Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VI No. 3

 Deja vu  All Over Again

We’ve heard and read all this before. If one were to compare the wild speculation and negative opinions expressed about the Feld family’s decision to close Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for good with the torrent of criticism and blame heaped upon John Ringling North when he folded the show’s big top in the middle of the 1956 season one is very likely to experience a strong sense of deja vu.

Most of the current criticism comes from persons who have little understanding or appreciation of the strategies the Feld family has been employing for at least the past decade to keep the show on the road. Were it not for their efforts the circus would have been long gone, long ago.  During these last ten years there has been a steady drumbeat from disaffected individuals complaining that under Kenneth Feld the show was no longer the Greatest Show on Earth:   Less floats, less elephants, less performers, less sequins, too much meddling with the format.  Had those economies and changes they enumerate and lament not been undertaken it would have long ago been proven economically unfeasible to keep the show on the road.  To gain a bit of insight into these strategies I offer the last two chapters of my book From Barnum & Bailey to Feld.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey may not have been the Greatest Show on Earth of the Barnum & Bailey era, but it was, up to the end always the greatest circus out there.

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Another attempt to reinvent itself. This time both on ice and in the ring.

What is puzzling, however, is Feld’s failure to gauge the negative response at the box office that would result from the elimination of the elephants from the show. He is said to have been surprised by the intensity of the reaction to the abandonment of the elephants. Judging by a story Phil McKinley, one of the most successful and transformative of the show’s directors in recent years, which I included in my book The Contemporary Circus, the Art of the Spectacular. In discussing his work on his first Ringling show and his relationship to Feld McKinley, had this to say:  “I’d said they [the audience] would never go out the door during a finale of mine, and he [Feld] taught me a good lesson that first year.  I’d done the whole show and staged the finale and knew there was something not right about it.  He knew the solution, but he just let me figure it out.  What was wrong was that I didn’t have any elephants in the finale.  Nobody walks out on an elephant.  Just bring those elephants out the back door the first thing, and the audience will stay in their seats.  They always do.”   Kenneth Feld always knew the drawing power of the elephants, and he waited for McKinley to figure it out for himself.