Not since the fall of the last Ringling-Barnum big top, in 1956, has the Greatest Show on Earth undergone so great a redefinition of itself.
Once upon a season, Americans counted the stature of a circus by the number of elephants it carried. And once upon a merrier season, John Ringling North staged an elephant ballet scored by Igor Stravinsky, “choreographed” by George Balanchine. Another year, he hosted a fashion show atop the pachyderms.
Now the elephants are to exit. Several years ago, big top boss Kenneth Feld, faced with growing pressure to cease presenting animal acts for which there was mounting evidence of abuse by his presenters, told the media that when the public stopped coming to his shows — then, he would pay attention and act.
Los Angeles takes a stand
Well, in the court of public opinion, that day has come. In the words of Alana Feld, cutting clean to the chase: "There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers. A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."
You can blast PETA and its affiliate groups for shameless misrepresentations, but you can’t blast the American public for being turned off by YouTube evidence filmed backstage at Ringling, of apparent callous (if not actually cruel) mistreatment of a group of elephants being readied to go on. Here is where Kenneth Feld made his worst strategic blunder. He claimed the YouTube, posted in 2008, had been misleadingly edited, but then never made good on the claim. Animal-rights protestors (many of them, understandably bothered by such evidence) still push the video in hand-out leaflets, while standing outside arenas when the circus comes to town.
Feld's fatal testimony
As much as Feld may be a lover of the elephant preservation compound he fosters — or of its imagery to counteract all that noise out there against him, behind the scenes, his elephants handlers, at least on occasion, do not conform to what the public has come to expect.
I actually believed — or wanted to believe — that the man had a genuine love for the elephants. I also came to believe that he is well aware of things that go on behind his back but has kept free of those things — to the dangerous point of not wishing to be regularly apprised by his staff — in order not to have to testify against himself or his operation. Indeed, this practice leaked out in his testimony before a judge when Feld admitted to not always been informed of such actions. How blatantly it contradicted the man’s alleged high concern for animal abuse in his own house. In that one stunning revelation, I lost faith in the man’s sincerity.
And what about the other shows?
Ringling Bros. is still the Big One. The Big Show. And it is filthy rich -- a well-earned testament to its skill in production and marketing. . The Feld family is apparently loaded with producing talent to last for future generations. Theirs is the circus that draws most of the major media attention, and so the question: Will other smaller big tops be forced by pressure or declining patronage in their own markets to follow suit? They may be able, each, to make a case for themselves and their animal trainers, but to do this, they will have to separate themselves from those nasty videos that will not go away -- from the Ringling YouTube and, even more so, from the more lethally damming strip of film, secretly made years before, of Tim Frisco going nuts in a Carson and Barnes Circus barn, viciously breaking in a group of pachyderms.
These things can not be talked away. Sadly, they will hurt the efforts of all trainers, no matter how ethical they may be, to continue training and presenting wild animals. Perhaps the saddest part of this tale is how our nation’s most famous and long-lasting circus turned out itself to be have been a prime contributor to the anti-animal cause.
The ever changing, never changing circus has a way
They said Barnum was done when Jumbo died (a line from the film, The Greatest Show on Earth). They said the tented circus was done when John Ringling North, in 1956, declared it “a thing of the past.” But his dire pronouncement clarified, “as it then exists.” North alluded to the colossal costs incurred in operating a three-train railroad show, a mammoth enterprise increasingly difficult to fund and move from city to city, where nearby parking lots were growing scarcer.
A new day for the Greatest Show on Earth?
There can be little doubt that the animal rights movements ultimately drove down attendance at Ringling dates. Where once they played to ten thousand on good nights, now the number was closer to half that (my best guess).
Now, Ringling-Barnum stands to benefit the most from Feld’s decision. Indeed, it may be facing a glorious new era of rebounding parsonage , as parents adverse to elephant acts flock once again to the circus, their children happily in toe. Horses and dogs? A pig through a barrel? A monkey peddling a bike? The public will have no problem at all embracing these types of acts. For years Big Apple Circus has done well enough featuring horses and dogs.
Droves of families who have stayed a way will no doubt return, wanting to enjoy a circus that still knows how to find the best acts in the world, and how to shape and merge them into dazzling spectacle long associated with the glory days of the three ring American circus, albeit without those three rings.
The story is not over
Kenneth Feld's best move would be to sign the UK’s Thomas Chipperfield, who has become something of a poster boy for how tigers and lions can be humanely trained, what with his home made videos showing him at work with his charges. Especially at this sensitive moment in Ringling history, Chipperfield would be a great asset to the new Greatest Show on Earth, Don’t count out the millions of parents, even of the liberal class, who want their children to witness uplifting interactions between man and beast.
In the beginning, In London Town, there were horses. There were no elephants. Perhaps that is where we are headed for, back to the beginning.
So say goodbye — for a while — to the elephants on parade! And pray they may one day return. In the court of public opinion, inevitably, a good case made for a good act kindly trained and cared for will have its day. The court is never fully adjourned.
Photos, from the top down:
Kenneth Feld and his three producing daughters
Richard and Edith Barstow, Ringling directors, with a baby elephant ready for its carriage ride in the 1955 production number, featuring 55 pachyderms, Mama's in the Park -
Baby Opal, Polack Bros. Circus, 1955
Elephant pyramid at the recent Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, Monaco
First posted March 7, 2015. So much has happened in so little time.