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 – declining attendances 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 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. 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.
Campaign group Peta, a long-time opponent of the circus, said: “Peta heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit.”
Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States, added: “I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”
Last May, after a costly legal battle, the company removed the elephants from the shows and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Florida. The animals had been the symbol of the circus since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882.
Attendance had been dropping for ten years, but when the elephants left, there was a “dramatic drop” in ticket sales. Paradoxically, while many said they did not want big animals to perform in circuses, many others refused to attend a circus without them.