By Grant Smith, National News Writer
After years of declining attendance and controversy, Feld Entertainment has announced that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will close in May of 2017 after over 100 years in operation. The announcement cited high operating costs and the decrease in ticket sales as factors that have “made the circus an unsustainable business for the company,” as reported by CNN.
According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, five of the seven Ringling brothers held their first performance on November 27, 1882, in Mazomanie, Wisconsin and incorporated their acts into a one-ring show in 1884. Following expansion during the era of traveling big top circus performances, Ringling Bros. was able to purchase their main competitor, Barnum & Bailey’s circus, merging in 1919 under the moniker of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The circus flourished originally due to star performers and animal acts such as Frank Buck, Emmett Kelly, Gargantua the Gorilla, and the dancing elephant exhibition. However, with the increasing popularity of movies and television circus, crowds began to dwindle in the middle twentieth century. In 1956, these financial hardships forced the circus to cease operating in their own portable big top tents, opting instead for permanent venues such as arenas and event centers. This move indoors prompted Life magazine to report, “a magical era has passed forever.”
Unfortunately, the shift in venue did little to aid the profits of the company and in 1967, the Ringling family was forced to sell the circus to Feld Entertainment. The new owners introduced two initiatives aimed at raising profits including a Disneyland-like amusement park named Circus World and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in the hopes of creating new performers and public relations opportunities. Both experiments would prove unprofitable and were eventually shuttered and sold off by the company.
Further problems arose for the circus when animal rights groups began calling attention to the circus’ animal treatment techniques. These treatments included the death of a lion from heat exhaustion and dehydration in 1997 and forcing sick elephants to perform, the latter resulting in a $20,000 fine from the USDA in 1998. In 2011, Feld Entertainment paid a $270,000 fine to the United States Department of Agriculture for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act, according to CNN.
In March of 2015, Feld Entertainment announced that it would no longer use elephants in their shows by 2018. When interviewed by the Associated Press, CEO Kenneth Feld stated that the reasoning behind the decision was a patchwork of local laws banning the use of elephants in entertainment shows. This move also followed years of lawsuits from various animal rights groups who alleged that usage of endangered Asian elephants in the show violated the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The retirement eventually was pushed up to 2016 and the last Ringling Bros. show to contain elephants was held on May 1, 2016.
Without the elephants, who were often the spotlight of the show, ticket sales only plummeted further and forced the company to make the decision to end the circus after over a century of performances. Feld Entertainment has announced a farewell tour of 30 shows culminating on May 21, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, January 24th print edition.
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