self-Aggrandizing Filter is still activated.)

I can’t find an overarching theme or topic to string all my thoughts together, so I’ll just toss ’em out here and let them fall where they may.

1. Thank you very much to all my readers and fans out there who scooped up e-copies of all my books. December was my biggest month yet, and I hope that you all enjoyed the various PC stories and the sawdust-and-tinsel epic of Honk Honk My Darling.

2. Thanks also to those of you who downloaded the special Rex podcast, “Have Yourself a Monkey Little Christmas.” I’ve taken that audio file down now, but it will come back later in 2012 as a Christmas treat. I hope the next audio chapter of Honk Honk My Darling will be ready to go by the end of next week. (If you haven’t been listening, it couldn’t be easier to catch up on old episodes. You can subscribe at iTunes or go straight to LibSyn to grab them:

3. My incredibly slow but unstoppable conquest of all media continues, with the release of the paperback edition of Honk Honk, My Darling! Yes! A physical book you can hold in your physical hands! It would’ve been great to have had it ready in December, but we had some snafus uploading it to Amazon’s CreateSpace. But after some tweaks and another round of proofs, it is here, and looking very professional. I didn’t know the art would look so sumptuous when expanded to a paperback format, but I am very very pleased with the result.

Here we see Zippo’s appropriate reaction to the beautifulness of the paperback. (Zippo appears courtesy of Germany’s renowned Circus Roncalli.)

The paperbacks are printed on demand by CreateSpace and are for sale at Amazon for $9.99. They will also be available this Saturday, as the Chicago Writers Association honors the 2011 Book of the Year Winners! At 7 p.m. at Lincoln Square’s wonderful Book Cellar, we’ll be having readings and snacks for everyone, so everyone in Chicagoland, come out and support your local writers! This year’s winners are Christine Sneed, Pamela Ferdinand, Krista August, and yours truly. For more on them and on the awards in general, head to the CWA blog.

4. For those who want the whole five-cent background on me and the evolution of Rex Koko, check out the interview on the CWA Blog.