After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on “The Greatest Show on Earth” and Raleigh will be one of its last stops.
The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told The Associated Press that the show will close forever in May.
“There isn’t any one thing,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment. “This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family.”
The company broke the news to circus employees Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami.
The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives told The Associated Press. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.
After a long and costly legal battle, the company removed elephants from its shows in May 2016 and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Central Florida.
By the time elephants were removed from the shows, public opinion had shifted. Los Angeles prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers and handlers, as did Oakland, Calif.
Asheville banned wild or exotic animals from performing in the city owned, 7,600-seat U.S. Cellular Center.
Ringling Bros. has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May. The Triangle will have a chance to be one of the last audiences to see the show.
The final shows will be in Providence, R.I., on May 7 and in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21.
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. When the two outfits merged, the modern circus was born. The sprawling troupes traveled across the country by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and rare animals.
By midcentury, the circus was routine, wholesome family entertainment. But as the 20th century went on, kids became less and less enthralled. Movies, television, video games and the Internet captured young minds.
The circus didn’t have savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image.
“The competitor in many ways is time,” said Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks – such as providing a traveling school for performers’ children – are throwbacks to another era. “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.
“Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes,” he said.
Feld and his daughter Juliette Feld, who is the company’s chief operating officer, acknowledged another reality that led to the closing, and it was the one thing that initially drew millions to the show: the animals. Ringling has been targeted by activists who say forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime opponent of the circus, wasted no time in claiming victory.
“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,” Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a statement.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO 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 elephants 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.
“We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. was getting to see elephants,” she said. “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.”
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.
About 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 others – but most will be out of a job. 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 company will also help with housing relocation.
In recent years, Ringling Bros. tried to remain relevant, hiring its first African American ringmaster, then its first female ringmaster, and also launching an interactive app. It added elements from its other, popular shows, such as motorbike daredevils and ice skaters.
“We tried all these different things to see what would work, and supported it with a lot of funding as well, and we weren’t successful in finding the solution,” said Kenneth Feld.
Staff writer Abbie Bennett contributed to this report.