And the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon ...
Charles Ringling’s son Robert needed something to do. His opera career was washed up, and his mother Edith was now smarting over the show-off ways of Ringling circus producer John Ringling North, just as she had over North’s late uncle John Ringling. Edith saw an opening to ram her son around North and onto the manager’s chair. In 1942, she formed an alliance with another Ringling widow, Audrey. The two women pooled their stock-voting power and were able to kick Johnny North (and his brother Henry, seen in this photo) out. In his place, they planted Robert. The lines of the Ringling wars were re-drawn in the sawdust:
John North versus Robert Ringling
Throughout the turbulent ‘40s, the two feuding cousins were in and out of court, each seeking to gain a controlling interest in the circus and 86 the other. During Robert’s reign in the mid-‘40s, he ordered John North’s middle name "Ringling" removed from the circus program magazine! Jealousy?
By 1947, however, and in the lingering wake of the tragic 1944 Hartford fire which had occurred on Robert’s precariously inept watch, John North won the battle for big top power by securing 51% of the stock.
Irvin Feld versus Himself
Fast forward 10 years. North decides to move the show indoors. In the wings hovered a man with fanatical Ringling ambition of his own named Irvin Ringling Feld. Excuse me, just Irvin Feld. Mr. Feld was hired to serve as a promoter for select Ringling dates. In ten years, Feld mustered the money and connections to persuade North to sell him the circus. And he proceeded to lecture the world on how he actually ran the show in the mid-fifties and was the one -- not Arthur Concello, the actual force -- who struck the tents and decreed an all-indoor future. A few people within the circus community were offended. One might have been North’s nephew, John Ringling North II.
By selling out to Feld, the senior North in affect turned his own back on his nephew, John II, who in earlier years had been lead to believe that he would one day take over. "I was always told that I would run the circus until I got married in 1961."
Instead, Irvin Feld’s son, Kenneth, was now the one being groomed. Pushed to the sidelines, John North II became defacto Robert Ringling.
Kenneth Feld versus John Ringling North II
Advance forty years, and enter belatedly John Ringling North II in a surprise 11-o’clock move to flex his name in public. North suddenly buys the smaller-time Kelly-Miller Circus. Motives? His subsequent actions painting his name across Kelly-Miller trucks seem designed to say --- I am here, World. I am a Ringling and I own a circus. Watch me.
And so, you could say that the ghosts of John Ringling North and Robert Ringling are battling it out once again in the public arena. They are really fighting for bragging rights to the most famous name in circus history. Ask anybody out there if they know the name "Feld." Then ask Kenneth Feld what his real name is.
The star question here is this: Will John North II turn out to be a ruthless John or a kinder-hearted Charles? His uncle or his father?
Ironically, the one who so far can trace a personality link back to John Ringling through John Ringling North is not North II (well, not yet), but Kenneth Feld — son of Irvin, to whom John North sold the show in 1967, stating at the time of the momentous sale that he was impressed by Feld’s "concern and dedication to maintain the concepts, traditions and artistic standards inherent in the world famous title, the Greatest Show on Earth." In going up against Feld, North II is facing arguably the most ruthless and driven operator ever to manage the Ringling show — Kenneth Feld.
Back to the Courts
The younger Feld, an obsessive hands-on power grabber of shrewd marketing instincts (like his dad), is taking the matter to court. By hoping to deprive John Ringling North II of the ability to post his Ringling name on the Kelly-Miller trucks and marque, Feld is saying, you are not John Ringling or John Ringling North. You are only Charles Ringling or Robert Ringling — or Edith, and you are not going anywhere while I am here. In fact, I am more a Ringling than you are.
Do we have here John Ringling versus Charles Ringling? ... or John Ringling versus John Ringling?
Step right up, America! Get out your score cards. They’re back!
Originally posted 4/18/07