Faced with declining ticket sales, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus -- after juggling the numbers as best it could -- is staging its final performance two weeks from today … which means that for anyone wanting to take one last look, there's no time to lose. Lee Cowan reports:
"Ladies and Gentleman, children of all ages … Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth!"
It is a pretty bold claim: "The Greatest Show on Earth." But Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had every reason to brag. There was a time when there really was nothing else like it. Ringling was controlled mayhem -- a dizzying array of performers risking life and limb alongside a menagerie of exotic animals from faraway lands.
After 146 years, the thrills are still there, but the wonder seems to have faded.
Ringling's Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson laments that today, when kids go looking for the Greatest Show on Earth, many look for it on their smartphones instead.
"More and more, unfortunately. we're becoming a society that really doesn't embrace wonder anymore," Iverson said. "The wonder that we offer, you can't find it on Facebook, you can't find it on YouTube. You have to engage, you have to be there, you have to be present, and it takes relating to others not like yourself. That's how this has been made."
It's a fact of modern life that brought Ringling's Big Top to its knees. "Without a doubt, it was the toughest business decision that we've made," said Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment. "And we made it together as a family."
His dad, Irvin Feld, bought the circus from the Ringlings for $8 million back in 1967. They were caretakers of a slice of Americana, and a home for a unique community whose desire to dazzle outweighed everything else.
"The love is for the institution, but the greater love is for the people that make up that institution," Feld said. "That's the difficult part."
Feld grew up with sawdust in his veins -- and so did his three daughters, Alana, Nicole and Juliette. They even performed with the Ringling clowns on occasion.
"I went to circus camp for a little while," said Nicole. "I was in a roller skating act where I lit a match on the floor with my teeth!"
"Can you still do that?" Cowan asked. "Because that is a good party trick."
"I don't know that want to try at this point!" she laughed.
Over the years, the Feld sisters tried to help their father infuse the circus with 21st century sensibilities, while still keeping the show's 19th century traditions intact. But it was a balancing act that in the end just didn't balance their bottom line.
"The economic model, it didn't work anymore," said Alana. "And we don't want to compromise what is the Greatest Show on Earth. It's emotional, for sure."
Baraboo, Wisconsin, is where Ringling's long run started. Their name is still everywhere there -- as is the country's largest circus museum, Circus World.
It was five brothers -- Al, Alf, Charles, John and Otto -- who pitched their first tent in Baraboo in 1884 and began carting their variety act in wagons all around the Midwest.
Eventually they were big enough to buy their biggest competitor, the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the combined shows brought amusement to Main Street USA on a scale never seen before.
Its arrival was a heralded event. The circus train was more than a mile long. At each stop, both man and beast alike would be unloaded, and within hours a vacant lot was turned into a canvas city. The Big Top could seat 12,000 people.
Howard Tibbals was so blown away, he spent much of his 81 years re-creating that spectacle in miniature, preserving what he'd seen as a kid. His replica (now on display at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla.) covers half the length of a football field.
He's built more than 150 circus wagons, 59 train cars, tickets booths, concessions stands -- all by hand, and all in exacting detail.
Cowan asked, "Do you have any idea how much you've spent doing this?"
"No," Tibbals smiled, "and nobody needs to know."
His model captures the magic the traveling circus held -- a spell cast on anyone looking for adventure, even after Ringling ditched the Big Top in favor of the air-conditioned comfort of arenas.
And you've heard of people running away to join the circus? Karen and Greg DeSanto actually did, becoming part of the travelling troupe of clowns for Ringling. They actually met at Clown College (in fact, Greg was a teacher there). He now runs the International Clown Hall of Fame in Baraboo.
Cowan asked, "Is it as romantic a life as it sounds?"
"Definitely," Greg replied. "Well, I think it's more romantic now, when we look back!"
"Yeah, in hindsight, yes!" Karen laughed.
"But you know, at the time, it's like a lifestyle."
A lifestyle that took them though America's backyards in their tiny home on the rails. "It was 6 feet long, 3 feet wide, and about 9 feet all," Greg said. "So it was a closet with a door."
Size didn't matter in the melting pot that was the circus -- languages and customs blended with the symphony of animals that traveled along with them.
Karen recalled, "The elephants were in the room right next to my first train car, the elephant car was the next one over, and so I'd lay out and they'd open the windows for the elephants and their trunks would come out and they'd sway and I'd feed em, I'd try to reach over and give them treats and they'd try to reach over, too, I mean, there was a baby tiger that used to live on our car. And it would run up and down the hallway, a baby Bengal Tiger!"
The animals, especially those elephants, had always been Ringling's biggest draw, but they were also its Achilles heel. Animal rights advocates had long protested forcing wild animals to perform as entertainment. Feld spent years denying accusations of abuse, and won more than $20 million in court settlements.
Nevertheless,, and that, says Feld, was the beginning of the end.
"When we made the decisions to take the elephants off the road, in May of 2016, we saw a drop in ticket sales and attendance way beyond what we anticipated," he said.
Without the circus, Feld Entertainment still has plenty of entertaining to do. It brings us Disney on Ice, and Monster Truck Jam, too, just to name a few. And there are, of course, other circuses, but there will never be another Ringling.
As Iverson expressed, "I was thinking the other day, man, we're gonna be the last voice any of these circus fans will ever hear. Wow! I'm holding onto that. I sort of believe, like Dr. Seuss, 'Don't cry because it's over-- smile because it happened!'"
For more info:
- Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus | Tickets (through May 21)
- Feld Entertainment
- John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Fla.
- International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, Baraboo, Wis.
- Circus Homecoming at Baraboo, July 20-23, 2017
- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation
- Circus World, Baraboo, Wis.