ELLENTON, Fla. (WFLA) – After 146 years in show business, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus is set to close.
It’s the final curtain call for ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’
This American institution that has entertained Americans since 1871 will come to an end in May.
“Of course we’re sad and it was a very difficult decision to make,” said Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld.
Over the past ten years, there has been a steep decline in ticket sales. But officials never anticipated the sharp drop in sales after the elephants retired in 2016.
“We’re no longer able to see this as a sustainable business model,” said COO Juliette Feld.
After this season, 400 people will be out of work.
“There’s a lot of people involved that it impacts and people that in many cases I’ve known for almost 50 years, it’s definitely sad,” said Kenneth Feld.
For many of these performers, the circus is their life. They come from generations of circus performers, and they live on the massive mile-long circus trains that crawl across the country.
Former Ringling performer Nik Wallenda was shocked at the news.
“Obviously very upsetting, disheartening. My family wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here. My family wouldn’t be in America if it wasn’t for Ringling Brothers,” said Wallenda.
Out of the 400 jobs lost, around 50 jobs are in the Tampa bay area.
Feld officials admit there aren’t many other positions for these performers inside the company, so they’ll be offering resume help and services to find them work elsewhere.
The CEO says his employees were surprised by the news but they were aware the business was struggling.
“I think they had seen over the past year a decline in audience and attendance so they were aware of that,” said Kenneth Feld.
For years, Feld entertainment dealt with lawsuits over its treatment of its animals.
The CEO said the company won the lawsuits received millions in settlements. The company strived to take the utmost care of their animals. But they lost in the court of public opinion.
“This is not a win for animal rights activists, nor is it a win for anyone. The over 400 people who are impacted is what we care about first and foremost and it’s unfortunate,” said Kenneth Feld.
Officials have no regrets over retiring the elephants in 2016. The company met increasing difficulty bringing the elephants from city to city. They said more municipalities were enacting laws that made it very difficult to use elephants in shows.
“Transitioning the elephants off the touring units was the right decision and we stand by that decision,” said COO Juliette Feld.
The company will now find new homes for the more than 100 animals still on tour.
The company tried to stay relevant- debuting an interactive app and even announcing the circus’ first female ringmaster. But when competing with TV, video games and social media, the circus lost.
“Let’s face it, times change. And there’s been more change probably in the last decade than in the preceding 50 or 70 years so entertainment has changed, attention spans, the traditional family unit is quite different today than it was many, many years ago,” said Kenneth Feld.
The CEO said Feld Entertainment Studios remains strong. The company has other wildly successful properties including Marvel Universe LIVE!, Monster Jam, Monster Energy Supercross and Disney on Ice, among others.
“[Feld Entertainment Studios] is a robust company. We’re always looking at new entertainment and we are a company that looks to the future, we look ahead, we always have. And Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey is an important and a great part, and…it will be part of our glorious past,” said Kenneth Feld.
Officials pointed out this past weekend they had 26 touring shows around the world and only two of those touring shows were the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
The company leaders said one factor in the success of their other properties such as ‘Marvel Universe LIVE!’ and ‘Disney on Ice’ is that kids are very familiar with them after seeing them on TV. Kids today don’t have the same association with the circus as other children did in previous generations.
“Kids drive what parents do with them. In the sense of entertainment where you take your kids is where your kids demand. And if it’s not part of their life every day, they have no point of reference to demand that,” said Kenneth Feld.
Many emphasize that just because the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus is done, does not mean the circus is dead.
“I don’t think [the] circus is dying in any way. Cirque du Soleil is doing amazing. There are other circuses, small family circuses that are doing well that are touring,” said Wallenda.
“Live entertainment is not going away, there is no replacement for being live at an event and being in the moment and in the experience,” said Juliette Feld.
The final shows in the Tampa area will be held at Amalie Arena later this month and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus will have its final performance in New York in May.
“The legacy of Ringling Bros. will exist in that it has infused all other live entertainment and it was the foundation not just of our company but also of live entertainment in America,” said Juliette Feld.