Can it be the Greatest Show on Earth without elephants?
At 66 and still firmly in charge of Ringling-Barnum, Kenneth Feld would have us believe that, without them, the circus faces its greatest challenge yet: How to sustain its grandiose stature long symbolized by the towering pachyderms on parade? Might Feld's genius for survival be on the line as never before?
Interviewed by the New York Times last November, Feld spoke passionately of the need to keep changing the format, and he conceded that the circus no longer marks his “most popular business.” The ice shows and the monster truck division evidently turn bigger profits. But they do not come loaded with controversial baggage linked in the public’s mind to elements of circus that no longer feel nearly as welcome or entertaining as once they did — not to the average ticket buyer.
And so Feld & daughters, robustly determined to reinvent, reinvent.
That Big a Deal, Really?
Times writer Taffy Brodesse-Akner wrote of Kenneth and daughters engaged “in meeting after meeting, trying to figure out how to create a circus so good that we won’t notice the absence of the elephants.”
Should it really be all that difficult? Indeed, the Felds may now be able to recompose the circus into a less problematic form, able to recapture a larger section of its potential audience base. Americans may return in droves, simply because a long-festering controversy has been put to rest.
Feld with daughters Juliet, left, Alana and Nicole
But the reinvention will not come trouble-free. However admirable may be Feld's resolve to continue featuring other wild animals -- yet the presence of big cage acts may seriously hamper his efforts to redefine and re-brand the Ringling product in the public’s mind. Big Cage acts are sure to leave many customers with a nagging impression that this circus has not really changed that much.
Like Father, Maybe Not Like Son
Kenneth Feld, surely one of the most successful circus managers in American big top history — deserving a place with James Bailey and the like — has survived on his own for over thirty years, no small feat considering the magnitude of his rail-intense operation. Two long circus trains alone represent a staggering expense. How they manage to turn a profit, given the apparently paltry crowds, I do not know. I could never figure it out, defaulting to a theory that the ice shows were some seasons perhaps subsidizing the circus.
Kenneth’s father, Irvin, entered the picture some ten years after the show had made its boldest historical move ever, by shucking the big top for hard tops. Irvin favored the three-ring format he inherited. Kenneth seemed much more adaptable to change. He was in charge when the show imported Chinese acrobatics into its rings and produced one of its best shows ever; when they dared to not feature a single flying trapeze act on the program; when three rings were reduced to one – and then none; and now, when the show will tour without its lumbering symbols of the great American three-ring circus, itself a thing of the past.
A New Show to Come, or Another Feld Smorgasbord?
Kenneth deserves just credit for showcasing some of the best acts in the world. And credit for creating dazzling special-effects spectacle virtually unmatched by any other ring show in the world, save for, of course, Cirque du Soleil.
On the downside, less impressive is the man's penchant for filling out a bill one moment with brilliance, the next with banality. I have often felt that the element most lacking in the uneven Feld touch is theatrical unity. (His one-ring circus that played Coney Island two years in a year was a superior exception). Does this matter to the public? Does the typical audience out there want less a smorgasbord, more a finely wrought performance of consistent quality in tone. scoring, and pacing? Hard to say.
The Story Line Returns
The new edition now being promoted is said to break new ground in that it will involve, for the first time, a story line — the claim is rather lame. In fact, the Felds have tried narrative circus in recent years. Whatever they may have achieved with it, there is no evidence of its luring in larger crowds. But now, with ice composing a part of the surface, who knows. Perhaps that creaky rolling platform will become a skating platform. I'd vote for its being retired to Baraboo sooner than later.
But even if they can bring off an excitingly new kind of circus to ballyhoo, they may still face an even more daunting challenge — the seeming obsolescence of circus itself to a growing sector of a public saturated as never before with more amusing distractions, real to virtual. Let’s hope that all of the empty seats so often glaringly visible in photos and videos are once again filled.
Once considered far less emotionally connected to the circus than his father, Kenneth Feld's fluid flexibility remains an intriguing work in progress.
Can he turn the next corner that he believes need be turned? He understands profoundly well the ever-changing nature of this most raw and real of all entertainments.
The Showmanship of Change, Beginning with Astley
Ballet of the Elephants, Ringling Bros. Circus, 1942
At the dawn of circus – London, 1772 — elephants were not there. Neither the flying trapeze. What was there were life-affirming feats of astonishing acrobatic agility and daring-do, on horseback, on and over the sawdust. And many other things. And so must they still be there today, if circus has a fighting chance to endure. I am afraid it will only get harder. The man at the top expounded on this eloquently to the Times, giving them the most impressive quote of his that I have ever come across. To Ms.Brodesse-Akner, the Feld of Felds explained:
“The circus has changed over the years. There’s no entertainment that’s been around for this long that you could name. We’re older than baseball. We’re older than Coca Cola. I don’t know how many times it’s been re-imagined, reinvented, but I know we’ve probably done it six, eight times. We’re going to do it again without the elephants in a whole different way. Then we’re going to do it again and we’re going to do it again and we’re going to do it again."
Amen to that.
One Last Headstand for the History Books