Sad. Jubilant. Bittersweet.
The iconic Greatest Show on Earth, the traveling circus that set up Big Tops in towns big and small around the country starting well over a century ago, will soon be no more. Generations to come will no longer enjoy the antics of a multitude of clowns crowding into a small car, trapeze daredevils flipping through the air and grasping their partner’s arms to avoid falling to the ground, and the high wirewalkers like Manatee County’s fabled Nik Wallenda taunting death performing without a safety net.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, an American institution, is folding the old tents, so to speak (the Big Top came down permanently in the 1950s). Ellenton-based Feld Entertainment, the circus parent company, made the announcement just days ago.
For circus adversaries, the demise of the “saddest show on earth for wild animals,” as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals cast the circus, will also end protests over bullhooks, chained creatures and small cages. Animal rights battles did not bring down the curtain alone. High production costs and falling ticket sales did — this amid a culture now enamored with smart phones, digital games and other flashy diversions shifting eyeballs away from real-life interplay.
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That alone is also sad, especially for a place where history will live on thanks to a legacy from one of the greatest showmen on earth — and art historians — of all times. Sarasota is well known as the circus capital of the world. The Ringling brothers moved the company’s headquarters here in 1927. Well before that, John Ringling and his wife Mabel made Sarasota their home, in 1911. Years later, they built a massive European art museum on the Manatee-Sarasota county line on the grounds of their sprawling estate, including their Sarasota Bay mansion, Ca’ d’Zan, all of 36,000 square feet, 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. Their legacy, the John and Mable Ringling Museum orf Art, is now an incredible legacy under the stewardiship of the state of Florida.
More relevant to today, however, those elegant grounds are home to the Ringling Museum of the American Circus, established in 1948, the first to document the rich history of the circus, wildly popular in its heyday — which lasted more than a century. Then, in January 2006, the Circus Museum Tibbals Learning Center opened —with house posters, special exhibitions and a centerpiece unequaled in scale and curiosity, a 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus combined shows from 1919-1938. Complete with one of the two 56-car trains the circus operated for decades. To see this is to appreciate the enormity of such an enterprise.
The circus tradition will remain alive with some 30 smaller companies touring the United States, the Sarasota-based Circus Ring of Fame Foundation notes. And we have a home-grown company dedicated to the preserving this unique art, Circus Sarasota and Sailor Circus, operated by the Circus Arts Conservatory in a one-ring European-style big top.
The Feld family, which has owned the Ringling circus since 1967, has more invested in this enterprise than dollars. And they heard their critics, finally deciding to remove elephants from all the shows just this past May — “beloved elephants performed in their last ever show after 145 years of Ringling Bros. tradition,” the circus website states. That hit the bottom line, of course, further lowering attendance.
The Feld family’s emotional investment in the circus can be found in the development of the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, a 200-acre spread in central Florida dedicated to the care and conservation of these endangered animals. This is the home to the largest Asian elephant herd in the Western Hemisphere. Those final 11 pachyderms from both traveling shows joined the herd of 29 elephants at the Florida center.
How important is the circus to our community? We’ve already mentioned some of the reasons. Here’s one more. The St. Armands Circle Ring of Fame honors circus greats with their own bronze plaques. More than 80 circus greats from around the world are celebrated there, including Nik Wallenda, who fearlessly wirewalked Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon in the past few years. This is circus country.
We understand the fate of the Greatest Show on Earth, given our compassion for all animals and the new entertainment diversions. But we hope the circus tradition lives on in smaller venues, like the excellent one in Sarasota.