Feature Article Vol. IX, No. 3

The Greatest Show on Earth Will Rise Again Like the Proverbial Phoenix

Ellenton, Florida   Feb. 19, 2020

The circus collection of the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art is preparing a new exhibit which will celebrate the Feld family’s fiftieth anniversary of its stewardship of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, The Greatest Show on Earth.  It is set to open in early 2021.  It is being designed by the international firm of Cultural Innovations.  As it turns out from conversations I had on a brief visit to the Sarasota area this past month the timing of the new exhibit is couldn’t be more apropos.  That is because Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the Greatest Show on Earth is in the throes of preparing its comeback, as confirmed by none other than Kenneth Feld, himself.

The Feld Family at the closing of Out of This World in 2017

“The circus never leaves our thoughts,” the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Feld Entertainment began, and by way of providing proof he referred me to a pair of oil paintings that hung prominently in his office. The subject of one was a classic one ring circus performance.  The other was a portrait of Emmett Kelly, by Herb Ryman, the only such portrait Kelly every sat for. Point made.

“It is in everything we do and always has been,” Feld continued.  “It was the foundational cornerstone that allowed us to do these other things.  In unique ways, the heritage of the circus lives within the company every day and in every thought process.  I’ve always said that.”

What Feld is saying, without dipping into cliché is that the circus gets into your blood and stays there, or in the words of Cecil B. DeMille: “You can shake the sawdust off your shoes but you can’t shake it out of your heart.”

It was then on to a discussion of the popular culture of today and the changes it has forced on business.  “There is a shift away from generalization to specification,” he observes.  Take for instance his Monster Truck attractions.  In another era they would have been an attraction in the circus. “Now it’s logical that they are out there on their own.  Similarly the things we do in the Marvel Live show, the different stunts in that show have grown out of the circus.  Everyone has become a specialist instead of part of a bigger whole like the circus once was.”

He points out that there are currently a few thousand TV channels, many of them catering to a variety of very specific interests.  “At one time, Ringling Bros. was all things to all people.  That has changed and consequently the way we look at things, and what we see now is that everything is now more narrowly focused. I think we were a victim of all that.  All these things that went into Ringling Bros. are now specifically focused on specific TV channels for specific interests.”

Pursuing this thought further he adds, “I would venture to say that there is not a company operating in this country that is 146 years old that is still using the same business model that they were using when they began.  That was the problem with the circus.  We had all that other stuff that didn’t lend itself to being why people bought tickets.  Things like the train for instance and the ancillary stuff.   It was because the costs of all that rose faster than the revenue side that we had to figure out a new business model.” 

Looking back he points out that the circus was in dire straits when his father bought it in 1967.  “When we took over, each unit had 15 railroad cars; when we closed, each unit had 60 railroad cars.”

There is a sad irony here in that the thing that set Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey apart from all other such enterprises, the aspect of its operation that became an iconic symbol of the Greatest Show on Earth eventually became an albatross around its neck.

“There were all these things that over time became not functional,” he continues. “The circus was always a volatile business and expenses were always going up and never going down.  Today five moves of the train were more costly than the entire annual cost when my father bought the circus. And the other thing was that the railroad would never guarantee we would get there on time.  The costs of the venues were so expensive that we couldn’t afford to move things in when the train was late. If we had continued in three or four years the train would have had to be rebuilt, requiring a large expenditure of capital.    Then you had the sports leagues that decided the teams shouldn’t play back to back games.  That reduced the number of weekends available to us.   So all these thing add up.”

Eventually the discussion turns to the animal rights advocacy.  “Obviously there were animal rights issues which were a headline issue,” Feld admits, “but it wasn’t the real issue and for years the reason why I was constantly trying to diversify was to keep the circus going for as long as we could.  If it was just the circus business we would probably have closed about 20 years ago.” 

The elephants played into the final decision because every city the circus played had different regulations.  “How can you have a business where you cannot have a consistently great show when every city you go to requires you have to do a different show.  We tried to work things out with some municipalities.  Some worked, and some didn’t. 

Ultimately the decision was based on the economics of what the business had become. “The current model wasn’t sustainable.  Instead of dragging it out we went ahead and did it.  It was a very emotional decision.  We did it in a way we went out on top.  Every city we played in 2017 until the end was a sellout.  We decided it would be very difficult to keep the number of people involved together (500 some) when they knew they were not going to have a job after we closed. The cost of transportation alone to get out to the west coast was astronomical.  It was a parlay of issues because then we would have had to come all the way back.  So it was the most logical thing to do to close when we did.” 

The elephants are still at the conservation center in Florida.  “What else could I do? They are having a happy retirement there.  Although I do suspect that some of them liked performing.  There are future plans for the center but I cannot speak of them at this time.” 

The big news, however, is that there will be a revitalization of the circus, probably in the latter part of 2021. According to Feld, “It will emerge as the new Greatest Show on Earth, in a very unique manner and fashion.”  It will be aimed at children of all ages from 2021 hopefully into infinity.  Although there are definitely plans afoot, Feld preferred not to speak of them in specific terms.  He did say, however, that the company was talking with creative people from all over the world and doing other kinds of research as well, all of which he says will have a major impact on the final product.

But he did give us some inkling of the kind of thinking that is going into the process of rebuilding the Greatest Show on Earth.  “Twelve years ago we acquired the motor sports business, primarily the Monster Jam.  We thought about that in terms of a franchise, of having it in your life 365 days a year through television, toy lines, and clothes lines.   It has been highly successful.  One of our toys has been nominated as the toy of the year.  It is a monster truck grave digger with remote control. We also have the number one ride-on toy.  So we have grown this as a franchise and people think about it every day. We have now had the opportunity over the past several years to think about what it is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey can be.  What does it represent?”

In answering that question he says, “We are going backward but always looking forward; it needs to become a franchise.  It needs to be in everyone’s life more than once a year.  So the entire process has been to figure how to build and create this new franchise of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey because we know there is tremendous interest.  We have done research from when we closed the show in 2017 and every year since then to see where it stands in people’s minds.  There is still, we feel, a demand for it, and we think we can make it into a larger franchise.  The challenge, however, has always been how do you sustain interest in a community for 365 days a year if you only come to that city for a few days once a year. It has been really difficult and that has been one of the issues we intend to address.  So, yes, there will be much more involved to it [than just the performance], whether it’s a video presence, or a presence involving different aspects of the circus, some of which might be related to its heritage, or different aspects of the circus and what they mean to people, kids and families every single day.  All that needs to work together like a big wheel.  And it has to be coordinated so that you’ve got something that can go on and have a much stronger life of its own because it has more pieces and parts.  We were so successful with the Monster Jam franchise that we have taken that model and will use it in designing what the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth will be.

“We feel very good about the possibilities and the potential.  We’ve had time to think about it not in the middle of it.  We have been able to take a step back and think about what can it be and what it should be.  And I think that’s the advantage. Everyone is involved in this venture, the entire family and the entire company, along with numerous creative people we have engaged from all over the world. 

In addition to those hired consultants the facility housing Feld Entertainment in Ellenton, Florida employs 700 people working there full time. “It has been extraordinary for us down here in this facility to grow the company.  It changed the culture having everyone under one roof.  In addition there are another couple thousand people employed elsewhere.”

But that is not all the news we gleaned on this visit. Right after the show closed in 2017 the company started an archiving project headed by Steve Yaros, senior vice president for global communications. “We had probably about seven truckloads of Ringling archives in this building and probably another three in offices around the country so we wanted to consolidate everything,” Yaros says.  “For the last few years we have been going through itemizing and cataloguing everything, digitizing paper documents, and photographing all of our major assets, such as wagons and props.  We have also dug into the wardrobe collection which contains over 10,000 pieces.  We photographed about four thousand unique costumes, all of which will be digitized and put up on a digital platform for partners like the Ringling museum to access as well as creating a forward facing portal for consumers.  This is major.  We have everything identified.  Either here or Atlanta.  Now it’s all about how you maintain it properly, with the correct temperature and humidity, and not just havening it sitting in a crate somewhere deteriorating.”

An outside firm has been hired to oversee this project at their headquarters in Atlanta.  Everything but the big props and floats and costumes are down there, and the costumes are here.  Once everything is digitized everything will be made available for research.  There will be a special website designed in conjunction with this,  which will have the graphics that will include all of the programs and one sheets as well as the  documents.

“We still have some material that is relevant to the time before 1967 and the Feld acquisition, but this project will only involve Ringling Bros. materials and all of its productions,” Yaros promises. 

There’s still life in The Greatest Show on Earth.