The show won’t go on: Ringling Bros. circus to close after 146 years

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performers ride camels during a performance Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end the "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press, declining attendance combined with high operating costs are among the reasons for closing. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

ELLENTON, Fla. (AP) – The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end “The Greatest Show on Earth” in May, following a 146-year run.

Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press declining attendance combined with high operating costs are among the reasons for closing.

Feld said when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected.

Dolly Jacobs, co-founder of the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota is coping with the news.

“Sadness, and shock.  Unfortunate.  Very unfortunate,” she said.

“I think my heart mostly goes out to the children, when it does close won’t be able to witness the greatest show on earth. ”

Jennifer Mitchell, the managing director for the Conservatory says there is still hope for families who want to give their children the circus experience.

“In the early 90’s, there were a handful of youth circuses in the country, today there are more than 250 bonafide youth circus programs,” she told News Channel 8.

“That tells me that people want to engage, that they have a respect for the art form.  They want to preserve it and they want to continue it.”

The company broke the news to circus employees 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. The final shows will be in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7 and in Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum on May 21.


Here’s where things stand with the iconic show:

WHEN IS THE CIRCUS’ FINAL SHOW?

Ringling Bros. has two touring circuses this season: “Circus Extreme” and “Out of This World.” The final show for “Circus Extreme” will be in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7, and the other will close after a performance in Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum on May 21.

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WHAT HAPPENS BETWEEN NOW AND MAY?

The two touring circuses will perform a total of 30 shows over the next four months. Most of the shows will be held in the South or the East Coast. Major stops include Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Brooklyn. Tickets can still be purchased online and at venues.

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WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE EMPLOYEES?

The Feld family has owned the circus for 49 years, and employs some 500 people for the show. Those employees were told about the closure on Saturday night, after shows in Orlando and Miami. A handful will be placed in positions with the company’s other shows – it owns Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live, among other things – but most will be out of a job. Chief Operating Officer Juliette Feld said the company will help employees with job placement and resumes. In some cases where a circus employee lives on the tour rail car (the circus travels by train), the company will also help with housing relocation.

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WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE ANIMALS?

In May of 2016, Ringling retired all of its elephants to a property in central Florida. Forty elephants live at the Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County. But the circus still has other animals, such as lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas.

Juliette Feld says homes will be found for the animals, but the company will continue operating the Center for Elephant Conservation.

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WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE COSTUMES AND PROPS?

The Feld family hasn’t decided what it will do with the enormous warehouse filled with circus costumes and props. Kenneth Feld says the company will continue to work with the Circus Museum at The Ringling in Sarasota. That museum holds memorabilia dating to the 1800s, when John Ringling and his family founded Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus.


Ringling’s evolution, from freak shows to the big top

– 1841 – Phineas Taylor Barnum buys Scudder’s American Museum in New York City and renames it Barnum’s American Museum, which was something of a zoo, museum, lecture hall and freak show. It was filled with artifacts and items from around the world. The museum later burned down. Barnum also took his show on the road as “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling American Museum.”

– 1881 – Barnum partners with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson for “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United,” later shortened to the “Barnum & London Circus.”

– 1882 – The Ringling Brothers – Alf, Al, Charles, John and Otto – performed their first vaudeville-style show in Mazomanie, Wisconsin.

– 1884 – The Ringling Brothers Circus begins as a traveling performance.

– 1887 – The official Ringling touring show became the “Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

– 1895 – The Ringlings decided to branch out to New England, which was already the territory of P.T. Barnum. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the two circuses “agreed to divide the U.S. rather than compete head-to-head. The Ringlings established their headquarters in Chicago while Barnum and Bailey stayed in New York.”

– 1907 – After the death of James Bailey, the Ringlings buy Barnum and Bailey. They keep the circuses separate, and the Wisconsin Historical Society wrote that by the 1910s the Ringling Bros. Circus had more than 1,000 employees, 335 horses, 26 elephants, 16 camels and other assorted animals that traveled on 92 railcars. The Barnum and Bailey Circus was roughly the same size.

– 1919 – The two circuses merged and became known as “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.”

– 1927 – John Ringling moves circus headquarters to Sarasota, Florida.

– 1967 – Irvin Feld, a music and entertainment promoter, buys The Ringling circus and formally acquires it in a ceremony held at the Colosseum in Rome.

– 1985 – Kenneth Feld, Irvin’s son, becomes the owner of Feld Entertainment and the circus after his father dies.

– 2016 – Feld Entertainment announces it will retire elephants from its circus shows. The animals are moved to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Florida.

– 2017 – Feld Entertainment announces that it will close the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

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