Aerialists hugged long and hard in their safety net. Trainer Alexander Lacey spoke emotionally of his family’s breeding of multiple generations of lions and tigers, even as his big cats waiting patiently for the act to continue as usual. The cats likely did not know this otherwise ordinary Sunday night on Long Island marked the final performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the originator of such aphorisms as “The show must go on,” “Hold your horses,” and “Put your hat in the ring,” and a living, breathing, bellowing American institution since 1871.
As the human employees of Ringling Bros. sang “Auld Lang Syne,” the tears were hardly confined to the clowns or the generations of circus alumni in the sold-out Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. And then the “Greatest Show on Earth” was sucked into the ether of American memory.
“I don’t think people understand what is happening here today,” said Johnathan Lee Iverson in an intense interview, shortly before this ringmaster of 18 years standing donned his top hat for the final time. “This is a signal about the state of our country. This is a culture. We mentored the federal government on logistics. We put words in the language. Everybody aspires to the circus. They may not admit it, but they do. I never met a clown who said, ‘This was my back-up plan.'”
The reasons for the end of the circus are not hard to understand. “This is a 146-year-old business model,” said Kenneth Feld, the 69-year-old patriarch of the family business that many credit with giving the circus another half-century of life following its purchase by Feld’s father, Irving, in 1967. “I was a student at Boston University,” Feld said Sunday, “when my father told me to meet him at the airport.”
They were off to buy a circus, which Feld, along with his daughters Alana, Nicole and Juliette, has run ever since. But the Felds have fought increased costs for transportation and touring logistics, growing numbers of protests and pickets alleging the circus mistreats animals (which the Felds and their performers deny with palpable outrage), and generations of young Americans who have grown up not so much dreaming of three rings as becoming addicted to small and fracturing screens.
Feld also points out that the circus was always a generalist, mass entertainment — and thus over time developed problems not dissimilar from those of, say, Sears or Macy’s in the retail arena, or print newspapers. “If you look at our Monster Jam shows,” Feld says, referencing a popular entertainment with suped-up trucks, “at one point in time, those would have been acts in this circus. But now people tend to seek out separate entertainment channels.”
Thus the circus has fragmented — you now find aerialists doing rock tours and acrobats on cruise ships. But strange as it may seem, that made it harder for the mighty mothership to ride on down the rails of America.
And with its middle-class family demographic — and its huge appeal among immigrants and diverse, urban audiences with limited budgets — the circus never felt as able to raise ticket prices as, say, a successful baseball team or a rock band. Average ticket prices, Feld says, remain around $22, which is about the cost of two soft drinks on Broadway, or at the Cirque du Soleil.
But the exit of the elephants last year were, in Feld’s words, “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” He said that he was surprised by how quickly ticket sales fell thereafter. And although the circus still was playing to between 50,000 and 100,000 people per week, its sales did not meet its costs. And there was little prospect for change. So a tough decision had to be made.
Clearly, Sunday was not an easy day for Feld, who generally is guarded with his emotions. “I’ve known a lot of these people for 50 years,” he said, before walking out into the arena alongside three generations of his family to thank the audience for all their support, and his employees for all their work for so many years. “We work with families,” he said. ” And we are a family running a business that wants only to entertain families.”
In the bar of the hotel across the parking lot from the Coliseum before Sunday’s last hurrah, clowns and acrobats of generations past swapped stories with flacks who had learned the art of flim-flamery at the place where it was invented.
Across the asphalt to the final show walked Linda W. Holst, who said she had been a showgirl at the circus who not only got to ride an elephant, but who married the ringmaster.
For anyone willing to listen — and what fool would miss such a chance? — her story hardly was unusual.
“‘The Last Ringmaster.’ It sounds like a bad Spielberg movie,” Iverson says, when asked how it felt to be both the first African-American ringmaster of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the final ringmaster of the whole shebang.
“I am a black man in America, so I take certain disappointments better than other people,” he says. “The circus is like the ‘Justice League.’ Everyone has their superpower. Mine actually is detachment. I’m the one with the steady hand in the circus of emotions.”
As he says that, his control over his emotions began to slip.
“For the few minutes that they are on stage,” he says, “these artists are more than humans. It has been an honor to be the voice that began everything.” His words come in a rush.
“And I will be the voice that ends everything.”
Iverson spoke the truth.
Even as his ringmaster’s car was rolling off in to wings with his family onboard, a little before 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday night that did not seem to understand, Iverson’s voice was still ringing out. “Keep the circus alive in your hearts!” he cried as he disappeared for good, hardly ready to move back to Florida and do something else. “Keep the circus alive in your hearts!”
Bello Nock — like hundreds of other former circus people — was sitting out in the house waving his arms. “How could you miss this?” he asked, warmly and wistfully, his famous hair reaching its usual vertical heights.
A formidable clown and acrobat of singular charm and communicative skill, Nock is one of the few performers for whom the circus brought a level of personal celebrity, and whose name once even topped a bill. After lamenting the end of the institution that gave his family a home, Nock pointed out that the Feld family is producing a new circus show in Florida, starring himself.
“The Felds are not getting out of the circus business,” Nock said, suggesting that, as P.T. Barnum famously said, “every crowd has a silver lining.” Perhaps the circus might one day return, albeit most likely as an attraction in some resort town with tickets far higher than what the families of Long Island paid on Sunday. And it probably would have to be a show that stays put. If it comes back at all.
So what of that that mile-long train rolling into your small American town and letting you dream of defying your parents, packing a bag, jogging alongside the track, jumping aboard and then apprenticing yourself to a clown, or riding an elephant for a living and marring a ringmaster, just like Holst?
A dream gone for good. Closed for business after 146 years. The train has been sold off.
As it leaves Long Island in the next day or so, what once was the most aspirational train in the world will get shorter and shorter as it wends its way to Florida. The Felds have donated several of the famously adorned railcars to museums, and sold others to interested parties.
Some are more invested than others.
“I’ve bought one of the rail cars myself,’ Nock said, sotto voce, between signing autographs for a long line of his fans. “It’s the one that my parents slept in in the 1950s. I’ve even bought a piece of rail for it to sit on. It will be in my yard. It cost a fortune to move. My mother doesn’t even know yet.”
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