When you ask an American to name the first famous Circus that would come to mind, odds are the answer would most likely be the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, alternatively known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Formed in 1919 from the merger of two major circus operations, that of the Ringling Brothers and the one co-created by legendary circus showman P.T. Barnum, this massive extravaganza was one of international circuses’ defining shows. Adding the time spent in operation by the pre-merge companies, The Greatest Show on earth has been entertaining audiences for a ripe old 146 years, punctuated recently by having their first female circus ringmaster.

But the mention of the years is important because 2017 will be the end, as the circus’ parent company has decided to close it down halfway through the year.

End of an era

The bombshell was dropped by Kenneth Feld, CEO of Ringling’s producer Feld Entertainment, on the circus company’s website. In it, Feld stated that the Greatest Show on Earth will hold its final performances in May, after which it will permanently fold up its big top (so to speak, as they’ve only performed in fixed venues like stadiums since 1957). This final death knell to the long-running circus may have already been presaged by the official phase-out of elephant performances in Ringling’s program last 2015. The reasons for ceasing operations was easily discernible: the decline of ticket sales running in concert with the steady climb in operating costs for every performance, making Ringling unsustainable for Feld Entertainment which has run the show since the 1984 death of Kenneth Feld’s father Irvin.

Another interview by Feld Entertainment spokesman Stephen Payne on Saturday January 14 specified that the closing of the Greatest Show on Earth will affect its cast of performers and support crew, some 400 people in all. These were informed that same day, following a succession of circus performances in Orlando and Miami. Feld remarks that the decision to close has been a very difficult one, both for him and the entire Feld Entertainment and Ringling performing "family".

Activist jubilation

Although strongly popular in all the years it has been travelling and performing, Ringling has also been targeted in recent decades by animal rights activists who railed against the use of trained animals, a hallmark of a traditional circus. These protests ultimately led to Feld having the company retire its trained elephants last year, to a Florida conservation center.

Most overjoyed by the news were the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who crowed at the closing of what they considered the “Saddest” show on Earth. With Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey soon to fade into history, it will soon fall on the likes of the Cirque du Soleil and others to become the face of the world circus scene.