The Great Show on Earth

After 146 continuous years of entertaining and amazing generations of audiences across America the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus affectingly known as “The Greatest Show on Earth” will give its farewell show today, May 21st, in Uniondale, N.Y.

The Ringling brothers (originally Rungeling) were seven American siblings of German and French descent who transformed their small touring company of performers into one of America’s largest circuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The brothers were born between 1852 and 1869 with a sister Ida, (whose two sons John Ringling North and Henry Ringling North guide the circus into the modern age and under their management, the circus switched from tents to air conditioned venues in 1956) were born in McGregor, Iowa and raised in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  The siblings were children of German and French immigrants, August Frederick and Marie Salome Rungeling, who simplified his name to Ringling once in America.

In 1884 five of the seven Ringling brothers: Albert, August, Otto, Alfred T., Charles, John, and Henry founded a small circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin, United States. This was about the same time that Barnum & Bailey were at the peak of their popularity.  Similar to dozens of small circuses that toured the Midwest and the Northeast at the time, the brothers moved their circus from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans.  Their circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train, which allowed them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of that time.  Bailey’s European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard.  Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1905.  He died the next year, and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a combination of the Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, a circus created by P. T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey, was merged with the Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows and debuted in New York City.  The Ringling brothers had purchased Barnum & Bailey Ltd. following Bailey’s death in 1906, but ran the circuses separately until they were merged in 1919 debuted in New York City.  The posters declared, “The Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions.” Charles E. Ringling died in 1926, but the circus flourished through the Roaring Twenties.  In 1927 John Ringling move the circus’ headquarters to Sarasota, Florida.  And in 1929, the American Circus Corporation signed a contract to perform in New York City.  John Ringling purchased American Circus, owner of five circuses, for $1.7 million.

Like most other businesses the circus suffered during the 1930s due to the Great Depression, but managed to stay in business.  After John Nicholas Ringling’s death, his nephew, John Ringling North, managed the indebted circus twice, the first from 1937 to 1943.  Special dispensation was given to the circus by President Roosevelt to use the rails to operate in 1942, in spite of travel restrictions imposed as a result of World War II.  Many of the most famous images from the circus that were published in magazine and posters were captured by American Photographer Maxwell Frederic Coplan, who traveled the world with the circus, capturing its beauty as well as its harsh realities. North’s cousin Robert took over the president of the show in 1943.  North resumed the presidency of the circus in 1947.

A fire occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, during an afternoon performance that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people.  It was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States.  Although the Hartford Fire Department responded quickly, the fire was fanned by the fact that the canvas circus tent had been waterproofed through a mixture of highly flammable paraffin and gasoline.  During the ensuing panic Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown, threw a bucket of water at the burning canvas tent, and a poignant photograph of his futile attempt was transmitted around the world as news spread of the disaster.  At least 167 people were killed in the disaster, and hundreds more were injured. Some of the dead remain unidentified to this day, even with modern DNA techniques.

In the following investigation, it was discovered that the tent had not been fireproofed.  Ringling Bros. had applied to the Army, which had an absolute priority on the material, for enough fireproofing liquid to treat their Big Top.  The Army had refused to release it to them.  The circus had instead waterproofed their canvas using an older method of paraffin dissolved in gasoline and painted onto the canvas.  The waterproofing worked, but as had been repeatedly shown it was horribly flammable.  Circus management was found to be negligent and several Ringling executives served sentences in jail.  Ringling Brothers’ management set aside all profits for the next ten years to pay the claims filed against the show by the City of Hartford and the survivors of the fire.

The post-war prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the nation was not shared by the circus as crowds dwindled and costs increased.  Public tastes, influenced by the movies and television, abandoned the circus, which gave its last performance under the big top in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 16, 1956. An article in Life magazine reported that “a magical era had passed forever“.  In 1956, when John Ringling North and Arthur Concello moved the circus from a tent show to an indoor operation, Irvin Feld was one of several promoters hired to work the advance for select dates, mostly in the Detroit and Philadelphia areas.  Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel Feld, had already made a name for themselves marketing and promoting DC area rock and roll shows.  In 1959, Ringling Bros. started wintering in Venice, Florida.

In late 1967, Irvin Feld, Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz of Texas, together with backing from Richard C. Blum, the founder of Blum Capital, bought the company outright from North and the Ringling family interests for $8 million at a ceremony at Rome’s Colosseum.  Irving Feld immediately began making other changes to improve the quality and profitability of the show.  Irvin got rid of the freak show so as not to capitalize on others’ deformations and to become more family orientated. He got rid of the more routine acts.

In 1968, with the craft of clowning seemingly neglected and with many of the clowns in their 50s, he established the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.  A circus in Europe was purchased for $2 million just to have its star animal trainer, Gunther Gebel-Williams, for the core of his revamped circus.  Soon, he split the show into two touring units, Red and Blue, which could tour the country independently.  The separate tours could also offer differing slates of acts and themes, enabling circus goers to view both tours where possible.  The company was taken public in 1969.  In 1970, Feld’s only son Kenneth joined the company and became a co-producer.  The circus was sold to the Mattel Company in 1971 for $40 million, but the Feld family was retained as management.

After Walt Disney World opened near Orlando, Florida, in 1971, the circus attempted to cash in on the resulting tourism surge by opening Circus World theme park in nearby Haines City, which broke ground on April 26, 1973.  The theme park was expected to become the circus’s winter home as well as to have the Clown College located there.  Mattel placed the circus corporation up for sale by December 1973 despite its profit contributions, as Mattel as a whole showed a $29.9 million loss in 1972.  The park’s opening was then delayed until February 1974.  Venture Out in America, Inc., a Gulf Oil recreational subsidiary, agreed to buy the combined shows in January 1974, and the opening was further pushed back to 1975.  While the Circus Showcase for Circus World opened on February 21, 1974, Venture Out placed the purchase deal back into negotiations, and the opening of the whole complex was moved to an early 1976.

By May 1980, the company expanded to three circuses by adding the one-ring International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo that debuted in Japan and Australia.  The Felds bought the circus back in 1982. Irvin Feld died in 1984 and the company has since been run by Kenneth.  Circus World was never successful, as its standard carnival-type rides were no match for Disney’s state-of-the-art attractions and was out of the way. The circus sold the park to Arizona developers James Monaghan and Brian Burstein in 1984.

When in 1990 the Venice rail tracks could not support the show’s train cars, the combined circus moved its winter base to the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.  In 1993, the clown college was moved from the Venice Arena to Baraboo, Wisconsin.  In 1995, the company founded the Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC).  Clair George has testified in court that he worked as a consultant in the early 1990s for Kenneth Feld and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was involved in the surveillance of Jan Pottker (a journalist who was writing about the Feld family) and of various animal rights groups such as PETA.

After three years in Baraboo, the clown college operated at the Sarasota Opera House in Sarasota until 1998 before the program was suspended.  On February 26, 1999, the circus company started previewing Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, a one ring, intimate, upscale circus performed under the tent; designed to compete with similar upscale circuses such as Cirque du Soleil, Barnum’s Kaleidoscape was not successful, and ceased performances after the end of 2000.

Nicole Feld became the first female producer of Ringling Circus in 2004.  In 2009, Nicole and Alana Feld co-produced the circus.  In 2001, a group led by the Humane Society of the United States, sued the circus over alleged mistreatment of elephants. the suit ended in 2014 with the circus winning $25.2 million in settlements.  On March 3, 2015, the Circus announced that all elephants would be retired in 2018 to the CEC.  The retirement date was subsequently moved forward to May 2016.

On January 14, 2017, it was announced that the circus will be closed in May 2017, and would lay off more than 462 employees between March and May 2017.  Declining attendance combined with high operating costs and loss of the elephants are among the reasons for closing.  On May 7, 2017, its “Circus Extreme” tour will be shown for the last time in Providence, Rhode Island.  The circus’s last performance will be its “Out of This World” tour at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 21, 2017, and will be its first(and only) performance at Nassau Coliseum.

I remember as a child during the 1950s and 60s going with my mother to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the old Madison Square Garden.  I also remember that when the circus came to town, we would go to see the Circus Paradewith its elephants, other animals and clowns walking up 8th Avenue from the Penn Station yards, up to the old Madison Garden on 49th Street and 8th Avenue. I remember going early to see the ‘side show‘ with its Bearded Lady, World’s Strongest Man, midget clowns and all sorts of strange and wonderful animals.  I remember being mesmerized byThe Flying Wallendas, amused by the clowns, charmed by the jugglers and enchanted by the elephants.  And like most children, a trip to the circus wasn’t complete without popcorn, cotton candy and a circus light that you swung around on a string.  As Bob Hope would have said and on this last day, Thanks for the memories as the Greatest Show on Earth was truly America at it’s very-very best.

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Gregory Brown