Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
Gave Its Last Show On Sunday!
Yesterday, an American Institution died a premature death when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gives its last performance in Uniondale, NY. After 147 years and literally thousands of performances, before millions of “kids of all ages”, The Greatest Show On Earth will be no more than a wonderful memory. But what memories it leaves behind. Over the next week, I plan to share my many personal memories of Ringling Bros. on the “WE REMEMBER’ blog. But, before I do so, allow me to offer a personal opinion about Ringling’s demise.
If you watched or listened to the mainstream media over the weekend, you heard that the death of the once great Ringling Brothers circus was caused by declining ticket sales resulting from increased audience sophistication, changing tastes, increased entertainment choices, etc, etc, and etc. NOT TRUE!. The real reason that this once great circus died was that it became an inadvertent victim of liberal “DO GOOD-ism” and its fanatic “DO GOOD-er” disciples.
The first of the alleged well-meaning “DO GOOD-ers” to do serious harm to the “The Greatest Show On Earth” were the unions. In the 1950s, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey shows crisscrossed the US on four huge circus trains transporting over 260 wagons, cages, trucks, tractors, dozens of elephants, hundreds of horses and 1,450 employees. At each stop these permanent employees were supplemented by hundreds of locals who labored for a free show ticket. The majority of the traveling circus’ crew were unskilled or low skilled laborers called roustabouts. These were the men and boys who did the heavy lifting for the circus. They pounded the stakes, raised the poles and erected the many tents including the huge big top. Day after day, city after city, away from the bright lights and the center ring, they made the circus happen as they managed the rigging and props in the big top, maintained and fed the animals, cooked three full meals a day for the employees, cleaned the dishes, ran the games and concessions on the midway, etc, etc, etc.
The 50s were also the days of tremendous growth in union membership across the country. Although most union leaders and union organizers profited mightily from the union growth that they fostered, they also were “DO GOOD-ers” who sincerely felt that union members were infinitely better off because of their union membership. They went about their job of organizing unions in businesses large and small with an almost religious zeal. No business, including the circus, was immune from union organizing efforts.
Throughout the 1954 and 1955 circus seasons, Ringling Bros. was the subject of intense outside union organizing efforts. Although some circus performers, including the legendary sad-faced clown – Emmett Kelly, refused to cross the union picket lines that appeared on every Ringling show lot, the “DO GOOD-rs” organizing efforts were unsuccessful. Most of the show’s non-performing employees were very content with their nomadic circus life where a small salary, a clean bunk and three meals a day provided them with all of the security that they needed or for that matter wanted.
However in 1956, a number of other difficulties also befell the huge Ringling tent show and these grossly effected its future. Bad weather, rain, muddy circus lots, a big top blown down, an elephant stampede, and yes the union picket lines – all adversely effected attendance and increased operating costs. At the same time, two unions that had been unsuccessfully trying to organize the Ringling show, went into the circus business themselves. They set up a show that they dubbed the “Union Circus” that was to follow Ringling Bros. from town to town and split the circus-going crowds and the box office.
John Ringling North, the President of Ringling Bros had enough. On July 16th, 1958, while the circus was performing in Pittsburgh, he announced tersely “the tented show as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of the past” and with that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus folded its tents forever and returned to winter quarters in Florida. The unions declared victory but their “DO GOOD-ing” had backfired. once again, and cost most of the Ringling work force not only their jobs but also their home, their daily bread and their security! Liberal “DO GOOD-ing” had once again been proven to be counter-productive.
Ringling Bros. was not dead but it definitely was sick and debilitated when it returned in 1957 with a grossly reduced work force. It by-passed the smaller cities and towns that it had previously played and performed only in the large sports arenas of larger cities across the country. But, It just was not the same!
I attended indoor performances of “The Greatest On Earth” several times thereafter. The performers and show were as great as always, but the experience was just not the same. Gone was the mid-way with its barkers, concession stands and ”games of chance”. Gone was the Side Show with its freaks and odd people. Gone too was the menagerie, a traveling zoo, that brought rare and exotic animals to small town America. gone with the menagerie were lions, tigers elephants, hippos who had a special wagon compete with a large bathtub, giraffes whose wagon had a hole in its roof so they could stretch their necks that previously had all been displayed in the Ringling menagerie. And gone also were sounds of the circus and yes the unique smell of the circus.
The “Greatest Show on Earth” was never the same after it folded its tents.
Although the Ringlings were able to cut their expenses by moving the show inside, the move to big arenas just didn’t attract the crowds that used to come to the old circus lots. A few interesting statistics:
San Diego – 1951 – Tent – $50,000 Gross in 2 Days
San Diego – 1957 – Arena – $32,000 Gross in 2 Days
Los Angeles – 1951 – Tent – $167,279 Gross in 7 Days
Los Angeles – 1957 – Arena – $ 73,560 Gross in 6 Days
Phoenix – 1951 – Tent – $ 38,832 Gross in 2 Day
Phoenix – 1957 – Arena – $ 18,525 Gross in 3 Days
However, the new formula of accepting reduced ticket sales and income in exchange for significantly reduced operating costs allowed the Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus to not only survive but to actually flourish. In 1980, in order to increase ticket sales and income, circus management decided to field two different , “separate but equal” versions “The Greatest Show on Earth” – the Red Unit & the Blue unit – each crisscrossing a different section of the country and performing in different cities. By doing this, Ringling doubled its potential audiences, significantly increased ticket sales and presumably profits. Indeed, the future looked bright.
But once again enter the “DO GOOD-ers”, this time in the form of animal rights activists and their goofy front organization “People For The Ethical Treatment of Animal” or “PETA” whose slogan is
“Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any way.”
Looking for a way to make big headlines and draw attention to their weird cause, PETA decided to defend the biggest animals in the world elephants from who knows what??? And who had the biggest elephant herd in the world – “The Greatest Show on Earth”. What a bigger or better target?
The so-called (“DO GOOD-er”) animal rights activists trailed the Ringling Bros. shows from city to city, setting up picket lines and staging mini-riots to discourage attendance. The “DO GOOD-ers” had rightly reasoned that most parents would not expose their children to the verbal abuse and threats of physical harm that came from crossing a “PETA” picket line. The “DO GOOD-ers” also put pressure on cities where the circus toured. Liberal Los Angeles and Oakland prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers. Asheville, North Carolina, banned wild or exotic animals from performing in the city-owned stadium.
While all of this was occurring, Feld Entertainment (the owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Shows), in 2014, won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including “PETA” and the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.
The initial lawsuit was filed by a former Ringling barn helper who accepted at least $190,000 from animal-rights groups. The judge called him “essentially a paid plaintiff” who lacked credibility and standing to sue, and rejected the abuse claims.
Kenneth Feld testified about the elephants’ importance to the show at that 2009 trial –
“The symbol of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ is the elephant, and that’s what we’ve been known for throughout the world for more than a hundred years,” he said.
And, it wasn’t.
The “PETA” harassment continued and Feld Entertainment removed the elephants from “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 2016, sending all 40 of them to their Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. When that happened ticket sales plummeted and with them profits.
Ringling Brothers just could not survive without tents and without elephants. Without them, it was over.
Earlier this year, Feld Entertainment announced that it was closing Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus FOREVER! The last show was Sunday night. The “Do GOOD-ers” have won again! This time at the expense of countless future generations of “Ladies & Gentlemen, Boys & Girls & Children Of All Ages” (as the ringmaster announced at the start of every performance) who will never get to enjoy the thrills, the sights the sounds and yes the smell of the –
Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows
“THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”
…thanks to all of the “DO GOOD-ers” who always know what is best for everyone else!
Click on link below to see other Memories Of “The Greatest Show On Earth
Posted by Frank Fleming
In Loving Memory Of
1936 – 2016