Thursday, February 02, 2017

It Didn't Have to Happen: The Second Rise and Final Fall of Ringling -- from John Ringling North to Kenneth Feld

First in a Series on the sudden death of the Greatest Show on Earth.

The last Ringling stand under the big top: Pittsburgh, PA, July 17, 1956

When John Ringling North struck the big top for good fifty years ago, he was, overnight, reviled as the man who killed Santa Claus -- the Executioner.  An aggrieved nation reacted as if Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had suffered a sudden death.  As if all circuses were doomed.

Nothing of the sort.  In fact, North made known that he was moving the show indoors. But to America, how could Ringling be Ringling without the big top?  It already could, each spring when it opened at Madison Square Garden, which is what it did the following spring.

Pat Valdo, left, John Ringling North and Art Concello, facing an uncertain future without the big top,  opening night a Madison Square Garden, 1957

North did not send Ringling into the history books, as has, it would appear, Kenneth Feld.  North hired back Arthur Concello to oversee a transition into arenas and other tent-less venues, such as ball parks.  But soon, other arenas sprang up in cities all over the country.  Within a few years, the Big Show had fully rebounded, by 1965 drawing rave reviews and surging crowds.

When North sold the circus to the Irvin and Israel Feld in 1967, I would come to see Irvin as one of North's best talent-scouting finds. A genius at ballyhoo who exuded a more heart felt connection to the circus and its fans, Feld's shows may have been mixed bags, but they gave us major stars, too,  like Gunther Gebel Williams and trapeze king Miguel Vazquez.  He groomed his son, Kenneth, to take over in time, and when Feld died in the mid 1980s, Kenneth proved himself, in my view, to be a more inventive and adaptable showman.  Others saw him as more ruthless and lacking the true passion for circus of his father.

Kenneth gave us some great three-rings shows in his first years, in particular the Chinese edition.   He gave us his answer to Cirque du Soleil in the ill-fated one-ring show, Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, hailed by many critics and fans as a superior option to CDS.  Declared theatre critic Clive Barnes, "This is the kind of show for which God invented the circus."  Still, Feld's showmanship, overall, could be extremely uneven, like that of his father's, from the brilliant to the banal appearing side by side. And yet, he always gave the customer some of the greatest circus acts in the world.  And he fostered spectacle of incredibly captivating special effects.   Unforgettable, for example, was the 1996 finale, Ariana, with its epic, near operatic score, complete with recorded chanting chorus, and arena-filling pageantry.  Feld's exemplary one-ring show under canvas at Coney Island, Boom a Ring, was one of the most focused and satisfying performances I have ever seen.  A versatile showman? Very.

Along the way, it seemed that Kenneth Feld became more emotionally connected to the circus.   I came to think of the Felds as steady and adaptable producers who would see the circus through the most difficult times.  Proudly, they referred to themselves as stewards of the rich Ringling legacy and traditions.  And I believed them.  The Greatest Show on Earth would always be around, how easily I believed. Even given my occasional misgivings over how some of the shows were put together or over-produced, I admired greatly the man's creative stamina.

Fast forward to 2015. Multi-billionaire Kenneth Feld retires the elephants.   The next show will be planned to compensate for their absence.  He and his three daughters put theirs head together and brainstorm through many sessions, put the circus over ice and call it Out of This World.  
But Feld made one strategic blunder by not removing the big cage act. Activists still had plenty to protest.   What was he thinking?  The new show did not do well, but I had no fear.  After all, these were the Felds.  They will try something different, that’s how they operate.  They had gone from three rings to one, and one of the units, the Gold, had traveled not by train but by truck.

But they didn’t pivot as I had expected.  As if, suddenly, everything  around them was unraveling into doubt, dismay, and defeat, only two days after rolling out a PR campaign for the first female ringmaster in the show’s history, On January 12,  Feld delivered a shocker: Blaming plunging attendance on the absence of the elephants, he announced that he was closing both units of the circus in May.  The end of the sawdust trail for Ringling-Barnum was at hand.  I was stunned.  So many things about what we were told did not make sense.  The Felds were effectively removing themselves completely from the big top scene.  I could not believe what I was witnessing -- the sudden death of the Greatest Show on Earth.   All of which brings us to this.

Back in December, 2015, Kenneth Feld told the New York Times:

“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."

Do you feel a bit betrayed?

I do.

Next:  The Disney Factor

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