The big top comes down: Ringling Bros. circus is closing
ELLENTON, Fla. — After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told The Associated Press that the show will close forever in May.
The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives say. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.
“There isn’t any one thing,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment. “This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family.”
The company broke the news to circus employees Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami.
Ringling Bros. has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May. Major stops include Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Brooklyn. The final shows will be in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7 and in Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum on May 21.
The circus, with its exotic animals, flashy costumes and death-defying acrobats, has been a staple of entertainment in the United States since the mid-1800s. Phineas Taylor Barnum made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Wisconsin. Eventually, they merged and the modern circus was born. The sprawling troupes traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.
By midcentury, the circus was routine, wholesome family entertainment. But as the 20th century went on, kids became less and less enthralled. Movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds. The circus didn’t have savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image.
“The competitor in many ways is time,” said Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks — such as providing a traveling school for performers’ children— are throwbacks to another era. “It’s a different model that we can’t see how it works in today’s world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price. So you’ve got all these things working against it.”
The Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967. The show was just under 3 hours then. Today, the show is 2 hours and 7 minutes, with the longest segment — a tiger act — clocking in at 12 minutes.
“Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes,” he said.
Feld and his daughter Juliette Feld, who is the company’s chief operating officer, acknowledged another reality that led to the closing, and it was the one thing that initially drew millions to the show: the animals. Ringling has been targeted by activists who say forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime opponent of the circus, wasted no time in claiming victory.
“After 36 years of PETA protests, which have awoken the world to the plight of animals in captivity, PETA heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times,” Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a statement.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, acknowledged the move was “bittersweet” for the Felds but said: “I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”
In May of 2016, after a long and costly legal battle, the company removed the elephants from the shows and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Central Florida. The animals had been the symbol of the circus since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882. In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year fight over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.
By the time the elephants were removed, public opinion had shifted somewhat. Los Angeles prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers and handlers, as did Oakland, California. The city of Asheville, North Carolina nixed wild or exotic animals from performing in the municipally owned, 7,600-seat U.S. Cellular Center.
Attendance has been dropping for 10 years, said Juliette Feld, but when the elephants left, there was a “dramatic drop” in ticket sales. Paradoxically, while many said they didn’t want big animals to perform in circuses, many others refused to attend a circus without them.
“We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. was getting to see elephants,” she said. “We stand by that decision. We know it was the right decision. This was what audiences wanted to see and it definitely played a major role.”
The Felds say their existing animals — lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas — will go to suitable homes. Juliette Feld says the company will continue operating the Center for Elephant Conservation.
Some 500 people perform and work on both touring shows. A handful will be placed in positions with the company’s other, profitable shows — it owns Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live, among other things — but most will be out of a job. Juliette Feld said the company will help employees with job placement and resumes. In some cases where a circus employee lives on the tour rail car (the circus travels by train), the company will also help with housing relocation.
Kenneth Feld became visibly emotional while discussing the decision with a reporter. He said over the next four months, fans will be able to say goodbye at the remaining shows.
In recent years, Ringling Bros. tried to remain relevant, hiring its first African American ringmaster, then its first female ringmaster, and also launching an interactive app. It added elements from its other, popular shows, such as motorbike daredevils and ice skaters. But it seemingly was no match for Pokemon Go and a generation of kids who desire familiar brands and YouTube celebrities.
“We tried all these different things to see what would work, and supported it with a lot of funding as well, and we weren’t successful in finding the solution,” said Kenneth Feld.