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

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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.

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Published on January 15, 2017.

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