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Feld Entertainment to close the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ after 146 years
After 146 years, Feld Entertainment has announced that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, known as the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, will close forever in May.
Feld’s decision to close the iconic American spectacle has been put down to a range of factors - declining attendance combined with high operating costs, changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups.
Making the announcement, Feld Entertainment Chairman and Chief Executive Kenneth Feld stated "this has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family."
The company broke the news to circus employees on Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami.
Ringling Bros. has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May with its final shows to be staged in Providence, Rhode Island, on 7th May and in Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum on 21st May.
The circus, with its exotic animals, flashy costumes and death-defying acrobats, has been a staple of entertainment in the United States since the mid-1800s. Phineas Taylor Barnum made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Wisconsin. Eventually, they merged and the modern circus was born. The sprawling troupes traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.
For decades the circuse was mainstream family entertainment with its arrival in cities and communities a major event of the year. However, as the 20th century progressed, youngsters became less enthralled by the circus’ spectacle as movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds.
Commenting on the reason for the closure, Feld explained "there isn't any one thing (but) the competitor in many ways is time," Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks - such as providing a travelling school for performers' children - are throwbacks to another era.
He added "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."
The Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967. The show was just under 3 hours then. Today, the show is 2 hours and 7 minutes, with the longest segment - a tiger act - clocking in at 12 minutes.
Feld commented “try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes."
Feld and his daughter Juliette Feld, who is the company's Chief Operating Officer, also acknowledged the impact of animal rights activities protests about its animal acts.
In May 2016, after a long and costly legal battle, the company removed the elephants from the shows and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Central Florida. The animals had been the symbol of the circus since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882. In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year fight over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.
Attendance has been dropping for 10 years, said Juliette Feld, but when the elephants left, there was a "dramatic drop" in ticket sales.
Paradoxically, while many said they didn't want big animals to perform in circuses, many others refused to attend a circus without them.
She added “we know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. was getting to see elephants.
"We stand by that decision. We know it was the right decision. This was what audiences wanted to see and it definitely played a major role."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime opponent of the circus, welcomed the closure of the circus.
Ingrid Newkirk, President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a statement “after 36 years of PETA protests, which have awoken the world to the plight of animals in captivity, PETA heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times.”
Wayne Pacelle, President and Chief Executive of The Humane Society of the United States, acknowledged the move was "bittersweet" for the Felds but said "I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts."
The Felds say their existing animals - lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas - will go to suitable homes. Juliette Feld says the company will continue operating the Center for Elephant Conservation.
Some 500 people perform and work on both touring shows. A handful will be placed in positions with the company's other, profitable shows - it owns Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live, among other things - but most others will be out of a job.
Images: The performing elephants of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (top) and Kenneth Feld (below).
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