News & Politics

'Greatest Show on Earth' to Close

(AP Photo/The Daily Times, Mark A. Large)

After 146 years of operation, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is going dark in May.

Parent company Feld Entertainment cited dwindling ticket sales and high operating costs as the reasons for the closure. They also mentioned that ticket sales plummeted last year when they dropped the controversial  elephant act — a result of agitation by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

The animal rights group celebrated their victory.

ABC News:

Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime opponent of the circus, said in a statement she welcomed its closure: “After 36 years of PETA protests, which have awoken the world to the plight of animals in captivity, PETA heralds the end [of the circus] and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times.”

The Humane Society of the United States’ president and CEO, Wayne Pacelle, said, “I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”

And The Humane League, a national farm animal protection nonprofit, tweeted, “The Ringling Brothers circus is shutting down after 146 years! Massive victory for animals!”

Actress Pamela Anderson tweeted, “IT’S OVER!” and linked to PETA’s statement on her blog.

But Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune speaks for many who were saddened by the closing of this piece of Americana:

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus never wanted to be anything other than affordable, traditional, family-oriented entertainment, a world run by a ringmaster, controlled by trainers and celebratory of its anachronisms: It moved around the country by train (what other business moves its people that way?), it carried its own schoolroom, it liked a parade. It only had screens when kids forgot how to pay attention, it only messed around with postmodern narrative when pushed to the brink by those arty Canadians with their three-figure tickets for admission.

Cirque always was red wine in the lobby; Ringling was popcorn in your seat. Cirque was for adults. Ringling was beloved by 7-year-olds and their moms and dads, who became heroes of a Saturday morning without needing to buy an electronic device.

And at a time when live entertainment is trying desperately to diversify its audience, 20 years of never missing that year’s Ringling show taught me this: There is no more diverse audience for live entertainment than the one that goes to the Greatest Show On Earth, be it in Rosemont or Madison Square Garden in New York City. Why? The form is omnicultural and global in origin. There are shows in Spanish and in English; the core of the show needs no language. And the scale of the enterprise has meant the tickets could stay affordable. Even the Chicago Bulls scheduled a road trip when the circus came to town. It had that much clout.

How Feld Entertainment, which also produces ice shows and other easier arena spectacles, kept the circus going was a mystery to me in recent years. The cost of everything from tiger food to liability insurance were right before your eyes and in your newspaper. The casts stayed huge. The musicians were all live. The acts were bought from all over the world. The seats rarely were full, although the crowd still could be counted in thousands. So it was hard to tell. It was, though, clear that for Kenneth Feld, the patriarch, Ringling was more than a business, a conservatorship even though Feld has always been known as a shrewd and highly proficient man of business, a man who did not shrink from immediately closing the Siegfried & Roy show at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, after a tiger, Montecore, mauled Roy Horn in 2003.

How the circus treated and cared for their animals is a legitimate issue of concern. Some of Ringling Brothers’ training methods were indefensible and there was evidence of neglect when a lion died of heat and thirst in a railroad car moving through the Mojave Desert back in the 1990s.

But these black marks do not dim the luster of nearly 150 years of  bringing happiness and joy to millions of children of all ages. It’s a shame that, like the minstrel show, burlesque, and musical revues, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus would fall victim to modernity. They all may have outlived their appeal, but will always hold a special place in American culture.