The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut its tent for good this May after 146 years in the entertainment business. Announcing the news to the Associated Press this past weekend, owner Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, stated that the business was "unsustainable" due to high operating costs and dwindling ticket sales.
A victim of changing tastes, the once immensely popular circus brand had been reduced to a social and cultural relic as of late. Despite attempts to stay culturally relevant, including hiring its first African American ringmaster, Ringling Bros.—and circuses in general—have grown out of favor with the average American in recent years.
See 5 Facts About Ringling Bros. Worth Celebrating Below!
A frequent target of animal rights groups, Ringling Bros spent the better part of the last two decades in legal skirmishes over alleged mistreatment of their elephants. Despite winning a 2014 lawsuit against a number of animal rights groups including the Human Society of America, Ringling Bros. was found guilty and fined for dozens of infractions in recent years, including $270,000 in fines for Animal Welfare Act violations.
In 2015, Ringling Bros. Ringling Bros. decided to retire elephants from their shows—a decision which negatively impacted the company's already faltering ticket sales.
To make matters worse, Ringling Bros. garnered bad publicity in 2014 when eight of its acrobats were severely injured in Providence, RI after their rigging malfunctioned, causing them to fall 40 feet to the floor. The performers are currently suing five companies tied to the faulty carabiner clip. Ringling Bros. is not cited in the lawsuit.
The decision to shut down has been met with cheers from animal rights activists, while the circus's fans have expressed their sadness on the Ringling Bros. Facebook page.
No matter your ethical stance on circuses, there's no denying that at one time, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country. Forever entwined with the fabric of America, the story behind Ringling Bros. is one of American ingenuity, hard work, and humble beginnings.
Here are five facts about the Ringling Bros. Circus that and its founders that are worth celebrating.
5. They Were an American Success Story
The Ringling Bros. Circus was founded by five sons of German immigrants in 1884 who viewed circus life as an opportunity for upward mobility. Consisting of Albert, Alfred, Otto, Charles, and John, the brothers began by performing juggling acts in town halls throughout Wisconsin in 1882 and eventually launched the Ringling Bros. Circus two years later. A great example of ingenuity and entrepreneurship, the brothers managed all aspects of the business, including animal care, programming, advertising, obtaining permits, finances, and hiring talent. In 1907, the Ringling Bros. had grown in popularity and wealth, which enabled them to buy their largest competitor the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
4. They Offered People the Chance to See Exotic Animals
Although elephants may not seem like an exotic animal by today’s terms, they might as well have been unicorns to 19th century Americans. In fact, rural Americans at that time would not have had an opportunity to see live exotic animals if it were not for the Ringling Bros. In addition to elephants, early Ringing Bros. shows featured giraffes and hippopotamuses.
3. They Were Honest Business Men
The Ringling Bros. Circus did not feature games of chance like roulette or shell games. It was considered unusual at the time for a circus of that size not to feature devices to swindle money from its patrons. Other circus owners of the day had unsavory reputations for dishonesty toward customers and went as far as hiring pickpockets to steal money from townspeople. The Ringling Bros., however, hired Pinkerton detectives to ensure that there were no pickpockets at their shows.
2. They Supported the Arts
Avid art collectors, John Ringling and his wife Mable opened the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1927. Also known as the State Art Museum of Florida, the museum touts more than 10,000 objects, including twenty-one galleries of European paintings. John willed the museum, his entire art collection, and a $1.2 million endowment to the state of Florida when he died in 1936. The property on which the art museum sits also features the historic Asolo Theater, a library, and circus museum.
1. They Offered Wholesome Entertainment
From their colorful advertisements to their programming, the Ringling Bros. made it known that their circus was clean fun for the entire family. Thanks to the temperance and suffragette movements, the Ringling Bros. saw that the role of women in society was changing. The brothers sought to provide moral entertainment that mothers could enjoy with their children. Examples of this include featuring strongmen performers at their shows in attempt to show children the benefits of physical fitness.
Ringling Bros. will perform 30 shows between now and May, with their final shows in Providence and New York on May 21.
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