Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the last incarnation of showman P.T. Barnum‘s brash vision for eye-popping populist entertainment, will roll up its three rings for the final time this May after 146 years.
Known for its iconic trapeze artists, mobs of clowns erupting from tiny cars, lion tamers putting their heads in the lion’s mouth, attractions like the little person General Tom Thumb, and dancing elephants, the circus is bowing to changing times. Those elephants apparently were key to the circus’ downfall. After complaints that the signature animals were being treated cruelly in the circus, parent company Feld Entertainment discontinued their use. Animal welfare proponents were happy, but audiences apparently were not.
Chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld made the announcement on the circus‘ website, saying it was a “difficult business decision.” He wrote, “Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”
Originally envisioned as a traveling version of Barnum's Museum, the circus was first titled P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, and later rechristened P.T. Barnum's Travelling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth. It merged with rival James Anthony Bailey and James L. Hutchinson’s circus in 1881 to form Barnum & Bailey‘s Circus, and was taken over by yet another rival, Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows in 1919. The combined entertainment adopted the slogan “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The creation of the circus was the subject of the 1980 Broadway musical Barnum, in which Jim Dale gave a Tony-winning performance as its founder, whose motto was “There's a sucker born every minute.” The show has a book by Mark Bramble, lyrics by Michael Stewart, and music by Cy Coleman.
Ringling Bros. is not the only circus folding its tent. The Big Apple Circus canceled its current season after a social media fundraising effort failed. Last week the circus announced that it was selling off its assets.
Feld has two productions out on the road currently. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus XTREME will conclude its tour at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Out Of This World will plays its final performance at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, on May 21.
Feld wrote, “We hope you will come to celebrate this American icon for one last time before our tours conclude.”