Good news, Raleigh: The circus is coming to town! The bad news: It’s for the last time ever.
Raleigh’s PNC Arena will be one of the final stops for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the American showbiz institution that’s been touring the country – mostly by train, pretty much nonstop – for 146 years.
Across the country, there was a sense of genuine grieving when the news broke in January that this year would be the last for the Greatest Show on Earth. The famous traveling circus has a rich history that dates back to the mid-1800s. A number of factors led to the decision, according to company officials, including high operating costs and the shrinking attention span of 21st-century entertainment consumers.
Then there is the matter of the elephants.
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In May 2016, Ringling discontinued all of its elephant acts after a long and costly battle with animal rights activists. The elephants were a major audience draw, and ticket sales took a severe hit. The animals were retired to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, where they will continue to be cared for, said Ringling executive Steve Payne.
“The conservation center is funded by the greater company, and we’ll continue to provide care for the elephants,” Payne said.
The facility will now be funded by Feld Entertainment’s other traveling shows, including Monster Jam and Disney on Ice.
Officials also are looking to find new homes for the other performing animals – tigers, horses, camels, kangaroos and llamas. Contrary to rumors, Ringling will not be breaking the circus into more modestly sized “small tent” shows.
“Our last performances in May are our last performances,” Payne said. “We’re not planning to go under canvas again.”
As for the circus’ bipedal employees, they’ll be moving on, too. More than 500 cast and crew members are currently working on Ringling’s two touring circus shows. Payne said while some employees will be placed elsewhere within the company, most will be out of a job come May.
Veteran circus performer Ashley Vargas is one of those employees with an uncertain future. She said news of the shutdown came as a shock to the cast and crew.
“There are always circus rumors, but no one really expected it to happen,” Vargas said, speaking from the show’s recent stop in Columbia, S.C. “We were taken aback, saddened. When you think about the Greatest Show on Earth, you don’t expect it to ever close.”
Vargas was originally brought on board as an equestrian performer and has held a variety of jobs with the circus over the past six years. She currently hosts the popular Early Access pre-show and skates in the ice rink presentation.
“In the past I’ve ridden elephants, I’ve ridden horses, I was the target in a crossbow act one year ...”
Wait, what’s that now?
“Well, there was a gentleman from Romania,” Vargas said with a laugh. “And he’s excellent with the crossbow. So I was approached by our talent director to be a part of this act.”
Vargas was initially reluctant, but she eventually learned to trust the marksman, holding various objects as he fired lethal projectiles within inches of her head, three times a day. For a year.
“It was a great act,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t totally on board with the idea at the beginning, it ended up being one of my favorite circus experiences.”
Now that the circus is shutting down, can Vargas disclose any showbiz secrets? Was the crossbow act real, or a trick?
“Oh, it’s totally for real,” Vargas said. “He’d shoot a balloon out of my mouth, or a flower. I’d hold a sheet of paper edgewise and he’d slice that in two. There were no tricks, just skill – and trust.”
Now back in the relative safety of the center ring, Vargas is trying to make the most of her last days with the circus. While there haven’t been any direct changes to the show since the shutdown was announced, the performers are enjoying sellout crowds and thunderous enthusiasm from spectators.
“There are tons of people in the seats,” she said. “That really fuels us. It makes us feel better in a sad time.
“It’s definitely rough, but we’re all really enjoying these last few months together. We love our jobs. It’s important for us to still give the best show that we can give.”
What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: Out of This World
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 9-10; 11 a.m., 3 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11; 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Feb. 12
Where: PNC Arena, 1400 Edwards Mill Road, Raleigh
Info: 919.861.2300 or thepncarena.com