THOUGHTS WHILE WATCHING LIVE STREAM OF THE RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS FINAL PERFORMANCE
First a little context. Before I was even born, my dad worked for Ringling doing public relations and marketing. He continued working with various shows, carnivals, and our own Cox Amusements throughout his life. I’ve been around around circuses my whole life. My favorite TV show as a little boy was “Circus Boy” (starring 10-year old future Monkee Micky Dolenz under the stage name Micky Braddock). Somehow I got and wore a hat just like circus boy Corky wore. For years Dad called me “Circus Boy Bill.” My favorite movies were “The Greatest Show on Earth” (still is) and “Toby Tyler - Ten Days with the Circus.” By age five, I had my first clown suit and professional clown makeup. By junior high I had built and tried learning how to perform on my own trapeze and high wire (my mother called it a low rope). I put myself through college by managing Cox Amusements. A former Ringling ringmaster visited our family for a few days (stayed in my room) and gave me a bullhook and trapeze that according to him were actually used in “The Greatest Show on Earth” movie (which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1953). I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I have sawdust in my shoes.
Attendance at RBB&BC has been on the decline for some years and at the same time operating costs have continued to climb. Attendance took an even more drastic drop when, after years of protests by animal activist groups, the Ringling elephants were retired. (I have no desire right now to debate the use of animals in circuses.)
Feld Entertainment (owner/producers) has responded to the financial challenges, especially in recent years, by changing things up. A lot. There are (were) two units of the circus. Kathy and I saw the final version of the Red unit live a couple of months ago. Tonight we are are watching the final show of the Blue unit. Both shows are far cries from what “The Greatest Show on Earth” was even a few years ago. Both are good shows, but save for a few acts, it’s no longer what many of us consider “circus.” We’re not suddenly losing the Ringling circus tonight so much as we’ve been losing it for years.
Lest this seem harsh or overly critical, I understand. First, it’s not like circuses have always been the same. They’ve always changed and evolved. Secondly, the Felds did probably what they should have done. They changed with the times. They’ve tried to appeal to younger, “hipper” audiences. If I had been in their shoes, I may have done some of the same things.
But it hasn’t worked. And the more it hasn’t worked, the more it seems they have tried to accelerate what hasn’t been working. In all fairness, I’m not sure much of anything would have turned things around to the extent needed.
So tonight is the final show. Some people who think the circus hates animals are glad to see it go. I’m not. I’m sad. I don’t want to overstate it, because I’m not one of the many who are losing their jobs. I’m not one of the ones who has spent much or all of my life as part of this particular circus family. I’ve been a part of great things that have ended and it hurts. It is sad. So far I haven’t shed any literal tears, and the reality is that I’ve got much bigger things on my own plate right now. But I am more than casually sorry to see such a great tradition come to an end after 146 years.
(Update: I did fight tears at the end of the show as thanks and goodbyes were being said. It had to be incredibly tough for most all involved.)
After tonight, this circus is gone, but others remain. Some using the circus name are even less circusy than Ringling became. But there are still other more traditional shows still plodding along. They, too, are probably dealing with great challenges, but I’m pulling for them just as I pulled for the one I’m streaming from my iPad mini to my TV.
Prediction: We haven’t seen or heard the last of “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.” Though the brand has become somewhat diminished, that name alone is iconic and worth at least a small fortune (relative to my bank account anyway). Within a few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the name were sold to another company which will put a new show on the road. If so, I hope it will be at least a little more traditional circus that will continue to change and evolve, but just not as fast and drastically. Who knows, maybe it will even go back to traveling under canvas (though probably a long shot). Or maybe that’s all just wishful thinking.
Soon this final performance will be over and even those of us who care will quickly go back to our Ringling-less lives. (I’ve got a script to finish tonight.) When I find a little spare time (probably in a couple of months), I look forward to watching one of my copies of “The Greatest Show on Earth” movies.