Saturday, January 28, 2017

The End of a Circus

After 146 years, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows is ending its run. Ironically, on a day I was in Ellenton, Florida, home of Feld Entertainment, Kenneth Feld announced that the circus his family had bought from the Ringling family in 1967 would be closing in just 4 months, ending its 146 year run.

Founded by the seven Ringling Brothers in 1884, they slowly grew by acquiring other small circuses until they were second only to the Barnum & Bailey circus here in America. (The Barnum & Bailey circus was formed when P.T. Barnum's circus combined with the Cooper and Bailey circus in 1881.)  In 1907 the Ringling Brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey circus and operated them as separate circuses until 1919 when they combined both shows to form the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.

My love of circus began in the mid-1950's at the old Madison Square Garden (on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets in NYC). The circus was still owned by the Ringling family at the time and was produced by John Ringling North ... a nephew of the original seven brothers - his mother was their sister. In those days before the circus show itself, you could go down into the basement and see the menagerie ... the animals that would be used in the show ... and the sideshow! Once you got past the distinctive smell of the animals, you could see the giant (and buy huge rings that he wore which could fit around your wrist), the midgets, the magician, the sword swallower, the bearded lady and all of the others. (When the Feld family bought the circus, the sideshow was eliminated.)

Next it was up into the arena for the show itself. For me, two necessary items were always a circus light (they were small "pez dispenser" type lights on a vinyl lanyard which you would swing during blackouts between acts) and cotton candy ... the only time during the year that I would be able to have it.

Every aspect of the circus fascinated me. I have to admit though, the sound of the cannon shooting someone across the arena - which was how the show always ended back then - caused me to cower a bit.

Nothing beats the sound of circus music followed by the strong voice of the Ringmaster (in reality, he is the MC ... the ringmaster technically is a person who stands by the ring itself during animal acts, though the MC seems to have been given that designation over the years by popular usage), in his sequined jacket announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen! Children of all ages! Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth!"

Back then it was a 3 ring circus and you would see three similar acts all going on at the same time. The best was always in the center ring though. And then there were the animals! Elephants, horses, camels, and of course, the big cats! In the end, it was the elimination of the elephants - for humanitarian reasons - that was the piece that finally put the circus into a position that made it impossible to continue, but they were magnificent to watch!

For me, the circus was always a highlight of the spring, when it rolled into Madison Square Garden around Passover/Easter week. While school was out for the week, we got to see the circus.

My love of circus continued into my adult years - as well as my annual visits. I also became fascinated in the history and art of the American circus. And, oh ... how I would have loved to be a circus clown ... or a circus band member - but being a violist that was not really an option.

When my kids were born, naturally we started taking them to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus at Madison Square Garden, now at its current location.

My daughter meets 2ba after her first visit to the
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus

There were other circuses of course, and when we could we would go see them as well - tented or in an arena - it didn't matter. My kids developed a love of circus as well. It was always fun no matter the size of the circus we were seeing. (Of course there was the time I didn't tell them that a small circus had opened very close to our house, and while we were waiting until it was time to go see it, they watched Killer Klowns from Outer Space on TV ... )

Eventually my children had children of their own, and they too were introduced to the circus by way of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show.

The twins visit with circus performers on the floor of the arena and are about to head up to their seats

Then it happened. On January 14, 2017 it was announced that due to declining attendance the Ringling Brother's and Barnum & Bailey Circus would end its 146 year run. (It was ironic that I was in Ellenton, Florida on the day the announcement was made there.)

Just a few days earlier, my daughter and I had been discussing bringing my one and a half year old granddaughter to see the circus which was about to come to Tampa. I bought the tickets within hours of the announcement, and was able to get amazing seats ... first row ... right in front of the single ring that this show had been using for the past few years (as opposed to three rings).

Unfortunately, Amalie Arena would not let me take my DSLR camera into the building (as I had for every circus show I had been to for decades) so I was only able to use the camera in my phone to capture my granddaughter's first Ringling circus, and my last.

Circus lights have changed quite a bit since I was a kid

For the first time in their history there is a female Ringmaster

As close as you can get to the action without being in the circus

The elephants have been retired but the big cats are helping to bring it all to an end

And so, at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island in NY on May 21, 2017, the Ringmaster will say for the last time, "May all your days be circus days!" and the lights will go down on 146 years of circus history and we will lose an important piece of Americana. I for one hope a last minute savior will show up to save the show, but that is highly unlikely as it had been losing money for years. TV, movies, streaming entertainment all make the circus irrelevant to today's generation. A show that was well over 3 hours when I was a child is now just 2 hours long. Long circus acts are just too long for today's fast moving world.


A message from Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®

After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® will hold its final performances in May of this year. Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.
Nearly 50 years ago, my father founded our company with the acquisition of Ringling Bros. The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me, which is why this was such a tough business decision to make. The decision was even more difficult because of the amazing fans that have become part of our extended circus family over the years, and we are extremely grateful to the millions of families who have made Ringling Bros. part of their lives for generations. We know Ringling Bros. isn’t only our family business, but also your family tradition.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Presents Circus XTREME will conclude its tour at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., on May 7, 2017, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Presents Out Of This World will conclude its tour at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21, 2017. We hope you will come to celebrate this American icon for one last time before our tours conclude.
Our company provides quality, live family entertainment, and we invite you to bring your family to one of our other events, including Marvel Universe LIVE!, Monster Jam, Monster Energy Supercross, AMSOIL Arenacross, Disney On Ice and Disney Live!, as well as future productions.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has served as inspiration for all of the live entertainment produced at Feld Entertainment. We learned from the circus, and applied those learnings to our other productions. Without Ringling Bros., we wouldn’t have the vibrant live entertainment company that we have today. Ringling Bros. will always be part of Feld Entertainment, and its spirit will live on in every production and project we do.