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The Demise of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

Updated on April 22, 2017
TeriSilver profile image

Teri Silver is a true journalist: news, features, commercial copy writer, editor, broadcast anchor, and Public Relations Specialist.

We’ve all heard the news; after 146 years, the end is coming for The Greatest Show on Earth.®

The following commentary is an editorial; one author’s personal viewpoint of what has happened and why. Through these words, I hope to articulate the feelings of many others; people who are shocked, mad, disappointed and sad. Losing this show is a time of mourning for Americans and circus lovers around the world. And it is more than just an end to an era; it is the loss of tradition for audiences and the performers themselves.

On January 14, 2017, the producers of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus – Feld Entertainment – announced that both the Blue Unit and Red Unit shows of this longstanding tradition are coming to an end. On May 7, 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus Xtreme will have its final performance in Providence, Rhode Island. On May 21, 2017, the final presentation of Out Of This World will take place in Uniondale, New York.

The shows’ performing artists and crews were told of this decision only minutes before the public announcement was made (following the evening performances on Saturday, January 14th). My circus friends tell me that it came as quite a shock to everyone. They are still in shock.

Xtreme Clown Alley!
Xtreme Clown Alley! | Source

The “Reason”

Feld Entertainment has issued a statement on its website; a portion of which I have reprinted here:

“Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus and unsustainable business for the company.”

I’m sure ticket sales have dropped but the reason isn’t just because the elephants were retired; there is a lot more to it than that.

Yes ... feeding, caring for and transporting elephants is an expensive endeavor but their absence from the show is not an excuse; most people do understand that retiring these majestic animals was a circumstance deemed to be a sign of the times. The real problem – ownership’s determinable and apparent mismanagement of marketing, concessions, promotions, financial expectations/pricing and, to some degree, production – has lead to the downfall of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. You cannot resolve any of these issues by selling a bag of cotton candy for $15.

Does it cost a lot of money to produce shows like this? Yes, of course it does. But I have a number of never-to-be answered questions about what really went on at Feld Entertainment and how this detrimental decision was made. For an American icon such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to face closure so abruptly after 146 years with no visible attempt to “fix” whatever the problems really are makes me, and others, wonder just what the truth is. An attempt to save this American institution might have included a public offering to sell the show; or combining the two units; or creating a more traditional circus with fewer high tech tricks; or merely cutting expenses overall. If any of this was done, we, the public, saw none of it. The performers and crew saw none of it. Blindsided we were; every one of us.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. But it should.

Out Of This World
Out Of This World | Source

What Do People Really Want?

It is true that competition for the entertainment dollar has changed over the last several decades. But what people want in exchange for those hard-earned dollars hasn't changed; we all want good value for the ticket price. And with today’s skyrocketing ticket prices, that is a well-deserved expectation.

The faces of Feld Entertainment are telling us that people everywhere want the gadgetry and gizmos of today’s advanced technological world and because of that, the company must stay “modern.” Out Of This World exemplifies this ideology; the show is truly awesome yet very different. The reviews indicate that some people love the changes but others do not and certainly, you cannot be all things to all people. However, for the circus ownership to assume that all people want “modern” and highly-technical (and, arguably, overproduced) shows of this magnitude is a mistake. Yet, that’s what Feld Entertainment has decided, opting to focus their money and energies on shows that more reflect that opinion. Fair enough ... it is your money. Still, why did you NOT find a way to SAVE THE CIRCUS? Find a way to keep hundreds of employees from losing more than just their jobs, but their livelihoods? Find a way to restore this 146 year old name and circus tradition? People are asking these questions and so am I.

I am trying not to attack anyone personally. Enterprises must make money and if the business model is failing, you do have to change that. The Felds have decided that all people everywhere want high tech wizardry, flashing lights, smoke and mirrors. Ironically, they did not come to this conclusion at the end of the Dragons and Legends tours or before Out Of This World went into production. But now, instead, they blame the smaller audiences solely on the retirement of the elephants.

Um, no, that’s not all there is to it. And I’m sure there is more that no one really wants to come clean about. That, too, does not really matter.

Still, where are the attempts to fix the problems? More importantly, is it really, truly too late?

Fix This: Marketing and Promotions

One of the biggest problems with this show (and it’s not just my opinion) was the lack of proper marketing and promotion.

For example, on the Ringling Bros. website, there is a list of performances for each of the Red and Blue unit shows. This list is different from what I found on TicketMaster, which had omitted shows (OOTW is performing in Philly? Who knew!) The show listings are also different from what is on the RBBB Facebook page which, as of this writing, has both units playing at the same venue in Georgia on the same dates and times. Not a good thing and why is this important? Because Feld Entertainment has decided that the internet and social media are major and primary sources for promoting and marketing the circus shows. The internet is, indeed, a great source for information ... but only if someone knows to look for it.

What a mess.

How can people in any city, anywhere be expected to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus if they do not know that it is coming to town?

In addition to being a journalist, I have experience in public relations, promotions and some marketing. So, given that, I ask these questions:

Could the fact that ticket sales were declining have anything to do with:

  • Limited numbers of “outside” advertisements, or none at all? By “outside,” I mean those opportunities beyond social media or the internet which include billboards, radio, print, and newspaper advertisements, posters, fliers, e-blasts and the like. In my area, I didn’t see anything beyond an email from the venue where the show was to take place, and only because I’m on their mailing list. How can people plan to attend an event that they know nothing about? To be fair, perhaps the show did have some type of non-computer oriented advertisement but if so, it wasn’t showing up in my world. Subsequently, it was NOT advertised on any of the social media pages I engage on a daily basis.
  • Not understanding your audience? Contrary to what the production and marketing teams at Feld Entertainment think, not everyone under the age of 30 is glued to their social media accounts and cell phones all day. Influences do indeed come from everywhere. Disregarding the “grandparent generation” is a serious mistake ... as is assuming that “children of all ages” have short attention spans. Millennials, teens and children DO have interest in things that don’t involve flat screens, data plans and text keyboards. With a good and open-minded production and marketing team, any show can reflect that ideology.
  • Weekend promotions; nice, but not enough to rely on. The circus is in town and the local TV stations want to do a segment. The listing finally hits a newspaper’s weekend events column. Circus-lovers will enjoy those clips – perhaps they'll buy tickets to the show – but you cannot depend on a 2-3 minute media story or a last-minute news item to fill the house for that evening or the next few days.

Focusing on one kind of marketing plan does not work for an entertainment business that reaches audiences from age one to 90 and beyond. It is more than just "too bad" that Feld Entertainment didn’t come to that conclusion before they decided to put these family shows out to pasture. It is, indeed, detrimental. One Size does NOT fit all.

The Positive ... However ...

The social media and promotions clips that RBBB has shared with viewers are excellent. It is wonderful to see show pictures, video and interview segments with the performers. From the big cat trainers to the cannon lady to the aerialists, clowns, iconic ringmasters and more, the RBBB promotions team created excellent pieces in an attempt to bring audiences closer to the performers. Kudos to the photographers and production crew for these stunning pictures, graphics and videos.

So, then ...

Did these video clips lead people to access the Ringling Bros. website? Quite possibly. Did people sign up for email notifications? Yes, probably. Did these folks buy tickets to a show? Maybe.

The pictures and video are excellent but when it came to sharing them every couple of days on a few social media sites, it wasn't enough; that realization should have been apparent early on. This marketing plan was not, and could not be, sufficient to fill venues at every show in every city. The internet is a great marketing tool ... but it cannot be the only marketing tool.

What's that again about the elephants?

Standard Fee Example
Standard Fee Example

Fix This: Ticket Pricing

Entertainment is expensive these days; live shows are costly to produce. That’s a given and understandable for any show, anywhere. Tickets prices for Ringling shows vary in each city but the real problem is the fees that get attached to the purchases. For example, I bought two “premium” seats for the show in my area (which had special pricing because of the advanced notice I received from the venue), but with the fees for “purchasing convenience,” use-of-venue facility and tax, the amount added about $25 to the cost of these two seats. $25 in added-on fees for two tickets!!!

Imagine how this pricing schedule affects families; a venture that could turn into several hundreds of dollars for a two-hour show. Taking one’s family to the circus should not be financially destructive! No matter what the show is, it seems to be a reasonable expectation that producers, venues and ticket agencies come up with a formula that will work for them but not drive away potential customers. For families who want to attend the show, pay for parking, buy concessions and souvenirs, the cost of going to an event rivals making a car payment.

Can you really expect a full house this way?

Concessions and Souvenirs. Really???

Of course, we all expect concessions at shows and games to be rather expensive; you’ll pay more for simple things. No one says you have to buy any of it, but that’s hard to explain to children. Still, $12 for a cup of lemonade? Yes, it comes in a thin plastic souvenir cup. But $12? How many do you actually sell at that price? $12 for a box of popcorn! Small-scooped Sno-Cones come in souvenir mugs but the cost is prohibitive; it far outweighs the purchase value. Oh, and my favorite; the $15 dollar bag of cotton candy – complete with a flimsy, colorful top hat souvenir. (I wanted to buy some cotton candy when we got there; after all, it was the circus! $6 or $7? A bit pricey for spun sugar but I’m good with that. However, the show’s concessionaires did not offer that option. It was $15 to which we said ‘no’).

The vendors do not have large print, easy-to-read prices on their uniforms; the prices are printed in tiny fonts on tags that are hidden behind the items for sale. At the show we attended, I saw a lot of other people saying ‘no.’ Perhaps if Ringling Bros. had offered fair and competitive pricing options, they would sell more items – more sales would have been good, yes?

This type of price-gouging is not limited to the circus, that’s true. Still, the producers at Feld Entertainment should know that they cannot resolve their financial issues by selling cotton candy for $15.

The costs for souvenirs vary; some are fairly priced but others, not so much. For example, children tend to gravitate toward those plastic light-up wands and as such, the show charges a lot of money for each of them. Can families actually can spend more than $100 on souvenirs? Maybe yes – but probably not. So, what happens, then? Parents also say ‘no.’ They say 'no' to everything.

Circus Xtreme
Circus Xtreme | Source


High-end production costs money; amounts are in the millions of dollars. Building special props, creating and rehearsing new acts, utilizing advanced technological resources ... it all adds up to what will hopefully be an awe-inspiring and financially successful production. Feld Entertainment knew all of this during the planning stages for its shows that came to fruition the last several tours. They knew this for the current shows; Circus Xtreme and Out Of This World.

And yes, these presentations were, and still are, awesome. But only for the next couple of months.

How can Feld Entertainment, or any business, expect to make a profit by cutting the shows off more than a year prematurely? Even if there was no chance to change the outcome, wouldn’t it make sense to play out the full season and promote another year as the finale, so that people all over the country can come out to see this last edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus?

Apparently not.

The show is closing and the reason is simple, she said sarcastically. Blame everything on the elephants.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Out Of This World (2016-2017)
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Out Of This World (2016-2017) | Source

Bottom Line

The reality is that unless some conglomerate steps in soon or the Feld family changes its mind (unlikely), then it really is too late for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The performing artists, casts and crews are struggling now to determine where their next meals will come from, after both circus shows close down in May. The Felds aren’t interested in fixing what they broke. Certainly, I cannot afford to do that but isn’t there someone who can? America will love you for it.

So, in the off-chance the Feld Entertainment people can get this done – changing its collective mind or finding a buyer – here are a couple of thoughts:

There are so many of us that want traditional circus. We know it can work and we will fill up your venues if you meet us halfway. We also like what you’re giving us now (for as long as we have it, at least) but it’s not the only option. Bring back this iconic circus; the kids will be satisfied and the adults will be happy, too. It can be a win-win situation, if you let it. Find a way to keep this American tradition alive .... create a multi-business opportunity, sell it outright or give it to the performers themselves. They care about the show, I can guarantee you that.

And so, there you have it.

Thank you to my friends who’ve suggested that I write this editorial; you know who you are.

And as always, May All Your Days Be Circus Days.

© 2017 Teri Silver


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    • profile image

      Jim Lavender 2 months ago

      Thank You! Solid Gold article. One key component that would make it happen: expose the truth about animal rights fanaticism and the actual destination of the funds they harvest from well- intentioned pet owners. Get that issue corrected and put quality animal care and presentation back before the viewing public.

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 2 months ago from The Buckeye State

      I agree, Jim. No one wants to see animals abused but it's propaganda and rhetoric to say that all circus animals are treated poorly; period. I know that RBBB takes excellent care of its animal performers (I wrote an article about Big Cat Trainer Alexander Lacey; found here: )

      The problem is that no matter what the truth is, people will only believe what they want to believe. Thank you for your comment!

    • profile image

      Bob Cline 2 months ago

      Nice article Teri. There are many people who having heard that Ringling is closing are under the impression that the circus is dead. Even The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin and the Ringling Museums in Sarasota, Florida have been getting inquiries of their closing. They aren't. The circus is alive. The small under canvas shows like Kelly-Miller, Universoul, Circus Vargas, Culpepper and Meriwether and more are making people glad they came to see the circus everyday. The Shrine circuses enjoy the luxury of heating and air conditioning along with theatrical lighting but they still put on a fantastic circus. Animal acts abound. The youth circuses are steadily increasing in numbers and the performances are getting better every year. Circuses have come and gone for two hundred years, but the CIRCUS is alive and still the greatest form of family entertainment in this country. Go see a circus, this year. You'll be glad you did!

    • profile image

      Dan Hillman 2 months ago

      Thanks Teri -Great thoughts! This whole deal is enough to make a 71 year old man cry! Hope something works out for the better!

    • MovieMatt profile image

      Matt 2 months ago from Plano, TX

      Someone that knows how to run a business should buy the rights and keep the circus going! This is a travesty.

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 2 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Thanks, Bob. The Shriners will be in my area next month. We hadn't been in a long time and I hope to get tickets. And yes, as politically incorrect as it is these days, I love the animal acts! (I am hoping a certain big cat trainer can stick around the US; don't have any info on that yet). But the good news for CIRCUS is that there will be a number of excellent acts available, and I hear a rumor that the Big Apple circus may rise from the ashes. :-)

    • profile image

      Bill Perkins 2 months ago

      I have thought so many of the things that you brought up and suggestions you make. n Please, someone step up purchase the GSOE and produce a real GSOE instead of Iverson yelling it twenty times a show. No wonder the professional reviews always state in this era, "Self proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth" instead of accepting what used to be fact.

      Hey Kenneth take it back from the girls and just produce "The Greatest Circus on Earth" BU will make it without you for a while.

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 2 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Hi, Bill, I think you've hit the nail on the head. Kenneth Feld has turned this over to his daughters and no matter what ... they can do no wrong. On one hand, I understand what they think is true ... I don't agree or believe it. But on the other hand, CIRCUS is not supposed to be the same thing as the other shows Feld Entertainment produces. Funny (and quite sad) that they don't seem to understand that.

    • profile image

      Jennifer 2 months ago

      I worked on a couple tours with the horses. My job was protested. There are protest articles listed after this article. There are anti circus commercials on Disney channel. It is out of style. The last time I went to watch the show, protestors met me at the sidewalk with their pamphlets exploiting necrophilia. They are gross cheaters and they won.

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 2 months ago from The Buckeye State

      I find the protesters amusing. We know that all the circus animals, with RBBB, at least, as well cared for (especially Alexander Lacey's big cats!) and probably get better attention than many people do. Every time one of these protesters rides a horse, watches a cute cat or dog video or an animal show of any kind ... even a horse race, they are "exploiting" animals for entertainment. Hypocrisy comes in many forms. I don't ever expect to change someone's mind and they won't change mine. Still, it's sad to hear the spouted rhetoric with no verifiable proof and yet, these "animal protectors" won't bother to read anything that contradicts their own opinion. But ... people are funny.

    • profile image

      Gary C. Payne 2 months ago

      What a national tragedy it will be if Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is lost. As soon as the tour ends and the trains are eliminated it's all over unless someone steps in or there is an act of congress - and that is what it would take to overcome the obstacles of which the animal rights scam is just one! If in fact we do lose Ringling - perhaps it will awaken the sleeping giant that is America! When one door closes, others usually open!

    • profile image

      mapol 2 months ago

      A friend of mine and I saw the last Ringling Bros. circus last fall. It's too bad it won't be coming back, but things can and do change, and this is what's happened.

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 2 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Yes, that is true. Thank you for reading!

    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 2 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      Teri, you listed problems and difficulties that harmed Ringling Brothers I'm miss them, too. I've seen many of their shows for years. I think more affordable prices are experienced at smaller tent shows that visit our cities. They may not be huge shows, but at least they keep the circus alive. There is a current circus play showing at the Pantages, Hollywood, that's a good sign. I can still sing songs from Barnum. I remember studying my circus history and many great shows had to close down, too. Times change. It's a sad thing, but in retrospect to history, you eventually accept it. Ringling Brothers closing down sounds horrible, but just because Vin Skully, professional baseball announcer of the L.A. Dodgers retired doesn't mean baseball is dead. I feel the same way about Kenneth Feld. The circus shall survive in many international big top shows, large and small. I just wish people wouldn't harass wild animal trainers so much, they receive too much unfair treatment.

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 2 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Matt, it does not look as if there will be a buyer ... unless FE has bamboozled everyone to fill seats before the final show. The performers I've talked to don't have any hope for a resurrection. But ... you never know.

    • profile image

      Christy 2 months ago

      Another great story Teri!

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 2 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Gibert, yes, there are circuses out there; word has it that Big Apple Circus will have a 2017-2018 season now that it's got a buyer. Many smaller outfits have new opportunities, especially if they can play in the larger cities. Animal trainers get a bum rap, that's for sure. Alexander Lacey has my highest respect. Thank you for your input!

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 2 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Hey Christy, nice to see you here, my friend. Thank you! Share ... :-)

    • profile image

      Gary C. Payne 7 weeks ago

      I sat down and listed over 20 circuses still on the road and I believe there to be as many as 300 youth circuses too. The Ringling "Greatest Show On Earth" was, as Mr. Feld stated, arguably no longer a business model that worked. To match it's great name it needed the three rings, all the animals, including the elephants, and the mile long 60 railroad cars. This kind of circus is at the mercy of local officials and other extremists. Mr. Feld also stated that the circus was not in the business of "fighting city hall". Only an act of congress would save this kind of circus from the overreach of city hall and the blissful ignorance of animal rights fund raising scam artists. I'd argue that the Greatest Show On Earth is as worthy of government protection as are our National Parks. What's more - since the circus was found innocent (multiple times) in courts of law of the phony animal abuse charges - a lot more could have been done to protect it. Now - like many American traditions - it's lost to history.

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 7 weeks ago from The Buckeye State

      Hi, Gary, yes, I agree. The sad thing is that if there were any attempts to really save RBBB, we didn't see them. The performers didn't see anything either, from what I've been told by a few of them, anyway. If I had the ability, I would take the two unit shows and combine the best elements of each, and bring "circus" back as it has always been known. Try something! The AR people really don't have all the facts but the one thing I believe is, most people do want to see animal acts at the circus; I see evidence on reviews all the time. Scam artists are out there, for sure, and the rhetoric they fabricate is dumbfounding. But many people buy it and for the life of me, I don't understand why.

    • profile image

      Richard Schmitt 6 weeks ago

      The above article asks many good questions that the Felds haven’t addressed in public. Teri, and all of the commentators here, seem to have their hearts in the right place. It is sad to see the shows go and the Felds have taken a lot of grief for the decision. Possibly deservingly so. But it’s impossible for me to think they don’t feel even more grief than the rest of us. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the Felds since the announcement. And not one the articles I’ve read acknowledges the fact that without Kenneth’s father, Irving Feld, the world would likely not have had RBBB Circus for the last sixty years. In the late fifties what was left of the Ringling family announced they would close the show. Irving Feld saw a future for the circus in the new civic centers and coliseums planned for American cities. A vision John Ringling North and his connections either did not see, or, one with which they did not want to be bothered. In fact, I believe Irving Feld saved the show again after selling it to Mattel corporation and buying it back. I went to work for Ringling blue unit in 1972 when Irvin Feld used to walk around the show clearly enthralled with what he had saved. Kenneth grew up with that, and when his father died Kenneth took over and continued the mission. No one can tell me he isn’t feeling this closing more than anyone else alive. You can’t tell me he didn’t think long and hard about his father before allowing this decision to be made. I worked at RBBB Circus World in 1979, and on their Monte Carlo show in 1980. Both had their run and both closed for whatever reason. Things change. Businesses need to be viable. Was there a way to save the current shows, probably. Should the announcement have been handled differently? Maybe. But to say that the Felds don’t care, or to suggest that they are incompetent business people, that seems way off base to me.

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 6 weeks ago from The Buckeye State

      Hello, Richard, Thank you for your comments. I remember when Irvin Feld had the show and when it went into Kenneth's control. You're right that it was a tough decision for him; the circus has been part of his whole life for a very long time. Businesses models do change. However -- and especially now --- from what I've read, what I see and other people's reactions, there could have been seriously public attempts to save this show. The performers and crews were blindsided.

      I would love the opportunity to take elements from both shows, combine the best that represent (in my opinion) "circus" and see how it flies. But it's not something I can do. If there were attempts by Feld Entertainment to do something of this nature, they've not made it public. The sad thing is --- it is not me or any audience that the result ultimately affects; it is the artists, cast and crew. Without knowing the man personally, you're right, I am sure Kenneth Feld is saddened by this -- it was his life. But the unanswered questions make it hard to see anything from that side of the coin. If Mr. Feld (personally; not his media team) would like to explain his position here (and answer all questions) -- in the order of fairness -- I will be happy to publish those appropriately-made comments (subject to the ultimate approval of this site's administrative team). If nothing else, it would help others to have more specifics about why nothing was overtly done to save this show. Thanks again. :-) t

    • profile image

      Richard Schmitt 6 weeks ago

      Teri, I'm glad you care about this. And I agree with you 100%. A clear public explanation of their thinking, (I’m sure you saw the short video explanation), would be the decent thing for the Felds to have done. But I think anyone who has worked for them would say they just aren’t, and have never been, that kind of employer. Kenneth was always nice to me, somewhat fair in what he paid, but I was a wire walker. Ask the clowns and showgirls over the years how they were treated--not well for the most part. The Felds aren’t circus people, never have been. They were never hands on, touchy-feeling type bosses. So, it doesn’t surprise me that they’ve handled, (bungled), this unfortunate development. I’m sure they think it’s their business, they can do what they want. As we both said, it’s sad for everyone, especially the blindsided employees. Unfortunate that is par for the course with the Felds.

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