Mission accomplished: Animal activists close Greatest Show on Earth

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Mission accomplished: Animal activists close Greatest Show on Earth

By John Ruberry

Last night Feld Enter­tain­ment, the owner of Rin­gling Broth­ers and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus since 1967, announced that it is pulling up stakes and shut­ting down the cir­cus for good.

For a very brief period I was one of its cen­ter ring per­form­ers. More on that later.

Steeped in his­tory more than any other Amer­i­can enter­tain­ment offer­ing, the Great­est Show on Earth can be traced to the 1860s with a cir­cus run by James Anthony Bai­ley. In 1881 he teamed up with P.T Bar­num, a cir­cus late­comer who made his name as an odd­ity museum and freak show oper­a­tor, cre­at­ing Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus. Its first big attrac­tion was Jumbo, pur­port­edly the world’s largest ele­phant – and an unin­tended result was the adding of “jumbo” to the Eng­lish language.

Three years after Bar­num & Bai­ley was founded, the five Rin­gling broth­ers, enter­tain­ers from Bara­boo, Wis­con­sin, started their circus.

Tech­nol­ogy was at first kind to these cir­cuses, trains allowed the shows to travel quickly from city to city, aban­don­ing wag­ons except for the parades with wild ani­mals that served as price­less pub­lic­ity for drum­ming up ticket sales. Trains gave Bar­num & Bai­ley the oppor­tu­nity to travel out­side of its base in the North­east – and the Rin­glings weren’t con­fined to the Mid­west anymore.

The Rin­gling fam­ily pur­chased Bar­num & Bai­ley in 1907 and the shows were con­sol­i­dated in 1919.

An ele­phant helped estab­lish Bar­num & Bai­ley and the com­bined cir­cus was partly brought down by elephants.

Some­time around 2000 ani­mal rights orga­ni­za­tions, notably PETA, began protest­ing cir­cuses and the Great­est Show on Earth was of course its biggest tar­get. The mud and dung started fly­ing with ani­mal cru­elty accu­sa­tions from these groups, par­tic­u­larly regard­ing ele­phants. But Feld Enter­tain­ment col­lected $25,2 mil­lion in a set­tle­ment from ani­mal rights activist groups over their charges of cru­elty to pachyderms.

The bat­tle was over but the war was lost. Two years ago Rin­gling Broth­ers announced that its ele­phants would be retired from the cir­cus in 2018, but that date was moved that up to May of last year, largely because of what Rin­gling CEO Ken­neth Feld called “anti-​circus” and “anti-​elephant” local ordi­nances.

When he announced the shut­down of the Rin­gling Broth­ers and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus, Feld didn’t cite one item but offered, “The com­peti­tor in many ways is time.” Peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren, are less patient than ever in the age of smart­phones, tablets, and YouTube – and the length of its shows has dropped by nearly an hour since Feld Enter­tain­ment pur­chased Rin­gling Broth­ers. Tech­nol­ogy now worked against the circus.

But Feld’s daugh­ter, Juli­ette, went in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion, stat­ing “We know now that one of the major rea­sons peo­ple came to Rin­gling Broth­ers was get­ting to see ele­phants.” Ticket sales, which have been declin­ing for a decade, dropped notice­ably when the shows became elephant-​free.

Of course it’s the goal of the ani­mal rights activists to have all cir­cuses to be strictly human affairs. They’ll never deny that. So the camels, alpacas, lions, and tigers that are part of the Rin­gling menagerie will be retired, likely end­ing up in reserves.

Mis­sion accomplished.

Mean­while, 500 Rin­gling employ­ees will be out of work, and it’s my fear that it will be tough going for them, as cir­cus life tends to be a multi-​generational endeavor.

Inter­viewer: “So, what makes you think you can be a good fit at our big box store?”

Job seeker: “Well, I’ve worked at Rin­gling Broth­ers for thirty years and I’ve lived on cir­cus trains all of that time. I was edu­cated at cir­cus schools because my par­ents worked for Rin­gling Broth­ers too.”

Thanks for hang­ing in there, I’m get­ting to my cen­ter ring moment now.

Twice I attended Rin­gling Broth­ers and Bar­num & Bai­ley shows. My dad took my broth­ers and I to a per­for­mance at Chicago’s Inter­na­tional Amphithe­ater in 1967. It was a daz­zling expe­ri­ence – and the hall was packed. Nearly forty years later I brought Lit­tle Marathon Pun­dit to the Rin­gling cir­cus, this time at the All­state Arena in sub­ur­ban Rose­mont. Yes, the show was shorter, there was a motor­cy­cle dare­devil act in addi­tion to the ani­mal per­form­ers, but there was no big band this time – a rock combo offered music and there were a lot of empty seats. Out­side the audi­to­rium there were pro­test­ers even though it was snowing.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_54680” align=“alignright” width=“206”] John “Lee” Ruberry of the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven[/caption]

Back inside, as David Lari­ble, a clown, descended the stairs of the arena I snapped a photo of him with my then-​exotic smart­phone. He motioned me to fol­low him, brought me to the cen­ter ring, where I, along with a few other lucky atten­dees, par­tic­i­pated in a musi­cal instru­ment com­edy skit, as my daugh­ter heartily laughed. It was one of those unfor­get­table father-​daughter moments.

Yes, I’m a for­mer Rin­gling performer.

You can argue that Rin­gling Broth­ers was dying then – but cer­tainly the ani­mal rights rad­i­cals has­tened its death. And when this ven­er­a­ble cir­cus is dead – a part of Amer­ica will have died with it.

John Ruberry reg­u­larly blogs at Marathon Pun­dit.

By John Ruberry

Last night Feld Entertainment, the owner of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1967, announced that it is pulling up stakes and shutting down the circus for good.

For a very brief period I was one of its center ring performers. More on that later.

Steeped in history more than any other American entertainment offering, the Greatest Show on Earth can be traced to the 1860s with a circus run by James Anthony Bailey. In 1881 he teamed up with P.T Barnum, a circus latecomer who made his name as an oddity museum and freak show operator, creating Barnum & Bailey Circus. Its first big attraction was Jumbo, purportedly the world’s largest elephant–and an unintended result was the adding of “jumbo” to the English language.

Three years after Barnum & Bailey was founded, the five Ringling brothers, entertainers from Baraboo, Wisconsin, started their circus.

Technology was at first kind to these circuses, trains allowed the shows to travel quickly from city to city, abandoning wagons except for the parades with wild animals that served as priceless publicity for drumming up ticket sales. Trains gave Barnum & Bailey the opportunity to travel outside of its base in the Northeast–and the Ringlings weren’t confined to the Midwest anymore.

The Ringling family purchased Barnum & Bailey in 1907 and the shows were consolidated in 1919.

An elephant helped establish Barnum & Bailey and the combined circus was partly brought down by elephants.

Sometime around 2000 animal rights organizations, notably PETA, began protesting circuses and the Greatest Show on Earth was of course its biggest target. The mud and dung started flying with animal cruelty accusations from these groups, particularly regarding elephants. But Feld Entertainment collected $25,2 million in a settlement from animal rights activist groups over their charges of cruelty to pachyderms.

The battle was over but the war was lost. Two years ago Ringling Brothers announced that its elephants would be retired from the circus in 2018, but that date was moved that up to May of last year, largely because of what Ringling CEO Kenneth Feld called “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” local ordinances.

When he announced the shutdown of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Feld didn’t cite one item but offered, “The competitor in many ways is time.” People, particularly children, are less patient than ever in the age of smartphones, tablets, and YouTube–and the length of its shows has dropped by nearly an hour since Feld Entertainment purchased Ringling Brothers. Technology now worked against the circus.

But Feld’s daughter, Juliette, went in a different direction, stating “We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Brothers was getting to see elephants.” Ticket sales, which have been declining for a decade, dropped noticeably when the shows became elephant-free.

Of course it’s the goal of the animal rights activists to have all circuses to be strictly human affairs. They’ll never deny that. So the camels, alpacas, lions, and tigers that are part of the Ringling menagerie will be retired, likely ending up in reserves.

Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, 500 Ringling employees will be out of work, and it’s my fear that it will be tough going for them, as circus life tends to be a multi-generational endeavor.

Interviewer: “So, what makes you think you can be a good fit at our big box store?”

Job seeker: “Well, I’ve worked at Ringling Brothers for thirty years and I’ve lived on circus trains all of that time. I was educated at circus schools because my parents worked for Ringling Brothers too.”

Thanks for hanging in there, I’m getting to my center ring moment now.

Twice I attended Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey shows. My dad took my brothers and I to a performance at Chicago’s International Amphitheater in 1967. It was a dazzling experience–and the hall was packed. Nearly forty years later I brought Little Marathon Pundit to the Ringling circus, this time at the Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont. Yes, the show was shorter, there was a motorcycle daredevil act in addition to the animal performers, but there was no big band this time–a rock combo offered music and there were a lot of empty seats. Outside the auditorium there were protesters even though it was snowing.

John “Lee” Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven

Back inside, as David Larible, a clown, descended the stairs of the arena I snapped a photo of him with my then-exotic smartphone. He motioned me to follow him, brought me to the center ring, where I, along with a few other lucky attendees, participated in a musical instrument comedy skit, as my daughter heartily laughed. It was one of those unforgettable father-daughter moments.

Yes, I’m a former Ringling performer.

You can argue that Ringling Brothers was dying then–but certainly the animal rights radicals hastened its death. And when this venerable circus is dead–a part of America will have died with it.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.