The “Greatest Show on Earth” is getting its curtain call. Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said in a statement that the show will end is 146-year run in May.
The iconic circus declined in recent years due to high operating costs and long, costly legal battles with animal rights groups, such as the one to eliminate elephant acts. Ticket sales had already fallen, but they dropped more significantly than anticipated after the elephants were retired last May, according to the statement.
The company’s two circus shows, Out of This World and Circus Xtreme, have 30 shows left, including appearances in Atlanta, Brooklyn and Boston. The final shows are May 7 at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., and May 21 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.
“This was a difficult business decision to make, but by ending the circus tours, we will be able to concentrate on the other lines of business within the Feld Entertainment portfolio,” said Juliette Feld, chief operating officer. “Now that we have made this decision, as a company, and as a family, we will strive to support our circus performers and crew in making the transition to new opportunities.”
The company broke the news to circus employees Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami, The Associated Press reported.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a major critic of the circus for its treatment of animals, celebrated the announcement.
After 36 years of PETA protests, which showed the world the plight of animal captivity, PETA heralds the end of the saddest show on earth.
— PETA (@peta) January 15, 2017
The announcement means most of the shows’ 500 or so employees will be left without work, the AP reported. Feld said some will be transferred to the some of the company’s more profitable shows like Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live!, and that it will help with job placement, resumes and, in some cases, housing relocation.
Before Feld Entertainment, there was Phineas Taylor Barnum’s traveling show of animals and human oddities, and the five Ringling brothers’ juggling act and skits in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. They merged and performed across the country, traveling by train (some still do, to this day). The Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967.
At its prime, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was considered a family-friendly outing. But the shows lost their appeal toward the end of the 20th century, CEO Kenneth Feld told the AP. He believes it grew outdated and difficult for audiences with shorter attention spans.
“The competitor in many ways is time,” he said. “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.”
When the Feld family first acquired the circus, the show was just under 3 hours. Today, the show is 2 hours and 7 minutes, according to the AP. The longest segment — a tiger act — clocks in at 12 minutes.
Yet it seems the battle over animal rights dealt a fatal blow to the circus. Ringling had been targeted by organizations like PETA who consider forcing animals, such as elephants, to perform cruel.
A battle over elephant acts — a staple of the show since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882 — ensued between Feld Entertainment and animal rights activists in court. It went on for 14 years, but in 2014 Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements, the AP reported. By that point, though, cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., and Asheville, N.C., had restrictions on animal acts.
The next year they announced the circus would retire its elephants.
“This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995,” Kenneth Feld said in a statement in 2015. “…this decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers.”
The Center for Elephant Conservation will continue its work, but the lions, tigers, kangaroos, llamas and other exotic animals featured in the shows will be placed in suitable homes, the AP reported.
“Without Ringling Bros., we wouldn’t have the vibrant live entertainment company that we have today,” Kenneth Feld wrote on the company website. “Ringling Bros. will always be part of Feld Entertainment, and its spirit will live on in every production and project we do.”
Contributing: Alan Gomez.