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'Greatest Show on Earth' circus to close after 146 years


An Asian elephant performs for the final time in the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Providence, Rhode Island, in May 2016 (AP/Bill Sikes)

An Asian elephant performs for the final time in the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Providence, Rhode Island, in May 2016 (AP/Bill Sikes)

An Asian elephant performs for the final time in the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Providence, Rhode Island, in May 2016 (AP/Bill Sikes)

The curtain is coming down on "The Greatest Show on Earth" after 146 years, as Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus lowers its big top for good.

The iconic American spectacle, which ends in May, was felled by a variety of factors, bosses say - declining attendance combined with high operating costs, changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.

"There isn't any one thing," said an emotional Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus.

"This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family."

The company broke the news to circus employees on Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami in Florida.

Ringling Bros has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May.

Major stops include Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Brooklyn and the final shows will be in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7 and Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum 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 travelling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Wisconsin.

Eventually, they merged and the modern circus was born.

The sprawling troupes travelled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.

By mid-century, the circus was routine, wholesome family entertainment, but as the 20th century went on, children became less and less enthralled.

Movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds and the circus lacked the savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image.

"The competitor in many ways is time," said Mr Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks - such as providing a travelling school for performers' children- were 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, when the show lasted just under three hours.

Today, it is two hours, seven minutes, with the longest segment - a tiger act - clocking in at 12 minutes.

"Try getting a three or four-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes," Mr Feld said.

Mr Feld and his daughter Juliette, the company's chief operating officer, acknowledged another reality that led to the closing - 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 (Peta), a long-time 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, the group's president, said.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, acknowledged the move was "bitter-sweet" for the Felds but said: "I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts."

Last May, after a long and costly legal battle, the company removed the elephants from the shows and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Florida.

The animals 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 dollars (£20.6m) 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 had 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 did not 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," Ms Feld 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 and the company will continue operating the Centre for Elephant Conservation.

Some 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 other things - but most will be out of a job.

In recent years, Ringling Bros tried to remain relevant, hiring its first African American ringmaster, then its first woman ringmaster, and also launching an interactive app.

It added elements from its other, popular shows, such as motorbike daredevils and ice skaters, but it seemingly was no match for Pokemon Go and a generation of youngsters who desire familiar brands and YouTube celebrities.

"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 Mr Feld.


PA Media