On Sunday night in New York, the curtain will close for the final time on The Greatest Show on Earth and a way of life for residents of “the town without a zip code.”
Feld Entertainment, the company behind the circus since Irvin Feld bought it in 1967 with his brother Israel and politician-developer Roy “The Judge” Hofheinz, announced the end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in January. Since then, shock waves have reverberated through the circus arts community after the gold standard in the circus world answered the question: No, the show will not go on.
“You look at Ringling closing the doors and people scratch their heads, right?” said Pedro Reis, founder and CEO of the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota, the area’s living circus. “Things change, people evolve and sometimes The Greatest Show on Earth loses its color, its sparkle, its magic. And I guess that’s what happened and people stopped going. They (Feld Entertainment) made a business decision and it’s over.”
Reis began his career as a flying trapeze artist in his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. His circus training started at age 12 at the local YMCA. He toured Europe as a professional flying trapeze artist. Then, in 1984, he came to the U.S. to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“It was always the dream to come to America and join The Greatest Show on Earth,” Reis said.
Circus artists from all over the world traveled to the U.S. to pursue the dream, perform in front of thousands of people and bring breathtaking entertainment to families who needed a break from the humdrum of daily life. Archived web pages show that Feld marketed The Greatest Show on Earth as an escape for families and performers alike.
“The dream is as much a part of the American culture as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey itself: to run away and join the circus. Have you ever dreamed that dream?” ringling.com asked visitors in April 2001.
It’s American culture
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus permeates every part of American culture. When a political candidate enters a race, they’ve tossed their name “into the ring.” Nabisco sells Barnum’s Animals Crackers in a red, circus wagon-shaped box, with zebras, giraffes and hippos peeking out of the windows. A Sarasota brewing company, Big Top Brewing Co., is named after the local connection to circus history.
John Ringling, one of five brothers who owned and operated The Greatest Show on Earth, purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in Sarasota with his wife Mable in 1911, according to the Ringling website. It was the Ringlings’ winter home, and the couple eventually bought more property in the area. Their estate, now called the Ca D’Zan, along with the Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, the Historic Asolo Theater, an education center and sprawling bay front gardens, offers the Sarasota community and tourists a glimpse into the magnificent life of the Ringlings, a couple who brought grandeur and wonder to the then-small town of Sarasota.
“We have lost an iconic center ring brand,” said Deborah Walk, assistant director of legacy and circus at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. “Here is the Ringling show — it survived terrible seasons of ticket sales, blow-downs and fires — but it was always there. The world changes, yes, but there was always a Ringling show.”
We have lost an iconic center ring brand. Here is the Ringling show — it survived terrible seasons of ticket sales, blow-downs and fires — but it was always there. The world changes, yes, but there was always a Ringling show.
Deborah Walk, assistant director of legacy and circus at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Even with the end of the Ringling Bros. circus, the show must still go on for circus artists everywhere, says Reis. He and his wife, renowned circus performer Dolly Jacobs, started the Circus Arts Conservatory in 1997 to give back to the community, to change public opinion about the circus and to give Sarasota, a city rich in circus history, a permanent live performing circus.
“We wanted to change the perception of it as a true art form,” Reis said. “The public’s conception is from the sideshow, the carnival and the bearded lady. We wanted to create an entity that represented circus arts on par with the ballet and symphony.”
Despite Feld’s decision to close the circus, Reis and other local luminaries such as high-wire master Nik Wallenda say it’s far from the end of the circus.
“As a matter of fact, I’m headlining a circus in New York City that opens in October,” Wallenda said, referring to the Big Apple Circus, a tented one-ring circus founded in 1977. “It’s funny because I have a lot of friends in circuses, being raised in the industry. I was looking at photos last night on Facebook from three different shows in the U.S. and Canada. There were lines wrapped around the building.
“Ringling Bros. has been sold out for last three months,” he noted. “People wouldn’t run to the doors and fill up arenas if they weren’t interested in it. I actually think the circus is stronger than ever.”
The announcement to end the American entertainment mainstay came one month after Feld Entertainment announced Kristen Michelle Wilson of Orlando would become the first female circus ringmaster. Feld executives Kenneth Feld and Juliette Feld say declining ticket sales, high operating costs, the public’s changing tastes and costly fights with animal rights groups all contributed to ending the 146-year-old show.
Kenneth Feld said at the January press conference that entertainment is more specialized now in “our data-driven world.” Reis recognizes that the circus has competition from entertainment devices such as iPads and other “instant gratification” tools. He and Jacobs take the increasing competition as a reason to rise to the occasion.
“It’s got to be awe, danger, beauty, strength, laughter,” Reis said. “The audience needs to go on a roller coaster of emotion so when they leave after a 90-minute show they go, ‘Wow.’ ”
The Greatest Show on Earth lost the “wow” factor in recent years, according to Wallenda and Dolly Jacobs, a world-famous aerialist who co-founded the Circus Arts Conservatory. In past interviews with the Bradenton Herald, both said incorporating motorized equipment and other modern entertainment into the circus took away from the original artistic splendor that the show was known for.
Feld Entertainment wouldn’t disclose figures for Ringling Bros. operating costs or exactly how much ticket sales dropped in recent years.
Two years ago, Reis attended a Ringling Bros. show and, he says, was “grossly disappointed. It’s just not the same.”
Wallenda echoed Reis’ thoughts in an interview in January with the Bradenton Herald.
“The quality has gone down year after year, in my opinion,” he said.
Losing the culture of the Big Top family
The 2001 version of ringling.com boasted that the privately owned circus trains housed an “international melting pot of cultures and skills.” Closing both of the Ringling Bros. circus units means close to 600 people will be out of a job, including performers, crew and some positions at Feld’s headquarters in Ellenton, according to Feld spokeswoman Lisa Taylor. Feld originally estimated the number of jobs lost would be two-thirds of the most recent total.
“We just adapt,” Reis said.
Circus artists are used to change, he said, as they’re “independent contractors that travel from show to show, city to city. This year you’re with one circus, and the next year you’re with another.”
At one time, 1,300 people piled onto the mile-long Ringling circus train with thousands of tons of equipment, animals and props to bring the magic of the big top to audiences across the U.S. Another train was added in 1969 when Irvin Feld decided the show needed a second, simultaneous tour, because “many tour-worthy sites had to be given up simply because one circus could not logistically meet all possible dates,” according to Tom Ogden’s book Two Hundred Years of The American Circus.
Feld bought Circus Williams, also in 1969, to ensure a second tour and to make sure star Gunther Gebel-Williams would perform in the added Ringling Bros. show. Gebel-Williams was a famous animal trainer and household circus name until 1998, when he made his last public appearance.
The Ringling Bros. circus was the only remaining show that transported both performers and equipment by rail. The Strates Show Inc. carnival, based in Orlando, also travels by train, but the employees and families do not travel and live on the train.
When it was completely set up, the circus spanned 16 to 20 acres, according to Walk. Beyond the famous big top tent, dozens of smaller tents dotted the circus campus of the day. Wagons and exhibits were scattered across the grounds to prime people for entry into the big top. To this day, the train still carried all of the elements that make the circus a town without a zip code, including a hospital, nursery and teachers.
146 years the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey toured and performed
The circus could unpack, set up, perform and re-pack all in one day. The masterful logistics of moving so much equipment and so many people were astounding enough to attract the attention of both the U.S. and German armed forces, Walk said. Part of their curiosity came from how the show managed to feed all of the people and animals on the tour.
About a year ago, the Ringling Bros. bid farewell to elephants as part of the circus family.
“When the elephants left the show, we did not anticipate the absolute impact it would have,” Kenneth Feld said in January. “It was much greater than we thought.”
Taylor said Feld has worked with the Ringling Bros. family the past four months to help with the transition, “whether it’s providing career counseling, to assistance in finding housing.”
Regardless of what happens next for the 600 circus cast and crew members, Reis has faith that the resilient attitudes they built through working in the circus will carry them forward.
“I think the endurance of a circus artist is that much more,” he said. “It’s about your body, and also about pushing your body and mind to the limits of durability. When you’re turning a triple somersault three times a day, it takes its toll, but we endure. And I think circus artists, or at least I always have a ‘the show must go on’ mentality. So what if it hurts? Get up and do it. The audience bought a ticket, so you’ve got to make them smile and feel good.”
What’s next for Feld Entertainment?
“Why wouldn’t he (Kenneth Feld) choose to sell it unless he has something in his back pocket that none of us know about?” Wallenda said. “My gut tells me they’re going to sell the name eventually, or I think he will regroup and bring back the brand in a different fashion.”
At this time, Feld Entertainment has no plans to reopen the circus, Taylor insists. In the near future, Feld will focus on promoting itself as a “world leader in live family entertainment.” The company has announced a new show, Marvel Universe LIVE! Age of Heroes, and earlier this year announced a partnership with Sesame Workshop to produce Sesame Street Live.
This summer, Feld Entertainment plans to launch a new Disney On Ice show. Feld also produces Monster Jam, Monster Energy Supercross and AMSOIL Arenacross.
Wallenda previously told the Herald that he doesn’t believe the company was losing money on the big top.
“I can personally assure you that it was still making money,” he said after Feld’s announcement. “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 Bros. 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.”
Feld Entertainment “explored all options” before deciding to close the Ringling Bros. circus, Taylor said. Wallenda expressed interest in buying the circus after a reporter prompted the question, but when it didn’t work out, he signed on with the Big Apple Circus.
Kenneth Feld’s father, Irvin Feld, sold the circus brand once before. In 1970, Irvin sold Ringling Bros. to Mattel for $47 million, according to a timeline provided by Walk. Twelve years later and nine years after Kenneth Feld became co-producer of the Ringling Show, the Feld family purchased the circus back from Mattel for almost $23 million in cash.
In March, Kenneth Feld appeared on the Forbes Magazine world billionaires list.
“He’s a smart businessman,” Wallenda said.
Herald entertainment reporter Marty Clear contributed to this report.
Story update: On Sunday, Feld Entertainment spokeswoman Lisa Taylor said 465 positions would be impacted by the circus closing.