Ringling Bros. Circus' final visit to Baltimore prompts nostalgia, questions about future

An American institution will be coming to an end soon, and Bill Price wants to be sure his grandkids don't miss the experience.

He's been planning for weeks to take 10-year-old Lexi and 6-year-old James to the circus when it comes to Baltimore this week. After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is shutting down next month, a victim of high costs, declining ticket sales and verbal and legal challenges by animal-rights activists.

But passion for Ringling Bros., remains high. Price, 62, characterizes the coming closure as "the end of an era," and wanted to ensure Lexi and James got to see the clowns and the acrobats and the lion tamer and his big cats just like Price's father did back in the day, and his father's father before that.

"It's a piece of history that they aren't going to be able to see anymore. There will be other circuses, but this is the granddaddy of them all," says the Havre de Grace resident, who works as a salesman for an entertainment equipment supplier. "This is like watching a space launch, it's that great."

With the "Greatest Show on Earth" set to become just a memory, fans are planning for a final visit to one of America's most fabled and enduring cultural institutions — one that's seen significant change over the years. Meanwhile, those connected to the smaller circuses that remain ponder an uncertain future in an increasingly crowded, and technologically sophisticated, world of entertainment.

Johnathan Iverson has heard all the laments, seen the tears on the faces of some of those saying good-bye, watched parents bring their kids to the show for one last time. As a ringmaster for Ringling Bros. for 18 years, Iverson knows what puts people in the seats, and believes his circus still has what it takes.

"The stuff we're doing seems so impossible, it seems so outlandish," says the 41-year-old native New Yorker. "I think that's what really has always been the draw of the circus. ... Who doesn't want to know that they can overcome the impossible?"

Even in its 146th year, Ringling Bros. displays plenty of the impossible. True, some of the old standards are missing — there's no endless stream of clowns climbing out of a tiny car, no marching in to the tune of Julius Fucik's "Entrance of the Gladiators," no human cannonball and, since they were retired last year after decades of pressure from animal-rights advocates, no elephants.

But there are the Simet Spacewalkers, a space-age version of the traditional tightrope walkers; trapeze artists and acrobatic clowns; stunt skaters and basketball players on unicycles; horse riders who seem glued to their mounts; and aerialists who do things with fire your mother never would have allowed.

Magical though it may still be, the Ringling Bros. show — essentially a traveling mini-city, with two editions that crisscross the country by train — is simply too expensive for parent company Feld Entertainment to keep going. Ticket sales, which had been declining steadily, really took a hit last year after the elephants were retired, Feld spokesman Steve Payne said

"When we looked back at ticket sales for 2016 and looked at what we thought 2017 was going to hold for us, coupled with what we knew was the really high level of expense for putting on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey," Payne said, "we reached the unfortunate conclusion that, as a business model, Ringling Bros. was just no longer sustainable for the company."

Although he declined to reveal specifics, Payne said that ticket sales have been "flat or declining for a number of years," and that the fall-off following the decision to retire the elephants "was actually more precipitous than we ever imagined."

But during the circus' last pre-Baltimore appearance, in Fairfax, Va., it was clear that enthusiasm for what Ringling Bros. offers is still high. Packed houses at George Mason University's EagleBank Arena applauded Alexander Lacey as he got his lions and tigers to leap over one another, gasped as Davis the clown milked his high-wire act for laughs, chuckled as 700-pound hog glided down a sliding board and "leapt" over inches-high hurdles.

Carolyn Perez, 38, brought her daughter Ava, 2. "We heard that this was the last time that the circus was going to be in town, so we wanted to share that experience with our daughter," she said. "It made me sad when I heard it was closing. This is such a magical experience, for so many of us who grew up coming to the circus."

Ringling Bros. traces its origins to 1871 and combines the legacies of myriad circus impresarios, including the five Ringling brothers, P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey. Once separate circuses, they were joined in 1907 when the Ringlings bought out the Barnum & Bailey operation, which had tagged itself as "The Greatest Show on Earth."

"We never expected it to end," says novelist and screenwriter Michael Lancaster, a great-grandson of circus founder Charles Ringling and author of "Ringling, The Last Laugh," a novel based on the lives of his famous forebears. "Those two words, 'Ringling' and 'Brothers,' are synonymous with circuses worldwide."

Though saddened by the announcement, many people who have watched and studied the Ringling Bros. circus over the years admit they weren't exactly surprised. While circuses as a whole soldier on — both Cirque du Soleil (Aug. 23-27 at Royal Farms Arena) and the UniverSoul Circus (May 31-June 18 at Security Square Mall) are on tap for the Baltimore area this year — such large-scale, all-encompassing productions as Ringling Bros. may have seen their day.

When circuses first came to prominence in the 19th century, they had little competition for the family entertainment dollar, notes author and rural historian Jerry Apps, author of "Ringlingville, USA." There were no movies, TV or even radio, and certainly no computers, smartphones or video apps.

"Historically speaking, it was an absolutely phenomenal experience when the circus came to town," he says. "Remember, when the Ringlings were getting themselves organized as a circus, there were even few zoos in this country. And [the circus] had this wonderful traveling menagerie with them."

Linda Simon, a professor emeritus of English at Skidmore College and author of "The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus," believes the Ringling Bros. circus was a victim of scale. Smaller circuses, she notes, are considerably less expensive to maintain and look to be thriving.

"Those circuses are not so animal-laden, most of them," she says. "And they're much more intimate — you go to them, you're 100 feet away from the performers, rather than up in the rafters of Madison Square Garden."

Although the circus was annually one of the Royal Farms Arena's biggest attractions, Frank Remesch, the building's general manager, isn't worried about the future. Feld brings plenty of their other shows to Royal Farms — such as Disney On Ice and Arenacross — and that relationship is expected to continue.

"As a kid, [the circus] is the first event I ever remember coming to in this building," he says. "Financially, it'll work itself out. But it's the nostalgia that will be missed."

Some indicators suggest circuses as a whole could be in trouble. The website for the Clyde Beatty Circus, which often played smaller cities and towns, contains no listing of future performances, and emails sent to its contact address bounce back unanswered. Cole Bros. Circus' website is no longer functioning, and contact info couldn't be located. The New York-based Big Apple Circus appeared headed for oblivion when it filed for bankruptcy last year, but was sold for $1.3 million this past February and plans to return to New York's Lincoln Center in the fall.

Happily, other circuses remain to fill the void. Canada-based Cirque du Soleil, for one, continues to thrive, employing some 1,300 performers in 19 shows.

"The sights and the sounds and the smells of the American Circus are still alive, and people still come," says Chad Ridge, marketing director of the Oklahoma-based Carson & Barnes Circus, which tours some 200 days a year, primarily in the Midwest. Carson & Barnes, in its 81st year, has about 100 people who work on the show, which plays to an average audience of about 2,000. (Royal Farms Arena, by comparison, holds about 9,300).

"We're committed to keeping the animals and the tradition of having a circus ring and the big top alive." says Ridge. "There is still a love for traditional family entertainment."

That sounds good to people like Lisa Lopez, a 36-year-old from Havre de Grace who plans on taking her three kids, including 3-month-old Mikayla, to the circus during its swansong visit to Baltimore.

"A lot of families have a tradition, over generations, of taking their families," says Lopez, who works at Aberdeen Proving Ground and runs a ghost-tour business, Havre de Haunts. "I mean, anybody can enjoy the circus."

Frank Gienger of La Plata, who estimates he's seen the Ringling Bros. show some 60 times in his 70 years, agrees. "It's a [rite of] passage growing up. They are — they were — the Greatest Show on Earth."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskaltsun

If you go

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' "Out of This World" show will play Royal Farms Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., Thursday through April 30. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. Fridays, 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15-$50. royalfarmsarena.com.

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