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Kaleidoscope: End of an era, Many will miss Ringling circus

Published: February 5, 2017 12:01 AM
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In just about 3 1/2 months, the end of an era will come for what has been billed for decades as "The Greatest Show on Earth." The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will cease to operate after 146 years.

The last opportunity for Ohioans to see the show is March 10-19 in Cincinnati. There also will be a stop in Charleston, W.Va. from May 4-7. The final performance will be in late May.

The news, which was announced recently, has saddened millions of people who have fond memories of watching the show. Area residents have watched it for years at the old Richfield Coliseum and/or the Gund/Quicken Loans Arena.

I saw the Ringling Bros. Circus once -- in the late 1970s at the Coliseum. It was a spectacular show -- filled with pomp and circumstance -- and only one of three times I've seen a circus performance.

The others were in the mid-1980s, when the Frazen Brothers Circus stopped in Berlin, Ohio, and then when the Kelly Miller Circus came to Aurora for the first time about five years ago.

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I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview some of the performers from the latter two circuses. Ringling Bros., though, was the king of circuses.

Company executives say the show was doomed by a number of factors -- declining attendance combined with high operating costs, changing public tastes and battles with animal rights groups. More than 450 circus workers will lose their jobs.

The clashes between the company and animal rights groups culminated with the show phasing out its elephant acts last spring. Ringling Bros. is operating two touring circuses right now.

RINGLING HISTORY

The circus has put smiles on people's faces since the mid-1800s. Phineas Taylor Barnum made the animals and human oddities popular, while five Ringling brothers juggled and acted.

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Until the late 1950s the circus erected tents at each of its locations, but then started booking large permanent venues such as arenas in bigger cities.

It actually was in 1875 when P.T. Barnum added his name and financial backing to the circus, which was created by Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup.

It was then called "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome."

In 1881, James Anthony Bailey, who started a circus with James E. Cooper in the 1860s, combined with Barnum. Bailey died in 1905.

In 1884, five of seven Ringling brothers started a small circus in Wisconsin, and the Ringling brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907. They ran both separately until 1919, when they combined into Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.

Charles E. Ringling died in 1926. In 1929, John Ringling purchased American Circus, owner of five circuses, for $1.7 million. The circus survived the Great Depression of the 1930s.

July 6, 1944 was a devastating day for the circus. With a crowd of 7,500 to 8,700 people looking on in Hartford, Conn., the canvas circus tent caught fire, causing the deaths of 167 people and injuring hundreds more. It was one of the worst fire disasters in the nation's history.

Actor-theater director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was 13 years old at the time, survived the fire. An investigation found that the trent had not been fireproofed. Several Ringling executives served jail sentences in the aftermath, and profits for the next 10 years were set aside to pay claims to the city of Hartford and fire survivors.

The last performance under the big top took place July 16, 1956 in Pittsburgh.

In late 1967, Irvin and Israel Feld and Judge Roy Hofheinz, along with capital from Richard C. Blum bought the company from the Ringling family. Hofheinz was the founder of the Houston Colt 45s (predecessor of the Major League Baseball Astros), and he built the Astrodome.

In 1971, the circus was sold to the Mattel Corp. for $40 million, but the Feld family containued to manage it. Irvan Feld died in 1984 and the company has since been run by Kenneth Feld.

The Felds estblished a Clown College in 1968 and founded the Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995.

In 2001, a group led by the Humane Society of the U.S. sued the circus over alleged mistreatment of elephants, but the suit ended in 2014 with the circus winning millions in settlements.

The final performances with elephants were May 1, 2016 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Providence, R.I.

The circus has continued to move animals, performers and equipment by train. Currently, two train-based shows -- Circus Extreme and Out of This World -- are touring the country. The trains consist of about 60 cars.

In 1952, famous movie producer Cecil B. DeMille released the film "The Greatest Show on Earth" starring Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, James Steward and Emmett Kelly. The later, of course, was a famous clown with the circus.

The release of a musical drama movie titled "The Greatest Showman," focusing on Barnum, is expected to be released later this year.

While discussing the decision to close down the circus with a reporter recently, Kenneth Feld became visibly emotional.

A lot of older people will miss the Ringling Bros. Circus, and unfortunately, a lot of youngsters now may never get the chance to witness a live circus performance. That's a sad fact of modern life.

 

Email: klahmers@recorpdub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189


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