A press conference at Feld Entertainment today further explained the decision to end Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus tours after 146 years on the road, but revealed nothing about the future of one of live entertainment’s most enduring brands. When the lights go down on the two tours for The Greatest Show on Earth this May, it may be the end of the world’s most famous circus. 

Feld Entertainment COO Juliette Feld and CEO Kenneth Feld

FELD ENTERTAINMENT CEO KENNETH FELD

“At this time, this is the end of Ringling Bros. touring units, and our focus is taking care of our people,” says Juliette Feld, chief operating officer for Feld Entertainment. “There may be something in the future, but we can’t speak to what that is right now.”

More than 400 employees will be displaced, including 60 non-touring Feld workers based at the company’s Palmetto campus. Feld Entertainment today oversees touring shows for Disney On Ice, Marvel Universe Live, Supercross and Monster Jam, among others, and Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld stressed that those shows will go on. “This last weekend, we had 26 tours around the world,” he says. “Two of them were Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey.” 

At the same time, there isn’t room in other shows to absorb the entire massive workforce of the circus shows. Asked about whether jobs will be made available at other shows, Juliette noted openings will be limited. “There may be other opportunities within the company, but for the large part, no,” she says. Employees losing their jobs will all receive severance packages, and services will be offered to assist workers on everything from crafting resumes to finding housing for those living full-time on Ringling’s touring trains.

With animal rights groups cooing about the end of the circus since news broke this weekend, the Felds fielded many questions about the circus’ treatment of animals and the decision last year to take elephants off the tour. While the company declined to share figures, Kenneth Feld says there was a precipitous drop in ticket sales after the elephants left the show last May. While the company anticipated some decline, it was much greater than expected. The elephants now live on a preserve in Lakeland owned by Feld Entertainment.

Another 50 to 60 animals tour with the two Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey companies on the road now, and company leaders say homes must be found for those. “Our commitment is for their lifetime,” Juliette says. “We will provide the high level of care we always have.”

Kenneth notes that every time animal rights activists have legally challenged the handling of animals, Feld Entertainment has won in court. But he acknowledges the circus did not prevail in the court of public opinion. The Felds stand by the decision to take elephants off tour, largely because animal rights laws passed throughout the country resulted in changes in conditions for the pachyderms in various states and local jurisdictions. Continuing and consistent care remain the most important elements in caring for the giant pachyderms, they say. Kenneth rejects that the end of the circus should be considered a win for activists. “They will have to find some new agenda for fundraising, I suspect.” he says.

The company leaders also say the interests of children today contributed to a decline in sales, as fewer enjoy the broadly focused circus shows and favor more specially catered fare. While Juliette stresses live entertainment remains alive and well, Kenneth notes families are more inclined to bring superhero-crazed kids to a Marvel show or princess-focused tots to a Frozen on Ice performance.

Employees were surprised by news this weekend of the show’s ending, and sources at Feld say there were no indications prior to Saturday that such news was cooking. Just last month, the circus made national headlines regarding the hiring of a first female ringmaster. The circus has kept a huge amount of memorabilia through the decades and will be discussing the future of that collection with museums, including the Ringling Museum of Art, which has maintained a long relationship with Feld Entertainment regarding inventory for its circus museum. 

Asked about how the original Ringling Brothers or PT Barnum would feel about the show’s closing, Kenneth demurred, saying the company remains focused on the final months of the tour. “I really don’t want to speculate on what dead people might say, but if you look at history, PT Barnum actually started the circus when he was 60," he notes. "He came from a lot of other businesses and went into a lot of other businesses. The company is a robust company. We’re always looking at new entertainment, and we are a company that looks to the future. We always have. Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey is an important and great part of that. It is the future until May, and then it will be a part of our glorious past.”