Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls. Welcome to the grand finale of “The Greatest Show on Earth!” After 146 years, the curtain is closing on the spectacle that is the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Owners told The Associated Press that the circus will run until May, and then it will close its doors forever. The reason? Well, there are many.
Attendance has declined steadily over the last decade. And with high operating costs and low public opinion on the use of performance animals, it was simply too much for the circus to bear.
The End of An Era
Phineas Taylor Barnum created the spectacle of human oddities and performing animals, what some may have referred to as the “Freak Show” (Not unlike American Horror Story – without all the killing). In contrast, the five Ringling brothers offered the traditional juggling acts and skits. When the two merged, the circus as we know it was born.
Circus troupes travelled the country by train, bringing their entertainment to amazed audiences, delighting children and parents alike with their acrobatic skills and exotic animals that people hadn’t seen before.
The circus became standard family entertainment by mid-century, but as time went on the awe of the circus was fading. Kids became less enchanted by the performers and animals. Movies, video games and TV captured kids’ attention, while the Internet allowed the exotic to come home with them.
There was no product merchandising, branding or tie-ins with popular kids’ TV shows to captivate the young minds.
The circus simply could not withstand the changes over time. Peculiarities that once made circus-life so unusual and mystifying – like transporting the show by rail and offering a traveling school for the children of the circus performers – are throwbacks to another era.
“The competitor in many ways is time,” said Feld. So, you’ve got all these things working against it. When the Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967, the show was almost three hours long. Today, it is just over two.
Audience attention span, especially kids, was declining. The longest segment of the show is 12 minutes. Many short segments captivated audience attention better than longer, in depth performances.
Feld and his daughter Juliette, chief operating officer of Feld Entertainment, admit that the largest factor contributing to the closure is the same thing that originally drew millions to the show. The animals.
Ringling is one of many circuses targeted by animal rights activists. Forcing animals to perform is considered by many to be both cruel and pointless.
In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups like the Humane Society of the United States after a 14-year battle over accusations that the elephants were mistreated by circus employees.
The Final Curtain Call
Juliette said the company will try to help employees with resumes and job placements. For the employees live on the rail cars, the company will help find housing.
Feld was emotional when telling reporters that fans have the next four months to say goodbye to the circus and its performers.
Despite trying to stay relevant by hiring its first African American and female ringmasters, launching an interactive app and introducing popular elements from its other shows like motorbike daredevils, it simply couldn’t compete with the techno-hobbies of a new generation of kids.
“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 Feld.
Ringing Bros. has two final tours this season that will perform about 30 shows between now and May. Fans of the circus can find them in Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Washington. Their final acts are on May 7 in Providence, Rhode Island and May 21 in Uniondale, New York.