Last Call for the Best Show on Earth

By Tricia Drevets

Declining sales and rising operating costs are the reasons given for many business closings. However, when that business has been in operation for nearly 150 years, those reasons resonate a little more deeply.

The recent announcement by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus that it will cease all performances in May signals the end of an era.

With its high-flying acrobats, its goofy clowns, its glittery costumes and its wild animals, “the greatest show on earth” has been part of American culture since the mid-19th century.

In the mid-1800s, P.T. (Phineas Taylor) wowed crowds with his traveling collection of exotic animals and strange human beings around the same time that five Wisconsin brothers performed acrobatic and juggling acts in Wisconsin.

When the two acts joined forces, a new style of entertainment was born – the modern circus. Traveling America by train, the circus caused quite a commotion when it arrived. In many small communities, businesses would close and schools would let out when “the circus came to down.”

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey went on to entertain sold-out houses at huge in the 20th century.

In 1953, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth”  film, starring Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton, won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe awards for Best Picture, revealing the hold the circus had on Americans by mid-century.

However, 21st century audiences have not embraced the circus as much as their predecessors have. Already facing declining ticket sales, the circus also has been the target of animal rights groups. Activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal (PETA) have vehemently protested its use of elephants and charged the circus with animal abuse.

After years of lawsuits brought by these activists, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey retired its elephants last year, establishing a 250-acre conservation ranch for them in central Florida. Previously, the circus agreed to a six-figure fine, although it admitted no wrongdoing.

In her statement about the circus closing, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said her organization had “awoken the world to the plight of animals in captivity” and called the circus “the saddest show on earth for wild animals.” She challenged all other animal circuses to close as well.

Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement about the circus closing, “I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”

In a statement on circus website, Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, acknowledged that already declining ticket sales dropped even more dramatically after what he termed “the transition of the elephants off the road.”

Paradoxically, while some people protested the use of elephants, others did not want to attend a circus that did not feature appearances by the giant animals.

“There isn’t any one thing” that prompted the decision to close the circus, Feld said, adding, “This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family.” The Field family bought the circus in 1967.  

“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.”

In addition to the negative publicity of the animal rights protests, some of the “things working against it” include all the modern forms of electronic entertainment that make the circus seem outdated to 21st century kids.

Despite launching an interactive app, adding ice skaters and motorbike daredevils, circus attendance has floundered in recent decades.

“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,” Feld said.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey currently has two circuses touring the U.S. It will perform 30 shows before offering its final performances May 7 in Providence, R.I. and May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y.

Most of the approximately 500 circus employees will be out of jobs this spring. The current touring circus animals, including tigers, lions, donkeys, camels, kangaroos, alpacas and llamas — will be placed in suitable homes, according to the circus, and the company will continue to operate its Center for Elephant Conservation.

Feld said his company will continue to work with the Circus Museum at The Ringling in Sarasota (Florida). That museum and the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin hold memorabilia that tell the story of America’s long-standing love affair with the circus – an affair that has now come to a close.

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