The almost incomprehensible collapse of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, under the long-term management of Kenneth Feld, he having announced that both units will shut down for good come May, may take us years to understand.
One of the most intriguing mysteries will be — why did Feld, only two days before making the announcement, roll out a national PR campaign to hype his having hired the first female ringmaster in Ringling history? I spotted her being interviewed on at least two major networks.
The incongruity of these events suggest a sudden disruption, either in Feld's business dealings, or in his family. Feld and his three daughters have all been active in one or another of the company’s various other holdings — ice shows to monster truck jams.
When they pulled the elephants and came out with the icy Out of This World, Feld claimed that its tour was marked by plunging attendance, that without the elephants, far fewer people were drawn to what he had to offer. A tricky conclusion. In fact, I had predicted, somewhat illogically, that business might rebound, now that people adverse to wild animals acts could comfortably return. But they could not do that, not with the big cage act of Alexander Lacy (which I loved), still on the bill.
Yes, people still want the animals, as much as I do, reminding myself of the pig I saw in Out of This World, sliding in a standing position down a slide! My friend Boyi had the same reaction when he and his finance took in the show. Moments like those are what set circus apart, as much as do the captivating flyers on high.
So, the Out of This World test, presumably conceived to shut down the animal rights activists, was already handicapped with Lacy's lions and tigers. Even then, given how Mr. Feld has been able to re-invent over the years, I could see him taking yet another turn such as, maybe, returning to a more traditional form of circus. The hasty decision to fold the tents did not make sense.
He could have easily merged the two units into one, and moved more economically on trucks rather than trains. This would not be a new or unpleasant experience for Kenneth Feld. His Gold Unit, on the road for about ten years, was a one ringer that traveled overland. One of its offerings, which I saw under canvas at Coney Island, was one of the very best circuses I have seen in many years. He proved to me that, without a doubt, he was infinitely adaptable.
So, why not now?
Other possible reasons:
* The family has a fractious history of settling conflicts in courtrooms. Were the daughters at war with each other? Did they not look so promising as prospective mangers to fill the father's shoes when his time was up?
* Prohibitive costs, which he has mentioned. How in the world he could ever turn a profit with those long trains I could never understand.
* The public stayed away, not just because of wild animals (if they did), but because of:
* High priced concessions.
* Production overkill. Some have complained of this. Along with the stunning visual effects the Feld teams produced, there were those overdone moments of self-loving production parades when we were being constantly reminded by a blaring ringmaster of our being at the Greatest Show on Earth. Under it all, perhaps, an air of desperation? Let me make one thing clear: The Felds, true to Ringling traditions, have always given us some of the greatest acts in the world.
We can speculate forever. I think most of us would agree that it didn’t have to happen. It would be like shutting down the Disney studios or the Broadway theatre district.
Disney may be the key. One very persuasive rumor being floated out there by a Disney follower is that, since the Disney contract with the Felds comes up for renewal next year and that Disney may be wanting to buy Feld Entertainment, Disney does not want the circus being part of a deal. And so, might this explain for Feld's rushing to rid himself of an unattractive asset in the eyes of his suitor?
But, if that were the case, could Feld not have sold the circus to outsiders, thus preserving a future for arguably the worlds most famous big top? Perhaps the man's ego is in play here.
According to the rumor, Disney, which sought the help of Irvin Feld in 1980 to promote its foundering ice show, would for many years give the Felds total autonomy over the creation of the icers. But in recent years, Disney has taken more control of the artistic end.
The circus without Ringling will live on in many forms, its enduring staples, from animals to aerialists to acrobats, too universally irresistible.
But that the Ringling banner should have been brought down so suddenly, and by a multi-billionaire with more than enough money to revamp the circus into a more viable format, this shoots down the essence and spirit of what he conveyed so passionately to The New York Times in November, 2015. And yes, I love quoting this, for when I first read it, what respect it gave me for the Feld of Felds:
“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."
So, why didn't you, Mr. Feld?
Photos, from the top:
Barnum & Bailey coined the phrase The Greatest Show on Earth in 1881
The Ringling brothers opened their first circus three years later
The two most famous American circus names were combined in 1919
John Ringling North guided the show's destinies from 1938 through 1967
Irvin Feld, on the elephant, bought the show in November, 1967
Kenneth Feld and daughters, Juliette, Nicole and Alana
One of the two Ringling trains
A Feld concession stand
Kenneth Feld, called "Ringmaster of the Universe" only last November by Forbes magazine, assumed complete control after his father, Irvin, died in 1984