The Circus Tents are Coming Down: The Closing of an American Entertainment Icon

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But it was in 1919 when the two circuses merge to become the “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.” A number of changes, good and bad, befell the organization following this amalgamation. In 1944, a fire broke out at a performance in Connecticut, resulting in the deaths of 168 people and injuring hundreds more. There were several children identified among the victims. A little more than a decade later, Paramount Pictures released “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which was touted as one of its more aggressive films and budgets to date. Featuring a top-billed cast, it went on to with the Academy Award for best picture in 1952. In the late ‘60s, Irvin Feld, a famous entertainment promoter, purchased the circus and made it official in a high-toned, high-flash ceremony which was held at the Colosseum in Rome. Upon his passing in 1985, his son Kenneth inherited the business, becoming the owner of Feld Entertainment.

The Circus Tents Are Coming Down: The Closing of an American Entertainment Icon
Photo: Wikimedia

In terms of changing and growing with the times, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus named Johnathan Lee Iverson as its first African-American ringmaster in 1999 – something which, oddly enough, was unheard of before then. And in 2016, Feld Entertainment announced it would retire its elephants from the circus shows, moving the animals to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Florida. That same year, they had another “first” in the naming of Kristen Michelle Wilson as its first female ringmaster. Unfortunately, less than one year later, Feld Entertainment announced it would close the doors on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for good, with its two units giving their final performances on May 7 and May 21, in Rhode Island and New York, respectively. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, a sign of forward-thinking on the part of animal and human rights, or a mixture of both. Some will feel a nostalgia, and others may celebrate its closing. But the grandeur that once was the circus, the big-top, the animals, and the shows will always figure prominently in America’s entertainment past.