He’s not embarrassed to admit it. When he first heard the news that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would be closing for good, Nik Wallenda cried. He didn’t get merely misty-eyed. He cried hard.
“Tears were running down my cheeks,” Wallenda said. “Absolutely, tears were running down my cheeks. My family came over in 1928 to perform in that circus. If it weren’t for Ringling Bros. circus, I wouldn’t be here.”
Bradenton resident Wallenda is, of course, part of the world’s most famous family of high-wire artists, popularly known as the Flying Wallendas. He’s best known for televised walks across Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.
Wallenda’s a circus insider, and spent a few years with with Ringling Bros. But when he got word that Palmetto-based Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, would bring the historic circus to an end in May, he was caught off-guard.
Tears were running down my cheeks. My family came over in 1928 to perform in that circus. If it weren’t for Ringling Bros. Circus, I wouldn’t be here.
Nik Wallenda, high-wire artist
“Obviously, I was very surprised,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t anything I had seen coming.”
Wallenda was talking during a break from rehearsing for his upcoming performance with Circus Sarasota. The new Circus Sarasota show, titled “Synergy,” opens Feb. 10 under the big top at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.
Dolly Jacobs, the world-famous aerialist who co-founded the Circus Arts Conservatory, which runs Circus Sarasota, spent 14 years with the Ringling Bros. circus. Her father, Lou Jacobs, spent more than 60 years as one of the most recognizable clowns in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. So she felt the loss of the circus personally.
“It was his passion,” she said of her father’s affection for the Ringling circus. “He loved it as much as he loved us.”
She could see that the circus was struggling, but never thought it would close.
“I thought they’d scale it down,” she said. “Maybe go to one units instead of two.”
(In recent years the Ringling Bros. Circus has had two full circuses, called the red unit and the blue unit, traveling North America almost non-stop.)
Both Wallenda and Jacobs said they thought the artistic quality of the Ringling Bros. Circus had deteriorated. Motorcycle stunt riders and other modern entertainment, added in an effort to make the show appealing to children, took away from the circus experience rather than adding to it.
“It has changed in the past 10 years,” Jacobs said. “It wasn’t the greatest show on earth anymore.”
Kids still love the circus. Their eyes light up when they see these larger-than-life characters performing impossible feats, just as they always have.
Dolly Jacobs, aerialist
Wallenda echoed that sentiment.
“The quality has gone down year after year, in my opinion,” he said.
Jacobs said experience with Circus Sarasota shows her that souping up the circus isn’t really necessary.
“Kids still love the circus,” she said. “Their eyes light up when they see these larger-than-life characters performing impossible feats, just as they always have.”
Wallenda agrees that the Ringling Bros. Circus hasn’t, in recent years, been what it was a couple of decades ago. But he said he didn’t think that closing the circus was necessary. He thinks that Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld simply made the decision to close it because of declining revenues, and tangential issues such as protests from PETA, the animal rights organization that targeted the circus.
“I can personally assure you that it was still making money,” he said. “It just wasn’t making as much money as he was used to making. He’s a billionaire. It just wasn’t worth it to him. Ringling Brothers would have been around for another hundred years if he had let someone else take it over. No one else had the opportunity. It was just this one person who made the decision.”
Jacobs said the closing of Ringling Bros. Circus may have a positive ripple effect on other circuses, because young people and families still long for that kind of entertainment. She’s also hopeful that the Ringling Brothers circus may be reborn
“I’m hoping someone will still come along and pick up the pieces,” she said.