A brief history of the world renowned Barnum & Bailey Circus, “The greatest show on Earth”, which finally moved on forever in May 2017.
It closed down once and for all in spring 2017 and, even though the newspapers and television carried the story, it failed to cause that much of a stir among the general public.
The legendary Barnum Circus no longer exists and the last two shows were on the American East Coast, in Providence (Rhode Island) on 7th May 2017 and Uniondale (New York State) on 21st May of the same year. And that was the end of it and the Big Top came down forever.
The announcement was made, on internet of course, by Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, the company that administered all that remained of the historic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the oldest circus in the world. The decidedly better known one, founded in 1871 which went on the road for something like 146 years in a row to the delight of young and old.
Feld was didn’t mince his words on the reason for the sudden closure which had been announced to circus employees only a few weeks before. Basically it was all a problem of liquidity, made worse by the plummeting ticket sales.
The elephants had been cut out of the show in 2016 and the sole remaining tiger could only do a performance twelve minutes long as a result of the protests of many animal rights associations.
As Feld was at pains to explain: “All of this, together with the already high operation costs have made the circus a business that is no longer economically viable. I am so sorry. The circus and the people who work there have always been an inspiration and joy for my family, but now I am simply obliged to say it’s over”.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) could not have had a more diametrically opposed reaction to the end of the travelling Barnum circus: “After thirty-six years of protest from Peta, the world is finally free, we have woken up. This is the end of the saddest show on Earth”.
It all began way back in 1835 when the impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum bought an elderly enslaved woman, one Joice Heth, and showed her to a credulous public claiming that she was 160 years old. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the nurse mammy of George Washington!”.
He had such great success that in 1841 he also bought the American Museum in New York, turned it into a theatre and began to exhibit his “sideshow phenomena”, otherwise known as freaks.
In those days there was the mermaid from Fiji; Charles Stratton (a man barely 64 cm tall; pity that he was only 5 years old when he began); the giant elephant Jumbo; the Siamese twins Chang & Eng Bunker. For a brief period, an addition to the attractions was Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, the genuine articles. They were paid 50 dollars a week by Barnum and sold their autographed photographs at one dollar fifty to an adoring public. Celebrity culture was already a thing all those years ago. Not that much has changed.
In 1844-45 the Barnum circus had an all sold out tour of Europe, even including Queen Victoria among its spectators.
In 1871 the travelling show was pompously named “The Greatest Show on Earth” and its creator, Barnum, changed his name to “the Prince of Humbugs”. In 1881 he set up an even more profitable company with James Bailey and the travelling show went from town to town and became the even more celebrated Barnum & Bailey Circus.
On the death of Bailey in 1907 (Barnum had already passed away, rich and famous, on 7th April 1891) another entrepreneur literally jumped on the bandwagon as the circus was bought by the Ringling Brothers Circus and, finally, in 1919 the two circuses merged in the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus, abbreviated as the RBBB Circus. This was the circus that would last into the third millennium and see the entrance on the scene of Kenneth Feld at the end of the 1960s.
In the beginning (1967) the show run by Feld lasted over three hours and was still highly acclaimed by the public. Yet the show held in Uniondale barely lasted two hours. In the words of the impresario himself: “That’s the most we can manage: we’ve tried adding modern acts like acrobats and motorcyclists, but it didn’t really work out. You know, it’s not that easy to keep the attention of five-year-old children for long, even with the magic of the circus.”
Besides, if they want to get away from it all, it’s not as if modern day youngsters have any need for trapeze artists, clowns or exotic beasts. All they need is their trusty smartphone.
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