Monkees Vs. Macheen: “Monkees at the Circus”

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“It’s Great, It’s Terrific, It’s the Best Show on Earth”

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“Monkees at the Circus” is one I do remember watching in syndication in the late ’70s. It features a circus (obviously) , so of course it would make an impression on my five-year-old mind. David Panich, writer of “Monkees vs. Machine,”  also wrote this one. In addition to The Monkees, he also wrote for The Dean Martin Show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show to name a few. He died in 1983 at age 59. “Monkees at the Circus” was directed by Bruce Kessler and first aired February 13, 1967. The show starts out with the Monkee-mobile, circus music, and circus stock footage. Our boys walk through a circus tent set, hoping to catch a show but it’s closed.

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They go into the main tent and start playing with paraphernalia in there. The extremely unpleasant (but not evil) Victor starts throwing knives at them. He tells them to leave or he’ll call the police. Micky recycles his “You do and I’ll be sorry” line from “One Man Shy.”

Outside, between the tents, Victor holds a meeting with all the circus players, listing their woes. No one has been coming to the shows, they’re using old equipment, and they haven’t been paid. [This seems like a management/labor dispute – Editor] One of the performers blames the discotheques and rock and roll groups for taking away their audience. Hoo boy. Victor thinks they should quit. Pop, the circus owner, weakly tries to convince them to stay as his pretty young daughter Susan wanders sadly away.  Of course, Davy notices her and shuffles over. She’s worried that her father will lose the circus. Davy promises that everything will be okay or she can “feed him to the lions.” He has no way of being able to keep that promise. Norma Rae … I mean Victor continues to be a rabble-rouser. Davy jumps on stage to convince them to have hope, since there are always ups and downs: The circus is a tradition, the kids will come, etc. The performers like what he has to say.

Back in the tent, the Monkees hang around a costume rack. There’s a repeated reference in this episode whenever Micky sings the theme to Circus Boy, the show he starred in as a child actor. Here’s a bit of him singing it on that show, adorably energetic even then. Susan thanks them for offering to help, and then asks what they do for a living. Why, they’re Brain surgeons! Mike explains, “Except in the summer time, I’m a cotton picker. Sort of a carry-over of skills.” He gives the farm report into Micky’s stethoscope. They forgot to mention that they’re also compulsive liars. 

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Peter picks up the megaphone and transitions us into a scene where The Monkees imagine that they’re circus performers [“folie à quatre”, in other words – Editor]. In their fantasy, Peter is the Ringmaster, Micky’s an abusive lion tamer and Mike is a deadpan lion. Mike swipes the whip and makes Micky do the trick. I love Mike wearing his wool hat with his lion costume. Davy is a trapeze artist, suspending himself by his mouth at an amazing height of… two feet.

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They transition out and overhear Victor presenting Pop and Susan with a petition from the other performers to receive their back pay or else they’ll quit. The Monkees materialize in costumes and  mustaches, pretending to be a trapeze act known as The Flying Mozzarella Brothers “here to save the circus from distress.” The costumes are red leotards with gold tunics, and look like what the Four Martians used in “The Audition.” All of them do “over-zee-top” French accents, except Mike who remains Texan (with an occasional “zee” thrown in.) I enjoy this scene so much. They’re all charming and funny as they sell this scam to Victor. Micky whispers lines to Mike who introduces them as “Amazing, Incredible, Colossal, and Stupendous.” They claim they can cross the high-wire at 500 feet as a human pyramid. Victor is impressed and rushes off to tell the others the good news.

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After Victor and Pop leave, The Monkees dematerialize out of their disguises. Susan is pissed off and points out the obvious: The circus will be in bigger trouble when crowds come to see the non-existent Mozzarella brothers. That’s more lies for The Monkees. The Monkees hang around the real circus performers; a clown, strong man, sword swallower, and a juggler who each express their hope and excitement that the Mozzarella brothers are coming. It dawns on the Monkees what they’ve done. Yeah, they’re not at all in the right here. They’ve certainly screwed over Pop and the entire circus with their shenanigans this time. It’s always enjoyable to see them con bad guys, whether they succeed or fail, but Victor isn’t bad so the structure is re-set here, making an interesting difference in this episode where the Monkees are unintentional jerks.

The Monkees try to save the day by practicing on the tight rope while Susan nervously looks on. (Donna Baccala, who plays Susan, is really beautiful.) The best part of this is Peter and Mike on the high wire with balancing poles, walking through each other and looking at back in surprise. Micky is off screen shouting, “go back, go back.” Susan is not impressed and asks what they’re going to do. Micky says, “Well for our first act, we could get out of town. (nervous laugh.) A joke. Get it? Little joke, about that big.” Also a recycled joke, this time from “Dance, Monkee Dance.” Susan says they should tell the truth. Davy starts by confessing to her that they are rock-n-roll singers.

Victor overhears this part. He calls the other performers over and tells them about the Monkees lies. He’s presumptuously states that they’ve never even been on a Trapeze. He outs them as rock-n-rollers (the horror!) and says he’s leaving. The Monkees decide to go before they ARE fed to the lions. The performers glare at them and then pack and prepare to leave. Davy looks back in guilt as Susan cries.

Davy gets the others to stop and at least try to cheer Susan up. They dress as clowns and do a little act that’s also a romp to “Sometime in the Morning” (Gerry Goffin, Carole King). They should have done this to begin with. Playing music and being funny, THAT’s how they can help. The performance footage from this romp is used in “Monkee Mother” as well. They look very handsome in that footage. The circus players stop their packing, look on, and enjoy the show. They tell the Monkees they look like “real show folks” and want to perform with the Monkees after all. That was a really nice moment. Something about the circus performers not being terribly “actor-like” and The Monkees getting honest appreciation, worked for me.

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More stock-footage of a circus, leading into Pop as the Ringmaster announcing Victor featuring Susan as his living target. Victor doesn’t come out, which shouldn’t be a surprise since he made his feelings clear. Davy decides to draw Victor out by impersonating him, taking a shot at Victor’s ego.  Peter puts an apple on her head and Davy throws the knife before he finishes, “Don’t worry folks, I’ve got plenty more knives.” Victor comes out and takes the knives. He should kick Davy’s ass for risking Susan’s life, but he doesn’t. Instead, he performs his act to the sound of the crowd’s cheers.

Pop talks to Davy about how well it’s going and declares that the problem was that people just hadn’t seen a circus in so long. I’m not sure this makes sense; they’ve gotten an audience under false pretenses, and the audience doesn’t mind? I suppose the idea is, if they just get butts in the seats, the people will be so charmed they’ll fall in love with the circus again, but it’s not all that clearly conveyed by the writing. Anyway, Pop tells The Monkees they’re going on next. After a little panic, they realize that they’re going on just to play music. The “playing” is recycled footage of “She” (Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart) that was used in “Monkees a la Carte,” with the band in gray suits in front of a blue background. Cut in with shots of the circus cast dancing. Susan and Pop really get down.  It’s not the worst idea in the world, combining a circus with Rock-n-Roll. [“You wanted the best and you got the best!” – Editor] They did it with The Jim Rose Circus and Lollapalooza, though I suppose that was more of a sideshow to the music.

Tag sequence where Susan is making out with Davy to “thank” him. The small clown comes up to hand Davy a giant key to remember them by. The strong man gives Peter the giant bar bell since he was able to toss it around earlier, but now he can’t hold it up at all. The sword swallower gives Mike his sword to practice with, then he totally freaks Mike out by getting it stuck in his own throat. The juggler gives Micky her unicycle, pins, and a bucket so he can have his own act should the discotheques close down. Micky pedals himself into the ladder, right next to where David and Susan continue to make out.

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There are a lot of nice ideas in this episode. It’s an “old meets new and both learn from each other” type of story. The Monkees are actually the “evil” since they represent a phenomenon that’s taking away from the tradition of the circus, at least according to the episode.  If circuses were waning in popularity in the 1960s, they started to come back again in the 1970s (and as Davy says there are always ups and downs). The Monkees were able to help in the end, and the circus performers no longer hated and feared musicians. It’s a very sweet episode, although not as funny and missing the subversive humor that I love from The Monkees. And really, two of the funniest lines were recycled from other episodes. I would put this one in the sentimental and traditional sitcom category, like “Monkee Mother” and “Success Story.”

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Dedicated to the memory of the funny and talented Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

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by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Eddie And The Cruisers”, 1983

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“They’ll find a way to screw us, they always do. Guys like you and me, they strike oil under your garden and all you get is dead tomatoes.”

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“Eddie And The Cruisers”, 1983 (Tom Berenger), Embassy Pictures

We start off with a live, rousing Springsteen-esque anthem, “On The Darkside”. Sultry rock journalist Ellen Barkin gives us the exposition. They were the biggest, baddest band in the land! Eddie and The Cruisers! Barkin wants to write a story based on her wild theory that Eddie is still alive. His car went off a bridge one night when the band was in free-fall after recording a concept album called “A Season In Hell”; a follow-up to their successful debut. The label refused to release the album and dropped the band. Barkin wants to find the tapes that went missing a day after Eddie’s disappearance.

Keyboardist Tom Berenger (affectionately known as “Word Man”) teaches high school literature. While a fulfilling job, it doesn’t hold a candle to those lost nights of his youth performing with the band. He flashes back to the Jersey Shore, 1962, where he first encounters hot backing vocalist Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider), boyfriend and front-man Eddie Wilson (Michael Paré), douchebag bass player Sal Amato (Matthew Laurance), and the rest, including a drug-addicted saxophonist, and a frenetic personal manager named “Doc” (Joe Pantoliano). Impressed with Berenger’s musical acumen, Eddie asks him to join the band.

Barkin dogs Berenger for her story (pun!). She wants to know what happened that fateful night of Eddie’s disappearance. Berenger returns to his trailer home to find the place has been ransacked. Obviously somebody’s looking for those tapes. He hooks up with “Doc”, now working as a disc jockey spinning oldies but goodies. He wants the tapes so he can get a cut of the loot from sales and promotion, and he wants to bring the group back together, but Berenger ain’t buying what “Doc” is selling.

Berenger seems to be taking a trip through his past, touching base with “Doc”, Sal (who has revived the act with an impostor Eddie), and finally, Joann, with whom he consummates their long-standing mutual infatuation. In a particularly charming scene that traces the evolution of their hit song, “On The Darkside” from a simple keyboard riff to a fully-realized and produced pop song, Berenger listens to Sal’s revival and can only bemoan the lack of charisma and energy. Flashing back to the past, Berenger remembers the band’s initial success. “Wild Summer Nights” and “Tender Years” become big hits.

Things take an inevitable down-turn.  Eddie spies “Word Man” and Joann getting friendly, which causes a rift in their relationship.  Wendell, the saxophonist, drops dead of a drug overdose, and the band is in ruins.  Back in the present, Joann tells “Word Man” she keeps getting strange phone calls, and her place is also ransacked.  She tells him about the last night she spent with Eddie after the acrimony at the studio in the wake of “A Season In Hell”.  He takes her to a bizarre junkyard museum.  Joann tells him she took the tapes and hid them in the museum.  Together, they retrieve the tapes, but somebody’s been watching them this whole time.  Is it Eddie?

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“Eddie And The Cruisers” is a fast-paced rock n’ roll mystery movie. It’s a movie I watched constantly on cable. While given a small release in theaters, all but forgotten, the film became enormously popular on cable television. In fact the success of the movie played in constant cable rotation inspired a sequel, “Eddie Lives” in 1989. As Eddie, Michael Paré is a charismatic and good-looking front-man. He almost made me believe he was truly singing the John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band signature tunes that energize this movie’s soundtrack.

Martin Davidson directs (from a script he wrote with Arlene Davidson) with a sure hand and a love of music and music lore. Frequent collaborator Joseph Brooks produced the movie. Brooks also wrote the nausea-inducing, “You Light Up My Life”, and was charged with sexually assaulting eleven woman in his East Side apartment between 2005 and 2008. He committed suicide in 2011. His son, Nicholas, was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder of his girlfriend, Sylvie Cachay in 2011. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.