Yesterday, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced that it would be folding the show in May of this year. No more “Greatest Show on Earth”.
I’m hearing a lot of folks saying this is the end of the circus. The Feld family, who bought the circus from John Ringling North in 1967, laid a lot of the blame for the end of the show at the feet of PETA, who’s relentless protests had led the company to take elephants out of the circus earlier this year. They said that attendance just plummeted after that. I suspect the demise of the show had a lot of contributing factors.
I don’t think the circus as a form of entertainment is going to end, yet. But I think the Feld family is putting the Ringling name to rest. Maybe if they get an offer, they’ll sell it, but I don’t know. I would LOVE to see them let John Ringling North II have the name back. He owns a terrific, one ring tent circus called Kelly Miller. It would make sense, and just be a kind thing on the part of the Feld family to sell it, heck, maybe even just give the name back to the Ringling family.
Some folks have been critical of the Feld family, including myself. I have felt like Kenneth Feld’s daughter, Irvin Feld’s granddaughter, Nicole Feld, didn’t really care as much about the circus as Kenneth once did, or nearly as much as Irwin did. The family seems now to be, like everyone else, in the money business and the circus is either simply an asset or a liability on the books. Makes me sad.
But honestly, to be fair, the Feld family saved RBBB and kept it alive forty years longer than it probably would have survived. So maybe I am a little out of line criticising their commitment to it.
I just think times and tastes are simply changing, it’s an expensive show and, I imagine, pretty hard to make the nut. It was probably always hard, especially when the show was really “Big Bertha” under canvas. But back then, people went to the circus. They were excited by it. So it generated tremendous revenue even at mid-century ticket prices.
People attend Ringling nowadays as much out of some kind of sense of duty as anything else. Duty to childhood, our own, and our children’s, as they do for actual entertainment. Out of a sense of tradition too. And I think that’s ok. Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey is, or was, a living national treasure. It’s something we feel like we’re supposed to do. But I have to confess, after having seen probably a hundred performances over the years, it had kind of become a ‘ritual circus’, and their experiments to make it more modern seemed to make it feel colder and kind of like a thin broth where it had once been a rich meal.
It didn’t used to be that way. I LOVED the circus when I was a kid, applied to Clown College (oh I SO wanted to be a Ringling clown in my early teens), went to every performance I could. They used to come to smaller cities like Amarillo and stay for three or four days. I would go every chance I could get, every performance if possible.
I was once asked by a friend of mine, David Bartlett, a very accomplished clown, actor and writer, who I thought had made the greatest contribution to the field in which we both work, family and children’s entertainment. I thought on it, but it didn’t take me long to come up with an answer. I told him I thought Irvin Feld had made the greatest contribution. It seems an odd and indirect choice. But when he created Ringling’s Clown College in 1968, it was like he dropped the perfect rock into the perfect pond at the perfect time. Ringling was in need of clowns, and the Clown College could train young people to be professionals in the art of circus clowning. It turned out to be an amazingly great idea. Thousands and thousands of young people applied to be one of a handful of students accepted each year. Plus it was huge publicity generator.
Nowadays young people aren’t very interested in becoming clowns, but at the time it was actually very, very cool. It fit right in with the vibrant, experimental youth culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. But Clown College wasn’t actually a slapdash hippie thing at all, at least after it got it’s footing. It was actual hard physical training in acrobatics, juggling, physical comedy and stiltwalking… all these real skills that a circus clown would need in a big, professional circus like Ringling. It was the real deal. Hundreds of famous and not so famous performers graduated from Clown College. Penn Gillette, David Straithairn, Charlie Frye and Bill Irwin, to name a few. It became the bottom rung into PROFESSIONAL show business for many.
But the ripples didn’t stop there. Clown schools and amateur clown groups popped up all over the country. I myself joined a local clown troupe in 1972, Boy Scout Troop 82’s “Sidewalk Circus Clowns”. Clowning became a very popular pastime for a lot of people all over the country. It led me into the entertainment business myself in 1993, and I have built upon my little clown birthday business to become a full time professional family and children’s entertainer. But my interest started at a performance of Ringling Brothers in 1970, watching all the new young Clown College graduates in the ring.
It’s a sad thing to see Ringling go. But there are still circuses on the road. There are only a handful left in this country now, but they the real thing. Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, Kelly Miller Circus, Carson & Barnes Circus, Luna Brothers, Zerbini family Circus to name a few. If one comes close, go see it. Here today, gone tomorrow, nothin’ left but popcorn sacks and wagon tracks.